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Reuters Journalists Free After Over 500 Days in Prison

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  • Two Reuters journalists who had been imprisoned in Myanmar were released on Tuesday after being detained for more than 500 days.
  • Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested in December of 2017 for allegedly possessing state secrets, though many believe their arrest was a set-up and that the two were targeted for their reporting on the Rohingya crisis.
  • The journalists were originally sentenced to seven years in prison but were pardoned by President Win Myint along with 6,520 other prisoners.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo Freed

The two Reuters journalists, who many believe were arrested in Myanmar for their reporting on the Rohingya crisis, were released from prison Tuesday after being detained for over 500 days.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were released as part of a pardon of 6,520 prisoners by President Win Myint, effectively commuting what had originally been a seven-year sentence. The two journalists were seen smiling and waving in videos and photos of them walking out of the gates of the prison before they were mobbed by journalists and photographers.

“Around the world, people wishing to release us, so I would like to say thank you very much,” Lone told reporters following his release. “I’m really happy and excited to see my family and my colleagues. I can’t wait to go to my newsroom.”

The two were then taken to see their families where they were both reunited with their wives and daughters. Lone, whose daughter was born while he was in prison, was able to hold his baby for the first time as a free man. Soe Oo was also reunited with his three-year-old daughter, who has been separated from her father for much of her life.

Background

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested in December 2017 for allegedly possessing secret documents.

Their arrest is widely believed to have been a set-up. Many argue that the journalists were actually being targeted for their reporting on crimes against the Rohingya people, a Muslim minority in Myanmar.

For the last few years, the Rohingya have been forced to flee persecution from state security forces in what has amounted to a huge refugee crisis. Many experts have labeled the persecution of Rohingya as a genocide or ethnic cleansing, but military and civilian officials have denied this.

The police asked to meet with Lone and Soe Oo, who agreed. During their meeting, the police and handed the journalists rolled up documents as they were leaving. The officers then promptly arrested the two men for having those same documents.

Police officials and the Burmese government have maintained that they were not arrested because of their coverage of the crisis, but the conditions of their arrest and sentencing have been questionable at best.

Then in September 2018, Lone and Soe Oo were sentenced to seven years in prison. Much like the conditions of their arrest, the testimonies against them were questionable. One police officer admitting burning his notes, and another witness read parts of testimony off notes on his hand.

The journalists’ imprisonment immediately sparked international outrage, with many world leaders arguing that the government was censoring them for their reporting. Lone and Soe Oo appealed the case to a regional high court, but lost the appeal in January.

They then appealed to the Myanmar Supreme Court, which denied their appeal on April 22. After the Supreme Court decision, it seemed like all hope was lost, until their release was reported Tuesday, in a move that surprised the international community.

International Response

Numerous leaders all around the world have celebrated the journalists’ newfound freedom, expressing hope that their release represents a trend in more democratic press practices in Myanmar.

“We are enormously pleased that Myanmar has released our courageous reporters, Wa Lone and Soe Oo,” Stephen Adler, the editor-in-chief of Reuters said in a statement. “Since their arrests 511 days ago, they have become symbols of the importance of press freedom around the world. We welcome their return.”

Vice President Mike Pence commended their release in a tweet, writing, “Freedom of religion & freedom of the press are essential to a strong democracy!”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also praised the move, saying “Freedom of the press is a fundamental right & must be defended everywhere in the world.”

“It is inspiring to see a news organisation so committed to the protection of innocent men and the profession of journalism,” said Amal Clooney, who was part of the journalists’ legal team said. “I hope that their release signals a renewed commitment to press freedom in Myanmar.”

The move was also applauded by human rights organizations and leaders, but many also expressed concern for the future.

“Today marks an important victory for press freedom in Myanmar.” Nicholas Bequelin Amnesty International’s East and Southeast Asia Director wrote in a statement.

“While all those who campaigned for their release welcome the government’s decision, the reality is the country retains a range of repressive laws used to detain journalists, activists and any perceived critic of the authorities,” Bequelin added.

