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Greece starts clearing ground for Athens property plan after long delay

ATHENS (Reuters) – Greece started work clearing ground on Friday for a real estate project that plans to turn a disused airport on the Athens coast into one of Europe’s biggest tourist resorts, three times the size of Monaco.

The former Hellenikon airport, a sprawling site of disused runways, terminals and venues used for the Athens 2004 Olympics, has been abandoned for almost two decades.

After years of delays due to bureaucratic red tape, political resistance and local opposition, demolition crews began tearing down the first block of buildings out of hundreds that need to be removed from the 1,500-acre plot.

Lamda Development, which secured the long-term lease on the site in 2014, plans to build a complex of luxury homes, hotels, offices, a yachting marina and a casino at a total cost of 8 billion euros ($9 billion).

“This is a project which symbolises a new Greece,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, whose Conservative government has promised to speed up the project, told a launch ceremony.

Development of the site was a requirement under international bailouts Greece reached with creditors.

Lamda, which first outlined its plan in 2013, has said it will spend about 2 billion euros in the first five years of an estimated 25-year construction phase, building two skyscrapers for offices and a hotel, and about 800 residences and a park.

It plans to demolish about a third of about 900 buildings on the site in the coming months and aims to start building infrastructure in the first half of 2021, Chief Executive Officer Odisseas Athanasiou said during the ceremony.

Before construction starts, Greece needs to resolve a dispute between two U.S. firms over the award of a tender to operate the property’s casino.

The Hellenikon project is expected to create about 10,000 jobs during construction and attract thousands of tourists and investors to the Greek capital.

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From tubs to toilets, Vietnam hotel opens with gold-plated pizzazz

HANOI (Reuters) – A five-star hotel in Vietnamese capital Hanoi has opened with a twist that it hopes will attract guests with intimately expensive tastes: gold-plated bath tubs, basins and even toilets, all housed behind a massive golden exterior.

The Dolce Hanoi Golden Lake Hotel has made the extra effort to bring visitors back to Vietnam where the tourism sector is slowly reopening after a three-month coronavirus lockdown.

The hotel, owned by Hoa Binh Group and managed by U.S.-based Wyndham Hotels & Resorts Inc, stands in stark contrast to its surrounding weather-worn Soviet-era buildings.

“At the moment, there is no other hotel like this in the world,” said Nguyen Huu Duong, majority owner and chairman of Hoa Binh Group.

Hotel facilities include a 24 karat gold-tiled infinity pool on the rooftop, while inside guest rooms, bathrooms are laced with yellow metal. From $250 a night, the hotel is in the same price bracket as rival luxury accommodation in the city.

“It has changed my mind about what luxury can be. Other luxury hotels usually use marble as tiles, but here everything is gold-plated down to the washing basin,” said 62-year-old guest Luong Van Thuan, himself a hotel owner.

Vietnam has been relatively successful in containing the coronavirus outbreak with only 350 or so cases and no reported deaths. Duong said if not for the pandemic, the hotel would likely be fully booked with international guests.

Around a tonne of gold was used to cover the hotel, said Duong, a Vietnam War veteran and former cyclo taxi driver who made his fortune in construction and property.

He is planning gold-plated projects in Ho Chi Minh City and a resort in central Vietnam.

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Death toll rises to 162 in Myanmar jade mine collapse

(Reuters) – The death toll in a landslide at a jade mine in northern Myanmar has risen to at least 162, with more feared dead, authorities said.

A heap of mining waste collapsed into a lake on Thursday and buried many workers under mud and water.

By late evening on Thursday, rescue workers had recovered 162 bodies, the fire service department said, but the search was ongoing.

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Australian PM seeks voter redemption in by-election

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison will on Saturday vie to secure a 100-year first by winning a seat from the opposition at a by-election, a contest that will test how well voters believe his government has handled the dual crises of catastrophic summer bushfires and COVID-19 pandemic.

The sprawling Eden-Monaro electorate on the south coast of New South Wales state was one of the worst hit by fires and some locals jeered Morrison over his handling of the deadly event when he visited the devastation.

