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California Democrat facing possible discipline after sexual misconduct allegations

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Members of the California state Senate are scheduled Wednesday to consider disciplinary action against a Democrat who “more likely than not” made inappropriate sexual advances toward six women, including four subordinates.

The allegations against Sen. Tony Mendoza were the subject of a recently concluded independent investigation.

Investigators spoke to 47 witnesses, including Mendoza, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The findings, released Tuesday, that found Mendoza “more likely than not” engaged in behavior such as offering a 19-year-old intern alcohol in a hotel suite at a Democratic Party event, suggesting a young woman in a Senate fellowship take a vacation with him and rent a room in his house, and asked several of the women about their dating lives.

Several accusations against Mendoza first became public last fall in a report by the Sacramento Bee. Under pressure from other lawmakers, Mendoza took a leave of absence. He was suspended after his leave of absence was expected to end before the independent investigation into the claims could be concluded.

Mendoza sued for reinstatement last Thursday, arguing the suspension was unconstitutional and he was being treated differently than other colleagues also under investigation.

The California Legislature is one of many statehouses nationwide grappling with a tidal wave of sexual misconduct allegations following the #MeToo movement in which millions of women shared their experiences with sexual harassment or assault on social media.

Mendoza is the only lawmaker who has been suspended since allegations of sexual misconduct at the Capitol broke last fall. Two assemblymen voluntarily resigned, and their seats haven’t been filled.

Democratic Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, who has denied accusations including groping, took a voluntary leave of absence last Friday.

Sen. Bob Hertzberg is also facing an investigation after at least three female colleagues alleged he made them uncomfortable with hugs. He has not been asked to step aside.

As early as Thursday, the chamber could vote to censure, expel, suspend or reinstate Mendoza.

Mendoza called the investigation “unfair and secret.” He warned action against him by his colleagues could set a “dangerous precedent.”

“Past precedent has been to only expel members who have been convicted of a felony,” Mendoza said in a statement released late Tuesday. “This raises the stakes for future perceived infractions by members of this body.”

Mendoza will be allowed to defend himself on the Senate floor.

The investigation found no instances of Mendoza being “physically aggressive” or “sexually crude.” But the women “understood that Mendoza was suggesting sexual contact,” the report said.

In two cases, the report found the Los Angeles-area senator stopped when asked by either the woman or human resources staff.

The investigation does not name any of the women, although some have previously spoken to media. Four worked for Mendoza, while a fifth is a lobbyist and a sixth was a Senate fellow in another office.

The incidents span from 2007 to 2017, covering both Mendoza’s time in the Assembly and in the Senate.

The investigation outlines three other cases that weren’t publicly known.

It cleared him of allegations he fired three staff members who reported his behavior toward the Senate fellow last fall. One of the former employees has filed a complaint with the state alleging retaliation.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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COVID-19: Italy closes schools in ‘red zone’ coronavirus areas amid concerning growth in new variants | World News

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Italy’s government has ordered the closure of all schools in regions hardest hit by the coronavirus amid rising fears over new variants of the disease.

Italy was one of the first countries in Europe to see COVID-19 on a large scale in February 2020, and it has registered nearly three million confirmed cases since then.

It is now seeing around 15,000 new cases per day and the trend is rising, putting the health system under strain.

In recent weeks, the incidence of new cases among young people has overtaken that seen among the older population – a reversal of what was seen earlier in the pandemic.

The UK variant accounted for 54% of confirmed cases as at 18 February, according to Silvio Brusaferro, president of the government’s Superior Institute of Health.

But he added: “If measured today surely the percentage would be higher.”

The variant first reported in Brazil has been found in 4.3% of cases, particularly in central Italy, including Rome, while the variant first found in South Africa accounts for 0.4% of cases and is mainly confined to the Italian Alpine area near the Austrian border, he said.

Italy’s new prime minister, Mario Draghi, has said tougher measures will come into effect from Saturday and last until 6 April, just after Easter.

Under these rules, all schools – including nurseries – in “red zone” regions must be closed, although some exceptions will be made for students with special needs.

Distance learning was already mandatory for high school students in these areas but younger pupils will now be included.

Italy’s 20 regions have been divided into a tiered system – white, yellow, orange and red, with red being under the toughest restrictions.

Health Minister Roberto Speranza said: “The English variant which is prevalent is particularly able to penetrate among the youngest age groups.”

He also said there were “rather robust signs of an uptick in the curve of contagion and terrible variants”, adding that the stricter rules were being brought in to “govern this curve of contagion”.

Meanwhile, some cultural venues in yellow zone regions will be allowed to reopen from 27 March.

Venues must limit capacity to 25% and museums, which were already allowed to open on weekdays, will be permitted to open on weekends.

Pools and gyms remain closed, travel between regions is banned, and a curfew between 10pm and 5am remains.

At least 98,000 people have died with the virus in Italy, the highest number in continental Europe.

Some 3.7 million doses of coronavirus vaccine have been administered since the end of December.

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Nigeria: Released schoolgirls say kidnappers threatened to shoot them during three-day mass abduction | World News

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School pupils from an all-girls’ boarding school in the town of Jangebe were required to attend a different sort of assembly this morning.

