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Trinidad & Tobago’s problem with gender-based violence

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Twenty-three-year-old Andrea Bharatt went missing on January 29, last seen alive as she and a friend got into a taxi after work. The friend made it home; when Bharatt didn’t, her father called her mobile. Eventually, a man answered and demanded money, though a ransom amount was never specified. On February 4, despite the efforts of law enforcement and civilians alike, Bharatt’s body was found at the base of a precipice in northeast Trinidad.

Her murder prompted a national outcry, especially as it came just two months after the abduction of teenager Ashanti Riley, who herself took “public” transportation and ended up dead. (The car in which Bharatt was abducted bore a false hired car license plate.)

The Bharatt case, however, has been plagued by controversy. Two of the suspects have died since being detained by police. The first, Andrew Morris—according to a media release from the Commissioner of Police—died because of co-morbidities after having fallen off a chair. A private autopsy subsequently revealed he was beaten to death. Furthermore, doubt has been cast as to his involvement in the crime, as he told police he was only in the business of renting cars.

The second, Joel Balcon (aka Devon Charles), who had 70 charges against him including rape and “grievous” sexual assault, died in the intensive care unit of a public hospital. As many as 45 of the cases against him were pending at the time of his detention by police.

Such glaring missteps have focused the spotlight on the country’s inept criminal justice system as well as its culture of misogyny and gender-based violence. For some, it has also revealed how citizens struggle to effect real change and the ways in which government processes often lag behind, despite protests and petitions:

A history of violence against women

A 2002 United Nations (UN) report by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women found that as far back as the 1990s, gender-based violence, including sexual attacks on women and young girls, was “pervasive” and had “long been a matter of grave concern for the Government.”

At the time, the government implemented a robust and comprehensive programme to specifically tackle domestic violence, but decades later, rates of gender-based violence are still predominant in the country.

In 2020 alone, 45 women and two girls were murdered.

Day by day, year after year, women are under attack. In 2014, senior counsel Dana Seetahal was gunned down in her car, the victim of an execution-style killing. In 2015, television presenter Marcia Henville was murdered in her home, reportedly the victim of domestic violence.

In 2016, after the body of Asami Nagakiya, a steelpan player from Japan who was visiting Trinidad and Tobago for Carnival, was found under a tree in the Queen’s Park Savannah on Ash Wednesday morning, then mayor of Port of Spain, Raymond Tim Kee, added insult to injury by saying “women have a responsibility to ensure they are not abused during the Carnival season.” Protests over victim-blaming ensued and the mayor eventually resigned.

Women are harassed on the street and in their places of work. By the close of 2016, when 20-year-old bank employee Shannon Banfield went missing and was later found in the storeroom of a variety store in Port of Spain, people said, “Enough is enough.”

Yet, 2017 had barely begun when the first female murder of that year occurred, that of a schoolgirl. Then, after the murder of Jamilia Derevenax, whose throat was slit by an assailant she knew, in the parking garage of a popular cineplex, Prime Minister Keith Rowley suggested that women should choose their partners wisely to avoid violence, demonstrating how well entrenched the victim-blaming response is, even as women continued to be killed.

Emotional, physical and sexual abuse

A 2017 Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) National Women’s Health Survey for Trinidad and Tobago showed relatively high statistics for emotional, physical and sexual abuse against women, both in relationships and with “non-partners,” from a survey field of 1,079 interviewees.

More than 30 per cent of women, for instance, reported having experienced either physical or sexual partner violence or both, at least once. Close to one in three women experienced sexual violence, including rape, attempted rape, unwanted touching, and reported sexual violence. For many, this happened before the age of 18. The report also found that at 21.3 per cent, cases of non-partner sexual violence were almost four times higher than acts of sexual violence perpetrated by a partner (5 per cent).

The way forward

The National Women’s Health Survey laid out several recommendations for ways in which gender-based violence could be combated in Trinidad and Tobago—suggestions which echo those of many social media users—including more adequate spaces and services for women leaving violent domestic situations, procedural review, mandatory human rights, gender sensitivity, and on-the-job training for police officers (though there is a Gender-Based Violence Unit in the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service), educational campaigns that “deconstruct some of the gendered perceptions that fuel male violence,” and trustworthy health services.

Some, however, realised that the root of the problem goes much deeper. After Bharatt’s abduction, activist “Tillah Willah” shared a video of the calypsonian Scrunter’s 1979 song “Take The Number,” which advised women to make a note of the license plate of any car they get into, commenting:

Scrunter sing this in 1979. 2021 come and allyuh still blaming women if they can’t figure out what a predator looks like instead of changing the way we raise boys to think women’s bodies are property.

Writer Debbie Jacob, who runs an educational programme for prisoners, feels change needs to start at the top:

Police and prisons are not functioning anywhere near the level they should be functioning. We choose to perpetuate irrelevant education and throw people — innocent and guilty — into prison, which is basically a school for crime. We don’t have enough educational programmes, skill-based programmes and rehabilitation programmes are virutally nonexististent in prisons. We don’t have any rehabilitation programmes for sexual offenders in our prisons. We are not holding anyone accountable in this country. We don’t care about people being in prison to study the craft of crime for over a decade before the courts that can’t hear cases fast enough throw the case out. And those of us who are trying to address the crime problem and offer solutions can’t get traction or consistency to function. Dysfunction and apathy prevail in this country with periodic outbursts of anger and disgust when a crime occurs. Victims deserve better than this. Start asking questions at the top. What is being done?

