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A Haitian Town Has Dreamed Of Producing Olympic Surfers And Drawing Tourists



Jessica Obert for BuzzFeed News

Samuel Jules, 23, a member of Surf Haiti, has participated in surf competitions.

The sun had just crested above the hills when Samuel Jules walked past an abandoned house on Kabic Beach, in southern Haiti, wrapped the surfboard leash around his ankle, and glided into the turquoise waves.

For a few minutes during that August morning, 23-year-old Jules — the uncontested best surfer in the country — bobbed alone out in the water, where his dream of representing Haiti in the Olympics had been born. Soon, a couple more surfers paddled out and joined him, the town behind the group still asleep.

“When you surf, you forget all your problems and you just focus on what’s in front of you at the moment,” said Frantzy Andris, 22, one of the surfers.

There was a lot to leave behind, even in this paradisiac setting.

A month before, Haiti’s then-president, Jovenel Moïse, had been assassinated, plunging the Caribbean nation into a political crisis. The country’s nerves were taut as a series of arrests — of top officials and foreign mercenaries linked to the magnicide — dragged on for weeks. Abroad, a new barrage of dismal headlines from Haiti dominated newspaper front pages and primetime segments on TV: natural disasters, government failure, corruption.

Jessica Obert for BuzzFeed News

Michael Jules, 18, heads onto Kabic Beach in Jacmel, where people are known to surf.

The first surfers rode waves in this Haitian bay in the wake of a crisis over a decade earlier. After a catastrophic earthquake in 2010, an American physician who traveled to the country to help with the emergency response founded a surfing program that drew dozens of local kids and turned a hobby into a profitable project for the neighborhood, as a growing trickle of tourists rented boards and signed up for surf lessons. But in the years since, as funds dwindled and founding members departed, Surf Haiti languished and is now on the verge of extinction, with only a handful of surfers out on the water during any given week and barely any customers.

It has become a common story in Haiti: Well-intentioned ventures established by foreigners have failed to produce the long-term relief that inspired their initial missions. Some left too early, without providing the community with the resources necessary to continue the projects. Others have mismanaged funds, or worse — more than 200 UN peacekeepers abused or engaged in exploitative relationships with women, impregnated dozens of them, and left the country, later refusing to pay child support. All efforts have been stunted by political instability and the series of cataclysms battering the country.

One week after Jules’s surfing session last month, an earthquake struck Haiti, killing more than 2,200 people, followed by a destructive tropical storm within days.

Available estimates place the nation’s unemployment rate as high as 70% — most locals lack the resources to continue surfing. In addition to drawing tourists to the area, the surf project aimed to provide an escape from daily realities for those who couldn’t leave the country.

And yet, even that escape has become inaccessible for many.

Wolvenson Gilles, 27, watched from the shore as Jules did a 360 on a wave and landed softly on his board, his legs dangling on either side of it.

Gilles said he was craving a ride, but his board was at home, broken.

Jessica Obert for BuzzFeed News

Wolvenson Gilles in Jacmel, Haiti

At first, he was afraid of the sea.

Gilles’s parents, like so many others, had told him if he plunged in he might drown. A bad spirit, they said, lurked in its waters. He met many others who shared the fear, including fisherfolk who couldn’t swim.

Gilles thinks the anxiety around the water is a legacy of slavery: generational trauma, passed down from ancestors who had been kidnapped, shipped to a French colony across the ocean, and forced to work coffee and sugar plantations that enriched white colonizers.

Curious and freedom-seeking, Gilles, who goes by Papito, learned to swim when he was 5. There wasn’t much to do in town except to play soccer on the beach or horse around on scraps of plastic in the water. Then one day when he was around 15, he was mesmerized by the sight of a dark-haired figure standing on a board dozens of miles into the horizon, weaving through the waves.

Ken Pierce had recently left Kauai, Hawaii, after seeing footage of the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which had flattened much of the capital city, buried thousands under rubble, and filled tent camps with dazed and injured people. Pierce, an emergency physician, was among the legion of volunteers who streamed into the country. He brought a suitcase full of medical supplies — and a surfboard, just in case.

After settling in, he took a drive down the coast near Jacmel, a cultural hub that resembles a worn-down New Orleans, with some buildings boasting high ceilings, vivacious colors, and wrap-around verandas. Painters and sculptors in the city used rubble from pancaked buildings to make art. As Pierce later recounted, he kept looking over his right shoulder at the waves, looking for the right one — until, at last, he found it near Kabic Beach.

When he paddled back to shore, a group of local boys was waiting for him, bursting with questions, and a request to try his board out. Gilles remembers getting on Pierce’s surfboard, taking a wave, and plunging into the sea even before he was able to get off his knees.

By the end of the day, he was able to stand. For those fleeting moments gliding across the water, Gilles’s mind cleared — he wasn’t thinking about his damaged house or fear of aftershocks but was purely consumed by the thrilling challenge of trying to keep from flying off the board.

Within months, Pierce had rented a house on Kabic Beach, imported more boards, and started teaching local kids to surf. He started Surf Haiti, a nonprofit organization, intended to establish the country as a surfing destination and provide jobs for people in the community.

Jessica Obert for BuzzFeed News

Frantzy Andris (Japipo), 22, Samuel Andris, 13, and Samuel Jules hang out and talk on their surfboards in the water waiting for a wave.

The organization grew to 30 members, who bonded over their shared passion for the ocean. They set up a sign with a price list for surf lessons and board rentals on the street, and watched as tourists — mostly foreign aid workers who drove south for some R&R — began trickling in. Donations of boards and bathing suits for the members of Surf Haiti started arriving from the US. A New York–based surfboard design company made a special board for Jules, whose local celebrity was growing, and soon the founding members of Surf Haiti began plotting to send Jules — whose own mother doesn’t know how to swim — to train in France so he could represent Haiti in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

On land, debris from the earthquake that had brought Pierce out to Haiti lingered on the streets for years, and money for reconstruction from the international community was either mismanaged by development authorities or promised but never delivered by donors.

But out in the waters of Kabic Beach, dozens of young people were falling into a new pastime. Those who knew how to swim taught those who didn’t, and within a few years, the surfing community was bustling. The kids rented out boards to visitors. Then, as they honed their skills on the boards, they started giving surfing lessons themselves. In what is a luxury for most teenagers in Haiti, they were both in school and making money on the side.

“Surfing is in Haiti to stay,” Pierce, who returned to the US in 2012, told the online publication Roads & Kingdoms in 2014. (Pierce declined to be interviewed for this story, saying the surge of COVID patients in his hospital has left him unavailable.)

In 2016, Surf Haiti hosted its first international surfing competition. Over two days, DJs played music on the beach, local artists promoted their work, and restaurants filled up with visitors. A similar event took place the following year. The community had a shot at making headlines abroad not for political crises or traumatic natural catastrophes, but for being talented and entrepreneurial.

Surf Haiti had become “like a family” and its members “were connected,” said Andris during a humid and cloudless afternoon near Kabic Beach in August.

It seemed like the tides had turned in this corner of Haiti.

Jessica Obert for BuzzFeed News

The guys bring the surfboards back to the Surf Haiti storeroom after surfing in the morning in Kabic Beach in Jacmel.

