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Sold, whipped and raped: A Yazidi woman remembers ISIL captivity

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Layla Talu never imagined that her neighbours would betray her. But when former friends from the villages surrounding her home in the Sinjar district of northern Iraq gave away her location, her family was forced to flee.

At 7am on the morning of August 3, 2014, Layla, her husband, Marwan Khalil, and their two children, who were aged four and 18 months, left their home. Like tens of thousands of other Yazidis, they hoped to take shelter on Mount Sinjar.

But they never made it. Within a matter of hours, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) had encircled the city of Sinjar and its surrounding villages. Layla’s family was captured on the road and taken with dozens of other Yazidis who had tried to escape.

The men were separated from the women and children. That evening, Layla and her children were transported with others to Baaj district, southwest of Mosul, where they were held for four days. From there, they moved to Tal Afar, where they were detained in a school before being transferred again a week later to Badush prison. When the prison was bombed by coalition aircraft, they were sent back to Tal Afar.

The women and children were beaten, insulted, threatened and starved, Layla says. Then, after eight months of this, when many were exhausted by illness, they were transferred to the Syrian city of Raqqa, ISIL’s stronghold.

Layla recounts the day she was captured by ISIL [Salah Hassan Baban/Al Jazeera]

Three meals a day, served with beatings

“We were transported to Raqqa in large buses with hundreds of other Yazidi women,” Layla recalls. “The way they dealt with us was not different from the way you deal with sheep and animals; they did not even provide us with adequate food and drink. We slept on the floor, and we received three daily meals along with beatings by ISIL operatives.”

Layla spent 40 days with her two children in a prison, before being moved to an apartment in the Al-Nour neighbourhood of Raqqa. It was the home of a senior member of ISIL.

The man was a surgeon. He was in his 40s, and short, with green eyes, fair hair and a full face, Layla says.

“He was tying me and beating me hard with a whip because I refused to submit to his brutality, so he raped me,” she says.

He later sold her to another man. This man came from Mosul, she says, and was in his 30s with dark skin and “black eyes”.

“He raped me several times, and then he sold me for a profit.”

I hope that telling my story will help me convey my suffering and the suffering of all Yazidis, especially women, to the world so that they may know the truth of the oppression, persecution, rape, murder and displacement that happened to us.

The man who “bought” her was from Baghdad, she says, and around 40 years old.

When Layla fell pregnant, she was forced to have an abortion.

“They used to call us ‘spaghetti’,” she says, “and tell us ‘you deserve nothing but death and being treated like slaves’.”

After this, Layla was raped by a Saudi man, who she says would beat and strike her with a whip. When she became pregnant again, her pregnancy was again forcibly aborted.

During this time, Layla was living in a small house with her two children, cut off from the outside world and with no knowledge of what had happened to her husband and the rest of her family.

She says the next person she was passed on to was a 33-year-old Lebanese man who would rape her with the help of his Dutch wife. While she was with him, she says many other men also raped her.

After two years in Raqqa, Layla was told she and her children would be freed following negotiations between her family and a Syrian smuggler, in exchange for more than $20,000.

Tell the world

Now aged 33, Layla shows the notebook she kept during her time in Raqqa. In it, she recorded some of the horrifying details of the experiences she and other Yazidi women and girls endured.

It was not without risk. She knew that if her captors found it, she would be in great danger.

But, for Layla, the need to show the next generation the oppression, persecution and displacement of those who came before them was even greater. She also hoped that by recording the atrocities committed against them, she might help secure justice for the victims.

Once she was freed, Layla’s thoughts turned to how she would be received by her community. Her fear of being rejected initially prevented her from talking about what had happened to her and the other Yazidi women and girls. But gradually, as she heard the stories of other survivors, she started to open up.

Now she hopes that by sharing her story, she can help to prevent this from happening to other women in the future. “I hope that telling my story will help me convey my suffering and the suffering of all Yazidis, especially women, to the world so that they may know the truth of the oppression, persecution, rape, murder and displacement that happened to us,” she says.

Layla with her mother [Salah Hassan Baban/Al Jazeera]

Plagued by fear

Layla considers herself one of the “lucky” ones because she and her children survived.

“A girl named Zairi committed suicide after she was raped,” she says. “She slashed her wrists with a sharp blade. Many Yazidi women did the same.”

But still, Layla is plagued by panic and fear whenever she remembers her time in captivity. The pain, emotion and shortness of breath that accompany these memories worsen when she shares them with other women from her community who were also taken captive, she says. Sometimes she wonders how she will be able to continue living like this, she reflects.

