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West tells Russia to free Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, Moscow pushes back


MOSCOW : Western nations told Russia to immediately free detained Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny on Monday, a day after he was detained at a Moscow airport after flying home for the first time since he was poisoned last summer.

Russia quickly rejected calls to release him, telling the West to mind its own business as police continued to hold Navalny in a Moscow police station.

“Respect international law, do not encroach on national legislation of sovereign states and address problems in your own country,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on Facebook.

Navalny’s case could trigger new sanctions against Russia, especially against an $11.6 billion project to build a natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, with some EU countries saying they want the bloc to swiftly impose such measures.

Four masked police officers detained the opposition politician at passport control on Sunday evening, the first time he had returned home after being poisoned by what German military tests showed was a Novichok nerve agent, a version of events the Kremlin rejects.

Russia’s prison service said he had been taken into custody due to alleged violations of a suspended prison sentence that Navalny, 44, says was trumped up.

It said he would be held in custody until a court hearing expected on Jan. 29 that will rule whether to convert that suspended sentence into a real 3.5 jail term.

The foreign ministers of Germany, Britain, France and Italy called for Navalny’s release. Lithuania said on Sunday it would ask the EU to swiftly impose new sanctions on Russia. Czech Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek said he wanted the bloc to discuss possible sanctions.

Jake Sullivan, one of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s top aides, told Moscow to free Navalny, and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Twitter he was deeply troubled by Moscow’s decision to arrest Navalny.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed Western consternation over the Navalny case, casting it as an attempt to distract from the West’s own problems.

“You can feel the joy with which these comments (On Navalny’s arrest) are coming out,” said Lavrov.

“Judging by everything, it allows Western politicians to think that by doing this they can divert attention away from the deep crisis that the liberal model of development finds itself in,” he said.


COVID-19 and shrinking freedom limits in Jordan


In Jordan, measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 came hand-in-hand with increased intimidation of journalists and restrictions on citizens’ rights to speech.

In mid-March 2020, Jordan's government enacted Defense Law 13 (of 1992) to contain the pandemic, giving the government broad powers to limit basic rights. The then-Prime Minister Omar Razzaz reassured that the law “would be applied in the narrowest limits,” stressing the need to differentiate between the right to “express an opinion” and the “spread of rumors and false news which would spread panic” saying the latter will be “firmly” dealt with.

Soon after, the government imposed a three-day total lockdown followed by a strict daily curfew. Up until late April, one required a special permit to drive a car. Consecutively, economic activity was brought to a standstill.

Deploying laws

In mid-April 2020, the government issued Defense Order No. 8 which criminalized the publishing or circulation of news on any platform, including social media, about the pandemic that could create panic among people. Offenders could be liable to a 3,000 Jordanian dinars ($4,231 United States dollars) fine and/or imprisonment for up to 3 years.

This governmental grip on citizens’ rights to speech is enabled by Article 15.4 of the kingdom's constitution, which authorizes the government, upon declaring martial law or a state of emergency, to impose “limited censorship” on the press in matters relating to broadly-phrased “public safety” and “national defense.”

Arrests started in early April. Following the publication of a report citing day laborers’ financial hardships under lockdown, Faris Al-Sayegh, director-general of Ro’ya TV, and journalist Muhammad Al-Khalidi, were arrested and then released on bail.

Others documenting the plight of marginalized communities under COVID-19 met worse fates. Salim Akash, a Bangladeshi journalist and reporter for the Jago News website, was arrested mid-April and charged by Jordan with violating the telecommunications and anti-terrorism laws after circulating news on Facebook highlighting the challenges of Bangladeshi migrant workers under lockdown. Jordan's Ministry of Interior issued an order to deport Akash, who is, to this day, imprisoned in Jordan.

