Indigenous designers show at first Native Fashion Week

Indigenous fashion designers gathered in the American Southwest to celebrate couture and creativity at the first ever Native Fashion Week. Gustavo Martinez Contreras has our story from Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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Thai American soccer player dazzles on the pitch

Women’s soccer in the U.S. has been on the rise, bringing more girls than ever into the fold. Thai American Madison Casteen embraced soccer at a young age and aims to be one of the few Asian Americans to break into the professional leagues. Warangkana Chomchuen has the story, narrated by Neetikarn Kamlangwan.

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World’s largest tree passes health check

SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK, California — High in the evergreen canopy of General Sherman, the world’s largest tree, researchers searched for evidence of an emerging threat to giant sequoias: bark beetles.

The climbers descended the towering 2,200-year-old tree with good news on Tuesday.

“The General Sherman tree is doing fine right now,” said Anthony Ambrose, executive director of the Ancient Forest Society, who led the expedition. “It seems to be a very healthy tree that’s able to fend off any beetle attack.”

It was the first time climbers had scaled the iconic 85-meter sequoia tree, which draws tourists from around the world to Sequoia National Park.

Giant sequoias, the Earth’s largest living things, have survived for thousands of years in California’s western Sierra Nevada range, the only place where the species is native.

But as the climate grows hotter and drier, giant sequoias previously thought to be almost indestructible are increasingly threatened by extreme heat, drought and wildfires.

In 2020 and 2021, record-setting wildfires killed as much as 20% of the world’s 75,000 mature sequoias, according to park officials.

“The most significant threat to giant sequoias is climate-driven wildfires,” said Ben Blom, director of stewardship and restoration at Save the Redwoods League. “But we certainly don’t want to be caught by surprise by a new threat, which is why we’re studying these beetles now.”

But researchers are growing more worried about bark beetles, which didn’t pose a serious threat in the past.

The beetles are native to California and have co-existed with sequoias for thousands of years. But only recently have they been able to kill the trees. Scientists say they recently discovered about 40 sequoia trees that have died from beetle infestations, mostly within the national parks.

“We’re documenting some trees that are actually dying from kind of a combination of drought and fire that have weakened them to a point where they’re not able to defend themselves from the beetle attack,” Ambrose said.

The beetles attack the trees from the canopy, boring into branches and working their way down the trunk. If left unchecked, the tiny beetles can kill a tree within six months.

That’s why park officials allowed Ambrose and his colleagues to climb General Sherman. They conducted the tree health inspection as journalists and visitors watched them pull themselves up ropes dangling from the canopy. They examined the branches and trunk, looking for the tiny holes that indicate beetle activity.

But it’s not possible to climb every sequoia tree to directly inspect the canopy in person. That’s why they’re also testing whether drones equipped with sensors and aided by satellite imagery can be used to monitor and detect beetle infestations on a larger scale within the forests.

Tuesday’s health inspection of General Sherman was organized by the Giant Sequoia Lands Coalition, a group of government agencies, Native tribes and environmental groups. They hope to establish a health monitoring program for the towering trees.

If they discover beetle infestations, officials say, they could try to combat the attacks by spraying water, removing branches or using chemical treatments.

Bark beetles have ravaged pine and fir forests throughout the Western United States in recent years, but they previously didn’t pose a threat to giant sequoias, which can live 3,000 years.

“They have really withstood insect attacks for a lot of years. So why now? Why are we seeing this change?” said Clay Jordan, superintendent for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. “There’s a lot that we need to learn in order to ensure good stewardship of these trees for a long time.”

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Russian satellite launch renews concerns about conflict in space

The U.S. assertion this week that Russia has launched a satellite capable of inspecting and destroying other satellites prompted a denial from the Kremlin and concern from U.S. lawmakers. VOA Congressional Correspondent Katherine Gypson reports. Camera: Saqib Ul Islam.

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Myanmar refugees in Thailand start interviews for US resettlement

Bangkok — Interviews have begun with Myanmar refugees living in Thailand who are eligible for a new resettlement program in the United States, the Thai government said.

Thailand said it hopes the first group may get to move by the end of the year.

Some 90,000 refugees live in nine camps on the Thai side of the border to escape fighting between Myanmar’s military and ethnic minority rebel armies vying for autonomy. Some of the refugees were born in the camps, which started to form in the mid-1980s, and many have lived in them for decades.

Persistent fighting in Myanmar, amplified by a military coup in February 2021, has kept most from returning home.

Aiming to give the refugees a safe way out of the camps, Thailand, the United States and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees announced the resettlement plan in May 2023.

One year on, Thailand’s Ministry of Interior says that the Thai government and UNHCR have finished checking the personal information of the refugees to verify their eligibility for the program. More than 80,000 refugees were deemed eligible, and nearly all of them told officials they wanted to resettle.

“After that, the U.S. team went to the first two camps for interviews, which have already been done,” Zcongklod Khawjang, an interior ministry official in charge of overseeing the resettlement program, told VOA this week.

The two camps — Ban Don Yang and Tham Hin — are among the smallest of nine and host about 8,750 refugees combined.

Zcongklod said the U.S. Embassy in Thailand has not told the Thai government when the authorized refugees would be resettled or when interviews in the other seven camps would begin. But he added that Thailand was expecting the “first batch” to move to the U.S. sometime this year.