The conservative leader was widely criticised for taking his family on holiday to Hawaii as fires raged across the country.

Political polls soon rebounded, however, with Morrison lauded for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic that has seen Australia record about 8,000 infections and 104 deaths – well below other countries.

“By rights, the opposition Labor party should win the seat – but he has turned his standing around dramatically since the bushfires,” said John Hewson, a former leader of the Liberal Party now headed by Morrison.

“If the Liberals win, then coronavirus has changed the landscape.”

Voters in Eden-Monaro – about 478 km (297 miles) south of Sydney – are voting to elect a new parliamentary member after the retirement of an opposition Labor lawmaker due to ill-health. Election campaigns in Eden-Monaro are historically tightly-fought contests.

While a victory for the Liberal candidate, Fiona Kotvojs, won’t change the balance of power in the national parliament, it would be a boon for Morrison, given voters usually lodge protest votes against the sitting government in by-elections.

The last time the opposition lost a by-election to a government candidate was in 1920, in the West Australia state goldfields electorate of Kalgoorlie.

Haydon Manning, a political science specialist at Flinders University in South Australia, said a victory for the Liberal candidate would provide strong momentum ahead of a tricky period ahead navigating an economic recovery out of the pandemic.

The next federal election is due by mid-2022.

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Exclusive: JPMorgan drops terms 'master,' 'slave' from internal tech code and materials

NEW YORK (Reuters) – JPMorgan Chase & Co (JPM.N) is eliminating terms like “blacklist,” “master” and “slave” from its internal technology materials and code as it seeks to address racism within the company, said two sources with knowledge of the move.

The terms had appeared in some of the bank’s technology policies, standards and control procedures, as well in the programming code that runs some of its processes, one of the sources said.

Other companies like Twitter Inc (TWTR.K) and GitHub Inc adopted similar changes, prompted by the renewed spotlight on racism after the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis in May. here

The phrases “master” and “slave” code or drive are used in some programming languages and computer hardware to describe one part of a device or process that controls another.

“Blacklist” is used to describe items that are automatically denied, like a list of websites forbidden by a company’s cybersecurity division. “Whitelist” means the opposite – a list of items automatically approved.

Floyd’s death has sparked a re-examination of words that might carry racial overtones. For example, some realtors are no longer using the term “master bedroom,” and Universal Music Group’s Republic Records stopped using the word “urban” to describe music genres and internal departments or roles.

JPMorgan appears to be the first in the financial sector to remove most references to these racially problematic phrases, and it comes after the bank has said it is taking other steps to promote Black professionals and anti-bias culture training for staff.

Columbia Business School programming professor Mattan Griffel said such terms have long been controversial and can be difficult to change.

The technology that underpins bank operations is often a spaghetti-like mess that results from merged companies, decades-old code and third-party systems, and any change can have cascading effects that are difficult to predict, Griffel said.

Changing these terms within the bank’s code could take millions of dollars and months of work, Griffel said.

“This is not a trivial” investment by the bank, Griffel said. “This kind of language and terminology is so entrenched. It has to (change) and now is as good a time as any.”

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Boeing communications chief resigns over decades-old article on women in combat

SEATTLE (Reuters) – Boeing Co’s (BA.N) communications chief Niel Golightly abruptly resigned on Thursday, following an employee’s complaint over an article the former U.S. military pilot wrote 33 years ago arguing women should not serve in combat.

His exit leaves Boeing trying to fill the crucial role for the fourth time in less than three years, just as it is battling to shore up its brand after the prolonged safety grounding of its Boeing 737 MAX jetliner.

The job has become the industry’s biggest hot seat as Boeing fends off criticism for its handling of the 737 MAX crisis.

“My article was a 29-year-old Cold War navy pilot’s misguided contribution to a debate that was live at the time,” Golightly said in a statement included in Boeing’s announcement.

“My argument was embarrassingly wrong and offensive. The article is not a reflection of who I am; but nonetheless I have decided that in the interest of the company I will step down,” Golightly said.

