People disabled by Beirut explosion stage protest

One woman said the port explosion was a “real crime, yet officials act as if nothing has happened.” (AFP/File)
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Updated 03 December 2020

People disabled by Beirut explosion stage protest

  • Aug. 4 tragedy injured more than 6,500

BEIRUT: People disabled by the Aug. 4 Beirut Port explosion staged a sit-in on Thursday to protest against “injustice, corruption and marginalization.”

The protest took place in the Basta Al-Tahta neighborhood, where a disabled 87-year-old man called Tawfiq Khawam had set himself alight due to the poverty and neglect he faced. Protesters said they did not want “another Tawfiq Khawam.”

They gave vivid testimonies of the deprivation caused by their disabilities, calling for social protection that guaranteed them “basic rights and a decent living in light of the economic collapse.”

One woman said the port explosion was a “real crime, yet officials act as if nothing has happened.”

She urged the “inclusion of fixed standards for the rights of the injured who have suffered a physical disability in the process of rebuilding the destroyed buildings of Beirut,” and for the need to include the issues of the disabled in the reform plan and to treat people who were disabled as a result of the explosion and the army's wounded equally without discrimination.”

The spokeswoman for the protesters said Lebanon had issued a law about the rights of disabled people 20 years ago, but that parliament had not yet ratified the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities despite 14 years passing since it was issued.

This, she added, was a sign of how Lebanese officials dealt with this category of citizens, who had become “victims of extreme poverty, dreaming of food and medicine and access to public places.”

The protest coincided with an official announcement that President Michel Aoun had signed a law to provide compensation and salaries to the families of the port explosion victims, and “enabling those who were disabled to benefit from health benefits from the National Social Security Fund and from the law related to the rights of people with special needs.”

A study from Beirut Arab University, in cooperation with the Lebanese Army Engineering Directorate and published on Thursday, showed that the blast resulted from the explosion of only 20.5 percent of the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that were stored near grain silos.

The study said the exploded amount of ammonium nitrate was “much less than the total original quantity, which is equivalent to 220 tons of TNT or the equivalent of 564 tons of ammonium nitrate.”

The judicial investigator has not issued his report, which is expected to reveal the reasons for the explosion.

The blast killed 202 people and injured more than 6,500, some of whom are still in hospital. It destroyed Beirut’s waterfront and inner residential neighborhoods, and came as the country was dealing with a financial crisis and COVID-19.

A British government minister warned on Thursday that Lebanon was on the verge of not being able to feed itself.

James Cleverly, the Foreign Office minister for the Middle East, called the situation “a man-made problem which could have been prevented.”

“The most pressing danger is the risk to food security: Lebanon is on the verge of not being able to feed itself,” said Cleverly, who met Lebanese officials in Beirut on Thursday. “Four months on from the blast, Lebanon is threatened by a silent tsunami. Lebanon's leaders must act.”

During a second international conference in support of Beirut and the Lebanese people, held on Wednesday at the invitation of French President Emmanuel Macron and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the international community expressed concern about the delay in the investigation of the port explosion.

Participants said the commitments made regarding emergency aid since Aug. 4 had been fulfilled, in terms of quality and quantity, in all priority areas identified by the UN at the time.

The conference announced a multi-donor trust fund prepared by the World Bank, the UN and EU, to continue funding after the emergency humanitarian aid allocated after Aug. 4, provided that “an important role is given to civil society actors to identify priority areas of action, such as good governance, health, education, social protection, housing, culture and heritage.”

Participants also expressed their concern about the “deterioration of all economic, financial, monetary and social indicators, as the poverty rate increased from 28 percent to 55 percent within a 12-month period, which has now pushed many Lebanese to emigrate.”

They said that while Lebanon was in a state of financial bankruptcy, it could still be a successful country if the reforms that the population and international community expected were implemented quickly.

