Massive security net in Iraq as pope begins visit ‘like a pilgrim of peace’

Interior Ministry special forces and the army will set up a security cordon around the pope wherever he goes. (AFP)
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Updated 05 March 2021

Massive security net in Iraq as pope begins visit ‘like a pilgrim of peace’

  • Undercover intelligence and national security officers will also be deployed at gatherings attended by the pope
  • The 84-year-old will visit four cities, including the former Daesh stronghold of Mosul

ROME: Iraq is deploying thousands of additional security personnel to protect Pope Francis during his four-day visit, which comes after a spate of rocket and suicide bomb attacks raised fears for the Catholic leader’s safety.A senior security official who has been briefed on the security plan said that forces involved had been trained to deal with worst-case scenarios, from street battles to bombings and rocket attacks.
Large-scale exercises included hypothetical threats among preparations for the March 5-8 visit, the first-ever by a pope to Iraq. As well as concerns over violence, the country has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases, further complicating preparations.
The 84-year-old will visit four cities, including the former Daesh stronghold of Mosul, where churches and other buildings still bear the scars of conflict. Francis will also visit Ur, birthplace of Prophet Abraham who is revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews, and meet Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, 90-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani.
Interior Ministry special forces and the army will set up a security cordon around the pope wherever he goes, while the air force will operate drones around the clock to monitor the routes he will take. There will be an explosives team and
counterterrorism personnel on standby in case of any suspicious devices or street battles.
Undercover intelligence and national security officers will also be deployed at gatherings attended by the pope. A technical team can also jam or cut off suspicious phone calls or radio communications, he added.
About 10,000 security personnel will be deployed to protect Francis, who may travel in armored cars in what would be a departure from the norm for him.
Pope Francis said in a video message on Thursday that he wants to be seen by the Iraqi people as a “penitent pilgrim” asking God for “forgiveness and reconciliation after years of war and terrorism,” and for “consolation of hearts and the healing of wounds.”
He added:  “I come among you like a pilgrim of peace and I repeat, you are all brothers. I come as a pilgrim of peace in search of fraternity animated by desire to pray together and to walk together, also with brothers and sisters belonging to other religious traditions.”
A special bronze medal has been minted by the Vatican to celebrate the pope’s visit. Vatican sources told Arab News that the medal will be one of the gifts that the pope will give to Iraqi representatives.
The medal has been designed by artists from the Ufficio Filatelico e Numismatico, the dedicated branch of the Vatican State Post Office for stamps and coins. It features the map of Iraq, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, a palm tree and Abraham leaving Ur. In the lower part of the medal, there is the inscription of the apostolic visit’s dates (March 5-8) in Latin, the official language of the Vatican. In its upper part the medal reads “Visit Iraquiam,” Latin for “Visit to Iraq.”

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Egypt continues to push for political solution in Libya

Updated 16 April 2021

Egypt continues to push for political solution in Libya

  • Egypt’s foreign affairs minister Sameh Shoukry reiterates support for UN special envoy’s efforts

CAIRO: Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry reiterated his country’s support in reaching a comprehensive political settlement to the Libyan crisis in a meeting with UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for Libya Jan Kubis.

Shoukry said such a settlement should preserve the unity of Libya, ensure the exit of all mercenaries and foreign fighters from it, and preserve the capabilities of its people and its national institutions.

Egypt’s foreign minister stressed the importance of the UN-sponsored Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, which seeks to pave the way for legislative and presidential elections in Libya scheduled for December.

Shoukry also reaffirmed his country’s support for the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission, which includes five representatives from each of the rival sides in the conflict. He is optimistic the commission can unify security and military institutions within Libya.

Ahmed Hafez, a spokesperson for Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Shoukry is also backing the continuous efforts made by Kubis in his mission to reach a political solution that would serve the Libyan people and achieve their aspirations for a stable and prosperous nation.

The UN envoy briefed Shoukry on the results of his recent contacts with the parties involved in the Libyan crisis. The envoy expressed his appreciation for Egypt's efforts aimed at supporting its national neighbors and his aspiration for continued coordination with Cairo.


US official fires warning shot at Lebanese reform blockers

Updated 16 April 2021

US official fires warning shot at Lebanese reform blockers

  • David Hale: “Those who facilitate progress can be assured of our strong support.”

BEIRUT: The US undersecretary of state for political affairs, David Hale, has issued a warning against “those who continue to obstruct progress on the reform agenda.”

He said that they “jeopardize their relationship with the US and our partners and open themselves up to punitive actions,” adding: “Those who facilitate progress can be assured of our strong support.”

Hale’s statement came after his meeting on Thursday with Lebanese President Michel Aoun.

