Swiss agree to outlaw facial coverings in ‘burqa ban’ vote

Swiss agree to outlaw facial coverings in ‘burqa ban’ vote
This photograph in Gland shows a placard reading "We vote on Sunday" ahead of a nationwide vote by Swiss citizen on March 7, 2021 on whether to ban full facial coverings in public places. (AFP)
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Updated 07 March 2021

Swiss agree to outlaw facial coverings in ‘burqa ban’ vote

Swiss agree to outlaw facial coverings in ‘burqa ban’ vote
  • The measure to amend the Swiss constitution passed by a 51.2-48.8% margin, provisional official results showed
  • The Central Council of Muslims in Switzerland called the vote a dark day for the community

ZURICH: A far-right proposal to ban facial coverings in Switzerland won a narrow victory in a binding referendum on Sunday instigated by the same group that organised a 2009 ban on new minarets.
The measure to amend the Swiss constitution passed by a 51.2-48.8% margin, provisional official results showed.
The proposal under the Swiss system of direct democracy does not mention Islam directly and also aims to stop violent street protesters from wearing masks, yet local politicians, media and campaigners have dubbed it the burqa ban.
"In Switzerland, our tradition is that you show your face. That is a sign of our basic freedoms," Walter Wobmann, chairman of the referendum committee and a member of parliament for the Swiss People's Party, had said before the vote.
He called facial covering "a symbol for this extreme, political Islam which has become increasingly prominent in Europe and which has no place in Switzerland".
The Central Council of Muslims in Switzerland called the vote a dark day for the community.
"Today's decision opens old wounds, further expands the principle of legal inequality, and sends a clear signal of exclusion to the Muslim minority," it said.
It promised legal challenges to laws implementing the ban and a fundraising drive to help women who are fined.
The proposal predated the COVID-19 pandemic, which has required adults to wear masks in many settings to prevent the spread of infection.
Two cantons already have local bans on face coverings.
France banned wearing a full face veil in public in 2011 and Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands and Bulgaria have full or partial bans on wearing face coverings in public.
Practically no one in Switzerland wears a burqa and only around 30 women wear the niqab, the University of Lucerne estimates. Muslims make up 5% of the Swiss population of 8.6 million people, most with roots in Turkey, Bosnia and Kosovo.
The government had urged people to vote against a ban.
"After the ban on minarets, a majority of Swiss voters has once again backed an initiative that discriminates against a single religious community and needlessly stirs up fears and division," Amnesty International said.
"The veiling ban is not a measure for women's liberation, but a dangerous symbolic policy that violates freedom of expression and religion."


Expert hired to pursue British far-right activist Tommy Robinson over £2m debt

Tommy Robinson, Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, is the founder and former leader of the English Defence League. (Reuters/File Photo)
Tommy Robinson, Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, is the founder and former leader of the English Defence League. (Reuters/File Photo)
Updated 13 sec ago

Expert hired to pursue British far-right activist Tommy Robinson over £2m debt

Tommy Robinson, Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, is the founder and former leader of the English Defence League. (Reuters/File Photo)
  • The founder of the English Defence League, was ordered last year to pay £100,000 to Syrian refugee Jamal Hijazi after falsely accusing the teenager of assaulting schoolgirls
  • He also owes lawyers £1.5 million plus interest in legal costs, along with debts to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, a former business partner and a local council

LONDON: An independent insolvency expert has been hired to recover an estimated £2 million ($2.72 million) owed by British far-right figure Tommy Robinson, before a looming deadline in March.

Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, is the founder and former leader of the English Defence League. In July last year, he was ordered by a judge to pay £100,000 to Syrian refugee Jamal Hijazi after he falsely accused the teenager of assaulting female classmates. In addition to the damages, he owes lawyers £1.5 million in legal costs, plus interest.

Hijazi, now 18, fled Homs in Syria and was living in northern England in October 2018 when he was filmed being attacked and bullied at a school in the town of Huddersfield. When the footage went viral, Robinson produced two videos in which he falsely stated that the Syrian teenager was “not innocent and he violently attacks young English girls in his school.”

