Kremlin critic Navalny ends hunger strike, but political prospects darken

Kremlin critic Navalny ends hunger strike, but political prospects darken
Russian police officers look on as opposition supporters walk during a rally in Moscow in support of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, who announced he’s ending his hunger strike on Friday. (AFP)
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Updated 23 April 2021

Kremlin critic Navalny ends hunger strike, but political prospects darken

Kremlin critic Navalny ends hunger strike, but political prospects darken
  • Navalny said via Instagram his hunger strike and support he received in Russia and the West brought 'huge progress'
  • Russian court ruling next week could outlaw his political movement on grounds that it’s an extremist group

MOSCOW: Jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny said on Friday he would start gradually ending a hunger strike after getting medical care, even as the political prospects for him and his movement darkened.
Sounding upbeat and emotional, the 44-year-old opposition politician said in an Instagram post that his hunger strike and the support he had received in Russia and the West had delivered “huge progress.”
The worsening health of Navalny, President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent domestic opponent, and the authorities’ initial failure to give him the treatment he demanded had triggered a Western diplomatic offensive designed to cajole Moscow to make concessions.
In the Instagram post published by his lawyers, Navalny said he was still demanding to be seen by a doctor of his own choosing, the original trigger for his hunger strike, and that he was losing feeling in parts of his legs and arms.
He said, however, he had twice been seen by civilian doctors and undergone tests. It would take 24 days to unwind the hunger strike which he launched on March 31, he added.
“Considering the progress and all the circumstances, I am beginning to come out of the hunger strike,” he wrote.
Supporters and friends reacted with relief, but sources close to the Kremlin and some activists said his political movement — the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) — was on the verge of receiving a potential body blow from the authorities.
A Russian court is expected to rule next week on a request from a Moscow prosecutor to officially outlaw the FBK and Navalny’s regional headquarters — the backbone of his movement — on the grounds that it is an extremist group.
Such a ruling, if it happens, would give the authorities the legal power to arrest and jail his supporters simply for being activists.
A source close to the Kremlin predicted Navalny’s allies would struggle after the ruling.
“It will be their end as an agent of influence,” said the source. “They will be forced to come up with new ways of communicating with their supporters ... They’ll need time to gain momentum again.”
The same source said the authorities were ready to jail some of Navalny’s allies whom they regarded as the most radical.
“Only a few are likely to go to jail, the real hotheads,” the source said. “The authorities don’t want to look like cannibals.”
Leonid Volkov, one of Navalny’s closest allies, declined to comment as did other aides.
“The protest movement in Russia will be destroyed and beheaded to a large degree but it won’t disappear,” said Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speech writer.”
“The people who don’t like Putin will hardly start to like him after this. On the contrary their anger will grow but their outbursts will be more spontaneous and less organized,” he said.
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets across Russia on Wednesday in support of Navalny and more than 1,800 were detained.
Pavel Chikov, a lawyer and rights activist predicted that next week’s ruling may force Navalny supporters to move more of their activities online.
But he said many disgruntled Russians were not Navalny supporters and that some would continue to protest when they felt like it.
“Their habit of taking to the streets will not go away,” Chikov said.
Navalny was jailed for 2-1/2 years in February for parole violations that he and his supporters said were fabricated.
He launched his hunger strike after saying that prison authorities had refused him access to a doctor of his choosing despite his complaints of acute back and leg pain.
Authorities in the IK-2 correctional facility about 100 km (60 miles) east of Moscow where Navalny is serving out his sentence said they had offered him prison medical care but that he had refused.
His supporters said he had refused it because it was substandard and, in some cases, outdated and dangerous.
Navalny survived a poison attack with a nerve agent last year, which Russia denied carrying out.


Philippines’ Duterte bans officials from speaking on South China Sea

Philippines’ Duterte bans officials from speaking on South China Sea
Updated 7 min 29 sec ago

Philippines’ Duterte bans officials from speaking on South China Sea

Philippines’ Duterte bans officials from speaking on South China Sea
  • ‘This is my order now to the cabinet... to refrain (from) discussing this West Philippine Sea (issue) with... anybody’

