UK Home Office admits unlawful secret policy to seize Channel migrant phones

UK Home Office admits unlawful secret policy to seize Channel migrant phones
Migrants on a flimsy craft, hidden by the swell, cross the English Channel, Aug. 27, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 27 January 2022

UK Home Office admits unlawful secret policy to seize Channel migrant phones

UK Home Office admits unlawful secret policy to seize Channel migrant phones
  • Phone seizures may have been related to misunderstanding that Channel crossings were illegal
  • Policy meant hundreds or thousands of people were cut off from loved ones

LONDON: The UK Home Office has admitted exercising an unlawful secret policy of seizing cell phones from migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats.

Lawyers representing the home secretary made the admission at the High Court on Thursday, while fighting legal action brought by three asylum seekers.

The men, from Iraq and Iran, were all arrested on arrival in the UK and were stripped of their possessions, despite committing no crime.

Government authorities kept their mobile phones for several months, leaving them unable to contact friends and family.

One of the men feared for the lives of his wife and seven-year-old child, but had no means to check on them.

The unnamed claimants are asking the High Court to make declarations of “serious illegality,” award damages and require the Home Office to alert everyone affected by the unlawful policy.

Their lawyers estimate that hundreds or possibly thousands of mobile phones have been unlawfully seized since 2018.

The Home Office initially denied the seizure policy existed, and then later apologized for failing a “duty of candor” by withholding the information.

Alan Payne QC, representing the Home Office, told the High Court: “The home secretary is accepting that the seizure policies were unlawful, were not in accordance with the law for the purpose of the European Convention on Human Rights and did not provide a lawful basis for the processing of data.”

Payne also admitted that a separate policy to keep asylum seekers’ phones for a minimum of three months was a “disproportionate interference” with human rights.

Lawyers for the claimants argued that the concessions were “manifestly incomplete and inadequate to reflect the extent of the illegality,” but Home Secretary Priti Patel’s team argued that the remaining grounds of legal challenge were “academic” and should be dismissed.

Home Office lawyers said the policy’s “precise origins are not known” and that it “appears to have developed organically.”

The confusion, they argued, derives from the misunderstanding that all people arriving in small boats from the Channel had committed a crime — this is not the case.

Sir James Eadie QC, representing the home secretary, said there was a “misunderstanding permeating that an illegal entry offense was always committed by passengers” on small boats at the time.

In December, a court ruled that crossing the Channel with the aim of being intercepted and claiming asylum did not amount to illegal entry, and that a “legal heresy” had developed among authorities and caused a series of wrongful prosecutions.


WHO working on more monkeypox guidance as cases rise — senior adviser

WHO working on more monkeypox guidance as cases rise — senior adviser
Updated 58 min 5 sec ago

WHO working on more monkeypox guidance as cases rise — senior adviser

WHO working on more monkeypox guidance as cases rise — senior adviser
  • The WHO's working theory based on the cases identified so far is that the outbreak is being driven by sexual contact
  • Monkeypox is an infectious disease that is usually mild, and is endemic in parts of west and central Africa

LONDON: The World Health Organization is working on further guidance for countries on how to mitigate the spread of monkeypox, amid concerns cases could spike further in the summer months, a senior adviser for the UN agency told Reuters.
The WHO’s working theory based on the cases identified so far is that the outbreak is being driven by sexual contact, said David Heymann, chair of the WHO’s Strategic and Technical Advisory Group on Infectious Hazards with Pandemic and Epidemic Potential. He led a meeting on the outbreak on Friday.
Monkeypox is an infectious disease that is usually mild, and is endemic in parts of west and central Africa. It is spread by close contact, which means it can be relatively easily contained through such measures as self-isolation and hygiene once a new case is identified.
The outbreak in 11 countries where it is not endemic is highly unusual, according to scientists. More than 100 confirmed or suspected cases have been reported, most of them in Europe.
Heymann, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said experts were likely to give more guidance to countries in the coming days. Health officials in several countries have warned that cases could rise further at major summer gatherings and festivals.
“What seems to be happening now is that it has got into the population as a sexual form, as a genital form, and is being spread as are sexually transmitted infections, which has amplified its transmission around the world,” Heymann said.
He said the WHO’s meeting was convened “because of the urgency of the situation.” The committee is not the group that would suggest declaring a public health emergency of international concern, WHO’s highest form of alert, which currently applies to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead Heymann said the international committee of experts, which met via video conference, looked at what needed to be studied about the outbreak and communicated to the public, including whether there is any asymptomatic spread, who are at most risk, and what the various routes of transmission are.
He said close contact was the key transmission route for the virus as the lesions that are typical of the disease are very infectious. For example, parents caring for sick children are at risk, as well as health workers, which is why some countries have started inoculating the teams treating monkeypox patients using vaccines for smallpox, a related virus.
Many of the current cases have been identified at sexual health clinics.
Early genomic sequencing of a handful of the cases in Europe has suggested a similarity with the strain that spread in a limited fashion in Britain, Israel and Singapore in 2018.
Heymann said it was “biologically plausible” that the virus had since been circulating outside of the countries where it is endemic, but had not led to major outbreaks as a result of COVID-19 lockdowns, social distancing and travel restrictions.
He stressed that the monkeypox outbreak did not resemble the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic because it does not transmit as easily. Those who suspect they may have been exposed or who are showing symptoms, including the typical bumpy rash and fever, should avoid close contact with others, he said.
“There are vaccines available, but the most important message is, you can protect yourself,” he added.


