Gangs, extortion in Bangladesh camps driving Rohingya sea exodus

Gangs, extortion in Bangladesh camps driving Rohingya sea exodus
Newly-arrived Rohingya refugees rest on a beach in Sabang island, Aceh province on Nov. 22, 2023 as they escape violence and brutality in Bangladesh camps. (AFP)
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Updated 29 November 2023

Gangs, extortion in Bangladesh camps driving Rohingya sea exodus

Gangs, extortion in Bangladesh camps driving Rohingya sea exodus
  • Rohingya escape escalating brutality in the camps in and around Cox’s Bazar
  • Bangladesh defense ministry identifies at least 11 armed groups operating in the camps

LHOKSEUMAWE, Indonesia: Holding his son’s hand in a temporary shelter in Indonesia, Rohingya Mohamed Ridoi says he made the dangerous 12-day sea journey from massive refugee camps in Bangladesh to escape the pervasive threats of kidnapping, extortion and murder.
The 27-year-old said he was starting a “peaceful life” in a temporary shelter in Indonesia’s western Aceh Province, where more than 1,000 Rohingya people have arrived this month, the largest such influx since 2015.
He and others said they fled escalating brutality in the camps in and around Cox’s Bazar, which hold more than one million people and where gangs regularly abduct and torture residents for ransom.
“One of the groups kidnapped me and demanded 500,000 Bangladeshi taka ($4,551) to buy their guns,” Ridoi, who left with his wife, two children and his brother, said.
“They told me that if I couldn’t give them the money, they would kill me.”
He said he eventually paid 300,000 taka for his release last month and, within weeks, he was on a boat to Indonesia, arriving on November 21.
“We are not safe in Bangladesh. That is why I decided to go to Indonesia to save me and my family’s life,” he said.
Having first fled state-backed persecution in Myanmar — including a 2017 crackdown that is subject to a UN genocide probe — the refugees now find themselves pushed to undertake weeks-long journeys of more than 1,800 kilometers on packed, rickety boats.
Indonesia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and says it is not compelled to take in refugees from Myanmar, but neighboring countries have shut their doors, meaning they have almost no other options.
More than half a dozen boats have arrived in Aceh since November 14, and monitors say more are on their way, despite some locals turning arriving boats back to sea and stepping up patrols on the coast.
Human Rights Watch reported this year that criminal gangs and alleged affiliates of Islamist armed groups were causing fear at night in the Bangladesh refugee camps, which now number more than two dozen.
The Bangladesh defense ministry has identified at least 11 armed groups operating in the camps, but rights groups say Dhaka is not doing enough to protect refugees from the violence.
These gangs, vying for control and involved in activities like drug smuggling and human trafficking, have specifically targeted Rohingya community leaders and activists.
Aisha, 19, arrived in Aceh on the same boat as Ridoi with two children and her husband.
“They asked for money every night, threatening to abduct my husband. I couldn’t sleep at night because of them,” she said via an interpreter.
Bangladesh police say about 60 Rohingya people have been killed in violence in the camps this year.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of HRW, said it appeared the Bangladeshi government “doesn’t care” about the refugees’ fate.
“The bottom line is the Bangladesh government just wants all the Rohingya to go back to Myanmar as soon as possible — even if (it) means subjecting the refugees to conditions of absolute misery in the camps so that they leave.”
Aisha, the young mother, said fear of the criminals pushed her family to pay 200,000 taka ($1,819) to illegal middlemen for her family’s boat journey to Indonesia, despite the risks.
Aisha said she preferred to “die at sea than in the camp.”
“I looked for a safe place for my children, hoping they could study and get an education,” she said.
Chris Lewa, director of Rohingya rights organization the Arakan Project, said food shortages were also worsening camp conditions and entire families were now leaving, instead of just groups of young men as seen previously.
“Now, the profile is different, now we have many families. Before there was not many,” she said.
“Nowadays we see small children, there are many families making their way. They just want to be away from Bangladesh.”
Aisha and her children now share a windowless room in a shelter in the Aceh city of Lhokseumawe with more than a hundred other women and minors, sleeping on mats on the floor without a fan in the tropical heat.
Aisha said that it was still much better than living in fear in the Bangladesh camp.
Ridoi also hoped that his decision to bring his family to Indonesia would bring a better life for his sons.
“I am not qualified to be a doctor or engineer, but I am doing my best to make them one,” he said.
“My children are everything to me.”

