Pope seeks release of Cubans arrested during 2021 protests

Pope Francis holds the weekly general audience at the Vatican February 8, 2023. (Reuters)
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Updated 09 February 2023

Pope seeks release of Cubans arrested during 2021 protests

  • The Catholic Church has political influence in Cuba and on previous occasions has interceded successfully for the liberation of government opponents

HAVANA: Pope Francis hopes Cuban authorities will release and grant amnesty to people arrested and sentenced after the historic protests that took place in 2021, Cardinal Beniamino Stella, who traveled to the island as the pontiff’s special envoy, said Wednesday.
During an act at the University of Havana to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s visit to the island, Cardinal Stella also said the Catholic Church hopes that Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel and US President Joe Biden can hold talks amid current tense relations between the countries.
Stella, who arrived in Cuba in mid-January and will remain there until Feb. 10, recalled the figures of Father Félix Varela and José Martí, considered national heroes in Cuba, and emphasized the need for understanding among Cubans.
Asked by journalists about the possibility the Catholic Church could intercede to have Cuban authorities grant amnesty to people imprisoned during the 2021 protests, the first in decades on the island, Stella said he had talked with the pontiff about the issue before he trip to Cuba.
“The Church wants, seeks, has manifested this proposal (amnesty),” said Stella. “I think the issue is on the table... The Pope very much wants there to be a positive response, whether it is called amnesty, clemency, the words can be secondary, but it is important that the young people who at one point expressed their thoughts... they can go back to their homes.”
According to non-governmental groups, about 1,300 people were arrested following the protests. Some of the demonstrations turned violent, including looting and rioting, and one person was killed. Authorities reported about 700 sentences handed down related to the protests, with sentences ranging from a fine and community work to up to 30 years in prison for sedition.
The protests took place amid a severe economic crisis, shortages and blackouts. Human rights groups and some governments, including Washington, harshly criticized the island for what they considered the repression of free demonstrations by Cubans.
Meanwhile, Havana maintains that it did not repress opponents, but only punished illegal activities like rioting, vandalism, and sedition.
The Catholic Church has political influence in Cuba and on previous occasions has interceded successfully for the liberation of government opponents.
In 2010, thanks to the mediation of the Catholic Church and Spain’s government, a group of opponents who had been imprisoned since 2003 were released and some chose to leave the country.
The Cuban government accused anti-Castro groups based in Florida of promoting riots during the 2021 protests through social networks amid a complex economic situation caused by the paralysis during the pandemic and the increase in US sanctions during the administration of then-President Donald Trump.

Authorities in Indian-administered Kashmir free key Muslim cleric after years of house arrest

Updated 8 sec ago

Authorities in Indian-administered Kashmir free key Muslim cleric after years of house arrest

  • Mirwaiz Umar Farooq was spearheading protests against Indian rule in disputed region
  • Farooq was detained ahead of India revoking Kashmir’s special status in 2019 

SRINAGAR: Indian authorities released a key Muslim cleric after four years of house arrest and allowed him to lead Friday prayers in Srinagar, the main city of Indian-administered Kashmir, according to mosque authorities.
Mirwaiz Umar Farooq has been spearheading protests against Indian rule in the disputed region. He was detained ahead of India revoking Kashmir’s special status in 2019 and throwing the Himalayan territory into political uncertainty.
The 2019 decision stripped the region of statehood, its separate constitution and inherited protections on land and jobs.
“Senior police officials visited the residence of Mirwaiz on Thursday to inform him that the authorities have decided to release him from house detention and allow him to go to Jamia Masjid for Friday prayers,” the mosque management committee said in a statement.
Kashmiri separatist leaders, many of them either under house arrest or in police detention, have vowed to continue their struggle and refuse to participate in any dialogue. They want New Delhi to accept Kashmir as a disputed region, release political prisoners, revoke harsh emergency laws and announce a plan for Kashmir’s demilitarization.
Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan since British colonialists granted them independence in 1947 and both claim the region in its entirety. They have fought two wars over its control.

UK authorities used Gillette razor study to guess age of Afghan child migrant

Updated 12 min 38 sec ago

UK authorities used Gillette razor study to guess age of Afghan child migrant

  • 16-year-old was deemed to be 25 based on ‘subjective’ decision-making, judge ruled
  • Home Office spokesman: ‘We are strengthening the age verification process’

London: The UK Home Office used a report compiled by a razor manufacturer about how and when young men start shaving to assess the ages of migrants, The Times reported on Friday.

A hearing into the case of a young Afghan asylum-seeker revealed that officials had used the study by Gillette to determine he was 25 years old when he was rescued from a sinking boat in the English Channel in October 2021.

