Ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal discharged from UK hospital

LONDON (Reuters) – Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy who was poisoned by a nerve agent in Britain more than two months ago, has been discharged from hospital, England’s health service said on Friday.

FILE PHOTO: The forensic tent, covering the bench where Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found, is repositioned by officials in protective suits in the centre of Salisbury, Britain, March 8, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls/File Photo

Sergei Skripal, 66, a former colonel in Russia’s military intelligence who betrayed dozens of agents to Britain, and his daughter Yulia were found unconscious on a public bench in the southern English city of Salisbury on March 4.

Britain has accused Russia of being behind the nerve agent attack and Western governments including the United States have expelled over 100 Russian diplomats. Russia has denied any involvement in the poisoning and has retaliated in kind.

The Skripals were in a critical condition for weeks and doctors at one point feared that, even if they survived, they might have suffered brain damage. But their health began to improve rapidly, and Yulia was discharged last month.

“It is fantastic news that Sergei Skripal is well enough to leave Salisbury District Hospital,” the hospital’s Chief Executive Cara Charles-Barks said in a statement.

Britain and international chemicals weapons inspectors have said the Skripals were poisoned with Novichok, a deadly group of nerve agents developed by the Soviet military in the 1970s and 1980s.

Russia has denied Britain’s charges of involvement in the first known offensive use of such a nerve agent on European soil since World War Two. It has suggested Britain carried out the attack itself to stoke anti-Russian hysteria.

Reporting by Alistair Smout and Michael Holden; Editing by William Schomberg

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Egypt’s president announces Rafah crossing open for Ramadan

Egypt has announced the opening of the Rafah border crossing with Gaza for the entire Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the longest length of time since 2013, President Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi announced on Twitter.

El-Sissi wrote on his official Twitter account that the opening would “alleviate the burdens of the brothers in the Gaza Strip.”

The announcement late Thursday comes just days after Israeli forces shot and killed 59 Palestinians and injured more than 2,700 during mass protests along the Gaza border. The high number of wounded has overwhelmed the Gaza health system.

The crossing has been open since Saturday so el-Sissi’s announcement is technically an extension of the opening and Egyptian authorities said 510 people crossed on Wednesday, the majority coming from Gaza into Egypt.

On Thursday, 541 people crossed from Egypt into Gaza along with dozens of trucks carrying cement, steel, power engines and medical and food aid from the Red Crescent, the officials said.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.

In 2007, Hamas wrested control of Gaza by force, provoking the Israeli-Egyptian blockade that severely restricted the movement of most of Gaza’s 2 million inhabitants.

The Rafah crossing is Gaza’s main gate to the outside world but has only had sporadic openings since the 2013 ouster of Egypt’s elected Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, a high-ranking member of Hamas’ parent group, The Muslim Brotherhood.


Associated Press writer Ashraf Sweilam contributed to this report form el-Arish.

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New shipping regulations could push oil up to $90 a barrel

Nick Cunningham, Oilprice.com
Published 2:00 a.m. ET May 18, 2018


USA TODAY’s Nathan Bomey reports on the rise of gasoline prices as the summer approaches, driven in part by uncertainty surrounding President Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal, and OPEC’s refusal to boost production.

International regulations on the fuels used in shipping could tighten the oil market and push prices up to $90 per barrel in the next two years.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has new rules coming into effect at the start of 2020 requiring shipowners to dramatically lower the concentration of sulfur used in their fuels.

Ships plying the world’s oceans tend to use heavy fuel oil, a bottom-of-the-barrel fuel that is especially dirty. The IMO regulations are targeting this fuel because of its high sulfur content. Current rules allow sulfur concentrations of 3.5%, but by 2020 ships must slash that to just 0.5%. “Effectively, bunker fuel is the last refuge for sulphur, which has been driven out of most other oil products,” the IEA wrote earlier this year in its Oil 2018 report.

Shipowners have several options to achieve this goal, and there probably won’t be a single approach. They could install scrubbers to remove sulfur from the fuel, switch to low-sulfur fuels, or switch to LNG. Scrubbers are thought to be costly, although some shipowners see the payback period as worth it. LNG is also an expensive route.

But a lot of shipowners will switch over to lower-sulfur fuels such as gasoil, a distillate similar to diesel. The IEA says that by 2020, demand for gasoil will shoot up to 1.74 million barrels per day (MB/D), an increase of over 1 MB/D relative to 2018. That will displace the heavy fuel oil that is currently widespread. The IEA says that high-sulfur fuel oil demand will crater from 3.2 MB/D in 2019 to just 1.3 MB/D in 2020. 

More: Rising fuel prices bring into question EPA efforts to reduce fuel economy standards

More: OPEC not rushing to boost production rates as oil hits $80 a barrel

More: Higher oil prices look likely, but are not inevitable, according to latest reports

The switchover will have enormous ramifications for the oil market. The shipping industry represents about 5% of the global oil market, using about 5 million barrels of oil per day. Swapping out one form of oil for others will have ripple effects across the refining industry, awarding some and dealing losses to others.

Refiners processing middle distillates – diesel and gasoil – will see a windfall. Meanwhile, refiners that churn out heavy fuel oil will be left with surplus product on their hands.

The most vital industry information will soon be right at your fingertipsJoin the world’s largest community dedicated entirely to energy professionals

More specifically, complex refineries can use different types of crude to produce gasoil, often without being stuck with heavy fuel oil as a byproduct. On the other hand, smaller more simple refineries are unable to do that with ease, and “some simple refineries may be forced to close or to upgrade,” according to the IEA.

“We foresee a scramble for middle distillates that will drive crack spreads higher and drag oil prices with it,” Morgan Stanley analysts said in a note.


Crude oil and gasoline prices are on the rise after President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal. Now, many consumers are seeing their extra money go to rising gas prices, potentially undercutting a key pillar of economic growth this year.

