Civil partnerships: First mixed-sex unions to take place


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PA Media

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Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan won a legal bid for the right to have a civil partnership

Thousands of heterosexual couples in England and Wales are expected to enter into civil partnerships later today. The unions will take place after a long legal battle against the law which had only permitted same-sex couples to become civil partners. The partnerships offer almost identical rights as marriage, including property, inheritance and tax entitlements.The government estimates 84,000 mixed-sex couples could become civil partners next year.The changes come after heterosexual couple Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan won their legal bid at the Supreme Court in 2018 for the right to have a civil partnership instead of a marriage.As a result, rules were changed to extend civil partnerships – available to same-sex couples since 2005 – to everyone.

Five years after being refused permission to give notice of a heterosexual civil partnership, Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan will finally become civil partners today. Their conscientious objection to marriage and what they saw as its patriarchal associations led to a lengthy legal battle culminating in a unanimous Supreme Court ruling last year that the law was discriminatory and breached their right to a family and private life. The government changed the law, opening such a union to the majority of the UK’s 3.3 million co-habiting heterosexual couples. Many believe they are already protected by so-called “common law marriages”, but these do not exist. As a result, they do not enjoy the same property, inheritance and tax entitlements as married couples and civil partners. The government estimates as many as 84,000 mixed sex couples could become civil partners this year, giving them greater rights and protections within their relationships, without having to get married.

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Julie Thorpe and Keith Lomax are among thousands of opposite sex couples that are set to enter into a civil partnership

Another couple, Julie Thorpe, 61, and Keith Lomax, 70, said they were looking forward to being among the first mixed-sex people to officially enter a civil partnership – but it would not change their relationship “one jot”. The couple from near Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, have been living together for most of their 37-relationship and have three children.They will have a civil partnership ceremony at a register office in Halifax.Ms Thorpe said: “It won’t change our relationship one jot. It will not make any difference to how we behave towards each other when we get up the next day.”We have had a very successful relationship for 37 years and a bit of paper is not going to make any difference to that whatsoever. It does give us some legal protection within that relationship.”Mr Lomax, a human rights lawyer, added: “It is a mutual celebration of all of those and also of the people who actually brought the case to court and changed the law in the first place, because that was a very brave and bold thing to do at considerable financial risk.”



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'Man on the Moon' moment – the year's big breakthroughs



It has been a remarkable year of promise in medical science – from inventing ways of treating the untreatable to reversing paralysis and keeping the brain alive after death.

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Fonds de dotation Clinatec

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Thibault was able to move his arms and legs when in the exoskeleton

“It was like [being the] first man on the Moon,” said 30-year-old Thibault.He was describing the moment he was able to take his first steps since being paralysed in a fall two years ago.He can now move all four of his paralysed limbs with a mind-controlled exoskeleton suit. His movements, particularly walking, are far from perfect and the robo-suit is being used only in the lab.But researchers say the approach could one day improve patients’ quality of life.

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Media captionMind-controlled exoskeleton allows paralysed 30-year-old man to walk in French lab
Paralysed man moves in mind-reading exoskeletonMeanwhile, nerves inside paralysed people’s bodies have been “rewired” to give movement to their arms and hands.Patients in Australia can now feed themselves, put on make-up, turn a key, handle money and type at a computer.’Rewiring nerves’ reverses hand and arm paralysisA unique drug made for just one girl with unprecedented speed

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Boston Children’s Hospital

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Mila had untreatable Batten disease until doctors designed a medicine just for her

Mila Makovec’s doctors have performed a seemingly impossible feat – a girl with a deadly brain disease has been given a unique drug that was invented from scratch just for her and all in less than a year.She was diagnosed with fatal and untreatable Batten disease.The eight-year-old’s medical team in Boston performed whole-genome sequencing – a detailed interrogation – on Mila’s DNA, her genetic code, and uncovered a unique mutation that was causing her disease.Having seen the fault, the researchers thought it might be possible to treat it.They designed a drug, tested it on Mila’s cells and on animals in the laboratory and won approval to use it from the US Food and Drug Administration.Drugs normally take about a decade and a half to get from the laboratory, go through clinical trials and get to patients.The US team got there in a year.Mila is now having far fewer seizures, although she is not cured.Batten disease: Unique drug for a girl with deadly brain diseaseGene-silencing drugs arrive

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Sue Burrell

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Sue Burrell no longer has severe bouts of pain

A new class of medicine – called gene silencing – has shown its ability to reverse previously untreatable diseases.A gene is part of our DNA that contains the blueprint for making proteins, such as hormones, enzymes or raw building materials.But our DNA is locked away inside a cell’s nucleus and kept apart from a cell’s protein-making factories.So our bodies use a short strand of genetic code, called messenger RNA, to bridge the gap and carry the instructions.Gene-silencing drugs kill the messenger. Sue Burrell no longer has bouts of severe pain caused by her acute intermittent porphyria.And Vincent and Neil Nicholas are both taking gene silencing medicines for a disease called amyloidosis.

