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Raids, Arrests Will Not Deter Us, Belarus Media Say

Belarus is purging the space for information, local journalists say, pointing to raids on independent media outlets, arrests including of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondents, and moves to shutter the Belarusian Association of Journalists.

Journalists, members of the opposition and activists have been targeted for arrest or harassment since widespread protests erupted last August over contested presidential elections in which President Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory as members of the opposition were jailed or forced to flee.

Most face charges of violating public order, damage to public property or accusations related to the country’s anti-terror laws.

The media environment has become so repressive that many journalists are working in underground conditions, says Andrei Bastunets, chair of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), who spoke to VOA’s Russian service earlier this month.

The Minsk-based organization documents arrests, attacks and raids on media in Belarus. Since August last year BAJ has documented at least 480 detentions and lists 33 journalists in custody. 

On Friday, it was named as one of dozens of nongovernmental organizations that are being forced to close.

The day before, Lukashekno was reported as saying he planned to “cleanse” the country of nonprofits, which he described as “bandits and foreign agents.”

“It’s a total mopping-up operation. The Justice Ministry isn’t even trying to respect decorum,” Bastunets told The Associated Press. “Even though the situation seems desperate, we will defend BAJ by legal means.”

Belarus has said that those being detained are suspected of inciting hatred or mass disorder, or are being investigated for tax fraud or other crimes. When the BAJ offices were raided in a separate incident in February, Belarus said it was investigating people “participating in activities aimed at violating public order.”

Obstacles to reporting

As well as arrests, authorities have revoked media accreditation, including for the popular news portal Tut.by. In May, authorities blocked access to the outlet’s news website, claiming it was in violation of the country’s mass media law.  

“Tut.by journalists have lost their professional status, and the authorities are consistently forcing independent journalists out of the legal domain. The legal space is shrinking to such an extent that now there is only a sliver of it left,” Bastunets told VOA’s Russian service.

Some outlets were already denied the official accreditation permitting them to work in the country, but Bastunets said more have been denied permits since August.

“Reporters working for the Polish Belsat TV channel have long been denied accreditation; they have been both fined and detained. Last September, all foreign correspondents were stripped of their accreditation, and yet some of them continue working in semi-underground conditions,” Bastunets said.

He said the situation is getting worse, with changes in legislation that now prohibit the filming of protests.

Despite attempts to disrupt the flow of information, citizens are learning how to bypass blocks to reach independent news websites, and a group of Tut.by journalists has set up a new platform, Bastunets said.

“If journalists provide quality information, they are listened to by the public. We have always had journalists who risked their lives to stay in the country to obtain information,” he said.

Natalya Radina, editor-in-chief of Charter97, a news website that has been blocked since 2018, described the harassment as an attempt to “purge the information space” but says she believes Belarus media will survive.

“We have been through prisons — and the biggest tragedy for us was that the founder of the site was killed — but as long as there are journalists who want to tell the truth, it will be impossible to destroy freedom of speech,” said Radina.

Charter97’s founder and director Aleh Byabenin was found dead outside Minsk in 2010.

“I do certainly sympathize with the journalists who were put behind bars, because I’ve been there myself,” Radina said. “But I also know that if they have the strength and courage to continue their work, they will manage to do so.”

Radina was arrested in December 2010 on charges of mass disorder during post-election protests.

The journalist says independent reporters should have a backup plan and be ready to move out of the country if necessary to continue reporting.

“If we have chosen this profession, we need to follow it through, whatever the obstacles the authorities put in our way,” Radina said. “The most important thing is not to tell lies and not be afraid.”

Igor Ilyash, a political analyst and journalist with Belsat TV, said that colleagues in Russia should watch closely what is happening to Belarus media. “Sooner or later the leading Russian independent media will go through the same process.”

Russia is already labeling more journalists and publications as “foreign agents,” the journalist said, adding that he believes both countries want a “completely sterile society, where there is no place for dissent.”

Ilyash’s wife, Katsiaryna Andreyeva, who also works in journalism, has been imprisoned in Belarus since November. She was convicted of orchestrating protests against Lukashenko.

Like Radina, Ilyash said he believes Belarus is purging the information space.

