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In Azerbaijan, pandemic restrictions pose unique obstacles for people with disabilities

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“COVID-19 and disability in Indonesia” by ILO in Asia and the Pacific is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In September 2020, Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Labor and Social Protection made drastic cuts to disability pensions, as part of a package of measures aiming, according to officials, at “curbing fake disabilities.”

The measures dictate that only people who need at least one hospital stay per year will be eligible for government benefits. They must present discharge papers to the relevant authorities in order to claim their paychecks.

What was already a controversial measure was made worse by Azerbaijan’s COVID-19 restrictions, which have seen public rehabilitation centers temporarily close across the country in order to minimize contact.

As a result, many Azerbaijanis with disabilities are currently unable to prove they are disabled because they are unable to receive treatment at the closed health centers.

Government pensions are the sole source of income for many disabled citizens. It is estimated that over seven thousand Azerbaijanis have lost their disability paychecks since September, according to data by the Ministry itself.

In a September 2020 interview, the Press Secretary for the State Agency for Medical and Social Expertise and Rehabilitation, Gulnar Azizova said authorities will reopen rehabilitation centers once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. On March 19, Azerbaijani authorities extended the quarantine regime until June.

These setbacks prompted many families to protest in front of the building of the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection in early March demanding the reinstatement of the pensions.

Families protest outside the Ministry of Labor and Social Services in the capital Baku on March 10, 2021. Video screenshot/Azadliq Radio.

Mothers speaking to local media outside the Ministry’s building said they want rehabilitation centers to reopen, pensions to be reinstated, and benefits to be increased to account for the setbacks posed by the current economic conditions.

In March 2020, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, Catalina Devandas warned that “little has been done to provide people with disabilities with the guidance and support needed to protect them during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.” She added that states should address the needs of people with disabilities by taking additional measures to “guarantee the continuity of support” for the group that already faces structural discrimination in their communities.

One recommendation voiced by Devandas was increasing financial aid to this community to cover basic needs, such as food delivery and medication.

Without having access to government support, some disabled citizens sought family support and have been receiving rehabilitation treatments at private clinics.

Refail Veten-Das Quliyev, 58, retired Physics teacher, said on Facebook:

Səhhətimdə yaranmış çox ciddi problemlər məni özəl bərpa reabilitasiya mərkəzinə müraciət etməyə məcbur etdi. Dövlət müəssisələrindən imdad diləsəm də səsimə səs verən tapılmadı. Rəhmətlik Məlik Abbasovun taleyini yaşamayım deyə qohum-dostların köməyindən istifadə edərək özəl reabilitasiya mərkəzi olan Suraxanı Tibbi Bərpa Mərkəzində hal hazırda müalicə alıram. Çox gülərüz, mehriban kollektivi var. Müalicələr qaneedicidir. İşlərinə məsuliyyətlə yanaşırlar. Xəstələrə xüsusi diqqət və qayğı göstərilir. Həkimim Sevinc xanım savadlı, işgüzar və bacarıqlı həkimdir, peşəsinə hörmətlə yanaşır. Hər zaman xəstələrinin vəziyyəti ilə maraqlanır, proseduraları qəbul edərkən onları nəzarətdə saxlayır. İmkanı olan əlillərimiz bu müalicə məkəzinin xidmətindən istifadə edə bilərlər.

Very serious problems with my health forced me to receive treatment at a private rehabilitation center. Despite my many attempts, public rehab centers didn’t respond to me. In order to not relive the fate of Malik Abbasov [a man with disability who died in March 2021], with support from my friends and family I’m receiving treatment at the private Surakhani Medical Rehabilitation Center. The staff is kind and caring. Treatment is satisfactory. They are responsible at their work. Patients receive special attention. My doctor Mrs. Sevinj is well-educated, professional and competent doctor, and respects her profession. She’s interested in her patients’ well-being and keeps checking-in as they go through procedures. Persons with disabilities who can afford this place can use their services.

According to national regulations, Azerbaijanis with disabilities and patients confined to bed care are entitled to professional health home-based care services by the government. However, this isn’t widely provided and available in the country, according to the November 2020 country report on the impact of COVID-19 on older people and caregivers by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent (IRFC).

The report also notes that reduced access to hospitals, pharmacies, emergency services, and polyclinics was especially felt by older people with chronic diseases and people with disabilities.

This article is: Creative Commons — Attribution 3.0 Unported — CC BY 3.0 globalvoices.org

Experts warn Turkey’s ambitious Istanbul Kanal will result in environmental destruction—and open a geopolitical can of worms

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The proposed Kanal Istanbul project would split Istanbul’s European continent by a 45km long shipping canal joining the Black Sea to the Marmara, and running parallel to the Bosphorus strait. Screenshot from BBC News Türkçe video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJ8KTvrdpSI

Istanbul Kanal, the planned 45-km artificial waterway connecting the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, is probably Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s most ambitious large-scale infrastructure project since he took office 18 years ago — and also the one that will bring the most everlasting consequences, both globally and domestically.

First unveiled in 2011, Turkey’s “second Bosphorus”, as it’s been called, received the green light from the Environment Ministry only this past January. Erdogan justifies the $12.6bn-project to relieve ship traffic in the Bosphorus strait. The new waterway will have a capacity of around 160 vessel crossings per day, according to authorities. For comparison, the Suez Canal supports 50 crossings a day, and the Panama Canal, around 50.

