Belarusians vote in a tightly controlled election as the opposition calls for its boycott

Belarusians vote in a tightly controlled election as the opposition calls for its boycott
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko presents flowers to an election commission official ahead of voting at a polling station in Minsk, Belarus, on Feb. 25, 2024. (Belarusian Presidential Press Service via AP)
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Updated 26 February 2024
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Belarusians vote in a tightly controlled election as the opposition calls for its boycott

Belarusians vote in a tightly controlled election as the opposition calls for its boycott
  • Sunday’s balloting is the first in Belarus since the contentious 2020 vote that handed Lukashenko his sixth term in office
  • Belarus' opposition has called for a boycott of the election, which took place amid a relentless crackdown on dissent

TALLINN, Estonia: Sunday’s tightly controlled parliamentary and local elections in Belarus are set to cement the hard-line rule of the country’s authoritarian leader, despite a prominent opposition leader’s call for a boycott.

President Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus with an iron hand for nearly three decades and on Sunday announced that he will run for the presidency again next year. He accuses the West of trying to use the vote to undermine his government and “destabilize” the nation of 9.5 million people.

Most candidates belong to the four officially registered parties: Belaya Rus, the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party and the Party of Labor and Justice. Those parties all support Lukashenko’s policies. About a dozen other parties were denied registration last year.
Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who is in exile in neighboring Lithuania after challenging Lukashenko in the 2020 presidential election, urged voters to boycott the elections.
“There are no people on the ballot who would offer real changes because the regime only has allowed puppets convenient for it to take part,” Tsikhanouskaya said in a video statement. “We are calling to boycott this senseless farce, to ignore this election without choice.” Tikhanovskaya’s video address was broadcast in public places throughout Belarus on Saturday after opposition activists were able to gain access to some 2,000 screens used for advertising. Viasna Human Rights Center reported Sunday that a number of employees at the company that owned the screens have been arrested in Minsk.
Sunday’s balloting is the first in Belarus since the contentious 2020 vote that handed Lukashenko his sixth term in office and triggered an unprecedented wave of mass demonstrations.
Protests swept the country for months, bringing hundreds of thousands into the streets. More than 35,000 people were arrested. Thousands were beaten in police custody, and hundreds of independent media outlets and nongovernmental organizations were shut down and outlawed.
Lukashenko has relied on subsidies and political support from his main ally, Russia, to survive the protests. He allowed Moscow to use Belarusian territory to send troops into Ukraine in February 2022.
The election takes place amid a relentless crackdown on dissent. Over 1,400 political prisoners remain behind bars, including leaders of opposition parties and renowned human rights advocate Ales Bialiatski, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022.
The opposition says the early balloting that began Tuesday offers fertile ground for the vote to be manipulated, with ballot boxes unprotected for five days.
Election officials said Sunday that over 40 percent of the voters had cast ballots during early voting from Tuesday to Saturday. As of 9 p.m. local time, turnout was 72.98 percent, meeting the 50 percent threshold needed under Belarusian law in order for the vote to stand, according to the Belarusian Central Election Commission. Turnout in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, was notably lower than in other Belarusian regions, only reaching 61.54 percent. By comparison, the area with the next lowest turnout, the wider Minsk region, recorded 74.20 percent.
The Viasna Human Rights Center said students, soldiers, teachers and other civil servants were forced to participate in early voting.
“Authorities are using all available means to ensure the result they need — from airing TV propaganda to forcing voters to cast ballots early,” said Viasna representative Pavel Sapelka. “Detentions, arrests and searches are taking place during the vote.”
Speaking during Tuesday’s meeting with top Belarusian law enforcement officials, Lukashenko alleged without offering evidence that Western countries were pondering plans to stage a coup in the country or to try to seize power by force. He ordered police to beef up armed patrols across Belarus, declaring that “it’s the most important element of ensuring law and order.”
After the vote, Belarus is set to form a new state body — the 1,200-seat All-Belarus Popular Assembly that will include top officials, local legislators, union members, pro-government activists and others. It will have broad powers, including the authority to consider constitutional amendments and to appoint election officials and judges.
Lukashenko was believed a few years ago to be considering whether to lead the new body after stepping down, but his calculus has apparently changed, and he announced on Sunday that he will run in next year’s presidential election.
“Tell (the opposition) that I will run. And the more difficult the situation, the more actively they will disturb our society ... the more strain they put on you, myself and society, the sooner I will run in these elections,” the strongman leader told reporters as he cast his ballot in the Belarusian capital, according to state media.
For the first time, curtains were removed from voting booths at polling stations, and voters were banned from taking pictures of their ballots. During the 2020 election, activists encouraged voters to photograph their ballots in a bid to prevent authorities from manipulating the vote in Lukashenko’s favor.
Belarusian state TV aired footage of Interior Ministry drills in which police detained a purported offender who was photographing his ballot and others who created an artificial queue outside a polling station.
Belarus for the first time also refused to invite observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to monitor the election. Belarus is a member of the OSCE, a top trans-Atlantic security and rights group, and its monitors have been the only international observers at Belarusian elections for decades.
Since 1995, not a single election in Belarus has been recognized as free and fair by the OSCE.
The OSCE said the decision not to allow the agency’s monitors deprived the country of a “comprehensive assessment by an international body.”
“The human rights situation in Belarus continues to deteriorate as those who voice dissent or stand up for the human rights of others are subject to investigation, persecution and frequently prosecution,” it said in a statement.
Observers noted that authorities have not even tried to pretend that the vote is democratic.
The election offers the government an opportunity to run a “systems test after massive protests and a serious shock of the last presidential election and see whether it works,” said Artyom Shraibman, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. “The parliament will be sterile after the opposition and all alternative voices were barred from campaigning. It’s important for authorities to erase any memory of the protests.” In a statement, a US State Department official described the elections as a “sham.”
“The United States condemns the Lukashenko regime’s sham parliamentary and local elections that concluded today in Belarus. The elections were held in a climate of fear under which no electoral processes could be called democratic,” said spokesman Matthew Miller.
“The United States again calls on the Lukashenko regime to end its crackdown, release all political prisoners, and open dialogue with its political opponents. The Belarusian people deserve better.”


