Albanian police search empty Iranian embassy after papers burned

Update Albanian police search empty Iranian embassy after papers burned
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Members of Albania’s police special unit enter the Iranian embassy on Sept. 8, 2022. (Reuters)
Update Albanian police search empty Iranian embassy after papers burned
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A car enters the Iranian Embassy in Tirana, Albania on Sept. 7, 2022. Tehran has strongly condemned Tirana’s decision to cut its diplomatic ties calling as ‘baseless claims’ Albania’s reasons for the move. (AP)
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Updated 08 September 2022

Albanian police search empty Iranian embassy after papers burned

Albanian police search empty Iranian embassy after papers burned
  • Police entered the building after two cars with diplomatic plates had left
  • Albania cut diplomatic relations with Iran on Wednesday over a cyberattack

TIRANA: Albanian counter-terrorism police searched the empty Iranian embassy in Tirana on Thursday, hours after Iranian diplomats burned papers inside the premises following the severing of diplomatic ties over a cyberattack.

Albania cut diplomatic relations with Iran on Wednesday, when Prime Minister Edi Rama blamed the cyberattack, which took place in July, on the Islamic Republic, and gave its diplomats 24 hours to close the embassy and leave the country.

The police, wearing masks and helmets and carrying automatic rifles, entered the building — situated just 200 meters (yards) from Rama’s office — after two cars with diplomatic plates had left, a Reuters reporter saw.

Thirty minutes later, the police were still inside.

The same reporter earlier saw a man inside the embassy throwing papers into a rusty barrel, with flames illuminating the walls of the three-story building.

In a rare video address on Wednesday, Rama said the July cyberattack has “threatened to paralyze public services, erase digital systems and hack into state records, steal government intranet electronic communication and stir chaos and insecurity in the country.”

Washington, Albania’s closest ally, also blamed Iran for the attack and promised to “take further action to hold Iran accountable for actions that threaten the security of a US ally.”

Tehran condemned Tirana’s decision to cut ties, describing the reasons for the move as “baseless claims.”

Bilateral relations have been tense since 2014, when Albania accepted some 3,000 members of the exiled opposition group People’s Mujahideen Organization of Iran — also known by its Farsi name Mujahideen-e-Khalq — who have settled in a camp near Durres, the country’s main port.

Days after the July 15 cyberattack, Tirana-based media reported that hackers had published personal data of the opposition members that were saved in Albania’s state computers such as personal, social and security numbers, names and photos.

On Thursday morning, it appeared calm outside the embassy in Tirana located A black Audi with diplomatic car plates and darkened windows was seen going in and out as a police officer guarded the entrance.


Whistleblower sacked for speaking out on withdrawal from Afghanistan takes UK government to court

Whistleblower sacked for speaking out on withdrawal from Afghanistan takes UK government to court
Updated 18 sec ago

Whistleblower sacked for speaking out on withdrawal from Afghanistan takes UK government to court

Whistleblower sacked for speaking out on withdrawal from Afghanistan takes UK government to court
  • Josie Stewart, who gave an anonymous interview and leaked emails to the BBC about the withdrawal, said the civil service has become ‘dangerously politicized’
  • A former head of illicit finance at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, she is challenging her dismissal under the Public Interest Disclosure Act

DUBAI: A former senior official at Britain’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is taking the UK government to court test the legal protections for whistleblowers, amid concerns they are not sufficient to protect civil servants.

Josie Stewart, who worked at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and was sacked after turning whistleblower to reveal details of the chaotic UK response to the fall of Kabul, said the British civil service has become so dangerously politicized that officials who dare to speak out risk being sidelined or losing their jobs.

She told The Guardian newspaper that former colleagues felt their role was to protect ministers, some of whom were only interested in “looking good,” rather than working in the public interest.

Stewart, who was head of the illicit finance team at the FCDO, was fired over an anonymous interview she gave to the BBC about the government’s handling of the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. She is challenging her dismissal, based on the provisions the Public Interest Disclosure Act.

In her first interview since her dismissal, she said the government’s strategy for the withdrawal of its forces had been shaped by political concerns at home. Ministers were more focused on media coverage and “the political fallout” than saving lives, she added.

