Blinken to meet with Israel, three Arab states on normalization

A photo taken in September 2020 of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al-Zayani and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan after signing the Abraham Accords. (AFP)
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Updated 14 September 2021

Blinken to meet with Israel, three Arab states on normalization

  • Blinken will meet foreign ministers of Israel, UAE, Bahrain and Morocco to commemorate one-year anniversary of signing the Abraham Accords
  • The meeting marks a full embrace by President Joe Biden's administration over what his predecessor’s team considered a signature foreign policy success

WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet virtually Friday with his counterparts from Israel and three Arab states on the anniversary of the normalization of ties, the State Department said.
Blinken will meet the foreign ministers of Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco to “commemorate the one-year anniversary of the signing of the Abraham Accords and discuss ways to further deepen ties and build a more prosperous region,” a State Department spokesperson said Tuesday.
The meeting — and use of the term “Abraham Accords” — marks a full embrace by President Joe Biden’s administration over what predecessor Donald Trump’s team considered a signature foreign policy success.
The United Arab Emirates, followed quickly by Bahrain and Morocco, became the first Arab states in decades to normalize relations with Israel, which earlier reached peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan.
Notably absent from Friday’s commemoration is Sudan, whose new civilian-backed government — desperate for US support — promised Trump to move forward with Israel but has since been hesitant in the face of public opposition.
Critics of the Trump approach said that normalization was no substitute for a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, with the previous administration staunchly backing the Jewish state, including its right to annex land.
The Arab states’ warming to Israel came after Trump promised state-of-the-art F-35 warplanes to the United Arab Emirates and broke longstanding US policy by recognizing Morocco’s claims to Western Sahara.
Biden has not changed either decision, although his administration says it is attaching greater oversight on sales to the Emirati military.

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Thousands of pro-military protesters rally against Sudan government

Updated 16 October 2021

Thousands of pro-military protesters rally against Sudan government

  • Saturday’s demonstrations were organized by a splinter faction of the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC)
  • FFC is a civilian alliance which spearheaded the anti-Bashir protests and became a key plank of the transition

KHARTOUM: Thousands of pro-military Sudanese protesters took to the streets Saturday demanding the dissolution of the transitional government, saying it had “failed” them politically and economically.
The protests came as Sudanese politics reels from divisions among the factions steering the rocky transition from two decades of iron-fisted rule by Omar Al-Bashir, who was ousted by the army in April 2019 in the face of mass protests.
Saturday’s demonstrations were organized by a splinter faction of the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), a civilian alliance which spearheaded the anti-Bashir protests and became a key plank of the transition.
“We need a military government, the current government has failed to bring us justice and equality,” said Abboud Ahmed, a 50-year-old protester near the presidential palace in central Khartoum.
The official SUNA news agency reported that protesters had traveled in by truck from Khartoum’s outskirts and from neighboring states.
Critics alleged that the protests involved sympathizers of the Bashir regime, which was dominated by Islamists and the military.
Banners called for the “dissolution of the government.” Protesters chanted “one army, one people” and “the army will bring us bread.”
“We are marching in a peaceful protest and we want a military government,” said housewife Enaam Mohamed.
On Friday, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok warned that the transition is facing its “worst and most dangerous” crisis.
The mainstream faction of the FFC said: “The current crisis is not related to dissolution of the government of not.
“It is engineered by some parties to overthrow the revolutionary forces... paving the way for the return of remnants of the previous regime.”
Support for the transitional government has waned in recent months in the face of a tough package of IMF-backed economic reforms, including the slashing of fuel subsidies and a managed float of the Sudanese pound.
Protests have rocked eastern Sudan where demonstrators have blocked trade through the key hub of Port Sudan since September.
On September 21, the government said it thwarted a coup attempt which it blamed on both military officers and civilians linked to Bashir’s regime.


Families of Beirut blast victims back judge amid pressure

Updated 16 October 2021

Families of Beirut blast victims back judge amid pressure

  • The families’ statement was apparently meant to counter a video released by their spokesman on social media Friday in which he calls on Judge Tarek Bitar to step down
  • The spokesman could not be reached for comment and it was unclear if he had made the video under pressure

BEIRUT: Families of the Beirut blast victims on Saturday reaffirmed their support for the judge leading the investigation into the tragedy, days after deadly clashes in the capital between those backing him and those demanding his removal from the case.  