Layla hopes to one day be able to give evidence to the authorities about what happened to her and other women and girls.

But for now, she lives in the ​​Dohuk Governorate in northern Iraq, in a rented house paid for by one of her brothers. Her father died in January after losing hope that his oldest son would ever return, she explains.

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It’s easier than ever for police to get your phone data

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Our lives are on our phones, making them a likely source of evidence if police suspect you’ve committed a crime. And there are myriad ways law enforcement can obtain that data, both externally and from the phone itself.

Companies that specialize in cracking phone passcodes and exploiting vulnerabilities are getting better and better at undermining them. And although Apple has tried especially hard to make its phones impossible to break into, more and more law enforcement agencies are using those tools to gain access to devices, even when someone is accused of relatively petty crimes.

While there are a few good primers online that cover the steps you can take to minimize your phone’s exposure to law enforcement surveillance, there’s no way to completely guarantee your privacy.

When it comes to data that can only be obtained from access to your phone, what law enforcement can actually get varies depending on how you lock it down, where you live, and the jurisdiction of the law enforcement agency that is investigating you (local police versus the FBI, for instance). Here are some of the main ways the government can get information from your phone, including why it’s allowed to and how it would do so.

Law enforcement wants access to third-party data on my phone. What can it get?

Short answer: Whatever it wants (with the right court order).

Long answer: Depending on what law enforcement is looking for, it may not need physical possession of your device at all. A lot of information on your phone is also stored elsewhere. For example, if you back up your iPhone to Apple’s iCloud, the government can get it from Apple. If it needs to see whose DMs you slid into, law enforcement can contact Twitter. As long as they go through the proper and established legal channels to get it, police can get their hands on pretty much anything you’ve stored outside of your device.

You do have some rights here. The Fourth Amendment protects you from illegal search and seizure, and a provision of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA) dictates what law enforcement must obtain in order to get the information. It might be a subpoena, court order, or warrant, depending on what it’s looking for. (WhatsApp actually does a good job of explaining this in its FAQ.) A section of the ECPA, known as the Stored Communications Act, says that service providers must have those orders before they can give the requested information to law enforcement.

But, assuming the government has the right paperwork, your information is very obtainable.

“Basically, anything that a provider has that it can decode, law enforcement is getting it,” Jennifer Granick, surveillance and cybersecurity counsel for the ACLU’s speech, privacy, and technology project, told Recode.

Note that this only covers service providers. If law enforcement wants to get WhatsApp messages you exchanged with a friend from your friend’s phone, it doesn’t need a warrant as long as your friend is willing to hand over the information.

“You don’t have a Fourth Amendment interest in messages that have been received by someone else,” Andrew Crocker, a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Recode.

If your friend refuses to willingly hand over what the police want, they can still get it — they just have to get a warrant first.

Law enforcement wants access to personal data on my phone. Can they do that?

Short answer: If your phone is protected by a passcode or biometric unlocking features, there’s a chance police can’t gain access to your personal data. But that’s not guaranteed.

Long answer: In addition to data hosted by a third party, there’s a lot of information that can only be gained from access to your phone. For example, the data in iCloud backups is only as recent as the last time you uploaded it, and it only includes what you choose to give it — assuming you back up your phone at all. Encrypted messaging services like WhatsApp don’t store messages on their servers or keep track of who is sending them to whom, so the only way for police to access them is through the sender’s or the receiver’s device. And as we’ve explained above, the government can get WhatsApp messages from the person you’re communicating with, but only if it knows who it is in the first place.

So how exactly would someone other than you — police, for instance — get access to that data? If your phone doesn’t have a password or law enforcement is able to access it using specialized passcode cracking tools like Cellebrite or GrayKey — and they have the necessary search warrant to do so — then it’s all theirs. A recent report from the technology and justice advocacy group Upturn showed that law enforcement use of these phone-cracking tools is more prevalent than previously known, and there is little oversight governing how and when those tools may be used, or what information they’re limited to accessing. But if your phone is locked with a passcode and law enforcement can’t hack into it, the Fifth Amendment may be your friend.

Essentially, the Fifth Amendment says you can’t be compelled to give self-incriminating testimony. (This amendment is perhaps known best to you as that dramatic moment on Law & Order when the person on the stand says, “I plead the Fifth.”) Testimony, in this case, is defined as revealing the contents of your own mind. Therefore, civil rights advocates say, the government can’t force you to tell them your phone’s password.

Most courts seem to agree with this, but that’s not always enough. There is what is known as the foregone conclusion exception. That is, a defendant’s testimony is not self-incriminating if it reveals something the government already knew, and the government can prove that prior knowledge. In this case, the defendant’s testimony is a foregone conclusion — a predictable outcome.

