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WASHINGTON: Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Assistant Speaker Katherine Clark, alongside House Impeachment Managers Representatives Joe Neguse and Eric Swalwell look on as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi signs the article of impeachment during an engrossment ceremony after the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Donald Trump at the Capitol on Wednesday. – AFP

WASHINGTON: Donald Trump became the first US president in history to be impeached twice when the House of Representatives voted to charge him with inciting last week’s mob attack on Congress. “Today, in a bipartisan way, the House demonstrated that no one is above the law, not even the president of the United States,” Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi said after Wednesday’s vote.

The Senate will not hold a trial before Jan 20, when Democrat Joe Biden assumes the presidency, meaning the real estate tycoon will escape the ignominy of being forced to leave early. He is set, however, to face a Senate trial later, and if convicted he might be barred in a follow-up vote from seeking the presidency again in 2024. “Donald Trump has deservedly become the first president in American history to bear the stain of impeachment twice over,” said Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, who in a week’s time will become Senate leader. “The Senate is required to act and will proceed with his trial.”

In the House of Representatives, the only question was how many Republicans would join the lockstep Democratic majority in the 232-197 vote. Ten Republicans broke ranks, including the party’s number three in the House, Liz Cheney. “I am in total peace today that my vote was the right thing and I actually think history will judge it that way,” said Adam Kinzinger, a vocal Trump critic and one of the Republicans who crossed the aisle.

Holed up in the White House, Trump issued a videotaped address in which he made no mention of impeachment. Instead, the comments focused on an appeal for Americans to be “united,” avoid violence and “overcome the passions of the moment.” Biden, who inherits the pandemic and an ailing economy amid many other woes, welcomed Wednesday’s decision but urged the Senate to address his priorities such as approving cabinet nominations while also dealing with Trump’s trial. “I hope that the Senate leadership will find a way to deal with their Constitutional responsibilities on impeachment while also working on the other urgent business of this nation,” Biden said in a statement.

Despite Trump’s denunciation of violence following the mayhem inflicted by his followers when they invaded Congress, fears of unrest are high. Armed National Guards deployed across the capital, and downtown Washington streets were blocked to traffic. In the Capitol building, guards in military fatigues and carrying assault rifles assembled, some of them grabbing naps early Wednesday under the ornate statues and historical paintings.

Pelosi also announced fines of up to $10,000 for lawmakers who refuse to go through newly installed metal detectors after several Republican lawmakers pushed past police even after setting them off. “It is tragic that this step is necessary, but the Chamber of the People’s House must and will be safe,” she said.

Speech to mob
Trump survived a first impeachment almost a year ago when the Republican-controlled Senate acquitted him of abusing his office to try and get dirt on Biden’s family before the election. This time, his downfall was triggered by a speech he delivered to a crowd on the National Mall on January 6, telling them that Biden had stolen the presidential election and that they needed to march on Congress and show “strength.”

The mob then stormed into the Capitol, fatally wounded one police officer, wrecked furniture and forced terrified lawmakers to hide, interrupting a ceremony to put the legal stamp on Biden’s victory. One protester was shot dead, and three other people died of “medical emergencies,” bringing the toll to five. Pelosi told the chamber before the vote that Trump “must go”. “He is a clear and present danger to the nation that we all love,” she said. The top Republican in the House, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, said that while Trump deserves censure, hurriedly impeaching will “further divide this nation”.

McConnell open to impeachment
Trump, who has been stripped of his accounts by Twitter and Facebook and finds himself increasingly ostracized in the business world, is struggling to impose his message – let alone any kind of resistance. His refusal to accept any responsibility for the horrifying scenes on January 6 has infuriated allies and opponents alike. The main question now is to what extent former Republican allies in the Senate will turn on their party’s figurehead once the Democrats take over control of the chamber.

Current Senate leader, Republican Mitch McConnell, says he will not call for an impeachment trial before Trump’s Jan 20 exit. However, he said he is open to the possibility of voting to convict Trump in a later trial after Biden becomes president. “I have not made a final decision on how I will vote and I intend to listen to the legal arguments when they are presented to the Senate,” McConnell said.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that McConnell is signaling privately that he believes Trump did commit impeachable offenses. This presents a potentially fatal shift in the ground under Trump’s feet, because it could lead other Republican senators to join in convicting him. – AFP

WASHINGTON, DC: A group of pro-Trump protesters climb the walls of the Capitol Building after storming the West lawn on Wednesday in Washington, DC. – AFP

SYDNEY: The storming of the US Congress left America’s image as a beacon of democracy severely tarnished yesterday, with allies unable to hide their shock and authoritarian regimes gleefully exploiting the unrest. In normal times, a state-backed gang rampaging through a legislature to demand a lost election be nullified would have US diplomats marching to their laptops to draft a statement of condemnation. But after the deadly violence in Washington on Wednesday, it was the turn of officials in capitals from Bogota to New Delhi to call for calm.

