Month: March 2020

Royal no more: Harry and Meghan start uncertain new chapter

LONDON — Prince Harry and his wife Meghan officially make the transition Tuesday from senior members of Britain’s royal family to — well, it’s unclear. International celebrities, charity patrons, global influencers?

The royal schism that the couple triggered in January by announcing that they would step down from official duties, give up public funding, seek financial independence and swap the U.K. for North America becomes official on March 31.

The move has been made more complicated and poignant by the global coronavirus pandemic, which finds the couple and their 10-month-old son Archie in California, far from Harry’s father Prince Charles — who is recovering after testing positive for COVID-19 — and Harry’s 93-year-old grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II.

“As we can all feel, the world at this moment seems extraordinarily fragile,” the couple said in a final post Monday on their now-mothballed SussexRoyal Instagram account.

“What’s most important right now is the health and well-being of everyone across the globe and finding solutions for the many issues that have presented themselves as a result of this pandemic,” they added. “As we all find the part we are to play in this global shift and changing of habits, we are focusing this new chapter to understand how we can best contribute.”

It is less than two years since ex-soldier Harry, who is sixth in line to the British throne, married American actress Meghan Markle at Windsor Castle in a lavish ceremony watched by millions around the world.

Soon the couple began to bristle at intense scrutiny by the British media — which they said tipped into harassment. They decided to break free, in what Harry called a “leap of faith” as he sought a more peaceful life, without the journalists who have filmed, photographed and written about him since the day he was born.

Harry has long had an uncomfortable relationship with the media, which he blames for the death of his mother, Princess Diana. She died in a car crash in Paris in 1997 while being pursued by paparazzi.

Harry’s unhappiness increased after he began dating Markle, then the star of TV legal drama “Suits.” In 2016 he accused the media of harassing his then-girlfriend, and criticized “racial undertones” in some coverage of the biracial Markle.

It’s clear that Meghan’s upbeat Californian style — embodied in the glossy images and life-affirming messages of the couple’s Instagram account — rankled with sections of Britain’s tabloid press, which is both insatiable for royal content and fiercely judgmental of the family members.

The couple — who are keeping their titles, Duke and Duchess of Sussex, but will no longer be called Their Royal Highnesses — had hoped to keep using the Sussex Royal brand in their new life. But last month they announced they wouldn’t seek to trademark the term because of U.K. rules governing use of the word “royal.”

The couple plans to launch a non-profit organization for their charitable activities in areas including youth empowerment, mental health, conservation, gender equality and education. Harry will also continue to oversee the Invictus Games, the Olympics-style competition he founded for wounded troops.

Meghan has been announced as the narrator of “Elephant,” a Disney nature documentary.

But for now, the couple’s office said they want the world to focus “on the global response to COVID-19.”

“The Duke and Duchess of Sussex will spend the next few months focusing on their family and continuing to do what they can, safely and privately, to support and work with their pre-existing charitable commitments while developing their future non-profit organisation,” the couple’s office said in a statement.

The newly independent Harry and Meghan will also need to earn money to help pay for a multi-million dollar security bill.

As senior royals, they have had bodyguards funded by British taxpayers. Since late last year, Harry and Meghan have since been based on Canada’s Vancouver Island, where security was provided by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Canadian authorities warned last month that would end once the couple ceased to be working royals.

The duke and duchess recently moved to the Los Angeles area, where Meghan grew up and where her mother still lives. The news led President Donald Trump to tweet on Sunday: “the U.S. will not pay for their security protection. They must pay!”

Harry and Meghan’s office said they had “no plans to ask the U.S. government for security resources. Privately funded security arrangements have been made.”

Some royal historians warned that Harry and Meghan could struggle to find a fulfilling role. Comparisons have been drawn to King Edward VIII, who abdicated in 1936 to marry divorced American Wallis Simpson. The couple lived the rest of their lives in luxurious but lonely self-imposed exile from Britain.

Royal historian Penny Junor said U.K.-based royals were helping boost the nation’s morale during the coronavirus pandemic. The queen has issued a message to the nation, while Harry’s brother Prince William and his children joined in a public round of applause for health care workers.

“All of this is absolutely what the family is about, and those members of the royal family that are on a limb now are pretty irrelevant,” Junor said.

