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Protests in Iran Continue As Government Shuts off the Internet

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  • Massive protests have been going on in Iran since Friday after the government said they would hike up fuel prices by as much as 300%.
  • The government responded to the protests by launching a widespread internet blackout all over the country, making information about the protests and violence difficult to obtain.
  • Iranian officials have said that only 12 people have died, but international organizations and Iranian journalists said the numbers are much higher.
  • The Trump administration said it supports the protests, but many have called its claims hypocritical, noting that the sanctions on Iran have played a huge role in the country’s economic downturn.

Protests Break Out

Nationwide protests have erupted in Iran over the last few days, prompting the government to shut down the internet in almost all of the country.

The demonstrations first started on Friday after the Iranian government announced that it would hike up fuel prices from between 50% to as much as 300%.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that the increase would raise up to $2.55 billion that would be handed out to about 60 million of Iran’s poorest people.

But because the country only has around 80 million people total, many have argued that the government was basically making everyone pay more for gas to just give that money back to most of the population.

The move was also significant because gas is incredibly cheap in Iran, which has the world’s fourth-largest crude oil reserves. Before the price hikes, people were only paying about 25 cents a gallon for gas.

Even though the new prices are still lower compared to global gas prices, it is a big deal for Iran where many people are struggling due to economic downturn and high inflation.

Similar to other recent protests in countries like Chile and Lebanon, a single decision by the government to raise prices on a population that was already hurting was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Like those other protests, that decision prompted much broader demonstrations against economic issues and corruption.

Following the government’s announcement, drivers abandoned vehicles on highways and protesters took to the streets, blocking roads. While protests in some areas have been largely peaceful, others have become violent.

In some places, protestors set fires and ransacked gas stations, banks, stores, and government buildings. Demonstrators also clashed violently with security forces who responded by using teargas.

Those clashes reportedly escalated Saturday, with some reports that the security forces were opening fire on protesters.

Internet Blackout

The full extent of both the protests and the violence is not currently clear because of the government’s internet blackout.

Iranian officials first imposed the sweeping internet restrictions on Saturday, and they have remained in place since then.

Internet monitoring service NetBlocks described the shutdown as “near-total.”

Oracle’s Internet Intelligence described it as the “largest internet shutdown ever observed in Iran.”

Government officials in Iran said Tuesday that they would gradually lift the block once they were sure the internet would not be “abused” during the protests.

A judiciary spokesman also said Tuesday said that the protests had died down, but there are some conflicting reports as to the validity of that claim, as well as other statements made by the government.

Iranian officials have said that 12 people have been killed, including both civilians and security forces, but others say those numbers are much higher.

The United Nations reported that “dozens” have died, while Amnesty International said the number was more than 100, based on credible sources.

Iranian journalists have also reported that there have been well over 100 shootings by the security forces.

But internet blackout makes it uniquely difficult to know what the correct numbers are. 

The blackout is also unique compared to other recent protests— specifically similar ones in Iraq and Lebanon— where social media has been essential in organizing demonstrations and sharing what is going on with the rest of the world.

United States’ Unique Role

In addition to the internet blackout, there is another aspect that sets apart the protests in Iran from other global protests over the last few weeks and months: the role that the U.S. has played.

Many of Iran’s economic problems have stemmed from the heavy sanctions the U.S. has placed on Iran. 

The U.S., under the Barack Obama administration, had previously lifted sanctions on Iran as part of the 2015 nuclear deal aimed at curbing Iran’s civilian nuclear program.

But in May 2018, President Donald Trump withdrew from that deal and re-imposed sanctions on Iran, including sanctions on their oil exports, which is a huge sector of their economy.

Since then, the Trump administration has continued to ramp up those sanctions, arguing that a “maximum pressure” campaign is more effective to crackdown on Iran’s government.

Many economists and human rights activists have said that the sanctions actually end up hurting Iran’s civilian populations more than they hurt the government.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addressed the protests in a tweet on Friday where he told the people of Iran that “the United States is with you.”

Iran’s Foreign Ministry condemned Pompeo’s tweet. In a statement, a ministry spokesperson said that Pompeo’s remarks were “hypocritical” because of the role the U.S. sanctions have played in the country’s economic problems.

“It seems weird to [be] sympathizing with a nation suffering from the US’ economic terrorism and the same person who has already said that the Iranian people should be starved to surrender,” the spokesperson said.

But the Trump administration seemed to double down on its position in a statement released by the White House Sunday.

“The United States supports the Iranian people in their peaceful protests against the regime that is supposed to lead them,” the statement said. “We condemn the lethal force and severe communications restrictions used against demonstrators.”