The trouble began in July 2018 in the capital city of Port-au-Prince, 54 miles north.

The government had just announced a 50% increase in fuel prices following an agreement with the International Monetary Fund, eliciting protests that turned violent, with demonstrators looting stores and police firing tear gas. The protesters called for accountability, most notably regarding the whereabouts of $2 billion from PetroCaribe, an oil deal with Venezuela that was meant to help Haiti invest in infrastructure and social programs.

Economic growth was grinding to a halt and inflation was soaring. The question on everyone’s mind: What did Haiti have to show for the $13 billion from the world, thousands of volunteers, and countless projects?

Tourists were barely coming to Haiti — and many Haitians were leaving, including Gilles, who moved to the Dominican Republic in December 2019 for two years so he could find a job and save some money. Today, he’s trying to set up a small shop selling snacks and drinks on the Haiti–Dominican Republic border. Though he longed to stay in southern Haiti, he said, “I really want a job and to feel independent.”

Around half a dozen of Surf Haiti’s founders and older members were among those who left, most of them to the US, after getting into college or finding jobs.

When boards began breaking, there wasn’t anyone to bring new ones. Wax became scarce. Visitors slowed to a trickle, and the kids who had waited by the shore for Pierce to paddle back in years earlier were now in college, with no job prospects and no income.

“The people who were there to motivate us and support us haven’t been here as much,” Andris said.

And then, the pandemic hit. Jules’s bid for the Olympics fell apart when he wasn’t able to gain the support he needed from sponsors and local authorities in Jacmel. Last year, less than a dozen people showed up for surf classes, a far cry from the years when that many showed each month.

In recent months, gangs took over the main route out of the capital city, cutting it off from the south; few dare traverse it. Another route, a long stretch of steep, narrow dirt road, is too dangerous if there’s even a trickle of rain. Water taxis are limited.

The stream of visitors to Kabic Beach is, for now, virtually shut off. Remaining Surf Haiti members say they plan on selling t-shirts with the organization’s logo and hand-crafted souvenirs online.

In the meantime, it’s mostly locals in the water, less than half a dozen of them on this August morning. The regulars are teaching their younger siblings to surf in an effort to keep the sport going. Samuel Andris, Frantzy’s 13-year-old brother, stayed close to the shore during a recent morning, pausing to observe the waves’ buildup and trying to catch the smaller ones.

Further out, Jules practiced his more advanced moves. He learned some of them while surfing in the Dominican Republic in 2019, during the only competition he has attended abroad. After a while, he emerged from the water, patted his adopted mutt, Brutus, on the head, and climbed the steps up to the patio of the abandoned house — Pierce’s home, years ago. With no job prospects or a functioning gym in the neighborhood, Jules spends most of his time here doing push-ups on the grass.

He still dreams of going to surfing competitions in Brazil, Hawaii, and Tahiti.

“It’s like someone that wakes up and has to walk,” Jules said. “I see surfing the same way.” ●

Jessica Obert for BuzzFeed News

A few of the members of Surf Haiti go surfing early in the morning in Jacmel.

World News

A Data Sleuth Challenged A Powerful COVID Scientist. Then He Came After Her.



Mark Harris for BuzzFeed News; Getty Images

Microbiologist Didier Raoult (left) and Elisabeth Bik

Days after a mysterious new illness was declared a pandemic last March, a prominent scientist in France announced that he had already found a cure.

Based on a small clinical trial, microbiologist Didier Raoult claimed that hydroxychloroquine, a decades-old antimalarial drug, was part of a 100% effective treatment against COVID-19. Then–US president Donald Trump promptly proclaimed that the finding could be “one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine.”

But the study seemed off to Elisabeth Bik, a scientist turned science detective living in Silicon Valley. Bik has a sharp eye for spotting errors buried in arcane scientific papers, particularly when it comes to duplicated images. And much about Raoult’s paper looked fishy, as she later noted on her blog. Unfavorable data was left out, and the trial’s timeline was mathematically impossible. “Something does not seem quite right,” she wrote.

Before long, Bik would learn the price of raising such concerns. Raoult and a coauthor went on to call her a “witch hunter,” a “mercenary,” and a “crazy woman” on Twitter and in the press. Then, in April 2021, Raoult’s collaborator announced that they had filed a criminal complaint against Bik and a spokesperson for PubPeer, a website where she and others post scientific criticism, accusing them of blackmail, extortion, and harassment. He tweeted out a screenshot of the complaint, revealing her home address to the world.

These were the most direct threats Bik had ever received for identifying problems in scientific research — an activity she sees as integral to science. Alarmed, she tweeted a plea: “I could use some legal help.”

Tens of thousands of discoveries about the coronavirus have been made over the last two years, launching countless debates about policy and behavior. How deadly is the virus? Who should wear masks and where? How well do the vaccines fend off infections? But to find the right answers, studies must be accurate, verifiable, and responsibly done. Do a paper’s numbers add up? Are the images real? Did the scientists do the experiment they describe doing, follow ethical standards, minimize bias, and properly analyze their results?

The answer to all these questions, even before the pandemic, was: not as often as you might think. And COVID has made science’s frequent inability to police itself a clear problem with incredibly high stakes.

Because as vital as error detection is to keeping the whole enterprise honest, those who do it say there is no individual upside. No one pays them to comb through papers for mistakes. On the other hand, it’s a great way to make enemies fast. “It pisses people off,” said Nick Brown, a fellow data sleuth who cut his teeth exposing sloppy food-marketing research in 2017.

Bik’s efforts to clean up science are immense: Since 2014, she’s contributed to the retractions of at least 594 papers and 474 corrections. But Raoult is a daunting adversary. He’s authored thousands of papers and heads a leading infectious disease research institute in France. And during the pandemic, he has become one of the world’s biggest champions of hydroxychloroquine. His Twitter following has swelled to over 850,000, more than twice that of France’s health minister. His institute’s YouTube videos, many of which feature him, have been viewed 96 million times.

The legal threat against Bik came at a highly vulnerable time for her. Two years ago, she quit her biotech industry job to be a full-time scientific misconduct investigator, piecing together a living from consulting, speaking fees, and Patreon donations. Within the scientific community, where fact-checking almost universally happens on one’s own time and dime, Raoult’s move to press charges was a clear warning.

“We support the work needed to investigate potential errors and possible misconduct and believe the scientific community can do more to protect whistleblowers against harassment and threats,” said a letter in support of Bik signed by more than 2,000 researchers and 30 scholastic organizations in May. They aren’t wrong to worry: more recently, other scientists have also sent legal threats Bik’s way.

Science watchdogs have always worked alone on the periphery of the research enterprise. The pandemic is laying bare how vulnerable — and vital — they are.

“I’m convinced there is a chilling effect,” Bik told BuzzFeed News. “I’m feeling the cold, too.”

Amy Osborne / AFP via Getty Images

Elisabeth Bik in her office in Silicon Valley, California.

Bik has always had a discerning eye. She swears that she is merely average at puzzles and slow to recognize faces, but patterns — like in tiles and floor panels — leap out at her. “I guess most people don’t see that,” she said over a Zoom call.