Since Bharatt’s murder, parliament has passed the Evidence Bill, which will introduce more modern mechanisms for evidence gathering in criminal trials. More controversially, pepper spray has been approved as a self-defense tool, though anyone who wants to purchase the product will require a permit to do so.

Citizens understand that it is time for immense change, but with the above measures not really addressing the causes of the problem, the question remains: will those with the power to effect change make the necessary moves to protect women?

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

Are Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University protests an expression of exceptionalism? 

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“Election Campaign” by Travel Aficionado licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Turkey has been rocked by renewed protests since January when President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appointed a less than qualified individual as the rector of Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University.

Considered to be the “Harvard of Turkey,” Boğaziçi University has long-standing traditions of academic excellence and world-class research, and the “political” appointment of Melih Bulu, an alleged plagiarist, was ill-received. The administration, faculty and student body of the university were not consulted in the appointment decision, and they opposed the imposition of what they considered to be an illegitimate and unacceptable appointment, and this lead to the protests.

From the protesters’ perspective, the appointment of Bulu represents the denigration of academic standards, liberal thought, and a long tradition of the university coming to a consensus of who the rector should be. Many members of the university believe that this is precisely what President Erdoğan was aiming to accomplish: supplanting the leadership of one of the few remaining bastions of critical thinking, an institution that takes pride in developing Turkey’s liberal and globally aware intelligentsia—two traits that Erdogan has been wrestling to quash since the onset of the Gezi Park protests of 2013.

In December 2015, Erdoğan stated that despite his government’s numerous achievements in the economic and political realms, it had failed to replicate these achievements in the cultural and educational arenas. The move to appoint a blatantly unsuitable person to lead Boğaziçi University is a clear signal that he is ready to browbeat the remnants of Turkey’s remaining pluralist and liberal minds. What does this say about where Erdoğan is taking his home-grown brand of authoritarianism? 

The short answer is, nowhere good. President Erdoğan has largely achieved his conquest of the educational and cultural realms he so desired. Boğaziçi University was an outlier where Erdoğan’s prerogative to determine whom he wants to lead which state organization was largely left untouched, until now.

Throughout the 2010s, under Erdoğan’s leadership as Prime Minister, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) governments assaulted the cause of education in Turkey, altering fundamental aspects of the primary education system, including removing the teaching of and references to evolution theory. This has been compounded by interfering in the appointment of university administrators across public universities. From faculty members, deans, vice-rectors, all the way to rectors, Erdoğan has made a point of personally appointing those he deems fit to lead close to 200 public institutions throughout the country. Even the conditions under which a scholar is granted tenure and promotion have been tampered with, so as to facilitate the academic appointment of individuals sympathetic to Erdoğan, who under normal circumstances would not be appointed.

One is left wondering, why, when these assaults on the educational system have been taking place, stronger voices have not been raised? Another way to put this: is it the case that what is happening to Boğaziçi University now is more protest-worthy? Is Boğaziçi University more special than the remainder of Turkey’s public educational establishments which have been brutalized by the AKP?

On February 15, a panel of former and current Boğaziçi University faculty members was convened to inform wider domestic and international audiences about what is happening on the university’s grounds. Listening to the panelists reflect on the turmoil befalling their university, one could be forgiven for leveling the charge of exceptionalism. The online discussion, three and a half hours long, overwhelmingly focused on what the implications of Bulu were for Boğaziçi and what could and should be done by those inside and outside of Turkey to help the institution overcome this tragedy.

As the discussion wore on, one could not help but think this is exactly where Erdoğan wants Boğaziçi and its supporters: focused on the institution and fighting to overcome an illiberal and draconian imposition. He is a mastermind of manipulating dissident groups such as academics and journalists to dwell upon individual and case-specific grievances that befall them in the immediate moment. This narrows the scope of opponents that Erdoğan and the AKP have to delegitimize and swiftly eliminate. In the case of the Boğaziçi protestors, he has already achieved this by referring to the student and faculty protestors as “terrorists” and filling the campus with an overwhelming police presence. In days and months to come, many of these protesting individuals will likely be prosecuted, lose their jobs, livelihoods and dismissed as students from the university. Is their cause just and the right path to pursue?

After nearly 20 years of AKP rule, having the right answers is hard to claim. Their cause is just but possibly mistakenly channeled. Perhaps, when confronting the curtailment of academic freedoms, a concerted effort would make more of an impact. What would make Erdoğan’s life increasingly difficult would be for academia as a whole in Turkey to unify around a single platform and pursue vociferously a rigorous set of demands focused on academic freedoms.

This should not be a pursuit of one institution’s rights and privileges, and a means to rectify the ways in which Boğaziçi University has been wronged. As in many forms of popular uprising, focusing on boutique causes siphons strength and momentum from the larger goal. It may, however, be too late. Erdoğan’s mission to re-structure primary and secondary education is largely complete, having co-opted the lion’s share of public university administrations to implement his vision. Boğaziçi University was simply a castle waiting to be toppled.

In approaching the Boğaziçi University affair as a singular problem to overcome, the future may be bleak for Turkey’s democratic and pluralist movements. Erdoğan may have come to the realization that the current protests, unlike those for Gezi Park, are too singular and narrow, likely allowing him to neutralize them.

For academic freedoms to survive in Turkey, it will take more voices to deter Erdoğan than those bent on saving their one, beloved institution. It has to be bigger than one university and be embraced by academia nationwide. This is made all the more difficult by the fact that events such as the Boğaziçi University protests quickly spiral out of the original issue and immediately become “X aggrieved group” vs. Erdoğan. In such a case, and once the protest begins to focus on Erdoğan, this is when all resources of the state are mobilized to disproportionately eliminate the threat posed. Erdoğan cannot and will not countenance another countrywide protest movement such as Gezi Park. That presents an existential threat to his incumbency, which he has learned to thwart.

