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TEHRAN: In this file photo taken on November 17, 2019 an Iranian man checks a scorched gas station that was set ablaze by protesters during a demonstration against a rise in gasoline prices in Eslamshahr, near the Iranian capital of Tehran. – AFP

PARIS: One year after protests that were harshly suppressed by the Iranian authorities, grief over the hundreds of mainly young lives lost is matched by anger over the lack of accountability for a crackdown whose-scale is only now beginning to emerge. The protests, of a magnitude rarely seen in Iran following the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the biggest since 2009 rallies over a disputed election, erupted nationwide in November 2019 after a sudden hike in fuel prices.

Activists say the authorities managed to impose control only after a ruthless crackdown that, according to Amnesty International, left at least 304 people dead in a deliberate policy to shoot at demonstrators. The harshness of the crackdown and size of the toll were concealed by an internet shutdown that activists denounced as a bid to prevent information from filtering out.


Meanwhile, not a single official in Iran has faced justice over the repression, amid allegations that families who lost loved ones have been pressured into keeping silent. Those arrested during the protests, however, have faced sentences including the death penalty. “Iranian authorities have avoided any measure of accountability and continue to harass the families of those killed during the protest,” said Tara Sepehri Far, Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch.

‘Unlawful and excessive force’
According to a report published by Amnesty this week, Iran implemented “a near-total internet blackout” from November 16, the day after the protests began, by ordering internet service providers to shut down, with access restored only gradually from November 21. It said the shutdown prevented people from seeing shocking videos of the crackdown taken by Iranian citizens with their phones, in what the group describes as a “web of impunity.”

Even now the scale of the suppression is still unclear, and Amnesty warns the toll is likely to exceed its figure of 304 verified deaths. The group had posted online what it says are more than 100 verified videos taken in 31 cities in November 2019 revealing the “repeated use of firearms” against unarmed protesters and bystanders.


At least 23 of those killed were under the age of 18, Amnesty said, including teenagers like 15-year-old Mohammad Dastankhah, who was shot by security forces stationed on a roof while on his way home from school in Sadra, a city in the Shiraz region. Another innocent bystander to die, it said, was Azar Mirzapour, 49, a nurse and mother of four who according to Amnesty was shot dead in Karaj, outside Tehran, as she was about to arrive home from work.

“The Iranian security forces used unlawful and excessive force against unarmed protesters and bystanders,” said Raha Bahreini, Iran researcher for Amnesty International. “In most cases security forces used live ammunition aimed at the head or bodies, indicating they were implementing a shoot-to-kill policy,” she added.

‘Held accountable’
Activists say that rather than helping relatives of the victims seek justice, authorities have been prosecuting protesters, with Amnesty alleging that those arrested were subjected to torture, including water-boarding and sexual abuse. Death sentences imposed in June against three young men were halted only after a campaign to spare their lives both outside and inside Iran.

Manouchehr Bakhtiari, whose 27-year-old son Pouya was shot dead, was jailed after he criticized the authorities, according to Persian-language media based outside Iran. The refusal of Iran to prosecute any officials-and the lack of response to calls for a UN-led international inquiry-has prompted activists to set up their own “tribunal” to determine whether crimes were committed under international law.

The Aban Tribunal, named after the Iranian month when the events took place, is being set up by NGOs including the London-based Justice for Iran and the Oslo-based Iran Human Rights (IHR). Rights lawyers and other tribunal members will hear evidence from witnesses and victims from February 10-12, 2021, in The Hague, and judgments will be announced in April 2021.

The tribunal will send a “strong message to those responsible for the atrocities that they are being watched and one day will be held accountable for the crimes they’ve committed,” said Mahmood Amiri-Moghaddam, executive director of Iran Human Rights. – AFP


MAKKAH: Saudis and expats perform Fajr prayers at the Grand Mosque for the first time after easing months-long COVID-19 restrictions. – AFP

MAKKAH: Saudi Arabia opened yesterday Islam’s holiest site for prayers for the first time in seven months, and expanded the umrah pilgrimage to accommodate 15,000 worshippers as it relaxed coronavirus curbs. Mask-clad Saudi citizens and residents of the kingdom were allowed to pray inside the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Makkah, amid what authorities called extensive health precautions.

