Lebanon’s middle class thins out as skilled professionals head for the exits

Special Lebanon’s middle class thins out as skilled professionals head for the exits
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A family fleeing Lebanon's economic crisis arrives at Cyprus' Larnaca International Airport in this Sept. 2, 2021 photo. (AFP file)
Special Lebanon’s middle class thins out as skilled professionals head for the exits
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A general strike by public transport and workers unions early this year over Lebanon's economic crisis has emptied roads in Beirut and elsewhere. (AFP)
Special Lebanon’s middle class thins out as skilled professionals head for the exits
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The increasing difficulties faces by families in Lebanon has forced many to seek better life abroad. (AFP)
Special Lebanon’s middle class thins out as skilled professionals head for the exits
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The increasing difficulties faces by families in Lebanon has forced many to seek better life abroad. (AFP)
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The increasing difficulties faces by families in Lebanon has forced many to seek better life abroad. (AFP)
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Updated 12 June 2022

Lebanon’s middle class thins out as skilled professionals head for the exits

Lebanon’s middle class thins out as skilled professionals head for the exits
  • Economists say phenomenon of educated people moving abroad en masse will make recovery much harder
  • Since 2019, Lebanon has been beset with an economic crisis, COVID-19 pandemic and political paralysis

DUBAI: When Lebanese cardiologist Walid Alami, 59, was 19 years old he worked as a volunteer in an emergency operating room and helped dozens of people who were wounded during Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war.

After a massive explosion tore through Beirut’s port on Aug. 4, 2020, he once again found himself in the thick of life-saving emergency action.

However, as has been the case for thousands of middle-class Lebanese professionals, the nation’s prolonged, overlapping crises eventually proved too much to endure, forcing him and his family to move abroad in search of safety and economic security.

Alami gave up a lucrative cardiology practice in the US and returned to Beirut in 2012 so that he could be closer to his extended family and his children could experience the nation of their roots.




Dr. Walid Alami. (Supplied)

“I wanted my children to grow up in Lebanon and know their motherland,” he told Arab News. “My hope was that I would replicate my American practice there, improve the system, innovate and take care of patients like I did in the US.

“But to my disappointment, things professionally didn’t go as planned because our system is corrupt, including the medical system.”

Undeterred, Alami persisted, hoping that the country’s fortunes would eventually turn around. But poor governance, institutional decay and the nation’s economic collapse soon started to take a toll on his family’s finances.

“I started losing money because of the banking system, the corruption and a decline in income,” he said. “Financially and professionally, I was doing worse than ever.”

By 2021, Alami decided enough was enough. He once again packed his bags and returned to the US to reunite with his family there. He had much less money in his pockets and more painful memories than a decade earlier.

The education of his two children was also affected by Lebanon’s economic collapse. He had trouble paying the university tuition fees for his daughter Noor, 21, who was studying at NYU in New York. Meanwhile, Jad, 18, was sent to a boarding school in the aftermath of the devastating port blast.

“It was my dream that they would have graduated from the American University in Beirut but that didn’t happen,” Alami said.

“In the last few years, I haven’t been able to generate enough cash for a small portion of my daughter’s living expenses. I found myself in a position where I could not afford to support my children’s education costs from Beirut, especially with the devaluation of the currency and the fact that our funds were seized.”




A Lebanese activist displays fake banknotes called "Lollars", in front of a mock ATM, during a stunt to denounce the high-level of corruption that has wrecked the country. (AFP)

Alami found himself in the position of having to borrow money from his family to help pay for his children’s education.

“I had no choice but to leave. And so, in 2021, I decided to return to the US,” he said. “I feel like my dreams were defeated. Going back to Lebanon, I was hoping to pay back my country of origin, emulate things on a professional and social level.”

Although Alami and his family were able to transition back to life in the US, the events of the past decade continue to cast a dark shadow.

“I am almost 60 years old and I am now finding myself starting all over again as a cardiologist,” he said. “But I have to do what I have to do to support my family.”

