Saudi Arabia to open new visa centers, introduce flights for Indian pilgrims

Special Saudi Arabia to open new visa centers, introduce flights for Indian pilgrims
Saudi Hajj and Umrah Minister Tawfiq Al-Rabiah speaks at a press conference in New Delhi on Dec. 5, 2023. (Indian Ministry of External Affairs)
Short Url
Updated 05 December 2023
Follow

Saudi Arabia to open new visa centers, introduce flights for Indian pilgrims

Saudi Arabia to open new visa centers, introduce flights for Indian pilgrims
  • More than 1.2m Indian pilgrims visited Saudi Arabia for Umrah in 2023
  • Hajj ‘important aspect’ of Saudi-India bilateral relations: Indian minister

NEW DELHI: Saudi Arabia will open new visa centers in India and introduce budget flights to facilitate the increasing number of Indian pilgrims in their Umrah journeys, Saudi Minister of Hajj and Umrah Tawfiq Al-Rabiah said on Tuesday.

Al-Rabiah is in New Delhi as part of an official trip aimed at strengthening collaboration with Indian officials and partners and streamlining Umrah pilgrimage for international pilgrims.

As part of its Vision 2030 reform plan, the Kingdom has utilized technological advancements, enhanced measures, and upgraded infrastructure to “transform Umrah into a rewarding religious expedition” for Muslims worldwide, Al-Rabiah pointed out during a joint press conference in the Indian capital.

With more than 200 million people professing Islam in India, the Hindu-majority country has the world’s largest Muslim-minority population.

In 2023, the number of Umrah pilgrims from India increased by around 74 percent compared to last year, surpassing 1.2 million people.

That increase was the result of Saudi-India collaborative efforts, Al-Rabiah noted, adding that the two countries had initiated discussions to increase direct flights between them “to accommodate an increasing number of Indians looking to perform Umrah.”

“We’re also focused on enhancing capacity to meet the anticipated increase by introducing new scheduled flights through Saudi low-cost airlines, flynas and flyadeal,” he said.

“These efforts are complemented by initiatives to streamline visa issuance procedures and establish three new visa centers in India.”

Indian minority affairs minister, Smriti Irani, who held talks with Al-Rabiah on Tuesday, said they had “productive discussions on how to further deepen engagements,” particularly on their cooperation for Hajj pilgrimage.

“Both nations have agreed to continue to work together to make the Hajj process as convenient and as seamless as possible with best provision of services for all Hajj pilgrims,” Irani told reporters at the press conference.

Under the 2023 Hajj quota, around 175,000 Indians – nearly 47 percent of whom were women – traveled to Saudi Arabia for the spiritual journey that is one of the five pillars of Islam.

India’s Minister of State for External Affairs Vellamvelly Muraleedharan, said Al-Rabiah’s visit would “bolster the overall bilateral partnership” between the two countries, adding that Hajj was an “important aspect” of that relationship.

“There is a mutual recognition that our partnership will not only be beneficial to our countries and communities … but will be valuable to the region and the world,” Muraleedharan added.


Jailed Russian activist Yashin to keep ‘fighting tyranny’ after Navalny death

Jailed Russian activist Yashin to keep ‘fighting tyranny’ after Navalny death
Updated 5 sec ago
Follow

Jailed Russian activist Yashin to keep ‘fighting tyranny’ after Navalny death

Jailed Russian activist Yashin to keep ‘fighting tyranny’ after Navalny death
  • Yashin was jailed for eight and a half years in December 2022, for spreading “false” information about the Russian army, under legislation criminalizing criticism of the Ukraine offensive

MOSCOW: Jailed Russian opposition politician Ilya Yashin vowed on Tuesday to continue fighting for democracy in Russia after learning his friend and colleague, Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, had died in prison.
The death of President Vladimir Putin’s top enemy last week triggered a flurry of outrage and raised fears for Navalny allies and other Kremlin critics imprisoned in Russia.
“As long as my heart beats in my chest, I will fight tyranny. As long as I live, I will fear no evil,” Yashin said in a post on social media, communicated through his lawyer.
Yashin was jailed for eight and a half years in December 2022, for spreading “false” information about the Russian army, under legislation criminalizing criticism of the Ukraine offensive.
“Of course, I understand the risks I face. I’m behind bars. My life is in Putin’s hands and it’s in danger,” he said.
Yashin was an ally of Navalny’s and close to Boris Nemtsov, another opposition politician who was killed near the Kremlin in 2015.
“We shared a common cause and dedicated our lives to making Russia peaceful, free and happy. Now both my friends are dead,” Yashin said.
He said he learned the news of Navalny’s death in his prison near Smolensk in western Russia and — like much of the opposition — laid blame on the Kremlin.
“In Putin’s understanding, this is how power is asserted — through murder, cruelty and demonstrative revenge,” he said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to say how Putin — who has not commented on the death — reacted to his main opponent dying.
Peskov also said an investigation into Navalny’s death was ongoing and its findings were yet to be released.
 