A libel case was brought against him and last July the High Court in London found his claims to be untrue and awarded damages to Hijazi.

Robinson also owes money to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, a former business partner and the local council in Barrow-In-Furness in North West England.

The anti-fascist activist group Hope not Hate believes the EDL founder might have access to as much as £3 million in assets, including property, investments, donations and money from book sales, as well as a home in Bedfordshire belonging to his former wife that is estimated to be worth £1.2 million.

The group is running a fundraising campaign to cover the costs of the independent insolvency expert, Heath Sinclair of Richard Long & Co., hired to recover the money.

Robinson declared bankruptcy in March last year. Sinclair has until March 3, when Robinson will exit bankruptcy, to find any assets or cash he might be hiding. After then it could become more difficult to recover the money he owes.


UN adopts resolution against Holocaust denial

UN adopts resolution against Holocaust denial
Updated 45 min 35 sec ago

UN adopts resolution against Holocaust denial

UN adopts resolution against Holocaust denial
  • The Israeli-proposed text was developed with the help of Germany and co-sponsored by several dozen of the 193 states that make up the UN
  • The resolution "rejects and condemns without any reservation any denial of the Holocaust as a historical event, either in full or in part"

UNITED NATIONS, United States: The UN General Assembly on Thursday adopted a non-binding resolution calling on all member states to fight against Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism, especially on social media.
The Israeli-proposed text was developed with the help of Germany and co-sponsored by several dozen of the 193 states that make up the United Nations.
Iran, however, expressed opposition to the resolution, stating that Tehran dissociated itself from the text.
The resolution “rejects and condemns without any reservation any denial of the Holocaust as a historical event, either in full or in part,” according to the text.
The Holocaust saw the genocide of six million European Jews between 1939 and 1945 by the Nazis and their supporters.
The text “commends” countries that preserve sites of former Nazi death camps, concentration camps, forced labor camps, execution sites and prisons during the Holocaust.
It also urges UN members to develop educational programs “to help to prevent future acts of genocide” and calls on states and social media companies to “take active measures to combat anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial or distortion.”
In a statement, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, welcomed the “historic resolution,” which had been negotiated for several months.
The text “for the first time, gives a clear definition of Holocaust denial, calls on countries to take steps in the fight against anti-Semitism,” and demands for social media giants such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to fight the “hateful content” on their platforms.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and his German counterpart, Annalena Baerbock, in a joint statement welcomed the resolution, which they said served as proof that the international community “speaks with one voice” on the subject.
A resolution in 2005 designated January 27 as an international day of remembrance for the victims of the Holocaust.
Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel, additionally welcomed the passage of the resolution.
“Holocaust distortion is so dangerous because, quite plainly, it misrepresents essential facts of history in order to legitimize past and present misdeeds,” said its director Dani Dayan.
“The Holocaust carries substantial relevance for many vital contemporary issues. Denying and distorting the uniqueness and unprecedented aspects of events is not only detrimental to the memory of the Holocaust but to that of other atrocities and genocides as well,” he added.


Phone call shows brother pleading with Texas hostage-taker

Phone call shows brother pleading with Texas hostage-taker
Updated 20 January 2022

Phone call shows brother pleading with Texas hostage-taker

Phone call shows brother pleading with Texas hostage-taker
  • Malik Faisal Akram said he was “bombed up” and equipped with “every ammunition” as he talked to his brother Saturday from inside Congregation Beth Israel in Dallas
  • Gulbar Akram urged his brother to lay down his weapons and return to his children alive