Erdoğan’s regime has morphed into a cancer for the country, the region and the cause of democracy around the world. For it to be challenged and ultimately defeated, the need for concerted action is more important now than at any point in Turkey’s history as a republic. 

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

Algeria releases dozens of pro-democracy prisoners ahead of Hirak anniversary

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Screenshot of Berbere TV interview with Rachid Nekkaz following his release. He appears here holding back tears as he spoke of his disease.

Algerian authorities released on February 19 at least 33 political detainees linked to the Hirak protests as part of an amnesty that came ahead of the uprising’s second anniversary, which was marked by thousands of protesters returning to the streets.

The Associated Press reported on Monday that thousands of demonstrators paid heed to calls for people to take to the streets, in protest to the unmet political, social, and economic reforms demanded in the 2019 uprising that came to be known as Hirak. Rallies took place in the capital Algiers and other parts of the North African country.

The presidential amnesty announced on February 18, accompanied by a parliament dissolution and a pending cabinet reshuffle, was not sufficient to appease the masses.

Among those released is political activist Rachid Nekkaz, who was jailed without trial since December 2019, and whose health had seen a sharp decline in recent weeks as a result of prostate cancer and liver disease.

Talking to local Berber TV following his release, Nekkaz said he had lost 14 kg because of his illness, and has been unable to sleep because of the frequent visits to the bathroom. Holding back tears, he recalled how his father died of the same illness in 2011.

Prominent journalist Khalid Drareni, 40, was also among those pardoned after almost a year of being held in prison over his reporting on the Hirak protests.

A crowd of supporters awaited Drareni at his home to celebrate his release.

Journalist Khaled Drareni arrives at his home. A welcoming group made up of his supporters awaits him.

Speaking to AFP, Drareni’s lawyer Abdelghani Badi said that the release was “provisional.” The news agency quoted lawyer and rights activists Mostefa Bouchachi as saying that Drareni still awaits a Supreme Court ruling on this appeal on February 25. He was sentenced in August to three years in prison, which was reduced by a September ruling to a year — a verdict still seen as unjust by his supporters.

Another prominent Hirak activist, Dalila Touat, who had been on hunger strike in prison since January 3, was also among those released on Friday.

The Hirak protests, which broke out in February 2019, uprooted the decades-long rule of strongman President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and continued until its suspension in March 2020 because of the COVID-19. Discontent, however, brewed among the masses over slow tangible political, economic and social change, as the pandemic weighed on the oil-rich country.

The presidential pardon, announced on Thursday, is seen as an attempt to mitigate the crowds amidst growing momentum for protests to resume in the next couple of days. More prisoners are expected to be released, as President Abdelmajdid Tebboune was quoted by AFP as saying that around 55 to 60 Hirak members would benefit from the amnesty.

According to the National Committee for the Liberation of Prisoners (CNLD), over 70 people have been arrested in the past two years over their links to the Hirak protests.

Aside from the pardon, President Tebboune also ordered a cabinet reshuffle and the dissolving of the parliament, other attempts by the state to mitigate the population.

According to the BBC, protests had already begun on February 16 with thousands gathering in Kherrata, to the east of the capital, and chants of “Algeria, free, democratic” being heard on the streets, amidst heightened security presence.

Social media platforms have been peppered with posts encouraging protesters to join the protests, with some sharing precautionary measures to reduce COVID-19 spread.

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

Myanmar citizens continue strong opposition to military junta with ‘22222’ general strike

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A community protest during the “22222” general strike in Myanmar. Photo by a citizen journalist shared with Global Voices, used with permission

On Monday February 22, thousands joined a general strike across Myanmar organized to express opposition to the military government.

Dubbed “22222” or “Five Twos” in reference to the date (22/2/21), the strike mobilized the biggest protests since the military grabbed power on February 1.

Reports compared the strike action to the nationwide uprising held in defiance of the junta on August 8, 1988 (Four Eights) .

The military staged the coup on February 1 following claims of massive fraud in the 2020 election, a charge disputed both by the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) and the electoral commission. Parliament members and top NLD officials, including State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, were arrested during the first day of the coup.

Citizens launched a civil disobedience movement in response to the coup. The campaign has gathered support and gained in momentum despite a ban on protests, the intermittent disruption of the internet, and the use of violence by security forces to suppress anti-coup activities.

Monday’s strike reflected the scale of public indignation over the coup, the continuing detention of elected leaders, and the recent shooting of protesters by the police.

Journalist Wa Lone posted an overview of Monday’s events:

Businesses shut in Myanmar on Monday in a general strike called to oppose the military coup and thousands of protesters gathered in towns and cities despite a chilling message from the junta that confrontation would cost more lives.

The “chilling message” pertains to a statement by the authorities demonizing the strike and threatening those who participated, a move that was quickly condemned by a United Nations human rights expert.

A strike participant spoke to Frontier magazine about the workers’ commitment to fighting the military dictatorship:

If we oppose the dictatorship, they might shoot us. Everyone knows it. But we have to oppose dictatorship. It’s our duty. That’s why so many people are coming out today against them.

Many businesses closed operations in anticipation of the strike.

Photos of massive protests in different cities were shared on social media:

Among those consistently providing support to the civil disobedience movement are many Buddhist monks.

