St Helena Online

Law

Same-sex marriage approved for St Helena: opponent calls for society to embrace the result

Marriage between same-sex couples has been approved by St Helena’s legislative council by nine votes to two – meaning weddings could take place within weeks.

Rainbow island graphic by John Turner
Rainbow island graphic by John Turner

The Honourable Cyril Leo warned of a “deep divide” on the island and said he feared a negative reaction from “homophobic elements” in society.

But he said people should embrace the outcome of democratic debate. Councillors should “make love our greatest quest,” he said.

The Hon. Kylie Hercules, supporting the Marriage Bill, said: “We are dealing with people’s lives and emotions.”

And the Hon. Christine Scipio-o’Dean said: “We cannot discriminate. We must not, and we must strive to ensure equality.”

The Hon. Anthony Green explained that an attempt to present the same bill to the previous legislative council in 2016 had faltered.

A legal challenge to the existing marriage law – passed in 1851 – was due to be heard in the Supreme Court in January 2018 and could be appealed all the way to the Privy Council in London – a process that could take years.

“This law is silent on whether marriage between two persons of the same gender is permissible,” he said.

Barristers from the UK were on standby to represent various parties.

He said that denying same-sex couples the same marriage rights as other people would breach their human rights under the St Helena Constitution.

Cyril Leo and Brian Isaac were the only councillors to vote against the bill becoming law. Dr Corinda Essex abstained.

She said she knew her view would be controversial. “I have no objection to same-sex relationships and indeed I respect them,” she said. “I know a number of people who have entered into them. I am no way homophobic in any respect.

“However I believe that can be achieved through civil partnership.”

She added: “I believe very strongly that marriage was ordained not just in the Christian faith but in all the [main] faiths of the world… [as being] between a man and a woman.”

But she said the public had now had a proper chance to express their views and understand the issue – referring to a series of consultation meetings, and two petitions for and against same-sex marriage.

She said: “The number signing the two petitions was very similar. I had a lot of people lobbying me and saying we have serious concerns about this bill being passed. I do agree that the rights of minorities are important.

“But let us not deceive ourselves that the decision we make is going to be popular whichever way it goes because it is still an extremely emotive and sensitive topic on the island.

“We do need to be aware that worldwide, attitudes are changing and moving forward and we need to be more open minded. … and put our personal views aside and consider the bigger picture.

“As a result of that I will not be opposing the bill.”

The Hon. Brian Isaac said there other issues that caused distress to people on the island and deserved to be given higher priority.

The European Court of Human Rights had already declared that civil unions fully protected the rights of same-sex couples so there was no need for same-sex marriage, he said.

And he pointed out that members of the parliament on Bermuda, another UK overseas territory, had just voted to rescind a law allowing same-sex marriage. St Helena should look to the reasons they had done that, he said.

The Hon. Cruyff Buckley said he was a Christian but supported a change in the law. “This bill ushers in a new level of respect for minority groups,” he said.

The Hon. Derek Thomas said he was one of the councillors who blocked the progress of the bill a year ago because too few members of the public had expressed a view on it. The public had now had a fair say and he saw no justification for objecting.

The Hon. Lawson Henry said the St Helena Constitution – the supreme law of any country – guaranteed protection of equal rights.

“It is simply about equality,” he said “If this house cannot uphold the constitution then why are we here today, and why do we have a constitution? This bill has never been about religion, it is about equality and protection of minority groups.”

Many members sitting round the table had supported human rights legislation, “but some of them seem not to have supported equality,” he said.

He also warned St Helena Government would face heavy costs in the courts if the bill was rejected, and the island’s reputation would be damaged.

“We are a fledgling economy that has just gone into a new form of access,” he said, referring to the opening of the island’s airport.

“People who would like to visit this island will be looking at things like this. If they feel this is an island that can’t uphold its constitution [it] will cause more damage.”

The courts could nullify the existing marriage law and criticise the legislative council because members “can’t protect minority groups under our own constitution.”

Anthony Green, closing the debate, dismissed the reference to Bermuda. “We do not follow the Bermuda constitution,” he said. “We have our own constitution.” He praised Cyril Leo’s call for people to embrace the decision.

Governor Lisa Phillips will now be asked to ratify the bill and make it law, giving people on St Helena the same rights as same-sex couples on Ascension, Tristan da Cunha and most other UK overseas territories outside the Caribbean.