Growing up in Gouda, the Netherlands, Bik was an avid bird-watcher who dreamed of being an ornithologist. Later she traded in her binoculars for a microscope, earning a PhD in microbiology at the University of Utrecht. Her first job out of school, on staff at a hospital, involved scanning for infectious disease microbes in patients’ samples.

In the early 2000s, she moved with her husband to Northern California. For over a decade, she worked on early efforts at Stanford University to map and analyze the microbiome, the thriving communities of bacteria inside our bodies.

Bik’s first foray into scientific misconduct began with the accidental discovery that she was a victim of it. Around 2013, she was reading an academic article about plagiarism and, on a whim, plugged a random sentence from one of her papers into Google Scholar. It popped up, verbatim, in another author’s text. It was a turning point. If she had just chosen another sentence, she said, “my whole career might not have changed at that moment.”

Another lightbulb moment came when she was reading a graduate student’s PhD thesis on inflammation and cancer and laid eyes on a particular Western-blot photograph. In these images, proteins show up as dark splotches, like grayscale Mark Rothko paintings. Bik realized that the same photo appeared in two different chapters, ostensibly for different experiments, and that research articles based on the thesis repeated the errors. She reported the duplicates to journal editors in 2014. Following a university investigation, the papers were retracted.

Her discoveries coincided with a burgeoning movement to ferret out bad science. In the early 2010s, some of psychology’s most high-profile findings began falling apart, whether because they were false positives generated from cherry-picking, could not be replicated by other labs, or, in rare instances, were outright fakes. Economics, artificial intelligence, and cancer research have also reckoned with their own crises.

Science is often mistakenly referred to as self-correcting. But peer reviewers — outside experts who review studies before they’re published in journals — are neither paid nor always qualified to assess the papers they’re assigned. Months or years can pass before journals correct or retract papers, if they ever do. And universities have little incentive to investigate or punish professors over questionable work. Nudging any of these entities into taking action tends to require behind-the-scenes work — and sometimes public pressure.

Enter the website PubPeer. Founded in 2012 by two scientists and a patent attorney, it’s now a widely used forum where commenters can weigh in on any paper and study authors can respond. Posters can be anonymous. But PubPeer is not simply Reddit for research trolls: Critiques must be based on publicly verifiable information. As its FAQ states, “You can’t say, ‘My friend used to work in the lab and said their glassware is dirty.’”

Boris Barbour, one of PubPeer’s coorganizers, acknowledged that the site is “an experiment, sometimes an uncomfortable one — there’s not a safety net for some of what we do.” But he added that “it is a maybe necessary and certainly practical approach to making something happen, to correcting some of the literature.”

Bik single-handedly drives much of the discussion on PubPeer, where she’s flagged or weighed in on more than 5,500 papers. In 2016, she put her powers to the test. She looked up 20,621 papers that contained Western blots and manually scanned them for duplicates. Two microbiologists agreed with 90% of her picks. Together, they reported that 4 percent of the studies, which had appeared in 40 journals over nearly two decades, contained copied images, a “disturbingly common” phenomenon. In a follow-up, Bik found duplicated images in 6% of 960 papers from a single journal over seven years. Extrapolating out to the millions of biomedical papers published over the same period, that means that as many as 35,000 studies could be worthy of retraction, she estimated.

“She’s the Liam Neeson of scientific integrity,” said Brian Nosek, executive director of the Center for Open Science, ​​a nonprofit that promotes reproducibility in science. “She has a remarkable eye for detection … it has a magician-like quality in some cases.”

Amy Osborne / AFP via Getty Images

Bik points out image duplications she found in a scientific paper published in the journal PLOS One.

When Bik, 55, sits down to work, she puts on her tortoiseshell reading glasses and zooms in on images on her curved 34-inch computer screen. Hundreds of tiny turtle figurines line her home office, a collection she tracks in a detailed spreadsheet. Hung above her workstation is an illustration of a peacock, flashing its eye-spotted feathers in all their colorful, patterned glory.

Only in the last year or so has Bik started using software to help scan for uncanny similarities. Otherwise, her process is manual, akin to close-reading clouds in the sky or bloodstains at a crime scene. When observing cells in an image, “I see it looks like a dog or fish or two cells squashed together,” she said. “I look for those same groups of cells in the other panel. It’s almost like there’s a little ping in my brain if I see them.”

Toward the end of March 2020, as cities and states shut down, Bik suddenly had even more time to put her scanning abilities to the test. And Raoult’s hydroxychloroquine study was making headlines worldwide.

After the SARS outbreak of 2002, Raoult had hypothesized that, based on lab studies, hydroxychloroquine and a related drug, chloroquine, could be “an interesting weapon” to fight future outbreaks. When early studies out of China identified chloroquine as a promising agent against SARS-CoV-2, Raoult promoted them — and then set out to test the idea himself.

In his study, 14 COVID patients admitted to hospitals in southern France in early March 2020 were treated with hydroxychloroquine, and six more also received azithromycin, an antibiotic. On the sixth day, most of the people who received no treatment were still COVID-positive. But he reported that about half of the patients on hydroxychloroquine alone, and all of the ones taking it with the antibiotic, were testing negative.

Bik had known of Raoult, a fellow microbiologist, and had seen Trump’s tweets raving about his latest discovery. Unlike most papers she scrutinizes, his didn’t have worrisome images. But other irregularities caught her eye.

Why, she wondered, did Raoult’s team leave out a number of patients who dropped out of the trial, including those who transferred to intensive care or died? Without these negative outcomes included, the results looked more promising. If the study received ethics approval on March 6, and the patients were tracked for 14 days, how did the authors submit their paper to the International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents on the 16th? And how was it accepted for publication less than 24 hours later? Impossible to ignore was the fact that one of the study’s authors, Jean-Marc Rolain, was the editor-in-chief of the journal.

“This would be the equivalent of allowing a student to grade their own paper,” Bik wrote on her blog, Science Integrity Digest, on March 24. “Low [sic] and behold, the student got an A+!”

Days later, the scientific society overseeing the journal said that an editor besides Rolain had been involved in reviewing the manuscript but admitted that the study was below its standards. It commissioned outside experts to take a closer look at whether concerns such as Bik’s had merit.

But by then, Raoult’s narrative that the drug was a miracle cure had assumed a life of its own. Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, traveled to Marseille to meet Raoult. Trump’s endorsement of the research, and later his claim that he was taking hydroxychloroquine himself, sent sales soaring and dried up supplies for patients who depend on it to treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Then, in an abrupt move that shocked many scientists, the FDA authorized the drug for emergency use against COVID. Nearly 1 in 4 COVID-19 clinical trials launched that spring were studying hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine.

In April 2020, when Bik first raised alarms about Raoult’s study, the scientist was displeased. “The witchhunter @MicrobiomDigest is not attentive to details when she judges that a study is useful to her paranoiac fights!” he tweeted. “Fake news.”

By the end of the year, large clinical trials of hydroxychloroquine would find no effect against the coronavirus, and the FDA would revoke its authorization, citing the risk of severe heart complications.

