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Mueller’s indictments for Manafort and Papadopoulos spell bad news for Trump

The US president has publicly attacked the investigation as a “witch hunt” with no basis in fact.

Following weeks of intense speculation in Washington, Bob Mueller, the special investigator looking into Russian interference in the presidential election, has revealed his first indictments – and they could spell bad news for Donald Trump.

The headline name was Paul Manafort, who served as chairman – the campaign's most senior figure – from June to August 2016, the turbulent months between Trump's victory in the primaries and the Republican National Convention. Manafort surrendered to the FBI on Monday morning; his former business partner, Rick Gates, was also named on the indictment. 

Trump's morning then got even worse. It emerged on Monday that George Papadopoulos, an early advisor to the Trump campaign on foreign policy, pleaded guilty three weeks ago to lying to the FBI about his own contact with Russia.

This indictment, which was sealed until Monday, describes how Papadopoulos, while working for the campaign, was contacted by a Russian professor with Kremlin ties who offered him “dirt” on Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails”. It says that Papadopoulos even met with then-candidate Trump and stated "in sum and substance, that he had connections that could help arrange a meeting between then-candidate Trump and President Putin". According to reports, Papadopoulos is now co-operating with the Mueller investigation.

The Manafort indictment accuses Manafort and Gates on 12 criminal charges: one each of “conspiracy against the United States” and “conspiracy to launder money”; seven counts relating to failure to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts; one count of acting as “unregistered agents of a foreign principal”, another of making false statements under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, and a final, more recent charge of making false statements to the Department of Justice in November 2016 and February 2017. 

“Between at least 2006 and 2015, Manafort and Gates acted as unregistered agents of the government of Ukraine (a Ukrainian political party whose leader Viktor Yanukovych was President from 2010 to 2014), Yanukovych, and the Opposition Bloc (a successor to the Party of Regions that formed in 2014 when Yanukovych fled to Russia),” the indictment states, continuing that the pair “laundered the money through scores of United States and foreign corporations, partnerships, and bank accounts”. 

Both entered pleas of not guilty.

In total, the indictment alleges, more than $75m flowed through the network of foreign accounts, of which Manafort is personally accused of laundering $18m and Gates $3m. Among the juicier details from the indictment are that almost a million dollars was laundered through an antique rug store in Alexandria, Virginia, and almost $900,000 through a men's clothing store in New York. The indictment mentions that Manafort and Gates conspired “together with others” to conceal their crimes, hinting at more to come.

In the immediate sense, Papadopoulos' indictment is more directly dangerous to Trump than Manafort's. The indictments issued for Manafort and Gates are for financial crimes, covering a period of under-the-table patriation of foreign money through the purchase of luxury goods, rather than directly about Russian tampering in the 2016 election. While one of the counts is for a conspiracy charge, it is a conspiracy to defraud and launder money, not a conspiracy to commit treason.

Unlike with Papadopoulos, there is nothing in the Manafort indictment itself that links to the Trump campaign, nor does it come as a huge surprise, since FBI agents raided Manafort's apartment in August and the fact that he was under investigation was already public knowledge. Nonetheless, the fact that he was Mueller's first public collar is probably worse news for the Trump administration.

Despite Trump's protestation as the investigation ramped up in August that Manafort had been with the campaign for a “very short period of time”, Manafort was the senior figure in his campaign at possibly its most important moment, the three months leading up to the Republican National Convention. He also had a previous personal connection with Trump: he lived in Trump Tower, and the two were friends before the election.

Trump has publicly attacked the Mueller investigation as a “witch hunt” with no basis in fact, but the indictment on federal criminal charges of a senior figure in his campaign will certainly make that assertion nearly impossible to maintain with any credibility.

The danger for the Trump administration with Manafort is twofold: one, that a public trial of Manafort could be a long, embarrassing experience for the Trump campaign. It would be a drawn-out and inescapable reminder of the president's lies that even his supporters with their heads deepest in the sand – his voting base, congressional allies like speaker of the house Paul Ryan and his loudest cheerleaders like Fox News – might find it difficult to ignore.