Her legal action adds to the pressure on Dominic Raab, who was foreign secretary at the time and who is currently fighting for his political career following allegations of bullying, which he denies. Raab was heavily criticized for failing to return home early from holiday in August 2021 when Afghanistan fell to the Taliban.

Stewart, who worked for two years at the British embassy in Kabul during her seven years with the FCDO, volunteered to work in the Whitehall crisis center when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. One of her allegations was that ministers had not expected the British public to care about the evacuation of locals who had helped British troops amnd officials.

Her case, for which a final hearing is scheduled for September, could set a precedent for how the courts handle similar cases in future, including clarification of whether whistleblowers can avoid dismissal if they disclosed information in “exceptionally serious circumstances” and it should therefore be considered “reasonable” to have done so.

In her interview with The Guardian, 42-year-old Stewart said: “If the law is not tested and used then I don’t know how much it actually means, as potential whistleblowers don’t know which side of the line it is going to fall. Is what they’re going to do likely to be legally protected or not? If they don’t know, then I’m not sure how meaningful the fact the law exists is.”

Stewart, who now works for nonprofit organization Transparency International, alleged that the civil service has been dangerously politicized since the era of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and she accused the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, of failing to stand up for officials.

“I increasingly saw senior officials interpreting their role as doing what ministers say and providing protections to ministers,” she said. “It was almost as if their first loyalty (was) to their political leaders rather than to the public.

“Essentially people who said ‘yes’ and went along with it and bought into this shift in culture and approach were those whose careers went well. Those who resisted either found themselves buried somewhere or looking for jobs elsewhere.

“It threatens the impartiality of the civil service. The civil service is supposed to bring expertise in how to get things done. It risks that expertise being neutered by a slant towards focusing on things that look good rather than achieving impact.”

Stewart also suggested the politicization of the civil service had a dramatic effect on the government’s handling of the evacuation from Afghanistan. Moreover, she highlighted the government’s failure to draw up a plan to help Afghan nationals who had assisted the British, such as translators or contractors, but were not eligible for the existing Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy because they did not work directly for the UK, to leave the country.

“There was no policy because we didn’t intend to do it at all,” Stewart said. “The only reason it came into life during the crisis was because the government was surprised to learn that the British people did actually care and did feel that we owed something to those people.

“Then they thought: ‘Well, people do care and we had better do something about it.’ So it was a misjudgment, politically. Hence the chaos.”

The crisis center received thousands of emails from desperate Afghans asking for help, which remained unopened until pressure from MPs led Raab to promise in the House of Commons that they would all be read by a certain date.

In January 2022 Stewart gave her anonymous interview and leaked emails to the BBC’s Newsnight program that revealed a decision to allow the animal charity Nowzad’s Afghan staff to be evacuated had been taken as a result of instructions from Johnson himself that overruled officials, who had said the workers were not eligible and others were at higher risk. Johnson had denied being involved in the decision.

The unredacted emails were accidentally published on social media by the BBC, revealing Stewart’s identity. She was stripped of her FCDO security clearance and subsequently sacked because, without it, she was unable to do her job.

Stewart’s lawyers expect the government to argue that the protections under the Public Interest Disclosure Act do not apply in this case because she was not, ultimately, dismissed for the act of whistleblowing, and they plan to challenge this.

An FCDO spokesperson said: “We are rightly proud of our staff who worked tirelessly to evacuate more than 15,000 people from Afghanistan within a fortnight.”

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “The cabinet secretary is proud to lead a civil service that works day in, day out to deliver the government’s priorities for the people of this country.”

A BBC spokesperson said: “We take our responsibilities as journalists very seriously and we deeply regret that the name of the email account was inadvertently revealed when the email was published on social media.”

A spokesperson for Boris Johnson declined to comment.


