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Cuba starts handing out sentences following historic protests

HAVANA — An anti-government hip hop song by some of Cuba’s most popular musicians in exile became the anthem of the unprecedented protests that rocked the Communist-run country last week.

Now the visual artist who filmed the Cuban section of the videoclip for “Patria y Vida” (‘Homeland and Life’), Anyelo Troya, 25, has been sentenced to a year in prison, according to relatives. He was charged with instigating unrest, they said, after attending a demonstration in Havana.

Rights activists say this is just the start of what they predict will be a wave of summary trials of hundreds of people detained during and after the unusual protests on July 11 and 12 that the government has blamed on U.S.-backed counter-revolutionaries.

“They took him to trial without defense or lawyer or anything,” Troya’s mother Raisa Gonzalez told Reuters after witnessing his sentencing in what she called a collective trial of around a dozen people.

The Cuban Foreign Ministry’s International Press Center, which fields all requests from foreign journalists for comment from state entities, did not immediately reply to request for comment on the cases mentioned in this article.

Authorities confirmed on Tuesday they had started the trials of those detained on charges of instigating unrest, committing vandalism, propagating the coronavirus pandemic, or assault, charges that could carry prison sentences of up to 20 years.

“There are people who will receive the response that Cuban legislation allows for, and it will be energetic,” President Miguel Diaz-Canel said on state television last week. He promised there would be due legislative procedure.

But Gonzalez said she was not informed of her son’s trial in time and when she arrived at the court with her lawyer, he had already been convicted. The trial was denounced by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) for taking place without proper defense or due process.

Troya had already been under heightened vigilance for his participation in the song, whose headline is a twist on the revolutionary slogan ‘Patria o Muerte’ (‘Homeland or Death’), his mother said.

Javier Larrondo, a representative of the human rights organization Cuban Prisoners Defenders, said authorities would likely lock up the most charismatic and effective opposition leaders, who lately have often been young artists, whether or not they were at the protests.

“We will have hundreds of political prisoners in just two weeks,” he said.

The protests against Cuba’s worst economic crisis in decades and curbs on civil liberties first erupted ten days ago in a small town before spreading throughout the country. By the evening of day two, they appeared to have dissipated amid heavy security operations and internet disruptions.

The government blamed mercenaries exploiting frustrations with hardships caused by U.S. sanctions.

Exiled rights group Cubalex, which has established a spreadsheet of those detained that it updates every day as new reports come in, says more than 500 Cubans appear to have been detained during the protests or afterwards.

It said the tally was likely higher, but some families may fear reporting the arrest of relatives in case of reprisals such as losing their state sector jobs.

Some of those detained, like theater director Yunior Garcia, have been released to house arrest.

“I have four officials in front of my door preventing me going out,” Garcia told Reuters, which observed the officials. “When I go to buy food or cigarettes, one of them goes with me to keep a close eye on me.”

The majority of those detained have been kept incommunicado, while the location of some is still unknown, said Cubalex and HRW, based on interviews with relatives.

Cubans have been posting photos of people they say they cannot locate or sharing stories of detentions on a Facebook group called ‘Disappeared #SOSCuba’ with more than 10,000 members.

“We went from police station to police station looking for her,” said Alberto Betancourt of his sister, a stay-at-home mother-of-two who was detained at a protest in Havana. He located her after six days.

“They won’t let me speak to her,” he told Reuters, holding back tears. “But she’s not a criminal. She just let herself be swept up in the crowds.”

Cuban interior ministry officials denied on Tuesday that anyone was missing and said a list of detainees circulating — they did not specify which — was manipulated and included people who were never detained.

The detained include high profile dissidents like Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, who also featured in “Patria y Vida,” and Jose Daniel Ferrer, the leader of the country’s largest opposition group. They also include ordinary citizens and bystanders, families and rights groups say.

Many of those detained had been beaten or mistreated by security forces or rapid-reaction brigades — government-organized bands of civilian recruits, said HRW senior researcher Juan Pappier.

Used to quiet streets, Cubans have been shocked over the last week by images of violence that have emerged on social media: security forces and bands of stick-wielding people in civilian garb beating protesters, as well as protesters throwing stones at police and overturning police cars.

Diaz-Canel said last week “maybe there will be a need for apologies to anyone who, in the middle of all the confusion, has been mistreated,” and defended security forces’ actions to re-establish “peace.”

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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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