A man walks in front of a replica of Unha-3 rocket displayed at the Sci-Tech Complex in Pyongyang, North Korea. Photo by Damir Sagolj/Reuters

5 overlooked stories you should read now


A man walks in front of a replica of Unha-3 rocket displayed at the Sci-Tech Complex in Pyongyang, North Korea. Photo by Damir Sagolj/Reuters

Last week started with a potential nuclear standoff, saw two elections go down to the wire, and ended with scientists marching on seven continents in defense of, well, science.

As of this article's publishing, these events all remain unresolved.

Fortunately, the nuclear showdown was reduced to a simmer when it turned out U.S. warships hadn't actually been dispatched to counter North Korean sabre-rattling, as officials had claimed. Closely-watched elections in France and Georgia will move on to runoffs after no candidate could achieve a majority. (Consensus is hard to reach these days.) And for the moment, the future of science remains hypothetical.

What's not hypothetical are these five important stories that you likely missed among all the other headlines.

Activists from the group Chok3 stand next to a banner painted with their own blood during a protest against the constant discrimination and violence against the gay community in Chechnya and other regions of Russia, outside the Russian embassy in Mexico City, Mexico. Photo by Carlos Jasso/Reuters

1. More details of the anti-gay crackdown in Chechyna emerge. A spokesman for the region's leadership said gay men do not exist there.

At the start of April, an opposition newspaper in Russia, Novaya Gazeta, reported that authorities in Chechnya had been detaining and killing gay men in the region.

The newspaper reported that more than 100 men thought to be gay or bisexual had been arrested and taken to a state-sponsored detention center. Another three had been killed, possibly several more, in the anti-gay sweep in the conservative region.

Shortly after news of the police sweeps broke, an emergency hotline was created by the Saint Petersburg-based advocacy group Russian LGBT Network. More details of the crackdown emerged: Chechen authorities would beat, torture and subject the men to electric shocks. Some victims said they were lured by authorities, posing as friends, on social chat rooms. Under duress, the men were also coerced to give the names of their gay acquaintances.

As media took notice in the U.S., details of the crackdown were scarce. Reports were largely limited to Novaya Gazeta's initial story and local human rights activists who said there was a state-sponsored detention center that rounded up gay and bisexual men.

This was in direct contrast with the response from the spokesman for Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya's leader. Spokesman Alvi Karimov called the initial report of the crackdown "absolute lies and disinformation," saying that there is no anti-gay detention center in Chechnya because no gay men exist in the region.

"You cannot arrest or repress people who just don't exist in the republic," Alvi Karimov, the spokesman, said. "If such people existed in Chechnya, law enforcement would not have to worry about them, as their own relatives would have sent them to where they could never return," he added.

Several follow-up reports from CNN and The New York Times, among others, say otherwise.

Why it's important

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) meets with Chechnya's leader Ramzan Kadyrov at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, in 2015. Photo by Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin via Reuters

Chechnya is a Muslim-majority region in southern Russia, where, as one resident told Andrew Kramer of the Times, "Under Islam, lying with a man is a sin."

"People don't approve of homosexuals here in Chechnya. If anybody tries to start a gay movement here, they will be killed," the man, who wanted to remain anonymous, added. The man also told the Times that he was opposed to the current crackdown.

Russia, in general, has been accused of a litany of human rights abuses against LGBTQ individuals, including a 2013 law, signed by President Vladimir Putin, that banned "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations."

Human Rights Watch also said in a statement back in January that Chechnya's leader Kadyrov "has steadily tried to eradicate all forms of dissent and gradually built a tyranny within Chechnya," adding that it's been worse the past two years.

It's all been done, too, "with the blessing of the Kremlin," the international human rights group added.

Last week, Putin met with Kadyrov at the Kremlin, where the Chechnya leader brought up the reports of the anti-gay police sweeps — to reject them again. Putin, reportedly, did not comment.

There has been some international pressure, including from the U.S. State Department, on Russia to investigate the abuses.

Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch told BBC that the "chances of a proper investigation … are possibly rather thin."

"But the chance that Russia's leadership orders Kadyrov to stop the purge is there. It's not everything, but it's better than nothing," she added.

2. A new look at America's mortality

Does where we live determine how we die?

Researchers have argued yes. But the way medical examiners classify deaths can sometimes be vague, not always precise enough to map trends in any meaningful way.