LONDON: A British man who held four people hostage in a Texas synagogue ranted against Jews and American wars in countries like Afghanistan.
This happened as his brother pleaded with him to give up and free the captives, a recording of the conversation shows.
In the expletive-filled recording posted on the website of The Jewish Chronicle, 44-year-old Malik Faisal Akram said he was “bombed up” and equipped with “every ammunition” as he talked to his brother Saturday from inside Congregation Beth Israel in the Dallas suburb of Colleyville.
Gulbar Akram urged his brother to lay down his weapons and return to his children alive.
“You don’t need to do this. Why are you doing this?” he said. “Just pack it in. You’ll do a bit of time, and then you’ll get out.”
“These guys you’ve got there, they’re innocent people, man,” he said.
In response, Akram became increasingly agitated and said he hoped US authorities would take notice of the Jewish hostages and agree to his demand that they release Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist convicted of trying to kill US soldiers in Afghanistan.
Akram said he had prayed about the attack for two years. He said he was ready to become a martyr and that his children shouldn’t cry at his funeral.
“I promised my brother when I watched him on his deathbed that I’d go down as a martyr,” he said at one point. One of his younger brothers, who contracted COVID-19, died a few months ago.
“I’ve come to die, G, OK?″ the hostage-taker told his brother. “I’ve prayed to Allah for two years for this ... I’m coming back in a body bag.”
Saturday’s 10-hour standoff at the synagogue ended after the last hostage ran out of the synagogue and an FBI SWAT team rushed in. Akram was killed, though authorities have declined to say who shot him.
In a webinar Thursday hosted by the Anti-Defamation League, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the agency understands that such acts are terrifying to the entire Jewish community.
“This was not some random occurrence. It was intentional. It was symbolic, and we’re not going to tolerate antisemitism in this country,” Wray said.
The FBI continues to search phones and other devices as it investigates why Akram targeted this particular synagogue, Wray said.
The Chronicle said the recording was part of a longer 11 1/2-minute recording that it obtained from a “security source.” The Associated Press was not able to independently confirm the authenticity of the recording, but experts believe it to be genuine.
Meanwhile, British police said Thursday that they have arrested two people in connection with the hostage-taking.
Counter Terrorism Police North West said one man was arrested Thursday in Birmingham and another in Manchester. They were being held for questioning and have not been charged.
The police did not disclose details about the two people. British police do not release names and details of detainees until they are charged.
On Sunday, police arrested two British teenagers in Manchester as part of the investigation. The teens were Akram’s sons, two US law enforcement officials told AP. They were later released without charge.
Malik Faisal Akram was from Blackburn, an industrial city in northwest England. His family said he had been “suffering from mental health issues.”
He entered the United States on a tourist visa about two weeks earlier and spent time in Dallas-area homeless shelters before the synagogue attack.
The FBI has called the incident “a terrorism-related matter” targeting the Jewish community.
British media, including the Guardian and the BBC, have reported that Akram was investigated by the domestic intelligence service MI5 as a possible “terrorist threat” in 2020. But authorities concluded that he posed no danger, and the investigation was closed.
The White House said Tuesday that Akram had been checked against US law enforcement databases before entering the country but raised no red flags.


France to ease Covid restrictions starting Feb. 2

France to ease Covid restrictions starting Feb. 2
Updated 20 January 2022

France to ease Covid restrictions starting Feb. 2

France to ease Covid restrictions starting Feb. 2
  • Implementation of a "vaccine pass" starting Monday to enter restaurants, cinemas and other public venues would allow an easing of tighter rules
  • In a second stage, nightclubs that have been shut since December will be allowed to reopen on February 16

