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Official White House Photo by Andrea HanksBy Victor Ordonez and Conor Finnegan, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- Several branches of the U.S. government on Wednesday warned private companies against using supply chains tied to forced labor camps in China's Xinjiang province. The advisory was issued shortly after U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) authorities in Newark, New Jersey, seized about $800,000 worth imported goods from China.

Xinjiang, China, is where an estimated one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are facing an alleged expansive campaign of repression, including forced sterilization, destruction of religious sites and mass "re-education" camps.

The shipments seized Wednesday contained about 13 tons of hair products suspected to be made with human hair that originated in Xinjiang, indicating potential human right abuses of forced child labor and imprisonment, according to a CBP statement.

“The production of these goods constitutes a very serious human rights violation, and the detention order is intended to send a clear and direct message to all entities seeking to do business with the United States that illicit and inhumane practices will not be tolerated in U.S. supply chains,” said Brenda Smith, executive assistant commissioner of CBP’s Office of Trade.

CBP detained the shipment per a Withhold Release Order (WRO) on hair products manufactured by Lop County Meixin Hair Product Co. Ltd. issued on June 17. The order instructed ports of entry nationwide to detain all products from Meixin based on “information that reasonably indicated that they are manufactured with the use of prison labor.”

Wednesday's advisory was jointly issued by the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The advisory warns private companies operating within the U.S. to be aware of the large-scale human rights abuses against Muslim minority groups as well as “deceptive practices employed by the [Chinese] government in Xinjiang.” The advisory noted the possibility of criminal prosecution and other legal ramifications private companies may face if caught maintaining supply chains linked to human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

“CEOs should read this notice closely and be aware of the reputational, economic, and legal risks of supporting such an assault on human dignity," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at a press conference Wednesday.

Beyond labor and goods from Xinjiang, the advisory warns U.S. companies from doing business with firms that are reliant on forced labor elsewhere in China. It also warns companies against assisting in the construction of the "re-education" camps or contributing to the government’s surveillance system in the region.

Given the latest reports about a mass sterilization campaign, which the Chinese government has denied, Pompeo was asked whether the U.S. considers the crackdown on Muslim minorities like the Uighurs to be genocide.

"The United States takes seriously our obligation to preserve human rights -- human rights of the people in China,” said Pompeo, calling on allies and Muslim nations to also pressure Beijing. “We'll continue to do that. We're constantly evaluating those actions against the legal norms and standards for the world.”

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Neil Giardino/ABC NewsBy NEIL GIARDINO, ABC NEWS

(NEW YORK) -- Santiago Manuin, one of the most celebrated defenders of Peru's Amazon rainforest and the leader of the Awajún tribe, whose vast and besieged territory spans the country's mountainous northern region along the Ecuador border, died on Wednesday of COVID-19. He was 63.

Manuin devoted his life to defending his tribe and their ancestral land, which in recent decades had endured illegal gold mining and logging, persistent threats linked to narco-trafficking and state-sanctioned oil and gas operations.

In a 2019 interview with ABC News, Manuin described the significance of his tribe's territory and the importance of defending it.

"Our land is tied to our existence as a people," he said. "It's an essential space where we build a life for our families. As Awajún, our forests give us natural resources and animals. We're part of this natural world, and so we must defend it."

In 2009, Manuin nearly died defending Awajún territory after he was shot eight times by Peruvian security forces. The incident, referred to as "the Bagua Massacre," occurred when police fired on thousands of Awajún and Wampis tribespeople who were blocking a jungle highway to protest a U.S.-Peru trade agreement that would've opened up land in the Amazon for gas, oil and lumber extraction. More than 30, both officers and natives, died in the clash.

"The Peruvian government behaved badly, and regretfully we both learned lessons -- the Awajún people and the Western society," Manuin recalled. "I keep learning the importance of dialogue. Violence brings no solutions."

A stoic champion for his tribe of more than 50,000, Manuin rejected the commodification of the Amazon's natural resources, which are deeply woven into the Awajún cosmovision.

"For the Westerner, the Indigenous person is an impediment to development because we refuse to destroy the land. That's why they label us anti-development," he said. "Indigenous peoples are not anti-development. We protect the forest and live for the forest. Our spirituality is tied to it. We don't need to go to the largest churches to pray. We pray within this natural world. We live in this plenitude."

Manuin, lionized by many in his own country as a social justice crusader and fierce environmentalist, was thrust into an international spotlight in 2018 when he crowned Pope Francis with a feathered headdress during the pontiff's visit to the Amazon region as part of the Catholic Church's Amazon Synod.

The Awajún tribe is one of the largest in Peru's Amazon, and their territory spans four distinct regions. Manuin served as president of the Awajún Permanent Council, the tribe's largest governing body. Under his leadership, the Awajún have endeavored to create an autonomous territorial government, a quasi-independent region with the right to protect its territory from outsiders.

"We occupy 30,000 square kilometers. We'll be able to self-govern and demand that the Peruvian State respects the totality of our territory and forbids any extractive company from entering without prior consultation," Manuin said.

In 1994, Manuin won the international Reina Sofia Prize for his defense of the Amazon, and in 2014 he was awarded Peru's National Prize for Human Rights for a life lived in service of Indigenous peoples and the rainforest.

"I was consecrated in the defense of my forest and the fundamental rights of my people. I was consecrated despite everything and had to accept that reality. I have a very big vision. And this vision is what I am completing now -- and with total pleasure," Manuin said.

At least 9,800 in Peru have died from the novel coronavirus, which has devastated tribes in the vast Amazon region as extreme poverty, limited access to health care and communal lifestyles incompatible with social distancing have left them particularly vulnerable.

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To the Stars Academy of Arts and ScienceBy LUIS MARTINEZ, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) -- This year's World UFO Day comes at a time of heightened interest in the decades-long search to solve the mystery of Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) thanks to the Navy's recent declassification of videos that show what it called "unexplained aerial phenomena."

But it's not just UFO enthusiasts who are excited. Congress also wants to see what the Pentagon and the nation's intelligence agencies know about UFOs, not because extraterrestrials are involved, but because of concerns they might represent advanced technological threats from foreign adversaries.

The Navy declassified three previously leaked top-secret U.S. Navy videos in late April in an effort "to clear up any misconceptions by the public on whether or not the footage that had been circulating was real or whether or not there is more to the videos," said Susan Gough, a Pentagon spokesperson.

"The aerial phenomena observed in the videos remain characterized as 'unidentified,'" the spokesperson added.

First published by the New York Times in 2017, the videos captured what Navy F/A-18 fighter pilots saw on their video sensors during training flights in 2004 and 2015 off the coast of California. Even more compelling was the audio of the pilots' reactions to the fast-moving objects and maneuvers they saw on their screens.