Hayso Thako, a joint secretary with the Karen Refugee Committee, one of the charities working in the camps, said he received the same message from the UNHCR at a meeting in March.

“They said most probably the first group would be able to leave by the end, almost the end of this year,” he said.

The UNHCR declined to comment on when resettlement might begin and referred the question to the United States. The U.S. Embassy in Bangkok declined to provide a time frame.

“Resettlement operations are ongoing in cooperation with the UNHCR and the Royal Thai Government,” the U.S. Embassy told VOA by email, attributing the comment to “a U.S. official.”

The embassy also would not say how many of the 80,000-plus eligible refugees the U.S. was prepared to take in, either annually or in total. Zcongklod said the embassy has not provided the Thai government with those figures, either.

The Border Consortium, a network of charities that coordinate much of the international aid that reached the camps, said it has not been provided with official figures but said plans for the program appear to have been scaled down over time.

“Figures have changes. At the beginning, it was this number of people who could be resettled … and maybe now it could be a lower number of people who could be resettled,” Leon de Riedmatten, executive director of The Border Consortium, told VOA.

Even so, he said, “It’s important for the residents in the camps themselves that there is still the possibility of resettlement. I think this is the main message, even if it’s not going to be so many people who are going to be resettled to the United States.”

Thailand has denied the refugees a regular path to gaining permanent legal residence and keeps tight control over their movements in and out of the camps.

Myanmar’s 2021 coup brought the country’s brief experiment with democracy to a halt, plunging it into civil war and dashing hopes that the refugees could return safely anytime soon.

Hayso Thako and de Riedmatten said it would help if other countries committed to taking in some of the refugees.

Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told VOA it has encouraged more countries to join the resettlement program.

A previous program ended about five years ago after resettling thousands of refugees in the United States and a few other countries.

Without a clear idea of how many of the refugees the new program can handle, and no end in sight to the civil war raging in Myanmar, charities say the Thai government should also give the refugees the opportunity to settle permanently in Thailand.

“I think it’s key. It’s very, very important, because we cannot expect that all these refugees will be resettled. We cannot expect also that a large part of these refugees will return to Myanmar. So the ones, the majority, who will be left in the camps should have a better future,” de Riedmatten said.

Even after four decades, most of the camps still lack electricity and running water. Most homes are huts of bamboo and eucalyptus poles topped with thatched roofs.

The refugees are mostly barred from studying or working outside of the camps, have few job opportunities inside and receive an average of about $9 in food aid a month.

Some advocates say a growing sense of despair across the camps is causing a rise in domestic abuse, gang violence, drug use and suicide.

“Living in the camps is not easy,” Eh Nay Moo, 30, who fled Myanmar with his parents when he was three years old, told VOA.

“Here, we are just illegal people. … There is no freedom for us. Going here and there outside of the camp, we are not allowed,” he said from Mae La, the largest of the nine camps on the border.

Having spent almost his entire life in the camps, Eh Nay Moo said he cannot imagine returning to Myanmar but sees no real future for himself in the camps.

Eh Nay Moo said he has applied for the new resettlement program and is eagerly awaiting an interview.

“If I get a chance to move to the U.S. … I believe that I will get more opportunity or freedom to do and live my life as a human being,” he said.

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Fine dining in space — with an astronomical price tag

Fine dining in space — if you can stomach the price tag. Plus, a new understanding of the sun’s magnetic field, and Europe’s newest astronauts get their mission assignments. VOA’s Arash Arabasadi brings us The Week in Space

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Justice Department says illegal monopoly by Ticketmaster and Live Nation drives up prices for fans

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Justice Department filed a sweeping antitrust lawsuit against Ticketmaster and parent company Live Nation Entertainment on Thursday, accusing them of running an illegal monopoly over live events in America — squelching competition and driving up prices for fans.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Manhattan, was being brought with 30 state and district attorneys general and seeks to break up the monopoly they say is squeezing out smaller promoters and hurting artists.

“We allege that Live Nation relies on unlawful, anticompetitive conduct to exercise its monopolistic control over the live events industry in the United States at the cost of fans, artists, smaller promoters, and venue operators,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement. “The result is that fans pay more in fees, artists have fewer opportunities to play concerts, smaller promoters get squeezed out, and venues have fewer real choices for ticketing services. It is time to break up Live Nation-Ticketmaster.”

The Justice Department accuses Live Nation of a slew of practices that allow it to maintain a stronghold over the live music scene, including using long-term contracts to keep venues from choosing rival ticketers, blocking venues from using multiple ticket sellers and threatening venues that they could lose money and fans if they don’t choose Ticketmaster. The Justice Department says Live Nation also threatened to retaliate against one firm if it didn’t stop a subsidiary from competing for artist promotion contracts.

Live Nation has denied that it engages in practices that violate antitrust laws. When it was reported that the company was under federal investigation in 2022, the concert promoter said in a statement that Ticketmaster enjoys a such a large share of the market because of “the large gap that exists between the quality of the Ticketmaster system and the next best primary ticketing system.”

But competitor ticket sellers have long complained that Live Nation makes it difficult for them to disrupt the market with practices such as withholding acts if those venues don’t agree to use Ticketmaster’s service.