 


Putin says Russia will push further into Ukraine after ‘chaotic’ fall of Avdiivka

Putin says Russia will push further into Ukraine after ‘chaotic’ fall of Avdiivka
Updated 11 min 17 sec ago
Follow

Putin says Russia will push further into Ukraine after ‘chaotic’ fall of Avdiivka

Putin says Russia will push further into Ukraine after ‘chaotic’ fall of Avdiivka
  • Avdiivka, called Avdeyevka by Russians, has endured a decade of conflict

MOSCOW: President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday Russian troops would push further into Ukraine to build on their success on the battlefield after the fall of the town of Avdiivka where he said Ukrainian troops had been forced to flee in chaos.
The town, which once had a population of 32,000, fell to Russia on Saturday, Putin’s biggest battlefield victory since Russian forces captured the city of Bakhmut in May 2023.
Television footage released by Russia’s defense ministry showed that almost every house in Avdiivka had been branded with war.
Putin said on Tuesday the Ukrainian order to withdraw from the town had been announced after Ukrainian troops had already begun to flee in chaos. He said that all captured Ukrainian soldiers should be accorded their rights under international conventions on prisoners.
“As for the overall situation in Avdiivka, this is an absolute success, I congratulate you. It needs to be built on,” Putin told Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in the Kremlin.
“But that development must be well-prepared, provided with personnel, weapons, equipment and ammunition,” Putin said. “It seems to be self-evident, but nevertheless I draw your attention to it.”
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told CNN that Avdiivka would not have fallen had Kyiv received weapons held up by the US Congress’ failure to approve a large aid package.
“We wouldn’t (have lost) Avdiivka if we had all the artillery ammunition that we needed to defend it. Russia does not intend to pause or withdraw...Once Avdiivka is under their control, they undoubtedly will choose another city and begin to storm it,” Kuleba said.
Ukrainian troops, he said, were “making miracles...but the reason they have to sacrifice themselves and die is that someone is still debating a decision. I want everyone to remember that every day of debate in one place means another death in another place.”
The US Senate this month passed a $95 billion aid package that includes funds for Ukraine, but House of Representatives Speaker Mike Johnson has declined to bring it up for a vote on the floor of the House.

MONTHS OF FIGHTING
Ukraine said it withdrew its soldiers to save them from being fully surrounded after months of fierce fighting. The Ukrainian military said there had been casualties, but that the situation had stabilized somewhat after the retreat.
Each side said the other had suffered huge losses.
After the failure of Ukraine to pierce Russian front lines in the east and south last year, Moscow has been trying to grind down Ukrainian forces just as Kyiv ponders a major new mobilization.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appointed a new commander last week to run the war.
Putin sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine in February 2022, triggering full-scale war after eight years of conflict in eastern Ukraine between Ukrainian forces on one side and pro-Russian Ukrainians and Russian proxies on the other.
Avdiivka, called Avdeyevka by Russians, has endured a decade of conflict. It holds particular symbolism for Russia as it was briefly taken in 2014 by Moscow-backed separatists who seized a swathe of eastern Ukraine, but was then recaptured by Ukrainian troops who built extensive fortifications.
Avdiivka sits in the industrial Donbas region, 15 km (9 miles) north of the Russian-controlled Ukrainian city of Donetsk. Before the war, Avdiivka’s Soviet-era coke plant was one of Europe’s biggest.
Shoigu said Russian forces had also taken control of the village of Krynky in Ukraine’s southern Kherson region. Ukraine’s southern military command said its troops had held their positions on the left bank of the River Dnipro and that Russian attacks were unsuccessful.
Neither side gives death tolls for the war.


