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Mar 13
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‘Travesty of justice’

Languishing evidence in more than 100,000 sexual assault cases nationwide has been sent for DNA testing over the last three years. The tests, funded through a joint effort by a New York prosecutor and the federal government, have reportedly led to over 1,000 arrests and hundreds of convictions.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. launched the initiative to tackle the nation’s huge backlog of untested rape kits. Over the past three years, he has directed $38 toward the effort, leading to nearly 200 arrests. The Justice Department has invested an additional $154 million into testing sexual assault kits, leading to 899 further prosecutions, according to data provided to The Associated Press.

“That backlog not only undermined justice and perception, and reality, of equality — it also made every woman and every American less safe,” said Vance on Tuesday, adding that the untested kits represented “an absolute travesty of justice.” It’s estimated that 155,000 sexual assault kits are still awaiting testing.

Tracy Rio, an Arizona resident who was raped by a then-friend in 2002, said that police told her they couldn’t prosecute her attacker unless she underwent a rape examination. She followed through with the process, but police never bothered to test the kit. The evidence remained unexamined for more than 15 years before Vance’s investment finally spurred law enforcement to action. Her attacker has since been sentenced to seven years in prison.

“I lost faith in the system. I thought they didn’t care,” said Rios. “It was amazing to know I was going to get justice.”

The cost of examining rape kits — which can run up to $1,000 or more in some cases — has often been cited by law enforcement as one reason such crucial evidence is left unexamined for years. But victims’ advocates have disputed that explanation, accusing police and prosecutors of discounting victims’ narratives and dropping sexual assault cases without bothering to examine the evidence. In many cases, experts say, it appears that race and economic status significantly impact police’s decision to test a rape kit. According to an analysis of more than 11,300 untested rape kits in Detroit in 2017, 86 percent came from women of color.

Read the full story at HuffPost.

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‘Pushback’

Women leaders at the U.N. are concerned that the inroads women have made in politics in recent years are now at risk of slipping away.

Speaking to delegates at the Commission on the Status of Women on Tuesday, U.N. General Assembly President María Fernanda Espinosa said that the status of women in politics had suffered “serious regression in recent years.”

The percentage of women elected as heads of state dropped from 7.2 percent to 6.6 percent from 2017 to 2018, according to data released by the Inter-Parliamentary Union last week. There are now just 10 elected women heads of state out of 153 countries. The percentage of women heads of government fell during the same period, from 5.7 to 5.2 percent.

“We also have pushback right now, which contributes to the slowing down of women wanting to contest for office, because it is brutal,” said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of U.N. Women, noting that women were facing an uphill battle trying to compete in institutions “made for men and by men.”

Mlambo-Ngcuka cited political violence, verbal abuse, and abuse on social media as factors preventing female candidates from gaining a foothold in many countries.

“We just have to be stronger in pushing back against the pushback ourselves,” she said.

Read the full story at TIME magazine.

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‘We’re going backward’

A women who sued President Donald Trump for allegedly forcibly kissing her while she worked on his 2016 presidential campaign told Teen Vogue he is “normalizing” the concept of sexual assault.

Alva Johnson has earned kudos for refusing to be silent despite having signed a non-disclosure agreement, as Trump demands many people in his orbit do. She says Trump’s behavior with her on the campaign trail was evidence that he hadn’t left behind the non-consensual misconduct he once bragged about on the infamous Access Hollywood tape. On that tape, Trump claimed he regularly kissed women and even grabbed them by their genitals without consent.

Johnson has also alleged that the campaign committed “racial and gender discrimination” by paying her significantly less than white male staffers in similar roles.

“It seems right now we’re going backward,” Johnson told Teen Vogue. “This wasn’t appropriate for a long time. Now the most powerful man in the world is making fun of people who are coming forward [about sexual abuse], calling them liars even though their stories are so consistent. Knowing it wasn’t past behavior from 8 or 10 years ago. It was very recent with me. I feel like it’s something that’s necessary. Sometimes things that are necessary aren’t easy.”

