Philippine anti-graft agency vows to continue Marcos wealth hunt

In this file photo taken in 2016, one of the pieces from the confiscated jewelry collection that once belonged to the former first lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos, was appraised by experts from Sotheby's that year. (Reuters)
In this file photo taken in 2016, one of the pieces from the confiscated jewelry collection that once belonged to the former first lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos, was appraised by experts from Sotheby's that year. (Reuters)
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Updated 12 June 2022

Philippine anti-graft agency vows to continue Marcos wealth hunt

One of the pieces from the confiscated jewelry collection that once belonged to the former first lady of the Philippines.
  • Late dictator’s family and associates have been accused of plundering an estimated $10 billion from the Philippines
  • Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said during presidential campaign he would strengthen the country’s anti-corruption body

DAVAO CITY: A Philippine commission created to recover the unexplained wealth accumulated by the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his associates has vowed to continue the hunt under the presidency of his namesake son.

Marcos led the Philippines from 1965 until he was overthrown by the bloodless popular revolt known as People Power and fled the country in 1986. For part of his time in office, he declared martial law, a period marred by numerous human rights violations.

The Marcos family and its associates have been accused of plundering an estimated $10 billion from the country while millions of Filipinos suffered in poverty.

Marcos’s wife was noted for displays of wealth that included lavish shopping trips to New York, spending millions on jewelry and art.

FASTFACT

The late dictator’s family and associates have been accused of plundering an estimated $10 billion from the Philippines.

The Presidential Commission on Good Government, established shortly after the former dictator left the Philippines, has been mandated to prevent cases of corruption and recover “all ill-gotten wealth accumulated by former President Ferdinand E. Marcos, his immediate family, relatives, subordinates and close associates, whether located in the Philippines or abroad.”

It has so far retrieved about half of the riches and concerns are mounting whether it will be able to continue its duties as Ferdinand Marcos Jr. will officially become the next Philippine president on June 30, after winning a landslide victory in last month’s vote.

“Since the creation of the agency, we have recovered around $5 billion,” PCGG Chairman John Agbayani told Arab News earlier this week, adding that the commission was “still committed to performing its mandate on recovery.”

“Incoming President Marcos stated that he will not abolish PCGG or initiate any move to that effect,” he said.

But while Agbayani said that the agency would not relinquish its mandate, it is the president who has the authority to appoint PCGG commissioners. He can also assign the agency tasks.

The president-elect’s spokespersons were not available for comment despite repeated attempts to reach them, but Marcos himself said during his presidential campaign that he would strengthen the anti-graft body to pursue all corrupt government officials.

“You could say that the first time it was organized, it was really an anti-Marcos agency, nonetheless, we could turn it into a real anti-corruption agency,” he said in a TV interview on April 26.

But the Marcoses are still defendants in dozens of cases related to their wealth. The president-elect’s 92-year-old mother, Imelda Marcos, is appealing her conviction on seven separate graft charges in 2018 — each carrying a maximum prison term of 11 years.

Critics doubt whether the remaining assets will be recovered by the Philippines, especially in the near future.

“With Marcos Jr. assumption into power on June 30, I doubt the effort to strengthen the PCGG will happen,” Congressman Carlos Isagani Zarate said. “Marcos can even abolish that agency.”

But some vow to pressure the new administration for agencies such as the PCGG to uphold their mandates.

“It’s public interest,” Samira Gutoc, a former legislator in Mindanao who represents the opposition Aksyon Demokratiko party, told Arab News. “They have to show to the people they are working. We need pressure from external groups.”


Pakistan, and the man who pioneered commercial manufacturing of its national flag, turn 75

Sheikh Nisar Ahmed Perchamwala. (AN photo)
Sheikh Nisar Ahmed Perchamwala. (AN photo)
Updated 4 min 54 sec ago

Pakistan, and the man who pioneered commercial manufacturing of its national flag, turn 75

Sheikh Nisar Ahmed Perchamwala. (AN photo)
  • Sheikh Nisar Ahmed Perchamwala made Guinness World Records for creating world’s largest flag in 2004.
  • Perchamwala also made the largest flag for Saudi Arabia, measuring 6,000 sq. f.t, in 2006.

