UK Set to Formally Apply for Trans-Pacific Trade Bloc Membership 

Britain will next week formally apply to join a trans-Pacific trading bloc of 11 countries, with negotiations set to start later this year, the government has said.Since leaving the European Union, Britain has made clear its desire to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which removes most tariffs between Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.”One year after our departure for the EU we are forging new partnerships that will bring enormous economic benefits for the people of Britain,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a statement.Trade minister Liz Truss told Times Radio: “On Monday I am putting in the letter of intent” and that she expected formal negotiations will start in the spring.Reuters reported on Thursday that Britain will not publish an assessment of the economic benefits of CPTPP membership before requesting to join it – contrary to earlier promises.Previous government economic analyses of Brexit have pointed to small boosts to economic output from additional trade deals.The government said joining CPTPP would remove tariffs on food and drink and cars, while helping to boost the technology and services sectors.”Applying to be the first new country to join the CPTPP demonstrates our ambition to do business on the best terms with our friends and partners all over the world and be an enthusiastic champion of global free trade,” Johnson said. 

Thousands Flee Hong Kong for UK, Fearing China Crackdown 

Thousands of Hong Kongers have already made the sometimes painful decision to leave behind their hometown and move to Britain since Beijing imposed a strict national security law on the Chinese territory last summer. Their numbers are expected to swell to the hundreds of thousands. Some are leaving because they fear punishment for supporting the pro-democracy protests that swept the former British colony in 2019. Others say China’s encroachment on their way of life and civil liberties has become unbearable, and they want to seek a better future for their children abroad. Most say they don’t plan to ever go back. The moves are expected to accelerate now that 5 million Hong Kongers are eligible to apply for visas to Britain, allowing them to live, work and study there and eventually apply to become British citizens. Applications for the British National Overseas visa officially opened Sunday, though many have already arrived on British soil to get a head start. FILE – A British National Overseas passports (BNO) and a Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China passport are pictured in Hong Kong, Friday, Jan. 29, 2021.Britain’s government said some 7,000 people with British National Overseas passports — a travel document that Hong Kongers could apply for before the city was handed over to Chinese control in 1997 — have arrived since July on the previously allowed six month visa. It estimates that over 300,000 people will take up the offer of extended residency rights in the next five years. “Before the announcement of the BN(O) visa in July, we didn’t have many enquiries about U.K. immigration, maybe less than 10 a month,” said Andrew Lo, founder of Anlex Immigration Consultants in Hong Kong. “Now we receive about 10 to 15 calls a day asking about it.” Mike, a photojournalist, said he plans to apply for the visa and move to Leeds with his wife and young daughter in April. His motivation to leave Hong Kong came after the city’s political situation deteriorated following the anti-government protests and he realized that the city’s police force was not politically neutral. The police have been criticized by pro-democracy supporters for brutality and the use of excessive violence. Mike said moving to Britain was important as he believed the education system in Hong Kong will be affected by the political situation and it will be better for his daughter to study in the U.K. Mike agreed to speak on the condition that he only be identified by his first name out of fear of official retaliation. Lo said that with the new visa, the barrier to entry to move to the U.K. becomes extremely low, with no language or education qualification requirements. British National Overseas passport holders need to prove that they have enough money to support themselves for six months and prove that they are clear of tuberculosis, according to the U.K. government. Currently, Lo assists three to four families a week in their move to the U.K. About 60% of those are families with young children, while the remaining are young couples or young professionals. Cindy, a Hong Kong businesswoman and the mother of two young children, arrived in London last week. In Hong Kong she had a comfortable lifestyle. She owned several properties with her husband and the business she ran was going well. But she made up her mind to leave it all behind as she felt that the city’s freedoms and liberties were eroding and she wanted to ensure a good future for her kids. Cindy, who spoke on the condition she only be identified by her first name out of concern of official retaliation, said it was important to move quickly as she feared Beijing would soon move to halt the exodus. FILE – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson takes questions in parliament in London, Britain, Jan. 20, 2021 in this still image taken from a video.Prime Minister Boris Johnson said this week the visa offer shows Britain is honoring its “profound ties of history” with Hong Kong, which was handed over to China on the understanding that it would retain its Western-style freedoms and much of its political autonomy not seen on mainland China. Beijing said Friday it will no longer recognize the British National Overseas passport as a travel document or form of identification, and criticized Britain’s citizenship offer as a move that “seriously infringed” on China’s sovereignty. It was unclear what effect the announcement would have because many Hong Kongers carry multiple passports. Beijing drastically hardened its stance on Hong Kong after the 2019 protests turned violent and plunged the city into a months-long crisis. Since the security law’s enactment, dozens of pro-democracy activists have been arrested, and the movement’s young leaders have either been jailed or fled abroad. Because the new law broadly defined acts of subversion, secession, foreign collusion and terrorism, many in Hong Kong fear that expressing any form of political opposition — even posting messages on social media — could land them in trouble. “This is a really unique emigration wave — some people haven’t had time to actually visit the country they’re relocating to. Many have no experience of living abroad,” said Miriam Lo, who runs Excelsior UK, a relocation agency. “And because of the pandemic, they couldn’t even come over to view a home before deciding to buy.”  

