Return to Transcripts main page

CNN Newsroom

Growing Concern For Missing Chinese Tennis Star Who Accused Former Communist Party Leader Of Sexual Assault; Violence Erupted Between Migrants And Polish Forces; Ireland Prepares For Return Of Restrictions As COVID Cases Rise; Cuba Opposition Leader Yunior Garcia Aguilera Arrives In Spain; Medics: 14 Killed, Dozens Hurt In Widespread Protests in Sudan. Aired 12-1a ET

Aired November 18, 2021 - 00:00   ET




JOHN VAUSE, CNN ANCHOR: Coming up here on CNN NEWSROOM. An apparent e- mail from a missing Chinese tennis star raises even more concerns for her safety. Tennis officials say they highly doubt it was written by doubles champion Peng Shuai.

Europe ramps up pandemic restrictions as infections surge even in one country where around 90 percent of all adults are fully vaccinated.

And the people caught in the middle of a geopolitical dispute between Belarus and the E.U. After the desperation for a better life as cynically exploited, many will soon be forced to return home.

ANNOUNCER: Live from CNN Center, this is CNN NEWSROOM with John Vause.

VAUSE: For two weeks now, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai has not been seen in public. There's been no proof of life ever since she disappeared shortly after accusing her former Vice Premier, a top official within the Communist Party of sexual assault.

But now, the government-controlled China Global Television Network has released what it claims as an e-mail from Peng in which she says she's fine. She never made any allegations about sexual assault.

If the e-mail was an attempt to make this story go away, it has been a resounding failure. Officials with professional tennis quickly call it out for what it was, highly unbelievable and said it only raises concerns for Peng's safety.

We have more details now from CNN's Ivan Watson.


IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The royalty of professional tennis expressing concern about the welfare of one of their own.

NOVAK DJOKOVIC, PRO-TENNIS PLAYER: Honestly, it's shocking, you know, that she's missing.

WATSON: Warnings echoed by other champions past and present.

I hope Peng Shuai and her family are safe and OK, writes Naomi Osaka, adding #WhereisPengShuai.

I've known Peng since she was 14, writes Chris Evert. Where is she?

Peng Shuai, a Chinese tennis champion --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Peng Shuai moves into the quarterfinals.

WATSON: -- hasn't been seen or heard from in weeks.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN, CNN SPORTS ANALYST: This is really extraordinary. A top athlete, 35 years old, a name that a lot of people know, formerly number one ranked doubles player in the world just goes missing? Gone?

WATSON: In early November, Peng published this bombshell post on her Chinese social media account, an open letter to a former top communist leader named Zhang Gaoli, now aged 75 who Peng accuses of sexually assaulting her after the two had an affair.

Why did you have to come back to me, take me to your home to force me to have sex with you? The post reads.

Yes, I did not have any evidence and it was simply impossible to have evidence.

CNN cannot independently confirm these allegations, and we reached out to Peng as well as Zhang and his wife through the Chinese government for further comment with no results.

Shortly after the controversial post, Peng's online profile more or less disappeared.

Until recently, Peng Shuai was one of the biggest tennis stars in China. But look what happens when you try to search for people with her name in the Chinese internet. You get the message: no results found. Censors have all but scrubbed this woman from the Chinese Internet.

On Thursday, Chinese state media released this e-mail purportedly written by Peng to the head of the Women's Tennis Association. It completely disavows the previous allegations of sexual assault, adding, I'm not missing nor am I unsafe and I hope Chinese tennis will become better and better.

WTA Chairman Steve Simon responded in writing saying the statement released today by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts. I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the e-mail we received.


WATSON: Unable to communicate directly with Peng despite multiple attempts. He's calling for independent and verifiable proof that this Chinese tennis star is safe.

Ivan Watson, CNN, Hong Kong.


VAUSE: Christine Brennan is a CNN Sports Analyst and sports columnist for USA Today. And it's been a while, it's good to see you.

BRENNAN: Great to see you, John. Thanks.

VAUSE: You're welcome. Now, just as this story was gaining a lot of global attention, suddenly, unexpectedly, what do you know? No one saw this one coming. An e-mail from Peng herself to the boss of the Women's Tennis Association, creating an earlier statement from the WTO.