The political disagreements resulted in the failure of the designated prime minister, Saad Hariri, to form a rescue government of non-partisan specialists to implement reforms demanded by the international community.

President Aoun’s team and his supporters object to the government lineup presented by Hariri last December. Aoun and his political team, represented by the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), are demanding that they have the power to name Christian ministers in the government and to have the blocking vote. Hezbollah, which supports a techno-political government, champions some of these demands.

The US administration had previously imposed sanctions on FPM leader Gebran Bassil on charges related to corruption.

Hale stressed that he came to Lebanon “at the request of Secretary Blinken to underscore the Biden administration’s continued commitment to the Lebanese people and our shared desire for stability and prosperity in Lebanon.”

Hale reiterated his condemnation of the performance of the ruling authority.

“The Lebanese people are clearly suffering.  They are suffering because Lebanese leaders have failed to meet their responsibility to put the country’s interests first and to address the mounting socio-economic problems,” he said.

Hale referred to his two previous visits to Lebanon, which were in December 2019 and August 2020. He said: “I heard then an unmistakable call for change from Lebanese from all backgrounds. These demands are universal: For transparency, accountability, and an end to the endemic corruption and mismanagement that have caused such hardship.

“If these demands had been met, Lebanon would be on the road to fulfilling its tremendous potential. Yet today, there has been very little progress. But it’s not too late.”

Hale renewed his call on Lebanon’s leaders “to show sufficient flexibility to form a government that is willing and capable of reversing the collapse underway.”

He said: “The time to build a government, not block it, is now. The time to build a government is now. The time for comprehensive reform is now. And America and the international community are ready to help.  But we cannot help, as I said yesterday, without a Lebanese partner.”

Hale specifically criticized Hezbollah: “Hezbollah’s accumulation of dangerous weapons, smuggling, and other illicit and corrupt activities undermine legitimate state institutions.”

He added: “They rob the Lebanese of the ability to build a peaceful and prosperous country. And it is Iran that is fueling and financing this challenge to the state and this distortion of Lebanese political life.

“This brings me to America’s renewed negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. A mutual return to compliance with the Iran nuclear deal is in our interest and in the interest of regional stability, but it would only be the beginning of our work. As we address the other elements of Iran’s destabilizing behavior, America will not abandon our interests and our friends here in Lebanon.”

Hale, who is described in Lebanon as the godfather of the framework agreement for negotiations on demarcating Lebanon’s southern borders with Israel, stressed that “America stands ready to facilitate negotiations on the maritime boundary between Lebanon and Israel on the basis on which we initiated these discussions.”

Hale’s insistence on facilitating negotiations with Israel “on the basis on which we initiated” came as a response to Lebanon’s demand during the 2020 Lebanese-Israeli technical negotiations to amend the area it expects to reclaim due to a calculating error. This amendment will include 2,290 sq. km instead of an area of ​​860 sq. km. This expansion depended on an effort by the Lebanese Army in 2019 to demarcate the maritime borders.

Lebanon drew up a decree to amend this area to submit it to the UN.

This decree has yet to be signed by Aoun, pending the approval of the cabinet. Caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab is refusing to hold a cabinet session due to its illegality.

Following Hale’s statement, Aoun stressed “the importance of continuing negotiations on demarcating the maritime borders between Lebanon and Israel and fulfilling America’s role as an honest and just mediator.”

He said: “Lebanon has the right to develop its position according to its interest, in line with the international law, and in accordance with constitutional principles.”

Aoun called for “the appointment of international experts to demarcate the line and the commitment to refraining from any exploration work in the Karish field and in the adjacent waters.”

He stressed that he would not abandon “the sovereignty, rights, and interests of Lebanon” and would “make every effort to ensure that the demarcation of the borders is a subject of consensus among the Lebanese and not a subject of division, with the aim of strengthening Lebanon’s position in the negotiations.”

Hale’s meeting with Lebanese Army commander Gen. Joseph Aoun focused on “the extent to which the army was affected by the approved spending rationalization decision and its impact on the army’s performance of the great tasks entrusted to it.”

Hale’s meetings in Beirut coincided with the visit of Hariri to Moscow. The Kremlin announced on Thursday that a phone call took place between President Vladimir Putin and Hariri, who was present at the Russian Foreign Ministry. The call lasted 50 minutes.

The Kremlin’s statement said that Hariri briefed Putin on internal developments and the initial measures to form a government and overcome the economic crisis. Russia affirmed its position in support of Lebanon’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity.

A source among the Lebanese delegation to Moscow told Arab News that the call between Putin and Hariri was “excellent with regard to the government crisis, and it stressed that the government should be formed as soon as possible.”