Sicily judge weighs trial of migrant rescue NGOs

Sicily judge weighs trial of migrant rescue NGOs
Updated 21 May 2022

Sicily judge weighs trial of migrant rescue NGOs

Sicily judge weighs trial of migrant rescue NGOs
  • Trapani judge Samuele Corso must rule whether or not to proceed to trial after a five-year investigation mired in controversy
  • The charities are accused of coordinating their actions with smugglers just off Libya

ROME: Charities running migrant rescue ships in the Mediterranean faced a pre-trial hearing in Sicily Saturday over alleged collusion with people traffickers after a controversial probe that involved mass wiretapping.
Twenty-one suspects, including crew members of Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Save the Children and German NGO Jugend Rettet rescue ships, are accused of “aiding and abetting unauthorized entry into Italy” in 2016 and 2017.
“Our crews rescued over 14,000 people in distress from unseaworthy and overcrowded boats... and are now facing 20 years in prison,” Kathrin Schmidt, who sailed with Jugend Rettet’s ship Iuventa, said ahead of the hearing.
Trapani judge Samuele Corso must rule whether or not to proceed to trial after a five-year investigation mired in controversy for the mass wiretapping of charity workers, lawyers and journalists in what critics say is a politically motivated bid to stop sea rescues.
Italy has long been on the front line of seaborne migration from Africa to Europe, with a record 180,000 arrivals in 2016, dropping to 120,000 in 2017.
It has registered some 17,000 arrivals so far this year, according to the interior ministry.
Prosecutor Brunella Sardoni told AFP she expected the preliminary hearings process to last “several months, considering the complexity” of a case file with some 30,000 pages and hundreds of CDs.
Corso set the date for the next hearing as June 7.
Supporters of the rescue charities held a sit-in at the port in Trapani featuring large paper boats bearing the date and location of shipwrecks, and the number of victims.
The charities are accused of coordinating their actions with smugglers just off Libya, returning inflatable dinghies and boats to them to be reused, and picking up people whose lives had not been in danger.
The rescuers say anyone attempting the central Mediterranean crossing to Europe — the “world’s deadliest” according to the UN — on rickety boats or unseaworthy dinghies is at risk, and should be saved.
At least 12,000 people have drowned on this route since 2014. Many shipwrecks go unrecorded.
The charities also deny ever communicating with smugglers, who are sometimes armed and can be spotted loitering near rescues in the hope of retrieving valuable engines from migrant boats.
Save the Children told AFP it “strongly rejects” the accusations, as did MSF, which slammed a “period of criminalization of humanitarian aid” it hoped would soon end.
The Iuventa was impounded in 2017 shortly after Jugend Rettet and others refused to sign a new and contentious interior ministry “code of conduct” accord, and as the European Union scaled up surveillance and policing in the Mediterranean.
“Despite the fact that mobile phones and computers were seized and analyzed, not a single contact with Libyan smugglers... has been found,” said Nicola Canestrini, lawyer for the Iuventa crew members.
Pre-trial hearings are held behind closed doors, but representatives from the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and Amnesty International have requested the judge allow them to sit in for transparency.
ECCHR senior legal adviser Allison West has condemned “improper investigative practices” in the investigation, led by a prosecutors’ office more used to exposing Mafia crimes.
The probe was launched after ex-policeman Pietro Gallo, working as a security contractor on Save the Children’s Vos Hestia ship, sent allegations against the charities in October 2016 to Italy’s secret services, Canestrini told AFP.
He and a fellow ex-policeman also sent them to the head of the anti-immigration League party, Matteo Salvini, before reporting their suspicions to the police.
Gallo has since said in an interview that he regrets it. Asked if he ever saw any contact between the charities and traffickers, he replied “no, never.”
The damage was done. Police placed an undercover agent on the Vos Hestia in May 2017, who would provide information including elements used to charge the four Iuventa crew members, Canestrini said. Those included alleged hand signals between the crew and smugglers.
Iuventa’s case has been studied by Forensic Architecture, an agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London, which uses advanced reconstruction techniques to investigate police, military and state facts.
It discredited the police theories for all three Iuventa rescues in question.


