Hundreds of thousands of Indians gather for Hindu festival, defying COVID-19 surge

Hundreds of thousands of Indians gather for Hindu festival, defying COVID-19 surge
Hindu devotees crowd the Sangam, the confluence of three rivers – the Ganges, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati – to take a ritualistic bath during Makarsankranti festival on Jan. 14, 2022. (AP)
Short Url
Updated 14 January 2022

Hundreds of thousands of Indians gather for Hindu festival, defying COVID-19 surge

Hundreds of thousands of Indians gather for Hindu festival, defying COVID-19 surge
  • India is again facing a surge in coronavirus cases, fueled mostly by the highly transmissible omicron variant

PRAYAGRAJ, India: Hundreds of thousands of Hindu worshippers gathered on the banks of India’s Ganges river on Friday for a holy bathe despite a 30-fold rise in coronavirus cases in the past month.
Hindus believe a bathe in the holy river on the Jan. 14 Makarsankranti festival washes away sins.
A large number of devotees were taking a dip in the sacred river where it flows through the eastern state of West Bengal, which is reporting the most number of cases in the country after Maharashtra state in the west.
In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, thousands of devotees, few wearing masks, thronged the river’s banks in the holy city of Prayagraj.
“I can’t breathe with a mask,” Ram Phal Tripathi, who came with his family from a village in Uttar Pradesh state, said after emerging from the river.
“Every year I come for a holy dip. How could I have missed it this year?“
India is again facing a surge in coronavirus cases, fueled mostly by the highly transmissible omicron variant, but hospitalizations are low, with most people recovering at home.
Doctors had appealed unsuccessfully to the West Bengal state high court to reverse a decision to allow the festival this year, worrying it will become a virus “super spreader” event.
Last year, a big religious gathering in northern India contributed to a record rise in coronavirus cases.
On Friday, the health ministry reported 264,202 new cases of the coronavirus in the previous 24 hours, taking India’s total tally to 36.58 million.
Deaths from COVID-19 rose by 315, with total now at 485,350, the ministry said.


Indonesia capital move to remote Borneo sparks rights concerns

Indonesia capital move to remote Borneo sparks rights concerns
Updated 26 January 2022

Indonesia capital move to remote Borneo sparks rights concerns

Indonesia capital move to remote Borneo sparks rights concerns
  • New city named Nusantara, which means ‘archipelago’ in old Javanese
  • Relocation to ease burden on traffic-clogged, polluted and sinking Jakarta

JAKARTA: The Indonesian government recently signed a law to move ahead with its plan to relocate the capital from Jakarta to a jungle site in East Kalimantan on Borneo island, but the massive $32 million project is raising concerns among the region’s indigenous communities.

The potential change in capital city has been under discussion for decades, since Jakarta, a megacity of 10 million people, faces chronic traffic congestion, regular flooding and heavy pollution. It is also one of the world’s fastest sinking cities, with its northern suburbs falling at an estimated 25 centimeters per year. It is estimated that one-third of Jakarta could be submerged by 2050.

However, rights groups have warned that the new state capital law aimed at easing the burden on Jakarta was rushed without consultation.

Pradarma Rupang of environmental group Mining Advocacy Network, or JATAM, said the government has long ignored a number of critical issues in the new capital region in Borneo, including access to clean water. He added that local residents have until now largely depended on rainwater.

“This capital policy was taken without a scientific study,” he said. “The process has been reckless, lacking in participation, and was not based on dialogue with the people.

“The indigenous population is not at all visible in the new state capital law. While on the ground, the existence of the indigenous population is very clear,” Erasmus Cahyadi, deputy secretary general of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago, told Arab News.  

According to the alliance’s data, at least 20,000 people from 21 indigenous groups live in the area that has been designated for the new city.

The law permitting the start of construction was passed by the Indonesian parliament last week. It covers how the new city’s development will be funded and governed. Planning Minister Suharso Monoarfa announced at the time that new capital will be called Nusantara, which translates to “archipelago” in old Javanese.  

“The new capital has a central function and is a symbol of the identity of the nation, as well as a new center of economic gravity,” the minister said during a parliamentary session.

