After charming leaders, Queen Elizabeth sits back for parade

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Britain's Queen Elizabeth II watches a military ceremony to mark her official birthday at Windsor Castle on June 12, 2021 in Windsor. (AFP)
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Britain's Queen Elizabeth II watches a military ceremony to mark her official birthday at Windsor Castle on June 12, 2021 in Windsor. (AFP)
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Britain's Queen Elizabeth II watches a military ceremony to mark her official birthday at Windsor Castle on June 12, 2021 in Windsor. (AFP)
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A military ceremony unfolds in the Quadrangle to mark the official birthday of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle on June 12, 2021 in Windsor. (AFP)
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Updated 12 June 2021

After charming leaders, Queen Elizabeth sits back for parade

  • On Friday, she was the star turn at a reception with the G-7 leaders and their spouses at the Eden Project
  • She drew laughter from her guests as she chided them during a group photo session: “Are you supposed to be looking as if you’re enjoying yourself?”

LONDON: Fresh from charming leaders at the Group of Seven summit, Queen Elizabeth II was back at her residence at Windsor Castle on Saturday to view a military parade to mark her official birthday.
The 95-year-old monarch sat on a dais to watch the ceremony that despite ongoing social distancing restrictions did not disappoint on the pomp and pageantry front. If she was tired after meeting G-7 leaders, including US President Joe Biden, on Friday evening, it didn’t show.
The ceremony is a gift from the Household Division of army regiments, which has a close affinity with the monarch. It featured soldiers who have played an integral role in the COVID-19 response, as well as those who have been serving on military operations. She was seen beaming from ear to ear as the nine planes of the Royal Air Force’s Red Arrows flew past in formation and let loose their red, white and blue smoke.
The traditional Trooping the Color ceremony is normally staged in London and features hundreds of servicemen and women and thousands of spectators. However, for the second year running, that was not possible and it was a slimmed-down affair in the grounds of Windsor Castle, which is around 27 miles (44 kilometers) west of the capital.


Dubbed a mini Trooping the Color, it featured soldiers in ceremonial scarlet coats and bearskin hats. The servicemen and women on parade numbered almost 275, with 70 horses, compared with the 85 soldiers who took part in the ceremony last summer. A small handful of seated guests lined part of the quadrangle — a change from last year when only the military were present.
The ceremony originated from traditional preparations for battle. The colors — or flags — were “trooped,” or carried down the lines of soldiers, so they could be seen and recognized in battle.
Lt. Col. Guy Stone, who planned the queen’s official birthday celebrations in Windsor Castle’s quadrangle, said he wanted to create a “memorable and uplifting day” for the monarch.
The ceremony took place a couple of months after the death of her 99-year-old husband Prince Philip, whose funeral also took place at Windsor Castle.
Though she has been mourning the loss of her husband of 73 years, the queen has carried on performing her duties, including delivering a government-scripted speech to mark the new session of parliament.
On Friday, she was the star turn at a reception with the G-7 leaders and their spouses at the Eden Project, a futuristic botanical garden housed inside domes that features the world’s largest indoor rainforest.
She drew laughter from her guests as she chided them during a group photo session: “Are you supposed to be looking as if you’re enjoying yourself?”
Though the queen’s actual birthday is on April 26, she celebrates another one in June when the British weather — it is hoped — is more conducive to outdoor celebrations. It’s a royal tradition that goes back to 1748 and the reign of King George II, whose actual birthday was in November.
One of the major parts of the queen’s official birthday is her award of honors to those deemed to have made a positive contribution to society.
This year’s honors list has celebrated those at the forefront of the UK’s rapid rollout of coronavirus vaccines over the past few months, which has been credited with turning around the country’s pandemic response.
Sarah Gilbert, the professor of vaccinology at the University of Oxford who was instrumental in the development of the vaccine being manufactured by pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, and Kate Bingham, the former head of the UK Vaccines Taskforce credited for the country’s successful procurement program, have both been recognized with damehoods.
Though the UK has seen Europe’s highest virus-related death toll, with nearly 128,000 people having lost their lives, its vaccination program has been deemed one of the world’s speediest and most coherent rollouts.