Now, this e-mail reads in part, the news in that release, including the allegation of sexual assault is not true. I'm not missing, nor am I unsafe, I've just been resting at home and everything is fine.

So, the man who received that e-mail Steve Simon was not convinced and said in a release -- a press release: only -- it only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts. I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the e-mail we received or believes what is being attributed to her.

Clearly, what was an attempt to make the scandal go away has only brought more attention and made matters worse for officials in China.

BRENNAN: Oh, absolutely. And the WTA's response was terrific, calling them on it right away. That was the the e-mail so to speak, that we're being told was sent by Peng Shuai, is coming through China's state-run media.

And you read it once and you just shake your head. It's ridiculous. It's preposterous. I mean, it just reads like something that some P.R. person wrote. And we have no idea. There's no video, John, there's no pictures, there's no timestamp. There's no assurance at all, the Peng Shuai had anything to do with that. And of course, every syllable of it screams out she did not have anything to do with it.

It is just so transparently a P.R. move by the Chinese government. That's our -- my read and that's the read, obviously, of Steve Simon, the CEO of the WTA, who has been a leader, really setting the tone throughout this whole thing demanding transparency, demanding that they hear from Peng Shuai herself, wanting independent analysis of her sexual assault allegations against a former top Chinese leader, and the WTA standing very tall tonight in terms of asking for accountability, and for speaking out for women, and those who are alleged victims of alleged sexual assault.

VAUSE: And from the get go, you made this point, you know, this response from the WTO -- WTA has been notable for that (INAUDIBLE) just calling for that investigation.

But Steve Simon told the New York Times, if at the end of the day, we don't see the appropriate results from this, we would be prepared to take that step and not operate our business in China, if that is what it came to.

That is no small threat, given -- reports that the WTA earns about a third of its total revenue from China. You know, in the past, other professional sporting leagues have buckled under pressure from Beijing.

I guess, you know, in the past, there hasn't been a case of like this, where there are growing fears about the safety of a high-profile athlete.

BRENNAN: That's why what the WTA is doing is so remarkable. And really such a watershed moment in sports, to be doing the right thing, to be speaking out, to be saying enough is enough that we're actually not worried about our business, we're worried about this one human being and we want answers.

You're right, the NBA buckled, the International Olympic Committee could have done so much before the 2008 Beijing Summer Games to push for human rights, changes and the human rights abuses in China to have them stop.

The International Olympic Committee did nothing going into 2008 and has done nothing going into the Winter games, which are coming up in less than 2-1/2 months in -- again, in Beijing, the 2022 Winter Olympics.

And IOC buckles under the thought of losing business in China, the NBA buckles under the pressure. And here's the WTA saying enough is enough, standing up, doing what's right. When in the world do we see that anymore in sports? A major pro-sports league or entity doing the right thing and doing it in such a wonderful way.

There are 11 tournaments, WTA tournaments in China, it would be a big loss. But I think what the WTA is doing is trying to get China to blink first, because China cares very much about hosting those tournaments, and having a foothold throughout sports in all sports. And I think that's the genius of what the WTA is doing.

VAUSE: How much is all this likely to factor into a decision from the U.S. president on whether or not there'll be some kind of diplomatic boycott on the Winter Olympics in Beijing, because that's on the table right now.

BRENNAN: It certainly is. And it's certainly going to make it very easy for President Biden if he were to choose to do this, John, to boycott or to have a diplomatic boycott, not an athlete boycott by any means.

But it would be easy to do it because you look at this and we are -- as I said, we are 2-1/2 months away from the next Olympics. This story is a devastating P.R. nightmare right now for China.

[00:10:09] BRENNAN: They need to rectify this immediately and let Peng Shuai speak, let her be seen and investigate the allegations that she's making.

And as long as China prolongs this, it was November 2nd that she went missing. So, it's been more than two weeks. I think it heightens the chances that there will be diplomatic pressure put on not maybe just by the U.S. but other countries, the athletes will compete by very smart move would be to take your -- some kind of a nominal delegation and not have them show up. That would make a strong statement while letting the athletes still do what they do best, which is compete at the Olympic games.

VAUSE: Yes, let the athletes to compete, let the politicians do the diplomacy and take it from there. Christine, thanks for being with us.