The release of the Navy videos has sparked renewed interest from UFO researchers and the nation's lawmakers who want to know what else the U.S. government knows about UFOs and whether they might represent technological breakthroughs from America's adversaries.

Two weeks ago, the Senate Intelligence Committee included language in the annual Intelligence authorization bill that would require U.S. intelligence agencies and the Pentagon to put together a detailed unclassified analysis of all the data they have collected on "unidentified aerial phenomenon."

"The Committee remains concerned that there is no unified, comprehensive process within the federal government for collecting and analyzing intelligence on unidentified aerial phenomena, despite the potential threat," the committee said in a description of the bill entitled "advanced aerial threats."

"The Committee understands that the relevant intelligence may be sensitive; nevertheless, the Committee finds that the information sharing and coordination across the Intelligence Community has been inconsistent, and this issue has lacked attention from senior leaders," it added.

The analysis requested by the committee would include information gathered from geospatial intelligence, signals intelligence, human intelligence and even FBI data from "investigations of intrusions of unidentified aerial phenomena data over restricted United States airspace.”

The committee also disclosed that a previously unknown "Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force” was operating within the Office of Naval Intelligence, which appears to be investigating UFO reports. The task force's existence was a surprise because it was believed that the Pentagon had ceased investigating such reports in 2012 with the end of a program that was made public by the same New York Times article that published the three leaked Navy videos.

While UFOs have been tied to the existence of extraterrestrials for decades, for some UFO enthusiasts, the new public and congressional interest are indicative that attitudes could be changing about what has been seen as a fringe concept.

"Strictly speaking, there should no longer be any debate about the existence of UFOs at all," Alexander Wendt, an international relations professor at Ohio State University, told ABC News. "If it wasn't already apparent to everyone that UFOs are real, the Navy confirmed the existence of at least three of them officially."

Wendt, who has written about UFOs in the context of political and security implications, wants to see more videos released by the U.S. military, but he wants to see the scientific community undertake serious research on a subject matter that remains taboo to many scientists.

"The crucial issue is getting some science done on these things," said Wendt. "Since while new videos will undoubtedly be surprising, until we have some UFO science, we won't know what we're dealing with, if anything."

But Wendt believes the videos only prove the existence of UFOs, not the existence of extraterrestrials, which he says are "a complete unknown."

But one person who does not appear to be convinced that Navy pilots have encountered UFOs is President Donald Trump.

Last year, Trump told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos that he was skeptical of the reports.

"I want them to think whatever they think," said Trump. "They do say, and I’ve seen, and I've read, and I’ve heard. And I did have one very brief meeting on it. But people are saying they're seeing UFOs. Do I believe it? Not particularly."

Asked if he thought he would know if there were a case of extraterrestrial life, the president replied, "Well, I think my great pilots would know. Our great pilots would know."

"They see things a little bit different from the past. So we’re going to see. We’re watching, and you’ll be the first to know," he continued.

But two weeks ago Trump made some intriguing comments about Roswell, New Mexico, the site one of the most famous claims about UFOs and extraterrestrials.

In 1947, a rancher discovered unidentifiable debris near Roswell that led to speculation that it was a crashed UFO. The Air Force later acknowledged that it was a weather balloon though decades later it acknowledged the balloon was part of a project intended to detect Soviet atomic bomb tests.

But conspiracy theorists continue to believe that not only did a UFO crash at Roswell, but that the government also recovered the remains of extraterrestrials who were aboard.

During an interview with his father, Don Trump Jr. jokingly asked if the president would ever divulge more information about Roswell to "let us know what's really going on."

Trump responded, “I won’t talk to you about what I know about it, but it’s very interesting.”

Asked if he might declassify that information someday, Trump responded, "Well, I’ll have to think about that one.”

World UFO Day is celebrated every year on July 2, the day in 1947 when the Roswell incident first became public.

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MaxOzerov/iStockBy PATRICK REEVELL, ABC NEWS

(MOSCOW) -- The Kremlin appears to have obtained an overwhelming vote in favor of Russia constitutional changes that will allow Russian President Vladimir Putin to remain in power until 2036, according to early results in a national referendum that concluded today.

The result on Wednesday in the weeklong referendum came as little surprise amid a massive campaign by authorities to push Russians to vote and widespread concerns about pressure on voters and manipulation.

It opens the way for Putin, who has ruled Russia since 1999 -- only interrupted between 2008 and 2012 when Dmitry Medvedev was the Russian president -- to run again for two more six-year terms after his current one expires in 2024. It potentially means Putin could rule for 16 more years, when he will be in his eighties.

Hours even before polls closed, Russia's Central Elections Commission announced preliminary data showing over 70% of voters had voted in favor of the package of constitutional changes. And by late evening in Moscow and with half the votes counted, the commission said just over 77.5% of voters had voted in favor of the constitutional changes and 21.6% against.

Wednesday was the last day in the vote which has been stretched out across seven days, in what authorities have said is a measure to facilitate social distancing amid Russia's coronavirus epidemic, which in many parts of the country is worsening.

Russians were asked to vote "yes" or "no" on a package of over 200 amendments which included guarantees to boost pensions as well as changes that will inscribe some conservative values promoted under Putin into the constitution. Those included enshrining the concept of marriage as between a man and a woman, as well as an affirmation of Russians' belief in "God."

Those changes, though, were viewed by many observers as intended to boost turnout for the change that really mattered -- an amendment to reset presidential terms after the adoption of the altered constitution. That means that Putin, who is currently in his fourth presidential term, can run for election again, even though the constitution still has a two-term limit.

Why is Vladimir Putin racing to amend Russia's constitution?

Critics of the move have denounced it as an illegal "constitutional coup." On Wednesday evening a few hundred people gathered on Moscow's central Pushkin Square to protest. Russia's anti-Kremlin opposition accused authorities of falsifying the result, pointing to exit polls they had conducted themselves in Moscow and St. Petersburg suggesting the amendments had been voted down.

The vote was already largely symbolic, as Russia's parliament had already passed the amendments into law. But the vote allows for the Kremlin to say the changes have a stamp of public legitimacy.

"Putin is using the public vote to make ordinary people his accomplices in extending his rule and sanctioning the domination of an ultraconservative ideology," Andrey Kolesnikov, a fellow at the Moscow Carnegie foundation wrote in a column this month.

In a speech on the eve of the referendum, Putin -- who voted at a polling station in Moscow on Wednesday -- made no mention of its potential to extend his rule. Some analysts believe he has sought the constitutional changes now to prevent himself from becoming a lame duck ahead of 2024 and head off efforts to succeed him.

Putin himself this month said the vote was needed to prevent officials' "eyes from drifting around hunting for successors."

