NEW DELHI: Indian doctors raised alarm on Friday at what might turn into a coronavirus superspreader event, after more than 300,000 people took a holy dip on the River Ganges amid record high numbers of new daily COVID-19 cases.
The annual festival is taking place in West Bengal, with people from different parts of the country arriving to Gangasagar island on the confluence of the river and the Bay of Bengal to take a holy bath, believing it will wash away their sins.
Although the main event took place on Friday, thousands more pilgrims are expected to perform the ritual over the weekend.
The country recorded over 264,000 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, a 30-fold rise in a month, as infection figures rapidly increased fueled by the highly transmissible omicron variant.
“People from various states come to the Gangasagar festival and we fear that this might be just another superspreader,” Dr. Avinandan Mondal, a West Bengal-based doctor and public health expert, told Arab News.
Last year, a religious festival of the same scale held in the northern state of Uttarakhand fueled the spread of the delta variant of COVID-19, which caused havoc across India, causing its second viral wave.
“I saw the severity of the second wave when I was in the hospital. At that time, the number of oxygen beds available with me was 20 and (the number of) people gasping for breath was 180,” Mondal said. “I had to choose who (was) going to live and who is going to die. I don’t want to see that situation again.”
Dr. Prabhakar Dorairaj of the Public Health Foundation of India, said the country is facing an “unpredictable” third wave of COVID-19 due to omicron, and that public gatherings should be avoided at all costs.
“If we don’t stop the gatherings then the cases will keep on rising despite the cases reaching (their) peak,” Dorairaj told Arab News.
Authorities in the district where the Gangasagar event is taking place say all precautions are in place to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
“We are making sure that there is proper social distancing and people follow all the COVID protocols,” South 24 Parganas District magistrate Dr. P Ulganathan said.
“So far we don’t have any positive cases and we are strictly checking COVID reports.”
Despite petitions against holding the festival, a high court in West Bengal cleared the way for it, demanding that all pilgrims have negative COVID-19 tests.
Srijib Chakraborty, a lawyer based in the state capital Kolkata who appealed to the court to stop the event, said he fears it would end up being another superspeader event, like the one in Uttarakhand.
“I feel that this festival could have been avoided,” he said. “No religion is more important than human lives. If we survive, we can have a festival next year and if we don’t survive then who is going to take part in the festivities?”
Huma Abedin, longtime aide to Hillary Clinton, warns of a growing split in US political circles. ‘It’s not the same Washington,’ she says. ‘The parties have become so much more divided in terms of basic common human decency.’
Frankly Speaking: ‘I was attacked during the 2016 campaign simply because I was Muslim,’ says former Hillary Clinton staffer Huma Abedin
Abedin has just published a book about her experiences in US politics, her time growing up in Saudi Arabia and her ill-starred marriage
She believes the prejudice she experienced were symptomatic of a wider deterioration in the standards of political life in the US
Updated 27 sec ago
DUBAI: Muslims were made the “bogeyman” by some politicians in the US at the time of the 2016 election won by former President Donald Trump, a leading American Muslim has told Arab News.
Huma Abedin, chief of staff of the defeated Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton, said she endured calls for her investigation by a Republican congressman in 2012 on the flimsy evidence that she and her family were practicing Muslims, with the prejudice intensifying during the 2016 campaign.
“I just want to take a step back and remind people this was 2012 and I believe the experience those of us had was really an appetizer for what was to come — this idea that you could label somebody ‘the other’ and make them the bogeyman. I believe my faith was made a bogeyman in that 2016 election,” she said.
Abedin, who recently published a book about her experiences in US politics and her time growing up in Saudi Arabia, shared her forthright views on “Frankly Speaking,” the series of video interviews with leading global policymakers.
In a wide-ranging conversation, she also spoke of the growing divisions within US politics and society, the empowerment of women in the American system, and her ill-starred marriage to former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner, which ended in scandal and divorce.
Accusations of anti-Muslim prejudice in the US political system are a striking part of her memoir, “Both/And: A Life in Many Worlds,” published last year.
“One of the reasons I wrote this book is because I wanted to share with Americans and with people what it is to be a Muslim American in this country, and it is why I wrote in detail about the accusations that my family faced in 2012, when I was working at the State Department,” Abedin said.
“I was attacked simply because I was Muslim and had two Muslim parents.”
