Hawaii Telescope Construction Expected to Draw Protesters, Police

Police and protesters are gearing up for a fight in Hawaii as construction is set to begin on a massive telescope on Mauna Kea, the islands’ highest peak, considered sacred by some native Hawaiians.

State officials said the road to the top of Mauna Kea mountain on the Big Island will be closed starting Monday as equipment is delivered to the construction site.

Scientists chose Mauna Kea in 2009 after a five-year, worldwide search for the ideal site for the largest telescope in the Northern Hemisphere. Construction was supposed to begin in 2014 but was halted by protests.

Opponents of the $1.4 billion telescope will desecrate sacred land. According to the University of Hawaii, ancient Hawaiians considered the location kapu, or forbidden. Only the highest-ranking chiefs and priests were allowed to make the long trek to Mauna Kea’s summit above the clouds.

Supporters of telescope say it will not only make important scientific discoveries but bring educational and economic opportunities to Hawaii.

The company behind the telescope is made up of a group of universities in California and Canada, with partners from China, India and Japan.  

Astronomers hope the telescope will help them look back 13 billion years to the time just after the Big Bang and answer fundamental questions about the universe.

It is not clear what the opponents of the project have planned for Monday but Gov. David Ige said unarmed National Guard units will be on hand to help enforce road closures and transport workers and supplies.


India Hits ‘Technical Snag,’ Aborts Moon Launch

India aborted the launch Monday of a spacecraft intended to land on the far side of the moon less than an hour before liftoff.

The Chandrayaan-2 mission was called off when a “technical snag” was observed in the 640-ton, 14-story rocket launcher, Indian Space Research Organization spokesman B.R. Guruprasad said.

The countdown abruptly stopped at T-56 minutes, 24 seconds, and Guruprasad said that the agency would announce a revised launch date soon.

Chandrayaan, the word for “moon craft” in Sanskrit, is designed for a soft landing on the lunar south pole and to send a rover to explore water deposits confirmed by a previous Indian space mission.

With nuclear-armed India poised to become the world’s fifth-largest economy, the ardently nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is eager to show off the country’s prowess in security and technology. If India did manage the soft landing, it would be only the fourth to do so after the U.S., Russia and China.

FILE – Indian space scientist and Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization Kailasavadivoo Sivan speaks during a press conference at the ISRO headquarters Antariksh Bhavan, in Bangalore, June 12, 2019.

Dr. K. Sivan, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization, said at a news conference last week that the estimated $140 million Chandrayaan-2 mission was the nation’s “most prestigious” to date, in part because of the technical complexities of soft landing on the lunar surface, an event he described as “15 terrifying minutes.”

After countdown commenced Sunday, Sivan visited two Hindu shrines to pray for the mission’s success.

Criticized program pays off

Practically since its inception in 1962, India’s space program has been criticized as inappropriate for an overpopulated, developing nation.

But decades of space research have allowed India to develop satellite communications and remote sensing technologies that are helping solve everyday problems at home, from forecasting fish migration to predicting storms and floods.

With the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission this month, the world’s biggest space agencies are returning their gaze to the moon, seen as ideal testing grounds for technologies required for deep space exploration, and, with the confirmed discovery of water, as a possible pit stop along the way.

“The moon is sort of our backyard for training to go to Mars,” said Adam Steltzner, NASA’s chief engineer responsible for its 2020 mission to Mars.

Seeking water on the moon

Because of repeated delays, India missed the chance to achieve the first soft landing near the lunar south pole. China’s Chang’e 4 mission landed a lander and rover there last January.

India’s Chandrayaan-1 mission orbited the moon in 2008 and helped confirm the presence of water. The Indian Space Research Organization wants its new mission’s rover to further probe the far side of the moon, where scientists believe a basin contains water-ice that could help humans do more than plant flags on future manned missions.

The U.S. is working to send a manned spacecraft to the moon’s south pole by 2024.

Modi has set a deadline of 2022 for India’s first manned spaceflight.

Local Afghan Journalist Killed by Unknown Assailants

Unknown armed assailants killed a reporter for a local radio station in Afghanistan’s eastern Paktia province.

Nader Shah Sahibzada, a reporter for Voice of Gardiz local radio, went missing on Friday and authorities found his dead body on Saturday near his home in capital city, Gardiz.

Initial autopsy reports suggest that Sahibzada has been severely tortured and stabbed to death.

Aminullah Amiri, an editor of the Voice of Gardiz radio, told VOA that Sahibzada was running entertainment shows at the station and had no conflicts with anyone, suggesting he may have been killed because of his work.

