Four Tunisians among human trafficking suspects in Sicily

Four Tunisians among human trafficking suspects in Sicily
Eight people are facing trial on the island of Sicily on human trafficking charges as illegal immigrant numbers surge. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 20 May 2020

Four Tunisians among human trafficking suspects in Sicily

Four Tunisians among human trafficking suspects in Sicily
  • Eight face trial on the island as illegal immigrant numbers surge

ROME: Eight people, including Italian and Tunisian citizens, are facing trial in Sicily accused of illegally trafficking immigrants from North Africa.

According to prosecutors in Trapani, on Sicily’s western coast, illegal immigrants were forced to pay between €1,500 ($1,600) and €4,000 for the journey.

The trial is taking place as Italy faces a surge in immigrants from North Africa attempting to cross the Mediterranean following the arrival of warmer weather.

The eight suspects were charged following the “Sea Ghost” investigation carried out by finance police in the western Sicilian town of Marsala last July. The defendants are said to have criminal links to illegal immigration, human trafficking and cigarette smuggling.

Defendants include Angelo Licciardi, 60, believed to be the head of a criminal organization; Giuseppe Vasile, 63, a construction entrepreneur; and Giuseppa Randazzo, 47, a legal representative for an agricultural cooperative.

All three are from Marsala, which is 30 km from Mazara del Vallo, a fishing port with a large number of North African immigrants.

Tunisian nationals Montasar Bouaicha, 30, Nizar Zayar, 33, Fathi Taleb, 35, and Nabil Zayar, 37, are also facing trial, with Taleb and Zayar being tried in absentia.

At the first hearing, defense attorney Luigi Pipitone asked the court to scrap a ruling for an “immediate judgment” issued by a Palermo preliminary investigations judge.

Pipitone said that there was no clear evidence to justify the special proceeding, which does not include a preliminary hearing. The court is expected to rule on the issue on June 15.

Investigators said that the defendants allegedly referred to migrants transported from North Africa to Sicily as “lambs.”

Human traffickers used powerful motorboats and dinghies that carried up to 12 people and 300 kg of cigarettes per trip.

Migrants were often threatened with guns and knives, they said.

Investigators believe that Licciardi was in charge of the finances, and buying and maintaining the motorboats.

After the illegal immigrants reached Sicily, Randazzo produced fake job contracts to allow them to obtain or renew residency permits.

The Tunisian defendants sought out potential migrants in Tunisia and Algeria, according to investigators.

As Italy struggles to cope with a new wave of migrant arrivals amid the coronavirus emergency, an investigation published by an Italian newspaper, Avvenire, has accused Maltese armed forces of turning away a boat carrying migrants at gunpoint after giving them fuel and GPS coordinates to reach Sicily.

According to the newspaper, footage provided by an NGO shows a Maltese armed forces vessel refusing to rescue a dinghy carrying 101 asylum seekers in Maltese territorial waters, instead providing them with equipment to continue their journey to Italy.

Many of the migrants leapt into the water to try to reach the boat, mistakenly thinking they were being rescued.
 
The newspaper quoted one saying that the Maltese refused to take them to Malta as “everyone was sick from coronavirus.”

“They gave us red life vests, a new engine and fuel, and told us they would show us the route to Italy. Then they pointed guns at us and said: ‘We give you 30 minutes’,” the migrant said.

The migrants eventually made it to Pozzallo in Sicily on April 12.

Footage of the incident, initially sent to Alarm Phone, a migrant hotline service, is set to spark a row between Italy and Malta.

In early April, both countries declared their ports “unsafe” due to the pandemic and closed their borders to migrant landings.

As a result, boats carrying asylum seekers were left adrift in European search and rescue zones. An unknown number died at sea of dehydration or drowning.

When the overloaded dinghy carrying 101 migrants reached Pozzallo, there was surprise that such a small vessel with so many people aboard could make the 500 km trip from Libya.


