Defiant Lukashenko defends plane diversion, blasts critics

Defiant Lukashenko defends plane diversion, blasts critics
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko armed with a Kalashnikov-type rifle near the Palace of Independence in Minsk, Belarus, Aug. 23, 2020. (AP Photo)
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Updated 26 May 2021

Defiant Lukashenko defends plane diversion, blasts critics

Defiant Lukashenko defends plane diversion, blasts critics
  • Minsk air traffic control informed the crew of the Ryanair Athens-to-Vilnius flight that they had a bomb onboard and urged them to land in the Belarusian capital
  • Roman Protasevich — the 26-year-old co-founder of opposition Telegram channel Nexta — and his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega were arrested after the plane landed

MINSK: A defiant President Alexander Lukashenko on Wednesday defended Belarus’s diversion of a European flight and arrest of a dissident on board, lashing out at critics at home and abroad.
In his first public statement since the Ryanair flight was diverted and opposition journalist Roman Protasevich arrested on Sunday, Lukashenko dismissed the international outcry the incident provoked.
“I acted lawfully to protect our people,” Lukashenko said in an address to parliament, the Belta state-run news agency reported.
The criticism was nothing more than another attempt by his opponents to undermine his rule, he said, accusing them of waging a “modern, hybrid-war” against Belarus.
“Our ill-wishers at home and abroad have changed their methods of attacking the state,” Lukashenko said, accusing them of crossing “red lines” and “boundaries of common sense and human morality.”
“They have moved from organizing riots to strangulation.”
Lukashenko — often dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” — is facing some of the strongest international pressure of his nearly 27-year rule of ex-Soviet Belarus.
The strongman and his allies are already under a series of Western sanctions over a brutal crackdown on mass protests that followed his disputed re-election to a sixth term last August.
European leaders are now accusing authorities in Minsk of essentially hijacking the passenger flight, and they agreed this week to cut air links with Belarus and told airliners to avoid the country’s airspace.
The Belarusian opposition has called for further and stronger measures, and the UN Security Council was set to meet behind closed doors later on Wednesday.
The Athens-to-Vilnius flight was diverted over a supposed bomb scare, with Lukashenko scrambling a MiG-29 fighter jet to accompany the aircraft.
Belarus has released a transcript of communications between Minsk air traffic control and the Ryanair flight, in which the crew was told “you have a bomb on board” and urged to land in Minsk.
Lukashenko on Wednesday denied that the fighter jet had forced the airliner to land, calling such claims an “absolute lie.”
He claimed that Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania had denied the Ryanair flight permission to land and that the commercial flight’s only option had been to turn to Minsk.
Protasevich — the 26-year-old co-founder of opposition Telegram channel Nexta — and his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega were arrested after the plane landed.
Protasevich, who had been living between Poland and Lithuania, appeared in a video on Monday in which he confessed to helping to organize mass unrest, a charge that could land him in jail for 15 years.
Sapega, a 23-year-old law student at the European Humanities University (EHU) in Lithuania, appeared in another video on Tuesday, saying she worked for a Telegram channel that disclosed information about Belarusian police.
Her lawyer said she had been remanded in pre-trial detention for two months and Russia confirmed she was being detained as a criminal suspect.
Belarus’s opposition says such videos are routinely recorded by security forces, with participants forced to make statements under duress.
Protasevich’s mother told AFP in Poland that she had not slept since he was arrested.
“I’m asking, I’m begging, I’m calling on the whole international community to save him,” Natalia Protasevich said, weeping.
“They’re going to kill him in there.”
EU leaders on Monday warned they would adopt further “targeted economic sanctions” against the Belarusian authorities to add to the 88 regime figures and seven companies on a blacklist.
Last year’s protests lasted for months, with tens of thousands taking to the streets to denounce Lukashenko, but were brutally quashed and thousands were detained — many of whom reported torture and abuse in custody.
On Wednesday, dozens of people marched through the streets of Beryozovka east of Minsk for the funeral of Vitold Ashurok, 50, a well-known opposition activist who died Sunday from cardiac arrest in a penal colony in eastern Belarus.
Many protest leaders — including now-exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who claimed victory in the August vote — fled the country, and the demonstrations have dwindled.
Tikhanovskaya this week urged Europe and Washington to take stronger action against Lukashenko’s regime, but the strongman continues to enjoy solid support from Russia.
The Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday there was no reason to disbelieve Lukashenko’s version of events and announced a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Belarusian leader in Russia on Friday.
Speaking to the European Parliament via video link on Wednesday, Tikhanovskaya called for a series of concrete measures, including a ban on new foreign investments and on Belarus’s main exports like oil and metal products, potash fertilizers and wood.
Diplomatic sources told AFP the UN Security Council would hold an informal meeting on Belarus on Wednesday but was unlikely to agree on a collective statement because of Russia’s support for Minsk.