Monks were among those who joined the “22222” general strike in Myanmar. Photo by a citizen journalist shared with Global Voices, used with permission

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

English soccer authorities suspend foreign star for a ‘racist’ remark, but it was nothing of the kind

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Edinson Cavani, Uruguay and Manchester United striker. Photo by Ben Sutherland/Flickr under CC BY 2.0

This article was originally published on Persuasion and is edited by Global Voices.

Edinson Cavani was ecstatic. Manchester United’s star Uruguayan striker had scored two cinematic goals in a dramatic, come-from-behind 3-2 win against Southampton in England’s Premier League. His friend from back home, Pablo Fernández, sent congratulations on Instagram, to which Cavani answered, using Fernández’s lifelong nickname: “Gracias negrito.”

There, his troubles began. Some in the British media seized upon Cavani’s reply of last November as being racially offensive, so the player hurriedly apologized, and took down the Instagram post. But it was too late. The English Football Association—while finding “no intent on the part of the player to be discriminatory or offensive in any way”—still fined him £100,000 (around US$135,000), and suspended him for three games.

To us Latin Americans, the story was just short of incomprehensible. “Negrito”—the diminutive of the word for “black”—sounds aggressive in English. But, as Uruguay’s National Academy of Letters noted, in Spanish it’s not offensive; it’s a term of endearment. It’s not even particularly racialized: Plenty of white people are nicknamed negrito, including, as it happens, Cavani’s friend. (His hair is black.)

“Unfortunately,” a statement from the Uruguayan Players’ Union read, “through its sanction, the English Football Association expresses absolute ignorance and disdain for a multicultural vision of the world.” The South American Football Confederation, CONMEBOL, also expressed its support for Cavani. One Uruguayan winery began marketing a new “Gracias Negrito” vintage.

It’s easy to see this as the latest case of Context Collapse—the inevitable misunderstanding that arises on social media when content produced for one audience reaches a separate audience primed to take offense. But it goes further than that. The Cavani case shows how the U.S.A.’s racial debates are being globalized via the export of a radical form of antiracist ideology that sees appeals to context or cross-cultural understanding as excuse-making for bigots.

Let’s be clear: Afro-descendants in Latin America face definite disadvantages. According to a 2018 World Bank report, Afro-descendants in the region are 2.5 times more likely to live in chronic poverty than whites or mestizos (people of mixed ancestry). They also have fewer years of schooling on average, higher unemployment rates and less representation in decision-making positions, both public and private.

However, the situation is more complex than the simplistic black/white paradigm that pervades American debates over race. For example, the indigenous population of Latin America is around 50 million people, who belong to almost 500 different ethnic groups. Material poverty affects 43 per cent of indigenous households in the region, and extreme poverty is 2.7 times greater than in the rest of the population. Above all, racial identification and dynamics in Latin America are far more fluid than in the United States or Britain.

What’s hardest for my Anglo friends to grasp is that race in Latin America is context dependent: People with the same skin tone and physical appearance may choose to identify differently depending on where they are, what they’re doing, who they’re with. Race isn’t fixed for us—which is one reason that racialized terms in Spanish don’t carry anything like the sting they do in English.

I should know. My last name is Sosa because the grandmother of my paternal grandfather adopted the surname of her “owners.” Her parents had been kidnapped in what is now Angola and ended up working at a ranch in Choroni, Venezuela. Growing up in Caracas, my race would switch back and forth seamlessly, depending on whom I was hanging out with. Back in high school, when I did a Spice Girls choreography with a group of girlfriends, I was Mel B, “Scary Spice”—my hair is curly and my nose is wide, and my friends were all lighter-skinned than I, so in that context I was Black. Later, when I volunteered in a community with darker-skinned kids, they all called me “catira” (“blondie”) because of my lighter-than-Caribbean-average skin color. Ask me what my race is, and the only honest answer I can give is … it depends.

In our region, where race-mixing (mestizaje or mestiçagem) was often the norm starting in the 19th century, we have a far more complex color system than just black or white: Brazilians, for example, use more than 130 terms to describe shades of skin color. Trying to make sense of these categories using Anglo-American racial categories is hopeless—that’s just not how we think about these things.

Paula Salerno—a linguist who founded Discursopolis, the online Spanish-language text analysis tool—told me that banning a given word regardless of the context in which it is used assumes that words exist in isolation from how we use them. To a linguist, that is nonsense.

In Spanish-language media, there was near universal astonishment at the sanction Cavani received. “Unfair” and “disproportionate” were the words that came up most often. Try as I might, I could not find one antiracism organization unequivocally and officially supporting the punishment.

However, some activists in the region did think the fine and the three-match ban were justified. Sandra Chagas, an Afro-Uruguayan antiracism activist, supported it—but only when I pressed her to take a stand. “It has racist connotations with reminiscences of slavery,” she told me by phone. His punishment “is like a ticket for parking your vehicle in the wrong place: It doesn’t matter that you did it with good intentions or without knowing that it was banned.”

But Alejandro Mamani, who speaks for Identidad Marrón (Brown Identity), an online collective for brown-skinned Latin Americans, rejected the sanction. He argued that we should distinguish between expressions like “negrito” that have positive connotations and expressions that use “negro” as a pejorative term, like “mercado negro” (“black market”) or “magia negra” (“black magic”).

The English Football Association has in recent years supported a zero-tolerance policy toward racism. Considering the lamentable history of aggressive racism against players and among fans, this initiative is long overdue. Racism and hooliganism plagued stadiums, most notoriously during the 1980s, with Black players tormented with abuse and expected to play even as thugs in the stands threw bananas at them. Belatedly, the authorities cracked down, and English soccer stadiums are very different places today. Even so, players are still subjected to racism, especially via social media. So the Football Association is eager to support antiracist initiatives, and what could be wrong about that?