Egypt authorizes Sputnik, AstraZeneca virus jabs

Updated 25 February 2021

Egypt authorizes Sputnik, AstraZeneca virus jabs

  • The agency had previously given emergency authorization for the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine and the AstraZeneca jab produced in India
  • Russia’s sovereign wealth fund RDIF said Egypt is the 35th country Sputnik V
CAIRO: Egypt’s pharmaceutical authority on Wednesday approved the use of the Sputnik V and AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccines, a month after the North African country kicked off its inoculation campaign.
The drug body had “provided emergency authorization for the use of the two vaccines, Sputnik V, and AstraZeneca... imported from South Korea,” it said in a statement on its Facebook page.
The agency had previously given emergency authorization for the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine and the AstraZeneca jab produced in India and marketed under the name Covishield, it added.
Russia’s sovereign wealth fund RDIF said in a statement that “Egypt is the 35th country in the world to approve Sputnik V.”
Egypt began its Covid-19 immunization program on January 24, becoming one of the first countries in Africa to vaccinate its citizens, with a doctor and a nurse receiving the Sinopharm jab.
The Arab world’s most populous country, with over 100 million people, received its first batch of the Sinopharm vaccine in December, and its first doses of the Anglo-Swedish AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine at the end of January.
Egypt has officially registered more than 179,000 cases of the novel coronavirus and over 10,400 deaths.
Health officials have warned that low testing rates mean the real number could be at least 10 times higher.

Egypt backs call to internationalize Ethiopia dam dispute

Updated 25 February 2021

Egypt backs call to internationalize Ethiopia dam dispute

  • The dispute centers on how much water Ethiopia will release downstream if a multi-year drought occurs and how the three countries would settle any future disputes
  • Sudan wants Ethiopia to coordinate and share data on dam’s operation to avoid flooding and protect its own power-generating dams on the Blue Nile

CAIRO: Egypt said Wednesday it has endorsed a Sudanese proposal to internationalize arbitration in a years-long dispute with Ethiopia over a massive dam Addis Ababa is building on the Blue Nile.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukry said Cairo backs the formation of an “international quartet” including the US, the European Union, and the UN, along with the African Union to facilitate reaching a deal on the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam.
The dispute centers on how much water Ethiopia will release downstream if a multi-year drought occurs and how the three countries would settle any future disputes. Egypt and Sudan also call for a legally binding agreement on the dam’s filling and operation, while Ethiopia insists on guidelines.
Shukry said Egypt wants to develop the negotiating mechanism to reach a “legally binding agreement” at the earliest possible opportunity.”
He announced Egypt’s position during a meeting Wednesday in Cairo with Alphonse Ntumba Luaba, the coordination of Democratic Republic of the Congo’s current leadership of the African Union.
There were no immediate comments from Washington, Brussels, or the UN
Sudan has announced its proposal earlier this year after AU-led talks failed to achieve progress. Since then, Khartoum has become vocal against Ethiopia’s plans to start the second filling during the next rainy season.
Prime Minister Abddalla Hamdok said earlier this month that the dam threatens at least 20 million Sudanese, roughly half the country’s population.
Sudan wants Ethiopia to coordinate and share data on dam’s operation to avoid flooding and protect its own power-generating dams on the Blue Nile, the main tributary of the Nile River. The Blue Nile meets with the White Nile in central Sudan from where the Nile winds northward through Egypt and flows into the Mediterranean Sea.
There was no comment from Ethiopia that had left a US-led attempt to mediate the dispute, alleging bias. The administration of former President Donald Trump last year sanctioned Ethiopia over the dam’s first filling before reaching a deal with Egypt and Sudan.
On Friday, President Joe Biden’s administration said it has de-linked the sanctions from the dam dispute.
About 85 percent of the Nile’s flow originates from Ethiopia. Officials hope the dam, now more than three-quarters complete, will reach full power-generating capacity in 2023, helping pull millions of its people out of poverty.
Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country with over 100 million people, called the dam an existential threat and worries that it would reduce its share of Nile waters. The country relies almost entirely on the Nile to supply water for agriculture and its people.