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Vincent and Neil Nicholas are both taking gene-silencing medicines

Viruses to the rescue

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Jo Carnell Holdaway

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Isabelle Carnell Holdaway is taking a cocktail of viruses to fight dangerous bacteria in her body

Isabelle Carnell Holdaway’s life was saved by an experimental cocktail of viruses.The teenager’s body was being attacked by deadly and seemingly untreatable bacteria and she was given less than a 1% chance of survival.She had big, black, festering lesions forming on her skin where the infection was taking hold.And she ended up in intensive care when her liver started failing, with large colonies of bacteria forming in her body.But doctors at Great Ormond Street Hospital attempted an untested “phage therapy”, which uses viruses to infect and kill bacteria.Phage-therapy never became mainstream medicine and the field was eclipsed by the discovery of antibiotics, which are much easier to use.But now phage-therapy is having a resurgence due to the rise of superbugs that are resistant to antibiotics.Isabelle’s case could be the first of many. Phage therapy: ‘Viral cocktail saved my daughter’s life’A new approach to cancer

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Charlotte Stevenson was treated with a tumour-agnostic drug

Charlotte Stevenson, a two-year-old from Belfast, was one of the first patients to benefit from a “revolutionary” new class of cancer drugs.Tumour-agnostic drugs do not care where the cancer is growing in the body as long as it has a specific genetic abnormality inside.The first, called larotrectinib, has been approved for use across Europe. It is designed to target tumours with a genetic abnormality known as an NTRK gene fusion.They can be found in Charlotte’s sarcoma as well as some brain, kidney, thyroid and other cancers.Meanwhile…Cancer immunotherapy has reached a huge milestone.The medicine uses a patient’s own immune system to fight cancer and is a story we have followed closely. Now more than half of patients are surviving a deadly skin cancer (melanoma) that was considered untreatable just a decade ago.Ten years ago just one in 20 patients would live for five years after being diagnosed with late-stage melanoma. Most would die in months.It has been an extraordinary and rapid transformation in care.
‘Revolutionary’ new class of cancer drugs approved
Skin cancer: Half of people surviving advanced melanoma
A first drug to slow dementia?

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A pharmaceutical company says it has developed the first drug to slow Alzheimer’s disease

A US pharmaceutical company says it has developed the first drug to slow Alzheimer’s disease. The drug, called aducanumab, is an antibody that clears toxic proteins that build up in the brain.The announcement in October was a massive surprise, as the firm Biogen had written off the drug in only March this year.Then it reviewed the evidence to show that those taking the highest dose did benefit and retained more memory and language ability and were better at day-to-day tasks such as cleaning, shopping and doing laundry.If the drug is approved, which is not guaranteed, it would be one of the most significant moments in modern medicine. First drug that can slow Alzheimer’s dementiaA new type of dementiaMeanwhile, experts think they have found a new form of dementia and millions may have been wrongly diagnosed. Dementia is a symptom found in many diseases of the brain and memory loss is the most common feature. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and others include vascular dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies, fronto-temporal dementia, Parkinson’s disease dementia, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Now “limbic-predominant age-related TDP-43 encephalopathy” or more simply “Late” has been added to the list.
New type of dementia identified
Dementia: The greatest health challenge of our time
Separating twins

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Media captionThe battle to separate Safa and Marwa
One of our most followed stories of the year was the separation of two conjoined twins. Safa and Marwa were born joined at the skull and they had never been able to see each other’s faces.There are no official figures for how often this happens, but one estimate says craniopagus conjoined twins are born once in every 2.5 million births. Most do not live longer than a day.To separate them required multiple surgeries, months of hard work and the expertise of hundreds of hospital workers.The battle to separate Safa and MarwaPig brains partially revived four hours after death

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The findings could lead to new treatments for brain damage

The line between life and death became fuzzy in 2019.Pig brains were partially revived four hours after the animals were slaughtered. The study showed the death of brain cells could be halted and that some connections in the brain were restored. The feat was performed by rhythmically pumping a synthetic blood around the decapitated brains. The surprise findings challenge the idea that the brain goes into irreversible decline within minutes of the blood supply being cut off and could lead to new treatments for brain damage and disorders.However, there were no signals from the brain that would indicate awareness or consciousness. Pig brains partially revived four hours after deathA new tool to manipulate DNA

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Prime editing allows precise changes to be made to DNA