The vote came at a time when Putin's own popularity suffered an unusual weakening. A poll by Russia's only independent pollster in May showed Putin's approval rating had fallen to 59%, its lowest in 20 years. Another poll by Levada in January has shown the number of Russians who "trust" Putin has almost halved in two years.

That slide has been exacerbated by the arrival of the pandemic and its economic fallout, which the government has provided little help against.

And while many Russians still support Putin, his move to remain in power beyond 2024 is highly controversial according to Levada's polling. Denis Volkov, Levada's deputy director told ABC News last week that his polling showed Russians were split roughly "50-50" on the issue.

Authorities have employed a sweeping campaign to ensure a high turnout, offering the chance to win prizes, including cash and even apartments to those taking part. Russian celebrities have also been offered payments to make statements supporting the amendments.

There were also widespread reports of public sector workers, including doctors and teachers, being pressured to vote, a common tactic in former Soviet countries.

Authorities have used the coronavirus epidemic to loosen up voting rules. People were allowed to vote from home and at their workplaces and in Moscow and St. Petersburg, online. Many of those measures offer greater opportunities for ballot rigging, election transparency activists have said.

Two journalists this week reported they had voted twice, once online and another time at a polling station. One, Pavel Lobzov, a broadcaster at the liberal station TV Rain, was questioned by police afterwards.

The total turnout for the vote according to the elections commission was over 65%, notably higher than what Levada's polling and many other political observers had predicted was realistic.

Opposition activists from a campaign against the referendum called "Nyet" or "No," said their own exit poll in Moscow -- where Putin is far less popular than elsewhere -- showed 55% of voters had voted against the amendments, versus 45% for.

The opposition had been divided over whether to boycott the vote and many opposed to the changes had said they would stay home. Russia's leading opposition figure, Alexey Navalny said it was clear the result had been decided in advance.

"We watched a show, with a pre-planned finale," Navalny said in a video posted on Youtube.

New data again suggests Russia's coronavirus deaths are higher than its official count

Golos, an NGO that monitors elections said it had recorded over 1,000 violations during the vote. Russia's elections commission and the Interior ministry said the number of violations were not enough to affect the outcome of the vote.

At polling stations in Moscow this week, some voting "for" told ABC News they support the conservative additions to the constitution and want Putin to remain in power.

"Why should we exchange a president for another president? He'll come and not know [what to do]," Lyudmila Trukacheva, 67, said after voting. "Putin's sensible, smart. He's an Orthodox person," she said.

In gaining the resounding result Putin hopes to affirm his own power among Russia's elite unsettled by the prospect of his term ending, Tatiana Stanovaya, a non-resident fellow at the Moscow Carnegie foundation wrote in an article published before voting ended on Wednesday.

"Essentially, he is banning his associates from looking around for a successor and from discussing his own future," she wrote.

"But the pragmatic elites will have a far more sober view of things. They know exactly how voting works in Russia, and that same 70 percent can easily be read as 25 percent real support, or even as a loss of trust entirely," she wrote.

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LilliDay/iStockBy DR. HASSAL LEE, ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- Amid the sprawling coronavirus pandemic, scientists around the world also have been keeping a close watch on another potentially dangerous virus: swine flu.

Through close surveillance of influenza viruses in pigs from 2011 to 2018 in China, experts have discovered a potentially pandemic-causing virus predominant in swine populations since at least 2016.

So far, many experts, including America's leading infectious diseases expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, have said that while it's important to keep a close eye on it, the virus is not "an immediate threat."

Other scientists have chimed in, urging the public not to panic about a second global outbreak.

"There is no reason for panic and no imminent danger," tweeted Florian Krammer, microbiologist at the Icahn School of Medicine.

There is a lot of media attention to the swine flu PNAS study from China. Everybody is sensitized now because of COVID-19. And it is important to keep an eye on these viruses. But there is no reason for panic and no imminent danger. https://t.co/9m0DY0sFQf

— Florian Krammer (@florian_krammer) June 30, 2020

In a similar vein, Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia tweeted, "What we should NOT do is freak out and expect that another flu pandemic is imminent."

We can step up surveillance efforts to see if it appears that this virus is increasingly adapting to human hosts or if it is associated with any cases of severe disease. We can study it to see what might increase its ability to infect, transmit, and cause disease in people.

— Dr. Angela Rasmussen (@angie_rasmussen) June 29, 2020

Professor Carl Bergstrom at the University of Washington, an outspoken critic of misleading science and author of the book Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World has voiced that we are not facing the start of "a double pandemic" of COVID-19 and influenza, despite news headlines that have been suggesting otherwise.

We can step up surveillance efforts to see if it appears that this virus is increasingly adapting to human hosts or if it is associated with any cases of severe disease. We can study it to see what might increase its ability to infect, transmit, and cause disease in people.

— Dr. Angela Rasmussen (@angie_rasmussen) June 29, 2020

The original paper, published in PNAS on June 29, reported the identification of a recently emerged "reassortant" flu virus in pigs that contains genetic material from the H1N1 2009 pandemic strain. It's becoming increasingly common among swine in China.

The virus has infected some farmers who tend to these pigs. However, there's little evidence the virus can pass from human to human, until which this newly identified virus may have pandemic "potential" but is unlikely to cause a large outbreak.

Dr. Chad Petit, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, used a "lock and key" analogy in explaining the virus strain during an interview with ABC News.

We can imagine the virus is a "key" that needs to fit the "lock" on human cells in order to enter them more efficiently and cause robust infections. This paper currently suggests that the viral key can open the cellular lock, but not very efficiently. Unless that efficiency ramps up, Petit explained, larger outbreaks are extremely unlikely.

"Until human-to-human spread of this virus occurs, we needn't jump the gun on [developing] yet another vaccine," Dr. Len Horovitz, a pulmonary specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital, told ABC News in an interview.

Even as experts agree there isn't an imminent danger, are there additional precautions worth taking in the meantime?

Again, experts agree: Careful monitoring of the virus in pigs and human workers in the swine industry should continue, as well as limiting human exposure to animals possibly carrying the virus.

"Careful monitoring of these viruses with pandemic potential," Petit added, "will drastically improve our preparedness and outcome for any future pandemic."

Hassal Lee, a neuroscience Ph.D. and student doctor at the University of Cambridge, is a contributor to the ABC News Medical Unit.

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Fotonen/iStockBy CATHERINE THORBECKE, ABC NEWS

(WASHINGTON) -- Citing its close ties to the Chinese Communist Party, the Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday formally designated Chinese telecom giant Huawei as "posing a national security threat."

The FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau slapped the same designation on fellow Chinese firm ZTE Corporation, barring the FCC's $8.3 billion Universal Service Fund -- a subsidy for wireless carriers in rural America -- from being used to purchase any equipment from either Huawei or ZTE Corporation.