Moscow coronavirus deaths hit record as Russian COVID-19 case surge continues

Moscow coronavirus deaths hit record as Russian COVID-19 case surge continues
Updated 20 min 12 sec ago

Moscow coronavirus deaths hit record as Russian COVID-19 case surge continues

Moscow coronavirus deaths hit record as Russian COVID-19 case surge continues
  • Officials have scrambled to compel people to get inoculated amid tepid demand for the vaccine since cases began surging this month

MOSCOW: Russia on Friday reported a record number of deaths linked to COVID-19 in Moscow, amid a surge in infections that authorities blame on the Delta variant and the slow progress of a vaccination program.
Officials have scrambled to compel people to get inoculated amid tepid demand for the vaccine since cases began surging this month.
The government coronavirus task force reported 20,393 new COVID-19 cases, including 7,916 in Moscow, the most confirmed in a single day since Jan. 24, taking the official national tally since the pandemic began to 5,409,088.
It said 601 people had died of coronavirus-linked causes in the past 24 hours, with 98 in the capital, pushing the national death toll to 132,064. St. Petersburg also reported 98 deaths.
The federal statistics agency has kept a separate count and has said Russia recorded around 270,000 deaths related to COVID-19 from April 2020 to April 2021.
Moscow’s authorities have ordered bars and restaurants from Monday to serve people only if they can present a QR-code showing they have been vaccinated, had an infection indicating immunity or recently tested negative.
As demand for the shots boomed, the Kremlin said on Friday vaccine shortages in Russia were also linked to storage difficulties, and that shortages would be resolved in the coming days.
The local health ministry in Russia’s far eastern Khabarovsk region on Friday said it had been forced to suspend vaccinations at some sites in two cities due to shortages.


‘Brutal’ third COVID-19 wave hits Africa as vaccination slow

‘Brutal’ third COVID-19 wave hits Africa as vaccination slow
Updated 25 June 2021

‘Brutal’ third COVID-19 wave hits Africa as vaccination slow

‘Brutal’ third COVID-19 wave hits Africa as vaccination slow
  • Africa is still the world’s least-affected continent after Oceania
  • Compounding Africa’s third wave are immunization hitches, the spread of more transmissible virus variants and winter temperatures