“Today they came after (news website) Nasha Niva and the regional media and journalists. Who will it be tomorrow?” he asked. “Despite all our recent losses, there are still enough journalists and mass media in Belarus who are working and telling the truth about what is going on.”

The journalist said he believes the current wave of repression may be linked to sanctions imposed by the European Union.

The EU in June imposed wide-ranging sanctions, including on Belarus’ main export, potash, over Lukashenko’s suppression of opposition protests, jailing of political rivals and strangling of critical media, Reuters reported.

In an interview with VOA on July 16, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, chair of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, or “Helsinki Commission,” expressed shock and disappointment at the arrests and harassment of civil rights leaders and media.

“I can assure you we will express our outrage and demand that those that have been harassed, those who’ve been arrested, are released and allowed to perform their responsibilities,” the Democrat for Maryland said.

This story originated in VOA’s Russian service.

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South Africa Turmoil

On this edition of Encounter, Ambassador Michelle Gavin, senior fellow for Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and former Ambassador to Botswana, and Frans Cronje, CEO of the Johannesburg-based Institute of Race Relations, analyze with host Carol Castiel the political, economic and social situation in South Africa following the arrest and detention of former South African president Jacob Zuma given the protests, looting and violence which this incident triggered.  How did the celebrated multiracial democracy led by Nelson Mandela reach this critical juncture point, and what does the future hold for South Africa? 

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Sport and Competition

VOA Connect Episode 184 – As the 2021 Olympics approach, we look back at some of the athletes we’ve featured, including a skateboarder who will be competing in Tokyo this year (previously aired material).   

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VOA Connect Episode 184, Sport and Competition 

As the 2021 Olympics approach, we look back at some of the athletes we’ve featured, including a skateboarder who will be competing in Tokyo this year (previously aired material). 

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To Reach Peace Deal, Taliban Say Afghan President Must Go

The Taliban say they don’t want to monopolize power, but they insist there won’t be peace in Afghanistan until there is a new negotiated government in Kabul and President Ashraf Ghani is removed.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Taliban spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, who is also a member of the group’s negotiating team, laid out the insurgents’ stance on what should come next in a country on the precipice.

The Taliban have swiftly captured territory in recent weeks, seized strategic border crossings and are threatening a number of provincial capitals, as the last U.S. and NATO soldiers leave Afghanistan. This week, the top U.S. military officer, Gen. Mark Milley, told a Pentagon press conference that the Taliban have “strategic momentum,” and he did not rule out a complete Taliban takeover. But he said it is not inevitable. “I don’t think the end game is yet written,” he said.

Memories of the Taliban’s last time in power some 20 years ago, when they enforced a harsh brand of Islam that denied girls an education and barred women from work, have stoked fears of their return among many. Afghans who can afford it are applying by the thousands for visas to leave Afghanistan, fearing a violent descent into chaos. The U.S.-NATO withdrawal is more than 95% complete and due to be finished by Aug. 31.

Shaheen said the Taliban will lay down their weapons when a negotiated government acceptable to all sides in the conflict is installed in Kabul and Ghani’s government is gone.

“I want to make it clear that we do not believe in the monopoly of power because any governments who (sought) to monopolize power in Afghanistan in the past, were not successful governments,” said Shaheen, apparently including the Taliban’s own five-year rule in that assessment. “So we do not want to repeat that same formula.”

But he was also uncompromising on the continued rule of Ghani, calling him a war monger and accusing him of using his Tuesday speech on the Islamic holy day of Eid-al-Adha to promise an offensive against the Taliban. Shaheen dismissed Ghani’s right to govern, resurrecting allegations of widespread fraud that surrounded Ghani’s 2019 election win. After that vote, both Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah declared themselves president. After a compromise deal, Abdullah is now No. 2 in the government and heads the reconciliation council.

Ghani has often said he will remain in office until new elections can determine the next government. His critics — including ones outside the Taliban — accuse him of seeking only to keep power, causing splits among government supporters.

Last weekend, Abdullah headed a high-level delegation to the Qatari capital Doha for talks with Taliban leaders. It ended with promises of more talks, as well as greater attention to the protection of civilians and infrastructure.

