Philippines, US begin two-week joint military drills

Philippines, US begin two-week joint military drills
A US Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter prepares to land near an assault amphibious vehicle during the joint US and Philippine troops live fire exercise on April 30, 2015. (AFP)
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Updated 11 April 2021

Philippines, US begin two-week joint military drills

Philippines, US begin two-week joint military drills
  • 1,000 Filipino and 700 American troops will participate in the Balikatan exercises this year

MANILA: Nearly 1,700 Filipino and American military personnel will take part in a two-week joint exercise from Monday.

The exercises are taking place amid rising tensions over Beijing’s increasingly aggressive behavior in the South China Sea and a dramatic surge in COVID-19 cases across the Philippines.

Unlike in previous years, the Balikatan exercises 2021 (BK-21) will not be open to the public as part of safety protocols to limit the coronavirus outbreak’s spread.

“The exercises officially start tomorrow and will last for about two weeks,” Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana told reporters on Sunday.

“We will be conducting (the exercises), but it will be different from previous years because of the pandemic. There will be a virtual (portion) of the exercise,” he said.

The opening ceremonies for BK-21 will be held at the AFP General Headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City on Monday, Sobejana said, adding that 700 American and 1,000 Filipino troops would take part.

This year’s resumption of the annual BK-21 event, which was called off last year due to the pandemic, follows a phone call between the two countries’ defense chiefs on Sunday to “reaffirm their shared commitment to the US-Philippines alliance.”

In a statement, Pentagon spokesperson, John Kirby, said that US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III and his Filipino counterpart, Delfin Lorenzana, “discussed the situation in the South China Sea, and the recent massing of People’s Republic of China maritime militia vessels at Juan Felipe (Whitsun) Reef.”

The boomerang-shaped Julian Felipe Reef is about 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza, Palawan, within the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and Continental Shelf (CS).

Austin proposed several measures to “deepen defense cooperation between the United States and the Philippines, including by enhancing situational awareness of threats in the South China Sea,” according to Kirby.

He also “reiterated the US commitment to maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific, rooted in international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).”

The two leaders also affirmed the value of the US-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), with Department of National Defense (DND) spokesperson, Arsenio Andolong, saying that the US official “reiterated the importance of the VFA and hopes that it would be continued.”

“Secretary Lorenzana committed to discussing the matter with the president as the final approval lies with him,” Andolong said.

In February last year, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte unilaterally terminated the VFA after Washington canceled the visa of one of his close political allies and former police chief, Sen. Ronald Dela Rosa.

He extended the withdrawal period twice “to allow both sides to find a more enhanced, mutually beneficial, mutually agreeable . . . and lasting arrangement.”

In December, however, he demanded that the US pay for the VFA.

The VFA provides a legal framework within which US troops can operate on a rotational basis in the Philippines.

Besides the VFA, Andolong confirmed that the two defense chiefs also “discussed the situation in the West Philippine Sea and recent developments in regional security.”

He said that the Balikatan exercises “would be a very scaled-down version” of the annual event.

“It will be just tabletop exercises, just a handful of people doing planning and simulation. There will be no amphibious exercises, and we won’t be seeing various (US military) assets rolling and flying here and there,” he told Arab News on Sunday.

“American forces participating in the activities will be subject to COVID-19 health protocols and guidelines that are used for all foreigners coming into the country. No exemption,” he added.

When asked about the significance of the exercises this year, Andolong said: “It’s really important because . . . in light of recent developments in the West Philippine Sea, I think it’s an affirmation that our (US-Philippines) alliance with our only defense treaty ally is still alive and well.”

“I think that’s important especially now that there are doubts not only due to (current) defense (issues), the pandemic, and all other reasons,” he said.

The Balikatan is an annual US-Philippine military training event focused on various missions, including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, counter-terrorism, and other combined military operations.

Philippine and US service members will conduct humanitarian civic action (HCA) activities throughout Luzon during BK-2021. The exercise will also demonstrate cooperation and interoperability between the Philippines and the US, consistent with the Mutual Defense Treaty and the VFA.


