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“No absolute monarchy:” Thousands of Thais march for royal reforms

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November 14, 2021

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thousands of Thais took to the streets of the capital on Sunday demanding reforms of the monarchy, defying a court ruling that such demands are a veiled attempt to overthrow the institution.

Youth-led protests that began last year by calling for the removal of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, 66, a former coup leader, have become the biggest challenge in decades to the monarchy which is constitutionally enshrined to be held in “revered worship”.

Protesters marched against rows of riot police behind shields, waving placards that read “No absolute monarchy” and “Reform is not abolition”.

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“The king’s increased powers in recent years are pulling Thailand away from democracy and back to absolute monarchy,” a protester read in a statement after the demonstration reached the German embassy in Bangkok.

“This is a fight to insist that this country must be ruled by a system in which everyone is equal.”

Protesters also marched to the German embassy in October last year to urge Germany to investigate whether King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who spends much of his time in the country, was conducting state business from there.

“The word ‘reform’ is not equivalent to abolition,” said protester Peeyawith Ploysuwan, 25. “You (authorities) only want to do the things you desire and see people with opposing views as bad guys… If society continues like this, how can we move forward?”

The protests have broken longstanding taboos in Thailand, whose lese majeste law sets jail terms of up to 15 years for anyone convicted of defaming the monarchy.

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Since the protests began last year, at least 157 people have been charged under the law, according to records compiled by the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights group.

Sunday’s protest came in response to the Constitutional Court’s ruling last week that a call for reforms to the monarchy by three protest leaders in August last year was unconstitutional and designed to topple the institution.

Three protesters were wounded on Sunday, a police spokesman said, adding that the incidents were being investigated.

(Reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Additional reporting by Vorasit Satienlerk; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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Germany jails Islamic State member for life over role in Yazidi genocide

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November 30, 2021

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – A German court on Tuesday jailed a former Islamic State militant for life after convicting him of involvement in genocide and crimes against humanity over mass killings of minority Yazidis by IS in Syria and Iraq.

It was the first genocide verdict against a member of Islamic State, an offshoot of al Qaeda that seized large swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014 before being ousted by U.S.-backed counter-offensives, losing its last territorial redoubt in 2019.

The court in Frankfurt found Taha al-Jumailly, 29, an Iraqi national, guilty of involvement in the slaughter of more than 3,000 Yazidis and enslavement of 7,000 women and girls by IS jihadists in 2014-15.

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This, the court ruled, included the murder of a five-year-old girl the defendant had enslaved and chained to a window, leaving her to die in scorching heat.

Al-Jumailly, who entered the court on Tuesday covering his face with a file folder, was arrested in Greece in 2019 and extradited to Germany where relatives of slain Yazidis acted as plaintiffs supporting the prosecution.

The defendant’s German wife, identified only as Jennifer W., was used as a prosecution witness at the trial. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison last month for involvement in the enslavement of the Yazidi girl and her mother.

The Yazidis are an ancient religious minority in eastern Syria and northwest Iraq that Islamic State viewed as supposed devil worshippers for their faith that combines Zoroastrian, Christian, Manichean, Jewish and Muslim beliefs.

Islamic State’s depredations also displaced most of the 550,000-strong Yazidi community.

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(Writing by Joseph Nasr; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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Geagea says delaying vote would condemn Lebanon to ‘slow death’

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November 30, 2021

By Timour Azhari and Maha El Dahan

MAARAB, Lebanon (Reuters) – One of Lebanon’s main Christian politicians accused foe Hezbollah and its allies of working to postpone a parliamentary election set for March over fears of electoral losses, warning such a move would condemn Lebanon to a “slow death”.

Western donors that Lebanon is relying on to stem its financial implosion have said the vote must go ahead. Politicians from all sides, including Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah, have repeatedly said it should happen otherwise the country’s standing would be dealt a further blow.

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But Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces and an ally of Saudi Arabia, pointed the finger at Hezbollah and its ally President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement for moves to delay it “because they are near certain that they will lose their parliamentary majority”.

Aoun said this month he would not sign authorisation for the vote, approved by parliament, to be held on March 27 as the date was too early.

Asked whether a postponement would lead to more fighting after clashes last month between the Lebanese Forces and Hezbollah, Geagea, said: “Not fighting, but to more slow death.”

“With the current way things are going, state institutions – and so the state – is dissolving day by day,” he told Reuters at his residence in the mountains overlooking the coastal town of Jounieh.

Lebanon has no reliable opinion polling but should the election take place, Geagea’s party is widely expected to make gains, with the Free Patriotic Movement expected to lose seats, potentially robbing Hezbollah of its majority.

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Without an election to shake up parliament “you will see more of the same”, Geagea said. The United Nations says the economic meltdown has left nearly 80% of people in poverty.

