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19 Aug

News and Analyses, A Foreign Perspective

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How Ryan Lochte went from victim to suspect in Rio

Brazilian officials escort US swimmers Jack Conger and Gunnar Bentz into a police station the morning after they were stopped from boarding a flight out of Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 18.
Credit:Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

You’ve probably heard by now about the robbery scandal in Rio de Janeiro involving the United States’ 12-time Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte and his swimming friends. It just took another stunning twist..

The details are really fuzzy, but Brazilian police now say the swimmers fabricated the robbery and officials are considering charging the US swim team members for a false testimony and vandalism.

Lochte had told NBC News that he was robbed at gunpoint in the early hours of Sunday after a night of partying.

But at a news conference Thursday, senior police officials gave a very different account. They said the evidence gathered so far indicates that the athletes were drunk and Lochte himself was particularly aggressive. The police say they’re still analyzing surveillance video, but it seems probable that one or more of the athletes vandalized a gas station. They were confronted by employees, including one who was armed.

Police say the athletes’ taxi driver approached them after seeing comments on social media about the incident, and that one of the swimmer’s accounts of the incident confirms there was no robbery.

“In theory, they could be held responsible — by they, I mean one or two or all four of [the US swimmers] — with falsely reporting a crime and vandalism,” said the head of Rio’s civil police, Fernando Veloso, according to Reuters. “I’m not saying that they are charged right now because of that. We have to finalize the investigation and in theory that could be the case,” CNN quoted Veloso as saying.

So, what’s going on here? Why are the potential victims of a crime suddenly being treated as the suspects?

It’s illegal in Brazil to lie publicly about a robbery.

On Wednesday, Judge Keyla Blanc de Cnop ordered the swimmers’ passports seized, saying there were inconsistencies in Lochte’s and fellow swimmer James Feigen’s statements to investigators. She wrote in a statement that security camera footage of the men returning to the Olympic Village showed them “joking among themselves.”

Lochte was already back home in the US. But US swimmers Jack Conger and Gunnar Bentz were pulled off their plane about to head out of Rio Wednesday night. Officials expected to find Feigen at the airport too, but he never showed up for his flight, according to media reports.

Roberto Podval, a criminal defense lawyer in Sao Paulo, tells PRI the swimmers’ real troubles started when they spoke about the robbery on social media and television. Once somebody makes a public statement claiming there’s been a crime in Brazil, prosecutors are bound by law to investigate that alleged crime, Podval said. If Lochte had just privately called his girlfriend, say, and told her he’d been robbed, there would be no duty to investigate. But he went on NBC News and Twitter. And at that point, things started spiraling.

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Footage unsealed by federal judge gives most damning evidence yet of what some call abusive conditions for people detained at southern US border

Tucson detention facility

Detainees so tightly squashed together that there is no room for them to move, in this image from a Tucson border facility dated August 2015. Photograph: American Immigration Council

The photograph, a still image drawn from video footage captured by a security camera, shows a mass of cylindrical shapes squashed together in a box and wrapped in what appears to be silver foil, their surfaces glistening like sardines in a tin.

The shapes are not sardines, however, but human beings. And they are wrapped not in foil but in emergency blankets, handed out to them as they were put into a cramped detention center at the US border, courtesy of the federal agency, Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

The image, and several others like it released on Thursday at the order of a federal judge, gives the most damning evidence yet seen of the exceptionally harsh and some say abusive conditions to which immigrants are subjected when detained at the southern US border with Mexico.

Previously held under seal in a federal lawsuit in which the CBP is being sued for allegedly degrading and unconstitutional treatment of its charges, the photos offer a window into a world that until now has been rarely seen.

The shapes disclose that about 15 immigrant detainees were packed into a single cell at the Border Patrol’s facility in Tucson, Arizona. They are wrapped from head to toe in Mylar aluminium sheets for warmth, and appear to be lying directly on top of the concrete floor with no mattressing or other bedding of any sort.

Douglas facility

September 2015; Douglas facility; woman changing a child’s diaper on top of Mylar sheets on concrete floor in a trash-strewn cell. Photograph: American Immigration Council

The image – timed and dated as 5.16am on 19 August 2015 – shows detainees so tightly squashed together that there is no room for them to move.

Groups working with immigrant detainees at the border have long complained that the inmates are treated inhumanely, kept in bare concrete cells that are freezing in temperature as a form of punishment. The colloquial word for the cells is “hieleras”, or ice boxes.

The CBP has consistently denied that it treats inappropriately those it has picked up at the border attempting to enter the country illegally, and has also denied that it keeps its cells unacceptably cold. But the litigants in the lawsuit say that the newly released images prove that their concerns were justified.

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  • US Olympic Committee says sorry to Olympic hosts for ‘distracting ordeal’

  • USA Swimming condemns athletes’ ‘lapse in judgment’

What really happened to Ryan Lochte and friends on the morning of 14 August? The US Olympic swimmer initially said that he and a group of team-mates were robbed at gunpoint after a night out in Rio. But security footage obtained by TV Globo and released on Thursday has cast major doubts on the veracity of his story. We look back at the shifting accounts of what occurred

After a whirlwind day in which Brazilian police presented strong evidence contradicting American swimmer Ryan Lochte’s allegations that he had been robbed at gunpoint, the US Olympic Committee apologized for the behavior of four of its athletes, including Lochte.

The US Olympic Committee announced late on Thursday that Gunnar Bentz and Jack Conger had provided statements to Brazilian police and their passports were returned. The pair had been pulled off a flight home the previous night as local authorities tried to unravel what actually happened early on Sunday morning when Lochte reported that he, Bentz, Conger and James Feigen were robbed at a gas station by men claiming to be police officers.

A USOC statement released on Thursday appeared to agree with Rio police’s assertions that Lochte’s version of events are false.

“As we understand it, the four athletes (Bentz, Conger, Feigen and Ryan Lochte) left France House early in the morning of August 14 in a taxi headed to the Olympic Village,” the USOC statement said. “They stopped at a gas station to use the restroom, where one of the athletes committed an act of vandalism. An argument ensued between the athletes and two armed gas station security staff, who displayed their weapons, ordered the athletes from their vehicle and demanded the athletes provide a monetary payment. Once the security officials received money from the athletes, the athletes were allowed to leave.”

Police and the station’s owner said the Americans damaged an advertising sign, and that two women were with the men but stayed in a taxi that was parked behind their cab.

The USOC statement went on to apologize for the events of the last week. “The behavior of these athletes is not acceptable, nor does it represent the values of Team USA or the conduct of the vast majority of its members. We will further review the matter, and any potential consequences for the athletes, when we return to the United States.

“On behalf of the United States Olympic Committee, we apologize to our hosts in Rio and the people of Brazil for this distracting ordeal in the midst of what should rightly be a celebration of excellence.”

Police said earlier on Thursday that Bentz and Conger blamed Lochte for the original story saying he was drunk and agitated. Police added that neither Bentz or Conger had given a misleading statement after the Sunday incident, saying only Lochte and Feigen had done so. The USOC said Feigen has spoken to police and provided them with “a revised statement.”

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