Now, The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) has designed a new model that could allow us to better predict and treat disease, addiction and other causes of death.

Five Thirty Eight visualized that data this week in an interactive map, which allows users to explore cause of death in every inch of the country over time.

Why it's important

The new model gives us "more complete estimates of mortality across the country, one revealing regional and local variations in causes of death," Five Thirty Eight writes:

Rural Appalachia stands out; nine counties in Kentucky and three in West Virginia make the list. Rising cancer rates and increased deaths from substance abuse in Appalachia have kept mortality rates high there, even while overall mortality rates in the U.S. have gone down.

Also high on the list: the Dakotas, dominated by Native American tribes on reservations, which have struggled with access to health care and treating mental illness.

It also gives a better glimpse at how certain causes of death have changed over time. Deaths from cardiovascular diseases were cut in half between the 1980s and 2014, as were those from transport injuries. Other causes, like mental health substance abuse disorders, nearly tripled in that time. This kind of information could better allow local and federal health officials to set priorities and direct funding where it's needed most.

3. Fear of Chinese jihadists returning from Syria is a growing concern for Beijing

A man works on a security camera that was installed at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 2013. China's domestic security chief believed a fatal vehicle crash in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in which five died was planned by a Uighur separatist group, designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and UN. Beijing, then, said the East Turkestan Islamic Movement was behind the attack. Photo by Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

As many as several thousand Chinese jihadists have traveled to Syria, most of them paying allegiance to the Turkestan Islamic Party, or TIP. The Islamic group, itself an offshoot of a larger Muslim separatist group, fights against President Bashar Assad's government forces.

The number of Chinese fighters heading off to fight in Syria's civil war has become a rising concern for Chinese officials in Beijing who worry about national security when these fighters return to their home country, the Associated Press reported.

As Council of Foreign Relations pointed out, TIP has previously taken responsibility for a pair of bus bombings in Shanghair and Kunming in 2009.

However, the number of Chinese jihadist fighters is a point of disagreement. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told AP that it estimates that 5,000 Chinese jihadists, most of whom a part of TIP, are involved in Syria's war. But, a terrorism expert at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations told AP that the number of Chinese fighters in Syria is closer to 300.

Why it's important

Syria's President Bashar Assad speaks during an interview with China's state television CCTV, in Damascus, in this handout photograph distributed by Syria's national news agency, SANA, in 2013. Photo by SANA/Handout via Reuters

Besides Russia, China has been criticized as one of Syria's steadfast backers in the ongoing civil war, vetoing several UN resolutions that would impose sanctions on the Syrian government.

China, along with Russia, vetoed a UN resolution in February that would have specifically directed sanctions at Syria over its suspected use of chemical weapons.

And what does Assad think of the Chinese jihadists? Last month, he reportedly addressed Beijing's concern over this group in an interview with Chinese PHOENIX TV.

"They know your country more than the others, so they can do more harm in your country than others," AP quoted the Syrian president as saying.

But, China has a history of using anti-terrorism crackdowns to repress local Muslim populations, such as the Uighurs, and to restrict religious practices of the nations's minorities.

Earlier this month, the Chinese government barred parents from choosing a select group of names for their children, the Times confirmed. The "List of Banned Ethnic Minority Names" included two dozen banned names with "Muhammad," "Arafat," "Jihad" and "Medina," among them.

The government said the ban was introduced to help "curb religious fervor" in Xinjiang, home to 10 million Uighurs in west China.

Rights groups condemned the ban, saying that the policy restricts religious freedom.

"Violent incidents and ethnic tensions in Xinjiang have been on the rise in recent years, but the government's farcically repressive policies and punishments are hardly solutions," Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "Instead, they are only going to deepen resentment among Uyghurs."

4. In a northern district of Hanoi, villagers take police hostage

Released policemen (wearing dark uniforms) walk out from the communal house at Dong Tam commune, My Duc district in Hanoi.
More than a dozen police and officials held hostage by Vietnamese villagers over a land dispute were released on April 22, state media reported, ending a week-long standoff that had gripped the country. Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images.

It takes a village to raise a child, the popular proverb goes. It often also takes a village to force change, a thought embodied last week by residents of a northern Hanoi suburb who held dozens of police and city officials hostage as bargaining chips in a land dispute.