The accusations were quickly discredited by a State Department review, but Abedin believes they were symptomatic of a wider deterioration in the standards of political life in the US.
“Do I see a divide in this country? Absolutely, we all do. And unless we are willing to step forward to continue to engage in public service, we have a choice in the kind of country we’re going to live in,” she said.
“It is very scary to see some of the language that’s out there in the world. Very scary.”
Abedin, who began her political career as a White House intern in 1996, said that while there were always differences between Republican and Democratic politicians, before 2016 these could be debated and resolved.
“The way I was raised in politics and public service was forcing differing opinions to the table, being able to leave the office and go down the street and have dinner together and hash out your differences. That has changed,” she said.
“It’s not the same Washington. It’s not. The parties have become so much more divided in terms of basic human common decency. That seems to have been really allowed to just disappear, and I’m very sad about that.”
Abedin was vice chair of the campaign to elect Clinton in 2016, when the candidate endured baseless calls from Trump for her prosecution and imprisonment on unspecified charges. A late-breaking investigation into Clinton’s emails by the FBI — subsequently discredited — hit her campaign hard, by some accounts costing her the election.
“I would argue that my boss actually did quite well (considering) the external forces. I write about this in detail in my book, everything from the misogyny (to) the attacks — when you have somebody every single day suggesting that you might go to jail without explaining why, as had been the case for her,” she said.
“The attacks (Clinton) had to endure multiple times a day, those things had an effect. (Plus) the FBI investigation — which had a late-breaking role in changing, altering the course of the election, in an election so tight that every little thing mattered — that was a big thing,” Abedin said.
“The forces against our party and our candidate really were quite overwhelming at that moment. So, I still get up every single day and I think about how our country would have been different today if (Clinton) had been elected in 2016.”
Another reason for Clinton’s defeat, she said, was “because she is a powerful, smart, ambitious woman and we are, in this country in my opinion, still afraid of powerful women.”
Born in the US, Abedin’s family moved to Saudi Arabia when she was a child, and she grew up in the Kingdom before she left for higher education in America. She returns frequently to Saudi Arabia with her son Jordan, and is impressed by the changes that have taken place since she lived there.
“First of all, you didn’t see women in stores (in the 1980s), you didn’t see the cultural events on the beach. When I was there a couple of years ago with my son, we went for face painting and on the beach and Ferris wheels. A lot of young Saudi men and women are working in small businesses, entrepreneurships.”
She added: “I will always have a very tender place in my heart for the place that was home for me for so long, that I associated with my father. My father is buried there, in Makkah. So, for me to see the progress is amazing, it’s really amazing.”
Before she embarked on her career in Washington political circles, Abedin was briefly a journalist for Arab News.
“I had applied for a White House internship and then left to go home for the summer, and it was Khaled Al-Maeena, who was then the editor-in-chief, who offered me a position with a summer job.”
She said: “Arab News is what we read in our home every single day. It was our New York Times. So, if you had asked me in 1995 would I be doing an interview like this in 25 years, I would say absolutely no way, no how. But it’s a thrill.”
In her memoir Abedin talks candidly about her marriage, and the misgivings she had when she first met Weiner, a New York congressman of Jewish background and then a rising star in Democrat circles in the city.
“I think any Muslim who’s watching will understand our faith, our belief. Men, Muslim men, are allowed to marry outside the religion, (but) it’s much more difficult for Muslim women to marry outside the faith. That really in the end has to do with paternity: If there are children born of that marriage, generally the child takes the father’s religion and so it was a huge crisis of conscience for me,” she said.
The marriage ended when Weiner was jailed for sexual crimes propagated via social media, but in the process affected the 2016 election campaign. “I felt an entire responsibility for that defeat,” Abedin said.
She was a victim of intense media scrutiny during the Weiner scandal, but eventually accepted that the press was just doing its job in covering a major news story. “I understood. It wasn’t easy, but I understood,” she said.
Abedin said that the Democrats under President Joe Biden face an uphill struggle in the upcoming mid-term elections, which traditionally go badly for the incumbent’s party.
“I think the COVID-19 pandemic has presented all kinds of unanticipated challenges, and I think our party has its work cut out for it in November. We have a lot of work to do and we’ve got to keep the enthusiasm, get people out (to vote). It’s going to be hard,” she said.
Abedin, who combines insider knowledge of the US political system with an understanding of Saudi Arabia and the Arab world, does not rule out an ambassadorial role in the future.
