PRAGUE: Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya called on Wednesday for an international tribunal to be set up to investigate what she called the “crimes” of President Alexander Lukashenko’s “dictatorship.”
Lukashenko has kept a tight grip on Belarus since rising to power in 1994, and has cracked down on street protests that began last year over a presidential election which his opponents say was rigged so that he could retain power.
Lukashenko, who denies electoral fraud and dismisses criticism of his human rights record, extended the crackdown on Tuesday by signing legislation on tougher punishment, including prison sentences, for people who take part in protests or insult state officials.
“I call for an international tribunal to be set up which would investigate the crimes of Lukashenko’s dictatorship in the past and during the election in 2020,” Tsikhanouskaya, who is now based in Lithuania, told the Czech Senate.
Tsikhanouskaya, who met Czech President Milos Zeman and Prime Minister Andrej Babis during her visit to the Czech Republic, gave no other details of her proposal.
She said the only solution to the situation in Belarus was holding free elections with international monitors.
Tsikhanouskaya was visiting Prague before a summit of the Group of Seven advanced economies in Britain this week at which Belarus is expected to be discussed.
The former Soviet republic outraged Western countries last month by ordering a Ryanair flight to land in the capital Minsk and arresting a dissident journalist who was on board.
Lukashenko has dismissed Western criticism over the incident, and accused Western countries of waging a “hybrid war” against him. The United States and the European Union are preparing to tighten sanctions on Belarus over the plane incident.
KABUL: With US-led forces set to leave Afghanistan by the end of August, the Taliban making rapid territorial gains, and uncertainty over the state of peace talks between the insurgent group and the government in Kabul, a critical question hangs over the fate of Afghan women’s freedoms and hard-won rights.
After years of subordination, Afghan women came to enjoy unprecedented freedoms in the years after 2001 when US-led forces toppled the Taliban regime, which had imposed harsh curbs on civil liberties, barring women from education and most occupations outside the home.
In the absence of the Taliban, Afghan women have held key positions in various state institutions, have run for the presidency, and have served as lawmakers, ministers and ambassadors. Governing parties have not opposed such basic principles of democracy as gender equality and free expression.
The imminent departure of the last remaining foreign troops, therefore, is a source of considerable anxiety and tension for the middle class and educated women in Afghanistan’s urban areas, who fear that a return to power by the Taliban would deprive them of the freedoms they currently enjoy.
“Everyone now is afraid. We are all worried about what will happen,” Nargis, 23, manager of the newly opened Aryana fashion store in Kabul, told Arab News.
“People have witnessed one dark Taliban era. If they come again, certainly they will not allow women to work, and I will not be where I am today.”
Nargis has a degree in journalism, but due to a surge in targeted attacks on media workers in recent years, she decided she could not risk continuing in the profession.
As in any war-torn society, women suffer disproportionately in Afghanistan, which has frequently been ranked the worst place in the world to be a woman. Several female journalists, women’s rights activists, and women serving in the Afghan security forces have been murdered, either by suspected militants or by relatives in so-called honor killings.
Some Afghans who had hoped the Taliban would liberalize their more draconian policies following talks with the US and the Afghan government have been left disappointed by the restrictions the group has imposed in areas it has seized from Afghan forces since the start of the foreign drawdown.
They say the Taliban has ordered women to not venture outdoors without a male family member, to wear the all-enveloping burqa, and have barred men from shaving their beards, reminiscent of the group’s policies when it ruled the country from 1996 to 2001.
“You see in the areas the Taliban is controlling they have imposed forced marriages, sexual slavery, and child marriages are rising,” Shukria Barakzai, a prominent women’s rights activist who served as Afghanistan's ambassador to Norway, told Arab News.
“They are taking young widows and young girls hostage. This is against the culture of Afghanistan, religion, and all rules of war. War crimes are happening now against the people of Afghanistan and especially against the women of this society.”
