Categorie
Analysis

BANGLADESH/ROHINGYA – Rights groups urge Bangladesh to halt Rohingya relocation (Al Jazeera)

Human rights groups urged Bangladesh on Thursday to stop its plan to ship thousands of Rohingya refugees to a remote island as officials said the first group of 400 could leave later in on Thursday.

Police escorted the refugees in 10 buses from Ukhiya in Cox’s Bazar for the journey to Chittagong port and then on to Bhasan Char – a flood-prone Bay of Bengal island that emerged from the sea 20 years ago.

“Bangladesh should halt this hasty relocation process,” said Ismail Wolff, regional director of Fortify Rights. “Not one refugee should be moved until all human rights and humanitarian concerns have been resolved and genuine informed consent is assured.”

Bangladesh says transporting refugees to Bhasan Char – a Bay of Bengal island hours from the mainland by boat – will ease chronic overcrowding in its camps at Cox’s Bazar, which are home to more than one million Rohingya, members of a Muslim minority who have fled neighbouring Myanmar.

Humanitarian and human rights groups have urged a halt to the move, saying the island, which emerged from the sea 20 years ago and has never been inhabited, is flood-prone and vulnerable to frequent cyclones, while the government has not allowed the United Nations to carry out a safety assessment.

“The authorities should immediately halt relocation of more refugees to Bhashan Char …” said Saad Hammadi, Amnesty International’s South Asia Campaigner, in a statement.

“The relocation of so many Rohingya refugees to a remote island, which is still off limits to everyone including rights groups and journalists without prior permission, poses grave concerns about independent human rights monitoring,” he said.

A senior local official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Reuters news agency in a message that “many families” had been moved out of the camps as of Wednesday night, but declined to state a number.

Myanmar crackdown

More than 730,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar in 2017 following a military-led crackdown that the UN has said was executed with genocidal intent. Myanmar denies it carried out genocide and says its forces were taking aim at Rohingya rebels who attacked police posts.

View of the island of Bhasan Char in the Bay of Bengal [File: Reuters]

A briefing note by an international humanitarian organisation seen by Reuters said hundreds of refugees identified by officials as willing to go to the island were taken to a transit centre on Wednesday, with some offered incentives including cash payments.

Mohammed Shamsud Douza, the deputy Bangladesh government official in charge of refugees, said housing had been built for 100,000 people and authorities want to relocate them during the November to April dry season when the sea is calm.

“We will not force anyone to go there,” he said by phone, but did not comment on whether incentives had been offered.

The UN said in a statement it had been given “limited information” about the relocations and was not involved in preparations.

Louise Donovan, a spokeswoman, told Reuters the government had not given the UN permission to carry out technical assessments or to visit refugees already held there.

The UN in a statement has said: “[A]ny relocations to Bhasan Char should be preceded by comprehensive technical protection assessments.”

Omar Faruq, one Rohingya leader who had been on a government trip, said the island was “truly beautiful”, with better facilities than in the refugee camps and that he would be ready to go, but that most people did not want to go there.

“We don’t want to end up living an isolated prison-like life,” said Nurul Amin, one Rohingya refugee who was not on the list.

Held against their will

More than 300 refugees were brought to the island earlier this year after an attempt to flee Bangladesh for Malaysia by boat failed and they were stranded at sea for months.

They have said they were being held against their will and complained of human rights violations, some resorting to hunger strikes, according to human rights groups.

Several Rohingya, who did not want to be named, had told Al Jazeera in October that men, women and even children were “beaten with sticks” by Bangladeshi naval officers after they went on a four-day hunger strike last month.

In September, five rights organisations sent a letter to Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen requesting access to the island that is prone to flooding.

“Rohingya in the camps in Cox’s Bazar face many issues and problems, and the camps are overcrowded and imperfect, but moving people to an isolated island where they have no protection or support from international humanitarian agencies or freedom of movement is not the answer,” said Wolff from Fortify Rights.

“At present, it’s an island detention centre.”

Categorie
Analysis

NIGERIA – Anger, trauma over years of tensions with police in Lagos suburb (Ope Adetayo, Al Jazeera)

It was 1pm on October 20 – just hours before the now-infamous Lekki tollgate shooting left 15 people dead – when another police shooting took place in Mushin, a bustling, lower-income neighbourhood some 20km (12.4 miles) away.

That morning, protesters in Mushin had joined nationwide calls demanding an end to the rogue police unit, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), known for its brutality and extrajudicial tactics. Hundreds gathered at Agege Motor Road, shutting down a major intersection that passes through Mushin from Ikeja, the state capital; while smaller protests broke out in the arteries of the neighbourhood’s streets.

Everything was festive among the crowd, who had their fists raised, chanting “End SARS” and singing along to lyrics by Fela Kuti, witnesses told Al Jazeera, when suddenly the atmosphere turned at a protest site closest to the Olosan Police Station, and an altercation occurred. It is unclear what sparked the clash, but residents said police opened fire, dozens were left wounded, and at least 10 people died, according to witnesses and local news reports.