So, for phone passwords, the government can and does argue that revealing the password only shows that the phone belongs to the defendant. If the government has enough proof to establish the phone’s ownership, that’s a foregone conclusion that the defendant would also know its password. Some courts have interpreted this to require the government also to show it has knowledge of the specific pieces of evidence it expects to find on the device.

This exception comes from a 1976 US Supreme Court ruling. In Fisher v. United States, someone being investigated for tax fraud gave documents prepared by his accountant to his lawyer. The IRS wanted those documents; the defendant said that producing them would be self-incriminating and therefore was protected by the Fifth Amendment. The Supreme Court sided with the IRS, ruling that since the existence and location of the tax documents was a “foregone conclusion,” the act of producing them didn’t tell the government anything it didn’t already know.

Obviously, a 44-year-old decision over tax papers doesn’t take into account how information can be stored today, nor how much.

“The EFF’s position is that the foregone conclusion exception is very narrow and should never apply in these passcode cases,” Crocker said.

But without further guidance from the Supreme Court, it’s largely been left up to interpretation by lower courts, with state courts considering their state constitution’s provisions as well as the federal. The result, Crocker says, is “a total patchwork of [decisions from] state Supreme Courts and federal courts.”

For example, in 2019, Massachusetts’s highest court forced a defendant to reveal his phone’s passcode while Pennsylvania’s highest court ruled that a defendant could not be compelled to unlock his computer. Indiana’s and New Jersey’s highest courts are both considering compelled passcode disclosure cases. On the federal side, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a defendant could be compelled to unlock multiple password-protected devices, even though the defendant claimed he couldn’t remember his passwords. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, on the other hand, ruled the other way in a different case.

“It’s very much in flux,” Crocker said. “Eventually, the US Supreme Court could get involved and resolve this.”

There are other ways to protect your phone. Some phones can use fingerprints, facial recognition, and iris scanners to unlock instead of passwords. Law enforcement is allowed to use people’s bodies as evidence against them, for instance by compelling them to participate in suspect lineups or provide their DNA. So if the police can take your fingerprints, can’t they use them to unlock your phone? Again, courts are all over the map on this.

“The issue with biometrics is, is it testimonial?” Granick said. “The courts have not entirely decided that, but there have been a couple courts recently that said biometrics is basically the modern technological equivalent of your passcode.”

Crocker says courts should consider that the evidence police can get from your fingerprint is much more restricted and known than what they can get when your fingerprint unlocks a phone. So far, though, he says, courts have been more likely to rule that the Fifth Amendment does not apply to biometrics than they are that it applies to passcodes.

Yet another factor to consider here is that, while it’s impossible for police to read your mind and get your passcode, they can hold a phone up to your face or press your finger on it to bypass the biometric lock. And while your lawyer can (and should) argue that any evidence found this way was illegally obtained and should be suppressed, there’s no guarantee they’ll win.

“It’s fair to say that invoking one’s rights not to turn over evidence is stronger than trying to have the evidence suppressed after the fact,” Crocker said.

So, all things considered, if you’re worried about law enforcement getting access to your phone, your safest bet is to just use a passcode.

Sadly, I have died. Law enforcement wants to unlock my phone, but they can’t get my password due to my aforementioned death. What happens now?

Short answer: Your Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights generally end when you do. But other parties have rights, too, and those might be enough to keep the government out of your phone.

Long answer: This isn’t about your Fourth or Fifth Amendment rights anymore; for the most part, you lost those when you died. (That said, law enforcement might have to get the right paperwork if they were looking for evidence against someone else on your phone — after all, their Fourth Amendment rights are still intact.) If law enforcement can’t get into your device on its own, it may well be the phone’s manufacturer’s rights that come into question.

Attorney General Bill Barr has made no secret of his disdain for Apple over its refusal to grant law enforcement access to locked and encrypted devices. In May, he called for a “legislative solution” that would force tech companies to cooperate with his demands.

Barr also claimed in January that the only way the FBI could access dead suspected terrorist Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani’s iPhones is if Apple unlocked them. The agency has made this argument before. In 2016, the United States tried to use the All Writs Act, which dates back to 1789, to force Apple to create a “back door” that would give the FBI access to the San Bernardino shooter’s locked phone. Apple refused, saying the government could not force it to create “a crippled and insecure product” that it would not have built otherwise. So far, there’s been no legal resolution: In both cases, the FBI was able to access the phone through other means before a court could rule on it.

