Defiant Lebanese judge faces crunch meeting on Tuesday

Defiant Lebanese judge faces crunch meeting on Tuesday
An opponent of Judge Ghada Aoun grabs the weapon of a soldier, after he hit the protester with it, during a sit-in outside the Justice Palace in Beirut, Lebanon, Monday, April 19, 2021. (AP)
Short Url
Updated 20 April 2021

Defiant Lebanese judge faces crunch meeting on Tuesday

Defiant Lebanese judge faces crunch meeting on Tuesday
  • She staged two raids on a currency exchange earlier this month in defiance of the decision from Public Prosecutor Judge Ghassan Oweidat to dismiss her

BEIRUT: A Lebanese judge who defied a decision dismissing her from an investigation into possible currency export breaches has been summoned for a meeting on Tuesday with the country’s Supreme Judicial Council.
Judge Ghada Aoun, who was referred to the Judicial Inspection Authority because of more than 20 complaints against her, can be deemed incompetent by the vote of five council members and five authority members.
Aoun had been investigating the Mecattaf money exchange company and Societe Generale Bank for allegedly withdrawing US dollars from the market and shipping the funds abroad.
She staged two raids on a currency exchange earlier this month in defiance of the decision from Public Prosecutor Judge Ghassan Oweidat to dismiss her.
In one of the raids she was accompanied by supporters of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), the political party led by the president’s son-in-law MP Gebran Bassil.
In the event that Aoun agrees during Tuesday’s meeting to comply with Oweidat’s decision, she will be dismissed from matters related to important financial crimes but will remain in her position as an appellate public prosecutor in Mount Lebanon.Two protests were held outside the Beirut Justice Palace on Monday.
One was by Aoun’s supporters from the FPM. The other was by supporters of Oweidat from the Future Movement, the political party led by Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri.
The rival protests turned into a clash, with people shoving and beating each other, and one person was wounded.
The army and riot police intervened to separate the protesters and end their sit-ins.
According to one judge, there was a judicial hierarchy that must be respected: “Judge Oweidat requested the dismissal of a judge who is his subordinate, so how could she not comply?”
Aoun, who has become controversial in her handling of judicial files, has become a matter of public and political debate.
Some support the judge in her conduct to expose the corruption of authority, while others consider her to be a tool for the FPM through which it chooses which issues to attack its opponents with.
The Future parliamentary bloc said that what happened with Aoun reflected “contempt for the constitutional institutions and the incitement of some judges to usurp powers” that were not theirs.
Attorney Imad Al-Saba, who is the central coordinator of the lawyers’ sector in the Future Movement, said the party rejected the politicization of the judiciary. “It is our duty to restore the judiciary’s credibility and prestige,” he added.
Systemic corruption in Lebanon has angered the public, with people taking to the streets to protest and saying that graft has devastated the country’s economy.   
The former president of the Constitutional Council, Issam Sleiman, said that what Oweidat did was against the law. “We are in an unacceptable state of chaos. The judiciary is asleep, several public prosecution offices have not done anything in any of the corruption files, and no corrupt person has been arrested or held accountable. The plundering of public money will not be exposed except through a forensic audit.”
President Michel Aoun has insisted on a financial audit into the accounts of the Banque du Liban. But his opponents are demanding the audit include all state institutions, especially the Ministry of Energy, which is run by ministers affiliated with the FPM.


Erdogan rivals surge in polls ahead of 2023 Turkey election

Erdogan rivals surge in polls ahead of 2023 Turkey election
Updated 17 min 50 sec ago

Erdogan rivals surge in polls ahead of 2023 Turkey election

Erdogan rivals surge in polls ahead of 2023 Turkey election
  • ‘Loss of trust, pandemic failures’ damaging govt support, expert says
  • Recent meetings between leaders of the opposition have hinted at efforts to develop a joint candidate figure

ANKARA: Turkish opposition figures are gaining ground among voters ahead of the country’s critical 2023 presidential elections and are likely to pose a major threat to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling party, recent surveys show.

Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu and Ankara mayor Mansur Yavas, who head two opposition-controlled municipalities in Turkey’s largest cities, previously challenged Erdogan and his party in the March 2019 local elections.

And recent meetings between leaders of the opposition have hinted at efforts to develop a joint candidate figure who can appeal to wider segments of Turkish society.

The latest survey from Istanbul Economics, a leading research company, showed that Yavas and Imamoglu are now performing better than Erdogan in polls.

Results show that 52.5 percent of voters prefer Yavas against Erdogan’s 38.1 percent when asked who they would vote for if a presidential election was held today.

Similarly, 51.4 percent of voters would choose Imamoglu against Erdogan’s 39.9 percent  in a presidential election. They would also prefer Meral Aksener, chairwoman of the center right IYI Party, with 45.4 percent, against Erdogan’s 39.1 percent.

