Tougher laws should not be ‘only’ tactic in fight against online extremism

Tougher laws should not be ‘only’ tactic in fight against online extremism
Britain's Home Secretary Amber Rudd looks at the media as she arrives for a Cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street, in London, in this Sept. 21, 2017 photo. (AP)
Updated 04 October 2017

Tougher laws should not be ‘only’ tactic in fight against online extremism

Tougher laws should not be ‘only’ tactic in fight against online extremism

LONDON: Tougher laws and harsh prison sentences should not be the only method of tackling the threat of terrorism, warn campaigners and academics as governments across Europe look to ramp up their anti-terror legislation.
The UK’s home secretary Amber Rudd announced plans on Tuesday to change the law to be able to sentence people who repeatedly view terrorist content online for up to 15 years in jail. Currently people can only be convicted of an offense if they download or store this material rather than view or stream it online.
It is a “critical difference” to the law, she said during a speech at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
Someone who publishes information on the UK police or armed forces for the purposes of preparing a terror attack could also face up to 15 years in jail, she said.
Her speech comes after a series of attacks by radical extremists across Europe this year, and on the same day as French MPs voted on an anti-terrorism law that could increase police powers.
Rudd also told the conference that social media and technology companies must do more to tackle online extremism.
That was a move welcomed by the Counter Extremism Project, a non-profit group based in London and New York. “Amber Rudd is correct, extremist content is too easily accessible and not enough is being done presently to pressure Internet and social media companies to more quickly and permanently remove extremist and terrorist content,” said executive director David Ibsen.
Others warn that some of Rudd’s tougher policies may have potentially negative and unintended consequences.
“Whilst we understand the Home Secretary’s intentions in changing the law in terms of viewing extremist material and the punishment served, we should not be complacent to think that this will eradicate extremism from our society,” said Saida Mughal, CEO of the Jan Trust, an organization that works with women — mainly mothers — to counter online extremism. Mughal is also a survivor of the London 7/7 bombings in July 2015.
“It may even push some to the more old-fashioned ways of being radicalized such as groups and study circle. Our government needs to drive on the bottom-up approach where communities are fully equipped to change hearts and minds,” she said.
Rik Coolsaet, professor of international relations at Ghent University in Belgium, wrote in a report published Tuesday that more grassroots efforts across Europe — such as working with vulnerable young people — are needed to prevent radicalization.
“Prevention will always be cheaper than intervention,” he wrote in a report looking at the current and potentially dwindling influence of Daesh. Coolsaet questions whether the group even holds the online allure that it once did.
“Daesh’s global media output has decreased significantly, and the golden age of its Twitter presence has definitely passed,” he wrote.
Hamed El-Said, professor of international business and political economy at Manchester Metropolitan University, said that filling up the UK’s prisons with those convicted of terror offenses is not the answer either.
“Prison alone is not a solution for this type of crime and it risks radicalizing individuals further to a point where they might start to believe that they are justified in resorting to violence. And that’s exactly what we want to avoid,” he said.
The UK prison system is not adequately equipped to prevent those convicted from becoming further radicalized, he said.
“Prison itself lacks comprehensive and effective deradicalization program that can achieve successfully rehabilitation and peaceful and compliant reintegration into society with minimum risks to the public,” he said.
During the first half of the year, only a handful of sentences of 15 years or more where handed out to defendants convicted of terror-related offenses, according to Home Office data.
The most common sentence length for defendants tried and convicted by the Crown Prosecution Service for a terrorism-related offense was between four and 10 years, with 26 defendants receiving this sentence in the first half of the year.


Russia reports 17,906 new COVID-19 cases, 466 deaths

Russia reports 17,906 new COVID-19 cases, 466 deaths
Updated 19 June 2021

Russia reports 17,906 new COVID-19 cases, 466 deaths

Russia reports 17,906 new COVID-19 cases, 466 deaths
  • The government coronavirus task force confirmed 466 coronavirus-related deaths in the past 24 hours

MOSCOW: Russia on Saturday reported 17,906 new COVID-19 cases, including a record 9,120 in Moscow, pushing the national infection tally up to 5,299,215 since the pandemic began.
The government coronavirus task force confirmed 466 coronavirus-related deaths in the past 24 hours, raising the death toll to 128,911.
The state statistics agency, which keeps separate figures, has said Russia recorded around 270,000 deaths related to COVID-19 from April 2020 to April 2021.