“Until these laws are repealed, journalists and activists remain under a permanent threat of detention and arrest.”

What Next?

Bequelin’s statement, which was also echoed by Amal Clooney, hits on an important note. This case has been widely covered in international media for nearly a year and a half, and now it seems to have a happy ending no one expected.

While that is certainly true for Lone and Soe Oo, their release also begs the question: does this show a new commitment to press freedom in Myanmar?

Following their sentencing, many looked to Myanmar’s new civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to fight for democracy in Myanmar. The international community hoped that Suu Kyi, whose role is comparable to that of a prime minister, would help usher in a new transition to more democratic practices following a long history of military rule.

Suu Kyi’s government was largely expected to end the imprisonment of government critics, pardon political prisoners, and continue to work towards free media. Instead, her government has cracked down on free expression and continued to use outdated laws to imprison people like Lone and Soe Oo.

In fact, Amnesty International has reported that in recent weeks they have “recorded a surge in politically motivated arrests – most for criticism of the military.”

Suu Kyi has also come under a lot of fire for her handling of the Reuters journalists. While she had the power to pardon them, she defended the court’s decision.

“They were not jailed because they were journalists,” Suu Kyi said following the sentencing. “The court has decided that they had broken the Official Secrets Act”

Meanwhile, the violent persecution of the Rohingya continues with no accountability from the military or Suu Kyi, who until the last few years has largely been considered a beacon of the fight for human rights and democracy globally.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The Guardian) (CNN)

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Qatar Apologizes for Strip-Searching and Forcibly Examining Female Airline Passengers After Finding Abandoned Newborn

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  • Qatari officials strip-searched and forcibly examined over a dozen women for signs of recent pregnancy after a newborn was found in the bathroom trash can at Doha airport.
  • The decision is considered a violation of rights, as there were other ways of searching for the mother of the abandoned baby.
  • Thirteen Australians were among those searched, prompting outrage from the Australian government and an apology from Qatar.
  • Qatar explained that it wanted to ensure the perpetrator didn’t escape for attempting to kill a newborn but acknowledge its actions were too heavy-handed.
  • Fortunately, the baby is alive and being taken care of by Qatari medical officials, although it’s unclear if the mother was ever found.

Newborn Found in Trash

Officials in Qatar have apologized after multiple female passengers at Doha airport were subjected to invasive examinations earlier this month.

The incident happened on October 2 after a newborn baby was found in an airport bathroom trashcan, wrapped in a bag.

Fortunately, the baby was still alive, and authorities quickly made efforts to find the mother. Those efforts involved getting the ten closest planes on the tarmac and stopping them, assuming she must be nearby.

Staff on the planes asked multiple women to deboard to speak with authorities. The exact number of women involved is unknown, but based on statements from both Qatar and Australian officials, at least 18 were questioned. The exact details of what happened next aren’t completely clear yet, but it is known that the detained women were subject to what’s been described as a “strip search” right on the tarmac.

They were then put into a waiting ambulance where they were forcibly checked for any signs of recent pregnancy and childbirth. Such procedures are considered invasive and a gross violation of rights.

Passengers on the planes report that some of the women returned crying or clearly in shock from the event.

Diplomatic Tensions

Qatar Airways flight 908 was particularly affected by the incident. The flight was headed to Sydney and only stopped in Doha for a quick layover. While it was in Doha, 13 Australian citizens were among those who were forced to comply, prompting outrage from the Australian government.

In a statement on the morning of October 28, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison described the incident as “appalling” and “unacceptable.

“As a father of daughters, I could only shudder at the thought that any woman, Australian or otherwise, would be subjected to that,” he said, “It is important that wherever travelers are traveling, that they are able to do so free of those types of incidents.”

Initially, Qatar said it conducted the searches in an attempt to check on the well-being of the mother. However, on Wednesday, Qatar apologized for what happened, writing in a statement, “…the State of Qatar regrets any distress or infringement on the personal freedoms of any traveler caused by this action.”

