Lebanon’s top patriarch says cabinet should reconvene

Lebanon’s top patriarch says cabinet should reconvene
Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai speaks at the presidential palace in Baabda. (Reuters/File)
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Updated 13 December 2021

Lebanon’s top patriarch says cabinet should reconvene

Lebanon’s top patriarch says cabinet should reconvene
  • Lebanon is battling an economic meltdown that poses the worst threat to its stability since the 1975-1990 civil war

AMMAN: Lebanon's top Christian cleric, Bechara Boutros Al-Rai, on Sunday accused unidentified politicians of using their power to obstruct a resumption of cabinet meetings after a two-month gap, saying they were serving foreign interests.
Lebanon's cabinet, which is focused on re-starting talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to unlock much needed foreign aid, has not met since Oct. 12 amid a row over a probe into last year's deadly Beirut port blast.
The Aug. 4 2020 Beirut port blast, caused by a large amount of ammonium nitrate stored unsafely for years, killed over 200 people but more than a year on no one has been held accountable.
Heavily-armed Shiite group Hezbollah and its allies have pushed to remove the lead investigator of the explosion, accusing him of political bias.
Without naming any political faction, the patriarch said in a Sunday sermon: "We reject completely disrupting holding the council of ministers in breach of the constitution through the power of influence and intent to disrupt to serve outside and suspect goals against the interests of the state and people."
Rai, who has been sharply critical of Hezbollah, also blasted politicians he said were behind obstructing the judicial investigation into the explosion and efforts to hold officials to account for suspected negligence.
Lebanon is battling an economic meltdown that poses the worst threat to its stability since the 1975-1990 civil war.
Rai said a draft capital control law proposed by the government that was sent to parliament would sacrifice millions of dollars of depositors' money to save indebted banks.
"What increases the worries of Lebanese is that the state is trying to sacrifice their deposits for its interests and that of banks," he added.
The patriarch traditionally wields influence in Lebanon as head of the Maronite church, a group from which the president must be drawn under a sectarian power-sharing system.


Iran authorities ‘fire at crowds’ using shotguns, rifles, says rights group

Iran authorities ‘fire at crowds’ using shotguns, rifles, says rights group
Updated 12 sec ago

Iran authorities ‘fire at crowds’ using shotguns, rifles, says rights group

Iran authorities ‘fire at crowds’ using shotguns, rifles, says rights group
  • Human Rights Watch demands international pressure to end regime violence

LONDON: New evidence shows that Iranian security forces continue to use lethal force against peaceful protesters around the country, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has warned.

Through videos captured by demonstrators and reporters, as well as interviews with witnesses and security officials, HRW uncovered evidence of the use of excessive and lethal force in more than a dozen cities around Iran.

Weapons including shotguns and assault rifles were deployed against protesters during the security response to the demonstrations, which began last month in the wake of the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was killed by a mob after “improperly” wearing the hijab after President Ibrahim Raisi strengthened laws on the headdress.

Tara Sepehri Far, senior Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch, said: “The Iranian authorities’ brutal response to protests across many cities indicates concerted action by the government to crush dissent with cruel disregard for life. The security forces’ widespread shooting of protesters only serves to fuel anger against a corrupt and autocratic government.

“People in Iran are protesting because they do not see the death of Mahsa Amini and the authorities’ crackdown as an isolated event, but rather the latest example of the government’s systematic repression of its own people.”

A 35-year-old woman from Sanandaj city told HRW: “We had gathered to chant when security forces on motorcycles came toward us.

“We ran toward the alley as they followed us and started throwing tear gas and some started shooting bullets. A man behind us was shot in the leg and fell on the ground. People dragged him into another alley and inside someone’s home. His wound was bleeding very heavily and was very deep.”

At least four videos reviewed by HRW show security forces using shotguns against crowds of protesters.

Another witness said: “Security forces ran toward a 13-year-old boy who was standing among the crowd.

“He was so delicate and small that he didn’t even resist. He was on the grass protecting his head while they were beating him. I yelled ‘Leave him alone!’ and walked towards them. They fired in the air and people started fleeing while they dragged the boy across the street.

“While I was running, I kept yelling ‘He is my brother!’, thinking that was going to provoke their mercy. I saw an officer turning, sitting down, and aiming at me. I saw the fire from his weapon. I got scared and ran away. I had a burning sensation until I got home and realized that I was hit in my chest.”

The human rights organization has gathered a list of 47 people who died during the violence as a result of lethal force, many having been shot.

However, HRW said that the true number of deaths is likely far higher than Iranian state media has reported. At the end of September, state television claimed that the death toll stood at about 60.


