Husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe says detention ‘blot on British diplomacy’ ahead of scheduled release

Husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe says detention ‘blot on British diplomacy’ ahead of scheduled release
The five-year imprisonment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in Iran is a “blot on British diplomacy,” her husband said. (File/AFP)
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Updated 03 March 2021

Husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe says detention ‘blot on British diplomacy’ ahead of scheduled release

Husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe says detention ‘blot on British diplomacy’ ahead of scheduled release
  • Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been held under house arrest at her parents’ home in Tehran since March 2020
  • Her husband said he has spent the years during his wife’s detention “swinging between hope and despair”

LONDON: The five-year imprisonment of a British-Iranian woman in Iran is a “blot on British diplomacy,” her husband said ahead of her scheduled release.
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been held in Tehran since 2016 when she was jailed for five years over allegations of plotting to overthrow the Iranian government. She denies the allegations.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband said he has spent the years during his wife’s detention “swinging between hope and despair,” UK media reported.
“It is shocking that what started off as a mum and a baby on holiday could be allowed to last for five years.
“There’s no ambiguity in that, that’s just staggering. It is a blot on British diplomacy and clearly Iranian hostage-taking is outrageous,” Richard Ratcliffe said.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 42, has been held under house arrest at her parents’ home in Tehran since March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Her original sentence is due to end on Sunday.
The UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office told Ratcliffe in January that his efforts to publicize the March 7 date could jeopardize her release from prison.
He responded on Twitter by saying: “If anything happens to Nazanin or her family, or if she is not released to the UK on March 7 — there should be consequences.”
“We continue to believe that transparency is the best form of protection from abuse,” Ratcliffe added.
“We also made clear that the government’s role is to remind the Iranian authorities that Nazanin has the UK’s protection — not to act as a messenger for IRGC mafia tactics and suppression.”
Amnesty International joined Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s family in a “countdown to reunion” as the end of the UK national’s five-year prison sentence approaches.
Ratcliffe launched the countdown to freedom last Friday alongside the human rights organization and its supporters who are joining in on social media.

An Afghan village shrivels in worst drought in decades

An Afghan village shrivels in worst drought in decades
Updated 17 sec ago

An Afghan village shrivels in worst drought in decades

An Afghan village shrivels in worst drought in decades
KAMAR KALAGH, Afghanistan: Hajji Wali Jan brought a half-dozen plastic containers to the well in Kamar Kalagh on a recent Friday — one of the handful of days each week he and those who live on his side of this Afghan village ae allowed to use the water source.
When it was finally his turn, the 66-year-old filled one container, then a second. The stream of water from the spigot got thinner. He started on another container — but the thread of water tapered away and then stopped before the vessel was full.
The well was done for the day.
Afghanistan’s drought, its worst in decades, is now entering its second year, exacerbated by climate change. The dry spell has hit 25 of the country’s 34 provinces, and this year’s wheat harvest is estimated to be down 20 percent from the year before.
Along with fighting, the drought has contributed to driving more than 700,000 people from their homes this year, and the onset of winter will only increase the potential for disaster.
“This cumulative drought impact on already debilitated communities can be yet another tipping point to catastrophe,” the UN Food and Agricultural Organization’s Afghanistan office said in a tweet Tuesday. “If left unattended, agriculture might collapse.”
UN experts blamed a late 2020 La Nina event, which can change weather patterns across the globe, for causing lower rain and snowfall in early 2021 in Afghanistan, and they predict that it will continue into 2022.
Afghanistan has long seen regular droughts. But in a 2019 report, the FAO warned that climate change could make them more frequent and more intense. The past year’s drought came on the heels of one in 2018 that at the time was the worst seen in Afghanistan in years.
In the midst of the drought, Afghanistan’s economy collapsed in the wake of the August takeover by the Taliban that resulted in a shut-off of international funds to the government and the freezing of billions of the country’s assets held abroad.
Jobs and livelihoods have disappeared, leaving families desperate for ways to find food. The FAO said last month that 18.8 million Afghans are unable to feed themselves every day, and by the end of the year that number will be 23 million, or nearly 60 percent of the population.
Already hit hard by the drought of 2018, small villages like Kamar Kalagh are shriveling away, unable to squeeze out enough water to survive.
A collection of mud brick homes in the mountains outside the western city of Herat, Kamar Kalagh is home to about 150 families who used to live off of their livestock, particularly camels and goats, and the salaries of men who worked as porters at the Islam Qala border crossing with Iran.
That work has largely dried up as well, and now the village’s main income is from selling sand.
Ajab Gul and his two young sons dug sand from the riverbed and stuffed it into bags on a recent day. A full day’s work will earn them the equivalent of about $2.
“The grass used to grow up to here,” Gul said, holding his hand up to his nose. “When a camel walked through it, you’d just see his head. That was 20 years ago.”
Now there’s no grass and almost no livestock.
Two years ago, the village’s main well ran dry, so the residents pooled the money to pay for it to be dug deeper. For a while, it worked. But soon it grew weak again. The villagers began a rationing system: Half could draw water one day, the other half the next.
Even rationing is no longer enough. The water from the well is only enough for about 10 families a day, Wali Jan said.
When Wali Jan couldn’t fill his canisters, he sent two of his grandsons to an alternative source. They turned the chore into a game: The older boy, about 9, pushed the wheelbarrow, with his younger brother riding alongside the canisters, laughing.
They went up the hill, down the other side, through another dry riverbed — about 3 kilometers (2 miles) in all. Plodding along in hand-me-down tennis shoes too big for his feet, the older boy tripped, and the wheelbarrow tumbled over. Still, they made it to a pool of stagnant water in the riverbed, its surface covered in green algae. They filled the canisters.
When they got back to the village, their grandfather met them. He unwound his turban and tied one end of the long scarf around a handle on the front of the wheelbarrow to help the boys get it up the last slope to his family’s home.
The elderly and the very young are nearly the only males remaining in the village. Most of the working-age men have left to find jobs, elsewhere in Afghanistan, in Iran, Pakistan or Turkey.
“You don’t find anyone outside during the day anymore,” said Samar Gul, another man in his 60s. “There’s only women and children inside the houses.”