Taliban officials have rejected the charges, insisted that they have issued no such orders, and accused critics of trying to tarnish the group’s image.
While women in urban areas oppose constitutional and social changes that would significantly limit their rights obtained during the past two decades, some women, at least in rural areas, are indifferent to the prospect of a Taliban takeover.
These women do not feel connected to women of the urban elite, and would rather speak for themselves. Many of these rural, and even some urban, women consider peace as their main priority, even if it means sacrificing some rights that they are currently unable to exercise in any case.
“The so-called Afghan leaders speak about women’s rights merely to draw the West’s attention to keep them in power and provide them money because we have not seen their sisters and women on TV or with them in public areas,” Nasira Ghafoori, a tailor from Ghazni province, told Arab News.
“Some of them even feel ashamed to mention their daughters, sisters, and wives by name in public. Such leaders and other women who misuse the slogans of women’s rights have no place here. We are only interested in peace and ending the war.”
Not all Afghan women are ready to surrender their freedoms in the interest of peace. Maryam Durrani, a women’s rights activist who runs a gym for women and several education centers in southern Kandahar, the former seat of Taliban power, says she has had to limit her activities and partly close the gym following threats on social media since the Taliban made new inroads into the province.
“They threatened me, saying ‘we will kill you because of your activities.’ Unfortunately, because of that, as a precautionary measure, we have shut down the club to protect the lives of our customers,” Durrani, winner of the International Women of Courage Award 2012, told Arab News.
Taliban banned girls from studying and stoned women to death for crimes such as adultery.
Afghanistan’s parliament today has 68 female lawmakers, accounting for about 30 percent of the lower house.
More Afghan women were killed or wounded in the first half of 2021 than in the first 6 months of any year since 2009.
“The issue is not that the Taliban is coming back. It depends on the Taliban’s mentality and ideology. If their ideology has changed, then we may have some of the freedoms that we have now, but if they come with their past ideology, then it is clear women will not have a good time.”
The rise of the Taliban in 1996 had disrupted a long and uneven journey to women’s emancipation through education and empowerment. In the 1920s, Queen Soraya played an active role in the country’s political and social development alongside her husband, King Amanullah Khan. A bold advocate for women’s rights, she introduced modern education for women, one that included sciences, history, and other subjects.
After some setbacks, women in the 1960s helped draft Afghanistan’s first comprehensive constitution, which was ratified in 1964. It recognized the equal rights of men and women as citizens and established democratic elections. In 1965, four women were elected to parliament and several others became government ministers.
Women’s status improved rapidly under Soviet-backed socialist regimes of the late 1970s and 1980s. Parliament strengthened girls’ education and outlawed practices opposed by women. By 1992, despite the political upheavals wracking the country, Afghan women were full participants in public life.
With the withdrawal of Western forces, not only is the fate of Afghanistan’s democratic institutions in peril but also the human rights of its women, going by reports streaming in from beleaguered districts.
Asila Ahmadzai, a senior journalist with Afghan news agency Farhat, says educated women in civil society, in the media, in rights groups, and involved in entrepreneurial pursuits have fled their homes in the northern and northeastern provinces that have fallen to the Taliban.
“The situation for women in Afghanistan now is very worrying because the Taliban is gaining ground. Due to the fear of the Taliban, educated women have moved to Kabul from the rural areas,” she told Arab News.
“No female activist, member of civil society, journalist or trader wants to live in Taliban-held areas because the Taliban do not allow them to work. The Taliban only allows girls to go to school up to the age of seven — not beyond that age. If the Taliban take cities, educated women will then leave the country for good because they cannot afford to live under the group’s restrictions.”
Women such as Barakzai fear that the withdrawal of foreign troops, coupled with the failure to obtain guarantees from the Taliban that they would honor women’s rights as enshrined under the constitution, which means that the situation for women and girls will be far worse if the group retakes power.