Instead of the classroom, they sat in a building that government officials in the Nigerian state of Zamfara use to speak to the media.

They were given a little food, then filmed by members of the media as they ate it. The state police commissioner pronounced them “happy and healthy”.

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One of the released girls spoke about how the gunmen appeared in the middle of the night.

All 279 pupils had been returned after their mass abduction on Friday reported commissioner, Abutu Yaro, who added that no money had been paid to get them back.

Then, a number of the girls spoke about what they had seen and experienced over three terrifying days in the forest.

“Most of us injured our feet and we couldn’t continue with the trek. [The kidnappers] said they would shoot anybody who does not continue to walk,” said schoolgirl Umma Abubakar.

Another, called Farida Lawali, said: “While we were walking they were hitting us with guns and beating us with a cane and telling us to move on.”

In what has become a deeply unsavoury but fast-growing industry, criminal gangs and bandits have been targeting children attending government-run schools as a means of extracting ransoms for their return.

The abduction of the girls from Jangebe marks the third school-related kidnapping in Nigeria in the last two months.

Some of the kidnapped girls
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A group of about 100 gunmen abducted the girls from the school in Jangebe on Friday

A total of 344 boys were taken from a school in neighbouring Katsina State in December, then freed after a week.

On Saturday, gunman released 27 teenage boys who were abducted from their school in the central state of Niger.

Security analysists, like Kemi Okenyodo, warn these opportunistic practices will not go away.

“For us to hear that all of them have been released, we are happy about that – but then you say to yourself, where next?

“You are wondering if [the next kidnapping] is going to be in Zamfara, is it going to Niger, moving to Katsina? That is the big issue.”

'Most of us injured our feet'' one of schoolgirls said
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‘Most of us injured our feet” one of schoolgirls said

Such activities are fuelled by the precarious security situation in northern Nigeria and the payment of ransoms by government officials.

Local and state representatives have come under massive pressure, both domestically and internationally, to protect school-age children and gang members have learned how to exploit it.

“You find the government grappling to save face in paying the ransoms to ensure that all the children who are under their watch are returned safely. [They want] to be seen to be responsive, that they care for the citizens, particularly the children.”

Ms Okenyodo fears for a generation of young people who are having their education disrupted as gang members seemingly strike at will.

The governor of Yobe State said he would close schools this week to protect students from kidnappers.

“The challenges of the northern part of the country are about development and [good] governance. What we are seeing is years of deprivation now coupled with insecurity and it is the people who are suffering for it, not the elites, up there.”

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COVID-19: Which countries are receiving vaccines in WHO-backed COVAX programme – and how many doses each? | World News

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The World Health Organisation-backed COVAX programme has released details of the numbers of COVID vaccine doses it aims to provide to participating countries by the end of May.

It plans to deliver 237 million of the Oxford/AstraZeneca shot to 142 nations over the next three months as it steps up the rollout – with COVAX seen as the “only true global solution to the pandemic”.

The initiative, also supported by the GAVI vaccine alliance, was created to ensure access to jabs for low and middle-income countries, and it aims to have two billion doses available by the end of the year.

Shots will be free for the 92 poorest countries, including Ghana which started its COVID-19 vaccine drive this week, after receiving 600,000 shots.

The doses will have a maximum price of $3 (£2.15) each and countries will begin inoculating mainly frontline healthcare workers and the most vulnerable people, months after wealthier nations, like the UK and US, began their rollouts.

The new figures show Singapore, which is seen as one of the countries that has fared comparatively well during the pandemic, will receive 244,800 doses by the end of May.

South Korea – another nation with relatively low numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths – will get 2,102,400 doses, and there are 211,200 doses for New Zealand, which has also kept its COVID figures down.

Canada will receive 1,624,800 shots, with 1,704,000 bound for North Korea, despite the secretive state insisting it is virus-free.

Afghanistan is to receive 2,580,000 doses, while there will be 10,908,000 for Bangladesh, 9,122,400 for Brazil – one of worst-hit countries in the pandemic, 5,928,000 for the Democratic Republic of Congo, 7,620,000 for Ethiopia, and 4,584,000 for the Philippines.

Other countries with millions in allocations include Indonesia with 11,704,800, and Mexico – another very badly-hit nation – with 5,532,000, while Nigeria will receive 13,656,000 and Pakistan will get the most – 14,640,000.

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Some countries have larger populations so they will receive more doses.

GAVI chief executive Dr Seth Berkley said COVAX is “the only truly global solution to this pandemic because it is the only effort to ensure that people in all corners of the world will get access to COVID-19 vaccines once they are available, regardless of their wealth”.

He added: “For lower-income funded nations, who would otherwise be unable to afford these vaccines, as well as a number of higher-income self-financing countries that have no bilateral deals with manufacturers, COVAX is quite literally a lifeline and the only viable way in which their citizens will get access to COVID-19 vaccines.

“For the wealthiest self-financing countries, some of which may also be negotiating bilateral deals with vaccine manufacturers, it serves as an invaluable insurance policy to protect their citizens, both directly and indirectly.”

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