MushinToTheWorld Foundation, a community-based NGO that works for social change in the area, issued a news release five days later saying there were 67 casualties, including 15 deaths. Babatunde Enitan, the executive director, told Al Jazeera they arrived at their figures by sending a field agent to the hospitals where the victims had been taken. However, the Nigerian government has not released any official statement related to the Mushin incident, and the Lagos state police’s public relations officer, Muyiwa Akinjobi, categorically denied the shooting took place. “We are not aware of such [shooting],” he told Al Jazeera on the phone on November 4, adding that social media posts and local news reports were false.

Some witnesses to the incident said that after the shooting, police tried to disperse protesters and clear the street, likely in anticipation of a curfew that had been announced earlier. But the gunshots caught the attention of local “area boys” – typically unemployed young men, some of whom live on the streets in lower-income neighbourhoods in Lagos. The area boys then got involved in a confrontation with some officers, and proceeded to attack the police station with knives and broken bottles, in a failed attempt to raze the building, witnesses said.

Patrick*, who asked that his real name not be used for fear of retribution, runs a printing shop in Mushin. He watched the clash from a relatively safe distance, outside his shop at the other end of the street. Although he could not see the police station directly, he said he saw area boys throwing bottles at the policemen who responded by shooting directly at them. When the clash moved closer to him, to a nearby street corner, he stood on the pavement and watched, while other residents observed from balconies. Many shop owners closed early and went home for the day, he said.

A motorcycle taxi, a popular form of public transport in Lagos, looks out for passengers in Mushin [Ope Adetayo/Al Jazeera]

Mushin has a long history of tensions between the Olosan Police Station and residents, who allege that officers there had a notorious record of arbitrary arrests and brutality.

The incident on October 20 was not the first time the police station was attacked. In April 2017, a similar attempt was made when SARS officers attached to Olosan Police Station allegedly tried to extort money from young men accused of being “yahoo boys”, a term used for cyber-fraudsters.

Witnesses at the scene recounted that the young men refused to submit themselves to an unwarranted search and it led to a chase that eventually ended in the death of a bystander, a woman selling snacks by the roadside, after one of the officers fired a bullet.

Immediately, the community was besieged by a large group of area boys who attempted to burn down the station, but they were eventually overwhelmed by the police. The police in the area are seen as a “common enemy” regardless of one’s status, and while regular residents do not partake in the area boys’ confrontations with officers, they generally do not voice their displeasure.

“Personally, I would not expect the people to empathise with a police force that has already been brutalising them,” said Anthony Obayomi, a 26-year-old documentary photographer who grew up in Mushin but has since moved away.

“It all boils down to the relationship between the police and people, area boys or not … On a personal basis, I will say the [police-resident] relationship is non-existent in any positive light. Even people that have not committed any crimes have [reasons] to be afraid of the police because they know they don’t have to commit any crime before they are unnecessarily detained or extorted.”

Mushin’s reputation

Mushin is ever buzzing; an area where the sound of traffic and people on crowded pavements dominates. According to the last available census from 2006, more than 600,000 people lived there, in an area about 17sq km (6.6sq miles) in size – and the population is thought to have spiralled upward since then.

The area is home to mostly lower-income earners working informal or blue-collar jobs, such as pavement vendors, in nearby markets, or at small artisanal businesses like printing shops and tailors; there are also some mid-level earners. Many people move to Mushin for the relatively cheap cost of living in the city, especially housing. The community boasts mostly tenement houses, popularly known as “face-me-as-I-face-you” houses with single rooms and shared toilets and kitchens. A room for rent usually costs between 3,000-6,000 naira ($8.1 – $16.2) a month.

Residential buildings in the neighbourhood of Mushin [Ope Adetayo/Al Jazeera]

Open gutters separate houses from the road, and there is ceaseless movement along the neighbourhood’s streets and alleyways. The roads are often riddled with potholes and puddles. On the sides of the streets are kiosks where one can buy everyday necessities from snacks to clothes. At night, the community comes alive with its increasing number of nightclubs, roadside beer parlours, and small kiosks selling locally brewed gin.

Mushin’s population is a majority young demographic, between 20 and 29 years old according to the latest census, and the big presence of area boys has earned it a reputation for violence and poverty.

“Growing up in Mushin myself, I know the neighbourhood is associated with violence and poverty, so when I tell people I am from Mushin they expect violent behaviour from me,” Obayomi told Al Jazeera.

He said there have only been some “minute changes” in social development in the area across the years, noting that there are roads that are still as bad today as they were when he was born in the 1990s.

“Mushin is a reflection of the rest of the country, basically. Take one step forward, take a few steps backward,” he said.

Obayomi feels the mental attitude other Lagosians have towards Mushin, one that has associated it with violence for decades, is also a reason why incidents there do not get as much attention – like the shooting on October 20 that was largely unreported compared with the shooting in Lekki on the same day.

