In Russia, suspicions over spy’s poisoning point to Britain

British Police Community Support Officers stand on duty outside a residential property in Salisbury, southern England, on March 6, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 12 March 2018
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In Russia, suspicions over spy’s poisoning point to Britain

MOSCOW: Since a former Russian double agent and his daughter were poisoned in Britain a week ago, suspicions about Russia’s possible handiwork have run high — except in major Russian news outlets, where fingers point in the other direction.
Sergei Skripal, a former officer in Russia’s military intelligence service GRU who was convicted in Russia of spying for Britain, and his adult daughter were found comatose on March 4 in the English town of Salisbury, where he lived after being freed in a 2010 spy swap.
While in the West, suspicions about who could be responsible have landed on Russia, in that country the response has been very different.
“If you think about it, well, the only ones for whom the poisoning of the ex-GRU colonel is advantageous are the British,” Dimtry Kiselev, one of Russia’s most powerful media figures, said during his Sunday news program.
The British motive? “Simply in order to feed their Russophobia,” Kiselev posited.
Kiselev’s weekly show on state-owned TV channel Rossiya-1, a mixture of admiring coverage of President Vladimir Putin and insinuations of Western deviousness and incompetence, is regarded here primarily as a voice of the Kremlin.
His segment about Skripal was in sync with a reflexive response of Russian officials to attribute nearly all criticism from the West to anti-Russia bias. The sense of Russia as the target of prejudice that unscrupulous politicians work to cultivate is a key element of Putin’s popularity as he seeks a fourth term in a March 4 election.
Former special services agent Mikhail Lyubimov was quoted in Komsomolskaya Pravda, one of Russia’s most popular newspapers, as suggesting Skripal wouldn’t have been worth the trouble of a hit.
“Skripal was sent to the West in a swap; that means he’s absolutely uninteresting to us. He’s a small-fry,” Lyubimov said.
Komsomolskaya Pravda struck an almost facetious tone in the story.
“In Foggy Albion, the latest spy scandal with anti-Russian tones has ripened,” it began. The article included a colorful Russian idiom for unfair accusations in a line that read, “It’s obvious that, following the old tradition, all dogs will be hung on Moscow.”
Russian media aimed at foreign readers have adopted the same tone of resentment and mockery as news outlets for domestic audiences.
“The British are well-known for their dramatic flair when it comes to stories of Cold War espionage and murder mystery. Think Ian Fleming, John Le Carre and Agatha Christie,” said a commentary on Sputnik News, a state-run English-language news site.
“But this week’s episode of a former Russian spy being poisoned on a public park bench in a quaint English town has suspiciously a tad too much drama about it.”
On Sunday, Kiselev suggested a possible connection between the poisonings in Salisbury, which British officials said resulted from exposure to an unspecified nerve agent, and international soccer’s upcoming World Cup tournament. Russia winning the right to host the competition that runs from mid-June until mid-July is one of the accomplishments Putin can point to in his re-election campaign.
Kiselev suggested the poisoning could be a “special operation” aimed at justifying a boycott of the tournament.
Skripal wasn’t much use to Britain as an exposed ex-spy, but “as someone who’s been poisoned, who is ill, he’s very useful,” Kiselev said.
The program included an on-the-ground report from Britain. The reporter noted that Salisbury, the town where Skripal was lived and fell sick, is about a 20-minute drive from the Porton Down laboratories where Britain developed chemical and bacteriological agents.
“But in the British press and special services, there is no suspicion” of any British involvement, said reporter Alexander Khabarov.
On another state television station, Channel One, anchorman Kirill Klemeinov began a report on the case balefully. He had a public service warning, Klemeinov said, for anyone who dreamed of a career that followed in Skripal’s footsteps.
“The profession of a traitor is one of the most dangerous in the world,” he said. “It’s very rare that those who chose it have lived in peace until a ripe old age.
“Alcoholism, drug addiction, stress and depression are inevitable professional illnesses of a traitor, resulting in heart attacks and even suicide,” Klemeinov said.