In a string of statements, leaders could barely contain their shock at seeing Donald Trump’s supporters briefly-but quite easily-overrun the crucible of US democracy and challenge the peaceful transfer of power. “Where were the police and the Senate bodyguards…?” Czech foreign minister Tomas Petricek asked aloud, as the world watched Trump supporters cart off podiums, ransack offices or strut around Congress in a horned helmet unmolested.

 

Through slavery and segregation, Civil War and Cold War, US presidents have often hailed their democracy as exceptional, what Ronald Reagan called the “shining city on the hill.” That image has been questioned many times before, but after four norm-shattering years of Trump, it took just a few hours of mob rule to make America look pretty ordinary, and as fragile as anywhere else.

Former president George W. Bush went as far as to compare the situation to a “banana republic,” while calling out fellow Republicans for fuelling the “insurrection.” Australia warned its citizens in the United States to take care given the “ongoing potential for violence.”

Brave new world
Some reached for historical comparisons to put the momentous events-and the scale of the threat to democracy-in context. Germany’s foreign minister likened incitement at the US Capitol to the Reichstag in Nazi Germany, while Italian newspaper La Repubblica drew a parallel to dictator Benito Mussolini’s “March on Rome” and seizure of power.

But as the initial shock subsided, policymakers began to try to imagine the profound implications of the world’s preeminent superpower so visibly stumbling. Former president Barack Obama’s top security aide Ben Rhodes told AFP that “Americans should not have any illusions: today’s images, like the Trump presidency, will permanently alter how the United States is viewed around the world.”

“Tragically, this debasement of democracy comes at a time when authoritarian nationalism is ascendant on every continent.” The moment was not lost on such regimes, some of which immediately issued wry statements mimicking the criticism they normally received from Washington.

Venezuelan minister of foreign affairs Jorge Arreaza expressed his “concern” about the violence, while calling for an end to US political polarization and for the country to follow a new path of “stability and social justice.” China’s state-backed tabloid the Global Times-just a day after a mass crackdown on Hong Kong’s besieged democracy movement-crowed that “bubbles of ‘democracy and freedom’ have burst.” Mike Gallagher, a Republican Congressman from Wisconsin lamented: “If we don’t think other countries around the world are watching this happen right now, if we don’t think the Chinese communist party is sitting back and laughing, then we’re deluding ourselves.”

‘American democracy is limping’
Senior Russian lawmaker Konstantin Kosachyov, sought to fuel conspiracy theories of electoral fraud while offering Moscow’s old foe a kick in shins. “The losing side has more than enough grounds to accuse the winner of falsifications-it is clear that American democracy is limping on both feet,” he said.

Like Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney, some allies tried to limit the damage by stressing this was a problem of Donald Trump’s making and not reflective of mainstream America. “We must call this out for what it is: a deliberate assault on democracy by a sitting President and his supporters,” he said. But with two weeks left in Trump’s four-year term, 74 million votes under his belt and the nuclear codes at his fingertips, no one can be sure what comes next.

Even those predicting the United States will pull through wondered whether the West’s already under-question support for the rule of law and democracy has now been fatally undermined. “It is not just it will be a long time before we can credibly advocate for the rule of law,” tweeted president of the Council of Foreign Relations Richard Haass. “It will also be a long time for us to persuade allies to rely on us, or lecture others they are not stable enough to have nuclear weapons.”

In the end, one diplomat at the State Department did take to their typewriter to comment. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo-an ardent Trump supporter who vowed to bring a “swagger” back to US diplomacy and crisscrossed the world issuing bombastic denunciations-was left to deliver his department’s missive. “Violence, putting at risk the safety of others including those tasked with providing security for all of us, is intolerable both at home and abroad,” he said. – AFP

KABUL: A series of explosions hit the Afghan capital on Saturday morning, killing at least four people including two police officers, officials said.

The deaths were caused by a sticky bomb attached to a police vehicle detonated in western Kabul, police spokesman Ferdaws Faramarz said. The explosion wounded two civilians.

