Billionaire Peter Thiel may buy Gawker, the website he helped bankrupt

Venture capitalist Peter Thiel is reportedly pursuing a bid to buy Gawker.com, a website he helped topple by funding a clandestine legal battle against its parent company.

The billionaire complained in court documents filed Wednesday that administrators overseeing the sale of the site are “maintaining selective secrecy over the process,” and are discriminating against his bid based on his history with the publication, according to Buzzfeed.  

The roots of the dispute between the site and Thiel is believed to hark back to 2007, when Gawker published a story questioning the sexuality of the Facebook board member. When a sex tape involving former professional wrestler Hulk Hogan, real name Terry Bollea, appeared on the site in October 2012, Bollea launched a lawsuit against Gawker Media. Following Bollea’s victory and award of $ 140 million in damages, and Gawker’s subsequent bankruptcy over its inability to pay, it emerged that Thiel had spent millions of dollars to help fund Bollea’s legal challenge.

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Terry Bollea, known as professional wrestler Hulk Hogan, Peter Thiel © Boyzell Hosey, Jacky Naegelen

Gawker’s sister sites were sold to Univision in August 2016 for $ 135 million, but the bankruptcy plan administrator has been unable to find a buyer for Gawker.com. Under the terms of sale, the new owner would have control of the site’s 14-year archives, meaning it would be within their power to delete them.

One obstacle to the sale of the site to a party other than Thiel is the threat of further legal action against a new owner. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal in February, Bollea’s lawyer, Charles Harder, said the new owner would have to delete some articles in order to protect themselves from litigation.

“It would be the responsible thing to do for a new buyer to remove articles from Gawker.com that violate defamation laws, privacy laws or journalism ethics,” Harder said. “Such articles never should have been published in the first place, and if they were to be removed now, the public, and journalism, would benefit.”

Thiel would not be short of cash to complete his takeover. On Wednesday, the tech tycoon sold three quarters of his remaining stake in Facebook for about $ 29 million, leaving him with more than 59,000 Class A shares in the social media giant. He had already sold more than $ 1 billion worth of stock in three separate transactions in 2012 and 2016. But for some, the prospect of a Thiel takeover of Gawker is too much to bear.

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Professor conducted back-alley herpes vaccine trial at Illinois hotels – report

A US researcher aiming to develop a herpes vaccine conducted illegal trials during which he injected people in hotel rooms and at a house on the island of St. Kitts, according to a new investigation.

William Halford, a former associate professor at Southern Illinois University (SIU), began his first “trial” in 2013. But the setting wasn’t a university laboratory or a room at a hospital – it was a Holiday Inn Express and a Crowne Plaza Hotel located 15 minutes away from the college, according to an investigation by Kaiser Health News.

Halford, who died of cancer in June, administered his experimental shots to at least eight herpes patients on four different occasions in the summer and fall of 2013. The volunteers were injected with a virus he had created, according to emails from seven participants and interviews with one participant.

In multiple email exchanges between Halford and the participants, seen by Kaiser, he asked them to send photographs of rashes, blisters and other reactions they might have received as a result of the injections.

Halford, who was a microbiologist rather than a physician, apparently knew that his makeshift trial was a violation of US law, as he stated the need for secrecy in one of his emails. He said it would be “suicide” if it became too public about how he was conducting his research.

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© Cambridge University

He described his methods in some of his emails, as well as the number of injections given.

“Just wanted to pass along that I immunized someone with the higher dose of the HSV-2 vaccine on Monday, and I attach the photos of the injection site at 48 hours to give you and everyone else an idea of what to expect…,” he wrote in September 2013. “This individual requested that I give him two immunizations to double the effect…one immunization per leg.”

Four days later, Halford wrote that “everyone’s vaccines contained ~150 million infectious units of the HSV-2 vaccine strain,” noting that the first injection of the group represented about a 30- to 40-fold increase over what others received in August 2013. In the same email, the microbiologist wrote that he believed the trials were important.

“Saturday Sept. 21 definitely represents a milestone in my career,” he wrote. “Don’t know how it will turn out, but I undoubtedly feel like this was a real test of the (a) safety / tolerability of the HSV-2 vaccine and (b) an opportunity to see if it has any therapeutic potential…I am indebted to all of you.”

