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Thailand, Australia, Israel ease travel curbs as lockdowns bite elsewhere

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November 1, 2021

By Jiraporn Kuhakan and Jonathan Barrett

BANGKOK/SYDNEY (Reuters) -Thailand, Australia and Israel eased international border restrictions significantly on Monday for the first time in 18 months, offering a broad test of demand for travel worldwide amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The relaxation contrasts with tightening lockdowns elsewhere, notably in eastern Europe where infections have hit record numbers, and in parts of China, which has taken a zero-tolerance approach to COVID-19 despite relatively few cases.

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Hundreds of vaccinated foreign tourists arrived in the Thai capital https://www.reuters.com/business/aerospace-defense/bangkok-welcomes-first-tourists-quarantine-free-holiday-2021-11-01 for quarantine-free travel after the Southeast Asian nation approved visitors from more than 60 countries, including China and the United States.

Several European nations are also on the list as Thailand, one of Asia’s most popular holiday destinations, looks to capitalise on the approach of winter in the northern hemisphere.

“We just picked this flight and it is quite surprising that we are the first flight to arrive,” said German tourist Simon Raithel, 41, who planned to head to the Thai south.

In Sydney https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/australia-eases-international-border-ban-first-time-since-march-2020-2021-10-31, hundreds of citizens were greeted by family and friends as they became the first since April 2020 to arrive from abroad without a permit or the need to quarantine.

“(It’s a) little bit scary and exciting,” said Ethan Carter, who flew in from Los Angeles. “I’ve come home to see my mum ’cause she’s not well.”

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While travel is initially limited to just a few states and to Australian citizens, permanent residents and their immediate families and New Zealand nationals, it heralds a plan to re-open to international tourists and workers.

‘WE MISSED YOU GUYS’

Israel also relaxed travel rules on Monday but tourists should read the fine print before booking.

“Welcome to Israel,” the government said in a tweet next to a big blue heart. “We missed you guys.”

Individual tourists are allowed in if they have received vaccine boosters – but not if more than six months have lapsed since their last dose, with some exceptions.

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That has tempered excitement among hoteliers.

“How many tourists out in the world have actually gotten boosters or are sitting in that six-month period following their second dose?” Israel Hotel Association CEO Yael Danieli said in the days leading up to the relaxation.

“Even if both parents in a family are vaccinated, their children under 12 are not, so they mostly can’t come to Israel.”

Members of tour groups are exempted from the six-month rule but will have to take PCR or antigen tests every 72 hours for the first two weeks of their stay.

Despite the eased curbs, world travel in full swing is a long way off.

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China’s tourism sector is suffering from the country’s zero tolerance for COVID-19 as cities with infections, or even with concerns about infections, close entertainment venues, restrict travel or delay cultural events. Shanghai Disneyland stopped admitting visitors on Monday.

Eastern Europe is grappling with its worst outbreak since the pandemic started. The Russian capital introduced its strictest lockdown measures in more than a year last Thursday as the daily tally of cases and deaths nationwide hit new highs.

But many Russians have decided that now is an ideal time to fly off for a foreign holiday, with a sharp increase in bookings to destinations where Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine is recognised or where COVID entry requirements are cheap and easy.

“Don’t quarantine, but holiday on the beach!” travel company Orange Sun Tour proclaims on its website osttour.ru, which offers breaks in Cyprus, Egypt, Cuba and elsewhere.

Rules aimed at moving South Korea towards “living with COVID-19” came into effect on Monday, with the easing of a range of curbs and the introduction of vaccine passports at gyms, saunas and bars.

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“The return path to everyday life, to which we’re taking the first step today, is a path we’ve never been on,” Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol told an intra-agency COVID-19 meeting.

The Netherlands will impose new coronavirus restrictions this week in a bid to curb a recent surge in infections, Health Minister Hugo de Jonge said, without giving details.

Britain on Monday removed the last seven countries on its coronavirus “red list”, which required newly arrived travellers to spend 10 days in hotel quarantine.

The United States will lift international travel restrictions for vaccinated travellers on Nov. 8.

(Reporting by Jonathan Barrett, Jamie Freed, Rami Ayyub, Jill Gralow, Jiraporn Kuhakan, Orathai Sriring and Artorn Pookasook; Writing by Jane Wardell and Nick Macfie; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Gareth Jones and Mark Heinrich)

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Malaysia court upholds guilty verdict for former PM Najib in 1MDB-linked case

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December 8, 2021

By Rozanna Latiff

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – A Malaysian appeals court on Wednesday upheld former premier Najib Razak’s guilty verdict in a case linked to a corruption scandal at state fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB).

Najib was sentenced to 12 years in prison and fined $50 million last year by a high court after being found guilty of criminal breach of trust, abuse of power and money laundering for illegally receiving about $10 million from SRC International, a former unit of now-defunct 1MDB.

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He had pleaded not guilty and consistently denied any wrongdoing.

Judge Abdul Karim Abdul Jalil said he agreed with the high court judge on the conviction and sentencing over all seven charges against Najib.

“We dismiss the appeal on all seven charges and affirm the conviction on all seven charges,” the judge said.

Najib has been free on bail pending the appeal.

His lawyer Shafee Abdullah told the court the former premier would appeal the verdict at the Federal Court, Malaysia’s top tribunal.

