Polish farmers anger Ukraine with border blockade, grain spillage

A Ukrainian truck driver walks past trucks bannered with messages and Ukrainian flags as he takes part in a protest against the blockade of the border by the Polish protesters at the Rava-Ruska border crossing point of the Ukrainian-Polish border, on Feb. 20, 2024. (AFP)
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Updated 20 February 2024
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Polish farmers anger Ukraine with border blockade, grain spillage

  • Tuesday’s protests from farmers marked an escalation from previous demonstrations
  • Television footage showed protesters at the Medyka border crossing opening railway carriages to allow grain to pour onto the tracks

OKOPY, Poland: Protests by Polish farmers sparked anger in neighboring Ukraine on Tuesday, as Kyiv called on the European Commission to take robust action after demonstrators blockaded the border and opened railway carriages to let grain spill out.
Warsaw has been a staunch supporter of Kyiv in its fight to repel a full-scale Russian invasion launched in 2022, but protests from farmers complaining of unfair competition have strained ties that were already on edge after truckers blocked border crossings around the turn of the year.
Tuesday’s protests from farmers marked an escalation from previous demonstrations, with a near-total blockade of all Ukrainian border crossings and disruption at ports and on roads nationwide.
Television footage showed protesters at the Medyka border crossing opening railway carriages to allow grain to pour onto the tracks.
“The scattering of Ukrainian grain on the railroad tracks is another political provocation aimed at dividing our nations,” Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov said in a post on X.
Ukrainian Economy Minister Yulia Svyrydenko said Kyiv has informed the European Commission of the actions of Polish protesters at the Ukrainian border and expected a robust response. Agriculture Minister Mykola Solskyi said the grain was headed to Germany and would not have entered the Polish market.
Farmers across Europe have been demonstrating over a range of grievances, including constraints placed on them by European Union measures to tackle climate change, and what they say is unfair competition from abroad, particularly Ukraine, after an EU decision in 2022 to waive duties on Ukrainian food imports.
Protesters’ tractors carried banners that read: “With grain flowing from Ukraine, Polish farmers will go bankrupt.”
An organizer of the protest at Doruhusk crossing, Marcin Wielgosz, said buses would be allowed to cross once an hour on Tuesday, but no truck would pass from 0800 to 1800 local time.
“In my opinion, the border should be closed. Procedures and systems should be clarified and then maybe it could reopen but not with the rules that we have now. Because right now you can bring whatever you want, however much you want... into Poland,” he told Reuters.

COUNTER PROTEST
Kyiv says its agricultural exports through eastern Europe have not damaged EU markets.
Exasperated by the Polish protests, Ukrainian hauliers began their own round-the-clock counter-demonstration at three crossings. Their protest is planned to last till March 15.
Images circulated by media outlets showed Ukrainian trucks at the border bearing banners with slogans such as “Ukraine loses — Poland loses” and “The blockade of Ukraine is a betrayal of European values.”
Poland’s new pro-European government has supported the farmers’ demands, trying to balance this with its strongly pro-Ukrainian stance.
Deputy Agriculture Minister Michal Kolodziejczak told private broadcaster Polsat News that talks with Ukraine on limiting imports would continue on Wednesday.
“Today the ball is in Ukraine’s court,” he said. “Either they want to come to an agreement with us, or we will have to introduce further restrictions.”
Ukraine says the blockades are affecting its defense capability and helping Russia’s aims.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Monday the situation at the border demonstrated “the erosion of solidarity on a daily basis.”


Ex-Qaddafi minister in UK private prosecution over policewoman’s death

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Ex-Qaddafi minister in UK private prosecution over policewoman’s death

  • Yvonne Fletcher was shot dead outside Libyan Embassy in London 40 years ago
  • Her colleague is ‘keeping promise’ to get justice after years of court battles

LONDON: A police officer in the UK is launching a private prosecution of a Libyan over the killing of his colleague 40 years ago, the BBC reported on Wednesday.

Policewoman Yvonne Fletcher, 25, was shot dead outside the Libyan Embassy in London in 1984 when gunmen in the building opened fire on a rally outside.