Jill Lawless, The Associated Press


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By The Wall of Law March 31, 2020 Off

How a chance reunion led to Nipsey Hussle’s death

LOS ANGELES — Ermias Asghedom and Eric Holder both grew up in the same Los Angeles neighbourhood, were both part of the gang known as the Rollin’ 60s, and were both aspiring rappers. Asghedom, who went by the name Nipsey Hussle, would go on to become a hip-hop star, neighbourhood legend and local hero. Holder’s music never caught on. He went by the name Fly Mac, but everyone in his neighbourhood knew him by his nickname, a profane moniker for excrement. On March 31, 2019, after Hussle calmly told Holder he was gaining a reputation as a “snitch,” the 29-year-old Holder shot and killed the 33-year-old Hussle, according to police, prosecutors and witnesses. Holder has pleaded not guilty.

On the first anniversary of his death, here is a chronological look at the events that led up to Hussle’s killing and events that followed, as revealed in court documents, other public records and events.

___

“OOH, THERE GOES NIPSEY HUSSLE”

Dec. 7, 2018

Hussle is nominated for a Grammy for best rap album for his major label debut, fittingly called “Victory Lap,” a mainstream coronation for a man who had been an underground sensation in the Los Angeles rap scene for a decade. He has less than four months to live.

March 31, 2019

1:30 p.m. — Holder calls a woman he has known for about a month to see if she wants to get together and get something to eat. She works as a home health caregiver and as a driver for a ride-hailing service, meeting Holder when he was a paying passenger. Authorities have not revealed her name. She picks up Holder in her white Chevrolet Cruze and they meander slowly in her car toward South Los Angeles.

2:51 p.m. — Hussle arrives unannounced at his clothing store, The Marathon, as he did three or four days a week, often after dropping off his 2-year-old son or his 10-year-old daughter. The store at the intersection of Crenshaw and Slauson is the centre of neighbourhood life. It is also the centre of Hussle’s plan to remake and revive the area where he grew up in an attempt to break the cycle of gang life that lured him in when he was younger. Hussle had recently bought the entire shopping centre, where he once sold his mix CDs from the trunk of his car, planning to turn it into a mixed-use residential and commercial centre. He spends nearly 30 minutes in the lot signing autographs, talking to old friends, taking selfies with fans, as he often did. He never makes it inside the store.

3:04 p.m. — Holder and the woman, driving mostly aimlessly looking for something to eat, pull into the shopping plaza at Crenshaw and Slauson at Holder’s behest. There is no evidence he intends to go there or knows Hussle will be there. As the woman is parking, she spots the rapper. “I was like, ‘Ooh, there goes Nipsey Hussle, he look fine,” she would later remember saying. “I want to take a picture.’” She doesn’t know Holder knows Hussle. Holder walks into a burger place in the complex, orders chili cheese fries, and steps outside to wait. Hussle spots Holder. “Is that Shi(asterisk)(asterisk)y?” he asks a friend.

___

“YOU NEED TO ADDRESS IT”

3:07 p.m. — Kerry Lathan, 56, and his nephew Shermi Villanueva arrive in the parking lot headed to The Marathon. Villanueva had told Lathan he needed a lot more new clothes since he had been wearing the same things in the months since he was released on parole from prison for a murder conviction. Hussle had sent Lathan a care package after his release, as he did for many ex-convicts from his neighbourhood as they re-entered the outside world. Lathan had met Hussle once before and is pleased to see him.

3:09 p.m. — Holder, who is shirtless, showing the large tattoo that reads “SIXTIES” across his stomach, and the woman walk over to Hussle. The rapper tells Holder that word on the street is he has been “snitching,” according to the grand jury testimony of Hussle’s friend and employee Herman Douglas, who is standing next to him. Douglas hears Hussle tell Holder there are rumours he has been talking to authorities about the Rollin’ 60s gang, and that police documents or court records show it. “You need to address it,” Hussle says, according to Douglas. “You know, basically telling the guy you need to be careful, you know, because people got some paperwork on you,” Douglas testified, adding that Hussle was “more or less trying to look out for the dude.” Holder responds that those talking about him have only been “hating on me.” Holder asks if Nipsey or anyone around him had heard his new song, and all say no. The talk lasts about four minutes. All who hear it say no voices were raised, and no one seems heated, antagonistic or angry.

3:12 p.m. — Holder’s companion walks up and takes a picture with the rapper, who is very friendly. She immediately posts it on Facebook with the caption, “Look at me, I’m with Nipsey Hussle.” Holder goes back to the restaurant to pick up his order, the two pull out of the shopping centre in her car, and Holder tells her to pull into an adjacent parking lot so he can eat. After taking a few bites of his fries, he stands up, takes out a 9 mm pistol, and loads it, she said. She later said she had often seen him with guns before, but had never seen him load one, according to court documents. Holder gets out of the car and tells her to wait. He heads back to the shopping centre.