The companies have been blacklisted by the FCC in recent years, as critics have claimed their equipment could be used by China for spying. The move comes as U.S. lawmakers have also pressured other countries to boot Huawei from their budding 5G networks.

 "With today's Orders, and based on the overwhelming weight of evidence, the Bureau has designated Huawei and ZTE as national security risks to America's communications networks -- and to our 5G future," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement. "Both companies have close ties to the Chinese Communist Party and China's military apparatus, and both companies are broadly subject to Chinese law obligating them to cooperate with the country's intelligence services."

"We cannot and will not allow the Chinese Communist Party to exploit network vulnerabilities and compromise our critical communications infrastructure," Pai added. "Today's action will also protect the FCC's Universal Service Fund -- money that comes from fees paid by American consumers and businesses on their phone bills -- from being used to underwrite these suppliers, which threaten our national security."

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr added in a separate statement that, "We cannot treat Huawei and ZTE as anything less than a threat to our collective security."

"America has turned the page on the weak and timid approach to Communist China of the past," Carr added. "We are now showing the strength needed to address Communist China's threats."

Huawei and ZTE Corporation did not immediately respond to ABC News' requests for comment Tuesday.

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Keladawy /iStockBy Hatem Maher, ABC News

(CAIRO) -- Mysteries and superstitious tales surrounding an Indian-style mansion in an upscale Cairo district have finally been put to bed as the 109-year-old palace opened to visitors for the first time on Tuesday following an $11 million restoration project.

Named after the millionaire Belgian industrialist who was its original owner, the neglected Baron Empain Palace was rumored to be home to ghosts, with occasional tales of lights flashing inside.

Also common were rumors of hidden tunnels and a rotating tower that offered a 360-degree view of the surrounding area and allowed the palace to be exposed to constant sunlight.

The truth is that the run-down palace was only sheltering stray dogs and cats as well as the occasional vandal and looter. It was in an advanced state of decay.

"Talks of ghosts and similar stuff are nonsense," Abou Rami, a doorman at a nearby residential building who has been living in the area for over 20 years, told ABC News. "Such rumors were spread by people who are not residents of Heliopolis; it's always calm here. Such things are always said of neglected places."

Baron Edouard Louis Joseph Empain, a famed businessman credited with the construction of the Paris metro in the late 19th century, resided in the palace he built in 1911 before developing the surrounding area from a sprawling desert into what is now known as Heliopolis, an upscale east Cairo neighborhood.

The two-story mansion, designed by French architect Alexandre Marcel and made from reinforced concrete, was modeled on Hindu-style temples, with its exterior adorned by statues of Hindu and Buddhist legends and elephants.

Visitors who entered the castle for the first time Tuesday were bursting with excitement as they roamed around, posing for photographs and inspecting the palace's interiors as well as its vast roof that used to host Empain's parties.

"I pass by the palace every day on my way to work," 35-year-old engineer Ahmed Sobhi said, grinning cheerfully. "I always wanted to get inside, especially given the mysterious nature of this place."

In the 1950s, the palace was sold by the Empain family in a public auction then fell into disrepair. For decades afterwards, it was sparsely used for social events, with some horror films also being shot there. Egypt's housing ministry bought the palace in 2005 in exchange for granting its foreign owners a plot of land further east, before the armed forces' engineering authority embarked on a restoration project in mid-2017.

Restoration included repairing the palace's decayed ceiling slabs, filling and stitching cracks in the walls, replanting its lush gardens and repainting the building to its old copper red color.

It was the repainting that stirred hot debates in Egypt last year, with some claiming that the palace had deviated from its original appearance. However, the country's antiquities ministry insisted it had reviewed Marcel's original documents of the building's design to make sure there were no irregularities in the restoration.

The ministry also said the palace's grayish color was the result of erosion and weather damage over the years.

The palace was due to be opened earlier this year but its opening was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. On Tuesday, visitors were required to wear face masks and adhere to social distancing guidelines before entering the building.

Egyptian officials hope the Baron Palace's opening and other recent major discoveries will lure back tourists as the country gears up for the resumption of international flights in July.

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Silberkorn/iStockBy Kelly McCarthy, ABC News

(THE HAGUE, Netherlands) -- Wine drinkers are often aware of the markup to enjoy a glass or bottle at bars and restaurants, but European law enforcement successfully sniffed out a bad batch of bottles that were being passed off as premium labels and sold for over $1,000 a pop.

Europol announced Tuesday that it took down a network of wine counterfeiters who took empty bottles of premium Italian wines, refilled them with "cheap wines from different origins" that had been purchased online or at hard discount stores, resealed the bottles with fake capsules and passed off the low quality vino to resell it at higher price points.

"The bottles were sealed with corks and counterfeit capsules of a different or similar color to the original. Packaging films and false masking guarantee seals were finally applied to conceal the lack of distinctive signs on the capsules used for the counterfeit units," Europol said in a press release.

Prices for the fake wines sold under previously expensive counterfeit Italian labels often exceeded 1,000 Euros -- nearly $1,123 per bottle.

"The empty authentic bottles were gathered from restaurants and delivered mainly by two individuals working in the food industry," Europol said.

The wines were sold in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United States and often ended up being poured into the glasses of unassuming customers at wine bars and catering services.

"Once a contact with a buyer was established via the a big e-commerce platform, the counterfeiters expanded even further their promotional offers, setting prices way below the ones seen usually on the market. A magnum format, 1.5 l, of some of the counterfeit wines typically exceeds €1,000 per bottle," the press release said.

The investigation was part of Europol's Intellectual Property Crime Coordinated Coalition (IPC3) that facilitated the information exchange and provided technical and analytical support to the participating countries.

Europol announced this will allow them to "further develop the operation and provide the other countries involved with targeted information."

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Igor Ilnitckii/iStockBy KARSON YIU and BRITT CLENNETT, ABC News

(HONG KONG) -- In early June, Zhang Xiaoming, one of the top Chinese official in charge of Beijing's Hong Kong portfolio called for Hong Kong people to return home to the motherland for a second time after a year of anti-government protests.

In essence he was calling for a symbolic "Second Handover."

So on the eve of the former British Colony's 23rd anniversary of its return to China, a contentious new national security law Beijing unilaterally drafted for Hong Kong passed through China's top lawmaking body Tuesday morning by unanimous decision.

China's Xinhua News Agency later reported that Chinese President Xi Jinping signed the presidential order for the law to be promulgated into Hong Kong's Basic Law, the city's mini-constitution.