Christophe Simon / AFP via Getty Images

Raoult speaks at a press conference about COVID-19 in Marseille, France, on August 27, 2020.

Raoult’s was among the first of many COVID-19 studies to fall under the scrutiny of dedicated watchdogs like Bik. Researchers, students, journalists, and others have also spotted, sometimes by accident, things that don’t add up.

One of the biggest examples, ironically, drew a conclusion that was the opposite of Raoult’s: that hydroxychloroquine wasn’t just ineffective against COVID, it was also likely to kill you. In May 2020, that news led at least two major clinical trials to grind to a halt. But the basis for the explosive finding — a database compiled by a startup named Surgisphere — collapsed when outside researchers pointed out inconsistencies. Three of the paper’s authors admitted that their collaborator, Surgisphere’s founder, had refused to share the data with them. They retracted that paper from the Lancet and a second from the New England Journal of Medicine. (Surgisphere’s founder defended his company and claimed it was not responsible for any issues with the data.)

Allegedly fraudulent data had slipped past two of science’s most exclusive journals. But with preprints — essentially first drafts, uploaded straight to the internet — there aren’t even gatekeepers to blame. Being able to immediately share cutting-edge science is useful, especially in a pandemic. It also means no peer reviewer or journal editor is checking for oversights and methodological problems.

One widely publicized preprint reported that hospitalized coronavirus patients were 90% less likely to die when given ivermectin, an antiparasitic drug that proponents have touted as a cure-all. But a trio of sleuths found big problems in the data, including entries from dead patients. The preprint was taken down in July over “ethical concerns.” (Its lead author has defended the study and said he was not consulted before it was removed.)

“We need some minimum level of quality control. We’re churning out millions of papers.”

In the prepandemic era, you would put your preprint “on the table of the coffee break room and say, ‘Please, anybody, read it,’” said Nosek of the Center for Open Science. During the Zika outbreak of 2015 to 2016, 78 preprints were posted on one server, bioRxiv. In contrast, upwards of 19,000 SARS-CoV-2 preprints have been uploaded to bioRxiv and a new server, medRxiv, since the pandemic started.

Some say the deluge demands more oversight. “We need some minimum level of quality control,” Brown said. “We’re churning out millions of papers.”

But to Nosek, the issues raised by preprints predate preprints themselves. “The interesting thing of the moment is almost all of the events are entirely ordinary — not in terms of [being] acceptable, but ordinary,” he said. “Yes, this is what’s happening in research practice all the time.”

Now, however, the stakes of getting things wrong are unbelievably high. In June, a group of scientists wrote in JAMA Pediatrics — another prestigious journal — that children in face coverings were inhaling “unacceptable” levels of carbon dioxide. Jay Bhattacharya, a Stanford University professor of medicine, praised it on Fox News and called mask-wearing “child abuse.” Soon after, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whom Bhattacharya has advised, blocked schools from requiring masks in the classroom, claiming in an executive order that “forcing children to wear masks could inhibit breathing.”

That study was retracted by the journal after scientists complained about its methodological problems. (The authors have said they stand by their findings and that their critics were not qualified to judge them.)

One of the study’s most outspoken detractors was James Heathers, a longtime data detective. He believes that many are taking advantage of the pandemic to build their personal brands. “There are people in science who think basically any crisis is an opportunity, anything that becomes a topic du jour is something they should chase,” he said, adding that he wasn’t referring to anyone in particular. “A lot of COVID work is an extension of that same mentality” — that is, “maximally flashy and minimally insightful.”

Christophe Simon / AFP via Getty Images

Raoult leaves a press conference about COVID-19 in Marseille, France, on August 27, 2020.

Until spring 2020, Raoult was best known as an eminent microbiologist who founded and heads the research hospital Institut Hospitalo-Universitaire Méditerranée Infection, or IHU. He has discovered or codiscovered dozens of new bacteria — a group of them are named Raoultella — as well as giant viruses. By many accounts, his extensive reach in the scientific community is matched by his temper: In 2012, Science magazine described him as “imaginative, rebellious, and often disdainful.” “He can make life hard for you,” one researcher said.

A handful of Raoult’s thousands of publications have also fallen under scrutiny. In 2006, the American Society for Microbiology banned him and four coauthors from its journals for a year over a “misrepresentation of data” after a reviewer spotted figures that were identical, but shouldn’t have been, across two versions of a submitted manuscript. (Raoult objected to the ban, saying he wasn’t at fault.) And some researchers noticed that Raoult was on one-third of all papers to ever appear in a single journal, which was staffed by some of his collaborators.

Last year, Raoult’s team issued a correction to a 2018 study, and another from 2013 was retracted altogether (the journal said that Raoult could not be reached when it was making its decision). Both contained apparently duplicated or otherwise suspect images, first spotted by Bik, who has flagged more than 60 other studies of his on PubPeer for potential issues.

And by July of last year, his most infamous study had been looked over by even more outside experts commissioned by the journal’s publishers. The scientists did not hold back. “Gross methodological shortcomings,” “non-informative,” and “fully irresponsible,” one said. Another group said it “raised a lot of attention and contributed to a demand for the drug without the appropriate evidence.”

Despite acknowledging these flaws, the leaders of the International Society of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, which publishes the journal along with Elsevier, opted not to retract the study. “We believe, in addition to the importance of sharing observational data at the height of a pandemic, a robust public scientific debate about the paper’s findings in an open and transparent fashion should be made available,” they said. Around the same time, a group of 500 French infectious disease experts filed a complaint with local health officials, accusing Raoult of spreading misinformation about hydroxychloroquine.

Raoult defended his “seminal work,” arguing that the call for a retraction had “no justification other than the opinion of people who were fiercely hostile to” hydroxychloroquine. At a French Senate hearing that September, he once again downplayed criticisms of his research. Bik had “managed to find five errors in a total of 3,500 articles,” he said, while acknowledging that there were potentially a small number of other errors as well. He denied ever committing fraud.

At the Senate hearing, Raoult called Bik a term that translates to “head hunter,” a “girl” who had been “stalking” him since he was “famous.” And around Thanksgiving, biologist Eric Chabrière, a frequent collaborator of Raoult’s and a coauthor of the hydroxychloroquine study, tweeted that Bik “harasses” and “tries to denigrate” Raoult.

He invoked her past employment at uBiome, a microbiome-testing startup that the FBI raided in 2019. (Bik, who was scientific editorial director there until the end of 2018, has said that she was never questioned and was not involved in the founders’ alleged scheme to defraud insurers and investors.) Chabrière also accused her of being paid by the pharmaceutical industry.

“I am not sponsored by any company, but you can sponsor me at @Patreon,” Bik tweeted back, linking to her account. As she explained to Chabrière, she is also a consultant to universities and publishers who want suspicious papers investigated.

“Happy to investigate any papers of your institute, too, as long as you pay me :-),” she added.

Over the following months, Chabrière would call her “a real dung beetle,” “a mercenary who only obeys money,” and a person “paid to attack and discredit certain targets.” His supporters piled on, sometimes with vague threats. Meanwhile, Raoult called her a “crazy woman” and a “failed researcher” of “medium intelligence.”