The lawsuit is the latest example of the Biden administration’s aggressive antitrust enforcement approach targeting companies accused of engaging in illegal monopolies that box out competitors and drive up prices. In March, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Apple alleging that the tech giant has monopoly power in the smartphone market. The Democratic administration has also taken on Google, Amazon and other tech giants.

“Today’s action is a step forward in making this era of live music more accessible for the fans, the artists, and the industry that supports them,” Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said in a statement.

Ticketmaster, which merged with Live Nation in 2010, is the world’s largest ticket seller, processing 500 million tickets each year in more than 30 countries. Around 70% of tickets for major concert venues in the U.S. are sold through Ticketmaster, according to data in a federal lawsuit filed by consumers in 2022. The company owns or controls more than 265 of North America’s concert venues and dozens of top amphitheaters, according to the Justice Department.

The ticket seller sparked outrage in November 2022 when its site crashed during a presale event for a Taylor Swift stadium tour. The company said its site was overwhelmed by both fans and attacks from bots, which were posing as consumers to scoop up tickets and sell them on secondary sites. The debacle prompted congressional hearings and bills in state legislatures aimed at better protecting consumers.

The Justice Department allowed Live Nation and Ticketmaster to merge as long as Live Nation agreed not to retaliate against concert venues for using other ticket companies for 10 years. In 2019, the department investigated and found that Live Nation had “repeatedly” violated that agreement and extended the prohibition on retaliating against concert venues to 2025.

 

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Biden, Trump compete for key swing state of Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania is one of a handful of US states that could determine the outcome of November’s presidential election. VOA Correspondent Scott Stearns looks at what Joe Biden and Donald Trump are doing to win there.

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Haley says she will vote for Trump in November despite their disputes

COLUMBIA, South Carolina — Nikki Haley said Wednesday that she will be voting for Donald Trump in November’s general election, a notable show of support given their intense and often personal rivalry during the Republican primary campaign.

But Haley also made it clear that she feels Trump has work to do to win over voters who supported her during the course of the primary campaign and continue to cast votes for her in ongoing primary contests.

“I will be voting for Trump,” Haley, Trump’s former U.N. ambassador, said during an event at the Hudson Institute in Washington.

“Having said that, I stand by what I said in my suspension speech,” Haley added. “Trump would be smart to reach out to the millions of people who voted for me and continue to support me and not assume that they’re just going to be with him. And I genuinely hope he does that.”

The comments in her first public speech since leaving the race are another signal of the Republican Party’s virtually complete consolidation of support behind Trump, even from those who have labeled him a threat in the past.

Haley shuttered her own bid for the Republican nomination two months ago but did not immediately endorse Trump, having accused him of causing chaos and disregarding the importance of U.S. alliances abroad as well as questioning whether Trump, 77, was too old to be president again.

Trump, in turn, repeatedly mocked her with the nickname “Birdbrain,” though he curtailed those attacks after securing enough delegates in March to become the presumptive Republican nominee.

Trump’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Haley’s announcement.

President Joe Biden’s campaign, meanwhile, has been working to win over her supporters, whom they view as true swing voters. Biden’s team is quietly organizing a Republicans for Biden group, which will eventually include dedicated staff and focus on the hundreds of thousands of Haley voters in each battleground state, according to people familiar with the plans but not authorized to discuss them publicly.

But Haley made several criticisms of Biden’s foreign policy and handling of the U.S.-Mexico border in her speech Wednesday at the Hudson Institute, a conservative Washington think tank she recently joined as she reemerges in the political realm.

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US Justice Department sues to block Oklahoma immigration law

OKLAHOMA CITY, OKLAHOMA — The U.S. Department of Justice sued Oklahoma on Tuesday, seeking to block a law that aims to impose criminal penalties on those living in the state illegally.

The lawsuit in federal court in Oklahoma City challenges a law that makes it a state crime — punishable by up to two years in prison — to live in Oklahoma without legal immigration status. Similar laws passed in Texas and Iowa already are facing challenges from the Justice Department.

Oklahoma is among several Republican-led states jockeying to push deeper into immigration enforcement as Republicans and Democrats seize on the issue. Other bills targeting migrants have been passed this year in Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.

The Justice Department says the Oklahoma statute violates the U.S. Constitution and is asking the court to declare it invalid and bar the state from enforcing it.

“Oklahoma cannot disregard the U.S. Constitution and settled Supreme Court precedent,” U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brian Boynton, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division, said in a statement. “We have brought this action to ensure that Oklahoma adheres to the Constitution and the framework adopted by Congress for regulation of immigration.”

Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt called the bill necessary, saying the Biden administration is failing to secure the nation’s borders.

“Not only that, but they stand in the way of states trying to protect their citizens,” Stitt said in a statement.

The federal action was expected, as the Department of Justice warned Oklahoma officials last week the agency would sue unless the state agreed not to enforce the new law.

In response, Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond called the DOJ’s preemption argument “dubious at best” and said that while the federal government has broad authority over immigration, it does not have “exclusive power” on the subject.

“Oklahoma is exercising its concurrent and complementary power as a sovereign state to address an ongoing public crisis within its borders through appropriate legislation,” Drummond wrote in a letter to the DOJ. “Put more bluntly, Oklahoma is cleaning up the Biden Administration’s mess through entirely legal means in its own backyard — and will resolutely continue to do so by supplementing federal prohibitions with robust state penalties.”