The survey, titled Turkey Report, was conducted across 12 cities using 1506 respondents. The polling company recently revealed that popular support for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its nationalist partner MHP was down to 45 percent, with the opposition standing at 55 percent.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also undermined trust in the government, due to perceived failures in handling the outbreak in Turkey.

Erdogan recently asked for “forgiveness” from Turks who have faced financial struggles due to pandemic restrictions and the subsequent economic downturn.

Dr. Berk Esen, a political scientist from Sabanci University in Istanbul, said that there are several reasons for the decline in Erdogan’s popularity in recent months.

“The pandemic has worsened the economic downturn that had already severely hit the urban poor, many of whom are loyal to the ruling party,” he told Arab News.

“Many voters feel that the Erdogan administration has done a poor job of dealing with the pandemic, both medically and economically,” Esen said.

“Although Turkey has been spared the catastrophe seen in other right-wing populist cases like Brazil and India, case numbers are still too high and vaccination efforts have not gone smoothly. Turkey has only managed to vaccinate 13 percent of its population and has experienced difficulty acquiring more vaccines from multiple sources,” he added.

The number of COVID-19 vaccinations administered in Turkey reached 25 million on Monday, however, over-reliance on China’s Sinovac jab and shipment delays thought to be politically motivated have put the country in a dangerous position amid surging infection rates.

The pandemic has also threatened the livelihoods of disadvantaged people in the country, with family suicides and bankruptcies of small business owners becoming more prevalent. Many people, including AKP voters, are beginning to feel left behind, Esen said.

“Government precautions against the pandemic are seen by many to be insufficient, scientifically not all that helpful, ill-planned and selectively applied. Such restrictions hurt local businesses and created unemployment across the country,” he added.

During the first quarter of 2021, about 29,000 shopkeepers closed their businesses, an increase of 11 percent compared with the same period in 2020.

Large pro-government rallies and other “super-spreader” events like mass protests have also sparked public outcry in the country. Many Turks have accused the government of double standards regarding pandemic measures, including social distancing rules.

Esen said that despite rising poverty and unemployment figures, the government has offered only limited social assistance to the poor, distributing less than most other OECD member countries.

“There is a growing sentiment among voters that the AKP treats its own members favorably thanks to cronyism, vast corruption schemes and shady business deals,” he added.

“Against this backdrop, opposition mayors of major metropolitan areas like Istanbul and Ankara have seen their popularity rise due to the increased reliance on social assistance by the urban poor and the provision of public services to low-income neighborhoods,” Esen said.

Another survey by Turkey’s Gezici research company found that 51 percent of respondents would vote for Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the main opposition Republican Peoples’ Party, against 49 percent for Erdogan in Turkey’s presidential election runoff.


Macron, El-Sisi agree ‘absolutely necessary’ to end Israel-Gaza hostilities: Elysee

Macron, El-Sisi agree ‘absolutely necessary’ to end Israel-Gaza hostilities: Elysee
Updated 49 min 25 sec ago

Macron, El-Sisi agree ‘absolutely necessary’ to end Israel-Gaza hostilities: Elysee

Macron, El-Sisi agree ‘absolutely necessary’ to end Israel-Gaza hostilities: Elysee
  • French President and Egyptian President agreed in Paris that it was "absolutely necessary" to end the hostilities

PARIS: France and Egypt on Monday called for a rapid end to fighting in Israel and Gaza as the violence that has killed more than 200 people there entered its second week.
French President Emmanuel Macron and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi agreed in Paris that it was “absolutely necessary” to end the hostilities, Macron’s office said, adding that he had renewed his support for Egypt’s mediation efforts in the conflict.


What cost an education? Lebanese students fight fees hike

What cost an education? Lebanese students fight fees hike
Updated 17 May 2021

What cost an education? Lebanese students fight fees hike

What cost an education? Lebanese students fight fees hike
  • Parents are paid in local currency, which has tumbled in value against the dollar due to Lebanon’s financial collapse
  • Students got together, vowed to act and mounted legal action in February to pay fees at the official rate of 1,500 Lebanese pounds/dollar