Then, on April 30 of this year, Chabrière tweeted a screenshot of a legal complaint allegedly filed with a public prosecutor in France. It accused her and Barbour, the PubPeer coorganizer, of “moral harassment,” “attempted blackmail,” and “attempted extortion.” Her home address was listed. The tweet was later deleted.

“There’s something unhelpful in the way we think about science as a self-correcting process. It makes you think that it’s just going to correct itself on its own.”

According to the French newspaper Le Monde, the basis of the blackmail allegation was her tweet offering to investigate papers for a fee. The complaint also noted that a total of 240 papers by Raoult and nearly 30 by Chabrière were flagged on PubPeer, mostly by anonymous commenters. “As long as we stick to scientific criticism, this is beneficial to science. But there, it goes beyond the limits and prevents my clients from working,” a lawyer for Raoult and Chabrière told the newspaper.

Bik stands by her critiques and denies ever blackmailing or harassing anyone. And as of October, she said she had not seen the full complaint or been contacted by any attorneys or authorities. Raoult, Chabrière, and their lawyer did not return multiple requests for comment from BuzzFeed News.

The episode highlighted the divisive rise of public peer review, where hundreds of people can instantly weigh in on a finding. Young and internet-fluent scientists tend to look favorably on this shift toward transparency. But others argue that “cancel culture campaigns in social media,” as one oft-criticized researcher has put it, taint the scientific process.

That unease was apparent in a statement on Raoult’s legal filing from the French National Centre for Scientific Research, where Barbour, the PubPeer co-organizer, is a neuroscientist. While calling critiques “indispensable when they are constructive and backed by cogent arguments,” the institution admitted that it had “serious reservations” about the fact that PubPeer critics do not have to share their real names. This, it wrote, contributes to “the excesses of certain social networks for which anonymous insults and accusations are commonplace.” (Barbour declined to comment on the complaint.)

But some data sleuths point out that threats like Raoult’s are a good reason to stay anonymous. And while scientific discourse is traditionally polite, deliberate, and conducted behind closed doors, they say that doesn’t work during a pandemic.

After Hampton Gaddy, an undergraduate student at the University of Oxford, inquired about 26 fishy COVID studies by a single researcher and made his complaints public, all of them were withdrawn. The author did not dispute the retractions.

“There’s something unhelpful in the way we think about science as a self-correcting process,” Gaddy said. “It makes you think that it’s just going to correct itself on its own.”

Not long after Raoult’s criminal complaint was announced, attorneys came after Bik over different critiques. These involved a professor in China who claimed that he could kill cancer cells in a petri dish by “emitting external Qi,” the life force believed in traditional Chinese medicine to exist in everything. He repeated this procedure in more than a half-dozen studies, often with Harvard-affiliated researchers.

In 2019, Bik accused the studies of failing to describe the process in sufficient detail. But in a pair of cease-and-desist letters in May, lawyers for the scientists argued that they had properly described their methods, accusing her of publishing false and defamatory statements and mocking Chinese medicine.

Bik deleted her tweets but refused to retract her blog post or PubPeer comments. “This is a scientific discussion,” she wrote back to one attorney.

She also found it curious that it took two years for these lawyers to come knocking. “I think they thought I was being threatened by Didier Raoult and then decided, ‘Maybe she’s in a vulnerable position, let’s slap on another threat,’” Bik said. (The attorneys did not return requests for comment.)

While Bik accepts that blowback comes with the territory, she has less of an appetite for needless conflict these days. She regrets joking with Chabrière as she did and has toned down the sarcasm on Twitter, where 111,000 people now follow her every word. “I feel more watched,” she said. “I think about what I tweet and how that could look in a courtroom.” That said, as one of the few women widely known for being a science watchdog, Bik has always been conscious of how she comes across and is used to constantly being questioned by men. “It’s a very thin line as a woman that we have to make between saying what we think is right and not coming across as very aggressive,” she said.

A degree of paranoia also colors her offline life. Upon trying to enter the Netherlands on a recent trip, she went to scan her passport and the machine informed her there was an error. As an employee walked over, the first thought that went through her head was Oh my god, I’m going to be arrested right now. (It was just a glitch.)

Brushes with the law may still be rare for scientific fact-checkers, but being on the receiving end of antagonism isn’t.

“People hate you,” said Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz, an epidemiology graduate student at the University of Wollongong in Australia who has dug through some of the pandemic’s most flawed studies. “Even people who are not involved with the study think you are a nasty, grubby troll sitting in a basement finding mistakes in others’ work.” Having ruffled all the feathers he’s ruffled, he feels unsure over what his post-PhD future holds.

That’s why data sleuths don’t usually rely on fact-checking to pay the bills. They support themselves through any number of other ways — attending graduate school (Meyerowitz-Katz is working at a public health agency while finishing his degree), working at a company (Heathers), or being retired (Brown). That makes their “job” inaccessible to most people, they said.

“If you are someone in that precarious position or someone who is a person of color from a disadvantaged background, doesn’t have financial resources, and can’t afford to ever be sued or even [face] the threat of a lawsuit, they’re just driven away from it,” Meyerowitz-Katz said.

Is there a future where watchdogs have proper careers, funded by the institutions they’re trying to fix? Nosek, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, thinks that they have a place in the system. Funders could back fellowships for data sleuths “so they can dedicate time rather than having it be marginalized work,” he said.

But Brown believes that he and his colleagues are most effective on the margins, where they are beholden to no one but themselves. “The instant you have somebody funding you to do this kind of thing,” he said, “it’s like, ‘Why did you fund Nick Brown?’”

“The fact you can do everything she’s done and still be in a position where the system hasn’t directly rewarded you speaks very poorly of that system.”

As someone who makes a living exposing bad science, Bik is exceptional in more ways than one, her peers say.

“She should be receiving awards and prizes. Journals should be asking her to check stuff,” Heathers said. “The fact you can do everything she’s done and still be in a position where the system hasn’t directly rewarded you speaks very poorly of that system.”

Last month, the dispute between Bik and Raoult seemed to be winding down. The founding members of the IHU Méditerranée Infection announced that Raoult will be replaced as the head of the institution next September. The head of Marseille’s hospital system cited the need to “turn a page.” The decision, which Raoult protested, came amid reports that some of his studies are under investigation for alleged ethics violations.

In a recent interview, Bik said she felt optimistic that this one particular feud appeared to be quieting down. There are so many other fights to focus on: more dodgy images, more suspect papers, more scientists and journals and universities needing to clean up their acts. It’s become the pattern of her life.

“I’ll probably be doing this for a while, until all science misconduct has been resolved and all science is completely honest and clear,” she said with a laugh. “And then I can retire, I guess.”

But Raoult, it seems, is not quite ready to move on. Just last week, he said in a YouTube video that the people who made “attempts to blacklist us on scientific journals … will have to be arrested … including Madame Bik,” according to a translation that Bik shared on Twitter. She quickly locked her account to, she said, “prevent the next wave of insults, jail threats, and death wishes from reaching me.” Retirement would have to wait another day. ●

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The DOJ Is Investigating Americans For War Crimes Allegedly Committed While Fighting With Far-Right Extremists In Ukraine



Oksana Parafeniuk for BuzzFeed News

Craig Lang in Kyiv, Ukraine on February 18, 2021

KYIV — One chilly day in February, Craig Lang, a former US Army soldier wanted for allegedly killing a married couple in Florida, pleaded with three stern-faced judges in a Kyiv courtroom to allow him to stay in Ukraine. He first came in 2015 to fight with a far-right paramilitary unit, defending the country from Russia-backed forces. And he believed that if he were extradited back to the US, he could face war crimes charges.

