Staff Writer

Protests continue in Belarus over ‘rigged’ elections
Europe

Protests continue in Belarus over ‘rigged’ elections

Even as the key opposition candidate disappeared into the neighbouring country, detractors of long-time president continued to protest the biased election results.

It was widely anticipated that Alexander Lukashenka, President of Belarus from 1994, would be declared the winner of Sunday’s elections. Not because he is popular. Quite the contrary, public sentiment is largely against him with increasing support for political novice Svetlana Tikhanovskaya who has promised free and fair elections if she is elected. Because that is certainly not an option under Lukashenka who is often referred to as Europe’s last dictator.

Even before results were declared, protests have been breaking out across the country calling for transparent elections and easing up of the crackdown on opposition leaders. But the authorities have been unrelenting. On Monday, it was announced that Lukashenka won more than 80% of the votes triggering condemnation and accusations of election rigging. Tikhanovskaya, who reportedly got only 10% of the votes, said she would contest the results and went to the Central Election Commission to lodge a complaint. Here is where things get murky.

She was reportedly held there for over seven hours and no one heard from her after she was released. Today, Belarusian foreign minister said that she has crossed over the border to Lithuanian and is “safe” and was “resting”. Tikhanovskaya herself released a video, looking forlorn, saying she had to take the “very difficult decision” of leaving the country for the sake of her children. Soon another video of her emerged, this on taken a day earlier during her detention in Belarus, asking the public to accept Lukashenka’s “victory” and stop protesting.  But clashes between protestors and police continued on for a second night. Confrontations were reported from all across the country and police detained over 3,000 people, nearly a third of them in the capital city of Minsk. Rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas were used on demonstrators. There were videos of police vans ramming into crowds and mowing down people as well. Protestors fought back with stones and fireworks from behind barricades built out of metal barriers, wooden crates and other objects. One man died after an explosive divide went off in his hand, making him the first casualty of the protests.

Long time president in Belarus faces election of a lifetime
Europe

Long time president in Belarus faces election of a lifetime

The president has been in power since 1994 but he is being challenged by an unlikely candidate in the upcoming elections.

Dubbed “Europe’s last dictator”, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko is hoping to return to office for the sixth time in the elections due on August 9. It should have been a routine affair – after all elections in Belarus have been famously unfair and a crackdown on opposition has preceded voting over the years. But for the first time since the 26 years he has been in power, Lukashenko’s chances are looking shaky. The reason is a 37-year-old stay-at-home mother of two and political novice who is now running against him.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is the wife of opposition candidate and prominent blogger Sergei Tikhanovskaya, who was arrested recently on the charges of using Russian fighters to create unrest in the country. The campaign manager of another opposition candidate and the wife of a third have also thrown their weight behind Tikhanovskaya’s candidature, which has been seeing a lot of popular support over the past few days.

Her rallies are drawing tens of thousands of people, especially young people, who are increasingly disillusioned with their current leader for the economic stagnation, authoritarian rules and his handling of the coronavirus crisis. If elected she has promised the release of political prisoners and free and fair elections within six months. There are three other candidates in the race, largely considered token opposition to Lukashenko.  

There were several complaints of voting irregularities in the last elections in 2015 and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights observed that there was no accountability in the overall process. This time, the international organisation has been invited too late to observe the process. In the last weeks, the authorities have also been exerting more and more pressure on the Tikhanovskaya’s campaign and not allowing her to conduct her rallies freely.

The first round of elections is on August 9 and a second round will be held in two weeks unless a candidate manages to get 50 per cent of the vote. Considering that he has less than usual popular support, there is an expectation that Lukashenko would not allow the voting to reach stage two. Unwilling to risk his office, he will probably declare himself the winner in the first round. But more Belarusians than ever have been actively participating in the campaigns and many have been detained for protesting against rigged elections and arrest of opposition. With so many people more aware than ever of the electoral process and invested in the outcome, it might be more difficult than usual to rig the results. 

