New Zealand, Brexit, Lion Air: Your Friday Briefing

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Good morning.

New Zealand honors victims of the Christchurch terrorist attack, confusion around Brexit thickens and digital mercenaries create a new global battleground. Here’s the latest:

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Mourners at the Botanic Gardens in Christchurch, New Zealand.CreditMatthew Abbott for The New York Times

New Zealand unites in prayer

The Muslim call to prayer will be broadcast live across the country today, followed by a two-minute silence to honor the victims of the terrorist attack in Christchurch last week.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will attend a prayer service near Al Noor Mosque, one of the two mosques where a gunman killed 50 people.

Yesterday: Ms. Ardern announced a national ban on military-style semiautomatic weapons and all high-capacity ammunition magazines, a measure that could sail through Parliament.

She cited the gun controls Australia set in motion after a mass shooting in 1996: a mix of buybacks, registration and outright bans that severely reduced mass shootings.

A mistake: The first murder charge against the suspected gunman named a victim who survived. The charge sheet was to be corrected, and legal experts said the prosecution would not be impeded.

From the archives: Time and again, variants of the AK-47 have been used to kill scores of people and traumatize many more. In 2016, we looked at how the AK-47 became one of the world’s most abundant weapons.


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Colleagues of victims of the crew on the Lion Air flight that crashed into the Java sea.CreditUlet Ifansasti/Getty Images

Lion Air crash families say they were forced into a no-suit deal

While families were still mourning their loved ones killed in the Lion Air crash in October, they were herded into a hotel conference room and told to sign a document to receive a government-mandated compensation of 1.3 billion rupiah, about $91,600, for loss of life.

But the payment came with conditions. Many say they weren’t allowed time to study the document and didn’t know then that it included a clause prohibiting them from suing the carrier, its financial backers or Boeing.

Those conditions are now being questioned by legal experts. An Indonesian aviation act from 2011 specifies that heirs who receive government-mandated payments shouldn’t have limits on their right to sue the carrier or other entities involved.

Boeing: The two doomed 737 Max jets lacked optional safety features that Boeing sold separately at an additional cost. Now, the aircraft manufacturer is making those features standard as part of a fix to get the planes in the air again.

Ethiopian Airlines: Two months before Flight 302 crashed, the carrier had set up a simulator to teach pilots how to fly the new Boeing 737 Max 8 jet but the pilot on that ill-fated flight never used it.


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Prime Minister Theresa May in Brussels on Thursday.CreditFrancisco Seco/Associated Press

So what happens with Brexit now?

The European Union is considering pushing back Britain’s withdrawal from the bloc to May 22, instead of March 29, on the condition that British lawmakers endorse Prime Minister Theresa May’s unpopular plan.

But the brief extension, which comes barely a week before Brexit is scheduled to happen, offers a flimsy reprieve: President Emmanuel Macron of France warned that if Parliament didn’t support Mrs. May’s withdrawal agreement next week, the country would be headed for a no-deal exit. Thousnds of personnel will begin preparing for that dreaded outcome on Monday.

Analysis: Amid the thickening fog of confusion, Mrs. May had one message for the country: blame Parliament.

“So far Parliament has done everything possible to avoid making a choice,” the frustrated prime minister said in a speech that critics described as “toxic” and dangerous.


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The offices of DarkMatter, a private espionage company in Abu Dhabi.

In a new age of warfare, digital mercenaries are for hire

Small countries, corporations and even wealthy individuals all have a new weapon at their disposal: privatized spying through companies that hire former intelligence operatives from around the world.

This growing and barely-governed world of digital combat has enabled governments not only to hack terrorist groups and drug cartels but is also being used for darker impulses, like targeting activists and journalists, with the sophistication that was once the preserve of major world powers.

The F.B.I. is now investigating one of these firms, DarkMatter, after a former N.S.A. hacker working there grew concerned about its activities and contacted the F.B.I, a twist that reflects the murky new industry.

Takeaway: The rapid expansion of these private spying firms has prompted concerns about a dangerous and chaotic future where even governments with small budgets can wield immense damage.

How we know: Our monthslong investigation into the secret world of this high-tech battleground was based on interviews with current and former hackers for governments and private companies, as well as a review of documents.


Here’s what else is happening

Nirav Modi: The Indian jewelry designer to the stars was arrested in London in connection with a nearly $3 billion bank fraud in India. A judge denied him bail while India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party immediately turned the news into campaign fodder, claiming credit for the arrest.

Israel: President Trump said the U.S. should recognize Israel’s authority over the Golan Heights, which the country seized from Syria in 1967 and has since become one of the world’s most disputed territories. The president’s announcement, in a Twitter post, marks a significant shift in decades-long American policy.

China: An explosion at a chemical plant in the eastern province of Jiangsu killed at least six people and injured 30 others, officials said. The plant had been flagged for over a dozen safety problems after a government inspection last year.

South Korea: Two men were arrested, accused of setting up hidden cameras in hair dryer holders, satellite boxes and electrical sockets at 30 motels across the country and streaming the “intimate private activities” of 1,600 unsuspecting guests, the latest in a wave of voyeuristic spycam crimes known as molka.

Britain: The police and counterterrorism officials are investigating attacks on four mosques in the city of Birmingham, which is home to one of the country’s biggest Muslim communities.

Asylum dispute: The British Home Office cited biblical verses about vengeance to deny asylum to an Iranian who said he had converted from Islam to Christianity because it was a “peaceful” religion.

Netherlands: Prosecutors said they planned to bring terrorism charges against a man accused of killing three people on a tram in the city of Utrecht this week, as well as multiple counts of murder or manslaughter.

Afghanistan: In the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, a power struggle between President Ashraf Ghani and a regional strongman cast a chill on the normally rollicking celebrations of Persian New Year.

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Hoi An Central market that sells street food, fresh produce and local fabrics.CreditJustin Mott for The New York Times

Hoi An: The coastal Vietnamese city offers endless wonders, including ancient wooden merchant houses, ornate temples to a vibrant gastronomic scene.

In case you missed it: The report on the special counsel’s investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election is expected soon. Here’s what we know so far.

Amsterdam: The authorities announced a number of measures to manage tourism, including a ban on guided tours of the city’s notorious red-light district, starting next year.


Smarter Living

Tips for a more fulfilling life.

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CreditLinda Xiao for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Monica Pierini.

Recipe of the day:Tahini isn’t just for hummus! Try it in an earthy dressing to drizzle on roasted butternut squash bread salad.

Readers recommended ways to shrink your plastic footprint: Reuse rather than toss plastic cutlery, keep a coffee mug and a water bottle at your desk, and find new uses for yogurt containers, like painting or composting.

We also have a checklist to help you avoid screen-share disasters, and the cautionary tale of an extreme example.

Back Story

What do moss and politics have in common?

As you may remember from chemistry class in school, a litmus test determines a solution’s relative acidity. But the phrase is also used metaphorically to refer to a character-defining political issue, and it has been popping up in coverage of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The chemical test, in use since the Middle Ages, employs a dye derived from lichens, or moss, to determine whether a solution is more acidic or more alkaline.

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A strip of litmus paper.

The phrase developed its political connotation in the 20th century. It appeared in The New York Times at least as early at 1950, when it described NATO and the Marshall Plan as “the litmus test for distinguishing between Communists and supporters of the United States.”

This year, “litmus test” has appeared in The Times to refer to, among other things, marijuana legalization, the proposed border wall and universal health care.

Chris Stanford, on the briefings team, wrote today’s Back Story.


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