Reports: Myanmar troops burn alive 11 in retaliation attack

Reports: Myanmar troops burn alive 11 in retaliation attack
Updated 28 sec ago

Reports: Myanmar troops burn alive 11 in retaliation attack

Reports: Myanmar troops burn alive 11 in retaliation attack
  • Charred remains were found in a village in Sagaing, an area which has seen fierce fighting

BANGKOK: Myanmar government troops raided a small northwestern village, rounding up civilians, binding their hands and then burning them alive in apparent retaliation for an attack on a military convoy, according to witnesses and other reports.
A video of the aftermath of Tuesday’s attack showed the charred bodies of 11 victims, some believed to be teenagers, lying in a circle amid what appeared to be the remains of a hut in Done Taw village in Sagaing region.
Outrage spread as the graphic images were shared on social media over what appeared to be the latest of increasingly brutal military attacks in an attempt to put down stiffening anti-government resistance following the army takeover in February.
Human Rights Watch called Thursday for the international community to ensure that commanders who gave the order are added to targeted sanctions lists, and more broadly, efforts are stepped up to cut off any source of funding to the military.
“Our contacts are saying these were just boys and young people who were villagers who were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time,” a spokeswoman for the group, Manny Maung, said.
She added that similar incidents have been occurring regularly, but that this one happened to be caught on camera.
“This incident is quite brazen, and it happened in an area that was meant to be found, and seen, to scare people,” she said.
The images could not be independently verified, but an account given to The Associated Press by a person who said he was present when they were taken generally matched descriptions of the incident carried by independent Myanmar media.
The government has denied that it had any troops in the area.
The military ouster of the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi was initially met with nonviolent street protests, but after police and soldiers responded with lethal force, violence escalated as opponents of military rule took up arms in self-defense.
The killings in Done Taw were decried by Myanmar’s underground National Unity Government, which has established itself as the country’s alternative administration in place of the military-installed government.
The organization’s spokesperson, Dr. Sasa, said a military convoy had been hit by a roadside bomb and troops retaliated first by shelling Done Taw, then assaulting the village, rounding up anyone they could capture.
He said victims ranged in age from 14 to 40.
“Sickening scenes reminiscent of the Islamic State terrorist group bore witness to the the military’s escalation of their acts of terror,” he said in a statement.
“The sheer brutality, savagery, and cruelty of these acts shows a new depth of depravity, and proves that despite the pretense of the relative détente seen over the last few months, the junta never had any intention of deescalating their campaign of violence,” said Sasa, who uses one name.
The witness who spoke to the AP said about 50 troops marched into Done Taw village at about 11 a.m. Tuesday, seizing anyone who did not manage to flee.
“They arrested 11 innocent villagers,” said the witness, who described himself as a farmer and an activist and asked to remain anonymous for his own safety,
He added that the captured men were not members of the locally organized People’s Defense Force, which sometimes engages the army in combat. He said the captives had their hands tied behind them and were set on fire.
He did not give a reason for the soldiers’ assault.
Other witnesses cited in Myanmar media said the victims were members of a defense force, though the witness who spoke to the AP described them as members of a less formally organized village protection group.
In recent months, fighting has been raging in Sagaing and other northwestern areas, where the army has unleashed greater force against the resistance than in urban centers.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric expressed deep concern at the reports of the “horrific killing of 11 people” and strongly condemned such violence, saying “credible reports indicate that five children were among those people killed.”
Dujarric reminded Myanmar’s military authorities of their obligations under international law to ensure the safety and protection of civilians and called for those responsible “for this heinous act” to be held accountable.
He reiterated the UN’s condemnation of violence by Myanmar’s security forces and stressed that this demands a unified international response. As of Wednesday, he said security forces have killed more than 1,300 unarmed individuals, including more than 75 children, through their use of lethal force or while in their custody since the military takeover on Feb. 1.
The allegations follow Monday’s conviction of Suu Kyi on charges of incitement and violating coronavirus restrictions and sentencing to four years in prison, which was quickly cut in half. The court’s action was widely criticized as a further effort by military rulers to roll back the democratic gains of recent years.
In New York, the UN Security Council on Wednesday expressed “deep concern” at the sentencing of Suu Kyi, ousted President Win Myint and others and reiterated previous calls for the release of all those arbitrarily detained.
“The members of the Security Council once again stressed their continued support for the democratic transition in Myanmar, and underlined the need to uphold democratic institutions and processes, refrain from violence, pursue constructive dialogue and reconciliation in accordance with the will and interests of the people of Myanmar, fully respect human rights and fundamental freedoms and uphold the rule of law,” a council statement said.