Shrinking horizons

Arrests soon went beyond the scope of COVID-19. On May 17, 2020, animal rights activist Ali Sarsour was detained over several Facebook posts. In one, Sarsour praised the queen of Jordan, who he claimed shared his surname  a link deemed offensive to Queen Rania  as his surname translates to “cockroach” in Arabic. In another post, Sarsour announced that he named his dog after the then-health minister. He was charged with lèse-majesté (i.e. defaming or insulting a member of the royal family)and insulting an official body and was detained for more than 60 days before being released on bail.

In June, an opinion piece that marked Jordan's Independence Day but criticized Jordan’s dependency on Western and Israeli influences landed its author, Saeed Thyab, Jordanian Democratic Popular Unity Party's secretary-general, in jail for 7 days. Founded in the 1990s, the Jordanian Democratic Popular Unity Party is a socialist political party that stands for Palestinian nationalism.

A month later, the closure of the teachers’ union sparked month-long protests across the kingdom. A government-imposed gag order stifled all news related to the protests throughout August. Some network throttling was also observed during protests. Once a rarity, media blackouts have recently become commonplace to silence journalists, and to limit investigations, and public debate. Subsequently, Basil Okour, the editor-in-chief of, was arrested for allegedly violating the gag order for reporting on people's reaction to the union's shutdown.

A more popular case was that of Jordanian caricaturist, Emad Hajjaj. Hajjaj was arrested on August 26, 2020, after publishing a cartoon criticizing the UAE-Israeli peace agreement that portrayed the crown prince of Abu Dhabi. Charged with “disturbing [Jordan’s] relations with a foreign state,” he was transferred to State Security Court, a court reserved for extreme cases such as drug trafficking and terrorism. Although he was released five days later on bail, his arrest is seen as a deterioration: it was Emad‘s first incarceration despite previous controversial cartoons, including ones portraying other heads of state.

On September 20, 2020, Badi al-Rafaiah, a senior member of the Islamic Action Front—Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, was arrested on charges of “insulting the head of a foreign state” and lèse-majesté. His detention, which came against the background of months-old Facebook posts and retweets, coincided with Jordanians gearing up for parliamentary elections in which the brotherhood was a key contesting party, raising suspicion that the arrest was politically driven.

Not only was Badi's Facebook post nearly six months old, but it was also not an original one  his post endorsed someone else’s prayers that Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had contracted COVID-19 from a senior Egyptian military official who died of the virus. Rafaiah was released on bail a few days later.

More recently, the prosecutor for the State Security Court ordered the arrest of Jamal Haddad for publishing a news article questioning whether government officials had received the COVID-19 vaccine before the general public. The government charged Haddad under the Anti-Terrorism Law. He was released on bail on December 29, 2020, following increased protests led by local journalists.

On December 28, 2020, lawyer Mohamad Almajali was charged with lèse-majesté, insulting an official body, and influencing the electoral process for putting forward his legal opinion regarding a signature on the royal decree approving the 2020 general elections. His case is in development.

Reacting to Almajali's case, human rights defender and lawyer Hala Deeb sarcastically tweeted “the sky's the limit indeed,” referring to prime minister Bisher al-Khasawneh's recent statement that “the sky's the limit when it comes to freedom of expression in Jordan.”

These detentions, as plenty as they are, have attracted public attention due to the prominence of those involved. There may be others whose arrests have gone unnoticed.

Prior to COVID-19, Jordan’s red lines of speech were largely discernible, delimited by a labyrinth of legal codes including the Cybercrime Law, Penal Code, Press & Publications Law, Anti-Terrorism Law, and the Telecommunications Law.

Over the years, journalists and activists have established a general sense of what could get them into trouble, and mostly conformed. According to a 2018 study, over 92 percent of journalists practiced self-censorship. Yet, the 2020 detentions – spurred by a climate of COVID-19 alarm – threw them off course, and indicated that Jordan is following in the grim footsteps of oppressive neighboring countries, like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, who detain journalists and human rights defenders on vague, unfounded, often terrorism charges.


Uyghurs in China


Mehbube Abla, a 38-year-old Uyghur from Ghulja, a city in western Xinjiang. In 2004, she left China to study abroad and has never returned. All the members of her family who stayed in Xinjiang have been imprisoned.