3:19 p.m. — Holder walks up to Hussle and says “You’re through,” according to one witness, then opens fire with the pistol and a revolver, shooting Hussle at least 10 times. One shot hits his head. Another lodges in his lung. Another severs his spine, the LA County coroner would find. “You got me,” a witness hears Hussle say as he falls to the ground. Holder kicks Hussle twice in the head and flees. Lathan and Villanueva, who had been standing next to Hussle, are both shot, but neither were critically injured.

3:20 p.m. — Holder returns to the car. “I asked him, ‘what’s going on? What’s going on?” the woman later said. “He’s like, ‘Drive, drive, before I slap you.’” It’s the first time he’s ever been harsh with her. The woman had heard shots fired, but drives away with no understanding of what happened, she later said. “I just felt like I know there was a shooting going on,” she said. “I didn’t know if he was the shooter. I didn’t know if he was getting shot at.”

3:22 p.m. — Hussle’s brother, Samiel Asghedom, arrives. Hussle is still breathing, and Samiel, under instructions from a 911 operator gives him CPR. “He was still breathing, you know, like biting his tongue a little bit, then he — he was just trying to fight it, trying to gain consciousness, and he was going out,” Douglas later testified. “And he just kept — he just kept fighting.” An ambulance arrives and takes Hussle away. It is not until he is lifted on to a stretcher that those around him realize he has been shot in the head.

3:55 p.m — Hussle is declared dead at a hospital.

“I DIDN’T KNOW THIS BOY WAS GONNA DO THIS”

About 4 p.m. — The woman drops Holder off at his cousin’s house and returns to her mother’s home, where she lives. She soon sees rumours on social media that Hussle has been shot and killed. People are amazed she had taken a selfie with him moments before, “My heart had dropped,” she said.

About 8 p.m. — Holder calls the woman and asks her to pick him up. She brings him to her mother’s house to spend the night. She later struggles to explain why she lets him come over, and why she doesn’t bring up Hussle’s killing. “I didn’t want him to try to threaten me again or say anything to me about it,” she said.

April 1, 2019

About 8 a.m. — Holder tells the woman he didn’t want to go home because it was “dirty” and she helps him get a room at a nearby Motel 6.

8 p.m. — An impromptu memorial for Hussle that began the day before peaks with a crowd of hundreds at The Marathon store parking lot, lighting candles, playing Hussle’s music, singing and dancing. Hussle’s killing had come at a time of an uptick in violence in the neighbourhood, and fear of a retaliatory shooting was heavy in the air when the crowd at one point hears gunfire and flees in a stampede that left 19 people injured. Two women had minor injuries from gunshots.

10:30 p.m. — After a long day of silence on the possibility of arrests or motive in the killing, Los Angeles police release the name and description of Holder, calling him a suspect, and giving a description and license plate number of the woman’s Chevy Cruze.

11 p.m. — The woman sees the description of her car on the evening news. “Oh my God,” she tells her mother. “My car is on here and everything, and I didn’t do anything. I didn’t know this boy was gonna do this.”

April 2, 2020

7 a.m. — The woman and her mother go to the local police station to turn herself in. The front desk officer says “don’t worry about it” and “don’t listen to the news,” court transcripts show. The LAPD later opened an internal investigation into why the woman was turned away at such a crucial time in the investigation and a detective in grand jury testimony said that the officer had missed a morning briefing. The woman leaves the station, returning later to speak to detectives after her mother called police again. She speaks to detectives for five hours. Police search her house, Holder’s house, and a relative’s house. They would not find the guns used in the shooting.

About 12:05 p.m. — A 911 call reports a man resembling Holder walking in the city of Bellflower, 17 miles southwest of the crime scene. He is arrested without incident.

April 4, 2020

Holder is charged with Hussle’s murder, and the attempted murder of Lathan and Villanueva. In his initial court appearance he is represented by Christopher Darden, made famous in his role as a prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson trial. Darden drops off the case days later and a public defender takes over.

___

“HE LEFT HIS HEART AND SOUL ON CRENSHAW AND SLAUSON”

April 11, 2020

10 a.m. — Nearly 20,000 people, with thousands more outside, mourn Hussle at a public memorial at Staples Center in Los Angeles. A statement is read from Barack Obama saying Hussle left “a legacy worth celebrating.” The speakers include Hussle’s partner and the mother of his child, actress Lauren London, and Samiel Asghedom, who explains what the shopping centre had meant to his little brother. “A lot of people thought coming up when he first got signed, he was gonna get some money and leave,” he says through tears. “They had no clue what he really was gonna do. I want everybody to know man, Nip put his heart and soul on Crenshaw and Slauson.”