Alami’s story is a familiar one in Lebanon, as the nation of about 6.7 million people experiences one of the biggest waves of emigration in its history.

Since 2019, the country has been in the grip of its worst-ever financial crisis, compounded by the strain of the COVID-19 pandemic and protracted political paralysis.




Beirut's port blast of Aug. 4, 2021, which left 218 dead and 7,000 injured, was the last straw for many Lebanese. (AFP)

For many Lebanese, the final straw was the Beirut port explosion, in which at least 218 people were killed and 7,000 injured. It caused $15 billion in property damage, and left an estimated 300,000 people homeless.

Almost two years later, the country faces a worsening food crisis as the war in Ukraine sends the already high prices of staple foods skyrocketing.

According to the World Bank, Lebanon’s nominal gross domestic product fell from close to $52 billion in 2019 to $21.8 billion in 2021, a 58.1 percent contraction. Unless reforms are enacted soon, real GDP is projected to fall by 6.5 percent this year.

In May, the black-market value of the Lebanese pound fell to an all-time low of 35,600 against the US dollar. According to the UN, the financial crisis has plunged 82 percent of the population below the poverty line since late 2019.

Parliamentary elections in May offered a glimmer of hope that things might be changing. The Lebanese Forces party emerged as the largest Christian party for the first time, while the Hezbollah bloc lost its majority. However, it is not yet clear whether Hezbollah’s opponents will be able to form a cohesive and stable coalition capable of implementing administrative and economic reforms.

These concurrent uncertainties have sent thousands of young Lebanese abroad in search of security and opportunity, including many of the country’s top medical professionals and educators.

According to a report issued in February 2022 by Information International, the number of emigrants soared from 17,721 in 2020 to 79,134 in 2021 — its highest rate in five years. The Beirut-based research center identified the emigration rate as “the highest seen by Lebanon in five years.”

A sharp increase in emigration was also recorded between mid-December 2018 and mid-December 2019, with 66,800 Lebanese emigrating, compared with 33,841 during the same period in 2018.

Historically, many Lebanese chose to relocate to Western Europe, the US, Australia and the Arab Gulf states. More recently they also have been heading to Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Serbia and even Iraq.

According to Iraqi authorities, more than 20,000 people from Lebanon arrived between June 2021 and February 2022, not counting pilgrims visiting the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.

FASTFACTS

Lebanon’s nominal GDP fell from $52bn in 2019 to $21.8bn 2021 (World Bank).

The Lebanese pound’s black-market value fell to 35,600 against the US dollar in May.

“The movement (of people) has recently increased,” Ali Habhab, Lebanon’s ambassador to Iraq, told the Agence France-Presse news agency. He said the health sector in particular has been affected by the influx, with “dozens of Lebanese doctors who offer their services” to Iraqi hospitals.

The UAE continues to be a favored destination for Lebanese with the financial means to relocate. Marianna Wehbe, 42, who runs a luxury PR firm, moved to Dubai in August 2021 to be with her daughter, Sophie, 17, who left Lebanon after the Beirut blast.

“Even during the (2019) revolution, the explosion and crisis, we all found ways to continue to operate and work with clients abroad,” Wehbe told Arab News.

“Most of those who left did so to be with their families and to have a safe and stable environment for their children. My daughter needed a place to study in safety and to keep her sanity. Beirut, with the electricity and internet cuts, was not that anymore. Her formative years are ahead of her.”




Paintings that represent migrating Lebanese youths are seen along a street in Beirut's Hamra district. (AFP file photo)

She said that, inevitably, some among this new generation of emigrants will begin to feel homesick after a time and, filled with a renewed sense of hope, may decide to go back.

“Lebanon has always been that way: You leave and then you come back,” said Wehbe. “You give up and then you have hope because we all want to go back home. So, many families are moving back in the hope that things are (getting) better.”

However, the American University of Beirut’s Crisis Observatory said in August 2021 that the current loss of talent will be difficult for Lebanon to overcome because it is the nation’s youth who are leaving.