Residents of Dong Tam took 38 police officers hostage April 15 as the latest tactic in their unsuccessful campaign to get the government to reconsider a land deal. Originally, the 145-acre tract was intended for a military airport, one resident told the New York Times, but that project was canceled and more than a dozen families built houses on the land. In 2015, the government handed the land over to The Viettel Group, a military communications firm run by the government, the BBC reported; protests began this year as residents grew increasingly frustrated over what they said was unfair compensation for their land.

When police went to arrest four villagers for "disturbing social order," the villagers fought back, capturing dozens of police officers and barricading the district to get the attention of the government, including Mayor Nguyen Duc Chung.

The villagers slowly released the police officers over the course of the week as talks continued. Over the weekend, they released the 19 officers that remained, after Chung agreed to address their concerns within 45 days and not pursue charges against the locals who held the officers hostage.

Why it's important

A street is seen blocked at a gate in Dong Tam during a land dispute protest on the outskirts of Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo by REUTERS/Stringer.

Like in many other places around the globe, proving land ownership in Vietnam, whose government is controlled by the Communist Party, can be tricky.

Residents can own property, but the government can also seize it at any time in the name of socio-economic development, the BBC points out — though how they define that remains largely unclear. Four years ago, the government made reforms to how they evicted families from their land, but the experts told the Times those changes were "largely cosmetic."

The difference now: Residents are adopting new strategies. Not all are as drastic as holding dozens of police officers hostage. But before and during this latest incident, for instance, residents voiced their frustrations on platforms like YouTube and Facebook. In this way, they're better able to document what is happening and broadcast it to the world.

Social media, particularly Facebook, "has quickly become a battleground for pro-government social media users and Vietnamese activists to argue about the stand-off," the BBC writes.

How the government settles this land dispute could have broad implications for property rights in the country. As one economist warned the AP: something like the Dong Tam incident could happen again "if there are no strong changes in the legal system and the behavior of the authorities."

5. A pipeline project has leaked millions of gallons of drilling fluid into Ohio wetlands

A screengrab from Google Maps shows the Tuscarawas River just outside of Navarre, Ohio.

The Rover Pipeline, a $4.2 billion dollar project that will carry natural gas through Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Michigan and Ontario, Canada, leaked more than 2 million gallons of drilling fluid into wetlands close to Columbus, Ohio, officials discovered last week.

As reported by NewsHour's Courtney Norris, about 50,000 gallons of drilling fluid — a thick gel-like substance used to cut through rock during pipeline construction — was released into wetlands near Richland County, Ohio, according to a violation notice made public last week. A much larger spill also took place April 13, which leaked an estimated 2 million gallons of drilling fluid into wetlands next to the Tuscarawas River.

The pollutants from the spill included bentonite, a clay mud used as a drilling lubricant, according to violation paperwork issued by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. It's a mineral used to help cat litter clump when it gets wet and does not break down easily in water, making it difficult to remove from aquifers. A spokesman for the Ohio EPA, James Lee, told the Richland Source newspaper that the spill did not affect private wells or public water systems.

The Ohio EPA instructed Rover Pipeline LLC, which is owned by Energy Transfer Partners, to establish containment points and remove pollutants from affected surface water. Alexis Daniels, a spokeswoman for Energy Transfer Partners, told the Richland Source in an email that the company enacted its cleanup protocol upon recognizing the spill. Daniels also noted the drilling fluid released in the spill is non-toxic and not harmful to the environment.

Why it's important

A banner flies in the Dakota Access Pipeline protest camp near Cannon Ball, North Dakota. President Donald Trump has pledged to make it easier for pipelines to move forward. Photo by Terray Sylvester/Reuters

After receiving permits in February, ETP began construction of the 713-mile Rover pipeline earlier this month; the project was scheduled to be ready for service sometime in 2017. It's not clear how these latest spills affect that schedule.

The spills come at a time when President Donald Trump is pledging to make it easier for pipelines to move forward.

Trump said he planned to expedite environmental reviews — including the one that allowed Dakota Access Pipeline, also owned by Energy Transfer Partners, to be completed, despite concerns and monthslong demonstrations from Native American and environmental protesters. Trump also gave the green light to the Keystone XL pipeline, a project former President Barack Obama rejected in 2015.

"The process is so long and cumbersome that they give up before the end. Sometimes it takes many, many years and we don't want that to happen," Trump said while signing an executive order in January.

Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers, including Massachusetts Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, are urging the government step in to stop construction of other pipelines across the country.

PBS NewsHour's Iman Smith and Courtney Norris contributed to this story.

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