MANILA: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has banned his cabinet from speaking out in public on the South China Sea dispute, after key ministers engaged in a war of words with Beijing.
Tensions between Manila and Beijing over the waterway – which China claims almost entirely – flared in March after hundreds of Chinese boats were spotted inside the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone.
While Duterte has been reluctant to confront China over the issue, his foreign and defense secretaries have repeatedly criticized Beijing for its refusal to withdraw the ships from the disputed waters.
Earlier this month, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin tweeted an expletive-tagged demand for the Chinese vessels to leave the area.
His online swearing prompted a rebuke from Beijing and Locsin later apologized to his Chinese counterpart.
“This is my order now to the cabinet... to refrain (from) discussing this West Philippine Sea (issue) with... anybody,” Duterte said in a recorded speech late Monday, using the local name for the sea.
“If we have to talk, we talk only among us,” Duterte told several cabinet members, including Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana who previously described the presence of Chinese boats as an “incursion.”
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque was allowed to address the issue in public, Duterte added.
China has ignored a 2016 international tribunal decision that declared its historical claim over most of the South China Sea to be without basis.
Duterte has set aside the ruling in exchange for promises of trade and investment from China that critics say have largely not materialized.


India reports record for single-day coronavirus deaths

India reports record for single-day coronavirus deaths
Updated 18 May 2021

India reports record for single-day coronavirus deaths

India reports record for single-day coronavirus deaths
  • India has recorded nearly 280,000 virus deaths since the pandemic began
  • The government on Monday announced that 17 new labs will help track variants

NEW DELHI: India’s total virus cases since the pandemic began swept past 25 million as the country registered more than 260,000 new cases and a record 4,329 fatalities in the last 24 hours.
The numbers reported Tuesday follow a trend of falling cases after infections dipped below 300,000 for the first time in weeks a day earlier.
Active cases in the country also decreased by more than 165,000 on Tuesday – the biggest dip in weeks. But deaths have continued to rise and hospitals are still swamped by patients.
India has recorded nearly 280,000 virus deaths since the pandemic began. Both the number of deaths and total reported cases are thought to be vast undercounts.
The government on Monday announced that 17 new labs will help track variants, boosting India’s genome sequencing abilities as concern grows over a potentially worrisome variant first detected here. The variant may spread more easily but the country has lagged behind in doing the testing needed to track it and understand it better.
The variant first identified in India has prompted global concern – most notably in Britain, where it has more than doubled in a week, defying a sharp nationwide downward trend in infections.


127 missing after vessel sinks in India cyclone: navy

127 missing after vessel sinks in India cyclone: navy
Updated 18 May 2021

127 missing after vessel sinks in India cyclone: navy

127 missing after vessel sinks in India cyclone: navy
  • The vessel was carrying 273 people when it started drifting on Monday

MUMBAI: Some 127 people were missing Tuesday after a vessel adrift off Mumbai’s coast sank during Cyclone Tauktae, the Indian navy said as two ships and helicopters were deployed to assist in the search.
The vessel was carrying 273 people when it started drifting on Monday as strong winds battered India’s western coast, sending huge waves crashing onto its shores and turning roads into rivers.


Hong Kong temporarily suspends operations at representative office in Taiwan

Hong Kong temporarily suspends operations at representative office in Taiwan
Updated 18 May 2021

Hong Kong temporarily suspends operations at representative office in Taiwan

Hong Kong temporarily suspends operations at representative office in Taiwan
  • Tensions between the Beijing-backed Hong Kong government and Taiwan have risen since pro-democracy protests erupted in Hong Kong in 2019

HONG KONG: Hong Kong’s representative office in Taiwan has temporarily suspended operations, a Hong Kong government spokesperson said on Tuesday, adding only that the decision was not related to the rise in coronavirus cases there.
Tensions between the Beijing-backed Hong Kong government and Taiwan have risen since pro-democracy protests erupted in Hong Kong in 2019 and China imposed a sweeping national security law last year to quell the unrest, prompting many activists to leave the city.
Taipei has criticized the law and opened a local office to help people who may want to leave Hong Kong.
Last year, Taiwanese officials in Hong Kong were told their visas would not be renewed unless they signed a document supporting Beijing’s claim to Taiwan under its “one China” policy, a person with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.
Hong Kong’s Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau announced the decision to suspend the Hong Kong Economic, Trade and Cultural Office in Taiwan without providing an explanation. It said requests for assistance would be handled through hotlines and via the Hong Kong government website.
“The suspension is not related to the pandemic situation in Taiwan. We do not have anything further to add,” a Hong Kong government spokesperson said.
Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said it was working on a response on the matter.


