We’re pleased to bring you “While You Were Out”—Verily's quick takes on the happenings of this week.
Xinjiang “re-education” camp survivors expose widespread sexual torture
Uyghur “re-education camp” survivors and a Chinese camp guard shared their experiences with journalists at BBC News, in an exposé published this week, revealing a mass system of gang rape among Chinese guards, who torture and rape detained women.
The Chinese Communist Party has long faced criticism for its so-called “re-education” centers where it is alleged that they forcibly detain, indoctrinate, and sterilize millions of prisoners. Now, the picture painted of life for this targeted minority population under the regime of the CCP grows even more gruesome, as female camp survivors describe the rampant sexual torture. One survivor, Tursunay Ziawudun, having fled China for the United States following her detainment, describes how women at the camps were nightly removed from their cells and raped by groups of men, sometimes with electric torture devices. Another survivor described being forced to strip and handcuff other women chosen by the guards or other Chinese men from outside the camp, who would "would pay money to have their pick of the prettiest young inmates.”
An Uzbek woman coerced into teaching Chinese language lessons at the camps has also come forward after fleeing the country, describing the gang rape of a young woman in front of hundreds of other detainees. In her words, “in front of everyone, the police took turns to rape her. . . . While carrying out this test, they watched people closely and picked out anyone who resisted, clenched their fists, closed their eyes, or looked away, and took them for punishment. . . . It was absolutely horrendous.”
President Xi Jinping has denied the accusations of mass torture and genocide, stating in response to growing evidence of crimes against humanity that “the Chinese government protects the rights and interests of all ethnic minorities equally” and "attaches great importance to protecting women's rights.” —Mariel Lindsay
Amazon CEO steps down to pursue philanthropy
Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos announced he is retiring from his role at the trillion-dollar retail and cloud behemoth, transitioning to a new role as executive chair and turning his attention to philanthropy and charitable causes. In a statement announcing his “transition” to Amazon employees, he claims he’s “never had more energy, and this isn’t about retiring. . . . I’m super passionate about the impact I think these organizations can have.” Stepping down from his chief executive role at Amazon, he continues, will give him “the time and energy I need to focus on the Day 1 Fund, the Bezos Earth Fund, Blue Origin, [and] The Washington Post.”
Following record-breaking online Amazon sales fueled by a year-long pandemic, Bezos is shifting his priorities to fighting climate change as part of the Bezos Earth Fund, facilitating preschools a part of the Day 1 Fund, and funding spaceflights via Blue Origin. —ML
AOC reveals she was sexually assaulted
On Instagram Live on Monday, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez revealed that she is a survivor of sexual abuse. “I am a survivor of sexual assault. And I haven't told many people that in my life,” she said. “When we go through trauma, trauma compounds on each other.” While discussing the January riot at the Capitol and the danger she felt she was in, Ocasio-Cortez compared Republicans who want her to “move on” from the incident to abusers. “These folks who are trying to tell us to move on are . . . using the same tactics of every other abuser who just tells you to move on.”
Ocasio-Cortez didn’t reveal any more details about the assault, but she repeatedly compared her experience in politics to her experience with abuse. Her emotional livestream received support from most media outlets, but Representative Nancy Mace, a freshman Republican who says her office is two doors down from Ocasio-Cortez’s, challenged her assertion that they were in danger on January 6. When Ocasio-Cortez responded, she accused Mace of echoing language that silences rape survivors, even though Mace herself has been open about surviving sexual assault. —Madeline Fry Schultz
Golden Globes nominations disappoint, but highlight a few winners
The Hollywood Foreign Press Association released the Golden Globes nominations this week, and fans were not happy about a few notable nominations and snubs. Emily in Paris, a Netflix show that satisfies for binge-watching and not much else (see this Verily review), received two major nominations. Meanwhile I May Destroy You, a show that graphically explores the complexities of consent and sexual assault, received none. One Emily in Paris writer even wrote an op-ed criticizing the snub, noting, “It never occurred to me that our show would be nominated.” (It didn’t occur to this writer, either!)
Controversy aside, the nominations did include some of the year’s biggest movies and TV shows—in a year when many of us were stuck at home watching TV. The Crown got six nods. The latest Emma adaption got one. And for the first time, three female directors received nominations: Regina King (One Night in Miami), Chloé Zhao (Nomadland), and Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman).
Rewards show nominations are never worth paying much attention to, but they can remind us about good content we might have missed. So if you haven’t seen The Queen’s Gambit, which received two nominations, it’s time to grab a cup of tea and watch. —MFS
Anti-Hezbollah journalist is found dead in Lebanon
One of Lebanon’s foremost political commentators and loudest voices against the powerful Hezbollah political party was killed this week, sending shockwaves through an already broken country on the verge of economic collapse.
Lokman Slim, 59, was returning home from visiting his sister’s home late one night when he went missing, failing to answer his wife’s texts. Knowing the existing threats against him for his anti-Hezbollah vocality, his wife reported him missing to the police. A few hours later, police found Slim dead in his car, shot four times in the head and once in the back.
