US Congresswoman makes secret visit to Syria

Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard
Updated 19 January 2017
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US Congresswoman makes secret visit to Syria

WASHINGTON: In the first visit of its kind since 2012, US Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard has traveled to Syria on a trip that has taken her so far to Aleppo and Damascus.
The move, according to Syrian-conflict watchers, indicates that President Bashar Assad “is no longer beyond the pale in US politics and policymaking.”
Gabbard, who made news in November with her meeting with President-elect Donald Trump, and was floated on his list for secretary of state, arrived Wednesday at Damascus airport, as reported by Syrian daily Al-Watan.
According to Al-Watan, former Democratic Congressman from Ohio Dennis Kucinich is also on the trip, and the US delegation is staying at the Sheraton hotel in Damascus.
Gabbard and Kucinich were flown to war-torn Aleppo “without any Syrian officials.” There, they visited the city’s old citadel, two archbishoprics, and the eastern part, which was under siege by the regime until it was retaken last month.
The visit included a stop at a camp for displaced residents from Fuaa and Kefraya, which were captured by Syrian opposition, as well as Aleppo’s university hospital.
Al-Watan added that Gabbard and Kucinich had lunch at Wannes restaurant near the citadel.
Foreign Policy magazine said that Gabbard’s visit is for “fact-finding” purposes. Her spokesperson Emily Latimer said Gabbard described it to the magazine as such: “She felt it was important to meet with a number of individuals and groups, including religious leaders, humanitarian workers, refugees, and government and community leaders.”
The rare visit did not involve any consultations from Gabbard with the Democratic Party leadership, according to Politico, and it solidifies the Congresswoman’s credentials for a softer position on Assad and against supporting the Syrian opposition.
Faysal Itani, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, tells Arab News that “Gabbard has a long track record of advocating for a reconciliation with the Assad regime,” and that the trip fits “with her principles.”
Gabbard introduced the Stop Arming Terrorists Act to block any US arming of the opposition fighters, and voted against a House resolution last year calling brutal actions by the Syrian regime “war crimes.”
Just last week, Assad and his brother Maher were linked by a UN body to several chemical weapons attacks in Syria, and the siege and bombardment of eastern Aleppo were labeled “war crimes” by a UN human rights chief. The death toll from the war has so far exceeded 400,000, with millions internally displaced or refugees outside Syria.
While Itani does not see Gabbard’s visit as relevant to Trump in any official capacity, saying the president-elect “has more senior advisers to consult with,” he adds that it is “symbolic for both the policy and Assad himself.”
The expert sees the visit as “a highly visible indication that Assad is no longer beyond the pale in US politics and policy” adding that “it moves him further into the role as a legitimate head of state, and a victim of wrongheaded Western policies.”
Gabbard’s stops and meetings with Christian bishops also “cast the trip in terms of protecting Christians, and this resonates in the US and reinforces Assad’s global narrative,” says Itani.
Although media reports have stayed mum on any official meetings Gabbard could be holding “for security reasons,” Itani says: “To walk into Syria as a politician and meet private individuals just like that? Impossible. There’s certainly official facilitation at the least.”


Amnesty: Firm at Qatar 2022 World Cup not paying wages

Updated 1 min 36 sec ago
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Amnesty: Firm at Qatar 2022 World Cup not paying wages

  • Mercury MENA, an engineering and plumbing firm, owes thousands of dollars of wages to workers from countries where many live on less than $2 a day
  • Qatar previously has faced criticism for worker conditions as it prepares to host the World Cup

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates: A contractor involved in building the marquee stadium for Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup did not pay its workers, leaving them stranded thousands of miles from home, according to a report released Wednesday.
Mercury MENA, an engineering and plumbing firm, owes thousands of dollars of wages to workers from countries where many live on less than $2 a day, Amnesty International said. Those employees helped build projects including Qatar’s Lusail Stadium, which will host the opening and closing matches of the soccer tournament.
The company, whose website is now down and offices in Doha are shuttered, did not respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press. Qatar’s government said it was investigating.
“People from all over the world cheering, laughing, touring some of the beautiful stadiums, recreational sites and hotels here... Will they ever think what are the stories behind those structures?” one worker reportedly told Amnesty. “I guess not... Blind eyes are common nowadays.”
Amnesty said it examined the cases of 78 former employees of Mercury MENA, interviewing 44 and analyzing documentation of another 34. Of them, 58 came from Nepal, 15 from India and five from the Philippines, Asian nations that send thousands of laborers, taxi drivers and office workers to the Gulf.
Mercury MENA worked on several projects in Qatar, including the stadium, the new Qatar National Library and a worker’s hospital and modern accommodation for laborers, Amnesty said. Workers told Amnesty that the firm owed them on average between $1,370 to $2,470, a huge sum for their families back home. It said one worker was owed nearly $25,000 after over a decade of work.
Some workers found themselves stuck in Qatar without money and unable to leave the country as local laws require workers to get an exit permit supported by their employer before they leave. Earlier this month, Qatar partially ended that requirement, part of its internationally criticized “kafala” system that ties expatriate workers to a single employer.
Amnesty said Mercury MENA’s CEO told them in 2017 that his firm “had been the victim of unscrupulous business partners resulting in ‘cashflow problems’ and a number of disputes over payments with contractors and clients.”
Companies around the Gulf have been suffering from an economic slowdown in part aggravated by oil prices going as low as $30 a barrel in early 2016. Brent crude now is trading at over $80 a barrel. Meanwhile, Doha has faced a boycott by four Arab nations since June 2017 as part of a regional political dispute, further affecting its economy.
In a statement, Qatar’s Labor Ministry said such abuse of workers is “not tolerated” in the country and that there are unspecified “legal proceedings” against Mercury MENA.
“While Mercury MENA no longer operates in Qatar, legal matters will continue and we will conduct a full investigation,” the statement said.
Qatar previously has faced criticism for worker conditions as it prepares to host the World Cup in an Arabian Peninsula country where temperatures rise to a humid 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) in the summer. FIFA already has agreed to a 28-day World Cup tournament from to November to December 2022, which is already a departure from the regular mid-year schedule.
A British worker, Zachary Cox, died after falling nearly 40 meters (130 feet) in January 2017 at the Khalifa International Stadium. A British coroner blamed dangerous working practices for his death. A 23-year-old Nepali worker died at its Al Wakrah Stadium project site in August.