“Citizens and residents have performed salat Al-Fajr (dawn prayers) at the Grand Mosque today as (authorities) start implementing the second phase of the gradual resumption of umrah,” the official Saudi Press Agency reported.

Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia allowed up to 6,000 citizens and residents per day to perform the umrah – a Muslim pilgrimage that can be undertaken at any time – after it was suspended in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. Under the second stage that began yesterday, the number of umrah pilgrims was increased to 15,000 per day. A maximum of 40,000 people – including umrah pilgrims – will now be allowed to perform daily prayers at the mosque.

Under a third stage, set for Nov 1, visitors from abroad will be permitted. The limit on umrah pilgrims will then be raised to 20,000, with a total of 60,000 worshippers allowed. A raft of precautions have been adopted, according to state media. The revered Black Stone in the Kaaba – which is customary but not mandatory to touch during the pilgrimage – will be out of reach.

The Grand Mosque is to be sterilized before and after each group of worshippers. Thermal sensors have been installed to measure the body temperature of pilgrims, Makkah authorities said. The umrah usually attracts millions of Muslims from across the globe each year. Authorities said the umrah will be allowed to return to full capacity once the threat of the pandemic has abated.

Saudi Arabia hosted the annual hajj pilgrimage in late July, on the smallest scale in modern history. Only up to 10,000 Muslim residents of the country were allowed to take part, a far cry from the 2.5 million who participated last year. Saudi Arabia has recorded more than 342,000 cases of COVID-19 and 5,185 deaths since the pandemic began. – AFP

NAQOURA, Lebanon: Vehicles of the UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL are pictured near the border with Israel yesterday. – AFP

NAQOURA, Lebanon: Lebanon and Israel, still technically at war, held unprecedented talks under UN and US auspices yesterday to settle a maritime border dispute and clear the way for oil and gas exploration within “reasonable time”. In a joint statement afterwards, the United States and the United Nations said the talks had been “productive” and that the delegates had “reaffirmed their commitment to continue negotiations later this month”.

Following years of US shuttle diplomacy, Lebanon and Israel this month said they had agreed to begin UN-brokered negotiations, in what Washington hailed as a “historic” agreement. The talks, held at a UN peacekeeping force base in the Lebanese border town of Naqoura, lasted for around one hour and came weeks after Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates became the first Arab states to establish relations with Israel since Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994.


This has prompted suspicions that the flurry of US-sponsored diplomacy relating to Israel is meant to boost President Donald Trump in his re-election campaign. A second round of negotiations will be held on Oct 28. Yesterday’s talks marked a “first step in the thousand-mile march towards the demarcation” of the sea frontier, Brigadier General Bassam Yassin, head of Lebanon’s delegation, said according to an army statement. “We are looking to achieve a pace of negotiations that would allow us to conclude this dossier within reasonable time.”

The Naqoura talks, which focused exclusively on the disputed sea frontier, came at a sensitive time as Lebanon, battered by multiple crises, hopes to continue exploring for oil and gas in a part of the Mediterranean also claimed by Israel. US envoy David Schenker facilitated the opening session along with US ambassador to Algeria John Desrocher, who was the mediator. Security was tight, with roads in the area blocked by UN peacekeepers and Lebanese troops, and helicopters flying overhead.

Israel sent a six-member team, including the director general of its energy ministry, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s foreign policy adviser and the head of the army’s strategic division. Lebanon’s four-member delegation comprised two army officers, an official and a maritime border law expert. Israel and Lebanon have no diplomatic relations and yesterday’s talks were a rare official interaction.