In an email dated October 2, 2013, Halford told a participant that his hypothesis of the injection’s outcome was “nothing more than an education guess.” He added that “the proof is in the pudding…let’s see if your problems with outbreaks dial back or not.”

In addition to the trial being blatantly illegal, the microbiologist also did not obtain written informed consent from the participants, which is required by US law when testing a live virus on humans. Moreover, medical researchers are not allowed to inject people without a physician or nurse practitioner being present, Jonathan Zenilman, a doctor and expert on sexually transmitted diseases at Johns Hopkins University, told Kaiser.

Meanwhile, a man from Texas who said he received the injections said he fears the vaccine may have given him genital herpes (HSV-2), when he previously only had HSV-1, which usually emerges as sores on the face.

The Texan wrote in an email on February 24, 2014, that he was frightened after his second shot. “I got a large rash on my leg and it burned and swelled,” he wrote. “Then a blister popped up.”

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© Juanmonino / Getty Images

Responding to his concern in an email, Halford said: “I did not think the HSV-2 vaccine strain would be capable of reactivation, but perhaps I will have to reconsider that.” Experts who reviewed the man’s medical details for Kaiser said such a scenario was possible.

“It makes me angry that Halford went ahead with the offshore trial anyway,” the Texas man said. “I hope more people weren’t hurt.”

Another woman, however, claims to have been cured from Halford’s vaccine. She went on to help him recruit patients and organize injections.

The Texas man said he did not know how the trial was paid for, noting that Halford would not accept money from the participants and told them “it would get him in more trouble if he was ever caught.”

Even though Halford was apparently aware of the potential “suicide” that could occur if his under-the-radar trial became public, he launched a similar trial in 2016 at a house in St. Kitts, once again failing to notify US or local authorities. News of that trial was made public earlier this year.  A woman from Colorado who took part in that trial has also reported possible side effects from the injections.

Was the university aware?

SIU has refused to comment to Kaiser about Halford’s 2013 trials. However, many exchanges between Halford and the participants in 2013 were sent from his university email account. He also used the university telephone for communication and referred to a graduate student as assisting in the trial and to using a laboratory on campus.

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© Maxim Shipenkov

“My lab currently consists of myself and 1 graduate student and anything I do with you guys or your blood is extra and on top of what I get paid to do …” he wrote in a November 3, 2013, email.

After a Kaiser report stated that Halford completed the 2016 trial with no independent safety or oversight, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) demanded a response from SIU. In an initial response to federal authorities, the university said it found “serious non-compliance with regulatory requirements and institutional policies and procedures.”

“If deemed necessary, SIU will develop an effective corrective action plan,” the dean of SIU’s medical school, Jerry Kruse,  wrote in a letter to the HHS, which was obtained by Kaiser under the Freedom of Information Act.

The university previously said it had no role, responsibility, or knowledge of the 2016 trial on St. Kitts, because Halford pursued it through Rational Vaccines, a company he co-founded in 2015. Its sole purposed was to market and research the herpes vaccine.

However, SIU shared a patent on the herpes injection with the company, and promoted Halford’s research on its website. Furthermore, when a company owned by entrepreneur and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel invested millions of dollars into the research in April, SIU publicly hailed Halford and Rational Vaccines.

Several of the participants of both trials have told Kaiser that they asked SIU for help. The Colorado woman called the university “dismissive,” while a participant from California said he wanted the university to continue the vaccine research with safety oversight while “taking responsibility.” When SIU did not provide him with an adequate response, he said “it was obvious they want nothing to do with us.”

READ MORE: Condom that attacks HIV, herpes to hit Australian stores in months

Meanwhile, the surviving co-founder of Rational Vaccines, Hollywood filmmaker Agustín Fernández III, has said he considers the 2016 trial a success, and vowed to continue the research. He said that he was not involved with Halford’s work before the company was formed (meaning he had no part in the 2013 trial), but said he is aware of “individuals who experienced positive outcomes from the vaccine.”

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Cows tumble off Utah highway overpass after semi-truck rollover

A cattle truck rolled over on Utah’s I-84 highway, with a dozen cows tumbling from the overpass onto the freeway below. Traffic was diverted around the banged up bovines.