“When people have become desensitised to hear violent news from this place, even when it became a matter that affected everyone outside of there, it has become second nature to accept violence and death just because their neighbourhood is regarded as ghetto. This is the mental attitude that contributed to the lack of priority in the media like in other places,” Obayomi said.

Neighbourhood youths organise a football competition to foster community spirit in Mushin [Ope Adetayo/Al Jazeera]

Enitan from MushinToTheWorld Foundation said, “We want to change the perception of our community because it should not only be known for its bad side.”

“There are so many good things here also. An average boy or girl in Mushin is a legendary hustler; they also make efforts towards their career development, skills acquisition, arts and crafts, digital UI/UX, music and many more,” he added.

According to Enitan, unlawful arrest or fear of the police is the common denominator among most people who live there. For many in Mushin, he said, the dream is to leave for more affluent areas, but only a few eventually get there in reality.

Fear of the police

When the #EndSARS protests kicked off in Nigeria in early October, it took more than a week for the demonstrations to reach Mushin. The major fear, residents told Al Jazeera, was that the police might come and round them up for protesting. Some residents said people feared it could get ugly because the historic tensions between the police and the residents, combined with the energy coursing through the country during that period, meant that a protest in Mushin was a recipe for disaster.

However, consciousness began spreading across the community and people started organising small protests which gradually garnered pace as the days went by. The protests peaked on October 20, a day that has now been etched in the memory of the community.

A general view of a police blockade at the Lekki-Ikoyi toll gate in Lagos on October 21, 2020, the day after a deadly shooting of peaceful protesters took place there [AFP]

Lekki, where the more publicised police shooting took place that same evening and left more than a dozen people dead, was known as the protest hub of the #EndSARS movement in the city. Lekki is a more affluent district, adjoining other upper-class areas of Lagos including Ikoyi, the former settlement for colonial rulers, and Victoria Island, an exclusive area that has some of the most expensive real estates in Lagos.

By blocking the Lekki toll gate, a significant revenue-generating enterprise which is said to garner an estimated 10 million naira ($27,027) daily, the protesters brought financial strain and higher-than-normal traffic congestion down on the government. It was also a strategic move to bring the voices of protest to the residents of upper-class areas who do not experience the daily brutality of the police the way that residents of poorer areas, like Mushin, do.

And in Mushin, most people who experience police brutality do not have the means nor the social status to extricate themselves from unlawful actions that are used against them.

A traumatic encounter

Olawale*, who prefers that his real name not be used for fear of retribution from the police, is a father of three who owns a chair, table and canopy rental business in Mushin, where he also lives.

He uses the open space in front of his tenement house as a shop to keep the supplies he rents out. In April 2014, he was arrested there during a police raid in the area. This was on a Thursday following the Easter period, when the mood was still celebratory.

At about 11am, Olawale went out to move some canopies. Afterwards, he decided to sit and have a meal with his colleagues. That was when policemen from Olosan Police Station arrived and rounded them up. “They came in five vans,” Olawale said, although he could not recall how many policemen there were.

Unbeknownst to him, a factional clash between two different gangs had broken out in the area that Monday, so the police were there to conduct a raid against local gang members. Clashes between gangs are common in Mushin; however, groups are usually not organised into sophisticated associations, but loosely related by being in the same community, street, or political party.

“I did not pay attention to them (the police) because I had done nothing wrong,” Olawale said. “I was with my colleagues and they just came to harass us, asking us to enter their vans even when we had done nothing wrong.”

“We were three who were arrested on that spot but a lot of people were arrested. These people were just doing their work – welders, mechanics, tailors, printers. They did not even pick [up] the boys who had clashed,” he continued. The police, according to him, stopped people at their workplaces, or passersby, and dumped them in their vans.

“I told them I was the secretary of the chair rentals association [in that area] and I showed them my ID card. They collected it and threw it in the gutter and forced us into the vehicle.”

Minibus taxis pick up passengers early in the morning in Mushin [Ope Adetayo/Al Jazeera]

Olawale had no idea the incident would lead to him being shuttled between the police station, the court, and then the prison during the next four days. He was charged with being part of rioters, and faced the prospect of not being with his family for a long time.

“They drove us to their station and we were kept there. My wife who could run around to get people who could help secure my release, was not around that day. The next day, we were taken outside the station and they packed us into their vans again and drove us to a court,” he lamented.

“My family lawyer and another lawyer [for the rental association] tried to secure my bail that day because it was already a Friday and if the bail was not granted, I would have to spend the weekend in prison. But the judge who was on seat that day said she had a party to attend and was in a rush, so she could not sign the document.”

“The next thing, we were taken to Kirikiri prison (a maximum-security prison in Lagos) since the police could not hold us in their cell for the weekend,” he said, fidgeting and trying to push the memories of the prison from his mind. It was an ordeal for Olawale. But he said he knows routine arrests like this are part of the daily experience for many in Mushin.

Impact on vulnerable people

Omolara Oriye, a human right lawyer in Lagos, told Al Jazeera that such policing in lower-income areas like Mushin is expected.