Eleven Ukraine children returned from Russia

Eleven Ukraine children returned from Russia
Updated 6 min 16 sec ago
Follow

Eleven Ukraine children returned from Russia

Eleven Ukraine children returned from Russia
  • Ukraine estimates 20,000 children have been forced to Russia since the war erupted in February 2022

MOSCOW: Eleven Ukrainian children crossed the border from Belarus to Ukraine Tuesday evening, in the latest return of children taken to Russia and occupied territories during the nearly two-year Ukraine war.
Emerging from the darkness at a humanitarian crossing on the Belarus border, the children hugged family members who had been waiting for more than six hours.
Oleksandr, 16, is the oldest among those returned by Moscow through a Qatar-mediated scheme.
“My new life is starting,” he said, smiling shyly and describing the “joy and slight nerves.”

Ambassador of Qatar to Russia Sheikh Ahmed bin Nasser Al Thani and Russia's presidential commissioner for children's rights Maria Lvova-Belova interact with Ukrainian children before their departure to Ukraine from Russia under a deal brokered by Qatar, at the Qatari embassy in Moscow on February 19, 2024. (AFP)

The children were received by the Qatari embassy in Moscow on Monday before traveling to Belarus and walking across the one-kilometer border zone — while some relatives were able to meet the children directly in Moscow.
Two critically ill children were brought over in an ambulance and rushed to hospital.
Ukraine estimates 20,000 children have been forced to Russia since the war erupted in February 2022.
President Volodymyr Zelensky has called the action “a genocide.” Russia denies the accusations.

Russia's presidential commissioner for children's rights Maria Lvova-Belova interacts with Ukrainian children before their departure to Ukraine from Russia under a deal brokered by Qatar, at the Qatari embassy in Moscow on February 19, 2024. (AFP)

The group of children is the fourth and largest to have been returned with Qatar’s help and included some as young as two, Ukrainian Human Rights Commissioner Dmytro Lubinets told AFP at the border.
“Believe me, we will bring them all back,” Lubinets assured the waiting relatives.

Oleksandr’s aunt Viktoria, 47, had not seen him since the war broke out.
She unsuccessfully tried to collect her nephew three times and only managed to speak to him on the phone recently.
Officials in Russian-occupied Lugansk sent him to a state boarding school, similar to a children’s home, where they took away his documents and “psychologically pressured him to stop him leaving,” she said.
“Our situation seemed deadlocked.”
Oleksandr was sent to the school after his mother and older brother, 21, were killed by shelling of their car as they tried to flee the Lugansk region in July 2022.
Sometimes Oleksandr dreams of his mother screaming as she died, his aunt added.
Now she plans to take her nephew to live with her in Zhytomyr near Kyiv.
“We will celebrate and show him the city.”
Computer developer Sergiy, 36, from Kyiv, also pulled his niece and nephew into a tight embrace as he collected them at the border.
After their parents died, Lev, 13, and Zhazmin, 10, lived with a distant relative in their home city of Russian-occupied Mariupol.
The relative moved them to the suburbs of Moscow as Mariupol became a fierce battlefield in the spring of 2022, before later returning to the Ukrainian city.
The relative “had no desire to take care of the children” so she tried to put them in a state children’s home, Sergiy said.
“I thought it was almost impossible to get the kids back.”
Smiling, Sergiy said he was ready to become a father of two, having no children himself.
“I will try to show them what it is like when they are needed and when someone can properly care of and support them.”
Another mother, who wished to remain anonymous, collected her 13-year-old son after she was held prisoner in Mariupol.

“With an intermediary... we have new approaches, and you can see the result,” Lubinets said.
Lubinets added that he had just returned from meeting Qatar’s prime minister to discuss the return of both children and civilians.
“I can’t disclose the details publicly yet, but I will say that I saw the maximum interest for Qatar to take part in this.”
For his part, Qatari ambassador Hadi Nasser Mansour Al-Hajjri told AFP that the country was ready to help bring out more people.
“If there is a request from both sides, we will do it, we are eager to do it.”
“We are open for any possibilities: bringing prisoners of war or political prisoners... and the kids, we are open for all these things.”
Since July 2023, Qatar has helped bring out almost 30 children, the ambassador said.
“We are almost the only country involved in the issue so we will continue.”
 

 


Major Pakistan parties reach consensus to form coalition government after Feb. 8 indecisive vote

Major Pakistan parties reach consensus to form coalition government after Feb. 8 indecisive vote
Updated 26 min 44 sec ago
Follow

Major Pakistan parties reach consensus to form coalition government after Feb. 8 indecisive vote

Major Pakistan parties reach consensus to form coalition government after Feb. 8 indecisive vote
  • Pakistan is currently treading a tricky path to economic recovery under a caretaker government after it narrowly escaped a default in June last year, thanks to a last-gasp $3 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout

ISLAMABAD: Former foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari announced on Tuesday that his Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) had reached an agreement with three-time former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) to form a coalition government after this month’s national election in Pakistan failed to present a clear winner.

