Two dead as violence mars election in Indian battleground state

Two dead as violence mars election in Indian battleground state
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Voters stand in a line to cast their vote outside a polling station in Nandigram on April 1, 2021. (AFP)
Two dead as violence mars election in Indian battleground state
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Voters stand in a line to cast their vote outside a polling station in Nandigram on April 1, 2021. (AFP)
Two dead as violence mars election in Indian battleground state
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Voters stand in a line to cast their vote at a polling station in Nandigram on April 1, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 01 April 2021

Two dead as violence mars election in Indian battleground state

Two dead as violence mars election in Indian battleground state
  • West Bengal is the Indian state with the highest levels of political killings, according to police records
  • Modi’s Hindu-nationalist BJP is seeking to end a decade of rule by the state’s firebrand leader Mamata Banerjee

NANDIGRAM: Two people died as an Indian state notorious for political violence went to the polls Thursday with Prime Minister Narendra Modi battling to oust a bitter rival from power.
Clashes were reported across West Bengal and election officials said that voters were being “intimidated” on the second day of polling in the key state.
Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party is seeking to end a decade of rule by the state’s firebrand leader Mamata Banerjee.
West Bengal is the Indian state with the highest levels of political killings, according to police records which showed there were about 50 political murders last year.
A worker for Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress party (TMC) was “hacked to death” early Thursday and three BJP supporters were detained, police said.
A BJP worker allegedly killed himself after he was threatened by TMC supporters, police added, citing a complaint filed by his family.
Defying a ban on gatherings of more than four people, hundreds of Banerjee supporters clashed with BJP rivals outside polling stations in Nandigram, where Bannerjee is contesting her seat.
Both parties accused each other of staging raids on local offices and the homes of party officials and supporters.
One group attacked a television channel truck, raining down bricks, rocks and iron bars on the vehicle before the journalists escaped.
“Voters are being intimidated,” one national Election Commission official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Many are too scared to leave their homes.”
Police staged baton charges to disperse gatherings outside polling stations in several towns, the official added.
Despite the violence, thousands still queued outside polling stations to cast votes.
The West Bengal polls are being held over eight days until April 29, with Thursday’s second phase involving 30 constituencies.
The results will be announced on May 2, alongside several other polls in Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry.
The BJP has spent years preparing to mount its biggest challenge yet in West Bengal, home to 90 million people, and expand its state-level power beyond its Hindi-speaking northern heartlands.
The party won landslides in national elections in 2014 and 2019, but much of the southern half of India remains outside its local control.
Modi has condemned corruption in West Bengal while Banerjee, who has campaigned in a wheelchair after an accident in her car last month, has accused the prime minister of seeking to impose a hostile rule by “outsiders.”
The second of three phases of polling in the northeastern state of Assam — where the BJP is looking to hold on to power — was also held on Thursday.


Born without arms but full of moxie, Pakistani boy excels at school and cricket

Born without arms but full of moxie, Pakistani boy excels at school and cricket
Updated 6 min 33 sec ago

Born without arms but full of moxie, Pakistani boy excels at school and cricket

Born without arms but full of moxie, Pakistani boy excels at school and cricket
  • Syed Rafiullah Shah was encouraged by his family to write with his feet when he was 4 years old