Singapore sees early rush for Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine

Singapore sees early rush for Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine
Updated 19 June 2021

Singapore sees early rush for Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine

Singapore sees early rush for Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine
  • Singapore has vaccinated almost half its 5.7 million population with at least one dose of the vaccines
  • Singapore allowed the usage of the Sinovac vaccine by private health care institutions under a special access route

SINGAPORE: Offering Sinovac Biotech COVID-19 vaccines to the public in Singapore for the first time since Friday, several private clinics reported overwhelming demand for the Chinese-made shot, despite already available rival vaccines having far higher efficacy.
Singapore has vaccinated almost half its 5.7 million population with at least one dose of the vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. Both have shown efficacy rates of well over 90 percent against symptomatic disease in clinical trials, compared with Sinovac’s 51 percent.
Earlier this week, officials in neighboring Indonesia warned that more than 350 medical workers have caught COVID-19 despite being vaccinated with Sinovac and dozens have been hospitalized, raising concerns about its efficacy against more infectious variants.
Evidence from other countries showed people who had taken the Sinovac vaccine were still getting infected, Kenneth Mak, Singapore’s director of medical services, said on Friday. “There is a significant risk of vaccine breakthrough,” he said, referring to the report on Indonesian health care workers.
A number of the people rushing for the Sinovac shot on the first day of its availability in Singapore were Chinese nationals, who felt it would make it easier to travel home without going through quarantine.
Singapore allowed the usage of the Sinovac vaccine by private health care institutions under a special access route, following an emergency use approval by the World Health Organization (WHO) earlier this month. Singapore said it is awaiting critical data from Sinovac before including it in the national vaccination program.
Meantime, authorities have selected 24 private clinics to administer its current stock of 200,000 doses. The clinics are charging between S$10-25 ($7.5-$18.6) per dose.
“We have about 2,400 bookings, so that stretches from right now until end of July,” Louis Tan, CEO at StarMed Specialist Center, said on Saturday. He said many of those who made the Sinovac bookings tend to be in their 40s and above.
Wee Healthfirst, another approved clinic, put a notice at its entrance on Friday, saying it had stopped reservations for the vaccine until next Thursday, citing “overwhelming demand.” A receptionist said about 1,000 people had registered there.
Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious diseases doctor at Rophi Clinic, also said he had been “overwhelmed” by people wanting the Sinovac shot.
Tang Guang Yu, a 49-year-old engineer, was among the Chinese nationals resident in Singapore who waited for the Sinovac shot rather than take a foreign-made vaccine that he thought might not be recognized by authorities back home.
“No one wants to be quarantined for a month, I don’t have so many days of leave,” Tang told Reuters as he queued outside a clinic.
Travelers to China may have to be quarantined at a facility and at home for up to a month depending on their destination city, regardless of vaccination status, according to the Chinese government website.
Other people said they have more confidence in the Sinovac vaccine since it is based on conventional technology, while those developed by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna use a newly developed messenger RNA platform.
“The mRNA technology has been around for 30 years, but it has never been injected into human until recently due to COVID-19 emergency, how safe it is?” asked Singaporean Chua Kwang Hwee, 62, as he lined up outside a clinic to enquire about getting the Sinovac shot.
Singapore’s health ministry says persons with a history of allergic reaction or anaphylaxis to mRNA COVID-19 vaccine or its components as well as severely immunocompromised individuals should not receive the mRNA-based vaccines.
Sinovac vaccine uses an inactivated or killed virus that cannot replicate in human cells to trigger an immune response.
In recent weeks, several social media messages have popped up saying inactivated virus COVID-19 vaccines, like Sinovac’s, provide superior protection against variants than mRNA vaccines. Other messages on platforms have said the mRNA vaccines are less safe.
Authorities have rejected these claims, saying they are safe and highly effective.