JOHANNESBURG: Africa is facing a vicious coronavirus resurgence, with unprecedented hospital admissions and fatalities pushing health facilities to the brink as the continent falls far behind in the global vaccination drive.
With just under 5.3 million reported cases and around 139,000 deaths among its nearly 1.3 billion people, Africa is still the world’s least-affected continent after Oceania, according to an AFP tally.
So far African nations have been spared disasters comparable to Brazil or India.
But the pandemic is resurging at an alarming rate in at least 12 countries, with continental cases expected to hit a record peak in around three weeks.
“The third wave is picking up speed, spreading faster, hitting harder,” World Health Organization Africa director Matshidiso Moeti warned Thursday. “The latest surge threatens to be Africa’s worst yet.”
Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) director John Nkengasong on Thursday described the third wave as “extremely brutal” and “very devastating.”
And Liberia’s President George Weah has warned the wave is “far more alarming than a year ago” as hospitals overflow in his country.
Compounding Africa’s third wave are immunization hitches, the spread of more transmissible virus variants and winter temperatures in the Southern Hemisphere.
The Delta variant, first detected in India, has so far been reported in 14 African countries, making up the bulk of new cases in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, according to the WHO.
Doctors in South Africa, which accounts for more than 35 percent of all cases recorded on the continent, are struggling with an unprecedented influx of patients.
Unlike past waves, this time “the hospital system is not coping,” said doctors’ association chief Angelique Coetzee.
South Africa’s average new daily infections have increased 15-fold since early April, with hospital admissions rising around 60 percent.
Namibia and Zambia are also seeing steep infection curves.
Zambia’s health ministry has reported an “unprecedented” number of Covid-19 deaths piling pressure on mortuaries while Africa CDC said the country was “overwhelmed.”
With similar trends in Uganda, Health Minister Jane Ruth Acheng blamed highly infectious variants for the new spread, “different from the second wave” with a large number of young people hospitalized.
Uganda is one of the countries facing reported oxygen shortages, although Acheng denied civil society groups’ claim that the shortfall amounts to 24.5 million liters per day.
Governments are again tightening restrictions, including a new nationwide lockdown in Uganda and a tougher curfew in 13 Kenyan counties.
At the same time the pace of vaccinations is struggling to get off the ground.
According to the WHO, about one percent of the continent’s population is fully vaccinated — the lowest ratio globally — and 90 percent of African nations will miss a target to inoculate a tenth of their populations by September.
“We are running a race behind time, the pandemic is ahead of us. We are not winning in Africa this battle against the virus,” said Africa CDC’s Nkengasong.
“It’s frightening what is going on on the continent,” he added.
A recent pledge by Western leaders to donate one billion vaccine doses to poorer countries has been widely criticized for being too slow.
Cases are “outpacing vaccinations,” Moeti said. “Africa urgently needs a million more vaccines. We need a sprint.”
Several countries have failed to administer jabs from the UN-backed Covax scheme before their use-by date because of logistical failures and vaccine hesitancy.
Malawi destroyed almost 20,000 expired AstraZeneca doses in May, while the DRC and South Sudan have returned more than two million shots to the UN to avoid a similar scenario.
Authorities in Congo-Brazzaville are concerned over the slow take-up of almost 100,000 Chinese-made vaccines expiring in July.
A surge in coronavirus cases in India, the world’s main AstraZeneca supplier, has delayed Covax deliveries to Africa.
Malawi exhausted its stocks last week, just as thousands were due for their second shot.
And hundreds of frustrated Zimbabweans protested last month after Harare’s main vaccination center ran out of jabs.
South Africa says it has secured enough Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines to immunize 67 percent of its 59 million inhabitants.
But the rollout has been hit by setbacks and only 2.2 million people — health care workers and over 60s — have received a jab so far.
“The lack of vaccines in a region with high levels of poverty and inequality means many people feel they are just waiting to die,” said Amnesty International’s regional director Deprose Muchena.


Philippines rescues daughter of suicide bombers from militant group

Philippines rescues daughter of suicide bombers from militant group
Updated 25 June 2021

Philippines rescues daughter of suicide bombers from militant group

Philippines rescues daughter of suicide bombers from militant group
  • Girl, aged between 10 and 13, had been indoctrinated

MANILA: Philippine security forces have rescued the daughter of suicide bombers from the militant Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). 

The girl’s parents were Indonesian nationals 35-year-old Rullie Rian Zeke and his 32-year-old wife Ulfah Handayani Saleh. They were  behind the Jan. 2019 attack on a cathedral in the southern island of Jolo that killed 23 people and wounded more than 100 others.

The girl, identified as Siti Aisyah Rullie, alias Maryam Israni, was recovered in a joint operation by military and police teams in Barangay Bangkal, Patikul, Sulu, shortly before midnight on Wednesday.

“She is estimated to be between 10 and 13 years of age,” Col. Alaric Delos Santos, Western Mindanao Command spokesperson, told Arab News. “There is ongoing coordination with the Department and Social Services, and even with Indonesian authorities, to determine what to do with her.”

Aisyah’s parents were members of the Indonesian Daesh-linked group Jamaah Ansharut Daulah and affiliates of the ASG.

The cathedral bombing was the first suicide attack in the Philippines to involve a woman.

Aisyah was reportedly married to ASG member Rudymar Habib Jihiiran, alias Gulam, and had been indoctrinated to become a suicide bomber like her parents.

According to the military, Jihiiran is a close aide of ASG leader Radullan Sahiron.

Army 11th Infantry Division Commander Maj. Gen. William Gonzales said law enforcers were trying to arrest him on multiple charges of murder, but that he had managed to flee with two other militants.