US Supreme Court rules Trump can stay on Colorado primary ballot

US Supreme Court rules Trump can stay on Colorado primary ballot
Updated 54 sec ago

US Supreme Court rules Trump can stay on Colorado primary ballot

US Supreme Court rules Trump can stay on Colorado primary ballot

WASHINGTON: The US Supreme Court on Monday removed a potential hurdle to Donald Trump’s bid to recapture the White House, unanimously dismissing a state court ruling that could have barred him from the ballot for engaging in insurrection.

The high-stakes ruling in favor of the former president came on the eve of the Super Tuesday primaries that are expected to cement Trump’s march toward the Republican nomination to take on President Joe Biden in November.

It was the most consequential election case heard by the court since it halted the Florida vote recount in 2000 with Republican George W. Bush narrowly leading Democrat Al Gore.

The question before the nine justices was whether Trump was ineligible to appear on the Republican presidential primary ballot in Colorado because he engaged in an insurrection — the January 6, 2021 assault on the US Capitol by his supporters.

In a 9-0 decision, the conservative-dominated court said “the judgment of the Colorado Supreme Court... cannot stand,” meaning 77-year-old Trump can appear on the state’s primary ballot.

“All nine Members of the Court agree with that result,” the ruling said, though one conservative and the three liberal justices dissented on certain technical aspects.

Trump hailed the decision, declaring a “BIG WIN FOR AMERICA!!!” in a post on his Truth Social website.

The case stemmed from a ruling in December by the supreme court of Colorado, one of the 15 states and territories voting on Super Tuesday.

The state court, citing the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, ruled that Trump should be kicked off the ballot because of his role in the January 6 attack on Congress, when a mob tried to halt certification of Biden’s 2020 election victory.

Section 3 of the 14th Amendment bars those who engaged in “insurrection or rebellion” after once pledging to support and defend the Constitution from holding public office — although Trump’s lawyers argued the rule does not apply to the presidency.

During two hours of arguments last month, both conservative and liberal justices on the US Supreme Court expressed concern about having individual states decide which candidates can be on the presidential ballot this November.

On Monday, the top court ruled that “responsibility for enforcing Section 3 against federal officeholders and candidates rests with Congress and not the States” — and that the principle applied “especially (to) the Presidency.”

The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868 after the Civil War, was aimed at preventing supporters of the slave-holding breakaway Confederacy from being elected to Congress or from holding federal positions.

Monday’s ruling renders other similar state challenges to Trump’s primary ballot appearance effectively moot, including in Maine which also votes on Super Tuesday.

Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows said her state’s barring of Trump from the ballot had been withdrawn, writing in a statement that the votes cast for Trump “will be counted.”

Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold said she was “disappointed” in the outcome, posting on X that the state should be able to bar “oath-breaking” insurrectionists.

Speaking to reporters from his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, Trump alleged again without evidence that the legal maneuvering against him was “in total coordination with the White House.”

His only remaining rival in the Republican primary, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, told CNN she was happy with the decision.

“Look, I’m trying to defeat Donald Trump fair and square. I don’t need them taking him off the ballot to do it,” she said.

The Supreme Court, which includes three justices nominated by Trump, has historically been loath to get involved in political questions, but it is taking center stage in this year’s White House race.

Besides the Colorado case, the high court has also agreed to hear Trump’s claim that he is immune from criminal prosecution as a former president and cannot be tried on separate charges of conspiring to overturn the 2020 election.

Trump was impeached by the Democratic-majority House of Representatives for inciting an insurrection but was acquitted thanks to Republican support in the Senate.

He is also scheduled to go on trial in New York on March 25 on charges of covering up hush money payments to a porn star ahead of the 2016 election.

In yet another case, Trump faces federal charges in Florida of refusing to give up top secret documents after leaving the White House.

France becomes the only country to explicitly guarantee abortion as a constitutional right

France becomes the only country to explicitly guarantee abortion as a constitutional right
Updated 21 min 49 sec ago

France becomes the only country to explicitly guarantee abortion as a constitutional right

France becomes the only country to explicitly guarantee abortion as a constitutional right