1:30 p.m. — Hussle’s body is taken on a 25-mile funeral procession that lasts until dusk, the streets packed with thousands as it rolls through his former neighbourhood.

April 12, 2019

Hussle is buried in a private family ceremony. The Los Angeles City Council votes to name the intersection of Crenshaw and Slauson “Nipsey Hussle Square.”

May 9, 2019

A grand jury indicts Holder on one count of murder and two counts of attempted murder. The woman who drove him is granted immunity and becomes the key witness for the prosecution. Known in court and transcripts only as “Witness #1,” her name is kept secret because prosecutors say she has received death threats. Holder has pleaded not guilty and is now in jail awaiting trial. His lawyer has not given any indication of what his defence will be. His most recent hearing, to set a trial date, was postponed because of a court shutdown over coronavirus.

“THE MARATHON CONTINUES”

Jan. 26, 2020

Ten months after his death, and on the same day another local hero, Kobe Bryant, is killed, Hussle wins two posthumous Grammys at Staples Center, best rap performance for his song “Racks in the Middle,” and best rap/sung performance for “Higher,” a collaboration with DJ Khaled. The show includes a tribute performance to him by Khaled, Kirk Franklin, John Legend, Meek Mill Roddy Ricch and YG. As the performance ends, Khaled shouts a phrase that Hussle used in life that became a rallying cry for his legacy after his death: “The marathon continues!”

___

This story has been corrected to show that it was Hussle’s brother who appeared by his side minutes after his death.

___

Follow AP Entertainment Writer Andrew Dalton on Twitter: https://twitter.com/andyjamesdalton.

Andrew Dalton, The Associated Press






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By The Wall of Law March 31, 2020 Off

In packed, dirty cells, political prisoners fear virus

CAIRO — Reza Khandan got the word from friends jailed in Iran’s most feared prison, Evin. A prisoner and a guard in their cell block had been removed because they were suspected of having coronavirus, and two guards in the women’s ward had shown symptoms.

It was frightening news. Khandan’s wife, Nasrin Sotoudeh, one of Iran’s most prominent human rights lawyers, is imprisoned in that ward in close quarters with 40 other women. Only days earlier, the 56-year-old Sotoudeh — known for defending activists, opposition politicians and women prosecuted for removing their headscarves — held a five-day hunger strike demanding prisoners be released to protect them from the virus.

“The virus has entered the jail, but we don’t know the extent of it,” Khandan, who had until recently been imprisoned in Evin as well, told The Associated Press by phone from Tehran.

“It will be impossible to control,” Khandan warned.

Iran, where thousands have been infected and hundreds died, has not confirmed any coronavirus cases in its prisons. But Khandan’s is one of several reports of cases that have leaked from inside Evin and elsewhere.

Tens of thousands of political prisoners are jailed in Iran, Syria and other countries around the Middle East, punished for anything from advocating for greater rights to holding protests or simply criticizing autocratic leaders on Facebook or YouTube.

Alarm is growing that they and other prisoners are in danger: If one guard, visitor or new inmate introduces the infection, the coronavirus could race rampant through a captive population unable to protect itself.

Prisons across the region are notorious for overcrowding, with inmates packed sometimes by the dozens in each filthy cell. Torture, poor nutrition and other abuses leave prisoners weaker and more vulnerable.

The vast majority of those infected by the new coronavirus recover, but for many, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

“The consequences of neglecting (prisoners) are potentially catastrophic,” warned the U.N. high commissioner on human rights, Michelle Bachelet.

The International Committee of the Red Cross is working with authorities in several places around the Middle East to boost prevention measures in detention facilities, said Fabrizio Carboni, the ICRC’s Near and Middle East regional director.

It has requested permission from Syria to do the same in its facilities, he said.

Syria is the darkest black hole. In the long civil war, tens of thousands of activists, protesters and others have been swallowed up with hardly a trace into prisons run by the government of President Bashar Assad.

Conditions inside are perhaps the most terrifying across the region. Rights groups and former detainees describe Syria’s prisons as slaughterhouses where detainees undergo torture, including beatings, electric shocks, mutilations and rapes.

As many as 50 people are locked in each 4-by-6-meter cell for weeks, month and years — sleeping on top of each other, almost never allowed to bathe. Amnesty International estimated 17,723 people were killed in custody across Syria between 2011 and 2015, with the actual number likely higher. Thousands more certainly died since.

Syria has confirmed nine cases of coronavirus and one death, none of them in prisons.

Dr. Amani Ballour, who previously ran a hospital in a rebel-held enclave in Syria, said she doubted the outside world would find out if coronavirus were spreading behind prison walls.

