US gymnast Simone Biles received immense support from Americans this week after announcing she would not be competing in the Team USA final, nor the women’s individual all-around gymnastics final, due to personal mental health concerns. At the same time, the 24-year-old has received backlash from many individuals who viewed her pull-out as weak.
Aaron Reitz, deputy attorney general for Texas, took to Twitter on Wednesday evening to issue an apology to Biles, and recant a statement in which he panned the record-setting US gymnast as a “national embarrassment.”
“In a moment of frustration and disappointment, I opined on subjects for which I am not adequately versed. That was an error. I can’t imagine what Simone Biles has gone through,” Reitz claimed. “Simone Biles is a true patriot and one of the greatest gymnasts of our time.”
“I apologize to her, and wish her well,” the deputy AG concluded, emphasizing that his “personal social media comments” do not represent the views of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, nor the Office of the Attorney General.
Reitz’s since-deleted tweet against Biles, who was born in Texas and still resides in the Lone Star State, quoted another post that applauded the 1996 Olympic performance of Team USA gymnast Kerri Strug. Strug, one of the US’ “Magnificent Seven,” severely injured her ankle during the first half of the vault competition, but refused to bow out of the event and ultimately led her team to win the US’ first gold medal in women’s gymnastics.
“Contrast this with our selfish, childish national embarrassment, Simone Biles,” Reitz said in his quote tweet.
Aaron Reitz is the deputy attorney general for legal strategy under AG @KenPaxtonTX.
This tweet, in which he calls fellow Texan Simone Biles a “national embarrassment,” came outside of work hours but he often tweets hot takes between 9a-5p.
The deputy AG’s attempt at using Strug’s story to chastise Biles fell flat, as the two-time Olympian threw her support behind the 24-year-old on Tuesday.
Furthermore, it is worth noting that Biles is no stranger to performing with adversity. When the US Women’s Gymnastics team took home gold at the 2018 World Championships in Qatar, Biles dominated in nearly every competition, despite intense stomach pains from what was later confirmed to be a kidney stone.
Despite her pull-outs this year, Biles has continued to root for her fellow Team USA gymnasts. She also expressed in a Wednesday social media post that “the outpouring [of] love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.”
Struggling to get by amid Venezuela’s runaway inflation, widespread shortages and rampant unemployment, a young woman left the city of San Félix for the promise of a job deep in the forests of Bolívar state.
The offer made on Facebook promised a good salary in exchange for working in a booming mining town.
Once there, however, she quickly realised she had been deceived. Rather than cooking, cutting hair and washing clothes, she was forced by armed men into selling her body to gold miners.
A landmark UN report on human rights abuses in Venezuela’s lawless mining arc has found evidence of widespread sex trafficking and violence against vulnerable women and children in the region. Many victims are lured to the mines with promises of work, and then pressured or forced into sex work.
“The situation in Bolívar state and other mining areas is deeply troubling,” said Patricia Tappatá Valdez, an author of the fact-finding report, which was presented in Geneva this week. “Local populations, including Indigenous peoples, are caught in the violent battle between state and armed criminal groups for the control of gold.”
Though the mining towns of Bolívar are sites of brutal massacres and are plagued with disease, UN investigators say that rumours proliferate in towns throughout Bolívar that the mines are the route to riches.
Once lured to the region, economically vulnerable women and girls are enslaved by criminal groups who steal their documents or threaten them with violence, rape or public shaming.
While men typically have their hands or fingers cut off for breaking the gangs’ rules, the report found that women are publicly shamed. Sex workers had their hair shaved off or were publicly stripped as a form of humiliation for trying to escape.
One witness told the mission that in September 2021 she saw at least 30 women with scars around their mouths or their ears sliced off. Labelled “the discarded ones”, their faces were cut by the gangs so they would be less attractive to clients.
“Getting into the mines is very easy for women,” another interviewee told the researchers. “The problem is to get out of there in one piece.”
The report found that the region’s bloated military forces are complicit, ignoring sex trafficking, and in some cases were responsible for the human rights violations.
Researchers collected numerous reports of soldiers not allowing women to pass checkpoints unless they performed sexual favours.
The 70 case studies in the report offer a harrowing illustration of how corruption and impunity have left the country’s most vulnerable groups – women, children and Indigenous populations – open to abuse from state forces.
In return for parcelling off land to armed gangs, Maduro’s inner circle siphons off most of the profits from drugs, gold and sex work, said Cristina Burelli, founder of the advocacy group SOS Orinoco.
“These are not autocrats, these are criminals,” she said. “These armed groups and the political and military power structures are completely enmeshed.”
