Congress calls for action after 'sinister and systematic' attacks on elections by Russians

Thirteen Russians and three Russian companies were charged Friday with an elaborate plot to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election through social media propaganda aimed at helping Republican Donald Trump. (AP)
Updated 16 February 2018
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Congress calls for action after 'sinister and systematic' attacks on elections by Russians

WASHINGTON: Thirteen Russians and three Russian companies were charged Friday with an elaborate plot to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election through social media propaganda aimed at helping Republican Donald Trump and harming the prospects of his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, prosecutors announced Friday.
The indictment, brought by the office of special counsel Robert Mueller, represents the most direct allegation to date of illegal Russian meddling during the election. It says Russians created bogus Internet postings, posed online as American political activists and fraudulently purchased advertisements — all with the goal of swaying political opinion during the bitterly contested race.
The intent of the meddling, the indictment says, was to “sow discord in the US political system, including the 2016 presidential election.”
US Republicans and Democrats joined on together to call for action, and have asked put pressure on social media companies, to combat future election hacking after Special Counsel Robert Mueller announced the indictments of the Russians for meddling in the 2016 US campaign.
“These Russians engaged in a sinister and systematic attack on our political system,” said Paul Ryan, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives. He said the charges underscore the importance of protecting the integrity of future elections.
Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the US Senate Intelligence Committee, pledged to press social media companies “to be far more aggressive and proactive in responding to this threat.” 

The indictment arises from Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the election and whether there was improper coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. The charges are similar to the assessment of the US intelligence community, which months after the election described a Russian government effort to meddle in the election on Trump’s behalf.
The Russians’ “strategic goal” was to sow discord, the indictment says. By early-to-mid 2016, their efforts “included” supporting Trump’s campaign and disparaging Democrat Clinton. The charges say that Russians also communicated with “unwitting individuals” associated with the Trump campaign and other political activists to coordinate activities.
Trump himself has been reluctant to acknowledge the meddling. His spokeswoman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said Friday that Trump had been briefed on the indictment but there was no other immediate comment.
The charges are the latest allegations arising from Mueller’s probe and represent the first criminal case against Russians. Before Friday, four people, including Trump’s former national security adviser and former campaign chairman, had been charged.
According to the indictment, the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm, started interfering as early as 2014 in US politics, extending to the 2016 presidential election. The defendants, “posing as US persons and creating false US personas,” operated social media groups designed to attract US audiences by stealing US identities and falsely claiming to be US activists.
“Over time, these social media accounts became defendants’ means to reach significant numbers of Americans for purposes of interfering with the US political system,” the indictment reads.
The defendants are charged with conspiring “to obstruct the lawful functions of the United States government through fraud and deceit,” including by making expenditures in connection with the 2016 election, failing to register as foreign agents carrying out political activities and obtaining visas through false and fraudulent statements.
Some of the Russians traveled to the United States “under false pretenses” to collect intelligence, and they also used computer infrastructure based partly in the United States to hide the Russian origins of their work.
The indictment says the Internet Research Agency was funded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a St. Petersburg businessman dubbed “Putin’s chef” because his restaurants and catering businesses once hosted the Kremlin leader’s dinners with foreign dignitaries. It was also funded by companies he controlled, according to the indictment.


Zimbabwe’s split opposition helping Mugabe’s successor to victory

Supporters of Zimbabwe's opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa sit, during the launch of the party's election manifesto in Harare, Thursday, June, 7, 2018. (AP)
Updated 23 min 42 sec ago
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Zimbabwe’s split opposition helping Mugabe’s successor to victory

  • Twenty-three candidates — the highest number in the country’s election history — are in the running for the presidential race after haggling over the allocation of parliamentary seats
  • In May the party held a so-called “healing session” to appease disgruntled members who had threatened to “donate” their votes to the opposition

HARARE: Zimbabwe’s divided opposition could bolster the long ruling party’s chances of victory after failing to forge a solid coalition for the country’s first elections without Robert Mugabe.
Twenty-three candidates — the highest number in the country’s election history — are in the running for the presidential race after haggling over the allocation of parliamentary seats, scuttling a plan by the opposition to form a united front in general elections due on July 30.
But the real battle is seen to be between the ruling Zanu-PF and the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the party which has posed the most formidable challenge to Zanu-PF’s grip on power.
The main presidential candidates are Zanu-PF’s Emmerson Mnangagwa, 75, who succeeded Mugabe after a brief military takeover last November and Nelson Chamisa, 40, who took over as leader of the MDC following the death of opposition veteran Morgan Tsvangirai in February.
“The unprecedented numbers of aspiring candidates is an indication of the opening of political space and an interest by Zimbabweans to take part in politics,” said Rushweat Mukundu, of Zimbabwe Democracy Institute.
Mnangagwa who took over from Mugabe, ending his nearly four-decade rule in which he presided over the country’s economic and political decline, has vowed to hold clean elections and break from past history of violence-tainted polls.
Zanu-PF “has created the impression that it has broken from its past of violent and contestable elections, hence the unprecedented numbers of those who have come out to contest,” said Harare-based independent analyst Alexander Rusero, adding many have no following “beyond their small cliques and the churches they attend.”
“At best this is counterfeit democracy,” which festers confusion among the opposition while Mnangagwa enjoys the benefit of incumbency.
Mnangagwa’s ruling Zanu-PF party, riven by factionalism which began as a battle over Mugabe’s succession, is also battling to stay together.

In May the party held a so-called “healing session” to appease disgruntled members who had threatened to “donate” their votes to the opposition, or stand as independents amid accusations of rigging and favoritism during primary elections.
“It’s not the number of candidates that’s worrying but the phenomenon of rebels who are insisting on standing without the blessing of their parties,” according to University of Zimbabwe’s Eldred Masunungure.
“This is going to have an impact on both Zanu-PF and the MDC Alliance.”
Some 5.6 million people are registered to vote in the election which has attracted the interest of many first-time voters desperate for change in a country ruled by Zanu-PF rule since independence from Britain in 1980.
“I was born under Zanu-PF and all I have known is poverty and suffering,” said Harare street vendor, Takudzwa Mutepeya “for us this is a vote for change.”
Mnangagwa has pledged to revive the country’s moribund economy which took a toll from years of misrule, and to mend fences with Zimbabwe’s former Western allies who severed ties over the Mugabe regime’s tainted human rights record.
Chamisa has said, if elected, he will create a $100-billion economy in a decade.

Other candidates include Mugabe’s former deputy Joice Mujuru, ex-cabinet minister Nkosana Moyo, Thokozani Khupe from a breakaway faction of the MDC, and musician and sculptor Taurai Mteki.
Businesswoman Violet Mariyacha, 61, returned home after 25 years in Britain, to join the presidential race.
“I could not continue watching my people suffering,” she told AFP. “I came to be the new face of Zimbabwe’s politics.”
Human rights activist and presidential candidate Lovemore Madhuku is in the election “to introduce an alternative voice. We are fed up with ... having two dominant parties that are simply doing nothing except fighting each other.”
Previous elections have been marred by violence, intimidation and charges of electoral fraud including stuffing of the electoral roll with phantom voters including long-deceased people.
In 2008 the then opposition leader Tsvangirai withdrew from a presidential run-off election citing the deaths of scores of his supporters.
The lead-up to the election has so far been calm. For the first time the state broadcaster covered the launch of the main opposition MDC’s manifesto live on television while police allowed a march calling for reforms including giving foreign-based citizens to right to vote without having to travel back home.