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Civil-Rights Investigation Launched Into Deadly Charlottesville Car Ramming

  • RFE/RL

U.S. federal investigators say they have opened a civil-rights investigation into the circumstances that led a driver to plow a car into a crowd at a rally of white nationalists and far-right activists along with counterprotesters in Charlottesville.

James Alex Fields, 20, the driver of the car, was arrested shortly after the August 12 incident and faces charges several charges, including second-degree murder. Fields lived in Ohio, a nearby state.

Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal, was killed in the attack, which President Donald Trump's national security adviser said "meets the definition of terrorism."

"Anytime that you commit an attack against people to incite fear, it is terrorism," H.R. McMaster said on ABC's This Week in describing the events that occurred in Charlottesville, a town in Virginia about 160 kilometers southwest of Washington, D.C.

Video footage of the incident shows a car being driven at high speed, striking and injuring many people, before it slams into the back two other cars and then speeds away in reverse.

Officials say the deaths of two Virginia state troopers, killed in a helicopter crash during the clashes, are also connected to the protests. Corinne Geller, a spokeswoman for Virginia state police, said the pilot and a passenger were killed in the helicopter crash.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that "the violence and deaths in Charlottesville strike at the heart of American law and justice."

"When such actions arise from racial bigotry and hatred, they betray our core values and cannot be tolerated," Sessions added.

Sessions said he had spoken with FBI Director Chris Wray, along with FBI agents on the scene and law enforcement officials from Virginia.

"The Richmond FBI Field Office, the Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Virginia have opened a civil rights investigation into the circumstances of the deadly vehicular incident that occurred earlier Saturday morning," they said in a statement.

"The FBI will collect all available facts and evidence, and as this is an ongoing investigation we are not able to comment further at this time," a statement from the Richmond FBI field office said.

Earlier in the day, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency and troops from the National Guard were deployed to bolster security after clashes broke out between white supremacists and counterprotesters.

Officials in Charlottesville had approved the right-wing rally for August 12, a protest against the city’s decision to remove a statue of General Robert E. Lee, the Confederate military leader during the American Civil War.

But permission to hold the rally was withdrawn after street clashes on the morning of August 12.

Late in the day, Trump sent a Twitter message urging people to unite and expressing condolences for the victims of the violence.

"We must remember this truth: No matter our color, creed, religion or political party, we are ALL AMERICANS FIRST."

Many prominent Democrats, civil-rights activists, and some Republicans criticized Trump for not denouncing some of the white-supremacy groups that were present at the protest, including neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members.

Senator Marco Rubio (Republican-Florida), who ran against Trump to be the Republican candidate for president, said in a tweet that it was "Very important for the nation to hear [the president of the United States] describe events in Charlottesville for what they are, a terror attack by white supremacists."

U.S. Senator Cory Gardner (Republican-Colorado) wrote on Twitter: "Mr. President -- we must call evil by its name," adding "These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism."

Former President Bill Clinton said on Twitter that "Even as we protect free speech and assembly, we must condemn hatred, violence and white supremacy."

With reporting by AP, AFP, CNN, and Reuters
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