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image captionSupporters in Taiwan have rallied for the release of the 12 Hong Kongers detained in China

Ten Hong Kong activists arrested at sea as they tried to flee to Taiwan by speedboat have been jailed by China for between seven months and three years.

Two others – of the youth group dubbed the Hong Kong 12 – are minors and will be returned to Hong Kong.

The activists were caught in August as they made a rare attempt to escape the city after a harsh new security law was introduced by Beijing in June.

They were accused of making or organising an illegal border crossing.

The Shenzhen Yantian District People’s court sentenced Tang Kai Yin and Quinn Moon to three years and two years in jail respectively for planning and organising the escape, a statement said.

The remaining eight activists were sentenced to a “lighter punishment” of seven months in prison for illegally crossing the border, it added.

The two minors – aged 16 and 17 – will be handed over to Hong Kong police, reported Chinese state media earlier on Wednesday.

  • China intercepts boat ‘fleeing from Hong Kong’

The case of the Hong Kong 12 has attracted huge global attention at a time of growing fears about the semi-autonomous territory’s evaporating freedoms.

After the sentencing, rights group Amnesty International said the youths were “at risk of torture after being convicted in an unfair trial”.

They had been held virtually incommunicado since they were taken into custody in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen after their arrest.

Families of the activists say they were only notified of the date of the trial – closed to foreign reporters and diplomats – three days before the hearing. Their lawyers were barred from meeting the detainees.

What led to their arrests?

The 12 Hong Kongers – aged 16 to 33 – were intercepted at sea by the Chinese coastguard on the morning of 23 August, just 40 miles (70 km) southeast of Hong Kong.

Most of those on board were already facing charges at home linked to the huge pro-democracy protests that swept the former British colony last year.

That meant they could not leave the territory by regular means.

media captionThe families of 12 Hong Kong activists captured at sea by China look for answers

At least one of the activists was being investigated under the controversial national security law.

Since late last year Taiwan has emerged as a tacit sanctuary for Hong Kong activists escaping a growing crackdown on protesters.

The Washington Post reports that hundreds of Hong Kongers have sought refuge on the island, most arriving legally by air but some using smugglers to reach by boat.

The case of the 12 detainees has highlighted the growing struggle for democracy activists in Hong Kong, which was once a key destination for refugees fleeing persecution.

What happened next?

For months after their arrests the activists were held in detention without charge in the mainland city of Shenzhen.

A few weeks ago Chinese authorities finally charged 10 of the group: eight were accused of illegally crossing the border, which carries up to two years in jail, while two faced the more serious charge of organising the crossing, punishable by up to seven years.

The defendants went on trial on Monday in Shenzhen.

The hearing was closed to foreign reporters and diplomats – as many are in China – but the court said in a statement that both prosecution and defence lawyers spoke.

On Wednesday Chinese authorities said the 10 convicted activists had pleaded guilty while the two minors had admitted wrongdoing.

The two teens were returned to Hong Kong police by around noon, reported AFP news agency.

Lawyers for the activists said the eight who have received the lesser jail term should be able to return home on March 24 to take into account the time they have already served.

They also said the sentences were too heavy and that the allegation of organising a border crossing was not substantiated, according to AFP.

What have the families said?

The families of the activists had earlier expressed their fears about the fates of the detainees in China’s notoriously opaque judicial system.

image copyrightAFP
image captionRelatives held an emotional news conference urging the release of the 12 in September

The Chinese lawyers some of them had hired were barred from seeing their clients as authorities stepped in to appoint state-approved counsel.

Over the weekend the families published an open letter to the international community, appealing for its help to “safeguard the legal rights” of the detained 12.

They called for the hearing to be broadcast live, after they were barred from appearing in person because of Covid-19 restrictions, and only notified of the trial date on Friday.

At a news conference in Hong Kong earlier this week relatives of some of the detainees had pleaded for transparency.

“I’m begging the courts to quickly give a sentence,” said the mother of one defendant, according to Reuters. “If you give him a sentence, then I can go see him. All I want is just to see his face once.”

What has the wider reaction been?

The high-profile case has been closely watched in Hong Kong and abroad as a rare instance of Chinese authorities arresting people trying to leave the territory, at a time of mounting concerns about its eroding autonomy.

Supporters of the Hong Kong 12 have rallied in at least a dozen cities around the world – from Taipei and New York to Adelaide and Vancouver.

Hours before the trial on Monday the US embassy in China urged the “immediate release” of the activists.

“Their so-called ‘crime’ was to flee tyranny,” a US embassy spokesperson told AFP.

The Chinese ministry of foreign affairs responded, calling on the US to “immediately stop interfering in China’s internal affairs through the Hong Kong issue”.

