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Health experts call for the vice presidential debate to be canceled or made virtual

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Amid a growing Covid-19 outbreak at the White House, public health experts are calling for Wednesday’s vice presidential debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris to be called off — or made virtual.

Pence has been exposed to several infected individuals, including President Donald Trump himself, who announced he’d tested positive for the coronavirus early Friday morning. Since Trump’s diagnosis, the vice president has been tested regularly, returning negative results each time. Nevertheless, public health experts have warned it would be astonishingly risky for him to participate in the upcoming in-person debate, which is set to be held in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Rochelle Walensky, an infectious disease expert at Harvard University, told the New York Times that “there is no way under the sun that Pence should be anywhere but in his home. He was sitting in a sea of people with [Covid-19].”

A negative test does not necessarily mean someone does not have Covid-19 because the amount of virus in an infected person can take time to reach detectable levels. And one’s status can change rapidly. For instance, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany had tested negative every day since Thursday, but announced on Monday that she had tested positive.

The Commission on Presidential Debates has said it will take some additional precautions in light of this, moving the candidates’ podiums for the vice presidential debate to 12 feet apart as opposed to the originally planned 7 feet. But USA Today Washington bureau chief Susan Page, who will moderate the debate, will still be less than 6 feet from Pence and Harris.

Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden were also 12 feet apart at last week’s presidential debate, but Biden is still potentially at risk. The candidates were indoors, where the virus can travel farther than the CDC-recommended distance of 6 feet, particularly if one is shouting, as everyone involved did at one point or another.

Given the inherent risk of any indoor event — particularly one that includes someone who has been exposed to Covid-19 Kumi Smith, an assistant professor of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota, told Vox that the safest course of action would be to make the vice presidential debate a virtual event.

“The thing I noticed when I watched the presidential debate was a lot of other people seemed to be gathered in the room unnecessarily,” Smith said. “These live events do seem to necessitate a lot of people coming into closer contact with each other in an indoor space than social distancing guidelines would currently recommend.”

Smith said if the debate is ultimately held in person, it should take place in a large ventilated space with as few people as possible in attendance. And David Celentano, chair of the epidemiology department at Johns Hopkins University, told Vox all participants should arrive at least 30 minutes early to receive a rapid Covid-19 test. He also recommended everyone in the audience should wear a face covering, a precaution not taken by many of Trump’s guests at the first presidential debate.

As Smith noted, these extra precautions are paramount considering the debates feature people who will be the next elected leaders of the United States. And in the case of Wednesday’s debate, they have additional importance given Pence would assume presidential responsibilities should Trump — who remains ill with Covid-19 — become incapacitated at any point due to his illness.

The debate commission has not made any decisions on altering plans for the last two presidential debates, scheduled for October 15 in Miami, Florida, and October 22 in Nashville, Tennessee. Both campaigns have indicated they would like to debate in person. Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller told Meet the Press on Sunday, “We see Joe Biden and Kamala Harris out there campaigning — certainly, they’re not asking for a remote debate.”

And Monday, Biden told reporters he would be comfortable attending both events in person “if the scientists say that it’s safe and the distances are safe.”


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Amnesty International accuses Guinea of post-election crackdown

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The UK-based rights group said Guinean security forces fired live rounds against protesters during post-election unrest that has killed at least 10 people.

Amnesty International says security forces in Guinea fired live rounds at protesters during post-election unrest that have killed at least 10 people in the unstable West African nation.

In a statement on Sunday, the United Kingdom-based rights group said witness statements and video analysis confirmed protesters were targeted.

Amnesty also condemned internet disruptions during the deadly violence.

President Alpha Conde, 82, won a controversial third presidential term – which requires confirmation by the Constitutional Court – with 59.49 percent of the votes, Guinea’s electoral commission said on Saturday.

But the country’s leading opposition politician Cellou Dalein Diallo has disputed the result and claimed victory himself a day after the contested October 18 poll.

He said he has evidence of fraud and plans to file a complaint with the Constitutional Court.

Diallo’s victory claim triggered clashes between his supporters and security forces across the country.

The opposition puts the one-week death toll at 27 people – a figure that cannot be independently verified at this time.

