British PM denies lying about lockdown party

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits Finchley Memorial Hospital in North London on Tuesday. (AFP)
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Updated 18 January 2022

British PM denies lying about lockdown party

  • The revelations have sparked public fury, leading to a double-digit lead in polls for the main opposition Labour party over Johnson's Conservatives
  • Johnson has apologised for a May 20, 2020 party in the Downing Street garden, telling parliament last week he thought it was a "work event",

LONDON: UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday “categorically” denied claims by his former chief aide that he lied to parliament about a Downing Street party held during a strict lockdown.
But appearing in public for the first time after days of Covid self-isolation, Johnson also ducked questions about whether he would resign if an internal inquiry establishes that he did lie.
Johnson is battling damaging allegations that he and staff attended alcohol-heavy events during Covid restrictions, prompting an investigation by senior civil servant Sue Gray.
The revelations have sparked public fury, leading to a double-digit lead in polls for the main opposition Labour party over Johnson’s Conservatives, and calls from some Tories for him to quit.
Johnson has apologized for a May 20, 2020 party in the Downing Street garden, telling parliament last week he thought it was a “work event,” despite an aide inviting staff to “bring your own booze.”
But his combative former senior adviser Dominic Cummings, who has been waging a vendetta against Johnson since leaving Downing Street in late 2020, said he warned his then boss about the event at the time.
“I can tell you categorically that nobody told me, nobody said this was something that was against the rules, that it was a breach of the Covid rules, that it was something that wasn’t a work event,” Johnson said.
“Frankly I can’t imagine why on earth it would have been allowed to go ahead,” he told reporters on a visit to a London hospital.
Hanging his head in remorse, Johnson also renewed his office’s apology to Queen Elizabeth II after it emerged that his staff held leaving parties during national mourning for her husband, Prince Philip, in April 2021.
Johnson’s denials have been carefully worded, appearing to clear him of any personal blame even if there was wrongdoing by staff, and relying on a narrow exemption for work gatherings during lockdowns.
But in the latest of an incendiary series of blog posts, Cummings wrote that he told Johnson that Downing Street was becoming a “madhouse.” The prime minister “waved it aside,” he added.
“The events of 20 May alone, never mind the string of other events, mean the PM lied to Parliament about parties,” said Cummings, adding he was ready to swear to his account “on oath.”
Six Conservatives have openly called for Johnson’s resignation, although more are reported to have done so in private. Fifty-four letters from Tory MPs are needed to trigger a no-confidence vote.
Asked if he would indeed step down, Johnson said: “We’ll have to see what she (Gray) says.
“I repeat my deep apologies to people for mistakes that may have been made on my watch,” he added.
Johnson’s senior ministerial colleagues have largely rallied round him, urging the public to wait for the conclusions from Gray’s investigation, which is expected in the coming days.
But Dominic Raab, the deputy premier and justice secretary, conceded that a proven lie by a minister “would normally under the ministerial code, and the governance around parliament, be a resigning matter.”
And in his first on-camera comments on the revelations, powerful finance minister Rishi Sunak said “the ministerial code is clear on these matters.”
“I fully support the prime minister’s request for patience as this inquiry persists,” added Sunak, who is tipped to be a strong contender to take over from Johnson in any leadership contest.
Pressed on whether the prime minister had his unequivocal support, Sunak then broke off the interview and walked off with his microphone still attached.
The opposition Labour party was unequivocal in restating its demands for Johnson to quit following the Cummings blog.
“Boris Johnson clearly knows it’s the end of the road,” Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said.


Online diary: Buffalo gunman plotted attack for months

Updated 17 May 2022

Online diary: Buffalo gunman plotted attack for months

  • The author of the diary posted hand-drawn maps of the grocery store along with tallies of the number of Black people he counted there

