Tag Archives: Europe

New appeal to 2000 disappearance of Dubai princess – UK.

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The British broadcaster reported Thursday the 2018 letter now under UK police review had been sent by Latifa, and had appealed to them to re-investigate the disappearance of her sister.

British police said Thursday they were reviewing a recently received letter as part of an investigation into the disappearance of the ruler of Dubai’s daughter in Britain 21 years ago.

Cambridgeshire Constabulary said it was examining the letter, which is dated February 2018, as it reviews earlier probes of Sheikha Shamsa’s disappearance from the English city of Cambridge in 2000.

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The latest police probe follows a British court ruling last year that Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, who is vice president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, orchestrated her forcible return home.

The High Court decision also found Shamsa’s younger sister Sheikha Latifa, the emir’s daughter from a later marriage, had suffered a similar fate after being detained at sea by Indian special forces and forcibly returned to Dubai in 2018.

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Her case prompted renewed concern this month after the BBC published video footage said to have been shot by Latifa claiming she was being held captive and feared for her life.

The British broadcaster reported Thursday the 2018 letter now under UK police review had been sent by Latifa, and had appealed to them to re-investigate the disappearance of her sister.

“The review into the disappearance of Princess Shamsa continues,” Cambridgeshire Constabulary said in a statement to AFP, describing the matter as “very complex and serious”.

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“We can confirm officers have recently received a letter, dated February 2018, in relation to this case which will be looked at as part of the ongoing review.”

The police force added it was also examining the contents of the recent BBC documentary “to identify whether it includes anything of significance to our case”.

The programme prompted the UN Human Rights Office to ask the UAE for evidence that 35-year-old Latifa, who has not been seen in public since a foiled attempt to escape from the emirate in March 2018, is alive.

The royal family of Dubai, one of the seven emirates, subsequently insisted Latifa was being “cared for at home”.

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Cambridgeshire Constabulary investigated Shamsa’s 2000 disappearance, when she was 19, but decided there was insufficient evidence to take any further action.

A review in 2017 came to a similar conclusion, but the force launched a renewed probe last March following the High Court ruling.

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#Newsworthy

Four ‘nabbed’ in fresh Spanish protest.

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Further protests are expected on Saturday with rallies called in Barcelona, Madrid, the northern towns of Pamplona and Logrono and in Majorca.

Four more people were arrested following another night of violent protests over the jailing of a rapper for controversial tweets, police said on Saturday.

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It was the fourth straight night that demonstrators had taken to the streets, although Friday night’s protests only occurred in the northeastern region of Catalonia.

A police spokesman said two people were arrested in Barcelona and another two in the northern city of Girona and that eight officers were injured in the clashes.

Separately, medics said another six people sustained light injuries.

Angry demonstrations first erupted on Tuesday night after police detained rapper Pablo Hasel, 32, who was holed up in a Catalan university to avoid going to jail in a case that has raised concerns about free speech in Spain.

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Worst-hit on Friday was Barcelona, where some 2,000 demonstrators gathered in the evening with the protest soon deteriorating into violence.

Hooded demonstrators hurled stones, firecrackers and bottles at police and torched barricades made of rubbish bins and restaurant chairs. At least one restaurant was also set alight.

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They also smashed up several banks and shops, which suffered looting, police said.

More than 100 people have been arrested since the protests began, 16 of them on Thursday night. Scores of people have been injured, among them many police officers, but also a young woman who lost an eye after being hit by a foam round fired by police.

Split in ruling coalition

Although most of the protests started in Catalonia, where the rapper is from, they have spread to other cities including Madrid, the eastern city of Valencia and Granada in the south.

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Further protests are expected on Saturday with rallies called in Barcelona, Madrid, the northern towns of Pamplona and Logrono and in Majorca.

The clashes have also sparked a political row that has exacerbated a divide within Spain’s leftwing coalition, which groups the Socialists of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and the hard-left Podemos.

While the Socialists have firmly opposed the violence, Podemos’ leadership has backed the protesters.

The party emerged from the anti-austerity “Indignados” protest movement that occupied squares across Spain in 2011. Their position is that the Hasel case exposes Spain’s “democratic shortcomings”.

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Known for his hard-left views, Hasel was handed a nine-month sentence over tweets glorifying terrorism and videos inciting violence. The court ruling said freedom of expression could not be used “as a ‘blank cheque’ to praise the perpetrators of terrorism”.

He was also fined about 30,000 euros ($36,000) for insults, libel and slander for tweets likening former king Juan Carlos I to a mafia boss and accusing police of torturing and killing demonstrators and migrants.

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#Newsworthy

Prince Harry to lose all Honorary titles.

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Prince Harry, a former soldier, holds several honorary military titles, as well as Commonwealth appointments and some other patronages.

Britain’s Prince Harry will relinquish his honorary military appointments and patronages after confirming to Queen Elizabeth II that he and his wife Meghan Markle will not return as working royals, Buckingham Palace announced Friday.

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The Duke and Duchess of Sussex, as they are formally known, rocked the British monarchy when they quit frontline royal duties a year ago.

They have since embarked on a new life involving several commercial ventures in the United States and now live in California.

Under the initial terms of their departure thrashed out at an emergency summit with the queen in early 2020, Harry had agreed to review the decision a year on.

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“The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have confirmed to Her Majesty The Queen that they will not be returning as working members of The Royal Family,” Buckingham Palace said in a statement.

File Photo: Prince Harry and wife, Meghan Markle | Noble Reporters Media | Adigun Michael Olamide | NoRM News

“The Queen has written confirming that in stepping away from the work of The Royal Family it is not possible to continue with the responsibilities and duties that come with a life of public service.

“The honorary military appointments and Royal patronages held by The Duke and Duchess will therefore be returned to Her Majesty, before being redistributed among working members of The Royal Family.”

Prince Harry, a former soldier, holds several honorary military titles, as well as Commonwealth appointments and some other patronages.

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Meghan was also handed several honorary roles after she wed Harry in a fairytale ceremony at Windsor Castle in May, 2018.

The couple, who are expecting their second child, are poised to give an “intimate” interview about their lives with US chat show host Oprah Winfrey.

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#Newsworthy

Uber drivers’ entitled to worker’s right – Top British Court rules.

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Uber insisted that the drivers were self-employed since they choose their own hours and place of work, and often find passengers through rival apps.

Britain’s top court on Friday ruled that ride-hailing giant Uber’s drivers are entitled to workers’ rights, in a judgement with huge implications for the “gig economy”.

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The Supreme Court ruling that the drivers were employees followed a years-long legal battle with the Silicon Valley taxi and delivery company.

“This has been a gruelling four-year legal battle for our members — but it’s ended in a historic win,” said Mick Rix, from the GMB trade union.

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“The Supreme Court has upheld the decision of three previous courts, backing up what GMB has said all along; Uber drivers are workers and entitled to breaks, holiday pay and minimum wage,” he added.

Uber said it respected the court ruling.