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The judge allowed Najib’s request for a stay on the sentence and Najib will be released on bail.

Wearing a black suit, Najib showed no emotion as the judgment was read out and was seen taking notes occasionally during the hearing.

Najib and his lawyers joined the proceedings via Zoom after a member of his legal team tested positive for COVID-19.

The former prime minister remains influential within his party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which returned to power in August after being voted out three years earlier amid widespread corruption allegations.

Najib told Reuters in September he has not ruled out seeking re-election to parliament, a move that would require his conviction to be overturned.

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U.S. and Malaysian authorities say $4.5 billion was believed to have been stolen from 1MDB, and that more than $1 billion made its way into Najib’s personal accounts.

(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Editing by Ed Davies and Stephen Coates)

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Australia joins diplomatic boycott of Beijing Winter Games

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on

December 8, 2021

By Renju Jose and Gabriel Crossley

SYDNEY/BEIJING (Reuters) – Australia will join the United States in a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Wednesday, as other allies weighed similar moves to protest China’s human rights record.

The United States on Monday said its government officials will boycott the Beijing Olympics nL1N2SR0F6 because of China’s human rights “atrocities”, just weeks after talks aimed at easing tense relations between the two superpowers.

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China said the U.S. will “pay the price” nL1N2SS22N for its decision and warned of “resolute countermeasures” in response.

Morrison said the decision was made because of Australia’s struggles to reopen diplomatic channels with China to discuss alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Beijing’s moves to slow and block imports of Australian goods.

A spokesperson from China’s embassy in Canberra said “some Australian politicians” were engaged in “political posturing.”

“The blame for the current predicament of China-Australia relations lies squarely on the Australian side,” they added in an online statement.

Other allies have been slow to commit to joining the diplomatic boycott.

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Britain is considering approving limited government attendance at the Feb. 4-20 Beijing Olympics that would stop short of a full diplomatic boycott, The Telegraph reported on Wednesday.

An outright ban on ministerial and diplomatic representation at the Winter Games remains a possibility, the report said.

Japan is considering not sending cabinet members to the Beijing Winter Olympics after the United States announced its diplomatic boycott, Japan’s Sankei Shimbun daily reported on Wednesday, citing unnamed government sources.

President Joe Biden’s administration cited what the United States calls genocide against minority Muslims in China’s far western region of Xinjiang. China denies all rights abuses.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Tuesday told a media briefing that his country opposes the U.S. diplomatic boycott and promised “resolute countermeasures” in response.

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“The United States will pay a price for its mistaken acts,” he said, without giving details. “Let’s all wait and see.”

The Winter Games are due to begin about six months after the conclusion of the Summer Games in Tokyo, which were delayed a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We always ask for as much respect as possible and least possible interference from the political world,” said Juan Antonio Samaranch, the IOC’s coordination commission chief for the Beijing Olympics. “We have to be reciprocal. We respect the political decisions taken by political bodies.”

The United States is set to host the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and is preparing a bid to host the 2030 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Asked whether China would consider a diplomatic boycott of Olympic Games in the United States, Zhao said the U.S. boycott has “damaged the foundation and atmosphere” of sports exchange and cooperation on the Olympics.

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The American diplomatic boycott, encouraged for months by some members of the U.S. Congress and rights groups, comes despite an effort to stabilize ties between the world’s two largest economies, with a video meeting last month between Biden and China’s Xi Jinping.

‘THE ONLY OPTION’

Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told a U.S. congressional hearing on Tuesday that unless other countries join the boycott it would undermine the message that China’s human rights abuses are unacceptable.

“Now I think the only option really that is available to us is to try to get as many countries as we can to stand with us in this coalition,” Glaser said.

Announcing Australia’s plans, Morrison said Beijing had not responded to several issues raised by Canberra including alleged human rights abuses.

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“So it is not surprising therefore that Australian government officials would not be going to China for those Games,” Morrison told reporters in Sydney.

Relations between Australia and China, its top trade partner, are at a low ebb over after Canberra banned Huawei Technologies from its 5G broadband network in 2018 and called for an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19.

Beijing responded by imposing tariffs on several Australian commodities, including coal, beef, barley and wine.

(Reporting by Gabriel Crossley, and Renju Jose; Editing by Gerry Doyle and Lincoln Feast.)

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Swiss group lights 11,288 candles for COVID-19 victims

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on

December 8, 2021

BERN (Reuters) – More than 11,000 candles – one for each Swiss victim of the coronavirus pandemic – lit up the December darkness outside the Swiss parliament in Bern on Tuesday.

“We want to create a space to remember and mourn the victims,” Simon Gehren of the “Corona-Mahnwache” (corona vigil) movement told Reuters.

Around 40 volunteers helped light the candles arranged geometrically on the square that is Switzerland’s political centre. The group organised a similar event last year.

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Gehren said the vigil was also an appeal to the government to take firmer action to contain soaring infection numbers.

Switzerland has seen a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases over the last weeks. It tightened measures last week, but has been less strict than neighbouring countries, such as Germany or Austria.

Swiss health authorities said on Tuesday that 11,288 people had died with a laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.

(Reporting by Arnd Wiegmann and Silke Koltrowitz; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

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