UK PM Sunak faces party revolt after unveiling new Rwanda asylum plan

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during the Prime Minister’s Questions at the House of Commons in London on Dec. 6, 2023. (UK Parliament via Reuters)
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Updated 07 December 2023
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UK PM Sunak faces party revolt after unveiling new Rwanda asylum plan

  • The Rwanda scheme is at the center of the government’s strategy to stop illegal migration

LONDON: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was battling to keep his party together on Thursday a day after unveiling a plan to disregard some human rights law to send migrants to Rwanda, bringing back to the fore deep divisions in his party.
Facing the biggest challenge to his year-long tenure, Sunak is trying to stop lawmakers on the Conservative Party’s right wing from rebelling over their demand that Britain should quit international treaties to set its own migration policy.
His immigration minister quit on Wednesday and he is facing questions as to whether he can get his key policy through a vote in parliament. Some Conservative lawmakers said on Thursday that Sunak could face a leadership challenge.
The prime minister was due to hold a press conference at 1100 GMT.
One Conservative politician, who reluctantly supports the Rwanda plan, said the last year had shown that his colleagues can be ruthless in removing a struggling prime minister.
“I have a feeling of deja vu,” he said.
The draft legislation comes three weeks after Britain’s Supreme Court ruled that Rwanda was not a safe place to send those arriving in small boats on the southern coast of England, and that the plan would breach British and international law.
The Rwanda scheme is at the center of the government’s strategy to stop illegal migration. The court’s decision was a setback for Sunak who is struggling to revive a weak economy and is heavily trailing the main opposition party ahead of an election expected next year.
Sunak could make the vote in parliament on the new legislation next week a confidence vote — meaning that if he loses, it could trigger a national election — in an attempt to shore up party support.
So far only one Conservative lawmaker has publicly called for a no confidence vote, but she said six of her colleagues have done so privately.
To trigger a leadership challenge, 53 of the 350 Conservative lawmakers in parliament must write letters of no confidence to the chairman of the 1922 Committee.
Sunak suffered his first parliamentary defeat this week as members of parliament voted to establish a compensatory body for victims of the infected blood scandal.
The prime minister has pleaded with his party to get behind the legislation as the best chance to get flights to Rwanda leaving before the next election.
‘IT WON’T WORK’
A poll last month showed immigration was one of the three biggest issues facing the country. Only the economy and National Health Service were seen as more important.
Last year net legal migration hit a record of 745,000 people and around 45,000 arrived illegally.
Rwanda currently only has the capacity to accept a few hundred migrants from Britain, but ministers say the plan will act as a vital deterrent to discourage people from making the crossings.
The new bill will instruct judges to ignore some sections of the Human Rights Act (HRA) and provisions of domestic or international law that might deem that Rwanda was not a safe destination, though appeals by people based on specific circumstances would still be permitted.
The former interior minister Suella Braverman, former immigration minister Robert Jenrick and their allies say that does not go far enough, with some wanting Britain to leave the European Convention on Human Rights altogether.
“I’m very concerned that the bill on the table will allow a merry-go-round of legal claims and litigation,” Braverman told BBC radio, but said no one was talking about changing the party’s leader.
“The reality is, and the solid truth is, that it won’t work and it will not stop the boats.”


Former ‘Daesh bride’ Shamima Begum to learn UK citizenship fate

Updated 23 February 2024
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Former ‘Daesh bride’ Shamima Begum to learn UK citizenship fate

  • Shamima Begum was 15 years old when she left her east London home for Syria with two school friends in 2015
  • Her British citizenship was revoked on national security grounds after she was found in a Syrian refugee camp

