US soldiers killed in Niger were outgunned, 'left behind' in hunt for ISIS leader

Four Army special operations soldiers killed in action during an ambush in Niger last October were part of a largely inexperienced and lightly-armed team outmatched by ISIS fighters who exploited bad decisions by U.S. commanders, families of the fallen soldiers and other sources briefed on the military investigation told ABC News.

“They were left on their own and it was The Alamo. They were abandoned,” the parent of one of the American commandos who died told ABC News. “The sad thing is, they didn’t realize they’d been left behind, and by the time the other guys attempted to get to them, it was probably too late, and they’d been killed.” 

Two Army Green Berets, Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, 29, and Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, 35, and an Army support enabler, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, 39, were killed fighting in one location near the remote village of Tongo Tongo, after they were surrounded while attempting to withdraw from the fight.

Sgt. La David Johnson, 25, was killed later at a second location more than 700 yards away after he was unintentionally left behind while fighting alongside Nigerien partner forces. He remained missing for almost 36 hours before his remains were found.

Almost four hours after the fight began, a Nigerien response force arrived and discovered Johnson and Wright’s bodies had been loaded in the back of a pickup truck by the ISIS fighters. Black’s body lay on the ground next to the vehicle.

“They were going to take the bodies away but they were scared off,” said a member of a second family briefed by U.S. Africa Command investigators over the past week.

A cellphone video released by the militants in March showed that the three Americans had been stripped down by the enemy after they were killed. Even their boots, wallets and jewelry were stolen.

“The Army had never told us that they’d been stripped of kit and weapons,” said a second grieving parent of one of the soldiers. “Their bodies were piled in a truck.”

All of the family members, who endured grueling day-long briefings by U.S. Africa Command investigating officers over the past week, requested anonymity when speaking to ABC News for fear the Pentagon will retaliate against them by cutting off the flow of information.

They described a perfect storm of bad decisions and bad luck punctuated with extraordinary heroism and valor. They also expressed anguish and anger about media leaks blaming the team as well as the changing and often inaccurate narrative provided to the families and the public by Pentagon officials.

At least one family was told initially that their relative was killed by a mortar round —- which both an autopsy report and video captured by a helmet camera recently released online by the militants ultimately proved was untrue. He was killed in a close-range shootout alongside two of his fellow soldiers.

“I knew they had lied about it,” a relative told ABC News. “And the thing is, they didn’t need to.”

Many officials last fall repeated such inaccuracies to the press and the families about the combat incident, leading to confusion and suspicion.

Officials initially described the ambushed team as a combined force of no more than 10 Americans and Nigeriens conducting a “simple reconnaissance mission.” In fact, the team included 10 American special operations soldiers, an American intelligence contractor, a Nigerien interpreter and 34 Nigerien partner forces tasked with targeting the top ISIS leader in the Niger-Mali border region, the families have been told in the past week.

But the small team of Green Berets and Army enablers — from Operational Detachment-Alpha 3212, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group, deployed to “train, advise and assist” Nigerien forces — had almost no overseas combat deployments among them. Few of the Americans on the team had even trained together, sources said. The men were not ready or prepared for the mission they found themselves on, according to family members and other unit veterans.

“That team was failed before they got there. It was made up of inexperienced, not effectively-trained junior NCOs,” said one family member, referring to non-commissioned officers. “There also were tactical decisions where they just f—– up. This was avoidable.”

At least twice during the three-hour gunfight the team leader — a U.S. Army captain with only one prior combat deployment, to Afghanistan, before he earned his Green Beret — unintentionally lost “accountability” (a term referring to a soldier’s location and condition in battle) of two groups of his men: three soldiers in one location and a fourth with Nigerien troops in a separate location.

Once he lost sight of each of them, he did not regain accountability of all of his soldiers until after the battle. All were found dead.

“The worst circumstances fell upon them and the team came apart. But that failure started well before the bullets started flying,” agreed Derek Gannon, a former Green Beret with combat deployments in Iraq, who is now a military writer. “It was a complete and total command failure. They failed this team. Within a day, the Pentagon started forming a narrative to blame the team rather than the conditions they were forced into.”

The American commandos were plagued by bad decisions that had devastating consequences, many of which were explained to the families over the past week by the lead investigating officer, Maj. Gen. Roger Cloutier, Jr., chief of staff at AfriCom. Despite that, the investigation by AfriCom was not intended to find fault in actions within its own chain of command or its policies.