BUFFALO, New York: The white gunman accused of massacring 10 Black people at a Buffalo supermarket wrote as far back as November about staging a livestreamed attack on African Americans, practiced shooting from his car and traveled hours from his home in March to scout out the store, according to detailed diary entries he appears to have posted online.
The author of the diary posted hand-drawn maps of the grocery store along with tallies of the number of Black people he counted there, and recounted how a Black security guard at the supermarket confronted him that day to ask what he was up to. A Black security guard was among the dead in Saturday’s shooting rampage.
The diary taken from the chat platform Discord came to light two days after 18-year-old Payton Gendron allegedly opened fire with an AR-15-style rifle at the Tops Friendly Market. He was wearing body armor and used a helmet camera to livestream the bloodbath on the Internet, authorities said.
He surrendered inside the supermarket and was arraigned on a murder charge over the weekend. He pleaded not guilty and was jailed under a suicide watch. Federal authorities are contemplating bringing hate crime charges.
Copies of the online materials were shared with The Associated Press by Marc-André Argentino, a research fellow at the London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence.
A transcript of the diary entries was apparently posted publicly sometime ahead of the attack. It was not clear how many people might have seen the entries. Experts said it was possible but unlikely the diary could have been altered by someone other than the author.
The FBI’s top agent in Buffalo, Stephen Belongia, indicated on a call with other officials Monday that investigators are looking at Gendron’s Discord activity, citing posts last summer about body armor and guns and others last month in which he taunted federal authorities. Belongia gave no details in the call, a recording of which the AP obtained.
But in an April 17 post apparently by Gendron, he exhorted readers to kill agents from the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Messages seeking comment were left with Gendron’s lawyers. No one answered the door at his family’s home.
The violence spread grief and anger in Buffalo and beyond.
Former Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield Jr., who lost his 86-year-old mother, Ruth Whitfield, in the shooting, asked how the country could allow its history of racist killings to repeat itself.
“We’re not just hurting. We’re angry,” Whitfield said at a news conference with civil rights attorney Ben Crump and others. “We treat people with decency, and we love even our enemies.”
“And you expect us to keep doing this over and over and over again — over again, forgive and forget,” he continued. “While people we elect and trust in offices around this country do their best not to protect us, not to consider us equal.”
The victims also included a man buying a cake for his grandson; a church deacon helping people get home with their groceries; and a supermarket security guard.
The online diary details a March 8 reconnaissance visit the writer made to Buffalo, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) from Gendron’s home in Conklin, New York.
Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia said at a news conference that there was information indicating Gendron was in Buffalo in March, but Gramaglia declined to say more.
The commissioner said numerous investigators are working to obtain and review Gendron’s online postings.
“There’s a lot of social that’s being looked at, or that’s being verified, captured,” Gramaglia said. “Some of that takes warrants that have to be served on various social media platforms.”
The author of the diary talked about checking out targets including the Tops Friendly Market and said a security guard asked what he was doing after his second visit of the day. He gave an excuse about collecting data and soon left — “a close call,” he wrote.
A 180-page document purportedly written by Gendron said the attack was intended to terrorize all nonwhite, non-Christian people and get them to leave the country. Federal authorities said they are working to confirm the document’s authenticity.
Gendron had briefly been on authorities’ radar last spring, when state police were called to his high school for a report that the then-17-year-old had made threatening statements.
Belongia, the FBI agent, said Gendron had responded to a question about future plans by saying that he wanted to commit a murder-suicide.
A December Discord post that Gendron apparently made said he had given that answer to a question about retirement in an economics class and ended up spending “one of the worst nights of my life” in a hospital.
Gramaglia said Gendron had no further contact with law enforcement after a mental health evaluation that put him in a hospital for a day and a half. On the call with Belongia, Gramaglia said state police “did everything within the confines of the law” at that time.
It was unclear whether officials could have invoked New York’s “red flag” regulation, which lets law enforcement, school officials and families ask a court to order the seizure of guns from people considered dangerous.
Federal law bars people from owning guns if a judge has determined they have a “mental defect” or they have been forced into a mental institution. An evaluation alone would not trigger the prohibition.
At the White House, President Joe Biden, who planned a visit Tuesday to Buffalo, paid tribute to the slain security guard, retired police officer Aaron Salter.
Salter fired repeatedly at the attacker, striking his armor-plated vest at least once before being shot and killed. Biden said Salter “gave his life trying to save others.”
Authorities said that in addition to the 10 Black people killed, three people were wounded: one Black, two white.
Zeneta Everhart said her son, supermarket employee Zaire Goodman, was helping a shopper outside when he saw a man get out of a car in military gear and point a gun at him. Then a bullet hit Goodman in the neck.
“Mom! Mom, get here now, get here now! I got shot!” he told his mother by phone. Goodman, 20, was out of the hospital and doing well Monday, his mother said.
In livestreamed video of the attack circulating online, the gunman trained his weapon on a white person cowering behind a checkout counter, but said, “Sorry!” and didn’t shoot. Screenshots purporting to be from the broadcast appear to show a racial slur against Black people scrawled on his rifle.


