Senate OKs landmark gun violence bill, House passage is next

In the key roll call hours earlier, senators voted 65-34 to end a filibuster. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 24 June 2022

Senate OKs landmark gun violence bill, House passage is next

WASHINGTON: The Senate easily approved a bipartisan gun violence bill Thursday that seemed unthinkable a month ago, setting up final approval of what will be Congress’ most far-reaching response in decades to the nation’s run of brutal mass shootings.
After years futile Democratic efforts to curb firearms, 15 Republicans joined with them as both sides decided inaction was untenable after last month’s rampages in Buffalo, New York and Uvalde, Texas. It took weeks of closed-door talks but senators emerged with a compromise embodying incremental but impactful movement to curb bloodshed that has come to regularly shock — yet no longer surprise — the nation.
The $13 billion measure would toughen background checks for the youngest gun buyers, keep firearms from more domestic violence offenders and help states put in place red flag laws that make it easier for authorities to take weapons from people adjudged dangerous. It would also fund local programs for school safety, mental health and violence prevention.
“Families in Uvalde and Buffalo, and too many tragic shootings before, have demanded action. And tonight, we acted,” President Joe Biden said after passage. He said the House should send it to him quickly, adding, “Kids in schools and communities will be safer because of it.”
The election-year package fell far short of more robust gun restrictions Democrats have sought and Republicans have thwarted for years, including bans on the assault-type weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines used in the slayings in Buffaloand Uvalde. Yet the accord let leaders of both parties declare victory and demonstrate to voters that they know how to compromise and make government work, while also leaving room for each side to appeal to its core supporters.
“This is not a cure-all for the all the ways gun violence affects our nation,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., whose party has made gun restrictions a goal for decades. “But it is a long overdue step in the right direction.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, in a nod to the Second Amendment right to bear arms that drives many conservative voters, said “the American people want their constitutional rights protected and their kids to be safe in school.” He said “they want both of those things at once, and that is just what the bill before the Senate will have accomplished.”
The day proved bittersweet for advocates of curtailing gun violence. Underscoring the enduring potency of conservative cIout, the right-leaning Supreme Court issued a decision expanding the right of Americans to carry arms in public by striking down a New York law requiring people to prove a need for carrying a weapon before they get a license to do so.
McConnell hailed the justices’ decision and Senate passage of the guns bill as “complementary victories that will make our country freer and safer at the same time.”
The Senate vote on final passage was 65-33. A cluster of House Democrats who watched the vote in the chamber’s rear included Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Ga., whose 17-year old son was shot to death in 2012 by a man complaining his music was too loud.
In the key roll call hours earlier, senators voted 65-34 to end a filibuster by conservative GOP senators. That was five more than the 60-vote threshold needed. The House planned to vote Friday and approval seemed certain.
On both votes, 15 Senate Republicans joined all 50 Democrats, including their two allied independents, in backing the legislation.
Yet the votes highlighted the risks Republicans face by defying the party’s pro-gun voters and firearms groups like the National Rifle Association. Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Todd Young of Indiana were the only two of the 15 up for reelection this fall. Of the rest, four are retiring and eight don’t face voters until 2026.
Tellingly, GOP senators voting “no” included potential 2024 presidential contenders like Ted Cruz of Texas, Josh Hawley of Missouri and Tim Scott of South Carolina. Some of the party’s most conservative members voted “no” as well, including Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah.
Cruz said the legislation would “disarm law-abiding citizens rather than take serious measures to protect our children.”
John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, hailed senators who supported the measure for “coming together and putting the safety of the American people ahead of gun lobby priorities.”
While the Senate measure was a clear breakthrough, the outlook for continued congressional movement on gun curbs is dim.
Less than one-third of the Senate’s 50 GOP senators backed the measure and solid Republican opposition is certain in the House. Top House Republicans urged a “no” vote in an email from the No. 2 GOP leader, Rep. Steve Scalize of Louisiana, that called the bill “an effort to slowly chip away at law-abiding citizens’ 2nd Amendment rights.”
Both chambers — now narrowly controlled by Democrats — could well be run by the GOP after November’s midterm elections.
Senate action came one month after a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers in Uvalde. Just days before that, a white man was accused of being motivated by racism as he killed 10 Black grocery shoppers in Buffalo. Both shooters were 18 years old, a youthful profile shared by many mass shooters, and the close timing of the two slaughters and victims with whom many could identify stirred a demand by voters for action, lawmakers of both parties said.
The talks were led by Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona, John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Thom Tillis, R-N.C. Murphy represented Newtown, Connecticut, when an assailant killed 20 students and six staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, while Cornyn has been involved in past gun talks following mass shootings in his state and is close to McConnell.
Murphy said the measure would save thousands of lives and was a chance to “prove to a weary American public that democracy is not so broken that it is unable to rise to the moment.”
“I don’t believe in doing nothing in the face of what we saw in Uvalde” and elsewhere, Cornyn said.
The bill would make the local juvenile records of people age 18 to 20 available during required federal background checks when they attempt to buy guns. Those examinations, currently limited to three days, would last up to a maximum of 10 days to give federal and local officials time to search records.
People convicted of domestic abuse who are current or former romantic partners of the victim would be prohibited from acquiring firearms, closing the so-called “boyfriend loophole.”
That ban currently only applies to people married to, living with or who have had children with the victim. The compromise bill would extend that to those considered to have had “a continuing serious relationship.”
There would be money to help states enforce red flag laws and for other states without them that for violence prevention programs. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have such laws.
The measure expands the use of background checks by rewriting the definition of the federally licensed gun dealers required to conduct them. Penalties for gun trafficking are strengthened, billions of dollars are provided for behavioral health clinics and school mental health programs and there’s money for school safety initiatives, though not for personnel to use a “dangerous weapon.”