“I am open to all kinds of opportunities and exploring different things. What that is I don’t know yet, but ambassador sounds really good. I just have to figure out — ambassador to what and for what and how? But I like that actually,” she said.
New year brings tourism back to Sri Lanka despite omicron fears
Close to 30,000 visitors have arrived in Sri Lanka in first 10 days of 2022, mostly from Europe, India
Tourism Development Authority dismisses fears that omicron variant could force new lockdown
Updated 16 January 2022
COLOMBO: In a makeshift kiosk, just off the Kadawatha Interchange in Sri Lanka’s western province, golden-orange king coconuts, bright green and yellow mangoes, and small, round wild oranges are stacked in neat piles. A fruit seller slices open a coconut deftly with a knife and hands it to a customer, before turning to serve the next.
Around him, waiting patiently, are a mix of people. Vehicles have pulled up to the side of the road, with drivers waiting for refreshing drinks before resuming their journeys.
Sri Lanka, once deserted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is bustling again.
And across the island is a most welcome sight: Foreign tourists, who contribute significantly to the country’s economy. A tourism hotspot offering surf, sun, sand, cool hinterlands, and UNESCO-protected sites of cultural and architectural significance, Sri Lanka relies heavily on visitors, who before the pandemic accounted for about $5 billion of foreign exchange earnings, or almost 5 percent of gross domestic product.
Successive COVID-19 lockdowns since March 2020 resulted in the tourism sector grinding to a complete halt, depriving thousands of people of their livelihoods. Crushed by an economic crisis due to dwindling foreign reserves and mounting foreign debt, Sri Lanka is desperate to revive the tourism industry, with a target of making 2022 the “Visit Sri Lanka Year” and generating $10 billion from the sector by 2025.
January has proven that Sri Lanka may be on course to meet the target. Close to 30,000 people have arrived in the country in the first 10 days of 2022, mostly from Russia, India, Ukraine, the UK and Germany, despite global fears of over the spread of the new, highly contagious omicron variant.
“In Europe, there is a thought process of relaxing and dealing with the virus,” Kimarli Fernando, chairperson of the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, told Arab News.
“EU countries treat COVID-19 like the flu, suggest people get used to living with it, and treat the virus as an endemic disease. So, this will not pose a problem.”
She said that the tourism authority expects to see about 1 million tourists visiting the country this year — half the number of visitors in 2018, which was Sri Lanka’s best year on record in terms of tourism arrivals.
“I am absolutely confident we will reach these numbers,” Fernando said, dismissing fears that the emergence of omicron could force the island nation back into lockdown. “We don’t see a potential for a lockdown at all.”
Almost 63 percent of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people have already been fully vaccinated, with tourism workers receiving jabs on priority basis to facilitate the swift reopening of the travel industry and revival of the economy.
Fernando added that besides vaccinations, tourism staff have also been properly trained to deal with the outbreak. “We’ve actually physically audited every single hotel. The staff are all trained,” she said.
“Tour guides, drivers — they are all trained. In public, everyone is wearing their masks. Everyone is diligent, in terms of sanitizing and adhering to health precautions,” she added. “We’ve never relaxed those rules, so we do not see an issue arising.”
But omicron is not the only factor that could pose a challenge to local hospitality businesses.
To shore up its currency reserves, the government last year imposed a broad import ban to shore up foreign reserves, triggering shortages of fuel and price hikes for food and other essential goods.
Harpo Gooneratne, president of the Colombo City Restaurant Collective, told Arab News that he believed the industry, which has already withstood many challenges, will “manage.”
He added: “We will have to look at this as a temporary setback that will last a few months, and in the meanwhile manage by keeping costs down, managing inventories and pushing an aggressive marketing plan that will look at new markets.”
Texas Muslims express support for hostages in synagogue assault
Imams at nearby mosques condemned the violence and prayed for the safety of the synagogue's congregation
The FBI on Sunday identified the gunman killed as 44-year-old British national Malik Faisal Akram
Updated 16 January 2022
CHICAGO: Leaders of the Muslim community in Texas and activists around the US expressed support for members of a synagogue in Colleyville which came under attack on Saturday, sparking a 10-hour hostage crisis.
A SWAT team breached the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue at around 9:30 p.m. in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, freeing all the hostages.
No members of the synagogue’s congregation were injured, but the gunman was killed, police said without releasing details. The rabbi, Charlie Cytron-Walker, was reported to be among the four held hostage.