Syrian jailed for anti-Semitic attacks in Austria

Updated 3 sec ago

Syrian jailed for anti-Semitic attacks in Austria

Syrian jailed for anti-Semitic attacks in Austria
VIENNA: An Austrian court on Thursday handed a Syrian aged 32 a three-year jail term for vandalising a synagogue and other anti-Semitic attacks.
The court in the southeastern city of Graz was placed in a care institution after finding the man, who committed the offenses in August 2020, to be psychologically disturbed, a spokesperson told AFP.
He was arrested after he threw stones and scrawled pro-Palestinian slogans on the town synagogue before threatening the head of the local Jewish community and also damaged a local facility used by an LGBT group.
In court the man said he regretted actions that the prosecutor said were motivated by “hatred of Jews, homosexuals and prostitutes,” the APA news agency reported.
At the time of the arrest, President Alexander Van der Bellen stressed anti-Semitism had no place in a country whose 192,000-strong pre-war Jewish population was decimated during the Holocaust under Nazi rule.
The country registered 585 anti-Semitic acts last year alone, according to Vienna’s Jewish IKG community association.
Graz’s synagogue was notably destroyed in the 1938 anti-Jewish Kristallnacht — or the Night of Broken Glass — pogrom. A new one was built in 2000.

Afghan refugees may be housed in hotels for up to a year, say UK councils

Afghan refugees may be housed in hotels for up to a year, say UK councils
Updated 22 min 58 sec ago

Afghan refugees may be housed in hotels for up to a year, say UK councils

Afghan refugees may be housed in hotels for up to a year, say UK councils
  • Charity workers warn conditions are unsafe for children and can affect their mental wellbeing
  • Around 8,500 Afghans were evacuated to the UK by British forces earlier this year

LONDON: Local politicians across the UK are making contingency plans to house Afghan refugees in hotels for up to a year, as progress on finding them long-term accommodation slows.

So far, around 1,500 of the 8,500 Afghans airlifted out of Kabul by British forces more than two months ago have been provided long-term accommodation, leaving roughly 7,000 without a permanent home in the UK, and with no guidance on when they will be provided, the Guardian reported.

Many of those brought to the UK had worked alongside British or coalition forces as interpreters or in other support roles.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson previously committed to supporting them, saying: “We will never forget the brave sacrifice made by Afghans who chose to work with us, at great risk to themselves.”

But local councils across Britain are struggling to deal with the influx of refugees and the logistical challenges they pose.

Some councils, the Guardian reported, said they had received no support from the Home Office in providing immediate needs assessment on arrivals, and an official from one said they were given no notice that the government was block-booking hotels in the area for refugees.

“We’re planning for a year, to be honest,” said one unnamed central London hotel official. “We don’t think it will be quick.”

Nick Forbes, the leader of Newcastle City Council, who heads the UK’s Local Government Association Asylum, Refugees and Migration Task Group, told the Guardian: “I get no sense that the government sees this as an urgent priority. I’m concerned that now they are in hotels they are out of sight and out of mind.”

There have also been warnings that hotel conditions are not suitable for the many children to have been evacuated to Britain.

“There are kids in lots of hotels with nothing to do; their mental health wellbeing is not being met, they are becoming frustrated and playing up. We could and should be doing better,” one charity worker said after visiting several London hotels, where 4,000 people are being housed.

Enver Solomon, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, told the Guardian that finding long-term accommodation for 7,000 people would be possible if just half of the UK’s 343 local authorities offered to house 60 people, adding: “That’s just 12 homes each — that should be doable, shouldn’t it?”