It is largely believed that the law targeting the protest movement in Hong Kong will become effective overnight in the territory before the Chinese five star flag is raised on the morning of July 1.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam issued a statement welcoming the passage of the law saying, "the legislation is an important step to improve the "One Country, Two Systems" institutional system as well as restore stability in Hong Kong society as soon as possible."

Since the law was proposed in late May, the Beijing and Hong Kong governments have not revealed much more about the law other than it sought to "effectively prevent, curb and punish four types of crimes seriously endangering national security, namely acts of secession, subversion of state power, terrorist activities, and collusion with foreign or external forces to endanger national security."

Without any details of the law, Lam in her statement again sought to reassure Hong Kong residents that the law "only targets an extremely small minority of offenders while the life and property as well as various legitimate basic rights and freedoms enjoyed by the overwhelming majority of citizens will be protected."

This marks a distinct turning point for the city, leaving many questioning the future of Hong Kong.

"This is the end of one country two systems and the process to 'authoritarian-ize' Hong Kong is completed" legal scholar and Occupy Central activist Benny Tai told ABC News.

Lee Cheuk-yan, a fellow pro-democracy activist and one of the organizers of the annual Tiananmen Vigil, seconded that sentiment saying that Tuesday marked the "beginning of the reign of fear by the CCP."

Lee is worried that he may be a target because his organization's position advocated for the end of one party rule in China but he has vowed to remain in Hong Kong and continue fighting.

"Will stay on and fight"

The law was authorized in Beijing with many in Hong Kong having never even seen it, showing the extent of haste at which China moved to push through the law that even lacked the usual standard of relative transparency accorded to other proposed laws on the mainland.

Even without details for much of the day, the announcement of the law's passage seemed to have an immediate chilling effect.

Prominent activists Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Agnes Chow who all came to prominence during the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests announced almost immediately that they will leave their position in their political party Demosisto and continue their activism on their own. They did not provide specific reasons for their resignations.

This morning we received and accepted the departure of @joshuawongcf, @nathanlawkc, @jeffreychngo and @chowtingagnes. After much internal deliberation, we have decided to disband and cease all operation as a group given the circumstances. pic.twitter.com/2kmg0ltniO

— Demosistō 香港眾志 😷 (@demosisto) June 30, 2020

A few hours later, the remainder of their party Demosisto announced its decision to disband over Twitter.

Two nativist political parties, Hong Kong Indigenous and Hong Kong National Front, that pushed for independence also announced their decision to disband and cease all activities within Hong Kong shifting their activism abroad.

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yorkfoto/iStockBy CONOR FINNEGAN and VICTOR ORDONEZ, ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- The Chinese government has deployed a mass sterilization campaign against Muslim ethnic minorities in the country's western provinces, according to a new report, which argues the tactics could amount to genocide.

China's treatment of Uighurs, the Muslim ethnic group that has historically lived in China's westernmost province, known as Xinjiang, has come under increased scrutiny in the last couple years, as the Chinese government ramped up what it casts as a "re-education" campaign that uses mass detention camps.

Those camps are used as a form of threat and punishment, with officials detaining women and families who fail to comply with pregnancy checks or forced intrauterine contraceptive devices -- more commonly known as IUDs -- sterilizations, and even abortions.

The result is a huge drop in birth rates among China's Muslim population, even as it moves Han Chinese, the country's main ethnic group, into the mineral-rich region. Birth rates in Uighur areas have plunged by over 60% in the last three years alone, according to the report published by the Jamestown Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.

"We first thought that internment and strict enforcement of family planning was greatly depressing population growth rates in Uighur regions," said China scholar and the report's author Adrian Zenz. "But then the shocker came when I dug deep and found plans to reduce natural birth or natural population growth to near zero by 2020."

Zenz began researching the allegations described in the report after Chinese documents, leaked earlier this year, revealed that the most cited reason for forced internment was "having too many children."

"I started to collect data on population growth in the area," Zenz told ABC News in an interview Monday. "To be honest, I did not expect this to be such a revolutionary report … until I stumbled upon finding after finding, and things became far more dramatic."

The Chinese Foreign Ministry called the accusations "simply groundless and false" during a media briefing Monday. ABC News has not independently confirmed the report's details. Previous reporting trips to the region were met with stonewalling by local officials.

"Xinjiang is enjoying sustained economic growth, social stability, better living standards, unprecedented cultural development and harmonious coexistence of religions," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian. "The Uyghur population in Xinjiang has reached 11.65 million or 46.8% of the region's total."

The Trump administration has seized on the accusations, with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a vocal critic of Beijing, calling them "part of a continuing campaign of repression" against Uighurs and other minorities.

The report's "revelations are sadly consistent with decades of (Chinese Communist Party) practices that demonstrate an utter disregard for the sanctity of human life and basic human dignity. We call on the Chinese Communist Party to immediately end these horrific practices and ask all nations to join the United States in demanding an end to these dehumanizing abuses," he added.

Women have come forward in recent years and recounted being forced to take birth control or undergo sterilization, particularly while in one of the detention facilities for the region's Muslim population. But the study found widespread use of IUDs, sterilizations and forced family separations since the mass detention campaign began in 2017.

Government documents lay out plans for mass female sterilization in rural Uighur regions, according to the report, complete with target numbers of the female population and budgetary figures for performing hundreds of thousands of tubal ligation procedures, a surgical procedure to permanently prevent pregnancy.

"What's happening in Xinjiang is unprecedented," Zenz told ABC News. "Essentially, the Chinese government is putting itself in a position where it's able to turn population growth on and off like a faucet."

The report said 80% of all new IUD placements in 2018 in China were performed in Xinjiang province, which has only 1.8% of the country's overall population.

The measures have achieved huge drops in birth rate. Population growth in the two districts with the largest Uighur populations fell by 84% between 2015 and 2018 and even further in 2019. One Uighur region had an unprecedented near-zero population growth target for 2020, according to the report.

Uighur families that defied birth control measures would be punished by detention in the "training" facilities, the report said, citing Chinese government documents.

For the first time in his reporting, Zenz used the term "demographic campaign of genocide" to describe what is happening in the Xinjiang region -- a profound allegation that he had resisted, given its legal implications for Beijing.

"I've been one of the strongest advocates to not use the term genocide without an adjective," said Zenz. "However, the suppression of births is one of the criteria of literal genocide per the U.N. convention -- so it's appropriate to start to talk about this moving into an aspect of genocide."

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12MN/iStockBy GUY DAVIES and AICHA EL HAMMAR CASTANO, ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- Berlin Diques oversees the well-being of some of the most vulnerable peoples in the world. As a regional president of the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (AIDESEP), he supervises three regions of remote Amazonia, at the Peruvian borders of Colombia and Brazil, territories that are home to 15 different indigenous groups.

Managing their well-being during the pandemic, he says, is harder than ever.

