Emotional scenes as UN General Assembly hears of human rights abuses in Syria

A three-person panel investigated more than 100 detention facilities in Syria. (AFP/File)
A three-person panel investigated more than 100 detention facilities in Syria. (AFP/File)
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Updated 03 March 2021

Emotional scenes as UN General Assembly hears of human rights abuses in Syria

Emotional scenes as UN General Assembly hears of human rights abuses in Syria
  • Daughter tells how her father disappeared nearly eight years ago after he was arrested; calls for justice for all victims of Syrian regime
  • Verdict of German court that jailed a regime agent sends message to Assad that those who commit such crimes cannot hide, envoy says

NEW YORK: “My name is Wafa Ali Mustafa and I have not heard from my father, Ali Mustafa, for 2,801 days — almost eight years ago, when he was forcibly disappeared by the Syrian regime.”
The atmosphere in the UN General Assembly Hall changed as Mustafa spoke. She was one of three representatives of civil society who briefed members during a high-level panel discussion of the human rights situation in Syria, in particular the torture and disappearance of detainees. It came as the 10th anniversary of the start of conflict, on March 15, 2011, approaches.
“My mom, two sisters and me have never been told why he has been taken away from us or where he is being held. We just don’t know,” Mustafa said in a quavering voice. Her father is a human rights activist who took part in protests against oppression by the regime.
A journalist and activist, Mustafa told how she was herself detained in 2011 at the age of 21 “for daring to dream of a free and just Syria.” She has spent the 10 years since her release “demanding justice against the Assad regime and other groups who continue to use detention as a weapon of war.”
Mustafa graduated from university in Berlin last year. Her education meant everything to her father and yet she admitted she often finds herself wondering, like many other Syrians, whether everything she does is pointless.
“I wondered this morning, is there a point in addressing all of you today? All Syrians wonder the same,” she told the General Assembly.
However, she said that on the day she sees her father again he will ask her what she had been doing during all these years. “He will ask what we all have been doing,” she added.
Mustafa’s testimony follows the publication of a report by the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, which concluded that thousands of detainees have been subjected to “unimaginable suffering” during the war, including torture, death and sexual violence against women, girls and boys.
The Security Council tasked the commission with investigating and recording all violations of international law since the start of the conflict. It began when the regime launched a brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters during the “Damascus Spring.” Since then, 400,000 people have died and millions have been forced from their homes.
“At least 20 different, horrific methods of torture used by the government of Syria have been extensively documented,” the investigators wrote in their report.
“These include administering electric shocks, the burning of body parts, pulling off nails and teeth, mock executions, folding detainees into a car tire, and crucifying or suspending individuals from one or two limbs for prolonged periods, often in combination with severe beating.”
The three-person panel investigated more than 100 detention facilities in Syria. Their findings are based on more than 2,500 interviews over the past 10 years. They concluded that none of the warring parties in Syria have respected the rights of detainees. Tens of thousands of people remain unaccounted for, missing without a trace.
“One decade in, it is abundantly clear that it is the children, women and men of Syria who have paid the price when the Syrian government unleashed overwhelming violence to quell dissent,” commission chairman Paulo Pinheiro told the General Assembly.
“Opportunistic foreign funding, arms and other support to the warring parties poured fuel on this fire that the world has been content to watch burn. Terrorist groups proliferated and inflicted their ideology on the people, particularly on women, girls and boys, as well as ethnic and religious minorities and dissenting civilians.”
He added: “Pro-government forces have deliberately and repeatedly targeted hospitals and medical facilities, decimating a medical sector prior to the arrival of the most catastrophic global pandemic in a century.
“The use of chemical weapons has been tolerated, the free flow of humanitarian aid instrumentalized, diverted and hampered — even with Security Council authorization.”
Representatives of more than 30 UN member states addressed the General Assembly. Most were united in calling for justice for the victims of the conflict and for the perpetrators to be held accountable. Without this, they agreed, a national reconciliation will be impossible.
The sentencing by a German court last week of former Syrian secret agent Eyad Al-Gharib to four-and-a-half years in prison, on charges of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity, was hailed as historic.
He had been accused of rounding up peaceful anti-government protesters and delivering them to a detention center where they were tortured. The verdict marked the first time a court outside Syria has ruled on state-sponsored torture by members of the Assad regime.
Christoph Heusgen, Germany’s permanent representative to the UN, said the verdict of the Koblenz state court sends a clear message to Assad that “whoever commits such crimes cannot be safe anywhere.” He added that “Assad’s state has turned the cradle of civilization into a torture chamber.”
The German envoy added that he deplores the “inhumane” decision by China and Russia in July 2020 to veto a UN resolution calling for two border crossings between Turkey and Syria to remain open so that humanitarian aid could be delivered to millions of civilians in the northwest of Syria.
Barbara Woodward, the UK’s permanent representative to the UN, said that each of the 32 instances of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime against civilians constitutes a war crime. She vowed that Britain “will respond more robustly to any further use of chemical weapons” by the regime.
Only Russia defended the Assad regime. Stepan Kuzmenkov, senior counsellor at the Russian mission to the UN, dismissed Tuesday’s meeting, saying it was based on “accusations, lies and conjecture.”
He said the Syrian regime is being attacked because its “independence cause does not suit a number of Western countries who continue to promote practices of using force, or the threat of force, in international relations.”
Kuzmenkov criticized his UN colleagues for “not talking about the real problem: terrorism” and for “using human rights discourse to resolve short-term political goals.” He reiterated Moscow’s stance that unilateral sanctions are to blame for the suffering in Syria.
At no point in his remarks did he mention the subject at hand: torture in Syrian prisons.
The Independent International Commission of Inquiry’s report will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council on March 11.
Despite all the misery, pain and loss during the prolonged conflict, Syrians still cling to hope for a better future.
“Assad’s Syria is a torture state enabled by some members of this assembly — but it will become my home again,” Mustafa told the General Assembly.
“Who am I to say there is no hope? Who are you to say that?”
 