A new way of editing the code of life could correct 89% of the errors in DNA that cause disease. The technology, called prime editing, has been described as a “genetic word processor” able to accurately re-write the genetic code.It is a bit like pressing Ctrl-F to find the bit of text you want to change, then pressing Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V to copy over the new text (or the command key if you’re a Mac user).There are some 75,000 different mutations that can cause disease in people and the researchers say prime editing can fix nearly nine in 10 of them. It has already been used to correct damaging mutations in the lab, including those that cause sickle cell anaemia and Tay-Sachs disease (a rare and fatal nerve condition).Prime editing: DNA tool could correct 89% of genetic defectsGiving people a voice again

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Alamy

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Electrodes read the electrical activity in the brain

Scientists have developed a brain implant that can read people’s minds and turn their thoughts to speech.First an electrode is implanted in the brain to pick up the electrical signals that manoeuvre the lips, tongue, voice box and jaw.Then powerful computing is used to simulate how the movements in the mouth and throat would form different sounds.This results in synthesised speech coming out of a “virtual vocal tract”.It is not perfect.If you listen to this recording of synthesised speech:

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Media captionListen to speech decoded from brain activity
You can tell it is not crystal clear (the recording says “the proof you are seeking is not available in books”). The team at the University of California, San Francisco says the technology could help people when disease robs them of their ability to talk.’Exhilarating’ implant turns thoughts to speechE cigarettes do help smokers quit

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There have been some 50 vaping and e-cigarette-related deaths in the US this year

Vaping has been under intense scrutiny this year.More than 2,400 people have needed hospital treatment, and there have been 50 deaths, in the US from “e-cigarette or vaping product use-associated lung injury”.Meanwhile, a teenage boy nearly died after vaping caused a catastrophic reaction in his lungs.But experts have continued to stress vaping is safer than smoking tobacco and this year came proof that vaping helps smokers quit. A trial, in the New England Journal of Medicine, found 18% of smokers who used them to quit remained smoke-free after a year, compared with 9.9% of those using traditional nicotine-replacements.Other things that caught our eye:

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Media captionWatch how the foetus jumps around inside the womb in MRI scan footage
* Researchers have produced unprecedented images of a baby’s heart while it is still inside the womb.* Measles has a devastating impact on the body’s immune system that could make it harder to fight infections for years.* The origins of the eating disorder anorexia nervosa are in both the mind and the body, with changes hardwired into some people’s DNA altering the way they processed fats and sugars.* The ultimate limit of human endurance has been worked out by scientists analysing a 3,000-mile run, the Tour de France and other elite events.* A diet rich in bananas, chickpeas and peanuts can boost good gut bacteria to help malnourished children grow.* People keep making new brain cells throughout their lives (well at least until the age of 97), according to a study on human brains.* A “pumping” patch containing millions of living, beating stem cells could help repair the damage caused by a heart attack.* A fungus – genetically enhanced to produce spider toxin – can rapidly kill huge numbers of the mosquitoes that spread malaria.* Supercooling human livers to -4C triples the time they can be kept before transplant compared with putting them on ice.* It may not come as a surprise, but the food we eat is putting 11 million of us into an early grave each year.* Scientists have taken cancer apart piece by piece to reveal its weaknesses, and come up with new ideas for treatment.* Nearly everyone can lower their risk of dementia by up to a third, even if it runs in the family, by living a healthy lifestyle.Follow James on Twitter.



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Tech 2019: Our biggest technology stories


As 2019 splutters to a close, it’s time for our annual lookback at our most-read tech stories, and to ask: “What happened next?”.Facebook and its family of apps dominates this year’s list with four entries – it probably won’t be a surprise that none of them were particularly brand-enhancing. The Chinese viral video app TikTok makes the cut for the first time. And many of the other “big tech” names are there too in one form or another.But there are a few notable exceptions. Neither Elon Musk nor Tesla made it, despite the window-smashing launch of the Cybertruck and plans to hack our brains. Google’s co-founders were originally on the list after deciding to give up day-to-day control of their empire, but were squeezed out just before publication.Video gaming also missed out, even though Prince Harry attracted lots of attention for suggesting Fortnite should be banned.And both Huawei and Samsung are absent, even though the former’s loss of Google’s apps and the latter’s folding phone fiasco were two of the year’s standout developments.In any case, here’s what attracted most eyeballs in each month of the year:January: When three becomes one

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A leak forced Facebook to reveal plans to merge the behind-the-scenes tech of messaging on WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram. The effort was reported to be a pet project of chief executive Mark Zuckerberg. He later justified the move saying it would draw the three products closer together, making it easier for users to send posts between them. Furthermore, he said it would also help the firm expand its end-to-end encryption features, which help keep the messages secure. Many observers noted, however, the action would also make it more difficult to split the company apart. And as the year went on that became a growing threat, with first Senator Elizabeth Warren and then other Democratic presidential candidates suggesting Facebook has too much power and influence.But it may not take a change of administration for Mr Zuckerberg’s ambitions to be thwarted. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the Federal Trade Commission may intervene to prevent the apps being integrated.