Faith healers turn vaccine myth busters to get India’s rural population jabbed

Faith healers turn vaccine myth busters to get India’s rural population jabbed
In this June 9, 2021, file photo, a health worker administers Covishield, Serum Institute of India's version of the AstraZeneca vaccine, during a drive-in vaccination program in Kolkata, India. (AP)
Updated 19 June 2021

Faith healers turn vaccine myth busters to get India’s rural population jabbed

Faith healers turn vaccine myth busters to get India’s rural population jabbed
  • While various strategies have been devised to combat vaccine hesitancy, shortage of doses remains a challenge nationwide
  • Officials say local healers, or bhumka, can help todispel myths as they have a great influence over local community life

NEW DELHI: Authorities in central India have employed faith healers in their coronavirus vaccination drive to help combat vaccine superstitions and encourage tribal populations to take the jab.
While a devastating second wave of the pandemic has already taken the country’s coronavirus death toll to more than 318,000, India’s vaccination rate remains low, with only 4 percent of the 1.3 billion population having received at least one vaccine dose.
The immunization campaign has not only been marred by vaccine shortages but, as in the predominantly tribal district of Betul in Madhya Pradesh, by superstition-driven hesitancy, prompting officials to employ local healers, or bhumka, who have a great influence over the local community’s life, to encourage tribal populations to take the shot.
“In remote tribal areas rumor spread that vaccination leads to illness and other diseases,” the district’s key officer for vaccination Manohar Lal Tyagi told Arab News on Friday. “To dispel the myth, we decided to use the local bhumka who have a hold over the tribal society.”
In a video circulated by the local administration when the campaign started three weeks ago, Ram Muni — one of the 20 traditional healers employed in the campaign — is seen appealing to people to come forward for vaccination, saying that vaccines do not cause sickness and are meant to make them healthy.

FASTFACTS

• While various strategies have been devised to combat vaccine hesitancy, shortage of doses remains a challenge nationwide.

• Officials say local healers, or bhumka, can help to dispel myths as they have a great influence over local community life.

“We are all trying our best to mobilize people and promote vaccination in the region,” Betul lawmaker Nalay Daga told Arab News. “It is the responsibility of all political leaders, regardless of their party affiliation, to reach out to people and convince them to have the vaccination.”
Laxmikant Sahoo, a Betul-based journalist, said that besides the faith healers, politicians should also be involved in the drive.
“Political leaders have wider reach and influence,” Sahoo said. “If they involve themselves vaccine hesitancy can be addressed effectively.”
While various strategies have been devised across the country to combat vaccine hesitancy, on the national level it is the shortage of doses that remains the biggest challenge.
India currently relies on two locally made vaccines — Covishield, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India (SII), and Covaxin, developed by Bharat Biotech.
Until April, the SII and Bharat Biotech were able to produce only 64 million doses a month. They are expected to double production in August. The government is meanwhile in talks with other international vaccine producers as it intends to vaccinate its entire population by the year’s end.
“We should have allowed some foreign vaccines to come into India earlier,” Indian Medical Association (IMA) secretary general Dr. Jayesh Lele told Arab News.
“The impact of the second wave could have been less had more people been vaccinated,” he said. “To have herd immunity in India, vaccination is the biggest tool.”


Kabul arrests dozens of Afghan tribal chiefs over troop surrenders to Taliban

Kabul arrests dozens of Afghan tribal chiefs over troop surrenders to Taliban
Members of the anti-Taliban militia during an ongoing fight with Taliban insurgents in the village of Mukhtar on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah in Helmand Province. (File/AFP)
Updated 19 June 2021

Kabul arrests dozens of Afghan tribal chiefs over troop surrenders to Taliban

Kabul arrests dozens of Afghan tribal chiefs over troop surrenders to Taliban
  • Taliban confirm dispatching delegations comprising tribal chiefs in some regions to negotiate surrender of govt forces

KABUL: Dozens of tribal chiefs have been arrested across Afghanistan on charges of encouraging government soldiers to surrender to the Taliban, officials and lawmakers said on Friday, as the insurgents have stepped up attacks against Kabul forces.