Shaheen called the talks a good beginning. But he said the government’s repeated demands for a ceasefire while Ghani stayed in power were tantamount to demanding a Taliban surrender.
“They don’t want reconciliation, but they want surrendering,” he said.

Before any ceasefire, there must be an agreement on a new government “acceptable to us and to other Afghans,” he said. Then “there will be no war.”

Shaheen said under this new government, women will be allowed to work, go to school, and participate in politics, but will have to wear the hijab, or headscarf. He said women won’t be required to have a male relative with them to leave their home, and that Taliban commanders in newly occupied districts have orders that universities, schools and markets operate as before, including with the participation of women and girls.

However, there have been repeated reports from captured districts of Taliban imposing harsh restrictions on women, even setting fire to schools. One gruesome video that emerged appeared to show Taliban killing captured commandos in northern Afghanistan.

Shaheen said some Taliban commanders had ignored the leadership’s orders against repressive and drastic behavior and that several have been put before a Taliban military tribunal and punished, though he did provide specifics. He contended the video was fake, a splicing of separate footage.

Shaheen said there are no plans to make a military push on Kabul and that the Taliban have so far “restrained” themselves from taking provincial capitals. But he warned they could, given the weapons and equipment they have acquired in newly captured districts. He contended that the majority of the Taliban’s battlefield successes came through negotiations, not fighting.

“Those districts which have fallen to us and the military forces who have joined us … were through mediation of the people, through talks,” he said. “They (did not fall) through fighting … it would have been very hard for us to take 194 districts in just eight weeks.”

The Taliban control about half of Afghanistan’s 419 district centers, and while they have yet to capture any of the 34 provincial capitals, they are pressuring about half of them, Milley said. In recent days, the U.S. has carried out airstrikes in support of beleaguered Afghan government troops in the southern city of Kandahar, around which the Taliban have been amassing, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Thursday.

The rapid fall of districts and the seemingly disheartened response by Afghan government forces have prompted U.S.-allied warlords to resurrect militias with a violent history. For many Afghans weary of more than four decades of war, that raises fears of a repeat of the brutal civil war in the early 1990s in which those same warlords battled for power.

“You know, no one no one wants a civil war, including me,” said Shaheen.

Shaheen also repeated Taliban promises aimed at reassuring Afghans who fear the group.

Washington has promised to relocate thousands of U.S. military interpreters. Shaheen said they had nothing to fear from the Taliban and denied threatening them. But, he added, if some want to take asylum in the West because Afghanistan’s economy is so poor, “that is up to them.”

He also denied that the Taliban have threatened journalists and Afghanistan’s nascent civil society, which has been targeted by dozens of killings over the past year. The Islamic State group has taken responsibility for some, but the Afghan government has blamed the Taliban for most of the killings while the Taliban in turn accuse the Afghan government of carrying out the killings to defame them. Rarely has the government made arrests into the killings or revealed the findings of its investigations.

Shaheen said journalists, including those working for Western media outlets, have nothing to fear from a government that includes the Taliban.

“We have not issued letters to journalists (threatening them), especially to those who are working for foreign media outlets. They can continue their work even in the future,” he said.

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Iraq Expects Announcement to End US Combat Mission

Members of a top Iraqi delegation in Washington say they expect to reach an agreement with the Biden administration to end the US combat mission in Iraq, ahead of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s summit with President Joe Biden on Monday. White House Correspondent Patsy Widakuswara has this report.
Producer: Barry Unger

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China Rejects Second Probe Into Coronavirus Origin

China has rejected the World Health Organization’s proposal for a second phase of its investigation into the origin of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Zeng Yixin, the vice minister of the Chinese National Health Commission, told reporters in Beijing Thursday that he was extremely surprised when he read the proposal offered by the U.N. health agency includes audits of laboratories in the city of Wuhan, where the virus was first detected in late 2019 that led to more than 192 million infections around the globe, including 4.1 million deaths. 

Zeng said the WHO’s origin-tracing proposal lacks “common sense” and displays a disrespect toward science that makes it “impossible” for Beijing to accept. 