Lebanon's famous American University has lost its luster as a result of the country's unmitigated economic crisis. (AFP file photo)

According to the results of an Arab Youth Opinion Survey published in 2020, about 77 percent of respondents in Lebanon said that they were thinking about emigrating — the highest percentage in any Arab country that year.

It is easy to see why so many young Lebanese would be looking for an exit strategy. According to the World Bank, an estimated one in five people have lost their jobs since October 2019, and 61 percent of companies have reduced permanent staff by an average of 43 percent.

“The exodus of the middle class in Lebanon is wiping out the country,” Alami told Arab News from his self-imposed exile in the US.




The increasing difficulties faces by families in Lebanon has forced many to seek better life abroad. (AFP)

“A nation is built on the middle class, and with all the engineers, bankers, lawyers and middle-class professionals leaving Lebanon, I think we will see the whole foundation crumble. It will be very hard to rebuild with the current situation.”

The World Health Organization estimated in September 2021 that more than nearly 40 percent of Lebanon’s doctors and nurses have left the country since October 2019.

“More than 35 percent of health professionals have left for the Gulf, Europe or the Americas to continue their careers,” said Alami.

“I don’t see myself going back in the next 10 years, from a professional standpoint, because there is no magic wand that is going to change things in Lebanon in the next decade. I just need to secure my children’s future now.”

 


Tunisia president blames hatred of parliament for low turnout in elections

Tunisia president blames hatred of parliament for low turnout in elections
Updated 15 sec ago

Tunisia president blames hatred of parliament for low turnout in elections

Tunisia president blames hatred of parliament for low turnout in elections
  • The electoral commission announced that only 11.4 percent of the electorate had voted on Sunday in parliamentary runoffs

TUNIS: Tunisia’s president on Monday blamed ultra-low turnout for parliamentary elections on hatred among voters of the parliament, not to a decline in his own popularity.
The electoral commission announced that only 11.4 percent of the electorate had voted on Sunday in parliamentary runoffs. Critics of President Kais Saied said the empty polling stations were evidence of public disdain for his agenda and seizure of powers.
Opposition parties called Saied to resign after what they called a “huge failure,” saying early parliamentary and presidential elections were the only route out of the crisis.
Saied rejected accusations, calling his critics “traitors.”
“90 percent did not vote. ... This confirms that Tunisians no longer trust this institution. ... During the past decade, Parliament has been an institution of absurdity and a state within the state.,” Saied said.
“Our popularity is greater than theirs,” he added during a meeting with prime minister Najla Bouden.
Saied closed parliament with tanks in 2021, dismissed the government and started ruling by decree, a move the opposition called a coup.
He accused lawmakers of accepting huge sums of money in return for passing laws.
The newly configured parliament has had its role shrunk as part of a political system Saied introduced last year.
Many Tunisians appeared initially to welcome Saied’s seizure of powers two years ago, after years of weak governing coalitions seemed unable to revive a moribund economy, improve public services or reduce stark inequalities.
But Saied has voiced no clear economic agenda except to rail against corruption and unnamed speculators, whom he has blamed for rising prices.
Unlike the previous parliament, the new one elected on Sunday will have limited powers. The formation and dismissal of governments will be in the hands of the president.
Over the past decade, parliament has been powerful and has appointed and dismissed governments. Despite the political tensions that took place in the previous parliament since the revolution, it had the ability even to dismiss the president and hold all officials accountable.


Cost of living crisis cuts a cruel swathe through Arab political economies

Cost of living crisis cuts a cruel swathe through Arab political economies
Updated 31 January 2023

Cost of living crisis cuts a cruel swathe through Arab political economies

Cost of living crisis cuts a cruel swathe through Arab political economies
  • The middle classes of Middle East and North African countries are now feeling the impact of soaring costs
  • They have suffered triple blow of pandemic, rising food and fuel prices, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

DUBAI: With economies in crisis, currencies under pressure and inflation sapping purchasing power, it has long been clear that the poor of the Arab region are suffering. But as even the middle classes in some countries begin to feel the pinch as well, more families are struggling just to put food on the table.