But experts say that, if built, the new canal could make the 1936 Montreaux Convention, which regulates the straits of Dardanelles and Bosphorus, obsolete.

Besides granting Turkey full sovereignty over both straits and ensuring passage of civilian vessels during peacetime, the treaty most importantly limits military deployments in the Black Sea to 21 days for states not bordering that body of water, which is effectively dominated by Russia.

President Erdogan has said multiple times that the convention will not apply to the new waterway. In practice, it means that Turkey, a NATO member, will be able to allow any military ships into the Black Sea — including those with United States flags.

The Istanbul Kanal, however, only provides an alternative route to the Bosphorus; ships would still have to use the Dardanelles strait, which connects the Sea of Marmara and the Mediterranean and is covered by the Montreaux Convention. Because of that, it has been widely speculated that Turkey might also withdraw from the Convention altogether, something officials have so far denied.

Earlier this month, such speculations have led a group of Turkish former admirals to publish a statement warning of the dangers of a possible withdrawal. “Montreux has allowed Turkey to stay neutral during World War II,” the statement said. “We are against any kinds of talks and actions which may result in Montreux being open for debate.”

The statement produced a political firestorm in Turkey, with Ankara equating it with an “attempted coup.” Hundreds of civil society organizations, presumably all pro-government, filed criminal complaints against the former admirals, and 14 were detained (but released shortly after).

Turkey’s civil authorities have a fraught relationship with the military, as the latter has staged military coups in 1960 and 1980 — and a failed attempt in 2016.

But control over the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles straits goes way further into the past. In 1774, with the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarjai, the Ottomans forbade all foreign ships from sailing out of the Black Sea, which resulted in Russia being unable to send its Black Sea fleet to Japan in the war of 1904-1905.

In 1841, the London Straits Convention forbade non-Turkish warships to enter the straits during peacetime. This treaty was replaced by the Lausanne Treaty in 1923, which called for the demilitarization of the Dardanelles and several other islands, as well as opened the Aegean Sea for merchant ships.

Then came the Montreaux Convention, which, according to historian Onur Isci in an interview with AlMonitor, “was negotiated as Hitler’s shadow loomed ever larger. It struck what seemed a near-impossible balance, neither alienating Russia nor the Allied powers while securing maximum gains for Turkey.”

Writing for Carnegie Europe about the geopolitical Pandora’s box that the new waterway could open, Marc Pierini says:

If the convention will not apply to the canal, it would in practice mean nullifying it and unilaterally creating a new role (and new rights?) for Turkey in maritime traffic regulation between the two seas. Questions abound. Would Turkey set different rules for maritime traffic on the new canal compared to the convention applying to the Bosporus? Would it—in the absence of any international authority or treaty—be free to open or close transit through the canal to certain flags at its sole discretion?

Environmental impact

There will be domestic consequences too.

Experts say that, because of a 50 cm level difference between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, the connection will impact on both sea’s salinity, and in the lives of organisms living in both seas. Furthermore, the canal will pass through Küçükçekmece lagoon, which is an important stop for migratory birds.

In an interview with The Guardian, Istanbul secretary of the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects, Cevahir Efe Akçelik, said:

The salinity of Black Sea is less than Marmara Sea, and the organic content of Black Sea is much higher than that of Marmara Sea. Some oceanographers say 30 years later there will be no oxygen left in the Marmara Sea. It’s a really harmful and dangerous project.

The canal could also pose a threat to Terkos Lake and Sazlıdere, which supplies drinking water to Istanbul.

Akçelik told The Guardian that “should those reserves be lost, there is no alternative water source on the European side of Istanbul. Instead, the government would have to pump water from the Sakarya River, deep on the Asian side.”

The mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, is in fact among the canal’s most vocal critics. In December 2019, he called it “a murder project,” and has since been campaigning against it.

According to the results of one survey by the Istanbul Mayorship from August 2020, more than 60 percent of Istanbul residents opposed the construction of the canal.

This article is: Creative Commons — Attribution 3.0 Unported — CC BY 3.0 globalvoices.org

Crumbling infrastructure and oxygen shortage hit India’s Covid-19 response

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Image by Raam Gottimukkala from Pixabay. Used under a Pixabay License.

Image by Raam Gottimukkala from Pixabay. Used under a Pixabay License.

More than 2,000 people have died of Covid-19 in a single day in India. On Wednesday, April 21, an interruption in oxygen supply also killed 24 patients, demonstrating to devastating effect the extent to which the infrastructure of Asia’s third-largest economy has been overwhelmed by the pandemic.

Amidst the public health emergency caused by the country’s second wave of Covid-19, the government is boosting its vaccination drive and expanding local quarantine measures, instead of imposing mass lockdowns.

The Ministry of Health on 21 April recorded 2,023 deaths, the highest number since the pandemic began more than a year ago. From a lack of crucial life-saving medicines such as Remedisvier and a shortage in the oxygen supply, to low bed availability at hospitals, India’s cities, towns and villages are facing a seemingly insurmountable crisis.

Experts are reporting an increase in Covid-19 cases in tier-2 and tier-3 towns (smaller towns and villages, according to the country’s population-based classification, which often lack key healthcare infrastructure for treatment) across the country, and, despite a lack of data, Indian scientists are speculating that the current surge is being fuelled by a new Indian variant, labelled B.1.617, which has spread to at least 15 other countries.