Two other police officers were wounded when a bomb attached to their car exploded earlier on Saturday in southern Kabul, Faramarz said.

Maooma Jafari, deputy spokeswoman for the health ministry, said that four corpses and four wounded people were taken to hospital following the two explosions.

A third sticky bomb detonated in eastern Kabul but caused no casualties, he said.

There were reports of at least two other blasts elsewhere in the city but police had no immediate details.

In a separate report from northern Balkh province, a senior army officer was killed when his vehicle hit a roadside bomb, said Arif Iqbali, a Sholgara district police chief.

Iqbali said that Mohammad Tareq, the garrison commander of the army brigade in Balkh was the apparent target who was killed in the attack.

The latest attacks came as Taliban and Afghan government negotiators held talks in Qatar, trying to hammer out a peace deal that could put an end to decades of war.

No one has immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks in Kabul. The militant Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for multiple attacks in the capital in recent months, including on educational institutions that killed 50 people, most of them students.

The talks in Doha have been suspended until early January and there is speculation they could be further delayed.

At the same time, Taliban militants have waged bitter battles against IS fighters, particularly in eastern Afghanistan, while continuing their insurgency against government forces and keeping their promise not to attack US and Nato troops.

IS has also claimed responsibility for last weeks rocket attacks targeting the major US base in Afghanistan. There were no casualties.

 

TEHRAN: In this file photo taken on November 17, 2019 an Iranian man checks a scorched gas station that was set ablaze by protesters during a demonstration against a rise in gasoline prices in Eslamshahr, near the Iranian capital of Tehran. – AFP

PARIS: One year after protests that were harshly suppressed by the Iranian authorities, grief over the hundreds of mainly young lives lost is matched by anger over the lack of accountability for a crackdown whose-scale is only now beginning to emerge. The protests, of a magnitude rarely seen in Iran following the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the biggest since 2009 rallies over a disputed election, erupted nationwide in November 2019 after a sudden hike in fuel prices.

Activists say the authorities managed to impose control only after a ruthless crackdown that, according to Amnesty International, left at least 304 people dead in a deliberate policy to shoot at demonstrators. The harshness of the crackdown and size of the toll were concealed by an internet shutdown that activists denounced as a bid to prevent information from filtering out.

 

Meanwhile, not a single official in Iran has faced justice over the repression, amid allegations that families who lost loved ones have been pressured into keeping silent. Those arrested during the protests, however, have faced sentences including the death penalty. “Iranian authorities have avoided any measure of accountability and continue to harass the families of those killed during the protest,” said Tara Sepehri Far, Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch.

‘Unlawful and excessive force’
According to a report published by Amnesty this week, Iran implemented “a near-total internet blackout” from November 16, the day after the protests began, by ordering internet service providers to shut down, with access restored only gradually from November 21. It said the shutdown prevented people from seeing shocking videos of the crackdown taken by Iranian citizens with their phones, in what the group describes as a “web of impunity.”

Even now the scale of the suppression is still unclear, and Amnesty warns the toll is likely to exceed its figure of 304 verified deaths. The group had posted online what it says are more than 100 verified videos taken in 31 cities in November 2019 revealing the “repeated use of firearms” against unarmed protesters and bystanders.

 

At least 23 of those killed were under the age of 18, Amnesty said, including teenagers like 15-year-old Mohammad Dastankhah, who was shot by security forces stationed on a roof while on his way home from school in Sadra, a city in the Shiraz region. Another innocent bystander to die, it said, was Azar Mirzapour, 49, a nurse and mother of four who according to Amnesty was shot dead in Karaj, outside Tehran, as she was about to arrive home from work.

“The Iranian security forces used unlawful and excessive force against unarmed protesters and bystanders,” said Raha Bahreini, Iran researcher for Amnesty International. “In most cases security forces used live ammunition aimed at the head or bodies, indicating they were implementing a shoot-to-kill policy,” she added.

‘Held accountable’
Activists say that rather than helping relatives of the victims seek justice, authorities have been prosecuting protesters, with Amnesty alleging that those arrested were subjected to torture, including water-boarding and sexual abuse. Death sentences imposed in June against three young men were halted only after a campaign to spare their lives both outside and inside Iran.

Manouchehr Bakhtiari, whose 27-year-old son Pouya was shot dead, was jailed after he criticized the authorities, according to Persian-language media based outside Iran. The refusal of Iran to prosecute any officials-and the lack of response to calls for a UN-led international inquiry-has prompted activists to set up their own “tribunal” to determine whether crimes were committed under international law.