“It’s like we were hit by an earthquake; suddenly you have to let go of everything,” Manar, a 38-year-old Egyptian mother of two, told the news agency Agence France-Presse.

“Now, whatever semi-human life people had has been reduced to thinking about how much bread and eggs cost.”

Bread prices have shot up in some Arab countries as a result of the war in Ukraine. (AFP)

The Egyptian pound has lost half its value against the dollar since March last year, following a devaluation that was demanded as part of a $3 billion International Monetary Fund loan agreement. Official annual headline inflation in the country hit 21.9 percent in December and food prices have soared by 37.9 percent.

The Egyptian economy had been struggling to recover in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that sparked the latest crisis, as both of those countries are key exporters of wheat to Egypt and sources of mass tourism.

According to the World Bank, nearly a third of Egypt’s population of 104 million people currently live below the poverty line, and almost as many are “vulnerable to falling into poverty.”

Meanwhile, gloomy economic forecasts are already casting a pall over 2023, with economists predicting a deepening global recession that will bring with it further depreciation of currencies, skyrocketing prices, and rising rates of unemployment and poverty.

In the past year there have been multiple setbacks for the world economy. Nations and businesses that were just beginning to recover from the lockdowns, restrictions and other effects of the COVID-19 pandemic suffered a fresh blow with the start of the war in Ukraine almost a year ago.

The conflict has disrupted global supply chains, causing the price of food and fuel to rise sharply, contributing to inflationary pressures. This has placed additional strain on national currencies and business confidence, endangering jobs and hobbling growth.

The depreciation of Arab currencies against the dollar is a particular concern for the most vulnerable nations because households that had built up savings prior to the economic downturn have seen the value of their financial reserves plummet and safety nets cut from beneath them.

A Lebanese activist displays mock banknotes called “Lollars” during a stunt to denounce the high-level corruption that wrecked the country in Beirut on May 13, 2022. (AFP)

The Lebanese pound recently hit another all-time low and has now lost about 95 percent of its value since the start of the financial crisis in the country in late 2019.

Jordan, Syria and Iraq are likewise experiencing massive rises in the costs of food, fuel and other essentials items while public purchasing power continues to fall, leading to protests and occasional waves of violent unrest.

The lives of about 130 million people in the region are now blighted by poverty, according to the Survey of Economic and Social Developments in the Arab Region, which was published in December by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia.

INNUMBERS

130 million - People in the Arab region affected by poverty.

12% - Unemployment rate in Arab region (highest in the world).

36% - Proportion of the Arab population in poverty by 2024. *

* excluding Libya and GCC countries

(Source: UN ESCWA)

It found that, excluding Libya and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, more than a third of the region’s population, 35.3 percent, is now living in poverty. This rate is expected to increase over the next two years, reaching 36 percent by 2024.

The survey also revealed that the Arab region had the highest unemployment rate in the world in 2022, 12 percent, reflecting widespread economic stagnation, pressures on businesses, and the effects of government austerity measures.

The effects of inflation have not been uniformly felt across the region, however. According to Ahmed Moummi, the lead author of the survey report, it is likely that GCC countries and other oil-exporting nations will continue to benefit from higher energy prices, while oil-importing countries will experience several socioeconomic challenges.

“The current situation presents an opportunity for oil-exporting Arab countries to diversify their economies away from the energy sector by accumulating reserves and investing in projects that generate inclusive growth and sustainable development,” Moummi said.

Saudi Arabia is expected to be the fastest-growing economy in the G20 group of developed nations this year. Meanwhile, Lebanon’s economy contracted last year amid political paralysis and delays in implementing a recovery plan.