Pakistan court grants bail to opposition leader Shahbaz Sharif

Pakistan court grants bail to opposition leader Shahbaz Sharif
Updated 22 April 2021

Pakistan court grants bail to opposition leader Shahbaz Sharif

Pakistan court grants bail to opposition leader Shahbaz Sharif
  • Shahbaz Sharif is the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly
  • His Pakistan Muslim League party quickly hailed the ruling by the court in the eastern city of Lahore

LAHORE: A Pakistani court granted bail on Thursday to the country’s opposition leader, about seven months after he was arrested by an anti-graft body over alleged involvement in money laundering.
Shahbaz Sharif is the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly. His Pakistan Muslim League party quickly hailed the ruling by the court in the eastern city of Lahore. It described the case against him as “fake.”
Shahbaz Sharif is the younger brother of Nawaz Sharif, who served three times as Pakistan’s prime minister. He has been living in exile in London since 2019, after he was released on bail to seek medical treatment abroad.
Nawaz Sharif hasn’t returned home since, and the government is seeking his extradition.

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Unequal commemoration of British Empire troops due to ‘pervasive racism’

Unequal commemoration of British Empire troops due to ‘pervasive racism’
Updated 22 April 2021

Unequal commemoration of British Empire troops due to ‘pervasive racism’

Unequal commemoration of British Empire troops due to ‘pervasive racism’
  • Investigation: Up to 350,000 Middle Eastern, African casualties may not be commemorated by name or at all
  • Commission: “This was not right then and must not be allowed to remain unaddressed now”