In constructing a purpose-built capital, Indonesia will be following a path that two other Southeast Asian nations — Malaysia and Myanmar — have taken over the past two decades.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo formally launched the relocation project in 2019, in what has been widely viewed as an attempt to seal his legacy before the end of his second and final term in office until 2024. The new state capital law was approved last week, paving the way for construction to begin.

The megaproject also aims to redistribute wealth across Indonesia. Java, the island on which Jakarta is located, is home to about 60 percent of the country’s population and more than half of economic activity. While the current capital is set to remain Indonesia’s commercial and financial hub, its administration will move to the new city, about 2,000 kilometers northeast of Jakarta. The relocation process is scheduled for completion by 2045.

The government has said that initial planning had been carried out by clearing 56,180 hectares of land to build roads, the presidential palace, government offices and Parliament.

The region surrounding the Nusantara site is known for its deep jungles and various endangered animal species, including orangutans. Concerns over the future of wildlife on Borneo have grown since the plan to move the capital city was made public. Indigenous communities living nearby have also raised concerns over the impacts of construction.

Riri Al-Kahfi, a 29-year-old who lives in East Kalimantan’s seaport city of Balikpapan, where the new city will be located, told Arab News there are growing fears over the survival of local cultures.

“Our hope is that the massive development for the new capital won’t wipe away the culture and diversity in Kalimantan, especially in the regions close to the new capital city,” she said, but added that the city’s construction could help equitable economic development in Indonesia.

“We hope that the positive impact will be felt by the local communities, maybe through empowering local youth and giving them opportunities in the new capital city.”


Family of murdered Yasmin Chkaifi praise ‘hero’ driver who tried to stop attacker

Yasmin Chkaifi, 43, was found stabbed to death in Maida Vale, London. (Metropolitan Police)
Yasmin Chkaifi, 43, was found stabbed to death in Maida Vale, London. (Metropolitan Police)
Updated 26 January 2022

Family of murdered Yasmin Chkaifi praise ‘hero’ driver who tried to stop attacker

Yasmin Chkaifi, 43, was found stabbed to death in Maida Vale, London. (Metropolitan Police)
  • The mother-of-two was stabbed to death by her ex-partner, who was also killed when a passing car struck him

LONDON: The family of a murdered mother-of-two have hailed the driver who allegedly killed her attacker with his car a “hero” and say he should not face a murder charge for his actions.

Yasmin Chkaifi, 43, was stabbed to death in Maida Vale, west London, on Monday by her former husband, Leon McCaskre, 41.

A 26-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of murder after he allegedly mowed down McCaskre with his car in an attempt to prevent him from harming Chkaifi further.

Her family, who visited the scene on Tuesday to pay their respects, praised the actions of the passer-by and said that his bravery deserves recognition.

“The driver of the car was a hero. We didn’t know him at all but he is an absolute hero,” they told reporters. “He saw what was happening and he tried to stop them.

“We want to say to him, ‘Thank you so much. Thank you for risking your life and thank you for not just standing there filming what was happening. Thank you for trying to do something.’

“He should not have been arrested; he is our hero. Our family are very proud of him, we hope that the Queen can give him a medal or something, and there is no way he should be charged and go through the justice system for what he did.”

Police confirmed that both of the deceased were from Maida Vale and had previously been in a relationship. Relatives of Chkaifi said that McCaskre was abusive during the three years the couple were together.

After they broke up three years ago, Chkaifi secured a restraining order against McCaskre and, according to one of her sons, installed a panic alarm.

McCaskre missed a scheduled court appearance on Jan. 4, where he had been due to face a charge of breaching a stalking order forbidding him from contacting Chkaifi, and an arrest warrant was issued in his name.

“Leon was a monster, a demon. His behavior towards her over the years was harrowing,” a member of Chkaifi’s family said.

Another relative alleged that McCaskre had been violent to Chkaifi but the police “had not done anything about it.”

He added: “The police have let another one slip through the net — how many more women have to die?”

Detective Chief Inspector Neil Rawlinson, of the Metropolitan Police’s Specialist Crime Command, said on Tuesday that members of the public had “bravely tried to intervene to stop the attack and their actions were very courageous.”