Taliban chief pardons members of former administration in rare public appearance

Updated 01 July 2022

Taliban chief pardons members of former administration in rare public appearance

  • Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada joined religious, tribal leaders at first loya jirga since Taliban takeover of Afghanistan
  • Gathering took place after number of ex-administration officials returned to Kabul following months of exile abroad

KABUL: The reclusive Taliban chief on Friday pardoned members of Afghanistan’s former Western-backed administration during a rare public appearance and joined thousands of religious and tribal leaders gathered in Kabul from throughout the country. 

Some 3,500 representatives, including members of minorities, arrived in the Afghan capital on Thursday for the first loya jirga since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan last year, a grand assembly traditionally held by Afghans to reach a consensus on important political issues. 

The conference took place after a number of former administration officials returned to Kabul following months of exile abroad and declared readiness to serve the country. 

In Friday’s speech at the meeting’s venue, the Loya Jirga Tent at Kabul’s Polytechnic University, Taliban Supreme Leader Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada said he had pardoned them but did not see their future in the country’s administration. 

“I don’t hold them accountable for their past actions,” he told the loya jirga participants, the state-run Bakhtar News Agency reported. 

“But amnesty doesn’t mean including them in the government.” 

Most high-ranking officials left the country after its Western-backed government collapsed when the Taliban seized power in August, following the withdrawal of US-led forces after two decades of war. 

Akhundzada has been the Taliban ultimate authority since 2016. Rarely seen in public, he has long kept a low profile. His last public appearance was in Kandahar city during Eid prayers in May, but the congregation could not see him and only heard his voice. 

His direct appearance before the loya jirga participants was confirmed by government spokesmen and Abdul Wahid Rayan, the chief of Bakhtar News Agency. 

“He sat on the stage facing the audience and gave his speech,” Rayan told Arab News. 

During the Kabul gathering, Akhundzada called on investors to return to the country and gave them security assurances, saying that dependence on foreign aid could not revive the country’s economy. 

Afghanistan has been facing an economic and humanitarian disaster since the Taliban takeover, which prompted the US and other donor states to cut off financial assistance, freeze the country’s $10 billion assets, and isolate it from the global banking system. 

“I ask businessmen to come to Afghanistan without any fear and invest in making factories, because foreign aid will not help boost our economy,” Akhundzada said. 

The loya jirga was called by the Taliban to forge national unity, as unacknowledged by foreign governments they have been under mounting pressure to form an inclusive government to win international recognition. 

Prof. Naseer Ahmad Nawidy, political science lecturer at Salam University in Kabul, said Akhundzada’s speech had delivered, “clear messages about tolerance, unity, obedience, and solidarity to members of the Taliban while acknowledging their sacrifices.” 