“If there is (an outbreak), they won’t declare it because they’re killing detainees anyway — or trying to,” said Ballour who has searched in vain for her brother and brother-in-law in Syrian prisons for nine years. “I don’t imagine anyone surviving the regime prisons.”

The U.S. State Department has warned that an outbreak in Syria’s prisons would be devastating and demanded Damascus free all arbitrarily detained civilians — including Americans.

One of those Americans is Majd Kamalmaz, who vanished a day after entering Syria in February 2017 to visit family for first time in six years. The 62-year-old clinical psychologist from Virginia was not involved in politics and was engaged in international humanitarian work.

“To this day we don’t know why they detained him,” his daughter Maryam said, speaking from her home outside Dallas, Texas, where she and her family have been isolating themselves amid the pandemic.

She fears her father is deeply vulnerable. He is diabetic and had a stroke and a heart attack.

“We know that the Syrian regime doesn’t care much about human life and the idea of them saying oh yes he might have passed with the coronavirus and not really caring much is very worrisome to us,” she said.

In Iran, authorities say they have temporarily freed some 100,000 inmates to ease overcrowding — around half the prison population — a sign of their alarm amid the biggest coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East.

Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American businessman who was not among those released, has reported “multiple cases (of the virus) on his hallway” in Evin Prison, his Washington-based lawyer, Jared Genser, has said.

In Egypt, families are desperate for information on loved ones in prisons that rights groups say are plagued by overcrowding, abuses and poor hygiene. Tens of thousands have been jailed in crackdowns against government opponents since 2013.

Security forces briefly detained four women — including the mother, sister and aunt of prominent activist Alaa Abdel Fattah — for staging a protest calling for his and other prisoners’ release for fear of coronavirus. Authorities released only a handful of detainees recently.

Iyad Dawoud said he was deeply worried over his brother, Khaled Dawoud, a prominent journalist and former opposition leader detained in September and held at Cairo’s Torah Prison.

“Torah complex has thousands of prisoners,” Iyad Dawoud said. “God forbid, one infected person among thousands means the end.”

___

El Deeb reported from Beirut. Associated Press correspondents Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank; Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem; Zarar Khan in Islamabad and Rahim Faiez in Kabul contributed to this report

Maggie Michael, Sarah El Deeb And Lee Keath, The Associated Press

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By The Wall of Law March 31, 2020 Off

Crammed in filthy cells, political prisoners fear infection

CAIRO — Reza Khandan got the word from friends locked away in Iran’s most feared prison, Evin. A prisoner and a guard in their cell block had been removed because they were suspected of having coronavirus, and two guards in the women’s ward had shown symptoms.

It was frightening news. Khandan’s wife, Nasrin Sotoudeh, one of Iran’s most prominent human rights lawyers, is imprisoned in that ward in close quarters with 20 other women. Only days earlier, the 56-year-old Sotoudeh — known for defending activists, opposition politicians and women prosecuted for removing their headscarves — had held a five-day hunger strike demanding prisoners be released to protect them from the virus.

“The virus has entered the jail, but we don’t know the extent of it,” Khandan, who had until recently been imprisoned in Evin as well, told The Associated Press by phone from Tehran.

“It will be impossible to control,” Khandan warned.

Tens of thousands of political prisoners are jailed in Iran, Syria and other countries around the Middle East, punished for anything from advocating for democracy and promoting women’s or workers’ rights to holding Islamist views, protesting or simply criticizing autocratic leaders on Facebook or YouTube.

Alarm is growing over the danger the coronavirus pandemic poses to prisoners: if one guard, visitor or new inmate introduces the infection, the virus could race rampant through a captive population unable to protect itself.

Conditions are prime for the disease to spread rapidly. Inmates are often packed by the dozens into dirty cells with no access to hygiene or medical care. Torture, poor nutrition and other abuses leave prisoners weaker and more vulnerable.

So far, Iran, which faces the Mideast’s biggest outbreak with thousands infected and hundreds dead, has not confirmed any coronavirus cases in its prisons. But Khandan’s is one of several reports of cases that have emerged from Iranian facilities. Egypt and Syria, which have large numbers of political detainees, also have not reported any cases within prisons.

The concern over prisons is worldwide. Multiple countries — including Iran — have released some inmates to reduce crowding. Others say they are sterilizing cells, halting family visits or increasing monitoring of guards and staff. Riots have broken out in prisons in several countries among inmates fearful not enough is being done.

In authoritarian nations, ensuring protections for detainees is even more difficult. Activists, rights organizations and aid groups have grown bolder in pressing governments in the area to take action. Amnesty International called on Iran to free more prisoners, particularly rights defenders and peaceful protesters.