Images from hospitals facing oxygen leaks, of mass funeral pyres and bodies laid aside as family members struggle to find hearses, while, as Reuters reports, Indians bypass the usual channels to crowdsource hospital beds and oxygen canisters on Twitter, reveal a lack of preparedness on the part of the Indian government.

Reuters photojournalist Danish Siddiqui tweeted images of distressing scenes from a New Delhi hospital:

Epidemiologist Ramanan Laxminarayan outlined how India’s situation went from manageable to bleak within just a few weeks in the New York Times, saying that the situation “is a direct result of complacency and lack of preparation by the government”.

The Indian government claimed victory over the virus quickly and even chaired a meeting to address its success. The messaging from the Indian government, through its election rallies and festival celebrations, was mixed at best, resulting in Indian states easing their lockdowns for economic revival.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has faced stringent criticism for mismanaging the epidemic and holding multiple election rallies with tens of thousands in attendance in West Bengal state. As the scale of the second wave became apparent, Modi this week said the virus was ravaging India “like a storm” but fell short of holding a press conference on the crisis.

A vortex of factors including highly infectious variants of the virus, mass political rallies and the religious festival of Kumbh Mela – which attracted more than 10 million people – has escalated the spread of Covid-19 infections, epidemiologists claim. And in this second wave, children and those under 45 are being hit hard by a disease previously viewed as more dangerous for older people, as reported by AFP.

Vaccine rollout and political conflict

To ensure mass vaccination after multiple states reported running out of doses, India announced individuals over 18 would be eligible for vaccination from the beginning May. The Pune-based Serum Institute of India announced fixed prices of Rs 400 ($5.30) for state hospitals per dose of the vaccine – nearly 2.7 times the previous price agreed with the Indian government by the centre.

I lost my beautiful friend today. She was the greatest, funniest, biggest hearted person who’d always stand you for a rum and Coke with a plate of kabobs. Shaoli was extremely high risk because of her underlying health conditions, and had been trying to get a vaccine 1/n https://t.co/q7nqT1eFa1

— Naheed Phiroze Patel is on hiatus (@bookwalee) April 22, 2021

Given that the onus of vaccine procurement is on Indian states – absolving Modi’s government of major responsibilities on vaccination – the announcement drew angry responses from policymakers and state governments.

Kerala’s chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan tweeted:

Former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wrote to Modi, suggesting ways to scale up India’s vaccination efforts. He advised the government to look at the total percentage of the population vaccinated rather than focusing on absolute numbers. Singh, 88, who later tested positive for Covid-19, claimed India could improve its response with better policy design. His advice was rebuffed by India’s health minister Harsh Vardhan, who wrote in response that Singh should advise his own party, Indian National Congress, which he accused of attempting to derail India’s vaccination drive. Vardhan acknowledged that Singh’s emphasis on vaccination was also shared by the Indian government and pointed out that other members of the Indian congress “do not seem to share” Singh’s views as they peddled vaccine hesitancy and failed to “utter a single word of gratitude towards our scientist community and vaccine manufacturers for innovating under trying circumstances”.

Last week, journalist Vinay Srivastava, from the city of Lucknow, succumbed to Covid-19 while live-tweeting details of his falling oxygen levels and seeking help from government authorities. Srivastava, 65, died without any medical intervention as his oxygen levels fell to 52 percent – a healthy reading is 95 percent or above. He claimed that no doctor or hospital picked up his call.

India’s cremation grounds and funeral homes have been running out of space to bury the dead, while workers struggled to fulfil final rites due to a lack of safety kits and manpower. News reports have revealed Indian crematoriums are working around the clock, resulting in their metal parts of furnaces melting and chimneys collapsing due to continuous usage for 14 days, highlighting the rising death toll.

Meanwhile, there have been reports that some states are under-reporting the death toll. Tech entrepreneur Peri Maheshwer claimed on Facebook:

An analysis by Financial Times across seven districts in 4 states, 1,833 people died while only 228 have been officially reported.

As India’s healthcare system stretches to breaking point, many patients are succumbing to infections in their homes or on the roads, without any medical assistance. These deaths are not being counted as Covid-19 related mortalities, resulting in states reporting tallies of deaths much lower than the actual figures, as reported by the Financial Express.

But as India emerges from a massive contraction of its quarterly growth figures, politicians are reluctant to impose lockdowns on a mass scale that could shut down businesses and send migrants packing back to their villages – Modi has asked state leaders to quarantine neighbourhoods and enclaves instead.

Urvashi Kapoor contributed to this post.

This article is: Creative Commons — Attribution 3.0 Unported — CC BY 3.0 globalvoices.org

European Court backs Ukrainian journalist’s right to phone data privacy from the state

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sedletska schemes

Natalia Sedletska hosts Schemes, an investigative TV programme jointly produced by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service and Ukrainian Public Television. Photo courtesy of RFE/RL Pressroom.

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled in favour of a Ukrainian investigative journalist who has been fighting to protect her smartphone data from government officials and law enforcement.

Natalia Sedletska, an investigative journalist with RFE/RL Ukrainian Service and host of the investigative TV programme Schemes: Corruption in Detail (Схеми: Корупція в деталях), has been waging a three-year battle to safeguard her phone records from being seized by Ukrainian prosecutors, who are investigating a leak of state secrets that took place almost four years ago.