Many people criticized the White House response, also arguing that the U.S. is partially to blame for Iran’s economic problems, and accusing the administration of painting the protests just as demonstrations against the government when that is only part of the equation.

Some pointed out that the Iranian government implemented the fuel price hike in the first place as part of a broader plan to mitigate the huge economic hit from U.S. sanctions, as well as to help the millions of Iranian civilians who have been hurt by those sanctions.

Iranian government officials for their part have continued to downplay the protests. 

During a televised statement Sunday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said: “The counter-revolution and Iran’s enemies have always supported sabotage and breaches of security and continue to do so.”

The Ayatollah also said that he still supports the price hike, saying that it “must be implemented” — which is meaningful because he has the final say.

Meanwhile, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps warned protesters Monday that they will take “decisive” action if the unrest continues.

See what others are saying: (CNN) (Al Jazeera) (BBC)

International

Leaked Documents and Photos Give Unprecedented Glimpse Inside Xinjiang’s Detention Camps

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The so-called vocational schools, which China claims Uyghurs enter willingly as students, oversee their detainees with watchtowers armed with machine guns and sniper rifles, as well as guards instructed to shoot to kill anyone trying to escape.


Detained for Growing a Beard

The BBC and a consortium of investigative journalists have authenticated and published a massive trove of leaked documents and photographs exposing the Chinese government’s persecution of Uyghur Muslims in unprecedented detail.

According to the outlet, an anonymous source hacked several police computer servers in the northwestern Xinjiang province, then sent what has been dubbed the Xinjiang police files to the scholar Dr. Adrian Zenz, who gave them to reporters.

Among the files are more than 5,000 police photographs of Uyghurs taken between January and July 2018, with accompanying data indicating at least 2,884 of them were detained.

Some of the photos show guards standing nearby with batons.

The youngest Uyghur photographed was 15 at the time of their detention, and the oldest was 73.

One document is a list titled “Relatives of the Detained,” which contains thousands of people placed under suspicion for guilt by association with certain family members. It includes a woman whose son authorities claimed had “strong religious leanings” because he didn’t smoke or drink alcohol. He was jailed for ten years on terrorism charges.

The files also include 452 spreadsheets with information on more than a quarter of a million Uyghurs, some of whom were detained retroactively for offenses committed years or even decades ago.

One man was jailed for ten years in 2017 because he “studied Islamic scripture with his grandmother” for a few days in 2010.

Authorities targeted hundreds more for their mobile phone use, like listening to “illegal lectures” or downloading encrypted apps. Others were punished for not using their phones enough, with “phone has run out of credit” listed as evidence they were trying to evade digital surveillance.

One man’s offense was “growing a beard under the influence of religious extremism.”

The Most Militarized Schools in the World

The files include documents outlining conditions inside Xinjiang’s detention camps, or so-called “Vocational Skills Education and Training Centers.”

Armed guards occupy every part of the facilities, with machine guns and sniper rifles stationed on watchtowers. Police protocols instruct guards to shoot to kill any so-called “students” trying to escape if they fail to stop after a warning shot.

Any apprehended escapees are to be taken away for interrogation while camp management focuses on “stabilizing other students’ thoughts and emotions.”

The BBC used the documents to reconstruct one of the camps, which data shows holds over 3,700 detainees guarded by 366 police officers who oversee them during lessons.

If a “student” must be transferred to another facility, the protocols say, police should blindfold them, handcuff them and shackle their feet.

Dr. Zenz published a peer-reviewed paper on the Xinjiang police files, in which he found that more than 12% of Uyghur adults were detained over 2017 and 2018.

“Scholars have argued that political paranoia is a common feature of atrocity crimes,” he wrote. “Here, it is suggested that the pre-emptive internment of large numbers of ordinary citizens can be explained as a devolution into political paranoia that promotes exaggerated threat perceptions.”

See what others are saying: (BBC) (Newsweek) (The Guardian)

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Biden Vows to Defend Taiwan if Attacked by China

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Some praised the remarks for clarifying U.S. foreign policy, while others feared they could escalate tensions with China.


Biden’s Remarks Create Confusion

During a Monday press conference in Tokyo, U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States would intervene to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack.

The remark caught many off guard because it contradicted decades of traditional U.S. foreign policy toward China.

A reporter said, “You didn’t want to get involved in the Ukraine conflict militarily for obvious reasons. Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?”

“Yes,” Biden answered. “That’s a commitment we made. We are not — look, here’s the situation. We agree with a One China policy. We signed onto it and all the attendant agreements made from there.”

“But the idea that it can be taken by force — just taken by force — is just not appropriate,” he continued. “It will dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine.”