US to oppose Palestinian bid for full UN membership

US to oppose Palestinian bid for full UN membership
Updated 6 sec ago
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US to oppose Palestinian bid for full UN membership

US to oppose Palestinian bid for full UN membership
  • 15-member council is scheduled to vote on a draft resolution
  • Palestinians currently non-member observer state, de facto recognition of statehood

NEW YORK: The US will on Thursday vote against a Palestinian request for full United Nations membership, a US official told Reuters, blocking the world body from effectively recognizing a Palestinian state.
“It remains the US view that the most expeditious path toward statehood for the Palestinian people is through direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority with the support of the United States and other partners,” the US official said.
The 15-member council is scheduled to vote on a draft resolution that recommends to the 193-member UN General Assembly that “the State of Palestine be admitted to membership of the United Nations.”
A council resolution needs at least nine votes in favor and no vetoes by the US, Britain, France, Russia or China to pass. Diplomats say the measure could have the support of up to 13 council members, which would force the US to use its veto.
“We have long been clear that premature actions in New York, even with the best intentions, will not achieve statehood for the Palestinian people,” the US official said.
The Palestinians are currently a non-member observer state, a de facto recognition of statehood that was granted by the UN General Assembly in 2012. But an application to become a full UN member needs to be approved by the Security Council and then at least two-thirds of the General Assembly.
The Palestinian push for full UN membership comes six months into a war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, and as Israel is expanding settlements in the occupied West Bank.
“Recent escalations make it even more important to support good-faith efforts to find lasting peace between Israel and a fully independent, viable and sovereign Palestinian state,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the Security Council.
“Failure to make progress toward a two-State solution will only increase volatility and risk for hundreds of millions of people across the region, who will continue to live under the constant threat of violence,” he said.

DIRECT TALKS
Israel’s UN Ambassador Gilad Erdan said Palestinians failed to meet the criteria to become a full UN member, which he outlined as: a permanent population, defined territory, government, and capacity to enter relations with other states.
“Who is the council voting to ‘recognize’ and give full membership status to? Hamas in Gaza? The Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Nablus? Who?” Erdan asked the Security Council.
He said granting full UN membership to the Palestinians “will have zero positive impact for any party, that will cause only destruction for years to come, and harm any chance for future dialogue.”
The UN Security Council has long endorsed a vision of two states living side by side within secure and recognized borders. Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, all territory captured by Israel in 1967.
The Palestinian Authority, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas, exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank. Hamas ousted the Palestinian Authority from power in Gaza in 2007.
Ziad Abu Amr, special envoy of Abbas, asked the United States: “How could this damage the prospects of peace between Palestinians and Israelis? How could this recognition and this membership harm international peace and security?“
“Those who are trying to disrupt and hinder the adoption of such a resolution ... are not helping the prospects of peace between Palestinians and Israelis and the prospects for peace in the Middle East in general,” he told the Security Council.
Abu Amr said full Palestinian UN membership was not an alternative for serious political negotiations to implement a two-state solution and resolve pending issues, adding: “However, this resolution will grant hope to the Palestinian people hope for a decent life within an independent state.”