Lebanon’s government, formed from most major political parties in September following a 13-month period of political paralysis, has already not convened in nearly 50 days amid a push by Hezbollah and its allies to remove the judge investigating the deadly August 2020 Beirut port blast.

Adding to the economic peril, Lebanon is facing a blast of Gulf Arab anger after a prominent broadcaster-turned-minister levelled blunt criticism at Saudi Arabia, in a row that has further strained Beirut’s ties with once generous benefactors.

Geagea, who maintained close contact to the Saudi ambassador in Beirut, said Hezbollah’s increasing influence was the main problem behind the rift that is harmful to Lebanon’s economy.

“We see Saudi and the Gulf as economic lungs for Lebanon,” he said.

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STREET CLASHES

Geagea’s Lebanese Forces is the second largest Christian party in parliament. It has stayed out of the cabinet since a popular uprising against the sectarian elite in 2019.

But the group was thrust back into the headlines when tensions over the probe erupted into the worst street violence in more than a decade last month, reviving memories of the country’s 1975-90 civil war.

Seven people, all followers of Hezbollah and its ally Amal, were killed.

Hezbollah accused the Lebanese Forces of ambushing its supporters at the protest. Geagea confirmed supporters of his party, along with others, were involved in the clashes, but denied the move was pre-meditated and blamed Hezbollah for entering Beirut’s mostly Christian Ain al-Remmaneh neighbourhood, a strong support base for the Lebanese Forces.

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During Lebanon’s civil war, the Lebanese Forces, under Geagea, was a right-wing militia that controlled swathes of territory including eastern Beirut.

Following October’s clashes, Hezbollah’s leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah accused it of seeking to start a sectarian conflict and warned Hezbollah had 100,000 fighters at his disposal.

Geagea denied Nasrallah’s allegation that the Lebanese Forces had 15,000 fighters, saying the party had 35,000 members of whom only some had personal arms and perhaps more than 10,000 – “the whole old generation” – had military training.

Geagea said the Lebanese Forces did not seek a physical confrontation with Hezbollah and were not concerned about the breakout of sectarian violence due to the role of the Lebanese Army in maintaining civil peace.

However, he said he had limited his movement and was not leaving his mountain residence in Maarab due to security threats, without giving further details.

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(Reporting By Timour Azhari and Maha El Dahan; Editing by Alison Williams)

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Attack on Ukraine would be costly, NATO warns Moscow

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November 30, 2021

By Humeyra Pamuk and Sabine Siebold

RIGA (Reuters) – Russia would pay a high price for any new military aggression against Ukraine, NATO and the United States warned on Tuesday as the Western military alliance met to discuss Moscow’s intentions for massing troops on the border of the former Soviet republic.

The West has already shown that it can wield economic, financial and political sanctions against Moscow, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters ahead of talks of the alliance’s foreign ministers in the Latvian capital Riga.

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“There will be a high price to pay for Russia if they once again use force against the independence of the nation, Ukraine,” Stoltenberg said.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to brief his 29 NATO counterparts on Washington’s intelligence on what is going on at the alliance’s eastern flank and in Ukraine, which is not a member.

“Any escalatory actions by Russia would be a great concern to the United States… and any renewed aggression would trigger serious consequences,” he said at a news conference before the meeting.

“We will be consulting closely with NATO allies and partners in the days ahead… about whether there are other steps that we should take as an alliance to strengthen our defences, strengthen our resilience, strengthen our capacity.”

Kyiv’s aspirations for integration with the West have triggered a standoff with Moscow.

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‘MALIGN ACTIVITY’

The Kremlin annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and then backed rebels fighting government troops in the east of the country. That conflict has killed 14,000 people, according to Kyiv, and is still simmering.

Two Russian troop build-ups this year on Ukraine’s borders have alarmed the West. In May, Russian troops there numbered 100,000, the largest since its takeover of Crimea, Western officials say.

Moscow has dismissed as inflammatory Ukraine’s suggestions that it is preparing for an attack, said it does not threaten anyone and defended its right to deploy troops on its own territory as it wishes.

Britain and Germany echoed the NATO warnings.

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“We will stand with our fellow democracies against Russia’s malign activity,” said British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said: “NATO’s support for Ukraine is unbroken… Russia would have to pay a high price for any sort of aggression.”

Adding to Western concerns, Belarus on Monday announced joint military drills with Russia on its border with Ukraine. While also a former Soviet republic, Minsk is an ally of Moscow.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, whom the West accuses of seeking to divide the European Union by sending Middle Eastern migrants to the border of NATO members Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, warned Minsk would not sit on the sidelines in case of war.

“It is clear whose side Belarus will be on,” he said, referring to Moscow, whose financial and political backing helped him weather mass public protests in August 2020.

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(Additional reporting by John Chalmers in Brussels; Writing by Gabriela Baczynska and Robin Emmott; Editing by Nick Macfie and Andrew Cawthorne)

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