Malaysia bans travelers from countries deemed at risk from omicron

Malaysia bans travelers from countries deemed at risk from omicron
It will also delay plans to set up so-called Vaccinated Travel Lanes with the listed countries. (File/AFP)
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Updated 01 December 2021

Malaysia bans travelers from countries deemed at risk from omicron

Malaysia bans travelers from countries deemed at risk from omicron

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia will temporarily ban the entry of travelers from countries that have reported the omicron coronavirus variant or are considered high-risk, its health ministry said on Wednesday.
It will also delay plans to set up so-called Vaccinated Travel Lanes with those countries, minister Khairy Jamaluddin told reporters.


UK solicitor general: Treat far-right extremists the same as Islamists

UK solicitor general: Treat far-right extremists the same as Islamists
Updated 23 January 2022

UK solicitor general: Treat far-right extremists the same as Islamists

UK solicitor general: Treat far-right extremists the same as Islamists
  • Alex Chalk QC calls for “no hierarchy” in tackling militants after resentencing of neo-Nazi
  • UK police warn far-right radicalization on the rise, taking up more resources and higher proportion of live investigations

LONDON: The UK’s solicitor general has called for far-right and Islamist extremists to be punished equally, saying there should be “no hierarchy” when it comes to dealing with terrorists.

Alex Chalk QC was speaking after the Court of Appeal in London overturned an “unduly lenient” sentence handed down to a convicted neo-Nazi, Ben John, who as part of his punishment had been told to read novels by 18th-century writers, including Jane Austen, instead of extremist material. John was resentenced to two years in prison.

The solicitor general argued for the 22-year-old to receive a harsher sentence, telling the Independent: “Those who reach for terrorism to advance their warped worldview, whether that’s extreme right-wing terrorism or Islamist terrorism, or whether it’s anarchic terrorism, need to understand that the authorities will intervene and they should expect a robust penalty.”

UK police arrest twice as many people for suspected involvement in far-right activity as they do people of Asian ethnicity. 

In December 2021, Dean Haydon, the UK’s senior national coordinator for counterterrorism policing, told the Independent the far-right makes up around 13 percent of live terror cases.

Since March 2017, authorities have stopped 12 far-right plots, in addition to 18 planned by Islamists.

John was part of an increasing number of cases where police intervene early before attacks or escalation can be planned. He was convicted of possessing a document containing instructions on how to make explosives.

The far-right extremist previously had been referred to the UK’s counter-extremist Prevent program twice, but was found to have white supremacist, antisemitic and satanic material, including propaganda from the neo-Nazi terrorist groups National Action and Atomwaffen Division.

Chalk told the Independent: “We thought that, given all the circumstances — the nature of the terrorism manual he was in possession of, plus the failure to respond to respond to efforts to de-radicalize him through Prevent — meant that a suspended sentence didn’t meet the justice of the case and was insufficient to protect the public.”

He added: “Possession of these materials is not a minor offense, it’s a serious offense and rightly so. The point is that if somebody harbors an extremist mindset then those materials, if ready to hand, can be the very tool they need to perpetrate the atrocity. That’s why it’s so serious — it’s that unholy alliance of the terrorist manual and the warped worldview that can lead to really significant and dangerous outcomes. That’s why we make no apology for taking a robust approach.”

At John’s first trial, he was handed a two-year suspended prison sentence, and Judge Timothy Spencer QC asked him: “Have you ever read Dickens? Austen? Well, start now. Start with ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ Shakespeare? Try ‘Twelfth Night.’ Dickens, start with ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ and, if you have time, think about Hardy and think about Trollope.”

At the subsequent resentencing, Lord Justice Holroyde said the issue with the original sentence was not the instruction to read works of British literature in place of radicalizing material, but that the original suspended sentence was unlawful, and should have been custodial. 

“It was certainly a very lenient sentence, but we are not persuaded that in the circumstances in this case, the length of the term of imprisonment was itself unduly lenient. It is because the term was unlawful that we conclude it was unduly lenient,” he said.