QUETTA: On a cold November morning, Syed Rafiullah Shah arrived sleeveless at an examination hall in Quetta, southwestern Pakistan, to sit for an eighth-grade test. He finished it faster than many other students, writing swiftly on the paper with a pen held in his right foot.
Born without arms, 13-year-old Shah is one of millions of Pakistanis living with disabilities. While the exact number is not known, Human Rights Watch estimates it could be up to 27 million, or over 12 percent, of the country’s population.  
Although Pakistan has ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and last year passed its own Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, in many parts of the country disability is still considered a taboo, keeping people confined within the walls of their homes.
Shah’s story is different.
“I am a living example that people with physical impairments can have a normal life,” he told Arab News.
“I have learnt to do my daily work with my feet. Even now I am able to play cricket, soccer and other sports with my cousins and friends,” he said. “Physical impairment has never deterred me.”
Shah has been encouraged by his family members to master the same skills as physically able children. It did take more effort, he said, but through his spirit, he has managed to excel.
“My aunt encouraged me to write with my feet when I was just four years old,” he said. “Today I am studying in eight standard and I’m able to write in both English and Urdu.”
When it comes to sports, he regularly practices cricket with his elder brother, Syed Mujeebullah, for whom Shah is a source of pride.
“Rafi hits the ball with his legs,” Mujeebullah said. “I feel pride when I see my younger brother competing with normal students in school and sports.”
Syed Zahoor Ahmed, who was overseeing Shah’s exams, told Arab News he was surprised to see the boy’s confidence as he wrote with his foot.
“I have asked Rafi a couple of times if he needed extra time, but he refused and completed his papers within the given timeframe,” Ahmed said, adding that Shah was even faster than other students.
“I have never considered Rafi a physically impaired student, but a talented child,” he said.
It was his grandfather who, from the beginning, believed the boy was a “blessing.”
Syed Sadar-ud-Din, Shah’s father, remembered calling his father to tell him his child had been born without arms and shoulders. “He told me to accept it as God’s decision, since it would prove to be a blessing for me,” he said.
When he was a toddler, Shah could not crawl like other babies, but soon, he started to walk.
“He got many face and head injuries during his childhood because he wasn’t able to protect his face while falling down on the ground,” the father said. “But the days of our worries ended when he enrolled in school, and now can handle any situation.”
While the family has never seen Shah’s disability as a burden, Sadar-ud-Din is well aware of the difficulties he will have to face in Pakistani society as he grows older.
“I want to request all parents who have children with any disability to start supporting them and encourage them,” he said. “If we don’t believe in them, no one else will.”

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UN expert: Contemporary forms of slavery exist in Sri Lanka

UN expert: Contemporary forms of slavery exist in Sri Lanka
Updated 50 sec ago

UN expert: Contemporary forms of slavery exist in Sri Lanka

UN expert: Contemporary forms of slavery exist in Sri Lanka
  • Women and girls are disproportionately affected by contemporary forms of slavery

COLOMBO: A UN expert says contemporary forms of slavery exist in Sri Lanka, with vulnerable groups such as children, women, ethnic minorities and older people particularly affected.
Tomoyo Obokata, the U.N special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, said Friday at the end of a mission to Sri Lanka that he hopes to submit a report to the UN Human Rights Council in September next year.
Obokata said about 1 percent of Sri Lankan children are involved in some type of child labor, most of it considered hazardous.
“Girls and boys work in the domestic sector, in hospitality, cleaning in the general service industry. Others are sexually exploited in the tourism sector,” he said.
Child labor is particularly severe in areas populated by ethnic minority Tamils, such as in tea and rubber plantation regions where children are forced to drop out of school and support their families, he said.
The office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights says contemporary forms of slavery include traditional slavery, forced labor, debt bondage, serfdom, children working in slavery or slavery-like conditions, domestic servitude, sexual slavery and servile forms of marriage.
“I witnessed that in Sri Lanka contemporary forms of slavery have an ethnic dimension,” Obokata said. “In particular, Malayaha Tamils, who were brought from India to work in the plantation sector 200 years
ago, continue to face multiple forms of discrimination based
on their origin.”
He said the plantation Tamils’ inability to own land has forced them to live in “line houses” built during colonial times.
“I was frankly very much distressed by the way they are living. Five to 10 people stuffed in tiny spaces. No proper kitchen or toilet or shower facilities, just appalling conditions. I have recommended to the government to do something about this because frankly I was distraught myself,” Obokata said.
Government officials were not immediately available for comment.
Women and girls are disproportionately affected by contemporary forms of slavery, with females predominantly filling jobs in demanding sectors such as plantation, garment industry and domestic labor, he said.
In the plantation sector, women must meet daily targets to earn the minimum daily wage, Obokata said.
“Similarly, increasingly high targets in the garment sector put continuous pressure on the female workers. As a consequence, some even choose not to go to the bathroom in order to meet the targets,” he said.
In some cases, such as in the planation sector, older workers are compelled to regularly perform physically challenging work because younger people choose to be employed outside the sector. They have no access to adequate health care, social protection, or paid sick leave, he said.