Amnesty said it was still analysing information but added that based on what it has already gathered, coupled with local news reports, “dozens of people might have been killed”.

In a video of recent unrest in the capital Conakry, the group said a security officer shot people at very close range, “without any apparent threat to his life [and] in violation of international rules on the use of firearms by armed forces”.

Amnesty also analysed pictures taken in the northern Labe region – a Diallo stronghold – which showed bullet casings from AK-47 assault rifles.

It said Guinean security forces deployed in the region often carry such rifles, although the government denies this.

“Authorities must stop the use of firearms,” Fabien Offner, an Amnesty researcher, said in the statement.

“If criminal culpability is found, those suspected must be brought to justice in fair trials before civilian courts,” he said.

Guinea’s government was not immediately available for comment.

‘Attack on freedom of expression’

Separately, Amnesty also criticised internet and phone-line cuts on Friday and Saturday – calling them a “frontal attack on freedom of expression”.

“This new standstill of various means of communications constitutes an attack on freedom of expression and an attempt to silence protesters, human rights defenders, journalists and bloggers,” said Offner.

“The authorities must immediately lift the suspension of Guinéematin.com news website and the restrictions on access to internet and social media so that everyone can freely express himself and journalists can do their job.”

A former opposition activist, Conde became Guinea’s first democratically-elected president in 2010 and won re-election in 2015.

Critics accuse him of drifting towards authoritarianism, however.

In March, the octogenarian president pushed through a new constitution he said would modernise the country.

It also allowed him to bypass a two-term presidential limit, which provoked mass protests from October 2019, during which security forces have killed dozens of people.

Before assuming office, Conde had been a long-standing opposition figure who was jailed and exiled for his views against Guinea’s military government.

Diallo is a former prime minister who also finished runner-up to Conde in the 2010 and 2015 elections.

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Belarus police fire stun grenades as 100,000 protest

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The opposition has given Belarusian President Lukashenko an ultimatum: Resign by midnight or face a national strike.

Belarusian police have used stun grenades against protesters as more than 100,000 people marched in the capital Minsk demanding President Alexander Lukashenko resign.

The police action came hours before the expiration of an ultimatum set by the opposition: Lukashenko must resign by midnight or face a national strike.

Protesters carrying the red-and-white flags of the Belarusian opposition movement scattered on Sunday as loud bangs and flashes lit up the city’s streets after nightfall, videos showed.

Explosions and white smoke filled residential areas as people hid behind vehicles and ran from police, the videos, shared online by reputable news organisations, showed.

Law enforcement confirmed riot control weapons had been used and detentions had taken place, the TASS and RIA news agencies reported.

It was the 11th straight weekend of mass protests since a disputed election in August plunged the country into turmoil.

Karel Lannoo, CEO at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels, told Al Jazeera on Sunday the resilience of the opposition movement was putting huge pressure on Lukashenko.

“They have managed to come out like this each Sunday. This Sunday again more than 100,000 protesters came out even if the police has been very forceful in the streets trying to prevent them from demonstrating,” he said.

“I do not expect Lukashenko to step down today, but I think the resistance remains extremely strong. We also see that all the European countries as well as the United States and other Western countries have given very clear warnings to Lukashenko,” Lannoo said.

“Sooner or later he will have to step down.”

A national strike

Earlier on Sunday, crowds streamed through the capital shouting “strike”, waving flags and beating drums.

At least 12 metro stations were closed, helmeted riot police patrolled the streets and mobile internet services were disrupted in Minsk.

Two journalists were arrested before the protest, a local journalists’ association said.

Tens of people were arrested and security forces used tear gas in the western town of Lida, the Russian news agency RIA quoted the regional branch of the interior ministry as saying.

The Viasna Human Rights Centre reported about 60 arrests in various cities in the country where there were also protests.

A former Soviet collective farm manager, Lukashenko has ruled Belarus for more than a quarter of a century and has shown little inclination to quit, buoyed by loans and the offer of military support from traditional ally Russia.