According to an excerpt on the U.S. Naval Institute website, the December 1987 article titled “No Right to Fight” said: “At issue is not whether women can fire M-60s, dogfight MiGs, or drive tanks. Introducing women into combat would destroy the exclusively male intangibles of war fighting and the feminine images of what men fight for – peace, home, family.”

Golightly told staff in an email seen by Reuters on Thursday that the exclusion of women at the time was “government policy and broadly supported in society. It was also wrong.”

Golightly declined to comment beyond Boeing’s statement and his email.

Golightly’s departure after just six months on the job, during which he was said to be introducing sweeping changes, followed the board’s review of an internal anonymous ethics complaint that flagged his article.

He decided to step down after discussions with Boeing Chief Executive Dave Calhoun and others, Golightly said in his email.

Golightly acted after Boeing members, already feeling pressure from the 15-month-old MAX crisis, had expressed little patience for a potentially damaging new distraction, people familiar with the matter said.

U.S. employers have been more responsive to complaints related to sex and racial equality and diversity fueled in part by the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment, and anti-racist activism following the slaying of Black men by police.

Boeing has touted its strong commitment to improving diversity, though the women on its executive council has fallen from five to two since the beginning of 2019, according to Boeing’s annual reports and website.

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How Moderna executives are cashing in on COVID-19 vaccine stock speculation

(Reuters) – Biotech firm Moderna Inc could reap tens of billions of dollars in sales and stock appreciation if it wins the race for a COVID-19 vaccine. If it loses, the early-stage company’s value could crash.

In the meantime, the firm’s chief executive is pocketing millions of dollars every month by selling shares that have tripled in price on news of Moderna’s development progress, a Reuters analysis of corporate filings shows. The sales – by CEO Stéphane Bancel, his childrens’ trust and companies he owns – amount to about $21 million between January 1 and June 26, including $6 million in May.

The company’s chief medical officer, Tal Zaks, has cashed out the majority of his available stock and options, netting over $35 million since January, the filings show.

The lucrative liquidations highlight the unusually powerful incentives for biotech executives to highlight development milestones for drugs that often never get approved or sold, according to interviews with seven executive-compensation experts. Optimistic corporate statements on coronavirus vaccines, they said, could cause investors to overpay for company shares or create false hope among the public and health officials seeking new weapons to fight the pandemic.

Bancel set a fixed schedule for his share sales – known as a 10b5-1 plan – long before the pandemic hit. Such executive share-sale plans are meant to guard against insider trading, avoiding the potential for executives to sell in advance of bad news they know is coming, or to put off selling until after a positive announcement.

Zaks sharply increased the pace of his sales with a new plan he put in place on March 13. That was three days before Moderna announced it had dosed the first human with a vaccine candidate, news that sent its stock price up 24% and signaled that future development milestones might push the shares higher.

The sales give the firm’s executives an unusual opportunity to lock in big profits on what could be fleeting market optimism, said Jesse Fried, a Harvard Law School professor who wrote a book about executive compensation.

“This may be their one shot at making a boatload of money if the vaccine doesn’t work out,” Fried said. Executives have wide discretion in releasing information, he said, and Moderna’s chiefs have a powerful motivation to “keep the stock price up.”

Reuters found no evidence that Bancel, Zaks or Moderna has exaggerated the company’s vaccine progress.

Many news outlets have reported sales by Moderna executives in the wake of positive news on its vaccine efforts. Reuters is the first to report that Bancel and affiliated entities are selling 90,000 shares every month and that Zaks moved to sharply increase his sales in March, three days before Moderna released market-moving news.

A Moderna spokesman said that Bancel is liquidating only a small portion of his holdings and that “substantially all of his family’s assets remain invested in Moderna.” This stakeholding reflected Bancel’s “long-term commitment” to the firm, the spokesman said. Bancel, his companies and his children’s trust own more than 24 million Moderna shares, making him the second largest stockholder, owning about 8% of the firm, down slightly from the beginning of the year.

Zaks did not respond to requests for comment, and Moderna did not comment on his share sales.