A 300-page summary report will be released to the public, but almost 6,000 pages in the report will be kept confidential, officials have said. The AfriCom report is not expected to detail the involvement of other government agencies such as the CIA, which numerous officials told ABC News had outfitted one of the convoy vehicles with electronic collection equipment and trained several Nigeriens to operate it.

The Pentagon, however, has denied any CIA role. On Oct. 24, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters, “I have no knowledge of CIA involvement.” 

CIA officials declined comment yesterday.

Cloutier told the families that the team mounted a hasty mission on Oct. 3 to drive north to the village of Tiloa for “soft recon” to meet village elders and leaders.

Early on Oct. 4, the general told the families, the men were tasked to provide “backup” support for what Cloutier called a “special operations team” in Arlit — which multiple sources have told ABC News were from an American black ops unit hunting Doundou Cheffou, the leader of ISIS in the Greater Sahara and code-named “Naylor Road” by the U.S.

The Arlit black ops team was to fly in and try to capture or kill Cheffou, with the other team nearby to prevent ISIS fighters from fleeing the U.S. raid. However, the Arlit black ops team had to turn back after severe headwinds grounded their helicopters after leaving their base more than 400 miles away, according to the family members and other ABC sources.

After completing the mission in Tiloa early that morning, Team 3212 was tasked by their battalion commander with searching a campsite on the Mali border used by Cheffou and his men, which a drone overhead showed was not occupied. The order was based on a request from the same black ops team in Arlit whose mission to confront Cheffou had just been scratched, several sources told ABC News. 

Last fall, a U.S. intelligence source and Nigerien commanders each told ABC News that the American and Nigerien team leaders objected to the task because they were not heavily armed or equipped for intense combat should they encounter Cheffou’s ISIS fighters alone. But the team leaders’ concerns were overruled by a higher command, a U.S. source briefed last week confirmed.

Team 3212 was at a disadvantage because there wasn’t a proper handoff with the Special Forces team they had replaced a few weeks earlier — they had not even overlapped for one day at the outpost in Ouallam, family members said. Another weakness was that not all of the Green Berets, including the senior engineer and intelligence sergeants, were on the mission to Tiloa. Four Green Berets remained back in their outpost, the families said.

Three family members who attended three briefings by Africa Command investigators over the past 10 days provided an account to ABC News of the ISIS campsite search and the battle that later ensued. Their accounts were matched against reporting from many confidential ABC News sources familiar with the incident over the past seven months.

The team went to the campsite, conducted what is called a “sensitive site exploitation” and burned a motorcycle found there. They started to return to base, leaving the unarmed surveillance drone overhead to deplete its last two hours of fuel and watch for any returning militants, the family members and sources told ABC News.

They were only 20 miles to the south when the Nigerien commander said he wanted to detour to the nearby village of Tongo Tongo because he wanted get water and breakfast, the families were told. Other sources say the black ops team from Arlit requested that they repeat what they’d done earlier in Tiloa, to look around the village and determine whether Cheffou would feel welcome there.

“They were expecting no trouble whatsoever,” one soldier’s parent said. “They didn’t even put out perimeter security.”

The Americans met village elders. They took a group photo with them. But they lingered more than an hour in a village they’d never visited before, near an ISIS camp they had just searched and burned, Cloutier told the families.

A U.S. intelligence source told ABC News last fall that the village elder “was definitely stalling as long as he could” to keep the Americans there, even showing the Americans a child with an illness and grabbing a goat he wanted to slaughter for them. But the decision to linger was not up to the Tongo Tongo elder, whom the AfriCom investigation cleared, according to the families and others briefed. 

It was, ultimately, the team leader’s decision.

“It was very bad judgment. They were in the village for 90 minutes. Everything pointed to red flags,” another relative said. “It was the team leader’s decision whether to stay or go, not the elder’s decision. This is where it begins to fall apart tactically.”

The families said they were told that as the convoy of six vehicles departed Tongo Tongo at 10:35 a.m., they began taking small arms fire from the village to the North and from the East. One Nigerien vehicle sped away, per procedure, while the American captain dismounted his truck and led Nigeriens to try to flank the enemy. 

He quickly realized, however, that they were facing a large attacking force and ran back to his convoy, radioing his higher command, “Troops in contact.”

The team quickly decided to get out of the area. 

“The call was then made to break contact and get out of the kill zone” with everyone getting in their vehicles and radioing the team leader as they moved out, a family member recounted from the briefings. “Jeremiah gave a thumbs up” that he understood, the AfriCom investigators repeatedly informed the families.