KARACHI: It was in 1985 that Sheikh Nisar Ahmed Perchamwala decided to go into the business of commercially producing Pakistan’s national flag, feeling personally offended that the patriotic symbol was being “desecrated” by manufacturers who paid little attention to government specifications about the flag’s correct size and color.

Perchamwala launched VIP Flags Pakistan with the aim of using modern machines that would get the colors and proportions of the national flag just right.

Today, the company has many accolades to its name, including a Guinness World Records award in 2004 for making the world’s largest flag, after which the company’s CEO formally added to his name the honorific Perchamwala, which translates as flag-maker.

And this August is particularly special for Perchamwala: As Pakistan celebrates 75 years of existence, so will he.

“I will also turn 75 on August 30,” Perchamwala told Arab News at the company’s manufacturing unit in Karachi.

“August is not just the month of our freedom but also the month of my birth. It is the month of my Pakistan’s birth.”

Perchamwala was born in New Delhi on Aug. 30, 1947, two weeks after the end of British colonial rule and the creation of Pakistan.

His family had been in the clothing business for generations when in the early 1980s, Perchamwala became increasingly concerned about Pakistani flag manufacturers who did not care “about the proportion of the crescent and the star.”

“These flags also came in different shades (of green); it was almost like people didn’t know how to make the Pakistani flag,” he said.

The casual approach to such details made him wonder: “What kind of a nation are we?”

“Then I did some research and started manufacturing the flag along modern lines for the first time,” the businessman said. “Now, handmade flag manufacturing has stopped and only printed and standard flags are produced with the right proportions.”

Perchamwala said that he started off by making small flags, following government specifications, but went on to increase the size and finally made the world’s largest flag, at 173,400 sq. ft, in 2004, for which he was recognized by Guinness World Records.

“When my name appeared in the record book, I felt I had accomplished something significant and started writing ‘Perchamwala’ with my name,” he said.

Since then, Perchamwala has used the cloth from his record-breaking flag to make quilt covers for the victims of a devastating earthquake that hit Kashmir in October 2005.

He has also received orders for large flags from other countries, including Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.

In 2006, Perchamwala made the biggest Saudi flag to date, measuring 6,000 sq. ft, which was also the tallest, installed on a 100-meter pole in Diriyah, near Riyadh.

“They (the Saudis) approached us after we made the (2004) record. We were honored to make the Kingdom’s flag, though it was also quite difficult due to the inscription and the sword,” he said.

In 2008, Perchamwala created another large flag, which measured 250,000 sq. ft, for Afghanistan.

He also receives regular orders for flags from embassies, consulates and hotels in Pakistan.

Now, during the diamond jubilee of Pakistan, Perchamwala’s business is managed by the family’s third generation, for whom he has an important message: “The new generation should not forget the importance of freedom, which was earned through struggle. They must take care of Pakistan’s pride and greatness.”

 

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The Afghanistan disaster movie continues to roll, one year after US withdrawal

The Afghanistan disaster movie continues to roll, one year after US withdrawal
Updated 13 August 2022

The Afghanistan disaster movie continues to roll, one year after US withdrawal

The Afghanistan disaster movie continues to roll, one year after US withdrawal
  • Aid-dependent economy remains in free fall since the Taliban takeover of the war-ravaged country
  • Prices of food and other essentials have soared as drought compounds financial collapse

KABUL: When the Taliban captured Kabul on Aug. 15, 2021, amid the withdrawal of US-led forces from Afghanistan, the group’s stunning return to power marked the end of two decades of warfare, which had killed tens of thousands of Afghans on their own soil. 

One year on, with the country pauperized and isolated on the world stage under its new leadership, life for ordinary Afghans has changed — largely for the worse.

During their first stint in power, from 1996 until late-2001, the Taliban declared an Islamic emirate, imposing a strict interpretation of Islamic law, enforced with brutal public punishments and executions. 

Women and girls were removed from public life, prevented from working or receiving an education, and even barred from leaving the house without the all-enveloping niqab and a male relative to chaperone them.