Judge fines Lebanese bank heist figure, issues travel ban

Judge fines Lebanese bank heist figure, issues travel ban
Updated 5 min 51 sec ago

Judge fines Lebanese bank heist figure, issues travel ban

Judge fines Lebanese bank heist figure, issues travel ban
  • Sali Hafiz last month broke into a BLOM Bank branch with activists from the Depositors’ Outcry
  • Hafiz was widely celebrated as a hero, and went into hiding for weeks

BEIRUT: A Lebanese judge on Thursday fined and issued a six-month travel ban to a woman who stormed her bank with a fake pistol and took her trapped savings to cover her sister’s cancer treatment.
Lebanon’s cash-strapped banks have imposed strict limits on withdrawals of foreign currency since 2019, tying up the savings of millions of people. About three-quarters of the population has slipped into poverty as the tiny Mediterranean country’s economy continues to spiral. The Lebanese pound has lost 90 percent of its value against the dollar.
Sali Hafiz last month broke into a BLOM Bank branch in Beirut with activists from the Depositors’ Outcry protest group, and stormed into the manager’s office. They forced bank employees to hand over $12,000 and the equivalent of about $1,000 in Lebanese pounds.
Hafiz was widely celebrated as a hero, and went into hiding for weeks.
Her lawyer, Ali Abbas, said that Hafiz turned herself in Wednesday night, and that the bank had pressed charges. Another sister involved in the heist was with Sali.
“The judge decided to let them go on a bail of 1 million pounds each, and a six-month travel ban,” Abbas said in a phone interview from the Justice Palace.
One million Lebanese pounds was once worth over $666, but has since devalued to $25.
Following the incident last month, the Depositors’ Outcry had vowed to support more bank raids, and about a dozen of similar incidents have since occurred.
On Wednesday, Lebanese lawmaker Cynthia Zarazir staged a sit-in at her bank branch with a lawyer, demanding to withdraw $8,500 to cover expenses for a surgery.
These developments have rocked the Lebanese banks, who say they have been unjustly targeted for tiny Mediterranean country’s fiscal crisis. The Association of Banks in Lebanon temporarily closed for a week, before partially reopening last week, citing security concerns.
Lebanon for over two years has been struggling to implement a series of reforms to reach an agreement with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout program and make its battered economy viable again.


Iran state TV airs alleged ‘confessions’ of two detained French nationals

Iran state TV airs alleged ‘confessions’ of two detained French nationals
Updated 25 min 1 sec ago

Iran state TV airs alleged ‘confessions’ of two detained French nationals

Iran state TV airs alleged ‘confessions’ of two detained French nationals
  • Release of alleged confessions comes as Iran grapples with a new wave of women-led protests
  • France has condemned the arrests as ‘baseless’ and called for their immediate release

PARIS: Iranian state television broadcast Thursday what it said were “confessions” by two French nationals, five months after they were arrested in the Islamic republic.

French teachers’ union official Cecile Kohler and her partner Jacques Paris have been detained in Iran since May 7 and stand accused of seeking to stir labor unrest during teachers’ strikes earlier this year.

The release of their alleged confessions comes as Iran grapples with a new wave of women-led protests that erupted on September 16 following the death in custody of Mahsa Amini.

The 22-year-old Iranian Kurd died after being detained for allegedly breaching the country’s strict rules on how women should dress.

Iran had announced on May 11 the arrest of two Europeans “who entered the country with the aim of triggering chaos and destabilizing society.”

France has condemned the arrests as “baseless” and called for their immediate release.

Iran said later that it had arrested two French nationals who had entered the country on tourist visas.

The pair were “accused of association and collusion with the aim of undermining the security of the country,” judiciary spokesman Massoud Setayeshi said in July.

A French union source later identified them as Cecile Kohler, of a teachers’ union, and her husband Jacques Paris, saying they had traveled to Iran for their Easter holidays.

In a video aired Thursday, a woman speaking French and claiming to Kohler is heard saying that she is an “agent of the DGSE” French intelligence service.

In the recording shown on the Arabic-language Al-Alam channel, she says the couple were in Iran “to prepare the conditions for the revolution and the overthrow of the Iranian Islamist regime.”

She said they had planned to finance strikes and demonstrations and even use weapons “to fight against the police.”

According to Jacques Paris, who was also shown in the video, the DGSE’s objectives “were to put pressure on the Iranian government.”

Kohler and Paris are among the latest Western citizens to be detained in Iran, in what activists claim is a deliberate policy to extract concessions from the West — accusations rejected by Tehran.

Rights groups based outside Iran have repeatedly accused the Islamic republic of extracting “confessions” from detained foreigners and Iranian campaigners under duress and then broadcasting them on state media as a propaganda tool.

A 2020 report by the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights and its member organization Justice for Iran said Iranian state media had broadcast over 350 such confessions in the space of a decade.

It said such “confessions” were “systematically broadcast” by Iranian state-owned media “to instill fear and repress dissent” and victims had been “subjected to torture and ill-treatment.”

Thursday’s broadcast comes amid a crackdown on the most recent protest movement in which security forces have also arrested nine foreigners — including from France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland.

Iran’s judicial authority issued an order in October 2020 banning torture, the use of “forced confessions,” solitary confinement, illegal police custody and other violations of defendants’ rights.

That came a week after controversy sparked by videos posted on social media showing police officers beating detainees in pickup trucks in the middle of a street.