Rights groups welcome Council of Europe’s disciplinary action against Turkey

Rights groups welcome Council of Europe’s disciplinary action against Turkey
Updated 03 December 2021

Rights groups welcome Council of Europe’s disciplinary action against Turkey

Rights groups welcome Council of Europe’s disciplinary action against Turkey
  • HRW and Amnesty slam Turkey over ‘farcical’ detention of Osman Kavala
  • High-profile philanthropist has been detained for years on ‘politically motivated’ charges

LONDON: Prominent human rights groups have welcomed disciplinary action initiated by Europe’s top rights and democracy court against Turkey over the detention of activist Osman Kavala.

Washington-based Human Rights Watch and London-based Amnesty International — two of the most high-profile human rights groups globally — released statements in support of a move by the Council of Europe to penalize Ankara for Kavala’s continuing detention.

The disciplinary proceedings relate to a failure by Turkey to comply with a European Court of Human Rights ruling that decreed that Kavala should be released. 

“Turkey is refusing to abide by the court’s final judgment in this case,” said a statement by the council, which initiated proceedings that could ultimately see Turkey lose voting rights or even its membership of the 47-nation Council of Europe.

Aisling Reidy, senior legal adviser at Human Rights Watch, said: “As this is only the second time the Council of Europe has triggered such a sanction process against a member state, the decision is an acknowledgment of Turkey’s rule of law crisis.”

She continued: “In the face of Turkey’s defiance of its obligation to carry out a key judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, the Committee of Ministers has taken the right course in notifying Turkey that it will trigger infringement proceedings

Amnesty International’s Europe Director Nils Muiznieks said: “Two years ago, the European Court of Human Rights found that Osman Kavala’s right to liberty was violated with the ulterior purpose of silencing him and called for his immediate release.

“Instead of implementing this ruling, prosecutors have consistently looked for crimes to pin on him, bringing farcical charges without any evidence. Each twist and turn of this saga of injustice has pointed at the deeply politically motivated nature of the case, as clearly identified by the European Court.”

“The message from the Committee of Ministers to Turkey is crystal clear: Turkey’s failure to ensure the immediate release of Osman Kavala and end his politically motivated prosecution is an unacceptable breach of the country’s human rights obligations.”

Kavala, 64, has long advocated for the rights of Turkey’s minorities, including Armenians, Kurds, and others, and is the founder of an Istanbul-based arts and culture non-profit organization.

He was arrested in 2017 following a failed coup in Turkey, and accused of having links to the Gulenist movement — an opposition Islamist group run from the US by Fethullah Gulen.

In 2020 Kavala was briefly released from custody, only to be detained hours later — this time on charges relating to his alleged involvement in organizing the 2013 Gezi Park protests that rocked Turkey after they evolved into an anti-government movement.

Amnesty’s Muiznieks said: “After more than four years behind bars on politically motivated charges, he must be allowed to finally return home to his family.”