Afghan Taliban ready for talks — on one condition

Afghan Taliban ready for talks — on one condition
Updated 18 May 2021

Afghan Taliban ready for talks — on one condition

Afghan Taliban ready for talks — on one condition
  • Group insists final negotiations to end Afghanistan war are held in Doha

KABUL: Afghan Taliban delegates were on Monday reportedly ready to take part in US-sponsored talks with the Kabul government in the Turkish city of Istanbul.

A Taliban spokesman confirmed the negotiators’ position, making a U-turn on the group’s recent decision to boycott the long-awaited discussions.

Zabihullah Mujahid told Arab News: “The talks should not pave the ground for interference from any side.

“This matter is under deliberation ... we, without doubt, say that the Istanbul meeting should be conducted in conformity with the wishes of the Afghan people and should have no imposition aspect.”

However, he said that the final negotiations should be held in Doha, Qatar where both sides resumed stalled discussions on the peace process several days ago.

“This is an opportunity for peace, and we will participate in it on the basis of our conditions ... continuation of the talks in Doha is a good point for ending the war,” he added.

The development follows the group’s decision to snub the Turkey talks after American President Joe Biden said he would be extending the US-led foreign troops’ presence in Afghanistan until Sept. 11.

Initially, all troops were to have left the country by May 1 based on a key condition for a landmark accord signed between the Taliban and US delegates in Doha more than a year ago.

Mujahid did not elaborate on the conditions for the talks to resume and said that the Taliban leadership was “pondering over them.”

He pointed out that the two conditions demanded by the group for participation in future discussions included the “release of the remaining 7,000 Taliban inmates held by Kabul and delisting of their leaders from the UN blacklist.”

Mujahid added that the Taliban had discussed the conditions with Washington which had “pledged to facilitate” the group on both issues, although no date had yet been set for the talks. Fatima Morchal, a spokesperson for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, welcomed the news.

HIGHLIGHT

A Taliban spokesman confirmed the negotiators’ position, making a U-turn on the group’s recent decision to boycott the long-awaited discussions.

“It is a good thing; we have always said we will participate. The agenda and timing of the meeting have yet to be finalized, and we will attend it,” she told Arab News.

The Istanbul talks were rescheduled for April 24, before the Taliban announced that they would not participate in any meetings on Afghan peace until all foreign forces withdrew from Afghanistan.

Under Biden’s announcement, US-led troops will leave Afghanistan by Sept. 11, ending the most protracted conflict in America’s history, which began nearly 20 years ago with the Taliban’s ousting in 2001.

The group has accused Washington of breaching the deal by delaying the troops’ exit, resulting in an escalation of violence across Afghanistan – with hundreds of lives lost, including civilians – which both the Taliban and the Kabul government have blamed each other for.

Fighting resumed on Monday in a number of major Afghan provinces at the end of a three-day ceasefire announced by the Taliban during the Eid-Al-Fitr holiday.

Two weeks ago, US special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, the architect of the Doha deal with the Taliban, warned that Washington would abandon its push to form an interim government to replace Ghani if the Taliban insisted on boycotting the Istanbul talks.

The Istanbul meeting, under the auspices of the UN, seeks to draw a roadmap to end more than four decades of conflict in Afghanistan, ahead of the complete withdrawal of foreign troops from the country.

Wahidullah Ghazikhail, a Kabul-based political analyst, told Arab News that recently Washington had “secretly shown flexibility to the Taliban” on the date of departure for the remaining troops and could “complete the pullout process either in June or July.”

The Taliban, in return, had to “express leniency for attending the Istanbul meeting,” he said.

“The Taliban would have been blamed by ordinary Afghans for refusing to participate in the Istanbul talks. They now have a condition, want to begin the initial talks in Istanbul, but that the serious decisions and last decisive decisions be taken in Doha,” Ghazikhail added.

Torek Farhadi, an adviser for former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, told Arab News: “The Taliban are making sure they have a diplomatic presence in the (Istanbul) talks because the process of delisting them from the UN sanctions list requires to continue talks and for freeing their 7,000 prisoners.”

He said that Kabul also wanted to attend the Istanbul meeting to “give people hope that peace talks are continuing,” but added that in reality “the positions are so far apart that peace talks might continue for years. Both sides are preparing for more war. But it is clear that both sides have actors in the peace theaters as well … the sad part is civilians will suffer.”