Afghanistan and COVID-19 vaccines on the agenda as Blinken begins first India visit

Updated 28 July 2021

Afghanistan and COVID-19 vaccines on the agenda as Blinken begins first India visit

  • Top US diplomat to meet PM Narendra Modi on Wednesday

NEW DELHI: New Delhi is a priority for the US and Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s first visit to India on Tuesday will provide an opportunity to deepen bilateral ties, explore COVID-19 vaccine diplomacy, and discuss the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan, experts said.

“The visit is important in the larger context of the US-India relationship because it shows that there is a consistent engagement with India and India is a priority,” Harsh V. Pant, head of the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), told Arab News.

On Wednesday, Blinken is expected to hold talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

“Both sides will review the robust and multifaceted India-US bilateral relations and potential for consolidating them further,” India’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on July 23, announcing Blinken’s two-day visit.

It added that discussions would focus on “regional and global issues of mutual interest – including recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Indo-Pacific region, Afghanistan, and cooperation in the UN.”

Analysts said the visit could also lay the groundwork for an in-person summit of the Quad group of countries — comprising India, Japan, Australia and the US — likelyto be held in September and mainly aimed at drawing up measures to counter China’s rising influence in the Indo-Pacific region which, according to Pant, sent out a “larger message” about New Delhi’s role.

“We have seen the US secretary of defense coming to India earlier this year, we have seen (US President Joe) Biden calling the Quad leadership summit early on in his term, and now we have the secretary of state coming to India. I think there is a larger message about the Indo-US relationship and how important America sees India as a partner,” he said.

A virtual summit of the Quad group held in March created a working group on COVID-19 vaccine delivery, with India as the lead manufacturer committing to produce at least a billion vaccine doses by the end of 2022, mainly for southeast Asian and Pacific countries grappling with a spike in infections.

Blinken’s visit could create an opportunity to “bolster the global strategic partnership” between India and the US and focus on ways to support Afghanistan as the Taliban make rapid territorial gains amid a drawdown of US-led foreign troops from the country after 20 years of occupation.

Afghanistan’s deteriorating security situation saw India withdraw its staff from its consulates in Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif earlier this month.

“There are some apprehensions about the way things are moving in Afghanistan,” Pant added. “Therefore, from India’s perspective, it would be important to get a sense of what the American plan for Afghanistan is.”

Pranay Kotasthane, deputy director at the Takshashila Institution, said India’s primary concern would be to “deny space” in Afghanistan to “Pakistan-sponsored terrorist groups” and that there might be some discussions toward this goal.

On Monday, India said that it was also “willing to discuss” its human rights record if Blinken raised it during the bilateral talks.

“India has a plural tradition and multicultural society,” and it is willing to “discuss any human rights issue,” a source in the Indian government, who could not be identified under government policy, told Arab News.

It comes after Acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Dean Thompson told reporters in Washington D.C. on Friday that “the human rights and democracy question” would be part of the talks between Indian and US foreign ministers.

Since being elected to office in 2014, Modi and his government have faced allegations of suppressing dissent, pursuing divisive policies to appeal to Hindu voters, and enacting the Citizenship Amendment Law two years ago that Muslims see as discriminatory.

India’s human rights record became even more pronounced after the death in custody of 87-year-old Jesuit priest Stan Swamy, who was arrested on charges of supporting ultra-Maoists, while awaiting bail.

Pant said that bringing up the issue for talks reflected the “pressures” that Biden’s administration was under from various US constituencies.

“I think those who deal with India and the US know that historically India is cagey about including outsiders on domestic issues,” he added.