Sardar Wali Tabassum, the provincial police spokesperson, told VOA that an investigation has been launched into the killing of Sahibzada and efforts are under way to bring those responsible for his death to justice.

Nader Shah Sahibzada, a reporter for Voice of Gardiz local radio in Paktia province, is seen in an undated social media photo.

Sahibzada’s case is not an isolated incident.  According to media advocacy groups in Afghanistan, so far this year seven local journalists have been killed by unknown armed men.

No group has immediately claimed responsibility for Sahibzada’s killing, but late last month the Taliban warned Afghan media outlets that if they do not stop what the militant group called “anti-Taliban statements”, they would be targeted.

“Those who continue doing so will be recognized by the group as military targets who are helping the Western-backed government of Afghanistan,” the insurgent group said in a statement.

“Reporters and staff members will not remain safe,” the statement added.

Both U.S. and Afghanistan condemned Taliban’s threats against the Afghan media outlets.

“Freedom of expression and attacks on media organizations is in contradiction to human and Islamic values,” Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s office said in a statement.

John Bass, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, said in a tweet that the Taliban should stop threatening Afghan journalists.

“More violence, against journalists or civilians, will not bring security and opportunity to Afghanistan, nor will it help the Taliban reach their political objectives,” Bass said.

Deadliest place for journalists

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which advocates for freedom of the press around the world, reported that Afghanistan was the world’s deadliest country for journalists in 2018 followed by Syria.

The group said in its annual report in late December that 15 journalists have been killed in Afghanistan and 11 others have been killed in Syria, making both countries the deadliest places for journalists around the world.

The increased fatalities among journalists in Afghanistan is due in part to bombings and shootings that targeted media workers.

In April of 2018, a double bombing in Kabul killed nine journalists, including six Radio Free Europe reporters.

The Islamic State (IS) terror group claimed responsibility for those attacks, which they said deliberately targeted journalists.

Some of the materials used in this report came from Reuters.


Decorated US Green Beret Killed In Afghanistan Identified

A decorated member of the U.S. Special Forces has died during combat in northern Afghanistan, the Pentagon announced Sunday.

Green Beret Sgt. Maj. James “Ryan” Sartor died Saturday after being injured by enemy fire Saturday. His death brings the number of fatalities among the U.S. military this year in the Afghanistan to 11.

Sartor’s death reportedly has brought the number of U.S. service members killed since the Afghan war started in October of 2001 to 2,430.

Sartor, 40, of Teague, Texas, had served multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan with the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) division.

“We’re incredibly saddened to learn of Sgt. Maj. James “Ryan” Sartor’s passing in Afghanistan. Ryan was a beloved warrior who epitomized the quiet professional,” said commander of 10th SFG (A), Col. Brian R. Rauen. “He led his soldiers from the front and his presence will be terribly missed.”

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed claimed on Saturday that the militant group was behind the killing but the claim has yet to be verified.

The U.S. has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan, where they primarily advise Afghan forces who are battling the Taliban.


Tropical Storm Barry Downgraded to Tropical Depression

Forecasters have downgraded Tropical Storm Barry to a tropical depression, but Barry is still a major rainmaker and tornado threat as it drifts northward.

Parts of Louisiana could still see as much as 38 centimeters of rain with lesser amounts in sections of Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi, and Tennessee.

“This rainfall is expected to lead to dangerous life-threatening flooding,” forecasters warn anyone who may think the storm is no longer a threat.

Barry made landfall Saturday as a Category 1 hurricane, sparing New Orleans from a direct hit, but knocking out power and bringing floods to other parts of the state.

No serious injuries or major damage have been reported. But some residents in Louisiana say the ground was already saturated before Barry hit, raising fears of large trees coming down on homes and cars.

U.S. President Donald Trump declared a state of emergency in Louisiana ahead of the storm, authorizing federal funds to help local officials cope with whatever storm recovery is needed.

Barry was the first named storm of the 2019 Atlantic hurricane season, which started on June 1 and lasts until November 30.


Refugee Girls’ Choir Touches Hearts

The power of song can heal the hearts and bring people together.  A girls’ chorus named Pihcintu sings to do just that.  Most members are from war-torn countries and refugee camps around the world. Together they sing as one and spread a message of hope. VOA’s June Soh caught up with the group in Washington and has this story narrated by Carol Pearson 

Book Lovers Set Up Little Free Libraries Across America

At a time when podcasts, e-books and smartphones are blossoming, old-fashioned books are still popular in the United States. That is why tiny free libraries, where people exchange books, are sprouting up across the nation to help book lovers. For VOA, Iryna Matviichuk visited some exchanges in the Washington area. Anna Rice narrates our story.