The second and perhaps more important peril for Trump is how much leverage Manafort's arrest now gives Mueller as his investigation progresses. The scale of the indictments Manafort faces means that despite today's not guilty plea he might later bow under pressure and, like Papadopoulos appears to have done, strike a plea-deal that could include offering information that might lead to details relevant to the core of Mueller's investigation: Russian interference in the election.

Papadopoulos adds to the weight of evidence that Russia was offering help to multiple junior campaign aides, but Manafort could give Mueller a way to connect that to the very top of the campaign.

Some of those cracks are already in the public domain, from Trump's public entreaty of Russia to hack Clinton's emails, and the details of a meeting with a Russian lawyer promising damaging details about Clinton attended by Trump's son Don Jr and his son-in-law Jared Kushner – a meeting that was confirmed when Don Jr released the relevant section of his own emails on Twitter in July in an attempt to get out ahead of the story. Papadopoulos adds another damning example to that list, with the added twist that he has flipped and is working with Mueller.

Trump's personal lawyer, Ty Cobb, said on Monday: “The president has no concerns in terms of any impact, as to what happens to them, on his campaign or on the White House.” But of course, this is meaningless. Mueller, a former Marine and prosecutor who served as director of the FBI, is widely known as a thorough, honest, and relentless investigator. A deal with Manafort would give him an extremely powerful lever with which to pry open the numerous cracks already showing in Trump's circle.

Trump's supporters are fond of saying that he is playing a game of “three-dimensional chess”, explaining his more bizarre outbursts as smart moves in a game beyond the comprehension of most. If so, then today marked, not checkmate, but what may yet prove to be a major turning-point in the flow of the game. Papadopoulos pleading guilty is a big deal. If Manafort flips too, though – we could be heading for endgame.

Nicky Woolf is a freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Libya’s slave markets are a reminder that the exploitation of Africans never went away

Slavery was recorded in 20th century Ethiopia and continues to exist in Mauritania today. 

A recent African summit in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, saw one welcome piece of news: the African Union had – for the first time – called on Mauritania to end slavery within its borders. In what was described as a “landmark ruling”, the African Union reprimanded a member state for allowing the widespread practice of hereditary slavery. This is not what is now termed “modern slavery”, but the ancient practice of one person owning another: chattel slavery, as it is known.

While the announcement was a step forward, it was not quite what it seemed. This was not a declaration of African heads of state. The final statement from the summit failed to mention Mauritania. Rather, the call came in the form of a ruling by one of the African Union’s many subsidiary bodies: the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC).

Anti-Slavery International, which has campaigned against the scourge since 1839, welcomed the decision, but urged action. “The message to the Mauritanian Government is extremely clear: ensure that their masters are prosecuted with the full force of the law,” said Anti-Slavery’s spokesman, Jakub Sobik. 

How Mauritania responds remains to be seen, but the ruling came shortly after shocking evidence from CNN of the slave markets of Libya. “Eight hundred,” shouts an auctioneer. “900 ... 1,000 ... 1,100 ...” Sold. For 1,200 Libyan dinars – the equivalent of $800. And with that, the ownership of refugees captured by human traffickers change hands.

CNN’s report was not the first to expose the practice, but the channel’s broadcast jolted public opinion. In the UK a petition calling for the British government to act attracted more than a quarter of a million signatures. As a result, it was debated in Parliament, with Labour MP Marsha de Cordova noting the outrage of her constituents from the African diaspora. “This is modern-day chattel slavery,” she said, “And a window into practices that form part of a particularly traumatic collective memory for many communities.”