More than 1,000 Reportedly Detained in Russian Protests Supporting Opposition Leader  

Russian police detained over 1,000 protesters Sunday, as supporters of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny took to the streets for a second weekend to demand his release, according to OVD-Info, a monitoring organization.Navalny associates called again for nationwide demonstrations ahead of his trial, to start Tuesday (Feb. 2).Defying arrests and criminal probes, the first protests took place in Siberia and Russia’s Far East, including the port city of Vladivostok.In Novosibirsk in eastern Siberia thousands of protesters marched chanting “Putin, thief!” in an apparent reference to a Black Sea estate thought to have been built for the Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Police detained more than 80 protesters there.More than 250 of the arrests preceded rallies in the capital Moscow and the country’s second major city, Saint Petersburg.Moscow police announced the closure of seven metro stations and have restricted the movement of pedestrians to downtown.Authorities have also ordered some restaurants and shops in the city center closed and above-ground transportation diverted.Navalny was arrested immediately upon his return to Russia in mid-January, after a nearly five-month recovery in Germany from a poisoning attack he suffered while traveling in Siberia in August.The United States and the European Union have strongly condemned Navalny’s arrest and hundreds of arrests made last week and called for their immediate release. 

NATO Sources: Foreign Troops to Stay in Afghanistan Beyond May Deadline

International troops plan to stay in Afghanistan beyond the May deadline envisaged by the insurgent Taliban’s deal with the United States, four senior NATO officials said, a move that could escalate tensions with the Taliban demanding full withdrawal. “There will be no full withdrawal by allies by April-end,” one of the officials told Reuters. “Conditions have not been met,” he said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. “And with the new U.S. administration, there will be tweaks in the policy, the sense of hasty withdrawal which was prevalent will be addressed and we could see a much more calculated exit strategy.” The administration of then-President Donald Trump signed an agreement with the Taliban early last year calling for the withdrawal of all foreign troops by May in return for the insurgents fulfilling certain security guarantees. FILE – U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, left, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban group’s top political leader sign a peace agreement between Taliban and U.S. officials in Doha, Qatar, Feb. 29, 2020.Trump hailed the accord — which did not include the Afghan government — as the end of two decades of war. He reduced U.S. troops to 2,500 by this month, the fewest since 2001. Plans on what will happen after April are now being considered and likely to be a top issue at a key NATO meeting in February, the NATO sources said. The positions of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are becoming increasingly important after the alliance was sidelined by Trump, diplomats and experts say. Peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban began in September in Doha, but violence has remained high. “No NATO ally wants to stay in Afghanistan longer than necessary, but we have been clear that our presence remains conditions-based,” said NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu. “Allies continue to assess the overall situation and to consult on the way forward.” She said about 10,000 troops, including Americans, are in Afghanistan. Those levels are expected to stay roughly the same until after May, but the plan beyond that is not clear, the NATO source said. FILE – NATO soldiers inspect near the site of an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 25, 2020.Kabul and some foreign governments and agencies say the Taliban has failed to meet conditions due to escalated violence and a failure to cut ties with militant groups such as Al Qaeda, which the Taliban denies. The administration of Joe Biden, who replaced Trump on Jan. 20, has launched a review of his predecessor’s peace agreement. A Pentagon spokesman said the Taliban have not met their commitments, but Washington remained committed to the process and had not decided on future troop levels. A State Department representative said Biden was committed to bringing a “responsible end to the ‘forever wars’… while also protecting Americans from terrorist and other threats.” Afghanistan’s presidential palace did not respond to a request for comment. Rising concern The Taliban have become increasingly concerned in recent weeks about the possibility that Washington might change aspects of the agreement and keep troops in the country beyond May, two Taliban sources told Reuters. “We conveyed our apprehensions, but they assured us of honoring and acting on the Doha accord. What’s going on, on the ground in Afghanistan, is showing something else. And that’s why we decided to send our delegations to take our allies into confidence,” said a Taliban leader in Doha. A Taliban delegation this week visited Iran and Russia, and the leader said they were contacting China. Although informal meetings have been taking place between negotiators in Doha, progress has stalled in recent weeks after an almost one-month break, according to negotiators and diplomats. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters the insurgents remained committed to the peace process. “No doubt that if the Doha deal is not implemented there will be consequences, and the blame will be upon that side which does not honor the deal,” he said. “Our expectations are also that NATO will think to end this war and avoid more excuses for prolonging the war in Afghanistan.” NATO and Washington will have a challenge getting the Taliban to agree to an extension beyond May. If the situation remains unclear, the Taliban may increase attacks, possibly once again on international forces, said Ashley Jackson, co-director of the Centre for the Study of Armed Groups at the British think tank ODI. The lack of a resolution “gives voice to spoilers inside the Taliban who never believed the U.S. would leave willingly, and who have pushed for a ratcheting up of attacks even after the U.S.-Taliban deal was agreed,” she said. A Feb. 17-18 meeting of NATO defense ministers will be a chance for a newly empowered NATO to determine how the process would be shaped, said one source, a senior European diplomat. “With the new administration coming in there will be a more cooperative result, NATO countries will have a say.”  