“They should not be in detention in the first place,” it said.

Egypt last week briefly detained four women — including three relatives of a prominent jailed activist — who called for prisoner releases. Mohsen Bahnasi, an Egyptian lawyer who also called for prisoner releases, was arrested from his home, though it was not clear why, according to the Arab Network for Human Rights Information.

The International Committee of the Red Cross — one of the few organizations that sometimes gets access to prisons in the region — is stepping up efforts to help.

“We must act now to try to prevent it from entering places of detention. Trying to contain it after the fact will be almost impossible,” said Fabrizio Carboni, the ICRC’s Near and Middle East regional director.

He said the ICRC has already begun distributing soap, disinfectant and protective equipment at prisons in several places in the Mideast. It has requested permission from Syria to do the same in its facilities and is hopeful it will get access, he said.

Syria is the darkest black hole in the region. In the long civil war, tens of thousands of activists, protesters and others have been swallowed with hardly a trace into prisons run by President Bashar Assad’s government.

Syria has confirmed nine cases of coronavirus and one death, none of them in its prisons.

If coronavirus were spreading within prison walls, it’s doubtful the outside world would find out, said Dr. Amani Ballour, who previously ran a hospital in a rebel-held enclave near the Syrian capital, Damascus.

“The regime doesn’t care,” she said. “If there is (an outbreak), they won’t declare it because they’re killing detainees anyway — or trying to.” Ballour has searched in vain for her brother and brother-in-law in Syrian prisons for nine years. “I don’t imagine anyone surviving the regime prisons,” she said.

Conditions inside are perhaps the most terrifying in the region. Rights groups and former detainees describe Syria’s detention facilities as slaughterhouses where detainees undergo constant torture, including beatings, burnings, electric shocks, mutilations and rapes. Authorities almost never confirm arrests, and detainees are kept incommunicado out of the regular prison system.

As many as 50 people are locked in a 4-by-6-meter cell for weeks, month and years — sleeping on top of each other, almost never allowed to bathe, given meagre and rotten food and dirty water. Amnesty International estimated 17,723 people were killed in custody across Syria between 2011 and 2015, with the actual number likely higher. There’s no reason to believe conditions have changed since, said Amnesty’s Lynn Maalouf.

There is a “deliberate policy of letting people die of illness,” said Mohammad al-Abdallah, head of the Washington-based Syria Justice and Accountability Center. The overcrowded, dirty cells are “exactly the formula a disease like corona needs to grow,” he said.

The U.S. State Department last week warned that an outbreak in the Syria’s prison would “have devastating impact” and demanded Damascus free all arbitrarily detained civilians — including Americans.

Among the detained Americans is Majd Kamalmaz, who vanished a day after entering Syria in February 2017 to visit family for the first time in six years. A 62-year-old clinical psychologist from Virginia, he was not involved in politics and was engaged in international humanitarian work.

“To this day we don’t know why they detained him,” his daughter Maryam said.

At her home outside Dallas, Texas, Maryam’s family are taking all precautions against the pandemic: she and her children haven’t left the house for days and her husband goes out only to get groceries. She worries about her mother, alone in an apartment nearby. Majd’s disappearance “truly affected her health and she gets sick very easily now,” Maryam said.

“We are very, very concerned” that her father could contract coronavirus, she said. He is diabetic and had a stroke and a heart attack.

In January, a contact in Syria told the family that Kamalmaz had been moved from his prison, but they have no idea why or where to. He may have been put under closer observation amid pressure by American and European officials for his release.

“We know that the Syrian regime doesn’t care much about human life and the idea of them saying oh yes he might have passed with the coronavirus and not really caring much is very worrisome to us,” Maryam said.

In Iran, authorities say they have temporarily freed some 100,000 inmates — around half the prison population, in a sign of their alarm at the outbreak.

But hundreds of prisoners of conscience and other dissidents remain imprisoned, Amnesty said. It said there have been multiple reports of coronavirus cases within Iran’s prisons, including two deaths, though the government has not confirmed any.

Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American businessman who was not among those released, has reported “multiple cases on his hallway” in Evin Prison, his Washington-based lawyer, Jared Genser, has said.

One furloughed prisoner, Babak Safari, said in an online video that immediately after leaving prison he began having fevers, chills and difficulty breathing and had to be hospitalized. He said he was certain he contracted coronavirus in prison.

“All the political prisoners being held in Tehran prison are in great danger. Save them,” Safari said.