A team of WHO researchers visited Wuhan earlier this year to research the initial cause of the virus. The team concluded the virus likely jumped from animals to humans and that it was “extremely unlikely” that it leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology as some experts have speculated. But WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has criticized China for not fully cooperating with investigators by not sharing raw data, and has called for a continued probe of all theories, including a lab accident.

Chinese officials and news outlets have begun speculating that the virus may have escaped from a U.S. military laboratory, a theory that has been widely dismissed by the scientific community.

Meanwhile, a new study says that two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine are effective against the highly contagious delta variant of the disease. In a study published Wednesday in The New England Journal of Medicine, researchers at Public Health England found that two doses of the Pfizer vaccine are 88% effective at preventing symptomatic disease caused by the delta variant, compared to 93% against the alpha variant. The researchers also say two doses of AstraZeneca vaccine are 67% effective against delta, compared to 74% against the alpha variant.

A single dose of Pfizer is just 36% effective against delta, the researchers say, while one shot of AstraZeneca was just 30% effective. 

A study posted online Tuesday suggests that Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot COVID-19 vaccine may be less effective against the emerging variants of the coronavirus, compared to either of the two-dose Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.

Some information for this report came from the Associated Press, Reuters and AFP.

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US Fans Welcome Tokyo Olympics as COVID Threat Continues to Loom

Excitement is building over the Tokyo Olympics, despite more athletes testing positive for COVID-19. While the Games are set to begin Friday, the head of the Tokyo organizing committee says there is still a chance they could be canceled due to the virus.  Still, sports fans in the U.S. are eagerly gearing up to watch, as VOA’s Mariama Diallo reports.

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Pfizer, BioNTech Agree to Produce COVID-19 Vaccine for Africa

Pfizer and BioNTech have reached an agreement with a South African company to produce their COVID-19 vaccine for distribution in Africa, the biotechnology companies said Wednesday.

The Biovac Institute in Cape Town will manufacture 100 million doses of the vaccine annually starting in 2022. The company will mix vaccine ingredients it receives from Europe, place them in vials and package them for distribution to the 54 countries in Africa.

The agreement may eventually help alleviate vaccine shortages on a continent where the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says less than 2% of its population of 1.3 billion has received at least one dose. 

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said the company’s goal is to provide people throughout Africa with the vaccine, a departure from previous bilateral agreements that saw most doses being sold to wealthy countries.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is already being manufactured in South Africa in a similar “fill and finish” process that has the capacity to produce more than 200 million doses annually. The vaccines are also being distributed across the African continent.

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Floods in Central China Leave Subway Passengers Stranded

Heavy rainfall forced the subway system in Zhengzhou, capital of China’s Henan province, to shut down Tuesday, stranding passengers.

Riders posted videos on social media as they awaited rescue in waist-high muddy waters. A passenger named Xiaopei posted on Weibo that “the water in the carriage has reached (their) chest.”

Around 300 people have been rescued so far, and an unknown number remain trapped.

Local media outlets report that train floodwaters were lowering.

Henan province, home to about 94 million people, experienced severe rains through the past week. On Tuesday, the region’s meteorological station issued the highest threat level, a red warning, as rains are expected to continue for the next 24 hours, Reuters reported.

A representative of the city of Xu Liyi, a member of the Standing Committee of Henan Provincial Party Committee, and Secretary of the Zhengzhou Municipal Party Committee said the high levels of rainfall were unusual.

Extreme weather events have surged this summer in China, with recent flooding in Sichuan province killing hundreds of citizens and forcing thousands to evacuate the area. Officials of Greenpeace International, an environmental group, warn that China’s rapid urbanization will increase the frequency of climate disasters.

Speaking to the Chinese media, Liu Junyan of Greenpeace said “because of the highly concentrated population, infrastructure and economic activity, the exposure and vulnerability of climate hazards are higher in urban areas.”

This report contains information from Reuters.

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Stocks Skid as Virus Fears Shake Markets; Dow Falls 2.1%

Resurgent pandemic worries knocked stocks lower from Wall Street to Tokyo on Monday, fueled by fears that a faster-spreading variant of the virus may upend the economy’s strong recovery. 