The incident occurred Wednesday in Riverdale, Utah, and was reported around 11:30am. Images of the accident show the tumbling cows onto the state’s Interstate-15 highway, according to KSL.

The accident was expected to be cleared late Wednesday afternoon, according to the Utah Department of Transportation.

The driver was not injured, but troopers say the truck was traveling faster than the posted 45 miles-per-hour speed limit. The crash is now under investigation.

READ MORE: Bull run, New York-style: Bovine on the loose leads cops on hours-long chase

For animal lovers, there is no use in crying over spilt milk, as some of the cows were safely corralled by crews at the scene. However, the accident may have given a new meaning to cow tipping, as some of the animals appeared lifeless on the road.

A witness at the scene took to Twitter and posted a photo of the tipped over truck on the I-84 overpass.

The udder fiasco can be seen from a wider view in an aerial photo released by KSL.

READ MORE: ‘They just fell’: 19 cows killed by lightning while sheltering under tree at Texas farm

In January 2016, a similar accident occurred when a truck carrying cattle flipped on the exact same ramp while trying to get onto I-84 from the I-15, KSL reported.

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Russian billionaire senator under formal investigation on tax evasion charges in France

A French judge has placed Russian businessman and parliament member Suleiman Kerimov under formal judicial investigation, charging him with tax evasion. The senator was arrested earlier this week amid a money laundering probe.

“He has been charged with tax evasion and laundering that money. The court is about to rule [on whether he should be held],” Nice’s Public Prosecutor Jean-Michel Pretre told Sputnik. Being formally investigated under France’s legal system does not always lead to a court trial.

Kerimov, who is among the richest people in Russia, was snatched by French law enforcement after arriving in Nice on Monday night. The arrest, the Russian Foreign Ministry said, violated the protection from “coercive actions” he enjoys as a Russian senator from the Republic of Dagestan.

The politician is estimated by Forbes to be worth $ 7.4 billion. The French authorities reportedly suspect him of purchasing real estate in the French Riviera through shell companies to avoid paying taxes. The 51-year-old denies any wrongdoing.

DETAILS TO FOLLOW

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Facebook opens special ‘Russia portal’ to help safeguard US democracy

Panicked about your feed getting hijacked by ‘Russian trolls’? Facebook’s got you covered, with a new tool that will allow users to check if the Kremlin interfered with their precious bodily fluids during last year’s US presidential election.

The move is part of the social media giant’s “continuing transparency on Russian activity” and efforts to protect users from “bad actors who try to undermine our democracy,” the company said in a statement Wednesday.

Last month, Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch pledged to the Senate Intelligence Committee that Facebook would “up our game” to counter the “threat of foreign interference in elections.” Committee members grilled Stretch, along with representatives from Twitter and Google, about how platforms were used for “Russian meddling” and shared a sample of ads it classified as “Russian-linked.”

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© Jaap Arriens / Global Look Press

Facebook has not defined whether “Russian linked” indicates association with the Russian government or simply with ethnic Russians or citizens of Russia. One of the criteria the company uses is geolocation, though Stretch himself admitted that has its problems.

“The most obvious one that is typically the most reliable is location information that is transmitted by the user’s browser when they use Facebook,” Stretch told the senators. “It’s also the most manipulable,” he added.

A spokesperson for Facebook told RT the service will apply specifically to Internet Research Agency accounts. Roughly 126 million users in the US may have seen posts linked to the Internet Research Agency, Facebook said in its testimony. The IRA has been presented by US lawmakers and the media as an alleged “Russian troll factory” in St. Petersburg.

The new tool will allow Facebook and Instagram users to check for themselves if they have followed or liked a page between January 2015 and August 2017 that has since been identified as emanating from an IRA-related account.

“It is important that people understand how foreign actors tried to sow division and mistrust using Facebook before and after the 2016 US election,” the company said.

The tool will initially only be available to US-based users, but other options will be considered at a later point, the spokesperson said. Once launched, social media users can access the portal at Facebook.com/actionplan.

If the user did not follow any accounts linked to the IRA, no results will appear on the list even if they came across such content in their newsfeed by way of their friends ‘liking’ these posts. Facebook clarified that use of the mechanism would not be public and would not show up in a person’s newsfeed.