The ECHR concluded that Sedletska’s data should be protected from government access under Article 10 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. It also stressed the importance of protecting journalists’ sources for a functioning free press:

[T]he court is not convinced that the data access authorisation given by the domestic courts was justified by an ‘overriding requirement in the public interest’ and, therefore, necessary in a democratic society.

The April 1 ECHR ruling reaffirms its initial October 2018 ban on government access to Sedletska’s data, after a Ukrainian court ruled investigators had the right to access and review data on her phone during a period of 17 months. The ruling stemmed from an earlier criminal investigation into the alleged disclosure of state secrets to journalists in 2017 by Artem Sytnyk, director of the National Anticorruption Bureau of Ukraine. During the period in question, Schemes had reported on several investigations involving senior Ukrainian officials, including Prosecutor General Yury Lutsenko.

Sedletska’s employer, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, welcomed the ECHR ruling, saying it offers the necessary protections for “the confidentiality of journalistic communications and sets limits for executive power”.

Experts from the Regional Press Development Institute, a Ukrainian media rights organisation, said the ECHR decision to protect Sedletska’s privacy sets “a precedent not just for Ukraine, but for ECHR practice overall” and would be invaluable to other journalists whose sources and data could come under threat.

Sedletska is a veteran journalist who has co-authored multiple exposés on high-level political corruption and abuse of public office in Ukraine, as well as international money laundering schemes. Most recently producing and hosting Schemes, a joint production of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service and Ukrainian Public Television, she has also contributed to projects such as YanukovychLeaks and From Russia with Cash, a UK Channel 4 investigative documentary on how dirty money from Russia and elsewhere is laundered through London’s high-end real estate market.

This article is: Creative Commons — Attribution 3.0 Unported — CC BY 3.0 globalvoices.org

Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing camp wants to ‘get rid of’ pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily

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Pro-Beijing Wen Wei Po’s full-page feature calling for an investigation on pro-democracy media outlets for “spreading fake news”. Screen capture via Twitter user Galileo Cheng.

Hong Kong’s independent media are anticipating a sweeping purge of the critical press in the coming weeks — if recent words voiced by Police Chief Chris Tang, which were widely endorsed by the city’s pro-Beijing newspapers, are any indication.

In a public speech delivered on the occasion “national security education day” on April 15, Tang accused a few media outlets of “disseminating fake news” that “serves the interests of foreign forces.”

Tang’s views have since been echoed in editorials of pro-Beijing newspapers, which have then taken the opportunity to explicitly demand authorities to “get rid of” pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily.

These events took place just as Jimmy Lai, the founder of Apple Daily’s parent company Next Digital, was sentenced to one year and two months in prison on April 16. He was found guilty of “organizing” and “participating in” two unauthorized protests, respectively on August 18 and 31, 2019.

The 73-year-old media tycoon is also facing five other charges, including “colluding with foreign powers,” under the Beijing-imposed national security law. The maximum penalty for that charge is life in prison.

While it is an open secret that Beijing has staged a crackdown on the Hong Kong press that began with Lai’s arrest in August 2020, the suggestion that critical news reports could be viewed as threats to national security is more than chilling.

In his speech, Tang categorically said that foreign powers have used Hong Kong’s media to disseminate disinformation and incite violence:

Agents of foreign forces disseminate fake news and disinformation to drive a wedge in the community, cause division in society and to incite violence[…] I am not making allegations. I am talking about facts. The United States is one of the countries that tries to cause security threats in Hong Kong and China. […] This is not something really secret.

These foreign forces will identify some sectors or media in Hong Kong that would serve their political objectives, with a goal to influence and plant in Hongkongers thoughts that may endanger China […]

On April 16, Tang further elaborated on his views during a meeting at the Legislative Council. He condemned “a newspaper” for publishing side-by-side photos comparing a school kid holding a toy gun in a police facility during the national security education day with a viral image of anti-riot police firing pepper spray at protesters.

Tang was referring to Apple Daily’s front page of April 16 (see top image of this story). He said:

What I said yesterday has come true, if you look at the newspapers today (…) I think this is very unethical and is hurtful to children, and shows that some people want to use threatening ways to smear whoever wants to be close to the police. Citizens need to see this clearly or a danger against Hong Kong and the nation’s security will always be present.

And added:

For those endangering Hong Kong’s security using fake news, we will launch an investigation right away, and when there is evidence, we will pursue a prosecution.

On the same day, pro-Beijing newspapers began running opinion columns advocating for a clampdown on the media and the closure of Apple Daily.

On April 16, Ta Kung Pao published an editorial claiming that a number of “anti-China” media outlets, including Apple Daily, had made use of a national security loophole to engage in advocacy for Hong Kong independence disguised as news reports.

It highlighted a news story published on Apple Daily on April 15 about an advertisement campaign organized by the offshore activist group “Stand with Hong Kong,” labeling the report as de facto pro-Hong Kong independence propaganda.

It then called for a “payback” on Hong Kong media outlets, in particular Apple Daily:

《蘋果》已經成為香港國安的一大漏洞,《蘋果》不除,香港國安仍然存在漏洞,依法取締《蘋果》等「煽暴煽獨」、挑戰國安法的媒體,已是刻不容緩。

Apple Daily has become a loophole in Hong Kong’s national security. The loophole will continue to exist while [authorities] don’t get rid of Apple Daily. [Hong Kong] should act and ban Apple Daily, among other media outlets that incite violence and independence and challenge the national security law.

