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IOC call with Chinese tennis star Peng raises more questions

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A video call between Olympic officials and Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, whose nearly three-week disappearance from public view sparked an outcry, was meant to reassure the world that she was safe — but instead has raised more questions.

Concern grew in the last week for the former No. 1-ranked doubles player — who hadn’t been seen since accusing a senior Chinese official of sexual assault on Nov. 2. Tennis stars and fans alike demanded to know #WhereIsPengShuai, and the head of the Women’s Tennis Association threatened to pull lucrative events from China.

On Sunday, the International Olympic Committee said Peng spoke to officials, including IOC President Thomas Bach, in a 30-minute video call from Beijing. According to the organization’s statement, she reassured them that she was well and thanked them for their concern — while asking for privacy.

The IOC posted a photo that shows Bach facing a screen on which Peng appears but did not release video of the call. On the same day, China Open posted videos and photos of her appearance at a youth tennis tournament in Beijing that morning.

The photos and the IOC’s short statement, which offered few details and no follow-up on her allegations, seem unlikely to close the door on Peng’s case — and are already increasing criticism of the sports body’s decision to push ahead with the Beijing Winter Olympics, which open on Feb. 4.

Even after the statement was published Sunday, the WTA repeated what chairman and CEO Steve Simon has been saying for more than a week, calling for a full, fair and transparent investigation “without censorship.”

The IOC is already under pressure because of allegations that China has committed human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims, Tibetans, and other minorities. China denies the accusations. “We are firmly opposed to any words and deeds that politicize sports in violation of the Olympic spirit,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Monday, when asked about a possible boycott.

The Olympic body has responded to the criticism by saying its policy is “quiet diplomacy” and as recently as Saturday said it would “continue our open dialogue on all levels with the Olympic movement in China.”

The IOC may argue that its access to Peng shows that policy worked. But critics say the move makes the body an active partner in delivering Beijing’s message — while not providing Peng with an open forum to discuss her allegations.

Yaqiu Wang, a spokeswoman for Human Rights Watch, tweeted that the IOC is now “actively playing a role in the Chinese government’s enforced disappearance, coercion and propaganda machinery.”

An email seeking comment on criticism of the IOC’s handling of its contact with Peng was sent to the Olympic body.

This is the second time this year that the IOC has been in the spotlight for pushing ahead with an Olympics: Many wanted the body to call off the Summer Games in Tokyo because of concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. Critics note that IOC has a strong interest in holding the events because it generates 91% of its income from sponsors and selling broadcast rights at the Games.

Peng is just one of a number of Chinese businesspeople, activists and ordinary people who have disappeared in recent years after criticizing party figures or in crackdowns on corruption or pro-democracy and labor rights campaigns.

While the ruling Communist Party is quick to blot out any criticism, that this time it came from an athlete made it especially sensitive. State media celebrate athletes’ victories as proof the party is making China strong — and the party is vigilant about making sure they cannot use their prominence and public appeal to erode its image.

The tennis star accused a former member of the Communist Party’s ruling Standing Committee, Zhang Gaoli, of sexual assault in a social media post that was removed quickly.

She wrote in part: “I know that to you, vice minister Zhang Gaoli, a person of high status and power, you’ve said you’re not afraid. With your intelligence, you certainly will deny it or you can even use it against me, you can dismiss it without a care. Even if I’m destroying myself, like throwing an egg against a rock, or a moth flying into a flame, I will still speak out the truth about us.”

Concerns about the censoring of her post and her subsequent disappearance from public view grew into a furor, drawing comments from tennis greats like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams, and Martina Navratilova.

All the while, news of her allegations was blacked out at home. CNN reported that its signal in China had been blocked around reporting on Peng.

A search for her name Monday on Weibo, one of China’s leading social media platforms, produced only a few posts, and none that refer to the sexual assault allegation or the questions about her whereabouts.

Still missing is Zhang. He left public life about three years ago after being one of seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee — the apex of political power in China.

The WTA is the first sports body to defiantly stand up to China’s financial clout — in what many see as a sharp contrast to the IOC, which says it is powerless to intervene in China’s internal policies.

“The statements make the IOC complicit in the Chinese authority’s malicious propaganda and lack of care for basic human rights and justice,” Global Athlete, a lobby group for athletes, said in a statement.

“The IOC showed a complete disregard for allegations of sexual violence and abuse against athletes,” the statement said. “By taking a nonchalant approach to Peng Shuai’s disappearance and by refusing to mention her serious allegations of sexual assault, IOC President Thomas Bach and the IOC Athletes’ Commission demonstrate an abhorrent indifference to sexual violence and the well-being of female athletes.”

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More AP tennis coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports. More AP Winter Olympics coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/winter-olympics.

Stephen Wade, The Associated Press

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Florida man charged in Canada-U. S. human-smuggling scheme freed on appearance bond

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FARGO, N.D. — A Florida man charged for his role in a human-smuggling scheme that turned deadly at the Canada-U. S. border will be allowed to go home to await trial. 