Pfizer booster study lifts mood over omicron variant

Pfizer booster study lifts mood over omicron variant
Updated 09 December 2021

Pfizer booster study lifts mood over omicron variant

Pfizer booster study lifts mood over omicron variant

FRANKFURT: Three doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine appear effective against the omicron variant, a lab test indicated — encouraging news, even as Denmark and Britain announced new restrictions to stem surging caseloads.
In preliminary results published on Wednesday, the US and German companies behind one of the world’s foremost shots to combat Covid-19 said a booster generated around the same level of potent antibodies against omicron as is seen after a second dose with the initial strain.
But they warned that “the omicron variant is probably not sufficiently neutralized after two doses.”
The announcement, which has not yet been peer reviewed, was called reassuring by experts, and came as the first independent data from labs around the world emerged, indicating the new mutations are better at evading immunity from infections and vaccines than those before them.
“We still need to be very measured and take a wait and see approach, but I think what we do have is at least encouraging,” virologist Angela Rasmussen of Canada’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization told AFP.
Blood samples from around 20 people who had received two doses of the current vaccine showed on average a 25-fold reduction in neutralising antibodies compared to the early strain of the virus, the companies said.
But they added that another part of the immune response — from T cells — were probably still effective against the new variant, meaning that people with two doses “may still be protected against severe forms of the disease.”
The vaccine-makers are developing an omicron-specific version of the jab, which they hope will be ready by March, but say the decision whether to mass produce it would depend on the variant’s spread.
In Europe, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen announced she would extend Christmas school holidays, curtail nightlife and urge citizens to work from home as the country fights off a sharp rise in infections.
“The plan is not to have a long closure,” she said, while acknowledging a return to home offices would also be unwelcome for many.
Her British counterpart Boris Johnson likewise brought back guidance to work from home and vaccine passports for venues such as nightclubs and stadiums. The new measures apply to England, and were already in place in Scotland and Wales.
“We must be humble in the face of this virus,” he said, adding that it was “the proportionate and the responsible thing to move to Plan B in England.”
Johnson announced the stringent measures while facing public anger over video footage of his aides joking about an alleged illicit Christmas party at Downing Street during last year’s lockdown.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus meanwhile summed up what scientists have learned about omicron since it was first reported in South Africa in late November.
It evades prior immunity well, and it’s possible it may cause milder disease, he said.
But even if it’s confirmed to be less severe, the variant’s heightened transmissibility — thought to be greater even than the currently dominant Delta strain — mean it could sicken many people.
Pfizer and BioNTech’s news came after other preliminary results from a small study in South Africa suggested there was up to a 40-fold drop in the ability of the antibodies from the same vaccine to neutralize omicron, compared to an early strain.
Willem Hanekom, executive director of the Africa Health Research Institute, which carried out the study, said it was important to be “extraordinarily careful” interpreting the results because they only reflect a laboratory setting, while real-world data was the true test.
Antibody reductions were also seen in studies by German and Swedish researchers, but they varied in magnitude.
omicron counts more than 30 mutations on the spike protein that dots the surface of the coronavirus and allows it to invade cells, and a high degree of immune evasion was widely anticipated.
But the fact that a booster appears to restore high protection was welcomed by many experts, and provides “strong support for the campaign to give three doses of vaccine,” said Charles Bangham, an immunologist at Imperial College London.
While the positive initial assessments of omicron have helped lift the mood, especially among global markets as fears of another economic downturn subsided, the variant’s emergence has highlighted that the fight against the pandemic is far from over.
Covid-19 has officially killed more than 5.2 million people around the world since it was first declared in late 2019, although the true toll is likely to be several times higher.