The investment bank said that Brent crude prices could jump to $90 per barrel, aided by the IMO regulations and the rush to secure compliant fuel. “The last period of severe middle distillate tightness occurred in late-2007/early-2008 and arguably was the critical factor that drove up Brent prices in that period,” Morgan Stanley wrote. 

Already, stocks of middle distillates have declined below the five-year average in Europe, the U.S. and Asia. “The additional gasoil needed in 2020 is likely to trigger a spike in diesel prices. In our forecast, we assume an increase of 20% to 30% in that year,” the IEA said.

The intriguing conclusion from this scenario is that U.S. shale can’t be the solution. The flood of oil coming from the Permian basin is light and sweet, which tends to be transformed into gasoline, and is not suited for the production of middle distillates. Medium and heavy blends are more preferable for the distillates needed for maritime fuels, but those barrels are being held off of the market right now by the OPEC cuts.

“We expect the crude oil market to remain under-supplied and inventories to continue to draw,” the bank said. “This will likely underpin prices.”

Oilprice.com is a USA TODAY content partner offering energy industry news and commentary. Its content is produced independently of USA TODAY.

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World stocks hit a three-week high on Thursday and turned positive for the year as rising oil prices gave energy firms a shot in the arm that countered the effects of increased political uncertainty. Sonia Legg reports.
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‘It ain’t no biggie’: LA’s black community responds to royal wedding | UK news

African Americans in Los Angeles know the royal wedding is apparently a big deal. Magazine covers and TV news declare that the girl who grew up here is about to make history by becoming a mixed-race duchess.

A cultural milestone, a modern fairytale, a cue for LA’s black community to celebrate Meghan Markle breaking the mould.

The only glitch: few here seem to care. The buildup to Saturday’s ceremony at Windsor Castle has generated less buzz than a pile-up on the 405 highway.

“It doesn’t really apply to us here. It’s far away,” said Brandon Chinke, 24, a neighbour of Markle’s African American mother, Doria Ragland. The trainee realtor is a Manchester United fan but shrugged off any significance of Prince Harry taking a biracial bride. “It’s a love thing, not a race thing.”

Brandon Chinke, who lives near the Los Angeles home of Meghan Markle’s mother.

Brandon Chinke, who lives near the Los Angeles home of Meghan Markle’s mother. Photograph: Rory Carroll for the Guardian

Earl Ofari Hutchinson, an author and political analyst who also lives in View Park-Windsor Hills, an area nicknamed the black Beverly Hills, said there was no outpouring of emotion. “It’s seen as more a curiosity … there’s no real personal identification or interest,” he said.

Last week’s editions of African American newspapers such as the Los Angeles Wave, Pace News and the the Pasadena/San Gabriel Valley Journal ignored the wedding.

James Fugate, owner of LA book store Eso Won: ‘I haven’t heard anybody talk about it at all.’

James Fugate, owner of LA book store Eso Won: ‘I haven’t heard anybody talk about it at all.’ Photograph: Rory Carroll for the Guardian

The only clue View Park-Windsor Hills was about to acquire a connection to the other Windsor was a workman installing an extra lock on the gate outside Ragland’s bungalow.

A mile down the road in Leimert Park, the centre of African American arts and culture in Los Angeles, people seemed inoculated to wedding fever.

“I haven’t heard anybody talk about it at all,” said James Fugate, owner of Eso Won, a bookshop. “If anybody really cares it’s the nut factor saying Markle’s not black, or that she’s betraying the black race, stuff like that.”

Mike Eason, 61, a saxophonist, laughed when asked if he would tune into the ceremony, which will start at 5am local time: “Got higher priorities. We’re not really trying to keep up with it.” Asked about the royal family acquiring a biracial member he laughed again. “They want some of that melanin in the bloodstream.”

Mike Eason, a saxophonist in Leimert Park, the centre of African American arts in Los Angeles.

Mike Eason, a saxophonist in Leimert Park, the centre of African American arts in Los Angeles. Photograph: Rory Carroll for the Guardian

Mattie, 53, a bus driver who declined to give her last name, rebuffed talk of history in the making: “For me it ain’t no biggie. You love who you love.”

Indifference did not signify coldness. Interviewees unanimously wished the best for the couple. “I don’t care about the wedding but I hope Meghan enjoys her life,” said Charlotte Richardson, 73, a retired administrator.

The detachment contrasted with enthusiasm among black communities in Britain for what many see as an inclusive, modern royal romance. The selection of an African American bishop, Michael Bruce Curry, to address the wedding has underlined the break with tradition.

Some parts of LA, however, are counting down the hours to Markle’s entrance to St George’s chapel.

Her alma mater, Immaculate Heart high school, a private Catholic college, will host a pre-dawn screening for pupils, parents and staff. Some cinemas and British-themed pubs will show screenings later in the day.

Students at Immaculate Heart high school in Los Angeles, which Meghan Markle attended, sing and dance with US and British flags on 15 May.

Students at Immaculate Heart high school in Los Angeles, which Meghan Markle attended, sing and dance with US and British flags on 15 May. Photograph: David Mcnew/AFP/Getty Images

Ye Olde Kings Head gift shop in Santa Monica has reported “overwhelming” demand for plates, teaspoons, mugs and other wedding-themed memorabilia. The Los Angeles Times has devoted articles to Windsor Castle, Markle’s TV career and style transformation, 11 films to watch before the ceremony and wedding-themed recipes (“to add some California sparkle to the menu, there must be avocado”).

A few people in Leimert Park said they would tune in. “Absolutely,” said Tracie Smith, 53, a beauty salon owner. “It’s a big deal.”

Gerald Hunter, 63, a retired railway conductor, fantasised about the ultimate royal racial breakthrough: “Could you imagine a black queen of England? That would be far out.”

Most saw little reason to make Saturday a day of scones and tea.