Slim’s sister Rasha spoke with media outlets about the mysterious circumstances of his murder, saying that Slim had said that if anything were to happen to him that the Shia Islamist militant Hezbollah group would bear “full responsibility.” What’s more, a fellow Lebanese journalist told an Arab news outlet that Slim’s murder was a “direct message to all activists, writers and politicians from the Shia community, who mobilize and express their ideas outside of Hezbollah’s political orbit.”
Slim’s sister also spoke up publicly about the loss of her brother and her suspicions regarding his death, remarking that “his opponents have lost a noble fighter who lived among them, and debated them with intelligence, reason, and with love. . . . Murder is an undignified act, it gives an example to the work that we murder those who disagree with us. Murder is their only language. We know who’s in charge of the area where my brother was killed.” Hezbollah, meanwhile, has publicly denied the allegations of assassination, and police have yet to declare any suspects. —ML
Dustin Diamond, who played Screech, dies at 44 after cancer battle
Dustin Diamond, most famous for his comedic role as Screech in Saved By the Bell, died this week at age 44 after learning of a cancer diagnosis three weeks prior. Diamond, whose career suffered from incidents of public violence, substance abuse, and the release of a sex tape, was the only lead actor from the show’s original cast to not be invited to the Saved By the Bell 2020 reboot.
“Dustin was a humorous and high-spirited individual whose greatest passion was to make others laugh,” Diamond’s representatives said, in a statement after his death. “He’s had a history of mishaps, of unfortunate events. We want the public to understand that he was not intentionally malevolent. He—much like the rest of those who act out and behave poorly—had undergone a great deal of turmoil and heartache. His actions, though rebukeable, stemmed from loss and the lack of knowledge on how to process that pain properly.” —Mary Rose Somarriba
Two FBI special agents fighting child sex crimes are killed in action
Two FBI Special Agents fighting child sex crimes perished in the line of fire this week while serving a federal warrant at the apartment of a man reportedly suspected of being in possession of child pornography. The shooter, according to reports, killed himself after fatally shooting agents Daniel Alfin and Laura Schwartzenberger.
Special Agent Daniel Alfin leaves behind a wife and child and an international legacy as the leader of the FBI investigation into “Playpen,” a major worldwide child pornography website on the dark web. The successful operation led to the arrest of the website founder as well as 350 other people in the United States and 548 arrests abroad. Domestically, the FBI rescued 55 children being abused on the site and 296 children internationally.
Special Agent Laura Schwartzenberger, a wife and mother of two, had been working cases of crimes against children for more than seven years, according to a statement by the FBI. She focused largely on educating school-age children and adolescents about the dangers of online sex predators and how to best protect themselves and others online. One middle school that Schwartzenberger frequented as a speaker issued a statement of remorse, saying that she “taught our students each year about the dangers of social media and much more. She would always say, ‘I feel that coming here and talking about the hard stuff means that I won't see you guys on my end.’” —ML
Where did COVID-19 come from? WHO looks for answers
This week, a team from the World Health Organization visited the lab in China where former President Donald Trump and others have claimed COVID-19 originated. The purpose of the WHO’s investigation is to find out where the virus came from in the first place. One member of the team reported that WHO and Chinese staff at the Wuhan Institute of Virology had “frank, open” discussions in which “key questions” were “asked” and “answered.”
Critics of the WHO have argued that it hasn’t regarded China with enough discernment, leading to its slow COVID-19 response before the pandemic. The AP reports it will likely be years before we learn the true origin of the novel coronavirus.
A widely read piece published in New York Magazine last month speculated that the virus was created intentionally, though not necessarily with malevolence. “I’ve come to believe,” Nicholas Baker writes, “It was an accident. A virus spent some time in a laboratory, and eventually it got out. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 … was made more infectious in one or more laboratories, perhaps as part of a scientist’s well-intentioned but risky effort to create a broad-spectrum vaccine. SARS-2 was not designed as a biological weapon. But it was, I think, designed.”
Whatever WHO reports at the end of the investigation, which it claims has had full cooperation from China, it will be just one more piece in a giant, slowly filled-in puzzle. —MFS
Good News of the Week
Boy with Cerebral Palsy saves family
Atascocita, Texas (population 65,569) has a new hero living in their midst. Last week, seven-year-old Michael Martinez made it out of his wheelchair and to his parents' bed to alert them about a beeping noise he kept hearing. The beeping was coming from the family’s carbon monoxide detector. Carbon monoxide, an odorless, colorless gas, poses fatal risks to those who sleep through a leak.
Michael's mother, Angie Martinez, told reporters that Michael was born at 27 weeks gestation weighing only three pounds, and has a diagnosis of cerebral palsy. “He’s our little hero. He saved our family,” she said. Not every hero wears a cape, they sometimes ride in wheelchairs. —MRS
Watch of the Week
Giant pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian enjoy their snow day at the National Zoo. You just might have to watch this over and over.