After COVID, WHO defines disease spread ‘through air’

After COVID, WHO defines disease spread ‘through air’
Updated 42 min 59 sec ago
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After COVID, WHO defines disease spread ‘through air’

After COVID, WHO defines disease spread ‘through air’
  • Agencies have historically required high levels of proof before calling diseases airborne, which required stringent containment
  • Past disagreements also centered around whether infectious particles were “droplets” or “aerosols” based on size

LONDON: The World Health Organization and around 500 experts have agreed for the first time what it means for a disease to spread through the air, in a bid to avoid the confusion early in the COVID-19 pandemic that some scientists have said cost lives.
The Geneva-based UN health agency released a technical document on the topic on Thursday. It said it was the first step toward working out how to better prevent this kind of transmission, both for existing diseases like measles and for future pandemic threats.
The document concludes that the descriptor “through the air” can be used for infectious diseases where the main type of transmission involves the pathogen traveling through the air or being suspended in the air, in line with other terms such as “waterborne” diseases, which are understood across disciplines and by the public.
Almost 500 experts contributed to the definition, including physicists, public health professionals and engineers, many of whom disagreed bitterly over the topic in the past.
Agencies have historically required high levels of proof before calling diseases airborne, which required very stringent containment measures; the new definition says the risk of exposure and severity of disease should also be considered.
Past disagreements also centered around whether infectious particles were “droplets” or “aerosols” based on size, which the new definition moves away from.
During the early days of COVID in 2020, around 200 aerosol scientists publicly complained that the WHO had failed to warn people of the risk that the virus could spread through the air. This led to an overemphasis on measures like handwashing to stop the virus, rather than focusing on ventilation, they said.
On Wednesday, Democrats in the Arizona state House failed to repeal a controversial ban on abortion that dates back to 1864 after they couldn’t muster Republican support.
By July 2020, the agency said there was “evidence emerging” of airborne spread, but its then chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan – who began the process to get a definition – later said, opens new tab the WHO should have been more forceful “much earlier.”
Her successor, Jeremy Farrar, said in an interview that the new definition was about more than COVID, but he added that at the beginning of the pandemic there was a lack of evidence available and experts including the WHO acted in “good faith.” At that time, he was head of the Wellcome Trust charity and advised the British government on the pandemic.
Farrar said getting the definition agreed among experts from all disciplines would allow discussions to begin about issues such as ventilation in many different settings, from hospitals to schools.
He compared it to the realization that blood-borne viruses like HIV or hepatitis B could be spread by medics not wearing gloves during procedures.
“When I started out, medical students, nurses, doctors, none of us wore gloves to take blood,” he told Reuters. “Now it is unthinkable that you wouldn’t wear gloves. But that came because everyone agreed on what the issue was, they agreed on the terminology… [The change in practice] came later.”


Reuters photographer wins World Press Photo of the Year with poignant shot from Gaza

Reuters photographer wins World Press Photo of the Year with poignant shot from Gaza
Updated 13 min 54 sec ago
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Reuters photographer wins World Press Photo of the Year with poignant shot from Gaza

Reuters photographer wins World Press Photo of the Year with poignant shot from Gaza
  • Mohammed Salem won for heartrending photo of a Palestinian woman cradling the body of her young niece
  • Inas Abu Maamar holds five-year-old Saly, killed along with her mother and sister when Israeli missile struck their home

PARIS: Reuters photographer Mohammed Salem captured this year’s prestigious World Press Photo of the Year award Thursday with a depiction of loss and sorrow in Gaza, a heartrending photo of a Palestinian woman cradling the body of her young niece. The photograph, taken in Khan Younis just days after Salem’s own child was born, shows 36-year-old Inas Abu Maamar holding five-year-old Saly, who was killed along with her mother and sister when an Israeli missile struck their home.
Salem, who is Palestinian, described this photo filed Nov. 2 last year, as a “powerful and sad moment that sums up the broader sense of what was happening in the Gaza Strip.”
The image ”truly encapsulates this sense of impact,” said global jury chair Fiona Shields, The Guardian newspaper’s head of photography. “It is incredibly moving to view and at the same time an argument for peace, which is extremely powerful when peace can sometimes feel like an unlikely fantasy,” she added.
The World Press Photo jury praised the shot’s sense of care and respect and its offering of a “metaphorical and literal glimpse into unimaginable loss.”

