Thursday, December 18, 2014 

An open letter to Alex Willcock, CEO of VisualDNA.

As a digital stick in the mud, one of those people who enjoys the benefits of the internet but doesn't feel the need to share his every waking moment and feeling with a bunch of strangers, it falls to me to state that the wankery expressed in your Graun advert is even by the usual standards of the guff produced by marketers and advertising agencies quite something to behold.

It's also an extraordinarily pretentious way of saying that you're going to continue sucking up people's data regardless of whether you have permission to do so or not, as your company does currently, boasting of how you can tell your customers of the "Demographics Interests Intent and Personality (DIIP) data of almost 450m people worldwide" (sic).  This is obviously a load of utter crap, but then what else is the point of businesses like yours?

Hopefully this response to your attempt to spark "discussion and debate" reaches you well. Now do everyone a favour and poke your "understanding economy" up your arse.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014 

Unpleasant reading for all concerned.

In keeping with recent events, reading the Al-Sweady report by Sir Thayne Forbes is not a pleasant experience.  It reaches almost the exact opposite conclusions of the previous inquiry into alleged mistreatment in Iraq by British forces, finding that while some of those detained after the Battle of Danny Boy were mistreated, they were certainly not subjected to the beatings that led to the death of Baha Mousa.  Unlike Mousa, Forbes also finds beyond doubt that all 9 of those detained and whom subsequently alleged they were mistreated were either members of or volunteers with the Mahdi army, as were the 28 Iraqis killed by British forces that day following the ambush.  Forbes additionally finds Leigh Day solicitors knew as early as September 2007 that their clients were insurgents, having obtained a document from the Office of the Martyr Al Sayyed Al Sadr which detailed their positions within the Mahdi army.

Whether the inquiry would have came into being had the document been disclosed early we can't know.  Certainly, it's likely the detainees would not have received legal aid for their original claim in the administrative court had the full truth been in the open.  That doesn't however excuse the Ministry of Defence's failure to disclose their own documentation on the events of the 14th and 15th of May 2004 fully back in 2009, which led to then defence secretary Bob Ainsworth setting up the full independent inquiry.  Had that happened the allegations could have been disproved far sooner, with the cost of the inquiry, estimated at £31m, much reduced.

It's easy nonetheless to understand why so many ordinary Iraqis believed the claims that rather than being killed on the battlefield, some of those who died that day were tortured and then executed back at the British base, Camp Abu Naji.  Tensions had risen in the area following an incident that resulted in the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf being damaged, allegedly by US forces engaging the Mahdi army.  The ambush at Danny Boy (as the checkpoint on the road between Basra and Al Amarah was known by call sign) was in apparent direct retaliation for the attack, despite British forces not having been involved.  Forbes notes the assault was responded to with exemplary courage, resolution and professionalism, with only injuries to the British side despite the ferocity of the attack.  The Iraqis were also not subject to a bayonet charge as had been claimed, with all injuries to the attackers a result of either bullet or shrapnel wounds.

Had the bodies of the attackers been left where they fell, it's likely fewer local civilians would have believed the claims subsequently made.  Instead, a highly unusual order came through for the soldiers to identify the bodies.  The original intention was for the bodies to be photographed, but this apparently then morphed into taking them back to the base, as this would be the best way of doing so.  The idea was to check whether one of the men thought responsible for the killing of six Royal Military Police the previous year, Naseer Zachra Abd Rufeiq, was among the dead, as it was believed he could be.  Predictably, he wasn't.

How much in the way of further damage was caused to the bodies by the transfer isn't clear.  Forbes accepts it was possible some was done, not least as due to the room taken up by the corpses some had to be stood on for the soldiers to be able to take up the usual "top cover" positions.  Once unloaded, they were then moved again before they were photographed.  Blood samples were additionally taken, leaving puncture wounds which could also have given the impression of abuse.