Nigeria seizes $11 mln worth of amphetamine pills in shipment from Lebanon

Nigeria seizes $11 mln worth of amphetamine pills in shipment from Lebanon
Updated 21 October 2021

Nigeria seizes $11 mln worth of amphetamine pills in shipment from Lebanon

Nigeria seizes $11 mln worth of amphetamine pills in shipment from Lebanon
  • The 451,807 captagon tablets were seized at the Apapa sea port in September

ABUJA: Nigerian authorities intercepted nearly half a million amphetamine pills hidden in machinery coming into a Lagos port, an official said on Thursday.
The 451,807 captagon tablets were seized at the Apapa sea port in September, National Drug Law Enforcement Agency Chairman Mohamed Marwa told reporters.
“This was traced to have come from Lebanon,” he said. “We have arrested one of those involved in the importation and he is helping us to trace all those involved.”
Marwa estimated the tablets were worth $11 million, or roughly 6 billion naira.
In April, Saudi Arabia announced a ban on imports of fruits and vegetables from Lebanon, blaming an increase in drug smuggling.


80,000-180,000 health workers may have died from Covid by May 2021: WHO

80,000-180,000 health workers may have died from Covid by May 2021: WHO
Updated 21 October 2021

80,000-180,000 health workers may have died from Covid by May 2021: WHO

80,000-180,000 health workers may have died from Covid by May 2021: WHO
  • A WHO paper estimated that out of the world's 135 million health staff between 80,000 to 180,000 health and care workers could have died from Covid-19
  • WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said health care workers needed to be immunised against the disease first, as he slammed the global inequity in the vaccine roll-out

GENEVA: The World Health Organization said Thursday that 80,000 to 180,000 health care workers may have been killed by Covid-19 up to May this year, insisting they must be prioritized for vaccination.
A WHO paper estimated that out of the world’s 135 million health staff, “between 80,000 to 180,000 health and care workers could have died from Covid-19 in the period between January 2020 to May 2021.”
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said health care workers needed to be immunized against the disease first, as he slammed the global inequity in the vaccine roll-out.
“Data from 119 countries suggest that on average, two in five health and care workers globally are fully vaccinated. But of course, that average masks huge differences across regions and economic groupings.”
“In Africa, less than in one in 10 health workers have been fully vaccinated. Meanwhile, in most high-income countries, more than 80 percent of health workers are fully vaccinated.”
He added: “We call on all countries to ensure that all health and care workers in every country are prioritized for Covid-19 vaccines, alongside other at-risk groups.”
Tedros said that more than 10 months on since the first vaccines were approved by the WHO, the fact that millions of health workers still had not been vaccinated was an “indictment” on the countries and companies controlling the global supply of doses.
Annette Kennedy, president of the International Council of Nurses, said the organization grieved for all health care workers who had lost their lives — “many needlessly; many we could have saved.”
“It’s a shocking indictment of governments. It’s a shocking indictment of their lack of duty of care to protect health care workers who have paid the ultimate sacrifice with their lives,” she said.
Kennedy added: “They are now burnt out, they are devastated, they are physically and mentally exhausted. And there is a prediction that 10 percent of them will leave within a very short time.”
The WHO wants each country to have vaccinated 40 percent of its population by the end of the year, but Tedros said 82 countries were now at risk of missing that target, chiefly through insufficient supply.
The novel coronavirus has killed at least 4.9 million people since the outbreak emerged in China in December 2019, according to a tally from official sources compiled by AFP, while nearly 242 million cases have been registered.


Ex-Minneapolis cop gets 57 months in killing of 911 caller

Ex-Minneapolis cop gets 57 months in killing of 911 caller
Updated 21 October 2021

Ex-Minneapolis cop gets 57 months in killing of 911 caller

Ex-Minneapolis cop gets 57 months in killing of 911 caller
  • Mohamed Noor was initially convicted of third-degree murder and manslaughter in the 2017 fatal shooting of Justine Ruszczyk Damond
  • Don Damond, the victim’s fiancé, spoke directly to Noor, saying he forgave him and had no doubt Justine also would have forgiven him