February: Don’t be scared

Social media, the mainstream news and even the police all got in a tizzy over Momo for no good reason in February. It was claimed that youngsters’ social media accounts were being “hacked” to show the bulging-eyed monster alongside “challenges” that would put their lives at risk. Online articles followed, linking more than 100 teenagers’ deaths in Russia to the sensation. Except, of course, there was no evidence to back up any of this. This was not even the first time an image of the Japanese bird-woman sculpture had gone viral. There had been a similar smaller-scale scare in 2018 when the “game” had been linked to deaths in South America and India – again without any documented proof. Pundits described it as a “panic [that] won’t go away”. Except it did. These days a search for Momo on Twitter turns up ads for masks of the ghoul, but little else. And on TikTok the hashtag #momochallenge surfaces videos of people cooking and eating small dumplings that go by the same name in parts of Asia.

March: Turn it off and on again

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Facebook’s family of apps experienced 14 hours of disruption, in what was billed as their “most severe outage” to date. In many cases, users were unable to access the services at all over the period. And it took the firm about another 10 hours to give itself the all-clear, at which point it tweeted that a “server configuration change” had been to blame. That allowed it to deny suggestions that it had been hacked, while remaining suitably vague about the actual cause.

April: How did they get in?

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Cyber-security experts despaired after a study indicated that the most popular online password was “123456”. The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre’s finding came with a warning that the string of digits is not only easy to guess, but would be one of the first codes tested by automated hacking tools. The public is advised to instead register a different complex login for each service they join, and use a password manager. But the hassle involved in having to copy and paste them in each time, has encouraged the adoption of biometric tests that automate the process if users pass a face, eyes or fingerprint ID check.Another alternative is to log in via another platform and let it do the heavy lifting. And in September, Apple joined the party when it allowed users to access third-party apps via a new Sign In With Apple button, mirroring earlier efforts by Google, Facebook and Twitter.

May: WhatsApp cracked

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When WhatsApp confirmed that a vulnerability in its app had been exploited to install surveillance software on victims’ phones, one of the immediate questions was how widespread the attack had been. It took until October to get some clarification, at which point Facebook said it believed about 1,400 of its users had been directly compromised. It added that they included “at least 100 human rights defenders, journalists and other members of civil society” across at least 20 countries. The tech firm alleges NSO Group, an Israeli private security firm, is responsible and is currently suing it in the US courts. NSO disputes the claim and has said it will “vigorously fight” the case. Whatever the outcome, the affair highlighted that if an attacker can load spyware onto a target’s phone or other device, end-to-end encryption and other security measures may be in vain.

June: The death of Etika

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Brooklyn-based Desmond “Etika” Amofah had a large online following, thanks to his quick wit and Nintendo video-game reaction videos on YouTube and Twitch. But in mid-June he caused concern when he posted a clip in which he discussed suicide. Days later the New York City Police Department confirmed he had killed himself. Several of his friends and colleagues have since taken steps to memorialise him. An online store sells goods branded with his logo, and donates its profits to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. YouTuber PewDiePie also teamed up with actor Jack Black to raise further funds for the charity in Etika’s name. Others have marked the tragedy by getting themed tattoos. A still active Twitter account – @Etika – was created to keep his memory alive. And last month, a large mural was unveiled in Brooklyn featuring the gamer’s face alongside a pair of Nintendo Switch controllers. Most recently, YouTube faced complaints for not referencing the late creator in its Rewind recap of the year. “No one should be surprised that YouTube still doesn’t understand its platform,” posted one frustrated user. In any case, Etika’s claim in his final video that “this world’s gonna forget me” shows no sign of coming true any time soon.If you’ve been affected by a mental health issue, help and support is available. Visit BBC Action Line for more information about support services.

July: Photo glitches

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Further technical problems at Facebook HQ prevented users being able to upload new photos and videos to its apps, and in some cases prevented existing ones being viewable. The disruption lasted for about nine hours. Facebook never really explained the cause, beyond saying it had been triggered by a maintenance operation.Other smaller glitches persisted throughout the year, including intermittent outages in the US on Thanksgiving.But given that it now serves more than 2.4 billion users who log into at least one of its services once a month, it is a considerable feat of engineering to keep everything ticking along.