LONDON: A judgment is expected Friday in the appeal case of a woman who lost her British citizenship after leaving as a teenager to marry a Daesh group fighter.
Shamima Begum, 24, took her case against the revocation of her citizenship to the Court of Appeal in London in October last year.
Her lawyer told the court that the Home Office had failed to consider its legal duties to Begum as a potential victim of trafficking.
Begum, whose family is of Bangladeshi origin, was 15 years old when she left her east London home for Syria with two school friends in 2015.
While there, she married a Daesh fighter and had three children, none of whom survived.
In February 2019, Begum said she was left stateless when Britain’s interior minister at the time, Sajid Javid, revoked her British citizenship on national security grounds after she was found in a Syrian refugee camp.
A UK tribunal ruled in 2020 that she was not stateless because she was “a citizen of Bangladesh by descent” when the decision was made, by virtue of her Bangladeshi mother.
Last year, Begum lost a challenge against the decision at the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC).
The SIAC said that while there was a “credible suspicion that Begum was recruited, transferred and then harbored for the purpose of sexual exploitation,” this did not prevent Javid from removing her citizenship.
The ruling meant that Begum could not return to the UK from her current home, a refugee camp in northern Syria.
Lawyers for the Home Office have argued that SIAC’s conclusion was correct.
Begum is one of hundreds of Europeans whose fate has challenged governments following the 2019 collapse of the Islamist extremists’ self-styled caliphate.
Begum’s lawyer told the SIAC hearing that her client had been “influenced” along with her friends by a “determined and effective” Daesh group “propaganda machine.”
Around 900 people are estimated to have traveled from Britain to Syria and Iraq to join the Daesh group. Of those, around 150 are believed to have been stripped of their citizenship, according to government figures.


Taliban authorities execute two convicted murderers in football stadium

Updated 23 February 2024
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Taliban authorities execute two convicted murderers in football stadium

  • Both men were executed by multiple gunshots as thousands gathered to witness the executions 
  • Taliban scholars in Afghanistan have employed one of the most severe interpretations of Shariah law

GHAZNI, Afghanistan: Taliban authorities publicly executed two men convicted of murder in a football stadium in eastern Afghanistan on Thursday, according to an AFP journalist at the scene.

Both men were executed by multiple gunshots to the back in Ghazni city after Supreme Court official Atiqullah Darwish read aloud a death warrant signed by Taliban Supreme Leader Hibatullah Akhundzada.

“These two people were convicted of the crime of murder,” Darwish said. “After two years of trial in the courts of the country, the order has been signed.”

Thousands of people gathered in the stadium to witness the executions.

Families of the convicted men’s victims were present, including women and children, and were asked if they wanted to grant the condemned a last-minute reprieve, but they declined in both cases.

Relatives were also offered to carry out the execution themselves, in line with Taliban government implementation of Islamic law, but members of the security forces killed both men after they refused.

The executed were identified as Said Jamal and Gul Khan, both guilty of knife murders in September 2017 and January 2022 respectively, according to a Supreme Court statement.

The statement said Akhundzada had conducted an “extraordinary investigation” into their cases.

The Taliban administration in Kabul has not been officially recognized by any other government since it took power in 2021 and installed its strict interpretation of Islamic law.

Akhundzada ordered judges in 2022 to fully implement all aspects of Islamic law — including “eye for an eye” punishments known as “qisas.”

Islamic law, or sharia, acts as a code of living for Muslims worldwide, offering guidance on issues such as modesty, finance and crime.

However, interpretations vary according to local custom, culture and religious schools of thought.

Taliban scholars in Afghanistan have employed one of the most severe interpretations of the code, including capital and corporal punishments little used by most modern Muslim states.

Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent building a new judicial system under the last foreign-backed government, a combination of Islamic and secular law with qualified prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges.

However, many Afghans complained of corruption, bribery and the slow delivery of justice.

Public executions were common during the Taliban’s first rule from 1996 to 2001.

Thursday’s executions are believed to be the third and fourth death penalties meted out since the Taliban authorities returned to power.

The first two had also been convicted of murder.

There have been regular public floggings for other crimes, however, including theft, adultery and alcohol consumption.

The last reported execution was carried out in June 2023, when a convicted murderer was shot dead in the grounds of a mosque in Laghman province in front of some 2,000 people.

The UN mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, condemned the use of capital punishment in a post on social media later Thursday, urging the authorities “to establish an immediate moratorium on the use of the death penalty, as a step toward its abolition.”