Tunisians take to the streets on January 14, 2019 to complain about the high cost of living. (AFP)

Economists said the recent effects of inflation have had disproportionately harsh effects on Arab countries that are dependent on imports of food and other essential commodities. The Arab world was already among the world’s most food-insecure regions, and in the past year the number of hungry households has increased.

Before the war in Ukraine began, Russia was the world’s biggest exporter of wheat and Ukraine the fifth-biggest, accounting for about 20 percent and 10 percent of global exports respectively, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Between them they were also key exporters of other important products.

The blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports last year therefore resulted in massive spikes in the market prices of grain, cooking oil and fertilizers. This caused the price of staple goods such as bread to soar throughout the Arab region.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine last year disrupted the country's grain exports, jacking up food prices worldwide. (AFP)

Although a UN-brokered deal last summer summer allowed Black Sea grain shipments to resume, easing fears of a supply-side shortage, Western sanctions on Russian goods, including hydrocarbon products, raised the price of fuel and, in turn, the cost of importing and exporting.

“Food security has been jeopardized in several countries, especially those witnessing conflicts and unrest (whether political or economic), as the food basket is becoming more and more unaffordable,” Majed Skaini, regional manager of the International Comparison Program at UN ESCWA, told Arab News.

Meanwhile, because of the added pressures on governments and businesses, wages have failed to keep pace with the rising cost of living, leading to a decline in living standards in many countries and mounting levels of public anger.

People in the Arab region are “probably more adversely affected by the rising cost of living for two reasons,” An Hodgson, the global head of consumer research at Euromonitor, told Arab News.

“Firstly, consumers in the region have a relatively low savings ratio, which means that they don’t have much of a financial cushion to help them weather the cost-of-living crisis.

“In 2022, the savings ratio in the Middle East and North Africa stood at 10 percent of disposable income, below the global average of 17.6 percent. In comparison, the savings ratio in Asia Pacific was 26.7 percent of disposable income during the same year.”

The second reason is the high reliance in the region on food imports.

“In 2021 (the latest year for which Euromonitor has data), imports of foodstuffs in the Middle East and North Africa averaged $105 per capita, compared with $44 per capita in Asia Pacific and $67 per capita in Latin America,” said Hodgson.

“This means that consumers in the region are more vulnerable to soaring food prices as a result of global supply-chain and food-production disruptions.”

The mounting cost of living is putting particular pressure on the middle classes, who tend to make up the biggest and most economically active group in societies.

“We see middle classes all over the world struggling to maintain their socioeconomic status, as well as their standard of living, in the context of weak income growth, soaring inflation and the cost-of-living crisis,” said Hodgson.

“As a matter of fact, the middle class in developed countries, especially in Western Europe, have never recovered from the financial squeeze they experienced during the 2008-2009 global financial crisis.”

This squeeze has resulted in a widespread shift in consumer habits, including a fall in conspicuous consumption, more cautious spending and general belt-tightening.

According to Euromonitor’s latest findings on global consumer trends, the vast majority of households will focus on saving over the course of the coming year. Its research found that about 75 percent of consumers did not plan to increase overall spending, and 43 percent had reduced their energy consumption.

A recent survey by the World Economic Forum found 92 percent of respondents said people in their countries are “adjusting their budgets to pay for food, some even going without.”

The report added: “When asked how rising prices had impacted consumers, 68 percent said household debt had increased and 59 percent that access to healthcare had been affected.”

Many believe 2023 will be another tough year for parts of the Arab region, which will experience a further widening of the gap between the wealthier oil economies and the more unstable, import-intensive nations of the Levant and North Africa.

In Egypt, the new reality is driving families that were once considered part of the middle class to seek help. Ahmed Hesham of the Abwab El-Kheir charity said a growing number of middle-class Egyptians have been seeking assistance.

“A lot of people had life savings they were keeping aside … Now they’re using them for healthcare or daily costs,” he told AFP.

“They used to make a good living. Now they can’t make ends meet. They’ve never been in this position before and they’re mortified to come to us.