Nick Lowles, CEO of pressure group Hope Not Hate, welcomed the new sentence.

“While prison often fails to rehabilitate and isn’t always the answer, (Spencer’s) baffling suggestion that Ben John read classic literature reduced the serious offenses he committed to a parody. The far right represents the fastest-growing threat of violence in Britain today.”


Daesh ‘Beatle’ on trial demands strict jury screening

Daesh ‘Beatle’ on trial demands strict jury screening
Updated 23 January 2022

Daesh ‘Beatle’ on trial demands strict jury screening

Daesh ‘Beatle’ on trial demands strict jury screening
  • El Shafee Elsheikh facing life imprisonment over kidnapping, beheading of hostages
  • He also wants victims of terrorism banned from the jury in his trial

LONDON: A UK terrorist and member of the so-called Daesh group “The Beatles” facing trial in the US has demanded that anti-Muslim jurors and US service members be screened out of the legal process.

El Shafee Elsheikh, 33, also wants victims of terrorism banned from the jury in his trial.

He was charged with eight counts linked to the kidnapping and beheading in Syria of Western hostages, including four Americans and two UK aid workers.

His case — one of the highest-profile Daesh cases in the world — has been postponed until March due to the pandemic.

The four-man terror group was fronted by Mohammed Emwazi, 27, also known as Jihadi John. He was killed by a US drone strike in Syria in 2015.

Elsheikh’s lawyers are using questioning to screen out jurors.

One question asks: “Have you, a close member of your family, or close friend had any experience which would cause you to be biased against a defendant who is Muslim, Syrian, Kurd, or a person of Arab descent?”

Another asks: “Have you or a close member of your family ever served in a combat or militarized zone in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan or other areas overseas?”

If found guilty, Elsheikh will likely face life imprisonment in ADX Florence, a Colorado maximum security prison which also houses Abu Hamza, a radical imam from London.

Alexanda Kotey, 38, another member of “The Beatles,” has pleaded guilty to the same charges.


UK lawmaker says she was sacked from ministerial job for her ‘Muslimness’

UK lawmaker says she was sacked from ministerial job for her ‘Muslimness’
Updated 23 January 2022

UK lawmaker says she was sacked from ministerial job for her ‘Muslimness’

UK lawmaker says she was sacked from ministerial job for her ‘Muslimness’
  • The scandals have drained public support from both Johnson personally and his party, presenting him with the most serious crisis of his premiership.