The PML-N bagged 75 seats in the National Assembly, lower house of Pakistan parliament, while the PPP managed to grab 54 seats in the Feb. 8 national election, according to official results.

The agreement between the two major political parties is expected to end days of political uncertainty in the South Asian country that is facing an economic meltdown and security challenges.

Speaking at a press conference in Islamabad, Bhutto-Zardari confirmed that Shehbaz Sharif, the PML-N president and a former premier, would be their joint candidate for prime minister, and his father, Asif Ali Zardari, will be the candidate for president.

“The numbers of Pakistan Peoples Party and Muslim League-Nawaz have been completed and God willing, we will now act on government formation,” he said. “It is hoped that God willing, Shehbaz Sharif sahib will soon become the prime minister of the country once again.”

He said they all prayed for the success of the new government, which faces a daunting task of reviving the struggling $350 billion South Asian economy.

Pakistan is currently treading a tricky path to economic recovery under a caretaker government after it narrowly escaped a default in June last year, thanks to a last-gasp $3 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout.

However, the current IMF program expires next month and the new government will have to quickly secure another bailout to keep the economy afloat.

Speaking on the occasion, Shehbaz thanked the PPP for its support for the government formation.

“With the help of the PPP, we have the required numbers to form the government,” he said, promising to support Zardari in his bid for the presidency.

To a question, Shehbaz said decisions regarding appointments on different constitutional positions like the Senate chairman, speaker and provincial governors would be made after consultation.

In his brief comments, Zardari said they made the alliance for the sake of the country and its future generations.

“We reassure everyone our struggle is for Pakistan and future generations,” he said.

While the announcements are expected to end political uncertainty regarding the government formation, fears still loom large of some political instability in the future as independent candidates, most loyal to jailed former premier Imran Khan, have the highest 101 seats in the National Assembly, but they cannot form the government on their own, having run as individuals and not a party.

To form the government, a party or a coalition needs at least 169 members in the 336-member National Assembly to elect a prime minister.

To keep its chances of returning to power alive, Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party this week said that independent candidates backed by it would join the minority Sunni Ittehad Council (SIC) party to secure reserved seats for women and minorities in Pakistan parliament, which are only allotted to political parties based on their representation in the assembly.

Since his ouster, Khan, who remains in jail on a slew of charges, has waged an unprecedented campaign of defiance against the country’s powerful military, which he blames for his removal in a parliamentary no-trust vote in April 2022. The ex-premier has lately refused to share power with Sharif’s PML-N and the Bhutto-Zardari-led PPP.

Speaking at the presser, Bhutto-Zardari said the Sunni Ittehad Council party would not have the required numbers in parliament to form the government. The assertion was echoed by PM’s candidate Shehbaz.

According to Pakistan’s constitution, a session of parliament has to be called by Feb. 29 after which a vote for the new prime minister will take place.

 


WikiLeaks founder Assange faces his last legal roll of the dice in Britain to avoid US extradition

WikiLeaks founder Assange faces his last legal roll of the dice in Britain to avoid US extradition
Updated 20 February 2024
Follow

WikiLeaks founder Assange faces his last legal roll of the dice in Britain to avoid US extradition

WikiLeaks founder Assange faces his last legal roll of the dice in Britain to avoid US extradition
  • Hundreds of supporters holding ‘Free Julian Assange’ signs and chanting ‘there is only one decision — no extradition’
  • Assange’s lawyers want judges to reconsider allegations that the CIA developed plans to kidnap or kill Assange while he was in the Ecuadorian Embassy