There are 11 million Uyghurs, a Muslim Turkich nation, living in the western province of Xinjiang in China. Widely portrayed as “motherland separatists” or simply “terrorists” in Chinese mainstream media, this group has been targeted more systematically since Xi Jinping became president of China in 2012.

According to Human Rights Watch, the Uyghurs have been deprived of basic human rights, including freedom of religion, of movement, and also of using their native language. And according to various testimonies and sources, over 1 million Uyghurs – as well as other Muslim minorities  are in internment camps. Some camp detainees are also sent to Xinjiang’s vast prison system.

Given the secrecy surrounding these internment camps, which China describes as “vocational training centers“, the exact number of people currently detained is difficult to ascertain, but hundreds are believed to have died in internment. More detailed information is available in the Xinjiang Victims Database.

Abla is active on social media, where she advocates for Uyghurs’ human rights. 

Russian military lashes out at UN over aid to Aleppo

The Russian military is criticizing the United Nations for dragging its feet on delivering humanitarian aid to the areas of Aleppo, which have been recently seized by Syrian government forces.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said that the Russian military has been the only source of food, medicine and other supplies for 90,000 residents of Aleppo's neighborhoods seized by the Syrian army this week.

In Friday's statement, Konashenkov called on Jan Egeland, a senior U.N. aid official for Syria, to move faster to provide aid to the area.

Russian-backed Syrian government troops have made significant gains in the rebel-held eastern part of the city since the weekend.

Afghan official says Taliban militants kill 23 civilians

An Afghan police official says that Taliban militants have killed 23 civilians in Kandahar Province in the last 48 hours.

Gen. Abdul Raziq Kandahar said Friday that the killings took place in different areas of the Nash district. He did not provide further details.

Raziq said that around 29 Taliban fighters and six members of the Afghan security forces have been killed in ongoing battles in the district in recent days.

2 Filipino militants who left bomb near US Embassy captured

Philippine police say they have captured two local sympathizers of the Islamic State group who they alleged tried to detonate a bomb near the U.S. Embassy and prompted authorities to raise a terror alert.

National police chief Ronald de la Rosa says the militants, who were arrested Wednesday, left the homemade bomb made from an 81mm mortar round in a trash can near the embassy after failing to detonate it at the nearby Rizal Park, their initial target. The bomb also failed to explode near the embassy.

Dela Rosa said Thursday that Rashid Kilala and Jiaher Guinar, who belong to a small Muslim armed group called Ansar Al-khilafa Philippines, wanted to impress the Islamic State group and divert the military's focus from an offensive against fellow militants in the south.

Syrian government presses on in Aleppo, thousands displaced

Tens of thousands of people have been displaced in Aleppo as pro-government Syrian forces press on with their campaign to reclaim the divided city.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said Wednesday more than 50,000 out of an estimated quarter-million inhabitants have been displaced by attacks on rebel-held eastern Aleppo over the past 4 days. Many of them fled to safer ground in areas under government or Kurdish control.

The International Committee of the Red Cross says around 20,000 people have fled.

The Lebanese Al-Manar TV channel reported from the Aleppo countryside that pro-government forces were advancing in the southern portion of the city's rebel enclave.

The government has seized much of the northern half of the enclave in a swift advance that began Saturday.

7 injured by turbulence as China airliner approaches Sydney

Officials say seven people were injured when a Chinese airliner hit turbulence at it approached Sydney airport.

China Eastern Airlines general manager Kathy Zhang said five passengers and two crew members were taken to a hospital after Flight 777 from Kunming in China landed Tuesday. She said all are in stable condition.

The Ambulance Service said in a statement that three complained of neck pain and the others suffered back pain, a minor head injury, a jaw laceration and a wrist injury.

Lufthansa pilots on strike again, 816 flights canceled

Pilots at German airline Lufthansa are on strike again after a two-day break in their campaign of walkouts.