The emphasis on Markle being biracial as opposed to African American impeded black people embracing her as one of their own, said Hutchinson. There was no sense that blacks would acquire a real piece of the British crown or that it would have an impact on them in the US, he said.

A 55-year-old musician who gave his name only as Kwame said the community did not feel invested in the former actor, who moved to Toronto in 2011 to film the series Suits. “We just don’t know her, man. Even though she’s local we don’t have any ties to her.”

Some thought Markle was white. “Harry’s marrying a sister?” marvelled Juanita, a 50-year-old who declined to give her last name. “I just thought she had a tan.”

Kaya Dantzler, 25, an educator, said the British monarchy’s role in colonialism and slavery dampened any ardour for the nuptials. “I’m more interested in post-colonial studies.”

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Syria’s Bashar Assad meets with President Putin in Russia

MOSCOW — Syrian President Bashar Assad made a surprise visit to Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin on Thursday at his summer residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

A transcript of Thursday’s meeting released by the Kremlin quoted Assad as saying that Syria is making progress in fighting “terrorism,” which “opens the door to the political process.”

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Assad informed the Russian leader of his decision to “send a delegation to the U.N.” to discuss reforming the country’s constitution. The U.N. has hosted several rounds of peace talks in Geneva that have made no progress toward ending the conflict.

A posting on the Syrian presidency’s Facebook page said the two leaders consulted on various issues of mutual interest and the latest political and military developments in Syria.

It said Assad confirmed he will send a list of candidate names as soon as possible to the United Nations, for membership in a committee that would discuss the constitution. It said that Russia welcomes and supports this decision based on agreements reached in national dialogue meetings in Sochi.

It said the two also discussed economic cooperation and growing investments by Russian companies in Syria.

Russia has been a key ally of Assad throughout the seven-year Syrian civil war. Moscow launched an air campaign on behalf of Assad’s forces in 2015 that tipped the conflict in his favor.

Putin shakes hands with Assad during their Thursday meeting. 

Putin shakes hands with Assad during their Thursday meeting. 

Assad previously visited Russia and met with Putin in November 2017 and October 2015, and Putin traveled to the Russian air base in Syria last December to announce a scale-back of the Russian military presence there.

Russian state television on Thursday aired footage of the two leaders meeting. Putin told Assad that “a lot has been done” at Russia-sponsored talks between the Syrian government and the opposition in Kazakhstan.

“Now we can take the next steps together with you,” Putin told Assad.

Assad said he is committed to political reform, without elaborating.

Syria’s conflict began with mass protests against the Assad family’s decades-long rule. A brutal government crackdown and the rise of an armed insurgency eventually tipped the country into civil war. More than 450,000 people have been killed and 11 million have been displaced from their homes.

Assad’s future has been a key sticking point in years of failed peace efforts. The opposition and its Western backers have demanded he step aside as part of a political transition, something the Syrian government has adamantly rejected.

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How to watch the Royal Wedding of Meghan Markle & Prince Harry

The countdown to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding started as soon as their engagement was announced. But with the ceremony scheduled for this Saturday, May 19, we’re now within single-digits of the nuptials, and it’s time to get serious about your Royal Wedding watching plans.

Assuming you are not on the guest list, you’ll have to settle for tuning in from across the pond here in Boston, where the ceremony will begin at 7 a.m. (that’s 12 p.m. in the United Kingdom).

Whether you wish to stay in your pajamas all morning (tea in hand, surrounded by corgis, perhaps?) or get glam and go out, here are several ways to watch the red headed British prince wed the American actress.

How to watch on TV

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle attend a memorial service to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence on April 23, 2018. —The Associated Press

Beginning at 5 a.m., Robin Roberts of “Good Morning America”, David Muir of “World News Tonight”, and reporters and experts will take over ABC with all things Royal Wedding straight from the UK.

BBC America
For those who want to watch the British Royal Wedding coverage from the British Broadcasting Corporation, BBC America will simulcast four hours of BBC One’s coverage starting at 4 a.m. Hosts Kirsty Young, Huw Edwards, Dermot O’Leary, Tina Daheley, Alex Jones, Ore Oduba, and Anita Rani will be based at different locations, including the moat outside of Windsor Castle and the roof of the Guard Room inside of the castle walls.

“CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King and “Entertainment Tonight” co-host Kevin Frazier will broadcast live from London starting at 4 a.m. “Royal contributor” Tina Brown will also be on hand to offer up expertise.

CNN’s coverage is set to commence at 4 a.m. and will be anchored by Anderson Cooper, Alisyn Camerota, and Don Lemon, as well as CNN’s Royal correspondent Max Foster, CNNI anchor Richard Quest, senior international correspondent Clarissa Ward, and fashion expert Joe Zee. Also on air will be a team of commentators and contributors, including Dr. Harvey Young, who is a dean at Boston University and Markle’s former theater professor at Northwestern University.

E!’s coverage will kick off at 5 a.m. The five-hour special will include a peek at the celebrity and royal arrivals, which are sure to be fascinat(or)ing.

Fox News
Fox News Channel’s chief news anchor Shepard Smith and “America’s Newsroom” co-anchor Sandra Smith will report from outside of St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle beginning at 6 a.m., after “Fox & Friends” co-host Ainsley Earhardt kicks off coverage at 5 a.m., also from Windsor.

Looking for something a bit less stuffy and a lot more funny? Will Ferrell and Molly Shannon will reprise their roles as “broadcast legends” Cord Hosenbeck and Tish Cattigan on “The Royal Wedding Live with Cord and Tish!” — available on HBO, as well as HBO Go and HBO Now at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday.

Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb will broadcast live from a “special vantage point overseeing the castle” in Windsor, England, beginning at 4:30 a.m. More of the “Today” show team will pitch in coverage from the UK, as well.

PBS will broadcast live coverage from BBC beginning at 4 a.m.

Starting at 5 a.m., “TLC’s Royal Wedding Live” will air a four-hour live feed of the nuptials.