Sanctions against autocratic EU governments on the cards
Europe

Sanctions against autocratic EU governments on the cards

Access to EU recovery funds should be subject to adherence to democratic principles, according to France.

In the face of corruption allegations and curtailing of human rights and press freedom in some Eastern European countries, France has said that access to the European Union’s coronavirus recovery fund will be subject to conditions.

France’s minister for European affairs Clement Beaune made these comments in an interview with Financial Times, saying European citizens can’t have financial solidarity without making sure all of them also had basic rules of democracy. Any breach should be dealt with firmly with sanctions that entail both legal and financial consequences, he said.

EU member states agreed on a 750-billion-euro recovery fund, along with a seven-year 1.1 trillion-euro budget, over a marathon five-day summit in July. The massive stimulus package is a combination of grants and loans that will not only support the recovery of the pandemic-stricken economies but also invest in a green future.

In recent years, Western European countries have been struggling to respond to the authoritarianism creeping in on their Eastern flank. In Poland and Hungary, human rights and press freedoms are under threat while there have been corruption allegations at the highest levels in the Czech Republic. These countries have been opposing rule-of-law conditions on the recovery plan, in an effort to maintain the status quo within their borders while benefitting from the EU’s safety net.

They had a victory last month when the agreement on the recovery fund was finalised without provisions for stricter measures on those who are in breach of democratic values. While sanctions were suggested, the language was vague and not strong enough to ensure meaningful action. There are still efforts to iron out a deal by the end of the year that will take into account these increasing threats to freedoms in the East.

In both Hungary and Poland, there has been more and more attack on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI) communities. In Poland, towns are declaring themselves LGBTI- “free” and the clampdown on media freedoms has made it difficult to call out this trend. In Hungary, independent media outlets are being bought out by cronies of the ruling parties and journalists have been resigning in protest.

There has been some symbolic resistance to these activities from the EU like recently when the European Commission rejected grants from anti-gay Polish cities under a twinning programme. But there is a general agreement that there need to be stricter measures to stem this tide.

Eid at the time of COVID-19
Middle East & Africa

Eid at the time of COVID-19

The pandemic is set to cast a heavy shadow on the holy festival of Eid al-Adha, usually celebrated with great enthusiasm the world over.

Eid al-Adha, or the Festival of Sacrifice, is the holiest festival celebrated by Muslims across the world. But this year it is set to look very different, with the coronavirus pandemic that has affected millions of people, devastated economies and shrunk the personal finances of people world over.

In better days, Muslims would come together with their friends and relatives to sacrifice an animal, usually sheep, goat or camels, denoting Abraham’s sacrifice of his son. The meat is shared among friends, family and neighbours and also donated to those in need. But this time governments have advised their citizens to not visit relatives and only spend time with their immediate family.

The lockdown restrictions have also left many unable to travel to be with their families. Many mosques will be shut or prayer times will be staggered so as to ensure crowd control. In some countries, people can oversee their sacrifices at the slaughterhouse and opt for home delivery of meat, so that they needn’t leave their homes at all.

But for many, this might not be an option. The pandemic has hit personal finances very hard. Cattle herders speak of slow business activity in the lead up to the festival. With imports hit, it has become expensive to feed the animals as well, leading to an increase in cost.

Barely anyone comes to pick out animals for slaughter, and even if they do, it is alone, and not as before, when they’d come with their whole family and make an occasion out of it. Some dealers are accepting payment in installments to encourage more people to buy livestock but some people still find it unaffordable.

This is casting a gloom over festivities, as the sacrifice is the most important ritual, which precedes the feast, and without it, Eid is not the same for people.

Hajj 2020 began on July 28 and it will go on till August 2. Due to COVID-19, social distancing protocols were followed by pilgrims in Mecca Madina.