Blinken postpones China trip over ‘unacceptable’ Chinese spy balloon

Blinken postpones China trip over ‘unacceptable’ Chinese spy balloon
Updated 20 min 31 sec ago

Blinken postpones China trip over ‘unacceptable’ Chinese spy balloon

Blinken postpones China trip over ‘unacceptable’ Chinese spy balloon
  • Jean-Pierre said the US administration was aware of China’s statement “but the presence of this balloon in our airspace, it is a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law. It is unacceptable this occurred”

WASHINGTON/BEIJING: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a visit to China that had been expected to start on Friday after a suspected Chinese spy balloon was tracked flying across the United States in what Washington called a “clear violation” of US sovereignty.
The Pentagon said on Thursday it was tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon over the continental United States. Officials said military leaders considered shooting it down over Montana on Wednesday but eventually recommended against this to President Joe Biden because of the safety risk from debris.
White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden was briefed on the balloon flight on Tuesday and there was an administration “consensus that it was not appropriate to travel to the People’s Republic of China at this time.”
China on Friday expressed regret that an “airship” used for civilian meteorological and other scientific purposes had strayed into US airspace.
Jean-Pierre said the US administration was aware of China’s statement “but the presence of this balloon in our airspace, it is a clear violation of our sovereignty as well as international law. It is unacceptable this occurred.”
On Friday, Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said the balloon had changed course and was floating eastward at about 60,000 feet (18,300 meters) above the central United States and demonstrating a capability to maneuver. He said it would likely be over the country for a few more days.
Commercial forecaster AccuWeather said the balloon would potentially leave United States into the Atlantic on Saturday evening. Mike Rounds, a Republican member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told Fox News it would be good to recover the balloon “one way or another” to see “if it was designed to actually collect data or if it was designed to test our response capabilities.”
The Pentagon’s disclosure about the balloon’s maneuverability directly challenges China’s assertion about it being blown off course.
At a news conference with South Korea’s visiting foreign minister on Friday, Blinken said he had told Wang Yi, director of China’s Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, that the incident on the eve of his trip was an “irresponsible act” by China, but Washington remained committed to engagement and he would visit when conditions allowed.
Blinken said he would not put a date on when he might go to China and the focus was on resolving the current incident. “The first step is ... getting the surveillance asset, out of our air space,” he said, adding that Washington would maintain open lines of communication with China.
The Republican chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul, said the balloon should never have been allowed in US airspace and could have been shot down over water.
“I am calling on the Biden administration to quickly take steps to remove the Chinese spy balloon from US airspace,” he said in a statement.
LOST OPPORTUNITY?
A White House official said the administration had briefed staff of the so-called Gang of 8, which brings together Republican and Democratic leaders from the Senate and House, on Thursday afternoon.
The official said such balloon surveillance activity had “been observed over the past several years, including in the prior administration – we have kept Congress briefed on this issue.”
The postponing of Blinken’s trip, which had been agreed to in November by Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, is a blow to those who saw it as an overdue opportunity to stabilize an increasingly fractious relationship. The last visit by a US secretary of state was in 2017.
China is keen for a stable US relationship so it can focus on its economy, battered by the now-abandoned zero-COVID policy and neglected by foreign investors alarmed by what they see as a return of state intervention in the market.
In recent months Chinese leader Xi has met with world leaders, seeking to re-establish ties and settle disagreements.
Daniel Russel, the top US diplomat for Asia under former President Barack Obama, said he did not see a strategic rationale for canceling the trip and stressed the importance of maintaining high-level engagement with China.
“In as much as the US has much bigger fish to fry with the Chinese than a surveillance balloon, the Biden team may be inclined to pick up where they left off after a decent interval,” he said.
Sino-US relations have soured significantly in recent years, particularly following then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August, which prompted dramatic Chinese military drills near the self-ruled island.
LIMITED INTELLIGENCE VALUE
The Pentagon’s Ryder told reporters on Thursday the balloon was at an altitude well above commercial air traffic and did not present a military or physical threat to people on the ground. One US official added it was assessed to have “limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective.”
Another official said on Thursday the flight path would carry the balloon over a number of sensitive sites, but did not give details. Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana is home to 150 intercontinental ballistic missile silos.
Ryder declined on Friday to say where precisely the balloon was, but as he spoke, the National Weather Service in Kansas City said on Twitter it had received multiple reports across northwestern Missouri of a large balloon.
China has often complained about surveillance by the United States, including its deployment of ships or planes near Chinese military exercises.