Women, Johnson said, continue to face harassment and discrimination in the workplace, as her case shows. As a mother, she added, she felt the need to set an example for her daughter and other young women about not tolerating abusive behavior from anyone, no matter how powerful they might seem.

“Winning my lawsuit would be ideal, but making the difference and making the change and not keeping my mouth shut [is my goal],” she explained. “I think about what I would say to my daughter: You are smart enough to be taken seriously for your job. Perform well and set your boundaries. Even when you set very clear boundaries, you have to be not afraid to defend yourself. It’s not being afraid to have that seat at the table and demand your worth. Be bold, be strong, and that’s it.”

Read the full story at Teen Vogue.

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Writing for justice

Ten Saudi Arabian women’s rights activists who have been held in jail without charge since May reportedly stood trial for the first time on Wednesday. Now, three of them have been honored with the prestigious PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, which is given to writers who have been imprisoned for their work.

The three recipients are Nouf Abdulaziz, Loujain al-Hathloul, and Eman al-Nafjan. Confined to a jail in Saudi Arabia, they likely have no idea they’ve won the award.

“These gutsy women have challenged one of the world’s most notoriously misogynist governments, inspiring the world with their demand to drive, to govern their own lives, and to liberate all Saudi women from a form of medieval bondage that has no place in the 21st century,” said Suzanne Nossel, head of PEN America, the literary organization that grants the award.

The three are among a group of defendants that appeared before the Criminal Court in Riyadh last week. According to court president Ibrahim al-Sayari, the women were finally presented with charges in the courtroom. But the kingdom’s public prosecutors are still refusing to publicize the actual charges against them. And according to al-Hathloul’s brother, her case was moved from the criminal court to the Specialized Criminal Court — which was ostensibly created to try terrorism cases.

Last week, 36 countries — including all 28 members of the European Union — signed a statement calling on Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman to release the activists. An independent British panel has found that at least 8 of more than a dozen women’s rights activist imprisoned last spring had suffered solitary confinement, assault, sexual harassment, and sleep deprivation while in prison. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have said that all the imprisoned women have been denied access to lawyers, and that at least three suffered torture and sexual assault.

The family of al-Hathloul, one of the country’s most famous women’s rights activists, said that she has been “whipped, beaten, electrocuted, and harassed on a frequent basis.” Al-Hathloul, 29, had previously been arrested by Saudi authorities for protesting the country’s driving ban by driving into Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates. She was arrested again in summer 2017 without being charged and was released only to be imprisoned again in the crackdown last spring.

Read the full story at Al Jazeera.

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Operation Varsity Blues

A major college admissions scam has exposed the drastic measures some wealthy parents will take to secure admission for their children at top-tier American universities, and raised concerns about hard-working students who have been cheated out of their rightful places. Federal prosecutors charged 50 people in six states on Tuesday, including high profile actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin.

Huffman has been charged with felony conspiracy to commit two types of fraud, according to court paperwork filed on Monday in federal court in Massachusetts. She was arrested without incident at her home, the FBI said. The Academy Award-nominated actor is accused of paying $15,000 to facilitate cheating for her daughter on the SATs, the complaint says. A cooperating witness told authorities he traveled from Florida to a California test center to administer Huffman’s daughter’s exam. She received a 1420 on her test, which was 400 points higher than a PSAT taken a year earlier without the same administrator, the complaint states.

Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, also face charges of conspiracy to commit  fraud, prosecutors said. They allegedly agreed to pay bribes totaling $500,000 in exchange for having their two daughters designated as recruits to the University of Southern California crew team. The daughters were recruited as coxswains even though they did not row competitively or otherwise participate in crew, the complaint says. Giannulli was arrested without incident, and the FBI served a warrant for Loughlin who was taken into custody on Wednesday in Los Angeles. She had been filming a Hallmark movie in Canada, sources told ABC News.

Thirty-three parents in all were charged as a result of the investigation, known internally as Operation Varsity Blues, with prosecutors saying there could be further indictments. Those arrested also include two SAT/ACT administrators, one exam proctor, nine coaches at elite schools, and one college administrator. The schools involved in the scam include Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, USC, and others.