The Aban Tribunal, named after the Iranian month when the events took place, is being set up by NGOs including the London-based Justice for Iran and the Oslo-based Iran Human Rights (IHR). Rights lawyers and other tribunal members will hear evidence from witnesses and victims from February 10-12, 2021, in The Hague, and judgments will be announced in April 2021.

The tribunal will send a “strong message to those responsible for the atrocities that they are being watched and one day will be held accountable for the crimes they’ve committed,” said Mahmood Amiri-Moghaddam, executive director of Iran Human Rights. – AFP

 
 

MAKKAH: Saudis and expats perform Fajr prayers at the Grand Mosque for the first time after easing months-long COVID-19 restrictions. – AFP

MAKKAH: Saudi Arabia opened yesterday Islam’s holiest site for prayers for the first time in seven months, and expanded the umrah pilgrimage to accommodate 15,000 worshippers as it relaxed coronavirus curbs. Mask-clad Saudi citizens and residents of the kingdom were allowed to pray inside the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Makkah, amid what authorities called extensive health precautions.

“Citizens and residents have performed salat Al-Fajr (dawn prayers) at the Grand Mosque today as (authorities) start implementing the second phase of the gradual resumption of umrah,” the official Saudi Press Agency reported.

Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia allowed up to 6,000 citizens and residents per day to perform the umrah – a Muslim pilgrimage that can be undertaken at any time – after it was suspended in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. Under the second stage that began yesterday, the number of umrah pilgrims was increased to 15,000 per day. A maximum of 40,000 people – including umrah pilgrims – will now be allowed to perform daily prayers at the mosque.

Under a third stage, set for Nov 1, visitors from abroad will be permitted. The limit on umrah pilgrims will then be raised to 20,000, with a total of 60,000 worshippers allowed. A raft of precautions have been adopted, according to state media. The revered Black Stone in the Kaaba – which is customary but not mandatory to touch during the pilgrimage – will be out of reach.

The Grand Mosque is to be sterilized before and after each group of worshippers. Thermal sensors have been installed to measure the body temperature of pilgrims, Makkah authorities said. The umrah usually attracts millions of Muslims from across the globe each year. Authorities said the umrah will be allowed to return to full capacity once the threat of the pandemic has abated.

Saudi Arabia hosted the annual hajj pilgrimage in late July, on the smallest scale in modern history. Only up to 10,000 Muslim residents of the country were allowed to take part, a far cry from the 2.5 million who participated last year. Saudi Arabia has recorded more than 342,000 cases of COVID-19 and 5,185 deaths since the pandemic began. – AFP

NAQOURA, Lebanon: Vehicles of the UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL are pictured near the border with Israel yesterday. – AFP

NAQOURA, Lebanon: Lebanon and Israel, still technically at war, held unprecedented talks under UN and US auspices yesterday to settle a maritime border dispute and clear the way for oil and gas exploration within “reasonable time”. In a joint statement afterwards, the United States and the United Nations said the talks had been “productive” and that the delegates had “reaffirmed their commitment to continue negotiations later this month”.

Following years of US shuttle diplomacy, Lebanon and Israel this month said they had agreed to begin UN-brokered negotiations, in what Washington hailed as a “historic” agreement. The talks, held at a UN peacekeeping force base in the Lebanese border town of Naqoura, lasted for around one hour and came weeks after Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates became the first Arab states to establish relations with Israel since Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994.

 

This has prompted suspicions that the flurry of US-sponsored diplomacy relating to Israel is meant to boost President Donald Trump in his re-election campaign. A second round of negotiations will be held on Oct 28. Yesterday’s talks marked a “first step in the thousand-mile march towards the demarcation” of the sea frontier, Brigadier General Bassam Yassin, head of Lebanon’s delegation, said according to an army statement. “We are looking to achieve a pace of negotiations that would allow us to conclude this dossier within reasonable time.”

The Naqoura talks, which focused exclusively on the disputed sea frontier, came at a sensitive time as Lebanon, battered by multiple crises, hopes to continue exploring for oil and gas in a part of the Mediterranean also claimed by Israel. US envoy David Schenker facilitated the opening session along with US ambassador to Algeria John Desrocher, who was the mediator. Security was tight, with roads in the area blocked by UN peacekeepers and Lebanese troops, and helicopters flying overhead.