The FBI on Sunday identified the gunman who was killed as 44-year-old British national Malik Faisal Akram.
Imams at nearby mosques quickly responded with statements of support and prayers for the safety of the synagogue's congregation and condemnations of the violence.
“We are shocked and horrified at what is transpiring in the Colleyville synagogue,” said Imam Jawaid Alam, from the Islamic Center of Southlake, as word spread of the hostage crisis. “They are going through an appalling ordeal and we stand with our Jewish brothers and sisters. Our thoughts and prayers are with them, and we condemn these atrocious actions. We will provide our support and hope that this situation comes to a safe resolution as soon as possible. Ameen.”
The Secretary-General of the US Council of Muslim Organizations Oussama Jammal said that Muslims across the US stand in solidarity with “the Colleyville and broader American Jewish community,” and are “relieved” at their safe release.
“This heinous attack on a synagogue, a sacred and inviolable place of worship – and its congregants in the act of prayer – is utterly unacceptable. Whoever the attacker is and whatever his claimed motivations, there can be no excuse for this horrific crime. We praise God for their return to their loved ones,” Jammal said.
Police issued updates on Twitter as the hostage situation continued throughout Saturday evening and Sunday morning. Colleyville Police Spokesperson Sgt. Dara Nelson said a 911 call came in just before 11 a.m.
“Officers arrived on scene and observed an emergency situation that warranted evacuation of the surrounding areas and an external perimeter was established,” Nelson said. “The Colleyville Police Department is on scene along with the FBI's Dallas Field Office, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the North Tarrant Regional SWAT Team and other neighboring agencies.”
Nelson said a gunman was holding several hostages inside the synagogue and reported that at 5 p.m. the suspect released one male hostage uninjured. FBI crisis negotiators were in communication with the suspect, Nelson added.
The SWAT team entered the synagogue and freed all of the hostages and the suspect was killed.
US President Joe Biden issued a statement immediately after the hostages were released late Saturday night.
“Thanks to the courageous work of state, local and federal law enforcement, four Americans who were held hostage at a Texas synagogue will soon be home with their families. I am grateful to the tireless work of law enforcement at all levels who acted cooperatively and fearlessly to rescue the hostages. We are sending love and strength to the members of Congregation Beth Israel, Colleyville, and the Jewish community,” he said.
“There is more we will learn in the days ahead about the motivations of the hostage taker. But let me be clear to anyone who intends to spread hate—we will stand against antisemitism and against the rise of extremism in this country. That is who we are, and tonight, the men and women of law enforcement made us all proud.”
On Sunday, Biden said that the hostage taker had got his weapons off the street.
The hostage incident in Colleyville, Texas, “was an act of terror; it was an act of terror,” said Biden, who was in Philadelphia with first lady Jill Biden.
Pro-Palestinian activists also issued statements against the violence, including Jewish Voices for Peace. It said: “We are grateful to G-d that Rabbi Cytron-Walker and the congregants at Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas are free and safe. We send love to our fellow Jews everywhere who are breathing slightly easier, and recommit to the fight against antisemitism and Islamophobia.”
Britain's foreign office confirmed the death of a British man in Texas, when asked to respond to a Sky News report that the gunman was a British national. The foreign office did not explicitly say the dead Briton was the gunman.
British foreign minister Liz Truss on Sunday condemned the actions of the gunman, calling it an act of terrorism and anti-Semitism.
“My thoughts are with the Jewish community and all those affected by the appalling act in Texas. We condemn this act of terrorism and anti-Semitism,” she wrote on Twitter.
“We stand with US in defending the rights and freedoms of our citizens against those who spread hate.”
The attack came as the US prepared to commemorate racial and religious tolerance on Monday, what would have been the 93rd birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis by James Earl Ray, a white segregationist and escaped felon.
Iraq says almost 4,000 repatriated from Belarus borders
Since last summer, thousands of migrants, many from the Middle East and Iraq in particular, had been camped on the Belarus-EU border
The West has accused Belarus of luring the migrants to the border as revenge for sanctions against President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime
Updated 16 January 2022
BAGHDAD: Baghdad has repatriated almost 4,000 of its citizens stuck on the Belarus borders with European Union members Poland, Lithuania and Latvia in recent weeks, Iraq’s foreign minister said Sunday.