This image provided by World Press Photo and taken by Julia Kochetova is part of a series titles War is Personal which won the World Press Photo Open Format Award. Amidst tens of thousands of civilian and military causalities and an effective stalemate that has lasted for months, there are no signs of peace on the horizon for Russia’s war in Ukraine. (World Press Photo via AP)

This is not the first time Salem has been recognized for his work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; he received a World Press Photo award more than a decade ago for another depiction of the human toll of conflict in the Gaza strip.
In the three other global categories announced Thursday, South Africa’s Lee-Ann Olwage won Photo Story of the Year for her touching series “Valim-babena,” featured in GEO magazine. The project focused on the stigmatization of dementia in Madagascar, a topic she explored through intimate portraits of “Dada Paul” and his family. Lack of public awareness surrounding dementia means that people displaying symptoms of memory loss are often stigmatized.
In the series, “Dada Paul,” who has lived with dementia for 11 years, is tenderly cared for by his daughter Fara. One of the standout images in the series shows him preparing for church with his granddaughter Odliatemix, capturing moments of normalcy and warmth amidst the challenges of dementia.

This image provided by World Press Photo is a part of a multimedia project by AP’s Renata Brito and Felipe Dana title Adrift, won the World Press Photo Africa Regional Winner Open Format category and shows a mortuary technician opening the door of a refrigerator used to store the remains of migrants recovered from inside the Mauritania boat that appeared drifting near the island of Tobago in Scarborough on January 25, 2022. (AP)

Photographer Alejandro Cegarra, a Venezuelan native who migrated to Mexico in 2017, won the Long-Term Project award for “The Two Walls,” published by The New York Times and Bloomberg. Cegarra’s project, initiated in 2018, examines a shift in Mexico’s immigration policies, which have moved from being historically open to enforcing strict regulations at its southern border. The jury said the photographer’s perspective as a migrant gave it a “sensitive,” human-centered perspective, according to a press release.
Julia Kochetova of Ukraine won the Open Format award for “War Is Personal.” The project stood out from coverage of the ongoing conflict by offering a personal look at the harsh realities of war. On a dedicated website, she merged traditional photojournalism with a diary-like documentary style, incorporating photography, poetry, audio clips and music.
The Associated Press won the Open Format award in the regional Africa category with the multimedia story “Adrift,” created by journalists Renata Brito and Felipe Dana. The story investigates the fate of West African migrants who attempted to reach Europe via a treacherous Atlantic route but ended up on a ghost ship discovered off Tobago. The team’s compelling use of photography, cinematography and detailed narrative, enhanced by expert design and multimedia elements, highlights the perils faced by migrants and the human stories behind global migration issues.

This image provided by World Press Photo is a part of series titles Afghanistan on the Edge by Ebrahim Noroozi, Associated Press, which won the World Press Photo Asia Series category and shows three Afghan internally displaced children look with surprise at an apple that their mother brought home after begging in a camp on the outskirts of Kabul on February 2, 2023. (AP)

The Associated Press’ Ebrahim Noroozi won the Asia Stories award for his series “Afghanistan on the Edge,” which documents the country since the Taliban took over in August 2021.
World Press Photo is an independent, nonprofit organization based in the Netherlands, founded in 1955.


France’s Macron to meet Lebanon PM in Paris Friday: French presidency

French President Emmanuel Macron will meet Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati on Friday in Paris. (File/Reuters/AFP)
French President Emmanuel Macron will meet Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati on Friday in Paris. (File/Reuters/AFP)
Updated 18 April 2024
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France’s Macron to meet Lebanon PM in Paris Friday: French presidency

French President Emmanuel Macron will meet Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati on Friday in Paris. (File/Reuters/AFP)
  • Lebanon has been without a president for more than a year after ex-head of state Michel Aoun’s mandate expired
  • Former French colony is also in the grips of an unprecedented economic crisis

PARIS: France President Emmanuel Macron will meet Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati and army chief Joseph Aoun on Friday in Paris, the French presidency said.
The announcement on Thursday comes as fears have increased in recent days of a regional escalation in the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
Lebanon is grappling with a deep economic and political crisis.
That has been compounded by near-daily cross-border fire between Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah group and neighboring Israel ever since war erupted on October 7 between Israel and Hamas, a Hezbollah ally.
Hezbollah on Thursday said two of its fighters had been killed as Israel appeared to intensify strikes on south Lebanon following an attack by the Iran-backed group that wounded 14 Israeli soldiers.
Fears of a regional conflict have spiked in recent days after Tehran launched its first ever direct military attack on Israel late Saturday in retaliation for an April 1 air strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus widely blamed on Israel.
Lebanon has been without a president for more than a year after ex-head of state Michel Aoun’s mandate expired, with its feuding factions repeatedly failing in parliament to elect a new leader.
The multi-confessional former French colony is also in the grips of an unprecedented economic crisis.
Mikati has been prime minister since 2021 but leads a caretaker government with limited powers.
Joseph Aoun, no relation to the country’s former president, has good relations with all sides in the country and is sometimes put forward as someone who could lead it out of political deadlock.
Macron has visited the country twice in recent years in a bid to help bring it out of crisis, but then in 2023 assigned the task to former foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.