US achieves first moon landing in half century with private spacecraft

Updated 23 February 2024
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US achieves first moon landing in half century with private spacecraft

  • Spacecraft built and flown by Texas-based company Intuitive Machines landed near the moon’s south pole
  • To date, spacecraft from just four other countries, Russia, China, India and Japan, have ever landed on the moon

A spacecraft built and flown by Texas-based company Intuitive Machines landed near the moon’s south pole on Thursday, the first US touchdown on the lunar surface in more than half a century and the first ever achieved by the private sector.

NASA, with several research instruments aboard the vehicle, hailed the landing as a major achievement in its goal of sending a squad of commercially flown spacecraft on scientific scouting missions to the moon ahead of a planned return of astronauts there later this decade.

But initial communications problems following Thursday’s landing raised questions about whether the vehicle may have been left impaired or obstructed in some way.

The uncrewed six-legged robot lander, dubbed Odysseus, touched down at about 6:23 p.m. EST (2323 GMT), the company and NASA commentators said in a joint webcast of the landing from Intuitive Machines’ mission operations center in Houston.

The landing capped a nail-biting final approach and descent in which a problem surfaced with the spacecraft’s autonomous navigation system that required engineers on the ground to employ an untested work-around at the 11th hour.

It also took some time after an anticipated radio blackout to re-establish communications with the spacecraft and determine its fate some 239,000 miles (384,000 km) from Earth.

When contact was finally renewed, the signal was faint, confirming that the lander had touched down but leaving mission control immediately uncertain as to the precise condition and orientation of the vehicle, according to the webcast.

“Our equipment is on the surface of the moon, and we are transmitting, so congratulations IM team,” Intuitive Machines mission director Tim Crain was heard telling the operations center. “We’ll see what more we can get from that.”

Later in the evening, the company posted a message on the social media platform X saying flight controllers “have confirmed Odysseus is upright and starting to send data.”

QUESTION OF OBSTRUCTION

Still, the weak signal suggested the spacecraft may have landed next to a crater wall or something else that blocked or impinged its antenna, said Thomas Zurbuchen, a former NASA science chief who oversaw creation of the agency’s commercial moon lander program.

“Sometimes it could just be one rock, one big boulder, that’s in the way,” he said in a phone interview with Reuters.

Such an issue could complicate the lander’s primary mission of deploying its payloads and meeting science objectives, Zurbuchen said.

Accomplishing the landing is “a major intermediate goal, but the goal of the mission is to do science, and get the pictures back and so forth,” he added.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson immediately cheered Thursday’s feat as a “triumph,” saying, “Odysseus has taken the moon.”

As planned, the spacecraft was believed to have come to rest at a crater named Malapert A near the moon’s south pole, according to the webcast. The spacecraft was not designed to provide live video of the landing, which came one day after it reached lunar orbit and a week after its launch from Florida.

Thursday’s landing represented the first controlled descent to the lunar surface by a US spacecraft since Apollo 17 in 1972, when NASA’s last crewed moon mission landed there with astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt.

To date, spacecraft from just four other countries have ever landed on the moon — the former Soviet Union, China, India and, mostly recently, just last month, Japan. The United States is the only one ever to have sent humans to the lunar surface.

Odysseus is carrying a suite of scientific instruments and technology demonstrations for NASA and several commercial customers designed to operate for seven days on solar energy before the sun sets over the polar landing site.

The NASA payload focuses on space weather interactions with the moon’s surface, radio astronomy and other aspects of the lunar environment for future landing missions.

Odysseus was sent on its way to the moon last Thursday atop a Falcon 9 rocket launched by Elon Musk’s company SpaceX from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

DAWN OF ARTEMIS

Its arrival marked the first “soft landing” on the moon ever by a commercially manufactured and operated vehicle and the first under NASA’s Artemis lunar program, as the US races to return astronauts to Earth’s natural satellite before China lands its own crewed spacecraft there.

NASA aims to land its first crewed Artemis in late 2026 as part of long-term, sustained lunar exploration and a stepping stone toward eventual human flights to Mars. The initiative focuses on the moon’s south pole in part because a presumed bounty of frozen water exists there that can be used for life support and production of rocket fuel.

A host of small landers like Odysseus are expected to pave the way under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, designed to deliver instruments and hardware to the moon at lower costs than the US space agency’s traditional method of building and launching those vehicles itself.