Speaking later in the traditional adjournment debate, Lawson Henry said it was a great day for St Helena.

St Helena’s 2017 Marriage Bill does not compel ministers to marry same-sex couples if it conflicts with religious doctrine. It also deals with other aspects of marriage law, including allowing weddings to take place outside places of worship.

Judge goes public on adoption case accusations that led to investigation of social workers

An investigation into social workers on St Helena was triggered when their own lawyer found damaging emails that had not been disclosed in a court case, it has emerged.

But the background to the police inquiry has been revealed only AFTER it was announced that no criminal case would be brought against them, because of lack of evidence.

Judge Charles Ekins also revealed how the intervention of the governor’s wife, Tamara Capes, could have created an impression of an establishment conspiracy against a Saint who wanted to adopt a baby on the island.

In the fall-out from the affair, the island lost two senior social workers and its attorney general, Frank Wastell, was suspended – although he had already decided to leave his job.

The chain of events has come to light after Judge Ekins, St Helena’s Chief Justice, decided to publish an edited version of his judgement in a hearing about the care of a baby – 13 months after it ended.

In it he revealed that the lawyers in the case asked him to convene the court on a Sunday to hear about the discovery of emails that they said should have been offered as evidence.

They asked the judge to make an order prohibiting the senior social worker Claire  Gannon from communicating with anyone within St Helena Government, or with a couple who were looking after the baby in England.

He was also asked to make an order “preserving the integrity of all e-mail accounts” held by Ms Gannon and her colleagues Martin Warsama and Claire Yon.

It is understood that island police seized their computers shortly afterwards.

The reason for Mr Wastell’s suspension remains a mystery: the judge clearly said his brief involvement in the case was “unwise, but no more”.

The case involved an application by St Helena Government – “the Applicant” – for a care order on a baby known as R, whose mother could not care for her.

Normally the details of an family hearing would remain secret. No reason has been given for going public – a highly unusual step on St Helena.

But the case became controversial after the island’s new Attorney General, Nicola Moore, issued a statement about the investigation. It contained criticisms of the people investigated, without giving the evidence to justify them.

One of the social workers, Martin Warsama, then alleged that he and a colleague, Claire Gannon, were being “punished” for making complaints about police and government handling of sex abuse on St Helena, leading to a separate investigation by Sasha Wass QC.

He also told St Helena Online it was “frightening” to have his computer seized by the police after he had made allegations against them, because they would have access to his emails.

He and Ms Gannon were told by a judge that they could not bring a claim of constructive dismissal in London, but they have since been given leave to appeal.

The hearings on St Helena and Ascension involved a mother who was deemed to be unable to look after her new baby, partly because of the bullying and mistreatment she had suffered during a “miserable” childhood in England.

Three other children had been taken away from her.

She and their father, a Saint, moved to St Helena, where they married but later split up – by which time, she was pregnant with R.

Judge Ekins said Claire Gannon rightly decided the baby should be placed with foster carers. None could be found, so Frank Wastell and his wife agreed to take her in when she was ten days old. The mother was allowed to visit and care for her daughter.

Because of his personal involvement, Mr Wastell took no legal part in the case. He was the island’s Solicitor General at that point.

Another couple agreed to look after the baby, but made it clear they would want her to become part of their family when they returned to England.

Members of the child’s own wider family did not want to take her in. The father agreed he could not look after her.

Preparations to make a care order for the girl’s protection were well advanced when a relative arrived on St Helena and learned of his neice’s birth; after a few weeks, he offered to take care of her with his partner on the Falklands.

But the court heard social workers felt it was too late: an interim care order was already in place and the girl had already bonded with “Mr and Mrs Y”. In fact, the judge later ruled that “his potential suitability was dismissed in an overly peremptory fashion”.

At a hearing on St Helena in October 2013, Judge Ekins agreed to consider the uncle’s request to become R’s special guardian as part of the proceedings.

When the hearings resumed on Ascension Island in March 2014, the judge heard that the uncle and his partner were considered suitable carers for the baby, had prepared their home for her arrival, and understood her needs. A social worker had flown from the UK to the Falklands to assess them.

He ruled in their favour, despite the risk that the child would suffer as a result of being taken away from Mr and Mrs Y.