“Any separatist or Russian soldier that I have killed would be a murder charge” in the US, Lang, 31, said in his gruff North Carolina drawl. “Understand that some of my fellow combatants are under investigation by the FBI for war crimes.”

That was a stunning statement. It would be extremely rare for the US government to investigate its own citizens for alleged war crimes committed on foreign soil — no one, experts say, has ever been prosecuted, let alone convicted, under the US War Crimes Act. Lang’s claim, overheard by this BuzzFeed News reporter, could not be corroborated at the time.

But now, BuzzFeed News can reveal that the Department of Justice and the FBI have in fact taken the extraordinary step of investigating a group of seven American fighters, including Lang, under the federal war crimes statute. Authorities suspect that while in eastern Ukraine, Lang and other members of the group allegedly took noncombatants as prisoners, beat them with their fists, kicked them, clobbered them with a sock filled with stones, and held them underwater.

Lang, the DOJ believes, may have even killed some of them before burying their bodies in unmarked graves.

The war crimes investigation was detailed in a DOJ appeal for assistance sent to the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine in 2018 along with two Ukrainian documents responding to the appeal the following year. The documents were leaked to an obscure pro-Russian website. BuzzFeed News reviewed and authenticated the documents and interviewed six people, in Kyiv and stateside, with direct knowledge of the US investigation. They include a top Ukrainian law enforcement official; a former Ukrainian National Police official who was involved in gathering information to fulfill the US appeal; and two other people who have assisted the FBI and spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

BuzzFeed News also interviewed Dalton Kennedy of North Carolina and David Kleman of Georgia, both 24, who had interviews with federal agents and provided proof of those encounters. They, along with Quinn Rickert, 27, of Illinois; Santi Pirtle, 30, of California; Brian Boyenger, 33, of North Carolina; and David Plaster, 37, of Missouri were investigated by the DOJ and FBI in the probe. When they arrived in Ukraine, Lang, Rickert, and Pirtle allegedly joined Right Sector, a volunteer far-right nationalist group that formed in November 2013 and later created a paramilitary force to respond to Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine in spring 2014. Human rights groups have accused Right Sector fighters of abusing and torturing civilians and combatants.

Courtesy David Kleman

Brian Boyenger (left) and David Kleman in eastern Ukraine.

All the men were connected to Lang, who also briefly served in Ukraine’s military, and privy to his actions in the country. Their alleged roles in the war crimes vary, and BuzzFeed News has found that some were likely not present when they are believed to have taken place.

The DOJ — based on video and photo evidence, as well as interviews with some of Lang’s fellow American fighters — says in the documents that Lang was the main instigator of the alleged torture of detainees in eastern Ukraine. In April, BuzzFeed News detailed how Lang became increasingly radicalized while fighting in Ukraine and had ties to white supremacists. He now resides with his Ukrainian partner and their child in Kyiv. He was detained by Ukrainian border guards in August 2019, wears an ankle monitor, and is banned from leaving the country while he fights extradition to Fort Myers to face trial in the 2018 killings of Deana and Serafin “Danny” Lorenzo in Florida. Authorities allege that Lang and another former Army soldier who fought with Right Sector in Ukraine lured the couple to a meeting to buy guns — but instead ambushed them and robbed them of $3,000, used to fund Lang’s foreign fighting adventures.

A separate message obtained exclusively by BuzzFeed News suggests the FBI was investigating Lang and the others as early as April 2017, and had already received information on them from search and seizure warrants.

The DOJ appeal doesn’t make clear whether US authorities had interviewed any alleged victims in Ukraine or confirmed that anyone was killed. But based on the evidence gathered, the DOJ appeal says, the Americans “allegedly committed or participated in torture, cruel or inhuman treatment or murder of persons who did not take (or stopped taking) an active part in hostilities and (or) intentionally inflicted grievous bodily harm on them.”

Pages from the DOJ appeal for assistance sent to the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine

It continues: “Such actions, if committed by US citizens or directed against them, respective to the United States War Crimes Act, are classified as war crimes in the context of the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine.”

Two sources who have aided the DOJ and the Americans under investigation who spoke to BuzzFeed News in the past four months said that they believe the probe is active. But, to date, no related charges have been filed. Calls and emails sent to the DOJ and FBI officials named in the leaked appeal went unanswered. The US Embassy in Kyiv also declined to comment. The FBI and DOJ spokespeople each said they do not confirm or deny the existence of an ongoing investigation.

During extradition hearings in Kyiv over the past year, Lang has denied involvement in the Florida killings and said federal authorities are going after him because of his political views and extremist ties. Four of the six sources, including Kennedy and Kleman, said they believed the DOJ’s focus now is getting Lang extradited to the US, something Irina Venediktova, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, told BuzzFeed News this month that she would also like to see happen. “We did our homework [on Lang],” she said, noting that she approved the US request for extradition last year. (The European Court of Human Rights ordered a stay on Lang’s extradition until it reviewed his case. The court had not yet made a decision when this article was published.) In May, the US government said during a court hearing that it would waive the death penalty for Lang in order to speed up the process.

Lang didn’t respond to a request for comment. His Ukrainian lawyer, Dmytro Morhun, declined to respond directly to the DOJ investigation and claims made against Lang, saying he would only do so if presented with evidence of alleged crimes, not assumptions of law enforcement agencies. He said the US investigation was proof of what he has argued since Lang was detained in Ukraine — that the US efforts to bring him back home were political in nature and are “connected precisely with his participation in the armed forces of Ukraine in the east, while fighting against the Russian aggressor.”

In interviews in person and by phone, Kennedy, Kleman, Plaster, and Boyenger confirmed they had fought in Ukraine, but they all denied the allegations that they committed or aided any possible war crimes and said they were never part of Right Sector; the four served with the regular Ukrainian military and provided documentation showing they did. Rickert didn’t respond to messages seeking comment, and Pirtle couldn’t be reached. But a family member of Pirtle’s told BuzzFeed News by phone that Pirtle spoke to the FBI at least twice about his experience once he left Ukraine and returned home to San Jose. The family added that Pirtle is currently serving in the US Army and is based in Louisiana. An Army spokesperson confirmed Pirtle is an active-duty infantryman with no combat deployments who has served since October 2020.

Thousands of foreign fighters have flocked to eastern Ukraine region to join a war that Russia incited in spring 2014 — using troops in unmarked uniforms and local separatist proxies — that has killed more than 14,000 people. Venediktova told BuzzFeed News that her office is investigating 250 foreign fighters from 32 countries for war crimes. All of them have fought with Russia-led forces.