How to livestream

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle arrive to attend the traditional Christmas Day service at St. Mary Magdalene Church in Sandringham, England, on Dec. 25, 2017. —The Associated Press

Whether or not you have a TV, you can tune into ABC’s five-hour live coverage. It will also stream on their digital platforms for ABC News and “Good Morning America,” including its mobile apps and social platforms.

You can find BBC America’s live coverage streamed to their website, also beginning at 4 a.m.

In addition to airing on TV, CBS’s live coverage featuring Gayle King and Kevin Frazier will stream on CBSN and CBS News social media platforms beginning at 4 a.m. as well.

“Hulu with Live TV” subscribers can tune in to pre-show coverage on Hulu’s Royal Wedding Live collection beginning at 4 a.m. The pre-show will be followed by four hours of wedding coverage beginning at 7 a.m., during which viewers can choose between network shows, including: “The Today Show,” “Good Morning America,” and “E! News.”

The New York Times
The Times will livestream the nuptials on NYTimes.com.

People.com will begin its livestream of the wedding day at 6 a.m. with “People Now” host Jeremy Parsons.

How to watch around Boston

Harvest’s lemon elderflower doughnut from Harvest executive pastry chef Josh Livsey. —Harvest

See it on the big screen through Fathom Events
For the first time ever, a Royal Wedding will be shown on the big screen at select cinemas around the U.S., thanks to Fathom Events and BritBox. Fenway Stadium 13 in Boston, AMC Assembly Row 12 in Somerville and AMC Framingham 16 will all feature the 3.5-hour “theatrical presentation” at 10 a.m. following the ceremony. Tickets can be purchased on Fathom Events’ website for $10.

Watch live at Cafe Fleuri at The Langham Hotel
Cafe Fleuri has the distinction of being the only event on this list actually carrying the Royal Wedding live. The doors of the Langham Hotel will open bright and early at 6:30 a.m., allowing customers to munch on English scones, order a full English breakfast, and snap photos in a Royal Wedding photobooth before the ceremony starts. Given that this is one of the only parties in town broadcasting the ceremony live, reservations are strongly encouraged.

Enjoy it over rosé and tea at the Mandarin Oriental
The Mandarin Oriental will get fancy Saturday morning with their Royal Wedding party from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. As the ceremony loops on TVs throughout the event space, guests will have the chance to enjoy a 30-minute rosé reception followed by a traditional tea service, complete with a three-tiered tray of snacks like scones, finger sandwiches, and pastries. Each guest will also leave with a “special gift.” The event costs $88 for an individual seat, and $80 per person for tables of six, eight, 10, or 12 guests.

Have some doughnuts with the wedding at Harvest Cambridge
From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Harvest Executive Pastry Chef Joshua Livsey will hold a Royal Wedding doughnut pop-up at the Cambridge restaurant, with flavors like strawberry shortcake and lemon elderflower royal doughnut (the Royal Wedding will feature a lemon and elderflower cake) available for seated customers or to go. All of the TVs at the restaurant will play the Royal Wedding, as well.

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‘The royal wedding is escapist nonsense’, British republicans say

Some republicans express their frustration by commenting “who?” or “who cares” to tweets or news about the royal wedding.

The royal wedding is escapist nonsense; a real-life soap opera for people who fantasise about fame, riches, status and fairy-tale romance.

Peter Tachell, anti-monarchist

In the UK, Republic, the country’s leading anti-monarchy organisation, has organised a conference for the weekend inviting republicans from around Europe and Australian academic Jenny Hocking, who has been pursuing the National Archives for the “palace letters” between the Queen and governor-general John Kerr regarding the Whitlam dismissal.

In 2011 Republic hosted a “not the royal wedding street party” in central London, which around 2000 people attended.

Others have picked up the theme. The Alexandra Hotel in Derby has forbidden all talk of the royal wedding. If you do mention Harry or Meghan a charity box will be “shook at you”, landlady Anna Dyson-Edge told the BBC.

“It’s everywhere, it’s all over the papers, everywhere you look, television, everywhere is full of it, and people just want somewhere to come where there’s nothing about it,” she said.

Graham Smith, chief executive of Republic, said the real UK is “largely indifferent to the royals”.

“There’s no wedding fever,” he said. “It’s all a big royal bubble that the media get caught up in and they convince themselves the whole country’s gripped by royal fever, but it’s just not the case. We’re not a country of republicans but we’re also not a country of royalists.”

He is armed with a new YouGov survey – commissioned by Republic – which found less than a third of respondents were “interested” in the wedding of Harry and Meghan. Just 27 per cent planned to watch some or all of the wedding, while 60 per cent would be “spending the weekend normally”.

The results aren’t all good news for British republicans. Around 60 per cent of respondents like the Queen, though 46 per cent thought someone else other than Prince Charles should succeed her.

More than half the respondents said they would be disappointed if the monarchy ended when the Queen died, and only 16 per cent would be happy.

Smith said some people were anti-monarchy on democratic principles, and others object to the cost.

Members of the UK Republic movement protest in London

Members of the UK Republic movement protest in London

Photo: supplied

He has little time for calculations which seem to prove the royals bring more to the country through tourism and “soft power” than they cost, pointing out that the Queen’s huge wealth really should belong to the country, and Britain’s culture is “so much more than the royal family”.

He really believes he could see the end of the monarchy in his lifetime.

“Australia is a good chance, I wouldn’t say it’s in the bag but there’s a good chance Australia will go down (the republic) road, other countries will probably follow.

“And they’ve run out of big royal occasions now so they’re going to start struggling (in the UK).”

He’s not bitter about this wedding, though, because it “helps get us attention and awareness, and it drives people to us because they get tired of the coverage”.

Tatchell agrees with Smith and with more than half the survey respondents that the reported tens of millions of pounds being spent on security in Windsor for the wedding should have been paid by the royal family.