WHO Team Visits Wuhan Hospital That Treated Early Cases

Scientists with the World Health Organization’s team investigating the source of the coronavirus that has infected more than 102 million people worldwide and killed more than 2.2 million have visited one of the hospitals in Wuhan, China, that treated some of the first patients.Dutch virologist Marion Koopmans said on Twitter that the stories she’d heard at Jinyintan hospital were “quite similar to what I have heard from our ICU doctors.”Just back from visit at Jinyintan hospital, that specialised in infectious diseases and was designated for treatment of the first cases in Wuhan. Stories quite similar to what I have heard from our ICU doctors.— Marion Koopmans (@MarionKoopmans) A woman wearing a face mask walks past a closed souvenir shop near Berlin’s famed tourist magnet Checkpoint Charlie, Jan. 29, 2021, during the coronavirus pandemic.Travelers from several European and African nations — Brazil, Britain, Eswatini, Ireland, Lesotho, Portugal and South Africa — will not be allowed into Germany. However, German residents traveling from those countries will be granted entry, even if they test positive for the coronavirus virus.Fourteen University of Michigan students were in quarantine after being diagnosed with the British variant of the virus. One of the students was reported to have traveled to Britain over the winter break.Health officials in South Carolina said they had detected two cases of the South African COVID-19 variant, the first cases in the United States.The U.S. remained the country with the most cases at more than 26 million, followed by India with 10.7 million and Brazil with 9.1 million, Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center said Saturday.The Pentagon on Saturday announced it would delay a plan to vaccinate the 40 prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, saying it needed to “review force protection protocols,” John Kirby, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, said in a tweet.  No Guantanamo detainees have been vaccinated. We’re pausing the plan to move forward, as we review force protection protocols. We remain committed to our obligations to keep our troops safe.— John Kirby (@PentagonPresSec) January 30, 2021The Pentagon has said it intends to vaccinate all the personnel who work at the detention center, or about 1,500 people. At that time, the vaccine will also be offered to the prisoners, none of whom has received a vaccination yet.The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that as of Saturday morning, nearly 50 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine had been distributed in the U.S. and nearly 30 million had been administered.The CDC said 24 million people had received one or more doses, and 5.3 million people had received a first dose.The total included both the Moderna and the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines.   

Activists Rally Behind French-Vietnamese Woman’s Agent Orange Lawsuit

Activists gathered Saturday in Paris to support people exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, after a French court examined the case of a French-Vietnamese woman who sued 14 companies that produced and sold the powerful defoliant dioxin used by U.S. troops.Former journalist Tran To Nga, 78, described in a book how she was exposed to Agent Orange in 1966, when she was a member of the Vietnamese Communists, or Viet Cong, who fought against South Vietnam and the United States.”Because of that, I lost one child due to heart defects. I have two other daughters who were born with malformations. And my grandchildren, too,” she told The Associated Press.In 2014 in France, she sued firms that produced and sold Agent Orange, including U.S. multinational companies Dow Chemical and Monsanto, now owned by German giant Bayer.Tran is seeking damages for her multiple health problems, including cancer, and those of her children in legal proceedings that could be the first to provide compensation to a Vietnamese victim, according to an alliance of nongovernmental organizations backing her case.So far only military veterans from the U.S. and other countries involved in the war have won compensation. The justice system in France allows citizens to sue over events that took place abroad.Backed by the NGO alliance Collectif Vietnam Dioxine, which called for Saturday’s gathering at Trocadero Plaza, Tran’s legal action is aimed at gaining recognition for civilians harmed by Agent Orange and the damage the herbicide did to the environment.U.S. forces used Agent Orange to defoliate Vietnamese jungles and to destroy Viet Cong crops during the war.Between 1962 and 1971, the U.S. military sprayed roughly 11 million gallons of the chemical agent across large swaths of southern Vietnam. Dioxin stays in the soil and in the sediment at the bottom of lakes and rivers for generations. It can enter the food supply through the fat of fish and other animals.Vietnam says as many as 4 million of its citizens were exposed to the herbicide and as many as 3 million have suffered illnesses from it, including the children of people who were exposed during the war.”That’s where lies the crime, the tragedy, because with Agent Orange, it doesn’t stop. It is passed on from one generation to the next,” Tran said.The court in Evry, a southern suburb of Paris, heard Tran’s case Monday.Bayer argues any legal responsibility for Tran’s claims should belong to the United States, saying in a statement that the Agent Orange was made “under the sole management of the U.S. government for exclusively military purposes.”Tran’s lawyers argued that the U.S. government had not requisitioned the chemical but secured it from the companies through a bidding process.The court’s ruling is scheduled to be given May 10.