He told Arab News: “This is promising and will boost the confidence of the Taliban about their leadership.” 

However, he added that no perspective was provided about the country’s future, including “women’s rights, girls’ education, economic opportunities, utilizing technical expertise of all Afghans in governance, and optimism to the youth.” 


WHO: Monkeypox cases in Europe have tripled in last 2 weeks

Updated 01 July 2022

WHO: Monkeypox cases in Europe have tripled in last 2 weeks

  • “Urgent and coordinated action is imperative if we are to turn a corner in the race to reverse the ongoing spread of this disease,” Kluge said
  • More than 5,000 monkeypox cases have been reported from 51 countries worldwide

LONDON: The World Health Organization’s Europe chief warned Friday that monkeypox cases in the region have tripled in the last two weeks and urged countries to do more to ensure the previously rare disease does not become entrenched on the continent.
Dr. Hans Kluge said in a statement that increased efforts were needed despite the UN health agency’s decision last week that the escalating outbreak did not yet warrant being declared a global health emergency.
“Urgent and coordinated action is imperative if we are to turn a corner in the race to reverse the ongoing spread of this disease,” Kluge said.
To date, more than 5,000 monkeypox cases have been reported from 51 countries worldwide, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Kluge said the number of infections in Europe represents about 90 percent of the global total, noting that 31 countries in the WHO’s European region have now identified cases.
Kluge said data reported to the WHO show that 99 percent of cases have been in men — and that the majority of those have been in men that have sex with men. But he said there were now “small numbers” of cases among household contacts, including children. Most people reported symptoms including a rash, fever, fatigue, muscle pain, vomiting and chills.
Scientists warn anyone who is in close physical contact with someone who has monkeypox or their clothing or bedsheets is at risk of infection, regardless of their sexual orientation. Vulnerable populations like children and pregnant women are thought to be more likely to suffer severe disease.
About 10 percent of patients were hospitalized for treatment or to be isolated, and one person was admitted to an intensive care unit. No deaths have been reported.
Kluge said the problem of stigmatization in some countries might make some people wary of seeking health care and said the WHO was working with partners including organizers of pride events.
In the UK, which has the biggest monkeypox outbreak beyond Africa, officials have noted the disease is spreading in “defined sexual networks of men who have sex with men.” British health authorities said there were no signs suggesting sustained transmission beyond those populations.
A leading WHO adviser said in May that the spike in cases in Europe was likely tied to sexual activity by men at two rave parties in Spain and Belgium, speculating that its appearance in the bisexual community was a “random event.” British experts have said most cases in the UK involve men who reported having sex with other men in venues such as saunas and clubs.
Ahead of pride events in the UK this weekend, London’s top public health doctor asked people who have symptoms of monkeypox, like swollen glands or blisters, to stay home.
WHO Europe director Kluge appealed to countries to scale up their surveillance and genetic sequencing capacities for monkeypox so that cases could be quickly identified and measures taken to prevent further transmission. He said the procurement of vaccines “must apply the principles of equity.”
The main vaccine being used against monkeypox was originally developed for smallpox and the European Medicines Agency said earlier this week it was beginning to evaluate whether the shot should be authorized for monkeypox. The WHO has said supplies of the vaccine, made by Bavarian Nordic, are extremely limited.
Some countries including the UK and Germany have already begun vaccinating people at high-risk of monkeypox; the UK recently widened its immunization program to offer the shot to mostly men who have multiple sexual partners and are thought to be most vulnerable.
Until May, monkeypox had never been known to cause large outbreaks beyond Africa, where the disease is endemic in several countries and mostly causes limited outbreaks when it jumps to people from infected wild animals.
To date, there have been about 1,800 suspected monkeypox cases including more than 70 deaths in Africa. Vaccines have never been used to stop monkeypox outbreaks in Africa.
The WHO’s Africa office said this week that countries with vaccine supplies “are mainly reserving them for their own populations.”