Troops found Aisyah at the house serving as the group’s hideout.

Lt. Jerrica Manongdo, JTF-Sulu spokesperson, said she might have been married off to Jihiiran to have a “guardian.”

“It is a practice among the Abu Sayyaf that when a female member of the family is left behind, regardless if she is still a minor, she will be wed to another ASG member for (the) purposes of having a guardian,” he told Arab News, adding that Aisyah’s elder brother, while also a minor, was already an armed member of the Daesh-inspired Daulah Islamiyah.

Her older sister Rezky Fantasya Rullie, alias Cici, has been imprisoned in the southern Philippines. She had reportedly planned to carry out a suicide attack to avenge the death of her husband Andi Baso, an Indonesian militant who was reportedly killed in a gunfight with Philippine forces in Sulu last year.

Another brother is believed to be either in jail or was killed while fighting for Daesh in Syria. He was the only member of the family believed to have crossed into Syria as they went to Turkey in 2016 with hopes of joining the group.

They were arrested by Turkish authorities in Jan. 2017 and sent back to Indonesia. 

A year later, however, they made it to the southern Philippines and joined ASG commander Hajan Sawadjaan, who had reportedly taken over as the Daesh Philippine leader in 2017. Sawadjaan is believed to have been lethally wounded in an encounter with Philippine troops last year.


Suicides rise at alarming rate in impoverished Pakistani desert region

Suicides rise at alarming rate in impoverished Pakistani desert region
Updated 25 June 2021

Suicides rise at alarming rate in impoverished Pakistani desert region

Suicides rise at alarming rate in impoverished Pakistani desert region
  • From 2016-20, 79 of 767 suicide cases in Sindh province occurred in Tharparkar district

MITHI, Sindh: Pakistan’s southern region in the Thar Desert has seen an alarming rise in suicide cases, especially among women, with authorities linking the emerging health crisis to chronic mental illness in the impoverished district.

Between 2016 to 2020, the Sindh Mental Health Authority (SMHA), an arm of the provincial government, recorded 767 suicides in the southern province, of which 79 cases occurred in Tharparkar.  

Police data shows that at least 48 people — 31 of them women — have taken their lives in the district since January this year. Between June 11-16 alone, eight suicide cases were registered in the region.

This month, the SMHA carried out what it called a “psychiatric autopsy” of the district to determine the “reasons behind suicides, including why more women were committing suicide,” the authority’s chairman, Dr. Karim Khawaja, said.

“The results of the psychiatric autopsy will be available in the next few weeks,” he added. “It will reveal the real reasons for suicide cases and help in preventing suicides in Tharparkar.”

Baadal Saand, who heads the anti-suicide cell of the Tharparkar police, attributed a majority of the cases to “mental illness and depression.”

Dr. Bharat Kumar, the district’s only psychiatrist, said poverty “may be a vital reason” but the “mother reason” was psychiatric illness.

The UN Development Program’s Multidimensional Poverty Index for Pakistan reports that 87 percent of the population in the Thar Desert region lives in poverty.

“Besides psychiatric illness and depression, other reasons are lack of family support or social support, or economic issues,” Kumar said.

Khatau Jani, a senior journalist from the region, concurred that rising mental illness issues were being caused by extreme poverty.

“These are extreme poverty-hit communities,” Jani said. “What Thar needs is increased funding from both federal and provincial government poverty reduction programs.”

Climate change is also driving locals into more deprivation, as their livelihoods depend on rainfall in a drought-battered region.

A report published by the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) in early June indicated that droughts persisting since October last year had resulted in increased food insecurity in a number of Sindh districts, including Tharparkar.

“Due to consistent deficiency of rainfall since October 2020, the moderate drought has been further intensified into severe drought, especially in the southwestern Balochistan and southeastern Sindh,” the PDM said. “Drought conditions may further affect agriculture and livestock.”

Experts say modern agriculture could relieve the poverty-stricken area.