“We are in danger of extinction,” he told ABC News. “If one of us got the virus in a remote community and starts the contagion it will be the death of us . . . it will be a genocide. This is my biggest fear.”  

Cases of the coronavirus across South America are continuing to rise at a sharp rate. Brazil has over 1.3 million confirmed cases, and Peru and Colombia, two countries at Brazil's border with the Amazon, have at least 279,000 and 91,000 cases respectively, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Diques fears that in the context of rising cases in mainstream Latin American society, the interests of indigenous people will be sidelined.

Doctors, lawyers and NGOs representing the interest of indigenous peoples in the region have told ABC News they are increasingly concerned about the potential for COVID-19 to wreak havoc amongst the indigenous peoples in the Amazon and beyond. A lack of political will to address their vulnerabilities, the continuation of illegal mining and logging activities, and years of erosion of their rights even before the pandemic are, they say, “extremely worrying.”

“This is a longtime national narrative,” Diques said. “This is the cruel reality of Amazonia. In our villages, if one of us got contaminated it can turn quickly into a drama.”

Vulnerability at borders


Cities at the border between Peru, Brazil and Colombia are now experiencing rising cases of coronavirus. Hundreds of indigenous tribes live in the forests at the border, and the fear now is that people in the border cities, across these three countries, many of whom the indigenous groups rely on for food and medical care, could bring the virus with them. Then, once the virus is brought into the Amazon, it can spread very easily, advocates say.

"The minute the coronavirus reaches an indigenous community it is likely that it will spread very quickly, because in many cases people have quite communal ways of life,” Sarah Shenker, a senior campaigner at the indigenous rights NGO Survival International, told ABC News.

In some cases, that fear is already becoming a reality, particularly in Brazil, which just reached the grim milestone of 50,000 COVID-related deaths, making it the third worst hit country in the world, after the U.S. and the U.K.

Colombia is on a similarly steep path when it comes to cases of the coronavirus. Lockdown measures in the country have been extended to July 15.

Yet, when it comes to indigenous cases, accurate data regarding the spread of COVID-19 in the Amazon is nearly impossible to come by, according to Eve Bratman, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Franklin & Marshall College and author of Governing the Rainforest: Sustainable Development Politics in the Brazilian Amazon.

The lack of testing and inadequate medical provisions pre-dates the pandemic and has "been consistent [with] the way they have been constantly ostracized from society," she said.

"Governments are using this virus very opportunistically to let these populations suffer," she told ABC News. "In the case of Brazil, [the] Bolsonaro government is not treating them as citizens."

But there are already instances where the coronavirus appears to have spread widely amongst indigenous groups.

In the area designated for the Pacacuro in Peru, for example, 600 people with symptoms of COVID have been registered out of 800 residents, according to local media. Forty-six percent of the Brazilian Amazon's Arara people -- who just just recently came into contact with people outside their tribe -- have been infected by the virus, according to Survival, and experts fear the rates of infection could be even higher.

The problem of not treating indigenous people as citizens is particularly acute in Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro has been accused of waging war against indigenous groups since he took office in January 2019.

But it's not only Brazil, and indigenous populations across the continent have reported a lack of support during the pandemic.

For example, Luis Munoz, a leader of the Parroquia people at Yasuni National Park in Ecuador, told ABC News that his tribe is not receiving any support from the central government. And a doctor who works with the Parroquia told ABC News that he feels he is “abandoning them every time” he leaves after traveling on a government boat to treat them.

Mining and oil extraction continues

There is little evidence of international cooperation, such as a cross-border strategy, to help indigenous communities, particularly as national governments struggle to contain the virus in mainstream society.

According to Diques, the Peruvian government “is not paying attention to the most vulnerable population,” and accurate statistics on the rates of infection are impossible to come by without help from the central government.

“But this is not surprising, we are historically fighting the government, they believed that Amazonian people are excluded from society,” he said. “They believe we are not part of Peru.”

According to COIAB, a Brazilian indigenous rights organization, the death rates amongst indigenous people who have contracted COVID-19 is higher than the general population. Although diseases from mainstream society pose a greater threat to indigenous peoples because of lower rates of immunity, there is so far no evidence that suggests the higher COVID death rate can be put down to genetic vulnerability, according to Shenker.

There are several reasons why indigenous peoples are “more vulnerable” to the pandemic, she said, most of which can be attributed to social and economic factors and age-old inequalities: high rates of poverty, racism in healthcare systems, and the continuation of illegal logging and mining in their lands, she said.

"They are already the most vulnerable people on the planet, even without a pandemic, and any illegal invasions in their territory could wipe out whole peoples,” she told ABC News. "We know that indigenous peoples in many cases suffer from underlying health conditions, often as the result of forced contact by some indigenous societies in recent decades."

Many indigenous groups face a double problem -- that contact with mainstream society is essential as they rely on government healthcare, handouts and employment to feed their families, and that contact can bring potentially devastating consequences, Shenker said.

"Having been chucked off their ancestral land, [they] are living in overcrowded reserves or in camps on the sides of main roads, where they suffer from really high rates of malnutrition and disease, and one of the highest suicide rates in the world. In those sorts of situations it's impossible to self-isolate, because they rely on outside sources for food, for example," she said.

Yet the problem of illegal mining and logging, which so often brings an existential threat to indigenous populations, regardless of the pandemic, has continued largely unabated, she said. In the Yanomani Indigenous territory on the Brazil-Venezuela border, the Yanomani people have launched a campaign to expel 20,000 gold miners, who they say have continued to operate illegally in the region despite the pandemic. So far, three Yanomani have died of COVID-19.

The same problem has played out at the Peruvian border with Ecuador. The Autonomous Territorial Government of the Wampis Nation (GTANW), which represents 85 Wampis communities, has filed a criminal complaint against the general manager of GeoPark, a Chilean petroleum company, for endangering the Wampis, as oil extraction has continued without the testing of workers during the pandemic, they said.

And in Peru, Lizardo Cauper Pezo the president of AIDESEP and a member of the Shipbo indigenous people, has called for “immediate concrete action to support our Indigenous communities, including that the Peruvian government stop all extractive industries in our territories and provide immediate public health resources,” in a statement seen by ABC News.

"It looks as though the virus has encouraged even more invasions because the invaders think that there's less policing going on," Shenker said. "We receive messages nearly every day from different indigenous people across the country telling us about the invaders . . . loggers, miners and others."

While the extraction of natural resources has continued, despite the national economies of South America going into lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus, Diques fears that the situation could further deteriorate as the Peruvian government seeks to open up its economy, albeit gradually, again.

“This is truly destroying the woods, our forest,” he told ABC News. “Of course, without any consent from Indigenous communities. If one worker, coming from minerals extraction, for example, got the coronavirus, he can give it to all of us.”