You may have noticed by now that, while many of the cases concerning phones and passcodes are recent — some are even still making their way through the legal system — the cases cited to make legal arguments are decades or even centuries old. The wheels of justice turn slowly, and judges are often forced to use decisions about access to pieces of paper to inform their rulings about access to devices that hold tremendous amounts of personal information: who we talk to, when, and about what; where we were yesterday, last month, or three years ago; what we spent money on or got money for; our calendars, photos, emails, and contacts. These devices hold tens or even hundreds of gigabytes of data on almost everything about us.

You may not be able to control what law enforcement can get from someone else or what they do with your phone once you’re dead. But, with so much uncertainty surrounding what the government can force you to do with it when you’re alive, it’s a good idea to check out your legal options before handing over that passcode.

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USPS Has Made 57 Changes to Mail Operations Since Louis DeJoy Took Over

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On July 21, Senator Tom Carper’s office asked USPS Government Relations staff if anything had happened at the USPS to cause a huge surge in mail delays, something they were getting even more complaints about on a daily basis. Carper’s office inquired if “Broadly, has something happened.”

“Broadly speaking, the internet and social media happened,” a USPS government relations official replied, according to a recently released USPS Office of Inspector General report. The USPS official went on to say “operationally we’re not seeing anything that has really changed in the last two or three weeks.”

This was completely untrue. As of July 10, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s USPS had instituted a series of policy changes that were designed to reduce costs but had the explicit impact of slowing down mail, a directive first reported by the Washington Post

But that was just the tip of the iceberg. At the end of June, USPS management had begun the process of instituting 57 separate changes across the agency in a bid to significantly reduce the number of work-hours per year and therefore cut costs, at a time when USPS was under pressure to deliver a massive surge in packages which are labor-intensive to sort and deliver. The changes happened a few months before large numbers of mail-in ballots were also expected due to the pandemic.

Over the summer, the USPS found itself at the center of unprecedented public scrutiny because it was and remains an essential service in the middle of a pandemic and a key link in the vote-by-mail chain. As more elected officials asked what was going on with the mail, the USPS continued to obfuscate, according to the OIG report.

In general, the OIG found the USPS’s responses to elected officials was “generally accurate” but “incomplete.” For example, while DeJoy’s Congressional testimony accurately said the removal of sorting machines and blue mail boxes were initiatives in place before his tenure, he did not disclose that the pace of those removals rapidly accelerated once he took office. The OIG found of all the sorting machines removed since October 2019, 61 percent were taken apart from June to August.

And while DeJoy repeatedly told elected officials he only made one major change since he took office—ordering trucks to not make late or extra trips—the report found the USPS actually made 57 changes to postal operations, ranging from “mail processing, vehicle services, equipment maintenance, and post office operations (delivery and retail).” These 57 changes—perhaps minor in isolation but taken together were “transformational,”—were part of a wide-ranging “Do It Now FY Strategies” implemented by Executive Vice President and the Chief Logistics & Processing Operations Officer David E. Williams (not to be confused with former USPS Inspector General and Board of Governors member David C. Williams who testified before Congress that the Trump administration is acting through Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin to influence USPS operations).  

The USPS Board of Governors issued a statement saying it does not “agree with the premise that underlies the report: That the initiatives reviewed are strategic in nature, or that they are ‘transformational’ to postal operations, either individually or collectively.” The statement dismissed these 57 changes as “tactics and measures…as part of its normal ‘blocking and tackling’ initiatives necessary to meet the annual financial plan and to adjust to the perennial declines in mail volume that have been occurring for over a decade.” The Board of Governors also said it saw “no reason to include normal Service operational actions in its Congressional responses.”

In a statement, Senator Carper said the report “confirmed what my Democratic colleagues and I have suspected from the start and even saw firsthand…The bottom line is that the Postal Service is supposed to serve the American people. And, in the midst of a deadly pandemic, when so many people were so much more dependent on the Postal Service than they had ever been before, the Postal Service failed to do just that.”

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Is it safe to vote in person? Experts say yes — with a few conditions.

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Everybody should have a plan to vote. And if you’ve considered leaving your house to go to the polls, you should know: Voting in person is relatively safe even amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

In fact, according to public health experts, it is roughly as risky as going to the grocery store, something Americans still do regularly.

The coronavirus has presented the United States with a daunting logistical challenge as the country attempts to conduct a presidential election in the middle of an infectious disease outbreak. Not only are states having to figure out how to distribute and collect an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots and create safe places for people to vote in person, Americans are facing a stressful question: Is it safe to go vote?

The answer, according to three public health experts I consulted, is yes — with some conditions.

