Pro-EU ex-minister beats Slovak PM Fico’s ally to set up run-off presidential vote

Pro-EU ex-minister beats Slovak PM Fico’s ally to set up run-off presidential vote
Slovakia's presidential candidate Peter Pellegrini speaks as he reacts to preliminary results of the country's presidential election, in Bratislava, Slovakia, on March 24, 2024. (REUTERS)
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Updated 24 March 2024
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Pro-EU ex-minister beats Slovak PM Fico’s ally to set up run-off presidential vote

Pro-EU ex-minister beats Slovak PM Fico’s ally to set up run-off presidential vote
  • Opposition forces want a counterbalance to the rule of Prime Minister Robert Fico
  • The populist leader has angered critics for veering too close to Russia

BRATISLAVA: A pro-EU former Slovak foreign minister scored a surprise victory in the first round of a presidential election on Saturday, setting up a run-off vote with a key ally of populist Prime Minister Robert Fico.

Slovakia’s presidential election is a chance for Fico, whose views on Ukraine have angered critics for veering too close to Russia, to strengthen his grip on power. Opposition forces want a counterbalance to his rule.
The government’s foreign policy shift, attempts to revamp the country’s criminal laws and clashes with media outlets have led to a series of protests and criticism from President Zuzana Caputova, 50, who has been a fierce opponent of Fico but did not seek a new term.
Ivan Korcok, 59, a career diplomat who was minister in a past government, is seeking to follow her and won the most votes among nine candidates in the first round.
His 42.5 percent share of the vote, with 99.9 percent of districts counted, was above 37.1 percent for Peter Pellegrini, 48, the parliament speaker who heads junior government party Hlas (Voice).
The two will advance to a run-off on April 6 in which Korcok said he needed to reach voters across the political spectrum.
“I certainly have to speak to the tens of thousands of voters of the ruling coalition who disagree with where the government is pulling Slovakia,” Korcok told his supporters.
A Russian-leaning former Supreme Court chief, Stefan Harabin, gained the third most votes at just 11.75 percent, after getting support from a nationalist party that is also in the government coalition. His voters could help Pellegrini.
Fico and his ruling leftist Smer party won a parliamentary election last September with pledges to halt military aid to Ukraine and maintain support for people hit by price surges.
Pellegrini, a former prime minister and ex-member of Smer, was key in forming a coalition and said the first-round results on Saturday showed a majority did not want a “liberal-right-progressive” president who would only be in conflict with the government.
“The majority in Slovakia expressed an interest in having a president who will defend the national state interests,” he said.
Presidents do not wield many executive powers but have a role in government and judicial appointments, can veto laws and shape public debate as the liberal Caputova often did.
Voters in the past have rejected giving ruling parties both the government and presidential offices, including Caputova’s win in 2019 when anti-corruption sentiment hurt Fico’s party, which was in government then.
“This election will show whether mass protests that have taken place in Bratislava and other major cities in recent weeks are also supported by people who usually express their disapproval at the polling stations,” said Radoslav Stefancik, a political analyst at the University of Economics in Bratislava, the capital.

Split views on Ukraine
The war in Ukraine, high inflation and chaotic governance under an opposition-led coalition from 2020-2023 have polarized voters. Opinion polls before Saturday showed Pellegrini leading and being the likely winner in a run-off with Korcok.
Fico has abruptly shifted parts of Slovakia’s foreign policy, ending state military supplies to Ukraine — while still allowing commercial supply deals — and opening dialogue with Moscow even as the European Union isolates the Russian regime.
Pellegrini has said Slovakia will remain anchored in the EU and NATO but, like Fico, says the conflict in Ukraine does not have a military solution and supports peace talks between Kyiv and Moscow — a stance Korcok and other critics say is capitulation when parts of Ukraine are occupied.
Fico’s coalition government has pushed criminal law changes that critics say weaken the fight against corruption. Caputova, as president, has challenged the changes at the Constitutional Court.
The government’s decision to shut a dedicated state graft prosecution unit was heavily criticized by the European Commission this week.
Fico’s administration is planning changes that will give it more control over public broadcaster RTVS, raising concern among advocates for press freedom. Korcok has criticized the government’s push for more power.


India shuts schools as temperatures soar

India shuts schools as temperatures soar
Updated 5 sec ago
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India shuts schools as temperatures soar

India shuts schools as temperatures soar
  • India’s weather bureau has warned of “severe heat wave conditions” this week
  • Sweltering heat has dipped voter turnout in India, where world’s largest election is underway

New Delhi: Indian authorities in the capital have ordered schools shut early for the summer holiday, after temperatures hit 47.4 degrees Celsius (117 degrees Fahrenheit) with Delhi gripped by a “severe heatwave.”

Delhi city officials asked schools to shut with “immediate effect” due to the blistering heat, according to a government order quoted by the Hindustan Times Tuesday, cutting short the term by a few days.