Sources: Lithuanian President Nominates Belarus Opposition Leader for Nobel Prize

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda has nominated Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya for the Nobel Peace Prize, two sources with knowledge of the matter said Saturday.Nauseda nominated the activist, who has been living in Lithuania since fleeing her homeland in the wake of a disputed August 9 presidential election, to show his support for the Belarusian democratic movement and its demand for free elections, one of the sources said.Months of mass protests erupted in Belarus after President Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory over Tsikhanouskaya in the poll. Thousands of protesters were rounded up and nearly all opposition political figures were driven into exile or jailed.A former teacher, Tsikhanouskaya ran for president after her husband, an opposition blogger with political ambitions, was detained ahead of the election. From her Vilnius office she has demanded that Lukashenko stand down, free jailed protesters and hold free elections.Last week she urged the European Union and the United States to be “braver and stronger” in their actions to help end Lukashenko’s rule.Nominations for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize are to close January 31 and the winner is scheduled to be announced in November. Thousands of people can make nominations for the award, including members of national parliaments, former laureates and leading academics.Last year’s winner was the U.N. World Food Program. 

US Issues Mask-Wearing Mandate

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a mask-wearing mandate late Friday to apply on all forms of public transportation, part of the U.S. effort to combat the spread of the coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 disease. The order, which goes into effect Monday (at 11:59 p.m. EST, 4:59 GMT Tuesday), requires people to wear masks “while boarding, disembarking, and traveling on any conveyance into or within the United States,” and “at any transportation hub that provides transportation within the United States.”The order said: “”Requiring masks on our transportation systems will protect Americans and provide confidence that we can once again travel safely even during this pandemic.” Also Friday, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky signed an extension to an order that was scheduled to expire Sunday concerning evictions for failure to pay rent or mortgage payments. The CDC director said in a statement, “The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a historic threat to our nation’s health. Despite extensive mitigation efforts, COVID-19 continues to spread in America at a concerning pace. The pandemic has also exacerbated underlying issues of housing insecurity for many Americans. Keeping people in their homes and out of congregate settings, like shelters, is a key step in helping to stop the spread of COVID-19.”As the number of COVID-19 infections continues to climb and highly contagious variants of the virus have emerged, some countries are imposing new travel restrictions. A man walks on an empty Promenade des Anglais during a nationwide curfew, from 6 p.m to 6 a.m, due to restrictions against the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Nice, France, Jan. 29, 2021.France is prohibiting all travel to and from non-European Union countries.  Under the new policy beginning Sunday, travelers from EU countries seeking entry into France will have to provide evidence of a negative coronavirus test. Travelers from several European and African nations — Brazil, Britian, Eswatini, Ireland, Lesotho, Portugal, and South Africa – will not be allowed into Germany.   However, German residents traveling from those countries will be granted entry, even if they test positive for the coronavirus virus.  Fourteen University of Michigan students are in quarantine after being diagnosed with the British variant of the virus.  One of the students is reported to have traveled to Britain over the winter break. Health officials in South Carolina say they have detected two cases of the South African COVID-19 variant, the first cases in the United States.Johnson & Johnson One-dose Vaccine 66% Successful US pharmaceutical maker calls vaccine 85% effective in preventing serious illness U.S. pharmaceutical and medical device maker Johnson & Johnson says after a global trial, the COVID-19 vaccine it has developed is 66% effective in preventing infection.The one-dose vaccine, which was developed by the company’s Belgian subsidiary, Janssen, appears to be 85% effective in preventing serious illness, even against the South African variant.Of the 44,000 people who participated in the trial in the U.S., South Africa and Brazil, no one who was given the vaccine died, the company said.The U.S. has agreed to buy 100 million doses of the vaccine with an option to buy 200 million more, according to the company.The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is the fourth vaccine approved to fight the pandemic.Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center said early Saturday that there are more than 102 million global COVID-19 cases.  The U.S. remains the location with the most cases at 25.9 million, followed by India with 10.7 million and Brazil with 9.1 million.