Ask Cavani. Applied without regard for social, cultural and linguistic context, antiracism efforts risk becoming a caricature of themselves, driving a wedge between people of different cultures rather than bringing them together, as soccer does so impressively around the globe, engaging people of all origins and colors in team efforts. The English Football Association, with its over-the-top sanction of Cavani, managed instead to show only mindless adherence to a brand of maximalist Anglo-American antiracism ideology that does little to combat racism itself.

Rather than exporting its hair-trigger racial neuroses, the Anglosphere should consider whether there is something positive to import from Latin Americans in how we reckon with the vast complexity of identity rather than seeking binary opposition—and, in the best cases, how we acknowledge superficial differences with affection in a way that takes the sting out of racial terms.

Article licenced under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/ Source: globalvoices.org

Algerian activist Rachid Nekkaz’s failing health raises calls for his release

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Image showing Rachid Nekkaz in one of the protests. Permission to use by Mouvement de Jeune et Changement (MJC), founded by Nekkaz.

The health of detained Algerian political activist Rachid Nekkaz has deteriorated to life-threatening status since his transfer last month to an isolated prison, over 750 kilometres from the capital—adding momentum to voices calling for his release.

Nekkaz, a 49-year-old businessman, is one of the prominent figures opposing the Algerian political regime. He was a key player in the February 2019 movement that overthrew the rule of former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and which is approaching its second anniversary on February 22. Now there are calls to revive the movement’s demands and return to mass demonstrations in light of the country’s ailing social, political and economic conditions, and the slow pace of tangible change that was demanded by millions of Algerians two years ago.

Commenting on what is happening to Rachid Nekkaz and many other prisoners of conscience in Algeria, blogger and journalist Abdelmoundji Khelladi wrote:

Terrorists live like sultans, such as Madani Mezrag and his ilk, who were rewarded in sums for killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people, as well as Abdul Razzaq Al-Bara. But prison and slow killing, these were allocated for Rashid Nekaz, Khaled Dararni and Ibrahim Lamati.

Nekkaz was arrested on December 4, 2019 at Houari Boumediene Airport, Algiers, upon arriving from Spain. He was brought before the Casablanca Court, where the investigating judge ordered his temporary imprisonment on several charges, including inciting residents to carry weapons, harming National Assembly members, and preventing citizens from exercising the right to vote, as well as inciting people to demonstrate.

According to a statement published on January 28 on the political activist’s official Facebook page and quoting Khelifi Yassin, a member of his defense committee, “Rachid Nekkaz is ill with a prostate disease and a liver disease and his transfer to another prison is a clear violation of the law.” The same page stated that Nekkaz was transferred from the penal institution in Al-Qulaiaa to Sidi Sheikh Prison in the state of Al-Bayadh on January 26, after the Capital Judiciary Council endorsed the April 4, 2020 decision to place the political activist in temporary imprisonment, and refused his release. A defense commission representing Nekkaz made a complaint on January 11, 2021, to the National Council for Human Rights about the arbitrary detention of its client, in which it said that Nekkaz had been in prison since December 2019 without trial, which is a violation of the political activist’s rights.

A January 29 press release by the Movement for Youth and Change (MJC), headed by Nekkaz, said:

شيء واحد مؤكد، رشيد نكاز لا يستفيد من الإشراف الطبي والعلاج لشفائه، والأكثر إثارة للدهشة أن أقرب مستشفى يبلغ 125 كيلومتر عن السجن.

One thing is certain, Rachid Nekkaz does not receive medical supervision and treatment to cure him, and what is more surprising is that the closest hospital is 125 kilometers from the prison.

The statement also added: “We have the right to ask if this prison of El-Obeid, Sidi Sheikh, will not turn into the death of Rachid Nekkaz,” noting that Nekkaz’s illness was confirmed by seven doctors at the Al-Qulaia prison in Algeria and that his father, Hajj al-Arabi Nekkaz, had died of the same disease in 2011.

MJC’s press release added that Nekkaz was in a critical condition, and despite that, he was transferred from Al-Qulaia prison to El Obeid Sidi Sheikh prison in the state of El Bayadh, which is 756 kilometers southwest of Algiers, at the entrance to the Algerian Sahara, and that was done in order to make contact between Rachid Nekkaz and his lawyer difficult.

In a message which he sent from his cell in Sidi Sheikh Prison and was posted on his Facebook page on January 31, Nekkaz described how he was handcuffed throughout the nine-hour trip to Sidi Sheikh Prison, in bitter cold because of the lack of heating. He was then immediately placed in isolated detention in a cramped room which he described as similar to the infamous Tazmamart prison in Morocco. Attacking the Algerian minister of justice, Belkacem Zeghmati, Nekkaz’s message said:

كان الرجل الذي يُدعى بلقاسم زغماتي قد سجن 8 من إرهابيي داعش في سجن قليعة مثل سجن غوانتانامو. في حين أنني لم أقتل أو أسرق أي شخص في حياتي وأنني قدت منذ عدة سنوات معركة من أجل التغيير السلمي في الجزائر وضد الفساد من أجل جزائر جديدة ، أجد نفسي في وضع أقل ملاءمة من هؤلاء الإرهابيين.

The man called Belkacem Zeghmati had imprisoned 8 Islamic State terrorists in Al-Qulaia prison like Guantanamo detention centre. While I have not killed or robbed anyone in my life and that for several years I led a battle for peaceful change in Algeria and against corruption for a new Algeria, I find myself in a less favorable position than these terrorists.