The S&P 500 fell 68.67, or 1.6%, to 4,258.49, after setting a record just a week earlier. In another sign of worry, the yield on the 10-year Treasury touched its lowest level in five months as investors scrambled for safer places to put their money.  

The Dow Jones Industrial Average slumped 725.81, or 2.1%, to 33,962.04, while the Nasdaq composite lost 152.25, or 1.1%, to 14,274.98. 

Airlines and other companies that would get hurt the most by potential COVID-19 restrictions took some of the heaviest losses, similar to the early days of the pandemic in February and March 2020. United Airlines lost 5.5%, mall owner Simon Property Group gave up 5.9%, and cruise operator Carnival fell 5.7%. 

The selling also circled the world, with several European markets sinking roughly 2.5% and Asian indexes down a bit less. The price of benchmark U.S. crude, meanwhile, fell more than 7% after OPEC and allied nations agreed on Sunday to eventually allow for higher oil production this year. 

COVID numbers 

Increased worries about the virus may seem strange to people in parts of the world where masks are coming off, or already have, thanks to COVID-19 vaccinations. But the World Health Organization says cases and deaths are climbing globally after a period of decline, spurred by the highly contagious delta variant. And given how tightly connected the global economy is, a hit anywhere can quickly affect the other side of the world. 

Even in the U.S., where the vaccination rate is higher than in many other countries, people in Los Angeles County must once again wear masks indoors regardless of whether they’re vaccinated following spikes in cases, hospitalizations and deaths. 

Across the country, the daily number of COVID-19 cases has soared by nearly 20,000 over the past two weeks to about 32,000. The vaccine campaign has hit a wall, with the average number of daily inoculations sinking to the lowest levels since January, and cases are on the rise in all 50 states. 

Economic growth expected

That’s why markets are concerned, even though reports show the economy is still recovering at a fantastically high rate and the general expectation is for it to deliver continued growth. Any worsening of virus trends threatens the high prices that stocks have achieved on expectations the economy will fulfill those lofty forecasts. 

Financial markets have been showing signs of increased concerns for a while, but the U.S. stock market had remained largely resilient. The S&P 500 has had just two down weeks in the past eight, and the last time it had even a 5% pullback from a record high was in October.  

Several analysts pointed to that backdrop of high prices and very calm movements for weeks while dissecting Monday’s drop. 

“It’s a bit of an overreaction, but when you have a market that’s at record highs, that’s had the kind of run we’ve had, with virtually no pullback, it becomes extremely vulnerable to any sort of bad news,” said Randy Frederick, vice president of trading and  derivatives at Charles Schwab. “It was just a matter of what that tipping point was, and it seems we finally reached that this morning” with worries about the delta variant. 

He and other analysts are optimistic stocks can rebound quickly. Investors have been trained recently to see every dip in stocks as merely an opportunity to buy low.  

Barry Bannister, chief equity strategist at Stifel, was more pessimistic. He said the stock market may be in the early stages of a drop of as much as 10% following its big run higher. The S&P 500 nearly doubled after hitting its bottom in March 2020.  

“The valuations, they just got too frothy,” he said. “There was just so much optimism out there.” 

The bond market has been louder and more persistent in its warnings. The yield on the 10-year Treasury tends to move with expectations for economic growth and for inflation, and it has been sinking since late March, when it was at roughly 1.75%. It fell to 1.20% Monday from 1.29% late Friday. 

Analysts and professional investors say a long list of potential reasons is behind the sharp moves in the bond market, which is seen as more rational and sober than the stock market. But at the heart is the risk the economy may be set to slow sharply from its current, extremely high growth.  

Risks to economy

Besides the new variants of the coronavirus, other risks to the economy include fading pandemic relief efforts from the U.S. government and a Federal Reserve that looks set to begin paring back its assistance for markets later this year.  

Monday’s selling pressure was widespread, with nearly 90% of the stocks in the S&P 500 lower. Even Big Tech stocks fell, with Apple down 2.7% and Microsoft 1.3% lower. Such stocks seemed nearly immune to virus fears during earlier downturns, rising with expectations for continued growth almost regardless of the economy’s strength.  