Lower courts ruled in 2016, 2017 and 2018 in favour of a group of 20 Uber drivers who argue they were entitled to employee status given the length of time they had been working through the Uber app, and the way that the company oversaw their work.

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Uber insisted that the drivers were self-employed since they choose their own hours and place of work, and often find passengers through rival apps.

The complainants can now ask an employment tribunal for compensation, and it could trigger further-reaching changes affecting all ride-hailing drivers.

“GMB will now consult with our Uber driver members over their forthcoming compensation claim,” said Rix.

The ruling could equally affect other online platforms behind the so-called gig economy in Britain — people doing short-term work without formal contracts, or working without guaranteed hours.

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Couriers for the Deliveroo food app are currently fighting in the Court of Appeal in London for the right to collective bargaining.

Uber claimed that it has changed the way it works since the legal action began.

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Drivers can now choose when and where they drive and can also access free health insurance as well as compensation for parental leave, it said.

Joint fund
Ahead of the court ruling, Uber vowed to increase protection for drivers while keeping them self-employed.

Uber chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi on Monday presented a series of promises to European governments and trade unions.

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He said the aim was to offer a transparent and fair pay structure, and more benefits to drivers.

Uber is calling for companies in the sector to form a joint fund that would allow drivers who work for different apps to be able to access protections and benefits such as paid holidays.

Uber plans to replicate in Europe proposals it first made in California, after a court in the US state ordered the platform to classify its tens of thousands of drivers as employees.

But voters in November then backed Proposition 22, a measure designed by Uber and other gig companies that would mean drivers remained independent contractors while receiving some benefits.

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Friday’s decision is not expected to affect Uber’s right to operate in London, which has been subject to a separate dispute.

The platform last September regained the right in London for 18 months, after a court overruled a decision by city authorities to suspend its licence due to concerns over passenger security.

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#Newsworthy

Civil War: Finnish Judges ‘fetching’ witness testimonies from Liberia.

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Around a quarter of a million people were killed between 1989 to 2003 in a conflict marked by brutal violence and rape..

Judges from Finland are digging up witness testimonies in Liberia and are touring the north of the country for a landmark trial against a warlord accused of committing atrocities in Liberia’s civil war.

Gibril Massaquoi is accused of responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity between 1999 and 2003 including murder, rape, and using child soldiers.

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Massaquoi, 51, a former senior member of the Revolutionary United Front, has lived in Finland since 2008 but was arrested in March after a rights NGO investigated his record during the civil war.

The investigations could set a precedent as few have faced trial for war crimes committed in Liberia.

In a historic move, the Finnish judges are also hearing evidence on Liberian soil — the first time war-crime proceedings have taken place in the country.

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“When we come from a totally different country, from a different part of the world, it’s difficult for us to imagine in what kind of circumstances, in what kind of environment the witnesses live,” said Finnish state prosecutor Tom Laitinen.

“Understanding that better helps us understand the witnesses better: so distances between places, seeing the houses, the places the witnesses have mentioned. So everything comes together and helps us to understand the case.”

Around a quarter of a million people were killed between 1989 to 2003 in a conflict marked by brutal violence and rape, often carried out by child soldiers.

Judges visited the northern village of Kamatahun on Thursday, an AFP journalist saw, and are due to continue on to the nearby village of Yandohun.

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Fighters under Massaquoi’s command are accused of committing atrocities in both places.

In Yandohun, people told AFP that they welcomed the trial. Fighters torched the village in the 1990s, they said, and took away residents for forced labour in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

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#Newsworthy

Top diplomats from Europe, US ‘talks on reviving’ 2015 Iran deal.

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Khamenei emphasised Wednesday that Iran wanted to see action from the US administration that would help its economy.

Top diplomats from European powers and the United States will hold talks to see how to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, days ahead of a deadline set by Tehran that could hinder these efforts.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian will host his German and British counterparts in Paris on Thursday, with new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken joining via videoconference, the French foreign ministry said on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Iran plans to restrict some UN nuclear agency inspections if the US does not lift its sanctions – imposed since 2018 by former President Donald Trump – by February 21, under the terms of a bill adopted by its parliament in December.

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Highlighting the tough path ahead, German Chancellor Angela Merkel voiced “concern” that Iran was failing to meet its obligations in telephone talks with President Hassan Rouhani, her spokesman said in a statement.

Analysts have said only a small window of opportunity remains to save the landmark deal, which received a near-fatal blow when Trump walked out in 2018.

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The administration of current US President Joe Biden has said it is prepared to rejoin the deal and start lifting sanctions if Iran returns to full compliance, a precondition disputed by Tehran.

Iran mulls more non-compliance
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Rafael Grossi will travel to Tehran on Saturday for talks with the Iranian authorities to find a solution for continuing inspections in the country, the agency said.

It warned that the step threatened by Tehran would have “a serious impact on the IAEA’s verification and monitoring activities in the country.”

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In Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price said that Iran should provide “full and timely cooperation” with the IAEA.

“Iran should reverse the steps and refrain from taking others that would impact the IAEA assurances on which not only the United States, not only our allies and partners in the region, but the entire world relies,” he said, adding that Blinken saw an “important role” for the European Union, of which France and Germany are members.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has demanded ‘action, not words’ from the US if it wants to revive Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers [Khamenei.IR/AFP]

Ellie Geranmayeh, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said it was “unlikely” the meeting on Thursday would produce a significant political or economic gesture to prevent Iran from going ahead with the restrictions.

“This deadline has been on the cards for months, and in absence of economic relief Iran’s leaders feel compelled to move ahead,” she told the AFP news agency.

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The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed in Vienna in 2015, saw Iran curtail its nuclear programme in exchange for a gradual easing of international sanctions.

But Iran has stepped up its nuclear work in violation of the accord after US sanctions were reimposed as part of Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy to weaken the Iranian government.

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The UN nuclear watchdog said last week that Iran had started producing uranium metal in a new violation of the accord, prompting European powers to warn that Tehran was “undermining the opportunity for renewed diplomacy.”

In her talks with Rouhani, Merkel said that “now was the time for positive signals that create trust and increase the chances of a diplomatic solution”.

However, the Iranian presidency said Rouhani in the call “criticised Europe’s performance” on its JCPOA commitments after the US withdrawal.

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‘Only action’
While Iran’s policy is ultimately determined by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iranian presidential elections in June add another time pressure factor.

Rouhani – a key advocate of nuclear diplomacy with global powers – is set to step down after serving the maximum two consecutive terms, and a more hardline figure may replace him.

“There is a short window of time to limit the damage that could ensue from Iran’s next steps, for example by reducing the impact of such moves on the quality of inspections by international monitors,” Geranmayeh said.

She said Washington should move in political and practical terms to show Iran that the Biden administration “is distancing itself from Trump-era maximum pressure.”

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Khamenei emphasised Wednesday that Iran wanted to see action from the US administration that would help its economy.

“This time only action, action. If we see action from the opposite side, we will act too,” he said.

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#Newsworthy

COVID-19: BioNTech reveals commitment to ‘supplying’ Taiwan with Pfizer vaccine.