“I wish Harry and Meghan every happiness but this is a private wedding and the public should not be picking up any of the bill,” Tatchell said. “They are making it a public event and should therefore fund it out of their own pockets, like any other couple getting married.

“London LGBT Pride has to pay for road closures, policing and suspension of parking bays. So should Harry and Meghan.”

Tatchell, a leading member of London’s Gay Liberation Front, helped organise Britain’s first gay pride march in 1972.

Another Aussie ex-pat who’s complained about royal weddings is human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson.

In 2011, ahead of William and Kate’s wedding, he said it “highlights the absurdity of the constitutional arrangements” in the UK.

He pointed out that the bedrock of the British constitution, the 1701 Act of Settlement, is a “blood-curdling anti-Catholic rant” and he suggests Kings and Queens could keep Windsor, Balmoral, and their garden parties, in a “minimal and secular role of keeping harmless traditions alive in the interests of tourism (and) the tabloids”.

Robertson didn’t reply to an email asking for an updated comment for Harry’s wedding.

He may be a little more circumspect this year as there are rumours that his colleague at Doughty Street Chambers Amal Clooney could be a guest at the wedding, as thanks for recommending her Chelsea hairstylist Miguel Perez to Meghan.

Nick Miller

Nick Miller is Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age

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This nature-loving sect in India dragged one of the world’s biggest movie stars to court — and won

Early one recent morning, a motorcycle pulled up outside a temple in the northwestern Indian desert and deposited a 6-month-old gazelle that appeared to have been attacked by a feral dog and was bleeding from the mouth. A temple worker lay the fawn on the ground and fed it water from his palm.

Inside the open-air temple, dozens of the gazelles, known as chinkaras, and a long-horned blackbuck antelope ambled around a sandy enclosure, all having been brought there for care after being wounded or orphaned. Leathery-skinned women wearing jingling bangles, men in white turbans and a rickshaw driver in a dress shirt took turns feeding the injured animals handfuls of roasted chickpeas and offering prayers.

These were not ordinary animal lovers. For the Bishnois — a community of about 700,000 Hindus scattered mainly across the Thar desert — caring for wildlife is a credo of their ancient faith, which reveres the desert’s native antelope species as gods.

Over the last six centuries, the Bishnois’ defense of animals has occasionally pitted them against powerful forces in India — but perhaps never more strikingly than in the 20-year court battle they have waged to bring one of the country’s most famous men to justice in a poaching case.

Bollywood actor Salman Khan, center, leaves a May 7 court hearing in Jodhpur, India, involving the 1998 killing of antelope. AFP/Getty Images

Salman Khan, the brooding Bollywood megastar, was accused of killing two blackbucks in 1998 outside a Bishnoi village near the city of Jodhpur. Acquitted in two related cases, Khan waged an all-out defense, with film industry luminaries and legions of fans demanding his exoneration and lawyers stalling the proceedings so many times that the lead witness, a Bishnoi villager, had to appear in court 68 times.

When a judge pronounced Khan guilty last month and handed down a sentence of five years in prison, Bishnois danced and lighted fireworks outside the courthouse.

“If any animal is attacked, we think of it as an attack on our own family,” said Mangalram Bishnoi, 35, a leader in Kankani village south of Jodhpur, where the trial was held. (Like most in the community, he goes only by his first name; Bishnoi is a shared surname.)

Khan, 52, is a muscled star of action films with an off-screen bad-boy persona to match. He has acknowledged becoming violent on movie sets and was accused, though eventually acquitted, of killing a homeless man in a hit-and-run accident.

In many ways, he was the perfect foil to the normally pacifist Bishnois, who follow the teachings of Jambheshwar, a 15th century guru who enumerated 29 tenets of healthy, moral and ecologically sustainable living, including compassion for all beings and a prohibition on felling living trees.

Respect for animals is common in South Asian faiths; many Hindus regard the cow as sacred, while Buddhists and Jains believe that living creatures shouldn’t be harmed. But the Bishnois stand out for taking their saint’s precepts to extremes to protect the rare blackbuck, the delicate chinkara and other antelopes that live alongside them in the harsh desert.

Legend has it that 363 Bishnois were killed in 1730 when they wrapped their bodies around trees known as khejri to stop soldiers from chopping them down to build a new palace for the local ruler. It made them perhaps the world’s earliest tree huggers, and the inspiration for the Chipko conservation movement of the 1970s, when women in northern India garnered worldwide attention for encircling trees to protest deforestation in the Himalayan foothills.

Last year, a photo went viral showing a Bishnoi woman — wearing a traditional patterned sari and a large nose ring — breastfeeding a fawn. Several times in recent decades, Bishnois have put themselves between an antelope and a hunter’s bullet.

It is the sort of steadfastness that Jambheshwar imagined when he devised his 29 rules — the group’s name is a compound of the Rajasthani words bish, meaning 20, and noi, or nine — which extend beyond biodiversity to personal health and hygiene, social behavior and worship.

Among his admonishments: rise early, bathe before sunrise, pray twice daily, shun drugs and alcohol and maintain a strict vegetarian diet. And though it is not one of the rules, Bishnois depart from Hindu custom by burying their dead instead of cremating them, believing pyres to be a waste of wood and that bodies laid to rest underground provide nourishment for insects.

Hanuman Bishnoi and some other men from the village going through the evening prayer at the home of
Residents gather for the evening prayer at Hanuman Bishnoi’s home in Guda Vishnoiyan village near Jodhpur, India. Poras Chaudhary / For The Times
Hanuman Bishnoi in village Guda Vishnoiyan near Jodhpur, Rajasthan.
“The earth is holy, even if it’s just the dirt outside your door,” said Hanuman Bishnoi. Poras Chaudhary / For The Times

Orthodox Bishnois also heed the guru’s instructions to eat only home-cooked food and not to accept any food or drink from those seen as less pure.