Across the S&P 500, analysts are forecasting profit growth of nearly 70% for the second quarter from a year earlier. That would be the strongest growth since 2009, when the economy was climbing out of the Great Recession.  

But just like worries are rising that the economy’s growth has already peaked, analysts are trying to handicap by how much growth rates will slow in upcoming quarters and years for corporate profits. 
 

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New DOJ Policy Bars Prosecutors From Obtaining Journalists’ Records

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland on Monday announced a new Justice Department policy that prohibits federal prosecutors from seizing journalists’ phone and email records in leak investigations.

This comes on the heels of a Biden administration decision that the U.S. government will discontinue a highly controversial practice of using subpoenas and secret orders for reporters’ communications data to track down government leakers.

“The Department of Justice will no longer use compulsory legal process for the purpose of obtaining information from or records of members of the news media acting within the scope of newsgathering activities,” Garland wrote in a widely-anticipated memo to his department’s leadership and federal prosecutors.

The policy announcement means the Justice Department will no longer issue subpoenas, warrants and court orders to reporters, their publishers and third-party service providers to obtain the journalists’ records.

There will be exceptions, however. The ban does not apply to obtaining information about a journalist who is under criminal investigation or a journalist who has “used criminal methods” to acquire information, Garland wrote in the three-page statement.

“The prohibition does apply when a member of the news media has, in the course of newsgathering, only possessed or published government information, including classified information,” Garland said.

The announcement comes two months after the Justice Department informed reporters from the Washington Post, New York Times and CNN that the department under former President Donald Trump secretly obtained their phone and email records. As part of a leak investigation, the Justice Department reportedly subpoenaed Apple for the records of two Democratic members of Congress, their aides and family members.

The revelations caused outrage among journalists and press freedom advocates and prompted the Justice Department’s inspector general to open a review of the seizures. Garland promised to change the department’s policy on obtaining journalists’ records and voiced support for legislation to make safeguards permanent.

Last month, the attorney general met with executives from the three news organizations and pledged to announce a new policy on the issue. At a news conference last month, Garland said “the only way to make [the policy] permanently durable is through legislation, and I personally will support working with Congress to develop legislation that would make protections for obtaining the press’ records part of the legislation.”

In his memo, Garland said he had asked his deputy, Lisa Monaco, to review existing Justice Department rules on obtaining journalists’ records and to “codify the…protections in regulations.” He also reiterated his support for congressional action “to protect members of the news media.”

Press freedom advocates praised the new policy.

“The attorney general has taken a necessary and momentous step to protect press freedom at a critical time,” Bruce Brown, executive director of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said in a statement. “This historic new policy will ensure that journalists can do their job of informing the public without fear of federal government intrusion into their relationships with confidential sources.”

On Twitter, Freedom of the Press Foundation urged Congress to “immediately codify these rules so they have the force of law.”
 

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Egypt Lets Journalists, Activists Go After US Concerns

Egyptian authorities released three activists and three journalists Sunday after months in pre-trial detention, officials and lawyers said. The releases came after U.S. officials, among others, expressed concern over the arrests and harassment of rights advocates and critics of President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi’s government.

State security prosecutors ordered the release of the six pending ongoing investigations into charges against them, according to two judicial officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media. 

The charges rage from disseminating false news and misuse of social media platforms to joining a terrorist group, a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood which Egypt designated as a terrorist group in 2013. 

Despite their lengthy detention, those arrested and released have yet to stand trial, according their lawyers.

Esraa Abdel-Fattah, a pro-democracy activist and writer, walked free early Sunday, her sister Shimaa wrote in a Facebook post. She was a co-founder of the April 6 movement that played a crucial role in the 2011 pro-democracy uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Abdel-Fattah was arrested in October 2019 in a city west of Cairo, during a crackdown that followed small but rare anti-government protests. Hundreds were arrested at the time, but many were later released.

Prominent rights lawyer Mahienour el-Masry also was released Sunday, her sister Maysoon el-Masry wrote in a Facebook post that included a photo of the lawyer wearing a white uniform for jailed people and a face mask.

El-Masry, who is widely known for her activism in labor movements, and on behalf of Syrian and Palestinian refugees living in Egypt, had been arrested in Sep. 2019 amid the crackdown that followed the rare protest.