LONDON: A British lawmaker has said she was fired from a ministerial job in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government partly because her Muslim faith was making colleagues uncomfortable, the Sunday Times reported.
Nusrat Ghani, 49, who lost her job as a junior transport minister in February 2020, told the paper she was told by a “whip” — an enforcer of parliamentary discipline — that her “Muslimness” had been raised as an issue in her sacking.
There was no immediate response to her comments from Johnson’s Downing Street office, but Mark Spencer, the government’s chief whip, said he was the person at the center of Ghani’s allegations.
“These accusations are completely false and I consider them to be defamatory,” he said on Twitter. “I have never used those words attributed to me.”
Ghani’s remarks come after one of her Conservative colleagues said he would meet police to discuss accusations that government whips had attempted to “blackmail” lawmakers suspected of trying to force Johnson from office over public anger about parties held at his Downing Street office during COVID lockdowns.
The scandals have drained public support from both Johnson personally and his party, presenting him with the most serious crisis of his premiership.
“I was told that at the reshuffle meeting in Downing Street that ‘Muslimness’ was raised as an ‘issue’, that my ‘Muslim women minister’ status was making colleagues uncomfortable,” the paper quoted Ghani, Britain’s first female Muslim minister, as saying.
“I will not pretend that this hasn’t shaken my faith in the party and I have at times seriously considered whether to continue as an MP (member of parliament).”
In his response, Spencer said Ghani had declined to put the matter to a formal internal investigation when she first raised the issue last March.
The Conservative Party has previously faced accusations of Islamophobia, and a report in May last year criticized it over how it dealt with complaints of discrimination against Muslims.
The report also led Johnson to issue a qualified apology for any offense caused by his past remarks about Islam, including a newspaper column in which he referred to women wearing burqas as “going around looking like letterboxes.”
The main opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer said the Conservatives must investigate Ghani’s account immediately.
“This is shocking to read,” he said on Twitter.
Ghani’s comments about the whips’ behavior also echo allegations from another senior Conservative William Wragg, that some of his colleagues had faced intimidation and blackmail because of their desire to topple Johnson.
“Nus is very brave to speak out. I was truly appalled to learn of her experience,” Wragg said on Twitter on Saturday. He has told the Daily Telegraph newspaper that he would meet the police early next week to discuss his allegations.
Johnson has said he had neither seen nor heard any evidence to support Wragg’s claims. His office has said it would look at any such evidence “very carefully.”
“As with any such allegations, should a criminal offense be reported to the Met, it would be considered,” said a spokesperson for London’s Metropolitan Police.
Johnson, who in 2019 won his party’s biggest majority in more than 30 years, is fighting to shore up his authority after the “partygate” scandals, which followed criticism of the government’s handling of a corruption row and other mis-steps.
Johnson, who has repeatedly apologized for the parties and said he was unaware of many of them, has admitted he attended what he said he thought was a work event on May 20 last year, when social mixing was largely banned. Invitations had asked staff to “bring their own booze” to the event.
Senior civil servant Sue Gray is expected to deliver a report into the parties next week, with many Conservative lawmakers saying they would await her findings before deciding whether they would take action to topple Johnson.
The Sunday Times also reported that Gray was looking into whether any rule-breaking parties had been held in Johnson’s private apartment at Downing Street.


One surrendered Hong Kong hamster tests COVID positive as city lockdown grows

One surrendered Hong Kong hamster tests COVID positive as city lockdown grows
Updated 23 January 2022

One surrendered Hong Kong hamster tests COVID positive as city lockdown grows

One surrendered Hong Kong hamster tests COVID positive as city lockdown grows
  • Thousands of people have offered to adopt unwanted hamsters

HONG KONG: Hong Kong authorities said on Sunday one hamster surrendered to authorities by pet-owners had tested positive for the COVID-19 virus and that over 2,200 hamsters had been culled as the city grappled to contain an outbreak.
On Tuesday, officials ordered the killing of hamsters from dozens of pet shops after tracing a coronavirus outbreak to a worker at a shop and asked people to surrender any bought on or after Dec. 22.
While a handful of hamsters had already tested positive for the virus, this latest case is the first involving a hamster in the care of a pet-owner that had tested positive.
Despite a public outcry against the hamster crackdown, authorities urged pet-owners to continue to hand over their tiny furry pets given burgeoning health risks.
“(The government) strongly advises members of the public again to surrender ... as soon as possible their hamsters purchased in local pet shops on or after December 22, 2021 for humane dispatch,” the government said in a statement.
Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam earlier told reporters that she understood “pet owners are unhappy” with the killings, but said the biggest priority was to control the outbreak.
The government described the outcry as “irrational.”
Thousands of people have offered to adopt unwanted hamsters.
Some scientists and veterinary authorities have said there is no evidence that animals play a major role in human contagion with the coronavirus.
Meanwhile, officials have warned that COVID-19 infections could be growing exponentially in the congested residential area of Kwai Chung on the Kowloon peninsula, as a second building in the district with two thousands residents was locked down on Saturday for five days.
More than 35,000 residents in over a dozen buildings in the area were also ordered to take COVID-19 tests, with Lam herself visiting the area on Sunday.
Lam urged people to avoid gatherings ahead of next week’s Lunar New Year holidays to try to contain the highly infectious omicron variant.
The situation is testing Hong Kong’s “zero COVID-19” strategy focused on eliminating the disease, with schools and gyms already shut, restaurants closing at 6 p.m. (1000 GMT) and air travel with many major hubs severed or severely disrupted.
Some companies have begun to enact contingency measures.
UBS Group AG said in a note to its Hong Kong staff reviewed by Reuters that it had “decided to move to work-from-home operations for all except a minimum number of staff who have essential tasks to be completed in the office” given the Omicorn outbreak.
A UBS spokesman declined to comment on the memo.
On Friday, officials shut down the first Kwai Chung building after more than 20 cases were linked to it, with food delivered from outside three times a day and mass testing underway.