On a blistering afternoon in late April, as the mercury touched 110 degrees and the sand underfoot singed sandal-clad toes, Hanuman Bishnoi politely declined to sip from a store-bought water bottle as he described how his ancestors practiced environmental sustainability long before the modern world fretted about endangered species, forest cover and climate change.

“Scientists across the world are talking about environmental preservation,” said Hanuman, a compact 45-year-old who runs a transport business. “But our respected guru wrote about it more than 500 years ago.”

Inside Hanuman’s two-story house, a picture of the white-bearded Jambheshwar, hands clasped on the handle of a cane draped with prayer beads, adorned a small shrine next to the living room. On the stone floor in the main hall, a priest prepared for an evening prayer by spreading a mound of dirt on which he would light the ceremonial fire.

“The earth is holy,” Hanuman explained, “even if it’s just the dirt outside your door.”

Three village elders arrived for the prayer, and the small gathering recited verses on nonviolence.

Black bucks roaming freely in village Guda Vishnoiyan near Jodhpur, Rajasthan.
Blackbuck antelope roam in Guda Vishnoiyan village near Jodhpur in India. Poras Chaudhary / For The Times

If any animal is attacked, we think of it as an attack on our own family.

Mangalram Bishnoi, community leader

Two young deer at the rehabilitation facility for animals the temple in village Jajiwal near Jodhpur
Two young gazelles at the rehabilitation facility for animals at the temple in Jajiwal village near Jodhpur in northern India. Poras Chaudhary / For The Times

Bishnois have sometimes bent this principle. After the prayer, 72-year-old Pokharam Bishnoi described how an army officer from a nearby military camp used to land his helicopter in the fields to hunt. Pokharam proudly related how he and a group of men once accosted the brigadier before he could reload his rifle and beat him up.

Nowadays, they are more likely to hand over a poacher to police.

Traditionally, Bishnois don’t carry weapons. But four years ago, after a 25-year-old Bishnoi man was shot and killed by a chinkara hunter he confronted in northern Rajasthan, community leaders renewed demands for arms licenses and a greater share of jobs in the government wildlife service. The shooter’s trial is still not over.

Some environmentalists question the Bishnois’ methods, saying they harass authorities and protect only blackbucks and chinkaras while ignoring other species. Their practice of fencing land for farming — long the primary occupation in the community — has sometimes resulted in injuries to animals that get caught in wire.

The caretaker feeding water to the sick fawn that just came in at the temple in village Jajiwal near
A caretaker feeds water to the sick fawn brought to the Jajiwal village temple near Jodhpur, India. Poras Chaudhary / For The Times

Bishnois say they are protective of antelopes because the animals are easily frightened and most vulnerable to hunters. Even critics agree that the Bishnois’ devotion to the blackbuck and chinkara has helped the species’ populations rebound and reduced incidents of poaching.

“Even with the harsh conditions, the Thar is one of the most densely populated deserts in the world, both in terms of flora and fauna, as well as of humans, in part because of the Bishnois’ practices,” said Pankaj Jain, a professor of religion at the University of North Texas.

Others criticize the Bishnois’ traditional practices involving women, which can appear out of step with the modern age.

For 30 days after childbirth, according to Jambheshwar’s teachings, a mother and her newborn should be segregated from their family, looked after by other women but made to use separate plates and utensils. The same goes for a five-day period surrounding a woman’s monthly menstrual cycle, which traditional Bishnois regard as unclean.

Community leaders say the practices allow women to rest. But these rules too are being bent in the modern age.

Vaibhav Bishnoi, a 28-year-old lawyer in Jodhpur, said that as more Bishnois have begun working in cities, “we’re not able to follow every rule every day.” She doesn’t sequester herself during her period, partly because she has to be in court.

People of Bishnoi community visiting the Bishnoi temple commemorating the Khejarli Massacre.
Members of the community visit the Bishnoi temple commemorating the killings of tree protectors in Khejarli. Poras Chaudhary / For The Times

“We do a havan [fire ritual] every month and that lets us renew our faith,” she said, “as long as we try to live up to the principles.”

Those principles were on display in the Khan case, which began in October 1998 when the actor was shooting a movie in the desert and brought several of his costars on a nighttime hunting expedition. Outside Kankani village, in sparse scrub dotted with bushy khejri trees, Bishnoi villagers saw the beams of an off-road SUV flash across the moonlit brush.

When they heard gunfire, two men climbed on a motorcycle and raced to the site to find two blackbucks lying dead. They instantly recognized Khan in the driver’s seat, speeding away.

Dozens of Bishnoi men amassed on the main road back to Jodhpur. They blocked the way with stones and tractors, and when Khan’s SUV came roaring through, one Bishnoi man struck the vehicle with a baton, denting the hood.

But Khan escaped. The Bishnois went to the police and, when the cops were slow to act, staged protests and reported the crime to a local newspaper. Khan was arrested a few days later.

Over the next 20 years, apart from court appearances and a few nights in jail, he was free on bail and continued to make blockbuster movies.

In 2016, when Khan was acquitted in a related case of killing two chinkaras, Bishnois held silent rallies and defaced the actor’s posters.

But the group has generally tried to avoid publicity — lead witness Poonamchand Bishnoi, who was one of the men on the motorcycle, does not speak to the press — and cast the legal battle as a matter of religious duty.

“Twenty years is nothing. In our minds it’s as if it happened just a month ago,” said Jabbarsingh Bishnoi, a burly man in his 40s with a beaked nose and crushing grip. “We would have pursued the case all the way to the Supreme Court if we had to.”

The head priest from the temple preparing for an evening prayer at the home of Hanuman Bishnoi in vi
The head priest from the temple prepares for an evening prayer at Hanuman Bishnoi’s home in Guda Vishnoiyan village near Jodhpur, in northern India. Poras Chaudhary / For The Times

Special correspondent Parth M.N. contributed to this report.


