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Archive for March, 2016

Azerbaijan frees rights activist after 2 years in prison

March 28, 2016

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) — A court in Azerbaijan has ordered the release of a human rights activist who spent the last two years in jail. Intigam Aliyev was convicted last year of economic crimes that critics have dismissed as retaliation for his work.

His lawyer, Fariz Namazly, said the Supreme Court of this former Soviet republic issued a ruling Monday converting Aliyev’s seven-year prison sentence into a five-year conditional one, meaning his immediate release.

The ruling comes amid a flurry of other court decisions that triggered the release of 16 activists and journalists this month who have spent years in prison. The Caspian Sea nation has come under criticism for a crackdown on human rights, with journalists and activists hit with charges they say are retaliation for their work exposing official abuses.

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Chile to countersue Bolivia at UN court over water dispute

March 28, 2016

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said Monday that her government is ready to countersue Bolivia over a water dispute at the International Court of Justice. Bolivian President Evo Morales said Saturday that his country would sue Chile in the Netherlands-based court seeking to force Chile to pay compensation for using the Silala river in a border region.

Bachelet said that Bolivia is claiming ownership over shared water resources and that the Silala flows into Chile by the simple law of gravity. She said Bolivia has recognized the Silala as an international river for more than 100 years.

Landlocked Bolivia asked the international court in 2013 to order Chile to negotiate over Bolivia’s claim for access to the Pacific. The case is being heard by the court, whose rulings are final and binding.

Argentina hails UN decision to expand its maritime territory

March 28, 2016

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Argentina’s government celebrated on Monday a decision by a U.N. commission expanding its maritime territory in the South Atlantic Ocean by 35 percent to include the disputed Falkland islands and beyond.

The Argentine foreign ministry said that its waters had increased by 0.66 million square miles (1.7 million square kilometers) and the decision will be key in its dispute with Britain over the Islands. Argentina lost a brief, bloody 1982 war with Britain after Argentine troops seized the South Atlantic archipelago that Latin Americans call the Malvinas.

The U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf sided with Argentina earlier this month, ratifying the country’s 2009 report fixing the limit of its territory at 200 to 350 miles from its coast.

“This is a historic occasion for Argentina because we’ve made a huge leap in the demarcation of the exterior limit of our continental shelf,” Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra said. “This reaffirms our sovereignty rights over the resources of our continental shelf.”

Oil exploration is already pumping millions of dollars into the Falkland Islands economy. Many islanders remain concerned about Argentina’s claim as well as the potential for problems from rapid change brought by the new industry.

The U.N. commission’s finding included the caveat that there is an unresolved diplomatic dispute between Argentina and Britain over the islands. The Falklands are internally self-governing, but Britain is responsible for its defense and foreign affairs. The British government says islanders cannot be forced to accept Argentine sovereignty against their will.

The Falkland Islands government said Monday that it is seeking clarification from the British government on “what, if any, decisions have been made, and what implications there may be” for the territory in relation to the U.N. ruling.

“As soon as we have any firm information we will make it available,” Mike Summers, chairman of the Legislative Assembly of the Falkland Islands, said in an e-mailed statement. “Our understanding has always been that the UN would not make any determination on applications for continental shelf extension in areas where there are competing claims.”

There was no immediate comment from Britain’s government.

Ally to power broker Suu Kyi sworn in as Myanmar’s president

March 30, 2016

NAYPYITAW, Myanmar (AP) — Htin Kyaw, a trusted friend of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, took over as Myanmar’s president Wednesday, calling it a “historic moment” in the country’s long-drawn transition to democracy after decades of military rule.

In a day full of ceremony and symbolism, Htin Kyaw was sworn in along with his two vice presidents and 18-member Cabinet that includes Suu Kyi in an austere hall of parliament with lawmakers dressed in traditional costume.

While a momentous day in the history of this impoverished Southeast Asian country, democracy still feels incomplete. The military retains considerable power in the government and parliament, and the president himself will play second fiddle to Suu Kyi, who has repeatedly said she will run the country from behind the scenes because the military has ensured — through a constitutional manipulation — that she cannot be the president.

Still the day belonged to Htin Kyaw — and Suu Kyi — who sat in the front row watching her confidant become head of a government she had long aspired to lead. “The Union Parliament has elected me as president, which is a historic moment for this country,” Htin Kyaw, 70, said in his speech after being sworn in. He pledged to work toward national reconciliation, peace between warring ethnic groups and improving the lives of the country’s 54 million people.

Rightfully, the job belonged to Suu Kyi, who led her National League for Democracy party to a landslide win in November elections, ushering in Myanmar’s first civilian government after 54 years of direct and indirect military rule.

Suu Kyi who has been the face of Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement endured decades of house arrest and harassment by military rulers without ever giving up on her non-violent campaign to unseat them. The constitutional clause that denied her the presidency excludes anyone from the position who has a foreign spouse or children. Suu Kyi’s two sons are British, as was her late husband. The clause is widely seen as having been written by the military with Suu Kyi in mind.