In Industry of Venom Extraction, a Small Afghan Business is Thriving

Extracting venom from snakes, scorpions and other venomous animals has become a lucrative business. The number of companies producing venom for antidotes has dropped and the demand has risen, according to market research groups. Two businessmen in Herat, Afghanistan, have opened a venom extraction laboratory in a nation that is home to 27 species of snakes and an unknown number of scorpion species. Khalil Noorzai has more in this report narrated by Bezhan Hamdard.

Top Puerto Rican Officials Resign Over Profanity-Laced Chat

Puerto Rico’s Gov. Ricardo Rossello announced Saturday that his chief financial officer and secretary of state will step down following their participation in a private chat that used profanities to describe an ex-New York City official and a federal control board overseeing the island’s finances.

The U.S. territory’s CFO Christian Sobrino, who is also the governor’s representative to the control board, announced he was stepping down via Twitter on Saturday. Its Secretary of State Luis G. Rivera Marin also offered his resignation.

Rossello later released a statement saying he would let go members of his administration who participated in the chat on a messaging system used by government officials. The release of the chat’s contents in local media had led to calls for the governor’s resignation.

Governor apologizes, doesn’t resign

Rossello apologized for the comments late Thursday, saying he’d been working 18-hour days and releasing tensions when he called former New York City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito the Spanish word for “whore” and in English told the oversight board to “go f— yourself” followed by a string of emojis with the middle finger raised.

Citizens carrying a banner that reads in Spanish “Ricarod Rosello, renounce” protest near the executive mansion denouncing a wave of arrests for corruption that has shaken the country and demanding he resign, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, July 11, 2019.…

“Aware that the current environment cannot be maintained, I have communicated to all the other public officials involved in the chat that I will have to dispense with their services and/or their advice,” he said in the statement.

He said he would ask Ricardo Llerandi to remain as Puerto Rico’s secretary of the interior and Anthony Maceira to stay as secretary of Public Affairs.

“This is a very painful situation for me, as governor, as a human being and as a Puerto Rican,” Rossello said. “But I recognize there is no other way out and there is no worthwhile forgiveness on my part that does not include corrections and clear signs of intent to change.”

Justice Secretary Wanda Vazquez announced that she was appointing a special task force to determine whether any laws were broken regarding the chat and comments made.

Puerto Ricans ashamed

The comments had drawn the ire of many Puerto Ricans who said they were ashamed of his language and of how this might affect the reputation of the U.S. territory, which had already come under scrutiny earlier this week with the arrests of former government officials including the island’s education secretary.

Rossello said late Thursday that he had not yet spoken to Mark-Viverito, who posted a lengthy statement on Twitter that read in part, “A person who uses that language against a woman, whether a public figure or not, should not govern Puerto Rico …this type of behavior is completely unacceptable.”

In the chat, Rossello wrote that he was upset Mark-Viverito had criticized Tom Perez, chair of the Democratic National Committee, for supporting statehood for Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rican pop star Ricky Martin, who was mentioned in the chat with a homophobic comment, urged Rossello to step down.

Martin tweeted that the governor “lacks the abilities of a true leader, who inspires, stimulates and guides by example so that our people attain a higher level of life.”

Rossello, who faces other troubles, has said he will not resign.

Six arrests

Days earlier, FBI agents arrested Julia Keleher, Puerto Rico’s former education secretary, and five others on charges of steering federal money to unqualified, politically connected contractors.

Officials said the alleged fraud involves $15.5 million worth of federal funding issued between 2017 and 2019. They said $13 million was spent by Puerto Rico’s Department of Education while Keleher was secretary and another $2.5 million spent by Angela Avila Marrero when she was director of Puerto Rico’s Health Insurance Administration. Avila Marrero was charged along with businessmen Fernando Scherrer-Caillet and Alberto Velazquez-Pinol, and education contractors Glenda E. Ponce-Mendoza and Mayra Ponce-Mendoza, who are sisters.

Officials said there was no evidence that Keleher or Avila Marrero had personally benefited from the scheme.

On Thursday, a group of protesters had gathered at Puerto Rico’s main international airport to received Rossello as he cut a European vacation short to address the arrests and the leaked chat. The protesters then traveled to the governor’s seaside mansion where Rossello spoke late Thursday and demanded his resignation.