“It is important to note when social issues like police brutality or any other major issue is wrecking a society, it has a higher impact on people who are most vulnerable,” she said in a phone interview.

“It is only normal they have a higher level of police brutality because they (the people) are not equipped” in terms of seeking justice, as they are unable to afford lawyers. Sometimes, they do not even know there is a solution, and many people have accepted police brutality as part of their lives, she said.

“This contributes to police concentrating their efforts in such areas because they know accountability is lower and they will not be held responsible [for their actions]. The conditions of low-income areas definitely lead to inability to resist such police behaviours.”

The popular Ojuwoye food market in Mushin [Ope Adetayo/Al Jazeera]

Even though Olawale is accustomed to the nature of policing in the area, he said he could not face the horror of going to prison for doing nothing. The incident was close to the most traumatic experience he had ever had, he said.

“[When we got to Kirikiri,] we shared our experiences on how we got there and that was where I knew that half the people in prison [in Nigeria] are innocent. There were people who were just picked off the road and they are suffering for nothing in the prison. Some of them just went to a viewing centre to watch a football match and they landed there,” he said.

“One of us that was arrested in that raid had his Nikkah (Islamic wedding ceremony) coming up the Sunday of that week. He had only gone out to look for a belt when he was picked up. He spent the day of his Nikkah in prison while his to-be pregnant wife did not know his whereabouts.”

Flawed justice system

“Interestingly, the issue of people awaiting trial in prison is much more than a policing issue, it is a failure of the entire system which is interrelated,” Omolara noted.

“If the policing is bad and the judicial system is clogged up with frivolous charges and other things that slow down the system, then it becomes a vicious cycle where innocent people are picked up on the street and the judicial system is unable to clear them.”

After that weekend, Olawale appeared in court on Monday with some others who could afford lawyers to represent them. He was hopeful the judge would let him leave, because of the unfair arrest and the “torture” he said he had seen in prison, which included beatings from other inmates.

“There was a secret phone among the prisoners where you [would] call your family to send a lot of airtime to avoid torture by the guards and other inmates who have been in prison for a long time,” he explained, saying that the airtime was currency in the prison and a way to bribe those who had more power so that you did not become a target.

“The first day we got there, we were beaten. So my wife kept sending a lot of airtime many times a day. That way, I got a VIP section,” he said, referring to the slightly more comfortable part of the large hall-like prison floor where prisoners who were given preferential treatment slept.

The phone, he said, belonged to a lifer who ruled the prison cells. “The airtime was sent to the number and the airtime is sold to the warders. I don’t know how their transaction goes,” he said. “In the prison, there is a hierarchy. There are people who have been there for a long time and they rule.”

The Olosan Police Station in Mushin [Ope Adetayo/Al Jazeera]

In court that Monday, the judge struck out the charge against those present, citing gross misconduct from policemen from Olosan Police Station, according to Olawale.

“When the judge asked what happened, we told him that we were arrested on Thursday in a raid for a fight that happened on Monday. He got angry, banged the gavel and dismissed the case against us,” he said, motioning his fist to mimic the judge.

Six years later, those four days spent in confinement have stayed permanently with Olawale, who said he still has trauma from the experience. He said he does not allow his children outside, especially at night, because he fears any of them could be arrested for trumped-up charges.

“What they (the police) are doing is a very terrible thing,” he said.

Arrested multiple times

At his printing shop in Mushin, Patrick, who is in his late forties, said he is in support of the protests as long as they are organised. This despite his fear of things turning violent or of some area boys using the momentum as an excuse to commit crimes.

Like many in the area, he has his own stories about the police.

He recalled one night in March, shortly before the coronavirus lockdown began. Patrick was working a night shift at his old printing shop – a long rectangular-shaped outbuilding in front of a tenement house, with a caved-in roof and furniture in disrepair – which he lost because he was unable to cover the rent at the time.

At about 11pm, he said, he needed to urinate so closed his shop and went outside to a gutter in the adjacent street, to relieve himself. The neon glow of street lights illuminated the road and the nightclub nearby was still roaring, a typical feature of Mushin life. Then, a bus approached.

“[I was urinating when] I saw a bus approach where I was standing and before I knew it I saw two officers stand behind me and pushed me into their bus,” he told Al Jazeera. It was not the last time he would be arrested.

People and traffic on the streets of Mushin on a Sunday morning [Ope Adetayo/Al Jazeera]

“They took me round [the streets] and arrested many other people. I remember that they tried to arrest two men who were walking down their street but one of them ran off and escaped. The other was picked up and [while struggling with them was] stabbed by one of the policemen.”

“That night also, they picked [up] a mentally ill person. When his family came in the morning and told the policemen that he has mental issues, one of the policemen said they should be happy because he has corrected his illness with a good slap,” he said.

Patrick said such arrests are common at night. It could be for anything: just walking down the street to get food, being at your workplace, or standing in front of your house, he said, an angry expression on his face as he sat on a long wooden bench in his new shop, one he shares on the benevolence of another printer.