Authorities also released journalist Gamal el-Gamal, said rights lawyer Nasser Amin. El-Gamal, who is widely known for his columns critical of el-Sissi’s government, was arrested earlier this year upon arrival at Cairo International Airport from Turkey, where he had lived since 2017.

Also among those released Sunday were journalists Mustafa el-Aasar and Moataz Wadnan, who had been held in pre-trail detention since 2018, according to rights lawyer Malek Adly.

Abdel-Nasser Ismail, deputy head of the Socialist People’s Alliance Party, also walked free earlier Sunday after nearly two years in pre-trail detention.

The releases came amid calls by lawmakers and public figures to release activists and rights advocates who have been detained in recent years in over what they say politically-motivated charges.
Last week, there was an outcry by rights advocates when prosecutors last week referred Hossam Bahgat, a leading Egyptian investigative journalist and human rights advocate, to trial. Bahgat said he was accused of insulting Egypt’s election authority, spreading false news alleging electoral fraud, and using social media to commit crimes.

The accusations stem from a tweet Bahgat wrote last year blaming the election authority’s chairman for allegedly mishandling last year’s parliamentary vote, he said.

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price condemned Bahgat’s indictment and the detention and harassment of Egyptian civil society leaders, academics, and journalists under el-Sissi.

“We’ve communicated to the Egyptian government our strong belief that individuals such as Hossam Bahgat should not be targeted for expressing their views peacefully,” Price said last week. “As a strategic partner we’ve raised these concerns with the Egyptian government, and we will continue to do so going forward.”

Also last week, an Egyptian court began the trial of six secular activists and journalists, including former lawmaker Zyad el-Elaimy, rights lawyer Khalid Ali said. The six, who were arrested in 2019, face an array of charges including disturbing the public peace through disseminating false news about domestic affairs. The next court session is July 29, Ali said.

El-Elaimy and others were added by a court last year to a list of suspected terrorists for the next five years. The decision was upheld last week by the Court of Cassation — Egypt’s highest criminal court. 

Also added to the terror list was Palestinian-Egyptian activist Ramy Shaath, who helped establish Egypt’s branch of the Palestinian-led boycott movement against Israel, known as BDS. 

Shaath, the son of a former Palestinian foreign minister, was also detained in 2019 but has not been charged or referred to court for trial. His wife, a French citizen, has been deported.

The Egyptian government has in recent years waged a wide-scale crackdown on dissent, jailing thousands of people, mainly Islamists, but also secular activists involved in the 2011 Arab Spring uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Journalists have also been targeted, with dozens imprisoned and some expelled. Egypt remains among the world’s top jailers of journalists, along with Turkey and China, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

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African Beat

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Taliban Want Afghan Deal, Leader Says, Even As They Battle On

The leader of the Taliban said Sunday that his movement is committed to a political settlement to end decades of war in Afghanistan, even as the insurgents battle in dozens of districts across to country to gain territory. 

The statement by Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada came as Taliban leaders were meeting with a high-level Afghan government delegation in the Gulf state of Qatar to jump-start stalled peace talks. The Kabul delegation includes the No. 2 in the government, Abdullah Abdullah, head of Afghanistan’s national reconciliation council. 

The talks resumed Saturday, ahead of the four-day Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which in many parts of the world is expected to start Tuesday. A second session took place Sunday afternoon. 

Washington’s peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who is in Qatar, previously expressed hope for a reduction in violence and possibly a cease-fire over Eid al-Adha. 

Akhundzada said that “in spite of the military gains and advances, the Islamic Emirate strenuously favors a political settlement in the country, and every opportunity for the establishment of an Islamic system.”  

The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is what the Taliban called their government when they ruled the country for five years, until their ouster by a U.S.-led coalition in 2001. 

Still, there are few signs of a political agreement on the horizon. Battles between the Taliban and government forces are continuing in dozens of provinces, and thousands of Afghans are seeking visas in hopes of leaving the country. Most are frightened that the final withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops after nearly 20 years will plunge their war-ravaged nation into deeper chaos. With the U.S. withdrawal more than 95% complete, Afghanistan’s future seems uncertain. 