In Britain, discussions about slavery have long focused on the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and rightly so. Britain carried out slavery on an industrial scale: between 1640 and 1807, when the British slave trade was abolished, it is estimated to have transported 3.1 million Africans, mostly to the Americas. Furthermore, defenders of slavery justified their lucrative trade in human misery by promoting racist ideas that left indelible scars on Western society. It is only in recent decades that politicians have fully addressed the role of the slave trade in Britain’s history beyond the abolitionist movement, and even in 2006, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair stopped short of a full apology, for fear of reparations. The more recent campaign against “modern slavery” has concentrated on criminal gangs exploiting undocumented workers, and elite families keeping vulnerable women as unpaid maids. 

Discussing slavery within Africa is, it seems, an uncomfortable subject, not least because of the potential in a digital age for a nuanced discussion to be used as an excuse to let the West off the hook. Liverpool’s otherwise excellent International Slavery Museum skims over the mention of slavery on Africa’s East Coast. How many schools explain that for five thousand years African slaves were captured in wars or raids and marched along the Nile, across the Sahara or transported over the Red Sea and Indian Ocean to Asia?

Forms of slavery existed in the Ottoman and Roman empires, but its presence can be traced far further back in time, and across the world. Europeans practiced slavery at least since the times of the ancient Greeks; so did the Chinese, Japanese and Indians. Maori turned prisoners of war into slaves. In Africa, “the first evidence was carved in stone in 2900 B.C.E. at the second cataract depicting a boat on the Nile packed with Nubian captives for enslavement in Egypt”, according to the late Robert Collins of the University of California. The trade on Africa’s East coast, to the slave markets of Arabia, India and beyond took place for at least a millenium. Collins calculated that the Asian trade numbered an estimated total of 12,580,000 slaves from 800 to 1900.

Slavery generally shared common attributes: brutality, oppression and frequently racism. Even when both master and slave were African, this did not prevent the most derogatory descriptions being used about the group from which the slaves were drawn. For example, racist terms were routinely used by Sudanese Arabs against those African groups they enslaved. This racism was manifested by Arabs’ derogatory use of the term “abid” (slaves) – and what the Northern Sudanese writer Mansur Khalid called “a series of [other] unprintable slurs – to apply to western and southern peoples.”

Much East coast or trans-Saharan slavery was practiced by Arabs. Ronald Segal (who wrote on trans-Atlantic as well as Islamic slavery) suggested that while there is a tradition of debate about the former, the latter has been less satisfactorily explored. “There is a conscious and articulate black diaspora in the West that confronts the historical record of slavery and racism there,” he wrote in his 2001 book Islam’s Black Slaves: The History of Africa’s other Black Diaspora. “That Islam has no comparably conscious and articulate black diaspora to confront it with the reminders of slavery does not make that record any more immune to examination and judgement.” 

African slavery was not restricted to Arabs or to Muslims. Nor did the African trade in slaves end in 1900. There is evidence of slaves in Christian-ruled Ethiopia in the 1930s: a photograph from the time shows slaves carrying their owners’ money to fund Emperor Haile Selassie’s war effort against Italy. 

It was the Italians who finally abolished the practice after they occupied the country. “The Italians issued a decree in April 1936 which liberated more than 400,000 slaves,” according to Seid A. Mohammed, historian at at Dokuz Eylul University in Turkey.

Even then, slavery was not eliminated. Mauritania continues the practice, failing to enforce a 2007 law designed to end the practice. Anti-Slavery International reports that slavery is still to be found in Mauritania, Niger, Mali, Chad and Sudan. “People born into descent-based slavery face a lifetime of exploitation and are treated as property by their so-called ‘masters’. They work without pay, herding animals, working in the fields or in their masters’ homes. They can be inherited, sold or given away as gifts or wedding presents,” says the organisation.

Mauritania is also a reminder that even if the situation in Libya stabilises, the deep roots of slavery may be harder to remove. What is required is a wholehearted campaign by African leaders to name, shame and impose sanctions against their fellow heads of state who continue to tolerate this practice. Until Africa as a whole acts, the scourge of chattel slavery will continue to blight the lives of its people.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?