Putin Signs Extension of Last Russia-US Nuclear Arms Treaty

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday signed a bill extending the last remaining nuclear arms control treaty between Russia and the United States a week before the pact was set to expire.Both houses of the Russian parliament voted unanimously Wednesday to extend the New START treaty for five years. Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden had discussed the nuclear accord a day earlier, and the Kremlin said they agreed to complete the necessary extension procedures in the next few days.New START expires February 5. The pact’s extension doesn’t require congressional approval in the U.S., but Russian lawmakers had to ratify the move. Russian diplomats said the extension would be validated by exchanging diplomatic notes once all the procedures were completed.The treaty, signed in 2010 by President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, limits each country to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed missiles and bombers, and envisages sweeping on-site inspections to verify compliance.Biden indicated during the U.S. presidential campaign that he favored the preservation of New START, which was negotiated during his tenure as vice president under Obama.Trump administration’s demandsRussia had long proposed prolonging the pact without any conditions or changes, but the administration of former President Donald Trump waited until last year to start talks and made the extension contingent on a set of demands. The talks stalled, and months of bargaining failed to narrow differences.After both Moscow and Washington withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019, New START is the only remaining nuclear arms control deal between the two countries.Earlier this month, Russia announced that it would follow the U.S. in pulling out of the Open Skies Treaty, which allowed surveillance flights over military facilities to help build trust and transparency between Russia and the West.Arms control advocates hailed New START’s extension as a boost to global security and urged Russia and the U.S. to start negotiating follow-up agreements.Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, the country’s lead negotiator on New START, said earlier this week that Russia was ready to sit down for talks on prospective arms cuts that he indicated should also involve non-nuclear precision weapons with strategic range.Trump argued that the treaty put the U.S. at a disadvantage, and he initially insisted on adding China as a party to pact. Beijing bluntly rejected the idea. The Trump administration then proposed extending New START for one year and sought to expand it to include limits on battlefield nuclear weapons and other changes, and the talks stalled.  

EU Drug Regulator Approves AstraZeneca Vaccine for Emergency Use

European Union regulators on Friday approved the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, the third vaccine approved for use on the European continent.
Amid criticism the bloc is not moving fast enough to vaccinate its population, the European Medicines Agency’s (EMA) expert committee unanimously recommended the vaccine for adults, despite concerns of inadequate data proving its effectiveness for people over 55.
Addressing reporters from agency headquarters in Amsterdam, EMA chief Emer Cooke told reporters the agency had approved the drug for conditional or emergency use because clinical studies found the vaccine to be about 60% effective at fighting the coronavirus — lower than the two previously approved vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, which show efficacy in the 90% range.
Many EU health officials had been anticipating approval of the AstraZeneca vaccine because it is less expensive and does not require deep-freeze storage like the Pfizer-BioNTech drug.
Earlier Friday, German Health Minister Jens Spahn indicated the vaccine would be approved, but not recommended for patients older than 65, as the clinical studies lacked data regarding its efficacy for patients in that age range.  
But Emer said EMA’s experts determined, based on the immune results seen in patients between the ages of 18 and 55 years, older adults are expected get the same protection from the vaccine.
The AstraZeneca vaccine had already been approved for use in Britain and a number of other countries. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is still considering the drug company’s application for emergency use. 