The asylum-seeker, who has not been named, insisted to immigration officials he was below the age of 18.

At an appeal into his right to stay in the UK in July this year, a judge determined he was 16 when he arrived in the UK.

Having assessed the evidence provided, including identification documents from the young Afghan, the judge criticized the Home Office and immigration officials for using “guesswork and speculation” to decide the age of some asylum-seekers.

The judge found that officials decided the asylum-seeker was older than he said he was based on the young man’s assertion that he had started shaving regularly before he fled Afghanistan in 2021.

The decision, the judge said, was “inherently subjective and not properly capable of bearing much evidential weight.”

Enver Solomon, CEO of the Refugee Council, told The Times: “Distinguishing between adults and children is not something that can be done quickly; it takes time and expertise to make the right decision.

“But the reality is that poor quality decisions are resulting in far too many children being wrongly age-assessed and put at risk.”

A Home Office spokesman said in statement: “It’s vital that we remove incentives for adults to pretend to be children in order to remain in the UK.

“Between January 2016 and the year ending in June 2023, 49 per cent of asylum applicants whose age was disputed were found to be adults.

“We are strengthening the age verification process through the National Age Assessment Board, introducing scientific assessments, such as x-rays, and measures under the Illegal Migration Act which will help ensure assessments are robust and protect children.”

Ukraine to launch joint weapons production with US

Updated 42 min 34 sec ago

Ukraine to launch joint weapons production with US

  • Zelensky said the long-term agreement would create jobs and a new industrial base in Ukraine
  • Kyiv has stepped up efforts to boost domestic weapons production

KYIV: Ukraine and the United States have agreed to launch joint weapons production in a step that will enable Kyiv to start producing air defense systems, President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Friday as he wrapped up a visit to the US.
In his daily address to Ukrainians, Zelensky said the long-term agreement would create jobs and a new industrial base in Ukraine, whose economy has been devastated by Russia’s invasion and war.
“It was a very important visit to Washington, very important results,” Zelensky said in a video posted on the presidential website on Friday morning.
“And a long-term agreement — we will work together so that Ukraine produces the necessary weapons together with the United States. Co-production in the defense (sector) with the United States is a historic thing.”
Kyiv has stepped up efforts to boost domestic weapons production as much as possible because 19 months of war has created a huge demand for arms and ammunition to fend off Russian attacks along a 1,000 km (620 mile) front line. Russian air strikes across Ukraine have caused widespread damage and killed many people.
Zelensky said the Ministry for Strategic Industries, which oversees weapons production in Ukraine, had signed cooperation agreements with three associations, uniting over 2,000 defense US companies, on future possible work in Ukraine.
“We are preparing to create a new defense ecosystem with the United States to produce weapons to strengthen further freedom and protect life together,” Zelensky said without disclosing more details.
Ukraine depends heavily on Western military support. To reduce its dependence, Zelensky and his team have been pushing for reforms in the domestic defense industry to modernize local producers and increase supplies to the front.
Zelensky has said previously that Kyiv will soon host an international arms production forum, inviting companies from over 20 countries.
The government is also implementing reforms at its main weapons production company — Ukroboronprom — to improve transparency, boost production capacity and enable it to cooperate more actively with Western producers.
Ukraine has already agreed several joint projects with central European producers to repair Ukrainian tanks and other vehicles, and has been working to develop drone and missile production.

Armenia slams UN Security Council for failure to prevent Azerbaijan ‘invasion’ of Nagorno-Karabakh

Updated 22 September 2023

Armenia slams UN Security Council for failure to prevent Azerbaijan ‘invasion’ of Nagorno-Karabakh

  • Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan addresses a special council session two days after Azerbaijan launched a military offensive in the region
  • Baku describes the deployment as an “antiterrorist” operation after 2 civilians and 4 police officers were killed by landmines allegedly placed by Armenian armed forces

NEW YORK: Armenia’s foreign minister has condemned the UN Security Council for failing to prevent what he described as the beginning of ethnic cleansing of Armenian populations by Azerbaijani forces in the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Ararat Mirzoyan’s comments came on Thursday as he addressed a special session of the Security Council, on the sidelines of the 78th session of the UN General Assembly, two days after Azerbaijan launched a military offensive in the region that its Defense Ministry described as an “antiterrorist” operation. It followed the deaths of two civilians and four police officers in incidents involving landmines allegedly placed by Armenian armed forces.

Challenging the assertion by Azerbaijani authorities that the aim of the operation is to combat terrorism, Mirzoyan said it was a “large-scale invasion … in blatant violation of international law” that has left hundreds of ethnic Armenians dead, injured or missing.

He added: “The intensity and cruelty of the offensive makes it clear that the intention is to finalize ethnic cleansing of the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh. Outcomes of this large-scale military operation clearly revealed the atrocious nature.