Facebook has also updated its ad policies in recent weeks, in ongoing attempts to deflect congressional criticism over alleged “Russian interference.” The social network said it would make advertising across the board more transparent and strengthenenforcement against improper ads” by hiring 1,000 additional review staff.

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German cyber security agency seeks power to ‘hack back’ in case of attack

In order to overcome present-day cyber security challenges, Germany must be able to “hack back” into the computers of alleged culprits, the head of the country’s newly formed digital security agency has said, arguing that similar measures are being taken by other countries.

“As a [German] citizen I expect that our state would remain capable to act in the face of the emerging digital threats,” Wilfried Karl, the president of the Central Service for Information Technologies in Security Field (Zitis), told the Der Spiegel weekly. He explained that in order to make it possible, German security services, including his agency, must be empowered with wide-reaching authority in the field of cyber security.

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© Hannibal Hanschke

“Would it not be desirable [to have capacity] to at least delete stolen data and documents from the thieves’ servers?” Karl asked rhetorically, as he explained what could be achieved if German security services had the legal mandate to “hack back.”

He then pointed out that legislation allowing intelligence services to plant malicious software into cyber criminals’ computers in the event of a hacking attack already exists in neighboring Switzerland. A law passed in 2015 and which came into force this September, allows the Swiss intelligence service, the NDB, to plant Trojans into alleged culprits’ computers and hack into their networks.

Karl, however, criticized a proposed US bill that envisages legal ways for private companies to take retaliatory measures against suspected hackers, particularly in the form of “hacking back.” Such “offensive capabilities should be reserved for governmental agencies only,” he said.

Zitis was formed earlier this year with a directive to assist German security agencies in developing information technology tools to fight cybercrime. It was also granted powers to track the communications of potential terrorists. The Munich-based agency, which falls under the interior ministry, officially started its work in mid-September with just 20 employees. German authorities plan to increase the number of its personnel to as many as 400 by 2022.

Karl is not the first German security official to speak in favor of giving the country’s security network wider powers and the legal capacity to “hack back.” In early October, the head of Germany’s domestic security service, the Federal Agency for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Hans-Georg Maassen, also said that German security services should be authorized to destroy data stolen from domestic servers and moved to other servers abroad in the event of an attack from foreign powers.

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© Alexey Malgavko

At a session before the German parliament’s committee which monitors the activities of its security services, Maassen said “infecting” the servers of foreign hackers with malicious software would give the Berlin’s intelligence services greater surveillance capabilities over any operations potentially aimed against Germany.

At the time, Maassen was supported by Bruno Kahl, the President of Germany’s Foreign Intelligence Agency (BND), who said his division already had the necessary expertise in destroying foreign servers, but still lacked legal authority to do so.

Such suggestions, however, were not well received by some politicians and IT experts both in Germany and abroad. Konstantin von Notz, the deputy head of the Green Party faction in the lower house of the German parliament, the Bundestag, opposed such proposals, saying “[cyber] attacks are most problematic both in [a] legal and practical sense, so they should not be legalized.”

“In the cyber security field, the best defense is still a [good] defense,” the politician said, as cited by Der Spiegel. Brad Smith, Microsoft’s President and Chief Legal Officer, expressed a similar opinion. Smith even suggested adopting an international “Digital Geneva Convention” to lay down the rules of conduct in cyberspace.

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Climate activist convicted in Montana pipeline protest

An activist trying to highlight the effects of climate change has been convicted for closing a valve on a pipeline carrying crude oil from Canada to the US. He is the third activist to be convicted over the multi-state civil disobedience action.

A Montana jury found Leonard Higgins of Portland, Oregon, guilty of criminal mischief and trespassing Wednesday. Higgins entered a fence site near Big Sandy, Montana, in October 2016 and closed a valve on a pipeline operated by Spectra Energy. Higgins, 65, faces up to 10 years in prison and a $ 50,000 fine.

The 12-person jury could have found Higgins guilty of a lesser charge, but determined that his actions caused more than $ 1,500 in damage to the pipeline’s owner Enbridge Corp., making the criminal mischief a felony offense, according to the Corvallis Gazette Times.