August: iPhone booby traps

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Studies indicate that Apple’s mobile devices face fewer serious cyber-security threats than Android-powered equivalents. So when Google revealed that hackers were using booby-trapped websites to exploit previously unidentified flaws in iOS, potentially affecting “thousands of visitors per week”, it was big news. Google added that compromised handsets made it possible for the perpetrators to steal private messages, photos and location data in real-time.For days there was speculation about who might have been exposed. Apple eventually released a statement saying it believed that fewer than a dozen websites focused on “content related to the Uighur community” had been affected. Many took this to suggest that the Chinese state was involved. However, Apple did not explicitly draw this conclusion itself, which was unsurprising given its ties to the country.This was not Apple’s only Uighur-related controversy this year. The campaign group Sum of Us has repeatedly claimed that the firm’s willingness to comply with a Chinese ban on virtual private network (VPN) apps has made it harder for civil rights defenders to safely discuss claims of abuses against the ethnic minority. The organisation now plans to raise the matter at Apple’s next annual shareholders’ meeting.

September: More cameras

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Media captionWATCH: Taking a slowfie with the iPhone 11
The iPhone 11 range got more cameras, longer-lasting batteries and a new “pro” moniker for the top-of-the-range models. But there was no 5G – despite Samsung, Huawei and other rivals having already launched compatible smartphones. And whispers that Apple chief executive Tim Cook might be ready to unveil an augmented reality headset accessory, proved to be unfounded. Market watchers have since reported the iPhones sold better than they expected – particularly in the US and Western Europe.And there is now talk of 2020 being the year of an “iPhone supercycle” thanks to an expected revamped design along with the introduction of 5G.

October: Jedi wars

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Amazon – and many outsiders – thought it had the strongest bid for a high-profile contract to provide the Pentagon with cloud computing and artificial intelligence services. So there were shockwaves when Satya Nadella’s Microsoft clinched the so-called Jedi deal instead. It could be worth as much as $10bn (£7.7bn) over time.Not only was this a big sum to miss out on, but Microsoft’s marketing team should also find it easier to pitch the firm’s Azure services to other government departments and private companies as a consequence. This could put Amazon Web Services’ current status as the market leader under strain.Amazon is challenging the award, claiming that President Trump pressured the Department of Defense into rejecting its bid because of a personal vendetta against its chief executive Jeff Bezos.All of this could all have ramifications for the 2020 presidential election. Regulation of big tech is already on the agenda, and Amazon could make a tempting target for Mr Trump during the campaign.But if Mr Bezos believes the Republican leader’s re-election could threaten his business, his status as one of the world’s richest men and the owner of the Washington Post could make him a formidable foe.

November: The eyes have it

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Media captionWATCH: Feroza Aziz rejects TikTok’s explanations for blocking her from its app
At the start of the year, TikTok was fairly obscure beyond its core teenage audience. These days it is one of the most talked about apps. It has launched one meme after another, and earned a reputation as being one of the most joyous places to be on the internet. But there are also concerns about it being Chinese-owned.Matters came to a head last month when an American teenager posted a video that started off like an eyelash beauty tutorial. But creator Feroza Aziz quickly changed tack to criticise China’s treatment of the Uighurs.Her clip went viral. Shortly afterwards, the 17-year-old discovered she had been blocked from posting new material. And soon after that, TikTok took the clip offline.Then the social network reversed course. It put back the clip, blaming the removal on a “human moderation error”. And it re-established Ms Aziz’s access, saying that she had been locked out because of unrelated past behaviour. The app insisted that there had been no attempt to suppress criticism of the Chinese government’s actions, but Ms Aziz was not convinced.She has continued to flag concern about the Uighurs. And in her latest “skin care” video also raises awareness about India’s controversial citizenship law, which offers illegal immigrants from nearby countries amnesty but only if they are non-Muslims – something she claims is “immoral”. For whatever reason, the post has attracted far more views on Twitter and Instagram than the copy posted to TikTok.Meanwhile, TikTok bosses are reportedly looking for a new global headquarters outside of China to help reinforce their claims to autonomy. But the app’s owner Bytedance has denied rumours that it might sell off the division to give it true independence.

December: Age of the Splinternet?

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It’s been a long while since the internet was a free-for-all, in which governments had little ability to restrict what their citizens did online. Even so, Russia’s announcement that it had successfully tested what it terms a “sovereign internet” still felt like a significant moment.The initiative involves forcing all web traffic through special nodes – a term for network connection points – where content can be filtered to remove what is deemed to be risky material. Furthermore, the intention is that in an “emergency” all data from outside the country could be blocked and the Runet – a term for the Russian internet – isolated.The achievement is described in the state media as a way to protect domestic companies and government bodies from cyber-attacks. But human rights campaigners warn that once the effort is up and running, the Kremlin may also use it to limit Russian people’s access to “undesirable” information.In doing so, the Russian government would be following the path of its counterparts in China, Saudi Arabia and Iran, which all censor dissenting voices. And it would be following a wider trend. The US-based Freedom House digital rights group has warned that global internet freedom declined for a ninth consecutive year in 2019. Beyond Russia, it highlighted Kazakhstan, Sudan and Brazil as examples of places where digital surveillance, targeted cyber-attacks and/or online disinformation campaigns were cause for concern.We should hear more about Russia’s effort once President Putin has had a chance to examine the results of the tests, and decides how to proceed. For now, a Kremlin spokesman has denied it has any intention of “cutting the internet” up into separate parts.