BRENNAN: John, thank you very much.

VAUSE: Tension at the Belarusian Polish border beginning to ease, at the same time, hopes for a better life abating among the thousands of migrants who have been caught up in this hybrid war.

German's Chancellor urged the Belarusian president to allow the U.N. and the E.U. to provide aid to the migrants as well as help with repatriation. Many migrants are now being placed in a temporary shelter. And with that comes fear deportation will be next.

Here's CNN's Matthew Chance.


MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): These are the few hundred migrants refusing to give up, still at Europe's border now begging to be allowed through.

Behind the razor wire, Polish border guards showing little sign of backing down.


CHANCE (on camera): Help?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Help, yes. Help, Poland.

CHANCE: And that's what they're shouting?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, is it that they're shouting.

CHANCE: And the Polish, they're not helping?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, no helping.

CHANCE: No helping.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. CHANCE (voice-over): Before the please, there was anger. This was the violence that engulfs the border between Belarus and Poland just a day before. At times surging out of control, as young migrants desperate to enter Europe toward at the barricades and fence (PH).

They are throwing stones and see the Pols are responding with water -- with water cannon covering us in water. Sometimes that water is quite acrid (PH), it has some sort of pepper components in it and so it's sort of stinging your eyes a little bit.

But now, Belarus accused of orchestrating the crisis appears to be ratcheting the pressure down, filling this makeshift migrant processing center away from the volatile border.

Families are given food and blankets here and warm clothes to stave off the cold. It's still basic, but lives are less at risk.


CHANCE: Lives of migrants like Shuhan (PH) from Iraqi- Kurdistan and her son Ashi (PH).

Hello, Ashi (PH). How are you?

We first met them a few days before in the freezing camp at the border, desperate to leave for Germany.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We came here from -- because of my son, because he needs an operation.

CHANCE: He needs an operation?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, big operation in the back.

CHANCE: Ashi (PH), he's got -- he's got this splint on his leg.


CHANCE: I see.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And he can't walk away. (INAUDIBLE) because it's too much warm.

CHANCE: Much warmer?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. Warmer than the forest and we have food, we have bed for sleeping.

CHANCE: They've given you these blankets. Are you still hopeful that you will get -- you and Ashi (PH) will get to Germany? Do you think it will still happen or will they send you back to Iraq?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I have big hope to go to Germany because I think Germany have humanity.

CHANCE: But back at the border camp, there are growing doubts a passage to Europe is really installed. After having their hopes built up in Belarus, these desperate migrants may now see them bashed.

Matthew Chance, CNN on the Belarus-Poland border.



VAUSE: Sinan Antoon is a renowned Iraqi poet, writer and commentator. He's an associate professor at New York University. And his most recent novel, The Book of Collateral Damage, it's set in Iraq post- U.S. invasion, where destruction has touched every aspect of daily life. Sinan, thank you for being with us.


VAUSE: So, Iraq's foreign minister told CNN that Belarus was exploiting Iraqis who were looking for a better life and he says, the Iraqi government doesn't have a lot of options here to try and fix this problem. Here he is.


FUAD HUSSEIN, IRAQI FOREIGN MINISTER: We are communicating with the refugees themselves for those immigrants to bring them back to Iraq, that's our policy.

Talking to European Union, trying to convince those people to come back to their country. And at the same time, giving signals to the government in Minsk that this is not the right approach.



VAUSE: Tell us more about the people being used as weapons in this hybrid war, will a friendly chat from an Iraqi official be enough to convince them to return to their old lives in Iraq?

ANTOON: No, I don't think so. I mean, one has to think about the despair that drives someone to leave their country and go and risk their life to be somewhere else.

So, the statement of the minister, it's true that Belarus is exploiting this, but this is deflecting away from the real problem, which is the mass poverty in Iraq.

The minister is part of a government that has wasted $600 billion since 2003. So, this is just to distract from the real problem, which is the huge inequality, the corruption, and the lack of any hope for Iraqis in Iraq or in the Kurdish region.

VAUSE: CNN's Matthew Chance has been covering the story on the border between Poland and Belarus. Here's a little more of his reporting about possibly the fate of many of these migrants, here he is. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHANCE: They're still being told there's a possibility that they could go to Germany, that they could enter the European Union. But there's been no indication from either the Pols that they're going to open those barricades and from the Germans that they're prepared to open some kind of a humanitarian corridor.