Arrangements were made for the bodies to be handed over to the Iraqis the following day.  For reasons Forbes wasn't able to properly ascertain, some of the medics and ambulance drivers at the Al Majar al’Kabir hospital came to believe they were also to collect some Iraqis merely injured.  After the handover, the bodies were first taken to Al-Sadr Hospital, where footage was recorded showing in Forbes' words how "clearly even before the bodies had been properly examined, conclusions were being reached about how some of the deceased had sustained their injuries".  The bodies were then moved again, to Al Majar al’Kabir hospital, where they were examined by Dr Adel Al-Shawi and Dr Jafar Nasser Hussain Al-Bahadl.  Death certificates were issued, some of which observe the bodies show signs of torture, beatings and mutilation.  Even taking into account the bodies may have been further damaged in transit, the evidence, including the photographs taken at Abu Naji, discount those observations.   Forbes concludes the doctors "were so caught up in the emotional turmoil and hostility to the British Military then prevailing" that they failed  "to apply the professionally rigorous and objective judgment" expected of them.

The one part of the report the MoD won't be pleased with is on how those detained on the battlefield were subsequently treated during their detention.  Despite the death of Baha Mousa the previous year, it finds three of the detainees were forcibly strip-searched, and kept blindfolded for too long; they were not expressly authorised as being healthy enough to undergo "tactical questioning"; the soldier undertaking the questioning was poorly trained, and believed throwing a chair during interrogation was authorised behaviour; and that the training itself was still lacking.  Taken out of context, some of the ill-treatment Forbes identifies seem minimal; these were insurgents after all, are we really meant to be shocked or appalled by how they had their necks blown on?  When you learn the blowing comes in a sequence of events, which began with the detainee entering the room blindfolded, left seemingly alone for a while until suddenly the interrogator either drummed his fingers or whistled, before circling the detainee, blowing on his neck and banging a metal peg on the table, only then removing the prisoner's plastic handcuffs and blindfold, it's a little different.  Forbes also finds the men were sleep deprived, again like Mousa, as well as being denied adequate food and water.

Phil Shiner in a piece for the Graun claims there are a further 30 Baha Mousa-type cases and that by January the high court will have heard of up to 1,100 cases of mistreatment or worse by UK troops.  The obvious question following the Al-Sweady inquiry is how many of these are similarly based on deliberate lies.  Not all of the claims are however purely one side against the other: Forbes deals a number of times in the report with soldiers themselves alleging they were witness to mistreatment, or having concerns about what they saw or heard.  He discounts each one, but that doesn't alter the fact.  It could be the response of the defence secretary Michael Fallon, angrily denouncing the lawyers involved, is based less on the particulars of this inquiry and what might still be ahead.  It could also be that Public Interest Lawyers, having found one horrific example of abuse in the case of Baha Mousa went to see if there were others, and has been misled by the Iraqis themselves.  This doesn't explain why the document in the possession of Leigh Day proving the 9 men were insurgents didn't come to light earlier though.

Whatever the case, it doesn't excuse the MoD for its failures to anticipate exactly the kind of conditions and situations the military were going to have deal with once tasked with maintaining security in the south of Iraq.  The Al-Sweady report while debunking the most serious claims against the military underlines how much was still the same almost nine months on from the death of Baha Mousa, with the recognition something had gone badly wrong in that instance only dragged out by a similar public inquiry.  One hopes the recommendations made by Sir William Gage in his report have been implemented, as will be the additional ones made today by Forbes, if they haven't already.  We also still await the Chilcot report and its conclusions on Iraq in general, now highly unlikely to be published before the election.  It's probably best we don't mention how by then UK military personnel will be officially back in the country.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014 

Two nations, the same words, the same outcome.

I can't breathe.  The words spoken by Eric Garner after a NYPD officer placed him in a chokehold, before he was then slammed to the ground.  Within minutes he was dead.  The decision by a grand jury not to indict the officer who placed him in the chokehold, coming just a week after a grand jury similarly declined to indict the officer who shot dead Michael Brown, sparking riots in Brown's hometown of Ferguson, has led to protests by sportsmen and celebrities.

I can't breathe.  The words spoken by Jimmy Mubenga, after three G4S guards meant to be supervising his deportation forced him forward in his seat, despite his already being handcuffed from behind.  Except, it's now difficult to know if that's what happened as the jury at the manslaughter trial brought following the unlawful killing verdict at Mubenga's inquest found all three not guilty, and within hours of their being sent out to consider their verdict.