In Oct. 2001, US-led forces invaded Afghanistan and removed the Taliban from power, accusing the group of sheltering Osama bin Laden, the Al-Qaeda leader deemed responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the US that killed almost 3,000 people.

Edi Maa holding her baby receiving treatment for malnutrition at a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) nutrition centre in Herat. (AFP)

What followed were 20 blood-soaked years of fighting between the NATO-backed Afghan national forces and Taliban guerrilla fighters intent on retaking power.

While under the Western-backed administration, Afghanistan made progress with the emergence of independent media and a growing number of girls going to school and university. 

However, in many regions beyond the big cities, Afghans knew only war, depriving them of the many development projects implemented elsewhere by foreign donors.

Now that US-led forces have withdrawn and the Taliban has traded guerrilla warfare for the day-to-day running of the country, security has greatly improved.

During their first stint in power, from 1996 until late-2001, the Taliban declared an Islamic emirate, imposing a strict interpretation of Islamic law, enforced with brutal public punishments and executions. (AFP)

“We only saw war in the past several years. Every day, we lived in fear. Now it’s calm and we feel safe,” Mohammad Khalil, a 69-year-old farmer in northwest Balkh province, told Arab News. “We can finally breathe.”

But the uneasy peace has come at a cost.

Afghanistan’s aid-dependent economy has been in free fall since the Taliban returned to power. Billions of dollars in foreign assistance have been suspended and some $9.5 billion in Afghan central bank assets parked overseas have been frozen.

Denied international recognition, with aid suspended and the financial system in paralysis, the UN says that Afghanistan faces humanitarian catastrophe. About 20 percent of the country’s 38 million population are already on the brink of famine.

Afghanistan: One year since the Taliban takeover

Aug. 15, 2021 - Taliban campaign culminates with the fall of Kabul.

Aug. 30 - The last US troops depart Kabul airport after evacuating more than 120,000 people over 17 days.

September - A new interim government is unveiled. The Taliban bring back the feared religious police.

October - More than 120 people are killed in two Daesh-claimed mosque blasts in Kandahar and Kunduz.

Jan. 2022 - Deprived of aid, Afghanistan is plunged into a deep economic and humanitarian crisis.

March - The Taliban block secondary school girls from returning to class. Government employees must grow beards.

May - Women and girls are ordered to wear the hijab and cover their faces when in public. Women are banned from making long-distance journeys alone.

June - More than 1,000 people killed and thousands left homeless in a massive earthquake.

August - The US announces the killing of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri in a drone strike on his Kabul hideout.

The price of essential commodities has soared as the value of the Afghan currency has plummeted. A continuing drought has further aggravated the situation in rural areas.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies estimates about 70 percent of Afghan families are unable to meet their basic food needs.

“Most of the time we eat bread and drink tea or just water. We can’t get meat, fruit or even vegetables for the children. Only a few people have goats or cows to feed the children with milk,” Khalil said.

In the capital, Kabul, food is widely available, but few can afford a vaied and nutritious diet.

“There are plenty of food items in the market, but we don’t have the money to buy them,” Mohammad Barat, a 52-year-old daily wage earner, told Arab News.

The looming catastrophe is not only one of shocking levels of poverty, but also lost hope and opportunities.

Tens of thousands of Afghans fled the country over several chaotic days last August, when US forces and their coalition partners hastily airlifted Afghans from Kabul airport. Many others, including professionals, have since followed in their footsteps.

“Doctors are leaving, engineers are leaving, professors and experts are also leaving the country,” Abdul Hamid, a student at Kabul University, told Arab News. “There’s no hope for a better future.”

Those who worked for the deposed Western-backed administration have been removed from public life, particularly women, who are now forced to wear face coverings, banned from making long-distance journeys alone, and prevented from working in most sectors beyond health and education.

Women face a growing number of restrictions in their daily lives; right, Taliban fighters in Kandahar celebrate the US withdrawal. (AFP)

Education, too, has been strictly limited for women, even though allowing girls into schools and colleges has been one of the international community’s core demands since the Taliban retook control of the country.

