US accuses Syria of delaying constitution ahead of election

US soldiers walk near a Bradley Fighting Vehicle during a military patrol in the countryside near Al-Malikiyah in Syria’s Hasakah province on Tuesday. (AFP)
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Updated 29 October 2020

US accuses Syria of delaying constitution ahead of election

  • It calls for a Syrian-led political process starting with the establishment of a transitional governing body

NEW YORK: The US and several Western allies on Tuesday accused the Syrian regime of deliberately delaying the drafting of a new constitution to waste time until presidential elections in 2021, and avoid UN-supervised voting as called for by the UN Security Council.

US Deputy Ambassador Richard Mills urged the Security Council to “do everything in its power” to prevent Bashar Assad regime from blocking agreement on a new constitution in 2020. The Trump administration believes Assad’s hope is to “invalidate the work” of UN special envoy Geir Pedersen who has been trying to spearhead action on a constitution, and the council’s call for a political transition.

The Security Council resolution adopted in December 2015 unanimously endorsed a road map to peace in Syria that was approved in Geneva on June 30, 2012 by representatives of the UN, Arab League, EU, Turkey and all five permanent Security Council members — the US, Russia, China, France and Britain.

It calls for a Syrian-led political process starting with the establishment of a transitional governing body, followed by the drafting of a new constitution and ending with UN-supervised elections. The resolution says the free and fair elections should meet “the highest international standards” of transparency and accountability, with all Syrians — including members of the diaspora — eligible to participate.

At a Russian-hosted Syrian peace conference in January 2018, an agreement was reached to form a 150-member committee to draft a new constitution. That took until September 2019, and since then only three meetings have been held with little progress.

Pedersen, the UN envoy, told the Security Council on Tuesday he was unable to convene a fourth meeting in October because the government wouldn’t accept a compromise agenda which the opposition agreed to. During his just concluded visit to Damascus, he said there was “some valuable narrowing of the differences” that could enable consensus on agendas for the next two meetings.

“If we are able to find agreement in the next two days, it should be possible to meet in Geneva sometime in the month of November,” Pedersen said, dropping the Nov. 23 date in his prepared speech.

Mills, the US envoy, urged Pedersen “to take any measures he thinks are appropriate to facilitate the parties’ efforts ... and also to identify to the council who is blocking progress.”

“Syria is wholly unprepared to carry out elections in a free, fair and transparent manner that would include the participation of the Syrian diaspora,” Mills said. “This is why we need the constitutional committee to work, and why we need the UN to accelerate its planning to ensure Syria’s upcoming elections are credible.”

German Ambassador Christoph Heusgen called Assad’s “delaying and obstruction tactics” on the constitutional committee’s work “just detestable.”

He said Russia, Syria’s most important ally, “should finally use its influence by, for instance, just cutting military aid and stopping its support, so that the Syrian regime finally plays ball.”

Syria’s tactics are clear, Heusgen said. “They want to waste time until the presidential elections in 2021. The regime should not have any illusions. The elections will not be recognized if they are held under the present circumstances.”

French Ambassador Nicolas De Riviere also criticized Assad’s “refusal to engage in good faith” and called for preparations to begin for UN-supervised elections that include the diaspora. France won’t recognize results that don’t comply with these provisions, he said, stressing: “We will not be fooled by the regime’s attempts to legitimize itself.”

Russia’s ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, made no mention of the April presidential election and countered that Syrians must have “the opportunity to negotiate without interference from the outside.”

“The work of the constitutional committee should not be subject to any deadlines,” he said, expressing hope that Pedersen’s mediation will enable the committee’s work to continue “in line with the agenda agreed by the Syrians.”

Russia also sparred with Western ambassadors over its veto threats that led to the closure of two border crossings to deliver aid to Syria — one in the northeast and one in the northwest — leaving only one crossing to Idlib in the northwest.

The US, Germany, France, Britain, Belgium and others criticized the border crossing closures.

UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told the council that Syrian government deliveries across conflict lines to the northeast are “not delivering at the scale or frequency required to meet the current health needs.” He said one hospital received only 450 gowns in April, and another received nothing for its maternity wing.

Lowcock also said “the situation of families across Syria is truly desperate,” citing food prices more than 90 percent higher than six months ago.

Russia’s Nebenzia responded, noting “with satisfaction the progress in UN humanitarian deliveries from inside Syria including through cross-line routes,” saying this “proves” the government is providing aid to people including in areas not under its control.