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Australia: Volunteer firefighter killed by 'freakish' wind


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Reuters

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Volunteers are working to put out a growing number of “spot fires”, which spring from larger blazes

It was a “freakish weather event” that killed a volunteer firefighter on Sunday, according to the New South Wales Rural Fire Service (RFS). Powerful winds near the New South Wales-Victoria border lifted his 10-tonne truck off the ground and flipped it over, the service said. Samuel McPaul, 28, was a newlywed who was expecting his first child. In total, 10 people have died in the nation’s bushfire crisis since September.Earlier in December, two volunteer firefighters died while battling a blaze near Sydney.”To lose one of our own in such extraordinary circumstances is just tragic,” said RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons of the latest death.Mr McPaul died at the scene, while the driver received minor burns and a third person suffered more serious burns.A second vehicle was also blown over in the same area and the firefighters on board were taken to hospital, the service said.

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Media captionVolunteer firefighters talk about compensation payments controversy
Meteorologists say a climate system in the Indian Ocean, known as the dipole, is the main driver behind the extreme heat in Australia.Temperatures exceeded 40C (104F) in every state at the start of the week, with strong winds and lightning strikes bolstering the flames.

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Media captionThe shocking aftermath of the bushfires in Balmoral -the town almost razed to the ground
On Tuesday morning, Commissioner Fitzsimmons said extraordinary fire behaviour overnight meant there was “every chance” more fires will flare up, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.”I understand the bureau are looking to updating the forecast to be slightly worse than they thought was the case yesterday afternoon,” he said.

Meanwhile, the state of Victoria has seen mass evacuations. Residents in three Melbourne suburbs – Bundoora, Greensborough and Mill Park – have been warned of a fast-moving fire. A spokesman for Emergency Management Victoria, Luke Hegarty, told the BBC those that remain in East Gippsland have now been told it is too late to leave. The main road out of the area has been closed and firefighters withdrawn. “Unfortunately it appears that our concerns have been realised this afternoon. These fires have continued to grow and now for a very large part of East Gippsland our advice to people is that it is too late to leave – they need to be sheltering inside their homes,” he said.He added that the fires are continuing to spread. “The fires are also starting new fires ahead of them which we call spot fires, so bits of bark, leaves and the like, that blow ahead of the main fire front and start new fires,” he said. What about the other states?In South Australia, crews have battled other “catastrophic” fire conditions in a wine region north-east of Adelaide.The island state of Tasmania also struggled to contain bushfires amid a sweltering heatwave. Hobart, the state’s capital, experienced its hottest December day on record on Monday, when temperatures hit 40.8C.Have you been told to evacuate? Email haveyoursay@bbc.co.uk.Please include a contact number if you are willing to speak to a BBC journalist. You can also contact us in the following ways:
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Nissan's ex-head Carlos Ghosn in surprise Lebanon arrival


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Reuters

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Official sources have not yet confirmed that Mr Ghosn has left Japan, where he was awaiting trial

Former Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn has reportedly travelled to Lebanon after leaving Japan, media outlets say.The Financial Times newspaper quotes an associate of Mr Ghosn’s saying the businessman landed in Beirut on Sunday. There is no official confirmation.Mr Ghosn was arrested over allegations of financial misconduct in 2018 and faces several charges. It is unclear how we has able to leave Japan where he was on bail pending trial. He denies any wrongdoing.Whether he has struck a deal with prosecutors or fled is unknown. The businessman holds French and Lebanese passports.

Carlos Ghosn: The driven ‘cost killer’
Carlos Ghosn and Japan’s ‘hostage justice’ system
French newspaper Les Echos reports that he allegedly arrived in a private jet which flew to Lebanon from Turkey – although this is also unconfirmed. And the Wall Street Journal quotes a source who says Mr Ghosn fled Tokyo.His lawyers have accused the Japanese government of conspiring against him, calling the prosecution’s case “politically motivated”.Once considered a hero in Japan for turning around Nissan – and becoming the subject of a comic book there – Mr Ghosn spent 108 days in custody after his arrest in Tokyo in November 2018. While he has since been released, he was under strict bail conditions and could not leave Japan.He faces four charges – including an allegation by Nissan that he diverted money for his own gain. Nissan sacked him three days after his arrest.Japan’s Foreign Minister Keisuke Suzuki visited Beirut on 20 December.