In mid-March, after months of uncertainty, the Taliban said that they would allow girls to return to school. However, when they arrived at schools around the country to resume studies, those above the age of 13 were ordered to return home.

In a last-minute decision, the Taliban had announced that high schools would remain closed for girls until a plan was ready to receive them in accordance with Islamic law.

Almost half a year later, teenage girls fear they will not return to the classroom anytime soon.

“There’s no reason for banning girls from school,” Amal, an 11th grade student at Rabia Balkhi High School in Kabul, told Arab News. “They just don’t want us to get an education.”

Now that US-led forces have withdrawn and the Taliban has traded guerrilla warfare for the day-to-day running of the country, security has greatly improved. (AFP)

Despite repeated claims by the predominantly Pashtun, Islamic fundamentalist group that time and experience have softened its rough edges, the streets of Kabul increasingly resemble the Taliban-governed pre-2002 era.

Since the restoration of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which enforces the group’s austere interpretation of Islam, traditional clothing, turbans and burqas have replaced suits and jeans, which only a year ago had been considered normal attire in the Afghan capital.

Key symbols of the nation’s identity are also changing, with the white and black banner of the Taliban now appearing on government buildings and in public spaces, gradually replacing Afghanistan’s tricolor, despite earlier pledges it would not be changed.  

For some, the replacement of the old national flag is more than symbolic, and is indicative of the Taliban’s hijacking of the country. 

“It doesn’t represent any government or regime. The Taliban could keep both,” Shah Rahim, a 43-year-old resident of Kabul, told Arab News. 

“The flag is a representation of our nation, our values and our history.”


Lebanese antiques dealer who exposed smuggling network accused of artifact looting

Lebanese antiques dealer who exposed smuggling network accused of artifact looting
Updated 13 August 2022

Lebanese antiques dealer who exposed smuggling network accused of artifact looting

Lebanese antiques dealer who exposed smuggling network accused of artifact looting
  • Lofti sold and lent items to Metropolitan Museum of Art and kept other artifacts in an apartment located across the road

LONDON: An antiques dealer from Lebanon has been accused of smuggling looted artifacts worth millions of dollars into the US.

Georges Lofti, 81, who previously assisted the Antiquities Trafficking Unit in exposing an Egyptian golden coffin on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as having been looted during unrest in Egypt in 2011, is also accused by law enforcement agents of using the agency to give stolen items a “sheen of legitimacy,” The Times reported.

Lofti sold and lent items to the museum and kept other artifacts in an apartment located across the road, the report added.

He often invited ATU agents to his storage space, believing that they would not suspect the antiquities kept inside were stolen, according to a report by The New York Times.

The ATU were granted an arrest warrant for Lotfi this week on suspicion of stealing 24 items and tricking investigators into giving the artifacts a stamp of approval.

According to legal documents attached to the warrant, ATU security agent Robert Mancene confirmed that Lotfi tipped them off regarding the gold Coffin of Nedjemankh, which the museum bought for $4 million in 2017 and put on display. Following Lofti's tipoff, the coffin was returned in 2019.

“Over the years (Lotfi) has provided me with detailed information about looting practices globally,” Mancene said. The dealer, described by Mancene as “a valuable source of information,” also passed on details about global looters and traffickers, according to the report.

One of the stolen items Lofti is accused of smuggling into the US is the “Palmyra Stone” — a limestone sculpture from Syria depicting a couple with three children worth an estimated $750,000 — which investigators said Lofti did not purchase from a dealer in 1982 as he had claimed, but instead obtained from a smuggler in 2010 or 2011.

Several mosaics, one valued at $2.5 million and another at $500,000, were also among the items Lofti is alleged to have looted.

Lofti, who said that he was shocked by the allegations and denies any wrongdoing, told The New York Times: “I was fighting with them for 10 years to stop illicit trading and they turned against me.”