Turkey no longer a safe haven for Uighurs
Middle East & Africa

Turkey no longer a safe haven for Uighurs

Multiple accounts from Uighur refugees living in Turkey suggest that the government is arresting and even deporting them on the behest of China.

Turkey, the last of the Islamic countries to have openly criticised China for its treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, seems to be succumbing to economic threats from the Asian giant. Since last year, reports have been emerging of Uighurs critical of the Chinese regime being harassed, arrested and even deported by the Turkish government.

Until recently, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been vocal in his criticism against the imprisonment of millions of Uighurs by China. Under the charge of being extremists and separatists, they are sent to “re-education camps” where they are subjected to mental and physical torture.

Erdogan’s government had offered to shelter Uighur refugees and many have taken him up on this. Turkey is currently home to nearly 35,000 Uighurs, including many who have escaped these concentration camps in Xinjiang. Even before this, Uighurs have been settling in Turkey, drawn there by similarities in their customs and language.

But their safety now stands threatened, because an economically struggling Turkey is apprehensive about losing Chinese investments. This capitulation to Chinese interests in clear. Erdogan recently said that people of all ethnicities in Xinjiang are “leading a happy life amid China’s development and prosperity”. Last Octobers, it didn’t put its name down on a statement issued by 23 countries asking China to end violations against Uighur Muslims.

Since January 2019, nearly 200 Uighurs have been arrested by Turkish authorities and held in immigration detentions centres, according to Uighur activists in Turkey. Some of them are released months later with a warning to not talk against the Chinese regime. Others are disappeared. It has now emerged that Turkey is sending Uighur refugees back to China through third countries like Tajikistan. These dissidents face imprisonment and persecution upon their return home. This is an indication of how Turkey is increasingly willing to placate China, in order to not lose out on Chinese money, which it desperately needs to shore up its economy. Pro-China lobby is the country has been attempting to convince officials that claims of oppression of Uighurs are an exaggeration.

Japan continues to experience a surge in Covid-19 cases as Tokyo reports a record high this week
Asia Pacific Focus

Japan continues to experience a surge in Covid-19 cases as Tokyo reports a record high this week

Tokyo experiencing a rise in COVID-19 cases this weekend, with record-high 366 infected in the city, and the total number of affirmed cases has now exceeded 10,600, The Japan Times reports.

It’s the fourth consecutive day that the figure has exceeded 200, and the sixteenth successive day that the cases have surged to a triple-digit. 

At the end of March, the city had reached more than 40 cases for straight three days. After a few days, a state of emergency was announced, and a nationwide voluntary moratorium for almost two months.

The daily rise in covid-19 changed the record number cases in the nation and also in the capital this week. Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike has requested citizens to remain indoors and avoid unnecessary travel due to the pandemic surge.

The economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura recommended he would urge experts to reveal the names of nightlife establishments that have not adhered to the protocol to contain the spread of the pandemic. 

PM Shinzō Abe stated that the continuing spike in cases as Japan monitors the pandemic. Abe once again requests citizens to take preventive measures to help prevent the spread of the infection throughout the 4-day holiday. 

Article CreditJapan Times/ Kyodo News

Rohingya in Malaysia saved from caning
Asia Pacific Focus

Rohingya in Malaysia saved from caning

A High Court in Malaysia overturned a lower court judgement to cane 27 Rohingya refugees for arriving without valid permits.

After outrage from human rights organisations, the Alor Setar High Court in Kedah state overturned a decision by a magistrate court in Langkawi which had ordered the caning of 27 Rohingya who had arrived into the country by boat without proper permits. Setting aside the earlier judgement, the court said that it would be inhumane to impose a sentence of caning on those who weren’t habitual offenders or hadn’t committed any acts of violence and that it would only add to their suffering as refugees.

Muslim-majority Malaysia has long been a favoured destination for the Rohingya who are fleeing religious prosecution in their home state of Rakhine in Myanmar. Langkawi is a strategic landing point for the Muslim refugees who are fleeing from either Myanmar or, more recently, from refugee camps in Bangladesh.