She has repeatedly made it clear that she will run the government from behind the scenes, and in his speech Htin Kyaw signaled the dominant role Suu Kyi will play in his government. “The new parliament and new government is formed in accord with the policies of the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi,” he said, and referred to the party’s goal to amend the constitution.

“I have the obligation to work toward achieving a constitution that has democratic norms and is suitable for the nation,” he said. “I want to tell the new government, we must constantly try to fulfill the hope and will of the people of this country. I wish all citizens of this country a successful and peaceful life.”

The constitution, drafted by the former junta, reserves 25 percent of the seats in parliament for military officers, guaranteeing that no government can amend the constitution without its approval. The military also heads the Home Ministry and the Defense Ministry, which gives it control over the corrections department, ensuring that the release of political prisoners is its decision to make.

The military also ensured that one of Htin Kyaw’s two vice presidents is a former general, Myint Swe, a close ally of former junta leader Than Shwe. Myint Swe remains on a U.S. Treasury Department blacklist that bars American companies from doing business with several tycoons and senior military figures connected with the former junta.

As Htin Syaw was sworn in, Suu Kyi sat in the front row watching. The same pledge was simultaneously read by First Vice President Myint Swe and Second Vice President Henry Van Tio. After a 20-minute tea break, all 18 members of Htin Kyaw’s Cabinet, including Suu Kyi took a joint oath of office read out by the speaker.

Although names of Cabinet ministers are known, their portfolios have not been formally announced. Suu Kyi is expected to hold four portfolios including foreign minister, education and energy minister and head the Ministry of the President’s Office.

Despite her inability to become president, Suu Kyi’s entry into the government is a remarkable turn of fortunes not only for the Nobel Peace Prize laureate but also for the country, which had been under iron-fisted military rule since 1962. For decades the junta kept Myanmar in isolation and economic stagnation while refusing to listen to international counsel or homegrown demands for democracy.

Suu Kyi came to prominence in 1988 when popular protests were building up. The junta crushed the protests that had turned into anti-government riots, killing thousands of people and placing Suu Kyi under house arrest in 1989.

The junta called elections in 1990 but refused to hand over power when Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won overwhelmingly. Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize a year later while under house arrest.

The junta finally started loosening its grip on power in 2010, allowing elections that were won by a military-allied party after the NLD boycotted the polls as unfair. A former general, Thein Sein, was installed as president for a five-year term that started March 30, 2011, and ended Wednesday.

Iraqi cleric meets with PM after beginning Green Zone sit-in

March 27, 2016

BAGHDAD (AP) — Influential Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi Sunday night after beginning a sit-in in Baghdad’s highly fortified Green Zone intended to be a show of force following his calls to combat government corruption.

Earlier in the day security forces stepped aside to allow al-Sadr to enter the Green Zone after weeks of protests in the Iraqi capital. Al-Sadr has repeatedly called on al-Abadi to enact sweeping economic and political reforms.

“I am a representative of the people and will enter the (Green Zone),” al-Sadr told hundreds of his supporters gathered outside the compound’s walls, asking his followers to stay outside and remain peaceful.

As al-Sadr walked through a checkpoint to enter the Green Zone, officials in charge of the compound’s security greeted the cleric with kisses and provided him with a chair. Al-Sadr was accompanied by his personal security detail and the leader of his Shiite militia, Sarayat al-Salam. After he began his sit-in, al-Sadr’s supporters started erecting tents and laying down mattresses.

In February, al-Sadr demanded Iraqi politicians be replaced with more technocrats and that the country’s powerful Shiite militias be incorporated into the defense and interior ministries. After weeks of growing protests in the Iraqi capital, al-Sadr repeatedly threatened to storm the compound if his demands for government overhaul were not met. Baghdad’s Green Zone, encircled by blast walls and razor wire, is closed to most Iraqis and houses the country’s political elite as well as most of the city’s foreign embassies. Al-Sadr has called it a “bastion” of corruption.

Most Iraqis blame the country’s politicians for the graft and mismanagement that are draining Iraq’s already scarce resources. Unlike the widespread, largely civic protests last summer, however, al-Sadr’s demonstrations are attended almost exclusively by his supporters, who have made few concrete policy demands.

Earlier this month, Iraqi security forces manning checkpoints in Baghdad again stepped aside to allow al-Sadr’s supporters to march up to the Green Zone’s outer walls to begin a sit-in, despite a government order deeming the gathering “unauthorized.” The move called into question Prime Minister al-Abadi’s ability to control security in the capital.

“I thank the security forces,” al-Sadr said before beginning his sit-in. “He who attacks them, attacks me,” he added. While al-Abadi proposed a reform package last August, few of his plans have been implemented as the leader has made several political missteps and struggled with the country’s increasingly sectarian politics amid the ongoing fight against the Islamic State group. Shiites dominate the central government, while the country’s Kurds in the north exercise increasing autonomy and much of the Sunni population has either been displaced by violence or continues to live under IS rule.