Qatar, Egypt to appoint envoys, resume work of embassies

Updated 21 min 19 sec ago

Qatar, Egypt to appoint envoys, resume work of embassies

  • Cairo and Doha thanked Kuwait for hosting the first round of talks between them

CAIRO: Qatar and Egypt have agreed to appointment envoys and reopen their embassies in the wake of the AlUla agreement to mend relations with Doha.

The resolve came after delegations from both countries held talks in Kuwait to plan the normalization of links between the nations.

“The two parties agreed to resume the work of their diplomatic missions … followed by the appointment of an Egyptian ambassador in Doha and a Qatari ambassador in Cairo,” an Egyptian diplomatic source said.

Qatar’s permanent representative to the Arab League, Ibrahim Abdul Aziz Al-Sahlawi, was expected to become Doha’s envoy in Cairo, the source added.

During the meeting in Kuwait, Egypt was said to have set out its conditions for settling relations with Qatar, which included strict demands for Doha not to interfere in Egyptian internal affairs.

The AlUla agreement, signed on Jan. 5 during the Gulf Cooperation Council summit held in the ancient city, saw Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt restore ties with Qatar, ending a dispute which started in 2017.

A statement from the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said: “The two sides welcomed the measures taken by both countries after signing the AlUla agreement as a step toward building confidence between the two brotherly countries.”

The meeting discussed ways to enhance joint work and bilateral relations in areas including security, stability, and economic development.

Cairo and Doha thanked Kuwait for hosting the first round of talks between them and for its efforts to heal the rift and promote Arab unity.

Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently announced that Cairo and Doha had exchanged two official memoranda agreeing to restore diplomatic relations and on Jan. 18 flights between Egypt and Qatar resumed after having been suspended for more than three years.

Lebanon MPs who jumped vaccine queue defend their actions

Updated 25 February 2021

Lebanon MPs who jumped vaccine queue defend their actions

  • World Bank threatens to suspend its backing for the country’s vaccination drive

BEIRUT: Lebanese lawmakers who allegedly jumped the queue and received the first shot of the coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine on Tuesday are feeling pressure to defend their actions.

Eleven politicians, some of them younger than 75 years old, even had their vaccines “delivered” to Parliament.

A spokesman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the organization in charge of monitoring the country’s vaccination plan, “was unaware that President Michel Aoun, his wife and his work team had received the vaccine on Friday, which is a violation to the terms of the national plan.”

As a result, the ethics officer of Lebanon’s vaccination committee, Dr. Talia Arawi, resigned on Wednesday.

It also prompted representatives from the World Bank, the Lebanese Health Ministry, the country’s COVID-19 vaccination committee and other commissions to meet and discuss the breach within the national vaccination plan. 

The World Bank, represented by its Beirut-based office, said it “will continue supporting Lebanon, but with respect to priority groups. If necessary, it is ready to suspend the financing for vaccines.”

Lawmakers who received the vaccine early were on the defensive Wednesday.

“How are lawmakers at fault?” Elie Ferzli, the Parliament's deputy speaker, asked. “Twenty-five lawmakers have been infected in parliament so far, along with 25 other employees. The latest infections occurred during the Procurement Law Committee’s meeting.”

Ferzli said he and other officials registered on the platform, based on the ministry’s request. Of those who registered, 27 lawmakers received approval for the vaccine, because they were 70 or older. Sixteen said they were inoculated in hospitals while the other 11 received the vaccine in Parliament.

Ferzli cited an American University of Beirut (AUB) report that said more than 50 percent of those who have received the vaccine did not register on the national platform.

He accused World Bank regional director Saroj Kumar Jha of “playing a political role”. He said: “This reflects the lack of ethics that a World Bank representative should have. If this is how the bank is planning to deal with us in financing the vaccination plan, forget about the vaccines.”

Ferzli also attacked activists on social media who criticized the lawmakers, describing them as “ridiculous” and “electronic flies.”