Venediktova said that, for now, there are no active investigations into foreign fighters who joined the Ukrainian side. But Gyunduz Mamedov, the deputy prosecutor general of Ukraine, said in an interview in Kyiv in August that after learning of the US war crimes probe in 2019, he considered opening his own into Lang’s alleged crimes. “I thought that a proper legal assessment of the situation should be done in Ukraine as well,” he said, adding, “My main concern was [Lang’s] crimes in Ukraine.” Mamedov said he asked US authorities to share the evidence used to build their case against Lang and the other Americans. “Unfortunately,” he said, “there has been no response.”

Roughly 40 other Americans have fought on the Ukrainian side, according to BuzzFeed News’ reporting and expert research. Many are veterans or men who had hoped to join the US military but couldn’t, and wanted to help a democratic ally in its fight against Russia’s aggressive authoritarianism. Others are opportunists who see a shot at a once-in-a-lifetime adventure and a fresh start. And several are combat junkies who hop from war to war.

But some are far-right extremists who have set their gaze on Ukraine, a place that has become a destination and training ground for such types in the West. As far-right extremism has risen in the US, so has the interest among American white supremacists in militarized right-wing Ukrainian groups that have had success in growing and mainstreaming their organizations and movements. They include violent neo-Nazis like those from the Rise Above Movement who have gone to Ukraine to meet and train with some of the groups — and then export what they learned to the US.

Timo Vogt / EST&OST

Members of “Task Force Pluto.” Front, from left: Austrians Benjamin Fischer and Alex Kirschbaum. Back, from left: Americans Quinn Rickert, Craig Lang, and Santi Pirtle.

The seven Americans arrived in Ukraine at different times. Plaster, who has familial ties to Ukraine, was in the country before the war broke out. The other six arrived between 2015 and 2016.

Lang touched down in May 2015, after two tours with the US Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. He served in the infantry and was dishonorably discharged in 2014. A string of disturbing personal events the previous year, including an incident in which he allegedly threatened his wife, court documents show, led to their divorce and him losing custody rights and a job.

Ukraine offered adventure and a new start. He joined Right Sector, he said earlier this year, “because I thought they were the most active on the front line.” The far-right paramilitary group handed him a loaded AK-47 the moment he arrived, he said.

As one of the first and most visible American fighters in eastern Ukraine — his Facebook page, which has since been removed, showed him firing machine guns and AK-47s in interviews with Ukrainian media, running through trenches, and posing in uniform on the battlefield — he quickly became a key contact for others looking to join the war and Right Sector. The DOJ also believes that Lang used Facebook to actively recruit other Americans to the unit.

Among them were Rickert and Pirtle, who, along with Lang and two Austrian fighters, formed a close-knit, informal group that called itself “Task Force Pluto,” after the Greek god of the underworld. Photographs shot by a German photographer in early 2016 show them cleaning their AK-47 rifles and firing rocket-propelled grenades at the front line together.

While Rickert was once close with Lang, he seems to be one of the government’s prime sources of information and evidence in its war crimes case. Lang, he apparently told investigators, was the Task Force Pluto leader while the group was stationed at a makeshift military base located on the edge of Novohrodivka, an unremarkable coal mining town in Donetsk region that is under Ukrainian government control.

Rickert, the DOJ document says, told the FBI about several instances of Lang allegedly abusing people at the base in late 2015 or in 2016. In one, Rickert said that Lang went to a nearby village and captured a local man. Rickert claimed that Lang brought the man back to the Right Sector base and “severely beat and tortured” him in a cell and “eventually took him out of the base and killed him.” Rickert told the DOJ that he had video footage of the incident and others.

Rickert also told investigators he witnessed Lang and Benjamin Fischer — an Austrian who, the DOJ notes, fought with Right Sector and has also been accused by his government of war crimes in Ukraine and was briefly detained in 2017 before reportedly being released due to a lack of evidence — committed “numerous killings and tortures” of prisoners. These happened, Rickert said, in a small room at the base in spring 2016. After the torture sessions, Rickert told DOJ, Lang took them outside, killed them, and buried their bodies in a field near the base.

Timo Vogt / EST&OST

A view of the Right Sector base near Novohrodivka in eastern Ukraine

Rickert told the DOJ he also had a video of Lang beating and drowning a woman who Fischer injected with adrenaline to keep from losing consciousness. According to Rickert, another foreign fighter filmed the incident on video. Fischer’s whereabouts are unknown and he could not be reached for comment.

Pirtle told investigators, according to the DOJ document, that Rickert filmed several of the interrogations and uploaded the videos to his Google accounts, including one in which a man was detained, thrown into a shower stall, and beaten with a sock filled with stones. According to Pirtle, the man was thought to have fought with Russia-backed forces. Pirtle told investigators he saw Lang punch and push the man, demanding his password to a Facebook account because Lang thought that it was holding information on pro-Russian fighters.

Pirtle’s family member said he returned to the US in spring 2016 because he had grown tired of the poor living conditions in eastern Ukraine and was worried about “somebody who did terrible things.” That person, the family member said, was Lang. Pirtle, according to the family member, emailed them explaining that “things are going downhill and he didn’t want any part in it.”

Morhun, Lang’s lawyer, did not directly respond to these or any specific allegations, saying “in order to deny or confirm any accusations, they must be brought,” and since the DOJ has not presented he or Lang with evidence, “we are talking about assumptions, and that makes no sense to comment on.”

The DOJ appears to have obtained and viewed that video and others, writing in the appeal that investigators got a warrant authorizing them to search the Google account and emails apparently belonging to Rickert.

“In the first video, LANG’s voice is heard demanding that the man give his password from a social network account,” the DOJ writes. “After the man refuses to give LANG his password, behind the scenes someone says, ‘You need to beat him.’ LANG hits the man several times with his knee in the abdomen and head, throwing him on the floor, where he writhes in pain.”

A second video, according to the DOJ, “shows a Ukrainian man repeatedly hitting a man with something hard in a sock in his cell. After this beating, a person similar to RICKERT enters the shower and demands the man’s password. After that, you can see how RICKERT punches the man in the back of the head.”

Rickert’s and Pirtle’s accounts to the DOJ, and the agency’s descriptions of the videos, closely align with what BuzzFeed News was told by an American fighter in Ukraine who knew the Task Force Pluto members and described them as having a “fetish for death and torture.” It also aligns as well as a screenshot of a video viewed by this reporter that shows a man who appeared to be Lang standing over a man seated and bound in a small room. That scene also closely resembles one described by a Vice News journalist who interviewed Lang, Rickert, and Pirtle at the Novohrodivka base in 2016. In that story, a man was detained by Right Sector fighters, held in “a standing-room-only shower stall” with the lights on for a week, and beaten with a sock “stuffed with sharpened rocks.”

The Google account data, the DOJ writes, also uncovered numerous images of Rickert, Lang, Pirtle, and other people handling weapons and explosives in eastern Ukraine, including in “a trench dug for combat.”

The DOJ document doesn’t describe any instances in which Kennedy, Kleman, Boyenger, and Plaster took an active part in the abuse of civilians. Plaster, who now runs an NGO in Kyiv that helps Ukrainian veterans, said he “kept a distance from anyone with radical ideologies” and provided “medical aid and training” to the country’s soldiers during his time on the front line. Boyenger said, “I have always conducted myself with honor and fidelity, as a taxpayer I do expect the government to investigate to the fullest extent any and all allegations of wrongdoing and I look forward to seeing the results of their investigation as much as anyone.”