Some have pinned hopes on the US-sponsored talks between Kabul and the Taliban and believe there will be pressure on the Taliban from outside to reform some of its views, especially from Washington, which has repeatedly reiterated the need to protect the gains made since the Taliban’s removal.
“In this era, there is no place for attempts to limit girls’ access to school or women’s rights in society, the workplace or governance,” Ross Wilson, the US chargé d’affaires to Kabul, tweeted last week in response to worrying reports from areas conquered by the Taliban.
“To the Taliban — welcome to 2021. Women and men have equal rights … halt your efforts to undermine the gains of the past 20 years. Join the 21st century.”
Critics, however, argue that the US has very little leverage over the Taliban’s attitudes and policies since it has failed to compel the Taliban to halt its attacks, which was a key component of the deal it struck with the group in exchange for the withdrawal of foreign troops.
“Whether government negotiators can force the Taliban not to weaken women’s rights and the opportunities of middle and upper-class urban women will largely depend on what happens in the war between the Taliban and the government,” Taj Mohammad, a Kabul-based analyst, told Arab News.
“Long gone are the days when US leaders justified the war and the invasion partly due to human and women’s rights issues.”
Philippines activates border checkpoints in Metro Manila ahead of lockdown
Fortnight of curbs ‘critical’ to limit spread of delta variant, official says
Updated 01 August 2021
MANILA: The Philippines government on Sunday began enforcing quarantine control points (QCP) along the borders of the National Capital Region (NCR) to curb the spread of the delta variant of the coronavirus, ahead of a strict lockdown later this week.
“At the moment, the QCPs are at the borders of Bulacan, Rizal, Laguna and Cavite with adjoining provinces, but once we move to ECQ (enhanced community quarantine) starting Aug. 6, checkpoints will now be located inside Metro Manila,” Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano said in a statement.
The two-week ECQ will be imposed in Metropolitan Manila, the nation’s capital region with more than 13 million people, from Aug. 6 to 20.
On Sunday, the Department of Health reported 8,735 new COVID-19 infections, taking the total tally to 1,597,689 cases.
Of the total, 94.3 percent have recovered, while the number of active cases stood at 4 percent, or 63,646, a majority with mild or no symptoms.
There were 127 new deaths reported, taking the country’s death toll to 28,016 since the start of the pandemic.
As of Thursday, 216 delta variant cases had been detected in the Philippines.
Ano said that the QCPs, manned by the Philippine National Police (PNP), the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the Philippine Coast Guard and the Bureau of Fire Protection, will be located along the borders of Bulacan, Rizal, Laguna and Cavite, and will “ensure that only authorized persons outside of residence are allowed to pass."
These include health and emergency frontline service workers and uniformed personnel, government officials and employees on official travel, those involved in fully authorized relief and humanitarian assistance efforts, those traveling for medical or humanitarian reasons, persons going to and from airports, anyone crossing zones for work in permitted industries and public utility vehicle operators.
Those found to be unauthorized people outside of residence will not be allowed to pass and will be asked to return to their homes, Ano said, adding that from Aug. 1 to 5, “no QCPs will be put up inside the NCR Plus (Metro Manila plus Bulacan, Rizal, Laguna and Cavite).
“The PNP, nonetheless, may still set up regular checkpoints inside the NCR Plus bubble to implement curfew hours, enforce minimum health standards and for general law enforcement,” he said.
In an earlier radio interview, Ano said that during the interim period between Friday’s announcement of Metro Manila’s return to a hard lockdown, the government “has to implement additional heightened restrictions, to include inter-zonal movement.
“With the announcement of the ECQ, it is expected that some people would be rushing to leave Metro Manila. With that, there is a high risk that people who may already be infected with the delta variant could spread the virus to other areas,” he added.
He stressed that the implementation of strict border controls was “critical” to stop the spread of the delta variant.
“Among the objectives of the ECQ is to shut down the mobility of people to cut the chain of transmission of the delta variant and to incubate the virus, so that it will die naturally,” Ano said.