Belarusian officials are saying that decision in Germany has not yet been taken. But the fact is, if these people are not given some kind of passage into the European Union, they will most likely be deported back to their country of origin, which in the case of the vast majority here is Iraq. The majority of people say they're from Iraqi, Kurdistan.


VAUSE: And a lot of these people from Iraqi Kurdistan -- the region of Iraqi Kurdistan, they go back having spent their life savings to make this journey. What would life be like for them if they are forced to return?

ANTOON: I mean, they will return to the very conditions that they were running away from in the Kurdish region, which I must say, for all these years, mainstream Western media was always touting and celebrating the Kurdish region as the region where there is stability and success.

But there too, we have oligarchs, we have a political elite that is completely blind to the suffering of its people.

So, they will go back to the same problems that we have across Iraq, which are high unemployment, poverty, a huge gap between the haves and the have nots, and the degradation of the environment.

VAUSE: In your novel, The Book of Collateral Damage, the main character you write is leaving Baghdad. (INAUDIBLE) visit, he's about to drive to Amman in Jordan. It's a long drive, back in the day it was pretty dangerous as well.

Before leaving though he becomes nostalgic, and you write, this is his thinking, I wanted to see the Tigris and say goodbye to it. I don't know when I would come back or whether I would ever would. Tigris looked so pale on this visit. It no longer looked the way I remembered it. But did anything still look the way I remembered? Nothing had managed to escape turning pale.

Now, I was in Iraq for six months during the war. I went there back a couple of times after that. I'd never thought about using the word pale to describe what I -- what I saw. But in hindsight, it seems a very accurate description. And is Iraq in your opinion still pale today? And what did you mean when you use that word pale?

ANTOON: Well, I was comparing the images that I had in my mind from 20 or 30 years before. And despite the dictatorship, and I was against the dictatorship, but it was just looking at what three decades of war from 1991 and then, the most severe sanctions in modern history from 1990 until 2003. And then, the U.S. invasion and all of the bombing and the -- how that had affected not only humans, but the environment and nature and it had to do with everything in Iraq.

So, the river was very pale compared to the old times. Any Iraqi who goes after 10 or 15 years is completely shocked because of the huge gap between what used to exist and what exists right now.

And that so much is really dysfunctional in the country. Almost everything is dysfunctional. It's barely functioning, and that's what the Iraqis living there will tell you.

VAUSE: It's a very hard place to live, especially, you know, it was hard under Saddam, it is hard now. The hardship never seems to end.

Sinan, thanks so much for being with us.

ANTOON: Thank you.

VAUSE: Coming up here on CNN in Ireland why celebrating a little less these holidays will be crucial in slowing COVID infections.

Also, widespread protests against the military coup in Sudan turned deadly. We'll tell you about the international community's response in a moment.



VAUSE: The warning lights have hit red once again across Europe as COVID infections continue to rise. According to the World Health Organization, new cases increased by eight percent from a week ago, COVID related deaths rose five percent.

CNN's Melissa Bell reports now on how Europe is responding with tough new measures to once again a COVID pandemic.


MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Dublin November 2020, empty streets, businesses shuttered.

Now, a year later, Ireland braces for similar scenes as the pandemic endures.

LEO VARADKAR, IRISH DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Things were going so well. I think as a nation we're a little bit crestfallen, it's a bit heartbroken that we're back into a difficult space when it comes to COVID.

BELL: Despite one of the highest vaccination rates in Europe, Ireland is battling a surge in new infections.

More than 4,000 people on average are contracting the virus each day, even though about nine in 10 adults is fully vaccinated against COVID. Now, the government is imposing a curfew on pubs and clubs from

Thursday, as it battles a new wave of the pandemic.

VARADKAR: Idea of that is to reduce the amount of people who are mixing, reduce socialization; reduce the number of different groups who meet each other. It's not the only restriction we have of course, there's capacity limits in hospitality. We're extending the vaccine past to more settings, and asking household close contacts to stay at home.

BELL: Ireland's one of a growing number of European countries that's reintroducing restrictions as the region heads into winter.