After he and others were taken to the police station that night, they were put in a make-shift cell that was small and not appropriate for the number of people in it. “They kept us outside the cell in a place called the Surveillance Unit, we were packed like sardines. They switched off the light, it was blackout,” he said.

“They handcuffed us together, they handcuffed about three people together. If you complained that you want to ease yourself, they would not respond to you. If you complained too much, you would be beaten. They went out [on patrols] and brought people, they just kept bringing more people.”

Interview requests Al Jazeera sent to Lagos state’s Ministry of Justice requesting to speak with both the head of the Directorate for Citizens’ Rights and the local government chairman were declined.

A group of young bricklayers working on construction for a church building in Muhsin. Most jobs in the area are in informal or blue-collar work [Ope Adetayo/Al Jazeera]

The next morning, Patrick was allowed to make a call. He called the pastor of his church and at about 8am, the pastor arrived at the police station to secure his release.

“He (the pastor) came and negotiated with them for my bail. When he introduced himself as a pastor, one of the policemen quoted the Bible, he said settle your adversary before the adversary hands you over to the judge,” Patrick said. “At the end of the negotiation, he paid 4,000 naira ($10.81) for my bail.”

Section 27 of the Police Act stipulates that any person arrested without a warrant must be offered bail within a reasonable amount of time, usually 24 hours. A suspect will have to abide by certain conditions before they are released, but this “administrative bail” is free of charge under Nigerian law.

However, despite this, many say the police do not always follow that specification and some try and extort money from suspects. In Mushin, bail is usually between 3,000 naira ($8.1) and 10,000 naira ($27) depending on the location of the arrest and what the person was doing at the time, residents told Al Jazeera. This amount is far more than many people there earn in a single day.

Recalibrate the police

On October 11, nine days before the shooting, the Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, announced the total disbandment of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad. However, the announcement has met cynicism on the streets, where protesters remained.

In response, protesters came up with a list of five demands that should be met before they left the streets. Similar announcements had been used by the government four times in the past four years to quell the growing call for police reform.

With the trust between the government and the people broken, Omolara believes only a rethinking of the way the police force works can solve the problem, especially for people on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.

“There is a need to recalibrate the police. We all know that the police [force] in Nigeria is as a result of colonial rule and they used the police to suppress the people. Now, there is a need to recalibrate what policing really means in a society that is supposed to be free and equal,” she told Al Jazeera.

“These policemen are the products of the society where they are born – their training and the way they work. We have to empower the people and change the way policing is done. This must be done if we are to change the way police behave in low-income areas.”

The front view of a building belonging to a politician that was razed after the shooting in Mushin on October 20 [Ope Adetayo/Al Jazeera]

Patrick witnessed the shooting in Mushin. As he watched the confrontation between the area boys and the police, anger filled up inside him.

He, like most of the residents whom Al Jazeera spoke to, condemned the confrontation and blamed the police for not defusing the situation.

The incident also left a worse mark on the community, as the area boys later visited their anger on a police outpost and a building owned by a senator who represents Mushin at the Senate.

The days that followed reeked of tension. The streets leading to the station were blocked off to repel another attack and residents who needed to pass through the area were forced to take longer routes to where they were heading.

“Their response was a disgrace, it did not portray [the police force in the] country well. It was a show of shame,” Patrick says about the police.

“They were shooting people in a residential area, as if it was a warfront,” he said. “The police here are a menace, they are a disturbance [to society].”

Categorie
Analysis

KURDS/USA – What Biden can and cannot do for the Kurds (Yerevan Saeed, Al Jazeera)

Many Kurds across the Middle East welcomed Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump in the recent elections in the United States. The former vice president is known to be sympathetic to the Kurdish cause and his presidency is expected to bring some relief from the harmful policies Trump pursued.

Some even hope that the Biden administration may oversee the fulfilment of the Kurdish dream for an independent state. After all, it was Biden who in May 2015 told Masoud Barzani, then president of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI): “We will see an independent Kurdistan in our lifetime”. But are such hopes realistic?

There is little question that Biden has been a staunch supporter of the Kurds for nearly three decades. In 1991, he denounced former President George H W Bush for allowing Iraqi forces under Saddam Hussein to recapture the liberated Kurdish areas in northern Iraq. In 2002, he addressed the KRI’s parliament, reassuring members that “mountains are not your only friends”.

After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Biden advocated for a federal model in which Kurdish, Sunni, and Shia regions are established to help alleviate the sectarian tensions driving the civil war. This move was welcomed by the Kurds, who saw it as a guarantee of their autonomy.

Biden also harshly criticised the Trump administration’s policies on the Kurds. In 2019, Trump gave the green light to Turkey to attack Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces in northeastern Syria, for which Biden called him “the most reckless and incompetent commander in chief we’ve ever had”.

But the president-elect is also a realist, and when he takes office on January 20, 2021, he will pursue the best interests of his country. His willingness to support the Kurds will be limited by the broader US agenda in the Middle East that he will set.