He added: “A man, who was the driver of a car, has been arrested and bailed for a very serious offense and we must carry out a full investigation, looking at all the circumstances.”


Russia offering jabs to children aged 12-17 as cases soar

Russia offering jabs to children aged 12-17 as cases soar
Updated 26 January 2022

Russia offering jabs to children aged 12-17 as cases soar

Russia offering jabs to children aged 12-17 as cases soar
  • Earlier this week, free shots of Sputnik M became available to that age group in a number of areas
  • Those under the age of 15 need parental consent for the shot, while those aged 15-17 can make the decision themselves

MOSCOW: Russia on Wednesday expanded a domestically developed coronavirus vaccine for children aged 12-17 to include more regions, amid the country’s biggest infection surge yet due to the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant.
Earlier this week, free shots of Sputnik M — a version of the Sputnik V vaccine that contains a smaller dose — became available to that age group in a number of areas spanning from the Moscow region surrounding the capital to the Urals to Siberia and the far east.
On Wednesday, the jab became available to teenagers in Volgograd, Astrakhan and Kursk. In Moscow, the vaccination campaign will start in the coming days, Deputy Mayor Anastasia Rakova told reporters on Wednesday.
Those under the age of 15 need parental consent for the shot, while those aged 15-17 can make the decision themselves, authorities said.
Russia in recent weeks has faced an unprecedented surge of coronavirus infections, with the number of daily confirmed cases increasing five-fold between Jan. 10, when about 15,000 new infections were reported, and Wednesday, when officials tallied 74,692 — another all-time high in the pandemic.
Moscow, the outlying region and St. Petersburg are hit the hardest by the surge and account for about half of all daily new infections.
Officials in Moscow and St. Petersburg on Wednesday sounded the alarm about a sharp spike of COVID-19 infections in children.
Moscow city health department said the number of children infected with the virus increased 14 times in the past two weeks, from 2,000 a week to 28,000. The number of hospitalizations of children with COVID-19 grew ten-fold, the department said in a statement, and in half of those cases children contracted the virus while undergoing elective hospital care for other conditions.
In light of those findings, city officials decided to halt elective hospital care for children for three weeks.
In St. Petersburg, the infection rate among those under 17 has grown eight-fold over the past week, local officials said. Starting Friday, minors in Russia’s second largest city will be barred from attending any extra-curricular classes or activities.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Wednesday said there were no plans to introduce remote learning nationwide.
Russian authorities have generally avoided imposing any major restrictions to stem the surge, saying the health system has been coping with the influx of patients.
Furthermore, earlier this month parliament indefinitely postponed introducing restrictions for the unvaccinated that would have proven unpopular among vaccine-hesitant Russians. And this week health officials cut the required isolation period for those who came in contact with COVID-19 patients from 14 days to seven without offering any explanation for the move.
In all, Russia’s state coronavirus task force has reported more than 11.3 million confirmed cases and 328,105 deaths, by far the largest death toll in Europe. Russia’s state statistics agency, which uses broader counting criteria, puts the death toll much higher, saying the overall number of virus-linked deaths between April 2020 and October 2021 was over 625,000.
Just about half of Russia’s 146 million people have been fully vaccinated, even though Russia boasted about being the first country in the world to approve and roll out a domestically developed coronavirus vaccine.


UK Muslim leader says Islamophobia survey reveals scale of problem in Britain

UK Muslim leader says Islamophobia survey reveals scale of problem in Britain
Updated 26 January 2022

UK Muslim leader says Islamophobia survey reveals scale of problem in Britain

UK Muslim leader says Islamophobia survey reveals scale of problem in Britain
  • More than one-in-four people quizzed agreed that “there are areas in Britain that operate under Shariah law”
  • Mohammed: Important to document Islamophobia and share data with policy makers when asking for change

LONDON: A UK Muslim leader said on Tuesday that the findings of a survey on Islamophobia had highlighted “the pervasive nature of the problem” in Britain.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Birmingham, revealed that Islamophobia had passed the so-called dinner table test in being considered suitable for polite conversation and socially acceptable.