The high frequency, volume and profits of Bancel’s transactions – at about 90,000 shares monthly – are unique among the CEOs of 26 companies identified by Reuters as developing COVID-19 vaccines or treatments and that regularly publish information on executive trades of company shares.

Twenty-one of the firms have seen their stock rise since the end of January, just before coronavirus spread globally, and ten of those, including Moderna, have seen share prices at least double. But just four of the CEOs of those firms, including Bancel, have sold company stock. Only one – Chad Robins of Adaptive Biotech – made substantial, regular sales under a 10b5-1 plan, like Moderna’s Bancel. Adaptive Biotech, however, has seen a far smaller recent stock-price increase – about 50% – than Moderna. During May and June, Robins sold about $12 million in stock after Adaptive’s stock price rose on news that it is researching antibody therapies and a coronavirus test that delivers faster results.

Adaptive Biotech declined to comment and referred to a company filing that said Robins sold the stock to diversify his investments.

Most of Bancel’s sales have been carried out through plans in place since December 2018, the filings show. The transactions started in November 2019, when a trust belonging to his children began selling 11,046 shares each week. This January, Bancel and two companies he controls started selling stock regularly. Since then, they have collectively sold about 90,000 Moderna shares each month.

HIGH RISKS, REWARDS

Such scheduled sales are more common at early-stage biotech companies such as Moderna – which face intense risk-reward scenarios – than at more established and diversified drug firms, where executives frequently hold their equity until they leave the company.

Executives’ ongoing sales are an effective hedge against the bigger downside risk faced by companies like Moderna. Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the firm has more than 20 therapies and vaccines in development – but none near approval. Investors view the firm as a frontrunner in creating a COVID-19 vaccine, but it faces 17 serious competitors with candidates in clinical evaluations and 129 others in earlier development stages, according to the World Health Organization. Only a very small number of companies are expected to get vaccines to market, biotech executives and health experts say.

If Moderna successfully launches its coronavirus vaccine and a dozen other of its most promising trial medicines, its stock price could rise to $279 based on the new revenues, according to Morgan Stanley analysts. That would yield Bancel a fortune of about $10 billion including currently unvested share options, the Reuters analysis shows.

The firm’s stock has soared from $18 in late February – just before it announced it had shipped its vaccine candidate to the U.S. government for trials – to close at $56.57 on July 2, down 5%, after a report that the start of its large vaccine trial would be delayed. That gives the company a market capitalization of nearly $23 billion. The stock hit a high of $80 in May.

But Morgan Stanley also has a “bear case,” in which the company would be worth only as much as the cash on its balance sheet if all of its vaccine and drug candidates don’t make it to market.

‘SCIENCE BY PRESS RELEASE’

Bancel and Zaks have been bullish on Moderna’s prospects in public statements.

Bancel calls the mRNA technology the company uses for all vaccine development the “software of life,” with potential to create “a new class of medicines.” He has also said Moderna’s process can create vaccines much faster and with a better chance of “technical success” – and, by implication, regulatory approval – than other firms.

“We are not aware of anybody else who can do this at this scale, with this focus, at this speed,” he told investors on June 2. Earlier, in a May 7 earnings call, Bancel said he had “never been as excited and optimistic about the future of Moderna.”

Many investors and analysts are optimistic as well but say it is difficult to evaluate Moderna’s prospects given the early stages of trials.

The company drew criticism from scientists for releasing incomplete data from a trial being conducted by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). On May 18, Moderna announced that its vaccine candidate had produced protective antibodies in a small subset of healthy trial volunteers. The news pushed Moderna stock up 20% to its peak of $80.

Some scientists suggested Moderna should have held off publishing until it had all test subjects’ results. “This was science by press release,” said Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Without complete data, he said, “you’re left to read the tea leaves.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci – the nation’s top infectious disease expert – shared the test results with U.S. governors, Vice President Mike Pence said in a Twitter post the day of Moderna’s announcement. But Fauci – who is running the Moderna trial – later said he didn’t like the company’s early release of incomplete data, according to an interview published by the STAT health news service. A spokeswoman for Fauci’s agency, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, did not comment beyond what Fauci said in the interview.