Police slam US actor, say he staged racist attack to boost career

Updated 22 February 2019
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Police slam US actor, say he staged racist attack to boost career

  • Jussie Smollett, the African-American actor who stars on Fox music industry drama ‘Empire,’ went from victim to suspect after he reported an assault late last month
  • Smollett accused of first sending himself a fake threatening letter and then staging an attack to tap into Americans’ anxieties over political and racial divisions

CHICAGO: An American TV actor was criminally charged Thursday for allegedly masterminding an elaborate “publicity stunt” that sought to exploit the “pain and anger of racism” with a staged assault on the streets of Chicago.

It was the latest twist in a weeks-long saga that has seen 36-year-old Jussie Smollett, the African-American actor who stars on Fox music industry drama “Empire,” go from victim to suspect after he reported an assault late last month.

An incredulous Chicago police chief accused Smollett of first sending himself a fake threatening letter and then staging an attack to tap into Americans’ anxieties over political and racial divisions, because he was allegedly “dissatisfied with his salary.”

In a sign of the national attention the case has drawn, President Donald Trump weighed in Thursday, taking issue with the fact Smollett claimed his assailants invoked the president’s “Make America Great Again” slogan along with racist slurs during the purported attack.

“‘Empire’ actor Jussie Smollett took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career,” Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson told an emotionally-charged news conference — during which he lashed out angrily at the actor for sullying the city’s image.

“Smollett paid $3,500 to stage this attack and drag Chicago’s reputation through the mud in the process,” he said. “This publicity stunt was a scar that Chicago didn’t earn and certainly didn’t deserve.”

Smollett turned himself in early Thursday morning, was arrested and charged with a felony count of disorderly conduct for filing a false police report, and was granted $100,000 bond.

He was freed from jail late in the afternoon, and said nothing to the throng of media. If convicted, he faces up to three years in prison.

His legal team pushed back hard later Thursday, claiming the police press conference had been prejudicial and “the presumption of innocence, a bedrock in the search for justice, was trampled upon.”

“Today we witnessed an organized law enforcement spectacle that has no place in the American legal system,” attorney Jack Prior told AFP in a statement.

“Mr. Smollett is a young man of impeccable character and integrity who fiercely and solemnly maintains his innocence and feels betrayed by a system that apparently wants to skip due process and proceed directly to sentencing.”

Smollett had claimed that two masked men beat him late at night in downtown Chicago, poured bleach on him and tied a rope around his neck — but police grew suspicious of his account after they failed to corroborate it.

Trump took aim at the actor for having tarnished his supporters, tweeting: “what about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!?“

Meanwhile, Fox Entertainment and 20th Century Fox Television, which produce “Empire” and had stood by the actor, said “we understand the seriousness of this matter” and “are considering our options.”

Authorities said the two men who staged the attack with Smollett were brothers Ola and Abel Osundairo, who have both previously worked on “Empire,” and were acquaintances of the actor — while one provided him with drugs.

The brothers have cooperated with police since their arrest late last week and have not been charged with a crime.

Smollett allegedly first concocted a false threatening letter he had sent to himself — which is under a separate FBI investigation — and when that did not get enough attention, paid the brothers to have the assault staged.

Prosecutor Risa Lanier detailed an elaborate plot that Smollett allegedly orchestrated with exacting detail — telling the brothers when and how to attack him, including pointing out a street camera he assumed would capture the event, but was in fact pointing in a different direction.

The allegations were backed by a mountain of evidence, including a cashed check that Smollett wrote to pay for the stunt, authorities said.

Initial news of Smollett’s claims led to widespread condemnation and shock, and an outpouring of support from celebrities and politicians alike, including Democratic 2020 presidential candidates Cory Booker and Kamala Harris who denounced “an attempted modern day lynching.”

Trump initially described the alleged attack as “horrible.”

Since then, Smollett’s story has become a cautionary tale in an era where incomplete information is quickly spread via social media.

Opinion writers have complained about a rush to judgment, and politicians, celebrities and nonprofit groups have felt pressure to explain their initial reactions.

The president of the LGBT advocacy group Human Rights Campaign said the Smollett news was “both devastating and frustrating.”

“I want to ask everyone feeling angry, hurt and disappointed to channel that into productive activism — because there are thousands targeted by hate violence each year who need our help,” Chad Griffin tweeted.