Russia State Media Turns to Disinformation to Malign Protesters, Analysts Say

Russia’s state-controlled media has been turning to a disinformation playbook it has used before in a bid to discredit protesters agitating for the release from prison of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, say analysts.Navalny was detained on his return to Moscow for parole violations after recovering in Germany from a near-fatal poisoning. His arrest has triggered the largest anti-Kremlin protests seen in Russia since 2011, and Washington is being blamed for the demonstrations, with Kremlin officials and state media presenters alleging that Western powers, mainly the U.S., are behind the agitation.“Washington is becoming a convenient pretext for accusations, although in reality it has very little to do with what is happening,” Donald Jensen, director of the United States Institute of Peace, a research organization, told VOA’s Russian service. “This is a question for (Russian President Vladimir) Putin and the Russian people, and it is clear that a significant minority of Russians are unhappy.”FILE – Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks via video call, as Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov looks on, during a news conference in Moscow, Russia, Dec. 17, 2020.Nikolai Patrushev, head of Russia’s security council, has compared the Navalny protests to the popular Maidan uprising in Ukraine of 2013-2014, which he and other Kremlin officials also accused the West of fomenting.He told the state-owned weekly newspaper Argumenty i Fakti the West needs Navalny, “To destabilize the situation in Russia, for social upheavals, strikes and new Maidans.”“What this can lead to we see in the example of Ukraine, which in essence, has lost its independence,” he added. Maidan revoltDisinformation analysts also are drawing comparisons to the Maidan revolt — not as an example of Western intervention, but in terms of the Kremlin’s information management strategy launched to try to save Putin ally President Viktor Yanukovych from ouster.They say many of the same memes, tropes and conspiracy theories dissimulated during the Maidan revolt are being used now to try to shape a narrative discrediting pro-Navalny protesters.In 2013, when hundreds of thousands of pro-Europe protesters occupied Kyiv’s Maidan to demand Yanukovych’s resignation, Kremlin-controlled media portrayed the people behind the uprising as being opposed to traditional, socially conservative Russian values of family and religion.FILE – People attend a rally at Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, in central Kyiv, Dec. 8, 2013.Among the memes Russian disinformation channels broadcast were those conflating the agitation with homosexuality, warning of the risk that a homo-dictatorship would be established in Ukraine, according to analysts.“There’s a long tradition of pro-Kremlin propaganda using homophobic rhetoric to discredit pro-democracy activism,” said Zarine Kharazian, an analyst at the Digital Forensic Research Lab, part of the Atlantic Council, a U.S.-based research group. The lab studies disinformation campaigns.The protesters in the early days of the revolt were predominately young and their occupation of the Maidan, one of Kyiv’s central squares, was sparked by Yanukovych’s decision not to sign an association agreement with the European Union. Because the EU supports same-sex marriage, Russia’s state-controlled media’s “starting point was that the European Union was homosexual, and so the Ukrainian movement toward Europe must be, as well,” according to Yale academic Timothy Snyder.Writing in his book, “The Road to Unfreedom,” Snyder noted, “In November and December 2013, the Russia media covering the Maidan introduced the irrelevant theme of gay sex at every turn.” ‘Political pedophilia’As the anti-Kremlin protests erupted this week in Moscow, St. Petersburg and about 70 other towns across Russia, state-controlled media appeared again to color the political agitation with sexual politics, accusing protest leaders of “political pedophilia,” part of an official claim that most protesters were manipulated minors.Sociologists say the protesters came from a range of age groups, although some 25 percent were 18- to 25-year-olds. Nonetheless, Russian officials say Navalny and his supporters have been exploiting the vulnerability of children and the young, persuading them to demonstrate in the streets. “This is a serious operation,” alleged Valery Fadeyev, head of Putin’s human rights council.FILE – Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is seen on a screen via a video link during a court hearing to consider an appeal on his arrest outside Moscow, Russia, Jan. 28, 2021.TV presenter Dmitry Kiselyov, the head of Rossiya Segodnya, complained on his marquee show “News of the Week.” “There are people who are so low, they drag children into politics, like political pedophiles. Is this bad? It’s horrible.” Other presenters on Russian newscasts also tagged protesters as “political pedophiles.”Pedophilia, with or without the qualifier “political,” is a charged word in Russia, say disinformation analysts. They argue that the government has a long propaganda history of linking homosexuality with pedophilia. They say labeling the protesters as pedophiles has to be understood within a larger state project of defining Russia’s identity in terms of traditional values, delineating Russia from a Western world often portrayed by the Kremlin as dissolute and decadent.“I do think it’s an attempt to paint opposition protests as ‘Western’ and fundamentally at odds with ‘traditional Russian values,’” said Kharazian. “The equating of homosexuality and pedophilia is based on common homophobic tropes of homosexuality as ‘unnatural’ or in some way ‘perverted.’ And beyond Maidan, these homophobic narratives have also been applied to protests in Armenia, Venezuela, Georgia and elsewhere.“It is hard to say if this tactic will work for a wide swathe of Russians, but for those already receptive to anti-Western propaganda, it certainly is potent,” she said.Putin avoided mentioning his foe Navalny by name in a midweek speech to the World Economic Forum. But he warned against the “destruction” of traditional values. “The social and values crisis is already having negative demographic consequences, from which mankind is at risk of losing entire civilizational and cultural continents.”FILE – Law enforcement officers clash with participants during a rally in support of jailed Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny in Moscow, Russia, Jan. 23, 2021.Putin himself has defended Russia’s anti-gay laws in the past by equating gays with pedophiles, saying Russia needs to “cleanse” itself of homosexuality.In an interview in 2014 with ABC TV, on the eve of the Sochi Olympics, he suggested that gays are more likely to abuse children. And in September 2013, Putin talked about the excesses of Western political correctness, which he said had “reached the point where there are serious discussions on the registration of parties that have propaganda of pedophilia as their objective.”Jakub Kalensky, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a colleague of Kharazian, says the Kremlin-controlled media’s homophobic tropes are “playing into the prejudices of some of the more conservative Russians. It’s not just about influencing the audience, but also using the audience’s prejudices to discredit the protests,” he said. 