Lebanon on precipice of positive change: US task force head

Lebanon on precipice of positive change: US task force head
Updated 16 sec ago

Lebanon on precipice of positive change: US task force head

Lebanon on precipice of positive change: US task force head
  • Corrupt leaders, Israeli and Palestinian peace are key issues, says Edward M. Gabriel
  • ‘Beirut and Tel Aviv pact can access oil and gas in Mediterranean’

CHICAGO: Lebanon will be on the precipice of change if its people end government corruption, and Israelis and Palestinians reach a peace agreement, the head of the American Task Force on Lebanon said Wednesday.

Ambassador Edward M. Gabriel, president and CEO of the ATFL, who was recently appointed to the board of the US Institute of Peace, told Arab News there are many issues that need resolution to change regional dynamics and significantly reduce tensions. But that change is possible.

Gabriel, who just returned from an ATFL mission to Lebanon, said that if the Israelis and Palestinians find peace, Hezbollah would lay down its arms and become more of a political party rather than remain as one of the toughest militias to successfully stand up to Israel’s regional military presence.

“Hezbollah is a political party and they are part of the fabric of the country whether some people like it or not. The question is, they need to put down their arms and make sure they operate as a political entity in Lebanon and not continue their terrorism across the region,” Gabriel explained.

“Hezbollah has said that when there is peace between Israel and the Palestinians, there is no need for them to have arms. I met with the Shia mufti recently and he actually reiterated that belief. And I asked him, at what point do you see them putting down their arms, and he said exactly those words you seem to indicate.”

During an appearance on The Ray Hanania Show, Gabriel said there are other factors at play besides Hezbollah’s military strength and engagement in terrorism. They include Lebanon resolving its maritime disputes with Israel and ending the corruption of the Lebanese government in order to qualify for financial support from the International Monetary Fund.

“One thing has come up is a negotiation between Lebanon and Israel, two enemies that are trying to settle their maritime border dispute. We were encouraged that they were moving in the right direction there, and if they do it will send a great new signal that Lebanon can work with some of the tough characters in the region and find simple solutions,” Gabriel said.

Resolving the maritime issues between Israel and Lebanon can open access to huge pockets of oil and gas that lie underneath the Mediterranean Sea, he said.

“Lebanon has two problems. One is corruption and the other is Hezbollah having arms. You can’t have a country where you have a militia that can push itself around in the region over the heads of the Lebanese Armed Forces. Thank God the Lebanese Armed Forces are becoming much stronger. What they were 10 years ago and what they are today makes a big difference. No, I don’t see this as mainly a regional problem anymore. The Lebanese Armed Forces are protecting the borders and the sovereignty of the country pretty well. They have got more work to do,” Gabriel said.

“What this comes down to is a parliament that will tell the corrupt leaders enough is enough, you are out. We are going to vote for reforms and change and we are going to implement those through a good governance structure to make change. Those are two issues causing the problem today. The IMF program, the International Monetary Fund program, is a possible solution out if they react to it and pass the needed legislation in the next two months just before a presidential election. The parliament will have something to say about that. Will they elect a president that is reform oriented or will the same old guys elect the same old guys.”

Gabriel said the election results from May 2022 which weakened Hezbollah’s hold on parliament, offers a path to achieving greater reforms and rebuilding the nation’s shattered economy.

“Recent statistics put Lebanon in the bottom four of the worst (performing on the) economic (front of) countries in the world. Just a couple of decades ago — a decade ago — it was in the upper third of countries on the income scale. The World Bank says it is one of the worst economic disasters since 1850, possibly one of the worst three disasters. We have a lot to be concerned about,” Gabriel said.

“We met with the top leadership of the country, with a tough message. And that was you are in charge of a country that right now is going off the cliff. It is going to be a beggar state by next year and you will be responsible for this unless you can do something in the coming months to stave off the impending disaster.”

But he said that the reformers must find a way to come together in strength to bring change in the November presidential elections.

“Reform candidates, the opposition candidates, the change candidates took away the majority, away from Hezbollah and its allies. So there seems to be a movement there by a progressive group of parliamentarians that want to make change. Now, that is a long way to go but these phenomenal people who care about their country are doing their best under the circumstances. There is regional pressure on Lebanon,” Gabriel said, noting increased tensions and rhetoric between Israel and Hezbollah recently.