Ramadan lanterns trade in Gaza: Source of strength for family of five

Updated 16 April 2021

Ramadan lanterns trade in Gaza: Source of strength for family of five

  • Couple dream of opening a handicrafts store bearing their name, for exports

GAZA CITY: Using simple materials like cloth, wood, and electric lighting, Ghadeer, 41, runs a Ramadan business producing lanterns in Gaza, which became the main source of income to her family.

The month of Ramadan is a good source of income for Ghadeer, who lives in Khan Younis in the south of Gaza, and for other women who manufacture lanterns, enabling them to provide for the basic needs of their families in light of their deteriorating economic reality.

Ghadeer started her small home project five years ago, and thinks that her talent for manufacturing handicrafts opened the door for her to start making Ramadan lanterns, with the help of her unemployed husband Khaled Sweidan, 44.

The manufacture of lanterns and other handicrafts related to religious and community occasions such as the Hajj and Umrah seasons, weddings and holidays, is the only source of income for the family.

“The financial return is limited and barely sufficient to meet the family’s requirements,” Ghadeer said.

“We used cardboard at the beginning, but today we use more quality raw materials, and I dream of further development in the future.”

Ghadeer has no place to show her work but she uses social media platforms to promote the products. She is proud of the admiration they receive from customers and shopkeepers, even receiving messages from the West Bank, Saudi Arabia and Jordan enquiring about purchases.

Khaled monitors the market, studies its needs and keeps pace with the customers’ requirements to make improvements to the lanterns in terms of shape, size, colors and quality of fabric used.

“Buying lanterns is not important for many in Gaza because of the poor economic conditions, and we are keen to produce quantities commensurate with the needs of the market so that (unsold stock) does not accumulate,” he said

The couple dream of opening a store bearing their name to display their creations, and long for the opportunity to export them abroad.

Local statistics indicate that the percentage of women who are the main breadwinners for their families in Gaza rose from 7 percent in 2007 to 25 percent until the first quarter of 2020.

Hanan Al-Madhoun, 36, had also been waiting for Ramadan to sell her products. Six years ago, Hanan turned a corner of her modest home in the Shati refugee camp, west of Gaza City, into a workshop, where she works about 12 hours a day to help support her husband and three children.

Since the beginning of last year, after her husband lost his job due to the coronavirus pandemic, her work has become the only source of providing for the family.

Fortunately, Hanan has friends in Egypt, a significant market for Ramadan decorations, and Gaza’s artisans follow the Egyptian market more than other Arab markets, influenced by Egyptian rituals and customs. The prices of her popular Ramadan decorations range from four shekels ($1) to 120 shekels.

“I am satisfied with a small profit margin in order to encourage those who want to buy and bring joy to their families,” she said.

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Turkish journalist Altan released after more than four years in jail

Updated 16 April 2021

Turkish journalist Altan released after more than four years in jail

  • European top court’s ruling obliged Ankara to set dissident author free and pay $19,000 in non-pecuniary damages

ANKARA: A prominent Turkish journalist was released from jail on Wednesday after being held behind bars for more than four years over charges related to a failed 2016 government coup attempt.

Ahmet Altan, 71, was freed after Turkey's Court of Cassation, the country’s top appeals court, overturned the conviction against him a day earlier and ordered his release. 

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled on Tuesday that Turkey violated Altan's rights to liberty and security, and ordered the country to pay him 16,000 euros ($19,000) in non-pecuniary damages. The top European court also claimed that there was no indication to prove that Altan was involved in a deliberate plan to overthrow the government. 

“Deprivation of liberty, in particular continued detention, must be based on reasonable suspicion,” the ECHR ruling said.

Altan, who had been incarcerated since September 2016, was previously sentenced to aggravated life imprisonment for trying to “overthrow the constitutional order.” He was also accused of “disseminating subliminal messages announcing the military coup” with his televised speeches and writings — charges he always denied. 

Altan, an award-winning novelist, is also a former editor-in-chief of the dissident Taraf newspaper and wrote politically-sensitive articles and columns critical of Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and supporting Kurdish rights.

Following his appeal, the Court of Cassation had overruled in July 2019 the aggravated prison term and ruled that the novelist should be sentenced for “knowingly aiding an armed terrorist organization” behind the coup attempt. 

Altan was then sentenced to 10 years and six months in jail and the court ruled for his release on condition of judicial control, although he was re-arrested soon after as the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office appealed the ruling that set him free. 

The case was brought to the Constitutional Court on Nov. 21, 2019 as his lawyer cited lack of the necessary conditions for imprisonment, but the application was dismissed a year after. 