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Media captionCarlos Ghosn said in April he had been the victim of “backstabbing”



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PDC Darts Championship: Peter Wright reaches final with victory over Gerwyn Price




Wright and Price did not shake hands at the end of the matchScotland’s Peter Wright reached his first PDC World Championship final since 2014 with a 6-3 victory over Gerwyn Price.The 49-year-old will face defending champion Michael van Gerwen or Nathan Aspinall in the final at Alexandra Palace on New Year’s Day.Wright eased past Welsh third seed Price with 16 180s and a 98.39 average. “I just focused,” Wright told Sky Sports. “I’ve got to play better than that to win this, and I think I will.”He added: “We were winding each other up before the match. “[Price] said he was going to win the first two sets. I like him, but I didn’t appreciate what he did.”That’s why I didn’t celebrate. He wanted me to concentrate, I concentrated, he lost.”His average wasn’t that good. He was nowhere near me. It spurred me on.Wright lost to three-time winner Van Gerwen in the final five years ago but vowed to exact revenge if the Dutchman beat England’s Aspinall in Monday’s second semi-final.”I’m not going to throw it away again,” he said. “I’ve matured over all these years.”I believe I can hit anything I want.”



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Ayia Napa: Foreign Office 'concerned' over Briton found guilty over rape claim


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AFP

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The woman covered her face as she arrived to hear the verdict

The UK is “seriously concerned about the fair trial guarantees” in the case of a British woman convicted of lying about being gang-raped by 12 Israelis in Cyprus, the government said.A Foreign Office spokesman said the case in Ayia Napa was “deeply distressing” and it will raise the issue with Cypriot authorities.The teenager was found guilty on a charge of causing public mischief.She had been arrested after recanting a claim that she was raped in July. The 19-year-old had said Cypriot police made her falsely confess to lying about the incident at a hotel – but police denied this.The judge at the Famagusta District Court in Paralimni adjourned sentencing until 7 January. She could face up to a year in jail and a £1,500 fine, but her lawyers have asked for a suspended sentence.Lawyer Michael Polak, director of Justice Abroad which is assisting the woman, told BBC News that they will appeal the conviction.He said the retraction statement was given when no lawyer or translator was present, which he said was a breach of European human rights law.He also criticised the handling of the case by Judge Michalis Papathanasiou, who he said refused to hear any evidence about whether the alleged rape took place.

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Media captionLawyer Michael Polak described it as “a very worrying conviction”
Prosecutors said the woman willingly wrote and signed a statement retracting her claims 10 days after making the initial allegation.The woman told the court this happened under duress with the threat of arrest.As he delivered the verdict, Judge Papathanasiou said: “The defendant gave police a false rape claim, while having full knowledge that this was a lie,” adding that the teenager had tried to “mislead” the court in her testimony. He said “there was no rape or violence” and police had thoroughly investigated, “making all necessary arrests.”The judge said his decision was backed up by video evidence showing the 19-year-old having consensual sex and she “initially gave false statements” because she “felt embarrassed” when she realised members of the group were recording her.Her lawyers had argued that the video found on some of the Israelis’ phones showed her having consensual sex with one of the group while others tried to enter the room as she told them to leave.The mother of the teenager has called the verdict “absolutely astonishing” and “a nightmare”.In an interview with ITV News, she said: “I find myself kind of unable to believe the violations of human rights she’s experienced throughout the whole affair, particularly things like having no access to lawyers whilst being interrogated for hours on end over a Saturday night.”She said in contrast, the Israeli group had “legal representation within a matter of hours”.She added her daughter “seriously needs” to return to the UK for medical treatment for her post-traumatic stress disorder.One of the woman’s lawyers, Nicoletta Charalambidou, told reporters they planned to appeal against the decision to Cyprus’ Supreme Court, and if that failed they would take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.She said they “respectfully disagree” with the verdict, adding there had been “violations” of procedure and her client’s rights to a fair trial.

AnalysisJames Landale, diplomatic correspondent It is unusual for the Foreign Office to comment publicly on active legal proceedings against British nationals overseas. Officials normally want to avoid accusations of interference in the courts of a sovereign nation. Instead, they sometimes try to exert pressure quietly behind the scenes. So the fact the Foreign Office has chosen to intervene publicly is interesting. They may be calculating that a little public pressure now could have an impact on the sentencing decision by the judge next month.He could, for example, give the unnamed British woman a sentence equivalent to the more than four weeks she has already spent in a Cypriot jail. Certainly the FCO has been following this case very closely: staff have visited the woman a number of times during her detention, they have attended court hearings, and have been in regular contact with her legal representatives and the local authorities. There may also be political considerations: this is a high-profile case and the freshly-elected UK government may wish to be seen to be doing something to defend a British national facing what supporters claim is a miscarriage of justice.

The teenager had contacted police hours after claiming to have been raped on 17 July at the Pambos Napa Rocks Hotel.Twelve men were arrested in connection with the allegations but were later freed and returned home, after the woman retracted her claims.She was later arrested and appeared in court facing charges of public mischief by falsely accusing the group of raping her, to which she pleaded not guilty.The trial began at the start of October – with the verdict delayed until now.