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Pelosi to move forward with impeachment if Pence doesn’t act to remove Trump

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“In protecting our Constitution and our Democracy, we will act with urgency, because this President represents an imminent threat to both,” Pelosi said in the letter to Democrats on Sunday night laying out next steps.

The House will try to pass a measure on Monday imploring Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment, through which he and the Cabinet declare Trump “incapable of executing the duties of his office, after which the Vice President would immediately exercise powers as acting president.” If Republicans object, as is virtually certain, Democrats will pass the bill via a roll call vote on Tuesday.

“We are calling on the Vice President to respond within 24 hours,” Pelosi wrote. “Next, we will proceed with bringing impeachment legislation to the Floor.”

But it’s not clear when exactly the Senate will take up the House’s measure. The Senate isn’t scheduled to return until Jan. 19, but will hold pro forma sessions on Tuesday and Friday. In theory, a senator could try to pass the House resolution by unanimous consent, but as of now it appears unlikely that it would pass.

On Monday, multiple House Democrats plan to introduce impeachment resolutions that would become the basis of any impeachment article considered by the House later this week.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who will introduce an article of impeachment against Trump on Monday, said on Sunday that roughly 200 Democrats have co-sponsored the measure.

Currently, 211 voting members (plus three nonvoting members) support Cicilline’s legislation, and they are hoping to reach 217 voting members by Monday morning, enough for the House to impeach Trump, one Democratic source familiar with the matter told POLITICO.

A small number of Democrats have opted not to co-sign the bill, but privately say they will vote to support the resolution on the floor, the source added.

The impeachment effort in the House is likely to be bipartisan, with Democrats expecting at least one GOP lawmaker — Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois — to sign on. A handful of other House Republicans are seriously weighing it, according to several sources, though those lawmakers are waiting to see how Democrats proceed, and some are concerned about dividing the country even further.

Among the GOP members whom Democrats are keeping an eye on are Reps. John Katko of New York, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Fred Upton of Michigan, Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington.

Across the Capitol, at least two Republicans — Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — have called on Trump to resign. On Saturday, Toomey told Fox News, “I do think the president committed impeachable offenses,” but told CNN the next day that he does not believe there is enough time to impeach.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) has also said he would consider articles of impeachment.

Another option has emerged among some Republican and moderate Democratic circles — censuring Trump — though it remains highly unlikely to advance.

A censure resolution would gain far more support in the GOP than impeachment. Some Republicans have privately been pushing for that route and are trying to get Biden on board, according to GOP sources. That group of Republicans is also warning that impeachment could destroy Biden’s reputation with Republicans.

But censure is considered a nonstarter in an incensed House Democratic Caucus, where members see it as a slap on the wrist that gives Republicans an easy out.

The Democrats’ enormous step toward impeachment on Sunday comes after Pelosi and other top Democrats held a private call on Saturday night in which they discussed the potential ramifications that a lengthy impeachment trial could have on Biden’s presidency.

Democratic leaders discussed several options to limit the political effects on Biden’s first 100 days, with one option — floated by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) — for the House to delay the start of an impeachment trial in the Senate by holding on to the article of impeachment.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has sent out a memo to senators explaining that the Senate could not take up impeachment until Jan. 19 at the earliest, absent unanimous consent.

A final decision has not been made, and House Democrats will discuss the matter on a 2 p.m. caucus call on Monday.

Lawmakers are already privately expressing concerns about returning to the Capitol for multiple days this week, worried about both a potential coronavirus outbreak and whether the building is secure, given how easily an armed pro-Trump mob invaded on Wednesday.

The Capitol physician urged House lawmakers and staff to get tested in a memo Sunday, saying they might have been exposed to someone who had the virus while huddling for safety in a large committee room for hours on Wednesday. During the hourslong lockdown, several Republican members refused to wear masks despite being offered them by Democrats worried about the spread of the deadly virus.

Melanie Zanona, Olivia Beavers and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.

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Matt Hancock Scraps “Unnecessary Training Modules” Blamed For Slowing Vaccine Rollout

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Matt Hancock has agreed to remove some of the training modules required for volunteers to sign up to deliver the Covid-19 vaccine (PA)


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Matt Hancock said people will no longer need to undertake training including an anti-terrorism course to give the coronavirus jab after MPs said “bureaucratic rubbish” was delaying mass vaccination.

It comes as MPs called for the government to produce targets for the number of people given immunity before lockdown can be lifted.

The health secretary said a series of “unnecessary training modules” are being scrapped to speed up the process of getting people qualified to deliver the jab.

Speaking in the Commons, Sir Edward Leigh said he was shown by his fellow the Tory MP, a qualified GP, the “ridiculous form” he had filled out to start delivering the vaccine.

“When he’s inoculating an old lady, he’s not going to ask her if she’s come into contact with Jihadis or whatever, so the Secretary has got to cut through all this bureaucratic rubbish,” he said.

