Lebanese MPs to boycott perceived attempt to protect ministers in port blast probe

Lebanese MPs to boycott perceived attempt to protect ministers in port blast probe
Activists hold torches during a vigil in honor August 2020 Beirut Port blast victims. Several Lebanese parties will boycott a parliamentary session called to discuss a proposal to question senior officials. (AP)
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Updated 12 August 2021

Lebanese MPs to boycott perceived attempt to protect ministers in port blast probe

Lebanese MPs to boycott perceived attempt to protect ministers in port blast probe
  • Three political blocs will not take part in a meeting described by families of Beirut explosion victims as “the session of shame”

BEIRUT: Dozens of Lebanese MPs announced on Wednesday that they will boycott a closed parliamentary session that many people fear will further shield from scrutiny politicians accused of negligence that resulted in the massive explosion at Beirut’s port a year ago.

Speaker Nabih Berri has called for a plenary session to be held on Thursday. It was not clear whether it will focus on a long-running request by judicial investigator Judge Tarek Bitar, and some political blocs, to lift the immunity from politicians and officials so that they can be questioned about their parts in the disaster, or on the formation of a parliamentary investigation committee.

If such a committee is established, parliament would handle the case and it would no longer be under the jurisdiction of the judicial investigator. It would then be up to the Supreme Council for the Trial of Presidents and Ministers to decide whether to prosecute the ministers and MPs accused by Bitar.

The MPs boycotting Thursday’s session said: “It is aimed at bypassing the crime’s judicial investigation.”

Relatives of the victims of the explosion described it as “the session of shame.” They added that they intend to prevent MPs from entering UNESCO Palace in Beirut, where parliamentary sessions are currently being held because of coronavirus precautions, on Thursday.

In a message posted on Facebook, William Noun, the brother of firefighter Joe Noun who died in the explosion, said: “We are going to face the rulers and their apparatus so that they do not approve laws that hide the truth.”

A group representing the relatives of the victims said: “The parliamentary session aims to obliterate the truth and help the suspects escape punishment. The session comes as a continuation of a series of practices that violate the constitution and the law, undertaken by the ruling class to hamper the work of the judicial investigator or set red lines in the way of his work.”

They called on MPs to “prevent parliament from reaching the required quorum or be considered accomplices in the wastage of our loved ones’ blood and the obliteration of the truth and justice.”

The pleas from the relatives of the victims resonated with members of three parliamentary blocs, which confirmed that they plan to boycott the session, which might make it impossible to form a quorum. They are: the Free Patriotic Movement, President Michel Aoun’s bloc; the Lebanese Forces bloc; and the Democratic Gathering bloc, which includes the Progressive Socialist Party and the Damanat Al-Jabal bloc headed by Talal Arslan.

Bitar has been under pressure from many sources since taking over the investigation in February from Judge Fadi Sawan, who was removed from the case after accusing a number of individuals of negligence that led to the explosion.

Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah added to the pressure on Bitar a few days ago when he described the investigation as “politically driven.” He criticized the judge and challenged him to “provide the evidence based on which he decided to summon current and former officials for questioning in the case.”

Nasrallah added “either (Bitar) works clearly or the judiciary needs to find another judge to handle the case.” He also rejected accusations that Hezbollah was involved in the arrival of the explosive materials at the port.

The devastating blast on Aug. 4, 2020, was the result of a fire in a warehouse where 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate was stored without proper safety precautions along with a large quantity of seized fireworks. At least 218 people were killed and 7,500 injured by the explosion, which caused $15 billion of property damage and left an estimated 300,000 people homeless.

Bitar has asked parliament to strip three former ministers, who are current MPs, of their immunity so he can move forward with his investigation. The parliament asked to see the evidence before making a decision, a request Bitar rejected.