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BioNTech has struck a deal with the Shanghai-based Fosun Pharmaceutical Group to bring the vaccine to China, including Taiwan.

Germany’s BioNTech said Thursday it still intends to provide Taiwan with coronavirus vaccine doses after the island’s health chief warned “political pressure” had scuppered a deal with the company.

Taiwanese health minister Chen Shih-Chung said Wednesday that negotiations with the German firm to acquire five million Pfizer/BioNTech shots fell through in December “because someone doesn’t want Taiwan to be too happy”.

His comments raised concerns China might be trying to hinder Taiwan’s inoculation drive.

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Authoritarian Beijing regards democratic and self-ruled Taiwan as its own territory and tries to keep the island diplomatically isolated — including keeping it locked out of the World Health Organization.

In a statement on Thursday, BioNTech said discussions to supply Taiwan with doses were still ongoing.

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“BioNTech is committed to help to bring an end to the pandemic for people across the world and we intend to supply Taiwan with our vaccine as part of this global commitment,” it said.

Vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccines are seen on a countertop at the Chiba Rosai Hospital in Ichihara, Chiba perfecture on February 17, 2021, as the country launches its inoculation campaign against the virus. (Photo by Kazuhiro NOGI / AFP)

The brief statement did not address Chen’s comments or explain why the December deal did not materialise.

BioNTech has struck a deal with the Shanghai-based Fosun Pharmaceutical Group to bring the vaccine to China, including Taiwan.

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Beijing has a long history of pressuring both Chinese and international companies when it wants to punish Taiwan.

It the first comments on the issue, China’s foreign ministry on Thursday accused Taiwan of “carrying out political manipulation and hyping up political issues”.

“We wish to provide necessary assistance Taiwanese compatriots in their fight against the epidemic,” spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters, without addressing whether China had played any role in the delayed December deal.

Foson has not responded to requests for comment.

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Taiwan has survived the pandemic largely unscathed — with fewer than 940 confirmed cases and nine deaths so far — by closing its borders early, imposing strict quarantine measures and rolling out the effective tracing.

But it has struggled to locate adequate vaccine supplies and only recently announced a supply of five million doses by American pharmaceutical giant Moderna and 200,000 doses of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine via COVAX.

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#Newsworthy

Ukraine Mine: Three Soldiers Dead.

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Ukraine has been fighting separatists backed by Russia in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions in eastern Ukraine since 2014 following Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula.

Three Ukrainian soldiers were killed in a mine explosion in the war-torn east of the country Sunday, Kiev said, as an uptick in violence tested last year’s ceasefire.

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They were killed when an explosive device went off near the village of Novoluganske some 50 kilometres (30 miles) northeast of the main separatist stronghold Donetsk, the military said in a statement.

The latest casualties came after two Ukrainian soldiers were killed in clashes with Russian-backed separatists on Friday, testing last year’s ceasefire that had brought relative calm to the simmering conflict.

During a visit to the frontline on Thursday Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that separatist attacks had increased recently.

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“We understand that in general, it’s only our side that thinks the ceasefire is necessary,” said Zelensky.

He was accompanied by diplomats from several Western countries.

Ukraine has been fighting separatists backed by Russia in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions in eastern Ukraine since 2014 following Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula.

Since then, more than 13,000 people have died and nearly 1.5 million have been displaced.

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Ukraine and its Western allies accuse Russia of sending troops and arms to support the separatists, claims Moscow denies.

The war was at the centre of a diplomatic spat at the United Nations last week when Western countries claimed that Russia was blocking efforts to end the fighting.

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#Newsworthy

Two skiers ‘denied existence’ in Slovakia avalanche.

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Completed early on Sunday, the rescue operation involved a dozen HZS rescuers and volunteers along with dogs and their handlers.

Two Polish skiers have died in an avalanche in Slovakia’s High Tatra Mountains, rescuers said Sunday.

Slovakia’s Mountain Rescue Service (HZS) said three skiers were caught by an avalanche near the Kondratova Kopa mountain in the western High Tatras on Saturday evening.

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“One of them managed to dig himself out and contacted rescuers who began a mission on snowmobiles and skis. They discovered two bodies of Polish skiers,” the HZS said in a statement.

A Polish rescue team found the man who survived and placed the emergency call, the HZS said.

“He was also covered in snow but managed to free himself. He then tried to find friends with an avalanche finder, but without success,” according to the HZS.

Completed early on Sunday, the rescue operation involved a dozen HZS rescuers and volunteers along with dogs and their handlers.

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Kondratova Kopa is a mountain on the border with Poland with an elevation of 2,005 metres (6,600 feet).

Tourists and skiers flooded Poland’s popular nearby Zakopane and other mountain resorts this weekend after the government eased coronavirus restrictions, opening ski hills and allowing hotels to operate at half capacity

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#Newsworthy

Draghi become Italy’s new Prime Minister; begins unity Gov’t.

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Politicians he met this week said he told them he is opposed to fiscal austerity, despite soaring national debt levels, given the importance of protecting social cohesion.

Mario Draghi, the former head of the European Central Bank, has agreed to serve as the next prime minister of Italy and unveiled a cabinet that mixed unaffiliated technocrats with politicians from across a broad coalition.

President Sergio Mattarella asked Draghi to be prime minister after party wrangling brought down the previous administration, and set him the task of tackling the coronavirus health crisis and economic meltdown pummelling the country.

Following a week of consultations, almost all the main parties from across the political spectrum have endorsed Draghi, and on Friday he named several prominent figures from these various groups as ministers to cement their support.

Luigi Di Maio, a leader of the Five Star Movement, will remain foreign minister, while Giancarlo Giorgetti, a senior figure in the League party, will be industry minister. Andrea Orlando from the centre-left Democratic Party will be labour minister.

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Technocrats included
However, some key posts went to non-affiliated technocrats, including Daniele Franco, the director general of the Bank of Italy, who was named as economy minister and Roberto Cingolani, a physicist and IT expert, who was handed the new role of minister for green transition.

There were only eight women in the 23-strong cabinet.

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The new team will be sworn in on Saturday, opening the way for debates in both houses of parliament early next week, where Draghi will unveil his policy plans and face votes of confidence – a formality given his cross-party backing.

Draghi received a boost on Thursday when the largest group in parliament, the Five Star Movement, agreed to support the government, meaning it will have such a large majority that no single party will have the numbers to bring it down.

Draghi is tasked with tackling the coronavirus health crisis and economic meltdown pummelling Italy [Yara Nardi/Pool/Reuters]

One of the reasons so many parties have joined forces in the ruling coalition is that they all want to have a say in how Italy spends more than 200 billion euros ($242bn) it is set to receive from a European Union economic recovery fund.

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Draghi, 73, is widely credited with having saved the euro currency during his time in charge of the ECB and he will no doubt be influential now in shaping EU debate on how the bloc should engineer its economic revival.

Politicians he met this week said he told them he is opposed to fiscal austerity, despite soaring national debt levels, given the importance of protecting social cohesion.