The 27 Rohingya were among the 40 who were arrested and convicted last June. All of them were also sentenced to seven months in jail including the six teenagers among them. Collin Andrew, a lawyer representing the refugees, said the refugees were ordered to be released to the United Nations refugee agency.

Recently the courts also dismissed a case of illegal immigration against 50 Rohingya minors and human rights lawyers are trying to seek a review of the case against six Rohingya teenagers, including two girls, who were tried and convicted as adults.

Malaysia, that is not a signatory to the UN convention on refugees, doesn’t recognise their refugee status and has been turning away boats and detaining hundreds of Rohingya. Under its immigration act, those who enter illegally are fined heavily, jailed and given six strokes of the cane. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were some of the groups that had urged Malaysia to withdraw the sentence and accord them the protection they deserve as refugees. There are already some 177,940 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the UNHRC in Malaysia and 101,320 of them are Rohingya. Malaysia has been saying that it can’t take in any more of them because its economy has been struggling due to the pandemic.

UK didn’t do enough to ascertain Russian interference in Brexit referendum
Geopolitics

UK didn’t do enough to ascertain Russian interference in Brexit referendum

The long-delayed parliamentary committee report, which examined the possibility of Russian influence in British politics, said the government didn’t care enough to pursue this line of investigation.

The Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee released a 50-page report that stands as a scathing indictment of the government’s apathy in figuring out the extent of Russian interference, if any, in the 2016 Brexit referendum. The committee, which oversees intelligence agencies in the UK, was looking into evidence of the use of disinformation, malicious cyber activity like hacking and influence of wealthy Russian expatriates in the UK on the outcome of the crucial vote.

The report had been shelved for a year and was made public recently, revealing a damning assessment of the UK government’s efforts to pursue this course of investigation despite there being enough reason to do so. The plea that there isn’t any evidence doesn’t hold ground because no one looked for any in the first place, the report said.

While Russia has long been interfering in East Europe through indigenous methods like hacking and disinformation, its first know attempt to tamper with a Western democracy was the Scottish referendum in 2014. Knowing this, the government must have taken proactive steps to assess what threats they posed to the Brexit referendum, the report said, and perhaps could have done something more to “protect the process”.

It was only in 2016, with the revelation that Russia was hacking and leaking internal emails of the Democrats that the UK woke up to the possibility of Russian meddling in its own affairs. But by then it was already one month into the vote and it was too late. No intelligence assessments were forthcoming from agencies like the MI5, which most likely left the responsibility of following up with possible threats to the Election Commission. The report says the initial communication from MI5 about Russian disinformation efforts was just six lines of text.

The report also argued that wealthy Russian in London, who are often deeply intertwined with intelligence services back home, have long been mixing with those in the highest corridors of power in the UK. It argued that their influence on British politics can’t be underestimated. The conservative government has stood by the claim that there is no evidence to support this theory and it didn’t look was Russian interference because that was part of the normal duties of the British intelligence. Russia has come out strongly against the report saying it was simply “Russophobia” and the charges were unfounded.

European Council conclusions, “We did it. Europe is strong. Europe is united”
Europe

European Council conclusions, “We did it. Europe is strong. Europe is united”

“We did it. Europe is strong. Europe is united”, European Council President Charles Michel said commenting the conclusions of the special meeting of 27 heads of State and Government. “We have reached a deal on the recovery package and the European budget”. Michel added, highlighting that these were, of course, difficult negotiations in very difficult times for all Europeans. A marathon which ended in success for all 27 member states, but especially for the people. “This is a good deal. This is a strong deal. And most importantly, this is the right deal for Europe, right now”. He stressed.