He had a similar approach as vice president tasked with dealing with Iraq and Syria under the two administrations of President Barack Obama. During that time, Biden repeatedly tried to leverage his personal relationships with Kurdish leaders to advance the US interests and in fact, in some cases he prevented Kurds from strengthening their strategic position vis-à-vis Baghdad.

While supporting Kurdish autonomy in Iraq, Biden pressured Erbil to come to terms with Baghdad. He personally asked Barzani to delay the vote on the KRI constitution because it had included the disputed province of Kirkuk as an integral part of the Kurdish region. This would have sparked an ethnic conflict in Iraq between Kurds and Arabs and undermined US interests in Iraq.

In 2010, Biden, along with Obama, personally asked Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani to give up his position as president of Iraq in favour of Ayad Allawi, the head of the Iraqiya coalition, which had won the elections earlier that year. This move would have meant giving up a post allocated to the Kurds, which would have greatly diminished Kurdish power in Baghdad. Talabani rebuffed the request and stayed in his post.

Biden also supported Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose decision to cut Erbil’s budget in 2014 and purge Kurds from the Iraqi Army caused a lot of resentment in the KRI.

So while Biden has expressed much support for the Kurds in rhetoric, in practice, his record is mixed at best. As a person who deeply believes in human rights and freedom, he may want the Kurds to have an independent state, but he also understands the consequences this may have in one of the most challenging geopolitical regions of the world.

In 2007, he warned Kurdish leaders against pursuing independence by saying: “You will be eaten alive by the Turks and the Iranians, they will attack you, there will be an all-out war” and emphasising that the US would not be able to protect them.

Yet interestingly, senior Kurdish officials told me during my recent trip to the KRI that Biden’s assertion in May 2015 about “an independent Kurdistan” and ambiguous remarks Obama made regarding the Kurds’ national aspiration were viewed as a departure from Washington’s long-held policy of a united Iraq. They also noted that this set in motion the Kurdish bid for independence, which culminated in the 2017 referendum.

“We thought that that was a green light to go ahead because they did not tell us, ‘don’t do it,’” said one official. Another journalist with close ties to Barzani, echoed this sentiment, adding, “We understand clear messages and statements and the United States did not give us that.”

Therefore, it is important for the next US administration to clearly articulate its policy towards the Kurds in order to avoid potential misunderstandings that could have real-life implications for the stability of the region.

The Kurds, for their part, should manage their expectations about what Biden can do for them. Instead of waiting on the US to provide support or solve their disputes, they should focus on what they can do for themselves: strengthening Kurdish institutions, upholding the rule of law, tempering down internal political tensions, and embracing freedom of speech and democracy.

Progress on all of these issues will be welcomed by the new administration, which at the very least will provide some level of foreign policy predictability and stability – a much-needed change after four years of Trump’s erratic leadership and reckless decision-making.

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Analysis

GAZA – Life ‘extraordinarily difficult’ for people with disability (Al Jazeera)

People with disabilities can face an “extraordinarily difficult” life in the Gaza Strip due to the Israeli blockade and lack of assistance from Hamas which governs the enclave, a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report said.

Two million Palestinians live in the poverty and conflict-plagued enclave wedged between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea.

In a report released on Thursday, the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, HRW said the blockade Israel imposed in 2007 on the territory following Hamas’s rise to power “robbed people with disabilities in Gaza of their freedom of movement”.

According to official statistics from the Palestinian Census Bureau, about 48,000 people in Gaza, or about 2.4 percent of the population, have a disability. More than one-fifth are children.

Some people acquired a disability following injuries stemming from the Israeli authorities’ use of force, the report said.

Emina Cerimovic, senior researcher in HRW’s disability rights division, said Israeli control of Gaza’s eastern border had also impaired “access to the devices, electricity, and technology they need to communicate or leave their homes”.

Israel limits the entry into Gaza of goods that could be used for military purposes and controls the flow of fuel needed to power the enclave’s sole electricity plant.

The report noted the effect of recurring power cuts on people with disabilities who need light to communicate through sign language, or electric lifts or scooters to get around.

I ‘feel less of a person’

A 26-year-old woman with a physical disability was quoted in the report saying she has to cancel outings due to her inability to charge her mobility scooter.

“Electricity shortages control my life,” she said. “It makes me feel more aware of my disability.”

The report added that Hamas, which has fought three wars with Israel since 2008, has failed to provide sufficient ramps or lifts in many buildings in the enclave.

“Israel’s policies, alongside the failure of Hamas authorities to address the lack of accessibility across Gaza and widespread stigma, contribute to making life in Gaza extraordinarily difficult for many people with disabilities,” the report said.

“Whenever I go to a hospital without someone to interpret for me, they write on a piece of paper that I should come back and bring someone with me,” one of the women said. “This experience made me feel less of a person.”

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INDIA – Indian movie superstar Rajinikanth will launch his own political party (Al Arabiya)

Indian movie superstar Rajinikanth said Thursday he plans to launch his own political party in southern India in January, ending years of speculation by millions of his fans on his political future.