In some places, prisoners appear to be lashing out in fear of the virus. Italy, Colombia and Jordan have all seen riots by inmates complaining of insufficient protections, and a string of prison riots has broken out in Iran. Palestinians in Israeli prisons have threatened hunger strikes after one guard tested positive.

In eastern Syria, Islamic State group militants rioted in a prison run by U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters. A spokesman for Kurdish-led forces, Mustafa Bali, said there did not appear to be a connection to coronavirus fears. But overcrowding has plagued the more than two dozen facilities where the Kurds are holding some 10,000 IS militants, including 2,000 foreigners whose home countries have refused to repatriate them.

Afghanistan’s largest prison, Pul-e-Charkhi, was built in the 1970s to house 5,000 prisoners but now holds 10,500.

Keeping a safe distance is impossible “with two persons sleeping together in a one-meter space,” said Naiz Mohammad, one of around 3,000 Taliban in the prison, speaking by telephone from his cell. He said promises of extra soap and disinfectant had not materialized.

“Everyone here is worried. If you see inside the cells, the bars, the locks, everything is all dirty,” he said.

In Egypt, families are desperate for information on loved ones in prisons, where rights groups say overcrowding, abuses and poor hygiene are rampant.

Tens of thousands have been jailed in crackdowns since 2013 that expanded from Islamists to secular democracy advocates and critics of the government. Over that time, the government has built more than a dozen new prisons and it repeatedly has said conditions are humane. In recent weeks, a handful of activists and other prisoners have been released.

But former prisoners have said cells are still often packed tightly. One meme circulating online showed a photo of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi sitting 2.5 metres from his ministers — and noted that in the prisons, that space might be filled by 10 detainees. Former president Mohammed Morsi, deposed by el-Sissi in 2013, collapsed in court and subsequently died last year, and his family and lawyers blamed poor conditions and lack of medical care.

Celine Lebrun Shaath said her husband, Palestinian-Egyptian activist Ramy Shaath, is kept in a 25 square meter cell with 18 others, and any illness or scabies passes easily among them. Ramy Shaath, the son of a former Palestinian foreign minister, was detained last summer but has not been charged, and his wife, a French citizen, was deported.

She noted that while visits and deliveries of food or other supplies to prisoners is forbidden, guards and other staff move in and out to their homes and neighbourhoods, taking crowded public transportation.

“The doors are open for them. We are worried about the entire system.”

___

El Deeb reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank; Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem; Zarar Khan in Islamabad and Tameem Akhgar in Kabul contributed to this report.

Maggie Michael, Sarah El Deeb And Lee Keath, The Associated Press




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By The Wall of Law March 31, 2020 Off

Crammed in filthy cells, political prisoners fear infection

CAIRO — Reza Khandan got the word from friends locked away in Iran’s most feared prison, Evin. A prisoner and a guard in their cell block had been removed because they were suspected of having coronavirus, and two guards in the women’s ward had shown symptoms.

It was frightening news. Khandan’s wife, Nasrin Sotoudeh, one of Iran’s most prominent human rights lawyers, is imprisoned in that ward in close quarters with 20 other women. Only days earlier, the 56-year-old Sotoudeh — known for defending activists, opposition politicians and women prosecuted for removing their headscarves — had held a five-day hunger strike demanding prisoners be released to protect them from the virus.

“The virus has entered the jail, but we don’t know the extent of it,” Khandan, who had until recently been imprisoned in Evin as well, told The Associated Press by phone from Tehran.

“It will be impossible to control,” Khandan warned.

Tens of thousands of political prisoners are jailed in Iran, Syria and other countries around the Middle East, punished for anything from advocating for democracy and promoting women’s or workers’ rights to holding Islamist views, protesting or simply criticizing autocratic leaders on Facebook or YouTube.

Alarm is growing over the danger the coronavirus pandemic poses to prisoners: if one guard, visitor or new inmate introduces the infection, the virus could race rampant through a captive population unable to protect itself.

Conditions are prime for the disease to spread rapidly. Inmates are often packed by the dozens into dirty cells with no access to hygiene or medical care. Torture, poor nutrition and other abuses leave prisoners weaker and more vulnerable.

So far, Iran, which faces the Mideast’s biggest outbreak with thousands infected and hundreds dead, has not confirmed any coronavirus cases in its prisons. But Khandan’s is one of several reports of cases that have emerged from Iranian facilities. Egypt and Syria, which have large numbers of political detainees, also have not reported any cases within prisons.

The concern over prisons is worldwide. Multiple countries — including Iran — have released some inmates to reduce crowding. Others say they are sterilizing cells, halting family visits or increasing monitoring of guards and staff. Riots have broken out in prisons in several countries among inmates fearful not enough is being done.