Sri Lanka proposes privatizing national airline amid crisis

Updated 17 May 2022

Sri Lanka proposes privatizing national airline amid crisis

  • President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed Wickremesinghe as prime minister last Thursday in a bid to quell the island nation’s political and economic crisis

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka: Sri Lanka’s new prime minister on Monday proposed privatizing the country’s loss-making national airline as part of reforms aimed at solving the country worst economic crisis in decades.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said in a message to the people that he plans to propose a special relief budget that will take the place of the development-oriented budget earlier approved for this year, He said it would channel funds previously allocated for infrastructure development to public welfare.
He said the country’s financial health is so poor that the government has been forced to print money to pay the salaries of government workers and buy other goods and services.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed Wickremesinghe as prime minister last Thursday in a bid to quell the island nation’s political and economic crisis.
The president’s brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, stepped down as prime minister on May 9 amid violence that left nine people dead and more than 200 wounded. Protesters have demanded the powerful Rajapaksa family resign to take responsibility for leading the country into the economic crisis.
For months, Sri Lankans have been forced to wait in long lines to purchase scarce imported essentials such as medicines, fuel, cooking gas and food because of a severe shortage of foreign currency. Government revenues have also plunged.
Wickremesinghe said Sri Lankan Airlines lost about $123 million in the 2020-2021 fiscal year, which ended in March, and its aggregate losses exceeded $1 billion as of March 2021.
“Even if we privatize Sri Lankan Airlines, this is a loss that we must bear. You must be aware that this is a loss that must be borne even by the poor people of this country who have never stepped on an airplane,” Wickremesinghe said.
Sri Lankan Airlines was managed by Emirates Airlines from 1998 to 2008.
Sri Lanka is nearly bankrupt and has suspended repayment of about $7 billion in foreign loans due this year out of $25 billion to be repaid by 2026. The country’s total foreign debt is $51 billion. The finance ministry says the country currently has only $25 million in usable foreign reserves.
Wickremesinghe said about $75 billion is needed urgently to help provide people with essential items, but the country’s treasury is struggling to find even $1 billion.
Shortages of medicines are so acute that it is difficult to buy anti-rabies medicines and drugs to treat heart disease, he said.
“I have no desire to hide the truth and to lie to the public. Although these facts are unpleasant and terrifying, this is the true situation. For a short period, our future will be even more difficult than the tough times that we have passed,” Wickremesinghe said.
“We will face considerable challenges and adversity. However, this period will not be long,” he said, adding that countries with which he has spoken have pledged to help in the next few months.
Wickremesinghe is struggling to form a new Cabinet, with many parties reluctant to join his government. They say Wickremesinghe’s appointment goes against tradition and the people’s will because he was defeated in 2020 elections and joined Parliament only through a seat allocated to his party.
However, parties have said they will support positive measures by Wickremesinghe to improve the economy while they remain in the opposition.
The main opposition United People’s Force party has introduced a no-confidence motion against the president for “not having properly exercised, performed and discharged the powers of the president under the constitution.”
The motion, to be taken up Tuesday, accuses Rajapaksa of being responsible for the economic crisis by introducing untimely tax cuts and prohibiting the use of agrochemicals, which resulted in crop failures.
Passage of the motion would not legally bind Rajapaksa to quit, but his refusal to do so could intensify anti-government protests and rock negotiations with other countries on economic aid. A challenge of Wickremesinghe’s appointment could also endanger the negotiations, which he leads.

