Iran says US websites seizure unhelpful for nuclear talks

The US Justice Department said it had seized 33 Iranian government-controlled media websites. (AFP)
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Updated 23 June 2021

Iran says US websites seizure unhelpful for nuclear talks

  • Iran's state broadcaster accused the US of repressing freedom of expression
  • EU negotiator Enrique Mora said on Sunday that those involved in the talks were "closer" to saving the Iran nuclear deal

TEHRAN: Tehran warned Wednesday that Washington's seizure of 33 websites run by Iran-linked media was "not constructive" for ongoing talks on bringing the United States back into a landmark nuclear deal.
The US Justice Department said it had seized 33 Iranian government-controlled media websites, as well as three of the Iraqi group Kataeb Hezbollah, which it said were hosted on US-owned domains in violation of sanctions.
Iran's state broadcaster accused the US of repressing freedom of expression, while the president's office questioned the timing of the move as talks on bringing Washington back into the 2015 nuclear agreement between Tehran and major powers are reportedly making headway.
"We are using all international and legal means to... condemn... this mistaken policy of the United States," the director of the president's office, Mahmoud Vaezi, told reporters.
"It appears not constructive when talks for a deal on the nuclear issue are under way."
The 2015 deal saw Iran accept curbs on its nuclear activities in return for an easing of sanctions, but in 2018 then US president Donald Trump unilaterally abandoned the agreement and ramped up sanctions, prompting Iran to pull back from its own commitments.
Trump's successor Joe Biden has signalled his readiness to return to the deal and state parties -- also including Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia -- have been negotiating its revival in Vienna since early April.
EU negotiator Enrique Mora said on Sunday that those involved in the talks were "closer" to saving the Iran nuclear deal but that sticking points remain.
The US action also comes just after Iranians chose ultraconservative cleric Ibrahim Raisi as president in an election the US State Department characterised as neither free nor fair.
Visitors to leading Iranian media sites like Press TV and Al-Alam, the country's main English- and Arabic-language broadcasters, as well as the Al-Masirah TV channel of Yemen's Huthis, were met with single-page statements declaring the website "has been seized by the United States government" accompanied by the seals of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the US Commerce Department.
The 33 websites were held by the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union (IRTVU), itself controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force (IRGC).
Both the IRTVU and IRGC have been placed on the US sanctions blacklist, making it illegal for Americans, US companies, and foreign or non-American companies with US subsidiaries to have business with them or their subsidiaries.
Kataeb Hezbollah, the Iraqi group which owned three sites that were seized, is a hardline military faction with close ties to Tehran that Washington has formally designated a terror group.
Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), the immediate parent of Al-Alam, reported that other web domains, including Palestine-Al Youm, a Palestinian-directed broadcaster, and an Arabic-language religious and cultural channel were among those seized.
Bahrain's LuaLua TV, a channel run by opposition groups with offices in London and Beirut, was also frozen by the United States, according to an AFP correspondent in the region.
IRIB accused the US of repressing freedom of expression and joining forces with Israel and Saudi Arabia "to block pro-resistance media outlets exposing the crimes of US allies in the region."
TV stations such as Press TV and Al-Alam switched to .ir domains and their websites remained accessible. They are also still present on social media, mainly Twitter, and their broadcasts have continued uninterrupted.
On the website of their political wing, the Huthis branded the action "American piracy and copyright confiscation".
"The government of the United States of America is banning the Al-Masirah website without any justification or even prior notice," they said.
Al-Masirah quickly established a new website, using its name but swapping the .net domain for .com.
Meanwhile LuaLua and Al-Masirah continued to broadcast new programs, AFP journalists said.
IRTVU was designated for sanctions last year for "brazen attempts to sow discord among the voting populace by spreading disinformation online and executing malign influence operations aimed at misleading US voters," the Justice Department said.
"IRTVU and others like it, disguised as news organisations or media outlets, targeted the United States with disinformation campaigns and malign influence operations," it said in a statement.
US officials meanwhile have tied Kataeb Hezbollah to rocket and other attacks on sites in Iraq where American soldiers and diplomats reside, and say the group is supported by Iran's Revolutionary Guards.
The Justice Department did not identify the US company or companies which owned the domains that hosted the websites, or explain how they had been able to host them contrary to sanctions.