But the vehicles were soon fatefully separated.

A red smoke grenade was deployed to conceal their movement — but it also obscured the fact that the third vehicle fell far behind the team leader’s vehicles as they sped away, with Wright at the wheel and Johnson and Black walking alongside to use it as cover while firing back.

“The enemy swarmed from the North and East and surrounded them on three sides of the vehicle,” a family member told ABC News. “At that point, they were screwed.”

A heavily edited version of Johnson’s captured helmet cam video released online by the terror group shows Black shot dead on the ground and Johnson and Wright sprinting away through the scrub brush, firing their M4A1 rifles, before Johnson falls to the ground. Moments later he is shot repeatedly point-blank by ISIS fighters visible in the frame.

The team leader soon realized he did not have accountability of the third vehicle, which was no longer following his column.

“They were seven football fields away when they realized they weren’t with them, we were told,” said one parent.

They assumed the third SUV was taken out by mortar rounds, and they didn’t immediately choose to ascertain their fate, a U.S. intelligence source told ABC News last fall. But four of the Green Berets in pairs attempted to run back toward Johnson, Wright and Black and were soon pinned down by enemy fire, getting no closer than 200 yards from their fallen comrades.

The team leader eventually moved his vehicle toward the other Green Berets fighting it out, assuming that Sgt. La David Johnson, a vehicle mechanic, was going to follow by driving the lead vehicle with Nigerien troops. He did not, according to the briefings given to the families.

“They saw La David fighting heroically … but then lost sight of him,” said one of those who attended the AfriCom briefings.

It was the second time the team leader lost accountability of some of his soldiers, family members said, based on the briefing and accounts they’ve heard from survivors.

The families told ABC News that after picking up six Nigerien and American commandos, the team leader’s vehicle got stuck in mud on the edge of a swamp. With even more mortar rounds, RPGs and machine gun volleys directed at them, they ran from the SUV on foot. By then both the team leader and driver had been wounded and the team had been physically divided by suppressive fire into smaller groups by as many as 100 insurgents using small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. 

At 12:55 p.m. they hunkered down on the edge of the swamp, out of ammunition, and prepared themselves for imminent death, concluding that “no one was coming” to their aid, the families and other sources said. “Broken Arrow” was called on the radio — a signal occasionally used in combat in Afghanistan since 2001 but a rare declaration of total defeat by a team of elite special operators. They destroyed their communications equipment lest it fall into enemy hands.

The captain only had accountability of a handful of his American and Nigerien troops by then, according to family members and other ABC News sources briefed on the gunfight.

At 1:11 p.m., almost three hours into the gunfight, the refueled drone arrived on station over Tongo Tongo, but by then the fight was all but over, the AfriCom briefers told the families, contrary to a public statement by Gen. Dunford on Oct. 23, who said a drone was overhead “within minutes” of the team calling for help and was “right over the scene of the troops in contact.”

Twenty-three minutes after calling “Broken Arrow,” French Mirage fighter jets made the first of two flyovers, but did not drop ordnance on the enemy because they could not tell friend from foe, the families were informed, though it is unclear why.

A half-hour later they made two more passes over the village but dropped no bombs. The drone video showed the attackers walking away from Tongo Tongo in no particular hurry.

“Why the f— didn’t we follow them with the drone and go kill them?” one relative said after watching it.

Cheffou’s men are believed to be responsible for the Tongo Tongo ambush, but he has not been apprehended or killed.

Family members who spoke to ABC News said they do not feel they have all the answers but now understand that command and control of the team had been compromised repeatedly.

“The unit got separated and that’s how all four of them ended up dying,” one said.

“We just want to know exactly what happened to them,” said another parent. “There was a lot of confusion.”

ABC News’ Luis Martinez, Ian Pannell, Michael DelMoro and Elizabeth McLaughlin contributed to this report.

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New South African church celebrates drinking alcohol

Dressed in a red robe and a gold-trimmed bishop’s miter, the clergyman pours whiskey into his cupped hand and anoints the forehead of the man sitting before him.

“You are hereby invested as a minister … This is a double tot,” he says of the remaining whiskey in the chalice. He hands it to the new minister, who downs it.

“Hallelujah!” shout the congregation members who erupt in singing and dancing, swigging from bottles of beer.

Welcome to Gabola Church, which celebrates the drinking of alcohol. The South African church was started eight months ago and has found an enthusiastic following.