He added that another purpose is to allow the government to ramp up vaccination measures against COVID-19, and allow for a more aggressive and intensive contact tracing to identify and isolate infected individuals.
“It is important for the government to act now because once there is a surge in delta variant cases in the country, it will be explosive and exponential, and it will not be easy to reverse,” he said.
The official cited other countries in the region that also had resorted to imposing hard lockdowns.
“For example, in Indonesia, they have 21,000 infections per day, and 1,700 are dying every day. In India, the rate was 44,000 cases per day, and when they ramped up their vaccination program, the recorded deaths went down to at least 500 to 600 per day. But Malaysia and Thailand, they are at about 16,000 infections per day, and until now their cases continued to surge,” Ano said.
“In the UK and the US, they still have a high rate of infection with 27,000 new cases a day, but the number of people dying has gone down because they have already vaccinated a large number of their population. It shows that vaccination slows down the transmission of the delta variant and also helps prevent death among patients,” he added.
Meanwhile, Ano reminded the PNP to allow the “unimpeded movement of cargo and delivery vehicles across all quarantine control points, because of the importance to the economy.”
PNP chief Guillermo Eleazar assured the public that human rights “would be respected at border control points in the area.”
At the same time, he said that the PNP’s Medical Reserve Force (MRF) was placed on standby to assist in the vaccination process during the enforcement of the ECQ in the capital region.
“The MRF is ready to help as additional manpower in the vaccination process after the Metro Manila Council’s pronouncement that it is targeting 250,000 individuals for incoluation each day during the two-week ECQ,” Eleazar said in a statement.
He also tasked concerned police commanders to coordinate with local government officials, especially village executives, to discuss the vaccination process during the ECQ.
Malaysian PM postpones parliament as calls for his resignation grow
More than 500 Malaysians protested against government’s handling of COVID-19 crisis on Saturday amid a rise in infections
Updated 01 August 2021
KUALA LUMPUR: Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has deferred a key parliamentary session set for Monday amid intense pressure to step down from office.
This comes a day after hundreds of Malaysians took to the streets to protest against his mismanagement of the COVID-19 outbreak, which has worsened since January.
More than 500 black-clad Malaysians participated in the “Keluar dan #LAWAN” protest in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday, defying a ban on mass gatherings under COVID-19 curbs, with experts saying that Muhyiddin was “fighting for his political life.”
“This guy (Muhyiddin) is basically fighting for his political life, and we will get a clearer picture of his fate in the coming week, but he does have one advantage — the prime minister’s office,” said Prof. James Chin, Tasmania University professor of Asian Studies and inaugural director of the Asia Institute.
He told Arab News that while the protests were initially meant to “express disdain against the government and its incompetence in dealing with the pandemic,” new developments in parliament “had renewed the drive.”
Muhyiddin’s decision to postpone parliament, citing COVID-19 infections among staff, allows him to avoid a no-confidence vote amid growing calls to resign.
A notification issued to lawmakers on Saturday said that the session would be held “at a later date” after 11 staff and others tested positive on Thursday.
Parliament reopened last Monday following a months-long suspension during a COVID-19-related state of emergency that ends on Sunday.
The state of emergency allowed Muhyiddin to rule by ordinance without legislative approval until Aug. 1, but it has fueled public anger after a significant spike in infections since January.
On Sunday, Malaysia reported 17,150 new cases while the total number of infections since the pandemic rose to 1.1 million, with more than 8,800 deaths. Nearly 20 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated.
This is the third time that parliament has been suspended due to the coronavirus.
It was shut down for several months after Muhyiddin assumed office in March 2020 and since January this year, after the king approved the premier’s plan to impose a state of emergency to curb the COVID-19 outbreak.
However, Malaysia’s political crisis deepened on Thursday after its monarch Sultan Abdullah Ahmad Shah rebuked Law Minister Takiyuddin Hassan over remarks that emergency laws had been revoked as of July 21, ahead of the Aug 1 expiration, “which make the parliamentary debate on the matter unnecessary.”