Still, the government defended its initial actions, writing. “This was the first instance of an abandoned infant being discovered in such a condition at [Doha Airport].”

“This egregious and life-threatening violation of the law triggered an immediate search for the parents, including on flights in the vicinity of where the newborn was found.”

Qatar didn’t want the perpetrators of this attempted murder to escape, but the country did concede that the situation could have been handled much better. It also said an investigation into the matter would be forthcoming, with its findings to be shared with Australia.

Why This Course of Action?

This entire situation has triggered questions over how to balance the rights of passengers with the need to urgently find someone who attempted to kill a newborn.

Still, there were likely other solutions available. For example, Doha airport is a modern facility presumably filled with cameras. Officials probably could have stopped flights from departing as they checked the footage to see who went in and out of the bathroom where the newborn was found.

It could have been possible to narrow down the list of suspects by checking with Qatar Airways, the airline that had the most flights checked by authorities.

Qatar Airways doesn’t allow expectant mothers to fly if they are 36 weeks along, while mothers 28 weeks into a pregnancy require a doctor’s note to fly. While it’s unclear how premature the baby was, it can be assumed that checking in with Qatari Airways for a list of expectant mothers with doctor’s notes on flights could have significantly narrowed down potential perpetrators.

Fortunately, the little girl is being cared for at a facility in Doha. As of now, it’s unclear if Qatari authorities ever managed to find the parents.

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U.S.-Negotiated Ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh Ends in Bloodshed Just 4 Minutes After It Started

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  • A U.S.-backed ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia that took effect Monday was broken only four minutes after it started.
  • It’s unclear which side broke it, although evidence points to Azerbaijan, which has made substantial gains in the ongoing conflict.
  • This is the third failed ceasefire, although neither side seems to have expected it to last very long. The last two were brokered by Russia.
  • The combatants are supposed to meet Thursday for negotiations to resolve the conflict, but based on how things are going, that’s unlikely to happen.

Back to Square One

A ceasefire between Armenian and Azeri forces that was brokered by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo fell apart on Monday just four minutes after it started.

The ceasefire was agreed to by both parties and was first announced by U.S. President Donald Trump.

“Congratulations to Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, who just agreed to adhere to a ceasefire effective at midnight,” Trump tweeted Sunday.

The two countries are fighting over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, alongside a few neighboring regions with a heavy Armenian troop presence. The regions in question are internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but features a majority ethnic Armenian population, who in ’92 formed a state called the Republic of Artsakh. Artsakh receives financial, commercial, developmental, and military ties with Armenia proper.

Map of Nagorno-Karabakh/ Artsakh and occupied territories. Via eurasia.net

On September 27, tensions over the region broke out into open conflict after both sides accused the other of breaking a decades-long ceasefire. Major players in the region, like Turkey and Russia, each support different sides in the war. Turkey has provided material support to Azerbaijan, including drones and fighter jets. Russia provides Armenia with arms and anti-drone missile defense system; however, unlike Turkey Russia has consistently made efforts to negotiate a ceasefire.

Unfortunately, every Russian brokered ceasefire has similarly ended just minutes after starting, with each side blaming the other for breaking the agreement.

Third Ceasefire

The U.S. brokered ceasefire seemed to have a good start, with Armenian President Nikol Pashinyan tweeting, “As agreed in Washington DC, with US mediation, the Armenian side will fully maintain the ceasefire starting from 8 a.m.”

U.S. Congressman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) also spoke on behalf of local Armenian groups, writing “My colleagues in the Armenian Caucus have consistently called for the US to take decisive action holding Azerbaijan and Turkey accountable and bring an end to the bloodshed. I’m thankful @SecPompeo negotiated a ceasefire that hopefully holds and leads to an independent Artsakh.”

Many Armenians were correctly doubtful about how successful the ceasefire would be because of how all past ceasefires ended. Some online wrote things like, “Pres. Trump, since this humanitarian ceasefire like the previous two will likely not be observed by Azerbaijan, hope the US government has follow-up plans. Turkey is the main reason why this war is taking place, so sanctioning them would be the single most important act for peace.”