PARIS: French lawmakers on Monday overwhelmingly approved a bill to enshrine abortion rights in France's constitution, making it the only country to explicitly guarantee a woman’s right to voluntarily terminate a pregnancy
The historic move was proposed by President Emmanuel Macron as a way to prevent the kind of rollback of abortion rights seen in the United States in recent years, and the vote during a special joint session of France's parliament drew a long standing ovation among lawmakers.
The measure was approved in a 780-72 vote in the Palace of Versailles. Abortion enjoys wide support in France across most of the political spectrum, and has been legal since 1975.
Many female legislators in the hall smiled broadly as they cheered. While a small group of protesters stood outside the joint session, there were jubilant scenes of celebrations all over France as women’s rights activists hailed the measure promised by Macron within hours of the Dobbs ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2022.
The U.S. decision has reverberated across Europe’s political landscape, forcing the issue back into public debate in some countries at a time when far-right nationalist parties are gaining influence.
Both houses of France's parliament, the National Assembly and Senate, had separately adopted a bill to amend Article 34 of the French Constitution, but the amendment needed final confirmation by a three-fifths majority in the special joint session. The measure specifies that “the law determines the conditions by which is exercised the freedom of women to have recourse to an abortion, which is guaranteed.”
The French measure is seen as going a step further than was the case in the former Yugoslavia, whose 1974 constitution said that “a person is free to decide on having children.” Yugoslavia dissolved in the early 1990s, and all its successor states have adopted similar measures in their constitutions that legally enable women to have an abortion, though they do not explicitly guarantee it.
In the lead-up to the vote, French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal addressed the more than 900 lawmakers gathered for the joint session in Versailles, and called on them to make France a leader in women's rights and set an example for countries around the world.
“We have a moral debt to women,” Attal said. He paid tribute to Simone Veil, a prominent legislator, former health minister and key feminist who in 1975 championed the bill that decriminalized abortion in France.
“We have a chance to change history,” Attal said in a moving and determined speech. “Make Simone Veil proud," he said to a standing ovation.
None of France’s major political parties have questioned the right to abortion, including Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party and the conservative Republicans.
Le Pen, who won a record number of seats in the National Assembly two years ago, said on Monday that her party planned to vote in favor of the bill but added that “there is no need to make this a historic day.”
A recent poll showed support for abortion rights among the French public at more than 80%, consistent with previous surveys. The same poll also showed that a solid majority of people are in favor of enshrining it in the constitution.
A group of about 200 anti-abortion protesters gathered soberly in Versailles ahead of the vote, some holding a banner reading: ‘’I too was an embryo.''
A larger crowd of women's rights activists gathered at Trocadero Plaza overlooking the Eiffel Tower, letting out a collective cry of joy as the vote results came in. Others celebrated around France even before the joint parliamentary session began.
Sarah Durocher, a leader in the Family Planning movement, said Monday's vote is “a victory for feminists and a defeat for the anti-choice activists.”
“We increased the level of protection to this fundamental right,” said Anne-Cécile Mailfert of the Women’s Foundation. “It’s a guarantee for women today and in the future to have the right to abort in France.”
The government argued in its introduction to the bill that the right to abortion is threatened in the United States, where the Supreme Court in 2022 overturned a 50-year-old ruling that used to guarantee it.
“Unfortunately, this event is not isolated: In many countries, even in Europe, there are currents of opinion that seek to hinder at any cost the freedom of women to terminate their pregnancy if they wish,” the introduction to the French legislation says.
“It may not be an issue in France, where a majority of people support abortion,” said Mathilde Philip-Gay, a law professor and a specialist in French and American constitutional law. “But those same people may one day vote for a far-right government, and what happened in the U.S. can happen elsewhere in Europe, including in France.”
Inscribing abortion into the French Constitution "will make it harder for abortion opponents of the future to challenge these rights, but it won't prevent them from doing it in the long run, with the right political strategy,” Philip-Gay added.
"It only takes a moment for everything we thought that we have achieved to fade away,” said Yael Braun-Pivet, the first female president of the French parliament, in her address to the joint session.
Amending the constitution is a laborious process and a rare event in France. Since it was enacted in 1958, the French Constitution has been amended 17 times.
The justice minister said the new amendment will be formally inscribed into the Constitution at a public ceremony at Vendome Plaza in Paris on Friday — International Women's Day.

’Uncommitted’ protest over Biden’s Israel support heads to Minnesota

’Uncommitted’ protest over Biden’s Israel support heads to Minnesota
Updated 05 March 2024

’Uncommitted’ protest over Biden’s Israel support heads to Minnesota

’Uncommitted’ protest over Biden’s Israel support heads to Minnesota
  • Hussein, who estimates the Midwestern state has about 250,000 Muslims, said the effort in the Minnesota Democratic primary aims to get at least 10,000 votes checking the “uncommitted” option instead of backing Biden