Texas was allowed to enforce a law similar to Oklahoma’s for only a few confusing hours in March before it was put on hold by a federal appeals court’s three-judge panel. The panel heard arguments from supporters and opponents in April and will next issue a decision on the law’s constitutionality.

The Justice Department filed another lawsuit earlier this month seeking to block an Iowa law that would allow criminal charges to be brought against people who have outstanding deportation orders or who previously have been removed from or denied admission to the United States.

The law in Oklahoma has prompted several large protests at the state Capitol that included immigrants and their families voicing concern that their loved ones will be racially profiled by police.

“We feel attacked,” said Sam Wargin Grimaldo, an immigration attorney who attended a rally last month wearing a shirt that read, “Young, Latino and Proud.”

“People are afraid to step out of their houses if legislation like this is proposed and then passed,” he said.

The Oklahoma Association of Chiefs of Police and the Metro Law Enforcement Agency Leaders issued a joint statement earlier this month saying they weren’t involved in drafting the bill and raised concerns that it would put crime victims at risk because they might fear reporting to law enforcement.

“This law has the potential to destroy the connections and relationships we have built within our local immigrant communities and set us back for many years to come,” they said.

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Yacht docked in US port symbolizes struggle to convert seizures into cash for Ukraine

Everett, Washington/Washington, DC — When a superyacht worth $230 million pulled into the port of Everett, Washington, for repairs last month, it made a big splash in the city of 110,000 residents. 

The 106-meter luxury behemoth known as the Amadea is currently in possession of the U.S. government, which alleges the yacht belongs to sanctioned Russian oligarch and politician Suleyman Kerimov, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Looking out over the port, Everett resident Bob Templeton wondered who was paying for the superyacht’s upkeep. “They ought to sell it to somebody and get a lot of money,” he told VOA with a laugh. 

Easier said than done. Templeton’s offhand remark cuts to the core of a dilemma faced by the United States as it attempts to use sanctions to rein in Russian aggression against Ukraine. 

The U.S. government has moved to take ownership of the Amadea through a legal procedure called civil forfeiture. The end goal is to sell the vessel and transfer the proceeds to Ukraine. 

But another Russian businessman, who is not under sanctions, has challenged that move, claiming that he is the Amadea’s true owner. 

As the courts try to sort out the yacht’s ownership, U.S. taxpayers are footing the bill: over half-a-million dollars a month for maintenance. 

And the complex legal battle could drag on for a long time, increasing the costs for the U.S. and delaying any benefit to Ukraine from the yacht’s seizure, according to Stefan Cassella, a former U.S. federal prosecutor and expert in civil forfeiture. 

“Nobody who is a sanctioned oligarch owns anything in his own name,” he said. “You have an entire zoo of third parties who claim they own the property.” 

Kerimov did not respond to a request for comment. The U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment. 

Kleptocapture win 

In May 2022, just months after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, law enforcement in Fiji seized the Amadea at the request of the U.S. government. 

That was a major victory for Task Force Kleptocapture, a unit of the U.S. Department of Justice created in the wake of the Russian invasion to enforce sanctions. 

But completing the job has proved more complicated. 

Since the 1980s, civil forfeiture has been the Department of Justice’s go-to tool for targeting drug dealers, the mafia and money laundering operations, according to David Smith, a former DOJ prosecutor who pioneered the practice. 

It allows law enforcement to seize assets without convicting their owner of a crime. All that prosecutors must prove is that the assets were used in a crime, profited from a crime or resulted from criminal activity. 

But when that crime is a sanctions violation, proving the asset is owned by a sanctioned person is critical. 

Lawyers representing the company that owns Amadea have claimed the yacht actually belongs to Eduard Khudainatov, a former CEO of the Russian state oil company Rosneft, who is not subject to sanctions. 

He and his legal team say the seizure is unlawful and based on a “misleading” FBI affidavit. 

“Eduard Khudainatov is, and always has been, the rightful owner of the Amadea. The Biden Administration’s unconstitutional seizure of the vessel was based on demonstrable falsehoods that we will establish in court,” his spokesperson said in a statement to VOA. “The government asserts factual and legal theories that are divorced from forfeiture sanctions and money laundering laws, and unsupported by the cases interpreting those laws. This boondoggle is nothing more than political theater that has cost American taxpayers more than $20 million to date.” 

The U.S. government disagrees, referring to Khudainatov as a “straw owner” of the Amadea. 

According to prosecutors, Khudainatov is “supposedly the beneficial owner of at least eight yachts or yacht projects” — a fleet valued at over $1 billion. They include a yacht that prosecutors state is actually owned by Igor Sechin, the sanctioned incumbent CEO of Rosneft and a Putin ally. 

Journalists have linked another one of the superyachts, the Scheherazade, to Putin himself. In May 2022, it was impounded in Italy. 

While Khudainatov’s lawyers were unable to prevent the Amadea’s transfer to the United States, they are currently fighting forfeiture in a New York court. 

The DOJ states that Kerimov purchased the yacht in 2021, three years after he was added to sanctions list. Prosecutors allege that the oligarch or his proxies routed dollar transactions through U.S. financial institutions to maintain the Amadea, which would constitute a sanctions violation. 

But proving Kerimov’s ownership — and disproving Khudainatov’s claim — is no simple task. 