India’s weather bureau has warned of “severe heatwave conditions” this week, with the mercury reaching the sizzling peak of 47.4 degrees Celsius in Delhi’s Najafgarh suburb on Monday, the hottest temperature countrywide.

Authorities in other states — including Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Rajasthan — have also ordered schools close, Indian Today reported.

India is no stranger to searing summer temperatures.

But years of scientific research have found climate change is causing heatwaves to become longer, more frequent and more intense.

The Indian Meteorological Department warned of the impact of the heat on the health especially for infants, the elderly and those with chronic diseases.

In May 2022, parts of Delhi hit 49.2 degrees Celsius (120.5 Fahrenheit), Indian media reported at the time.

The next round of voting in India’s six-week-long election takes place on Saturday, including in Delhi.

Turnout in voting has dipped, with analysts suggesting the hotter-than-average weather is a factor — as well as the widespread expectation that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will easily win a third term.

India’s election commission has formed a task force to review the impact of heatwaves and humidity before each round of voting.

At the same time, India’s southern states including Tamil Nadu and Kerala have been lashed by heavy rains over the past few days.

Severe storms also hit parts of the country last week, including in the financial capital Mumbai, where strong winds flattened a giant billboard that killed 16 people and left dozens more trapped.


How cockroaches spread around the globe to become the pest we know today

How cockroaches spread around the globe to become the pest we know today
Updated 21 May 2024
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How cockroaches spread around the globe to become the pest we know today

How cockroaches spread around the globe to become the pest we know today
  • Study confirms German cockroach species found worldwide actually originated in southeast Asia
  • Cockroaches may have stowed away with people to travel to Middle East, Europe, says study

DALLAS: They’re six-legged, hairy home invaders that just won’t die, no matter how hard you try.

Cockroaches are experts at surviving indoors, hiding in kitchen pipes or musty drawers. But they didn’t start out that way.

A new study uses genetics to chart cockroaches’ spread across the globe, from humble beginnings in southeast Asia to Europe and beyond. The findings span thousands of years of cockroach history and suggest the pests may have scuttled across the globe by hitching a ride with another species: people.

“It’s not just an insect story,” said Stephen Richards, an assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine who studies insect genes and was not involved with the study. “It’s an insect and humanity story.”

Researchers analyzed the genes of over 280 cockroaches from 17 countries and six continents. They confirmed that the German cockroach — a species found worldwide — actually originated in southeast Asia, likely evolving from the Asian cockroach around 2,100 years ago. Scientists have long suspected the German cockroach’s Asian origins since similar species still live there.

The research was published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The cockroaches then globe-trotted via two major routes. They traveled west to the Middle East about 1,200 years ago, perhaps hitchhiking in soldiers’ breadbaskets. And they may have stowed away on Dutch and British East India Company trade routes to get to Europe about 270 years ago, according to scientists’ reconstruction and historical records.

Once they arrived, inventions like the steam engine and indoor plumbing likely helped the insects travel further and get cozy living indoors, where they are most commonly found today.

Researchers said exploring how cockroaches conquered past environments may lead to better pest control.

Modern-day cockroaches are tough to keep at bay because they evolve quickly to resist pesticides, according to study author Qian Tang, a postdoctoral researcher studying insects at Harvard University.
 


9 Egyptians go on trial in Greece over deadly shipwreck, as rights groups question process

9 Egyptians go on trial in Greece over deadly shipwreck, as rights groups question process
Updated 21 May 2024
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9 Egyptians go on trial in Greece over deadly shipwreck, as rights groups question process

9 Egyptians go on trial in Greece over deadly shipwreck, as rights groups question process
  • International human rights groups argue the defendants’ right to a fair trial is being compromised as they face judgment before an investigation is concluded

KALAMATA: Nine Egyptian men go on trial in southern Greece on Tuesday, accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants and sent shockwaves through the European Union’s border protection and asylum operations.
The defendants, most in their 20s, face up to life in prison if convicted on multiple criminal charges over the sinking of the “Adriana” fishing trawler on June 14 last year.
International human rights groups argue that their right to a fair trial is being compromised as they face judgment before an investigation is concluded into claims the Greek coast guard may have botched the rescue attempt.
More than 500 people are believed to have gone down with the fishing trawler, which had been traveling from Libya to Italy. Following the sinking, 104 people were rescued — mostly migrants from Syria, Pakistan and Egypt — and 82 bodies were recovered.
Early Tuesday, police in riot gear clashed with members of a small group of protesters gathered in front of the courthouse and detained two people.
United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres has described the shipwreck off the southern coast of Greece as “horrific.”
The sinking renewed pressure on European governments to protect the lives of migrants and asylum seekers trying to reach the continent, as the annual number of people traveling illegally across the Mediterranean continues to rise.
Lawyers from Greek human rights groups are representing the nine Egyptians, who deny the smuggling charges.
“There’s a real risk that these nine survivors could be found ‘guilty’ on the basis of incomplete and questionable evidence given that the official investigation into the role of the coast guard has not yet been completed,” said Judith Sunderland, an associate director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch.
Authorities say the defendants were identified by other survivors and the indictments are based on their testimonies.
The European border protection agency Frontex says illegal border detections at EU frontiers increased for three consecutive years through 2023, reaching the highest level since the 2015-2016 migration crisis — driven largely by arrivals at the sea borders.