Titled, “The Dinner Table Prejudice: Islamophobia in Contemporary Britain,” the survey found that Muslims were the UK’s second least-liked group after gypsy and Irish travelers, with 25.9 percent of the British public feeling negative toward Muslims, and 9.9 percent very negative.

Speaking at the report’s launch, Zara Mohammed, the first female secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said Islamophobia was definitely real, contrary to what some people thought, and that it impacted on all aspects of society.

“I think what’s really great about this report and its contribution to the body of evidence is that it shows us not just the pervasive nature of the problem but also that Muslims are some of the least-liked people in the population.

“In my one year so far as the secretary-general of the MCB, what we have seen is unfortunately a very changing landscape for British Muslims and one that is becoming increasingly hostile.

“This is the reality of how Muslims are perceived in everyday Britain, and that is in 2022 as well,” she added.

More than one-in-four people quizzed for the survey, and nearly half of Conservative Party supporters and those who voted to leave the EU, held conspiratorial views that “no-go areas” in the UK existed where Shariah law ruled.

And 26.5 percent of those questioned agreed with the statement that, “there are areas in Britain that operate under Shariah law where non-Muslims are not able to enter,” the study said. Among Conservative Party voters and those who elected to leave the EU, the figure increased to 43.4 percent.

A further 36.3 percent of Brits said they thought that “Islam threatens the British way of life,” and 18.1 percent supported, and 9.5 percent strongly supported, the idea of banning all Muslim migration to the UK.

“British people acknowledge their ignorance of most non-Christian religions, with a majority stating they are ‘not sure’ how Jewish (50.8 percent) and Sikh (62.7 percent) scriptures are taught.

“In the case of Islam, however, people feel more confident making a judgement, with only 40.7 percent being unsure. This is despite the fact that people are much more likely to make the incorrect assumption that Islam is ‘totally’ literalistic. Prejudice toward Islam is not simply ignorance, then, but miseducation and misrecognition,” the study report added.

Mohammed pointed out that Islamophobia had a very real knock-on impact on the everyday lives of Muslims, and she welcomed the academic evidence contained in reports such as the latest one written by Stephen Jones and Amy Unsworth.

She noted that it was important to document the problem and share data with policy makers when asking for change.

“In some ways it empowers Muslim communities to say, ‘don’t think it’s in your heads, actually something needs to be done.’

“The government’s own evidence on hate crime found that 40 percent of all those facing hate crime were Muslims. This is very much a real problem and I’m hoping that on the back of the work that Prof. Jones has done, we will all be able to benefit from it and use it in our campaigns, activism, and conversations.

“Whilst Islamophobia has certainly passed the dinner table test, it’s time for us to be able to move forward and make a real change, and the MCB remains committed to doing that,” Mohammed said.

MP Nusrat Ghani speaks during a session in Parliament in London, Britain. (File/Reuters)

The survey launch has coincided with news headlines about British Muslim Conservative MP Nusrat Ghani’s claims that her faith was given as a reason for her sacking as a government minister in 2020.

She said she was told that her “Muslimness was raised as an issue” at a meeting and that her “Muslim woman minister status was making colleagues feel uncomfortable.”

“It was like being punched in the stomach. I felt humiliated and powerless,” she added.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ordered a Cabinet Office inquiry into the claims.

On Ghani’s allegations, Mohammed said they “highlighted just how systemic and institutional the problem of Islamophobia is. It hits hard, and it hits deep.”

She added that Islamophobia, “isn’t just in our heads, and just over this weekend we have seen at the heart of politics how this also plays out.

“What is actually being done? What is the approach of decision makers to tackling the problem, if any?”

She said the MCB had been working to push for the adoption of a definition of Islamophobia developed by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims.

According to the APPG definition, Islamophobia was rooted in racism and was a type of racism that targeted expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness. The definition was widely endorsed throughout Muslim communities, political parties, and civil society.

However, the ruling Conservative Party rejected the APPG definition in 2019 and said it needed “more consideration.”

The late James Brokenshire, Britain’s communities secretary at the time, told the House of Commons that the APPG definition was not in line with the Equality Act 2010, and that two advisers would be appointed to come up with a definition that was.

However, an imam appointed by ministers as a key adviser on Islamophobia, said on Monday he had been ignored by No. 10 and Michael Gove, the UK’s secretary of state for housing, communities, and local government.