He also honoured a pledge to create the powerful new ministry for ecological transition, which combines the environment and energy portfolios, helping win over the Five Star for whom green issues are core concerns.

Policies to fight climate change are required to be a pillar of the recovery plans to be presented by EU countries to the European Commission by April.

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Draghi has also said he will make the coronavirus vaccine programme a priority.

Italy has registered about 93,000 deaths linked to COVID-19 since its outbreak emerged in February last year, the second-highest toll in Europe.

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#Newsworthy

Top UK court ‘inflcict’ Nigeria’s decision on Shell.

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The widows of four Nigerian activists executed by the military regime of General Sani Abacha in the 1990s have accused Shell of complicity in their deaths.

Britain’s Supreme Court ruled on Friday that more than 40,000 people in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria can make pollution claims against Anglo-Dutch energy giant Shell in English courts.

The ruling overturned a 2017 decision against the Ogale and Bille communities, who brought legal claims for clean-up and compensation following decades of repeated spills in the oil-rich region.

The claimants have argued for five years that their case against Shell and its subsidiary, the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC), should be heard in London because they could not expect justice in a Nigerian court.

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The UK decision comes two weeks after a court in the Netherlands ordered Shell to compensate Nigerian farmers for oil spills on land in two villages in the Niger Delta after 13 years of legal battles.

In their judgment, five judges at Britain’s highest court said the previous decision by the lower Court of Appeal was a “material error of law” and focused too narrowly on the relationship between Shell and its Nigerian subsidiary.

Shell had argued it could not be held legally responsible for the pollution in the region in southern Nigeria and so the cases should not be heard in England.

Watershed moment’
“This Supreme Court judgment gives real hope to the people of Ogale and Bille who have been asking Shell to clean up their oil for years,” said Daniel Leader, from London law firm Leigh Day, which represents the claimants.

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He said he hoped the decision would lead to action from Shell and called the ruling a “watershed moment” to bring multinational companies to account.

In this file photo taken on September 30, 2020 Logos are pictured at a Shell petrol station in Etlham, southeast London. – Royal Dutch Shell dived into a net loss of $21.7 billion in 2020, the oil giant announced on February 4, 2021 as the coronavirus pandemic slashed global energy demand. (Photo by Ben STANSALL / AFP)

“Increasingly impoverished communities are seeking to hold powerful corporate actors to account and this judgment will significantly increase their ability to do so,” he added.

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Shell called the ruling “disappointing” and attributed the spills in the Niger Delta to criminal activity.

“The spills at issue happened in communities that are heavily impacted by oil theft, illegal oil refining, and the sabotage of pipelines,” it said in a statement.

“Regardless of the cause of a spill, SPDC cleans up and remediates.”

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The Ogale and Bille villagers say they have suffered systematic and ongoing oil pollution for decades because of Shell’s operations in Nigeria, including the pollution of drinking water.

In 2011, the United Nations Environment Programme said spills in the Niger Delta would take 30 years to clean up.

Shell has faced other legal action linked to its operations in Nigeria in Dutch court.

The widows of four Nigerian activists executed by the military regime of General Sani Abacha in the 1990s have accused Shell of complicity in their deaths.

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The men were hanged in 1995 alongside Ken Saro-Wiwa, who campaigned against Shell activities in the Ogoniland area of the delta because of health and environmental impacts.

Shell also faces a landmark legal bid to force it to meet emissions targets in the Paris climate accords, brought by several environmental groups in the Netherlands led by Friends of the Earth in 2019.

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#Newsworthy

Former Bank Boss set to be Italy’s new PM.

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An online vote on whether to take part was delayed earlier this week when M5S founder Beppe Grillo asked Draghi for more details on action he would take on the environment.

With almost all the political parties behind him, Mario Draghi on Friday entered the final straight in his bid to form a new government to lead Italy through the coronavirus pandemic.

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The former European Central Bank chief, called in after the outgoing centre-left coalition collapsed, could visit President Sergio Mattarella as early as Friday evening to be officially named prime minister.

Draghi has spent the last nine days assembling a government of national unity to manage the deadly pandemic that hit Italy almost exactly one year ago, triggering a deep recession.

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After securing the support late Thursday of the final key player, the populist Five Star Movement (M5S), Draghi has almost all the main parties on board, from leftists to the far-right League.

“The Draghi government is born,” headlined Rome-based daily Il Messaggero, while Milan’s Corriere Della Sera added: “Draghi in the home stretch.”

The 73-year-old economist must present a list of ministers when he visits Mattarella, but he has kept extremely coy, speaking in public only once since being asked to form a government.

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With the outgoing government due to hold one last cabinet meeting on Friday, there was speculation that Draghi might wait until Saturday before heading to the presidential palace.

Italy has high hopes for its new leader, dubbed Super Mario after vowing to do “whatever it takes” to save the euro single currency in the 2010s debt crisis.

Mattarella asked him to step in on February 3 after outgoing premier Giuseppe Conte resigned following weeks of political turmoil in his M5S-led coalition.

The president emphasised the urgency of moving quickly to fill the political vacuum as Italy’s Covid-19 death toll approaches 100,000 and the country battles its worst recession since World War II.

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Italy is hoping to receive more than 200 billion euros ($243 billion) in grants and loans from the European Union’s recovery fund to help it get back on its feet.

But Draghi will have to balance demands for immediate hand-outs against the need for long-term structural reforms in Italy — tensions that brought down the last government.

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Broad support
Leaders of M5S, the biggest party in parliament, had indicated early on that they would support Draghi’s efforts to form a broad-based new government — but the membership was divided.

An online vote on whether to take part was delayed earlier this week when M5S founder Beppe Grillo asked Draghi for more details on action he would take on the environment.

The vote was rescheduled for Thursday after the party claimed it had been promised a beefed-up minister “for ecological transition” — and members voted by 59.3 percent to back Draghi.

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The economist would have probably been able to form a government even without the M5S, but “it is important for him to set off with the broadest possible parliamentary majority”, noted Federico Santi, an analyst at Eurasia Group.

Italy has been without a fully functioning government for almost a month since former prime minister Matteo Renzi withdrew his Italia Viva party from Conte’s coalition, which also included the M5S and centre-left Democratic Party (PD).

Conte eventually resigned on January 26. Mattarella gave the M5S, the PD and Renzi time to patch things up, but when that failed, called in Draghi.

Draghi’s arrival was greeted with delight on the financial markets — Italy’s borrowing costs dropped to a historic low this week — but the task facing him is huge.

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The EU is expecting Rome’s plan on how to spend the recovery funds in April, while unemployment — at 426,000 higher than one year ago — risks rising further later this year if an existing freeze on job dismissals is not extended.

Another priority is speeding up Italy’s coronavirus vaccination programme, which made a promising start in December but has since slowed, against a backdrop of rising concern about the spread of new variants.

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#Newsworthy

Former Prime Minister, Berlusconi ‘hospitalised after a fall’

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Berlusconi looked frail as he reappeared in public after months holed up in southern France, where his daughter has a villa.