Former Ugandan rebel commander Ongwen sentenced to 25 years in prison

Former Ugandan rebel commander Ongwen sentenced to 25 years in prison
Updated 06 May 2021

Former Ugandan rebel commander Ongwen sentenced to 25 years in prison

Former Ugandan rebel commander Ongwen sentenced to 25 years in prison
  • Dominic Ongwen was convicted in February of 61 crimes including rape and sexual enslavement
  • Ongwen was abducted by the group as a 9-year-old boy and forced into life of violence
AMSTERDAM: Judges at the International Criminal Court on Thursday sentenced a former Ugandan child soldier who became a commander of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army to 25 years in prison.
Dominic Ongwen, who was taken into ICC custody in 2015, was convicted in February of 61 crimes including rape, sexual enslavement, child abductions, torture and murder.
Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt said the panel of judges had considered sentencing Ongwen to life imprisonment, the court’s harshest punishment, but had sided against it due to the defendant’s own personal suffering.
Led by fugitive warlord Joseph Kony, the LRA terrorized Ugandans for nearly 20 years as it battled the government of President Yoweri Museveni from bases in northern Uganda and neighboring countries. It has now largely been wiped out.
Ongwen was abducted by the group as a 9-year-old boy and forced into life of violence. At the same time, the judges found, he knowingly committed a vast range of heinous crimes as an adult, many of them against defenseless children and women who had been forced into slavery.
He was “a perpetrator who willfully brought tremendous suffering upon his victims, however, also a perpetrator who himself has previously endured extreme suffering at the hands of the group of which he later became a prominent member and leader,” Judge Schmitt said.
Prosecutors had demanded he get at least 20 years in prison, while his defense argued he should get no more than a 10-year sentence because he was traumatized as a child soldier.
The sentence can be appealed.

France ‘won’t be intimidated’ by UK maneuvers around Jersey

France ‘won’t be intimidated’ by UK maneuvers around Jersey
Updated 06 May 2021

France ‘won’t be intimidated’ by UK maneuvers around Jersey

France ‘won’t be intimidated’ by UK maneuvers around Jersey

PARIS: France “won’t be intimidated” by the deployment of British navy ships to the Channel island of Jersey, which is at the center of a standoff between the two neighbors over post-Brexit fishing rights, France’s European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune said Thursday.
Beaune told AFP he had spoken with Britain’s minister for relations with the EU, David Frost, and added: “Our wish is not to have tensions, but to have a quick and full application of the (Brexit) deal.”


Australian COVID-19 travel restrictions challenged in court

Australian COVID-19 travel restrictions challenged in court
Updated 06 May 2021

Australian COVID-19 travel restrictions challenged in court

Australian COVID-19 travel restrictions challenged in court
  • Government resisting growing pressure to lift the Indian travel ban imposed last week until May 15
  • Almost one third of Australians are born overseas and most barred from leaving the country for more than a year

CANBERRA: Australia’s drastic COVID-19 strategies of preventing its citizens leaving the country and returning from India were challenged in court Thursday.
The government is resisting growing pressure to lift the Indian travel ban imposed last week until May 15 to reduce infections in Australian quarantine facilities.
A challenge to the ban by Gary Newman, one of 9,000 Australians prevented from returning home from India, will be heard by a Federal Court judge on Monday, Chief Justice James Allsop said.
The ban was made by order of Health Minister Greg Hunt under the Biosecurity Act which carries penalties for breaches of up to five years in prison and fines of up to $51,000 (A$66,000).
A libertarian group LibertyWorks took its case to the full bench of the Federal Court on Thursday against a separate order under the Biosecurity Act that has prevented most Australians from leaving the country without compelling reasons since March last year.
The government hopes to maintain Australia’s relatively low levels of community transmission of the virus by preventing its citizens from becoming infected overseas and bringing variants home. Travel to and from New Zealand has recently been exempted.
LibertyWorks argues that Hunt does not have the power to legally enforce the ban, which has prevented thousands of Australians from attending weddings and funerals, caring for dying relatives and meeting newborn babies.
With almost one third of Australians born overseas and most barred from leaving the country for more than a year, a win by LibertyWorks is likely to lead to a surge in citizens wishing to travel internationally. The three judges hearing the case will likely announce their verdicts at a later date.
The challenge to the Indian travel ban will be heard by Justice Michael Thawley five days before flights could potentially resume.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the pause was working in reducing infection rates among returned travelers within Australian quarantine facilities.
“The early evidence indicates that that temporary pause to May 15 is on track and that we are very hopeful and confident that on the other side of May 15 we’ll be able to start restoring those repatriation flights,” Morrison said.
A decision would be made before May 15, but Morrison could not say how long before that date that a decision would be announced. Around 20,000 Australians had been repatriated from India before the travel ban.
Newman’s lawyer Christopher Ward told a preliminary hearing on Thursday that the legal team wanted a verdict before May 15.
Newman’s lawyers argue that it is important that the minister’s power was reviewed by the court even if the travel ban was not extended.
The court cases were heard in Sydney where new pandemic restrictions were imposed on Wednesday due to two recent cases of community infections.
Masks have become compulsory in the greater Sydney area in all public indoor venues and on public transport from late Thursday and visitors to homes in Australia’s largest city have been capped at 20.
The measures follow a Sydney man on Wednesday becoming New South Wales state’s first case of COVID-19 community transmission in a month. The man’s wife on Thursday was confirmed as also being infected.
Authorities have yet to determine how the couple became infected with the same variant as a traveler from the United States had been diagnosed while in Sydney hotel quarantine.


