Furious Norwegian Spirit passengers demand refund after bad weather forces itinerary change

iStock(NEW YORK) — Norwegian Cruise Line is blaming “severe weather conditions” for forcing it to revise the itinerary of its Spirit ship, which has left guests irate and calling this cruise of a lifetime more like a holiday from hell.

The 14-day cruise on the Norwegian Spirit departed on Sept. 27 from Southampton, U.K., and is expected to return Friday, according to website Cruisemapper.

The ship’s current position was listed as Dublin, Ireland, on Wednesday. It was not immediately known how many people were on board.

According to Norwegian, the cruise is advertised as an “Iceland, Ireland and Norway: Mystical Fjords” adventure and starts at $1799.

It was supposed to stop in ports in France, Amsterdam, Scotland, Iceland, and Ireland, according to Cruisemapper. However, high winds forced the ship to cancel the first two stops, passengers said.

“While nine ports of call were originally planned for the voyage, the revised itinerary allowed the ship to call on eight ports. … We always do our best to provide our guests with a truly enjoyable and memorable vacation, but our very first priority is to ensure their safety and the safety of our crew,” Norwegian said in a statement to ABC News on Wednesday.

The statement continued: “We understand that it is disheartening when we are unable to call on ports that our guests have been looking forward to visiting. However, we do ask for our guests’ patience, cooperation and understanding that severe weather conditions are an act of God and cannot be controlled, influenced or remediated by the cruise line. Our goal is to showcase the beautiful destinations our ships visit and to provide guests with an onboard experience that is second to none.”

It would not confirm which of the ports its Spirit cruise ship had bypassed.

After three days at sea, livid passengers began posting on social media about overflowing toilets and stale food.

In a 24-second YouTube video posted by an account called NCL Hell2019 on Wednesday, people identified as passengers aboard were taped holding signs that read “We want refund” and “Shame on you” and chanting “We want refund! We want refund!”

In other videos posted by the account, passengers were seen yelling at security and at a uniformed ship official.

In a statement to ABC News, Norwegian apologized “for any inconvenience and disappointment” its guests onboard Spirit had experienced.

In a letter to guests that was posted to Twitter by account NCLHELL, Norwegian Spirit said that “unsafe docking conditions including gusty winds” had forced the Oct. 7 call to Greenock, Scotland, to be canceled.

“While it is always our intention to maintain the ship’s original itinerary whenever possible, the safety of our guests and crew takes precedence,” the letter said.

Norwegian said that any Greenock excursions paid for by guests would be refunded as a credit to their onboard account, according to the posted letter. Guests would also receive a 25% future cruise credit, the cruise line said.

“This credit is based on the original cruise fare paid and will be valid for 24 months from today’s date,” Norwegian said in the Oct. 7 letter.

The Spirit also tried heading to Norway but passengers were not allowed to disembark because the town was closed to tourists.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Posted On 09 Oct 2019

Erik Prince’s company plans business in China province under human rights scrutiny according to financial disclosure

iStock(HONG KONG) — An American citizen stands to profit as his security company expands operations into a Chinese province described as a modern-day police state by human rights activists, and where the Chinese government is detaining up to a million Muslims in “re-education” camps.

Erik Prince, a former U.S. Navy SEAL officer and brother of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, is the deputy chairman and minority shareholder of Frontier Services Group (FSG), a Hong Kong-listed security, logistics and insurance company he co-founded in 2014. Prior to FSG, Prince founded Blackwater, a private military contractor that was mired in controversy for its actions in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — specifically when its employees were convicted of killing unarmed civilians.

FSG plans to spend approximately $15.4 (HK$120.8) million in Pakistan and Xinjiang, China by May 2020, according to a recent financial disclosure. The Trump administration announced sanctions this week against multiple Chinese entities tied to Xinjiang, citing the alleged human rights violations taking place in the region.

Earlier this year, Prince told Al-Jazeera that FSG “has zero footprint in Xinjiang, China. Period.” However, this new financial disclosure reveals that FSG has been planning to spend millions in Xinjiang since 2018.