Former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi spent the night in hospital after an “accidental fall” at home, a spokesman for the 84-year-old billionaire said Thursday.

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Berlusconi tripped while staying at his residence in Rome, and was bruised on one side. Following the accident, he was taken to his home city of Milan for a hospital check-up.

Italian former Prime Minister and leader of center-right party Forza Italia (Go Italy), Silvio Berlusconi speaks on the set of the broadcast “Porta a Porta”, a programme of Italian channel Rai 1, on January 11, 2018 in Rome. / AFP PHOTO / Alberto PIZZOLI

“He was discharged this morning and he is at home, working, to take part in remote voting for the European Parliament,” the spokesman said in a statement.

Berlusconi, who has dominated public life in Italy since the 1980s as a businessman and three-time prime minister, was elected to the EU’s parliament in 2019.

He had travelled to Rome on Tuesday to meet former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi, and offer his support to the economist as Italy’s next prime minister.

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Berlusconi looked frail as he reappeared in public after months holed up in southern France, where his daughter has a villa.

In September, the media magnate spent almost two weeks in hospital with coronavirus. He was hospitalised again for a few days in January after suffering heart problems.

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#Newsworthy

COVID-19: Europe still vulnerable.

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The number of vaccine doses administered in Europe now stands 41 million, greater that the nearly 36 million cases recorded since the start of the pandemic.

The World Health Organization on Thursday warned of a “false sense of security” in Europe, saying most of the continent’s nations were still vulnerable despite a fall in Covid cases.

WHO Europe director Hans Kluge told a press conference that “the decline in cases conceals increasing numbers of outbreaks and community spread involving variants of concern.”

More than a million cases are registered every week across the 53 member states in the UN agency’s European region, which includes several in central Asia.

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But the number of reported cases has been falling over the past four weeks and deaths have also been declining over the past two weeks.

A healthcare worker takes a swab sample to run an antigen rapid test for coronavirus during a mass screening to test 100 percent of the town’s population in Leon, northern Spain, on February 3, 2021. – The Spanish government is “open” and “enthusiastic” to using Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine in Spain, one of the countries in Europe most affected by the pandemic, as long as it is approved by the European Medicines Agency, Health Minister Carolina Darias said today. The shot — named after the Soviet-era satellite — faced criticism last year when it was approved in Russia before large-scale clinical trials. (Photo by CESAR MANSO / AFP)

“At this point, the overwhelming majority of European countries remain vulnerable,” Kluge said, adding that as of now there is “a thin line between the hope of a vaccine and a false sense of security.”

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The number of vaccine doses administered in Europe now stands 41 million, greater that the nearly 36 million cases recorded since the start of the pandemic.

According to data from 29 out of the 37 countries that have begun vaccinations, 7.8 million have received both doses of the vaccines, Kluge said, warning that the number only accounts for 1.5 percent of the population in those countries.

“Vaccines are essential, but as of now, they are not sufficient to control the pandemic,” Kluge said.

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The regional WHO director cautioned against “rash decisions” for countries contemplating easing restrictions.

“Time and again have we seen countries reopen too fast and lose hard-earned gains,” Kluge said.

With the emergence of new variants, vaccinations could also be undermined if the virus is allowed to circulate, potentially causing mutations that “may influence vaccine efficacy.”

“Unless we halt transmission now, the expected benefits from vaccinations in controlling this pandemic may not be evident,” Kluge said.

The WHO director also reiterated a call for an equitable distribution of vaccines to include poorer countries, both citing it as a “moral imperative,” but also as a means to mitigate risks.

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“Unfair access to vaccines, can backfire. The longer the virus lingers, the greater the risk of dangerous mutations,” Kluge said.

Across the WHO’s European region, 38 countries have recorded cases linked to the variant first discovered in Britain and 19 nations have recorded cases from variant discovered in South Africa.

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#Newsworthy

As vote spikes, Catalan separatism loses its rage.

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At the time, about a thousand people massed on Meridiana Avenue, blocking one of Barcelona’s key arteries.

As has happened every night for over a year, dozens of protesters demanding independence from Spain sit down in the middle of a wide Barcelona avenue, bringing traffic to a standstill.

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Though just a handful, they are supporters of Catalonia’s powerful separatist movement which is gearing up for an important regional election on Sunday that could ease a years-long crisis over the thorny question of independence.

The movement, whose two main parties dominate the regional government, has faced a growing crisis since 2017 following a failed bid to break away from Spain.

“Before the pandemic there were more of us but people are tired. There is political disenchantment,” says 70-year-old Amadeu Pallister, who swears he has been at every one of the more than 300 nightly protests held so far on Meridiana Avenue.

“Some politicians are talking about dialogue, about negotiating with Madrid, but we already know you can’t expect anything from Spain, only repression,” he told AFP.

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“The only solution is independence.”

The nightly demonstrations began in October 2019 when Spain’s Supreme Court handed lengthy prison terms to nine Catalan separatist leaders over their role in the 2017 crisis, sparking mass protests, some of them violent.

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At the time, about a thousand people massed on Meridiana Avenue, blocking one of Barcelona’s key arteries.

Laura Borras, “Junts per Catalunya” party (Together For Catalonia) candidate for the up-coming Catalonia regional elections, gives a speech during a campaign meeting in Vic on February 7, 2021. – Regional elections in Spain’s Catalonia will be held on February 14, in a vote that could help settle a years-long separatist crisis. The vote will come more than three years after the region staged a failed bid for independence in 2017 which plunged Spain its worst political crisis in decades. (Photo by Josep LAGO / AFP)

Keeping the independence spirit alive
After a year of nightly protests that only stopped during the months-long coronavirus lockdown last spring, the number of participants has dwindled to just a few dozen, who spread out across the eight lanes of traffic ignoring angry honking from drivers.

“It is just not logical to keep doing this for so long: cutting traffic every day for two hours,” said Vicente Serrano, a 61-year-old human resources manager who lives in the neighbourhood.

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“But because it’s in the Catalan government’s interest to keep this alive, it accepts and encourages it.”

Serrano fears Sunday’s election will return the separatist parties to power.

They’ve ruled this region of 7.8 million people since 2015 but are coming to the polls strongly divided over the question of exactly how to achieve independence.

And the region itself is divided, with a December poll showing 45.1 percent in favour of independence from Spain and 49.9 percent against, with leaders of the two camps routinely attacking each other.

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“In this election, the general tension has given way to internal tension within the independence movement,” says Oriol Bartomeus, a political scientist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

The movement is divided into two main currents with the hardline JxC — “Together for Catalonia” — heading the coalition alongside the more moderate ERC, or “Republican Left of Catalonia”.

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JxC has taken a more confrontational approach, pledging a new declaration of independence if it wins while ERC has softened its position, becoming an ally of Spain’s Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez in the national parliament.

Differences to the fore
Ahead of the vote, ERC has accused its rival of not being “realistic”, while JxC argues that ERC’s strategy will lead separatism into a “dead end”.

“The independence movement must decide which direction it’s heading in, whether that of ERC or JxC,” says Bartomeus.