Dr. Amanullah Mahar, assistant professor at the Center for Environmental Science at the University of Sindh, recommended planting moringa trees, which flourish in arid and semi-arid environments, and whose fruit pods can be consumed as food.

“Locals would not have to wait for rains for the production of moringa,” he said.

Another option was biosaline agriculture, Mahar said, which is a means of producing plants in saline-rich soil in arid, water-scarce locations. The method has already been tested in the district.

“Recently there was a successful experiment with biosaline agriculture in Tharparkar,” he said. “It is important to expand this agriculture pattern throughout the desert.”

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Kashmiri leaders urge Indian PM to restore region's autonomy

Kashmiri leaders urge Indian PM to restore region's autonomy
Updated 25 June 2021

Kashmiri leaders urge Indian PM to restore region's autonomy

Kashmiri leaders urge Indian PM to restore region's autonomy
  • Government removed protection on land, jobs in 2019

NEW DELHI: Kashmiri leaders from pro-India parties on Thursday urged the prime minister to restore the region's special autonomy and engage in dialogue with Pakistan during their first meeting with him since the region lost its autonomy and saw many of its leaders jailed in a crackdown.

Muslim-majority Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, with both claiming it in its entirety. 

It became a flashpoint between the neighbors at the end of British colonial rule in 1947, when the Indian subcontinent was divided into predominantly Hindu India and mainly Muslim Pakistan. India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars over control of Kashmir.

In Aug. 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government abolished Article 370 of the constitution ending Kashmir's autonomy. It split it into two federal territories — Ladakh and Jammu-Kashmir — and placed its entire population under lockdown and a communication blackout. 

In a series of administrative changes that followed, India removed protections on land and jobs for the local population, which many likened to attempts at demographically altering the region. 

Leaders of 14 pro-India political parties were invited for Thursday's meeting in New Delhi. Many of them, including Kashmir's former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, had been under house arrest for months.

“People of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) feel very humiliated after what happened on Aug. 5, 2019,” Mufti told reporters. “The way Article 370 was removed from the constitution — unconstitutionally, illegally and immorally — this is not acceptable to the people of Kashmir, and we will struggle for the restoration of Article 370 because this is the question of our identity.” 

Home Minister Amit Shah, while not commenting on the restoration of Kashmir's autonomy, confirmed that the restoration of its statehood — with a state being of higher administrative importance than federal territory — was discussed.

“The future of Jammu and Kashmir was discussed and the delimitation exercise and peaceful elections are important milestones in restoring statehood as promised in parliament,” he tweeted after the meeting. 

India’s main opposition Congress party demanded that the restoration of the territory's statehood be carried out soon. 

“Statehood should be restored at the earliest,” Congress leader and former Kashmir chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad told the media. “The prime minister and home minister had made a promise that the government would restore statehood.” 

The meeting took place against the backdrop of reaffirming a 2003 ceasefire accord between India and Pakistan in February. The Kashmiri leaders said India should engage in talks with Pakistan for the sake of the region’s economic condition.

“I complimented the PM on (the) ceasefire with Pakistan and told him to hold talks with Pakistan for peace in Kashmir,” Mufti added. “New Delhi should talk with Islamabad for the resumption of the stalled trade between both parts of Kashmir because many people’s lives are involved in this.” 

Omar Abdullah, another former chief minister of Kashmir and leader of the region's oldest political party the National Conference, also supported talks with Pakistan. “We can change friends but not neighbors,” he said. “Pakistan is our close neighbor and we should use the back channel to address the existing tensions between the two nations.” 

But, among observers and Kashmiris themselves, there was little hope about the meeting.

“Modi needed a photograph to convey to his international audience that he is engaged with the Kashmiri leadership, that is what (he) has got on Thursday,” Srinagar-based political analyst Prof. Sheikh Showkat Hussain, who teaches at the Central University of Kashmir, told Arab News. “It was not meant for something serious, and this is the common impression in Kashmir.”