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Costa del Sol: Pool deaths investigation can be closed, say Spanish police


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Facebook

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Gabriel Diya and his daughter, Comfort, died at a resort on the Costa del Sol

Police investigating the deaths of a British man and his two children in a pool at a resort on the Costa Del Sol have said the case can be closed after concluding their initial report.Gabriel Diya, 52, his daughter Comfort, nine, and his son Praise-Emmanuel, 16, drowned on Christmas Eve.A police spokesman described it as a freak accident and put it down to a lack of swimming ability.But Gabriel Diya’s wife, Olubunmi, wants the investigation to continue.Police have handed the conclusions of their initial report to a Spanish magistrate and the findings will be made public soon, according to the BBC’s Europe reporter, Gavin Lee.The spokesman said that, from what they have seen, there is no accountability on the part of the hotel.
Tributes paid to family who drowned at resort
Man and children drowned ‘in tragic accident’
However, police returned to the resort on Monday and were speaking to hotel staff. The BBC has been told that they want to speak to more eyewitnesses.Speaking to the BBC, Olubunmi’s lawyer, Javier Toro, questioned the thoroughness of the police investigation – and the recommendation it can be closed after one week.He said he will insist that the investigation continues.Mrs Diya has previously said that all three family members could swim and she believes there was a fault with the pool.The police spokesman’s comments come after a statement issued on Saturday, which said the incident was a “tragic accident” caused by a “lack of expertise” in swimming.They said divers retrieved Comfort’s swimming hat from the pool pump but investigators had found nothing wrong with the pool. An autopsy of the bodies found they died by drowning.The hotel operator, Club La Costa World, has said Mrs Diya’s claims were “directly at odds with the findings of the police report” and “their exhaustive investigations have confirmed the pool was working normally and there was no malfunction of any kind”.

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Reuters

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The sprawling Club La Costa World resort has several swimming pools

Mr Toro has previously told the BBC that many unanswered questions remained, including why no lifeguard was present at the time, which he claims could have saved the lives of the family.He said the first responders to the scene were three cleaners who could not swim, and that they had to wait several minutes to get help. Mr Toro said: “It’s very rare for three people to die in the centre of a swimming pool – especially in the case of a tall, hefty man.”The family is “not satisfied with the interpretation of it being a simple accident”, he added.”We do not discard the option of opening a parallel investigation through different engineers… to figure out what happened.”



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Teen's stolen ashes recovered in Cyprus after tearful call from thief


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Kinga Bebnarz

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Dennis died aged 19; the box containing his ashes, right

The ashes of a teenage boy, stolen from his family’s car, have been recovered after a tearful phone call from the alleged thief.Dennis Bebnarz’s family said they had hoped to scatter his remains somewhere “warm and beautiful” after his death.They chose Cyprus – but the container of his ashes was stolen from the back of the family’s car while they ate. Dennis’s mother, Kinga Bebnarz, said the thief phoned her in tears to apologise for the ordeal.He also described the location where police could find the ashes, she said.”The worst year of our life” The wooden box containing the ashes was inside a backpack that was taken from the Bebnarz’s car as they ate in a restaurant last week. Mr and Mrs Bebnarz – who originate from Poland but live in Sweden – travelled to Cyprus to scatter Dennis’s ashes there. They said they could not face Christmas at home without their son, who died in an accident five months ago. “We wanted to go away to find a warmer place to close the worst year of our life,” Ms Bebnarz told the BBC. The couple travelled to Poland on Sunday after abandoning hope of scattering their son’s ashes.Ms Bebnarz said she left her heart in Cyprus and feared Dennis’s ashes “were in the trash or something”. The couple issued an appeal through the media to the unknown thieves, begging them to return the ashes.She was “shocked” when the alleged thief rang her on Sunday evening, crying.He repeatedly apologised and told her where the box could be found so she could notify police, who then tracked it down near a motorway. It was embossed with Dennis’s name and the years of his birth and death: 2000-2019.

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The car was raided at Governor’s Beach near the town of Limassol (pictured)

Three Cypriots are now in custody, police have confirmed. They said two men and one woman face charges related to damaging and stealing from a car. “There is a happy ending”Ms Bebnarz told the BBC she she is not angry with the thief and prays “he will change his life”. “He’s got human emotions and a good heart,” she said. “There is a happy ending,” she said, and despite the terrible situation, the couple are now relieved. They will fly back to Cyprus tomorrow to collect Dennis’s ashes. Now that the box has been found, she said they will probably complete the ceremony after they fly back to Cyprus tomorrow. “We need to calm the emotions down first,” she said. “I haven’t slept since Friday.”But she said now that their son’s remains have been recovered, the couple feel “complete”.



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