Sudanese barricade streets, staging rallies in protest against coup

Updated 25 sec ago

Sudanese barricade streets, staging rallies in protest against coup

  • EU foreign affairs chief says repeated calls for authorities to refrain from violence against protesters ‘have fallen on deaf ears’

KHARTOUM: Sudanese shuttered shops and barricaded streets with burning tires and rocks on Tuesday, staging angry rallies to protest against one of the bloodiest days since a coup derailed the country’s democratic transition.

Security forces on Monday opened fire killing at least seven people as thousands marched against the army’s Oct. 25 takeover, taking the total number killed in a crackdown since the coup to 71, according to medics.

“No, no to military rule,” protesters chanted in southern Blue Nile state, where some carried banners daubed with the slogan “No to killing peaceful protesters,” said witness Omar Eissa.

The protests come as Washington ramps up pressure in a bid to broker an end to the months-long crisis in the northeast African nation, with top US diplomats expected to arrive in the capital Khartoum for talks.

Sudan’s main civilian bloc, the Forces for Freedom and Change, called for two days of civil disobedience to begin on Tuesday.

“Shop closed for mourning,” said a series of small signs posted on the closed outlets at the sprawling Sajane construction supplies market in Khartoum. One of the merchants, Othman El-Sherif, was among those shot dead on Monday.

Protesters — sometimes numbering in the tens of thousands — have regularly taken to the streets since the coup led by Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan nearly three months ago.

The military power grab derailed a fragile transition to civilian rule following the April 2019 ouster of autocrat Omar Bashir, with Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok resigning earlier this month warning Sudan was at a “dangerous crossroads threatening its very survival.”

After Monday’s deaths, the UN special representative Volker Perthes condemned the use of live ammunition, while the US Embassy criticized “violent tactics of Sudanese security forces,” the latest such appeals by world powers, which have not curbed a rising death toll. On Tuesday, police fired tear gas at dozens of protesters setting up roadblocks in east Khartoum.

In several other parts of Khartoum, many pharmacies and other shops were shuttered.

Sudan’s University for Science and Technology suspended all activities as part of civil disobedience, according to an official statement.

Outside the capital, hundreds of protesters also staged demonstrations in other cities, witnesses said.

“We took to the streets to protest the massacre that the security forces committed in Khartoum yesterday,” said protester Hassan Idris, in the eastern state of Kassala.

Al-Burhan on Tuesday formed a fact-finding committee to probe Monday’s violence, with its findings to be submitted within 72 hours, Sudan’s ruling Sovereign Council said in a statement.

It comes as US Assistant Secretary of State Molly Phee and special envoy for the Horn of Africa, David Satterfield, were expected in Khartoum, where they would “reiterate our call for security forces to end violence and respect freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” spokesman Ned Price said.

On Monday, Sudan’s police said they used “the least force” to counter the protests, in which about 50 police personnel were also wounded.

Sudan’s authorities have repeatedly denied using live ammunition against demonstrators, and insist scores of security personnel have been wounded during protests. A police general was stabbed to death last week.

On Tuesday the “Friends of Sudan” — a group of Western and Arab nations calling for the restoration of the country’s transitional government, and which includes the US, EU, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the UN — held talks in Saudi Arabia.

“Deep concern about yesterday’s violence,” the UN envoy Perthes said on Twitter, after attending the meeting via video link.

“International support and leverage is needed. Support for political process needs to go along with active support to stop violence.”

The EU foreign policy chief said Sudan’s military rulers have shown an unwillingness to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the country’s ongoing crisis.

EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said that repeated calls for Sudanese authorities to refrain from violence against protesters “have fallen on deaf ears.”

Borrell said the ongoing crackdown, including violence against civilians and the detention of activists and journalists, has put Sudan on “a dangerous path away from peace and stability.” He urged the military authorities to de-escalate tensions, saying: “avoiding further loss of life is of the essence.”

The crackdown, Borrell said, also risks derailing UN efforts to find a peaceful solution to the crisis.

The protest groups, which have continued to mobilize protesters against the coup, have rejected negotiations with the generals. They insist on handing over power to a fully civilian government to lead the transition.