“There were clear signs this was coming and we have been raising the alarm about it for a long time now, but the international community refused to take it seriously.”

Internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh is an ethnic Armenian enclave that has long sought independence from its parent state, sparking two wars between Armenia and Azerbaijan since the 1990s.

Azerbaijan seemingly scored a decisive victory in the second of those conflicts, in 2020, when it regained control of the region, before a Russian-brokered ceasefire paused hostilities. In May this year, Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan conceded that Nagorno-Karabakh was part of Azerbaijan and recognized its sovereignty there.

In December last year, government-backed Azerbaijani protesters blocked the only road connecting the enclave with Armenia, preventing food and other essentials items from reaching the region and causing causing what the UN described as a humanitarian crisis.

In response to this, the International Court of Justice issued a preliminary ruling ordering the government to “ensure unimpeded movement” on the roads.

Mirzoyan told the Security Council: “This council, as an august body meant to ensure the implementation of court orders, failed to react adequately when the International Court of Justice adopted legally binding orders and they were disrespected by Azerbaijan.

“When in April, Azerbaijan installed illegal checkpoints and later started to kidnap people, the international community again failed to undertake adequate measures. When Armenia raised the alarm, the international community reacted to our warnings with skepticism.”

Azerbaijan’s foreign minister, Jeyhun Bayramov, told council members that the Armenian perspective on events was in defiance of the UN’s own principles of respect of sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The UK’s minister of state for the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia and the UN at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Tariq Ahmad, called for a halt to all military action and a return to the negotiating table, and urged the UN to support efforts to address the immediate humanitarian needs in the region.

“While we fully recognize issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity, military might cannot be used to resolve tensions between communities,” he said. “Direct dialogue is the only way to find genuine, sustainable peace, genuine sustainable solutions.

“It is therefore now vital that talks resume with representatives of the Armenians on the basis of a credible plan to ensure the rights and security of everyone in the region, and to allow them to live in peace.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for strict observation of the 2020 ceasefire agreement. Miroslav Jenca, the assistant secretary-general for Europe, Central Asia and Americas at the UN Department of Political Affairs, highlighted the need to protect the civilian population of the region and said that ensuring their essential needs are met, including the preservation of their human rights, is the overriding priority.

“A genuine dialogue between the government of Azerbaijan and representatives of the region, together with full engagement in the normalization process by Armenia and Azerbaijan, are the only sustainable way forward,” Jenca said.

Cyprus calls on EU to rethink Syrian safe zones for repatriating Syrian migrants

Updated 22 September 2023

Cyprus calls on EU to rethink Syrian safe zones for repatriating Syrian migrants

  • No other EU nation has taken a formal position on safe zone re-evaluation
  • Cyprus says its proximity to the region has made it prime destination for Syrian migrants

NICOSIA, Cyprus: Cyprus has formally called on the European Union to re-evaluate which areas of Syria can be declared safe and free from armed conflict so that Syrian migrants can eventually be repatriated there, the Cypriot Interior Ministry said Friday.
Interior Minister Constantinos Ioannou was the sole official to raise the issue during July’s informal gathering of his EU counterparts in Spain. No other EU nation has taken a formal position on safe zone re-evaluation, the Interior Ministry told The Associated Press.
Cyprus is fronting the re-evaluation bid because it says its proximity to the region has now made it a prime destination for Syrian migrants.
Ethnically divided Cyprus, with a population of nearly a million in the southern, internationally recognized part where migrants seek asylum, says migrants now comprise 6 percent of its population – much higher than the average in other EU member countries.
War-torn Syria has for the past 12 years has been designated as an unsafe country where indiscriminate violence poses a real risk to the safety of its citizens. The threat makes them eligible for international protection status which enables them to live and work in third countries.
The government of Cyprus is proposing that the EU initially re-examines whether conditions on the ground in Syria – or parts of the country – have changed enough for Syrians to be safely repatriated.
The practicalities of how such repatriations would take place could be decided at a later stage. One possibility would be to start repatriations of Syrians who hail from the declared safe zones, according to the Cypriot Interior Ministry.
Some 40 percent of 7,369 migrants who have applied for asylum in Cyprus in 2023 until the end of August are Syrians.
The European Union Agency for Asylum says there’s “no real risk” to civilians from indiscriminate violence in only one of Syria’s 13 regions – Tartus. In another four, including Latakia, Damascus, Homs and Quneitra, indiscriminate violence isn’t “at a high level.”
The United Nations refugee agency says it’s not currently either “facilitating or promoting refugee return” to Syria, noting that refugees have the right to return to their homeland “at a time of their own choosing.”