Lebanon insists that the negotiations are purely technical and don’t involve any soft political normalization with Israel. Lebanon’s main Shiite parties Hezbollah and Amal issued a statement late Tuesday bemoaning the presence of civilians in the Lebanese negotiating team. “This harms Lebanon’s position and interests… and amounts to giving in to the Israeli logic that seeks some form of normalization,” they said.

Lebanon, mired in its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war, is looking to settle the maritime border dispute so it can press its offshore quest for oil and gas. In Feb 2018, Lebanon signed its first contract for drilling in two blocks in the Mediterranean with a consortium comprising energy giants Total, ENI and Novatek.

Exploration of one of the blocks is more controversial as part of it is located in an 860-sq-km area claimed by both Israel and Lebanon. A senior source at Israel’s energy ministry told AFP that the border dispute “can be concluded hopefully in a few months’ time”. “This is a limited effort to resolve a well-defined, limited problem,” he said. “We have no illusions. Our aim is not to create here some kind of normalization or peace process.”

Reactions to the talks have been mixed in Lebanon, still reeling from the huge Aug 4 explosion at Beirut port that killed more than 190 people. The pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar daily on Monday called the talks “a moment of unprecedented political weakness for Lebanon”, arguing that Israel is the real “beneficiary”. Hezbollah is both an armed group that has fought several wars against Israel and a major force in Lebanese politics.

On Thursday, its parliamentary bloc stressed that demarcating Lebanon’s disputed maritime border with Israel does not signify “reconciliation” or “normalization”. Following a 2006 war, regular talks between Israeli and Lebanese army officers were reestablished under the auspices of UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL. As well as the discussions on the maritime border facilitated by the US, a UNIFIL-brokered track is due to address outstanding land border disputes.

Political scientist Hilal Khashan of the American University of Beirut said these talks would be more complex as they would undoubtedly raise the issue of the formidable weapons stockpile held by Hezbollah, the only Lebanese group not to have disarmed after the civil war. “Hezbollah will not agree to give up its arsenal,” he said. – AFP

Over 8 million COVID-19 tests conducted in the UAE

Abu Dhabi, September 15, 2020— The UAE announced authorizing an emergency use of COVID-19 vaccine for health workers on the frontlines of the battle against the novel pandemic.

During the UAE’s COVID-19 media briefing, Abdulrahman bin Mohammed Al Owais, the UAE’s Minister of Health and Prevention, said making the vaccine available for frontliners was part of the country’s measures to protect health workers in close contact with COVID-19 patients and ensure their safety.

The UAE is currently conducting Phase III clinical trial of Covid-19 inactivated vaccine. Results from the final stages of the third phase confirmed that the vaccine is safe and effective, resulting in a strong generation of COVID-19 antibodies.

Al Owais stressed that the emergency use of the vaccine is fully aligned with the regulations and laws that allow a faster review of licensing procedures.

“The studies related to the safety of vaccination are conducted under the strict supervision of medical teams. Health authorities are following procedures to control the quality, safety and efficacy of the vaccine,” said Al Owais.

The vaccine was tested with the help of 31,000 volunteers from 125 nationalities. Volunteers have displayed minor side effects, expected as a result of any vaccine, including headaches, fatigue and slight pain in the injection area. The UAE health authorities confirmed that 1,000 volunteers with history of chronic illness haven’t experienced any complications after taking the vaccine.

The initial successful results of the vaccine mark the UAE’s positive steps in the vaccine development process.

The vaccine is provided optionally to health workers in direct contact with COVID-19 patients.

The UAE’s vaccine trials are part of the extensive measures that the UAE has taken to contribute to the global collective efforts to curb COVID-19 pandemic that has posed the greatest public health emergency in modern history.

So far, the UAE has conducted over 8 million tests and recorded no new fatalities in the last 48 hours.

The vaccine was evaluated based on approval qualification criteria for emergency use, in accordance with the declaration of the global health authorities surrounding an emergency, the availability of scientific evidence on the effectiveness of the product and the benefits outweighing the risks.

