London police investigating Downing Street lockdown parties

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has apologized for attending a party in the garden of his Downing Street offices in May 2020. (Reuters)
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Updated 25 January 2022

London police investigating Downing Street lockdown parties

  • The gatherings are already being investigated by a senior civil servant Sue Gray
  • Boris Johnson has apologized for attending a party in the garden of his Downing Street offices in May 2020

LONDON: London police said Tuesday they were investigating Downing Street lockdown parties in 2020 to determine if UK government officials violated coronavirus restrictions, putting further pressure on Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The Metropolitan Police Service has launched an inquiry into “a number of events” at Downing Street because they met the force’s criteria for investigating the “most serious and flagrant” breaches of COVID-19 rules, Commissioner Cressida Dick told the London Assembly, the capital’s local government council.
Johnson is facing calls to resign amid revelations that he and his staff attended a series of parties during the spring and winter of 2020 when most social gatherings were banned throughout England, forcing average citizens to miss weddings, funerals and birthdays as friends and relatives died alone in hospitals. The gatherings are already being investigated by a senior civil servant Sue Gray whose report, expected this week, will be crucial in determining whether Johnson can remain in power.
Johnson has apologized for attending a party in the garden of his Downing Street offices in May 2020, but said he had considered it a work gathering that fell within the social distancing rules in place at the time.
In the latest revelation, ITV News reported late Monday that Johnson attended a birthday party in his Downing Street office and later hosted friends at his official residence upstairs in June 2020. His office denied that the gathering violated lockdown regulations, saying that the prime minister hosted a small number of family members outdoors, which was in line with rules at the time.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan welcomed the police investigation.
“The public rightly expect the police to uphold the law without fear or favor, no matter who that involves, and I have been clear that members of the public must be able to expect the highest standards from everyone, including the Prime Minister and those around him,” Khan said in a statement. “No one is above the law. There cannot be one rule for the government and another for everyone else.”
Police have previously faced criticism for suggesting that they wouldn’t investigate the “partygate” scandal because they don’t routinely investigate historical breaches of coronavirus regulations.
But Dick told the assembly that an investigation was warranted in this case because there is evidence that those involved knew or should have known that what they were doing was illegal, not investigating would “significantly undermine the legitimacy of the law,” and there seems to be no reasonable defense for the conduct.
“So in those cases, where those criteria were met, the guidelines suggested that we should potentially investigate further and end up giving people tickets,” she said.


Sicily judge weighs trial of migrant rescue NGOs

Updated 42 min 5 sec ago

Sicily judge weighs trial of migrant rescue NGOs

  • Trapani judge Samuele Corso must rule whether or not to proceed to trial after a five-year investigation mired in controversy
  • The charities are accused of coordinating their actions with smugglers just off Libya