Higgins was one of five activists known as the “Valve Turners,” who took part in the #ShutDown pipeline protests organized by the Climate Disobedience Center in October 2016. Other activists carried out similar acts of civil disobedience to protest oil coming from Canada’s tar sands to the US in Minnesota, North Dakota and Washington state, and beamed the protests on Facebook Live.

Higgins is the third activist to be convicted on charges resulting from the incidents.

In October, a Pembina County jury, North Dakota  found Michael Foster of Seattle guilty of conspiracy to commit criminal mischief, criminal mischief and trespass. Samuel Jessup of Winooski, Vermont, who filmed Foster’s protest, also stood trial and was convicted of conspiracy. Sentencing for both men is scheduled for January 18.

In June, a Skagit County, Washington jury found Ken Ward guilty of burglary for his actions during the coordinated protest.

Ward, 60, was found guilty of second degree burglary for closing a safety valve on the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline and blocking the flow of oil to the Anacortes refineries. The jury deadlocked on a second charge of sabotage.

Ward was facing a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $ 20,000, but Judge Michael Rickert used the “first-time offender waiver” and sentenced Ward to 32 days, including 2 days in custody (served when he was arrested) and 30 days (240 hours) community service in Skagit County, plus six months community service. The state declined to re-file the sabotage charge.

Following his arraignment last October, Ward released a statement that said his direct action was the only effective way to stop the effects of climate change.

“I am a responsible and law abiding citizen,” Ward said. “I did these things because I believe that it is the obligation of every thinking person to find a way to stave off climate cataclysm, and there is no effective, legal alternative to personal direct action.”

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Killer kiss: Woman jailed after inmate boyfriend dies from meth-laden smooch

An Oregon woman has been handed a two year prison sentence on a drug conspiracy charge, after her boyfriend died from a meth-laden kiss following a prison visit.

Melissa Ann Blair was visiting Anthony Powell at the Oregon State Penitentiary in June 2016 when they shared a kiss at the end of her visit. With their lips locked, Blair passed methamphetamine packaged in multi-colored balloons to Powell, investigators discovered.

Powell, 41, was serving a life sentence for aggravated murder of his mother-in-law, according to court records. He swallowed the balloons to get them into the prison, but two of them burst shortly afterward. He died from meth toxicity, Assistant US Attorney Craig Gabriel said, according to The Oregonian.

An autopsy revealed seven balloons in his stomach, including the two that ruptured. A drug test found 4.6 grams of methamphetamine recovered from the intact balloons, according to court documents.

The deadly kiss led to federal charges and guilty pleas from Blair and four others.

All were indicted under the Len Bias law – delivering a drug that caused someone’s death. That charge carries a mandatory minimum of 20 years in prison and a maximum life sentence. Under negotiated agreements, they pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine.

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© Dinuka Liyanawatte

In addition to her two year sentence, Blair, 46, was ordered to complete three years of post-release supervision, and to participate in drug treatment and mental health programs.

US District Judge Marco Hernandez said Powell talked Blair into a scheme he and others devised to get drugs into the prison.

“It was tragic and sad but he shares responsibility for what happened,” the judge said, according to AP.

Blair did not make a statement in court. Her attorney said his client felt coerced into the plot and was not addicted to the drug.

“It was a very Svengali-type situation where he had total control over her life,” attorney John Ransom said. “She had to do whatever he said.”

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Armed standoff among leaders of Ukraine’s breakaway region as Kremlin keeps close eye

Leaders of the rebellious Lugansk region in Ukraine’s east turned on each other Tuesday, as gunmen blocked central streets of the provincial capital. The Kremlin said it was closely monitoring the developments.

Armed people in military fatigues first appeared on the streets of Lugansk, the capital of the self-proclaimed Lugansk People’s Republic (LNR), Tuesday. According to some accounts, gunmen blocked several administrative buildings. Other media reports said they blocked streets in the center of the city.

The leader of the self-proclaimed republic, Igor Plotnitsky, then issued a statement, in which he said the “people on the streets” were members of “some interior ministry structures” who apparently support the former interior minister Igor Kornet who was sacked Monday.