Leaning more heavily on smaller, less experienced private ventures comes with its own risks.

Just last month the lunar lander of another firm, Astrobotic Technology, suffered a propulsion system leak on its way to the moon shortly after being placed in orbit on Jan. 8 by a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Vulcan rocket.

The malfunction of Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander marked the third failure of a private company to achieve a lunar touchdown, following ill-fated efforts by companies from Israel and Japan.


Armenia freezes participation in Russia-led security bloc

Updated 23 February 2024
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Armenia freezes participation in Russia-led security bloc

  • Prime Minister Pashinyan says the Collective Security Treaty Organization has failed his country
  • Other ex-Soviet members of the CSTO include Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan

Armenia has frozen its participation in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) because the pact had failed the country, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said in an interview broadcast on Thursday.
Pashinyan also said Azerbaijan, with which Armenia has fought two wars over the past three decades, was not adhering to the principles needed to clinch a long-term peace treaty, and suggested Azerbaijan was preparing to launch another attack.
Pashinyan told France 24 television that the CSTO pact, dominated by Russia, had failed Armenia.
“The Collective Security Treaty has not fulfilled its objectives as far as Armenia is concerned, particularly in 2021 and 2022. And we could not let that happen without taking notice,” Pashinyan said through an interpreter.
“We have now in practical terms frozen our participation in this treaty. As for what comes next, we shall have to see.”
He said there was no discussion for the moment of closing a Russian base in Armenia. That was subject to different treaties.
Pashinyan has in recent months expressed discontent with Armenia’s longstanding ties with Russia and said Armenia could no longer rely on Russia to ensure its defense needs. He had suggested its membership of the CSTO was under review.
Other ex-Soviet members of the CSTO include Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Azerbaijan recovered swathes of territory in 2020 in the second war over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, populated mainly by ethnic Armenians but internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.
Last year, Azerbaijan’s military took control of the territory, prompting most of its residents to leave for Armenia.
In his remarks, Pashinyan said prospects for clinching a long-term peace treaty were hurt by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s statements which Armenia interpreted as laying claim to large parts of Armenian territory.
“If the principles of territorial integrity and inviolability of borders are not recognized by Azerbaijan, it is simply not possible,” he told France 24.
“Azerbaijan is using the situation to feed its rhetoric. That leads one to think that Azerbaijan is getting ready for a new attack on Armenia.”
Key elements in securing a treaty are demarcation of borders and the establishment of regional transport corridors often through the territory of each others’ territory.
Aliyev has also raised the issue of determining control of ethnic enclaves on both sides of the border.
Pashinyan and Aliyev have discussed moves toward a peace treaty at several meetings, including discussions last week at the Munich Security Conference. 


Philippines takes cancer screening into the workplace

Updated 23 February 2024
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Philippines takes cancer screening into the workplace

  • Detection rates are low, diagnosis is slow
  • State asks private sector to improve workers’ health

MANILA: Saddled with high cancer rates and late diagnoses, the Philippines is trying a whole new tack: asking businesses to step into state shoes and screen millions of workers for early signs of the disease.