LONDON: Hundreds of thousands of predominantly Asian and black soldiers who died fighting for the British Empire have not been formally commemorated in the same way as their white comrades because of decisions underpinned by “pervasive racism,” according to an investigation.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) discovered that at least 116,000 — but potentially as many as 350,000 — Middle Eastern and African casualties may not be commemorated by name or at all.
The CWGC is expected to issue a formal apology for the unequal treatment of those unnamed soldiers, as well as up to 54,000 African and Asian soldiers who were commemorated “unequally” compared to their white comrades.
The Imperial War Graves Commission, later renamed the CWGC, was founded in 1917 to commemorate men and women of the British Empire who lost their lives in World War I, and was defined by the principle of equality of treatment in death.
Everyone who dies in military service is supposed to be commemorated identically, with their names engraved on a headstone or memorial.
The commission’s findings, seen by The Guardian, quote racist statements — such as a 1920s governor saying “the average native … would not understand or appreciate a headstone” — as evidence that soldiers were treated differently if they came from Commonwealth countries.
“The report highlights that, in certain circumstances, those principles so rigidly adhered to for all who fell in Europe were applied inconsistently or abandoned in the more distant corners of the globe when applied to the non-European war dead of the British Empire, in the immediate aftermath of World War One,” the commission said.
“The commissioners acknowledge that this was not right then and must not be allowed to remain unaddressed now. Those identified in the special committee’s report deserve to be remembered as much today as they did 100 years ago.”
The special committee noted that many of the decisions surrounding burial and commemoration were influenced by a lack of information, opinions of colonial administrators, or other errors.
“Underpinning all these decisions, however, were the entrenched prejudices, preconceptions and pervasive racism of contemporary imperial attitudes,” it said. 
Claire Horton, director general of the CWGC, said: “The events of a century ago were wrong then and are wrong now. We recognize the wrongs of the past and are deeply sorry and will be acting immediately to correct them.”
Troops recruited from Britain’s vast empire played important roles in various battles throughout World War I.
Units such as the Egyptian Expeditionary Force suffered thousands of casualties in the British campaign against the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, and ultimately contributed to the allied powers’ victory.


EU preparing legal case against AstraZeneca over vaccine shortfalls — sources

EU preparing legal case against AstraZeneca over vaccine shortfalls — sources
Updated 22 April 2021

EU preparing legal case against AstraZeneca over vaccine shortfalls — sources

EU preparing legal case against AstraZeneca over vaccine shortfalls — sources
  • The drugmaker cut COVID-19 vaccine deliveries to the European Union
  • Under the contract, the company had committed to making its “best reasonable efforts” to deliver to the EU 180 million vaccine doses in the second quarter

BRUSSELS: The European Commission is working on legal proceedings against AstraZeneca after the drugmaker cut COVID-19 vaccine deliveries to the European Union, sources familiar with the matter said.

The move would mark a further step in an EU plan to sever ties with the Anglo-Swedish drugmaker after the company repeatedly cut supplies to the bloc, contributing to major delays in Europe’s vaccine rollout.

The news about the legal case was first reported on Thursday by Politico. An EU official involved in talks with drugmakers confirmed the EU was preparing to sue the company.

“EU states have to decide if they (will) participate. It is about fulfillment of deliveries by the end of the second quarter,” the official said.

The matter was discussed on Wednesday at a meeting with EU diplomats, the official and a diplomat said. Politico, citing five unnamed European diplomats, reported that a majority of EU countries at the meeting said they would support suing the company.

“What matters is that we ensure the delivery of a sufficient number of doses in line with the company’s earlier commitments,” a spokesman for the EU Commission said. “Together with the member States, we are looking at all options to make this happen.”

There was no immediate response from AstraZeneca on Thursday to a request for comment.

Brussels in March sent a legal letter to the company in the first step of a potential legal procedure.

When the deadline for a reply expired this month, a spokesman for the Commission said the matter was discussed in a meeting with AstraZeneca but the EU was still seeking further clarification from the company on “a number of outstanding points.”

The spokesman did not elaborate, but details of the letter published by Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera show the EU was seeking clarification on what it deemed a delayed application to the EU regulator for approval of the vaccine.

Brussels also questioned how AstraZeneca spent over 224 million euros ($270 million) granted by the EU in September to buy vaccine ingredients and for which the company had not provided sufficient documents confirming the purchases.

Under the contract, the company had committed to making its “best reasonable efforts” to deliver to the EU 180 million vaccine doses in the second quarter, for a total of 300 million in the period from December to June.

But the company said in a statement on March 12 it would aim to deliver only one third of that. The EU letter was sent a week after that statement.

Under the contract, the parties agreed that Belgian courts would be responsible to settle unresolved disputes.