“We are a church for those who have been rejected by other churches because they drink alcohol,” Gabola’s founder and self-declared pope, Tsietsi Makiti, told The Associated Press. “Gabola Church is established to redeem the people who are rejected, who are regarded as sinners. We drink for deliverance. We are drinking for the Holy Ghost to come into us.”

Others in South Africa are outraged by Gabola, saying it is not a church at all.

“Gabola has nothing to do with the word of God. Those are not church services,” said Archbishop Modiri Patrick Shole, director of the South African Union Council of Independent Churches. “They are using the Bible to promote taverns and drinking liquor. It is blasphemous. It is heresy and totally against the doctrines.” He said his organization intends to see that authorities close Gabola for breaking municipal regulations that say churches should not be located near bars.

Gabola is not a member of the mainstream South African Council of Churches, which said it has no comment about it. Gabola is not affiliated with any other denominations.

About 80 percent of South Africa’s 56 million people profess to be Christian. In addition to Catholic and Protestant denominations, there are small independent ones with unusual practices like handling snakes. One pastor recently was found guilty of assault for spraying Doom, a popular insecticide, into worshippers’ faces, which was supposed to chase away evil spirits.

The condemnation by other Christian organizations did not bother the 30 worshippers attending a recent Gabola service, held in a bar in the sprawling Orange Farm township 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Johannesburg.

A pool table served as the altar, adorned with bottles of whiskey and beer. Six ministers at the altar solemnly blessed the chilled jumbo bottles of beer bought by most churchgoers. A few drank whiskey, brandy or other beverages, all of them similarly blessed. The congregation sang hymns praising the positive effects of drinking. Three new Gabola members were baptized with beer which covered their foreheads and dripped down their faces.

Gabola means “drinking” in Tswana, one of South Africa’s official languages.

“Our aim is to convert bars, taverns and shebeens into churches,” Makiti said. “And we convert the tavern-owners into pastors.”

People in other churches “say they are holy but they drink by the back doors, in secret. They think God does not see them,” he said. “But the Lord zooms in on them and can see them. We drink openly at our services. We do so in peace and we love each other.”

Gabola’s leader said he encourages people to drink responsibly and emphasizes that alcohol will only be sold and blessed to people who are 20, two years older than South Africa’s legal drinking age.

The rousing hymns praising the effects of alcohol brought church members to their feet and they enthusiastically stomped and danced in a circle, often around a beer bottle. As the three-hour service progressed they became louder, more animated and sloppier. Some dozed off during the sermon.

“Nothing is as happy in the world as people who drink,” said Nigel Lehasa, who explained scripture during the service and described himself as Gabola’s professor. “There is no fighting, no arguing. We have nothing but love.”

———

Follow Africa news at https://twitter.com/AP—Africa

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North Korea suspends nuclear program ahead of much-anticipated talks

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared the country will be suspending its nuclear program ahead of much-anticipated talks between the two Koreas next week, and the U.S. and North Korea sometime next month.

Kim announced his country would “no longer need any nuclear tests, mid and long and ICBM rocket tests,” and therefore is suspending nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles starting Saturday.

The communist country is also shutting down the Poongye-ri nuclear test site where six underground tests have taken place, because “it has finished its mission.”

The surprise announcements were delivered through the North’s state Korean Central News Agency and later on state TV.

North Korea has “verified the completion of nuclear weapons” and now “the Party and our nation will focus all its efforts towards socialist economic development,” Kim was quoted saying at a meeting of the central committee of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea convened Friday. The state TV stressed the meeting discussed policy issues related to a “new stage” in an “historic period.”

The two Koreas are set to hold a summit meeting next Friday at the truce border village of Panmunjom, while U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim plan to meet sometime in May or early June at a yet-to-be-announced location.

Trump hailed the news of Korea suspending its nuclear programs as “very good news for North Korea and the World.”

The news came earlier this week that Mike Pompeo, Trump’s as-yet-unconfirmed pick for secretary of state, met with Kim in early April. No details of the talks were released, though Trump said this week the meeting went “very smoothly” and the two got along “really well.”

Denuclearization of North Korea has been a key issue going into the talks between the U.S. and North Korea. The North is suspending, not freezing, its nuclear program for now, but both Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in have expressed high hopes that the North is ready to give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for economic assistance.

Policy measures announced by the North’s state TV confirm Kim’s drive to improve quality of living. The long term economic plan of North Korea is to “provide proficient and culturally [advanced] lifestyle to all people,” Kim was quoted as saying.