Malaysian court upholds ex-PM’s graft conviction in 1MDB scandal

Malaysian court upholds ex-PM’s graft conviction in 1MDB scandal
Updated 09 December 2021

Malaysian court upholds ex-PM’s graft conviction in 1MDB scandal

Malaysian court upholds ex-PM’s graft conviction in 1MDB scandal
  • 1MDB scandal brought down former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government in 2018
  • Investigators allege at least $4.5bn was embezzled from 1MDB and laundered by Najib’s associates

KUALA LUMPUR: The Malaysian Court of Appeal upheld on Wednesday former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s 12-year jail sentence for his role in a multibillion-dollar corruption scandal at the 1Malaysia Development Berhad state investment fund.

Najib was sentenced by a high court in July 2020 and fined $50 million on charges of criminal breach of trust, money laundering and abuse of power relating to illegally receiving RM42 million ($10 million) from SRC International, a former subsidiary of the now-defunct 1MDB.

Investigators allege at least $4.5 billion was embezzled from 1MDB and laundered by Najib’s associates. Najib has pleaded not guilty and consistently denied any wrongdoing, saying he had been misled by Malaysian fugitive financier Low Taek Jho. The scandal brought down Najib’s government in 2018.

As the Court of Appeal upheld the 2020 verdict, lead judge Abdul Karim Abdul Jalil said the case was a “national embarrassment.”

“This is not something that can be said to have been done in the national interest,” he said while reading the decision. “There is no national interest here, just national embarrassment.”

The court had agreed to the defense’s request to stay the jail term pending a final appeal. Until then, Najib will remain out on bail.

The former prime minister and his legal counsel, Mohammed Shafee Abdullah, attended the court proceedings via a video call, as they had reportedly been in touch with contacts who tested positive for COVID-19.

In an online press conference afterward, Najib said he was “very disappointed” with the judgment.

“I would like to reiterate and say I didn’t know, nor did I ask or …direct anyone for RM42 million to my account,” he said.

Lead prosecutor V. Sithambaram told reporters that a decision in Najib’s final appeal will be made by the federal court, the country’s top court, within the next six to nine months, but the appeal court’s verdict showed the conviction “according to law and facts.”

The 68-year-old politician remains a key figure in the ruling United Malays National Organization party, which has led coalition governments since independence from Britain in 1957.

Toppled in 2018 over the 1MDB scandal, the party returned to power in August.

While the Court of Appeal verdict may not dent Najib’s popularity, it deals a blow to his possible comeback to the country’s top office in the next general election scheduled to take place by 2023.

“In terms of popularity, I don’t think there will be any effect, as the supporters will support Najib regardless of his conviction,” Dr. Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, told Arab News.

“However, if his conviction is not reversed by the time of the next general election, he might not be able to run. If he cannot run, he cannot become prime minister again.” Dozens of Najib’s supporters turned up at the Court of Appeal in Putrajaya as the verdict was announced.

One of them, Amaruddin, 67, who goes by one name, said he had traveled 200 km from Terengganu to stand in solidarity with Najib, whom he believes has fallen prey to political persecution.