On April 17, Wen Wei Po ran a full-page feature criticizing the Hong Kong Journalists Association for “protecting the spread of fake news,” while also condemning the pro-democracy media outlets for “brain-washing” young people into becoming rioters. It then called for “a thorough investigation on the dissemination of fake news” by pro-democracy media outlets.

In addition to Apple Daily, the pro-Beijing paper also named The Stand News for “inciting hatred against the police authorities.”

The pro-democracy sector had previously anticipated that the Hong Kong government would introduce laws to “counter fake news” in order to suppress press freedom. Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing politicians have been advocating for such laws for months; recently, the city’s Chief Executive said that the Hong Kong government has been “the biggest victim of fake news.”

However, these latest talks about media collusion with foreign forces in spreading disinformation suggest that the police could instead use the national security law to prosecute media organizations.

This article is: Creative Commons — Attribution 3.0 Unported — CC BY 3.0 globalvoices.org

A Namibian couple’s battle to bring home twin daughters born via surrogacy

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A photo of Phillip Lühl (left)and his husband Guillermo Delgado with their family. Photo sourced from the petition page with permission

A photo of Phillip Lühl (right) and his husband Guillermo Delgado with their family. Photo sourced from their petition page with permission.

A Namibian high court denied, on April 19, travel documents to the infant twin daughters of a same-sex couple who were born in South Africa via surrogacy in March, in the latest development of a case that has caused a nationwide debate on LGBTQ+ rights in Namibia.

Phillip Lühl, a Namibian citizen, has been in Durban, South Africa, since the birth of his and his Mexican-born husband Guillermo Delgado’s legal daughters Paula and Maya, but has been unable to bring the babies home to Windhoek where the couple lives.

The Namibian Ministry of Home Affairs has so far denied the newborn twins the documents necessary for them to travel to Namibia, demanding Lühl undergo a DNA test in order to determine parentage.

Lühl then took the Ministry to court, arguing that its request for a DNA test contravenes both Nambinian and international law, but had his petition denied. As the newspaper The Namibian reported on April 19, judge Thomas Masuku ruled that it would be “judicial overreach” to obligate the authorities to issue the travel documents to the two girls.

The twins’ South African birth certificates state both Lühl and Delgado as their parents, but neither of the men has South African citizenship. The two girls “have been rendered de-facto stateless,” as Lühl says on a public document he drafted with the main details of the case.

The couple has another son who was born in South Africa via surrogacy in 2019. While they were able to bring the child to Namibia, his application for citizenship by descent has been pending for the past two years.

Lühl and Delgado’s case has been widely debated on social media and, for many Namibians, it is a symbol of the country’s LGBTQ+ community’s struggle for equal rights.

The couple’s quest to reunite their family unfolded as Namibia prepared to celebrate its independence’s 31st anniversary on March 21, which led many to regard the protection of sexual minorities as one of the failures of the country’s institutions.

An online petition started by Lühl and Delgado demanding the authorities allow them to reunite their family has gathered over 4,800 signatures so far.

On March 25, when Lühl’s application stood the first court hearing in Windhoek, around 100 people staged a solidarity rally.

Several rights groups have come out in support of the couple, including Sister Namibia, who over the course of several days published on its Facebook page stories of other same-sex couples who’ve had similar experiences with the Namibian authorities.

Ndiilokelwa Nthengwe, advocacy and communications officer at Out-Right Namibia, a non-profit that advocates for the rights of sexual and gender minorities, told Global Voices in an email:

As an organization, [the protest] is something that’s been long overdue, as we advocate not only for the right to have a family, but for marriage equality that is inclusive of LGBTQIA+ families.

She added that the case has broader implications for Namibia:

LGTBQIA+ families who are socio-economically vulnerable often do not have adequate resources to challenge the state and its oppressive and discriminatory systems, but socially, families continue to live amongst the broader Namibian population.

Not all voices on social media showed solidarity to Lühl and Delgado. Some pointed to the Namibian law and the fact that neither surrogacy nor same-sex marriage is allowed in the country.

Some voices condemn homosexuality in and of itself, regarding it as a “Western phenomenon,” to be rejected. Others point to religious values.

At this point, the contradiction of the argument becomes apparent. On the one hand, they see homosexuality as an outgrowth of Western influence in Africa while justifying discrimination with reference to Christian values — which were imposed by European colonialists.

Nthengwe comments on this entanglement of the decolonial struggle and homophobic statements:

The fight for liberation has always been highjacked by cisgender heterosexual (black) men, and this fundamentally erased the efforts and advocacy of women and consequentially, that of the LGBTQIA+ contributions (intentionally and unabashedly). This is the colonial legacy and hang-up nobody boldly intends to address fully and honestly”, writes Ndiilokelwa Nthengwe.

It remains to be seen whether the authorities will fulfill the rights of Lühls and his family. In the meantime, the displays of solidarity by Namibians, both on social media and at the protest in Windhoek, are a testament to the aspirations of some parts of the country’s society, whose aspirations might no longer be reflected on its laws.

