Italian WHO aid official under investigation for corruption in Yemen  

Nevio Zagaria, was a WHO country representative for Yemen. (File/AFP)
Updated 07 August 2019

Italian WHO aid official under investigation for corruption in Yemen  

  • WHO is investigating into its Yemen operations led by Italian doctor Nevio Zagaria
  • Workers said the WHO’s Yemen office under Zagaria was riddled with corruption and nepotism

An Associated Press investigation has found that more than a dozen United Nations aid workers deployed to deal with the humanitarian crisis caused by five years of conflict in Yemen are being accused of graft to enrich themselves from an international outpouring of donated food, medicine, fuel and money.

The AP obtained UN internal investigative documents, and interviewed eight aid workers and former government officials. The upshot: internal auditors from the World Health Organization are investigating allegations that unqualified people were placed in high-paying jobs, hundreds of thousands of dollars were deposited in staffers’ personal bank accounts, dozens of suspicious contracts were approved without the proper paperwork, and tons of donated medicine and fuel went missing.

Critics of such corruption say it threatens the international lifeline on which the majority of Yemen’s 30 million people rely. Last year, the UN said international donors pledged $2 billion for humanitarian efforts in Yemen.

The main focus of WHO’s investigation into its Yemen operations is Nevio Zagaria, an Italian doctor, who was chief of the agency’s Sanaa office from 2016 until September 2018, according to three individuals with direct knowledge of the investigation.

 

The only public announcement of the probe came in a sentence buried in the 37 pages of the internal auditor’s 2018 annual report of activities worldwide. The report did not mention Zagaria by name.

The report, released May 1, found that financial and administrative controls in the Yemen office were “unsatisfactory” — its lowest rating — and noted hiring irregularities, no-competition contracts and lack of monitoring over procurement.

WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic confirmed to the AP that the investigation is underway. He said Zagaria retired in September 2018, but he would not confirm or deny that Zagaria specifically was under investigation.

“The Office of Internal Oversight Services is currently investigating all concerns raised,” he said. “We must respect the confidentiality of this process and are unable go into details on specific concerns.”

Four current and former workers said the WHO’s Yemen office under Zagaria was riddled with corruption and nepotism.

Zagaria brought in junior staffers who worked with him in the Philippines and promoted them to high-salary posts though they were unqualified, three individuals said.

Two of them — a Filipino university student and a former intern — were given senior posts, but their only role was to take care of Zagaria’s dog, two of the officials said.

“Incompetent staff with heavy salaries” undermined the quality of work and monitoring of projects and created “many loopholes for corruption,” a former aid official said.

Zagaria also allegedly approved suspicious contracts signed by staffers with no competitive bidding or documentation for the spending. According to internal documents, local firms contracted to provide services at WHO’s Aden office were later found to have hired WHO staffers’ friends and family and overcharged for services. The owner of one firm was seen handing cash to one staffer, the documents show — an apparent kickback.

Under Zagaria, aid funds meant to be spent during emergencies were also used with little accountability or monitoring, according to internal documents.

Under WHO rules, aid money can be transferred directly into the accounts of staffers, a measure meant to speed up the purchasing of goods and services in a crisis. The WHO says the arrangement is needed to keep operations going in remote areas because Yemen’s banking sector is not fully functioning.

Because they are supposed to be restricted to emergencies, there is no requirement that spending of these direct transfers be itemized. Zagaria approved direct transfer of cash worth a total of $1 million for certain staffers, according to internal documents. But in many cases it was unclear how they spent the money.

Zagaria did not respond to emailed questions from the AP.


Turkish women decry state inaction in the face of femicide

Updated 16 December 2019

Turkish women decry state inaction in the face of femicide

  • A women's advocacy group says more than 2,600 women have been killed in Turkey in the past decade
  • The Council of Europe has called for removal of traditions that lead to gender inequality and violence against women

LONDON: Late on Tuesday last week, 20-year-old art student Ceren Ozdemir left her ballet class in the Black Sea province of Ordu to start her walk home.

She was followed. The man keeping up with her went undetected. When Ozdemir reached her front door, he stabbed her several times. Left to die in the street, she later succumbed to her injuries in hospital.

The next day, her killer — who has a dozen previous convictions, including robbery and assault — was arrested at a bus stop. He is now facing state prosecution.