France begins its first war crime trial of Syrian officials

France begins its first war crime trial of Syrian officials
Updated 21 May 2024
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France begins its first war crime trial of Syrian officials

France begins its first war crime trial of Syrian officials
  • The Paris Criminal Court will try the three officials for their role in the deaths of two French Syrian men

PARIS: The first trial in France of officials of the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad is to begin on Tuesday, with three top security officers to be tried in absentia for complicity in crimes against humanity and war crimes.
The Paris Criminal Court will try the three officials for their role in the deaths of two French Syrian men, Mazzen Dabbagh and his son Patrick, arrested in Damascus in 2013.
“For the first time, French courts will address the crimes of the Syrian authorities, and will try the most senior members of the authorities to ever be prosecuted since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in March 2011,” said the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).
The war between Assad’s regime and armed opposition groups, including Daesh, erupted after the government repressed peaceful pro-democracy protests in 2011.
The conflict has killed more than half a million people, displaced millions, and ravaged Syria’s economy and infrastructure.
Trials into the abuses of the Syrian regime have taken place elsewhere in Europe, notably in Germany.
But in those cases, the people prosecuted held lower ranks and were present at the hearings.
Ali Mamlouk, former head of the National Security Bureau, Jamil Hassan, former director of the Air Force intelligence service, and Abdel Salam Mahmoud, former head of investigations for the service in Damascus, are subject to international arrest warrants and will be tried in absentia.
Scheduled to last four days, the hearings will be filmed.
War crimes
At the time of the arrest, Patrick Dabbagh was a 20-year-old student in his second year of arts and humanities at the University of Damascus. His father Mazzen worked as a senior education adviser at the French high school in Damascus.
The two were arrested in November 2013 by officers who claimed to belong to the Syrian Air Force intelligence service.
“Witness testimony confirms that Mazzen and Patrick Abdelkader were both taken to a detention center at Mezzeh Military Airport, which is run by Syrian Air Force Intelligence and notorious for the use of brutal torture,” the International Federation for Human Rights said, stressing that the pair were not involved in protests against the Assad regime.
They were declared dead in 2018. The family was formally notified that Patrick died on 21 January 2014. His father Mazzen died nearly four years later, on 25 November 2017.
In the committal order, the investigating judges said that it was “sufficiently established” that the two men “like thousands of detainees of the Air Force intelligence suffered torture of such intensity that they died.”
During the probe, French investigators and the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), a non-governmental organization, collected accounts of torture and mistreatment at the Mezzeh prison, including the use of electric shocks and sexual violence, from dozens of witnesses including former detainees.
Lawyer Clemence Bectarte, who represents the Dabbagh family and the International Federation for Human Rights, said the trial was a new reminder that “under no circumstances” should relations with the Assad regime be normalized.
“We tend to forget that the regime’s crimes are still being committed today,” she said.


France and Belgium support ICC request for arrest warrants of Israel and Hamas leaders

France and Belgium support ICC request for arrest warrants of Israel and Hamas leaders
Updated 29 min 53 sec ago
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France and Belgium support ICC request for arrest warrants of Israel and Hamas leaders

France and Belgium support ICC request for arrest warrants of Israel and Hamas leaders
  • If such warrants are issued, members of the court, could be put in a diplomatically difficult position

PARIS: France and Belgium released statements supporting the world’s top war crimes court’s request for arrest warrants for leaders of Israel and Hamas, after Israel and the United States both harshly condemned the effort.
On Monday, ICC prosecutor Karim Khan said he had requested arrest warrants for Netanyahu, his defense chief Yoav Gallant and three Hamas leaders, including its chief, Yahya Sinwar.
If such warrants are issued, however, members of the court, which includes nearly all countries of the European Union, could be put in a diplomatically difficult position.
“France supports the International Criminal Court, its independence and the fight against impunity in all situations,” the foreign ministry said in a statement late on Monday.
While US President Joe Biden called the legal step against Israeli officials “outrageous,” the French foreign ministry took a different stance.
It reiterated both its condemnation of Hamas’s ‘anti-Semitic massacres’ on Oct. 7 as well as its warnings over possible violations of international humanitarian law by Israel’s invasion of the Gaza strip.
“As far as Israel is concerned, it will be up to the court’s pre-trial chamber to decide whether to issue these warrants, after examining the evidence put forward by the prosecutor ... ,” the ministry said.