PARIS: France will begin a gradual lifting of Covid restrictions from February 2 amid “encouraging signs” that the wave of infections due to the omicron variant is ebbing, Prime Minister Jean Castex said Thursday.
Even though authorities registered a record 464,769 new daily cases on Tuesday, Castex said the implementation of a “vaccine pass” starting Monday to enter restaurants, cinemas and other public venues would allow an easing of tighter rules imposed since December.
In a first step, the audience capacity limits for concert halls, sporting matches and other events — 2,000 people indoors, and 5,000 outdoors — will be ended from February 2.
Working from home will also no longer be mandatory for eligible employees, and face masks will not be required outside, Castex told a press conference alongside Health Minister Olivier Veran.
“We are a bit more confident in saying we can relax some of these constraints and let people return to life as normal as possible,” Veran said.
Previously, the health pass could also be obtained with a recent negative Covid test, a possibility the government ended in its bid to convince more people to get Covid jabs — Castex said 93 percent of French adults now had at least one dose.
“Since the announcement of the vaccine pass, one million French people have gotten vaccinated. That’s good, but it’s not enough,” he said, adding that booster shots would be extended to children aged 12 to 17 starting Monday.
In a second stage, nightclubs that have been shut since December will be allowed to reopen on February 16, and standing areas will again be authorized for concerts and sporting events as well as bars.
Eating and drinking will again be allowed in stadiums, movie theaters and public transport on that date.
Castex also said he hoped to be able to ease face mask rules for children in schools after winter vacation breaks in late February.
Some 17,000 classes are currently shut across France after students or staff caught the virus, and parents must get a series of tests for exposed children before they are allowed to return.
The highly contagious omicron variant has sparked a surge in infections, but the number of Covid patients in intensive care has been falling since early January, to around 3,850 people currently.
“We have seen that incidence rates are still rising, but we also know that the omicron variant results in fewer serious cases than the Delta variant,” government spokesman Gabriel Attal said earlier Thursday.
“There are hopes the omicron wave could peak soon,” he added.
Castex insisted that studies have shown omicron to be less dangerous than other virus variants, which have prompted several governments worldwide to pull back on restrictions.
The British government said Wednesday that most restrictions would be lifted starting next week, including the requirement for a Covid pass proving vaccination to enter public venues, citing data that showed infections had peaked.
Spain’s government is also pushing to begin treating Covid-19 as any other endemic respiratory virus like seasonal flu — though Castex warned against underestimating the threat from the virus.
World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also insisted this week that the pandemic was “nowhere near over,” warning that new variants were still likely to emerge.


Indonesia denies rumors of interaction with Israel

Indonesia denies rumors of interaction with Israel
Updated 20 January 2022

Indonesia denies rumors of interaction with Israel

Indonesia denies rumors of interaction with Israel
  • Israeli Army Radio said Monday that a delegation of Indonesian officials had visited Tel Aviv
  • Indonesia has no formal ties with Israel, has repeatedly called for end to occupation of Palestinian territories

JAKARTA: The Indonesian government on Thursday denied reports by Israeli media that officials from the two countries had recently held meetings in Tel Aviv.

Home to the world’s largest Muslim population, Indonesia has no formal ties with Israel and has repeatedly called for an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and for a two-state solution based on borders before the 1967 war.

Israel’s Army Radio reported on Monday that a delegation of Indonesian officials had visited Tel Aviv to discuss strategies related to the coronavirus pandemic but gave no details about when the meeting had taken place.

Addressing a virtual press conference, Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman, Teuku Faizasyah, said: “What we can emphasize here is that there was no interaction between officials of the two countries, because we do not have diplomatic relations.”

He pointed out that despite the lack of formal ties, people-to-people interactions had taken place, including Indonesian pilgrims visiting religious sites in Jerusalem.

“But between governments, let me emphasize there are no formal interactions,” he added. “Please differentiate things that are official in nature and business relations or people-to-people, which are out of the government’s hands.”

Faizasyah said Indonesia’s stance on the Palestinian issue remained unchanged and its government was actively working “for Palestinian independence under the frame of a two-state solution.”

Last year, the Israeli ambassador to Singapore said Tel Aviv would be willing to work toward establishing ties with southeast Asia’s Muslim-majority nations — Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei — in the wake of the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco agreeing to normalize relations with Israel under US-brokered deals.

During a visit to Jakarta last month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed with Indonesian officials the possibility of normalization, a move Indonesia said it had declined to take.

“Indonesia’s foreign minister conveyed Indonesia’s consistent position toward Palestine, in which Indonesia will always stand with Palestine in the struggle for justice and independence,” Faizasyah said at the time.