Beijing considers the Taiwanese island to be a breakaway province, but Taiwan, officially the Republic of China, has claimed to represent the real historical lineage of China.

Since 1972, the U.S. has officially recognized only one China, with its capital in Beijing. However, Washington maintains extensive informal diplomatic ties with Taipei and provides military assistance through weapons and training.

Successive U.S. presidents have also committed to a policy of “strategic ambiguity,” refusing to promise or rule out a direct military intervention in case China attacks Taiwan.

The strategy is meant to deter China while avoiding a hard commitment to any action.

Biden Sparks Controversy

The White House quickly sent a statement to reporters appearing to walk back Biden’s remark.

“As the president said, our policy has not changed,” the statement said. “He reiterated our One China Policy and our commitment to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. He also reiterated our commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide Taiwan with the military means to defend itself.”

Monday was not the first time Biden made similar remarks regarding China and Taiwan.

Last August, he promised that “we would respond” if there was an attack against a fellow member of NATO and then added, “same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan.”

In October, he again told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that the U.S. would defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack, prompting the White House to hurriedly walk back his statement.

Monday’s remark was received with support as well as criticism.

“Strategic ambiguity is over. Strategic clarity is here,” Tweeted Matthew Kroenig, professor of government at Georgetown University. “This is the third time Biden has said this. Good. China should welcome this. Washington is helping Beijing to not miscalculate.”

“It is truly dangerous for the president to keep misstating U.S. policy toward Taiwan,” historian Stephen Wertheim wrote in a tweet. “How many more times will this happen?”

“The West’s robust response to Russian aggression in Ukraine could serve to deter China from invading Taiwan, but Biden’s statement risks undoing the potential benefit and instead helping to bring about a Taiwan conflict,” he added. “Self-injurious and entirely unforced.”

Biden also unveiled the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), a trade agreement signed by the U.S. and 12 Asian nations.

The agreement appeared to many like another move to cut off China from regional trade pacts and supply chains in Washington’s strategic competition with Beijing.

See what others are saying: (CNN) (The New York Times) (The South China Morning Post)

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Russia Takes Over 900 Azovstal Fighters Prisoner as Mariupol Surrenders

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Ukraine said the soldiers successfully completed their mission, but the fall of Mariupol represents a strategic win for Putin.


Azovstal Waves the White Flag

Russia’s foreign ministry announced on Wednesday that it had captured 959 Ukrainians from the Azovstal steelworks, where besieged soldiers have maintained the last pocket of resistance in Mariupol for weeks.

A ministry spokesperson said in a statement that 51 were being treated for injuries, and the rest were sent to a former prison colony in the town of Olenivka in a Russian-controlled area of Donetsk.

The defense ministry released videos of what it claimed were Ukrainian fighters receiving care at a hospital in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk. In one, a soldier tells the camera he is being treated “normally” and that he is not being psychologically pressured, though it is unclear whether he is speaking freely.

It was unclear if any Ukrainians remained in Azovstal, but Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed republic of Donetsk, said in a statement Wednesday that the “commanders of the highest level” were still hiding in the plant.

Previously, estimates put the number of soldiers inside Azovstal around 1,000.

Ukraine officially gave up Mariupol on Monday, when the first Azovstal fighters began surrendering.

Reuters filmed dozens of wounded Ukrainians being driven away in buses marked with the Russian pro-war “Z” symbol.

Ukraine’s deputy defense minister said in a Tuesday statement that the Ukrainian prisoners would be swapped in an exchange for captured Russians. But numerous Russian officials have signaled that the Ukrainian soldiers should be tried.

Mariupol Falls into Russian Hands

After nearly three months of bombardment that left Mariupol in ruins, Russia’s combat mission in the city has ended.

The sprawling complex of underground tunnels, caverns, and bunkers beneath Azovstal provided a defensible position for the Ukrainians there, and they came to represent the country’s resolve in the face of Russian aggression for many spectators.

Earlier this month, women, children, and the elderly were evacuated from the plant.

The definitive capture of Mariupol, a strategic port city, is a loss for Ukraine and a boon for Russia, which can now establish a land bridge between Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian separatists. The development could also free up Russian troops around Mariupol to advance on the East, while additional reinforcements near Kharkiv descend from the north, potentially cutting off Ukrainian forces from the rest of the country.

The Ukrainian military has framed events in Mariupol as at least a partial success, arguing that the defenders of Azovstal completed their mission by tying down Russian troops and resources in the city and giving Ukrainians elsewhere more breathing room.

It claimed that doing so prevented Russia from rapidly capturing the city of Zaporizhzhia further to the west.

See what others are saying: (The Guardian) (BBC) (BBC)

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