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Indonesians celebrate Vesak Day at world’s largest Buddhist temple

Updated 16 May 2022

Indonesians celebrate Vesak Day at world’s largest Buddhist temple

  • Devotees at scaled-down event commemorate the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha
  • Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, over 40,000 would gather at Borobudur each year for the festivities

JAKARTA: Indonesian Buddhists on Monday marked the religious holiday of Vesak at the faith’s largest temple in the world, as celebrations returned to the holy site after two years of the coronavirus pandemic.

Over 1,000 people, mostly dressed in all-white, attended a ceremony at Borobudur temple in Central Java to mark this year’s event, which commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha.

Monday’s celebrations mark the first time in two years that a public procession of this scale has been held again at the 9th-century temple, following restrictions imposed to curb coronavirus transmissions.

Prior to the public health outbreak, more than 40,000 Buddhist devotees from across the country and abroad would gather at Borobudur each year to celebrate Vesak.

“Naturally, as Buddhist devotees we are very happy we can celebrate the holy day of Vesak at Borobudur Temple, because the temple is the world’s biggest mandala,” Tanto Soegito Harsono, lead organizer of the event and regional leader of the country’s biggest Buddhist organization WALUBI, told Arab News.

Mandala, which is Sanskrit for circle or center, is a significant spiritual symbol in Buddhism.

“Let us realize the teachings of the Buddha in our daily lives,” Harsono said, alluding to the event’s theme.

Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, is also home to sizable Buddhist, Christian and other religious minorities. Centuries ago, this part of central Java was ruled by Buddhist and Hindu kingdoms, whose cultural legacies remain through scattered temples and statues across the region.

In this year’s scaled-down celebrations, organizers say participants are capped at around 1,200 for the day’s ceremony, during which health protocols are mandatory.

Borobudur, made up of platforms that form a pyramid shape and topped with several stupas and Buddha statues, is also hosting a festival in the evening, which will see participants releasing 2,022 lit lanterns into the evening sky above the temple.

Christina, a 20-year-old college student visiting from Tangerang, a city near the capital Jakarta, had taken part in Vesak Day celebrations twice previously. She hopes this year will mark the return of the annual festivities in Borobudur.

“This year I get to participate as WALUBI’s marching band member during the procession,” Christina told Arab News.

“Celebrating Vesak in Borobudur is very meaningful for me.”


Putin says new military infrastructure in Finland, Sweden would demand reaction

Updated 16 May 2022

Putin says new military infrastructure in Finland, Sweden would demand reaction

  • Russian leader says NATO’s expansion is a problem for Moscow

President Vladimir Putin on Monday said Russia had no issue with Finland and Sweden, but that the expansion of military infrastructure on their territory would demand a reaction from Moscow, as the Nordic countries move closer to joining NATO.
Putin, speaking in Moscow at a summit of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), said NATO’s expansion was a problem for Russia and that it must look closely at what he said were the US-led military alliance’s plans to increase its global influence.


Tokyo COVID-19 curbs declared illegal in ‘Kill Bill’ restaurant case

Updated 16 May 2022

Tokyo COVID-19 curbs declared illegal in ‘Kill Bill’ restaurant case

  • The orders, enacted in the capital during various states of emergency, included shortened operating hours and a ban on alcohol sales

TOKYO: Japan’s “Kill Bill” restaurant operator prevailed in a court case on Monday that declared Tokyo’s now defunct COVID-19 infection curbs were illegal.
The orders, enacted in the capital during various states of emergency, included shortened operating hours and a ban on alcohol sales, though there was a compensating government subsidy. Businesses that didn’t comply were subject to fines.
Global-Dining Inc, which runs more than 40 restaurants, defied the restrictions, taking the city government to court over the matter.
The district court said the Tokyo government had not provided a “rational explanation” for the measures. The court determined they had been illegal but it denied Global-Dining’s claim for $0.80 (¥104) in damages.
The restrictions ended in March. Whether this ruling would inhibit the city government in acting against any renewed COVID-19 outbreak is unclear.
In a statement, Global-Dining president Kozo Hasegawa, said the case revealed the “injustice and sloppiness of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.” His company crowd-funded more than 25 million yen to fight the case.
Global-Dining’s Gonpachi restaurant, with a cavernous inner courtyard, inspired the fight scene in Quentin Tarantino’s first “Kill Bill” film. It was the site of a dinner between then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and then US President George W. Bush in 2002.