Plotnitsky condemned attempts by the “interior ministry structures” to “challenge” the decision of the LNR government to remove Kornet from office. He said the situation in the republic remains under control of the government and that things will soon return to normal.

On Wednesday, Plotnitsky said Konet tried to orchestrate a coup d’etat. During a meeting with the new interior minister, he said forces controlled by the former interior minister cut off mobile communications and TV broadcasts in the city. Residents of Lugansk had complained about mobile phone coverage and TV broadcast outages Tuesday.

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© Sergey Averin

Kornet was fired Monday. However, the next day he issued a statement, in which he claimed that several senior officials of the LNR had been exposed as members of a spy ring linked to Kiev. Kornet also dismissed reports about his removal from office, and said the situation in the self-proclaimed republic is under the control of law enforcement.

The sacked interior minister then claimed that spy ringleaders have been trying to smear his name, and that the order of dismissal published the previous day was based on fraudulent accusations against him. Plotnitsky’s chief-of-staff, the chief of security as well as the head of the TV local station, are among the people accused of having close ties to Kiev.

Plotnitsky then rebuked Kornet, stating that he had been lawfully sacked and rejected his pro-Ukrainian plot claim. “I can assure you that Mr. Korent’s statement has no basis as well as no legal force,” he said.

The Kremlin said Wednesday that it was closely monitoring the situation without elaborating further.“It would be wrong to give any superficial assessments [right now],” Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman told journalists. “As we get detailed information on the matter, I will share it with you,” he added.

The situation in Lugansk is seemingly the result of an escalation of a long-standing dispute between Plotnitsky and Kornet. The two men have reportedly been in conflict for some time.

The Lugansk People’s Republic – established in the region with a predominantly ethnic Russian population – fought for independence from Ukraine after the armed coup in 2014 deposed its elected central government and empowered many anti-Russian figures. The self-proclaimed republic remains unrecognized by any member of the UN, however. Russia has been providing humanitarian aid to the region which is under a blockade by the government of Ukraine.

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German activists build Holocaust memorial outside AfD politician’s house

A German activist art collective has erected a replica of the Berlin Holocaust Memorial outside the house of a right-wing politician who’d controversially called on Germany to stop atoning for its past.

The Center for Political Beauty (ZPS) unveiled the 24 concrete slab installation outside the house of Alternative for Germany (AfD) member Bjoern Hoecke in Bornhagen, Thuringia Wednesday. 

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Person walks through snow covered Holocaust memorial in Berlin © Tobias Schwarz

The art collective began renting the property next to Hoecke’s shortly after a controversial speech in January. Hoecke called the well-known Holocaust Memorial in memory of the murdered Jews of Europe a “monument of the shame in the heart of the capital.”

His words provoked a wave of outrage from the Jewish community as well as German politicians, including members of his own party. Following the outcry, Hoecke said his words were “maliciously and deliberately” misinterpreted.

The ZPS monument is a scaled-down version of the Holocaust monument Hoecke was referring to in his speech, which comprises 2,700 grey blocks spread over a field, resembling a graveyard. The artists placed their work on a property adjacent to Hoecke’s, and hope it will remind him of the scale of Nazi persecution in the 1930s and 1940s.

“We are doing our neighborly duty,” the group’s leader Philipp Ruch told the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper. “We hope he enjoys the view every day when he looks out the window.” 

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Alexander Gauland © Daniel Karmann / DPA / AFP

The group are raising funds to keep their monument in place for the next five years. So far, a third of the 28,000 euros has been collected which will keep it going for two years. But on their website, ZPS promises to take their work down early if Hoecke falls to his knees and begs forgiveness in front of memorial, following the example of former German chancellor Willy Brandt who did so in 1970, at a memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

There has been no reaction from Hoecke so far, but the AfD-supporting Compact magazine condemned it as an act of “political war” by the far-left. Fellow AfD member Andre Poggenburg accused the ZPS of criminal behavior and stalking for keeping watch over Hoecke’s house all those months.

“This is unacceptable and I expect the police and judicial authorities to immediately ensure that these fascist methods are stopped, and the activity is prosecuted and punished,” AP quoted Poggenburg as saying.

But Lea Rosh, the journalist who had campaigned for the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, also known as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, described the ZPS stunt as a “wonderful idea.”

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