Since November 18, the Iraqi government has organized “10 flights from Baghdad to Belarus” to repatriate its citizens, Fuad Hussein told a press conference in Baghdad with his Lithuanian counterpart.
“We have been able to repatriate around 4,000 Iraqis who were stuck on the Belarus borders with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia,” he said.
Foreign ministry spokesman Ahmed Al-Sahaf later told AFP that “3,817 Iraqi migrants have been repatriated from Belarus and 112 from Lithuania.”
The flights have generally arrived in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region, where many of the would-be migrants are from, before continuing to Baghdad.
Sahaf said some Iraqis were still stuck in Belarus, but that “the difficult weather and complex environment do not allow rescuers to determine their numbers.”
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, who also met with Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhemi, said he wanted “to bring in new cooperation ideas” with Iraq.
Since last summer, thousands of migrants, many from the Middle East and Iraq in particular, had been camped on the Belarus-EU border, often in bitter conditions, trying to enter the bloc.
The West has accused Belarus of luring the migrants to the border as revenge for sanctions against President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime.
Belarus has denied the claim and criticized the EU for not taking in the migrants.
Briton stripped of citizenship set to return to UK after decision overturned
Man known as E3 accused of being Islamist extremist in 2017 without Home Office presenting evidence
Move comes as politicians mull granting the government fresh powers to strip people of their citizenship
Updated 16 January 2022
LONDON: A British man stripped of his UK citizenship in 2017 has spoken of the turmoil the decision caused ahead of his return to the country after the move was overturned, claiming allegations made against him by the government were too secretive to make defending himself possible.
The 40-year-old man, known as E3, was born in London to Bangladeshi parents but was given a deprivation of citizenship order after he flew to Bangladesh, where he married his wife in 2013, for the birth of his second daughter.
The move left him stateless, as he did not take up the option of applying for Bangladeshi citizenship before turning 21, and meant he was unable to support his family; his wife did not qualify for British residency because, though employed in the UK, E3 did not earn enough to sponsor her.
The decision also meant that a third daughter, born in 2019 after E3’s citizenship was removed, was no longer eligible for British citizenship. His eldest two daughters are British citizens but remained in Bangladesh with their parents.
E3’s period of statelessness also made it difficult to visit and support his frail mother in London — to whose address his deprivation of citizenship order was delivered on June 3, 2017, the day before he was due to return to the UK.
The UK Home Office described E3 in the order as “an Islamist extremist who had previously sought to travel abroad to participate in terrorism-related activity,” claiming he posed a threat to national security.
His legal team, though, denies any evidence to support these claims was ever presented, adding he has never been charged with a criminal offense, either in the UK or abroad.
“The allegation against me is so vague that it even suggests that I only tried to travel to some unknown destination to take part in an unspecified activity related to terrorism,” E3 told the Observer newspaper. “How on Earth do you defend yourself against an allegation like that, especially when the government relies on secret evidence? The disclosure my solicitors received was almost entirely redacted so I have no idea what the government is referring to.
“Why was I not arrested and questioned? Why have I been punished in this way without ever being shown a single piece of evidence against me? The government should admit that they have made a mistake and own up to it,” he added.
E3’s return to the UK coincides with the proposal of controversial new legislation, the Nationality and Borders Bill, that could let the Home Office remove people’s citizenship without informing them.
“Being left stateless and not knowing why I was suddenly stripped of my citizenship had an extremely adverse impact on my mental health. It was the most depressing period of my life,” said E3.
“Being British is a fundamental part of my identity, but it really feels like you need more than just being born and raised in the UK to really be considered one. Having an ethnic background relegates you to being a second-class citizen.”
E3’s UK citizenship was restored after he successfully argued the decision had left him stateless — a move that could have ramifications for other British people stripped of or denied citizenship, including children born to British members of the extremist group Daesh currently living in refugee camps in Syria.
Anas Mustapha, communications manager of advocacy group Cage, said: “E3’s case brings into sharp focus the devastating impact of citizenship deprivation and its often forgotten victims, the children of those deprived.
“E3 has been successful in overturning the decision but many others must reckon with the state-imposed exile as it is impossible to meaningfully challenge it due to the use of secret evidence.”
E3 and his daughter’s cases, meanwhile, will be subject to judicial review later this year.
His lawyer, Fahad Ansari, said: “My client lost five years of his life because of the unlawful decision of the home secretary that lacked any prior judicial oversight.”