Hong Kong’s Joshua Wong handed extra jail time for Tiananmen vigil

Hong Kong’s Joshua Wong handed extra jail time for Tiananmen vigil
Updated 06 May 2021

Hong Kong’s Joshua Wong handed extra jail time for Tiananmen vigil

Hong Kong’s Joshua Wong handed extra jail time for Tiananmen vigil
  • Pleads guilty to taking part in an ‘unlawful’ protest last year over the Tiananmen Square crackdown
  • Joshua Wong currently serving a total of 17.5 months in jail for two convictions linked to the 2019 protests

HONG KONG: Jailed Hong Kong dissident Joshua Wong was handed an additional 10-month sentence on Thursday after he pleaded guilty to taking part in an “unlawful” protest last year over the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Hong Kong has regularly marked the anniversary of Beijing’s deadly 1989 repression of protests in Tiananmen Square with huge candlelight vigils.
But last year’s event was banned for the first time, with police citing the coronavirus pandemic and security fears following huge democracy protests that roiled Hong Kong the year before.
Tens of thousands defied the ban and massed peacefully at the vigil’s traditional site in Victoria Park.
Since then prosecutors have brought charges against more than two dozen prominent democracy activists who showed up at the vigil, the latest in a string of criminal cases that have ensnared the city’s beleaguered democracy movement.
On Thursday, four of those activists – Joshua Wong, Lester Shum, Tiffany Yuen and Janelle Leung – were handed jail terms after pleading guilty to unlawful assembly charges last month.
Wong – one of the most recognizable faces of Hong Kong’s democracy movement – is currently serving a total of 17.5 months in jail for two convictions linked to the 2019 protests.
Judge Stanley Chan handed the 24-year-old a consecutive 10 months of jail for the new conviction which will start once current sentences are finished.
“The sentence should deter people from offending and reoffending in the future,” Chan said.
Shum, 27, was given six months while Yuen, 27, and Leung, 26, were both handed four months.
Wong, Shum and Yuen have also been charged under a new national security law Beijing imposed on the city last year.
Ahead of Thursday’s sentencing they were being held in pre-trial detention and face up to life in prison if convicted under the new security law.
The other defendants – who include some of the city’s most prominent activists, many of them also jailed or in detention – will be tried later this summer.
The annual Tiananmen vigil remembering victims of the 1989 suppression of pro-democracy protests has taken on particular significance as many Hong Kongers chafe under Beijing’s increasingly authoritarian rule.
Crowds grew in size in recent years, often chanting slogans like “End one party rule” and calling for democracy in China.
But it is unclear if Hong Kong will ever see another legal Tiananmen vigil.
Beijing has rolled out a sweeping crackdown against critics in the finance hub, with scores of opposition figures in detention, facing prosecution or fleeing overseas.
As well as the security law, a new campaign dubbed “patriots rule Hong Kong” will ensure everyone standing for public office is vetted for political loyalty first.
Officials have already signaled that this year’s Tiananmen vigil will be refused permission both as a security risk and because of the coronavirus.
Some have also suggested that chanting “End one party rule” – as well as the vigil itself – could now be illegal under the new law, which criminalizes a wide array of acts deemed to be subversion, secession, terrorism and colluding with foreign forces.
Chow Hang-tung, a barrister and a member of the coalition that organizes the annual vigil, criticized Thursday’s sentencing.
“The court has failed to draw a line between what is really unlawful, that is violence activities and what is completely within our rights – peaceful assembly,” she told reporters.
But Judge Chan said the four defendants’ attendance at the vigil was “deliberate, premeditated ... and openly defied the law.”
Protests can only go ahead in Hong Kong with police permission, something that has been routinely denied since the 2019 protests and subsequent coronavirus outbreak.
Chow said Hong Kongers would still mark each Tiananmen anniversary, even if the traditional vigil is banned.
“We will find a way to remember this and we will find a way to publicly do this,” she said.