The emergency use takes into account the target groups, product characteristics, clinical and pre-clinical study data and population study.

Health authorities are working closely in collaboration with the vaccine developers to monitor the progress of the vaccine and follow necessary safety measures to control the quality, safety and efficacy of the vaccine.

Militants in Gaza launched rockets into Israel and Israeli aircraft hit targets in the Palestinian enclave in an explosive backdrop to the signing of pacts for formal ties between Israel and two Gulf Arab countries.

The Israeli military said it launched about 10 air strikes in Hamas-run Gaza early on Wednesday and that 15 rockets had been fired from the territory at Israeli communities near the border, where sirens sounded before dawn.

On Tuesday, a rocket from Gaza struck the coastal Israeli city of Ashdod, wounding two people, at the same time as Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed agreements at the White House to establish diplomatic relations.

“I’m not surprised that the Palestinian terrorists fired at Israel precisely during this historic ceremony,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said before his flight returning to Israel.

“They want to turn back the peace. In that, they will not succeed,” he told reporters. “We will strike at all those who raise a hand to harm us, and we will reach out to all those who extend the hand of peace to us.”

Palestinians, who seek an independent state in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, view the US-brokered deals as a betrayal of their cause.

No casualties were reported on either side of the Israel-Gaza frontier. The military said eight of the rockets launched on Wednesday were intercepted by its Iron Dome anti-missile system.

In a statement, the military said targets in Gaza included a weapons and explosives manufacturing factory and a compound used by Hamas for training and rocket experiments.

Without naming specific factions, Hamas said that in response to the air strikes, the “resistance” fired rocket salvoes at Israel.

KABUL: Afghanistan and Taliban peace talk negotiators will hold their first direct session in Doha, officials said, as the warring sides try to work out an agenda and schedule for how to negotiate a peace deal as the United States withdraws troops. A small group of negotiators from both sides had met in previous days to try to discuss how the substantive negotiations would take place.

“The contact group from both sides’ delegations continued the discussion on rules and procedures and prepared to present it to the general meeting between the two negotiating teams (taking place on Tuesday),” senior Afghan government negotiator Nader Nadery said. The Taliban’s political spokesman Muhammad Naeem told Reuters by phone the meeting would be “general” and there were no specific agreed issues on the agenda.


An Afghan presidential palace official said a top priority was getting the Taliban to agree on a ceasefire or significant reduction in violence. Violence has continued in the country even after the launch of historic peace talks at an opening ceremony in Doha on Saturday. Talks between the two sides were to begin shortly after a U.S.-Taliban agreement in February, but started only after months of delays, caused in part by continuing Taliban offensives in the war-torn country as well as disagreement over the release of prisoners.

U.S. President Donald Trump has made ending the war in Afghanistan a key election promise and the United States is set to withdraw all its troops by May 2021, subject to the Taliban meeting certain security guarantees. – Reuters


Wuhan, Ground Zero for the Covid-19 pandemic and the Chinese city hardest hit by the coronavirus, will reopen all its schools and kindergartens on Tuesday, local authorities said.

As many as 2,842 educational institutions across the city are set to open their doors to almost 1.4 million students when the autumn semester gets underway, the local government announced on Friday. Wuhan University reopened on Monday.

The city said it has drawn up emergency plans to switch back to online teaching should risk levels change. It advised students to wear masks to and from school and avoid public transportation if possible.

Schools have been ordered to stock up on disease control equipment and to carry out drills and training sessions to help prepare for new outbreaks. They must also restrict unnecessary mass gatherings, and submit daily reports to health authorities.

Foreign students and teachers who have not received notice from their school will not be allowed to return, it said.

The central Chinese city, where the Covid-19 epidemic is believed to have originated, was locked down for more than two months from late January. The city’s death toll of 3,869 accounts for more than 80 per cent of China’s total.

Wuhan has been steadily returning to normal since April, when the lockdown was lifted, and it has not reported any new local transmissions of the coronavirus since May 18.


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