Kabul under fire for alleged misuse of pandemic aid

Kabul under fire for alleged misuse of pandemic aid
A UNICEF worker helps an internally displaced girl put on a face mask at a makeshift camp, amid the coronavirus disease outbreak, in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. (Reuters)
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Updated 26 June 2020

Kabul under fire for alleged misuse of pandemic aid

Kabul under fire for alleged misuse of pandemic aid
  • MPs join chorus of complaints amid claims of fraud, waste

KABUL: The Afghan government is facing mounting criticism over alleged misuse of international funding to battle the coronavirus pandemic.

Following the virus outbreak, Afghanistan received emergency assistance totalling €117 million ($131 million) from the EU, along with $100.4 million from the World Bank and $40 million from the Asian Development Bank.

However, Integrity Watch Afghanistan (IWA) on Wednesday accused the Afghan government of trying to “monopolize” funds from foreign donors to combat COVID-19 — a move it claimed would deepen mistrust between the government and the public.

“Monopolization in spending the aid creates severe vulnerabilities and removes trust,” said Sayed Ekram Afzali, head of the IWA.

Complaints of mismanagement and embezzlement by government officials in Kabul and other provinces have been increasing since March, leading to protests in many parts of the country.

Delayed salary payments to doctors, shortages of protective gear for the medical staff treating coronavirus patients, and a lack of oxygen, sanitizers and masks at hospitals has led to widespread criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis.

A senior official at the Afghan Health Ministry told Arab News on Wednesday that hundreds of thousands of dollars were squandered by three deputy ministers and the heads of two departments, including one in charge of procurement.

The three deputy ministers and two department heads resigned recently, along with Health Minister Ferozuddin Feroz, amid accusations of mismanagement and graft.

The ministry official, who requested anonymity, said that there have also been reports of ventilators going missing.

On Tuesday, the attorney general’s office said that prosecutors arrested the manager of a Health Ministry warehouse following claims that he was paid $80,000 by a firm to sell protective gear donated by international community at a cheaper price.

Local media reports on the disappearance of ventilators and the squandering of funds prompted Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to order an official investigation on Monday.

“The government will act against those who have misused the resources in fighting coronavirus,” he said.

Finance Ministry spokesman Shamrooz Khan Masjedi told Arab News that anyone with evidence of state and foreign aid being misused should contact the authorities.

“Those found guilty will be dealt on the basis of law in such a pressing time,” he said.

The Finance Ministry, which handles foreign aid, has been viewed as a main source of corruption in Afghanistan. Two former ministers, one in office until only a few months ago, left the country following accusations of graft.

The latest wave of concern follows Ghani’s request to the International Monetary Fund for a loan of $229 million.

After the fund approved the loan, protests erupted in the Afghan Parliament, with claims the money would be squandered because many lawmakers acted without accountability.

Parliament finally backed off and approved the loan after a lengthy debate and the senate’s intervention. 

Ghani argued that the loan will stabilize the country’s budget, which has been hit by revenue shortfall owing to the virus lockdown. However, some lawmakers and analysts fear a lack of transparency in government spending and procurement could leave room for fraud.

Torek Farhadi, a former government adviser who previously served on the IMF’s executive board, said that Kabul “is unable to give a full inventory of what it has received from international aid.”

He added: “It has received a lot and has squandered a lot.”

Farhadi said that corruption “is tolerated at the highest levels of government, and that is why some MPs oppose money being in the hands of this government.”

Lawmaker Zal Mohammad Zalmai told Arab News: “When poor coronavirus patients go to hospital, they find no medicine, no oxygen and a shortage of necessary resources. We in the parliament have the right to be skeptical of the government’s intention. 

“There is no audit, transparency or accountability.”  

The UN in Afghanistan earlier in June also voiced concern over corruption, saying: “Sustained and effective efforts in fighting corruption in Afghanistan remain critical for the country’s future.”

“Anti-corruption efforts and integrity reforms” should be key priorities of Afghan leaders, Deborah Lyons, the UN secretary-general’s special envoy for Afghanistan, said. 

“Addressing the coronavirus crisis and building a peaceful, healthy and prosperous Afghanistan requires integrity and accountability — fundamental principles for the future of any nation,” she said. 