The company has canceled 816 short-haul flights scheduled for Tuesday. The walkout by the Cockpit union is to be followed Wednesday by a strike hitting both short-haul and long-haul services.

Lufthansa has canceled 890 flights scheduled Wednesday.

The strikes follow four consecutive days of walkouts last week. Lufthansa and Cockpit are far apart in a pay dispute that has dragged on for more than two years.

Lufthansa on Monday failed to persuade a Munich court to issue an injunction blocking the latest strike. The company says that around 82,000 passengers will be affected by Tuesday's walkout and 98,000 by Wednesday's.

Spain: Police arrest 4 suspected of IS armed group links

Spain's Interior Ministry says police have arrested four people suspected of having links to an illegal migration network believed to have been used by the Islamic State group to move militants to Europe, including those involved in last year's Paris attacks.

A ministry statement said the four had links with the so-called "Syrian refugee route" that the Islamic group is thought to have used to get the Paris attackers to Europe via the Greek island of Leros in October 2015.

Police believe the four arrested Monday had contacts with two extremists arrested in Salzburg, Austria, shortly after the November 2015 attacks.

Two were arrested in towns in northwestern Spain and two others in the southeastern city of Almeria.

No details on their identities were released.

Israel bombs suspected Islamic State militant hideout in Syria

The Israeli military says it has carried out an air strike in Syria on a building used by Islamic State militants to attack Israeli forces.

The overnight air strike Monday targeted an abandoned United Nations building that Israel says was used as a base by the militants. There were no immediate reports of injuries.

In Sunday's clash militants affiliated with the IS group opened fire at an Israeli patrol on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights. Israeli aircraft quickly responded, killing four militants in an air strike on a machine gun-mounted vehicle.

No Israeli troops were hurt, but it was a rare attempt by IS-affiliated militants to ambush Israeli forces.

Syrian troops capture major Aleppo neighborhood

Syrian state media is reporting that government forces have captured the eastern Aleppo neighborhood of Sakhour, putting much of the northern part of Aleppo's besieged rebel-held areas under state control.

State news agency SANA says government forces captured the Sakhour neighborhood early Monday in the latest blow to rebels in Syria's largest city.

Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said Syrian government forces have captured some 10 neighborhoods over the past few days, putting nearly 30 percent of Aleppo's formerly rebel-held neighborhoods under government control.

Government forces captured the Hanano district on Saturday, the first time they had pushed this far into eastern Aleppo since 2012.

Thousands of east Aleppo residents have fled to safety in government and Kurdish-controlled areas of the city.

Turkish president threatens to reopen borders to hundreds of thousands of migrants

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned the European Union that if it continues threatening his country he will open the border gates and allow hundreds of thousands of migrants to flood into EU countries.

Erdogan, in a speech Friday, reacted furiously to a non-binding resolution approved the previous day by the European Parliament demanding that the bloc freeze membership negotiations with Turkey over the government's heavy-handed crackdown following a failed coup in July.

"We are the ones who feed 3-3.5 million refugees in this country. You have betrayed your promises," Erdogan told the EU. "If you go any further those border gates will be opened."

The EU struck a deal earlier this year to return migrants to Turkey in return for a package including aid for the refugees and accelerated membership talks.

Death toll in Iraq car bombing claimed by ISIS rises to 73

BAGHDAD – Iraqi hospital and police officials say the death toll from a car bombing south of Baghdad claimed by the Islamic State group has risen to 73, including about 40 Iranian pilgrims.

The officials said Friday that 65 people were wounded in the attack. Earlier, they had put the death toll from the Thursday night bombing at 56.

The attack took place at a gas station on a major highway near the city of Hilla. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

IS claimed the attack in a statement, saying it was a suicide truck bomb.

The bombing appears to have targeted a bus with Iranian pilgrims heading home after a major Shiite religious observance in the holy city of Karbala.

Cold weather kills 20 in north Afghanistan; 2 die in attacks

Afghan officials say cold weather and freezing temperatures have killed 20 people, mostly children in a remote northern Afghan province bordering Turkmenistan.