Militias with a brutal history have been resurrected to fight the Taliban but their loyalties are to their commanders, many of them U.S.-allied warlords with ethnic-based support. 

This has raised the specter of deepening divisions between Afghanistan’s many ethnic groups. Most Taliban are ethnic Pashtuns and in the past there have been brutal reprisal killings by one ethnic group against another. 

In a sign of how little progress has been made in negotiations, both sides are still haggling over terminology, unable to agree on the name for the nation. The Taliban are insisting on the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Kabul wants the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. 

Meanwhile Akhunzada’s statement demanded an Islamic system without explaining what that meant. 

He promised to support education, but for girls he said the “Islamic Emirate will … strive to create an appropriate environment for female education within the framework of sublime Islamic law.” 

He didn’t say how that differed from the educational institutions that have been created during the last 20 years and whether women would be allowed the freedom to work outside their home and move freely without being accompanied by a male relative. 

He said the Taliban have ordered their commanders to treat civilians with care and to protect institutions and infrastructure. Yet, reports have emerged from areas coming under Taliban control that schools have been burned, women have been restricted to their homes and some government buildings have been blown up. 

The Taliban have denied reports of such destruction, saying that the footage being shown is old and accused the government of being engaged in disinformation and propaganda. 

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VOA Asia

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Afghanistan Recalls Diplomats From Pakistan Over Kidnapping of Envoy’s Daughter

Afghanistan said Sunday it has asked all of its diplomats in Pakistan to return to Kabul until Islamabad addresses “all security risks” to them and brings to justice those behind last week’s brief abduction of the Afghan ambassador’s daughter.  
 
The announcement came a day after the Afghan government said Silsila Alikhil, daughter of Afghan envoy Najibullah Alikhil, was taken hostage for several hours and “severely tortured” by unknown assailants in the Pakistani capital on Friday afternoon before being set free.  
 
Islamabad said a high-level through investigation was launched into the “disturbing incident” immediately after the Afghan embassy reported to the Pakistani foreign ministry that Alikhil was “assaulted while riding a rented vehicle.”
 
A hospital medical report confirmed that Alikhil was physically assaulted.  
 
“An Afghan delegation will visit Pakistan soon to assess and follow up on the (kidnapping) case and all related issues; subsequent actions will follow based on the findings,” the Afghan foreign ministry said Sunday.
 
No one has claimed responsibility for the attack that has dealt a fresh blow to the fragile relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan that is marred by suspicion and acrimony.

The Pakistani Foreign Ministry, responding to Kabul’s recalling of its diplomats, described it as “unfortunate and regrettable.” The ministry said in a statement it hoped the Afghan government would reconsider the decision.  
 
“The reported abduction and assault of ambassador’s daughter in Islamabad is being investigated and followed-up at the highest level on the instructions of the prime minister (Imran Khan),” it said. 

Pakistani officials said security for the Afghan ambassador, his family and personnel of other diplomatic missions of Afghanistan in the country has been further tightened.
 
Bilateral diplomatic tensions have deteriorated in the wake of stepped-up attacks by Taliban insurgents against Afghan government forces amid the drawdown of U.S.-led foreign forces from Afghanistan.
 
Kabul routinely accuses Islamabad of allowing the Taliban to use Pakistani soil for directing attacks on the Afghan side of the long border between the two countries.  
 
Pakistan accuses authorities in Afghanistan of sheltering fugitive militants and allowing them to plot cross-border terrorist attacks.
Analysts said the rising diplomatic bilateral tensions do not bode well for peace efforts in Afghanistan.  
 
Pakistan is considered a key player in the Afghan peace process and has been acknowledged by the United States for helping bring the Taliban to the negotiating table for talks with Kabul’s representatives, though the process has failed to make any headway.  
 
“Close Afghanistan-Pakistan collaboration is of utmost importance at this time of peace talks,” said Torek Farhadi, a former Afghan government adviser.  
 
“Pakistan has promised to get to the bottom of this unfortunate affair within 48 hours. President [Ashraf] Ghani could have waited a few days and take such a decision in consultation with Afghan Parliament,” Farhadi said.

 

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