“North Korea’s announcement signals a stepping stone for phased denuclearization,” said An Chan Il, president of Seoul-based World Institute for North Korean Studies. “They are showing proof to the world that they have begun their efforts to eventually denuclearize, starting with shutting down the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. Punggye-ri test site is known to be the one and only nuclear weapon facility in North Korea at the moment. A significant slowdown in this facility was monitored in March, adding evidence that North’s announcement was not a spontaneous one.”

Experts have cautioned that the wording of Kim’s announcement specifically mentions a “suspension” and not a “freeze.”

“For North Korea to announce a nuclear freeze, they must have mentioned shutdown of the nuclear facility in Yongbyon,” said Kim Yong-hyun, professor of North Korean Studies at Dongguk University in Seoul. “But this announcement said to suspend only the Punggye-ri facility and missile launches according to KCNA’s report. Still, there is a possibility open for discussion regarding Yongbyon facility which produces plutonium.”

“Some say this beginning phase should be called a ‘freeze,'” said Kim Kwang-jin, a former congressman at the National Assembly’s Defense Committee. “But others see a complete abolishment of already-made plutonium, uranium and missiles as a ‘freeze.’ That is why key terms should be clarified before the final negotiation.”

South Korea’s presidential office welcomed North Korea’s announcement as well.

Presidential secretary Yoon Young-chan said in a written statement realeased Saturday, “[The] North’s announcement will brighten prospects for successful talks between Seoul, Pyongyang and Washington.”

The statement referred to the North’s suspending of nuclear tests and missile tests as a meaningful progress toward denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

“It is not a declaration of nuclear dismantlement because it has not yet reached the consensus of some practical compensations for the abandonment of nuclear weapons,” said Cheong Seong-Chang, director of unification strategic studies program at the Seoul-based Sejong Institute.

“Since the economy has been in a state of containment after several nuclear tests and missile launches, the compromise with the international community was an inevitable choice for Kim Jong Un,” Cheong added.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who visited Trump in Florida this week, was more cautious in his acknowledgment of Kim’s announcement of suspending nuclear tests.

“What is crucial here … is how this development is going to lead to the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of nuclear arms, weapons of mass destruction and missiles,” he said. “And I will keep a close eye on that.”

ABC News’ Hakyung Kate Lee contributed to this report.

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Earth Day 2018: Everything you need to know

People around the world will come together this weekend to celebrate the planet and to take action to protect it.

Here’s everything you need to know about Earth Day 2018.

First celebrated in 1970, Earth Day takes place worldwide on April 22.

This year’s event falls on a Sunday.

Various events are held annually on Earth Day across the globe to show support for protecting the environment.

U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsin native, is largely credited for organizing the first Earth Day in spring 1970, a time when it was still legal for factories to spew noxious fumes into the air or dump toxic waste into nearby streams. That’s because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency didn’t exist then, and there were no laws to protect the environment.

Nelson recruited Harvard University professor Denis Hayes to coordinate and promote Earth Day nationally. The event was a success.

Twenty million Americans took to the streets on April 22, 1970, demanding action on environmental pollution. That December, Congress authorized the establishment of a new federal agency, the EPA, to ensure environmental protection. The passage of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and many other landmark environmental laws followed soon after, according to the EPA.

Earth Day went global 20 years later, mobilizing 200 million people in dozens of countries and putting environmental issues on the world stage.

Now, more than 1 billion people in 192 countries are estimated to participate in Earth Day activities every year, according to Earth Day Network, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that organizes the event worldwide.

This year’s Earth Day is dedicated to providing the information and inspiration needed to eventually end plastic pollution, according to Earth Day Network.

Many of us use or encounter plastic every single day, even if we don’t realize it. There’s single-use plastics, such as bags, bottles, plates, utensils and straws. But there are also plastics in our electronics, cars, clothes and paint.

So what happens to all this plastic? Some of it gets recycled. But a lot ends up in landfills or is simply littered as plastic pollution, which gets into our waterways.

Plastic is made to last forever — it cannot biodegrade. Disposed plastic materials can remain in the environment for up to 2,000 years and longer, according to a 2009 article published in scientific journal Chemistry & Biology.

Earth Day Network has called the management of plastic waste a “global crisis.”

“Plastic pollution is now an ever-present challenge. We can see plastics floating in our rivers, ocean and lagoons, littering our landscapes and affecting our health and the future of billions of children and youth. We have all contributed to this problem –- mostly unknowingly,” Valeria Merino, vice president of Global Earth Day at Earth Day Network, said in a statement.