In response Mr Hancock said: “I am a man after Sir Edward’s heart and I can tell the House that we have removed a series of the unnecessary training modules that had been put in place, including fire safety, terrorism and others.

“I’ll write to him with the full panoply of the training that is not required and we have been able to remove, and we made this change as of this morning and I am glad to say it is enforced.

“I am a fan of busting bureaucracy and in this case I agree with him that it is not necessary to undertake anti-terrorism training in order to inject vaccines.”

Dr Fox had earlier challenged Boris Johnson to drop the “bureaucracy” and “political correctness” of the forms vaccine volunteers must fill out.

He told MPs: “As a qualified but non-practising doctor, I volunteered to help with the scheme and would urge others to do the same. 

“But, can I ask the Prime Minister why I’ve been required to complete courses on conflict resolution, equality, diversity and human rights, moving and handling loads and preventing radicalisation in order to give a simple Covid jab?”

Mr Johnson said he had been “assured by the Health Secretary that all such obstacles, all such pointless pettifoggery has been removed”.

The government has been attempting to recruit thousands of volunteers to help with a mass vaccination programme, and with the recent approval of the more easily deliverable Oxford/AstraZeneca version has today revealed the location of seven mass vaccination centres set to open next week.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told journalists at a briefing they would be at Robertson House in Stevenage, the ExCel Centre in London, the Centre for Life in Newcastle, the Etihad Tennis Centre in Manchester, Epsom Downs Racecourse in Surrey, Ashton Gate Stadium in Bristol and Millennium Point in Birmingham, and it is expected they will be run with a combination of NHS staff and volunteers.

But so far the government has not said how many people need to be inoculated before it has an impact on the coronavirus restrictions.

Mr Hancock was asked by a number of MPs if the measures could be eased once the top few tiers in the vaccine priority list had been clear.

Former Conservative chief whip Mark Harper said once the top four groups, which includes care home residents and staff, frontline NHS workers, the clinically extremely vulnerable and everyone over 70 “we’ve taken care therefore of 80% of the risk of death”.

Adding: “What possible reason is there at that point for not rapidly relaxing the restrictions that are in place on the rest of our country?”

The health secretary replied: “We have to see the impact of that vaccination on the reduction in the number of deaths, which I very much hope that we will see at that point, and so that is why we will take this – an evidence-led move down through the tiers, when we’ve broken the link, I hope, between cases and hospitalisations and deaths.”

The ex-Tory minister and another doctor, Andrew Murrison, said: “The logic of anticipating what is going to happen in two or three or four weeks’ time from the number of cases we are getting at the moment is that we can do the same in reverse.

“That is to say, when we have a sufficient number of people vaccinated up we can anticipate in two or three or four weeks’ time how many deaths have been avoided. 

“That means, since it cuts both ways he will be able to make a decision on when we should end these restrictions.”

Mr Hancock replied: “The logic of the case that Dr Murrison makes is the right logic and we want to see that happen in empirical evidence on the ground.

“This hope for the weeks ahead doesn’t take away, though, from the serious and immediate threat posed now.”

The Cabinet minister said the challenge for the government is to increase the amount of doses available, claiming “the current rate-limiting factor on the vaccine rollout is the supply of approved, tested, safe vaccine”.

He added: ”We are working with both AstraZeneca and Pfizer to increase that supply as fast as possible and they’re doing a brilliant job.”

But Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth called for the government to ramp up its vaccination programme to six million doses a week.

He told the Commons: “The Prime Minister has promised almost 14 million will be offered the vaccine by mid-Feb. That depends on around two million doses a week on average.

“Both [Mr Hancock] and the Prime Minister have reassured us in recent days that it’s doable based on orders.

“But in the past ministers have told us that they had agreements for 30 million AstraZeneca doses by September 2020 and 10 million of Pfizer doses by the end of 2020.

“So, I think people just want to understand the figures and want clarity. Can ministers tell us how many of the ordered doses have been manufactured?”

Mr Ashworth added: “Two million a week would be fantastic but it should be the limit of our ambitions, we should be aiming to scale up to three, then five, then six million jabs a week over the coming months.”

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How South African police are tackling pangolin smugglers

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Quiet, solitary and nocturnal, the pangolin has few natural enemies, but researchers believe it is the most trafficked mammal in the world. The tough scales covering its body are sought after for use in Chinese medicine, in the erroneous belief that they have healing properties.

The animal has also been of interest to researchers during the coronavirus pandemic. Related viruses have been found in trafficked pangolins, though there is continued uncertainty around early theories that pangolins were involved in the transmission of the virus from animals to humans.

After South African police seized a pangolin from suspected smugglers, BBC Africa correspondent Andrew Harding witnessed how vets tried to save the animal’s life.

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