On 21 July 2020, the European Council adopted conclusions on the recovery plan and multi annual financial framework for 2021-2027.The exceptional nature of the economic and social situation due to the COVID-19 crisis requires exceptional measures to support the recovery and resilience of the economies of the Member States.The plan for European recovery will need massive public and private investment at European level to set the Union firmly on the path to a sustainable and resilient recovery, creating jobs and repairing the immediate damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic whilst supporting the Union’s green and digital priorities. The MFF, reinforced by NGEU, will be the main European tool.In order to provide the Union with the necessary means to address the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Commission will be authorised to borrow funds on behalf of the Union on the capital markets. The proceeds will be transferred to Union programmes.

“We negotiated about money. But, of course, it is about a lot more than money. It is about workers and families, their jobs, their health and their well-being. I believe this agreement will be seen as a pivotal moment in Europe’s journey, but it will also launch us into the future. In fact, it is the first time, the first time in European history that our budget will be clearly linked to our climate objectives. The first time, the first time that the respect for rule of law is a decisive criterion for budget spending. And the first time, the first time that you are jointly re-enforcing our economies against a crisis”. Michel stated.

The EU decided to support a budget for the next seven years with 1,074 billion euros, to mobilize 750 billion euros to support an economic recovery capacity. Michel explained that the 27 have taken guidelines in terms of own resources which represent an impetus for the future of the European project by identifying the themes for which they are going to work, with precise timetables. “We considered that the rule of law, governance, our common values ​​should be there. They were also involved in the decisions we take today”. The president affirmed, adding: “As you can see, we have demonstrated that the magic of the European project works, because when we think it is impossible, there is resilience thanks to respect, thanks to cooperation, also thanks to the will to work together, to overcome difficulties together, thanks to mutual respect, there is this capacity to face by being united, together.”

This is the magic of the European project. Beyond differences, beyond sensitivities, beyond opinions. Yesterday the special European Council showed this.“It is a signal that we send in Europe to Europeans, that we also send to the rest of the world: that this European Union is a union of values, this union, which brings together 450 million citizens, it has the ability, when the moment demands it, to respond forcefully, with robustness”.As of 21 July 2020, 1,634,446 cases have been reported in the EU and 180,702 deaths according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

Australia’s PM Scott Morrison going to launch an investigation on TikTok
Asia Pacific Focus

Australia’s PM Scott Morrison going to launch an investigation on TikTok

As per a report in South China Morning Post, Australia will launch an investigation on TikTok and WeChat applications built by China over security issues. There is a possibility that the Chinese government might have access to the confidential users’ data, due to which many Australian administrators have communicated their concerns about privacy issues.

After India banning TikTok alongside over 50 other Chinese applications, Australia and the United States are investigating and possibly also going to ban the popular Chinese app, Tiktok.

Australia’s PM Scott Morrison on Friday stated that the Australian government was observing TikTok “intently” and “won’t hesitate” about making a move against the video-sharing application if it is required. 

In response, TikTok has written to Australian MPs demanding to be “trapped in the center” of rising strains among nations, and saying the app is being utilized for political propaganda. The letter states that the blames on Tiktok, and their connections to the Chinese government are false.

Prior, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also expressed that there is a possibility to ban TikTok as it’s the question about the protection of the data of citizens of America. He explained that his remarks on TikTok were about assessing the danger regarding the Chinese Communist Party. 

As indicated by The Guardian, the security and privacy information collected and utilized by TikTok is known, the application is presently confronting new tensions from governments around the globe about their associations with the Chinese government and sharing users’ data. 

According to reports, TikTok gathers information through challenges, competitions, conducting surveys to get extra data about users to customize and advertise content. Probably, it also gathers a wide range of technical data from the user’s mobile, The Guardian announced.

The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age say that the Morrison administration is probably going to set up an investigation into social media organizations, which would be informed after advice from security offices. 

Government sources announced the inquiry, which won’t be a proper public probe. It will possibly take a gander at the security threats presented by social media platforms, for example, TikTok, and also apps utilized especially by the Chinese diaspora, for example, Weibo and WeChat.

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