Nicaragua frees 222 opponents of Ortega, sends them to US

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Juan Sebastian Chamorro, one of the more than 200 freed political prisoners from Nicaragua, speaks to reporters after arriving in the US capital on Feb. 9, 2023. (REUTERS)
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Supporters of Nicaraguan political prisoners chant at Washington Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Virginia on Feb. 9, 2023 as the former inmates arrive. (AP)
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Updated 10 February 2023
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Nicaragua frees 222 opponents of Ortega, sends them to US

  • Nicaraguan President Ortega claimed that the prisoners were behind 2018 street protests he claims were a plot to overthrow him
  • Tens of thousands have fled into exile since Nicaraguan security forces violently put down those antigovernment protests in

MEXICO CITY: Some 222 inmates considered by many to be political prisoners of the government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega flew to Washington on Thursday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.
Blinken said the prisoners had been jailed “for exercising their fundamental freedoms and have endured lengthy unjust detentions.”
“The release of these individuals, one of whom is a US citizen, by the government of Nicaragua marks a constructive step toward addressing human rights abuses in the country and opens the door to further dialogue between the United States and Nicaragua regarding issues of concern,” Blinken said.
He said that among those on the plane were political and business leaders, journalists, civil society representatives and students. Blinken credited “concerted American diplomacy.”
Ortega has maintained that his imprisoned opponents and others were behind 2018 street protests he claims were a plot to overthrow him. Tens of thousands have fled into exile since Nicaraguan security forces violently put down those antigovernment protests in.
The Nicaraguan opposition’s latest count on “political prisoners” held had been 245. It was not immediately clear who was not released.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price said Nicaragua had identified 224 prisoners to be sent on the plane, but two of them declined. They were not identified.
Roman Catholic Bishop Rolando Álvarez was on a list of 39 prisoners who were not on the plane compiled by the nongovernmental group Mechanism for Recognition of Political Prisoners.
Price said those who arrived in Washington came voluntarily and would receive humanitarian parole allowing them to stay in the country for two years. They were staying at hotels under responsibility of US Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Homeland Security and the government would work with nongovernmental organizations to help in their resettlement.
“It was the Nicaraguan government that decided to offer the opportunity to these individuals to travel the United States,” Price said. “When I say this is a product of American engagement, as you know, we have long called for the release of individuals imprisoned in Nicaragua for exercising their fundamental freedoms as a first step toward the restoration of democracy and an improved human rights climate in Nicaragua.”
Back in Nicaragua, a judge read a statement saying the 222 prisoners had been “deported.”
Octavio Rothschuh, a magistrate on the Managua Appeals court, said the deportation was carried out under an order issued Wednesday that declared the prisoners “traitors to the country.” He said they were deported for actions that undermined Nicaragua’s independence and sovereignty.
Later Thursday, Nicaragua’s Congress unanimously approved a constitutional change allowing “traitors” to be stripped of their nationality. It will require a second vote in the next legislative session later this year.
Wilma Nuñez, president of the Nicaragua Center for Human Rights, said in a statement that while the prisoners’ release was welcome, “deportation is a legal term that applies to foreigners who commit crimes in a country. They want to call exile a deportation, which is absolutely arbitrary and prohibited by international human rights norms.”
Arturo McFields, Nicaragua’s former ambassador to the Organization of American States, celebrated the release, which he said the US State Department had confirmed to him.
“It is a massive freeing” of prisoners seldom seen, McFields said. He credited the prisoners’ families for never letting up the pressure.
Berta Valle, the wife of opposition leader Felix Maradiaga, said the State Department told her that her husband was on the plane.
According to US officials, also among those aboard the flight were Cristiana Chamorro, who had been a leading presidential contender before her arrest in 2021. Daughter of former President Violeta Chamorro, she was sentenced last March to eight years in prison. She was convicted of money laundering through her mother’s nongovernmental organization as Ortega pursued NGOs that received foreign funding. She was being held under house arrest.
Other one-time presidential hopefuls Arturo Cruz and Juan Sebastian Chamorro were also on the flight, US officials said.
Ortega upped his pursuit of political opponents in early 2021, looking to clear the field ahead of presidential elections in November of that year. Security forces arrested seven potential presidential contenders and Ortega romped to a fourth consecutive term in elections that the US and other countries termed a farce.
Nicaraguan judges sentenced several opposition leaders, including former high-level officials of the governing Sandinista movement and former presidential contenders, to prison terms for “conspiracy to undermine national integrity.”
Given the notoriously bad conditions at the infamous El Chipote prison and others, as well as the age of some of the opposition leaders, relatives had feared the terms may effectively be death sentences.
Hugo Torres, a former Sandinista guerrilla leader who once led a raid that helped free then rebel Ortega from prison, died while awaiting trial. He was 73.
Nicaraguan judges also sentenced five Catholic priests to prison this week for conspiracy and spreading false information. It was not immediately clear if any of them were on the flight.
 