EU targets key Belarus sectors after plane diversion

EU targets key Belarus sectors after plane diversion
Updated 21 June 2021

EU targets key Belarus sectors after plane diversion

EU targets key Belarus sectors after plane diversion
  • Ministers meeting in Luxembourg backed broad-ranging measures targeting major revenue sources for Belarus
  • Officials said measures include ban on sales of surveillance equipment and tightening of an arms embargo to be formally adopted by 27-nation bloc

LUXEMBOURG: EU foreign ministers on Monday agreed to sanction key sectors of the Belarus economy as the bloc ratchets up pressure on President Alexander Lukashenko after the forced landing of an airliner.
Ministers meeting in Luxembourg backed broad-ranging measures targeting major revenue sources for the Belarusian regime: potash fertilizer exports, the tobacco industry, petroleum and petrochemical products.
Officials said the measures — including a ban on sales of surveillance equipment to Belarus and tightening of an arms embargo — should be formally adopted by the 27-nation bloc in the coming days.
The ministers also officially signed off on adding 86 additional individuals and entities to an assets freeze and visa ban blacklist.
Seven people — including defense minister Viktor Khrenin and transport minister Alexei Avramenko — were sanctioned for the forced landing of a Ryanair passenger jet last month.
The remaining 71 individuals — including Russian tycoon Mikhail Gutseriyev, Lukashenko’s son Dmitry and daughter-in-law Liliya — were targeted for ties to the Belarus government’s sweeping crackdown on opposition or for supporting the regime.
“Today we have confirmed and decided that sectoral sanctions will be taken against Belarus, which will have a severe impact on the Belarusian economy,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said ahead of the meeting.
“We want the release of the political prisoners, an end to the violence against protesters and the opposition, and an inclusive dialogue that will lead to free and fair elections.”
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said earlier that the economic sanctions should be wrapped up after a summit of the bloc’s leaders in Brussels later this week.
“We’re going to hurt the economy of Belarus heavily.”
EU statistics show that trade with Belarus topped 10 billion euros in 2020.
Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who insists she rightfully won last year’s poll, welcomed the inclusion of business tycoons and top officials on the blacklist.
“It’s a rather strong sanction list,” she told a press conference in Brussels.
Belarusian strongman Lukashenko sparked international outrage by dispatching a fighter jet on May 23 to intercept the Ryanair plane flying from Greece to Lithuania.
When the plane was forced to land in Minsk, Belarus arrested dissident journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega on board.
The EU responded quickly by blocking Belarusian airlines from flying to the bloc and stopped carriers from its 27 nations from using Belarusian airspace.
The bloc had already slapped sanctions last year on 88 individuals — including Lukashenko and his son — over a brutal crackdown on protests since the veteran leader claimed victory at elections in August deemed fraudulent by the West.
The authorities detained thousands during the demonstrations and the EU says that some 500 political prisoners remain behind bars.
“We are clearly showing that Stalinism and state terror no longer have a place in the 21st century,” Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said.
Lukashenko, ruler of Belarus since 1994, has so far shrugged off the pressure with backing from his key ally Russia.
Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis complained that Belarus was hitting back by sending migrants, mostly Iraqis and Syrians, across its border.
He warned the flow could increase after sanctions were approved and that Lithuania “might need help and assistance from other European countries.”


German tourists investigated in Italy for fatal boat crash

German tourists investigated in Italy for fatal boat crash
Updated 21 June 2021

German tourists investigated in Italy for fatal boat crash

German tourists investigated in Italy for fatal boat crash
  • Investigators were awaiting results of blood analyses to determine if tourists were drinking before crash
  • Woman's body was recovered from the lake Sunday evening by Italian firefighter rescue divers

ROME: Two German tourists from Munich are being investigated in Italy for a boat collision on Lake Garda that killed an Italian man and woman, Italian Carabinieri paramilitary police said.
Italian state RaiNews24 TV said investigators were awaiting results on Monday of blood analyzes to determine if the tourists had been drinking before the crash. The Carabinieri said both Germans are free on their own recognizance while under investigation for alleged manslaughter and failure to provide assistance.
The woman’s body was recovered from the lake Sunday evening by Italian firefighter rescue divers and the man’s body was found in their small boat earlier in the day.
The Carabinieri office conducting the investigation declined to give further details because the probe is still ongoing.
The Corriere della Sera newspaper said the victims’ boat was badly gashed near the bow and that the man, 37, had suffered a grave abdominal wound. One of the 25-year-old woman’s legs was partially torn off, it said. A search had been launched for the woman after women’s clothing was found on the boat near the man’s body.
Police located the tourists after people noticed their docked motorboat was damaged, the Italian daily said.
The Italians reportedly had met with friends on shore Saturday evening, then headed out on the man’s boat and were about mid-lake when the vessel was struck by the motorboat. Corriere della Sera said investigators found pieces of wood from the Italian man’s boat imbedded in the tourists’ boat.
Lake Garda, which has many shoreline resorts in northern Italy, is very popular with European visitors.