Nekkaz added:

Despite my very poor health which is deteriorating day by day due to the emergence of prostate cancer and a 19 mm cyst in the liver with the possibility of cancer. Despite everything, I am going ahead with my 29-day hunger strike to save and change Algeria, which will begin on Friday February 19, 2021, the anniversary of the outbreak of the Khenchela movement. I am not afraid of death: Free people with convictions do not fear death in order to save and change Algeria.

In a campaign of solidarity with the captive politician, some users of social media platforms launched a campaign #Save_Rasid_Nekkaz or #save_rachid_nekaz in late January to condemn his imprisonment and demand his release along with that of other political detainees, and calls have increased to organize stands in his support.

Twitter blogger Houyem Menager wrote:

Rachid Nekaz left behind the comfort in which he was living in France and went to defend Algeria against the colonial mafia that had multiplied since Bouteflika came. Imprisoned for denouncing the regime, he is very ill and his health is deteriorating day by day.

In a video clip published on February 7, Nekkaz’s wife Cecile Roux said she was obliged by Nekkaz’s deteriorating health and upon his request, to end her years-long silence, and the distancing of herself and her son from the political sphere. She appealed to the Algerian government to activate articles of the law regulating prison and the reintegration of prisoners’ social welfare, which allows for the temporary release of a prisoner for health reasons.

Nekkaz is one of the strongest opponents of the shale gas project in the Algerian desert, and he has used his Facebook account as a platform to expose former officials involved in corruption cases. On the international level, Nekkaz showed solidarity with several issues, including the Muslim minority in Myanmar and the violence it is subjected to, and he was called “Niqab Defender” in Europe after he paid huge fines on behalf of Muslim women wearing the niqab in the continent.

Nekkaz, who held the French nationality, tried to run in the 2006 French presidential race but failed to collect the votes required for candidacy; he also ran in the presidential elections in Algeria against Bouteflika after renouncing his French citizenship.

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Saudi women’s activist Loujain al-Hathloul released and tweeting

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Image shared by Loujain al-Hathloul in her first tweet since her release from prison.

Loujain al-Hathloul, the prominent Saudi activist and campaigner who had been detained since 2018 for demanding an end to the male guardianship system and to the ban on women’s driving, was released last week and posted her first tweet since on Wednesday.

Loujain, who was abducted from the United Arab Emirates in May 2018, tortured, denied access to family, and kept in solitary confinement for periods of her incarceration, was sentenced to nearly six years in prison on December 28, 2020, by the kingdom’s notorious terrorism court. The six-year term, nearly half of which was suspended by the verdict, is down from the maximum jail term of up to 20 years which the public prosecutor demanded on December 17.

Local press citing the court’s ruling said that the 31-year-old Loujain was found guilty of “committing acts criminalized under Article 43 of the Law on Combating Terrorism Crimes“, including engaging with foreign, hostile entities, and using the internet to serve and support an external agenda inside the kingdom, with the aim of harming public order.

Based on the ruling, Loujain’s family predicted her release in March, as she had served the majority of her sentence in pre-trial detention.

Her release on February 10 was a development welcomed by politicians and sympathizers worldwide, with her family noting that Loujain remains restrained by a travel ban and limits on public appearances.

French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted:

 CNN host Christiane Amanpour wrote:

The celebrated release of Loujain is one of several positive legal developments concerning activists and political prisoners in Saudi Arabia, with some being released and others having their sentences commuted.

This shift is attributed to the changes in the White House. The departure of Donald Trump’s administration, which overlooked human rights violations in the region, encouraging authoritarian regimes, and its replacement with an administration perceived to be keen on pressing allies to respect human rights, could have accelerated overdue trials and reduce sentences.

The prominent activist’s release also encouraged calls for the freeing of other detained prisoners of conscience who are still languishing in Saudi prisons.

ALQST, a human rights independent group that focuses on Saudi cases, wrote:

The conditional release of two human rights defenders, #Lujain_Hathloul and #Nouf_Abdulaziz.

However, other trials have not ended yet, and in a disturbing development, the Public Prosecution requested an appeal in the case of Nassima Al-Sada as an attempt to bring about a harsher ruling.

#ALQST calls for the unconditional release of all detainees https://t.co/nfJdPmrzEy pic.twitter.com/gDvf6dH3hn

Adam Coogle, deputy director with the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch, tweeted:

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In unrecognized Transnistria, a retiree faces criminal charges for ‘anti-Russian’ rhetoric

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Screenshot from video interview with the defendant, published on “Zona de Securitate” human rights monitoring website.

A 70-year-old retiree from Tiraspol stands accused of offending the president of Transnistria and “denying the positive role of Russian peacekeepers” in the unrecognized republic, according to public records revealed recently.

The charges against Mikhail Yermuraki were brought in February 2020 after he had a disagreement with the director of a secondary school in Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria, about the rationale for installing a memorial plaque in the school’s premises to honor a Russian soldier killed in Syria.

Yermuraki was also charged with “inciting interethnic hatred,” though this charge was later retracted. His is the first case in the unrecognized republic to be prosecuted under a 2016 law that forbids citizens of Transnistria from publicly criticizing the Russian peacekeeping mission. The defendant is currently under a travel ban.

The case was first brought to public attention in December 2020 by Nikolay Kuzmin, a Russian-speaking blogger living in Transnistria, who wrote a note about it on his Telegram channel.