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Tunisians back their president as he vows: ‘Your freedoms are safe’

Updated 28 July 2021

Tunisians back their president as he vows: ‘Your freedoms are safe’

  • Responsibility for political crisis lies with Islamist Ennahda party, analysts tell Arab News

JEDDAH: Tunisians threw their weight behind President Kais Saied on Tuesday after he told leading civil society groups that the emergency situation was temporary and he would “protect the democratic path.”
Saied pledged that the “freedoms and rights of Tunisians would not be affected in any way,” said Sami Tahri, an official in the powerful UGTT trade union.
Thousands celebrated on the streets on Monday after Saied dismissed the government, including Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and the justice and defense ministers. He also suspended parliament, which had been dominated by its speaker, Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Ennahda party.
On the streets of Tunis, many welcomed the president’s orders. Najet Ben Gharbia, 47, a nurse, said she had been waiting “a long time” for such a move. A decade after Tunisians ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, many are struggling.
“There is still great poverty,” Ben Gharbia said, describing the inflation that has stripped the value of income, making meat too expensive to buy. “People are miserable.
“Kais Saied, he’s a teacher, not a politician, he’s like us. We are sure of him, he is not like Ben Ali, he is not a dictator.”
Mounir Mabrouk, 50, said: “What the president is doing is in our interest. Political parties have done nothing except sell our property to foreigners and wealthy elites.”

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Taxi driver Hosni Mkhali, 47, said action had to be taken — especially to bring the cases of coronavirus under control, as Tunisia struggles with one of the world’s worst recorded death rates. “All Tunisians are disgusted,” he said. “It was the best time to act.”
Analysts laid the blame for Tunisia’s turmoil firmly at the door of Ennahda, the Islamist party led by Ghannouchi.
Ammar Aziz, an associate editor at Al Arabiya News Channel, told Arab News: “With Ennahda controlling parliament and also the government, everything has simply collapsed — from security to the economy. The same is true for the country’s transport system and public health institutions. All Tunisians have noticed the deterioration and it is for this reason we saw the protests in different towns on July 25.”
Writing today in Arab News, Sir John Jenkins, a senior fellow at Policy Exchange and former leading British diplomat, said Ghannouchi’s motives were questionable.
He said: “Although Ghannouchi claimed to have separated the political, social welfare and dawa wings of Ennahda in 2016, there has never been anything to suggest that he does not share the ultimate Muslim Brotherhood goal of an Islamized state.”

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Human Rights Watch: Israeli war crimes apparent in Gaza war

A ball of fire erupts from a building in Gaza City’s Rimal residential district on May 16 during massive Israeli bombardment on the Hamas-controlled enclave. (AFP)
Updated 28 July 2021

Human Rights Watch: Israeli war crimes apparent in Gaza war

  • Rights group issues conclusions after investigating three Israeli airstrikes that it said killed 62 Palestinian civilians
  • Such attacks violate ‘the prohibition against deliberate or indiscriminate attacks against civilians’

JERUSALEM: Human Rights Watch on Tuesday accused the Israeli military of carrying attacks that “apparently amount to war crimes” during an 11-day war against the Hamas militant group in May.
The international human rights organization issued its conclusions after investigating three Israeli airstrikes that it said killed 62 Palestinian civilians. It said “there were no evident military targets in the vicinity” of the attacks.
The report also accused Palestinian militants of apparent war crimes by launching over 4,000 unguided rockets and mortars at Israeli population centers. Such attacks, it said, violate “the prohibition against deliberate or indiscriminate attacks against civilians.”
The report, however, focused on Israeli actions during the fighting, and the group said it would issue a separate report on the actions of Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups in August.
“Israeli forces carried out attacks in Gaza in May that devastated entire families without any apparent military target nearby,” said Gerry Simpson, associated crisis and conflict director at HRW. He said Israel’s “consistent unwillingness to seriously investigate alleged war crimes,” coupled with Palestinian rocket fire at Israeli civilian areas, underscored the importance of an ongoing investigation into both sides by the International Criminal Court, or ICC.
There was no immediate reaction to the report by the Israeli military, which has repeatedly said its attacks were aimed at military targets in Gaza. It blames Hamas for civilian casualties by launching rocket attacks and other military operations inside residential areas.
The war erupted on May 10 after Hamas fired a barrage of rockets toward Jerusalem in support of Palestinian protests against Israel’s heavy-handed policing of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, built on a contested site sacred to Jews and Muslims, and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers in a nearby neighborhood. In all, Hamas fired over 4,000 rockets and mortars toward Israel, while Israel has said it struck over 1,000 targets linked to Gaza militants.
In all, some 254 people were killed in Gaza, including at least 67 children and 39 women, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Hamas has acknowledged the deaths of 80 militants, while Israel has claimed the number is much higher. Twelve civilians, including two children, were killed in Israel, along with one soldier.
The HRW report looked into Israeli airstrikes. The most serious, on May 16, involved a series of strikes on Al-Wahda Street, a central thoroughfare in downtown Gaza City. The airstrikes destroyed three apartment buildings and killed a total of 44 civilians, HRW said, including 18 children and 14 women. Twenty-two of the dead were members of a single family, the Al-Kawlaks.
Israel has said the attacks were aimed at tunnels used by Hamas militants in the area and suggested the damage to the homes was unintentional.
In its investigation, HRW concluded that Israel had used US-made GBU-31 precision-guided bombs, and that Israel had not warned any of the residents to evacuate the area ahead of time. It also it found no evidence of military targets in the area.
“An attack that is not directed at a specific military objective is unlawful,” it wrote.
The investigation also looked at a May 10 explosion that killed eight people, including six children, near the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun. It said the two adults were civilians.
Israel has suggested the explosion was caused by a misfired Palestinian rocket. But based on an analysis of munition remnants and witness accounts, HRW said evidence indicated the weapon had been “a type of guided missile.”
“Human Rights Watch found no evidence of a military target at or near the site of the strike,” it said.
The third attack it investigated occurred on May 15, in which an Israeli airstrike destroyed a three-story building in Gaza’s Shati refugee camp. The strike killed 10 people, including two women and eight children.
HRW investigators determined the building was hit by a US-made guided missile. It said Israel has said that senior Hamas officials were hiding in the building. But the group said no evidence of a military target at or near the site and called for an investigation into whether there was a legitimate military objective and “all feasible precautions” were taken to avoid civilian casualties.
The May conflict was the fourth war between Israel and Hamas since the Islamic militant group, which opposes Israel’s existence, seized control of Gaza in 2007. Human Rights Watch, other rights groups and UN officials have accused both sides of committing war crimes in all of the conflicts.
Early this year, HRW accused Israel of being guilty of international crimes of apartheid and persecution because of discriminatory polices toward Palestinians, both inside Israel as well as in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel rejected the accusations.
In Tuesday’s report, it called on the United States to condition security assistance to Israel on it taking “concrete and verifiable actions” to comply with international human rights law and to investigate past abuses.
It also called on the ICC to include the recent Gaza war in its ongoing investigation into possible war crimes by Israel and Palestinian militant groups. Israel does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction and says it is capable of investigating any potential wrongdoing by its army and that the ICC probe is unfair and politically motivated.

