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U.N. says at least 16 staff, dependents detained in Ethiopia

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November 10, 2021

By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK (Reuters) -At least 16 United Nations staff and dependents have been detained in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, a U.N. spokesperson said on Tuesday, amid reports of widespread arrests of ethnic Tigrayans.

“We are, of course, actively working with the government of Ethiopia to secure their immediate release,” U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters in New York.

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He declined to answer a question on the ethnicity of those detained, saying: “These are United Nations staff members, they’re Ethiopians…, and we would like to see them released, whatever ethnicity is listed on their identity cards.”

The state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission said on Sunday it had received many reports of arrests of Tigrayans in the capital, including elders and mothers with children.

Daniel Bekele, head of the commission, told Reuters on Tuesday that it was monitoring “the arrests of hundreds of Tigrayans in Addis Ababa”.

Police have denied making ethnically motivated arrests, saying they are only targeting supporters of the rebellious Tigrayan forces fighting the central government.

Fasika Fanta, spokesperson for the Addis Ababa police, and government spokesman Legesse Tulu told Reuters they had no information on the arrests of U.N. staff.

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“Those that have been detained are Ethiopians who violate the law,” said Legesse.

The U.S. State Department said Washington finds the reports of arrests of U.N. staff members “concerning”, adding that harassment and detention on the basis of ethnicity is completely unacceptable.

“The reports do tend to suggest an arrest based on ethnicity and that is something that if confirmed, we would strongly condemn. So whatever we can do to secure the release of these individuals, we will be prepared to do,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.

The year-long conflict in northern Ethiopia between the government and Tigrayan forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has intensified in recent weeks after he TPLF pushed southward. Tigrayan forces and their allies have threatened to march on the capital.

Ethiopia declared a state of emergency https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/addis-ababa-government-urges-residents-register-arms-media-2021-11-02 on Nov 2. That permits the government to arbitrarily arrest, without a court order, anyone suspected of collaborating with a terrorist group. Parliament designated the TPLF as a terrorist group earlier this year.

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Britain tightened its travel advice on Tuesday, advising citizens to leave Ethiopia while commercial flights are available, after the United States on Nov. 5 advised all citizens to leave Ethiopia as soon as possible.

Zambia evacuated non-essential staff from Ethiopia on Tuesday, its foreign ministry said.

DIPLOMATIC PUSH

Diplomatic efforts continue to try to lay the ground for talks and avert an attack on the Ethiopian capital, home to 5 million people.

“Our position remains that there can be no military solution to this conflict and only dialogue can produce a lasting peace,” Britain’s minister for Africa, Vicky Ford, told journalists.

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Former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo is in Ethiopia on behalf of the African Union to try to facilitate talks. The TPLF’s spokesperson, Getachew Reda, told Reuters they had held discussions with him.

“He wanted to know if we believe there is the possibility of a political solution to this problem. We said yes,” he told Reuters. But, Getachew added, “we are not willing to retreat because of the siege, because of the blockade.”

The United Nations has accused the government of operating a de facto blockade preventing humanitarian aid from entering Tigray. The government has denied blocking aid.

Getachew also said that a government air strike had killed dozens in the town of Chefa Robit and there had been drone and air strikes on Wollo University in Dessie and the town of Chifra in Afar.

Reuters was unable to independently confirm his account as communications to those areas are down. Government and military spokespeople did not return calls seeking comment.

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The State Department said Washington believes there is a small window of an opening to work with the African Union to make progress on peacefully resolving the conflict.

The U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, returned to Addis Ababa on Monday and remains in Ethiopia, Price said on Tuesday.

Government spokesperson Legesse and foreign affairs ministry spokesperson Dina Mufti did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the talks.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols, Additional reporting by Addis Ababa newsroom and Humeyra Pamuk and Daphne Psaledakis in WashingtonWriting by Maggie Fick and Katharine Houreld Editing by Franklin Paul, Giles Elgood 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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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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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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