“I think it’s relatively low risk, probably around going to a grocery store,” Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told me. “In general, it’s an activity that’s amenable to social distancing. … In general, I don’t think it’s a major risk.”

Kumi Smith, an epidemiology professor at the University of Minnesota, told me the same thing. “I consider voting to be relatively safe,” adding: “but as with all activities, people should be making risk/benefit calculations for themselves.”

To Smith’s point, this is an individual decision. Some people might prefer to be risk averse and opt for voting by mail. One way to split the difference is to vote early when the crowds are usually smaller.

But the point is, people have options and, if they choose to vote in person for whatever reason, they should be able to do it safely.

“Bottom line? If voting in person is important to you or is your only option, you can do so relatively safely,” Jen Kates, director of global health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said.

Here are a few things to keep in mind.

Take simple precautions to protect yourself and others

Voters might want to start by taking stock of the Covid-19 safety protocols their polling place is following, experts said. That could help them in making a decision about voting early versus voting on Election Day.

“Voting locations should implement rules about masking and social distancing,” Smith said. “Even more ideally, they will have other structural measures in place like physical barriers, one-way traffic lanes, or provision of hand sanitizer.”

Waiting in line outside would also be ideal, according to Kates, and some polling locations provide updates on wait times that people could use to try to avoid the busiest times of the day.

When people actually go to vote, they should take all the same precautions that they should take anywhere they go: Wear a mask. Keep 6 feet of distance from other people. Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer liberally.

“With these conditions, it is relatively low risk,” Kates said. Adalja agreed: “If you go to a polling place, as long as you’re wearing a face covering or washing your hands, I think this is a manageable risk.”

It’s a good idea, though, to be prepared for the unexpected.

“It’s also always good to have a plan in place in case the less expected occurs, like finding yourself standing in line next to someone chatty who won’t respect your distance,” Smith said. “Or longer wait times and possible exposure to the elements.”

Voting safely should be doable. We’ve already done it.

The other good news is we aren’t just guessing about whether voting is relatively safe. Elections have been held during the Covid-19 pandemic and there isn’t much evidence that they’ve led to major new clusters of cases.

“I haven’t heard of any major outbreaks that have been linked to voting,” Adalja said.

The Wisconsin primary election in April was closely watched for possible transmission after the Republican-controlled state supreme court blocked a plan by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers to postpone the election for two months.

Several studies were conducted trying to assess any increased Covid-19 spread after the primary election. Most have found no effect from the election (though there was at least one exception), and the most authoritative study, from researchers at the CDC and the city of Milwaukee’s health department, concluded that there was “no clear increase” in coronavirus cases after the primary.

Importantly, that report credited the mitigation strategies taken by polling locations for their apparent success in containing Covid-19.

This is not to say there is no risk at all: There were a few dozen confirmed cases linked to people who voted in Wisconsin or worked at a voting location. But all risk is relative in the time of coronavirus, and voting can be made more safe with some simple harm reduction.

Make your own risk assessment about voting in person

How to vote is a decision for each person to make. Every state has its own election laws, so check out resources like Vote.org to make sure you know the rules in your state and your voting options.

Then, it’s worth taking into consideration your own risk tolerance. No matter what, voting can be done safely, but some options are safer than others.

For the people who are more vulnerable to Covid-19 or who are often in contact with more at-risk populations, they might want to minimize their risk of exposure. Other people might have a higher risk tolerance. (As an example: Adalja told me that he himself had a pretty high tolerance for risk and he would have no hesitation about voting in person.)

Voting by mail is probably the safest option, from a public health perspective, and millions of people have already done so this year. But whether it’s simply too late for you to vote by mail or you prefer to vote in person to eliminate the possibility of any mistakes in your ballot being processed, you can vote safely in person.

Here is another way to think about risk: Adalja said that he was much more worried about Covid-19 spreading because people are holding gatherings indoors — Halloween parties, for example — than he was worried about transmission when people vote.

The coronavirus doesn’t spread from fleeting contact. The rule is you need to be within 6 feet of a person for more than 15 minutes to be considered at risk of exposure.

“Most of that risk can be removed pretty easily, with a little bit of foresight,” Adalja said.

As Vox’s Ezra Klein wrote this week, “It’s the most important election in our lifetime, and it always will be.” Covid-19 has been an unexpected and unwelcome wrinkle in the 2020 race. But it shouldn’t stop Americans from participating in the democratic process.

Just be smart to stay safe.

This story appears in VoxCare, a newsletter from Vox on the latest twists and turns in America’s health care debate. Sign up to get VoxCare in your inbox along with more health care stats and news.


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