On the 40th anniversary of Fletcher’s death, John Murray, who “cradled her as she lay down” on the day of the shooting, is demanding that the remaining key suspect in the case is tried for murder.

The first court hearing in the case concerning Saleh Ibrahim Mabrouk is expected in the coming weeks.

On the day of the shooting in 1984, crowds had assembled outside the embassy to protest against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.

Shots were fired at the demonstration from inside the building, hitting Fletcher on the street outside.

Following a 10-day siege, then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher permitted the Libyans in the embassy to return home due to diplomatic immunity.

Forty years since the incident, nobody has been charged in relation to Fletcher’s death. The UK’s Crown Prosecution Service in 2017 dropped a potential case against Mabrouk, a former minister in the Qaddafi government, in order to prevent national security secrets from being heard in court.

But Murray, who is now retired, said his legal team is launching a private prosecution for murder against Mabrouk, who was found “jointly liable” for the shootings in 2019 despite not carrying a weapon during the incident.

The former minister denied wrongdoing in a response sent to the High Court from Libya in 2019, in a case filed by Murray.

In the private prosecution, the retired police officer’s legal team must overcome a series of hurdles to demand the court bring Mabrouk to the UK.

Murray told the BBC that Fletcher is “sorely missed” ahead of a memorial ceremony on Wednesday, held near the site of the shooting.

“The last few words that Yvonne heard before she died was my voice telling her that I would find out who and why this had happened to her,” he said.

“I also said to her that I would get justice. That was a promise I made. That is a promise I will certainly keep, and the fight goes on.”

Sir Mark Rowley, Metropolitan Police commissioner, said: “WPC Yvonne Fletcher was just 25 when she was callously murdered. She was simply doing her job, policing protest, not unlike what many officers do so often today.”


Father of boy accused of stabbing 2 Sydney clerics saw no signs of extremism, Muslim leader says

Updated 17 April 2024
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Father of boy accused of stabbing 2 Sydney clerics saw no signs of extremism, Muslim leader says