Fighting in Afghanistan has intensified in the past weeks as the US is set end its military presence in the war-battered country by Sept. 11. The Taliban have advanced their strikes, raising concerns in Kabul that they might retake power either by force or by winning over government troops.
The Interior Ministry announced earlier this week that the involvement of village elders in persuading Kabul soldiers to leave their bases in return for safe passage is “direct cooperation with the enemy.”
“Dozens of them have been arrested, their cases will be referred to legal and judicial authorities,” the ministry’s spokesman Tariq Arian told Arab News.
The arrests have been taking place for the past two weeks. In eastern Nuristan province, 19 tribal chiefs were arrested after the Taliban took over two districts earlier this month. “God willing, the arrests have had an impact. That is why the government took this decision,” Nuristan police chief Aqel Shah Khelwati said.
He said that some of the arrested said they had been “forced by the Taliban” to mediate with soldiers.
The Taliban have confirmed they had dispatched delegations comprising tribal chiefs in some regions, but the group’s spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, denied forcing them to do so.
Some Afghan lawmakers have approved the arrests, with Fawzia Raoufi, a parliament member from northern Faryab province, saying the government “should hinder” the surrender of its soldiers after 300 military and police personnel gave in to the Taliban in the Sherin Tagab district on Thursday evening.
She admitted, however, that the troops were left with no support for days. “These troops had asked for air support for days, nothing happened, so they went over to the Taliban. There were 84 functioning armored vehicles, ammunition and arms that fell to the Taliban,” Raoufi said. “It is a tragedy and strengthens the Taliban.”
The Taliban say they have captured over 20 districts in Afghanistan since early May when US-led forces began to withdraw. The government has conceded loss of some areas but gave no details.
The arrests have aroused controversy as mediatory efforts are common in the country’s rural areas.
“Local conflicts are customarily settled by mediation. This is our true culture,” Torek Farhadi, adviser to former president Hamid Karzai, said.
“By negotiating a truce, human lives are saved, and families keep loved ones alive on both sides of the conflict,” he said. “If community leaders accomplish their Islamic duty by negotiating to avoid bloodshed, that is great news as it can herald localized pockets of peace in the future in Afghanistan.”
For Haroun Rahimi, a political science professor at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul, the surrender of troops can have “dire political and strategic” consequences by affecting the army’s morale, the state’s legitimacy and fragmenting the anti-Taliban coalition.
He added, however, that “punishing influential locals is going to alienate local communities and create anti-government sentiment.”

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Ethiopia finally set to vote as prime minister vows first fair election

Ethiopia finally set to vote as prime minister vows first fair election
Updated 19 June 2021