Earlier this month, “Zona de Securitate,” a Romanian-language Moldovan website monitoring human rights violations in Transnistria, published an interview with Yermuraki, in which he detailed what happened.

Transnistria (or Pridnestrovie) is a breakaway state on the border of Moldova and Ukraine that separated from Moldova in the early 1990s amid an armed conflict. The global community and Moldova do not recognize the de facto state of Transnistria, but consider it an autonomous territorial unit within Moldova with special legal status. In September 2016, the authorities of self-proclaimed Transnistria held a referendum, as a result of which they began preparations for joining the Russian Federation. Russian peacekeeping forces have had a long-standing presence in the republic, and the situation around Transnistria is often characterized as a “frozen conflict.”

He says the criminal case was launched against him at the end of 2019 after he had a debate with Tamara Gaydarly, the principal of a local secondary school, about a memorial plaque commemorating the death of a Russian soldier who was an alumnus of the school.

During the private discussion, Yermuraki says, the principal asked him provocative questions such as, “What existed earlier — Moldova or Romania?” and “Which language do you speak — Moldovan or Romanian?”

In response, Yermuraki, who was already known in the community for his critical views of Transnistrian authorities, offered the principal to peruse a text he previously wrote which outlined his stance.

The school principal secretly recorded the debate and passed the recording on to the Ministry of State Security of Transnistria. Soon after, the criminal case was opened against Yermuraki.

In the interview, the defendant said that it was his critical views on the status of Transnistria and the role of Russian peacekeeping forces that led to his prosecution:

Меня обвиняют в трех преступлениях: оскорбление президента ПМР, что категорически запрещено на оккупированной территории России; второе — оскорбление российских миротворцев, которых я называю оккупантами, и третье, наиболее абсурдное из них, — разжигание межнациональной расовой и религиозной ненависти на территории ПМР. 

I stand accused of three crimes: offending the president of PMR (Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, Transnistria’s official name), which is expressly forbidden on Russia-occupied territory; second, offending Russian peacekeepers, who I call occupants; and third, and the most absurd, is inciting inter-ethnic racial and religious hatred on the territory of PMR.

The prosecution’s side

On February 5, legal information center “Apriori,” one of the few remaining rights groups in Transnistria, published a detailed analysis of the criminal indictment in Mikhail Yermuraki’s case.

According to the prosecution, Yermuraki wrote an article in 2006 titled “Thoughts about the obvious in ‘PMR’” in which he lays out critical views of the self-proclaimed Pridnestrovian government and Russia’s involvement in the peacekeeping process.

During his debate with the school principal, according to the prosecution’s statement, Yermuraki allegedly used “a number of offensive terms” to refer to the president of Transnistria, including “hired hand,” “puppet,” as well as other “demonstrably false statements about his activities.” This prompted the charge according to article 316-1 of the Transnistrian criminal code, “offending the president of Transnistria.” 

The criminal indictment also alleges that the official representative of the president of Transnistria in the state administration, T. Kharakhalup, “showed that the president reviewed the public statements made by Yermuraki and found them to be offensive, both as a private citizen and as a representative of the authorities, undermining his authority in the eyes of the public, and as such found these actions to be criminal.”

During his questioning in February 2020, the document says, Yermuraki did not plead guilty and “explained that the charges against him were brought by an illegal authority [and that they are] false.”

Public reaction

The subscribers of Kuzmin’s Telegram blog were quick to react to the news. Alex, one of the subscribers, aimed their criticism directly at Russian President Vladimir Putin and rebuked him for tacitly supporting the efforts of Transnistrian authorities who launch “such cases without any apparent criminal substance, which are aimed at clearing the information space” (original spelling and punctuation preserved):

И вообще надо быть идиотом, чтоб стать на такой шаткий стульчик, как нелигитимное президентство в ПМР, да ещё размахивать пером, подписывая людоедские законы. Это публицистика. Идиотские мысли в публицистике должны осуждаться читателем и союзом журналистов, а не судом, да еще до пяти лет заключения. Иногда через резкие и радикальные высказывания автор пытается передать градус своего отношения к чему-либо, прекрасно осознавая, что никто и никогда не последует его строкам.

One has to be an idiot to climb on the shaky stool of the illegitimate presidency of the PMR and to wave your pen around signing such draconian laws. This is just current affairs essay-writing. Silly thoughts in current affairs essays should be ostracized by readers and the union of journalists, not sanctioned by the court with up to five years behind bars. Sometimes an author might strive to communicate the degree of their views on something through sharp or radical statements, fully mindful of the fact that no one will ever follow their call.

The court proceedings in Yermuraki’s case are ongoing. The defendant faces a sentence of up to five years in prison. Stepan Popovskiy, a lawyer with legal information center “Apriori,” says that the case may go as far as the European Court of Human Rights:

У меня не вызывает сомнений, что это дело, если будет вынесен обвинительный приговор, окажется в Европейском суде по правам человека  с жалобой на нарушение ряда статей Европейской конвенции о защите прав человека и основных свобод, среди которых обязательно будет статья 10 Конвенции.

I have no doubt that, should a guilty verdict be pronounced, the case will reach the European Court of Human Rights with an appeal based on the violation of a number of articles of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, including Article 10 of the Convention. [Article 10 of the Convention provides for freedom of expression as “necessary in a democratic society” — ed.]

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Flights carrying ‘seafood’ between China and Myanmar fuel speculation about Beijing’s support for the military coup

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Screenshot from HK Citizen News’ video news report on Myanmar protests against military coup.