Leaders here tightening screws on the unvaccinated, battling a COVID surge that's sweeping the continent.

Police in the Austrian capitol checking vaccination proof of people on Vienna's busy streets. They're enforcing what some are calling national lockdown on the unvaccinated introduced Monday as cases there soar.

Similar restrictions in the neighboring German capital, where vaccination proof or a negative test is required to enter most social venues. As Germany's new infections reached record levels, leaders there consider imposing even stricter rules on the unvaccinated.

ANGELA MERKEL, GERMAN CHANCELLOR (through translator): The present pandemic situation is dramatic. I can't put it any other way. The fourth wave has hit our country with full force.

BELL: Also Wednesday, the Belgian Prime Minister mandating wider use of masks and enforcing work from home as there too COVID cases spike.

Germany, Austria, France, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, just some of the countries seeing infections rapidly rising. Many where the majority of citizens fully vaccinated against the virus.

As Europe becomes the global epicenter of coronavirus outbreaks, a weary public resumes its fight against the lasting pandemic.

Melissa Bell, CNN.


VAUSE: As Cuba cracks down on anti-government protests, one of the leaders of the protest movement has slipped to Spain. His arrival on Wednesday was confirmed by the Spanish government putting an end to his unknown whereabouts.

Details now from CNN's Patrick Oppmann reporting in from Havana.


PATRICK OPPMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on camera): Ever since trying to organize protests in Cuba the beginning of the week, Yunior Garcia Aguilera an opposition activist here had been out of touch. [00:25:00]

OPPMANN: Apparently, the government had cut off its communications. The last time I saw him in his house was surrounded by state security agents police and government supporters who are lowering flags over the window of his apartment to keep him from communicating with journalists outside.

So, a number of his fellow activists were quite concerned about his well-being, whether he was detained, under arrest or as they said had been disappeared.

So, when he showed up on Wednesday in Spain, it was both a surprise and something of a relief to those activists who have been wondering where he was.

Garcia Aguilera to date, he's not explained what led him to leave. But he did post on Facebook that we've arrived in Spain he writes alive, healthy and with our ideas intact. We have to thank many people who have made this trip possible. I've been without communication for several days, and I need to find out about the situation of other members of his group called Archipelago. He says very soon he will be telling more about what he calls his Odyssey to Spain.

The Cuban government has released photos of Garcia Aguilera at the airport in Havana, seeming to indicate they say that he was not under arrest or that he was not escorted to the airport.

Garcia Aguilera though was facing charges he told me from the length of July protests that took place in that he'd been arrested for and he said it was very likely that he thought he was going to face further charges for trying to organize these protests of the Cuban government had banned. There are several other people who've been are -- who had been arrested following the protests, and many of his supporters and fellow activists had also been blocked into their homes.

The Cuban government has been furious that he tried to organize these protests follow up to the widespread protests we saw over the summer.

And so, Garcia Aguilera very clearly has chosen to go into exile. He says he will continue the fight but is unlikely he will be able to return to Cuba for quite some time.

Patrick Oppmann, CNN, Havana.


VAUSE: Sudan has seen one of its deadliest days of protests since last month's coup, security forces shot and killed at least 14 protesters, wounded dozens more on Wednesday. Demonstrators are demanding to return a civilian rule but the military refuses to budge.

We have more now from CNN's Larry Madowo.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) LARRY MADOWO, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (on camera): Wednesday's deaths marks another escalation in the military's violent crackdown on protesters in Sudan. This follows days and weeks of civil disobedience, which have followed the October 25 coup, which essentially the military took over.

And now, the protesters say despite the heavy toll, despite the dozens of people injured in these protests, they will keep going at it until the military hands over back to civilian led transition, which would midwife a democratic process in Sudan.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken who is in Nairobi in Kenya specifically addressed the situation in Sudan.

ANTONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We support the Sudanese people who have repeatedly made clear their aspirations for democracy. And we back their call to restore Sudan's democratic transition.

We're continuing to work with the international community to urge the Sudanese military to release all those detained with the takeover.

Sudan had been on a path toward democracy and stability. Returning to that path is the best way for Sudan to attain peace and prosperity, become a leader on the continent and to restore very strong support from the international community.

