- For the second time in ten days, Hong Kong lawmakers openly clashed in a committee meeting of the Legislative Council.
- For months, pro-democracy lawmakers have stalled elections for control of the House Committee, which was expected to be won by a pro-Beijing lawmaker.
- With that, they also stalled proposed legislation that would make it a crime to insult the Chinese national anthem.
- Despite Monday’s fight, a vote was still held, with the pro-Beijing incumbent winning. A second reading of the anthem bill is expected to be held on May 27.
Hong Kong Legislators Brawl
Hong Kong’s House Committee erupted into a scene of violence on Monday as pro-democracy and pro-Beijing lawmakers fought over the committee’s leadership and a controversial bill that would make it illegal to mock the national anthem.
In a video capturing the incident, lawmakers push each other as guards hold others back. At one point, one pro-democracy lawmaker threw papers at a pro-Beijing lawmaker who sat in the chairperson’s seat. The end result then led to several pro-democracy legislators being carried out of the chamber by guards.
While protests on the street are beginning to reappear, social distancing and a coronavirus lockdown had subdued the intense demonstrations that began last year over Hong Kong’s immensely controversial extradition bill.
Still, this is the second time this month that lawmakers have clashed in the House Committee. The first incident happened on May 8.
Both clashes are a result of a gridlock preventing the House Committee, part of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, from electing a new chairperson. Notably, the House Committee is critical to passing legislation because it vets and ultimately decides whether or not to pass legislation onto the main floor of the Legislative Council.
That means whoever leads this committee has an influence on whether pro-democracy or pro-Beijing bills end up being sent to the main floor.
Kwok Stalls Elections
As to the question of who should lead the committee, lawmakers haven’t been able to answer that because they haven’t been able to hold a vote.
Going into the elections, the committee was chaired by pro-Beijing lawmaker Starry Lee. Because Lee was a candidate in the elections, however, pro-democracy deputy chair Dennis Kwok actually presided over holding those elections.
At the time, it seemed like the cards were stacked in Lee’s favor and that she would win re-election against the 22 pro-democracy candidates; however, Kwok had prevented the committee from voting on a new chair since late last year by consecutively filibustering meetings.
Notably, that also allowed him to hold up several key pieces of legislation. This is because an earlier session of the committee insisted that no business could be handled until a new chairperson was appointed.
One of those bills Kwok was stalling would criminalize mocking or disrespecting the Chinese national anthem. Despite Lee giving up her presiding power to run in the election, on May 8, the government scheduled the anthem bill—among others—as “urgent business,” meaning that Lee planned to hold a hearing on it.
Justifying this, Lee said external legal counsel had advised her that, as incumbent, she still had the power to preside over House Committee meetings.
But what Lee argued, pro-democracy lawmakers did not buy. About an hour before the House Committee was scheduled to start, lawmakers made a wild dash for the chair’s seat to keep that vote from happening.
Despite this, Lee made it to the seat first and was surrounded by security guards.
That tension then led to physical fights on both sides, and one lawmaker was even carried away on a stretcher.
During the brawl, lawmakers accused Lee of seizing power, but Lee held up her argument, saying that as the incumbent, she had a duty to conduct the meeting and resolve issues.
Lee then banished pro-democracy members from the room and issued warnings to them about breaching procedural laws.
During that scene, the anthem bill was never voted on.
Following it, last week, LegCo president Andrew Leung announced he was removing Kwok from presiding over those elections, replacing him with finance committee chair Chan Kin-por, a pro-Beijing politician.
Lee is Re-elected Following Second Fight
On Monday, lawmakers arrived to the committee chamber to find Chan occupying the chairperson’s seat. With that, he was surrounded by a slew of guards.
Even though Leung appointed him, pro-democracy lawmakers have argued that Chan took the seat against procedural objections, denouncing his appointment “illogical, absolutely unacceptable and groundless.
That then led to Monday’s fight, but even as the protests continued, Chan called for a vote to elect a new chairperson. Ultimately, Lee won re-election.
Still, even with that, pro-democracy lawmakers have said they won’t recognize Lee as the chair, one saying:
“As you can see, this is an illegitimate meeting, without any legal grounds, and Chan Kin-por, in fact, has exercised illegitimate power and so we don’t count Starry Lee as the chairman of the House Committee,” pro-democracy lawmaker Tanya Chan said.
“They can take away the rules of procedures today, but I am sure the Hong Kong people won’t forget today,” Kwok said.
The anthem bill is scheduled to see a second reading in the committee on May 27. Currently, LegCo is overwhelmingly pro-Beijing, so it will likely pass.
See what others are saying: (Al Jazeera) (South China Morning Post) (CNN)
U.K. Court Rules Julian Assange Can Be Extradited to U.S.
The judgment overrules a lower court decision that blocked the WikiLeaks founder’s extradition on the grounds that his mental health was not stable enough to weather harsh conditions in the American prison system if convicted.
New Developments in Assange Extradition Battle
A British court ruled Friday that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange can be extradited to the United States to face charges of violating the Espionage Act that could land him in prison for decades.
Prosecutors in the U.S. have accused Assange of conspiring with former army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in 2010 to hack into a Department of Defense computer network and access thousands of military and diplomatic records on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The information obtained in the hack was later published by WikiLeaks in 2010 and 2011, a move U.S. authorities allege put lives in danger.
In addition to a charge of computer misuse, Assange has also been indicted on 17 espionage charges. Collectively, the charges carry a maximum prison sentence of 175 years.