The term “seafood” went viral on social media this week in connection with the Myanmar military takeover after the Chinese Embassy in Yangon denied daily flights from China were providing assistance to the coup government.

Reports of cargo flights between Kunming and Yangon have raised suspicions among Myanmar pro-democracy activists that China was sending experts and equipment to assist Myanmar’s military, which took over the country’s civilian government on February 1. A response statement by the Chinese Embassy claimed the planes were simply carrying seafood, which sounded implausible to many.

Unverified claims about China’s backing of the Myanmar coup started circulating in early February, as all Chinese state-affiliated media outlets were using the phrase “a major cabinet reshuffle” to describe the military takeover. Although the Chinese government has so far taken no official stand, the fact that China blocked the UN Security Council’s condemnation of the junta has led many to believe that Beijing is backing the coup for geopolitical reasons.

Photos showing “seafood” cargo arriving late at night in Yangon went viral:

Kyaw Win of the Burma Human Rights Network highlighted the meaning of the viral usage of “seafood:”

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said he had not heard of any arrangement involving the sending of experts and equipment to Yangon.

Myanmar’s citizens began protesting in front of the Chinese Embassy days after the coup took place. Netizens have also been using hashtags such as #ShameOnYouChina and #ChinaHelpMilitaryCoupForOwnBenefit on social media.

Twitter user @Ellen5461 posted a few photos of a protest where some of the placards bear slogans written in Chinese, saying “Stand by Myanmar, do not support dictatorship”:

@Alicebrosel posted a photo of another protester dressed in Chinese costume holding a placard saying “Myanmar military dictatorship is made in China”:

Myanmar citizens are also concerned about the introduction of a Cybersecurity Bill by the military government that empowers authorities to block websites, remove content, and charge individuals for spreading misinformation. As China is the world’s top expert in controlling and censoring web traffic, many see the country as playing a key role in the bill’s implementation.

Twitter user @ruddy5702 said:

Myanmar citizens’ access to the internet has been periodically disrupted since the coup took place. However, starting on February 14, near-total internet shutdowns have been reported by digital rights organization NetBlocks between 1 a.m. and 9 a.m.:

There is also speculation that the recurring power outages experienced in the country in the past few days are related to the testing and setup of Myanmar’s version of The Great Firewall. Language decoding issues faced by some Myanmar netizens have also reinforced this idea, as noted by user @blahbla69235153:

Amidst criticisms from Myanmar and worldwide, Beijing’s ambassador to Myanmar Chen Hai denied that China had been “informed in advance of the political change” and said that the current situation was “absolutely not what China wants to see.”

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Arrest of Indian climate activist Disha Ravi over protest ‘toolkit’ draws backlash

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Disha Ravi in a protest. Screenshot from YouTube Video by Mojo Story. Fair use.

Disha Ravi in a protest. Screenshot from YouTube Video by Mojo Story.

The arrest of 22-year-old Indian climate activist Disha Ravi in Delhi over her alleged involvement with a “protest toolkit” has drawn widespread criticism in India and worldwide.

A student in Mount Carmel College in Bengaluru, Ravi is the founder of the Indian branch of Fridays For Future, a climate movement started by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.

Ravi was arrested on February 13 in connection with a viral online document that lists resources for activists and sympathizers looking to support the months-long farmers’ protests in India. The activist was charged with sedition and criminal conspiracy and was remanded to five-day custody.

Hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers have been protesting against liberalizing agriculture reforms since October 2020, and authorities have cracked down on many perceived to support them. Dozens have been arrested, some of them charged with sedition — including journalists. Earlier this month, Twitter temporarily blocked over 250 accounts that allegedly expressed support to the farmers under a government request.

On February 4, Thunberg, along with other international personalities, tweeted in support of the Indian farmers. Later, the Swedish activist also shared the so-called “protest toolkit” (her original tweet has since been deleted).

The anonymous toolkit is an open text file with information about the protests and tips for organizing or supporting the farmers’ movement. The document briefly explains what the protests are about, lists relevant hashtags and the Twitter handles of Indian politicians, and provides links for petitions. The document’s text has no calls for violent action.

Following Thunberg’s tweet, Delhi police filed a First Information Report to investigate the document. The next day, crowds in Delhi held banners against an “international interference,” and photos of Thunberg and popstar Rihanna, who had also tweeted about the farmers’ protests, were set alight.

This week, police alleged that Ravi was one of the authors of the document, that the young activist had set up a WhatsApp group for others to collaborate on the text, and that she was the one who shared it with Thunberg. On Wednesday, in court, Ravi denied all accusations but admitted she had edited two lines of text on the document.

A joint statement by over 50 academics, artists and activists have called Ravi’s arrest “disturbing,” “illegal in nature” and an “over-reaction of the state.” The #IndiabeingSilenced hashtag has trended on Twitter since the weekend.

Many have taken to social media to criticize the police, such as Siddharth Varadarajan, an editor at The Wire:

And writer Danish Husain said:

Indian-Canadian poet Rupi Kaur said:

Opposition politicians have also voiced concern, such as Chief Minister of Delhi and national convener of the Aam Aadmi Party, Arvind Kejriwal:

Several pro-government politicians praised the police’s action. The BJP MP and Home Minister of Haryana Anil Vij tweeted that “seeds of anti-nationalism… should be destroyed… whether Disha Ravi or anyone else.” Twitter deleted and then restored the tweet after concluding it didn’t breach its rules on extreme speech.

Meanwhile, a non-bailable warrant has been issued on February 15 against activist-lawyer Nikita Jacob also alleging her involvement in the creation and sharing of the “toolkit”.

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