Israel sent a six-member team, including the director general of its energy ministry, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s foreign policy adviser and the head of the army’s strategic division. Lebanon’s four-member delegation comprised two army officers, an official and a maritime border law expert. Israel and Lebanon have no diplomatic relations and yesterday’s talks were a rare official interaction.

 

Lebanon insists that the negotiations are purely technical and don’t involve any soft political normalization with Israel. Lebanon’s main Shiite parties Hezbollah and Amal issued a statement late Tuesday bemoaning the presence of civilians in the Lebanese negotiating team. “This harms Lebanon’s position and interests… and amounts to giving in to the Israeli logic that seeks some form of normalization,” they said.

Lebanon, mired in its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war, is looking to settle the maritime border dispute so it can press its offshore quest for oil and gas. In Feb 2018, Lebanon signed its first contract for drilling in two blocks in the Mediterranean with a consortium comprising energy giants Total, ENI and Novatek.

Exploration of one of the blocks is more controversial as part of it is located in an 860-sq-km area claimed by both Israel and Lebanon. A senior source at Israel’s energy ministry told AFP that the border dispute “can be concluded hopefully in a few months’ time”. “This is a limited effort to resolve a well-defined, limited problem,” he said. “We have no illusions. Our aim is not to create here some kind of normalization or peace process.”

Reactions to the talks have been mixed in Lebanon, still reeling from the huge Aug 4 explosion at Beirut port that killed more than 190 people. The pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar daily on Monday called the talks “a moment of unprecedented political weakness for Lebanon”, arguing that Israel is the real “beneficiary”. Hezbollah is both an armed group that has fought several wars against Israel and a major force in Lebanese politics.

On Thursday, its parliamentary bloc stressed that demarcating Lebanon’s disputed maritime border with Israel does not signify “reconciliation” or “normalization”. Following a 2006 war, regular talks between Israeli and Lebanese army officers were reestablished under the auspices of UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL. As well as the discussions on the maritime border facilitated by the US, a UNIFIL-brokered track is due to address outstanding land border disputes.

Political scientist Hilal Khashan of the American University of Beirut said these talks would be more complex as they would undoubtedly raise the issue of the formidable weapons stockpile held by Hezbollah, the only Lebanese group not to have disarmed after the civil war. “Hezbollah will not agree to give up its arsenal,” he said. – AFP

Over 8 million COVID-19 tests conducted in the UAE

Abu Dhabi, September 15, 2020— The UAE announced authorizing an emergency use of COVID-19 vaccine for health workers on the frontlines of the battle against the novel pandemic.

During the UAE’s COVID-19 media briefing, Abdulrahman bin Mohammed Al Owais, the UAE’s Minister of Health and Prevention, said making the vaccine available for frontliners was part of the country’s measures to protect health workers in close contact with COVID-19 patients and ensure their safety.

The UAE is currently conducting Phase III clinical trial of Covid-19 inactivated vaccine. Results from the final stages of the third phase confirmed that the vaccine is safe and effective, resulting in a strong generation of COVID-19 antibodies.

Al Owais stressed that the emergency use of the vaccine is fully aligned with the regulations and laws that allow a faster review of licensing procedures.

“The studies related to the safety of vaccination are conducted under the strict supervision of medical teams. Health authorities are following procedures to control the quality, safety and efficacy of the vaccine,” said Al Owais.

The vaccine was tested with the help of 31,000 volunteers from 125 nationalities. Volunteers have displayed minor side effects, expected as a result of any vaccine, including headaches, fatigue and slight pain in the injection area. The UAE health authorities confirmed that 1,000 volunteers with history of chronic illness haven’t experienced any complications after taking the vaccine.

The initial successful results of the vaccine mark the UAE’s positive steps in the vaccine development process.

The vaccine is provided optionally to health workers in direct contact with COVID-19 patients.

The UAE’s vaccine trials are part of the extensive measures that the UAE has taken to contribute to the global collective efforts to curb COVID-19 pandemic that has posed the greatest public health emergency in modern history.

So far, the UAE has conducted over 8 million tests and recorded no new fatalities in the last 48 hours.

The vaccine was evaluated based on approval qualification criteria for emergency use, in accordance with the declaration of the global health authorities surrounding an emergency, the availability of scientific evidence on the effectiveness of the product and the benefits outweighing the risks.

The emergency use takes into account the target groups, product characteristics, clinical and pre-clinical study data and population study.

Health authorities are working closely in collaboration with the vaccine developers to monitor the progress of the vaccine and follow necessary safety measures to control the quality, safety and efficacy of the vaccine.

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