Bancel told investors at a June conference that Moderna’s leadership worried the information had been seen by too many people, including at the NIH. He said the company made the partial findings public because it worried the data would get leaked – and it considered the incomplete results material information that all investors should receive at the same time. A company spokesman told Reuters the company believed it needed to release the information to comply with Securities and Exchange Commission rules.

The day after the May 18 announcement, Zaks sold 125,000 shares – netting him nearly $10 million – at a price of $78, up from $66 on the Friday before the Monday press release. Company filings show the sale was executed in accordance with the plan that Zaks put in place on March 13.

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Asian stocks set to follow U.S. jobs rally, China in focus

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Asian stocks were likely to track a firmer Wall Street session on Friday after strong U.S. jobs data although growing Sino-U.S. tensions and a worrying surge in coronavirus cases is likely to cap gains.

Japan’s Nikkei 225 futures rose 0.45% and Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 futures climbed 0.58%.

E-mini futures for the S&P 500 rose 0.14%.

“While June data reflected a big improvement in the U.S. labor market, the recent sharp acceleration in new virus cases plus the prospect of an end to unemployment benefits by the end of July are two big layers of uncertainty,” said NAB Markets analyst Rodrigo Catril, adding that the uptick in U.S. cases could mean extended headwinds for the labor market.

Wall Street ended Thursday higher following a record increase in payrolls and a decline in unemployment. U.S. markets are closed on Friday in observance of Independence Day.

However, investor focus is shifting to worsening strains between China and the United States.

More than 75 U.S. members of congress sent a letter to the President Donald Trump urging him to take make a formal determination on whether China’s treatment of Muslim Uighurs and other groups constitutes an atrocity.

The U.S. State Department also warned American companies including Amazon.com Inc, Walmart Inc and Apple Inc to check their supply chains and ensure they are not doing business with entities linked to alleged human rights abuses against Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang province.

Separately, Congress passed legislation seeking to punish banks that do business with Chinese officials who implement Beijing’s draconian new national security law on Hong Kong.

MSCI’s gauge of stocks across the globe gained 0.92%. The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 0.36%, the S&P 500 gained 0.45% and the Nasdaq Composite added 0.52%.

The positive economic data also pushed oil prices higher.

Brent crude futures settled at $43.14 a barrel, rising $1.11, or 2.6%. U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures settled at $40.65 a barrel, up 83 cents, or 2.1%.

Investors still embraced the safe-haven dollar and gold, which usually rise when risk appetite declines, as an acceleration in new COVID-19 cases across the country prompted fresh restrictions.

The dollar index rose 0.058%, with the euro up 0.01% to $1.1239.

The Japanese yen weakened 0.02% versus the greenback at 107.53 per dollar, while sterling last traded at $1.2468, up 0.02% on the day.

Spot gold rose 0.4% to $1,777.04 per ounce

U.S. Treasury yields ended the day lower ahead of the July 4 long weekend, with the benchmark 10-year yield fell 1.1 basis points at 0.6709%.

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Top US spies brief Congress on Russia-Taliban intelligence

Congress eyes new sanctions as Trump downplays reports Russia offered Taliban affiliates cash to kill Americans.

CIA Director Gina Haspel and National Security Agency Director Paul Nakasone met with congressional leaders at the United States Capitol on Thursday to share US intelligence suggesting Russia offered the Taliban bounties to kill US troops in Afghanistan.

Amid rising calls for new sanctions on Russia, US intelligence officials are under pressure from members of both parties in Congress to provide explanations.

US media outlets have reported that intelligence agencies concluded the Russian military offered bounties to Taliban affiliates in Afghanistan to kill American troops and coalition forces. President Donald Trump has played down the reports and called the allegations a hoax. 

Members of Congress who were briefed behind closed doors on Thursday included top Republican and Democrat leaders from the House of Representatives and the Senate as well as chairs of the intelligence committees. The US’s top spy, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, also attended.