The recent disclosure does not specifically outline what these funds would be used for, simply stating the money is for “setting up businesses in Pakistan and Xinjiang, China.” Nor does the document disclose how much money has been spent in these areas to-date. A spokesperson for FSG said the company won’t comment beyond what is in the financial disclosure.

However, according to a press release signed by the company’s board in Mar. 2018, FSG planned to spend the same amount ($15.4 million) to establish “training facilities” and buy “security equipment and vehicles” in Pakistan and Xinjiang. Prince told Al-Jazeera the information in this release was incorrect and that the money was for “construction services.”

The recent disclosure, issued by FSG’s board of directors on Sept. 23, provides “supplementary information” to FSG’s 2018 annual report, which was published in April of this year. The company’s original 2018 annual report did not disclose any intended funding for projects in Pakistan or Xinjiang, China. FSG’s 2019 interim report also does not disclose any such funding for Xinjiang projects.

According to company filings, FSG lends its services to companies associated with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a $1 trillion global development strategy implemented by the Chinese government to extend its political and economic influence across Asia and into Africa and Europe. Xinjiang and countries neighboring the province, such as Pakistan, are major economic junctures for the BRI.

The Chinese government has faced international scrutiny for its actions in Xinjiang — specifically for detaining up to a million people from its Muslim population in what human rights experts are calling “re-education camps,” while others call them “internment” or “concentration” camps.

Reports also claim that Xinjiang has become a surveillance state, with the government specially targeting the country’s Muslim population.

In May of this year, a FSG spokesperson responded to questions from ABC News regarding the company’s alleged plans to build training centers in Xinjiang, stating “We have no business in Xinjiang and are not building training centres there.”

In an early September interview with Recoil, a firearm and lifestyle magazine, Prince reiterated that FSG was “not building a training center in Xinjiang, China,” adding that the company does not provide training to any Chinese police or military.

However, in 2017, FSG acquired a 25% stake in Beijing’s International Security Defense College (ISDC), which claims to be the largest private security training school in China. The press release added that FSG would provide “world-class training courses” to those enrolled at ISDC.

On its own website, FSG refers to ISDC as “Our Facility,” and offers classes to “regular and reserve law enforcement officers” and “military personnel,” as stated on its enrollment form.

ISDC offers both military and police training, as well as “training and security solutions” for several Chinese entities, including China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and China Customs, according to ISDC’s website.

FSG declined to answer questions about discrepancies between Prince’s statement and the company’s policies on training Chinese police and military.

Prince last made headlines in April when the Mueller report claimed he provided some funding for a secretive effort to obtain Hillary Clinton’s private e-mails from “dark web” operatives. ABC News learned earlier this year that Special Counsel Robert Mueller was particularly interested in a 2017 meeting between Prince and a Russian financier with ties to the Russian government.

The Chinese government acknowledges the existence of camps located throughout its Xinjiang Province, but dubs them “vocational centers” — aimed at combating “extremist thoughts,” according to officials who work in the centers.

ABC News has reported on several accounts of torture taking place within some of these facilities. The Chinese government has denied all allegations of torture within these facilities.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Posted On 09 Oct 2019

‘I started painting the wall with my blood’: Inside Chechnya’s reported torture of gay people

iStock(NEW YORK) — Amin Dzhabrailov remembers the day vividly. He was working in his hair salon in Grozny, the capital city of Chechnya, Russia, in 2017 when he says three large men came in, grabbed him and threw him in the trunk of their car.

“My life was going through my eyes. I was expecting that the door [was] gonna open and I’m gonna die,” Dzhabrailov said.

What he said followed is painful for Dzhabrailov, who is gay, to recount. Over several days, he was handcuffed to a chair, beaten black-and-blue and electrocuted, all while being pressured to reveal the names of other gay men in the Russian province, he said.

“They tell me that they know that I’m gay, and [to] tell [them] about more gay guys… The sense was [they would] probably just torture them also. … I didn’t give any name[s].”

Reports of hundreds of gay men in Chechnya being rounded up and tortured in 2017 shocked the world. Almost three years later, human rights groups and LGBT people who have fled the region say little has changed.