He said in a tweet that he will make an announcement on Dec. 31, apparently in relation to legislative elections in Tamil Nadu state expected around June next year. He started taking an active part in politics in 2017.

Rajinikanth, 69, is one of India’s most popular stars with more than 175 films since 1975, mostly in the Tamil and Telugu languages.

“In the upcoming Assembly elections, the emergence of spiritual politics will happen for sure. A wonder will happen,” he tweeted. An announcement on matters connected to the party’s launch will be made Dec. 31, he said.

His political prospects appear bright following a vacuum created by the deaths of Jayaram Jayalalithaa, an actor-turned politician with the governing party in the state, and Muthuvel Karunanidhi, the leader of the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party.

Cinema has always influenced Tamil politics by turning actors into popular politicians.

C.N. Annadurai and M. Karunanidhi were scriptwriters who went on to become chief ministers. M.G. Ramachandran, a top actor-turned-politician, also had a strong following.

Read more:

Thousands of Indian farmers protest at New Delhi border, face-off with police

India state approves law that bans religious conversion by marriage

Coronavirus: India reports over 46,000 new COVID-19 cases as New Delhi struggles

Born Shivaji Rao Gaekwad, Rajinikanth worked as a bus conductor for three years before joining an acting school. He started in small roles as a villain in Tamil cinema and worked his way up, landing roles in Bollywood, the Hindi-language film industry based in Mumbai.

Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan also tried his hand in politics as a member of India’s Parliament, representing the Congress party in support of his friend, then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, in the 1980s. He resigned after three years following allegations that he accepted bribes in the purchase of artillery guns. His name was later cleared in the scandal.

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INDIA – India resumes talks to break deadlock with farmers protesting over agriculture reform (Al Arabiya)

Indian government ministers began talks with farmers’ leaders on Thursday to try and break a deadlock over laws passed earlier this year seeking to deregulate the agriculture sector that has ignited the country’s biggest farm protests in years.

Tens of thousands of growers have camped out at the entrance to capital Delhi in protest against the laws seeking to rid the sector of antiquated procurement procedures and to allow farmers to sell to institutional buyers and big international retailers.

The farmers, who form a powerful political constituency, fear the laws passed in September could pave the way for the government to stop buying grains at guaranteed prices, leaving them at the mercy of private buyers.

The protests pose a crucial test for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ability to reform India’s vast agriculture sector.

Agriculture & Farmers Welfare Minister Narendra Singh Tomar and Trade Minister Piyush Goyal have started discussion with nearly three-dozen farmers’ representatives, a government official said.

“We expect the government to pay heed to our demands to repeal the laws detrimental to India’s farming community,” said Joginder Singh Ugrahan, a prominent farmers’ leader.

Modi’s government has defended the bill and several hours of talks between farmers’ leaders and the government on Tuesday failed to break the impasse.

India’s vast farm sector makes up nearly 15 percent of the country’s $2.9 trillion economy and employs around half of its 1.3 billion people.

Read more:

Thousands of Indian farmers protest at New Delhi border, face-off with police

India state approves law that bans religious conversion by marriage

Coronavirus: India reports over 46,000 new COVID-19 cases as New Delhi struggles

“We humbly request you to pay heed to the voice of farmers and withdraw completely the implementation of these Acts,” Avik Saha, another farmers’ leader said in a letter written to the agriculture minister on Thursday.

“The issue is not about one particular clause, but about the direction in which the government of India is pushing farming in India,” Saha wrote.

Farm groups say the government is trying to end a decades-old policy of providing them with an assured minimum price for producing staples, such as wheat and rice.

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CHINA – China says US is fabricating forced labor reports out of Xinjiang region (Al Arabiya)

China said on Thursday that politicians in the United States are fabricating news of forced labor in the northwestern Xinjiang region, after Washington banned imports of cotton produced by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) alleged to use the forced labor of detained Uighur Muslims.

Speaking at a daily media briefing, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the US practices undermined market principles and would deprive people of jobs.

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USA/IRAQ/IRAN – How could a US drawdown in Iraq aid ISIS, lead to greater Iranian presence? (Al Arabiya)

In a quest to root out ISIS group hideouts over the summer, Iraqi forces on the ground cleared nearly 90 villages across a notoriously unruly northern province. But the much-touted operation still relied heavily on US intelligence, coalition flights and planning assistance.

While the planned US troop drawdown in Iraq from 3,000 to 2,500 by mid-January is unlikely to have an immediate impact on the campaign against ISIS remnants, there are concerns that further withdrawals could set the stage for another resurgence of the extremist group.

Although Iraqi forces have become more independent in combat missions, the country is reeling from ongoing anti-government protests, rampant corruption and political divisions that reach into the security apparatus. All of that means foreign support is still crucial.