Thailand forest park gets World Heritage nod despite indigenous rights warning

Updated 28 July 2021

Thailand forest park gets World Heritage nod despite indigenous rights warning

  • “The indigenous Karen in the national park continue to be forcibly evicted and their houses burnt”

BANGKOK: A vast forest complex in Thailand has been added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List, despite the UN’s own experts warning of human rights violations against indigenous people in the area.

The Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex in western Thailand is rich in biodiversity, including the critically endangered Siamese crocodile, UNESCO said Monday in its listing announcement.

But it is also home to an indigenous community of ethnic Karen people, who have long accused the Thai government of using violence and harassment to push them off their land.

Thailand had lobbied for years to get World Heritage status for the complex, and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha praised UNESCO’s decision, vowing to protect the forest according to “international standards.”

“From now on, the government will ... restore the forest together and promote the livelihood development and human rights of locals,” he said in a Facebook post on Tuesday.

“Everyone will be part of co-management so they will feel a sense of ownership.”

United Nations experts last week urged the UNESCO committee to defer a decision until independent monitors have visited the area and the concerns about the indigenous people have been addressed.

“This is an important precedent-setting case, and may influence policies on how indigenous peoples’ rights are respected in protected areas across Asia,” the three experts said in a statement released Friday by the office of the UN Human Rights Commissioner.

“The indigenous Karen in the national park continue to be forcibly evicted and their houses burnt.”

They also said the World Heritage nomination process did not have effective participation of indigenous people, calling for indigenous people to be treated as partners in protecting the forest, not threats.

The park’s listing dismayed activist Pongsak Tonnamphet, an indigenous resident of the area.

“The decision was not made based on basic human rights principles ... the minority had no chance to speak,” the 24-year-old told AFP on Tuesday.

The World Heritage Committee did not list the park in 2016 and 2019 because of rights concerns.

The dispute has been simmering for decades.

While many indigenous residents were allegedly driven out of the area, those remaining were not allowed to cultivate the land.

Authorities say their farming activities would damage the forest, but activists argue that traditional farming methods do not harm the environment.

Rights campaigners have accused Thai officials of using harassment and violence to force indigenous people out.

The charred bones of a high-profile ethnic Karen leader were found inside the park in 2019, five years after he disappeared, according to Thai investigators.

Park officials at the time were the last to see him alive, but serious charges including premeditated murder were dropped in early 2020, with authorities citing a lack of evidence.

Ahead of the decision, an indigenous rights group held a protest in front of the environment ministry in Bangkok on Monday, flinging red paint at its signage.

Located near the border with Myanmar, the Kaeng Krachan complex is spread over more than 480,000 hectares, and includes three national parks and a wildlife sanctuary.


Attackers kill five soldiers, one civilian in north Cameroon, say officials

Updated 27 July 2021

Attackers kill five soldiers, one civilian in north Cameroon, say officials

  • Boko Haram attack kills five Cameroonian soldiers and a civilian
  • The attack happened during a raid on the military outpost in the country’s far north, local authorities said

YAOUNDE: An attack by Boko Haram killed five Cameroonian soldiers and a civilian, according to a defense ministry statement on state radio Tuesday.
The attack took place on Monday night in the far north of the central African country near the border with Nigeria, where operations by the Islamist group have been on the rise, reported AFP.
Meanwhile, Reuters said the attack happened during a raid on the military outpost in the country’s far north, local authorities said on Tuesday, the second deadly raid in the area in the past week.
An army post in the village of Zigue was attacked at around 9 p.m. (20:00 GMT) on Monday, according to two officials who asked not to be identified.
The attack follows a raid that took place around 50 km (30 miles) north of Zigue on Saturday, which was claimed by Daesh. Eight soldiers were killed in that raid, according to the defense ministry.
Cameroon, alongside neighboring Nigeria and Chad, has been battling the Boko Haram militant group for years, but more recently has clashed with fighters who identify themselves as Daesh West African Province (DWAP).
In the aftermath of the death of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau in May, DWAP has sought to absorb Boko Haram fighters and unify the groups which had hitherto fought one another for control of territory.