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“These elections will provide the answer.”

The Socialists have high hopes after tapping former health minister Salvador Illa, the public face of Spain’s fight against the pandemic, as their candidate for the top post in Catalonia.

Polls suggest the Socialists could come in the first place but the ERC looks poised to play kingmaker.

“ERC has all the cards in its hands,” said political analyst Josep Ramoneda.

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The party could form a leftist government with the Socialists and far-left party Podemos, or form another separatist government with JxC, he said, even if ERC has repeatedly ruled out any agreement with the Socialists.

“Whichever happens, reality will kick in and slow the separatist drive. And anyone seeking to speed it up as they did in 2017 will end up crashing.”

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#Newsworthy

Thousands of France Protesters ‘unlawfully detained’ – AI.

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The legislation, since scrapped, would have restricted publication with so-called malicious intent of photos of on-duty police officers, a move condemned as a curb on press freedom.

A slate of detentions carried out on December 12 during a Paris protest by tens of thousands of people against France’s controversial security bill were “arbitrary”, Amnesty International France said Monday.

Out of 142 people who were arrested, including 124 who were taken into custody, “nearly 80 percent faced no charges in the end”, a study by the French branch of the rights watchdog concluded.

A similar proportion of detainees to charges laid was seen in the “yellow vest” movement that peaked in late 2018 and early 2019, according to Paris prosecutor Remy Heitz.

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AIF, which joined an umbrella group opposed to the security bill, said it had “legitimate concerns over the possibility that there were arbitrary arrests and other violations of human rights”.

The legislation, since scrapped, would have restricted publication with so-called malicious intent of photos of on-duty police officers, a move condemned as a curb on press freedom.

AIF’s Anne-Sophie Simpere, the report’s author, told AFP the December 12 protest march in central Paris did not see “notable violence”, adding: “Nothing seems to justify what happened in terms of arrests or charges.”

The report focused on police questioning, medical certificates and judicial documents in 35 cases of people who were held but not charged. Two were held for nearly five hours, while the other 33 were held overnight.

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A heavy police contingent preceded the marchers and flanked them on both sides, preventing any of them from leaving the protest, AFP journalists reported at the time.

‘Vague laws’
On the basis of witness testimony and video footage, Amnesty said arrests were not preceded by “audible warnings” and at moments when no “significant disorder” was noted in the march.

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Alexis Baudelin, a lawyer who was taken into custody, told AFP: “I was surprised by the strategy… At each intersection, the security forces charged on non-violent demonstrators without reason or warning.”

Protesters gather for a demonstration after French medical experts exonerated the gendarmes involved in the arrest of Adama Traore, a young black man who died in police custody in 2016, outside the “Tribunal de Paris” courthouse in Paris on June 2, 2020. – The Adama traore case sparked violent protests in the Paris suburbs and became a rallying cry for police brutality in France, which young, black men say is often targeted at them. The police chief of Paris defended his forces on June 2 against accusations of brutality and racism as anger over alleged police violence mounts in France as in the United States. French medical experts on June 29 exonerated the three gendarmes, dismissing a medical report commissioned by the young man’s family that said he had died of asphyxiation. (Photo by STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN / AFP)

The offensive tactic was aimed at preventing the formation of “Black Bloc” anarchist groups after two consecutive weekends of violent demos in Paris, the police said later.

Amnesty also pointed to “detentions based on vague laws”, notably one against “taking part in a group with the aim of planning violence”, cited in 25 of the cases studied.

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In only two of the cases studied had the detainees been carrying objects that could justify suspicions of violent intent.

“It’s a catch-all offence,” Simpere said. “You punish an act before it is committed.”

Such lack of precision can “unduly infringe on human rights”, the report said.

Lara Bellini, whose 16-year-old son was held for 20 hours before being released without charge, told AFP: “They (the police) told me he belonged to a malicious band. It was incomprehensible… My son is an activist, but he is in no way a violent person.”

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In five of the cases, police used a March 2019 law to slap a ban on appearing in Paris for up to six months.

The ban amounts to “punishment without trial” without even the possibility of appeal, Amnesty said, calling on parliament to scrap the legislation.

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#Newsworthy

Ireland open to modest prolonging to Northern Ireland Brexit grace period.

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Coveney was speaking ahead of talks on the issue next week in London between British Cabinet Office..

Ireland is open to “modest” extensions of waivers on the movement of certain goods from Britain into Northern Ireland after the British government asked the European Union to tweak post-Brexit rules, Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said.

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Coveney was speaking ahead of talks on the issue next week in London between British Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove and European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic, both of whom Coveney said he was in regular contact with.

“I would be open to advocating for modest extensions of grace periods,” Coveney told Ireland’s RTE Radio, but he said there was no question of scrapping the Northern Ireland Protocol of Britain’s EU divorce deal.

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#Newsworthy

Hundreds rally against COVID-19 restrictions in Switzerland.

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Most countries around the world impacted by the coronavirus require their citizens to wear masks, as health officials have said face coverings help curb the spread of the virus.

Hundreds of protesters marched in Switzerland on Saturday against coronavirus restrictions after the health minister said the current restrictions will stay in place through the end of February.

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Approximately 500 protesters marched through the Swiss city of Zug to protest against what they see as unfair restrictions, Reuters reported.

Switzerland tightened its rules last month, closing nonessential stores, requiring masks in stores that remain open, having employees work from home if possible and limiting gatherings to five people.

NoRM reported that demonstrators protesting Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset’s extension of the restrictions wore protective suits and carried signs reading, “Wearing a mask is modern slavery.”

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Most countries around the world impacted by the coronavirus require their citizens to wear masks, as health officials have said face coverings help curb the spread of the virus.

“I want to make a statement, that the citizens are the ones who are in control, and the state should be there to serve its citizens,” a person from the protest told Reuters.

“I’m a grandmother,” another person said. “I don’t want my grandchildren to grow up in a world where so much is forbidden.”

Switzerland does have lighter restrictions than some other countries, with their schools still allowed to be open. However, debate continues around the world over how far coronavirus restrictions should go.

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No arrests were made at Saturday’s protest, as the police stayed out of the protesters’ way, Reuters reported.

Switzerland has seen almost 9,000 people dead and 530,000 people infected since the start of the pandemic, with new concerns surrounding a United Kingdom strand of the virus, which has been shown to be more contagious and possibly more deadly.

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#Newsworthy

Rally spikes behind Mario Draghi in Italy Gov’t talks.

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The League will have to overcome its reluctance to work with the PD and possible reservations about Draghi personally.

Former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi on Saturday wrapped up the first round of talks aimed at forming a new Italian government, hoping to drag the country out of its economic and Covid-19 crises.

Summoned by President Sergio Mattarella this week after prime minister Giuseppe Conte’s coalition collapsed, Draghi — dubbed “Super Mario” for extricating the eurozone from its debt crisis early last decade — has already rallied some political players behind him.

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The centre-left Democratic Party (PD) and the small Italia Viva outfit of centrist former premier Matteo Renzi — the man behind the collapse of the last government — had promised support, as well as Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia (FI).