Shashank Bengali is The Times’ South Asia correspondent. Follow him on Twitter at @SBengali

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How #MeToo Is Helping Egyptian Women Break the Silence

Movements like Me Too and Time’s Up have put women’s rights firmly back on the agenda. But away from the spotlight, there are many other girls and women who are risking their lives to demand an end to sexual violence, harassment and inequality. Just recently, Egyptian activist Amal Fathy was arrested for posting a Facebook video in which she shared her experiences of sexual harassment.

But women in Egypt refuse to be silenced. One of these unsung heroes is lawyer and founder of the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance Azza Soliman. Azza risks her own safety and freedom to defend survivors of sexual violence in Egypt.

I’ve been arrested and interrogated for doing my job: defending survivors of abuse in Egypt.

There is no comprehensive law covering all forms of sexual violence in Egypt. Many people believe that the blame lies with the girls and women involved, rather than the perpetrator, and survivors face shame and stigma.

The lack of clarity around what constitutes harassment or assault has created a culture where girls and women are afraid to speak out. With female police officers few and far between in Egypt, women’s experiences often stay shrouded in silence—the idea of reporting harassment or rape to a male officer is too intimidating for many women.

Now, the global #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns are slowly changing the way girls and women speak out about violence in Egypt, and helping women break the silence. Witnessing women from different backgrounds, countries, and statuses speak out has given many Egyptians the courage to slowly share their experiences anonymously or under their names. They’ve even created an Egyptian equivalent to #MeToo on social media called “Ana Kaman,” a direct translation. Women, in Egypt and elsewhere, felt that they are not alone and that they are strong.

However, if we want to ensure this movement truly makes a long-lasting difference, we have to invest in it. We need to make it easier and safer for women to report incidents of sexual violence. Tools need to be put in place to ensure that allegations are impartially and effectively investigated, and that those reporting them are protected.

As a lawyer, and as a woman committed to defending human rights, I want to make sure girls and women have a safe space to speak out. It’s an issue I’ve been working on for many years. Believe me when I say, it’s not been an easy fight and, for me, it’s one that’s had difficult repercussions.

I have been defamed by the media. I’ve faced criminal charges. I was accused of damaging the image of Egypt by spreading “false news” of sexual harassment and rape. I had my picture published in a state-affiliated newspaper attacking my marital status and accusing me of “encouraging women to know their rights and seek divorce.”

I’m currently under a travel ban and I’ve had my assets frozen, as I’ve been accused of receiving foreign funds that will harm the image of Egypt and the national interest of my country. Yet I refuse to give up hope, because there’s still plenty of work to be done.

I want to see more conversations about how to combat harassment in the workplace, particularly workplaces dominated by men. I want to see women’s rights placed firmly on the political agenda. And I want to see more women rise up to the positions of power they deserve.

Going forward, I hope survivors of violence will be able to safely report crimes with the knowledge they will be protected by the state. We also need specific laws to be put in place to combat domestic violence in Egypt.

The struggle to enhance and support women and human rights is long and tiring, but I refuse to give up the fight. I know I am not alone. During some of my most difficult moments, I’ve been encouraged to keep going. Through Amnesty International’s Write for Rights campaign, I received hundreds of letters of support.

We all have the same goal, to support women and girls in Egypt and build our dream of a fair and equal society, free from violence, so it’s inspiring to see new generations taking the torch and leading the way to a better future. There’s power in people, and with the support of so many, I know change is possible.

On May 19 and 20, BRAVE:Edit a collaboration between Amnesty International and Wikimedia, will see hundreds of online activists from countries across the world taking to the popular website to upload biographies of women human rights defenders and share the stories of inspirational women, such as Azza, who have faced up to untold obstacles and discrimination in defence of human rights.

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How an Irish-American woman’s legal case helped spur Ireland’s abortion referendum

On a shelf in Amanda Mellet’s bedroom sits a wooden box that holds the ashes of her baby girl. A small plaque bears the child’s name, Aoife, “beauty” in Gaelic, and marks the birthday that never was: Dec. 2, 2011.

The ashes are a private reminder of an experience at the center of a searching public debate over abortion, outlawed here even in cases of rape, incest, fatal fetal abnormality and non-life-threatening risk to maternal health.

Ireland will decide by referendum on May 25 whether to repeal its constitution’s eighth amendment, one of the most severe abortion bans in the developed world. Approved by 67 percent of Irish voters in 1983, the amendment grants a mother and her unborn child an equal right to life. Seeking or providing an abortion in Ireland is punishable by up to 14 years in prison. Now, polling suggests that a majority may vote to repeal. That would clear the way for lawmakers to debate proposed legislation allowing abortions within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and beyond that in cases of fetal abnormalities or serious risks to the mother’s health.

The issue remains divisive. Several thousand people attended an anti-repeal rally in Dublin on Saturday. “Genuine health care is about saving lives, not ending them,” activist Cora Sherlock told the crowd.

But attitudes have shifted as the church’s political authority has declined, a result of transformations in technology and the economy and abuse scandals. Lawmakers, experts and pro-choice activists say opinion has also been galvanized by the stories of women such as Mellet, who have ended their pregnancies at great personal cost — or died after being denied the procedure, as happened in the case of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist.

“Amanda and the others, these are the people who’ve made the change in public opinion,” said Ivana Bacik, the leader of the Senate’s Labour Party and a scholar of criminal law.

Mellet has mostly stayed out of the media’s spotlight. But she is something of a household name here. In June 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Committee found that by compelling her to carry a dying fetus to term or travel abroad for an abortion, Ireland subjected her to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, while also violating her right to privacy. The U.N. decision required Ireland, for the first time, to compensate a woman for the expenses and emotional distress tied to an abortion. And it called on Ireland to amend its laws criminalizing abortion, including its constitution, if necessary. 