“One man told us he can either feed his kids or put them through school but not both.”

 


Palestinian legal center files objection to plans to build US embassy in Jerusalem on illegally confiscated land

Palestinian legal center files objection to plans to build US embassy in Jerusalem on illegally confiscated land
Updated 30 January 2023

Palestinian legal center files objection to plans to build US embassy in Jerusalem on illegally confiscated land

Palestinian legal center files objection to plans to build US embassy in Jerusalem on illegally confiscated land
  • Action filed on behalf of 12 descendants of the original owners of the site
  • Scheme would amount to ‘full-throated endorsement’ of Israel’s move against private property, says letter

JERUSALEM: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel filed an objection on Monday to plans to build the US embassy in Jerusalem on illegally confiscated Palestinian land.

The objection was filed against the Jerusalem District Planning Committee, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and the US ambassador to Israel on behalf of 12 of the descendants of the original Palestinian owners of the land upon which the State Department is seeking to build.

Four of the descendants are US citizens, three are Jordanians, and five are East Jerusalem residents. 

The original owners’ land was confiscated by Israel under the Israeli Absentees’ Property Law of 1950.

Records discovered in the Israel State Archives show that the land was owned by Palestinian families and leased temporarily to British mandate authorities prior to the establishment of Israel in 1948, Wafa News Agency reported.

The objection was sent with a letter which said that in the event of the US proceeding with the plan, it would be “a full-throated endorsement” of Israel’s illegal confiscation of private Palestinian property.

It also said it would make the US State Department an active participant in violating the rights of its own citizens.

State Department officials recently claimed that no decision on moving forward with the construction plan had yet been made, and that the US was still deciding whether to pursue an alternative site.

Suhad Bishara, legal director at Adalah, has argued that confiscating the land on which the US compound is to be built would violate international law, specifically article 46 of The Hague Regulations on land warfare. The regulations enshrine the need to respect private property rights and expressly prohibit confiscation of private property.

Adalah has said that the Israeli Absentees’ Property Law is one of the most arbitrary, broad, discriminatory, and draconian laws enacted in Israel.

It has also argued that moving the embassy to Jerusalem, regardless of where it is or will be located, disregards international consensus on the city’s special status and signals support for Israel’s illegal annexation.


‘Silence is unacceptable’ in response to victims of atrocities, UN experts tell Libyan authorities

Mohammad Auajjar, chairperson of the UN’s Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Libya
Mohammad Auajjar, chairperson of the UN’s Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Libya
Updated 31 January 2023

‘Silence is unacceptable’ in response to victims of atrocities, UN experts tell Libyan authorities

Mohammad Auajjar, chairperson of the UN’s Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Libya
  • The Human Rights Council urged officials to ensure justice prevails for the many victims of human rights abuses and compensation is provided for their families
  • Members of a fact-finding mission to the country lamented the denial of access to the key city of Sebha in the south, and to prisons and detention centers across the country

NEW YORK CITY: The UN Human Rights Council on Monday called on Libyan authorities to step up their efforts to ensure justice for the large numbers of victims of long-standing human rights violations in the country, and provide compensation for them and their families.

These include cases of torture, arbitrary detention, extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, human trafficking and internal displacement, along with families who have been denied access to mass graves and morgues containing the remains of relatives.

“Victims and their families are impatient for authorities to provide timely information on investigations and ensure the perpetrators are held accountable,” said Mohammad Auajjar, chairperson of the UN’s Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Libya, which was established by the HRC in June last year to investigate allegations of human rights abuses in the country since 2016.

He was speaking following a visit by his team to the North African country, where they heard testimonies from the relatives of victims. Many of them had traveled from the cities of Benghazi, Sirte, Murzuk, Sabha and Misrata to meet the representatives of the mission.

“The families of these victims have waited far too long for justice,” said Auajjar. “Libyan authorities owe it to them to share information about their loved ones, to meet them and give them answers. Silence is unacceptable.