He cited strong guidance that children should be kept within their family and their culture, and adoption outside the family should be a last resort.

“There can be nothing but sympathy for Mr and Mrs Y who are the real victims of this whole proceeding,” the judge said.

They had hoped to offer the child an open adoption, meaning she would maintain contact with her family and culture.

But the judge said emails sent to Claire Gannon by the couple in England showed hostility  to members of the baby’s family – suggesting contact would be limited.

SHG’s lawyer, Ms Cheetham, had the emails in her possession but believed they could not be presented in court because they were “privileged”. When she realised she was mistaken, she shared them with other lawyers in the case and they all asked the judge to convene the Sunday hearing.

The judge said the emails should have been presented as part of the case by the government’s social care department.

He said: “Regrettably I am driven to the conclusion that the Applicant has obstructed and misled the Court in its judicial process of determining the best interests of R.

“I am not prepared to say unequivocally that the obstruction has been wilful… but it is unparalleled in my experience that all advocates in this case, including the Applicant’s own Counsel, felt it necessary to invite me to issue an injunction against the senior social worker with responsibility for this case.”

He said he suspected some case files had been withheld.

He also accused the government’s social care team of deliberate lack of objectivity. “They felt duty bound to do all they could to ensure that R remained with Mr and Mrs Y irrespective of R’s best interest.”

He concluded by recommending that an experienced, independent lawyer should review the papers in the case “to advise on whether the evidence is such as to disclose reasonable grounds for suspecting the commission by any member of the Applicant’s staff of any criminal offence pertinent to attempting to pervert the course of justice or perjury.”

Claire Gannon has chosen not to speak to island media about the affair. But Mr Warsama strongly pointed out that the subsequent investigation by Merseyside Police found there was no case for a criminal prosecution.

He would be raising the matter with Sasha Wass QC, the counsel investigating the unrelated allegations about sex abuse.

He said: “We’ve had an investigation and it proved we had done nothing wrong. What needs to be in there is our response. But I’m not responding until I have seen Sasha Wass. We will be vindicated.

“All is not what it seems.”

Interpreter hired for court case

An interpreter is being brought out from South Africa to assist at a trial at the next sitting of St Helena’s Supreme Court, attorney general Nicola Moore told members of Legislative Council. She did not identify the defendant, or the language spoken. The information was disclosed in response to a question from the Hon Pamela Ward Pearce.

Criminal investigation clears sex abuse whistle-blowers

An eight-month criminal investigation has failed to find evidence to justify a prosecution of former St Helena Government staff, including the social workers who raised the alarm about sex abuse on the island.

Frank Wastell, who stood down as Attorney General in June 2014, was one of those suspended from duty when police inquiries began – although he had already announced he would be leaving the island.

The investigation cleared the social workers Martin Warsama and Claire Gannon, who brought employment tribunal claims over the affair. They alleged they were being victimised for whistle-blowing.

Their complaints later triggered the inquiry by Sasha Wass QC into the way into the way the island is governed, and the handling of sex abuse issues.

It is believed an unnamed St Helenian was also cleared of criminal wrongdoing.

St Helena Government suspended Frank Wastell and Claire Gannon over concerns about the conduct of an adoption case in March 2014 – unrelated to the abuse scandal. Mr Warsama was deemed to have failed his probationary period in the job and was dismissed – despite having been promoted a few weeks earlier.

A statement was released by St Helena Government late on Friday, 20 February 2015.

But it was released only to island-based media, hindering efforts by other reporters to cover the affair. A statement was published on the government website but it was not drawn to the attention of journalists.

Mr Warsama had been told by his criminal lawyer on the Friday afternoon that he and Claire Gannon would not be prosecuted – after a year of living in dread of extradition to an island where they had clashed with police over alleged failures to investigate suspected sex offenders.

On the Saturday evening, he went out to celebrate with his family.

But on the Sunday, his anger returned when he learned that the Attorney General had released a statement without his knowledge, saying evidence would be shared with professional bodies – meaning the nightmare was not over.

It also quoted new criticisms made by the independent counsel, but gave no information about the basis for the comments.

Martin Warsama – who claimed constructive dismissal from his job – says he did not learn of the statement until St Helena Online alerted him, two days after it was issued. He said he did not know the substance of the criticisms. It was not even clear whether they referred to everyone involved in the case.