China to continue to strengthen ties with Iran, state media says

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. (AFP file photo)
Updated 22 May 2024
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China to continue to strengthen ties with Iran, state media says

  • “Iran has lost outstanding leaders and China has lost good friends and partners, said Wang, according to Xinhua news

BEIJING: China will continue to strengthen strategic cooperation with Iran, safeguard common interests, and make endeavors for regional and world peace, Chinese state media reported on Tuesday, citing comments from Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
Wang made the remarks in talks on Tuesday with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mahdi Safari, while attending a meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
“Iran has lost outstanding leaders and China has lost good friends and partners, said Wang, according to Xinhua news. “In this difficult time, China firmly stands by Iranian friends,” he said, referring to the death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on Sunday.

 


Ireland to announce recognition of Palestinian state on Wednesday, source says

Updated 22 May 2024
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Ireland to announce recognition of Palestinian state on Wednesday, source says

  • The Irish government has said recognition would complement peace efforts and support a two-state solution

DUBLIN: The Irish government is to announce the recognition of a Palestinian state on Wednesday, a move strongly opposed by Israel, a source familiar with the matter said.
European Union members Ireland, Spain, Slovenia and Malta have indicated in recent weeks that they plan to make the recognition, possibly in a coordinated announcement, arguing a two-state solution is essential for lasting peace in the region.
The efforts come as a mounting death toll in Gaza from Israel’s offensive to rout Hamas prompts calls globally for a ceasefire and lasting solution for peace in the region.
Since 1988, 139 out of 193 UN member states have recognized Palestinian statehood.
The Irish government has said recognition would complement peace efforts and support a two-state solution.
Israel’s foreign ministry on Tuesday warned against the move, saying in a post on social media platform X that recognition would “lead to more terrorism, instability in the region and jeopardize any prospects for peace.”
“Don’t be a pawn in the hands of Hamas,” the ministry said.
Hamas holds around 125 hostages seized during its cross-border rampage on Oct. 7, which killed 1,200 people, according to Israeli tallies, and triggered the war. Gaza medical officials say more than 35,000 have been killed during the Israeli offensive.
The Irish government on Tuesday evening said the prime minister and foreign minister would speak to the media on Wednesday morning but did not say what the topic would be.


Shaken passengers arrive in Singapore after turbulence-hit flight

Updated 15 min 26 sec ago
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Shaken passengers arrive in Singapore after turbulence-hit flight

  • The airline said the aircraft was a Boeing 777-300ER with a total of 211 passengers and 18 crew on board
  • A 73-year-old British passenger died of a suspected heart attack and at least 30 people were injured

SINGAPORE: More than 140 passengers and crew from a Singapore Airlines flight hit by heavy turbulence that left dozens injured and one dead finally reached Singapore on a relief flight Wednesday morning after an emergency landing in Bangkok.
The scheduled London-Singapore flight on a Boeing 777-300ER plane diverted to Bangkok after the plane was buffeted by turbulence that flung passengers and crew around the cabin, slamming some into the ceiling.
A 73-year-old British passenger died of a suspected heart attack and at least 30 people were injured.
“I saw people from across the aisle going completely horizontal, hitting the ceiling and landing back down in like really awkward positions. People, like, getting massive gashes in the head, concussions,” Dzafran Azmir, a 28-year-old student on board the flight told Reuters after arriving in Singapore.
Photographs from the interior of the plane showed gashes in the overhead cabin panels, oxygen masks and panels hanging from the ceiling and luggage strewn around. A passenger said some people’s heads had slammed into the lights above the seats and punctured the panels.
Singapore Airlines took 131 passengers and 12 crew on the relief flight from Bangkok that reached Singapore just before 5 a.m. (2100 GMT). There were 211 passengers including many Australians, British and Singaporeans, and 18 crew on board the original flight; injured fliers and their families remained in Bangkok.
“On behalf of Singapore Airlines, I would like to express my deepest condolences to the family and loved ones of the deceased,” Singapore Airlines CEO Goh Choon Phong said in a video message.
Singapore’s Transport Safety Investigation Bureau (TSIB) is looking into the incident, and the US National Transportation Safety Board is also sending representatives for support.
The plane encountered sudden extreme turbulence, Goh said, and the pilot then declared a medical emergency and diverted to Bangkok.
Aircraft tracking provider FlightRadar 24 said at around 0749 GMT the flight encountered “a rapid change in vertical rate, consistent with a sudden turbulence event,” based on flight tracking data.
“There were thunderstorms, some severe, in the area at the time,” it said.
The sudden turbulence occurred over the Irrawaddy Basin in Myanmar about 10 hours into the flight, the airline said. Turbulence has many causes, most obviously the unstable weather patterns that trigger storms, but this flight could have been affected by clear air turbulence, which is very difficult to detect.
Turbulence-related airline accidents are the most common type of accident, according to a 2021 NTSB study.
While the airline said 30 people were injured, Samitivej Hospital in Thailand said it was treating 71 passengers.
From 2009 through 2018, the US agency found that turbulence accounted for more than a third of reported airline accidents and most resulted in one or more serious injuries, but no aircraft damage.
Singapore Airlines, which is widely recognized as one of the world’s leading airlines and is a benchmark for much of the industry, has not had any major incidents in recent years.
Its last accident resulting in casualties was a flight from Singapore to Los Angeles via Taipei, where it crashed on Oct. 31, 2000 at the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, killing 83 of the 179 people on board.
 