“We, too, have asked repeatedly for answers to the status of multiple investigations concerning serious human rights violations but to date there has been no satisfactory response.”

Members of the mission were supposed to visit Sebha, the capital of the southern Fezzan region, to meet victims of human rights violations but they were denied access by local authorities. People traffickers have transported huge numbers of migrants from Niger, Chad and Sudan to Europe via Sebha.

The team’s experts also expressed regret that they were unable to meet the attorney general and ask about the testimonies of victims, which he has a mandate to investigate. In addition, Libyan authorities denied the team access to prisons and detention centers across the country.

Chaloka Beyani, an expert in international law, said: “Arbitrary detention in Libya has become pervasive as a tool of political repression and control, which explains why thousands of persons are deprived of their liberty, often in poor conditions, without due process or access to justice.”

Lawyer Tracy Robinson from Jamaica, who is a member of the fact-finding mission, said: “The state authorities we met told us of their efforts to strengthen the rule of law but these efforts have not produced justice for the victims and their families.”

The UN team also called for the immediate release of Iftikhar Boudra, who was detained in Benghazi four years ago after making critical comments on social media about militarization in eastern Libya. She is reportedly critically ill and has been denied visits from her family for months.


Top Iran filmmaker banned from travel after backing protests

Top Iran filmmaker banned from travel after backing protests
Updated 30 January 2023

Top Iran filmmaker banned from travel after backing protests

Top Iran filmmaker banned from travel after backing protests
  • Masud Kimiai was due to travel to the Netherlands for the screening of his latest film

TEHRAN: Iranian authorities have imposed a travel ban on leading filmmaker Masud Kimiai, local media reported Monday, after he expressed support for protests that have gripped the country for months.

Iran has seen a wave of demonstrations that erupted after the Sept. 16 death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, an ethnic Kurd, following her arrest for allegedly violating the country’s strict dress code for women.

Masud Kimiai

“The filmmaker, who wanted to go to the Netherlands on Sunday evening to participate in the Rotterdam film festival, was banned from leaving the airport,” the local Tehran daily Hamshahri said on its website.

In a video on Sept. 22, days after the protests broke out, Kimiai had said he was “standing with the people.”

Kimiai, 81, is considered a pioneer of modern Iranian cinema, having gained acclaim with his 1969 film “Qeysar,” which was released 10 years before the Islamic revolution.

The filmmaker was due to travel to the Netherlands for the screening of his latest film, “Killing the Traitor,” a historical melodrama set in 1950s Iran.

The 2022 film, described as a “sepia-tinted melodrama” on the Rotterdam festival’s website, tackles the period when then-Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh nationalized Iran’s oil industry.

Mossadegh was ousted in a 1953 coup orchestrated by London and Washington.

Several high-profile Iranian filmmakers and actors have been questioned or arrested by the authorities after expressing support for the wave of protests.

Separately, Azerbaijan said on Monday it was suspending work at its embassy in Iran, days after a gunman stormed the mission, killing one guard and wounding two others. Iran has said the attack on Friday was motivated by personal reasons but Baku labeled it an act of terrorism.

“The operation of the Azerbaijan Embassy in Iran has been temporarily suspended following the evacuation of its staff and their family members from Iran,” Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Ayxan Hacizada said.

“That doesn’t mean that diplomatic ties had been severed,” he said, adding that Baku’s consulate general in the Iranian city of Tabriz was “up and running.”

In a phone call on Saturday with his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said he hoped “this violent act of terror would be thoroughly investigated.”

Tehran’s police said the attacker, who was arrested, was an Iranian man married to an Azerbaijani woman.

The US condemned “unacceptable violence” and urged a prompt investigation. Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Moscow was “shocked” by the attack.

Iran is home to millions of Turkic-speaking, ethnic Azeris and it has long accused Azerbaijan of fomenting separatist sentiment inside its territory.

Relations between the two countries have traditionally been sour, with the former Soviet republic a close ally of Iran’s historical rival Turkiye.