ROME: Charities running migrant rescue ships in the Mediterranean faced a pre-trial hearing in Sicily Saturday over alleged collusion with people traffickers after a controversial probe that involved mass wiretapping.
Twenty-one suspects, including crew members of Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Save the Children and German NGO Jugend Rettet rescue ships, are accused of “aiding and abetting unauthorized entry into Italy” in 2016 and 2017.
“Our crews rescued over 14,000 people in distress from unseaworthy and overcrowded boats... and are now facing 20 years in prison,” Kathrin Schmidt, who sailed with Jugend Rettet’s ship Iuventa, said ahead of the hearing.
Trapani judge Samuele Corso must rule whether or not to proceed to trial after a five-year investigation mired in controversy for the mass wiretapping of charity workers, lawyers and journalists in what critics say is a politically motivated bid to stop sea rescues.
Italy has long been on the front line of seaborne migration from Africa to Europe, with a record 180,000 arrivals in 2016, dropping to 120,000 in 2017.
It has registered some 17,000 arrivals so far this year, according to the interior ministry.
Prosecutor Brunella Sardoni told AFP she expected the preliminary hearings process to last “several months, considering the complexity” of a case file with some 30,000 pages and hundreds of CDs.
Corso set the date for the next hearing as June 7.
Supporters of the rescue charities held a sit-in at the port in Trapani featuring large paper boats bearing the date and location of shipwrecks, and the number of victims.
The charities are accused of coordinating their actions with smugglers just off Libya, returning inflatable dinghies and boats to them to be reused, and picking up people whose lives had not been in danger.
The rescuers say anyone attempting the central Mediterranean crossing to Europe — the “world’s deadliest” according to the UN — on rickety boats or unseaworthy dinghies is at risk, and should be saved.
At least 12,000 people have drowned on this route since 2014. Many shipwrecks go unrecorded.
The charities also deny ever communicating with smugglers, who are sometimes armed and can be spotted loitering near rescues in the hope of retrieving valuable engines from migrant boats.
Save the Children told AFP it “strongly rejects” the accusations, as did MSF, which slammed a “period of criminalization of humanitarian aid” it hoped would soon end.
The Iuventa was impounded in 2017 shortly after Jugend Rettet and others refused to sign a new and contentious interior ministry “code of conduct” accord, and as the European Union scaled up surveillance and policing in the Mediterranean.
“Despite the fact that mobile phones and computers were seized and analyzed, not a single contact with Libyan smugglers... has been found,” said Nicola Canestrini, lawyer for the Iuventa crew members.
Pre-trial hearings are held behind closed doors, but representatives from the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and Amnesty International have requested the judge allow them to sit in for transparency.
ECCHR senior legal adviser Allison West has condemned “improper investigative practices” in the investigation, led by a prosecutors’ office more used to exposing Mafia crimes.
The probe was launched after ex-policeman Pietro Gallo, working as a security contractor on Save the Children’s Vos Hestia ship, sent allegations against the charities in October 2016 to Italy’s secret services, Canestrini told AFP.
He and a fellow ex-policeman also sent them to the head of the anti-immigration League party, Matteo Salvini, before reporting their suspicions to the police.
Gallo has since said in an interview that he regrets it. Asked if he ever saw any contact between the charities and traffickers, he replied “no, never.”
The damage was done. Police placed an undercover agent on the Vos Hestia in May 2017, who would provide information including elements used to charge the four Iuventa crew members, Canestrini said. Those included alleged hand signals between the crew and smugglers.
Iuventa’s case has been studied by Forensic Architecture, an agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London, which uses advanced reconstruction techniques to investigate police, military and state facts.
It discredited the police theories for all three Iuventa rescues in question.


Russia declares travel ban on 963 Americans including Biden and Blinken

Updated 21 May 2022

Russia declares travel ban on 963 Americans including Biden and Blinken

  • Travel bans have only symbolic impact but form part of a constant downward spiral in Russia’s relations with the US

LONDON: Russia said on Saturday it was banning entry to 963 Americans including US President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and CIA chief William Burns
The travel bans have only symbolic impact but form part of a constant downward spiral in Russia’s relations with the United States and its allies since its Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.


Women TV presenters defy Taliban order to cover faces on air

Updated 21 May 2022

Women TV presenters defy Taliban order to cover faces on air

  • Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice ordered women TV presenters to cover faces from Saturday
  • Earlier this month, Afghanistan's supreme leader issued a diktat for women to cover up fully in public

KABUL: Women presenters on Afghanistan's leading TV channels went on air Saturday without covering their faces, defying a Taliban order that they conceal their appearance to comply with the group's austere brand of Islam.

Since surging back to power last year the Taliban have imposed a slew of restrictions on civil society, many focused on reining in the rights of women and girls.

Earlier this month Afghanistan's supreme leader issued a diktat for women to cover up fully in public, including their faces, ideally with the traditional burqa.

The Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice ordered women TV presenters to follow suit by Saturday.

Previously they had only been required to wear a headscarf.

However, broadcasters TOLOnews, Shamshad TV and 1TV all aired live programs Saturday with women presenters' faces on show.

"Our female colleagues are concerned that if they cover their faces, the next thing they will be told is to stop working," said Shamshad TV head of news Abid Ehsas.

"This is the reason they have not observed the order so far," he told AFP.

Mohammad Sadeq Akif Mohajir, spokesman for the vice ministry, said the women were violating the Taliban directive.

"If they don't comply we will talk to the managers and guardians of the presenters," he told AFP.

"Anyone who lives under a particular system and government has to obey the laws and orders of that system, so they must implement the order," he said.

The Taliban have demanded that women government employees be fired if they fail to follow the new dress code.

Men working in government also risk suspension if their wives or daughters fail to comply.

Mohajir said media managers and the male guardians of defiant women presenters would also be liable for penalties if the order was not observed.

The Taliban previously promised a softer version of the harsh Islamist rule that characterized their first stint in power from 1996 to 2001.

During two decades of US-led military intervention in Afghanistan, women and girls made marginal gains in the deeply patriarchal nation.

But since August women have already been banned from travelling alone and teenage girls barred from secondary schools.