BEIRUT: When the American University of Beirut (AUB) said the cost of study at Lebanon’s top school would more than double, 21-year-old Ali Slim felt his dream career in medicine might be over before it had even began.
Like most Lebanese, his parents are paid in local currency, which has tumbled in value against the dollar due to the country’s financial collapse, rendering them wholly unable to meet what is in effect a 160 percent tuition increase for their son.
The AUB has boosted financial aid for students, but it said the crisis had made the hike in fees unavoidable.
Another top school — the Lebanese American University (LAU) — soon followed suit, prompting fears that thousands of students like Slim could be priced out of private higher education in a country with only a single, under-funded, public alternative.
So the students got together and vowed to act.
Along with scores of fellow students, Slim mounted legal action in February to pay fees at the official rate of 1,500 Lebanese pounds per dollar, rather than the semi-official rate of 3,900 pounds per greenback used by the universities.
“It’s not just a fight for education, it’s a fight for what’s right and to try to get the judicial system to protect the most vulnerable,” Slim told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
When students began paying at the official rate, the AUB rejected their payments and said they would need to pay the new rate — or be dropped from class.
Students then filed two suits: one affirming their right to pay fees at the official exchange rate, the other asking for a stay on all payments until the first case is settled.
An urgent matters court ruled in their favor on the second case, saying the AUB could not exclude the students until there was a final ruling on whether their payment was legal.
The AUB’s office of communications said no students had left due to the hike and that more than 99 percent had paid their fees.
Education Minister Tarek Majzoub did not respond to a request for comment.
As other universities ponder similar hikes, the court’s ruling could have far-reaching implications for tens of thousands of students nationwide.
“We’re basically looking to secure a social safety net that protects students most at risk. That doesn’t exist right now,” said Jad Hani, a 20-year-old economics senior at the AUB.
Following the price hike, annual tuition fees for an arts or sciences degree have risen from about 35 million pounds to about 90 million pounds.
The minimum wage in Lebanon is 675,000 pounds per month, equivalent to 8.1 million pounds per year.
As the crisis decimates household incomes, an unusually large number of students appear to be opting for the publicly funded Lebanese University (LU) over private institutions – a change its president, Fouad Ayoub, linked to “economic factors.”
Some 5,000 students joined this year, after the price hikes were announced, he said, far more than its average intake and swelling the overall student body to 87,000.
The university cannot meet such demand, Ayoub said, since its budget is unchanged but its spending power has crashed in tandem with the local currency.
It has struggled to buy even the basics — lab supplies, electronics and books — as suppliers held off bidding on contracts for fear of the volatile exchange rate, Ayoub said.
“We are rationing the use of paper. The situation is very difficult,” he said.
The LU is not alone in being crippled by issues that are ultimately tied to the increasingly bankrupt Lebanese state.
The AUB said it was owed some $150 million by the state, making its dire situation still worse.
“AUB, like the rest of the country, is having to cope through a crisis not of its own making and without any support,” the university said in written comments.
Still, it has ramped up financial support leading to reductions in tuition costs, helping some 4,000 students — almost one in two — enrolled this academic year.
To ensure it can survive another 150 years, the institution said it had no choice but to up the exchange rate, insisting the new semi-official rate — used for transactions at commercial banks — was anyway still far below the volatile market rate.
With no end in sight to the country’s financial collapse, students said they felt compelled to help each other.
Razane Hishi, a 19-year-old software engineering junior at the AUB, said she chose to join the exchange rate legal fight out of solidarity, rather than need.
“It’s a moral obligation for me to help protect others that may need this now,” Hishi said. “If the trend keeps going, how are any of us supposed to afford an education in the future?”


Egypt braces for surge in virus cases

Egypt braces for surge in virus cases
Updated 17 May 2021

Egypt braces for surge in virus cases

Egypt braces for surge in virus cases
  • Cairo and Giza governorates have been hardest hit by the rise in coronavirus infections following an increase in gatherings during Ramadan and in the days before Eid
  • Health officials have called on citizens to adhere to precautionary measures, including wearing masks, washing hands frequently and minimising social contact

CAIRO: Egypt is bracing itself for a surge in COVID-19 infections, with daily cases likely to rise from 1,300 to 1,500 in the coming week, according to the Health and Population Ministry.

The pandemic’s intensity is expected to ease by July, a ministry source said, but warned that “this forecast depends on the behavior of citizens and the extent to which they commit to precautionary measures.”

Cairo and Giza governorates have been hardest hit by the rise in coronavirus infections following an increase in gatherings during Ramadan and in the days before Eid.

The two governorates are followed by Fayoum, Minya and Sohag.

Health officials have called on citizens to adhere to precautionary measures, including wearing masks, ensuring social distancing, washing hands frequently, and avoiding crowded areas and public gatherings.

Residents are also being urged to follow news updates on the virus.

The ministry source also called on citizens, especially the elderly and people with chronic diseases, to register for the COVID-19 vaccine.

Egypt is hoping to provide a choice of vaccines, with shipments expected in the coming days.

Egypt’s Health and Population Minister, Hala Zayed, announced the launch of community communication teams in seven governorates across the country on Saturday and Sunday to enhance citizens’ health awareness.

Khaled Megahed, assistant minister of health and population for information and awareness, said that teams were deployed on Monday in Cairo, Alexandria, and Fayoum.

Teams started on Sunday in Ras El-Bar city in Mayat governorate and Baltim city in Kafr El-Sheikh governorate. The teams are also targeting the Giza and Port Said governorates.