UN rights chief urges Taliban to respect women’s rights

Updated 01 July 2022

UN rights chief urges Taliban to respect women’s rights

  • Women face hunger, domestic violence, unemployment, curbs on movement and dress, and lack of access to education
  • “Their future will be even darker, unless something changes, quickly," said the UN human rights chief

ZURICH: The United Nations human rights chief urged the Taliban authorities on Friday to respect the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan, which she said were facing the biggest erosion in decades.
Women face hunger, domestic violence, unemployment, curbs on movement and dress, and lack of access to education in a country where secondary schooling for 1.2 million girls has stopped, Michelle Bachelet told a UN Human Rights Council debate in Geneva.
“While some of these concerns pre-date the Taliban take-over in August 2021, reforms at that time were moving in the right direction, there were improvements and hope,” she said.
“However, since the Taliban took power, women and girls are experiencing the most significant and rapid roll-back in enjoyment of their rights across the board in decades. Their future will be even darker, unless something changes, quickly.”
The Taliban seized power for a second time in Afghanistan last August as international forces who had backed a pro-Western government pulled out. Their taking of the capital Kabul marked the end of a 20-year war stemming from a US invasion that toppled a previous Taliban government.
Bachelet said authorities she met during a visit to Kabul in March said they would honor their human rights obligations as far as they were consistent with Islamic sharia law. She decried the progressive exclusion of women and girls from the public sphere.
She urged the Taliban to set a firm date to reopen schools for girls and remove restrictions on women’s movement and attire.
Governors in some regions were applying policies in ways that provide options for women and girls, she said, offering a window to expand women’s role in society and economic life.
Richard Bennett, special rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan, criticized forced and child marriage and curbs on attire, movement and employment.
“Despite public assurances from the Taliban that they would respect women’s and girls’ rights, they are reinstituting step by step the discrimination against women and girls’ characteristic of their previous term and which is unparalleled globally in its misogyny and oppression,” he told the debate.
When Bennett visited Afghanistan in May, the Taliban deputy spokesman denied human rights concerns.


Lawyer for Paris attacker questions life term with no parole, hints at retrial

Updated 01 July 2022

Lawyer for Paris attacker questions life term with no parole, hints at retrial

  • Daesh attacks on Bataclan theater, Paris cafes and France’s national stadium killed 130 people
  • Abdeslam was found guilty Wednesday of murder and attempted murder in relation with a terrorist enterprise

PARIS: The lawyer for the only surviving attacker from the November 2015 terrorist massacre in Paris criticized her client's murder conviction and life prison sentence without the possibility of parole, saying Thursday the verdict “raises serious questions.”
Olivia Ronen did not say if Salah Abdeslam would appeal the verdict and sentence. He has 10 days in which to do so.
Abdeslam was found guilty Wednesday of murder and attempted murder in relation with a terrorist enterprise, among other charges, over his involvement in the Daesh attacks on the Bataclan theater, Paris cafes and France’s national stadium that killed 130 people.
Ronen argued throughout the marathon trial of Abdeslam and 19 other men that her client had not detonated his explosives-packed vest and hadn’t killed anyone the night of the deadliest peacetime attacks in French history.
Nevertheless, Abdeslam, a 32-year-old Belgian, was given the most severe sentence possible in France for murder and that “raises serious questions," Ronen said in an interview with public radio station France Inter.
During his trial testimony, Abdeslam told a special terrorist court in Paris that he was a last-minute addition to the nine-member attacking squad that spread out across the French capital on Nov. 13, 2015, to launch the coordinated attacks at multiple sites.
Abdeslam said he walked into a bar with explosives strapped to his body but changed his mind and disabled the detonator. He said he could not kill people “singing and dancing.”
The court found, however, that Abdeslam's explosives vest malfunctioned, dismissing his claim that he decided not to follow through with his part of the attack because of a change of heart.
The other eight attackers, including Abdeslam's brother, either blew themselves up or were killed by police. Abdeslam drove three of them to the locations of the attacks that night.
The worst carnage was in the Bataclan. Three gunmen burst into the venue, firing indiscriminately. Ninety people died within minutes. Hundreds were held hostage — some gravely injured — for hours before then-President Francois Hollande ordered the theater stormed.
Abdeslam was nowhere near the Bataclan at any time that night, defense lawyer Ronen said, suggesting he therefore did not deserve France’s most severe murder sentence possible.
“We have condemned a person we know was not at the Bataclan as if he was there,” Ronen said. “That raises serious questions.”
The chief prosecutor at the special terrorism court Jean-Francois Ricard said the trial of the 20 extremists, the court's verdicts and sentences, including the harshest one for Abdeslam, were a “triumph for the rule of law” in France.
“Abdeslam dropped off three human bombs and killed by proxy,” Ricard said on Thursday in an interview with another public broadcaster, France Info. “His punishment is just.”
The sentence of life without parole had only previously been given four times in France, for crimes related to rape and murder of minors.
The special terrorism court also convicted 19 other men involved in the attacks. Eighteen were given various terrorism-related convictions, and one was convicted on a lesser fraud charge. Some were given life sentences; others walked free after being sentenced to time served.
Abdeslam apologized to the victims at his final court appearance Monday, saying that listening to their accounts of “so much suffering” changed him.
Georges Salines, who lost his daughter Lola in the Bataclan, felt Abdeslam’s remorse was insincere. “I don’t think it’s possible to forgive him,” he said.
But for Salines, life without parole is going too far.
“I don’t like the idea of in advance deciding that there is no hope,” he said. “I think it is important to keep hope for any man.”