WHO chief scientist says Omicron ‘quite infectious’, must not panic

WHO chief scientist says Omicron ‘quite infectious’, must not panic
Updated 03 December 2021

WHO chief scientist says Omicron ‘quite infectious’, must not panic

WHO chief scientist says Omicron ‘quite infectious’, must not panic
  • WHO has urged countries to boost healthcare capacity and vaccinate their people
  • "We need to be prepared and cautious, not panic, because we're in a different situation to a year ago," WHO’s chief scientist said

DUBAI: The World Health Organization’s chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan told the Reuters Next conference on Friday that while the new coronavirus variant Omicron appeared to be very transmissible, the right response was to be prepared, cautious and not panic.
The WHO has urged countries to boost health care capacity and vaccinate their people to fight a surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the Omicron variant, saying travel curbs could buy time but alone were not the answer.
“How worried should we be? We need to be prepared and cautious, not panic, because we’re in a different situation to a year ago,” Swaminathan said in an interview at the Reuters Next conference.
While the emergence of the new variant was unwelcome, she said the world was much better prepared given the development of vaccines since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Much remains unknown about Omicron, which was first detected in southern Africa last month and has been spotted in at least two dozen countries. Parts of Europe were already grappling with a wave of infections of the Delta variant before it emerged.
“We need to wait, lets hope it’s milder ... but it’s too early to conclude about the variant as a whole,” Swaminathan said of what was known about Omicron.
“Delta accounts for 99 percent of infections around the world. This variant would have to be more transmissible to out-compete and become dominant worldwide. It is possible, but it’s not possible to predict.”
The WHO’s top scientist said the Omicron variant seemed to be causing three times more infections than experienced previously in South Africa, meaning “it does seem to be able to overcome some of the natural immunity from previous infection.”
Vaccines did appear to be having some effect.
“The fact that they’re not getting sick .... that means the vaccines are still providing protection and we would hope that they would continue to provide protection,” Swaminathan said.
Asked about the need for annual vaccine boosters, she said “the WHO is preparing for all scenarios,” which could include an additional dose, particularly among some age groups or vulnerable sections of the population, or a modified vaccine.
“Natural infection acts as a booster,” the WHO scientist said, adding that while the new variant “could have originated in a country where there isn’t a great deal of genome sequencing,” its origins were not known.
“We may never know,” Swaminathan said.


EU moots suspending asylum rights in Poland to end migrant crisis

EU moots suspending asylum rights in Poland to end migrant crisis
Updated 03 December 2021

EU moots suspending asylum rights in Poland to end migrant crisis

EU moots suspending asylum rights in Poland to end migrant crisis
  • The bloc has accused Belarus of manufacturing a crisis for political ends
  • 13 people have died on the Belarus border due to freezing conditions

LONDON: The EU is considering suspending some rights belonging to asylum seekers in countries bordering Belarus in an effort to end the ongoing migrant crisis.

Proposals put forward by the European Commission, the executive arm of the bloc, would allow for faster deportations and the detention of asylum seekers at the border for up to four months.

The plans are aimed at mitigating the political harm caused by large numbers of people attempting to enter Poland and other EU states from Belarus, in what Brussels describes as a crisis manufactured by Minsk.

The EU argues that Belarus has flown migrants in from the Middle East in order to put pressure on its northeastern border regions and manufacture political instability, with the onus of dealing with a large influx of migrants placed disproportionately on Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

Belarus has denied those accusations, calling them absurd.

The three Belarus-bordering EU states have defended their approach of pushing migrants back without individually assessing their cases or granting them a realistic chance to claim asylum.

Rights groups say that 13 people have now died in the area due to the freezing conditions and that the practice violates EU rules and international humanitarian law.

Under the EU’s proposals, migrants would be permitted to claim asylum only at designated locations, such as border crossings.

National authorities would have a longer period of up to four weeks to register asylum applications and asylum seekers could be kept for up to 16 weeks at the border, losing a standing right to be held in more suitable centers inside the country.

The proposals are a further example of the EU tightening immigration rules since more than one million people arrived in 2015 — many of them fleeing the conflict in Syria — overwhelming the bloc and dividing member states over how to respond.

Immigration is among the most contentious intra-bloc issues for EU members, in part because regulation and geography mean that the burden of managing asylum applications and inward immigration falls disproportionately on Southern and Eastern countries — many of which are less wealthy than western states, such as France and Germany.

According to Lithuania’s interior ministry, around 10,000 migrants remain in Belarus, despite Minsk initiating removal flights for some.