An estimated 275 million metric tons of plastic waste were generated in 192 coastal countries in 2010, with 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons entering the ocean, according to findings in a 2015 study led by Jenna Jambeck, an environmental engineer at the University of Georgia.

Recent research commissioned by Orb Media, a nonprofit journalism organization based in Washington, D.C., found that 94 percent of drinking water in the United States and 93 percent of bottled water sampled from nine countries are spiked with chemically-laced plastic particles, many of which have been linked to major diseases.

In recent years, many countries have taken steps to ban bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates and other chemicals from plastics in some products.

“There is a growing tidal wave of interest in ending plastic pollution and some countries and governments are already in the vanguard. Earth Day Network believes we can turn that tidal wave into a permanent solution to plastics pollution,” Earth Day Network president Kathleen Rogers said in a statement.

This year, Earth Day Network will mobilize its global network of non-governmental organizations and grassroots groups, as well as local elected officials, faith leaders, artists, athletes, students and teachers “to build a world of educated consumers, voters and activists of all ages who understand the environmental, climate and health consequences of using plastic,” according to Rogers.

While recycling is important, Earth Day Network says it’s not nearly enough to bring an end to plastic pollution.

“You may be lulled into thinking it is OK to consume disposable plastic products because you plan to recycle them, but many plastics can’t be efficiently recycled and will end up in the landfill or littering the planet, even in the most remote places,” Merino said. “Also, some localities lack the most basic infrastructure to manage waste and to sort and recycle plastics. For this reason, it is much more important to focus on reducing your own level of plastic consumption.”

Here are some suggestions from the Earth Day Network on how to reduce your plastic footprint:

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Vietnam gives harsh jail terms to 6 for advocating democracy

Six human rights activists were sentenced to harsh prison terms in Vietnam after being convicted of attempting to overthrow the government by advocating a multiparty democracy.

Prominent human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai received the most severe penalty of 15 years in prison and five years of house arrest at the one-day trial Thursday, said his lawyer Nguyen Van Mieng. The others received sentences from seven to 12 years.

They were charged with affiliating with a group called Brotherhood for Democracy, whose purpose was to change the leadership of the Communist Party and build a multiparty system.

“The sentences are too harsh to the defendants,” Mieng said. “They fought for human rights, they fought for the rights of multi-party system … which are recognized achievements of mankind, but the court sees it as serious (threat) to the regime.”

Five of the defendants including Dai maintained they were innocent because what they did was right, Mieng said. One defendant confessed to the crime and got the most lenient sentence, he added.

“The purpose of the group is to change the leadership of the Communist Party of Vietnam, build a multi-party system,” the official Vietnam News Agency quoted the verdict as saying. “The defendants’ act is not fight for democracy, but acts that aim at overthrowing the people’s administration.”

“The defendants’ act is especially serious because it directly impacts the survival of the people’s administration,” it said.

Prosecutors identified Dai as the mastermind of the group who recruited members and sought financing from foreign organizations and individuals, which totaled more than $ 80,000, VNA reported earlier.

Dai and four others had previously been jailed for violating national security laws, and Dai’s license to practice law was revoked.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the United States was deeply troubled by the harsh sentences under a “vague charge” and called for the release of all “prisoners of conscience” immediately.

“Individuals have the right to the fundamental freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, both online and offline,” she said in a statement. “The United States is deeply concerned by the Vietnamese government’s efforts to restrict these rights, through a disturbing trend of increased arrests, convictions, and harsh sentences of peaceful activists.”

Speaking to reporters at a regular briefing Thursday, Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang said there are no “prisoners of conscience” in Vietnam and no one has been arrested for freedom of expression.

“In Vietnam, like other countries in the world, all acts that violate the laws are seriously dealt with in accordance with law,” she said.

Amnesty International says 97 people are serving jail sentences for violating national security laws in Vietnam, while Human Rights Watch counts 119.

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Lightning seen over Japan's so-called James Bond volcano

Mount Shinmoedake, featured in the 1967 James Bond film “You Only Live Twice,” put on a show Thursday morning when cameras caught not only the volcano erupting but lightning above it.

The volcano, which is located between Miyazaki and Kagoshima prefectures in southwest Japan, has been erupting since the beginning of March.

On March 15, the Japan Meteorological Agency issued a Level 3 warning, alerting residents to not approach the volcano and refrain from entering the danger zone.

According to the Japan Times, the JMA reported ash plumes around 3 miles high from the latest eruption, which occurred at 3:31 a.m. Thursday morning. The agency also confirmed volcanic lightning caused by friction between ash particles.

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