Provincial police chief Rahmatullah Turkistani says the deaths occurred this week in Jawzjan province's district of Darzab, which has seen heavy snowfall, with half a meter, or almost two feet of snow on the ground.

The area has no electricity or medical facilities and the road has been cut off by the Taliban. Authorities are waiting for the weather to clear up before delivering aid by air.

Elsewhere, a roadside bombing on Friday in Jalalabad, the provincial capital of Nangarhar killed a policeman while a mortar shell struck a weeding party the previous night in Laghman province, killing a child.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for those attacks.

Israel battles fires for third day; 4 Palestinians arrested

Israeli police have arrested four Palestinians in connection with one of several large fires that damaged homes and prompted the evacuation of thousands of people over the past few days.

Spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said on Thursday that police are investigating all possible causes, including arson. Windy and hot weather have helped fan the flames.

He says the blazes started three days ago at the Neve Shalom community near Jerusalem where Israelis and Arabs live together.

Later, fires erupted in the northern Israeli area of Zichron Yaakov and elsewhere near Jerusalem. In all, hundreds of homes have been damaged and thousands of people have been evacuated. About a dozen were treated for smoke inhalation.

Cyprus, Russia, Italy and other countries are assisting the Israeli firefighters with equipment as the fires continue.

2 gunmen, 2 security officers killed in gunbattle in Russia

Russia's counterterrorism agency says two suspected militants and two special forces officers have been killed in a gunbattle in the nation's volatile North Caucasus.

The National Anti-Terrorism Committee said that security services acting on a tip surrounded a house in Nazran in the province of Ingushetia where the two suspects were hiding. They refused to surrender and opened fire on security forces.

Both suspects were killed in Thursday's firefight, and two officers of the Federal Security Service, the main KGB successor agency, also died.

An Islamist insurgency has spread across the North Caucasus after two separatist wars in Chechnya. While Chechnya has become more stable under the watch of a Kremlin-backed strongman, violence has spilled into neighboring provinces where security forces clash frequently with gunmen.

Turkey: 3 Turkish troops in Syria die in government strike

The Turkish Armed Forces says three Turkish soldiers were killed and 10 were wounded in Syria by an airstrike allegedly fired by government forces.

A statement from the Armed Forces posted on its website says the attack took place at before dawn on Thursday.

One of the wounded soldiers was said to be in critical condition.

The casualties are likely to ratchet up tensions between Ankara and Damascus. In August, Ankara sent ground troops into northern Syria to support Syrian opposition forces in the fight against Islamic State militants and to curb Syrian Kurdish territorial gains

Ankara views Syrian Kurdish forces as an extension of the Kurdish insurgency in southeastern Turkey.

IS claims coalition airstrike disables fourth Mosul bridge

The Islamic State group's media arm says an airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition has "disabled" the fourth bridge on the Tigris River in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

The Aamaq news agency says the strike happened on Wednesday but gave no details.

It's the second airstrike to target Mosul bridges this week and if the bridge is confirmed disabled, it would mean that there is only one bridge left functioning over the Tigris in Mosul.

There was no immediate confirmation available on the airstrike from the U.S.-led coalition.

Mosul had five bridges until shortly before the start last month of the Iraqi campaign to retake the city from IS.

Targeting the bridges appears designed to disrupt IS supply lines in Mosul, which is sliced in half by the Tigris.

Bomb kills 3 paramilitary officers in northwestern Pakistan

A Pakistani police official says a bomb blast has killed three paramilitary officers in the northwestern city of Peshawar.

Wajid Khan says the bomb, which was apparently detonated by remote control, exploded when a patrol of paramilitary police was passing by on Tuesday.

Khan says eight other people, including civilians, were wounded in the bombing.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.

Peshawar is a city sitting along the edge of Pakistan's tribal regions that have long been home to local and al-Qaida-linked militants and foreign Islamic fighters. For years, the city has been the scene of attacks by Islamic militants.

Pakistan has been fighting Islamic militancy for over a decade.