With AFP and Reuters.


Iranian prosecutor charged with war crimes

Updated 28 July 2021

Iranian prosecutor charged with war crimes

  • The victims were linked to the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, a political organization

JEDDAH: A former Iranian prosecutor was charged on Tuesday with war crimes and murder over the execution of more than 100 political prisoners in Iran in 1988.

Hamid Noury, 60, has been under arrest in Sweden since 2019, when he was detained at Stockholm airport as he arrived to visit relatives.

Human rights groups have been campaigning for years for justice over the extrajudicial execution of thousands of Iranians, mostly young people, in the late 1980s. 

The victims were linked to the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, a political organization that seeks to overthrow Iran’s ruling clerics.

In the summer of 1988, Supreme Leader Ali Khomeini “issued an order to execute all prisoners held in Iranian prisons who sympathized with and were loyal in their convictions to the Mujahedin,” Swedish prosecutors said on Tuesday. 

At the time, Noury was an assistant prosecutor at Gohardasht Prison on the outskirts of Karaj, west of Tehran.

Noury “is suspected of participating … in these mass executions and, as such, intentionally taking the lives of a large number of prisoners who sympathized with the Mujahedin and, additionally, of subjecting prisoners to severe suffering which is deemed torture and inhuman treatment,” prosecutor Kristina Lindhoff Carleson said.

Noury’s trial begins on Aug. 10 in Stockholm and is expected to last about eight months. It is likely to be embarrassing for Iran, where rights groups say many officials involved in the extrajudicial killings in the 1980s are still in positions of power.

They include the newly elected president, Ebrahim Raisi, who Amnesty International says played a key role as a prosecutor on the “death commission” that sent thousands of prisoners to be killed.


UK PM urges caution as virus cases fall for six days

Updated 27 July 2021

UK PM urges caution as virus cases fall for six days

  • Recorded infection rates across the UK have dropped for six consecutive days
  • Despite the turnaround ministers are warning the long-term situation remains uncertain

LONDON: Prime Minister Boris Johnson called for caution Tuesday after Britain registered nearly a week of lower coronavirus case numbers, a decline that has surprised officials and experts.
Recorded infection rates across the UK have dropped for six consecutive days, with 24,950 new cases announced Monday compared to 46,558 last Tuesday — a fall of 46 percent.
The reversal after weeks of rising rates has coincided with the removal on July 19 of nearly all pandemic rules in England, including legal requirements for social distancing wearing a mask in public indoors.
It has confounded the government and scientists, who had previously warned cases would likely surge to 100,000 a day in the weeks ahead after the restrictions were eased.
Despite the turnaround, which comes after the start of summer school holidays, ministers are warning the long-term situation remains uncertain.
“I have noticed that obviously we have six days of some better figures but it’s very, very important that we don’t allow ourselves to run away with premature conclusions about this,” Johnson said during a visit to a police station in southeast England.
“People have got to remain very cautious and that remains the approach of the government,” he added.
Johnson ended 10 days in self-isolation late Monday after being in close contact with Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who tested positive for Covid-19 earlier this month.
The prime minister argued that Britain’s successful vaccination campaign — which has fully vaccinated 70 percent of adults — allowed for the relaxation of legal curbs last week.
But the move attracted widespread criticism, with fears the National Health Service could again come under severe strain from rising caseloads, even if many fewer people are now dying of Covid.
Experts have struggled to explain why infections appear to have declined so dramatically since early last week.
The end of the Euro 2020 football tournament — which was blamed for a spike in cases among younger men gathering to watch games — as well as the school holidays and a heatwave have all been mooted as factors.
“The recent fall in cases in England is great news, but also puzzling given that progressive relaxation of restrictions has occurred,” said Stephen Griffin of Leeds University’s School of Medicine.
But, echoing Johnson’s call for caution, he added: “I would be surprised if we are likely to see a continuation of this decline.”