Egypt’s president raises minimum monthly wage to around $172

Updated 18 January 2022

Egypt’s president raises minimum monthly wage to around $172

  • President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi announced in a statement that the minimum monthly wage in the country would be 2,700 Egyptian pounds ($171.5)
  • He also raised salaries of civil servants by about 13%

CAIRO: Egypt’s president on Tuesday raised the minimum monthly wage to about $172, a move meant to ease the burdens of Egyptians hurt by painful austerity measures in recent years.
President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi announced in a statement that the minimum monthly wage in the country would be 2,700 Egyptian pounds ($171.5) — a 12.5 percent increase from the current 2,400 Egyptian pounds ($152.5).
He also raised salaries of civil servants by about 13 percent. This is the third time El-Sisi increased the minimum wage since he took office in 2014. The announcement came after the president met Tuesday with the prime minister, finance minister and other financial officials to discuss the next budget. Bonuses for school teachers were also announced.
The statement did not say when the increases will be applied, but they are expected with the start of the new fiscal year in July,
The austerity measures were part of an ambitious economic reform program intended to revive Egypt’s economy, mauled by years of political turmoil and violence following the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
The reforms were agreed on with the International Monetary Fund in exchange for a $12 billion loan, which Egypt’s government secured in 2016.
The measures included floating the currency, substantial cuts in state subsidies for basic goods, and introducing a wide range of new taxes. They set off a significant hike in prices and services, something critics say has hurt the poor and middle class the hardest.
According to official statistics, 29.7 percent of Egypt’s over 100 million people live in poverty.
El-Sisi has repeatedly thanked Egyptians, especially women, for enduring the harsh measures.

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Lebanese judge freezes assets of central bank governor

Updated 18 January 2022

Lebanese judge freezes assets of central bank governor

  • Judge Ghada Aoun said she ordered the freeze “as a precautionary measure” while an investigation into allegations against Riad Salameh continues
  • The governor failed to show up for questioning Tuesday in a lawsuit filed by a Lebanese anti-corruption group

BEIRUT: An investigating judge in Beirut on Tuesday froze some assets belonging to the country’s central bank governor, who is accused of corruption and dereliction of duties during Lebanon’s unprecedented economic meltdown.
Judge Ghada Aoun said she ordered the freeze “as a precautionary measure” while an investigation into allegations against Gov. Riad Salameh continues. The governor failed to show up for questioning Tuesday in a lawsuit filed by a Lebanese anti-corruption group.
Last week, Aoun issued a travel ban for Salameh in the same case. The long-serving central bank governor is also being investigated in a handful of European countries on suspicion of money laundering.
The deeply divided Lebanon is going through its worst economic meltdown, with the value of the national currency plunging, foreign reserves running low and the highly indebted government unable to agree on an economic recovery plan.
Many hold Salameh responsible for the financial crisis, blaming him for policies that only drove national debt up and caused the currency to tumble. But Salameh, 71, has been in the post for nearly three decades and enjoys backing from most politicians, including the country’s prime minister.
Salameh dismissed the lawsuit against him — filed by a group of lawyers known by the name “The People Want to Reform the Regime” — as political, saying it lacked evidence. He called for Judge Aoun to be dismissed from the case and accused her of bias.
It was not immediately clear how authorities could implement the order, which includes seven residential units owned by Salameh and four luxury cars.
Salameh was touted as the guardian of Lebanon’s monetary stability and praised for steering the country’s finances after recovery from the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990 and other bouts of unrest. But he has come under intense scrutiny since the economic meltdown began in late 2019, with many experts now questioning his monetary policies.
Salameh is also being investigated in Switzerland, Luxembourg and France for potential money laundering and embezzlement. Local media reported in recent months that Salameh, his brother and an aide have been involved in illegal businesses, including money transfers abroad despite the informal capital controls imposed at home.