Dzhabrailov said that on the day he was kidnapped, he was put in the trunk of a car and taken to a basement. There, he said he was tortured and beaten for days. At one point, Dzhabrailov said, his captors staged his own execution.

“They took off my shoes… and they put me on the wall, put [a] bag on my head…. That guy charged his gun, and put [it] right here on my head. And I started painting the wall with my blood. And he said that it’s my last seconds.”

Dzhabrailov’s eyes filled with tears when he gave his harrowing account. He is one of several LGBT people from Chechnya who have spoken to Nightline about their experiences living in the region amid the reported anti-LGBT purges, which have been propagated by Chechen police in the semi-autonomous Russian republic since 2017.

Yet, despite at least 200 reported cases of horrific abuses against LGBT people in the region, Dzhabrailov is only the second victim to speak openly about what he says happened to him. Many others, some of whom spoke to Nightline on the condition of anonymity, fear reprisals for sharing their stories from the Chechen security services and even their own families. Despite the international outcry, LGBT people still routinely face terror and torture in Chechnya.

Dzhabrailov’s interview is part of an upcoming ABC News “Nightline” special. The team, led by ABC News foreign correspondent James Longman, spent a year speaking with multiple victims of the anti-LGBT campaigns carried out by Chechnya’s security services and exploring their lives in Russia and Europe, where some have taken shelter.

The team also traveled to Chechnya, where Longman confronted senior officials over the allegations of abuse and obtained exceptional access, talking directly with the some of the men allegedly responsible for the unprecedented persecution.

Chechen authorities have denied any wrongdoing.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Posted On 09 Oct 2019

NBA events canceled in China as fallout over Hong Kong tweet continues

iStock(SHANGHAI) — As the fallout over a since-deleted tweet voicing support for Hong Kong by the general manager of an American basketball team continues in China, several NBA Cares events were abruptly canceled this week in Shanghai.

Meanwhile, the world of esports is navigating a controversy of its own, after a high-profile gamer from Hong Kong was banned from the platform Blizzard for voicing support for protesters in Hong Kong during a post-game interview. In a statement announcing his removal, Blizzard said they were banning player Blitzchung for violating its competition rules by engaging in an act that “offends a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damages Blizzard image.”

Both cases have illustrated the difficulty of navigating China’s lucrative market.

Before the controversial tweet, the Rockets were one of the most beloved teams in China. On Oct 4., its general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong. While the tweet was quickly deleted, the backlash was swift. Within a few days, China’s state-run broadcasting network ordered a blackout of NBA coverage. China’s internet giant Tencent, which inked a five-year, $1.5 billion deal in August to stream NBA games in China, also announced that they will not play Rockets games.

Morey has apologized, and the Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta said that Morey does not speak for them. Rockets players James Harden and Russell Westbrook apologized at a news conference, with Harden adding, “We love China, we love playing there.”

Nonetheless, the fallout from the tweet continues in China. On Wednesday, video spread on social media of an NBA banner being ripped off the side of a building in Shanghai.

The NBA said that it was not its decision to call off Wednesday’s NBA Cares event with the Lakers, which was supposed to benefit the Special Olympics. On Tuesday, a separate NBA Cares event with the Brooklyn Nets at a school in Shanghai was also called off by the Chinese government. NBA commissioner Adam Silver said that they would still donate computers to the education center as planned, according to ESPN.

In a statement announcing their decision to suspend plans to broadcast a series of NBA preseason games, China’s state-owned broadcasting network CCTV said it is “strongly dissatisfied and opposed” to Silver’s “claim to support Morey’s free expression of rights.”

“We believe that any speech that challenges national sovereignty and social stability is not within the scope of freedom of speech,” the statement added. “To this end, CCTV Sports Channel of the Central Radio and Television General Administration decided to immediately suspend the current broadcast arrangements of the NBA preseason [China Games] and immediately investigate all cooperation and exchanges involving the NBA.”

As the NBA is still reeling from the fallout, the world of esports was rocked by a separate scandal after a high-profile gamer from Hong Kong spoke out in support of the anti-government demonstrations in an interview — and then was abruptly banned from the competition.