Women’s rights organization We Will Stop Femicide said that Ozdemir’s death was the 430th registered murder of a woman in Turkey this year.

The group — widely considered to be a trusted source on violence against women in the country — claims that 440 women were killed last year, with 2019 set to beat that unwelcome record.

In this decade, the group says that more than 2,600 women have been killed, most of them at the hands of their partners.

Turkish women and rights activists are furious. Their anger is directed not only at male murderers and their accomplices, but also at the authorities, which they accuse of inaction and of fostering a culture that ignores the plight of women.

On Nov. 25, a week before Ozdemir’s murder, 2,000 women gathered in Istanbul on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

They were forced away by the police, who used plastic bullets and tear gas to disperse the crowd.

On Dec. 8, hundreds assembled again in Istanbul’s Kadikoy district to protest violence against women.

They gathered to join a coordinated international movement performing a dance and song called “A rapist in your path.”

The event, first created by Chilean group Las Tesis, set social media ablaze after its debut performance in Santiago, Chile, went viral.

The Istanbul police once again used tear gas to disrupt the rally and deny women the opportunity to deliver their performance.

The EFE news agency reported that after demonstrators started to perform the Spanish- language song in Turkish, police snatched their megaphones.

Fidan Ataselim, below, the leader of We Will Stop Femicide: “The law should be applied properly in order to keep women alive.” (Supplied)

Among those arrested was the leader of We Will Stop Femicide, Fidan Ataselim. One protester told EFE: “We came to scream against patriarchal violence and they have attacked us.”

The group, which has branches across the country and around the world, released a statement demanding that a “minister of women” be established.

“The president, the prime minister and the leaders of all political parties should condemn violence against women,” the statement added.

Clearly, Turkish women are disappointed with the political response to the spate of killings.

In August, after a woman’s murder was captured on video — sparking nationwide outrage — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that he would support any parliamentary act that would restore the death penalty.

But We Will Stop Femicide said: “Practices such as ‘capital punishment’ ... are human rights violations and (this group) rejects them as possible solutions.”

The filmed murder of Emine Bulut, 38, whose throat was slit by her ex-husband in front of her daughter, led more than just Erdogan to wake up to the problem. 

Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu promptly blamed “male violence” for her death. Major football club Besiktas held a minute’s silence in memory of Bulut.

And despite Erdogan’s death-penalty propositions not being received positively by campaigners, Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul said in September that his ministry would do anything to halt the violence.

“If it will save just one person, if it prevents one child, one woman from dying or facing violence, we will change not just a law but even the constitution,” he said.

Ankara drove forward the ratification of a 2011 Council of Europe accord, the Istanbul Convention, which prioritizes gender equality. Turkey also passed laws in 2012 designed to protect women from violence.

“Men cannot accept that Turkey is a modern country where women have rights. Some of these men don’t even think we have the right to live.”

Fidan Ataselim, general secretary of We Will Stop Femicide

But in a 2018 report, the Council of Europe said that the cause of violence against women in Turkey was gender inequality, and called on the country to remove traditions that lead to their practice.

Many Turkish Islamist commentators and public figures who support socially conservative laws have opposed the Istanbul Convention, arguing that equality is a corrosive influence in society.

In an interview with Reuters, Islamist writer Abdurrahman Dilipak said that restraining orders and laws for the protection of women fuel divorces and violence.

“Wandering among us is a devil with an angel’s face which is organizing conflict, not peace, within the family,” he added.

“The family is collapsing. With an international agreement (the Istanbul Convention), a trap is being set up against women, men, children and the family.”

But campaigners believe that the devils are not the laws designed to protect them, but the men killing their mothers, sisters, daughters, cousins and friends.

Fidan Ataselim, We Will Stop Femicide’s general secretary, said: “Men cannot accept that Turkey is a modern country where women have rights. Some of these men don’t even think we have the right to live.”

But hope is not lost. Ataselim believes that with the right legal campaigns, Turkish society can successfully fight back against the scourge of domestic violence and sexist killings.

“It’s possible to stop femicide. The Istanbul Convention has to be applied effectively to strengthen and protect women. When it was signed in 2011, we saw a decrease in femicide figures,” she said.

“We have to take this path. The law should be applied properly in order to keep women alive.”