There are already signs of a possible ISIS comeback as the group exploits security gaps widened by a year of protests and the pandemic. It’s a worrying trend for Iraq’s security forces, whose collapse in 2014 allowed ISIS to seize a third of the country and sent American troops rushing back less than three years after they had withdrawn.

So how could the American drawdown help ISIS and Iran? Here are three key ways.

1. Security could worsen

American forces returned at the invitation of the government after ISIS seized much of northern and western Iraq, including its second largest city, Mosul. A US-led coalition provided crucial air support as Iraqi forces, including Iran-backed militias, regrouped and drove ISIS out in a costly three-year campaign.

Pressure has been escalating for a US troop withdrawal since the defeat of ISIS in 2017, particularly among Iraqi factions loyal to Iran, which have stepped up attacks on US interests. Both the US and Iraq are in favor of a scheduled withdrawal but have been unable to agree on specifics.

Read more: Shadowy new militias in Iraq targeting US forces as new front for Iran

Senior Iraqi military officials in Baghdad say the withdrawal of 500 American troops will have little, if any, impact. But local officials in areas liberated from ISIS, where reconstruction has lagged and services have yet to be fully restored, fear a security vacuum if the Americans leave.

“It’s true we have a stronger army, stronger security forces,” said Najm Jibouri, the governor and former head of provincial operations in Nineveh, which includes Mosul. “But we still need training, support with intelligence gathering.”

“If the US leaves us now, it will be a big mistake,” he said.

Senior coalition and Iraqi officials say Iraqi forces will continue to rely on US air cover, reconnaissance and intelligence gathering for the foreseeable future.

Iraq’s security apparatus is still plagued by many of the same vulnerabilities that enabled the rise of ISIS, including poor coordination among different branches and rampant corruption. Tensions have mounted as Iran-backed Shia militias – now incorporated into the armed forces – have accumulated more and more power.

“These vulnerabilities remain and risk weakening the Iraqi armed forces when they are most needed,” Benedicte Aboul-Nasr, project officer at UK-based Transparency International – Defence and Security, wrote in a recent analysis.

There’s more. The Iraqi military has also reduced its troop presence in some areas because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the US has withdrawn from some northern bases after rocket attacks blamed on Iran-backed groups.

2. Militants could become more resilient

ISIS lost the last territory under its control in 2017 but quickly returned to its insurgent roots, carrying out hit-and-run attacks on Iraqi forces across a wide stretch of territory in the north.

A longstanding political and territorial dispute between the central government and the semi-autonomous Kurdish authority in the north has hindered coordination against ISIS. The US has long served as a mediator, a role that would be difficult to fill if it were to completely withdraw.

Read more:

US takes down websites belonging to Iran-backed groups in Iraq

Rocket attack hits oil refinery in northern Iraq

ISIS has also struck further south, including an attack on a convoy in Hilla, south of Baghdad, on Nov. 10 that killed and wounded more than a dozen Iraqi soldiers and paramilitary forces. Last week, it claimed a rocket attack that temporarily halted oil production in a small refinery north of the capital.

An Iraqi military commander, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief media, said the country sees five to six attacks every week. “These attacks have not been to hold and control land, but to attack and go back into hiding,” he said.

A previous incarnation of ISIS staged similar attacks in the years before the group exploited the chaos in neighboring Syria to seize large parts of both countries.

3. Iran’s influence could deepen

A wider American withdrawal would also enable Iran to deepen its influence in Iraq, where it already has strong political, economic and security ties forged since the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The US strike that killed Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani, and senior Iraqi militia leaders near Baghdad’s airport in January sparked outrage and led Iraq’s parliament to pass a non-binding resolution days later calling for the expulsion of all foreign troops.

The government later retreated from such threats, but Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi still faces pressure from Iran-aligned groups to eject US forces.

The US has waged a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran since the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from Tehran’s nuclear agreement with world powers in 2018 and restored crippling sanctions.

President-elect Joe Biden has said he hopes to return to the agreement while also addressing Iran’s military involvement in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. A significant drawdown of US forces in Iraq – while popular at home – could reduce his leverage.

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FINTECH MARKET – Global COVID-19 FinTech Market Rapid Assessment Study (WEF)

pdf: http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_Global_Covid19_FinTech_Market_Rapid_Assessment_Study_2020.pdf

The World Economic Forum’s Global COVID-19 FinTech Market Rapid Assessment Study has gathered empirical data from 1,385 FinTech firms that are currently operating in 169 jurisdictions globally with the aim of helping to understand: the impact of the global pandemic on the FinTech markets, the response of the FinTech industry to the challenges of COVID-19, the most pressing FinTech regulatory and policy issues.

Since the onset of the pandemic, the fintech industry has seen increased growth. In 2020, firms saw an average rise of 13% compared to 11% growth in previous years. The expansion of transactions was noticeably higher in countries with strict COVID-19 lockdown measures, where growth was 50% higher compared to firms who were operating in countries with looser lockdown measures.

This report was developed in collaboration with the Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance at the University of Cambridge Judge Business School and the World Bank Group, and supported by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and the Ministry of Luxembourg.

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