Iraq’s ‘wasta’ system favors lucky few, frustrates many

Iraq’s ‘wasta’ system favors lucky few, frustrates many
Updated 01 December 2021

Iraq’s ‘wasta’ system favors lucky few, frustrates many

Iraq’s ‘wasta’ system favors lucky few, frustrates many

BAGHDAD: Abu Zeinab says only one of his five adult children has a job, and he only got it through “wasta,” the system of “who you know” that is Iraq’s pervasive scourge.
The practice has fueled frustration, mass anti-government protests and waves of emigration from the oil-rich, war-scarred and poverty-stricken country, say analysts.
“All my children, including my three daughters, have finished their university studies, but only one has been able to find a job,” said Abu Zeinab, a 60-year-old retiree living in Baghdad.
“The others are trying, without success.”
For his 28-year-old son, wasta turned out to be the “joker” that made all the difference, when a relative helped him land a coveted contract job, renewed annually, with a government ministry.
“Poverty pushes people toward wasta,” said the patriarch, with resignation in his voice.
Wasta refers to using one’s family, communal or party connections to obtain jobs and benefits — something that is universal but seen as especially widespread and corrosive in Iraq.
While the lucky few get well-paying and secure jobs with generous pensions, nearly 40 percent of young people are unemployed, with few prospects for their future.
Anger at the patronage, nepotism and cronyism that underpin the system was amid the key grievance expressed by protesters in a wave of mass rallies in late 2019.
It is the hopelessness felt by those who miss out that has fueled the widespread wish to leave Iraq, say analysts.
The latests waves of emigration have seen thousands of Iraqis freeze on the Belarus-Polish border, and some perish when their boat capsized in the icy waters of the Channel.
Some 95 percent of Iraqis say wasta is needed “often or sometimes” to find a job, according to the World Bank’s so-called Arab Barometer Report of 2019.
“All of society agrees that without wasta you cannot achieve anything,” said political scientist Thamer Al-Haimes.
The problem results from a “weakness of the law” which fails to create a level playing field, he said, and “hinders the development of the country” while driving emigration.
Those who fail to benefit often spend all their savings, or take on debt, to attempt the risky journey to Western Europe, dreaming of a better life and the benefits of a welfare state.
Iraq is ranked as one of the world’s most corrupt countries, in 160th place out of 180 in Transparency International’s corruption index.
Even though it has the second largest energy reserves in the Middle East, one third of Iraq’s 40 million people live below the poverty line, says the UN.
Even though wasta is widely regarded as a problem, most people also say they have no choice but to benefit from it if the opportunity arises.
“I tried several times to find a job in any public institution — I applied more than 20 times, without success,” said Omran, a 32-year-old sociology graduate.
He finally got a position in the police force, but only after joining the right political party, he admitted.
Another man interviewed by AFP, Jassem, had a similar experience: he had become a civil servant only two days after a chance meeting with an influential parliamentarian.
Iraq’s bloated public sector is the country’s biggest employer, and the wages it pays are the state’s largest expense.
Between 2003, when a US-led invasion overthrew dictator Saddam Hussein, and 2015, the number of civil servants soared from 900,000 to more than three million.
“The dramatic rise in clientelistic hiring since 2003 has contributed to a ballooning of public sector employment,” says a World Bank report from 2017.
“Employment and promotion in the civil service have become increasingly non-meritocratic, and the sector has come to be viewed as a de facto social safety net,” it says.
It labelled the system “unsustainable,” arguing that only a well-functioning economy with a good business environment and investment climate creates sustainable employment.
Ahmed, 29, a resident of the southeastern town of Kut, said he spent many years looking for work in his poor and marginalized region.
One day, luck smiled on the father-of-two, who has a degree in management and economics, when he met the bodyguard of a senior government official.
This connection landed him a job in education — but only after he paid a fee of one million Iraqi dinars, about $800, financed with a bank loan.
“I feel remorse because I had to pay a bribe to work, but I had to,” he said. “There is no job without wasta.”