In many cases, prosecutors said, students were unaware of their parents actions, and no students or universities have been charged with wrongdoing by federal prosecutors. “The parents are the prime movers of this fraud,” Andrew E. Lelling, the United States attorney for the District of Massachusetts, told assembled media on Tuesday.

“The real victims in this case are the hard-working students” who were displaced in the admissions process by “far less qualified students and their families who simply bought their way in,” he said.

‘I DON’T REALLY CARE ABOUT SCHOOL’

Loughlin and Giannulli’s daughter, Olivia Jade Giannulli, who is a social media influencer with a large audience, began college at the USC in the fall of 2018, and started to post sponsored content about being a student. Olivia Jade, 19, has close to two million YouTube subscribers and over a million Instagram followers, according to the New York Times.

In a paid post for Prime Student, Amazon’s paid membership program for college students, Olivia Jade is seen seated on a bed, with the caption “Officially a college student! It’s been a few weeks since I moved into my dorm and I absolutely love it. I got everything I needed from Amazon with @primestudent and had it all shipped to me in just two-days.” She also commented in a YouTube video that Amazon had “hooked me up with, like, everything in my dorm.”

In another post, advertising Smile Direct Club — a company that sells dental aligners — Olivia Jade wrote: “For back-to-school season, I’ve been using a doctor-directed, at-home invisible aligner treatment.”

She was criticized in August after posting a video  in which she said that she was only going to college for “gamedays, partying.”

“I don’t really care about school, as you guys all know,” she said.

Although Olivia Jade is not mentioned by name in the indictment, after it became public on Tuesday, commenters bombarded her Instagram page with criticism related to the scandal.

‘WE ARE NO LONGER WORKING WITH LORI LOUGHLIN’

On March 14, the day after Loughlin was arrested, the Hallmark Channel announced it was cutting ties with the actress. “We are no longer working with Lori Loughlin,” the network said in a statement, adding that it had halted development of all productions she was involved with.

Loughlin’s work for the Hallmark Channel defined her career in recent years. She was one of the network’s “Christmas queens,” starring in its popular holiday movies. She also appeared in When Calls the Heart, the Hallmark series about a teacher working in a coal mining town deep in the Canadian frontier in the early 1900s, which she was taping in Canada when the scandal broke.

Her arrest stood in stark contrast with the channel’s sentimental, values-oriented programming. It had practical ramifications, as well: Loughlin has surrendered her passport to authorities and can no longer travel to Canada for shooting.

HOW THE SCAM WORKED

At the center of the sweeping financial crime and fraud case was William Singer, the founder of a college preparatory business called the Edge College & Career Network, also known as The Key. Singer used The Key and its nonprofit arm, Key Worldwide Foundation (KWF), to help students cheat on their standardized tests, and to pay bribes to the coaches who could get them into college with fake athletic credentials.

“Singer’s foundation purported to be a charitable organization, but was actually a front Singer used to launder the money that parents paid him,” said Lelling.

Appearing in federal court in Boston on Tuesday, Singer  — who pleaded guilty to counts of racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and obstruction of justice — described how he arranged for students to sit for the exams in Houston or Los Angeles, where his test proctor would correct their answers after they were done. Parents who hired Singer as part of the scheme allegedly paid between $15,000 and $75,000 per test, the indictment states. Huffman discussed the alleged scheme in a recorded phone call with Singer, according to court documents.

Singer also fabricated athletic credentials for students to submit with their applications, including teams the students had not played on and honors they had not won, and featuring doctored photographs that combined the applicants’ faces with images of athletes found on the internet.

One of the prosecutors, Eric S. Rosen, said that Singer had also in some cases falsified students’ ethnicities and other biographical details to take advantage of affirmative action.

Parents paid Singer about $25 million from 2011 until February 2019 to bribe coaches and university administrators.

Read more at CNN and The New York Times, including the full indictment.

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03.13.19

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