MINNEAPOLIS: A Minneapolis police officer who fatally shot an unarmed woman after she called 911 to report a possible rape happening behind her home was sentenced Thursday to nearly five years in prison — the maximum allowed for manslaughter after his murder conviction was overturned in the case.
Mohamed Noor was initially convicted of third-degree murder and manslaughter in the 2017 fatal shooting of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, a 40-year-old dual US-Australian citizen and yoga teacher who was engaged to be married. But the Minnesota Supreme Court tossed out Noor’s murder conviction and sentence last month, saying the third-degree murder statute doesn’t fit the case. The justices said the charge can only apply when a defendant shows a “generalized indifference to human life,” not when the conduct is directed at a particular person, as it was with Damond.
Judge Kathryn Quaintance, who also presided at Noor’s initial trial, granted prosecutors’ request to impose the maximum sentence called for by state sentencing guidelines on Noor’s manslaughter conviction, 57 months. In doing so, she brushed aside the defense’s request for 41 months, which is the low end of the range.
“Mr. Noor, I am not surprised that you have been a model prisoner,” Quaintance said. “However, I do not know any authority that would make that grounds for reducing your sentence.” She cited Noor “shooting across the nose of your partner” and endangering others the night of the shooting to hand down the stiffest sentence she could.
Noor, who was fired after he was charged, has already served more than 29 months. In Minnesota, inmates who behave well typically serve two-thirds of their prison sentences and the remainder on supervised release.
Experts said the state Supreme Court ruling that rejected Noor’s third-degree murder conviction means the third-degree murder conviction earlier this year against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in George Floyd’s 2020 death likely also will be tossed out. But that would have little impact because Chauvin was also convicted of a more serious second-degree murder charge in Floyd’s death. Chauvin was sentenced to 22 1/2 years.
Noor testified at his 2019 trial that he and his partner were driving slowly in an alley when a loud bang on their police SUV made him fear for their lives. He said he saw a woman appear at the partner’s driver’s side window and raise her right arm before he fired a shot from the passenger seat to stop what he thought was a threat.
He was sentenced to 12 1/2 years on the murder count and had been serving most of his time at an out-of-state facility.
Noor’s attorneys, Tom Plunkett and Peter Wold, sought 41 months at the resentencing, citing Noor’s good behavior behind bars and harsh conditions he faced during many months in solitary, away from the general prison population.
Plunkett said Thursday that much attention has been given to the victim as a kind and giving person — “all true,” he said. But Plunkett said there is “similar goodness” in Noor. He said Noor had always sought to help people around him, and recapped Noor’s good behavior while in prison.
Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Amy Sweasy, meanwhile, asked Quaintance to give Noor the longest possible sentence. She said the case “is worse than typical” because of who Noor is. “The most serious sentence this court can impose is required,” she said.
Damond’s parents, John Ruszczyk and Maryan Heffernan, also asked the judge to impose the longest sentence. In a statement read by prosecutors, they called Damond’s death “utterly gratuitous” and said that the Minnesota Supreme Court’s overturning of a “poorly written law” didn’t change the jury’s belief that Noor committed murder.
“Our sorrow is forever, our lives will always endure an emptiness,” they said.
The victim’s fiancé, Don Damond, gave his statement via Zoom. He started by praising prosecutors for their “sound application of the law” and criticizing the state Supreme Court for its reversal, which he said “does not diminish the truth that was uncovered during the trial.”
“The truth is Justine should be alive. No amount of justification, embellishment, cover-up, dishonesty or politics will ever change that truth,” he said.
But Don Damond also spoke directly to Noor, saying he forgave him and had no doubt Justine also would have forgiven him “for your inability in managing your emotions that night.”
Noor, wearing a suit and tie and donning a face mask, appeared impassive as the victim’s loved ones’ statements were read. He later addressed the court briefly, saying, “I’m deeply grateful for Mr. Damond’s forgiveness. I will take his advice and be a unifier. Thank you.”
Damond’s death angered citizens in the US and Australia, and led to the resignation of Minneapolis’ police chief. It also led the department to change its policy on body cameras; Noor and his partner didn’t have theirs activated when they were investigating Damond’s 911 call.
Noor, who is Somali American, was believed to be the first Minnesota officer convicted of murder for an on-duty shooting. Activists who had long called for officers to be held accountable for the deadly use of force applauded the murder conviction but lamented that it came in a case in which the officer is Black and his victim was white. Some questioned whether the case was treated the same as police shootings involving Black victims.
Days after Noor’s conviction, Minneapolis agreed to pay $20 million to Damond’s family, believed at the time to be the largest settlement stemming from police violence in Minnesota. It was surpassed earlier this year when Minneapolis agreed to a $27 million settlement in Floyd’s death just as Chauvin was going on trial.