On Saturday, the far-right League led by Matteo Salvini — one of two heavyweight anti-establishment parties alongside the Five Star Movement (M5S) — signalled its readiness for the economist to form Italy’s 67th government since World War II.

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“We stand ready. We are the biggest political force in the country, we are a force that should be in government… unlike some, we don’t think we can get ahead by always saying no,” Salvini said after meeting Draghi.

Italy’ Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte speaks to media on Colonna square as he leaves Palazzo Chigi in Rome on February 4, 2021. – Former European Central Bank chief urged Italy’s splintered parties on February 3 to get behind him as he tries to form a new government amid political turmoil. (Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP)

“I prefer to be on the inside and in control,” he said.

While he did not reveal any conditions for joining a government, the former interior minister said his final decision would come after a second round of talks next week.

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‘Confidence in Europe‘ –
Time is ticking as Italy must present plans for how it will spend around 200 billion euros ($241 billion) from the EU’s pandemic recovery fund — the largest share for any single country — by the end of April.

Draghi “already has the confidence of Europe and the markets. Soon he will receive parliament’s confidence,” daily Il Corriere della Sera predicted.

Wolfango Piccoli of consulting firm Teneo agreed.

“The question has somewhat shifted from ‘if’ Draghi could form a government to ‘how’ this government will be constituted, meaning which parties will be part of the coalition.”

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Draghi’s final weekend meeting was with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), which had backed Conte to the hilt with its roughly one-third of MPs and senators.

But saying he had always worked “for the good of the country,” Conte on Thursday promised not to be an “obstacle” to Draghi and wished him “good luck!”

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The League will have to overcome its reluctance to work with the PD and possible reservations about Draghi personally.

The former central banker personifies a European elite that the nationalist, anti-immigration party and its counterparts across the bloc love to hate.

– Pandemic havoc –
After finishing his first round of talks with politicians Saturday, Draghi will meet civil society groups like unions on Monday before tackling the political parties again later next week.

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While the wrangling goes on, the European Union’s third-largest economy is ailing from the effects of coronavirus after shrinking 8.9 percent last year — one of the sharpest drops in the eurozone single-currency area.

A harsh lockdown in March and April brought activity to a near-standstill after Italy became the first European nation to suffer a coronavirus wave.

So far Italy has recorded more than 90,000 Covid-19 deaths — the second-highest toll in Europe after Britain — and 2.6 million cases.

The more contagious British coronavirus variant has also been detected in some people testing positive.

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If Draghi fails to secure a parliamentary majority or loses MPs’ backing after taking office, Italy could hold early elections, probably in June.

But Mattarella, who would make such a call, said Tuesday that he wanted to avoid going to the polls while the country suffers through its health and economic shocks.

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#Newsworthy

Romania Orthodox Church in trouble after baby ‘dies’ in Baptism.

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Prosecutors have opened a manslaughter probe against the priest in the northeastern city of Suceava.

The Orthodox Church was facing growing pressure on Thursday to change baptism rituals in Romania after a baby died following a ceremony, which involves immersing infants three times in holy water.

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The six-week-old suffered a cardiac arrest and was rushed to hospital on Monday but he died a few hours later, the autopsy revealing liquid in his lungs.

A picture taken on May 11, 2014 shows a Romanian Orthodox priest sinking a child in holy water during baptism, in a church in Bucharest. – Many Romanians mobilized on social networks in the first week of February 2021, to convince the Orthodox Church to change the ritual of baptism after a six-week-old baby died of cardiac arrest in the hospital on February 1, 2021 and the presence of liquid in his lungs was revealed by the autopsy, shortly after being baptized in a church in Suceava (northeast Romania). (Photo by Daniel MIHAILESCU / AFP)

Prosecutors have opened a manslaughter probe against the priest in the northeastern city of Suceava.

An online petition calling for changes to the ritual had gathered more than 56,000 signatures by Thursday evening.

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“The death of a newborn baby because of this practice is a huge tragedy,” said a message with the petition. “This risk must be ruled out for the joy of baptism to triumph.”

One internet user denounced the “brutality” of the ritual and another criticised the “stubbornness of those who think that it is the will of God” to maintain it.

Local media recounted several similar incidents in recent years.

Church spokesman Vasile Banescu said priests could pour a little water on the baby’s forehead instead of full immersion.

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But Archbishop Teodosie, leader of the Church’s traditionalist wing, said the ritual would not change.

More than 80 percent of Romanians are Orthodox and the Church is one of the most trusted institutions, according to recent opinion polls.

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#Newsworthy

European Union Foreign Policy Chief jets to Russia over Navalny’s controversy.

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European diplomats say that any measures, if they come, would likely just target officials and functionaries directly involved in the clampdown

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell jets to Moscow on Thursday under pressure to confront the Kremlin over the jailing of Alexei Navalny and a crackdown on protesters.

The visit — the first to Russia by a top EU envoy since 2017 — has drawn criticism from some European capitals worried Moscow will spin it as evidence Brussels is keen to return to business as normal.

But Borrell insists he will deliver “clear messages” to the Kremlin despite it blanking Western calls to release President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent domestic opponent Navalny, who was on Tuesday given a jail term of almost three years.

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“It is when things are not going well that you must engage,” the former Spanish foreign minister said on Monday.

The EU’s ties with Russia have been in the doldrums since Moscow seized Crimea and began fuelling the war in Ukraine in 2014 — and there are concerns about its involvement in Belarus, Syria, Libya, central Africa and the Caucasus.

Borrell is eager to sound out his veteran counterpart Sergei Lavrov on the chances of cooperation on issues including enlisting Russia’s help in reviving the Iran nuclear deal and tackling climate change.

But it will be the jailing of Navalny and detention of thousands of demonstrators across Russia by baton-wielding security forces that dominates his visit.

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Nonsense, says Kremlin
The EU foreign policy chief is under no illusions that he can pressure Moscow into freeing Navalny — and the Kremlin has already warned him off.

“We hope that such nonsense as linking the prospects of Russia-EU relations with the resident of a detention centre will not happen,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

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Moscow stands “ready to do everything” to develop ties with Brussels, but the Kremlin is “not ready to listen to advice” on the issue of Navalny, he said.

European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell speaks during press conference following a meeting with EU Ministers of Foreign Affairs at the EU headquarters, in Brussels, on January 25, 2021. (Photo by JOHN THYS / POOL / AFP)

The authorities have poured cold water on attempts to set up a meeting with Putin’s nemesis and Borrell will settle for talks with civil society representatives.

Back in Europe calls are growing from some nations for the EU to bulk up on sanctions it slapped on six Russian officials in October over the nerve agent poisoning that left Navalny fighting for his life in Germany.

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EU foreign ministers last week agreed they would revisit the issue if he was not released.

“After this ruling, there will now also be talks among EU partners. Further sanctions cannot be ruled out,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert.

An EU statement said foreign ministers would discuss “possible further action” at a meeting on February 22.