The anarchic forests of the Orinoco are dangerous for NGOs and journalists to access, which meant the mission could not fully document the scale of the egregious human rights violations, Marta Valiñas, chair of the fact-finding mission told the Guardian.
The UN’s fact-finding mission on Venezuela expires on Friday and a vote on whether to extend the mandate will probably take place next week.
“There’s a high risk that the dynamics of violence are not only perpetuated but actually start becoming normalised, while at the same time impunity and the context of lawlessness ensures that the violations continue, or even worsen, leaving the populations in those regions completely unprotected,” said Valiñas.
Ten members voted in favor 10, one against and four others abstained.France holds the presidency of the Council for September.Ahead of the vote, US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield noted that in the event of the resolution being vetoed, the matter would be taken to the 193-member General Assembly.Russian Ambassador to the UN Vassily Nebenzia earlier remarked that the US-Albanian draft resolution demonstrates the West’s refusal to engage and cooperate within the Council. He called the draft a “low-grade provocation with a goal that is clear to all.”The Friday vote came hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin held a speech before lawmakers in Moscow on the accession of the Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporozhye regions.The Russian president also took the opportunity to call on Ukraine to respect the choices made by voters in favor of joining the Russian Federation, adding that Moscow would use all means to protect the newly independent territories.The Kherson, Zaporozhye and the Donbass republics will officially become part of Russia once lawmakers finalize legislation on their incorporation, and is signed by Putin.
UNITED NATIONS (Sputnik) – Russia vetoed on Friday a UN Security Council draft resolution designed to condemn Moscow for incorporating four former Ukrainian regions.
Ten members voted in favor 10, one against and four others abstained.
“The draft resolution has not been adopted owing to the negative vote of a permanent member of the Council,” French Ambassador to the UN De Riviere said at a UN Security Council meeting.
France holds the presidency of the Council for September.
Ahead of the vote, US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield noted that in the event of the resolution being vetoed, the matter would be taken to the 193-member General Assembly.
Russian Ambassador to the UN Vassily Nebenzia earlier remarked that the US-Albanian draft resolution demonstrates the West’s refusal to engage and cooperate within the Council. He called the draft a “low-grade provocation with a goal that is clear to all.”
The Friday vote came hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin held a speech before lawmakers in Moscow on the accession of the Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporozhye regions.
“I would like everyone, including the authorities in Kiev and their real masters in the West, to hear me and remember that the people of [the four territories] are becoming our citizens. Forever,” Putin said. “We call on the Kiev regime to immediately cease fire, cease all hostilities – the war it unleashed in 2014 and return to the negotiating table. We are ready for this,” Putin said.
The Russian president also took the opportunity to call on Ukraine to respect the choices made by voters in favor of joining the Russian Federation, adding that Moscow would use all means to protect the newly independent territories.
The Kherson, Zaporozhye and the Donbass republics will officially become part of Russia once lawmakers finalize legislation on their incorporation, and is signed by Putin.
Constantin, a 28-year-old internet installer, decided he had had enough. On Tuesday, he packed his gray Lada 110 and its roof rack with everything he feasibly could, then put his brother, his wife, his son and his daughter in the car and drove away, leaving behind his home in Ivanivka, a Russian-occupied town in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine. Tuesday was the last of five days during which Moscow had organized annexation referendums in the occupied zone and three other regions partially under the control of Russian troops to decide if those territories would become part of Russia. The Kremlin’s next step will be to impose mandatory enlistment from October 1 on men aged between 18 and 35, forcing them to fight in Russian uniform against Ukrainian forces defending their own country.
Constantin did not open the door of his home on Monday, when two armed men and a woman, a ballot box in her hand, went house to house to coerce residents into participating in the illegal vote. Neither does he intend to wear the uniform of his country’s enemy. The Kherson region has now been occupied for seven months and the ongoing war, which has resulted in insecurity, inflation and harsh living conditions, have now been brought to the doorsteps of residents suffering harassment in the face of the Kremlin’s designs. “I was scared,” Constantin admits, hours after arriving safely in Zaporizhzhia in the southeast of Ukraine.
Zaporizhzhia, capital of the eponymous region, is also playing host to officials of the Kyiv government who fled their municipalities after refusing to collaborate with the Russians. Moscow’s agenda “will not change our lives or those of our troops in any way. Berdyansk will remain Ukrainian. We will fight until victory”, says Viktor Tsukanov, the ousted head of the Berdyansk City Council. The 40-year-old, who served as mayor of the city before it was taken by Russian troops in February, plays down Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric. The Russian president plans to announce on Friday – unilaterally and without official backing from beyond Moscow – that the areas currently occupied by his soldiers in the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson will become part of Russia.