Russia declares travel ban on 963 Americans including Biden and Blinken

Russia declares travel ban on 963 Americans including Biden and Blinken
Updated 21 May 2022

Russia declares travel ban on 963 Americans including Biden and Blinken

Russia declares travel ban on 963 Americans including Biden and Blinken
  • Travel bans have only symbolic impact but form part of a constant downward spiral in Russia’s relations with the US

LONDON: Russia said on Saturday it was banning entry to 963 Americans including US President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and CIA chief William Burns
The travel bans have only symbolic impact but form part of a constant downward spiral in Russia’s relations with the United States and its allies since its Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.


Joe Biden signs $40 billion for Ukraine assistance during Asia trip

Joe Biden signs $40 billion for Ukraine assistance during Asia trip
Updated 21 May 2022

Joe Biden signs $40 billion for Ukraine assistance during Asia trip

Joe Biden signs $40 billion for Ukraine assistance during Asia trip
  • The legislation was passed by Congress with bipartisan support
  • The new legislation will provide $20 billion in military assistance

SEOUL: President Joe Biden on Saturday signed legislation to support Ukraine with another $40 billion in US assistance as the Russian invasion approaches its fourth month.
The legislation, which was passed by Congress with bipartisan support, deepens the US commitment to Ukraine at a time of uncertainty about the war’s future. Ukraine has successfully defended Kyiv, and Russia has refocused its offensive on the country’s east, but American officials warn of the potential for a prolonged conflict.
The funding is intended to support Ukraine through September, and it dwarfs an earlier emergency measure that provided $13.6 billion.
The new legislation will provide $20 billion in military assistance, ensuring a steady stream of advanced weapons that have been used to blunt Russia’s advances. There’s also $8 billion in general economic support, $5 billion to address global food shortages that could result from the collapse of Ukrainian agriculture and more than $1 billion to help refugees.
Biden signed the measure under unusual circumstances. Because he’s in the middle of a trip to Asia, a US official brought a copy of the bill on a commercial flight so the president could sign it, according to a White House official.
The logistics reflect a sense of urgency around continuing US support for Ukraine, but also the overlapping international challenges facing Biden. Even as he tries to reorient American foreign policy to confront China, he’s continuing to direct resources to the largest conflict in Europe since World War II.

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Women TV presenters defy Taliban order to cover faces on air

Women TV presenters defy Taliban order to cover faces on air
Updated 21 May 2022

Women TV presenters defy Taliban order to cover faces on air

Women TV presenters defy Taliban order to cover faces on air
  • Previously they had only been required to wear a headscarf
  • Television channels have already stopped showing dramas and soap operas featuring women, following orders from Taliban authorities

KABUL: Women presenters on Afghanistan’s leading TV channels went on air Saturday without covering their faces, defying a Taliban order that they conceal their appearance to comply with the group’s austere brand of Islam.
Since surging back to power last year the Taliban have imposed a slew of restrictions on civil society, many focused on reining in the rights of women and girls.
Earlier this month Afghanistan’s supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada issued a diktat for women to cover up fully in public, including their faces, ideally with the traditional burqa.
The feared Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice ordered women TV presenters to follow suit by Saturday.
Previously they had only been required to wear a headscarf.
But broadcasters TOLOnews, Shamshad TV and 1TV all aired live programs Saturday with women presenters’ faces visible.
“Our female colleagues are concerned that if they cover their faces, the next thing they will be told is to stop working,” said Shamshad TV head of news Abid Ehsas.
“This is the reason they have not observed the order so far,” he told AFP, adding the channel had requested further discussions with the Taliban on the issue.
Taliban orders such as this have caused many female journalists to leave Afghanistan since the hard-line Islamists stormed back to power, a woman presenter said.
“Their latest order has broken the hearts of women presenters and many now think they have no future in this country,” she said, requesting not to be named.
“I’m thinking of leaving the country. Decrees like this will force many professionals to leave.”
Mohammad Sadeq Akif MoHajjir, spokesman for the vice ministry, said the women presenters were violating the Taliban directive.
“If they don’t comply we will talk to the managers and guardians of the presenters,” he told AFP.
“Anyone who lives under a particular system and government has to obey the laws and orders of that system, so they must implement the order,” he said.
The Taliban have demanded that women government employees be fired if they fail to follow the new dress code.
Men working in government also risk suspension if their wives or daughters fail to comply.
MoHajjir said media managers and the male guardians of defiant women presenters would also be liable for penalties if the order was not observed.
During two decades of US-led military intervention in Afghanistan, women and girls made marginal gains in the deeply patriarchal nation.
Soon after they took over, the Taliban promised a softer version of the harsh Islamist rule that characterized their first stint in power from 1996 to 2001.
Since the takeover, however, women have been banned from traveling alone and teenage girls barred from secondary schools.
In the 20 years after the Taliban were ousted from office in 2001, many women in the conservative countryside continued to wear a burqa.
But most Afghan women, including TV presenters, opted for the Islamic headscarf.
Television channels have already stopped showing dramas and soap operas featuring women, following orders from Taliban authorities.