Britain Upholding ‘Freedom and Autonomy’ With New HK Visas

Britain’s government vowed Friday to stand by the people of its former colony, Hong Kong, against a Chinese crackdown as it prepared to launch a new visa scheme potentially benefiting millions. Starting Sunday, holders of British National (Overseas) status — a legacy of British rule over Hong Kong up to 1997 — will be able to apply to live and work in Britain for up to five years, and eventually seek citizenship. Before the change, BN(O) passport holders have had only limited rights to visit Britain for up to six months and not to work or settle. Britain says it is acting in response to the National Security Law imposed by China last year, which has devastated Hong Kong’s democracy movement and shredded freedoms meant to last 50 years under the 1997 handover accord. FILE – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson”I am immensely proud that we have brought in this new route for Hong Kong BN(O)s to live, work and make their home in our country,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a statement. “In doing so, we have honored our profound ties of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong, and we have stood up for freedom and autonomy — values both the U.K. and Hong Kong hold dear.” Any Hong Kong resident born before 1997 is eligible for BN(O) status. The new visa path opens up entry to the United Kingdom to an estimated 2.9 million adults in Hong Kong and another 2.3 million of their dependents.  In practice, London projects that up to 322,400 of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million population will take up the visa over five years, benefiting the British economy by up to $4 billion. FILE – Protesters against the new national security law gesture with five fingers, signifying the “Five demands – not one less” on the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China from Britain in Hong Kong, July. 1, 2020.The new pathway will not be cheap. A five-year visa will cost a relatively moderate $343 per person. But a mandatory surcharge to access Britain’s state-run health service will run to $4,280 per adult, and $3,224 for those under 18. Shorter, cheaper visas for 30 months will also be available. Security law “We have been clear we won’t look the other way when it comes to Hong Kong. We will live up to our historic responsibility to its people,” Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said. FILE – Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab”China’s imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong constitutes a clear and serious breach of the [pre-handover] Sino-British Joint Declaration contrary to international law,” he added. The security law was imposed on Hong Kong last June in response to 2019 protests, targeting acts Beijing deems to be secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces. Mass arrests of pro-democracy figures have followed. Some have fled Hong Kong for the West, including to Britain.  Between July and this month, about 7,000 people with BN(O) status and their dependents have already been given exceptional leave to live in Britain. China, furious at Britain’s new visa pathway, has in turn accused London of flouting the handover agreement and demanded Western countries stay out of Hong Kong’s affairs. 

Turkish Opposition Challenge Erdogan Over Uighur Silence

The fate of tens of thousands of Uighur refugees in Turkey faced with possible deportation to China is threatening to become an embarrassing political debacle for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has long positioned himself as an avowed defender of Muslim rights globally.FILE – Leader of the Good Party Meral Aksener gestures as she speaks during the party’s 4th Extraordinary Meeting in Ankara, Turkey, on Aug. 3, 2019.”They tell you that they’re the biggest [defenders of] Muslims, but they fail to hear the cries of our brothers and sisters who are tortured for saying they’re Muslim Turks,” said Meral Aksener of Turkey’s center-right Good Party in a speech Wednesday to her parliamentary deputies bashing Erdogan’s ruling AKP lawmakers.A simulcast of the speech broadcast by Turkish state television was cut the moment Aksener invited a Uighur refugee, Nursiman Abdurasid, to speak. The state broadcaster gave no explanation for the incident, but it went viral across social media labeled with the hashtag “AKPsilenceUigh.”Social media platforms broadcast the remainder of Abdurasid’s speech, in which she talked about how her siblings and parents were placed in Chinese detention camps and called on the Muslim world and humanity to help her community.But Erdogan, who regularly lambastes the West for mistreatment of Muslims and condemns the rising specter of Islamophobia, has refrained from publicly criticizing China’s treatment of its Uighur minority.A protester from the Uighur community living in Turkey, participates in a protest in Istanbul, Oct. 1, 2020, against what they allege is oppression by the Chinese government to Muslim Uighurs in far-western Xinjiang province.Largest Uighur diasporaSince opening its door to the predominantly Muslim ethnic minority escaping political persecution in China, Turkey is now home to the world’s largest Uighur diaspora community.Experts have warned that the rights of an estimated 50,000 Uighurs who’ve found sanctuary in Turkey, where they share a common linguistic, cultural and religious heritage, are threatened by a recent coronavirus vaccine agreement between Ankara and Beijing.In late December, rights advocates voiced alarm over the long-delayed arrival of COVID vaccines from China-based Sinovac, which came just days after Beijing’s abrupt decision to ratify a 2017 extradition deal with Ankara.Critics say Beijing agreed to ship the vaccines only after moving to formalize the extradition deal and pressuring Ankara to do the same — an allegation Ankara staunchly rejects.A protester from the Uighur community living in Turkey, holds an anti-China placard during a protest in Istanbul, Oct. 1, 2020.Economic ties”Erdogan champions the Muslim cause everywhere unless it disrupts Turkey’s economic or geopolitical interests,” said international relations teacher Soli Ozel of Istanbul’s Kadir Has University. “We see [it] with Turkey’s deafening silence over the abysmal treatment of the Uighur Muslims in China.”In 2009, Erdogan accused China of “genocide” against the Uighurs, provoking Beijing’s fury. But in recent years, Turkish-Chinese relations have markedly improved, especially in the fields of trade and technology. China is rumored to be helping to prop up the increasingly weak Turkish economy and currency.China is also Turkey’s leading supplier of COVID-19 vaccines. A further 6.5 million Chinese doses were delivered with much fanfare across Turkish state media on Monday.The Turkish parliament is expected to consider ratifying its own an extradition treaty with China, though no date has been set.Uighur community on edge”If this extradition agreement is approved in the parliament, we can foresee that this will involve the violation of the right to life for many or all of our clients,” warned lawyer Ibrahim Ergin of the Istanbul-based International Refugee Rights Association.In Ergin’s office, there are dozens of files of cases of Uighurs fighting Chinese extradition efforts. Ergin says the new extradition agreement removes most of the legal obstacles to China seeking the return of Uighurs.”In the case of my client Abdulkadir Yapcan, five witnesses that claimed my client is a terrorist in the evidence offered by China were executed,” said Ergin. “They have executed even the witnesses who accused my client.”FILE – Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu attends a press conference in Ankara, Turkey, Aug. 25, 2020.Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, however, repeatedly has vowed that no Uighurs would be extradited under a new China treaty.Mayor of Istanbul metropolitan municipality Ekrem Imamoglu speaks during an interview to AFP on April 2, 2020 in Istanbul.On Wednesday, Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, a man widely viewed as Erdogan’s biggest potential political challenger, visited protesting Uighurs outside the Chinese Consulate in a blaze of publicity.”As a human being, I will do everything in my power regarding this matter,” he tweeted.