Navalny himself called at the European Parliament last year — two months before his fateful return to Moscow — for sanctions to hit the oligarchs and money-men he accuses of protecting Putin’s wealth.

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But European diplomats say that any measures, if they come, would likely just target officials and functionaries directly involved in the clampdown.

There have also been calls for Germany to halt the highly contentious Nord Stream 2 pipeline project to bring Russian gas to Europe.

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Continental powerhouse Berlin has rebuffed the clamour and Borrell insists Brussels has no power to make Germany pull the plug.

“I don’t think that it is the way to resolve the problem with Navalny,” Borrell said.

“The Russians won’t change course because we tell them we will stop Nord Stream.”

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For Moscow the visit looks set to be used as a chance both to deflect from its own issues and show that the West still wants to talk to it regardless.

‘Not a sign of weakness’
“On the one hand, the Kremlin is eager to portray the EU as a weak actor with a lot of internal problems,” said Susan Stewart from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

“On the other hand, despite official rhetoric, the Kremlin is still keen to demonstrate that western actors are interested in cooperating with Russia, since this increases its status and legitimacy.”

But with European leaders set to debate their overall approach to Russia at upcoming summits in the next few months, diplomats in Brussels insisted this was the right time to visit Moscow.

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“There are reasons to go there to pass on messages,” one European envoy said.

“This mission is not a sign of weakness.”

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#Newsworthy

COVID-19: Vatican museums reopens Monday.

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The entire country remains subject to a night-time curfew however, while table service at bars and restaurants must end at 6:00pm.

The Vatican Museums, including the Sistine Chapel, said they will reopen on Monday after being closed for 88 days due to coronavirus restrictions — the longest closure since World War II.

The world-famous collections will open their doors to the public from Monday to Saturday, but visitors must pre-book tickets and will be given timed entry slots.

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Curators used the closure, sparked by Italian government measures introduced to stem the spread of Covid-19, to carry out maintenance and refurbishment works.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on June 1, 2020 people visit the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican Museums (Musei Vaticani) which reopened to the public in The Vatican, while the city-state eases its lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of the COVID-19 infection, caused by the novel coronavirus. – (Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP)

That included careful dusting of 15th-century frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, which normally attracts six million visitors a year.

“The Pope’s Museums await you with pleasure!” a statement said.

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The news comes amid an easing of coronavirus restrictions, with all but five Italian regions put in the low-risk “yellow” category from Monday.

That allows bars and restaurants to reopen during the day, alongside museums.

(FILES) This file photo taken on March 24, 2020 shows a view of the deserted entrance of the closed Vatican Museums in the Vatican during the lockdown aimed at stopping the spread of the COVID-19 (new coronavirus) pandemic. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)

Rome’s Colosseum and the Forum were also set to reopen on Monday, although they are to remain closed on weekends.

The Italian islands of Sicily and Sardinia and regions of Umbria, Puglia and the autonomous province of South Tyrol are the only areas still subjected to tighter curbs in mid-risk “orange” zones.

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Italy was the first European country to face the full force of the pandemic early in 2020.

A nationwide lockdown, the collapse of the tourist trade and widespread closures since then have plunged the economy in a deep recession, while almost 88,000 people with the virus have died.

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#Newsworthy

Over 4,000 Pro-Navalny protesters held as police intercept protest.

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Russian authorities issued several warnings against participating in the unauthorised rallies and threatened criminal charges against protesters.

Police detained more than 4,400 people across Russia and blocked off the centre of Moscow on Sunday in a massive clampdown on protests demanding the release of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

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Thousands of protesters defied government warnings to rally from Vladivostok to Saint Petersburg in a second weekend of mass demonstrations over the arrest of President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent opponent.

Navalny was detained at a Moscow airport in mid-January after flying back to Russia from Germany where he was recovering from an August poisoning he blames on the Kremlin.

The 44-year-old anti-corruption campaigner is being held in a Moscow detention centre and faces years of potential jail time in several different criminal cases, despite calls from Western governments for his release.

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In moves not seen in years in Moscow, authorities locked down the centre of the capital Sunday, with hundreds of police lining the streets, central Metro stations closed and the movements of pedestrians restricted.

Protesters who had hoped to gather outside the headquarters of the FSB security service were instead scattered to various parts of the city as organisers made last-minute changes in locations.

AFP journalists saw dozens of protesters detained and taken into police vans.

US condemns ‘harsh tactics’

Several thousand were seen marching throughout the city centre, but it was unclear amid the chaos how many people took part in the demonstration.

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Independent monitor OVD-Info said at least 4,407 people had been detained across the country, after reporting more than 4,000 detentions during similar protests on January 23.

It said at least 1,365 were detained in Moscow and 962 in Saint Petersburg, as well as 82 journalists across the country.

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Twitter condemned “the persistent use of harsh tactics against peaceful protesters and journalists by Russian authorities for a second week straight.”

The Russian foreign ministry hit back, accusing the United States of “gross interference” in its affairs and of using “online platforms controlled by Washington” to promote the protests.

Protesters chanted “Freedom!” and “Putin is a thief!” as they marched through Moscow, braving bitter cold and snow.

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Several hundred protesters eventually gathered outside the Matrosskaya Tishina prison where Navalny is being held. Dozens were detained outside the complex.

“It’s almost embarrassing that the state is so afraid of us,” 31-year-old protester Elisaveta Dementieva told AFP at the Moscow demonstration.

Golden toilet brushes

Many protesters carried gold-painted toilet brushes in reference to a video released by Navalny’s team alleging that Putin had been gifted a $1.35 billion property on the Black Sea coast, which among other luxurious goods featured toilet brushes costing 700 euros ($840) apiece.

As night fell in Moscow protesters began to head home, with some wondering whether the demonstration would have any impact.

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“It’s true we are asking ourselves if these protests will really do any good,” said Nadia, a 21-year-old student. “It will take more for Navalny to be freed. And even more for Russia to be free.”

Several thousand people demonstrated in the second city of Saint Petersburg, despite police closing off the main thoroughfare Nevsky Prospekt and shutting Metro stations, an AFP journalist reported.

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Police were seen roughly detaining several protesters, including one young man who was left with a bloodied head.

Earlier, protesters had rallied in cities including the Pacific port of Vladivostok, where dozens escaped the police on the frozen waters of the Amur Bay and danced in a circle.

Several thousand were also reported to have protested in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk despite temperatures dropping to -20 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit).

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Navalny’s wife detained

The head of Russia’s Human Rights Council, Valery Fadeyev, called Sunday’s events a “provocation” and said they have “nothing to do with protecting rights”, news agency TASS reported.

Navalny is due in court several times next week, including on Tuesday on charges of violating the terms of a 2014 suspended sentence.

His team has called for supporters to gather outside the courtroom.

Navalny’s wife Yulia posted a picture of her family on Instagram on Sunday, urging supporters to make their voices heard.

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“If we remain silent, then tomorrow they will come for any one of us,” she wrote.

Navalny’s team said Yulia was detained by police shortly after she announced her arrival at Sunday’s rally on social media.

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#Newsworthy