‘Stop interfering in Afghanistan’, says Taliban leader in rare appearance

Updated 01 July 2022

‘Stop interfering in Afghanistan’, says Taliban leader in rare appearance

  • Akhundzada was addressing a major gathering of religious scholars in Kabul

KABUL: Taliban’s reclusive supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada called Friday for the world to stop telling them how to run Afghanistan, insisting sharia law was the only model for a successful Islamic state.
Akhundzada, who has not been filmed or photographed in public since the Taliban returned to power in August, was addressing a major gathering of religious scholars in the Afghan capital called to rubber-stamp the hard-line Islamist group’s rule.
Over 3,000 clerics have gathered in Kabul since Thursday for the three-day men-only meeting, and Akhundzada’s appearance had been rumored for days — although media are barred from covering the event.
“Why is the world interfering in our affairs?” he asked in an hour-long speech broadcast by state radio.
“They say ‘why don’t you do this, why don’t you do that?’ Why does the world interfere in our work?“
Akhundzada rarely leaves Kandahar, the Taliban’s birthplace and spiritual heartland, and apart from one undated photograph and several audio recordings of speeches, has almost no digital footprint.
But analysts say the former Sharia court judge has an iron grip on the movement and he bears the title “Commander of the Faithful.”
His arrival at the meeting hall was greeted with cheers and chants, including “Long live the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” the Taliban’s name for the country.
Akhundzada’s appearance comes a week after a powerful earthquake struck the east of the country, killing over 1,000 people and leaving tens of thousands homeless.
No women are attending the clerics’ meeting, but a Taliban source told AFP this week that thorny issues such as girls’ education — which has divided opinion in the movement — would be discussed.
Akhundzada did not mention the subject in his speech, which was confined largely to telling the faithful to strictly observe Islamic principles in life and governance.
Since the Taliban’s return, secondary school girls have been barred from education and women dismissed from government jobs, forbidden from traveling alone, and ordered to dress in clothing that covers everything but their faces.
They have also outlawed playing non-religious music, banned the portrayal of human figures in advertising, ordered TV channels to stop showing movies and soap operas featuring uncovered women, and told men they should dress in traditional garb and grow their beards.
Akhundzada said the Taliban had won victory for Afghanistan, but it was up to the “ulema” — the religious scholars — to advise the new rulers on how to properly implement sharia law.
“The sharia system comes under two parts — scholars and rulers,” he said.
“If scholars do not advise authorities to do good, or the rulers close the doors against the scholars, then we will have not an Islamic system.”
Believed to be in his 70s, Akhundzada spoke in strong measured tones, occasionally coughing or clearing his throat.
He warned that non-Muslim nations would always be opposed to a pure Islamic state, so the faithful had to endure hardships to get what they wanted.
“You have to compete, you have to endure hardships... the present world will not easily accept you implementing the Islamic system,” he said.
Women’s rights activists have slammed their lack of participation.
“Women should be part of the decisions about their fate,” Razia Barakzai told AFP Thursday.
“Life has been taken away from Afghan women.”
The Taliban have thrown a dense security blanket over the capital for the meeting, but on Thursday two gunmen were shot dead near the venue.