Algeria’s FLN narrowly wins local polls

Algeria’s FLN narrowly wins local polls
Updated 30 November 2021

Algeria’s FLN narrowly wins local polls

Algeria’s FLN narrowly wins local polls
  • FNL, which led the country's war of independence from France and was for decades its only party, won 5,978 seats nationwide
  • Saturday's vote was an important test for President Abdelmadjid Tebboune

ALGIERS: Algeria’s long-dominant National Liberation Front has narrowly won local elections, preliminary results showed Tuesday, in a vote seen as key in efforts to turn the page on late president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s rule.
The FNL, which led the country’s war of independence from France and was for decades its only party, won 5,978 seats nationwide, followed by its traditional ally the Democratic National Rally (RND) with 4,584, electoral board chief Mohamed Charfi said.
Independents came third with 4,430 seats, Charfi told journalists.
Saturday’s vote was an important test for President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, elected in a contentious, widely boycotted 2019 ballot months after Bouteflika stepped down under pressure from the army and the Hirak pro-democracy protest movement.
Bouteflika died in September, aged 84.
In November last year, less than 24 percent of the electorate approved amendments to the constitution, while at parliamentary elections in June, voter participation hit a record low of 23 percent.
Saturday saw 36.6 percent turnout for the local elections and 34.8 percent for regional polls, Cherfi said.
He had previously rejected any comparison with local ballots under Bouteflika, which were marked by widespread fraud.
The FLN won absolute majorities in 124 out of the country’s 1,541 municipalities, but lost majorities in 479 of the 603 it had controlled.
In 552 municipalities it will have to govern alongside its allies, including the RND, which won absolute majorities in 58 city councils.
Opposition veterans the Front of Socialist forces (FFS) won an absolute majority in 47 municipalities, many of them in the restive Kabylie region.


Turkish opposition politician arrested for alleged espionage

Turkish opposition politician arrested for alleged espionage
Updated 01 December 2021

Turkish opposition politician arrested for alleged espionage

Turkish opposition politician arrested for alleged espionage

ANKARA: Turkish authorities have arrested a prominent member of an opposition party over accusations that he engaged in “political and military espionage,” Turkey’s state-run news agency reported.
Anadolu Agency said late Monday that a court in Ankara ordered Metin Gurcan, a retired army officer and founding member of the opposition Democracy and Progress Party, or DEVA, jailed pending the outcome of a trial.
Gurcan, who wrote articles on Turkish foreign policy and defense issues, last year founded the DEVA party together with its leader, Ali Babacan — a former deputy prime minister who broke away from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party.
The politician and defense analyst is accused of selling alleged secret information to foreign diplomats, according to Hurriyet newspaper and other media reports. Gurcan rejected the accusations during his questioning, the reports said.
A trial date is expected to be set after the court approves a prosecutors’ indictment against Gurcan.
Babacan defended Gurcan in a late night television interview saying the analyst had “no means of accessing confidential information considered to be a state secret because he does not work for the state.”
“(Gurcan’s) studies consist of information compiled from open sources,” Babacan said.


Macron urges Raisi to respect nuclear obligations ‘without delay’

Macron urges Raisi to respect nuclear obligations ‘without delay’
Updated 01 December 2021

Macron urges Raisi to respect nuclear obligations ‘without delay’

Macron urges Raisi to respect nuclear obligations ‘without delay’
  • Tehran’s top nuclear negotiator takes a hard-line approach after just one day of talks in Vienna

PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron called on his Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raisi, to return to fulfilling Tehran’s obligations under the 2015 nuclear deal “without delay,” Macron’s office said, as negotiators seek to revive the accord through talks in Vienna.

During telephone conversations on Monday, Macron urged Raisi to engage in a “constructive manner” with the talks, which resumed this week after a suspension of almost half a year following the election of the hardliner to the Iranian presidency.

European powers are seeking to revive the nuclear deal, more formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. It has been moribund since the US withdrew from the agreement in 2018, prompting Tehran to ramp up nuclear activities as Washington reimposed sanctions.

France’s objective is “to see Iran return to full respect for all of its commitments under the JCPOA and that the United States returns to the agreement,” the French presidency said.

Macron also “underscored the need for Iran to engage constructively in this direction so that the exchanges allow a swift return to the agreement,” it added.