This article is: Creative Commons — Attribution 3.0 Unported — CC BY 3.0 globalvoices.org

How Azerbaijan’s government abused Facebook’s loopholes—for years

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Photo by Alex Haney, Unsplash. https://unsplash.com/photos/AGqzy-Uj3s4

A series of recent reports by the British newspaper The Guardian revealed that Azerbaijani officials have been persistently abusing loopholes on Facebook in order to generate fake engagement.

The investigation, which focuses on 25 different countries, showed Facebook has tolerated major abuses of its platform in small or non-Western nations as it prioritized issues that attracted international media attention or affected the United States and its adversaries, such as Russia and Iran.

The Guardian’s report comes after the leak of an internal memo by former Facebook data scientist Sophie Zhang, in which she outlined concrete examples of how the company “repeatedly allowed world leaders and politicians to use its platform to deceive the public or harass opponents despite being alerted to evidence of the wrongdoing.”

Zhang was fired for performance in September 2020. On her final day, she published the memo internally, which was then obtained and first reported on by BuzzFeed News.

One of the examples described in Zhang’s memo deals with Azerbaijan, where, she says, the ruling party Yeni Azərbaycan utilized thousands of inauthentic assets (…) to harass the opposition en masse” in 2019.

The main loophole exploited by Azerbaijani actors, according to the memo and the follow-up investigation, was the fact that while Facebook restricts the number of profiles a single user can administer, it imposes no comparable restriction on pages. That means that a single person can administrate thousands of pages, and those are able to perform the same kinds of engagements — such as liking, sharing, and commenting — as personal profiles.

“(…) The individuals behind this activity (…) primarily relied on authentic accounts to create Pages designed to look like user profiles — using false names and stock images — to comment and artificially boost the popularity of particular pro-government content,” the memo said.

Despite warnings, Zhang says Facebook only started looking into the case of Azerbaijan a year later, in October of 2020, when it announced the removal of 589 profiles, 7,665 pages, and 437 accounts on Instagram that were linked to the ruling party or its youth branch. According to Facebook, these accounts violated Facebook’s policy on “coordinated inauthentic behavior.”

However, according to recent reports by Azerbaijan Internet Watch, a platform that documents information controls in Azerbaijan, the problem continues to this day.

In February 2021, Meydan TV, an independent Berlin-based news website, posted a call for applications for a program aimed at Azerbaijani content creators to produce thematic media pieces on cultural and political issues about the country.

The post received hundreds of negative comments; a closer look revealed that they were made mostly by pages posing as real people.

On March 24, Mikroskop Media, another overseas online news platform covering Azerbaijan, posted on its Facebook page an infographic with data about the country’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout. The post received over 1,600 comments, many of them negative. Once again, a closer look revealed that most of them came from inauthentic pages.

Facebook’s most recent report on coordinated inauthentic behavior was issued in March 2021; Azerbaijan was not mentioned on the list of countries where inauthentic networks had been taken down.

The government of Azerbaijan has long been exploiting social media platforms, especially Facebook, to target critics both at home and abroad.

Ahead of a referendum in 2016 that opposition groups were boycotting, a live broadcast by Azadliq Radio (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s service in Azerbaijan) and Meydan TV was heavily spammed in what later was found to have been a coordinated action connected to the ruling party.

In recent years, scores of political activists and media platforms have had their Facebook pages and profiles compromised through hacking. Last month, a group of women activists was targeted through a series of leaked intimate videos and photos. Both Facebook and Telegram were used to disseminate the content.

Azerbaijan’s track record on human rights and freedom of expression is rather poor, according to rankings and indexes published annually by international human rights and media freedom watchdogs. Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index 2021 ranked the country 168th out of 180. Freedom House classifies Azerbaijan as a “consolidated authoritarian regime.”

Much of Azerbaijan’s independent media and civil society has been silenced since 2014 as the government drastically ramped up its repressive apparatus in reaction to mass demonstrations that took place in the years before. Social media platforms are among the few remaining avenues for activists to organize and for the public to stay informed on news in the country.

While Facebook may be too busy resolving higher-profile cases of harassment, disinformation, and inauthentic behavior, its platform is affecting the very real lives of people in countries like Azerbaijan as well.

Editor’s note: The author of this story is the founder of Azerbaijan Internet Watch. She was also interviewed by The Guardian for its investigation on Facebook.

This article is: Creative Commons — Attribution 3.0 Unported — CC BY 3.0 globalvoices.org

Feminist activist in Russia faces prison term for ‘body-positive’ drawings

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“My body is not pornography!” reads the protester’s placard. “Is this an Article 242?” wonders the policeman. Article 242 of Russia’s Criminal Code criminalizes the creation and exchange of pornographic materials. Image (c): Yulia Tsvetkova. Used with permission.

Yulia Tsvetkova, a feminist artist, theatre director, and LGBT activist, is facing six years in prison on charges of distributing pornographic images for sharing her drawings on social media that supporters have called “body-positive.”

On April 12,  a court in Kosmomolsk-on-Amur, in Russia’s Far East Khabarovsk region, began the latest trial in Tsvetkova’s case. The trial is taking place behind closed doors, allegedly because pornographic imagery is being displayed.

Tsvetkova, a 27-year-old artist and theatre director, is accused of “creating and distributing pornographic materials” (Article 242 (3b) of Russia’s Criminal Code) for posting several drawings of naked women and vaginas on her VKontakte page. The drawings are part of her body-positive art project, “A woman is not a doll.” The charges under Article 242 could result in a prison sentence of up to six years.