SYDNEY: The father of a boy accused of stabbing two Christian clerics in Australia saw no signs of his son’s extremism, a Muslim community leader said on Wednesday as police prepared to file charges against rioters who besieged a Sydney church demanding revenge.
The 16-year-old boy spoke in Arabic about the Prophet Muhammad after he stabbed Bishop Mar Mari Emmanuel and the Rev. Isaac Royel during a church service on Monday night that was being streamed online. Neither cleric sustained life-threatening injuries.
The Orthodox Assyrian congregation overpowered the boy and he remained in an undisclosed hospital on Wednesday under police guard. He sustained severe hand wounds in the struggle.
Lebanese Muslim Association secretary Gamel Kheir, an advocate for Sydney’s largest Muslim community, said he spent two hours with the boy’s distraught father at the family home soon after the attack. The family has since left their home for fear of retaliation.
“He was in shock,” Kheir told Australian Broadcasting Corp. of the father, who has not been identified.
“He was not aware of any signs of becoming more extreme other than the fact that he was becoming more disobedient to his father. But that was about it. He didn’t see any tell-tale signs, so to speak,” Kheir added.
Kheir is among several community leaders who have accused police of unnecessarily raising community tensions with a premature declaration on Tuesday that the attack at Christ the Good Shepherd Church fit the definition of a terrorist act under New South Wales state law.
“I’m concerned that we’ve rushed to a pre-judgment of a 16-year-old child,” Kheir said.
“He used the language of religion, we’re not debating that at all. In a sense that he targeted another religion, that’s not debatable,” Kheir said.
“What’s debatable is what mental state was this child in? Was he of a sane mind to even make such a rational call? All we’re saying is surely there was time for the police to do a more thorough investigation and a review before they labelled it a terrorist act,” Kheir added.
New South Wales Police Commissioner Karen Webb on Wednesday stood by her declaration of a terrorist incident as defined by the Terrorism (Police Powers) Act 2002.
The act gives police expanded powers to stop and search people, premises and vehicles without a warrant and to detain suspects in response to a terrorist attack or an imminent threat of an attack.
The church attack met the act’s criteria of having a political, religious or ideological motivation and was intended to cause intimidation, she said.
“I was satisfied based on the information that was provided very early Tuesday morning that it met that criteria and I made that declaration without any hesitation,” Webb said.
She said whether the boy would be charged with terrorism offenses was a separate consideration and would depend on the results of the police investigation.
According to media reports, the boy had been convicted in January of a range of offenses including possession of a switchblade knife, being armed with a weapon with an intention to commit an indictable offense, stalking, intimidation and damaging property. He was released from court on a good behavior bond.
Police are also investigating the conduct of 600 people who converged on the church on Monday night and demanded police hand over the boy, who was temporarily barricaded inside for his own safety.
The crowd hurled bricks, bottles and fence boards at police. Two police officers were hospitalized and several police vehicles were damaged.
Webb said police were attempting to identify perpetrators of crimes during the riot from various sources of video and from fingerprints left on police cars. She expected arrests to be made as early as Wednesday.
“Not all those people there were rioting against the police, but those people who were, they can expect to be identified and arrested and put before the courts,” Webb said.
The Lebanese Muslim Association runs Australia’s largest mosque in the Sydney suburb of Lakemba. Security has been elevated at that mosque and several others since Monday when fire bombing threats were made.
Security has also been increased at shopping malls around Australia after a lone assailant stabbed six people to death at Sydney’s Westfield Bondi Junction mall on Saturday. The rampage ended when the 40-year-old assailant, who had a history of mental illness and no apparent motive, was shot dead by police. No terror declaration was made in that case.
Westfield Bondi Junction will open its doors on Thursday for the first time since it was shut down on Saturday as a crime scene. Shops will remain closed for what is described as a “community reflection day.”
Elliott Rusanow, chief executive of Scenter Group, which owns the mall, said families of victims made private visits on Tuesday.
The church attack is only the third to be classified by Australian authorities as a terrorist act since 2018.
Two police officers and a bystander were shot dead in an ambush by three Christian fundamentalists near the community of Wieambilla in Queensland state in December 2022. The shooters were later killed by police.
In November 2018, a Somalia-born Muslim stabbed three pedestrians in a downtown Melbourne street, killing one, before police shot him dead.


Death toll from 4 days of rains rises to 63 in Pakistan with more rain on the forecast

Updated 17 April 2024
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Death toll from 4 days of rains rises to 63 in Pakistan with more rain on the forecast

  • Dozens more were also injured in the northwest, where 1,370 houses were damaged

PESHAWAR: Lightning and heavy rains led to 14 deaths in Pakistan, officials said Wednesday, bringing the death toll from four days of extreme weather to at least 63.
Most of the deaths were reported in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, in Pakistan’s northwest. Collapsing buildings have killed 32 people, including 15 children and five women, said Khursheed Anwar, a spokesman for the Disaster Management Authority. Dozens more were also injured in the northwest, where 1,370 houses were damaged, Anwar said.
The eastern province of Punjab has reported 21 lighting- and collapse-related deaths, while Baluchistan, in the country’s southwest, reported 10 dead as authorities declared a state of emergency following flash floods. On Wednesday, Baluchistan was bracing for more rains amid ongoing rescue and relief operations.
Heavy rains also came down on the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.
Pakistan is seeing heavier rain in April due to climate change, said Zaheer Ahmed Babar, a senior official at the Pakistan Meteorological Department.
“So far there has been 256 percent above normal rainfall in Baluchistan,” Babar told The Associated Press. “Overall, there has been 61 percent above normal rainfall this month across Pakistan, and it shows climate change has already happened in our country.”
In 2022, downpours swelled rivers and at one point flooded a third of Pakistan, killing 1,739 people. The floods also caused $30 billion in damages, from which Pakistan is still trying to rebuild.
Neighboring Afghanistan also witnessed heavy rains this month. So far, 33 people have died in rain-related incidents there.