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

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omersukrugoksu/iStockBy GUY DAVIES and WILLIAM MANSELL, ABC News

(LONDON) -- A male suspect has been shot dead after armed police responded to an incident believed to involve multiple stabbings in Glasgow, Scotland, Friday.

Details are scarce at this time, but authorities are saying the situation is contained, and is not being treated as an act of terrorism.

Assistant Chief Constable Steve Johnson said the incident was ongoing, but there was no threat to the wider public after West George Street, a shopping district where the incident took place, was shut down.

"I would like to reassure the public that this is a contained incident and that the wider public is not at risk," he said in a statement. "Armed police officers attended the incident and I can confirm that a male suspect was shot by an armed officer."

Six other people, including a police officer, were injured, and are being treated in a hospital, he said. The police officer is in a "stable but critical" condition.

"I would like to reassure the public that at this time we are not looking for anyone else in relation to this incident," he added.

A heavy police and ambulance presence descended on Glasgow City Center on Friday afternoon, local time, in response to reports of multiple stabbings.

"Emergency services are currently dealing with an incident on West George Street in Glasgow," the Glasgow Police Department tweeted Friday. "The street is currently closed off and the public are asked to avoid the area at present. The situation is contained at this time and there is no danger to the general public."

Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, requested that the public follow the police force's advice so they could deal with the incident.

"The reports from Glasgow City Centre are truly dreadful. My thoughts are with everyone involved," she posted on Twitter. "I am being updated as the situation becomes clearer. Please help the emergency services do their jobs by staying away from the area -- and please don’t share unconfirmed information."

The Prime Minister of the U.K., Boris Johnson, said he was "deeply saddened" by the "terrible" incident. Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, said the reports were "extremely concerning."

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omersukrugoksu/iStockBy MORGAN WINSOR, ABC News

(LONDON) -- The second-largest, second-deadliest Ebola outbreak in history was declared over Thursday, almost two years after the first case was confirmed.

An outbreak of the Ebola virus, which causes an often-fatal type of hemorrhagic fever, emerged in the northeastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in August 2018 and rapidly spread across three provinces, infecting 3,470 people -- 28% of them children -- and killing 2,277 of them, according to health officials.

It was the 10th Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the most severe there since 1976, when scientists first identified the virus near the eponymous Ebola River. It was also one of the worst on record anywhere, second only to the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak in multiple West African nations that infected 28,652 people and killed 11,325.

The country's health minster, Dr. Eteni Longondo, declared an end to the epidemic on Thursday, after no new cases were reported 42 days since the last patient was tested negative for the disease and discharged from the hospital.

"Compared to previous outbreaks, this last one was the longest, the most complex and the deadliest," Longondo told reporters.

As the first Ebola outbreak to occur in an active conflict zone, the efforts to halt the spread of the virus were particularly challenging. Health workers trying to reach remote hotspots faced sporadic attacks by armed groups operating near the country's volatile, mineral-rich border with Uganda.

The World Health Organization, the health arm of the United Nations, designated the outbreak a global health emergency, describing it as more complex than the deadlier 2014-16 outbreak in West Africa due to the region's insecurity, political instability and highly mobile population as well as the community's mistrust in health workers and the spread of misinformation.

“It wasn’t easy and, at times, it seemed like a mission impossible,” Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO’s regional director for Africa, said in a statement Thursday. “Ending this Ebola outbreak is a sign of hope for the region and the world that with solidarity and science and courage and commitment, even the most challenging epidemics can be controlled.”

Experimental Ebola vaccines and treatments approved for use in the Democratic Republic of the Congo showed promise in fighting the epidemic and saving lives.

The 22-month-long response, led by the Congolese government with support from the WHO and partners, involved training thousands of health workers, registering 250,000 contacts, testing 220,000 samples, providing patients with equitable access to advanced therapeutics, vaccinating over 303,000 people and offering care for survivors after their recovery.

"The outbreak took so much from all of us, especially from the people of DRC, but we came out of it with valuable lessons and valuable tools. The world is now better-equipped to respond to Ebola. A vaccine has been licensed, and effective treatments identified," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement Thursday. "We should celebrate this moment, but we must resist complacency. Viruses do not take breaks. Ultimately, the best defense against any outbreak is investing in a stronger health system as the foundation for universal health coverage."

However, the Central African nation still faces major health challenges -- a deadly measles outbreak, the rising threat of COVID-19 and a new Ebola outbreak that's emerged in the northwest.

The latest Ebola outbreak -- the country’s 11th on record -- has so far infected 24 people in Equateur province and killed at least 13 of them since it was announced on June 1, according to health officials.

"Today is the greatest day," Dr. Deogratious Wonya'rossi, a Congolese public health physician who was part of the Ebola response in the east, told ABC News in a text message Thursday. "But unfortunately it's still killing people in the western region."

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CGinspiration/iStockBy SOMAYEH MALEKIAN, ABC NEWS

(TEHRAN, Iran) -- Writing down her dreams in her diary notebook was the first thing Samaneh, a 16-year-old undocumented Iranian-Bengali, did after she learned she might officially get an Iranian ID.

"My daughter was over the moon when I told her the law was changed and she could get Shenasnameh [an Iranian official ID card] through me. All she wants is to go to school and to the gym," Samaneh's mother told ABC News. She, like others interviewed in the story, did not want her name and her daughter's full name mentioned for personal reasons.

Samaneh is one of at least one million undocumented children born to Iranian mothers and non-Iranian fathers who have had many challenges in accessing education, medical and other services because they were not recognized as Iranian nationals.

The former laws of the Islamic Republic only allowed men to pass nationality, so children of foreign national fathers and Iranian women were not considered Iranian. But, with the new law which will goes into effect in two weeks, women will can confer their nationality to their children like men, the spokesman of the government Ali Rabiei said, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency.

Most of the men with foreign nationalities who marry Iranian women are refugees from Iran's neighboring countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, Fatemeh Ashrafi, head of Hami, an association for protection of refugee women and children, told ABC News.

"More than 100,000 Iranian women are married to [foreign men], mostly from neighboring countries," Ashrafi said.

"I hope the news is true," said Khaleghzadeh, a mother of five undocumented children to an Afghan father who still cannot believe the long ordeal of her children is over.

"If my children get Iranian IDs, they can go to work without being constantly worried about getting arrested and deported to Afghanistan," she added.

As Ashrafi said, the law is as much about women's rights as it is about refugees and their children. "This law helps women regain an important part of their rights," she said.

"I can't forget how terribly I was shocked when after my marriage I realized my children could not get Iranian ID despite the fact that I was Iranian," Samaneh's mother said. "I felt I wasn't a full person."