Ng Wai Chung, known by his gaming handle “Blitzchung,” was banned from the platform Blizzard, where he was competing in a Hearthstone tournament, after a post-game interview supporting protesters in Hong Kong. In a statement announcing his removal, Blizzard said they were banning Blitzchung for violating its competition rules by engaging in an act that “offends a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damages Blizzard image.”

On Wednesday, #BoycottBlizard was trending on Twitter in the U.S. Chung has not publicly responded to the news, but his Twitter bio was updated to read that he was “banned” as a grandmaster and states: “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”

The move drew bipartisan criticism from lawmakers on Twitter.

“Blizzard shows it is willing to humiliate itself to please the Chinese Communist Party,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said in a tweet. “No American company should censor calls for freedom to make a quick buck.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., shared the Blizzard news on Twitter, writing, “Recognize what’s happening here. People who don’t live in #China must either self-censor or face dismissal & suspensions.”

“China using access to market as leverage to crush free speech globally. Implications of this will be felt long after everyone in U.S. politics today is gone,” he added.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Posted On 09 Oct 2019

Fisher hunters trying to round up 300,000 runaway salmon that escaped Norwegian breeding farms into rivers

iStock(NEW YORK) — Fish hunters in Norway are trying to round up as many of the hundreds of thousands of salmon that have escaped breeding facilities this year as they can, and an organization is spending a pretty penny toward those efforts.

Nearly 300,000 runaway salmon have left the farms and filtered into Norwegian rivers, according to OURO, the country’s aquaculture industry association for escaped fish, which is tasked with capturing them.

When fish kept in pens escape into connected bodies of water, it can affect wild populations as they compete for food and spawning partners, according to Seafood Watch, an information website run by the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.

Fish farmed in non-native areas can establish themselves as an invasive species and disrupt the ecosystem.

In addition, when farmed species, which are “distinctly different from their wild cousins,” breed with wild species, the genetic makeup of the offspring may be less suited to surviving in the wild, according to Seafood Watch.

The escapes typically occur as a result of the structural failures of marine net pens, according to a 2013 study published in the Ices Journal of Marine Science that studied runaway salmon in Norway over a 25-year period.

Only a small percentage of escaped salmon aren’t caught once they swim out to sea, Trude H. Nordli, chief of OURO, told Eurovision.

“Fish bred in facilities are not fit to live in the sea or rivers, only at the facilities,” Nordli said. “But when accidents happen it is important we have the tools to make amends.”

The organization expects to spend around 6 million kroner, or more than $650,000, on the operation.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Posted On 09 Oct 2019

More than movies: Tyler Perry says studio compound will have space for displaced LGBTQ youth and trafficked women

ABC/Steve Iervolino(ATLANTA) — Tyler Perry has a big vision for his Tyler Perry Studios. In addition to the 12 sound stages that are housed on his 330-acre lot in Atlanta, Perry says he’s also making a space for those in need.

“You know what, right now I’m dreaming about how do I build this shelter for trafficked girls, boys and battered women,” Perry told Essence.

Perry later expounded on his vision, telling CBS‘ Gayle King that he plan to create a space for LGBTQ youth and women who don’t have a place to go.

“Having a compound that is a beautiful place right here somewhere on this 330 acres, where they’re trained in the business and they become self-sufficient, they live in nice apartments, there’s daycare, there’s all of these wonderful things that allows them to re-enter society and then pay it forward again,” Perry said. “That’s what I hope to do soon.”

As previously reported, Perry told ABC Audio that he hoped his studio opening would serve as inspiration to others.

“My whole intention tonight, my whole hope is that somebody gets inspired,” he said. “If that happens then, I’m good, I’m good. So that is that, that is what I feel. I want to inspire somebody — to dream, to believe that they can do it too. No matter where he came from.”