The statement said: “The investigation was instigated by St Helena Police following a family case heard in the Supreme Court where the Chief Justice concluded:

‘So troubled am I by what has occurred that I shall direct that a copy of this judgment and addendum be sent to HE The Governor. I shall recommend that experienced independent counsel should urgently be engaged to review the papers in this case and to advise on whether the evidence is such as to disclose reasonable grounds for suspecting the commission by any member of the applicant’s staff of any criminal offence pertinent to attempting to pervert the course of justice or perjury.’

“HE The Governor followed the Chief Justice’s recommendation and appointed an independent Queen’s Counsel, experienced in family and international matters, to complete the review. It was as a direct result of that review that the St Helena Police Service was requested to undertake an investigation into allegations of criminal conduct. The investigation was led by St Helena Police and supported by Merseyside Police in the UK.

“The matters were rigorously and thoroughly investigated. The evidence from this investigation was reviewed by a second independent counsel, appointed as Public Prosecutor of St Helena specifically to undertake this task.”

The statement said there was “insufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction” – in effect, finding the former SHG staff not guilty.

St Helena Online has interviewed Martin Warsama and will be publishing his reaction in the next few days. 

At last, the truth about Attorney General being suspended. But you didn’t hear it from St Helena’s ‘open’ government

The people of St Helena were never told that the man who wrote their laws had been suspended while a criminal investigation took place.

They were told only that Frank Wastell was leaving the island “for personal reasons”.

Even when it was announced that the investigation had ended with no criminal charges, his name was not mentioned – despite the clear public interest.

The affair is likely to be seen by many as a cover-up by St Helena Government, albeit only a “passive” failure to release embarrassing information.

Few details have been disclosed about the investigation into the conduct of government staff, beyond the fact that it involved suggestions of lying to the island’s Supreme Court or attempting to pervert the course of justice.

Both are extremely serious matters that can result in a prison sentence.

No suggestion has been made that all those involved were suspected of crime – merely that people had been suspended while it was established whether any person was culpable.

Making the affair public might have undermined confidence in the justice system on St Helena, already damaged by allegations about failures to prosecute sex offenders.

The truth emerged in a court judgement given in an employment tribunal case brought by the two social workers caught up in the affair, Martin Warsama and Claire Gannon.

Judge Anthony Snelson’s ruling on 30 January 2015 revealed that Frank Wastell and Claire Gannon had been suspended from duty seven months earlier over the conduct of an adoption case.

The decision had been made by Acting Governor Sean Burns after consulting with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London.

On 5 February 2015, St Helena Online asked whether Mr Wastell had been “advised/encouraged to resign”. The government press office declined to comment, confirming that criminal investigations were still ongoing.

A decision was made not to run a story on St Helena Online at that late stage because of doubts about fair treatment of Mr Wastell and others involved. It appeared unlikely that a criminal case would arise.

It was also understood the roots of the affair lay in an act of kindness by Mr Wastell that later placed him in a compromising legal position.

Criticism had been levelled by the island’s Chief Justice, Charles Ekins, who heard the adoption case.

The government may have had little choice but to suspend Mr Wastell because of the impossibility of having an attorney general in post while a criminal inquiry was going on.

But it never admitted it had removed him from his duties.

At one stage his office was reported to have been sealed off by police.

Islanders were told only that Mr Wastell was “returning to the UK for personal reasons,”

A press release was issued on 2 June 2014, saying that Mr Wastell would be “returning to the UK for personal reasons” at the end of July. He was formally suspended two weeks later.

The statement said: “Frank has been an integral part of St Helena Government’s legal team since joining as Crown Counsel in 2006.

“He subsequently became Solicitor General and later Attorney General of St Helena, Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha in 2013, having served several years acting up in that role since 2006.”

In the same release, Mr Wastell said he and his wife Lorna would never forget the friendship of people on all three islands, and “the vast majority” of his colleagues.

“St Helena and her people will have about as special a place in our hearts as it is possible to have,” he said, “and although we have had to make this decision to leave now, I can say it is with the deepest sadness that we go.”

SEE ALSO: 
Attorney General to leave St Helena – press release

Island has desperate need for lay advocates, says judge

St Helena has a “desperate need” for people willing to take the place of qualified lawyers in court hearings, the island’s visiting chief justice has warned.