“I’m not going to say anything about the briefing, but I believe that the president is not close to tough enough on [Russian President] Vladimir Putin,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer told reporters as he left the briefing.

Going into the meeting, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – who has been harshly critical of Trump, calling him unfit for office – said she hoped to learn “the truth” about the Russian bounties.

After the closed briefing, Schumer and Pelosi issued a joint statement accusing Trump of being “soft” on Putin. 

The intelligence “was of a consequential level” and the president and Congress should have been briefed, Pelosi said at a news conference.

“The White House put on a con that if you don’t have 100 percent consensus on intelligence that it shouldn’t rise to a certain level,” Pelosi said.

Warmer relations

Pelosi said Congress should now impose financial sanctions on Russia’s intelligence and military sectors – penalties that were withheld at Trump’s request, she said, in a US sanctions law passed overwhelmingly by Congress in 2017.

Trump, a Republican, has worked to cultivate warmer relations with Moscow. Recently, the US president sought to invite Russia back into the Group of Seven meeting of industrialised nations, but was blocked by Germany and other allies. Russia was expelled by the group after annexing Crimea and invading eastern Ukraine.

Four US and European government sources, who are familiar with intelligence reporting and spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Reuters news agency that in recent weeks the US had acquired fresh reporting backing up the allegations that Russia had encouraged Taliban-affiliated militants to kill US and allied soldiers in Afghanistan.

US intelligence agencies are confident Russia encouraged the Taliban to kill US troops, but there is a disagreement between the CIA and the National Security Agency over whether Moscow had actually paid bounties, Reuters reported.

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Three US cities pilot truth, reconciliation push to tackle racism

Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco will help form a pilot effort to confront racism in the criminal justice system.

District attorneys in Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco are teaming up on a pilot effort patterned after South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission to confront racism in the criminal justice system.

Suffolk County DA Rachael Rollins, Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner and San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin announced the initiative on Wednesday in partnership with the Grassroots Law Project, which is leading the effort. It will tackle racial inequities, and police violence and misconduct.

“We need to confront our ugly past to create a more just and equitable future,” said Rollins, whose jurisdiction includes Boston.

Organisers said the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission will “process and address the injustices of the past that simply were not given the time, attention and dignity that they deserved”.

“When marginalized people have needed to finally rely on this system for justice, it has routinely failed them in the worst ways imaginable. This isn’t a bug in the system, but a feature,” they said in a statement.

The three district attorneys said they will be working out details over the summer and plan to formally launch the commission in the fall (autumn).

The Grassroots Law Project, an organisation led by activist Shaun King and civil rights attorney Lee Merritt, said Rollins, Krasner and Boudin “will lead community-centred, localised efforts to address the harms of unaccountable, unjust and racist policing and prosecution”. Additional cities will be announced later this year, it said.

New York efforts

Separately, New York City took the lead last month when Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city would form its own commission to examine its history of racial discrimination.

The city’s new Racial Justice and Reconciliation Commission will give New Yorkers a platform to discuss their experiences with racism, examine possible discrimination in public policy and recommend changes such as removing symbols of racism from public spaces, de Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray, said in announcing its formation. McCray, an author and activist, is Black; the mayor is white.

It is the latest in a trend of progressive prosecutors eschewing traditionally cosy relationships with police departments and pressing instead for criminal justice reforms to better hold police accountable for wrongdoing.

Rollins, Boston’s first woman and Black district attorney, said the entire system – not just police – needs to change to ensure people of colour are not victimised. “Our efforts at reform cannot only focus on police. Your district attorneys, state’s attorneys and top prosecutors are failing you too,” she tweeted on Wednesday.

In the 1990s, South Africa’s own Truth and Reconciliation Commission took the nation on a painful path to air injustices perpetrated during more than 40 years of apartheid rule that included the torture, beatings and bombings of Black people. Rather than hunt down and try people accused of atrocities, Nuremberg-style, the country’s approach helped talk through grievances and heal divisions between Black people and whites.

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