The Friday decision from the High Court overturns a lower court ruling in January, which found that Assange’s mental health was too fragile for the harsh environment he could face in the U.S. prison system if convicted.
Notably, the January ruling did not determine whether or not Assange was guilty. In fact, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser explicitly rejected the defense’s arguments that the charges against him were politically motivated and that he should be protected under freedom of press.
However, she agreed that the defense had provided compelling evidence that Assange suffers from severe depression and that the conditions he could face in the U.S. prison system were “such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the United States of America.”
The U.S. appealed the ruling, arguing that Assange’s mental health should not be a barrier to extradition and that the psychiatrist who examined him had been biased.
In October, the Biden administration vowed that if Assange were to be convicted, he would not be placed in the highest-security U.S. prison or immediately sent to solitary confinement. Officials also said that the native Australian would be eligible to serve his sentence in his home country.
High Court Ruling
The High Court agreed with the administration’s arguments in its ruling, arguing that the American’s assurances regarding the conditions of Assange’s potential incarceration were “sufficient.”
“There is no reason why this court should not accept the assurances as meaning what they say,” the ruling stated. “There is no basis for assuming that the USA has not given the assurances in good faith.”
Assange’s fiancé, Stella Moris, said in a statement that his legal team would appeal the decision to the British Supreme Court at the “earliest possible moment,” referring to the judgment as a “grave miscarriage of justice.”
The Supreme Court will now decide whether or not to hear the case based on if it believes the matter involves a point of law “of general public importance.” That decision may take weeks or even months.
If the U.K. Supreme Court court objects to hearing Assange’s appeal, he could ask the European Court of Human Rights to stay the extradition — a move that could set in motion another lengthy legal battle in the already drawn-out process.
Assange and his supporters claim he was acting as an investigative journalist when he published the classified military cables. They argue that the possibility of his extradition and prosecution represent serious threats to press freedoms in the U.S.
U.S. prosecutors dispute that Assange acted as a journalist, claiming that he encouraged illegal hacking for personal reasons.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (NPR) (The Washington Post)
Early Data Indicates Omicron is More Transmissible But Less Severe
The studies come as Pfizer and BioNTech claim that preliminary research shows a third shot of their COVID vaccine appears to provide sufficient protection against the new variant, but two doses alone may not.
More Information About Omicron
Several preliminary studies published in recent days appear to show that the new omicron COVID-19 variant may be more transmissible but less severe than previous strains.
One recent, un-peer-reviewed study by a Japanese scientist who advises the country’s health ministry found that omicron is four times more transmissible in its initial stage than delta was.
Preliminary information in countries hit hard by omicron also indicates high transmissibility. In South Africa — where the variant was first detected and is already the dominant strain — new COVID cases have more than doubled over the last week.
Health officials in the U.K. said omicron cases are doubling every two or three days, and they expect the strain to become dominant in the country in a matter of weeks.
In a statement Wednesday, World Health Organization Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that while early data does seem to show high transmissibility, it also indicates that omicron causes more mild cases than delta.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevent Director Rochelle Walensky echoed that sentiment, telling reporters that of the 40 known omicron cases in the U.S. as of Wednesday, nearly all of them were mild. One person has been hospitalized so far and none have died.
Studies on Vaccine Efficacy
Other recent studies have shown that current COVID vaccines are effective at preventing severe illness and death in omicron patients, and boosters provide at least some added protection.
On Wednesday, Pfizer and BioNTech announced that laboratory tests have shown a third dose of their COVID-19 vaccine appears to provide sufficient protection against the omicron variant, though two doses may not.
According to the companies, researchers saw a 25-fold reduction in neutralizing antibodies for omicron compared to other strains of the virus for people who had just two Pfizer doses.
By contrast, samples from people one month after they had received a Pfizer booster presented neutralizing antibodies against omicron that were comparable to those seen against previous variants after two doses.
Still, Pfizer’s chief executive also told reporters later in the day that omicron could increase the likelihood that people might need a fourth dose earlier than previously expected, which he had initially said was 12 months after the third shot.
Notably, the Pfizer research has not yet been peer-reviewed, and it remains unclear how omicron will operate outside a lab, but other studies have had similar findings.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Bloomberg) (NBC News)
40 Camels Disqualified From Beauty Contest After Breeders Inject Their Faces With Botox
The animals were barred from competing for $66 million in prizes at this year’s King Abdulaziz Camel Festival in Saudi Arabia.
Camels Booted From Beauty Contest
More than 40 camels were disqualified from a beauty contest in Saudi Arabia this week after judges found artificial enhancements in their faces, marking the biggest crackdown on contestants in the competition to date.
The animals were competing for $66 million in prizes at the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival, a month-long event that is estimated to include around 33,000 camels.
However, according to The Guardian, they were forced out of the contest when authorities found that breeders had “stretched out the lips and noses of the camels, used hormones to boost the animals’ muscles, injected heads and lips with Botox to make them bigger, inflated body parts with rubber bands, and used fillers to relax their faces.”
Those types of alterations are banned since judges look at the contestant’s heads, necks, humps, posture, and other features when evaluating them.
An announcement from the state-linked Saudi Press Agency said officials used “specialized and advanced” technology to detect tampering.
“The club is keen to halt all acts of tampering and deception in the beautification of camels,” the SPA report added before warning that organizers would “impose strict penalties on manipulators.”
While it’s unclear what that actually entails, this isn’t the first time people have tried to cheat in this way.
In 2018, 12 camels were similarly disqualified from the competition for injections in their noses, lips, and jaw.