Israel lawmakers outraged over claim police used NSO spyware

Updated 18 January 2022

Israel lawmakers outraged over claim police used NSO spyware

  • Israeli police denied the allegations, saying they operate according to the law
  • NSO Group said it does not identify its clients

JERUSALEM: Israeli lawmakers on Tuesday called for a parliamentary inquiry into the police’s alleged use of sophisticated spyware on Israeli citizens, including protesters opposed to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, following a newspaper report on the surveillance.
Hebrew-language business newspaper Calcalist reported that in 2020, police used the NSO spyware Pegasus to surveil leaders of protests against Netanyahu, who was then prime minister. It said police also hacked the phones of two sitting mayors suspected of corruption and numerous other Israeli citizens, all without a court order or a judge’s oversight.
The Israeli police denied the allegations, saying they operate according to the law, and the NSO Group said it does not identify its clients.
Sophisticated spyware made by the Israeli company has been linked to eavesdropping on human rights activists, journalists and politicians. The US has barred the group from American technology, saying its products have been used by repressive regimes.
The company says its products are intended to be used against criminals and terrorists, and that it does not control how its clients use the software. Israel, which regulates the company, has not said whether its own security forces use the spyware.
The report — which cited no current or formal officials from the government, police or NSO corroborating the paper’s claims — referred to eight alleged examples of the police’s secretive signal intelligence unit employing Pegasus to surveil Israeli citizens, including hacking phones of a murder suspect and opponents of the Jerusalem Pride Parade. The report did not name any of the people whose phones were allegedly hacked by the police.
“In all the cases mentioned in the article, and in other instances, use of Pegasus was made at the sole discretion of senior police officers,” the report said. “The significance is that with Pegasus, the police can effectively hack without asking a court, without a search or entry warrant, without oversight, to all cell phones.”
The report sparked an outcry across Israel’s political spectrum, briefly uniting everyone from Jewish ultra-nationalists to Arab opposition lawmakers in shared outrage.
Cabinet Minister Karine Elharrar told Israeli Army Radio that such surveillance “was something that a democratic country cannot allow.”
Opposition lawmaker Yuval Steinitz said that surveillance of citizens by law enforcement without judicial oversight is improper and that if the claims are correct, it should be investigated.
Public Security Minister Omer Barlev, whose department oversees the police, tweeted that he would verify that police received explicit authorization from a judge to use the spyware.
The ultra-Orthodox Shas party called on the Knesset speaker to launch a parliamentary investigation. Merav Ben Ari, an Israeli lawmaker who heads the Knesset’s internal security committee, said the panel would hold a hearing into the report’s claims.
Israeli police issued a statement after the report’s publication, saying that “there’s no truth to the claims raised in the article” and that “all police operations in this field are in accordance with the law, in line with court orders and meticulous protocols.”
Amir Ohana, who was public security minister during the protests, said he had no knowledge of the reported surveillance.
The Black Flags protest movement, whose leaders were allegedly surveilled during weekly demonstrations in recent years calling on Netanyahu to resign, called on the police to release the names of the people whose phones were hacked. Spokesman Roee Neuman said the protest leaders only learned of the digital surveillance following the publication of the report.
Pegasus software surreptitiously grants full access to a person’s cellphone, including real-time communications.
Tuesday’s report was the latest blow for the company, which has faced growing scrutiny and criticism for its software’s use by repressive governments.
NSO’s software has repeatedly been blamed for cellphone surveillance of activists, dissidents and journalists. Last month, the Internet watchdog Citizen Lab said dozens of journalists and human rights defenders in El Salvador had their cellphones repeatedly hacked with sophisticated spyware over the past year and a half.
In November, Citizen Lab said it had identified Pegasus software on the phones of six Palestinian human rights activists affiliated with groups that Israel has controversially claimed are involved in terrorism.
Citizen Lab has been identifying Pegasus victims since 2015, when abuses of the spyware against journalists and human rights activists were discovered. Dozens of cases have since been uncovered, including of a dozen US State Department employees in Uganda, British lawyers and a Polish senator who led the opposition’s 2019 parliamentary campaign.
The NSO Group said that it could neither confirm nor deny any specific clients, adding that “the company does not operate the system once sold to its governmental customers and it is not involved in any way in the system’s operation.”
“NSO sells its products under license and regulation to intelligence and law enforcement agencies to prevent terror and crime under court orders and the local laws of their countries,” the company said.


Israel says sanctions relief for Iran could mean ‘terror on steroids’

Updated 18 January 2022

Israel says sanctions relief for Iran could mean ‘terror on steroids’

  • Warning against world powers easing sanctions against Tehran as they seek a new nuclear deal

JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said funding for Iran could lead to “terror on steroids” on Tuesday, in an apparent warning against world powers easing sanctions against Tehran as they seek a new nuclear deal.
“The last thing you want to do ... is pour tens of billions of dollars into this apparatus. Because what will you get? Terror on steroids,” Bennett said in a video address to the World Economic Forum in Davos.