Only two lay advocates remain in post after Bill Drabble and Mike Olsson stepped down.

Judge Charles Ekins praised the pair for their long service, at the opening of the St Helena Supreme Court on 31 October 2013.

He said: “The admiration that I have for the lay advocates for the dedicated and selfless way in which they devote themselves to their work is, I hope, well known.

“Mr Drabble and Mr Olsson deserve the gratitude of the community of St Helena for the many years they have served this community.

“I have no hesitation in extending to them my sincerest and most heartfelt thanks for the work that they have done for those who live on St Helena.

“We now have but two lay advocates, Mr Eric Benjamin and Mrs Ivy Ellick.

“I personally know the extent to which frequently they can be overwhelmed by the work they undertake and by the demands that are made upon them by members of the community.

“I know that they will never turn down requests for assistance.

“If this remarkable and I believe unique system, this institution of which St Helena ought justly to be proud, is to survive then we are in desperate need of new lay advocates.”

He appealed directly to people with the necessary qualities, to carry on the work that lay advocates have done “so wonderfully well”.

The system of lay advocates appearing in court developed in days when the island had only one qualified lawyer, employed by the government.

In fact, there are now a number of lawyers working in various roles on the island, but lay advocates are still needed to represent members of the public in court hearings.

Judge Ekins said the current sitting of the Supreme Court would be the busiest he had known, and “perhaps even the busiest and hardest session in the history of this supreme court”.

Jamestown prison: whitewashed building with blue balcony over barred door

Soft sell: inside info that prison job advert doesn’t mention

Jamestown prison: whitewashed building with blue balcony over barred door
HMP Jamestown: picture by John Grimshaw

The advertisement for the job of running St Helena’s prison makes it sound almost attractive.

The “chance of a lifetime” job is described as “a challenging role in an outstanding setting” – apparently not a reference to conditions in the prison itself.

There is no mention of the fact that the building has been declared unsuitable and even unsafe, or that conditions are criticised in the island’s human rights plan.

St Helena Government has allocated funding to create a new prison at Sundale, in Half Tree Hollow – but the new facility would not open for at least three years.

The £40,000-a-year job of Deputy Superintendent Gaols is advertised as a two-year contract – with the prospect of time added for good performance.

HMP Jamestown is described as “a small prison able to hold all categories of convicted and  unconvicted male and female adults, young offenders, young people and police prisoners.”

One of the shortcomings identified in the human rights document is that remand prisoners, who are legally innocent, share cells with convicted inmates because the alternative is isolation.

The new deputy superintendent – who would have charge of day-to-day running of the prison, under police chief Peter Coll – is expected to train staff to “meet the demands of modern prison systems”.

That means meeting UK standards “within the limitations of the prison’s physical and financial resources” and “identifying areas of deficiency and producing action plans for  improvement in these areas.”

They will also head up the island’s fledgling probation service – seen as an alternative to prison for some offenders – although experience in this area is only “desirable”.

The advertisement on the St Helena Government careers website says candidates must be highly motivated.

SEE ALSO:
‘Unfit’ prison to close by 2015 amid human rights failings

LINKS:
St Helena Government careers
Advertisement: Deputy Superintendent Gaols

Graphic showing rubber stamps saying "restricted" etc, crossed out

UK group backs campaign to end secrecy in The Castle

St Helena Freedom of Information: screen grab of Facebook page
Support the St Helena Freedom of Information campaign by clicking ‘Like’ on its Facebook page (see Links, below)

A call for more open government on St Helena has been backed by a leading group in the UK.

In a message of support, Katherine Gundersen of the London-based Campaign for Freedom of Information says open, honest debate leads to better decision-making.

It could also help to reduce public distrust of government.

Graphic showing rubber stamps saying "restricted" etc, crossed out
The logo of the Campaign for Freedom of Information

An increasing number of documents are now published on the St Helena Government website, though one executive councillor has told St Helena Online that some departments are less open than others.

But the St Helena Freedom of Information campaign argues that there is a vital gap in the information made available to islanders – and British taxpayers, who provide the bulk of St Helena Government funding.

It says papers going before the island’s executive council should be made public in advance of meetings. In England, that’s required by law. It also wants minutes of meetings made public – not just reports by Governor Mark Capes.