For their part, the Azeri perspective could be easily summed up with a tweet by a user that reflects the longheld grudge against Armenia for allegedly pushing ethnic Azeris out of Nagorno-Karabakh.

“Your proud team has not been able to save 1 million people for more than 30 years,” the user wrote. “The brutality of the Armenian government drove 1 million Azerbaijanis from the Azerbaijani lands in Karabakh. Now they are returning home. The only team you can be proud of is the Azerbaijani Army.”

It’s important to note that, it’s officially unclear who broke the ceasefire, with each side blaming the other for targeting and bombing civilian centers in Nagorno-Karabakh and neighboring Ganja, respectively.

News of the failed ceasefire quickly gained traction after Azeri Foreign minister Hikmet Hajiyev said, “Since 08.04 armed forces of Armenia started shelling Tartar region and its villages in violation of humanitarian ceasefire. As reported by MOD Azerbaijan armed forces of Armenia with artillery and mine launchers attacking our forces since 08.05

Armenia disputes this, claiming that they are trying to maintain the ceasefire even though Azerbaijan is the one shelling cities in Artsakh. This back and forth over who broke the ceasefires have continued the he-said-she-said narrative of the conflict. Virtually every event is disputed by either side, and restrictions on journalists make it hard to verify information.

Armenia does largely allow journalists to many spots in the warzone, although with some restrictions. Azerbaijan, however, heavily restricts journalists, and clear answers from their side of the front are hard to obtain.

Progress of the War

If a side stood to gain something from breaking a ceasefire, it’d probably be Azerbaijan. They have made huge gains towards gaining control of Nagorno-Karabakh. Even though both sides actively seek to play up their gains and diminish their losses, satellite images and alleged geolocation data show that Azeri forces are now in large parts of southern Nagorno-Karabakh.

Initial claims about geolocation date were disputed, however, on October 27, Armenian forces announced they were making strategic retreats from cities in southern Artsakh in an effort to consolidate forces and avoid unnecessary loses; however, they stressed these were minor setbacks.

This indeed may be a minor setback because other information indicates that while Azeri forces may have made some large gains, they also are having trouble holding the territory and may have suffered untenable losses for it.

Azeri losses are notoriously hard to confirm, but to date they have stated that 65 civillians have lost their lives in the conflict to date.

Armenia claims to have inflicted over 6,000 military casualties on Azeri forces since the conflict began. Officially, 900 soldiers and civilians have been killed on the Armenian side since the conflict began. Although doctors in Stepanakert, while speaking to The Daily Beast, say that over 1,000 soldiers have died, with an additional 300-400 civilian deaths.

Both sides are due to meet again on Thursday with members of the Minsk Group, which is co-chaired by the U.S., France, and Russia, in order to try and find a resolution to the conflict.

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Thousands of Nigerians Continue to Protest for Widespread Police Reforms Following SARS Disbandment

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  • Nigerians are protesting against human rights abuses carried out by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a police unit commonly known as SARS.
  • The police unit has been caught on video multiple times shooting, torturing, extorting, beating, robbing, and kidnapping Nigerians.
  • A video of a SARS officer shooting a young man while confiscating the man’s Lexus on October 3 sparked outrage across the West African nation, leading to protests since October 8.
  • Since then, the government has agreed to some demands and disbanded the unit for the fourth time, only to replace it with a SWAT unit.
  • Still, Nigerians continue to protest, demanding wide-scale police reforms.

SARS Accused of Major Human Rights Abuses

Nigeria has been rocked by ongoing protests over police brutality stemming from the long time corruption and abuse by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad.

The squad, better known as SARS, has long been embroiled in controversy for engaging in torture, mock executions, robbery, extortion, kidnapping, harassment, and murder. For many Nigerians, the unit is just the worst example of many of the abuses that Nigerian police engage in and is part of a systemic problem.