This isn't the first time the verdict of an inquest and the subsequent manslaughter trial have differed.  Most notably, an inquest jury found Ian Tomlinson had been unlawfully killed, dying not long after he was pushed to the ground by PC Simon Harwood.  The jury at his trial similarly was not convinced beyond reasonable doubt he was responsible for Tomlinson's death, a decision which could be rationalised by how there was a difference of opinion between the pathologists who carried out consecutive autopsies.  The first post-mortem was performed by Freddy Patel, an incompetent who was suspended at the time of the trial and has since been struck off, details the jury were not told as they were deemed prejudicial.  Patel also poured away the liquid he found in Tomlinson's abdomen, which could have determined beyond doubt the cause of death.

The jury at the Mubenga trial were not told of the inquest's unlawful killing verdict, rather more understandably, nor that two of the guards had "racist" jokes on their phones.  We can't of course know which parts of the evidence the jury accepted and those they didn't: the guards denied hearing Mubenga crying out that he couldn't breathe, something that passengers seated much further away on the plane did and testified they had.  They also denied putting Mubenga into a position known to have the potential to cause breathing difficulties, which again witnesses testified they had.  The prosecution case also included reconstructing the alleged restraint placed on Mubenga, with a section of a Boeing 777 constructed in the court, members of the jury placed in the same position as Mubenga was.

We can then only surmise at how they reached their verdict.  We know juries are reluctant to convict police officers or others in positions of authority, whether they be British or American.  Just last week a jury cleared two officers of attacking a man with autism in Luton, despite hearing a recording of one of the pair referring to him as a "fucking Paki" moments prior to the altercation.  The jury seemingly accepted the injuries Faruk Ali sustained were due to his falling into bins when grabbed by one of the officers, not the punches claimed by Ali's family.  This giving of the benefit of the doubt is perhaps explained somewhat by polls showing a healthy majority retain trust in the police, one survey finding 65% would generally trust officers to be truthful.  Only teachers, doctors and judges are trusted more.  Journalists and politicians rank along the bottom.

Jimmy Mubenga wasn't only black; he was also being deported following a conviction for actual bodily harm.  All three of the guards found not guilty are white, the youngest 39.  The jury accepted their argument they were simply "trying to do a very difficult job in difficult circumstances, to the best of their ability".  You have to suspect that Mubenga, unlike Garner, will not have footballers or say, Idris Elba, donning t-shirts featuring some of his last words in protest.

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Monday, December 15, 2014 

Oh the joy (of the next 5 months).

There are a couple of reasons why l spend inordinate amounts of time slamming away at a keyboard instead of advising the Labour party.  First off, I'm not American, nor have I been parachuted into a safe seat, more's the pity.  Second, I cannot for the life of me work out why you would effectively launch your general election campaign in the middle of fricking December when most people's minds are even further away from politics than usual.  Presumably, and I'm really clutching at straws here, the idea is to get a head start on the other parties and begin the process of drilling the 5 key pledges Labour has decided upon into everyone's skulls.  Come May, all concerned will march to the polling station, their minds focused on controlling immigration fairly and cutting the deficit every year while securing the future of the NHS.

The words under and whelming come to mind, as they so often do when the topic shifts to Labour.  If you wanted to be extremely charitable, you could say it's an indication of just how spectacularly the coalition has failed that Labour seems to have pinched wholesale two of the Conservatives' pledges from 2010.  Alternatively, you could point out it's spectacularly unimaginative and an indication of Labour's chronic lack of ambition for it to be defining itself in the exact same way as the hated Tories did.  5 fricking years ago.

Again, to be fair, we're promised Labour is getting the less pleasant of its pledges out first, with the more unique ones to follow, defined by those all time classic Labour values.  Quite why Labour has decided upon the pledge approach in the first place is a difficult one to ascertain: presumably modelled on the 1997 pledge cards (and Christ alive, the photo of Tone on the card is easily as terrifying as this year's Christmas effort), is it meant to bring to mind the good old days when Labour could win a vast majority on the most vacuous of aspirations?  They're not even pithy, as the actual pledges amount to three sentences of deathly prose.  Cutting the deficit every year while protecting the NHS would be great, if the exact same message hadn't been plastered around the country accompanied by Cameron's suspiciously taut forehead.