“The release of Ahmet Altan is the best news for freedom of expression coming from Turkey in a long time. However, charges against him continue and his freedom cannot be taken for granted,” Laura Batalla Adam, secretary-general of the European Union Turkey Forum, told Arab News. 

Batalla-Adam said Altan’s case is only one of many. 

After last year’s amnesty law in Turkey, tens of thousands of prisoners were released to ease the overcrowding, but the law exempted political prisoners and dissident journalists. 

The politically motivated detention of the Turkish novelist has been at the top of the international community’s agenda for a long time. 

Italian journalist and writer Roberto Saviano recently penned an open letter to Altan, saying his incarceration “must concern us all.” 

“They took away your freedom. To freeze your words, they locked you up in a cell,” he wrote. 

A group of 17 Swedish journalists also urged Ankara in February to immediately release Altan. “You can put opponents in jail with Kafkaesque reasons but you can never imprison freedom of expression,” they wrote in a joint declaration. 

During last week’s summit in Ankara, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel slammed Turkey for its deteriorating record on human rights and urged Ankara to respect human rights norms if it wants to have stronger ties with the EU. 

Tarik Beyhan, campaigns and communications director of Amnesty International Turkey, said: “Ahmet Altan’s release is great but he should never have been arrested.”

He told Arab News: “Better late than never, but his arrest and detention had been politically motivated. He had been put behind bars arbitrarily, was deprived of his liberty for more than four and a half years solely because he has been perceived as a government critic.”  

Now attention is shifting toward other politically motivated cases in Turkey, especially the notable incarcerations of Turkish philanthropist and businessperson Osman Kavala and Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas. 

The European top court also ruled for the immediate release of both, although these legally binding decisions have not yet been implemented by the Turkish judiciary that is criticized for being insufficiently independent of the political sphere.  

“Turkey’s implementation of European Court of Human Rights’ judgment is good for Altan, but he is just one among many real or perceived government opponents unjustly jailed or imprisoned under trumped-up charges for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, assembly or association, and must be released immediately,” Beyhan said. 

“The judgments of the European Court of Human Rights are legally binding and Turkey cannot keep choosing whether to implement them or not.”

Experts also note that Altan’s release might be the result of Erdogan’s latest attempts to mend ties with the west, especially the EU and US President Joe Biden. 

The Biden administration has already prioritized democratization and human rights before putting bilateral relations with Turkey back on track. 

“As part of the recent charm offensive, the government should prove its real commitment to human rights and start to apply all the pending rulings from the ECHR, namely in the case of Osman Kavala and Selahattin Demirtas,” Batalla-Adam said. 

“Making progress in the elements contained in the positive agenda requires genuine democratic improvements.”


Judge orders release of 6 detained over Lebanon port blast

Updated 15 April 2021

Judge orders release of 6 detained over Lebanon port blast

  • Investigating judge ordered the release of 6 men including an officer, who had warned top officials of dangers of material stored at port
  • The six will be banned from traveling outside Lebanon, according to a judicial official

BEIRUT: A Lebanese judge investigating 2020’s massive blast at Beirut’s port on Thursday ordered the release of six people, including security officers, who had been detained for months, state news agency reported.
It was not immediately clear what triggered the release of the men, who include an officer who had written a detailed warning to top officials prior to the explosion about the dangers of the material stored at the port.
Judge Tarek Bitar was named to lead the investigation in February after his predecessor was removed following legal challenges by two former Cabinet ministers he had accused of negligence.
State-run National News Agency said Bitar ordered the release of the six including Maj. Joseph Naddaf of the State Security department and Maj. Charbel Fawaz of the General Security Directorate. The four others are customs and port employees.
Nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrates, a highly explosive material used in fertilizers that had been improperly stored in the port for years, exploded on Aug. 4, killing 211 people, wounding more than 6,000 and damaging nearby neighborhoods.
The six will be banned from traveling outside Lebanon, according to a judicial official, speaking on condition of anonymity to follow regulations. The official added that 19 people are still being held in the case. Among those who are still held are the head of the customs department and his predecessor as well as the port’s director general.
In a July 20 report, State Security warned that one of the doors of the warehouse where the material had been stored was separated from the wall enough to allow anyone to enter and steal the ammonium nitrate.
The report that was sent to President Michel Aoun and then-Prime Minister Hassan Diab warned that thieves could steal the material to make explosives. Or, it said, the mass of material could cause an explosion “that would practically destroy the port.”
Holding Naddaf for months had angered some in Lebanon especially that his report two weeks before the blast was a clear warning of the dangers.
The Beirut port explosion has been one of the most traumatic national experiences the Lebanese have faced and families of those killed are skeptical that any investigation into the explosion can be transparent and independent in a country where a culture of impunity has prevailed for decades.