 


Why Bangladesh is seeking Saudi oil on credit after IMF success

Why Bangladesh is seeking Saudi oil on credit after IMF success
Updated 04 February 2023

Why Bangladesh is seeking Saudi oil on credit after IMF success

Why Bangladesh is seeking Saudi oil on credit after IMF success
  • Bangladeshi government asks Kingdom to supply oil on deferred payment basis
  • Request follows IMF approval of $4.7bn stabilization package for South Asian nation

DHAKA: After securing a stabilization package from the International Monetary Fund this week, Bangladesh has asked Saudi Arabia for extended credit on oil supplies, in a move that experts say would further help its economy get back on track.

Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen met Riyadh’s Ambassador to Dhaka, Essa Al-Duhailan, earlier this week. The foreign ministry said after the meeting that Momen had asked the Kingdom to consider supplying crude and refined oil “on a deferred payment basis” to help Bangladesh meet its energy needs.

The request came shortly after the IMF approved a $4.7 billion loan for Bangladesh.

HIGHLIGHT

Request follows IMF approval of $4.7bn stabilization package for South Asian nation.

“Bangladesh is now passing through a period of constrained foreign exchange reserves and is having difficulty in terms of opening LCs (letters of credit) and also in terms of paying for our imports,” Prof. Mustafizur Rahman, distinguished fellow at the Centre for Policy Dialogue in Dhaka, told Arab News on Friday.

“If we can get Saudi oil on a deferred payment basis, it will ease up Bangladesh’s foreign exchange reserves and help Bangladesh in terms of purchasing other necessary imports which require instantaneous payment.”

The IMF’s Extended Credit Facility and Extended Fund Facility package approved for Bangladesh on Jan. 30 are likely to boost the country’s outlook among its creditors, including Saudi Arabia, and demonstrate its capacity to pay back.

Unlike other regional countries, such as crisis-hit Sri Lanka and Pakistan, Bangladesh did not ask the fund for a bailout loan. The approved arrangements are a stabilization package to fund structural reform, ensure balance-of-payment stability, and a stable and sustainable economic position.

“The IMF granting of $4.7 billion will be helpful in providing positive signals to our development partners that the fundamentals of the Bangladeshi economy remain strong, and that Bangladesh is also ready to take up reforms,” Rahman said.

“From that perspective, it will also be helpful in projecting to Saudi Arabia that while we are asking for deferred payment, the Bangladeshi economy will be able to sustain good foreign reserves and when the negotiated time comes, we will be able to pay.”

Besides taking the pressure off its dollar reserves, the extended credit on oil supplies would also help Bangladesh with energy security. The South Asian nation, which is dependent on imported liquefied natural gas, has been struggling with an energy crisis in recent months.

Since mid-July, the government has been resorting to daily power cuts amid high global prices driven up by Russia’s war in Ukraine. Industries that do not receive sufficient power to run their operations have been forced to remain idle for several hours a day. In early October, about 80 percent of Bangladesh’s 168 million people were left without electricity after a grid failure caused by fuel shortages to over a third of the country’s gas-powered units.

Saudi Arabia supplies more than half of Bangladesh’s crude imports.

“We are bringing in oil, which is our regular, normal import, because our transport sector is fully dependent on this oil, and also partially our production,” said Prof. Mohammad Tamim, dean of chemical and material engineering at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology.

Importing energy and ensuring its uninterrupted supply are crucial to keeping the Bangladeshi economy afloat and helping it stabilize while other reforms requested by the IMF are implemented to fix structural problems.

“There is a lot of pressure in terms of importing energy products, so it’s very important that we keep supplying oil so that there is no disruption in economic activity,” Tamim said.

“Deferred payment will definitely help Bangladesh in tackling the dollar crunch now.”