“But that’s making an excuse. Quite frankly, the reason why Lebanon is what it is, is because of corruption. There is massive amount of corruption in the country and it really has to come to a halt if there is ever to be any progress. The International Monetary Fund is come in with a proposal accepted by the government so far. But the government has to implement a number of reforms that will reduce corruption and address the needs of the people, so we will see how that happens.”

But Israel has to realize that it has major decisions to make regarding regional peace and find another alternative to violence against Palestinians, he said.

“Israel has to come to realize on Gaza and the Palestinian issue, they can have a one-state solution or a two-state solution. But to have a two-state solution they have got to enter into good faith conversations with Palestine to find a win-win solution. Otherwise they are going to get a one-state solution which more and more people are moving towards,” Gabriel said.

“And right now the one-state solution would have the Palestinian people over 50 percent of the population. So, it really is in Israel’s best interests to think how they are operating in the Palestinian arena. Having said that, terrorism by Hamas doesn’t help the situation. Right now, they need quiet in the region and now that Israel has a partner to talk to. Both of them have to come to grips with this for a win-win solution.”

Gabriel said he believes that despite some challenges, President Joe Biden offers the best route toward building up the Middle East, noting the US leader has spent much time addressing the region.

The Ray Hanania Show is broadcast live every Wednesday at 5 p.m. Eastern EST on WNZK AM 690 radio in Greater Detroit including parts of Ohio, and WDMV AM 700 radio in Washington D.C. including parts of Virginia and Maryland. The show is rebroadcast on Thursdays at 7 a.m. in Detroit on WNZK AM 690 and in Chicago at 12 noon on WNWI AM 1080.

You can listen to the radio show’s podcast by visiting ArabNews.com/rayradioshow.

* An earlier version of this story mischaracterized comments and opinions of Ambassador Edward M. Gabriel saying Hezbollah could become a “postive force” in the country. Those characterizations of his comments have been deleted.


Ukrainian minister says Russia blocking access to medicines

Ukrainian minister says Russia blocking access to medicines
Updated 13 August 2022

Ukrainian minister says Russia blocking access to medicines

Ukrainian minister says Russia blocking access to medicines
  • Ukrainian Health Minister Viktor Liashko said Russian authorities repeatedly have blocked efforts to provide state-subsidized drugs to people in occupied cities, towns and villages

KYIV: Ukraine’s health minister has accused Russian authorities of committing a crime against humanity by blocking access to affordable medicines in areas its forces have occupied since invading the country 5 1/2 months ago.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Ukrainian Health Minister Viktor Liashko said Russian authorities repeatedly have blocked efforts to provide state-subsidized drugs to people in occupied cities, towns and villages.
“Throughout the entire six months of war, Russia has not (allowed) proper humanitarian corridors so we could provide our own medicines to the patients that need them,” Liashko said, speaking at the Health Ministry in Kyiv late Friday.
“We believe that these actions are being taken with intent by Russia, and we consider them to be crimes against humanity and war crimes that will be documented and will be recognized,” the minister said.
The Ukrainian government has a program that provides medications to people with cancer and chronic health conditions. The destruction of hospitals and infrastructure along with the displacement of an estimated 7 million people inside the country also have interfered with other forms of treatment, according to United Nations and Ukrainian officials.
The war in Ukraine has caused severe disruptions to the country’s state-run health service, which was undergoing major reforms, largely in response to the coronavirus pandemic, when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to invade on Feb. 24.
The World Health Organization said it recorded 445 attacks on hospitals and other health care facilities as of Aug. 11 that directly resulted in 86 deaths and 105 injuries.
But Liashko said the secondary effects were far more severe.
“When roads and bridges have been damaged in areas now controlled by the Ukrainian forces... it is difficult to get someone who had a heart attack or a stroke to the hospital,” he said. “Sometimes, we can’t make it in time, the ambulance can’t get there in time. That’s why war causes many more casualties (than those killed in the fighting). It’s a number that cannot be calculated.”