Tsvetkova’s mother, Anna Khodyreva, told AFP that she was not allowed to attend the closed hearing and called the case “absurd.” She said that everything was “being done to ensure that we have as little information as possible.”

Natalia Zvyagina, Russia director for Amnesty International, criticized the decision to have a closed hearing and said Russian authorities should “guarantee a public hearing” in Tsvetkova’s case. Along with Memorial human rights center, Amnesty has labeled Tsvetkova a prisoner of conscience and has called on Russia to remove all charges and to “stop targeting feminist, LGBTI and other activists”.

A history of persecution

Yulia Tsvetkova has previously run several educational projects in Khabarovsk, as well as a youth theatre, online groups on feminism and sex education for young people, and a Vagina Monologues group which celebrated the power and uniqueness of the female body.

Yulia Tsvetkova outside a courthouse. Photo (c): Yulia Tsvetkova.

She was initially detained in November 2019, and placed under house arrest until March 16, 2020. In December 2019, she was found guilty of violating the Russian law banning “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors.” She was fined 50,000 rubles (USD780), and in July 2020 was saddled with another fine of 75,000 rubles (USD1,050) for posting a drawing featuring same-sex couples with children with the caption “Family is where love is. Support LGBT+ families.”

She told AFP last year she believes the authorities were using the pornography charge as a opportunity to crack down on her LGBT activism, because it is easy to pin on citizens and carries a long sentence.

In a 2020 interview to oDR, openDemocracy‘s section on Russia and the post-Soviet space, Tsvetkova spoke about the impact of her house arrest and discussed threats she has faced from anti-LGBT activists. The current criminal case against her was launched after a complaint lodged by Timur Bulatov, a well-known anti-LGBT activist. She also reflected on her status as a political prisoner:

Мне кажется, что у нас в стране сейчас очень много невидимых женщин-политзаключенных: это матери, жены, те женщины, которые из-за политических процессов несут на себе дичайшую нагрузку. Про них особо не говорят и не пишут, а если и пишут, то как про “чьих-то мам”, “чьих-то жен”. Политзеки — это герои, а это так, невидимый обслуживающий персонал.

I feel that today there are so many invisible female political prisoners: mothers, wives – women who bear an incredible burden as a result of political legal processes. People don’t talk or write about them, or if they do, it’s in terms of “somebodies’ mums, somebodies’ wives”. Political prisoners are heroes, but women are the invisible service staff.

The next hearing in Yulia Tsvetkova’s case will be held on May 6.

This article is: Creative Commons — Attribution 3.0 Unported — CC BY 3.0 globalvoices.org

LIVE on April 22—Myanmar: Coup & civil disobedience

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Graphic of soldiers and civilians by Badiucao. Used with permission.

The Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, staged a coup on February 1. Two-plus months later, hundreds have been killed by the junta, thousands detained, and many more facing arrest warrants. What the military didn’t anticipate, however, was the resistance and defiance of Myanmar’s citizens, who continue to challenge the coup and the armed forces’ terror tactics.

Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement has devised creative and daring ways to express dissent, in spite of internet disruptions, harassment and attacks on journalists, and the forced closure of several news outlets.

As events continue to unfold, and as part of our ongoing coverage of the situation, Global Voices will host a webinar on April 22 at 1pm GMT (click on this link to calculate the equivalent time in your time zone) to explore what’s happening in Myanmar.

In conversation with our invited guests and through testimonials from people inside Myanmar, we’ll explore what it’s like to live under siege by the military—and to resist those forces, especially during a pandemic. We’ll learn more about the civil disobedience movement and how it became a potent weapon against the junta. And finally, we’ll seek to inspire solidarity and offer concrete ways for our readers and the global community to support Myanmar’s democracy movement.

The session is free of charge and open to the public and will be live-streamed on Facebook LiveYouTube and Twitch.

Our speakers:

Mong Palatino Global Voices’ Southeast Asia editor, Mong has spearheaded our coverage of the events in Myanmar. In addition to hosting the session, he will provide an overview of the country’s transition to democracy over the past decade and of what has transpired since the military takeover.

Ben Crox a Hong Kong-based BarCamp curator and a trainer on new media communication technology and skills, Ben has experience doing business in Myanmar and will discuss how people there are dealing with the military crackdown, and how people from the outside can help.

Hsa Moo a member of the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), Hsa will discuss the situation in Karen state and other parts of Myanmar.

We look forward to having you join us on April 22 at 1pm GMT (click this link to convert to your local time zone)!

This article is: Creative Commons — Attribution 3.0 Unported — CC BY 3.0 globalvoices.org

How resisting the security law clampdown brought out Hongkongers’ creativity

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A socially distanced protest outside the RTHK broadcasting house. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP. Use with permission.

The following post was published by Hong Kong Free Press on April 15, 2021. A lightly edited version is published on Global Voices via a content partnership agreement.

On April 15, Hong Kong marks its first National Security Education Day since Beijing imposed the controversial new law last June. Despite growing restrictions on political activity and freedom of expression, city residents have continued to carry out acts of resistance. HKFP takes a look at how Hongkongers are continuing to make their voices heard.

Queuing

Last month, hundreds of people queued outside the West Kowloon Law Courts building to support 47 democrats charged under the national security law over their participation in primary elections for the since-postponed Legislative Council election.