Dear old Ed today gave what must rank as one of the briefest speeches of his career, outlining the second pledge, emphasising how he wouldn't repeat Cameron's promise of getting migration down to a specific point, only that Labour would control it, and fairly, that distinction apparently intended for both those pro and anti to interpret as they see fit.  Call me picky, but saying you'll control something you cannot still makes you a hostage to fortune in my book.  Miliband's audience helped by moving the debate swiftly on, similarly to how the campaigning against UKIP document leaked to the Torygraph suggested Labour candidates do when the topic is broached on the doorstep.

As pointed out by Andrew Sparrow, the briefing paper is about the most sensible thing Labour has said about immigration in months if not years, recognising they're not going to win over the virulently opposed while also suggesting for most immigration is "used as a means to express other concerns".  Except as it sort of implies people aren't steaming about immigration directly, and the party for whatever reason has decided to so much as suggest this is the equivalent of not taking legitimate concerns seriously, shadow ministers have all but disowned their own strategy.  It's also meant the media can talk about the distraction rather than a boring old policy Labour are only re-announcing anyway.

Still, what a jolly 5 month long general election campaign we have to look forward to.  Already the dividing lines are set between Labour, Tories and Liberal Democrats on the economy and the deficit, and they are of course the most absurd caricatures of actual stated policy imaginable.  Special marks for dishonesty must go to David Cameron, who managed to scaremonger about a difference between his party and Labour of about £25bn in borrowing terms in the most hyperbolic way possible.  Just imagine if there was another crash and Labour was once again racking up the debt!  Except, err, if there's another crash and borrowing is only falling by as much as the Tories are projecting it will, there will still be problems, although nothing as compared to elsewhere.

Labour meanwhile is making as much as possible out of the 1930s comparison on everyday spending, which is technically correct, again if the Tories mean what they say, just not particularly illuminating.  A better approach would be, as Ed Miliband somewhat tried last Thursday, to set out exactly what sort of state it is most people want.  If George Osborne carries through and magics into existence his surplus, parts of government will be left barely functioning, which really isn't to scaremonger: cutting the budgets of departments other than health, education and foreign aid (which surely won't continue to be ringfenced) by as much as needed doesn't look remotely plausible.  When the best minds are baffled by what the chancellor is up to, apart from mischief, it deserves highlighting.

Even if we look at Labour's plans in the most flattering light, Ed Balls is still promising to run a surplus as soon as possible, not because it's good economics but as a result of the way the debate has been framed.  Doing so is still going to require huge cuts, savings which the party has done the least of the main three to outline.  In the grand scheme of things, as Chris and Alex Marsh have so persuasively argued, this doesn't really matter.  The real issues affecting the economy are the collapse in productivity, and with it the decline in wages growth.  We are though operating in a climate where the difference is between "colossal" and merely "eye-watering" cuts, where the Tories claim to have succeeded on the basis they've more or less reduced the deficit to the level Alistair Darling pledged to, except they've done so on the backs of the poorest, and where it seems personal taxes will never have to rise again, despite government having apparently decided not to bother taxing companies properly either.

There's a third reason I'm not advising Labour.  I'd be even worse at it than the current lot.

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Friday, December 12, 2014 

Revenant.

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Thursday, December 11, 2014 

"Nowhere to hide".

Call me a stick in the mud, but there really is something extraordinarily aggravating about the use of hashtags, in you know, real life.  They're bad enough online, especially when campaigns such as #CameronMustGo are like, totally indicative of the feeling of the general public and for it to be ignored is a typical example of the old media's systemic bias.  Or it could be no one cares about this particular circle jerk for a good reason.  Doesn't excuse them for the ones they do, mind.  Have the Chibok girls been rescued yet, incidentally?

It could be I just despise social media.  All the same, when a group uses a hashtag offline and combines it with an incredibly self-aggrandising statement, such as #WeProtectChildrenOnline, good cause or otherwise, it rather sets my teeth on edge.  Perhaps it's that protecting children so often means infantilising adults, or indeed, the state taking responsibility for that which should be left to parents to decide upon.  We're almost a year on from the universal rollout of "on by default" filtering, and spank me silly if it's made kids safer online by as much as a fraction, the vast majority deciding they prefer the internet uncensored, thank you very much.  Not that most do anything beyond going to Facebook with the odd surreptitious glance at insert your favoured porntube site here anyway.