Just not cricket: Indian politicians bat for power

Updated 17 April 2024
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Just not cricket: Indian politicians bat for power

  • Modi’s BJP is intricately tied to the powerful Board of Control for Cricket in India 
  • Critics say Modi has sought to co-opt cricket as tool to bowl out political opponents

NEW DELHI: Cricket is more than just a game in India: critics accuse ruling-party politicians and the sport’s closely linked mega-rich board of exploiting its huge popularity for electoral advantage.

India begins voting in six-week-long general elections on Friday, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) widely expected to sweep to a third term in power.

Modi’s BJP is intricately tied to the powerful Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), with commentators saying the ruling party has sought to co-opt the sport as a tool to bowl out political opponents.

Veteran cricket journalist Sharda Ugra said the sport is “used as a vehicle for a muscular nationalism.”

“Control is exercised not just through its presence of senior officials connected to the ruling party, but through the use of Indian cricket to further their political messaging,” she told AFP.

Modi’s government is far from the first to use cricket for political gain in India, but his populist BJP has tightened those links further than any before, added Ugra.

BCCI chief Jay Shah is the son of home affairs minister Amit Shah, Modi’s right-hand man and himself a former president of the Gujarat state cricket board.

Arun Dhumal, chairman of the money-spinning Indian Premier League, is the brother of sports minister Anurag Thakur, who is also an ex-BCCI head.

“The current BCCI is the first Indian cricketing administration which is under the control of a single political party, and not a general clutch of politicians,” said Ugra.

Gideon Haigh, cricket writer for The Australian newspaper, has called the BJP “shameless in its self-interest” for co-opting the sport.

“Cricket is just one of many institutions it has captured, although it is the one most meaningful to the most people,” Haigh told AFP. 

The BJP won state elections in Rajasthan in December, and last month a minister’s son took charge of the cricket board.

In New Delhi, the capital’s stadium was renamed in 2019 after a BJP stalwart, the late finance minister Arun Jaitley, whose son Rohan Jaitley heads the state cricket board.

For the previous 137 years, it had been called the Feroz Shah Kotla stadium, after a 14th-century Muslim sultan.

And when India hosted the ODI World Cup last year, Modi attended the final at the world’s biggest cricket stadium — which is named after him — in Ahmedabad.

A home victory would undoubtedly have further boosted national pride ahead of the election, but India lost in the decider.

Modi went into the dressing room, accompanied by a camera crew, to embrace the Indian team. “It happens,” he told them. “Keep smiling, the country is looking up to you.”

India’s delays or denials of visas for the tournament for players and fans from arch-rival Pakistan had raised some concerns.

Other players with Pakistani heritage — including Australia’s Usman Khawaja and England’s Shoaib Bashir — have also faced visa challenges during India tours.

The BCCI did not respond to a series of questions submitted by AFP.

Cricket is a lucrative business in the world’s most populous nation, home to 1.4 billion people.

By some counts, Indian cricket on average generates more revenue than Bollywood.

The IPL is the world’s richest cricket league and has added to the BCCI’s wealth, with the board selling the 2023-27 T20 tournament’s broadcast and digital rights for $6.2 billion.

Commentators say the BCCI’s wealth and reach enables it to pull strings at cricket’s world governing body, the International Cricket Council (ICC).

More than 90 percent of the sport’s billion-plus worldwide fans are in the Indian subcontinent, according to a 2018 ICC study.

In other countries, the ICC has been swift to suspend boards over political interference, including in Zimbabwe in 2019 and Sri Lanka last year.

ICC rules say cricket boards must manage their affairs “autonomously” and “ensure that there is no government (or other public or quasi-public body) interference in its governance.”

The ICC declined to comment on India’s role.

Modi opened his eponymous 132,000-seater ground in Ahmedabad in 2020 in a mega-rally for then-US president Donald Trump.

Haigh covered the 2023 India-Australia series and recalled how Modi toured the venue in a golf cart alongside his Australian counterpart Anthony Albanese when it hosted the fourth Test.