Steve Shand, 47, waived his right to a preliminary hearing before U.S. district court Judge Hildy Bowbeer agreed to release him from a North Dakota detention centre. 

He faces human-smuggling charges after he was arrested near the border last week behind the wheel of a rented passenger van, not far from where a family of four was found frozen to death in the snow on the Canadian side. 

Shand, clad in orange prison garb and a black face mask, said little throughout the virtual hearing beyond “Yes, your Honour” and “Yes, ma’am” in response to Bowbeer’s questions. 

Shand was released on an appearance bond, meaning that while he must abide by a number of release conditions, he will be required to make his own way back to Minnesota for any in-person court hearings.

“Sometimes we do it by Zoom and sometimes we may be doing it in person, but however it is that a court hearing happens in this case, you’re going to have to show up for it,” Bowbeer said. 

“The fact that you’re living in Florida is not going to be an excuse for not showing up in Minnesota.”

He will also be required to surrender his passport and other related travel documents, submit to a mental-health assessment and remain in his home district in Florida except for court hearings. 

He is also forbidden from possessing any weapons and from having any contact with any witnesses or others associated with the case, and will be expected to abide by the law, Bowbeer said. 

“There’s this kind of snowballing set of consequences, all of them bad, if you were to commit some new offence while you’re on release,” she said.

Monday’s court decision was the product of an agreement between U.S. prosecutors and Shand’s defence lawyers, and resulted in the accused opting to waive his right to a preliminary hearing. 

Shand was arrested Jan. 19, the same day the bodies of four people, including an infant and a teenage boy, were discovered in the snow on the Canadian side of the border near Emerson, Man.

Investigators believe the four were part of a larger group of undocumented migrants from India who were trying to enter the U.S. from Canada.

The bodies were discovered Wednesday, shortly after U.S. Border Patrol agents pulled over a passenger van on the American side and found two other undocumented Indian nationals inside. 

At about the same time, agents encountered another group of five migrants, one of whom told the agents they had been walking through the snow and bitter cold for more than 11 hours. 

Department of Justice officials say the deaths are likely linked to a larger human smuggling operation — a phenomenon that’s practically a fact of daily life in the southern U.S., but rarely seen up north. 

Agents encountered the van “in a rural area on a dirt road in an area far away from any services, homes or ports of entry into Canada,” according to an affidavit by John Stanley, a special agent with the Department of Homeland Security. 

“He was driving through blowing snow and snow drifts. The weather was severe at the time, with high winds, blowing snow and temperatures well below (-34 C).”

Evidence detailed in the documents also suggest the group was not the first to recently make the perilous trek: twice in December and once in January, border patrol agents found boot prints in the snow near where the van was later pulled over. 

On Jan. 12, agents found prints that “matched the brand of the types of boots worn by five of the seven foreign nationals arrested in the current smuggling event,” the documents say. 

On or about Dec. 12 and Dec. 22, “two groups of four appeared to have walked across the border into the U.S. and were picked up by someone in a vehicle.” 

In the first incident, RCMP officers found a backpack at a location in Manitoba “believed to be the drop-off point” that contained a price tag in Indian rupees. 

A court file from Florida that dates back to 2018 shows that Shand, a naturalized citizen originally from Jamaica, filed for bankruptcy more than three years ago, reporting assets worth $193,343 and liabilities of nearly $160,000. 

Describing himself as an Uber driver, Shand’s assets at the time included two vehicles — a 2016 Toyota SUV and a 2014 Honda Civic — and the $161,957 single-family home in the central Florida community where he lives. 

Consular officials met over the weekend in Winnipeg to assist with the investigation and to help identify the migrants and track down family members. 

“A special team, led by a senior consular officer from the Consulate General of India in Toronto, is in Manitoba to assist ongoing investigations by Canadian agencies and to render any required consular services for the victims,” the High Commission of India said in a statement. 

“Confirmation of identities will only be possible after investigations are completed this week.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 24, 2022.

— With files from Kelly Geraldine Malone in Winnipeg

James McCarten, The Canadian Press


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CP NewsAlert: Calgary man who killed girlfriend found guilty of her toddler's death

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CALGARY — A judge has found a Calgary man who admitted to murdering his former girlfriend guilty of killing her daughter as well.

Robert Leeming had pleaded guilty to the second-degree murder of Jasmine Lovett in 2019, but not guilty in the death of 22-month-old Aliyah Sanderson.

But Court of Queen’s Justice Keith Yamauchi has convicted Leeming in the second-degree murder of Aliyah.

The judge says Leeming was not a believable witness and there is no doubt that he caused the injuries which led to the girl’s death.

Leeming testified he was looking after Aliyah when she fell down some stairs, and he found her limp and unresponsive when he checked on her later.

He said he snapped when Lovett accused him of doing something to her child, and struck her several times with a hammer before coming back with a rifle and shooting her in the head.

The bodies of the mother and child were found buried in a shallow grave west of Calgary.

More coming …

The Canadian Press

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