The families’ statement was apparently meant to counter a video released by their spokesman late on Friday in which he called on Judge Tarek Bitar to step down.

The families said the spokesman, Ibrahim Hoteit, had not coordinated with them and that the video had taken them by surprise.

Some of them said the video “may have been filmed under threat” as Hoteit was reading from a written statement.

William Noun, one of the families’ representatives, said: “We do not blame him. This is not his language, but he lives in Hezbollah's security square.”

Thursday saw gun battles erupt on Beirut’s streets between rival camps over Bitar’s role. At least six people were killed and dozens were wounded.  

Lebanese Justice Minister Henry El-Khoury said on Saturday that he stood by Bitar and that the judge had the right to summon whoever he wanted in the case.

The minister also said he did not have the authority to replace Bitar and that he faced no pressure to do so, media reported.

There was a meeting between Prime Minister Najib Mikati, the president of the Supreme Judicial Council, Judge Suhail Abboud, top prosecutor Judge Ghassan Oueidat, and El-Khoury on Saturday to discuss Bitar’s case.

It was decided that Bitar would be invited to a meeting on Tuesday with the Supreme Judicial Council.

A judicial source told Arab News: “Judge Abboud is committed to judicial, not political, approaches to resolving the current problem."

The Council of Ministers cannot dismiss Bitar from the port explosion probe. It requires the minister of justice, along with the Supreme Judicial Council, to remove him and appoint another investigator.

During the meeting, Mikati stressed that “the full file of what happened is with the security services under the supervision of the competent judiciary.”

Mikati, according to his office, also said the government was “keen not to interfere in any file related to the judiciary, and that the judicial authority must take whatever measures it deems appropriate.”

Ministers from Hezbollah and the Amal Movement decided not to attend any Cabinet session unless two demands were resolved. One was the removal of Bitar from the blast probe and the second was arresting those responsible for triggering the deadly fighting on Thursday. They have both accused the Lebanese Forces party of being behind the violence.

Bitar had summoned three ministers for questioning during a period in which they did not enjoy immunity. He issued an arrest warrant in absentia against former Minister Ali Hassan Khalil for not appearing before him.

The Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar reported that some MPs “stayed in their homes based on advice given to them by some security services, and to avoid any dangers they might be exposed to in the street.”

Charles Jabbour, head of the media and communications wing of the Lebanese Forces party, told Arab News: “Yes, this advice was given to the MPs of the Lebanese Forces. There is fear of them being exposed to assassination and murder. Hezbollah previously practiced this method. The solution of the emerging crisis requires that Hezbollah hand over its weapons to the state because it is about time to do that.”

He also commented on the embarrassment facing President Michel Aoun because of his duty to defend Bitar’s work and the independence of the judiciary while approving the demand of his ally Hezbollah to dismiss Bitar from the position of judicial investigator. “The president must bear his responsibility to implement justice. This has been our original demand and we are still insisting on it,” he said.

Free Patriotic Movement MP Asaad Dergham said there was disagreement between the movement and Hezbollah on the issue of the Beirut blast.

He said: “If Hezbollah's goal is to change a specific reality and impose opinion by force, then this has its caveats. If the tensions remain, this will certainly affect the relationship between Hezbollah and the movement, because it is not enough to be strong only in the front line, there is a need for strength in the ranks of the base.”

The blast on Aug. 4, 2020, killed more than 200 people. It wounded thousands more and devastated swathes of the capital.  


Iranian court upholds new 1-year sentence for Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Updated 16 October 2021

Iranian court upholds new 1-year sentence for Zaghari-Ratcliffe

  • Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has already served a five-year prison sentence in Iran
  • Her lawyer said the appeals court upheld a verdict issued earlier this year sentencing her to another year