If agendas and reports are published in good time, individuals can scrutinise the information being presented by officials, and make sure that councillors are aware of public opinion before meetings take place.

It also means Saints overseas can keep track of what is happening at home. And it would remove a barrier to reporting by journalists and internet bloggers, which is acknowledged in the recent White Paper on overseas territories as a vital part of maintaining democracy.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information says: “We support efforts to improve public rights to information in St Helena.

“Freedom of information has many important benefits. It strengthens individuals in their dealings with the state. It increases the opportunity to participate in decision-making and enables more informed public discussion.

“The knowledge that the public may be able to see the documents on which decisions are taken helps to deter malpractice and to encourage politicians and officials to be more rigorous in their analysis, improving the quality of decision making.

“It helps to promote more honesty in government, by making it more difficult for public bodies to say they are doing one thing while doing something else.

“Moving towards a more open regime gives government the opportunity to show that it is genuinely acting on behalf of the public; is willing and able to justify what it does; that it tells the truth and deserves the public’s trust.”

Katherine Gunderson has also lent advice to the island campaign, which was initiated by John Turner and backed by the St Helena Independent and St Helena Online.

She advises highlighting examples of unnecessary secrecy and the damage done by it, and also explaining how the rights of the public – not just the media – would be improved by greater access to information.

She points out that very few “serious democratic governments” still reject the freedom of information ideal.

St Helena Online and the St Helena Independent have evidence that some officials resist the case for open government, but there are strong indications that some councillors are very supportive.

SEE ALSO:
St Helena Online joins a campaign for transparency
£46,000 a year to make island finances more transparent
‘We honour the spirit of freedom act’ says The Castle
‘Transparency and scrutiny lead to public trust’ – White Paper

LINKS:
St Helena Freedom of Information – blog
St Helena Freedom of Information – Facebook page

Art for heart’s sake: best anti-smoking posters chosen

drawing of Jonathan the Tortoise superimposed on a map of St Helena, slogan live longer
Are those nicotine patches on Jonathan’s shell? Live longer: don’t smoke – poster by Cameron Johnson

More than 150 young people on St Helena have taken part in a poster competition intended to help islanders have healthier hearts and lungs, and avoid a host of fatal diseases.

cigarette superimposed on lungs: slogan says stop smoking, protect your lungs
Dominique Fowler’s poster is a winner

Cameron Johnson’s picture of Jonathan the tortoise – the world’s oldest known living creature and a noted non-smoker – was an example of the creative thinking that went into the contest.

It was held in schools as part of a campaign to prepare islanders for the introduction of a law that will ban smoking in public premises, including cars. The Tobacco Control Ordinance will also raise the minimum age for smoking in public, from 16 to 18.

Students in primary and secondary schools were taught about the effects of smoking on health, and the possible social and financial consequences.

The winners in each age group are:

Years 1 and 2: first prize, Jordana Peters (St Paul’s Primary School); 2nd, group 2, Pilling Primary School; 3rd, Taye Peters (St Paul’s). Years 3-6: 1, Dominique Fowler (St Paul’s); 2, Kayla Johnson (Harford Primary School); 3, Cameron Johnson (St Paul’s).

smoking skeleton
Smoking skeleton gets the message across

Years 7-9 (all Prince Andrew School): joint first, Caitlyn Buckley & Jodie Scipio Constantine; 2, Kelly Jonas. Years 10-11: 1, Benjy Lawrence, 2, Jamie Thomas; 3, Keisha Peters.

All winners will receive a cash prize, and the winning posters will now be used for the duration of the information campaign. All the posters will go on public display.

Cheryl Bedwell, who coordinated the competition said: “We had an overwhelming effort from our students. I must also extend thanks to the staff and students for their fantastic input to this competition.”

COMMENT:

Spreading awareness is very essential…Getting rid of a habit is a very challenging task that has to be considered to stay healthy for the rest of your life. Assembly programs will help to motivate the people to stop smoking and avoid tobacco. For more guidance visit http://www.tobaccofree.org– Smoke Free America

SEE ALSO:
New smoking law ‘will combat health problems’ on St Helena
Bar owners divided over smoking ban
Campaign starts as smoking age rises to 18 (comment added)

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