Ministers regardless of party tend to be at their sanctimonious worst on all matters connected with child safety and the interwebs, understandable when you consider the legitimate concerns surrounding the danger posed by sexual predators online, less so when they're often responding to exaggerated and occasionally plain wrong coverage and campaigning in the media.  You then also have people like the former head of Ceop, Jim Gamble, who seems to imagine he's fighting a one man campaign ala Frank Castle against the evil of paedophilia, only without the guns.  Or the subtlety, for that matter.

Co-opting GCHQ fully into the battle against those particularly devious perverts who hide and exchange material via the dark nets, whether it be Tor, i2p or Freenet, is then a no-brainer.  Anything that makes people forget about things like Tempora, or Optic Nerve, which must have sucked up a fair share of exactly the material David Cameron now wants GCHQ to crack down on the better.  Except, as James Ball points out, GCHQ has been doing exactly this for quite some time already, and politicians have also been flagging up their work ever since the Snowden revelations.

If Cameron's speech really does signal a new offensive by the police and GCHQ against the paedophile forums on Tor, then clearly it's to be welcomed, at least up to a point.  There are reasons to be doubtful however, not least that if the intelligence agencies have found a way to identify both users and where the servers of dark net sites are hosted, the decision to first go after some of the drug markets was a curious one.  Operation Onymous didn't so much as seize a single child porn .onion, leading most to conclude the raids were down to sloppiness on the part of admins rather than flaws in Tor itself.  It might seem counter-intuitive that admins of drug markets are less security concious than paedophiles, until you realise they've still probably got less to lose if they're exposed than paedophiles have.

The other concern is that if Tor is broken, the knowledge of how to identify users will quickly become known to other, less enlightened security agencies, with the activists whom rely on Tor for anonymity the first in the firing line.  It also suggests that despite the encouraging comments from Simon Bailey, the Association of Chief Police Officers' lead on child protection, who said it was realism to admit it was impossible for the police to go after every person viewing child abuse, and that those caught who are determined not to be a risk to children should be treated as patients rather than go before a court, politicians and others are still pretending all those who do so will be brought to justice.  They won't be, not only as the resources aren't there considering the numbers of people estimated to have a sexual attraction to children, but also as combined with a VPN, the use of Tor or i2p offers fairly substantial protection.  Most paedophiles are caught not through being tracked down via the web but due to their cache of child abuse material being discovered by someone accessing their computer in person.

The recognition that a good percentage of those who view child abuse imagery will not themselves abuse children is at least a start.  If we can help those who fear they could act on their urges by not considering every paedophile as an abuser by default, encouraging others like Eddie to come forward, we might be on the way to further preventing abuse before it happens.  Despite the suggestions there isn't any help for paedophiles in this country unless they offend, I suspect if someone was to go to their GP and tell them about their problem they might well be referred either to a psychiatrist or for CBT, but that obviously also sets up the potential for precisely the exposure most paedophiles fear.

What doesn't help is the language of there "being nowhere to hide".  It's both false and encourages paedophiles to seek out the exact "refuges" which do so much to perpetuate the abuse politicians so desperately want to prevent.  Surely, in this post-Savile era, it's time for the debate to become more informed.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014 

Look past the horror.

It's easy, reading the Senate intelligence report and the articles derived from it to be overwhelmed by the horror of the torture programme (because that's what it was, let's drop the euphemisms once and for all) established by the CIA.  With its 26 wrongly detained victims, those with broken limbs put into stress positions and chained to walls regardless of their injuries, the playing of Russian roulette with one victim, and perhaps most chilling of all, the image of Abu Zubaydah, so thoroughly broken and brutalised by his treatment that all it took for him to mount the waterboarding table was a raised eyebrow from his interrogator, to get distracted and not draw the necessary wider conclusions about what it should tell us would be thoroughly human.  Good thing I'm not then, eh?