Sultan Abdullah said that he had yet to give his consent on the cancelation of laws imposed without legislative approvals throughout Malaysia’s seven-month emergency but told the government to debate them in Parliament — which may lead to a vote that could test the prime minister’s majority.
The palace, in a statement, said the rushed move to cancel the laws and the conflicting announcement “undermines the functions and powers of His Majesty as the reigning Head of State.”
There was no immediate comment from the government on Sunday.
However, the opposition, which has filed a no-confidence motion against PM Muhyiddin, said that the delay in convening parliament was an “excuse” for him to stay in power.
“Many parties feel it’s not because of COVID-19. This political crisis must be resolved immediately. This constitutional crisis must be addressed,” Ahmad Maslan, a lawmaker in the biggest party in Muhyiddin’s alliance that has backed calls for the premier to quit, said in a Twitter post.
The two-hour protest on Saturday, organized by the Sekretariat Solidariti Rakyat (SSR), saw Malaysians occupy the main street opposite the historical Merdeka Square and follows a similar demonstration outside the parliament building in April.
“It was an attack on the government for their failure in dealing with the pandemic, but now the prime minister has been seen as being disloyal to the king,” Chin said.
Police told local media on Sunday that protesters would be called in for questioning as they had violated a ban on gatherings.
Federal Police Chief Acryl Sani Abdullah Sani said that probes were launched under Act 342, or The Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988.
“We have identified 29 individuals who will be called in to assist with investigations, and more will be identified from videos and photos that have been uploaded,” Acryl said.
Others worry that the demonstrations could trigger a spike in infections.
“Although the protesters had taken efforts to enforce safety procedures, risks were still present,” Dr. Lim Chee Han, a senior researcher from Third World Network and public health expert, told Arab News.
He added that “even if 95 percent of the protesters complied with safe practices, there was a 5 percent risk of those who could possibly spread the virus.”
“Of course, whenever there are people grouping in great numbers that increases the risk of disease transmission, given right now the local transmission is still at the height, so it cannot rule out any spread of the virus in the transmission chain,” Lim said.
UK joins Israel saying Iran attacked tanker; Tehran continues to deny involvement
The blast killed two crew members, one British and another from Romania
FM Raab said it was “highly likely” Iran attacked the tanker with one or more drones
Updated 01 August 2021
LONDON: The UK joined Israel on Sunday in alleging Iran carried out a fatal drone strike on an oil tanker off the coast of Oman in the Arabian Sea, putting further pressure on Tehran as it denied being involved in the assault.
Calling it a “unlawful and callous attack,” British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said his country and its allies planned a coordinated response over the strike Thursday night on the oil tanker Mercer Street. It marked the first-known fatal attack after years of assaults on commercial shipping in the region linked to tensions with Iran over its tattered nuclear deal.
While no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, Iran and its militia allies have used so-called “suicide” drones in attacks previously, which crash into targets and detonate their explosive payloads. However, Israel, the UK and the responding US Navy have yet to show physical evidence from the strike or offer intelligence information on why they blame Tehran.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett went further than Raab in remarks Sunday at a Cabinet meeting, making a point to stare directly into the camera and slowly warn: “We know, at any rate, know how to convey the message to Iran in our own way.”
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Sunday Israel had “evidence” Iran was behind the deadly tanker attack off Oman despite its denials, and warned his country could “send a message” in retaliation. More here.
The drone attack blasted a hole through the top of the oil tanker’s bridge, where the captain and crew command the vessel, a US official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as an investigation into the attack still was ongoing. The blast killed two crew members from the United Kingdom and Romania.
The Navy said the American nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and the guided missile destroyer USS Mitscher escorted the Mercer Street as it headed to a safe port. On Sunday, satellite-tracking information from MarineTraffic.com showed the tanker stopped off the coast of Fujairah in the UAE.