Posted On 09 Oct 2019

Excerpts from new Ronan Farrow book accuse Matt Lauer of sexual assault

ABC/Lorenzo Bevilaqua(NEW YORK) — Ronan Farrow’s new book, Catch and Kill, details his investigation into Harvey Weinstein, as well as his ultimately unsuccessful attempt to get his then-employer, NBC News, to broadcast the story.  It also includes a new allegation of rape against former NBC Today show anchor Matt Lauer, who was fired from NBC in 2017 for alleged sexual misconduct.

According to Variety, which obtained excerpts from the book, a former NBC News producer who worked with NBC’s Meredith Vieira has come forward, identifying herself in Farrow’s book and stating that Lauer sexually assaulted her at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

According to the woman’s account detailed in Catch and Kill, Lauer joined her and Vieira for drinks and she ended up going back to Lauer’s room twice: once to retrieve her press credentials, and another because Lauer invited her back to the room.  Once in the hotel room, the woman says Lauer — who was wearing a tee-shirt and boxers — pushed her against a door and kissed her, then pushed her onto the bed.

According to the Variety excerpts from Catch and Kill, the woman was in the midst of telling Lauer “no” when, “he just did it.  It hurt so bad.  I remember thinking, ‘Is this normal?'”

The woman told Farrow of the encounter, “It was non-consensual, in the sense that I was too drunk to consent.  It was non-consensual in that I said multiple times that I didn’t want to.”

Back in New York City, according to the book excerpts, the woman told Farrow she went on to have further sexual encounters with Lauer that were consensual.  After the initial encounter, according to Catch and Kill, the woman says she told colleagues and superiors at NBC about it, but nothing happened until she went to Meredith Vieira and told her what happened.  Vieira urged the woman to go to NBC human resources with a lawyer.

Matt Lauer responded to the allegations Wednesday morning, writing in a statement, in part, “The story…is filled with false details intended only to create the impression that this was an abusive encounter.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  There was absolutely nothing aggressive about that encounter… This encounter, which she now falsely claims was an assault, was the beginning of our affair.”

NBC also released a statement about the excerpts from Catch and Kill, saying, “Matt Lauer’s conduct was appalling, horrific and reprehensible… That’s why he was fired within 24 hours of us first learning of the complaint.”

Catch and Kill also includes Farrow’s account of his investigation into Harvey Weinstein and his efforts to get that story on the air at NBC.  Eventually, he took the story to The New Yorker magazine to get it published.  That story led to more women coming forward to accuse Weinstein of sexual misconduct, which in turn led to a broader criminal investigation that ultimately resulted in Weinstein’s arrest on criminal sexual assault charges.

Ronan Farrow will appear on ABC’s Good Morning America Friday morning for an exclusive interview.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Posted On 09 Oct 2019

Owning a dog could provide long-term health benefits, study says

alexei_tm/iStock(UPPSALA, Sweden) — A dog is known as “man’s best friend,” but owning a dog may literally save your life, according to new research from Uppsala University.

“There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that people feel increased well-being with their dog; we wanted to investigate this,” said Dr. Tove Fall, one of the authors of the study and professor of molecular epidemiology at Sweden’s Uppsala University.

The study set out to determine whether dog ownership affected survival rates after a heart attack or stroke. Data was collected over an 11-year period and examined dog owners versus non-dog owners and their overall cardiac health outcomes.

Heart attack survivors in the study who were living alone, but owned a dog, had a 33 percent lower risk of death, while stroke survivors who lived alone and had a dog had a 27 percent reduced risk of death, compared to people who did not own a dog and lived in a single household group.

“We found the dog owners had lower mortality than non-owners with the largest difference seen in the subgroup of people that lived in a single household,” Fall said. “This group is especially vulnerable. It seems that dogs can alleviate the impact of living alone; they can increase social interaction.”

Dr. Eugenia Gianos, system director of cardiovascular prevention at Northwell Health, added, “It is very likely that people who own pets have many other positive behaviors, including exercise, healthy eating and social connectivity, which are likely to be leading to better outcomes in health. However, it is also positive that emotional connection to a pet can have positive effects on various parameters that could improve outcomes for people.”

The significant results were seen in people who live alone.