Humanitarian aid tops agenda as Taliban meet Western officials

Afghanistan's acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi gestures while speaking during an event held in the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad on November 12, 2021. (AFP)
Afghanistan's acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi gestures while speaking during an event held in the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad on November 12, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 23 January 2022

Humanitarian aid tops agenda as Taliban meet Western officials

Afghanistan's acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi gestures while speaking during an event held in the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad on November 12, 2021. (AFP)
  • Unemployment has skyrocketed and civil servants’ salaries have not been paid for months in the country already ravaged by several severe droughts

OSLO: Human rights and the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, where hunger threatens millions, will be in focus at talks opening Sunday in Oslo between the Taliban, the West and members of Afghan civil society.
In their first visit to Europe since returning to power in August, the Taliban will meet Norwegian officials as well as representatives of the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Italy and the European Union.
The Taliban delegation will be led by Foreign Minister Amir Khan Mutaqqi.
On the agenda will be “the formation of a representative political system, responses to the urgent humanitarian and economic crises, security and counter-terrorism concerns, and human rights, especially education for girls and women,” a US State Department official said.
The hard-line Islamists were toppled in 2001 but swiftly stormed back to power in August as international troops began their final withdrawal.
The Taliban hope the talks will help “transform the atmosphere of war... into a peaceful situation,” government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP on Saturday.
No country has yet recognized the Taliban government, and Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt stressed that the talks would “not represent a legitimization or recognition of the Taliban.”
“But we must talk to the de facto authorities in the country. We cannot allow the political situation to lead to an even worse humanitarian disaster,” Huitfeldt said.

The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated drastically since August.
International aid, which financed around 80 percent of the Afghan budget, came to a sudden halt and the United States has frozen $9.5 billion in assets in the Afghan central bank.
Unemployment has skyrocketed and civil servants’ salaries have not been paid for months in the country already ravaged by several severe droughts.
Hunger now threatens 23 million Afghans, or 55 percent of the population, according to the United Nations, which says it needs $4.4 billion from donor countries this year to address the humanitarian crisis.
“It would be a mistake to submit the people of Afghanistan to a collective punishment just because the de facto authorities are not behaving properly,” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres reiterated Friday.
A former UN representative to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, told AFP: “We can’t keep distributing aid circumventing the Taliban.”
“If you want to be efficient, you have to involve the government in one way or another.”
The international community is waiting to see how the Islamic fundamentalists intend to govern Afghanistan, after having largely trampled on human rights during their first stint in power between 1996 and 2001.
While the Taliban claim to have modernized, women are still largely excluded from public employment and secondary schools for girls remain largely closed.

On the first day of the Oslo talks held behind closed doors, the Taliban delegation is expected to meet Afghans from civil society, including women leaders and journalists.
A former Afghan minister for mines and petrol who now lives in Norway, Nargis Nehan, said she had declined an invitation to take part.
She told AFP she feared the talks would “normalize the Taliban and... strengthen them, while there is no way that they’ll change.”
“If we look at what happened in the talks of the past three years, the Taliban keep getting what they demand from the international community and the Afghan people, but there is not one single thing that they have delivered from their side,” she said.
“What guarantee is there this time that they will keep their promises?” she asked, noting that women activists and journalists are still being arrested.
Davood Moradian, the head of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies now based outside Afghanistan, meanwhile criticized Norway’s “celebrity-style” peace initiative.
“Hosting a senior member of the Taliban casts doubt on Norway’s global image as a country that cares for women’s rights, when the Taliban has effectively instituted gender apartheid,” he said.
Norway has a track record of mediating in conflicts, including in the Middle East, Sri Lanka and Colombia.