Ethiopia finally set to vote as prime minister vows first fair election

Ethiopia finally set to vote as prime minister vows first fair election

KAMPALA: Ethiopians will vote on Monday in a landmark election overshadowed by reports of famine in the country’s war-hit Tigray region and beset by logistical problems that mean some people won’t be able to vote until September.
The election is the centerpiece of a reform drive by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, whose rise to power in 2018 seemed to signal a break with decades of authoritarian rule and led to his Nobel Peace Prize the following year.
He has described the poll as “the nation’s first attempt at free and fair elections.”
Abiy’s ruling Prosperity Party, formed in 2019 by merging groups who made up the previous ruling coalition, is widely expected to cement its hold on power.
The party that wins a majority of seats in the House of Peoples’ Representatives will form the next government.
“We will secure Ethiopia’s unity,” Abiy said ahead of his final campaign rally on Wednesday, repeating his vow of a free and fair election after past votes were marred by allegations of fraud.
But opposition groups have accused Ethiopia’s ruling party of harassment, manipulation and threats of violence that echo abuses of the past.
And Abiy is facing growing international criticism over the war in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.
Thousands of civilians have been killed and more than 2 million people have been displaced since fighting broke out in November between Ethiopian forces, backed by ones from neighboring Eritrea, and those supporting the now-fugitive Tigray leaders.
Last week, humanitarian agencies warned that 350,000 people in Tigray are on the brink of famine, a crisis that several diplomats have described as “manmade” amid allegations of forced starvation.
Ethiopia’s government has rejected the figure and says food aid has reached 5.2 million in the region of 6 million.
No date has been set for voting in Tigray’s 38 constituencies, where military personnel who usually play a key role in transporting election materials across Africa’s second-most populous country are busy with the conflict.
Meanwhile, voting has been postponed until September in 64 out of 547 constituencies throughout Ethiopia because of insecurity, defective ballot papers and opposition allegations of irregularities.
Outbreaks of ethnic violence have also killed hundreds of people in the Amhara, Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz regions in recent months.
Some prominent opposition parties are boycotting the election. Others say they have been prevented from campaigning in several parts of the country.
“There have been gross violations,” Yusef Ibrahim, vice president of the National Movement of Amhara, said earlier this month.
He said his party had been “effectively banned” from campaigning in several regions, with some party members arrested and banners destroyed.
Neither officials with the Prosperity Party nor Abiy’s office responded to requests for comment on such allegations.
Ethiopia last year postponed the election, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, adding to the tensions with Tigray’s former leaders.
Recently, the vote was delayed again by several weeks amid technical problems involving ballot papers and a lack of polling station officials.
Abiy’s Prosperity Party has registered 2,432 candidates in the election, which will see Ethiopians voting for both national and regional representatives.
The next largest party, Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice, is fielding 1,385 candidates. A total of 47 parties are contesting the election.
But on Sunday, five opposition parties released a joint statement saying that campaigning outside the capital, Addis Ababa, “has been marred by serious problems, including killings, attempted killings and beatings of candidates.”
Two prominent opposition parties, the Oromo Liberation Front and the Oromo Federalist Congress, are boycotting the vote.
“It’s going to be a sham election,” OFC chairman Merera Gudina said earlier this month.
That means the Prosperity Party will face little competition in Oromia, Ethiopia’s most populous state.
Several prominent OFC members remain behind bars after a wave of unrest last year sparked by the killing of a popular Oromo musician, and the OLF’s leader is under house arrest.
The leader of the Balderas Party for True Democracy, Eskinder Nega, was also detained and is contesting the election from prison.
Getnet Worku, secretary-general of the newly established ENAT party, said earlier this month it is not standing candidates in several constituencies because the threat of violence is too high, asserting that armed militias organized by local officials frequently broke up rallies.
There are growing international concerns over whether the elections will be fair.
The EU has said it will not observe the vote after its requests to import communications equipment were denied.
In response, Ethiopia said external observers “are neither essential nor necessary to certify the credibility of an election,” although it has since welcomed observers deployed by the African Union.
Last week the US State Department said it is “gravely concerned about the environment under which these upcoming elections are to be held,” citing “detention of opposition politicians, harassment of independent media, partisan activities by local and regional governments, and the many interethnic and inter-communal conflicts across Ethiopia.”
Abiy’s appointment as prime minister in 2018 was initially greeted by an outburst of optimism both at home and abroad.
Shortly after taking office, he freed tens of thousands of political prisoners, allowed the return of exiled opposition groups and rolled back punitive laws that targeted civil society.
In 2019 he won the Nobel Peace Prize in part for those reforms and for making peace with Eritrea by ending a long-running border standoff.
But critics say Ethiopia’s political space has started to shrink again. The government denies the accusation.
Several prominent opposition figures accused of inciting unrest are behind bars.
While opening a sugar factory earlier this month, Abiy accused “traitors” and “outsiders” of working to undermine Ethiopia.
This week his spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, described the election as a chance for citizens to “exercise their democratic rights” and accused international media of mounting a “character assassination of the prime minister.”