MINNEAPOLIS: The “uncommitted” movement to pressure US President Joe Biden to change his policy on Israel has landed in Minnesota, where activists hope a coalition of progressive Democrats and Muslim Americans will fuel a strong protest vote on Super Tuesday.
Minnesota is not a battleground state, given Democrats’ historic strength there, so any uncommitted vote won’t carry the same impact as Michigan’s unexpectedly large protest last week, which won two delegates for the Democratic National Convention in August.
Still the vote is being closely watched as a gauge of Biden’s strength within his own party.
“This will be another protest vote against Biden with the aim of stopping the war,” said Jaylani Hussein, co-chair of the Abandon Biden movement in Minnesota, one of several groups pushing the vote with phone banks, texting campaigns, and events in mosques and other community centers.
Hussein, who estimates the Midwestern state has about 250,000 Muslims, said the effort in the Minnesota Democratic primary aims to get at least 10,000 votes checking the “uncommitted” option instead of backing Biden, but the numbers could end up being higher.
Some organizers tried to lower expectations Monday.
“The Michigan effort was months in the making...we don’t have that in Minnesota, the organizers on the ground don’t have the kind of grassroots muscle,” said an uncommitted organizer, who did not wish to be named.
The uncommitted movement is asking Biden to back a permanent ceasefire and halt aid to Israel. Biden’s early and strong support of Israel and his refusal to condition military aid on not killing innocent people or destroying infrastructure has sparked outrage in key parts of his coalition that could affect his chances of reelection against likely Republican rival Donald Trump.
Biden, 81, faces low general approval ratings and concern about his age, as does Trump, 77. If Trump is reelected, he is expected to be a strong supporter of Israel and its right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Michigan results, where Biden won 81 percent of the vote, shows his “core group of supporters are still behind him,” said an official from the Biden campaign — which expects to see the same result from Minnesota.
“None of this means we will ignore the Arab American and Muslim American population,” the official said. “We will not. We are not taking anyone for granted.”
The sharpest US comment on the war to date came from Vice President Kamala Harris, who on Sunday called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and urged Hamas to accept a deal to release hostages in return for a six-week cessation of hostilities. The vice president’s comments “show the pressure the Biden campaign is under and that they are starting to feel that pressure,” said Wa’el Alzayat, chief executive of Emgage Action, the political arm of a Muslim outreach group worked on the uncommitted vote in Michigan and is doing the same in Minnesota and Pennsylvania.
Organizers are also targeting California, Georgia, North Carolina, Vermont and other states.
Even with a protest vote, Biden is expected to sweep Democratic primaries in Minnesota and more than a dozen other states on March 5, also known as Super Tuesday, and secure the Democratic nomination in the coming weeks.
Minnesota hasn’t backed a Republican presidential candidate since Richard Nixon in 1972, though Trump came within 1.5 percentage points of winning in 2016. Biden won the state with over 233,000 votes in 2020.
Biden campaign and many Democratic Party officials believe disaffected Democrats will ultimately support Biden in November when faced with the prospect of Trump.
Democrats, overall, support Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas conflict by 61 percent, February polling by Harvard-Harris shows, although a Reuters/Ipsos February poll show 56 percent of Democrats prefer a president who doesn’t support military aid to Israel.
Ken Martin, chair of the Minnesota branch of the Democratic party, formally known as the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party, told reporters, “this is an existential election” and he anticipates Biden will have near-unanimous support in the state.
“I respect people’s feelings and differences of opinion on a whole host of issues. But as Joe Biden says, ‘don’t compare him to the Almighty, compare him to the alternative,’ and I think that’s the reality here,” Martin said.


White House defends Harris meeting with Israeli Cabinet official despite Netanyahu’s concerns

White House defends Harris meeting with Israeli Cabinet official despite Netanyahu’s concerns
Updated 05 March 2024

White House defends Harris meeting with Israeli Cabinet official despite Netanyahu’s concerns

White House defends Harris meeting with Israeli Cabinet official despite Netanyahu’s concerns
  • Israel has essentially agreed to the deal, according to a senior Biden administration official, and the White House has emphasized that the onus is on Hamas to come on board