Mairead Enright, an Irish scholar of law and religion at the University of Birmingham, credits Mellet’s complaint to the United Nations with forcing the nation’s leaders to recognize Ireland’s divergence from international norms. 

“Being able to say ‘this is the scientific way, the European way, the international way’ created space for doctors, policymakers and experts,” Enright said. “Nothing so much was new in the abortion landscape, but what had changed was that within political circles, there was a willingness to listen to the stories, and having heard that information, they had to change their minds.”

Mellet has been quietly sharing her experience for years: to other women forced to travel overseas to terminate their pregnancies, to politicians and to hospital directors. And recently, she began telling it at events building support for repeal. 

It was like being “thrown to the wolves,” she said in an interview with The Washington Post at a Dublin hotel. “You’re suddenly in this crisis mode and trying to make plans and contact another hospital in another country and book hotels and flights, and it’s not where your head should be. It should be focused on the diagnosis and the loss. Because I never had that chance: How do I get over this? How do I grieve?”

A lilting brogue overlays Mellet’s flat Midwestern tones. The 44-year-old Irish American charity worker was raised Unitarian outside of Detroit, in a post-Roe world where abortion rights were presumed. She wiped wisps of chestnut hair away from her deep-set blue eyes as she recounted how delighted she and her husband, James Burke, were to learn in the summer of 2011 that she was pregnant.

Everything appeared normal until a 21-week scan, on a Friday in November. The sonographer saw problems that required more tests. The results brought Mellet’s world crashing down: The fetus had Trisomy 18, also known as Edwards syndrome, and would die in her womb or upon delivery.

Ninty-five percent of babies with the chromosomal disorder die in utero. Of those born alive, most die within days or weeks after birth; about 5-10 percent live beyond a year. In Mellet’s case, serious heart malformations, as well as problems with the development of other organs, foreclosed any chance of survival.

A midwife told her she could continue the pregnancy or “travel” — to Mellet a euphemism that recalled “Ireland’s history of spiriting deviant women away in conditions of secrecy and shame.” She told the hospital that she planned to end her pregnancy, and, through the Irish Family Planning Association, she got an appointment at the Liverpool Women’s Hospital in Britain for about 10 days later. 

As her husband booked a hotel room and purchased Ryanair tickets, Mellet felt doubly punished: “Not only did we have to make this horrible decision about what to do in the case of a fatal condition, we had to leave the country like criminals, speak in euphemisms to hospital staff in Ireland, pay thousands to end a pregnancy, all the while my heart breaking at having to say goodbye to my darling baby girl.”

She continued to receive scans before leaving, hoping — against her own instincts — that the fetus would simply die inside of her. “It was the least bad option,” Mellet said. Instead, a doctor found a heartbeat and suggested “your child might not suffer” if the pregnancy progressed. “It was hurtful, because my whole thinking was that the only thing I could do for Aoife is make sure she doesn’t know distress,” Mellet said.

At the end November, she and her husband flew to Liverpool, where the hospital gave her medication to begin terminating her pregnancy and then, two days later, medication to induce labor. Waiting in their drab hotel, the couple watched movies, including “Bridesmaids,” the 2011 comedy starring Kristen Wiig. “I was looking for something mindless to distract myself,” Mellet said. “It didn’t work.”

After 36 hours in labor, she was given one hour to say goodbye to her dead baby, clothed in a white dress and lying in a bassinet.

Twelve hours after delivery, Mellet stood in line at the airport, still bleeding and lightheaded, willing herself not to faint for fear she would be barred from flying. She sank into her seat as flight attendants hawked lottery scratch cards and revelers on their way to a bachelorette party screeched about Dublin nightlife.

Mellet and her husband weren’t permitted to take their baby’s remains with them. Aoife’s ashes were sent to Dublin two weeks later by courier.

Back at home, Mellet logged on to a digital forum for women who had traveled for abortions and said she wanted to “do something.” Three women with similar experiences came to her home, where they spoke for hours in her sunroom. That was the beginning of Termination for Medical Reasons, a support group and campaign organization that now includes upward of 50 women, as well as their partners, who lobby politicians, speak at events and canvass neighborhoods.

Amy Callahan crossed the Irish Sea last year after she had learned her baby would be born without a major portion of her brain, skull and scalp. “I could’t talk to anybody else who would tell me we could keep going and wait till the baby died,” said Callahan, a 35-year-old psychologist, explaining why she had turned to Mellet’s support group.

Mellet recalled one male member of Parliament telling her in a meeting that he was not comfortable discussing women’s issues. And after her fledgling group sent 160 letters to obstetricians and gynecologists, begging them to speak out in defense of termination for medical reasons, they received only six replies. 

But with the help of Irish gender equity and human rights groups, she connected with the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, which offered to bring her case to the United Nations. The Center filed on behalf of three women. Mellet v. Ireland was the first to be decided. 

“I think Irish society got a reality check, you know?” Mellet said. She noted that before, “people would express sympathy, but behind closed doors. Now they know their career won’t be over if they support us publicly. So that kind of barrier, that silence — that has ended.”

Mellet is reluctant to take much credit for transforming social attitudes — and perhaps national law.

“Any of the women that I met could have taken a case, do you know?” she said. “It’s still happening.”

The number of Irish women seeking abortions overseas has declined in recent years, because of the online availability of abortion pills, said Niall Behan, chief executive of the Irish Family Planning Association. But more than 3,000 of them traveled to England and Wales to terminate pregnancies in 2016. 

If the eighth amendment is repealed, Mellet said, “I’ll feel happy that I’ve contributed to that change.”

But her mind is mostly elsewhere. May marks the first birthday of her daughter, Ella, born more than five years after her first pregnancy ended in heartbreak.

She anticipates one day telling Ella about what happened to their family. “I’ll tell her she has a sister,” Mellet said, her eyes filling with tears. “Yeah, I’ll definitely tell her.” 

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