Israel kills militant commander after Palestinian rocket fire, US calls for peace

Israel kills militant commander after Palestinian rocket fire, US calls for peace
Updated 17 May 2021

Israel kills militant commander after Palestinian rocket fire, US calls for peace

Israel kills militant commander after Palestinian rocket fire, US calls for peace
  • Gaza health officials put the Palestinian death toll since the hostilities flared last week at 201, including 58 children and 34 women
  • Ten people have been killed in Israel, including two children, Israeli authorities say

GAZA/TEL AVIV: Israel killed a senior Palestinian militant commander in heavy air strikes on Gaza on Monday and Islamist groups renewed rocket attacks on Israeli cities despite mounting international calls for a cease-fire.
As the fiercest hostilities in the region in years entered a second week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged all sides to protect civilians and said Washington was working intensively behind the scenes to halt the conflict.
Gaza health officials put the Palestinian death toll since the hostilities flared last week at 201, including 58 children and 34 women. Ten people have been killed in Israel, including two children, Israeli authorities say.
The killing of Hussam Abu Harbeed, Islamic Jihad’s armed commander for north Gaza, was likely to draw a fierce response from the militant group that is fighting alongside Hamas, the Islamist movement that governs the coastal enclave.
The Israeli military said in a statement that Harbeed had been “behind several anti-tank missile terror attacks against Israeli civilians,” and an Israeli general said his country could carry on the fight “forever.”
Militant groups in Gaza also gave no sign that an end to fighting was imminent. Soon after Harbeed’s death, Islamic Jihad said it had fired rockets at the Israeli coastal city of Ashdod, and Israeli police said three people had been slightly hurt.
At least three Palestinians were also killed by an Israeli air strike on a car in Gaza City on Monday, medics said, after a night of heavy Israeli air strikes. Israel’s military said Gaza militants had fired about 60 rockets toward Israeli cities overnight, down from 120 and 200 the two previous nights.
Another Palestinian was killed in an aerial attack on the town of Jabalya, medics said.
“My children couldn’t sleep all night even after the wave of intensive bombing stopped,” said Umm Naeem, 50, a mother of five, as she shopped for bread in Gaza City after the latest Israeli air strikes. “What is happening to us is too much, but Jerusalem deserves all the sacrifices.”
Israel bombed what its military said was 15 km (nine miles) of underground tunnels used by Hamas after Palestinian militants fired rockets from Gaza at the Israeli cities of Beersheba and Ashkelon. Nine residences belonging to high-ranking Hamas commanders in Gaza were also hit, it said.
“We have to continue the war until there is long-term cease-fire — (one) that is not temporary,” Osher Bugam, a resident of the Israel coastal city of Ashkelon, said after a rocket fired from Gaza hit a synagogue there.

’War of attrition’
Hamas began its rocket assault last Monday after weeks of tensions over a court case to evict several Palestinian families in East Jerusalem, and in retaliation for Israeli police clashes with Palestinians near the city’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Palestinians have also become frustrated by setbacks to their aspirations for an independent state and an end to Israeli occupation in recent years.
World concern deepened after an Israeli air strike in Gaza that destroyed several homes on Sunday and which Palestinian health officials said killed 42 people, including 10 children, and persistent rocket attacks on Israeli towns.
US envoy Hady Amr, appointed by President Joe Biden last week, met Palestinian officials in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Monday and Blinken said US officials had been “working around the clock” to bring an end to the conflict.
“The United States remains greatly concerned by the escalating violence. Hundreds of people killed or injured, including children being pulled from the rubble,” he said after talks with Denmark’s foreign minister in Copenhagen.
The United States said on Sunday it had made clear it was ready to offer support “should the parties seek a cease-fire.”
Jordan’s King Abdullah said his kingdom was involved in intensive diplomacy to halt the bloodshed, but gave no details.
Brig. Gen. Yaron Rosen, a former Israeli air division commander, gave no indication on Monday there would be a let-up in attacks in what he called a “war of attrition.”
“The IDF (Israeli military) can go with this forever. And they (Hamas) can go on with their rockets, sadly, also for a very long time. But the price they are paying is rising higher and higher,” he told reporters.
The Israeli military said at least 130 Palestinian combatants had been killed since fighting began. Harbeed had been a commander with Islamic Jihad for 15 years and was behind an attack on the first day of hostilities last week, it said.
The Israeli military said Hamas, a group regarded by Israel, the United States and the European Union as a terrorist movement, and other armed factions had fired about 3,150 rockets from Gaza over the past week. Israel’s missile defense system intercepted most of them, it said.
Hamas said its attacks were in retaliation for Israel’s “ongoing aggression against civilians.”
The Israeli military said civilian casualties were unintentional and that its warplanes attacked a tunnel system used by militants, which collapsed, bringing the homes down. Hamas called it “pre-meditated killing.”