Imam Qari Asim, who was asked to help draw up a definition of Islamophobia, told The Times that he had not received replies to emails and letters that he sent to the government over more than two years since he was appointed.


UK govt suffers court defeat after citizenship appeal by alleged Daesh member

UK govt suffers court defeat after citizenship appeal by alleged Daesh member
Updated 26 January 2022

UK govt suffers court defeat after citizenship appeal by alleged Daesh member

UK govt suffers court defeat after citizenship appeal by alleged Daesh member
  • A woman, known as ‘D4,’ is fighting a legal battle for repatriation to Britain
  • D4 has been imprisoned in Al-Roj since January 2019, together with other women and children who were captured when fleeing former Daesh territories

LONDON: The latest stage of a UK Home Office strategy to strip Britons of their citizenship over terror offenses has been defeated in court.

Following a legal challenge by a woman who had allegedly joined Daesh after traveling to Syria, The England and Wales Court of Appeal found that it was unlawful to remove people’s nationality without providing proper notice.

Identified in legal records only as D4, the woman is being held in a Syrian prisoner camp, Al-Roj, and was not informed by UK authorities that her British citizenship had been removed for more than 10 months.

The Home Office had previously appealed a decision made by the High Court, which ruled that the stripping of D4’s citizenship was “void and of no effect.”

The court heard that D4 has been imprisoned in Al-Roj since January 2019, together with other women and children who were captured when fleeing former Daesh territories.

But a year later, when D4 requested repatriation to the UK through her solicitors, she was informed that her citizenship had been stripped a year earlier, and her request was refused.

D4 then appealed to the Special Immigration Appeals Commission and started judicial review proceedings in the High Court.

And in the latest ruling, Lady Justice Whipple said on Wednesday: “There may be good policy reasons for empowering the home secretary to deprive a person of citizenship without giving notice, but such a step is not lawful under this legislation.

“If the government wishes to empower the secretary in that way, it must persuade parliament to amend the primary legislation. That is what it is currently seeking to do under the Nationality and Borders Bill — it is for parliament to decide.”

She added that the architects of the 1981 British Nationality Act “deliberately structured the process for depriving someone of their citizenship to include minimum safeguards for the individual.

“The 1981 Act does not confer powers of such breadth that the home secretary can deem notice to have been given where no step at all has been taken to communicate the notice to the person concerned, and the order has simply been put on the person’s Home Office file.”

The controversial Nationality and Borders Bill, spearheaded by UK Home Secretary Priti Patel, would remove the requirement to give notice of citizenship deprivation under certain conditions.

These include if a home secretary “does not have the information needed to be able to give notice,” if a notice would “not be reasonably practicable” or if it was “not in the interests of national security or in the interests of the relationship between the UK and another country.”

The Home Office is now seeking permission to appeal the judgment at the Supreme Court.

An official statement said: “The government will not apologize for removing the citizenship of terrorists, those involved in serious and organized crime and those who seek to do us harm.

“Citizenship deprivation only happens after very careful consideration of the facts and in accordance with international law. Each case is assessed individually on its own merits and always comes with the right to appeal.”

Britons who joined Daesh make up the majority of the more than 150 people who have had their citizenship stripped since 2014.

Jonathan Hall QC, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, said in a report that the stripping of citizenship “has been a major part of the UK’s response to those who have travel led to Daesh-controlled areas.”

The government is “cynically attempting to circumvent the courts” through the Nationality and Borders Bill, the legal charity Reprieve has warned.

Reprieve director Maya Foa said: “It would render this ruling moot, making a mockery of the rule of law. Ministers should change course and recognize that depriving people of their citizenship without even telling them is an affront to British principles of justice and fairness.”

In 2018, in an effort to circumvent protocol, the Home Office deemed that notice could be recognized as given if a citizenship deprivation record was filed internally.

But in last year’s High Court judgment against the government, Mr. Justice Chamberlain said: “As a matter of ordinary language, you do not ‘give’ someone ‘notice’ of something by putting the notice in your desk drawer and locking it.

“No one who understands English would regard that purely private act as a way of ‘giving notice’.”