Indian state arrests 1,800 people in child marriage crackdown

Indian state arrests 1,800 people in child marriage crackdown
Updated 03 February 2023

Indian state arrests 1,800 people in child marriage crackdown

Indian state arrests 1,800 people in child marriage crackdown
  • 31.8 percent of women in Assam were married before the legal age
  • Police expect to arrest about 8,000 during week-long drive

NEW DELHI: Police in India’s northeaster state of Assam arrested hundreds of people on Friday in a crackdown on those marrying or arranging marriages with children.
The minimum legal age for Indians to marry is 18 for women and 21 for men, but the practice of child marriage remains widespread in parts of the country, especially Assam. According to India’s latest National Family Health Survey, 31.8 percent of women in the state were married before the legal age, compared with the national average of 23.3 percent.
In some districts of Assam, more than half of married women were married before 18.
The crackdown on child marriage was approved by the Assam government late last month to tackle the practice and increasing numbers of child pregnancies.
“We have arrested 1,793 people till 8 a.m. this morning,” Prasanta Kumar Bhuiyan, Assam’s inspector general of police, told Arab News.
“The crackdown will continue for one week and people are being detained under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act and Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act.”
He estimated that another 6,000 suspects would be arrested in the coming days.
The state’s chief minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, said on Friday that he had requested the police to act with “zero tolerance against the unpardonable and heinous crime on women.”
Activists said welcomed the operation.
“The basis for this drive is the increasing infant mortality rate and mother mortality rate among young children,” said Miguel Das, who runs the Assam-based Utsah Child Rights Organization.
Das said however that law enforcement should not be the only response.
“There should be socio-economic welfare measures to address the deep-seated problem prevalent among all the demographics in the state,” he said, adding that the drive should also include the rehabilitation of married children and initiatives to prevent the practice.
The UN estimates that India is home to around 223 million child brides — the largest number of any country in the world.
“Early marriage causes lots of imbalance in the society and leads to high population growth and illiteracy among the young generation,” said Azizur Rahman, former president of All Assam Minority Students’ Union.
“I support the government’s crackdown and hope the large-scale arrests will send a message to the people.”


Liberian warlord’s trial set to conclude in Switzerland

Liberian warlord’s trial set to conclude in Switzerland
Updated 03 February 2023

Liberian warlord’s trial set to conclude in Switzerland

Liberian warlord’s trial set to conclude in Switzerland
  • Lawyers for the plaintiffs said Kosiah's actions were "widespread and systematic" against a civilian population
  • A verdict by the three-judge panel is expected within months

GENEVA: The appeal hearings of a former Liberian rebel commander convicted of war crimes were set to conclude on Friday in a trial that was broadened in its final stages to include crimes against humanity for the first time in Switzerland.
Alieu Kosiah, who fought in the 1990s against then-President Charles Taylor’s army, was sentenced to 20 years in prison in June 2021 for rape, murder and cannibalism in one of the first trials for war crimes committed in the West African country.
During the three weeks of appeal hearings at the Federal Criminal Court in Bellinzona, the defendant sought to overturn the lower court’s ruling, arguing at length that he was not present when the crimes were committed. Kosiah’s lawyer denied the charges and said he was a minor when first recruited.
But lawyers for the plaintiffs said Kosiah’s actions were “widespread and systematic” against a civilian population.
“We feel strongly that these crimes are the epitome of crimes against humanity,” said Alain Werner, a Swiss lawyer and director of Civitas Maxima, an NGO that represents war crimes victims and is acting on behalf of some of the plaintiffs.
A verdict by the three-judge panel is expected within months. If Kosiah is found guilty of crimes against humanity, this could extend his sentence to life.
The hearings were often laden with emotion, with some Liberian witnesses and victims confronting Kosiah for the first time since the country’s civil wars. They all asked for anonymity because of the risk of reprisals back home where former warlords still hold prominent roles.
In one poignant moment, a former child soldier under Kosiah acknowledged him with a military salute in the court room and then broke down and was too upset to testify.
In another, a witness who had been held as a sex slave by a soldier described how Kosiah had stabbed one of the Liberian plaintiffs present in the back. “Many people in the courtroom were crying. It was very emotional, even 30 years later,” said Zena Wakim, one of the prosecution lawyers.
No trials have taken place in Liberia for its back-to-back civil wars between 1989 and 2003 that became infamous for their brutality and degradation, with marauding child soldiers and combatants high on drugs.
In an indication of the importance of the trial to the Liberian plaintiffs, one of them who says she was raped by Kosiah, named a recently born baby “Justice.”
“I want him in jail,” she told Reuters on the opening day of the appeal trial on Jan. 11.