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Egypt officials: Cairo apartment building collapses; 1 dead

Updated 27 July 2021

Egypt officials: Cairo apartment building collapses; 1 dead

  • The woman spent over 5 hours buried under rubble of the four-story building
  • Rescuers managed to locate and speak with the woman and passing her a bottle of water

CAIRO: An apartment building in the Egyptian capital of Cairo collapsed on Tuesday, killing a man while rescue workers hours later pulled his wife alive from under the rubble, officials said.
The woman spent more than five hours buried under the rubble of the four-story building in the city’s Waraq neighborhood, officials said. She was taken to hospital. No other residents were believed to be inside the building at the time of the collapse.
Earlier, the rescuers had managed to locate and speak with the woman — even passing her a bottle of water, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Prosecutors opened an investigation, the state-run MENA news agency reported.
It wasn’t immediately clear what caused the collapse but such incidents are common in Egypt, where shoddy construction is widespread in shantytowns, poor city neighborhoods and rural areas.
Last month, at least five women died when an apartment building collapsed in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria. Another building in Cairo collapsed in March, leaving at least 25 dead.
With real estate at a premium in big cities such as Cairo and Alexandria, developers seeking bigger profits frequently violate planning permits. Extra floors often, for example, are sometimes added without proper government permits.
The government recently launched a crackdown on illegal construction across the country, jailing and fining violators, and in many cases demolishing the buildings.

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Lebanon’s new PM-designate bids to form much-delayed government

Lebanon's new Prime Minister-Designate Najib Mikati, talks at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon July 26, 2021. (REUTERS)
Updated 28 July 2021

Lebanon’s new PM-designate bids to form much-delayed government

  • Mikati’s efforts to form a government come ahead of the first anniversary of a devastating explosion that rocked Beirut on Aug. 4
  • Basic rights like access to food and medicine have turned into demands, says leader

BEIRUT: Lebanon's new Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati on Tuesday held consultations with political parties that he said “unanimously” agreed on the need to put together a government quickly to rescue the crisis-hit country.

Mikati listened to lawmakers’ demands about the new government and said he wanted to form one comprising non-partisan specialists to implement a French initiative and also oversee the next parliamentary elections.

Under the French initiative, the new government would take steps to tackle corruption and implement the reforms needed to release billions of dollars of international aid.

Mikati said there were “international and American guarantees that Lebanon will not collapse” and that  his government’s priority would be addressing the electricity crisis and setting up power plants.

“Lebanon is an Arab country and we do not want it to be a conduit for conspiracy against any other Arab country,” he added.