The president’s main opponents have been jailed or fled into exile following the August 9 election, which Lukashenko’s opponents accuse him of rigging to win a sixth straight term. He denies electoral fraud.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, his main electoral challenger, has led calls from exile for a national strike to begin on Monday if Lukashenko refuses to release all political prisoners and resign to make way for a new election.

“Today at 23:59 the term of the People’s Ultimatum will expire, and if the demands are not met, the Belarusians will start a national strike,” she said in a statement.

Lukashenko has signalled that he would ignore the ultimatum.

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US Supreme Court pick ‘often ruled for police’ in force cases

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As appellate judge, Amy Coney Barrett often sided with police in excessive force cases, a Reuters analysis found.

In her three years as a federal appeals court judge, US Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett has consistently sided with police or prison guards accused of using excessive force, a Reuters news agency review of cases she was involved in shows.

Barrett, Republican President Donald Trump’s third nominee to the high court, has written opinions or been a part of three-judge panels that have ruled in favour of defendants in 11 of 12 cases in which law enforcement was accused of using excessive force in violation of the US Constitution.

The Republican-controlled Senate is expected to vote to confirm Barrett, a judge on the Chicago-based 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals, to the lifetime position on Monday, cementing a 6-3 conservative majority.

While her Senate confirmation hearings focused attention on how she might rule on cases related to abortion, Obamacare and elections, the Reuters review illustrates Barrett’s record on police use of force at a time of reckoning in the United States.

There has been a wave of protests nationwide – and abroad – since May 25 when a Black man named George Floyd died at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, just one in a long string of killings that civil rights advocates say is evidence of racial bias in the criminal justice system.

“Her record also makes clear she is predisposed to side with law enforcement in the context of excessive force cases,” said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which opposes Barrett’s confirmation.

Other groups that advocate for reform of the criminal justice system say she has written some encouraging rulings, with an overall record that is mixed. Barrett could not be reached for comment.

Qualified immunity

In five cases, the panel on which Barrett took part considered a request by police or corrections officers to be shielded from the lawsuits alleging excessive force through a controversial legal defence known as qualified immunity. The court granted those requests in four of the five cases.

A Reuters investigation published two weeks before Floyd’s death found the immunity defence, created by the Supreme Court 50 years ago, has been making it easier for police to kill or injure civilians with impunity. The report showed that federal appellate courts have been granting police immunity at increasing rates in recent years.

Barrett, who was appointed to the appeals court by Trump in 2017, wrote a ruling in July that said Green Bay, Wisconsin officers who shot and killed a suicidal man who had threatened them with a knife did not use excessive force in violation of the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which prohibits illegal searches and seizures.

She was also part of rulings that overturned lower court decisions against Indianapolis police officers. In one, a federal judge had denied qualified immunity to officers in the case of shoplifting suspect Terrell Day, who died while handcuffed after telling officers he was having trouble breathing.

Barrett dissented from a 7th Circuit panel decision in 2019 to revive a lawsuit against prison guards at an Illinois prison for firing warning shots over a dining hall to help break up a fight, injuring several inmates.

She has also handled requests for qualified immunity outside of the excessive force context.

Barrett last year threw out a lawsuit by three Black men who sued Chicago cops for pulling them over while investigating a drive-by shooting near a school. The men, who had nothing to do with the shooting, said they were targeted because of their race, citing the “racialised nature of the mockery and threats” made by one of the officers. The driver, Marcus Torry, told the cops that he was complying because he feared police brutality.

Barrett granted the officers qualified immunity because it was not “clearly established” that the officers’ actions were unreasonable, noting that the plaintiffs matched the description of the suspects “in number, race and car color”.

In other cases, she has shown a willingness to side with plaintiffs.

In 2019, she wrote a ruling rejecting immunity for a police officer who used false statements in making the case against a murder suspect. She also joined a ruling denying immunity for officers who were accused of falsifying evidence that caused a man to be jailed for two years.

“I don’t think we can draw definite conclusions about how Judge Barrett would approach qualified immunity once she’s on the Supreme Court,” said Jay Schweikert, a policy analyst with the libertarian Cato Institute, which is campaigning against qualified immunity. “Her decisions all look like reasonable applications of existing precedent.”

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