Assets like superyachts are often owned through a series of proxy owners, offshore companies and trusts. These entities are often registered in jurisdictions chosen for their secrecy. 

Cassella, who has studied the case, says that Khudainatov’s legal team is dragging out proceedings, while the U.S. government is trying to compel him to answer questions and provide documentation that would prove he is not the Amadea’s owner. 

“This is civil forfeiture defense 101 for anybody who’s got an infinite amount of money to pay lawyers to oppose the forfeiture,” Cassella said. 

Expensive process 

While the legal battle goes forward, the U.S. government is paying to keep the Amadea running. 

According to court filings, upkeep of the yacht costs roughly $600,000 a month. Insurance costs another $144,000 monthly, and there are other periodic expenses. 

In a February filing, an official of the U.S. Marshals Service stated that the Amadea was also scheduled to undergo drydocking in March, which appears to have been delayed. 

That procedure, which involves removing a vessel from the water to conduct repair work, was estimated to cost $5.6 million — although the government negotiated not to pay the other monthly costs during that period, the official noted. 

In recent months, however, the U.S. government has taken steps to decrease the cost. 

In February, it petitioned the court to sell the Amadea, citing the excessive costs of maintaining the yacht. Such a sale would effectively convert the yacht into cash, but not settle the ownership question. 

In a filing opposing the sale, Khudainatov’s legal team stated that he had consistently offered to cover the cost of maintaining the Amadea. 

On May 17, the U.S. government also submitted a motion to reject Khudainatov’s ownership claim, stating that he lacks standing to contest forfeiture. 

If a judge agrees, that could allow the forfeiture to proceed. 

Controversial, challenging strategy 

While confiscating the assets of Russian oligarchs and top officials may not face fierce opposition from most Americans, civil forfeiture is controversial in the United States. 

Advocacy organizations, both liberal and conservative, have criticized the practice, arguing that it allows law enforcement to seize private property without convicting the owner of a crime. 

Smith, the former DOJ prosecutor, says the burden falls hardest on low-income Americans who struggle to pay for a lawyer. 

This was one of the reasons why eight members of the U.S. House of Representatives in April 2022 voted against a bill calling for the Biden administration to seize sanctioned Russians’ assets to fund Ukraine. 

Smith believes applying civil forfeiture to oligarchs is “arbitrary” and he is unsure whether the U.S. will be able to seize enough assets from oligarchs to make a meaningful difference for Ukraine. 

“I would rather spend the money [subsidizing forfeiture investigations and proceedings] on other things than trying to forfeit these yachts,” he said. “And who knows how many will ultimately be forfeited.” 

That concern is not unfounded. The Kleptocapture Task Force is working to forfeit or restrain around $700 million, but, so far, the United States has been able to transfer forfeited assets to Ukraine in only a handful of cases. 

In May 2023, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland authorized sending $5.4 million to Ukraine that the U.S. had seized from sanctioned Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeyev. It represented the first such transfer of forfeited funds to Ukraine. 

Later that year, the U.S. transferred over a million rounds of ammunition to Ukraine after seizing them en route from Iran to Yemen.

In February 2024, the U.S. government, after breaking up a scheme to illegally procure military-grade technology for Russia, transferred $500,000 in forfeited Russian funds to Estonia to provide aid to Ukraine. 

In April, the U.S. transferred another shipment of weapons seized from Iran to Ukraine.

Those transfers put funds and ammunition in the hands of the Ukrainian government, but they were also of a significantly lower value than the Amadea. 

Bigger cases involving oligarch assets may prove more difficult. 

“It wouldn’t surprise me if it took 10 years to resolve some of these cases,” said former prosecutor Cassella. 

Natasha Mozgovaya reported from Everett, Washington. Matthew Kupfer and Oleksii Kovalenko reported from Washington, D.C.

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Biden to cancel student loans for 160,000 more borrowers

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is canceling student loans for 160,000 more borrowers through a combination of existing programs. 

The U.S. Education Department announced the latest round of cancellations on Wednesday, saying it will erase $7.7 billion in federal student loans. With the latest action, the administration said it has canceled $167 billion in student debt for nearly 5 million Americans through several programs. 

“From day one of my administration, I promised to fight to ensure higher education is a ticket to the middle class, not a barrier to opportunity,” President Joe Biden said in a statement. “I will never stop working to cancel student debt — no matter how many times Republican-elected officials try to stop us.” 

The latest relief will go to borrowers in three categories who hit certain milestones that make them eligible for cancellation. It will go to 54,000 borrowers who are enrolled in Biden’s new income-driven repayment plan, along with 39,000 enrolled in earlier income-driven plans, and about 67,000 who are eligible through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. 

Biden’s new payment plan, known as the SAVE Plan, offers a faster path to forgiveness than earlier versions. More people are now becoming eligible for loan cancellation as they hit 10 years of payments, a new finish line that’s a decade sooner than what borrowers faced in the past. 

The cancellation is moving forward even as Biden’s SAVE Plan faces legal challenges from Republican-led states. A group of 11 states led by Kansas sued to block the plan in March, followed by seven more led by Missouri in April. In two federal lawsuits, the states say Biden needed to go through Congress for his overhaul of federal repayment plans. 

A separate action by the Biden administration aimed to correct previous mistakes that delayed cancellation for some borrowers enrolled in other repayment plans and through Public Service Loan Forgiveness, which forgives loans for people who make 10 years of payments while working in public service jobs. 