"I am happy that I can get my name registered at state schools like my other friends and can rejoin the kabaddi team," Samaneh said. She was a member of the kabaddi team at the gym in her neighborhood, but could not stay with the team after they made it to the next round of the city champion league, as she was undocumented.

"Lack of access to free education or work permission is not the only problem my children have, they are tired of being constantly humiliated for having an Afghan father," Khaleghzadeh said. "Now, they are happy that they can be recognized as Iranian."

The pain of being seen as inferior is what many Afghans and children of Afghan refugees complain about in Iran.

"One of the toughest things I have to deal with on a daily basis is hiding the nationality of my father. People would think of me as a lesser person if they realized my dad was Bengali," Samaneh said.

However, Ashrafi believes that the social discrimination against non-Iranians has historical reasons and is not a problem that can be solved merely by changing a law. "It is a deeper issue that needs a rather long-term cultural and social approach. This law is not going to help the wrong with that social damage," she said.

Khaleghzadeh has a 25-year-old undocumented pregnant daughter, also married to an undocumented Afghan refugee, who does not have a work permit in Iran. "If she can get my Iranian nationality, then she can pass it to her baby, too," she said. "At least they can get the cash subsidies from the government for the times her husband does not work," she added.

Iran distributes monthly cash subsidies of about $2.50 per person. The humble amount still means a lot to families with no income in destitute areas of the country including border provinces like Sistan and Baluchistan, home to many families with Iranian mothers and Afghan refugee fathers.

Over a million Afghan refugees are officially registered in Iran. The number of undocumented Afghans is about 2.5 million, the government spokesperson said.

"Many of such marriages are a result of the poverty of families of these women in border provinces. Around 80% of women married to refugees in Iran are illiterate or barely literate and live in the slums. They are hardly aware of their rights, so they marry refugees sometimes for a small sum of money that is not inconsiderable for these families," Ashrafi said.

Although the implementation of the new law is the last hope of many families, experts believe it may cause problems as it contains some contradictions and loopholes.

"This bill is inconsistent with the Constitution, at some points. One of them is the ambiguity of the new regulations about dual nationals," Ashrafi said.

The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran does not recognize dual nationality. It has left some families in obscurity whose children have already been granted their fathers' nationality.

"Both of my daughters have Iraqi ID," said Kolsum, an Iranian woman who lives with her Iraqi husband and her daughters in Baghdad. She is not sure if her daughters are eligible to get Iranian ID as they already are recognized as Iraqi nationals.

"I know the problem with dual nationality in Iran's constitution, but I really like my daughters to get Shenasnameh, because it saves all the visa hassle we have at the border every time we want to visit my family in Iran," she said.

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dicus63/iStockBy PATRICK REEVELL, ABC News

(MOSCOW) -- Russians have begun voting in a seven day-long referendum on changes to Russia’s constitution that will allow President Vladimir Putin to remain in power until 2036.

In January, Putin proposed a series of sweeping changes to the constitution that would create a path for him to staying in office well beyond his current term limits. The key amendment "resets" the count on Putin’s presidential terms to zero, meaning he would be able to run again for president in 2024, even though the constitution still imposes a limit of two terms.

Russia’s parliament has already approved the amendments, meaning the referendum is largely symbolic. But the Kremlin wants it to put a stamp of legitimacy on the changes.

Critics have denounced the maneuvers as a constitutional coup that will allow Putin to remain in power effectively for life.

The vote was originally planned for April 22, but the coronavirus pandemic forced the Kremlin to postpone it as Russia went into lockdown.

Authorities have decided to hold the vote now, even though pandemic continues to grow in many parts of Russia. In an attempt to allow for social distancing, the vote has been stretched out over seven days and Russians can vote until July 1.

Opposition-leaning Russians and some health workers have criticized holding the vote, calling it reckless and needlessly dangerous and warning it could lead to another surge in cases when Russian hospitals have either already been strained for months or overwhelmed with patients.

Russia has recorded over 600,000 virus cases, the third largest epidemic in the world, behind only Brazil and the United States. It is continuing to register around 7,000 new cases a day and in many regions the curve of infections is still steeply climbing.

Voting stations opened across Russia on Thursday and authorities have insisted sufficient measures have been taken to protect people. Most lockdown measures have been lifted in Moscow and in many other regions in the past few weeks ahead of the vote, although social distancing rules and bans on mass gatherings are supposed to still be in place.

Most political observers expect the vote to produce the result Putin is looking for but it has nonetheless presented a challenge for the Kremlin, amid signs of muted enthusiasm for the vote among Russians and polling showing a dip in Putin’s popularity.

A poll by Russia’s only independent polling agency, the Levada Center, in May showed Putin’s approval ratings among Russians had dropped to 59%, down from 63% a month earlier and the lowest since he first came to power. More worrying for the Kremlin is another poll by the Levada that showed "trust" in Putin had nearly halved in two years, dropping to 35% in January.

Levada’s polling also suggests that Putin’s moves to extend his rule is highly controversial in Russian society, with people divided 50-50 on the subject.

Because the referendum is intended to lend legitimacy to Putin’s moves to extend his rule, the Kremlin needs not only a big result but also a high turnout. Reports in Russian media have suggested Putin’s administration considers 55% the minimum required.

The Kremlin has also included a number of other proposed amendments for Russians to vote on, designed to have conservative and nationalist appeal. Among them is to introduce reference to the special role of ethnic Russians in the country’s creation as well as a reference to "God." Another amendment would also enshrine the concept of marriage as between a man and a woman, essentially placing a ban on same-sex marriage in the constitution.

Other amendments would also insert a guarantee to index pensions to inflation and tie the minimum wage to a living wage, a move popular among many Russians.

Authorities have also turned to other methods to grow turnout -- those voting can be entered into lotteries offering the chance to win prizes, including cash and in some cities even apartments.

There have also been widespread reports of pressure on public sector workers to vote, a traditional tactic in former Soviet states. Reuters and the Russian site Meduza have reported that state companies have also been given software that will allow them to track whether their employees have voted.

The authorities have also gone to lengths to encourage people who might be deterred by the epidemic. People can summon election officials to their homes to take their votes; at polling stations voting booths are set up on the street. Russia’s chief election official at the start of the month said there would even be voting urns in ambulances for those being hospitalized.

Putin on Thursday in a televised briefing told officials they must not allow any attempts to artificially increase turnout. The vote must be “absolutely trustworthy, legitimate,” Putin said.

The anti-Kremlin opposition has been divided how to treat the vote, with some calling to vote against the amendments and others supporting a boycott.

Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, Alexey Navalny, has told his supporters to boycott.

“Voting on the amendments is illegal, pointless and dangerous for your health,” Navalny said before the vote.

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