For 3rd day, Sadrists rally near Baghdad’s Green Zone

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Supporters of Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr on Sunday continued to demonstrate outside the gates of Baghdad’s heavily-fortified Green Zone – for the third day in a row – to demand that the government carry out a raft of promised reforms.

“We will continue our sit-ins outside the Green Zone in response to al-Sadr’s call,” Ayoub Ismail, a protester, told Anadolu Agency.

On Friday and Saturday, thousands of al-Sadr supporters staged protests and sit-ins outside the gates of Baghdad’s Green Zone, which houses the prime minister’s office, Iraq’s parliament and a number of foreign diplomatic missions.

Al-Sadr wants Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to reshuffle his cabinet and form a government of technocrats untainted by corruption or sectarianism – both of which, critics say, have hamstrung Iraq’s previous post-invasion governments.

According to Ismail, demonstrators are abiding by the law and cooperating with Iraqi security forces.

“We are here to demand the formation of a technocratic government, the prosecution of corrupt officials and the return of funds pilfered from the state,” he said.

Last month, al-Sadr gave al-Abadi a 45-day deadline to present a list of nominees for the sought-for technocrat government.

The Shia leader went on to warn that his followers would storm the Green Zone if the demands were not met.

On Saturday, Iraqi President Fuad Masum held a meeting with political party leaders in hopes of negotiating an end to the ongoing demonstrations.

Al-Sadr, however, refused to attend the meeting.

Last summer, Iraq’s parliament approved a sweeping raft of reforms proposed by PM al-Abadi. The reforms are intended to meet longstanding popular demands to eliminate widespread government corruption and streamline state bureaucracy.

Al-Sadr’s Ahrar bloc in parliament holds 34 seats in the 328-seat assembly and three ministerial portfolios in Iraq’s current government.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/24585-for-3rd-day-sadrists-rally-near-baghdads-green-zone.

A look at Palmyra, the historic Syrian town retaken from IS

March 27, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — A look at Palmyra, the archaeological gem that Syrian troops took back from Islamic State fighters.

LOCATION

A desert oasis surrounded by palm trees in central Syria, Palmyra is also a strategic crossroads linking the Syrian capital, Damascus, with the country’s east and neighboring Iraq. Home to 65,000 people before the latest fighting, the town is located 155 miles (215 kilometers) east of Damascus.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE

A UNESCO world heritage site, Palmyra boasts 2,000-year-old towering Roman-era colonnades and priceless artifacts. Syrians affectionately refer to it as the “Bride of the Desert.”

Palmyra was the capital of an Arab client state of the Roman Empire that briefly rebelled and carved out its own kingdom in the 3rd Century, led by Queen Zenobia. Before the war, it was Syria’s top tourist attraction, drawing tens of thousands of visitors each year.

Palmyra was first mentioned in the archives of Mari in the 2nd millennium B.C., according to UNICEF’s website. The town was the hub of a network of caravan trails that carried silks and spices from eastern Asia to the Mediterranean.

Palmyra became a prosperous region during the Hellenistic period and later became part of the Roman Empire. But its rebellious Queen Zenobia challenged Rome’s authority. The city was plundered in A.D. 272 after she was captured during a long siege.

In more recent times, Palmyra has had darker associations for Syrians. It was home to the Tadmur prison, a notorious facility where thousands of opponents of President Bashar Assad’s government were reportedly tortured. IS demolished the prison after capturing the town.

DESTRUCTION

Last year, IS destroyed the Temple of Bel, which dated back to A.D. 32, and the Temple of Baalshamin, a structure of stone blocks several stories high fronted by six towering columns. The militants also blew up the Arch of Triumph, which had been built under the Roman emperor Septimius Severus between A.D. 193 and A.D. 211.

The extremists have destroyed ancient sites across their self-styled Islamic caliphate in Syria and Iraq, viewing them as monuments to idolatry. In August, IS militants beheaded Khaled al-Asaad, an 81-year-old antiquities scholar who had devoted his life to studying Palmyra. His body was later hung from a Roman column.

A video circulated online purportedly showed IS fighters shooting dead some 25 captured Syrian soldiers in a Palmyra amphitheater. The killings are believed to have taken place in May, shortly after the extremists captured the town. Another video showed militants killing three captives by tying them to Roman columns and blowing them up.

It’s not yet clear whether the ruins were damaged when Syrian forces retook the town. The Antiquities Ministry said ahead of the town’s fall that the remaining ruins are in good condition. It has vowed to restore the site.

STRATEGIC IMPORTANCE

The loss of Palmyra marks a major setback for IS, which has been losing ground for months in both Iraq and Syria. The capture of the town brings Syrian forces closer to Raqqa, the IS group’s de facto capital, and the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, which is almost entirely held by the extremists.

Despite its battlefield losses, IS retains the ability to carry out large attacks in the Middle East and further afield, such as the bombings in Brussels last week, which killed 31 people.

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