WASHINGTON: Vice President Kamala Harris and other top Biden administration officials were holding talks on Monday with a member of Israel’s wartime Cabinet who came to Washington in defiance of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
White House officials said Benny Gantz, a centrist political rival of Netanyahu, requested the meeting and the Democratic administration believed it was important to meet with the prominent Israeli official despite Netanyahu’s objections.
The meeting comes as President Joe Biden, Harris and other senior administration officials have become increasingly blunt about their dissatisfaction with the mounting death toll in Gaza and suffering of innocent Palestinians as the war nears the five-month mark.
“We’re going to discuss a number of things in terms of the priorities that certainly we have, which includes getting a hostage deal done, getting aid in and then getting that six-week ceasefire,” Harris told reporters before her meeting with Gantz.
The US on Saturday carried out the first of what is expected to be ongoing aidrops of humanitarian aid into Gaza.
The moment is reflective of the increasingly awkward dynamics in the US-Israel relationship, with the US forced to fly badly needed aid past its close ally as it looks to ramp up badly needed assistance for civilians in Gaza. The first airdrop occurred just days after more than 100 Palestinians were killed as they were trying to get food from an Israel-organized convoy.
The White House agreed to the meeting with Gantz even as an official from Netanyahu’s nationalist Likud party said Gantz did not have approval from the prime minister for his meetings in Washington. Netanyahu gave Gantz a “tough talk” about the visit — underscoring a widening crack within Israel’s wartime leadership.
“We have been dealing with all members of the war Cabinet, including Mr. Gantz,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby said. “We see this as a natural outgrowth of those discussions. We’re not going to turn away that sort of opportunity.”
In addition to his talks with Harris, Gantz is meeting on Monday with National Security Council Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk and Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser. Gantz was also scheduled to meet on Monday with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. And he will meet with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday.
Gantz just before the start of his White House meetings told a reporter with Israel’s public broadcaster Kan: “There will be an open and honest conversation between two friendly and important countries and partners.”
Biden is at Camp David, the presidential retreat just outside Washington, until Tuesday.
Over the weekend, Harris issued a forceful call for a temporary ceasefire deal in Gaza, which administration officials say would halt fighting for at least six weeks, and also increased pressure on Israel not to impede the aid that workers were trying to get into the region. The White House has been advocating for that framework deal for weeks.
Israel has essentially agreed to the deal, according to a senior Biden administration official, and the White House has emphasized that the onus is on Hamas to come on board.
Biden faces mounting political pressure at home over his administration’s handling of the Israeli-Hamas war, which was triggered when militants in Gaza launched an attack, killing 1,200 people and taking about 250 people hostage.
In last week’s Michigan presidential primary, more than 100,000 Democratic primary voters cast ballots for “uncommitted.” Biden still easily won the state’s primary, but the coordinated push by voters on the left who are dissatisfied with the president’s unwavering support for Israel as its military operations in Gaza have left more than 30,000 Palestinians dead. The vote totals raise concerns for Democrats in a state Biden won by only 154,000 votes in 2020.
Gantz, who polls show could be a formidable candidate for prime minister if a vote were held today, is viewed as a political moderate. But he has remained vague about his view of Palestinian statehood — something that Biden sees as essential to forging a lasting peace once the conflict ends but that Netanyahu adamantly opposes.
It is also assumed that when the heavy fighting subsides, Gantz will leave the government, which would increase pressure for early elections.
Since Gantz joined Netanyahu’s three-minister war Cabinet in October, US officials have found him to be easier to deal with than either Netanyahu or Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. Although Gantz holds many of the same hard-line views as Netanyahu and Gallant, he has been seen as more open to compromise on critical issues, including the increased delivery of humanitarian assistance that will be a prime topic of discussion in the meetings in Washington this week.
Until now, calls for elections have been muted due to the war, but analysts think that when Gantz leaves the government, it will send a signal to the Israeli public that the need for national unity has passed and efforts to oust Netanyahu’s government can begin in earnest.
For his part while in Washington, Gantz aims to strengthen ties with the US, bolster support for Israel’s war and push for the release of Israeli hostages, according to a second Israeli official. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t allowed to publicly discuss the disputes within the Israeli government. Gantz is scheduled to head to London for meetings after his US visit.
It remains to be seen if Gantz while in Washington will diverge from Netanyahu’s stances on Palestinian statehood or carrying out an expanded operation in the southernmost Gaza city of Rafah. The Biden administration has repeatedly warned Israel against a Rafah operation without a plan to protect civilians.
“I don’t doubt there are some administration officials who believe just by meeting with Gantz they are undermining Netanyahu,” said Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative Washington think tank. “But if Gantz carries the government’s line on key issues of disagreement, these meetings are net-negative for the White House while helpful back home for Gantz.”


US Internet subsidy program set to run out of money in May

Ethernet cables used for internet connection. (REUTERS)
Ethernet cables used for internet connection. (REUTERS)
Updated 05 March 2024

US Internet subsidy program set to run out of money in May

Ethernet cables used for internet connection. (REUTERS)
  • Congress previously allocated $17 billion to help lower-income families and people impacted by COVID-19 gain Internet access through a $30 per month voucher to use toward Internet service

WASHINGTON: The Federal Communications Commission on Monday said a government broadband Internet subsidy program used by 23 million American households will run out of money in May and be shuttered without action by Congress.
FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel told lawmakers in a letter that April is the last month participants will get the full subsidy, with partial subsidies expected in May. Congress previously allocated $17 billion to help lower-income families and people impacted by COVID-19 gain Internet access through a $30 per month voucher to use toward Internet service.