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US trains activists to evade security forces

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WASHINGTON (AFP) – The United States is training thousands of cell phone and Internet pro-democracy campaigners worldwide to evade security forces in what it calls a “cat-and-mouse game” with authoritarian governments.

The US government is sponsoring efforts to help activists in Arab and other countries gain access to technology that circumvents government firewalls, secures telephone text and voice messages, and prevents attacks on websites.

“This is sort of a cat-and-mouse game and governments are constantly developing new techniques to go after critics, to go after dissenters,” said Michael Posner, the assistant US secretary of state for human rights and labor.

“We are trying to stay ahead of the curve and trying to basically provide both technology, training, and diplomatic support to allow people to freely express their views.”

Posner told a small group of reporters that the theme of Internet freedom will be “peppered” throughout the State Department’s annual report on human rights for 194 countries that is scheduled for release on Friday.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is campaigning hard for freedoms of expression, assembly and association online — what she calls the world’s town square or coffee house of the 21st century.

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The chief US diplomat has said the protests in Egypt and Iran fueled by Facebook, Twitter and YouTube reflected “the power of connection technologies as an accelerant of political, social and economic change.”

The US government, Posner said, has budgeted $50 million in the last two years to develop new technologies to help activists protect themselves from arrest and prosecution by authoritarian governments.

And it has organized training sessions for 5,000 activists in different parts of the world.

A session held in the Middle East about six weeks ago gathered activists from Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon who returned to their countries with the aim of training their colleagues there.

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“They went back and there’s a ripple effect,” Posner said.

State Department officials said one of the new technologies under development is the “panic button,” which allows activists to erase contact lists on their cell phones if they are arrested.

“If you can get the panic button that wipes that (list) clean before they get locked up, you’re saving lives,” said Posner.

The new technology has not yet been made available to pro-democracy campaigners but it will prove useful in places like Syria, where the authorities simply go out and arrest activists who use their mobile phones.

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The State Department said it has already funded efforts by private firms, mainly from the United States, to develop a dozen different technologies to circumvent government censorship firewalls.

“One of them has been very successful in Iran. It’s being used extensively. and we have the download numbers,” a State Department official said on condition of anonymity.

“It’s going viral and now that technology is spreading all over the Middle East,” said the official, who declined to name the technology in order not to endanger the people who are using it.

The State Department is also funding efforts to prevent governments from launching attacks — known as denial of service — aimed at shutting down websites that might publish an investigative report or other critical material.

Report typos and corrections to [email protected].
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‘Explosion’ near China-North Korea border causes small quake

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A "suspected explosion" near the China-North Korean border caused a small earthquake on Monday, Chinese seismology authorities said, less than an hour after news broke about Chinese President Xi Jinping's upcoming trip to Pyongyang.

According to the China Earthquake Networks Center, the 1.3-magnitude earthquake with a zero-metre depth occurred at 19:38 pm (1138 GMT) in Hunchun city in northeastern Jilin province.

It was unclear what caused the explosion.

In the past, nuclear tests by Pyongyang have caused tremors around the northern border China shares with North Korea.

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The Vatican’s latest official document is an insult to LGBTQ people — and to history

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During the fourth-century, Sergius and Bacchus, two inseparable Syrian soldiers in the Roman emperor Galerius’ army, were outed as secret Christians when they refused to pay homage to the god Jupiter. The incensed emperor ordered them beaten, chained, and then, as their fourth-century hagiographer explained, paraded through the barracks with “all other military garb removed… and women’s clothing placed on them.” Both men were sent to trial; Bacchus refused to abjure his faith in Christ and was beaten to death by his fellow Roman soldiers as punishment. The night before Sergius was to be similarly asked to recant his Christianity, the spirit of Bacchus appeared before his partner. With his “face as radiant as an angel’s, wearing an officer’s uniform,” Bacchus asked, “Why do you grieve and mourn, brother? If I have been taken from you in body, I am still with you in the bond of union.”

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Iran ups pressure, sets date to surpass uranium stockpile limit

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Iran said Monday it will surpass from June 27 its uranium stockpile limit set under the nuclear deal with world powers, turning up the pressure after the US walked away from the landmark pact last year.

"Today the countdown to pass the 300 kilogrammes reserve of enriched uranium has started and in 10 days time... we will pass this limit," Iran's atomic energy organisation spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said at a press conference broadcast live.

The move "will be reversed once other parties live up to their commitments," he added, speaking from the Arak nuclear plant south-west of Tehran.

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