MADOWO: Secretary Blinken, like many of the international community consider that restoration of the position of Abdalla Hamdok as Prime Minister key to providing legitimacy to a return to a civilian led transition in Sudan.

He was initially detained after that coup in Sudan but has now been released, has been meeting with diplomats and envoys but has not been seen in public since that time.

The Sudanese Professionals Association which has been leading many of these protests says the blood of those who've been killed are on the hands of the military and they have reported widespread crimes according to them, including the military beating protesters and using live bullets.

The international community wants a return to a civilian led democratic transition, release of those people who are in custody but so far, the military is not listening.

Larry Madowo, CNN, Nairobi.


VAUSE: Still to come here, we'll have much more on the missing Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai. She's been missing now for two weeks and she write a purported e-mail from her is raising more doubts about her safety.

Also ahead, the environmental impact of Iraq's oil industry. Deadly toxin seeping into the air, land and the water in Basra province. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JOHN VAUSE, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Welcome back, everybody. I'm John Vause. You're watching CNN NEWSROOM.


If a purported email from Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis star, was certainly some kind of proof of life, then it's backfired in a big way.

China's state media put out an email, allegedly from Shuai, claiming she's safe and walking back her allegations of sexual assault made against a senior ranking communist official. Peng has not been seen since she accused that former Communist Party leader of pressuring her to have sex.

The head of the Women's Tennis Association is not convinced, among others, that the email is legit.

CNN's Kristie Lu Stout, live now from Hong Kong with the very latest on this. This was a ham-fisted attempt, at best, if you read the entire email.

KRISTIE LU STOUT, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, the email, the screen capture of it is bizarre, and quite frankly, disturbing.

The calls are calling for verifiable evidence that the Chinese tennis star, Peng Shuai, is OK, that she's safe, especially after what happened on Wednesday.

You have CGTN, the English-language state-run media outlet, taking to Twitter to post a screen cap of an email, allegedly by Peng Shuai. And it's 10 sentences long. Bizarrely, there is a cursor that's quite visible in the middle of the screen cap.

In it, she apparently says, quote, "Everything is fine." I'm quoting. Goes on to recant the sexual assault allegations that she made earlier against this very powerful man, Zhang Gaoli, the former vice premier of China.

And let's bring up an excerpt for you. She says, "If the WTA publishes any more news about me, please verify it with me and release it with my consent. As a professional tennis player, I thank you for all your companionship and consideration. I hope to promote Chinese tennis with you all. If I had the chance in the future, I hope Chinese tennis will become better and better," unquote.

Now, I should note that the alleged e-mail has not been verified by CNN. And interestingly, this has not been shared or reported on domestic media, including state-run media inside China.

Now, the Women's Tennis Association, they quickly came up with their statement in response to that, and cast some serious doubt on the veracity of that alleged email. We heard from Steve Simon, who wrote this. Quote, "I have a hard time

believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believe what is being attributed to her. Peng Shuai displayed incredible courage in describing allegation of sexual assault against a former top official in the Chinese government. The WTA and the rest of the world need independent and verifiable proof that she is safe," unquote.

Peng Shuai is one of China's biggest sporting stars. She is a two-time Grand Slam champion in doubles tennis, in Wimbledon and the French open. And it was about two weeks ago, November the 2nd, that you took to a verified Sina Weibo page -- It's a popular social media platform in China -- where she made those accusations against Zhang Gaoli, saying that he had forced her to have sex with him.

That post was immediately taken down. She has been scrubbed off of social media. There is a blanket censorship ban on her. She has not been seen or heard publicly since then.

Concern has been growing about her safety, but also at this time, about the safety about this in general in China, especially with the Beijing Winter Games just weeks away. Take a listen to this.


CHRISTINE BRENNAN, CNN SPORTS ANALYST/SPORTS COLUMNIST, "USA TODAY": It takes it right to the front burner of speaking out, athletes' rights, how you're treating women, how you're treating athletes in general, and human beings in general. And so, two and a half months before the Beijing Olympics, this is a nightmare for China.


STOUT: A lot is at stake here for China, the Olympic host. You have the eyes of the world locked on to find out what is next and what will be the fate of Peng Shuai -- John.