UN rights chief ‘deeply disturbed’ by ‘serious violations’ in Ethiopia’s Tigray

UN rights chief ‘deeply disturbed’ by ‘serious violations’ in Ethiopia’s Tigray
Updated 21 June 2021

UN rights chief ‘deeply disturbed’ by ‘serious violations’ in Ethiopia’s Tigray

UN rights chief ‘deeply disturbed’ by ‘serious violations’ in Ethiopia’s Tigray
  • Extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests and detentions, sexual violence against children as well as adults, and forced displacement

GENEVA: The UN rights chief voiced alarm Monday at continued reports of “serious violations” in Ethiopia’s violence-wracked Tigray region, by all parties in the conflict, including continued abuses by Eritrean troops.
“I am deeply disturbed by continued reports of serious violations of international humanitarian law and gross human rights violations and abuses against civilians by all parties to the conflict,” Michelle Bachelet told the UN Human Rights Council, pointing to “extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests and detentions, sexual violence against children as well as adults, and forced displacement.”


US envoy hopes North Korea responds positively on offered talks

US envoy hopes North Korea responds positively on offered talks
Updated 21 June 2021

US envoy hopes North Korea responds positively on offered talks

US envoy hopes North Korea responds positively on offered talks
  • United States’ diplomacy with North Korea stalled over its nuclear program and US-led sanctions

SEOUL: President Joe Biden’s special envoy for North Korea said Monday he hopes to see a positive reaction from the North soon on US offers for talks after the North Korean leader ordered officials to prepare for both dialogue and confrontation.
Sung Kim, Biden’s special representative for North Korea, is in Seoul to speak with South Korean and Japanese officials about the United States’ stalled diplomacy with the North over its nuclear program and US-led sanctions.
The trilateral talks followed a North Korean political conference last week where leader Kim Jong Un called for stronger efforts to improve his nation’s economy, further battered last year by pandemic border closures and now facing worsening food shortages.
The US envoy Sung Kim said the allies took note of the North Korean leader’s comments and are hoping the North will respond positively to the proposal of a meeting.
“We continue to hope that the DPRK will respond positively to our outreach and our offer to meet anywhere, anytime without preconditions,” Kim said during his meeting with South Korean and Japanese nuclear envoys, Noh Kyu-duk and Takehiro Funakoshi, respectively. He was referring to the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said the officials from the three countries reaffirmed a coordinated approach toward North Korea and shared commitment to work toward a quick resumption of dialogue.
North Korea’s economic setbacks followed the collapse of Kim Jong Un’s ambitious summitry with then-President Donald Trump in 2019, when the Americans rejected the North Koreans’ demands for major sanctions relief in exchange for a partial surrender of their nuclear capabilities.
Kim Jong Un in recent political speeches has threatened to bolster his nuclear deterrent and claimed that the fate of diplomacy and bilateral relations depends on whether Washington abandons what he calls hostile policies.
US officials have suggested Biden would take the middle ground between Trump’s direct dealings with Kim and President Barack Obama’s policy of “strategic patience.” But some experts say the North likely must take concrete steps toward denuclearization before the Biden administration would ease any sanctions.
South Korea, which is eager for inter-Korean engagement, has expressed optimism about a quick resumption of diplomacy.
Seoul’s Unification Ministry said Kim’s comments during a ruling party meeting last week, where he said he expected both dialogue and confrontation with the United States, demonstrated a flexibility toward diplomacy.
But others saw Kim’s comments as merely a reiteration of Pyongyang’s wait-and-see stance of insisting Washington budge and offer concessions first.
While Kim urged officials to boost agricultural production and brace for prolonged COVID-19 restrictions, none of the decisions reported after the party meeting seemed directly related to facilitating talks with the United States.
While displaying an openness to talks, the Biden administration has provided little detail about its policy on North Korea beyond a long-term principle of taking a “calibrated and practical approach” on diplomacy while simultaneously upholding sanctions against the country.
Thae Yong Ho, a former North Korean diplomat who defected and was elected a South Korean lawmaker, posted on Facebook that Kim’s comments at the party meeting seemed tailored to mirror what the Biden administration has said about the North.
“Advocates of engagement see Kim Jong Un’s recent mention of dialogue as a sign North Korea is opening the door for talks, but Pyongyang has not yet expressed a willingness for working-level negotiations on denuclearization,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
He said the North may return to negotiations only after demonstrating its strength with post-pandemic economic recovery and provocative military tests, which could possibly come later this summer when the United States and South Korea usually hold their combined military exercises. The allies describe the drills as defensive in nature, but the North claims they are invasion rehearsals.


China urges US not to seek ‘political manipulation’ after Taiwan COVID-19 vaccine aid

China urges US not to seek ‘political manipulation’ after Taiwan COVID-19 vaccine aid
Updated 21 June 2021

China urges US not to seek ‘political manipulation’ after Taiwan COVID-19 vaccine aid

China urges US not to seek ‘political manipulation’ after Taiwan COVID-19 vaccine aid
  • The United States delivers 2.5 million COVID-19 shots to Chinese-claimed Taiwan

BEIJING: China’s foreign ministry urged the United States on Monday not to seek “political manipulation” in the name of vaccine assistance after the United States delivered 2.5 million COVID-19 shots to Chinese-claimed Taiwan.
Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian made the comment at a daily news briefing in Beijing.