US backs plan to waive COVID-19 vaccine patents

US backs plan to waive COVID-19 vaccine patents
Updated 06 May 2021

US backs plan to waive COVID-19 vaccine patents

US backs plan to waive COVID-19 vaccine patents

WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden’s administration on Wednesday announced support for a global waiver on patent protections for COVID-19 vaccines, offering hope to poor nations that have struggled to access the life-saving doses.
India, where the death toll hit a new daily record amid fears the peak is still to come, has been leading the fight within the World Trade Organization (WTO) to allow more drugmakers to manufacture the vaccines — a move pharma giants oppose.
US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said that while intellectual property rights for businesses are important, Washington “supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines” in order to end the pandemic.
“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” she said in a statement.
Biden had been under intense pressure to waive protections for vaccine manufacturers, especially amid criticism that rich nations were hoarding shots.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization (WHO), called the US decision “historic” and said it marked “a monumental moment in the fight against COVID-19.”
Tai cautioned however that negotiations “will take time given the consensus-based nature” of the WTO.
With supplies for Americans secured, the Biden administration will continue efforts “to expand vaccine manufacturing and distribution,” and will work to “increase the raw materials needed to produce those vaccines.”
For months the WTO has been facing calls to temporarily remove the intellectual property protections on COVID-19 vaccines, known as a TRIPS waiver in reference to the agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property.
But that notion has been fiercely opposed by pharmaceutical giants and their host countries, which insist the patents are not the main roadblocks to scaling up production, and warned the move could hamper innovation.
“A waiver is the simple but the wrong answer to what is a complex problem,” the Geneva-based International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations lobby group said, describing the US move as “disappointing.”
Countries such as New Zealand, however, welcomed the US announcement, while Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the move “tremendous news,” adding that it would help his country manufacture mRNA vaccines locally.
France, on the other hand, has said it is opposed to the waiver, stating it prefers instead a donation-based model to help poor countries overcome a lack of vaccines.
While the United States has reached the point of offering donuts and beer to entice vaccine holdouts to get their shots, India reported 3,780 new pandemic deaths and not enough doses to inoculate its people.
India has in recent weeks endured a devastating surge in coronavirus cases, with more than 380,000 infections reported on Wednesday.
K Vijay Raghavan, the Indian government’s principal scientific adviser, said the country of 1.3 billion people had to prepare for a new wave of infections even after beating down the current wave, which has taken the country’s caseload above 20 million.
In an effort to boost the country’s collapsing health system, India’s reserve bank announced $6.7 billion in cheap financing for vaccine makers, hospitals and health firms.
India’s crisis has been partly fueled by a lack of vaccines. This has in turn exacerbated the global shortage as India is the world’s biggest producer of COVID-19 shots.
In London, foreign ministers from the Group of Seven wealthy democracies committed to financially support the vaccine-sharing program, Covax.
But there was no immediate announcement on fresh funding.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Denmark, where the spread of the virus has been deemed under control, will open up cinemas and theaters plus gyms and fitness centers Thursday. And bars, cafes and restaurants, which have already reopened, will no longer require reservations.
All patrons, however, must present a “corona pass” certificate confirming they have either tested negative in the past 72 hours, been vaccinated or recently recovered from COVID-19.
The pandemic has claimed more than 3.2 million lives worldwide since it first emerged in late 2019, but many wealthy nations have made progress in suppressing the virus as mass vaccination campaigns gather steam.
More than 1.2 billion doses have been administered globally, but fewer than one percent in the least developed countries.
Vaccine shortages are not an issue in the United States, which could soon be sitting on as many as 300 million extra doses — nearly equivalent to its entire population.
Biden on Tuesday said he wanted 70 percent of US adults to have received at least one shot by the July 4 Independence Day holiday.
He also said his administration was “ready to move immediately” if regulators authorize the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds.
But some experts question the wisdom of devoting limited vaccine supplies to a low-risk group instead of sharing them with high-risk groups abroad.
In the Middle East, Egypt announced a partial shutdown of malls and restaurants and called off festivities for the Muslim holiday of Eid Al-Fitr to curb rising coronavirus cases.
And on Wednesday Argentina broke its record for COVID-19 deaths with 633 recorded fatalities in 24 hours, despite stepped-up measures to reduce movement of people across the country.