The EU stressed the need for a “credible and accountable government” to be formed in Lebanon without any delay, while a spokesperson for the French Foreign Ministry stressed the “urgent need to form a competent government” able to implement the reforms that were crucial for the country’s recovery. The spokesperson also urged Lebanese leaders to “assume their responsibility.”

It is unclear how Lebanese lawmakers will facilitate Mikati’s task and if he will face the same obstacles that stymied his predecessor Saad Hariri, who stepped down after nine months of trying to form a government.

Mikati said following the Tuesday meetings: “All parliamentary blocs and lawmakers agreed on the urgent need to form a government to restore the role of the state that has been absent for a long time, to reassure the Lebanese and make them feel like someone is there for them amid these difficult circumstances, where basic rights like access to electricity, fuel, bread and medicine have turned into demands. That is what we are seeking to provide if we manage to form a government.”

He added that he would visit President Michel Aoun “to exchange points of view and reach an agreement over the formation of a government as soon as possible.”

Lawmakers from the Lebanese Forces party on Monday told Mikati they would not join the government. But the Future Movement’s lawmakers urged him to hold tight to and protect the principles set by former prime ministers.

The parliamentary bloc of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri demanded the amendment of a current electoral law that has divided the Lebanese and increased sectarian tension.

Gebran Bassil MP, who heads the Strong Lebanon parliamentary bloc, said his party had informed Mikati of its wish “not to take part in the government and not to interfere in the formation process,” but reminded Mikati “of his belief in the idea of a full constitutional partner.”

The political disputes between Bassil and Hariri started when Aoun insisted on naming the Christian ministers in the government and Hariri was accused of breaching the president’s powers.

Hariri insisted on not granting Aoun the blocking third and considered the presidential wish to name the ministers a violation of the constitution.

The Hezbollah bloc said it required Mikati to address the matter of “naming ministers, especially those who will handle the finance, economy and education ministries.”

It demanded that these people “be field experts, and not only good in offices and with numbers.”

Mikati’s efforts to form a government come ahead of the first anniversary of a devastating explosion that rocked Beirut on Aug. 4, with politicians under pressure to break the deadlock.

The country has been under the spotlight regarding the ongoing blast investigation and the vows of Lebanese officials to hold the criminals and the corrupt accountable.

Hariri said his bloc insisted on knowing the truth about the Beirut blast and the truth about the assassination of his father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

He told the press: “People have the right to know who stored the tons of ammonium nitrate at the port of Beirut, why they were seized and who was behind the explosion.”

Hariri accused some people of trying to “distort” his position over the blast by claiming that Future Movement lawmakers had “abandoned their pursuit of truth and justice” in Hariri’s assassination and were calling for the protection of ministers, lawmakers and the defendants in the blast probe.

He suggested the suspension of all constitutional and legal articles that granted immunity or special treatment to try the president, the prime minister, ministers, representatives, judges, officials and even lawyers, in order to reach the truth.

 


Iran hits new COVID-19 infection record for second straight day

Updated 27 July 2021

Iran hits new COVID-19 infection record for second straight day

  • The previous record of 31,814 infections had been set only a day earlier
  • The alarming spread of the variant prompted new anti-virus restrictions last week

TEHRAN: Iran recorded over 34,900 new coronavirus infections on Tuesday, setting the nation’s single-day record for cases as vaccinations lag, public complacency deepens and the country’s outbreak spirals further out of control.
The previous record of 31,814 infections had been set only a day earlier, providing a sense of how quickly Iran’s latest surge, fueled by the contagious delta variant, is mounting. Health authorities recorded 357 COVID-19 fatalities on Tuesday, bringing the total death toll to 89,479 — the highest in the Middle East.
The alarming spread of the variant prompted new anti-virus restrictions last week. The government ordered the closure of state offices, public places and non-essential businesses in the capital of Tehran. But as with previous government measures, the lockdown looked very little like a lockdown at all. Tehran’s malls and markets were busy as usual and workers crowded offices and metro stations.
Iranian authorities have avoided imposing heavy-handed rules on a population that can little afford to bear them. The country, which has suffered the worst virus outbreak in the region, is reeling from a series of crises: tough US sanctions, global isolation, a heat wave, the worst blackouts in recent memory and ongoing protests over water shortages in the southwest.
Now, health officials warn that hospitals in the capital are overwhelmed with breathless COVID patients too numerous to handle. Fewer than 3 percent of Iranians have been fully vaccinated in the sanctions-hit country. Many front-line medical workers have been vaccinated with Iran’s locally produced shots or the Chinese state-backed Sinopharm vaccine that may be less effective than other inoculations.
Iran’s government announced that its homemade vaccine provides 85 percent protection from the coronavirus, without disclosing data or details. Iran also imports Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, as well as the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot through the United Nations-backed COVAX program.