In his statement, Raab said it was “highly likely” Iran attacked the tanker with one or more drones.
“We believe this attack was deliberate, targeted and a clear violation of international law by Iran,” he said. “Iran must end such attacks, and vessels must be allowed to navigate freely in accordance with international law.”
From Jerusalem, Bennett offered condolences to both the United Kingdom and Romania for the killing of their citizens. He said Israeli intelligence had evidence linking Iran to the attack, but did not offer it.
“Iran is the one who carried out the attack against the ship,” he said. “Iran’s aggressive behavior is dangerous not only for Israel, but harms global interests in the freedom of navigation and international trade.”
Earlier, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh described the allegation Iran carried out the attack as “baseless.”
“It’s not the first time that the Zionist regime occupying Jerusalem has made such empty accusations against the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Khatibzadeh said. “Wherever this regime has gone, it has taken instability, terror and violence with it.”
He added: “Whoever sows the wind shall reap the whirlwind.”
Other Israel-linked ships have been targeted in recent months as well amid a shadow war between the two nations, with Israeli officials blaming the Islamic Republic for the assaults. Shipping in the region began being targeted in the summer of 2019, about a year after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers.
The Mercer Street, owned by Japan’s Taihei Kaiun Co., is managed by London-based Zodiac Maritime, part of Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer’s Zodiac Group. In early July, the Liberian-flagged container ship CSAV Tyndall, once tied to Zodiac Maritime, suffered an unexplained explosion on board while in the northern Indian Ocean, according to the US Maritime Administration.
The attack marks the first major confrontation with Iran for Bennett, who took over as premier in June after a coalition deal unseated Israel’s long-serving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu is suspected of launching a series of attacks targeting Iran, including explosions at the country’s main enrichment site and the killing of a prominent military nuclear scientist.
However, Bennett as well has made hawkish comments in the past about needing to attack “the head of the octopus” in Tehran as opposed to Iran’s regional militias like Hezbollah in Lebanon. The attack on the Mercer Street marks the first during his time as prime minister and analysts suggest he could seek a major attack in retaliation.
“Israel may wish to deliver a resounding blow; that’s the spirit of political sources’ comments in Jerusalem,” wrote Amos Harel, a longtime military analyst for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “This blow will be aimed at ending things without a tit-for-tat that could escalate. But as usual, events also depend on the other side.”
ISLAMABAD: Arab Parliament Speaker Adel Abdulrahman Al-Asoumi arrived in Pakistan on Sunday for a five-day visit to boost bilateral cooperation.
The parliament is the Arab League’s legislative body, with Al-Asoumi leading a high-profile delegation that will meet President Arif Ali, Prime Minister Imran Khan, Senate Chairman Muhammed Sadiq Sanjrani and other senior political leaders.
“Several memorandum of understanding and agreements will be signed between the Arab Parliament and the Upper House of Pakistan (senate) to promote institutional cooperation,” the Senate said.
Senator Sana Jamali welcomed the delegation on its arrival and described the Arab Parliament as a “very important forum.”
“The common goal is to pave the way for the development of bilateral cooperation and mutual relations,” Jamali told Arab News, saying that the delegation’s main activities would start from Monday.
“Their first engagement is at the House of Federation (Senate), where the chairman will welcome them. After meeting with (the) chairman, MOUs and agreements will be signed there.”
Jamali added that the group would hold talks with Alvi and Khan later in the day.
“The agreements will focus on strengthening (the) bonding between Pakistani and Arab parliaments. The main areas are bilateral parliamentarian exchanges, economic and cultural cooperation between member countries,” she said.
The parliament tweeted that the visit would be the “first of its kind.”
“This visit aims to strengthen Arab parliamentary relations with the Pakistani side, especially in light of positive developments and remarkable growth in relations between the two sides in the political, economic, security and military fields,” it said.