 


Over 1 million claims related to toxic exposure granted under new veterans law, Biden announces

Updated 22 May 2024
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Over 1 million claims related to toxic exposure granted under new veterans law, Biden announces

  • In raw numbers, more than 1 million claims have been granted to veterans since Biden signed the so-called PACT Act into law in August 2022, the administration said Tuesday

NASHUA, N.H.: President Joe Biden, aiming to highlight his legislative accomplishments this election year, traveled to New Hampshire on Tuesday to discuss how he’s helped military veterans get benefits as a result of burn pit or other toxic exposure during their service.
“We can never fully thank you for all the sacrifices you’ve made,” Biden said to the veterans and their families gathered at a YMCA. “In America, we leave no veteran behind. That’s our motto.”
In raw numbers, more than 1 million claims have been granted to veterans since Biden signed the so-called PACT Act into law in August 2022, the administration said Tuesday. That amounts to about 888,000 veterans and survivors in all 50 states who have been able to receive disability benefits under the law.
That totals about $5.7 billion in benefits given to veterans and their survivors, according to the administration.
“The president, I think, has believed now for too long, too many veterans who got sick serving and fighting for our country had to fight the VA for their care, too,” Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough told reporters on Monday. PACT stands for “Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics.”
The PACT Act is relatively lower profile compared to the president’s other legislative accomplishments — such as a bipartisan infrastructure law and a sweeping tax, climate and health care package — but it is one that is deeply personal for Biden.
He has blamed burn pits for the brain cancer that killed his son, Beau, who served in Iraq, and has vowed repeatedly that he would get the PACT Act into law. Burn pits are where chemicals, tires, plastics, medical equipment and human waste were disposed of on military bases and were used in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Before the law, the Department of Veterans Affairs denied 70 percent of disability claims that involved burn pit exposure. Now, the law requires the VA to assume that certain respiratory illnesses and cancers were related to burn pit or other toxic exposure without veterans having to prove the link.
Before Biden’s planned remarks, he went to a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Merrimack, New Hampshire. The president met there with Lisa Clark, an Air Force veteran who is receiving benefits through the PACT Act because her late husband, Senior Master Sergeant Carl Clark, was exposed to the chemical herbicide Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, marked the milestone by praising the veterans who advocated for the law.
“For far too long, our nation failed to honor its promises to our veterans exposed to toxins in military conflicts across the globe— until we fought like hell alongside veterans to finally get the PACT Act signed into law,” Tester, chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said.


Blinken says he’ll work with US Congress to respond to ICC move on Gaza

Updated 22 May 2024
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Blinken says he’ll work with US Congress to respond to ICC move on Gaza

  • The United States is not a member of the court, but has supported past prosecutions, including the ICC’s decision last year to issue an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin over the war in Ukraine

WASHINGTON: The Biden administration is willing to work with Congress to respond to the International Criminal Court prosecutor’s request for arrest warrants for Israeli leaders over the Gaza war, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Tuesday, amid Republican calls for US sanctions against court officials.
Speaking at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Blinken called the move “profoundly wrong-headed” and said it would complicate the prospects of reaching a hostage deal and a ceasefire in Israel’s conflict with the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
ICC prosecutor Karim Khan said on Monday he had reasonable grounds to believe that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s defense chief and three Hamas leaders “bear criminal responsibility” for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Both President Joe Biden, a Democrat, and his political opponents have sharply criticized Khan’s announcement, arguing the court does not have jurisdiction over the Gaza conflict and raising concerns over process.
The United States is not a member of the court, but has supported past prosecutions, including the ICC’s decision last year to issue an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin over the war in Ukraine.
“We’ll be happy to work with Congress, with this committee, on an appropriate response” to the ICC move, Blinken said on Tuesday.
He did not say what a response to the ICC move might include.
In a later hearing, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told Blinken he hoped to work together with the administration to express the United States’ opposition to the ICC prosecutor.
“What I hope to happen is that we level sanctions against the ICC for this outrage, to not only help our friends in Israel but protect ourself over time,” said Graham.
Republican members of Congress have previously threatened legislation to impose sanctions on the ICC, but a measure cannot become law without support from President Joe Biden and his fellow Democrats, who control the Senate.
In 2020, then-President Donald Trump’s administration accused the ICC of infringing on US national sovereignty when it authorized an investigation into war crimes committed in Afghanistan. The US targeted court staff, including then-prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, with asset freezes and travel bans.