Ghazi Zaiter, a politician and former minister, who was summoned for questioning by the former judge leading the probe into the Beirut port explosion, also tried to defend himself. He took to social media, claiming that “he is more Lebanese than others, which gives him the right to the vaccine before the others.”

Zaiter was heavily criticized, with some even calling on him to leave the country. Using a hashtag that was trending on Twitter, online activists said he “considers himself above the law and citizens.”

The AUB called on the ministry to clarify and apologize for the alleged breach of the vaccination plan. It also suggested more transparency when it comes to publishing criteria for those who are eligible for the vaccine, the number of inoculated people in each center, who should not be included in the priority groups and why.

The country’s vaccination campaign started 11 days ago. Yet half of the 12,000 doctors who are members of the medical association have not been vaccinated, nor have 55 percent of the nursing staff.

Turkish lawyer held for ‘insulting the president’ with tweet

Updated 25 February 2021

Turkish lawyer held for ‘insulting the president’ with tweet

  • Police raided Mert Yasar’s house on Tuesday and detained the lawyer after an investigation by the Istanbul chief public prosecutor’s office

ISTANBUL: A Turkish lawyer has been arrested and charged with “insulting the president” over a controversial tweet that included sexist remarks directed at ruling Justice and Development Party MP Ozlem Zengin. 

Police raided Mert Yasar’s house on Tuesday and detained the lawyer after an investigation by the Istanbul chief public prosecutor’s office.  

Zengin sparked widespread anger recently with dismissive comments on alleged human rights violations and strip searches in Turkish prisons, ridiculing the claims of dozens of conservative women who said they had been subjected to intrusive searches in recent years. 

“An honorable woman, a woman with morals, wouldn’t wait a year (before complaining). This is an imaginary narrative,” Zengin said on Feb. 19. 

Amid public debate on the topic, Zengin said that women were falling pregnant on orders from various “illegal” groups seeking to trigger public anger over babies growing up in prisons.

“These people are having babies upon directives so that they can assert ‘there are pregnant women or women with babies in jails’,” she said on Feb. 21.

Yasar responded to this latest statement with a furious tweet, targeting the MP: “If the presidential cabinet is given the right of the first night, will Ozlem Zengin close her mouth?” he tweeted, sparking anger among women’s rights activists from all sides of politics. 

Fahrettin Altun, presidential communications director, immediately issued a statement urging the “independent Turkish judiciary to punish this creature named Mert Yaşar in the severest way possible.”

“What will the opposition do in the face of this dishonor? They will, most probably, hide their heads in the sand. We will follow it up,” he said. 

Yasar was arrested on charges of insulting the president according to Article 299 of the Turkish penal code — which critics say points to the disproportionate use of this clause since his tweet targeted an MP, not the president himself. 

Article 299 stipulates that the person who insults the president shall be punished by imprisonment from one to four years, and if the crime is committed publicly, the punishment will be increased by one to six years.

Between 2014 and 2019, about 128,872 investigations were carried out into alleged insults against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with prosecutors launching about 27,700 criminal cases.

A total of 9,556 defendants were sentenced by Turkish courts, while about 900 minors aged between 12 and 17 also appeared before the court on the same charge. 

“The politicization of the judiciary continues with unlawful arrest and false accusation,” rights activist Nesibe Kiris said. 

Several female politicians and right activists offered examples of their personal experiences with insults that failed to lead to criminal proceedings, sparking debate about the “politically motivated” implementation of such penal clauses. 

“All kinds of insults, threats, sexist attacks on me and all opposing women are free and even they provide a reason for a decision of non-prosecutions. But when it comes to an AKP politician, it becomes a reason for his arrest. It is a tailor-made judiciary. The people’s scales of conscience will weigh all of you when the day comes,” Canan Kaftancioglu, Istanbul head of the opposition Republican People’s Party tweeted. 

A group of lawyers issued a message in support of Yasar, saying that his arrest “is the continuation of the judicial practice that makes decisions under the pressure of social media and political power.”

The arrest was also attacked as being a warning against any vocal criticisms on social media.