Nevertheless, thousands of Ukrainian citizens in the occupied zone, like Constantin and his family, are not waiting for Putin’s pronouncement. Long lines of vehicles trying to reach unoccupied soil resemble those of Russians fleeing their country to avoid being drafted and sent to fight in Ukraine after Putin ordered a partial mobilization in Russia, the country’s first since World War II. To reach Zaporizhzhia, refugees first have to navigate Vasylivka, where hundreds of vehicles are backed up. As dozens of interviewees attest, it is a kind of border hell of draconian controls where Russian troops go out of their way to make passage difficult for the population they have supposedly come to rescue from the “Nazism” of the Kyiv government. Constantin says he was forced to strip to his underpants so that the soldiers could examine his tattoos, as he has several that are clearly visible. It is the occupiers’ method of detecting patriotic or nationalistic symbolism not to their liking, and as such an excuse to make an arrest. Other men consulted by this newspaper described similar experiences.
Ina, 24, is Constantin’s wife. She deals as best she can with Danil, their four-year-old boy, while carrying little Vladislava, nine months old, in her arms. The family has arrived at a transit center set up in an abandoned factory, where they ill remain until they find a place to settle. There are several of these halfway houses in Zaporizhzhia, where refugees are organized according to their place of origin. At one point during the interview, Constantin gets up to help the rest of the volunteers unload a truck that has arrived carrying aid.
His wife recalles the hours they spent in Vasylivka with dread. They even tried to elicit sympathy from the Russian soldiers by pretending Danil had a broken leg. The worst of the four controls was the second, Ina says. There, the car was turned inside out and all of the family’s electronic devices were confiscated, even Danil’s tablet. The soldiers scanned social networks, phone contacts and Google and YouTube history, finding something they didn’t like on Ina’s cell phone. “One of the soldiers went crazy and starting shouting aggressively, telling me to get out of the car,” Ina recalls. “Please, I am a mother with two children, one with a broken leg. Let me go on,” she implored. Then came a moment that almost saw them turned back, as had happened to four of the cars that were part of their convoy of 16 vehicles. The Russians became suspicious of Artem, Constantin’s brother, because he wasn’t carrying a phone. In the view of the soldiers, that meant he had something to hide. The nightmare of fleeing through Vasylivka finally ended when they passed the last checkpoint, “which was controlled by Chechens,” says Ina with evident relief.
Also at the makeshift refugee center is Sergei Tatarnikov, a 36-year-old who walks leaning on an old wooden crutch with his left leg bandaged. He was wounded by shrapnel during an attack on August 24, Ukraine’s Independence Day, which was also the the six-month anniversary of the invasion. He was evacuated from Orikhiv, a town the Russians have not yet managed to capture but which is under a permanent state of siege. “It’s a war zone,” says Tatarnikov, who estimates that only 5% of Orikhiv’s 50,000 inhabitants remain there.
In the same facility where the former inhabitants of Berdyansk are receiving help, Irina, 44, recalls how in Vasylivka the Russian troops humiliated them by mocking the use of “Slava Ukaine!” (Glory to Ukraine) that the locals would greet each other with. Another Irina, a 69-year-old nursery school teacher, watched as her neighbor opened the door during the referendum, which the international community has branded a “farce,” and was forced to drop in a ballot. She was accompanied on the bus journey by her son-in-law, Oleksei, 38, a newspaper advertising employee who lost his job because of the war and is also fleeing the Russian draft. He recounts bitterly how “many” acquaintances and former classmates are now collaborating with the occupiers.
Night falls over the old Zaporizhzhia factory while dinner is distributed in the dining room provided by the NGO World Central Kitchen, led by the Spanish chef José Andres. Even at night the trickle of refugees arriving at the ten-storey high facility continues. Valentina, 65, a philologist with a doctorate in the Ukrainian language, managed to leave the city of Kherson by crossing the Dnieper River on a small ferry, one of few routes out after the bridge was bombed. Her group had to stop for two days in Vasylivka, where an old woman welcomed them into her home. “In Kherson most people are still with Ukraine. They are waiting for our army to arrive to liberate us”, says Valentina, a retiree who hopes that in Zaporizhzhia she will be able to recover her pension, which it is impossible to receive under the Russian occupying authorities. When she set out last Sunday, the ballot boxes of the illegal referendum were still being carried from house to house, with a military escort. “Only a few people opened the door to vote,” Valentina says, making it abundantly clear she was not one of them: “Of course I didn’t vote, damn them!”