TEHRAN: An Iranian appeals court has upheld a verdict sentencing an Iranian-British woman long held in Tehran to another year in prison, her lawyer said Saturday.
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has already served a five-year prison sentence in the Islamic Republic. Her lawyer Hojjat Kermani told The Associated Press that the appeals court upheld a verdict issued earlier this year sentencing her to another year.
The verdict additionally includes a one-year travel ban abroad, meaning she cannot leave Iran to join her family for nearly two years.
In April, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced for allegedly spreading “propaganda against the system” when she participated in a protest in front of the Iranian Embassy in London in 2009.
Kermani said Zaghari-Ratcliffe was “concerned” when he informed her about the appeals court decision. He said his client is in touch with her family.
State media in Iran did not immediately acknowledge the ruling, apparently issued after a closed-door hearing.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced to five years in prison after being convicted of plotting the overthrow of Iran’s government, a charge that she, her supporters and rights groups deny. While employed at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of the news agency, she was taken into custody at the Tehran airport in April 2016 as she was returning home to Britain after visiting family.
Rights groups accuse Iran of holding dual-nationals as bargaining chips for money or influence in negotiations with the West, something Tehran denies. Iran does not recognize dual nationalities, so detainees like Zaghari-Ratcliffe cannot receive consular assistance.
Authorities furloughed Zaghari-Ratcliffe from prison because of the surging coronavirus pandemic and she has been restricted to her parents’ Tehran home since.

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Iran sentences ex-central bank chief to 10 years in prison

Updated 16 October 2021

Iran sentences ex-central bank chief to 10 years in prison

  • Besides violating the currency system, Valliollah Seif also had a role in smuggling foreign currency

TEHRAN: A court sentenced the former governor of Iran’s central bank to 10 years in prison for violating the country’s currency system, a judiciary spokesperson said Saturday.
Besides violating the currency system, Valliollah Seif also had a role in smuggling foreign currency, judiciary spokesman Zabihollah Khodaeian told state TV.
Ahmad Araghchi, a then-deputy to Seif, was sentenced to eight years on the same charges, Khodaeian said. Eight others were also sentenced to various prison terms, he said. All of the defendants have the right to appeal.
Seif was governor of Iran’s central bank for five years until 2018 under former President Hassan Rouhani. Araghchi was his deputy from 2017 to 2018.
State TV said they were involved in violations of the currency market in 2016, a time when the Iranian rial sustained considerable losses in value against major foreign currencies.
The defendants illegally injected $160 million and 20 million euros into the market, state TV said.
The rial exchange rate was at 39,000 to $1 in 2017 at the beginning of Araghchi’s time in office but it reached more than 110,000 to $1 by the time he was dismissed in 2018. The change partly coincided with severe US sanctions imposed on Tehran.
The rial has tumbled from a rate of around 32,000 rials to $1 at the time of Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers to around 27,000 rials to $1 in recent months. The currency unexpectedly rallied for some time after President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the nuclear deal and reimpose crippling trade sanctions on Iran in 2018.
The sanctions have caused Iran’s oil exports, the country’s main source of income, to fall sharply.


Lebanese Christian group denies Hezbollah claim it planned Beirut bloodshed

Updated 16 October 2021

Lebanese Christian group denies Hezbollah claim it planned Beirut bloodshed

BEIRUT: The head of the Christian Lebanese Forces party (LF) denied late on Friday his group had planned street violence in Beirut that killed seven people, and said a meeting held the day before was purely political.
Thursday’s violence, which began as people were gathering for a protest called by Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah against the judge investigating last year’s Beirut port blast, was the worst in over a decade and stirred memories of the country’s ruinous sectarian civil war from 1975-90.
Samir Geagea told Voice of Lebanon International radio that a meeting held on Wednesday by a political grouping the LF belongs to had discussed action options should Iran-backed Hezbollah succeed in efforts to remove the judge.
Geagea said the option agreed upon in that event was to call for a public strike, and nothing else.
The powerful Hezbollah group stepped up accusations against the LF on Friday, saying it killed the seven Shiites to try to drag the country into a civil war.
The violence, which erupted at a boundary between Christian and Shiite neighborhoods, has added to concerns over the stability of a country that is awash with weapons and grappling with one of the world’s worst ever economic meltdowns.
Asked whether the presence of LF members in the areas of Ain Al-Remmaneh and Teyouneh, where the shooting erupted, meant the incident was planned, Geagea said they were always present in these areas.
The security coordinator in the party contacted the authorities when they heard a protest was planned and asked for a heavy military presence in the area “as our priority was for the demonstration to pass by simply as a demonstration and not affect civil peace,” Geagea said.
Geagea said his party was assured that would be the case.
“The army has arrested snipers so they need to tell us who they are and where they came from.”
Nineteen people have been detained so far in relation to the incident.