The Biden administration has been announcing new batches of forgiveness each month as more people qualify under those three categories. 

According to the Education Department, one in 10 federal student loan borrowers has now been approved for some form of loan relief. 

“One out of every 10 federal student loan borrowers approved for debt relief means one out of every 10 borrowers now has financial breathing room and a burden lifted,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement. 

The Biden administration has continued canceling loans through existing avenues while it also pushes for a new, one-time cancellation that would provide relief to more than 30 million borrowers in five categories. 

Biden’s new plan aims to help borrowers with large sums of unpaid interest, those with older loans, those who attended low-value college programs, and those who face other hardships preventing them from repaying student loans. It would also cancel loans for people who are eligible through other programs but haven’t applied. 

The proposal is going through a lengthy rulemaking process, but the administration said it will accelerate certain provisions, with plans to start waiving unpaid interest for millions of borrowers starting this fall. 

Conservative opponents have threatened to challenge that plan, too, calling it an unfair bonus for wealthy college graduates at the expense of taxpayers who didn’t attend college or already repaid their loans. 

The Supreme Court rejected Biden’s earlier attempt at one-time cancellation, saying it overstepped the president’s authority. The new plan is being made with a different legal justification. 

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White House chef duo has dished up culinary diplomacy at state dinners for nearly a decade 

Washington — A house-cured smoked salmon, red grapefruit, avocado and cucumber starter. Dry-aged rib eye beef in a sesame sabayon sauce. Salted caramel pistachio cake under a layer of matcha ganache.

While President Joe Biden and his guest of honor at a White House state dinner chew over foreign policy, the female chef duo of Cris Comerford and Susie Morrison take care of the culinary diplomacy. They pulled off the above menu for Japan’s leader in April, and they’ll have a new array of delicacies for Kenya’s president on Thursday night.

Comerford, the White House executive chef, and Morrison, the executive pastry chef, are the first women to hold those posts, forming a duo that has tantalized the taste buds of guests at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. with their culinary creations for nearly a decade. Comerford is also the first person of color to be executive chef.

“Both are just exceptional examples of success in their field,” said Bill Yosses, who was the executive pastry chef for seven years before his departure in 2014 cleared the way for Morrison to be promoted. “They excel at what they do.”

Comerford and Morrison get to do it again Thursday when Biden and his wife, first lady Jill Biden, host the administration’s sixth state dinner, for Kenyan President William Ruto and his wife, Rachel. It will be the first such honor for an African head of state since 2008 and the first for Kenya since 2003.

A lavish state dinner is a tool of U.S. diplomacy, a high honor reserved for America’s longstanding and closest allies. In the case of Kenya, Biden wants to elevate a relationship that he sees as critical to security in Africa and far beyond.

Jill Biden planned to preview the dinner setup for the news media on Wednesday afternoon.

State dinner planning is done by the first lady’s staff and the White House social office, and starts months in advance. Ideas are kicked around before the chefs propose a few different menus. The meals are prepared, plated as they would be served and tasted by the social secretary and the first lady, who makes the final call on what will be served.

The menus change, but the overarching goal has stayed the same.

“We’re trying to showcase American food, American regions, American farmers,” while incorporating small tributes to the guest of honor, Yosses said. “It would be rare that we would really try to imitate something from the guest’s country.”

Ingredients for April’s state dinner for Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his wife, Yuko, came from California, Maryland, Oregon and Ohio. The wines were from Oregon and Washington state.

At the media preview for that glitzy event, Comerford explained that the diets of the Bidens and the visiting dignitaries are factored into the preparations, along with those of other guests.

“When we formulate and we create the state dinner menu, we take into consideration all the principals and most of our guests,” she said. “We also take into consideration the season because this is the perfect time for some beautiful bounties right now, with the spring coming up, with all the morels and the mushrooms, and Susie’s cherries and all the stuff she has on her plate.”

The chefs contact their regular purveyors to find out what’s in season, and go from there.

The salmon appetizer served in April was inspired by the California roll, which Comerford said was invented by a Japanese chef.

Morrison’s dessert highlighted Japan’s gift of cherry trees to the United States, many of which are planted in Washington, and its matcha tea. She decorated the pistachio cake with sugary mini cherry blossoms.

“We wanted to bring a little bit of the cherry blossoms that are here on the Tidal Basin right here to our dessert in order for everyone to enjoy the cherry blossoms that we enjoy every year,” she said.

Serving dinner to hundreds of guests at once comes down to timing. Thursday’s event will be held in an expansive pavilion put up on the South Grounds of the White House.

Sam Kass, who was an assistant chef during President Barack Obama’s administration, said tradition holds that the president is the first one served and that plates are cleared away when he is finished eating.

“You have to have a service that is so efficient and quick to get those plates out so that the last table has a chance to eat,” he said.

Comerford, 61, sharpened her culinary skills while working at hotels in Chicago and restaurants in Washington before the White House brought her on in 1995 as an assistant chef. A naturalized U.S. citizen and Filipino native, she was named executive chef in 2005. Her responsibilities include designing and executing menus for state dinners, social events, holiday functions, receptions and official luncheons.