Be it cervical, breast or colon cancer, the Southeast Asian nation wants to lower its cancer deaths by increasing screening.
Medics say early detection is key to improving survival rates, so last year the government changed course and opted to partner with the private sector to boost testing levels.
In September, the government ordered all employers to set up cancer prevention and control programs to ease pressures on time- and cash-poor staff, who must otherwise contribute to the cost of diagnosis and treatment themselves.
Employers are now required to give employees access to cancer screening, by referrals to reputable health facilities or conducting free screenings themselves.
The order stemmed from the landmark National Integrated Cancer Control Act, which pledged better screening, diagnosis and treatment and to make health services “more equitable and affordable for all, especially for the underprivileged, poor and marginalized.”
Cervical screening
Since the start of the year, 500 Filipinos have tested under the new setup — officer worker Gemma Remojo was among the first.
“I’ve been suffering from reproductive issues and hormonal imbalance so I really needed this test,” said Remojo, a 35-year-old employed by finance company Home Credit.
Under the Philippine health system, Remojo would have to pay for tests in a private clinic or ask the national health insurance to cover her screening, which takes time to process.
Home Credit’s cervical screening service began in January, with kits distributed to workers for free after a short lecture.
The workers collect their own specimens in a designated space inside the workplace and their results are posted out by medical providers some weeks later. Employers cannot access the results, circumventing any data privacy concerns.
A positive test detects the presence of HPV, the virus linked to cervical cancer — the fourth most common cancer among women globally.
Roughly 91 percent of cervical cancer cases are thought to be caused by HPV, and every year more than half of cervical cancer cases in the Philippines lead to death.
The kit was provided for free by the Johns Hopkins Program for International Education in Gynecology and Obstetrics (Jhpiego), a nonprofit health organization helping hundreds of workers get free HPV screenings in the Philippines.
According to Jhpiego, the cancer awareness lecture and do-it-yourself kits help simplify the screening process for women.
The government said the aim was to screen more citizens and do it more quickly — then to speed up diagnoses.
“With cancer ranking third among the leading causes of mortality and morbidity in the country, the advisory serves as our proactive contribution to combating the disease,” Alvin Curada, director of the government’s Bureau of Working Conditions, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Engaging the private sector underscores the country’s commitment ... It signifies a shared responsibility between the government and the private sector,” he said.
Bridging health gaps
A key incentive for users to get tested is the lower cost, along with a better health outlook.
The cost of treatment is high; Filipino cancer patients lose a combined 35 billion Philippine pesos ($625 million) a year in medical costs, out-of-pocket expenses and lost wages, according to a study by health economist Valerie Ulep of state think-tank the Philippine Institute for Development Studies.
Ulep said early screening could save lives, as only 1 percent of Filipino women are ever screened for breast or cervical cancer, among the lowest rates in the world.
The poor take-up comes despite that fact that breast and cervical are among the leading cancers affecting Filipino women.
The cost of screening is also prohibitive, said Jhpiego’s Marco Ugoy, who works to raise awareness on reproductive health.
The price in hospitals can range from 3,000 to 30,000 Philippine pesos, when a minimum-wage earner in the Philippines earns an average 17,000 pesos each month.
All employers must enroll staff in the Philippines’ national health insurance company, PhilHealth, but that universal policy only partly covers a patient’s costs.
The new scheme aims to bridge some of the gap.
Hard to roll out
The government’s Curada said work was an ideal place to run a cancer program because of its structure and facilities.
To ensure company compliance, employers must submit an annual report to government detailing the extent of cancer-related activities or else risk an unspecified fine.
But health advocates worry that guidelines may be too scant and that policy awareness remains low.
“It’s a big step that a directive like this was signed. But do all companies implement it? Do the workers know about the policy?” said Ugoy of Jhpiego.
Ugoy said some business owners were already big advocates of workplace screenings, but he cited challenges in getting factories, especially those in autonomous ecozones, to comply.
The Philippines has more than 400 special economic zones that run with little or no government interference, and have historically been linked to a range of human rights concerns.
Nadia De Leon of the Institute for Occupational Health and Safety Development, a nonprofit for worker health and safety, said the new government tack represents a big step forward.
But the guidelines “may remain largely symbolic” if not strictly enforced and monitored, she said.

Screenings for women
Home Credit’s Arianne Eucogo said the company prioritized HPV screenings over other cancer programs since about 65 percent of their employees are women.
“We’re primarily doing it for health promotion of our employees, knowing that the rate of cervical cancer deaths in the Philippines is high,” she said.
Ugoy said one of the biggest barriers to health checkups was simply time, as health centers only open during office hours.
Ugoy said the private sector must also partner with community-based groups and local government to boost take-up and get around the time constraints.
For example, in Taguig City, the fifth most populous in the country, dozens of companies partnered with the city’s own team to run their HPV screenings and cancer treatment, be it through office clinics, ride-hailing services or call centers.
Ugoy said this approach — with free test kits from Jhpiego and labs paid by the city government — had sped up diagnosis.
“It shouldn’t stop at diagnostics. Screening and treatment must go hand in hand when it comes to cancer,” said Marites Diaz, who has worked for 32 years at the Taguig Health Office.