Philippines’ Marcos features among Time’s 100 most influential people

Philippines’ Marcos features among Time’s 100 most influential people
Updated 18 April 2024
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Philippines’ Marcos features among Time’s 100 most influential people

Philippines’ Marcos features among Time’s 100 most influential people
  • Other Filipinos previously featured are Rodrigo Duterte, Leila de Lima, Maria Ressa
  • Magazine recognizes Marcos’ attempts to rehabilitate the name of his dictator father and namesake

MANILA: Time magazine has featured Philippine President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. in its list of the 100 most influential people of 2024, which includes other heads of state, celebrities, scientists and tycoons.

First published in 1999, the annual list recognizes people from various fields for making an impact, breaking records or rules. Entrants are featured for making change — regardless of the consequences of their actions.

Marcos, 66, the son and namesake of the late Philippine dictator, won a landslide victory in the 2022 elections. He campaigned on the issue of national unity and portrayed himself as the candidate for change, promising happiness to 110 million Filipinos, weary of pandemic hardships and years of political polarization under his immediate predecessor Rodrigo Duterte.

The magazine recognized his efforts to rehabilitate and “whitewash” the name of his father and also highlighted his other achievements in office.

“He brought technocrats back into government, steadied the post-pandemic economy, and elevated the Philippines on the world stage,” Time’s news correspondent Charlie Campbell wrote.

“Many problems persist, including extrajudicial killings and journalists routinely attacked. But by trying to repair his family name, Bongbong may reshape his country too.”

The article also recognized Marcos for standing against Beijing’s claims in the disputed South China Sea, where Chinese ships have been regularly entering the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

Standing steadfast against Chinese aggression has also gained him praise at home.

“His policy on the West Philippine Sea of standing up against China is good,” said Raymond Zabala, a lawyer, who was “optimistic and skeptical at the same time” about Marcos’ inclusion in Time’s list, owing to unanswered issues about his family’s ill-gotten wealth and abuses during his father’s rule.

“Given his family’s background and some of the issues during the election campaign, I can’t help but feel critical.”

While appearing on Time’s list is often seen as an honor, Filipinos said they did not see how their country was improving its reputation, although they were observing fewer human rights violations compared with the previous Duterte administration and its “war on drugs,” which according to rights groups has led to the deaths of over 12,000 people.

“The Philippines will be reverting back to its usual image of a corrupt nation, probably minus the extrajudicial killings,” said Crystal Arcega, a law student.

Writer Pam Musni told Arab News she felt the perception of Marcos’ administration was the same as that of his predecessor’s, although “probably less bloodthirsty” and “more emboldened” against China.

“I understand why he was included in the list, with ‘influential’ not necessarily being a good or bad thing,” she said.

“It is especially frustrating that he does not make any significant strides towards the threat of climate change, and that he has expressed support for Israel, a country that has been killing many innocent lives in Palestine.”

A recent Pulse Asia survey showed Marcos’ performance ratings fell from 68 percent in December 2023 to 55 percent in March.

“I’m still waiting to hear how he plans to assert our sovereignty, since that is always a balancing act with the US,” said sustainable development practitioner J.K. Asturias.

Initially enthusiastic about Marcos’ $160 billion infrastructure plans under his Build Better More program, he has been increasingly critical over lack of support for alternative modes of transportation.

“In recent times I’ve been especially disappointed with how they are banning light electric vehicles even though there is a law that says the government should be incentivizing their adoption. I also feel he does a lot of greenwashing, pretending he’s pro-environment even though he pushes for mining,” Asturias said.

For him, the impression that Time’s list would create was one of the Filipinos’ tendency to forget.

“Many people will most likely see the Philippines as a nation that forgets too soon and forgives too much,” he said. “If they don’t think that already.”

Other Filipinos featured by Time have included Duterte and his vocal critic and former senator Leila de Lima in 2017.

Journalist Maria Ressa was recognized by Time in 2019 — two years before becoming a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

The late former President Corazon Aquino, a central figure in the ousting of Marcos’ father in the bloodless 1986 People Power Revolution, was Time’s Woman of the Year in 1987.