Morrison, 57, started at the executive mansion as a contract pastry employee in 1995 while she was working at a hotel in northern Virginia. She was named an assistant pastry chef in 2002 and became the executive pastry chef in November 2014 — just in time to sweat over the details of that year’s gingerbread White House for the holiday season.

The pair has worked together at the White House for nearly 30 years.

Yosses recalled at least one instance where the honoree’s wishes dictated the menu selections.

In 2015, China’s Xi Jinping wanted a very American menu, “which I think was a polite way for him to say that he didn’t think we could do Chinese food very well,” Yosses said.

The Chinese leader was served butter-poached Maine lobster and grilled Colorado lamb.

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Tornado kills multiple people in Iowa as storms tear through Midwest

GREENFIELD, Iowa — Multiple people were killed when a tornado tore through a small town in Iowa and left a wide swath of obliterated homes and crumpled cars, while the howling winds also twisted and toppled wind turbines. 

After devastating Greenfield, a town of 2,000, on Tuesday the storms moved eastward to pummel parts of Illinois and Wisconsin, knocking out power to tens of thousands of customers in the two states. 

Greenfield’s hospital was among the buildings that were damaged in the town, which meant that at least a dozen people who were hurt had to be taken to facilities elsewhere, according to Iowa State Patrol Sgt. Alex Dinkla. 

“Sadly we can confirm that there have been fatalities,” Dinkla said at a news conference Tuesday night, without specifying how many. “We’re still counting at this time.” 

He said he thought they had accounted for all of the town’s residents but that searches would continue if anyone was reported missing. The Adair County Health System said in a Facebook post Tuesday night that it had set up a triage center at the Greenfield high school and that people who need medical attention should go there. 

The tornado destroyed much of Greenfield, which is located about 55 miles (90 kilometers) southwest of Des Moines, during a day that saw multiple tornadoes, giant hail and heavy rain in several states. The National Weather Service said it received 23 tornado reports Tuesday, with most in Iowa, and one each in Wisconsin and Minnesota. 

In Wisconsin, the weather service’s Green Bay office dispatched a staffer Wednesday morning to survey storm damage near the village of Unity in western Marathon County after law enforcement received a report from the public about a tornado on the ground about 7:45 p.m. Tuesday in that community about 55 miles (89 kilometers) east of Eau Claire, said meteorologist Roy Eckberg. He said staffers would also be visiting Outagamie County near the city of Kaukauna, some 20 miles (32 kilometers) southwest of Green Bay, to investigate significant wind damage there. 

Eckberg said high winds were reported Tuesday night across parts of central Wisconsin, with a wind gust of 70 mph (113 kilometers per hour) in the city of Marshfield and with wind damage also reported to the northwest in the city of Wausau. 

Weather service staff would also be assessing storm damage Wednesday in southeastern Minnesota after radar indicated that a tornado touched down Tuesday night in Winona County, said Kate Abbott, a meteorologist with the agency’s La Crosse, Wisconsin, office. 

“With that one we did have a radar confirmed tornado, but we’re going out and survey there to make sure the damage is consistent with a tornado,” she said. 

Authorities announced a mandatory curfew for Greenfield and said they would only allow residents to enter the town until Wednesday morning. They also ordered media representatives to leave the city Tuesday night. 

In the aftermath of the storm, mounds of broken wood from homes, branches, car parts and other debris littered lots where homes once stood. Some trees still standing were stripped of their limbs and leaves. Residents helped each other salvage furniture and other belongings that were strewn in every direction. 

Rogue Paxton said he sheltered in the basement of his home when the storm moved through. He told WOI-TV he thought the house was lost but said his family got lucky. 

“But everyone else is not so much, like my brother Cody, his house just got wiped,” Paxton said. “Then you see all these people out here helping each other. … Everything’s going to be fine because we have each other, but it’s just going to be really, really rough. It is a mess.” 

A tornado also apparently took down several 250-foot (76-meter) wind turbines in southwest Iowa. Some of the turbines caught fire, sending plumes of smoke into the air. Wind farms are built to withstand tornadoes, hurricanes and other powerful winds. 

Mary Long, the owner of Long’s Market in downtown Greenfield, said she rode out the storm at her business in the community’s historic town square, which largely escaped damage. Long said there appeared to be widespread damage on the east and south sides of town. 

“I could hear this roaring, like the proverbial freight train, and then it was just done,” she said. 

Camille Blair said the Greenfield Chamber of Commerce office where she works closed around 2 p.m. ahead of the storm. 

“I can see from my house it kind of went in a straight line down the road,” she said of the tornado. 

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said she planned to visit Greenfield on Wednesday morning. 

“It was just a few weeks ago that tornadoes hit several other Iowa communities, and it’s hard to believe that it’s happened again,” she said in a statement. “Iowans are strong and resilient, and we will get through this together.” 

Iowa had braced for severe weather after the weather service’s Storm Prediction Center gave most of the state a high chance of seeing severe thunderstorms with the potential for strong tornadoes. The storms and tornado warnings moved into Wisconsin on Tuesday evening and night. 

Across the US

Earlier in the day, residents to the west in Omaha, Nebraska, awoke to sirens blaring and widespread power outages as torrential rain, high winds and large hail pummeled the area. The deluge flooded basements and submerged cars. Television station KETV showed firefighters rescuing people from vehicles. 