In the 20 years after the Taliban were ousted from office many women in the conservative countryside continued to wear a burqa.

However, most Afghan women, including TV presenters, opted for the Islamic headscarf.

Television channels have already stopped showing dramas and soap operas featuring women, following orders from Taliban authorities.


Joe Biden signs $40 billion for Ukraine assistance during Asia trip

Updated 21 May 2022

Joe Biden signs $40 billion for Ukraine assistance during Asia trip

  • The legislation was passed by Congress with bipartisan support
  • The new legislation will provide $20 billion in military assistance

SEOUL: President Joe Biden on Saturday signed legislation to support Ukraine with another $40 billion in US assistance as the Russian invasion approaches its fourth month.
The legislation, which was passed by Congress with bipartisan support, deepens the US commitment to Ukraine at a time of uncertainty about the war’s future. Ukraine has successfully defended Kyiv, and Russia has refocused its offensive on the country’s east, but American officials warn of the potential for a prolonged conflict.
The funding is intended to support Ukraine through September, and it dwarfs an earlier emergency measure that provided $13.6 billion.
The new legislation will provide $20 billion in military assistance, ensuring a steady stream of advanced weapons that have been used to blunt Russia’s advances. There’s also $8 billion in general economic support, $5 billion to address global food shortages that could result from the collapse of Ukrainian agriculture and more than $1 billion to help refugees.
Biden signed the measure under unusual circumstances. Because he’s in the middle of a trip to Asia, a US official brought a copy of the bill on a commercial flight so the president could sign it, according to a White House official.
The logistics reflect a sense of urgency around continuing US support for Ukraine, but also the overlapping international challenges facing Biden. Even as he tries to reorient American foreign policy to confront China, he’s continuing to direct resources to the largest conflict in Europe since World War II.

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Women TV presenters defy Taliban order to cover faces on air

Updated 21 May 2022

Women TV presenters defy Taliban order to cover faces on air

  • Previously they had only been required to wear a headscarf
  • Television channels have already stopped showing dramas and soap operas featuring women, following orders from Taliban authorities

KABUL: Women presenters on Afghanistan’s leading TV channels went on air Saturday without covering their faces, defying a Taliban order that they conceal their appearance to comply with the group’s austere brand of Islam.
Since surging back to power last year the Taliban have imposed a slew of restrictions on civil society, many focused on reining in the rights of women and girls.
Earlier this month Afghanistan’s supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada issued a diktat for women to cover up fully in public, including their faces, ideally with the traditional burqa.
The feared Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice ordered women TV presenters to follow suit by Saturday.
Previously they had only been required to wear a headscarf.
But broadcasters TOLOnews, Shamshad TV and 1TV all aired live programs Saturday with women presenters’ faces visible.
“Our female colleagues are concerned that if they cover their faces, the next thing they will be told is to stop working,” said Shamshad TV head of news Abid Ehsas.
“This is the reason they have not observed the order so far,” he told AFP, adding the channel had requested further discussions with the Taliban on the issue.
Taliban orders such as this have caused many female journalists to leave Afghanistan since the hard-line Islamists stormed back to power, a woman presenter said.
“Their latest order has broken the hearts of women presenters and many now think they have no future in this country,” she said, requesting not to be named.
“I’m thinking of leaving the country. Decrees like this will force many professionals to leave.”
Mohammad Sadeq Akif MoHajjir, spokesman for the vice ministry, said the women presenters were violating the Taliban directive.
“If they don’t comply we will talk to the managers and guardians of the presenters,” he told AFP.
“Anyone who lives under a particular system and government has to obey the laws and orders of that system, so they must implement the order,” he said.
The Taliban have demanded that women government employees be fired if they fail to follow the new dress code.
Men working in government also risk suspension if their wives or daughters fail to comply.
MoHajjir said media managers and the male guardians of defiant women presenters would also be liable for penalties if the order was not observed.
During two decades of US-led military intervention in Afghanistan, women and girls made marginal gains in the deeply patriarchal nation.
Soon after they took over, the Taliban promised a softer version of the harsh Islamist rule that characterized their first stint in power from 1996 to 2001.
Since the takeover, however, women have been banned from traveling alone and teenage girls barred from secondary schools.
In the 20 years after the Taliban were ousted from office in 2001, many women in the conservative countryside continued to wear a burqa.
But most Afghan women, including TV presenters, opted for the Islamic headscarf.
Television channels have already stopped showing dramas and soap operas featuring women, following orders from Taliban authorities.