VAUSE: Indeed. Thank you. Kristie Lu Stout, live for us in Hong Kong.

Well, from increases in cancer to disappearing fish, residents in Iraq's southern Basra province say pollution from oil fields is bringing death and despair.

As CNN's Jomana Karadsheh reports, officials seem to be in no hurry to clean it up.


JOMANA KARADSHEH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For decades, Hamid Karsek's (ph) lived in the shadows of this thick, black toxic cloud that he says is suffocating his southern Iraqi town.

"When the wind comes that way, the whole river dies," he says. "In my house, my trees and my garden are dead."

The flames, burning in this oil field and many others in Iraq, are known as gas flaring: burning off the natural gas produced during oil extraction. It's a common practice as old as the oil industry, but it's one of the biggest polluters of the planet.

And Iraq is the world's second worst offender, according to the World Bank. It contributes to around 10 percent of the global flaring greenhouse emissions.

Oil is a major driver for the climate crisis, but residents here say it is also the cause of a local environmental disaster. It is killing the village of Naran Omad (ph), its mayor says.

Mayor Bashir Ajabari (ph) says there's been a rise in cancer cases and respiratory illnesses in his village over the past decade. In one neighborhood alone, heh says, there are about 40 cancer cases in 130 households, many of them children.

While experts say there's no evidence of a direct link, and it still needs more research, everyone here blames it on the poisonous air they've been breathing their entire lives.

And it's not just this village that is suffering. It is the entire province. Basra sits on some of the world's largest oil reserves, but its black gold may also be its course.

Officials with the Ministry of Environment say everything, from the remnants of war to industrial waste, contributes to Basra's pollution, but the top polluter, they say, is the oil industry.

FARZA AL-RUBAIAE, IRAQI ENVIRONMENT MINISTRY (through translator): Health facilities, landfill sites, sewage filtering stations, leather factories, power stations. But it is the oil industry activities that are the mother of all pollution in Basra and other provinces.

Imagine you keep breathing this, every minute, every day, every month and every year. That is why we have seen the rates of cancer, especially those related to air pollution, increase on an annual basis.

KARADSHEH: The Iraqi oil ministry says it is shifting towards clean and green energy. Iraq's also committed to eliminating all routine gas flaring by 2030.

But for the few Iraqi environmental activists, like Falah Hassan, change can't come soon enough.

FALAH HASSAN, IRAQI ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVIST (through translator): The people of Basra, in the midst of an inferno, we are dying a slow death. Basra is in hell. But people don't feel the slow death because of the gradual environmental impact on their lives.

KARADSHEH: Years of war and sanctions have decimated the country's infrastructure, and with everything Iraqis have been through, he says raising awareness is a battle.

HASSAN (through translator): People don't feel environmental issues are a priority. They feel it's a luxury, but we are trying to make it a priority for them. This is our call.

KARADSHEH: Iraq is running out of time. According to a U.N. report, it is the fifth most venerable country to the effects of climate change, and many here say they are feeling the impact.

"We used to have lots of fish. Now it's gone," fisherman Hamid Karsek (ph). Nothing good comes from this river anymore. Everything is gone.

Jomana Karadsheh, CNN, Istanbul.



VAUSE: When we come back, Queen Elizabeth once again holding official meetings. We'll have the latest on her health, after Her Majesty missed a major event over the weekend. The very latest, in a moment.


VAUSE: Britain's Queen Elizabeth has held her first engagement since spraining her back and missing Remembrance Day services over the weekend.

The 95-year-old stood without assistance as she met General Sir Nicholas Carter at Windsor Castle on Wednesday. Later, her son Prince Charles said his mother is doing all right.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are you a bit concerned? Sorry.

PRINCE CHARLES, UNITED KINGDOM: -- very much. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is she OK? We send our best wishes.

PRINCE CHARLES: Once you get to 95, it's not quite as easy as it used to be.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you so much.

PRINCE CHARLES: It's bad enough at 73.


VAUSE: Buckingham Palace says General Carter has relinquished his role as chief of defense staff in the U.K. Apparently, the queen responded by saying, It is rather a sad departure.

Thank you for watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm John Vause. Stay with us. A lot more news at the top of the hour. I will be back then. See you then.

In the meantime, WORLD SPORT is up after a short break.