First, it should tell us that torture affects those charged with implementing it just as much it does those on the receiving end.  With the exception of the few sadists and genuine psychopaths who are likely to find themselves in such roles, the report notes the sickened and disgusted responses of hardened CIA officers to what they both saw and were being asked to do.  Doctors who pledge to do no harm were forced to choose between refusing to treat detainees they were essentially fixing up enough so they were fit to be tortured again, and letting those under their care die, with all the potential consequences the latter option would open up.  How many would have died had it not been for medical intervention we'll never know; at the same time however, doctors were also behind the rectal feeding, as well as the forced feeding of hunger strikers at Guantanamo, itself considered to be a form of torture by the UN and condemned in journals by senior doctors.

Second, the decision by one Western state to use torture inevitably makes its allies complicit, such is the way intelligence agencies cooperate.  This puts those allies in a great quandary: do they blow the whistle, do as much as they can to avoid becoming wholly complicit in the practice, or the opposite and accept it as necessary in extraordinary times?  Our complicity in the CIA's programme can still not be properly quantified for the reasons outlined in yesterday's post.  What we do know is that just like the CIA lied to everyone concerned, including politicians themselves about what they were doing, so too did our spooks.  We know that as early as January 2002 MI6 officers reported back to their superiors that detainees at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan were being abused; this was before the torture regime proper had been established.  Those officers were told, wrongly, they were not required to intervene to prevent the abuse from continuing.  Despite these and subsequent reports, MI6 claimed it wasn't until 2004 and the Abu Ghraib scandal they properly realised the "black sites" they were aware of were being used as torture dungeons.

To believe that you have to believe the intelligence agencies are both unimaginative and lack inquisitiveness, precisely the qualities demanded of them.  We also now know about the renditions of Abdul Hakim Belhaj and Sami al-Saadi, both of whom were sent back to Colonel Gaddafi's prisons via the services of MI6 and the CIA.  Belhaj arrived back in Libya two weeks before Tony Blair went to meet his new friendly dictator.  Both he and Jack Straw deny any involvement in the rendition of the Libyans, Straw claiming that he was kept out of the loop.  MI6 respond they operate under ministerial oversight, more than suggesting Straw signed off on the rendition.

Straw though is nothing if not a serial offender.  When the first details of the rendition programme started to be leaked he said that unless he was lying and unless Condoleezza Rice was lying (we know she was; she was directly involved in the process of the setting up of the torture programme) it was little more than conspiracy theories. 

Let's not limit this to just Straw and Blair though, as a whole host of New Labour ministers also told if not lies then half-truths in an attempt to protect both the United States and the intelligence agencies.  Those with long memories for the mundane might recall the furore after the release of the "seven paragraphs", which detailed what the security services knew about the mistreatment of Binyam Mohamed, who was tortured in Morocco for the CIA before he was sent on to Guantanamo.  Alan Johnson, then home secretary, said the idea the security services didn't respect human rights was a "ludicrous lie", while David Miliband fought the courts for months in an eventually futile attempt to prevent the paragraphs being released.  This led directly to the justice and security bill passed this parliament, supposedly meant to prevent the "control principle" of intelligence from an ally being published being violated in such a way again.  That we know thanks to Edward Snowden how tens of thousands of contractors and sub-contractors have access to secret documents obviously doesn't mean the act was in fact meant to prevent ministers and the intelligence agencies being embarrassed again in such a way.

Lastly, the report shows just how quickly practices thought completely abhorrent can be implemented when national emergencies are declared and extraordinary powers handed out.  The CIA may well have lied to politicians about what it was doing and the president may not have been fully briefed, but senior figures in the Bush administration did know about and signed off on similar techniques to those adopted.  It's worth reflecting just how close we came in this country to giving the police powers akin to those of authoritarian states: not just the attempt to ram 90 days detention without charge through parliament, thankfully defeated, but also the struck down indefinite detention without charge of foreign "terrorist suspects", the law lords ruling the life of the nation was not threatened as politicians claimed.  We can argue over the additional powers still being sought which are claimed to be necessary to deal with the renewed threat, yet nothing proposed comes near to the attack on basic civil liberties Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown were behind.  The question remains whether come the next emergency we'll remember any of these lessons.

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