More than 20 Westerners, most of them dual nationals, are held or prevented from leaving Iran.

Among them are the French-Iranian researcher Fariba Adelkhah, arrested in June 2019 and later sentenced to five years in prison for undermining national security, allegations her family has strongly denied.

Another French citizen, Benjamin Briere, was arrested in May 2020 and later sentenced to eight years and eight months in prison for espionage, charges he rejects.

US citizen Baquer Namazi, who had served a prison sentence for espionage, left Iran on Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced.


US operation using helicopters in Syria kills one: State TV

US operation using helicopters in Syria kills one: State TV
Updated 06 October 2022

US operation using helicopters in Syria kills one: State TV

US operation using helicopters in Syria kills one: State TV
  • It is first such operation in regime-controlled areas, the Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights said

BEIRUT: A US airborne operation involving multiple helicopters left one person dead in a government-controlled area of Syria’s northeast, Syrian state TV reported Thursday.
It is first such operation in regime-controlled areas, the Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights said.
“US occupation forces carried out a landing operation using several helicopters in the village of Muluk Saray in the southern countryside of Qamishli and killed one person,” Syria’s state broadcaster said, without elaborating.
The US armed forces’ Central Command (CENTCOM) said it currently has “no information to provide.”
The village targeted by the operation lies 17 kilometers (10 miles) south of the city of Qamishli and is controlled by Syrian regime forces, according to the Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights and AFP correspondents.
“It is the first time,” that US forces conduct such an operation in regime-held areas, the Observatory said, without identifying the victim.
Several other people were captured, the monitor said, without providing a figure.
A resident of the village said that three US helicopters carrying troops had landed overnight.
US forces raided a house, killing one person and taking several others captive, the resident told AFP on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
“They used loud speakers to call on residents to stay indoors” during the operation, he said.
The resident said the victim is a little-known Syrian from Hassakeh province, who he named as Abu Hayel.
Washington is part of a US-led coalition battling the Daesh group in Syria.
In July, the Pentagon said it killed Syria’s top Daesh extremist in a drone strike in the northern part of the country.
CENTCOM said he had been “one of the top five” leaders of Daesh overall.
The July strike came five months after a nighttime US raid in the town of Atme, which led to the death of the overall Daesh leader, Abu Ibrahim Al-Qurashi.
US officials said Qurashi died when he detonated a bomb to avoid capture.
After losing their last territory following a military onslaught backed by the US-led coalition in March 2019, the remnants of Daesh in Syria mostly retreated into desert hideouts.
They have since used such hideouts to ambush Kurdish-led forces and Syrian government troops while continuing to mount attacks in Iraq.


Israeli ministers to meet on Lebanon maritime deal, but approval pending

Israeli ministers to meet on Lebanon maritime deal, but approval pending
Updated 06 October 2022

Israeli ministers to meet on Lebanon maritime deal, but approval pending

Israeli ministers to meet on Lebanon maritime deal, but approval pending
  • The draft deal has had a mostly warm preliminary reception by the Israeli and Lebanese governments

JERUSALEM: Israel’s top cabinet ministers on Thursday will discuss a prospective US-mediated border demarcation deal with Lebanon addressing a disputed Mediterranean gas field, but were unlikely to take a final vote, Israeli officials said.
The draft deal, which has not been made public, has had a mostly warm preliminary reception by the Israeli and Lebanese governments. But there has also been domestic opposition in both countries, which are technically at war.
Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll said Israel’s security cabinet would meet at 4 p.m. (1300 GMT) to discuss the draft.
“The main points of the deal, and the matters we support, will be presented to it,” Roll told Ynet TV, adding that a discussion in the full cabinet, and a parliamentary review at an as-yet undecided level of the Knesset assembly, would follow.
With centrist Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid serving in a caretaker capacity ahead of a Nov. 1 election, the political opposition has demanded Knesset ratification for the deal.
Lapid’s main rival, conservative ex-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, argues that the deal could surrender Israeli maritime rights and benefit the enemy Lebanese Hezbollah movement. The Lapid government insists Israel’s security will be safeguarded.
Beirut, meanwhile, has balked at Lapid’s assertion that Israel will be paid partial royalties from future Lebanese exploration in the Qana gas prospect. A Lebanese ex-negotiator and some opposition lawmakers have argued that the proposed border demarcation skews too far north, thus favoring Israel.
Israeli security cabinet minister Hili Tropper said Thursday’s forum would receive Lebanese caveats and revision requests through US mediator Amos Hochstein.
“We will discuss them, and if they are significant, I am convinced that we will not accept this deal,” Tropper told Ynet.
Asked if the deal might go through before Israel’s election — a likely boon for Lapid’s campaign — Tropper said: “I can’t answer that. Our goal is to get it done as quickly as possible.”
Clocks are also ticking in Lebanon, which is keen for any sign of relief from a spiralling economic crisis and whose president, Michel Aoun, wants to seal the maritime deal before he steps down at month’s end, according to political sources.