“Iran must return without delay to compliance with all its commitments and obligations … and quickly resume cooperation that allows the (UN atomic energy) agency to fully carry out its mission,” it said.

Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri, adopted a hard-line approach after just one day of the resumed talks, suggesting that everything discussed during previous rounds of diplomacy could be renegotiated.

Speaking to Iranian state television, he described all that has been discussed so far as merely a “draft.”

He added: “Drafts are subject to negotiation. Therefore nothing is agreed on unless everything has been agreed on.

“On that basis, all discussions that took place in the (previous) six rounds (of talks) are summarized and are subject to negotiations. This was admitted by all parties in today’s meeting as well.”

Bagheri’s remarks directly contradicted comments on Monday by EU diplomat Enrique Mora, who is leading the talks.

“The Iranian delegation represents a new administration in Tehran with new, understandable political sensibilities, but they have accepted that the work done over the six first rounds is a good basis to build our work ahead, so no point in going back,” he said.

Another state TV report highlighted Bagheri in Vienna saying that Iran demands a “guarantee by America not to impose new sanctions” or reimpose previously lifted sanctions.

Mohammed Eslami, Iran’s civilian nuclear chief, reiterated this demand in comments to Iran’s official IRNA news agency.

“The talks (in Vienna) are about the return of the US to the deal and they have to lift all sanctions and this should be in practice and verifiable,” he said.

Raisi’s office said that he urged Macron “to strive with other parties in Vienna to conclude the negotiations and lift the sanctions against Iran.”

Raisi said: “Sending a full team to the talks shows Iran’s serious will in these talks.”

Referring to the US, he added: “Those who have started to violate the nuclear deal must gain the confidence of the other party for the negotiations to proceed in a real and fruitful manner.”


UN agency for Palestinian refugees faces funding crisis

UN agency for Palestinian refugees faces funding crisis
Updated 01 December 2021

UN agency for Palestinian refugees faces funding crisis

UN agency for Palestinian refugees faces funding crisis

AMMAN:The head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees said Tuesday it was unable to pay its 28,000 employees on time this month because of a major funding crisis, warning of potential cuts in vital services to millions of people amid a global pandemic.
UNRWA runs schools, clinics and food distribution programs for millions of registered Palestinian refugees across the Middle East, mainly the descendants of Palestinians who fled or were driven out of what is now Israel during the 1948 war surrounding its creation.
The 5.7 million refugees mostly live in camps that have been transformed into built-up but often impoverished residential areas in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza, as well as Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
UNRWA head Philippe Lazzarini told reporters in Jordan that the resumption of US support for the agency this year — which had been halted by the Trump administration — was offset by a reduction in funding by other donors.
The agency also went through a management crisis in 2019, when its previous head resigned amid allegations of sexual misconduct, nepotism and other abuses of authority at the agency.
Staff went on strike Monday after being informed last week that salaries would be delayed, but halted the action following mediation, Lazzarini said.
“If UNRWA health services are compromised in the middle of a global pandemic, COVID-19 vaccination rollout will come to an end. Maternal and childcare will stop, half a million girls and boys not knowing if they can continue learning, and over two million of the poorest Palestinian refugees will not get cash and food assistance,” he said.
“The humanitarian needs of Palestinian refugees keep increasing while funding to the agency has stagnated since 2013.”
Lazzarini said the agency raised enough donations at a recent conference in Brussels to cover up to 48 percent of its budget in 2022 and 2023. It also generated $60 million toward a $100 million shortfall until the end of the year to keep services running.
“I’m still not yet in a position to say when the November salaries will be paid,” he said.
Critics of UNRWA, including Israel, accuse it of perpetuating the 73-year refugee crisis and say host nations should shoulder the burden of absorbing them.
The Palestinians say the refugees and their descendants have a “right of return” to their homes in what is now Israel, a position supported by host countries. Israel rejects that, noting that if such a right were fully implemented it would leave the country with a Palestinian majority.