Despite having little or no chance of getting into the court, large numbers – many dressed in black to show solidarity – stayed in the orderly queue for hours to make their point.

Despite a heavy security presence and a police warning, people chanted protest slogans such as “five demands, not one less,” and “liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” which may be in violation of the national security law.

Apart from lining up to attend court hearings, Hongkongers have also resorted to an activity for which they are renowned – queueing up to shop. Most notably, they got in line to support AbouThai, a retail chain that was raided by Hong Kong Customs over missing safety warnings on some of its products.

Van chasers, court watchers, and prison letters

According to the Security Bureau, 10,242 people have been arrested over the anti-extradition bill protests, and 2,521 people have either completed or are involved in ongoing legal proceedings.

As the number of court hearings piled up, a new group of people began to attend to show solidarity and lend support not just to well-known activists, but also others who were prosecuted during the anti-extradition bill protests.

When prison vans leave court buildings, it is not uncommon to see people chasing after them shouting goodbyes and support. Others have become “court watchers,” regularly turning up to the public gallery to witness trials.

With limited access to news and information behind bars, associates of remanded or jailed politicians have also provided addresses for the public to send letters to them.

Prisoners’ rights groups such as Wall-fare and Swallow Life are also pairing up jailed protesters with members of the public as pen pals to keep inmates in touch with the outside world.

Wall-fare has also gathered items such as snacks and cleaning supplies approved by the Correctional Services Department for activists in custody or in jail.

Yellow economy

Shopping at AbouThai is not an isolated trend. In fact, many Hongkongers have made an effort to support pro-democracy shops and restaurants in their day-to-day life.

These shops are often referred to as “Yellow shops,” and netizens have come up with lists of venues that fit the criteria – from cinemas to grocery stores – as an attempt to build a “yellow economy” and to sustain the pro-democracy movement.

Many also boycott “blue stores,” which are affiliated with the establishment, China, or the pro-Beijing camp.

Socially distanced protests

Protests, rallies, and street booths have adapted to the anti-pandemic regulations introduced in March 2020 by meeting in smaller groups. In cases where the number of participants exceeds the stipulated limitations (currently a maximum of four people), participants made sure to keep socially distant by standing at least 1.5 metres apart.

However, eight members from the League of Social Democrats and the Labour Party were jailed for 14-days and handed an 18-month suspended sentence over a socially distanced protest on Labour Day last year.

Meanwhile, many have continued to lay floral tributes, pineapple buns, and souvenirs at 2019 protest hotspots and sites where demonstrators lost their lives.

Mass resignations

All pro-democracy lawmakers quit the Legislative Council in November 2020 after the government disqualified four of their colleagues: Kwok Ka-ki, Alvin Yeung, Kenneth Leung, and Dennis Kwok.

The move came after the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) passed a resolution allowing the government to oust lawmakers that were deemed to be endangering national security.

Blanking it

After the implementation of the national security law, “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times,” a slogan popular during the anti-extradition bill protests, was deemed illegal by the government.

In response, the public held “blank placard” protests in shopping malls across the city in July last year.

Post-it notes normally filled with protest slogans and messages of support were left blank on Lennon walls across the city.

Reading the Apple Daily

Buying and reading the pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily has become an act of resistance in itself as its founder Jimmy Lai was arrested and charged under the national security law.

The media tycoon was accused of committing fraud by violating land-lease terms, as well as using Twitter and his newspaper to “request” foreign governments to impose sanctions on Hong Kong and mainland Chinese officials.

Crowdfunding

With many pro-democracy activists and politicians facing lawsuits and huge legal fees, some started up Patreon pages that allow supporters to subscribe and provide monthly financial support to cover legal fees and living costs.

Despite police crackdown on crowdfunding, the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which was set up in June 2019 to support legal and other urgent expenses of protesters, raised more than HK$11.5 million (around 1,4 million US dollars) in six days in January following an appeal to the public for funds.

Gaming

Hong Kong people have also taken their political activism into the game world. A group of activists have developed the game “Liberate Hong Kong,” which recreates the experience of participating in an anti-extradition bill protest.

The popular Nintendo game Animal Crossing was also used to express political dissent by Hongkongers, as they have created pro-democracy and anti-government messages within the digital world, including flags containing protest slogans.

Yellow masks

Associated with the color representing the pro-democracy camp during the protests, wearing yellow face masks became a symbol of dissent especially after a judge requested people in court to change their facemasks as one “should not express their personal opinion in court.”

However, Hong Kong face mask manufacturer Yellowfactory suspended its business operations after pro-Beijing lawmakers and newspapers said one of their designs violated the national security law.

One of the manufacturer’s most popular design was printed with “F.D.N.O.L.” – an abbreviation of the protest slogan “Five Demands, Not One Less”

Overseas advocacy

Hongkongers who moved overseas have also continued their expression of dissent even after they have left the city.

Eight Hong Kong pro-democracy activists in self-imposed exile overseas have launched a charter calling for democracy and autonomy in the city, as well as solidarity among Hongkongers overseas.

Apart from coordinated efforts by more well-known figures, Hongkongers have also organised rallies to support other groups. For example, hundreds of Hongkongers appeared in the solidarity rally in Manchester in support of pro-democracy protesters in Myanmar on April 11.

This article is: Creative Commons — Attribution 3.0 Unported — CC BY 3.0 globalvoices.org