Belarus Media Crackdown Intensifies, Rights Groups Say

The Belarusian government is escalating its clampdown on the media that began after Alexander Lukashenko won a disputed presidential election in August, according to two news freedom rights groups.The Belarus Journalist Association (BAJ) and Reporters Without Borders said Thursday they referred to the United Nations 15 cases of journalists who were arbitrarily arrested after Lukashenko’s victory, which his political opponents and many Western countries have deemed questionable.The groups demanded an end to media censorship, website blockages, internet blackouts and cancellations of journalists’ accreditation credentials.Women wearing carnival masks march down the streets under umbrellas with the colors of the former white-red-white flag of Belarus to protest against the Belarus presidential election results in Minsk, on Jan. 26, 2021.They said Lukashenko’s government has taken a more threatening turn since the beginning of 2021, with phony criminal charges being placed against journalists that could lead to several years in prison.In addition to allegations of raiding journalists’ homes, the rights groups accused the Belarusian government of threatening reporters over their coverage of the election and the mass anti-government protests that began before the election, and which have since gained momentum.“The Belarusian authorities are pursuing a new tactic in which they permanently lock up journalists to prevent them from covering the protests, which have continued for more than five months despite the crackdown,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.  Ten journalists are currently in Belarusian jails, six of whom are subject to criminal investigations, a situation the BAJ and RSF considered serious enough to prompt them to refer 15 cases of arbitrary arrests to the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression.Among those jailed during the protests was a popular blogger, Ihar Losik, who is facing an eight-year prison term and recently ended a six-week hunger strike. Belarus accuses him of helping organize riots.FILE – Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya speaks during a news conference in Brussels, Belgium, Sept. 21, 2020.Also under arrest are four members of the Belarus Press Club accused of large-scale tax fraud, a claim rejected by rights groups that call the charges retaliatory, and three journalists facing charges of organizing mass protests and disclosing information about a protester that Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who lost the disputed election to Lukashenko, said was “killed by the regime’s cronies.”According to the BAJ, independent journalists were detained in Belarus more than 470 times last year, 50 media websites were blocked, and 15 journalists currently are facing criminal charges.Tsikhanouskaya said earlier this month at an informal meeting of the U.N. Security Council that unrest in Belarus “has only worsened” since September and that Lukashenko’s government continues to attack media outlets in the former Soviet country of 9.5 million people.Tsikhanouskaya said she and her supporters have refused to recognize Lukashenko’s victory, contending the election results were riddled with fraud.Lukashenko has been reelected as president of Belarus every five years since 1994.The former Soviet Republic was ranked 153 out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index.