The DOJ document also says that US authorities believe that Lang and Kennedy, after spending time back in the US, “returned to Ukraine with the intention of planning and participating in an armed attack on the Ukrainian [parliament]” in 2017.

The DOJ says in the document that US authorities in Kyiv received reports around March 14, 2017, that Lang was detained upon his arrival at a Ukrainian airport because authorities “found something similar to a rifle with a silencer and a full box of ammunition” on him.

Kennedy told BuzzFeed News that he never planned any such attack on Ukraine’s parliament building, calling the accusation “bullshit.” He showed BuzzFeed News his passport, which indicated that he wasn’t in Ukraine at the time the DOJ claimed he was there. But Kennedy did say that Lang had told him about being detained at a Ukrainian airport and found to have gun parts in his luggage. Lang didn’t respond to questions about the alleged incident.

“I do believe the FBI is unfairly demonizing and trying to prosecute us for no real reason other than our involvement in Ukraine,” Kennedy told BuzzFeed News.

Kennedy — who also served for a time as a soldier in the Ukrainian armed forces — said Lang convinced him to join Right Sector in April 2016, and that he stayed only for a couple of months. “When I was there nothing like that happened,” Kennedy said of the alleged war crimes. “We didn’t even take any prisoners the whole time I was there.”

Brendan Hoffman for BuzzFeed News

Lang stands with his partner Anna Osipovich and members of the Right Sector battalion following an appeals hearing on a request by the United States to extradite Lang on murder charges at the Kyiv Court of Appeal on Tuesday, February 23, 2021 in Kyiv, Ukraine.

The DOJ and FBI investigation marks the first attempt to hold American volunteer soldiers accountable for their alleged actions in Ukraine. Besides going after alleged war criminals, the extraordinary investigation also ticks another box for the DOJ: a case against far-right extremists. The Biden administration has said fighting extremism is a top priority.

At least two of the other men under investigation could be described as far-right extremists: Kennedy, who was briefly in the US Army, told BuzzFeed News in an interview that he’s now “apolitical,” but he was once a member of the American neo-fascist group Patriot Front and photographed making a Nazi salute. Kleman’s social media presence includes a video of him making a Nazi salute, a photo of a Nazi WWII flag, and posts with white supremacist language. He told BuzzFeed News from his home in Boston that he “was never a Nazi” but is “very into Germany.”

The DOJ appeal document was first leaked by an obscure pro-Russian website called UkrLeaks on April 9, after BuzzFeed News published an investigation into Lang’s alleged involvement in the double killing in Florida and the issue of American extremists fighting in Ukraine. UkrLeaks is run by Vasily Prozorov, a Ukrainian who worked from 1999 to 2018 as a consultant in the country’s security service, the SBU, before defecting to Russia. In a Facebook post in March 2019, the SBU claimed he had been fired for his poor job performance and heavy drinking.

Since arriving in Russia, Prozorov has used UkrLeaks and appearances on state television to push some of the Kremlin’s favorite conspiracy theories about Ukraine. But Prozorov had access to sensitive and classified information, and while he seems to have used some of it to smear Ukraine and his former employer, some things he leaked have checked out. For instance, Prozorov has published information about the SBU detaining pro-Russian Ukrainians and holding them in secret detention centers. And although the security service has vehemently denied using such facilities, Ukrainian journalists, international human rights groups, and the United Nations have investigated the claims, interviewed people who were detained, and found the centers to be real.

Prozorov, who fled Ukraine before the DOJ appeal was sent to Kyiv, told BuzzFeed News the appeal and two related Ukrainian documents were given to him by a source in the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office whom he declined to name.

The bar for charging someone under the War Crimes Act is incredibly high, according to Beth Van Schaack, a law professor at Stanford University who previously served as the deputy to the ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues in the State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice. “No US citizen has ever been tried or convicted under the country’s war crimes statute” since it became law in 1996, she told BuzzFeed News.

(One US citizen came close: Boston-born Charles Emmanuel, aka Chuckie Taylor, aka Roy Belfast Jr., the son of Charles Taylor, the former President of Liberia. He led the Liberian Anti-Terrorist Unit that tortured and killed civilians opposed to his father’s rule. His 2008 US conviction for torture committed in a foreign country was the first of its kind. He was sentenced to 97 years in prison.)

Edgar Chen, a former attorney in the DOJ’s Office of Special Investigations, the department’s unit tasked with targeting and prosecuting human rights violators and war criminals, told BuzzFeed News that during his nearly 10 years there he wasn’t aware of any US citizen being investigated for committing a war crime in circumstances similar to the Ukraine case.

“They’re not going to do that unless they think they’ve got the goods,” Chen said, suggesting that the DOJ might see the case against Lang and the other American fighters as its opportunity to finally put the War Crimes Act to use.

One person who has assisted the FBI with the probe told BuzzFeed News that investigators had expressed that very thought to them. Speaking on the condition of anonymity so they could talk about discussions with the federal agents, the person said, “They want to make Craig the first [American] to be tried for war crimes” in the US. ●

Tanya Kozyreva contributed reporting from Kyiv.

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These Photos Show The Timeless Appeal Of Travel And Tourism



Under lockdown, travel photography fueled our jealousy, longing, and admiration. For travelers back in the 1800s, photographs were important in another way: “You might have gone to that place, but you couldn’t take a picture of it, so you buy one to show people back home,” said Jamie Allen, an associate curator at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York.

An upcoming exhibit looks at the museum’s extensive collection of travel and tourism images through the years. Lilyan Jones is the project cataloger for the Alden Scott Boyer Collection at the Eastman Museum. Working with the museum’s photography collection, she goes through over 13,000 items that were given to the museum, some of which range from the very beginning of photography to the 1950s.

“I chose this theme because at the time I was starting to work on this, we were stuck inside. I thought it would be nice to look at pictures from all over the world,” Jones told BuzzFeed News. “There are a lot of early views of Egypt, people climbing the pyramids; there’s also early views of India and Japan and even Niagara Falls.”

The George Eastman Museum was named for the creator of the Kodak company. Eastman was a pioneer in film and photography, and the museum fittingly claims to be the world’s first focused solely on photography.

“Early travel photography was going to be seen by people who weren’t able to travel themselves,” Allen said. “Now that travel has opened up, you can access more places and see more things. Our definition of travel photography has changed.”

Allen said the goal of the exhibition is to pull gems from the museum’s collection that don’t typically get shown. Of the 450,000 total items in the photography department, she said, “some of these photographs don’t get to see the light of day. There are photographs by Ansel Adams that are more surprising, and this gives you an opportunity to look at other things that a photographer did than just what they’re famous for.”

She added, “Tourist sites weren’t so prescriptive back then. In the early days, you wouldn’t have your own camera, so the person who is making the image is a professional photographer, and you’re purchasing that image from them or from a store.”

Here, we looked at some of our favorites from this show, which include photographs from over 100 years ago.

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