LONDON: Julian Assange’s lawyers opened a final UK legal challenge Tuesday to stop the WikiLeaks founder from being sent to the United States to face spying charges, arguing that American authorities are seeking to punish him for exposing serious criminal acts by the US government.
Lawyer Edward Fitzgerald said Assange may “suffer a flagrant denial of justice” if he is sent to the US At a two-day High Court hearing, Assange’s attorneys are asking judges to grant a new appeal, his last legal roll of the dice in Britain.
Assange himself was not in court. Judge Victoria Sharp said he was granted permission to come from Belmarsh Prison for the hearing, but had chosen not to attend. Fitzgerald said the 52-year-old Australian was unwell.
Stella Assange, his wife, said Julian had wanted to attend, but that his health was “not in good condition.”
“He was sick over Christmas, he’s had a cough since then,” she told The Associated Press. She said The WikiLeaks founder was following proceedings through his lawyers.
Assange’s family and supporters say his physical and mental health have suffered during more than a decade of legal battles, including seven years in self-exile in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and the last five years in the high-security prison on the outskirts of the British capital.
He has been indicted on 17 charges of espionage and one charge of computer misuse over his website’s publication of classified US documents almost 15 years ago. American prosecutors say Assange helped US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning steal diplomatic cables and military files that WikiLeaks later published, putting lives at risk.
To his supporters, Assange is a secrecy-busting journalist who exposed US military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan. They argue that the prosecution is politically motivated and he won’t get a fair trial in the US
Hundreds of supporters holding “Free Julian Assange” signs and chanting “there is only one decision — no extradition” held a noisy protest outside the neo-Gothic High Court in London. Rallies were also held in cities around the world, including Rome, Brussels and Berlin.
“If Julian Assange is successfully extradited to the US, journalists the world over are going to have to watch their back,” said Simon Crowther, legal adviser to human rights group Amnesty International.
Stella Assange told the crowd the case was about “the right to be able to speak freely without being put in prison and hounded and terrorized by the state.”
Referring to the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who died in prison last week, she said: “What happened to Navalny can happen to Julian, and will happen to Julian if he is extradited.”
Stella Assange, who married the WikiLeaks founder in prison in 2022 — said last week that his health has deteriorated during years of confinement and “if he’s extradited, he will die.”
If the judges rule against Assange, he can ask the European Court of Human Rights to block his extradition — though supporters worry he could be put on a plane to the US before that happens, because the British government has already signed an extradition order.
Assange’s lawyers say he could face up to 175 years in prison if convicted, though American authorities have said the sentence is likely to be much shorter.
While several of Assange’s arguments against extradition have already been rejected by British courts, his lawyers are trying to make new points to secure an appeal.
Assange’s attorneys argued that the prosecution is politically motivated retaliation for WikiLeaks’ “exposure of criminality on the part of the US government on an unprecedented scale,” including torture and killings.
“The US was prepared to go to any lengths (including misusing its own criminal justice system) to sustain impunity for US officials in respect of the torture/war crimes committed in its infamous ‘war on terror,’ and to suppress those actors and courts willing and prepared to try to bring those crimes to account,” Assange’s lawyers said in written arguments. “Mr. Assange was one of those targets.”
Assange’s lawyers also want judges to reconsider allegations that the CIA developed plans to kidnap or kill Assange while he was in the Ecuadorian Embassy. A lower-court judge has dismissed the claims, but Assange attorney Mark Summers said Tuesday that there’s evidence “the plot was real.”
“There was a plot to kidnap Mr. Assange, to rendition him to America, or else straightforwardly murder him,” he claimed.
Fitzgerald added that “there is a real possibility of the return of a Trump administration” prepared to consider “extrajudicial attack, or worse” against Assange.
Lawyers for the US government will set out their case on Wednesday. James Lewis, representing the US, said Assange was being prosecuted “because he is alleged to have committed serious criminal offenses.”
He argued in written submissions that Assange’s actions “threatened damage to the strategic and national security interests of the United States” and put individuals named in the documents — including Iraqis and Afghans who had helped US forces — at risk of “serious physical harm.”
Assange’s legal troubles began in 2010, when he was arrested in London at the request of Sweden, which wanted to question him about allegations of rape and sexual assault made by two women. In 2012, Assange jumped bail and sought refuge inside the Ecuadorian Embassy.
The relationship between Assange and his hosts eventually soured, and he was evicted from the embassy in April 2019. British police immediately arrested and imprisoned him for breaching bail in 2012. Sweden dropped the sex crimes investigations in November 2019 because so much time had elapsed.
A UK district court judge rejected the US extradition request in 2021 on the grounds that Assange was likely to kill himself if held under harsh US prison conditions. Higher courts overturned that decision after getting assurances from the US about his treatment. The British government signed an extradition order in June 2022.
Meanwhile, the Australian parliament last week called for Assange to be allowed to return to his homeland.
The judges, Sharp and Jeremy Johnson, could deliver a verdict at the end of the hearing on Wednesday, but they’re more likely to take several weeks to consider their decision.