“Whether being single or married, it is about having positive social interaction that is associated with better health outcomes,” Gianos said. “It could be that in a marriage, if you have challenges then you could have more stress that is related to high blood pressure and worse outcomes. With being single, it could be that the pet is providing companionship and preventing loneliness that is leading to improved benefit.”

The study even compared several dog breeds to see if there were different cardiac outcomes.

“We found that many of the larger breeds and smaller breeds that are active such as terriers have better outcomes – survival outcomes,” Fall said. “Those that did not show as much are the companion toy group and mixed breeds. The physical activity might be less.”

However, she cautioned, “It is also a personal choice; you might choose a dog that fits your lifestyle. Part of the association might be seen by people who are more active getting a more active dog and have better cardiac outcomes.”

“Dogs might be beneficial for human health, however, we do not know if unmeasured factors affect the results. In the national register, they do not measure behavior such as smoking or food intake. In this study we cannot account for smoking. The factor of smoking might play into this relationship when the cause was something else,” Fall added.

Gianos agreed, saying, “Those two behaviors happen to be most linked with heart disease in research, which are extremely important to control. We would want to make sure that those two factors were not contributing to the improved outcomes that we are seeing.”

Regardless of these shortcomings, the author maintained dogs are “a fantastic motivator.”

Copyright © 2019, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

CDC warns that more pregnant women should get the flu shot: What to know

Jovanmandic/iStock(ATLANTA) — Not enough pregnant women are getting the flu vaccine and it’s putting themselves, their babies and the public at risk, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Pregnant women have more than double the risk of hospitalization compared to non-pregnant women of childbearing age if they get influenza, but getting a flu shot reduces a pregnant woman’s risk of being hospitalized due to influenza by an average of 40 percent, according to data shared by the CDC.

In addition to the flu vaccine helping pregnant women, it can also help their babies because the vaccine passes on antibodies to the fetus that provide protection after birth, when babies are too young to be vaccinated themselves, according to the CDC.

“It is the best way for that woman to protect not just herself, but her unborn baby because that baby cannot get vaccinated for six months,” ABC News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton said Wednesday on Good Morning America. “So she will be able to protect her baby by passing those antibodies while she’s pregnant.”

Children under 5 years old have the highest likelihood of being hospitalized for the flu. A total of 186 pediatric deaths were reported to CDC during the 2017-2018 flu season, the most recent available data.

Flu rates typically peak in the U.S. between December and February. People who are at most risk for flu complications include children, pregnant women, people over 65, those with chronic medical conditions and nursing home residents, according to Dr. Naomi Kaplan, a resident physician in physical medicine and rehabilitation and a member of the ABC News Medical Unit.

With the 2018-2019 flu season already well underway, here are four things pregnant women need to know about the vaccine.

1. Vaccination during pregnancy is safe: “Vaccination during pregnancy is safe and we have a lot of reassuring data to back that up,” Dr. Christopher Zahn, vice president of practice activities for the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG), told GMA in a statement.

2. Flu vaccines are safe during any trimester: The CDC recommends that all pregnant women should get a flu vaccine during any trimester of each pregnancy.

3. Pregnant women need the whooping cough vaccine too: The CDC recommends that all pregnant women get the whooping cough vaccine (Tdap) during the early part of the third trimester of each pregnancy as part of routine prenatal care.

4. Flu vaccines are available outside the doctor’s office: The flu shot is available in both doctors’ offices and in drug stores. Women whose health care providers offered or referred them for vaccination had the highest vaccination rates, according to the CDC.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

No joke: Jared Leto literally lost his head

ABC/Randy Holmes(LOS ANGELES) — Oscar winner Jared Leto made quite the impression at the Met Gala back in May, when he brought a replica of his own disembodied head to the annual star-studded event.

Unfortunately, he seems to have misplaced his rather unique accessory.

Speaking to GQ, the Suicide Squad star and Thirty Seconds to Mars frontman reveals that he has “no idea” what happened to the noggin. 

“I think someone may have stolen it,” Leto says. “If anyone out there finds it, bring it into your nearest Gucci store in exchange for a pair of dirty sneakers.”

Copyright © 2019, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Posted On 09 Oct 2019