In Illinois, dust storms led authorities to shut down stretches of two interstates due to low visibility. 

The storms followed days of extreme weather that have ravaged much of the middle section of the country. Strong winds, large hail and tornadoes swept parts of Oklahoma and Kansas late Sunday, damaging homes and injuring two in Oklahoma. 

Another round of storms Monday night raked Colorado and western Nebraska and saw the city of Yuma, Colorado, blanketed in hail the size of baseballs and golf balls, turning streets into rivers of water and ice. 

In Texas, deadly storms hit the Houston area last week, killing at least eight people. Those storms last Thursday knocked out power to hundreds of thousands for days, leaving many in the dark and without air conditioning during hot and humid weather. Hurricane-force winds reduced businesses and other structures to debris and shattered glass in downtown skyscrapers. 

Bob Oravec, lead forecaster with the weather service, said the system is expected to turn south Wednesday, bringing more severe weather to parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and southern Missouri. 

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Biden and Trump compete for women’s votes

Women voters are more than half of the U.S. electorate. VOA Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on what presidential candidates Joe Biden and Donald Trump are doing to win women’s votes.

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Rudy Giuliani pleads not guilty to felony charges in Arizona election interference case

Phoenix, Arizona — Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani pleaded not guilty Tuesday to nine felony charges stemming from his role in an effort to overturn Donald Trump’s 2020 election loss in Arizona to Joe Biden.

Giuliani appeared remotely for the arraignment that was held in a Phoenix courtroom. His trial will take place in October.

Former Arizona Republican Party chair Kelli Ward and at least 11 other people were also arraigned Tuesday for conspiracy, forgery and fraud charges in a Phoenix courtroom. She and nine others have so far pleaded not guilty. Her trial date is set for Oct. 17, about 3 weeks before the U.S. election.

During his remote appearance, Giuliani said he did not have an attorney at this time but will. When asked by the court whether he needed counsel appointed for the arraignment, Giuliani said: “No, no, I think I am capable of handling it myself.”

Giuliani said he received a summons but did not have a copy of the indictment. He said he is familiar with the charges, though, by reading about them.

Arizona authorities tried unsuccessfully over several weeks to serve Giuliani notice of the indictment against him. Giuliani was finally served Friday night as he was walking to a car after his 80th birthday celebration in Florida.

On Tuesday, in response to the prosecutors request for a $10,000 cash bond after outlining the difficulty in serving Giuliani in the case, Giuliani said: “I have a fair number of threats including death threats, and I don’t have security anymore …so I have very strict rules about who gets up and who doesn’t.”

The judge required Giuliani to post a secured appearance bond of $10,000 as well as appear in Arizona within the next 30 days for booking procedures.

Arizona authorities unveiled the felony charges last month against Republicans who submitted a document to Congress falsely declaring Trump, a Republican, had won Arizona. The defendants include five lawyers connected to the former president and two former Trump aides. Biden, a Democrat, won Arizona by more than 10,000 votes.

The indictment alleges Ward, a former state senator who led the GOP in Arizona from 2019 until early 2023, organized the fake electors and urged then-Vice President Mike Pence to declare them to be the state’s true electors. It says Ward failed to withdraw her vote as a fake elector even though no legal challenges changed the outcome of the presidential race in Arizona.

Last week, attorney John Eastman, who devised a strategy to try to persuade Congress not to certify the election, was the first defendant in the case to be arraigned, pleading not guilty to the charges.

Trump himself was not charged in the Arizona case but was referred to as an unindicted co-conspirator.

Arizona is the fourth state where allies of the former president have been charged with using false or unproven claims about voter fraud related to the election.

The 11 people who claimed to be Arizona’s Republican electors met in Phoenix on Dec. 14, 2020, to sign a certificate saying they were “duly elected and qualified” electors and asserting that Trump carried the state. A one-minute video of the signing ceremony was posted on social media by the Arizona Republican Party at the time. The document was later sent to Congress and the National Archives, where it was ignored.

Of eight lawsuits that unsuccessfully challenged Biden’s victory in the state, one was filed by the 11 fake Arizona electors, who had asked a federal judge to decertify the results and block the state from sending its results to the Electoral College. In dismissing the case, the judge concluded the Republicans had “failed to provide the court with factual support for their extraordinary claims.” Days after that lawsuit was dismissed, the 11 participated in the certificate signing.

Those set to be arraigned Tuesday are Ward; Tyler Bowyer, an executive of the conservative youth organization Turning Point USA; state Sen. Anthony Kern; Greg Safsten, a former executive director of the Arizona Republican Party; Robert Montgomery, a former chairman of the Cochise County Republican Committee; Samuel Moorhead, a Republican precinct committee member in Gila County; Nancy Cottle, who in 2020 was the first vice president of the Arizona Federation of Republican Women; Loraine Pellegrino, past president of the Ahwatukee Republican Women; Michael Ward, an osteopathic physician who is married to Ward; attorneys Jenna Ellis and Christina Bobb; and Michael Roman, who was Trump’s 2020 director of Election Day operations.

Arraignments are scheduled for June 6 for state Sen. Jake Hoffman; on June 7 for former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows; and on June 18 for Trump attorney Boris Epshteyn and for James Lamon, another Republican who claimed Trump carried the state.

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Tuesday’s primaries include presidential races and prosecutor in Trump’s Georgia election case

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