The most recent anger was sparked by a video that went viral on October 3, which shows a SARS officer was seen shooting a young man in front of a hotel while taking away his Lexus SUV. Adding to the collective anger was news that the phone used to record the incident was quickly confiscated by SARS officers after the video went live.

Following days of simmering, the tensions boiled over on October 8, after activists and social media called for wide-scale protests to demand SARS be disbanded. Like many recent protests worldwide, the message was quickly spread and amplified with the help of social media, prompting tens of thousands of people across Nigeria to take to the streets and make #endSARS trend online.

Wide-Scale Protests Across Nigeria

Since October 8, the ongoing protests have been mainly peaceful, although there have been incidents of police interfering with heavy-handed tactics. Online, hundreds of videos can be found of police using water cannons and tear gas to disperse crowds. Others show them wildly shooting into crowds of protesters.

However, these actions often have the opposite of their intended effect and draw out more protesters daily. Additionally, the videos of violent police tactics amplify the message worldwide, especially as members of the Nigerian diaspora push the topic online.

Nigerian actor John Boyega has actively supported the movement on Twitter, calling out Nigerian police corruption. Similarly, Nigerian rapper Burna Boy made serious efforts to spread information about the protests to his global audience.

On October 10, he made a statement, promising to help fund any protester who is harmed and/or arrested by police during demonstrations. He also asked for donations to that fund and promised to make sure people are educated about the situation. To that end, he has been funding billboards with #ENDSARS and relevant information across the United Kingdom.


In North America, multiple artists have come out in support of the cause. Rapper Kanye West tweeted out, “I stand with my Nigerian brothers and sisters to end police brutality, the government must answer to the peoples cries #EndPoliceBrutalityinNigeria”

Meanwhile, fellow artist Drake highlighted a post about the situation on his Instagram story.

SARS Out, SWAT In

As the protests continued, the message and movement evolved. On Sunday, a list of demands began to be circulated on social media.

Beyond wanting SARS disbanded, the demands called for anyone arrested during the protests to be released. It also called for compensation for those killed by police brutality in Nigeria.

It’s unknown exactly how many have died as a result of the protests, but Human Rights Watch estimates that upwards of 10 people have been killed by police while protesting.

Demonstrators are also calling for an independent body be set up within 10 days to investigate and prosecute all reports of police misconduct, as well as psychological evaluations and retraining of SARS operatives before they were moved to other units.

Additionally, protesters want to ensure that Nigerian police are adequately paid, so they’re less willing to engage in corruption.

Protesters got a major victory on Sunday when the government announced that SARS would be disbanding and there would be investigations into the conduct of the officers. Until those investigations were complete, SARS officers would be placed into other units after a psychological evaluation, in line with protester demands.

However, for many protesters, this wasn’t enough. They want widespread police reforms, especially because disbanding SARS isn’t a new thing.

This will be the fourth time the unit has been disbanded, and each time it’s brought back, it faces the same accusations. It’s widely believed that the unit isn’t the problem and instead blame the mindset within Nigerian police that allows a unit like SARS to be so brutal and corrupt.

It wasn’t until Tuesday that police finally agreed to stop using force against protesters. At the same time, President Muhammadu Buhari gave a speech where he promised that widespread police reforms would come.

“I want to use this opportunity to address the recent genuine concerns and agitations by Nigerians about the excessive use of force, and in some cases extrajudicial killings and wrongful conduct, by men of the Nigerian police force,” he said.

The disbanding of SARS is only the first step in our commitment to extensive police reform in order to ensure the primary of the police and other law enforcement agencies remain the protection of lives.” and added, “We will also ensure that all those responsible for misconduct or wrongful acts are brought to justice.”

Many Nigerians were bitterly disappointed when it was announced that SARS would be replaced with a group known as Special Weapons Assault Team, or SWAT.

With that, protests continued into Wednesday, and demands have been expanded to call for more fundamental changes to the police system. The calls are similar to ones made against police in countries like the U.S. and U.K. following the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others.

See What Others Are Saying: (Reuters) (CNN) (Vanguard Nigeria)

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