“Najib is innocent and has been charged because he was vilified by the previous government,” Amaruddin said. “He will get out of this unscathed.”

Inspired by Disney princess Elsa, Pakistani girl gets ‘magical’ blue prosthetic arm

Inspired by Disney princess Elsa, Pakistani girl gets ‘magical’ blue prosthetic arm
Updated 09 December 2021

Inspired by Disney princess Elsa, Pakistani girl gets ‘magical’ blue prosthetic arm

Inspired by Disney princess Elsa, Pakistani girl gets ‘magical’ blue prosthetic arm
  • Born without a right arm, Momina Aamir became the youngest person in the world to receive a prosthetic limb

KARACHI: Three-year-old Momina Aamir’s father was overwhelmed with emotion in August when his daughter, who was born without a right arm, asked her father if she could borrow his hand so she could prostrate properly while performing the Muslim ritual of prayer.

After that moment, Aamir Abbas said he was more determined than ever to find a solution, which turned out to be a blue multigrip bionic arm customized to the exact wishes of Momina, a huge fan of Princess Elsa in the Walt Disney animated film, “Frozen.”

“I had just finished praying when Momina came to me and said: ‘Baba, give me your hand so I may pray like you as well’,” Abbas told Arab News. “It is hard for me to put my feelings in words. I had never felt or made her feel that she was missing something. But this pushed me to think hard and look for solutions.”

According to the World Health Organization, about 30 million people around the world require prosthetic limbs, but fewer than 20 percent have them and these tend to be costly and heavy, with limited to no movement. According to Karachi’s Aga Khan University Hospital, one in every 20 children in Pakistan is born with some kind of a hand deformity.

But with the help of the Karachi-based startup BIONIKS, which provides orthotics and prosthetics services, Abbas has been able to make his daughter’s dream come true.

Earlier this year, the firm achieved a world record when they fitted four-year-old Muhammad Sideeq with a multigrip bionic arm. The story was covered by Arab News, and Abbas said that the media coverage was instrumental in connecting the family to BIONIKS.

“That story gave me hope and made me visit BIONIKS,” said Saadia Aamir, Momina’s mother.

After receiving her new arm last week, Momina, at three years and four months of age, is the youngest recipient to have an advanced prosthetic limb.

Among treatment options for children born with hand or arm deformities — based on the nature and severity of the problem — are limb manipulation and stretching, tendon transfer, attaching a splint to stretch the finger to its original position or repairing the constrictions in muscles, ligaments and skin.

In some cases, skin grafts can be used to address the deformity. Surgery is also sometimes performed to cure the condition.

Unfortunately, not all children are able to get the right treatment in Pakistan due to a lack of expertise as well as the high cost of procedures.

And even though Momina is among a handful of fortunate children, it was not easy to design the required limb for her due to her age and congenital situation, as the design is fitted with sensors that enable users to move the prosthetic limbs by thinking about making the movements.

“It was far more difficult to integrate all the things in her case since she never had a hand,” Ovais Hussain Qureshi, co-founder of BIONIKS, told Arab News. “She had not experienced those senses in her mind that allow us to use our right hand.”

For example, he said, when Momina was first asked to close the fingers of her right hand, she would move the entire artificial arm.

But the girl was intelligent and the team did not find it difficult to communicate with her and quickly teach her how to use the limb.

“She is very friendly and talkative,” Qureshi said with a smile. “She used to freely roam around in our office, visit the research and development room, sit with our designers and talk to them: ‘I don’t like this or that part. Can you make the shade of blue a little light? How about adding diamonds or crystals to the arm?’“

“It will not be wrong to say,” Qureshi said, “that she got a truly customized arm. In fact, she almost made it herself!”

Momina’s mother said that her daughter decided she wanted a blue arm because of Princess Elsa in “Frozen.”

“The day she got her arm, we left our home late at night and she slept in the car,” she said. “While I was removing her arm, she woke up and asked me not to. When she went into deep sleep, I took it off and was surprised to see her restlessness in the morning. She looked impatiently for the arm but was happy when I brought it back.”

Momina’s mother said that her daughter was so deeply attached to her “magical” arm that she was upset when it was taken back to the firm for minor changes and adjustments.

Her parents said that most people wanted their children to get skin-colored prosthetic limbs, but they decided to let their daughter have the arm she truly wanted.

“She is happy with the color,” her mother said. “Sometimes she even makes fun of our ordinary arms and says she has a more beautiful one! We want her to grow with it.”