BJP members, government officials and school children were bussed in for the event, cheering as Modi lapped the venue.

The stadium rapidly emptied after the leaders left, even as play began.

“That the ICC — which purports to deplore political interference in cricket — studiously looked the other way, tells you all you need to know about its capture by the BCCI,” Haigh said.


Retired general’s testimony links private contractor to Abu Ghraib abuses

Updated 17 April 2024
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Retired general’s testimony links private contractor to Abu Ghraib abuses

  • Taguba’s testimony was the strongest evidence yet that civilian employees of the Virginia-based military contractor CACI played a role in the abuse of Abu Ghraib inmates

ALEXANDRIA, Virginia: An Army general who investigated the abuse of prisoners 20 years ago at Iraq’s infamous Abu Ghraib prison testified Tuesday that a civilian contractor instructed prison guards to “soften up” detainees for interrogations.
The retired general, Antonio Taguba, told jurors that the contractor, Steven Stefanowicz, even tried to intimidate the general as he investigated the Abu Ghraib abuses.
“He would lean on the table staring me down. He did not answer questions directly,” Taguba said. “He was trying to intimidate me.”
Taguba’s testimony was the strongest evidence yet that civilian employees of the Virginia-based military contractor CACI played a role in the abuse of Abu Ghraib inmates.
Three former inmates at the prison are suing CACI in federal court in Alexandria, alleging that the company contributed to the tortuous treatment they suffered. The trial, delayed by more than 15 years of legal wrangling, is the first time that Abu Ghraib inmates have been able to bring a civil case in front of a US jury.
The lawsuit alleges that CACI is liable for the three plaintiffs’ mistreatment because the company provided civilian interrogators to the Army who were assigned to Abu Ghraib and conspired with the military police who were serving as prison guards to torture the inmates.
In a report Taguba completed in 2004, he recommended that Stefanowicz be fired, reprimanded and lose his security clearance for “allowing and/or instructing” military police to engage in illegal and abusive tactics.
“He clearly knew his instructions equated to physical abuse,” Taguba’s report concluded.
In testimony Tuesday, Taguba said he personally questioned Stefanowicz for about an hour as part of his investigation.
“He was a very coy type of personality,” Taguba said of Stefanowicz, often referred to as “Big Steve” by Abu Ghraib personnel.
Taguba said his investigation was focused on military police, and his probe of civilian interrogators’ role was limited. But he felt obligated to delve into it, he said, because he received credible testimony from the military police that the civilians were playing an important role in what occurred.
The MPs told Taguba that they weren’t getting clear instructions from within their own military chain of command, and that Stefanowicz and other civilian personnel ended up filling the void. Taguba said the military chain of command was unclear, and that various commanders were not cooperating with each other, all of which contributed to a chaotic atmosphere at the prison.
Taguba said he was several weeks into his investigation before he even understood that civilians were carrying out interrogations at Abu Ghraib. He said he and his staff heard multiple references to CACI but initially misunderstood them, believing that people were saying “khaki” instead.
On cross-examination, Taguba acknowledged the limits of his investigation. A second report, completed by Maj. Gen. George Fay, looked more directly at the role of military intelligence and civilian contractors at Abu Ghraib.
Taguba also acknowledged that his report contained several errors, including misidentifying a CACI employee as an employee of another contractor, and another civilian contractor as a CACI employee.
CACI’s lawyers emphasized that Stefanowicz was never assigned to interrogate any of the three plaintiffs in the case.
As Taguba testified about Stefanowicz, a lawyer asked him if he was indeed intimidated by the CACI contractor.
“Not on your life,” Taguba responded.
The jury also heard Tuesday from one of the three plaintiffs in the case, Asa’ad Hamza Zuba’e, who testified remotely from Iraq through an Arabic interpreter. Zuba’e said he was kept naked, threatened with dogs, and forced to masturbate in front of prison guards.
CACI’s lawyers questioned his claims. Among other things, they questioned how he could have been threatened with dogs when government reports showed dogs had not yet been sent to Iraq at the time he said it happened.