The EU has already decided not to take up an option to buy 100 million extra doses of AstraZeneca under the contract, an EU official said, after supply delays and safety concerns about very rare cases of blood clots linked to the vaccine.


Indonesia in race against time to find missing submarine before air supply runs out

Indonesia in race against time to find missing submarine before air supply runs out
Updated 21 min 49 sec ago

Indonesia in race against time to find missing submarine before air supply runs out

Indonesia in race against time to find missing submarine before air supply runs out
  • KRI Nanggala-402 submarine, 53 aboard, went missing from last dive position on Wednesday
  • Submarines from Singapore, Malaysia on their way to Bali to assist in search and rescue

JAKARTA: The Indonesian navy is racing against time to rescue personnel trapped inside a missing submarine, which had oxygen supplies for only three days, the country’s naval chief said on Thursday.

The KRI Nanggala-402 submarine, with 53 people aboard, went missing from its last dive position on Wednesday morning, about 96 kilometers north of the island of Bali.

“The submarine had 72 hours of oxygen supply and it is estimated to last only until 3 a.m. on Saturday,” the Indonesian navy’s chief of staff, Adm. Yudo Margono told reporters during a press conference.

He added that there was some hope as the search party had detected a strong magnetic field at about 50–100 meters depth, but the object emitting it has not yet been identified.

The vessel went missing during a torpedo-firing drill, featuring all 21 of the navy’s ships, its two submarines, and five aircraft, which are now also deployed in the search for the missing KRI Nanggala-402.

The military said the submarine was seaworthy and its personnel were in good condition during the drill that was conducted in accordance with procedures.

As an oil slick was spotted where the vessel dived, the navy initially said it could be from a leak in the submarine’s fuel tank, which may have fractured if it submerged 500–700 meters during a blackout.

“Or it could be that when it was diving at 50–100 meters deep, the crew deliberately discharged the oil in an attempt to reduce the submarine’s load to make it lighter and stay afloat,” Margono said.

The submarine requested clearance at 3 a.m. local time to dive to periscope-level depth, or about 15 meters deep, to prepare for firing. Thirty minutes later, it was still visible to a sea rider inspection vessel.

“From 3:46 to 4:46 a.m., we tried to maintain contact with the submarine to give them the authorization to fire the torpedo, but there was no response, and its periscope was no longer visible,” Margono said, adding that in accordance with drill procedures, if contact was lost the submarine should have emerged at 5:15 a.m.

The navy dispatched the search party 90 minutes later.

Margono added that submarines from neighboring Singapore and Malaysia are on their way to help find the vessel, which has been in Indonesia’s service since 1981.

Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, addressing the same press conference, said that South Korea, where the German-built Cakra class submarine was retrofitted a number of times, had also offered assistance.

He added that the incident underscored the urgency to modernize the country’s defense systems and equipment.


Australia reducing flights from India

Australia reducing flights from India
Updated 22 April 2021

Australia reducing flights from India

Australia reducing flights from India
  • Authorities were calculating what other countries should join India on a list of high-risk nations requiring added travel restrictions

CANBERRA: Australia will reduce the number of flights arriving from India due to the growing wave of COVID-19 cases in the world’s second-most populous country.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Thursday he had agreed with state and territory leaders that the numbers of Australian citizens and permanent residents returning in chartered flights would be reduced by 30 percent.
The government would soon announce a 30 percent reduction in scheduled commercial flights from India as well, he said.
Australian authorities were calculating what other countries should join India on a list of high-risk nations requiring added travel restrictions. Australians are only allowed to leave the country for a few exceptional reasons.
The restrictions would become even tighter for Australians who want to travel to high-risk countries in a bid to prevent them returning home with the coronavirus.
India reported a global record of more than 314,000 new infections Thursday in a surge that has overwhelmed a fragile health care system.
Before the meeting of Australian government leaders, Western Australia state Premier Mark McGowan had called for a pause on arrivals from India. State authorities are investigating how a couple from India staying in a Perth hotel infected a mother and daughter from Britain who shared a room across a corridor while they were all in quarantine.