In authoritarian nations, ensuring protections for detainees is even more difficult. Activists, rights organizations and aid groups have grown bolder in pressing governments in the area to take action. Amnesty International called on Iran to free more prisoners, particularly rights defenders and peaceful protesters.

“They should not be in detention in the first place,” it said.

Egypt last week briefly detained four women — including three relatives of a prominent jailed activist — who called for prisoner releases. Mohsen Bahnasi, an Egyptian lawyer who also called for prisoner releases, was arrested from his home, though it was not clear why, according to the Arab Network for Human Rights Information.

The International Committee of the Red Cross — one of the few organizations that sometimes gets access to prisons in the region — is stepping up efforts to help.

“We must act now to try to prevent it from entering places of detention. Trying to contain it after the fact will be almost impossible,” said Fabrizio Carboni, the ICRC’s Near and Middle East regional director.

He said the ICRC has already begun distributing soap, disinfectant and protective equipment at prisons in several places in the Mideast. It has requested permission from Syria to do the same in its facilities and is hopeful it will get access, he said.

Syria is the darkest black hole in the region. In the long civil war, tens of thousands of activists, protesters and others have been swallowed with hardly a trace into prisons run by President Bashar Assad’s government.

Syria has confirmed nine cases of coronavirus and one death, none of them in its prisons.

If coronavirus were spreading within prison walls, it’s doubtful the outside world would find out, said Dr. Amani Ballour, who previously ran a hospital in a rebel-held enclave near the Syrian capital, Damascus.

“The regime doesn’t care,” she said. “If there is (an outbreak), they won’t declare it because they’re killing detainees anyway — or trying to.” Ballour has searched in vain for her brother and brother-in-law in Syrian prisons for nine years. “I don’t imagine anyone surviving the regime prisons,” she said.

Conditions inside are perhaps the most terrifying in the region. Rights groups and former detainees describe Syria’s detention facilities as slaughterhouses where detainees undergo constant torture, including beatings, burnings, electric shocks, mutilations and rapes. Authorities almost never confirm arrests, and detainees are kept incommunicado out of the regular prison system.

As many as 50 people are locked in a 4-by-6-meter cell for weeks, month and years — sleeping on top of each other, almost never allowed to bathe, given meagre and rotten food and dirty water. Amnesty International estimated 17,723 people were killed in custody across Syria between 2011 and 2015, with the actual number likely higher. There’s no reason to believe conditions have changed since, said Amnesty’s Lynn Maalouf.

There is a “deliberate policy of letting people die of illness,” said Mohammad al-Abdallah, head of the Washington-based Syria Justice and Accountability Center. The overcrowded, dirty cells are “exactly the formula a disease like corona needs to grow,” he said.

The U.S. State Department last week warned that an outbreak in the Syria’s prison would “have devastating impact” and demanded Damascus free all arbitrarily detained civilians — including Americans.

Among the detained Americans is Majd Kamalmaz, who vanished a day after entering Syria in February 2017 to visit family for the first time in six years. A 62-year-old clinical psychologist from Virginia, he was not involved in politics and was engaged in international humanitarian work.

“To this day we don’t know why they detained him,” his daughter Maryam said.

At her home outside Dallas, Texas, Maryam’s family are taking all precautions against the pandemic: she and her children haven’t left the house for days and her husband goes out only to get groceries. She worries about her mother, alone in an apartment nearby. Majd’s disappearance “truly affected her health and she gets sick very easily now,” Maryam said.

“We are very, very concerned” that her father could contract coronavirus, she said. He is diabetic and had a stroke and a heart attack.

In January, a contact in Syria told the family that Kamalmaz had been moved from his prison, but they have no idea why or where to. He may have been put under closer observation amid pressure by American and European officials for his release.

“We know that the Syrian regime doesn’t care much about human life and the idea of them saying oh yes he might have passed with the coronavirus and not really caring much is very worrisome to us,” Maryam said.

In Iran, authorities say they have temporarily freed some 100,000 inmates — around half the prison population, in a sign of their alarm at the outbreak.

But hundreds of prisoners of conscience and other dissidents remain imprisoned, Amnesty said. It said there have been multiple reports of coronavirus cases within Iran’s prisons, including two deaths, though the government has not confirmed any.

Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American businessman who was not among those released, has reported “multiple cases on his hallway” in Evin Prison, his Washington-based lawyer, Jared Genser, has said.

One furloughed prisoner, Babak Safari, said in an online video that immediately after leaving prison he began having fevers, chills and difficulty breathing and had to be hospitalized. He said he was certain he contracted coronavirus in prison.

“All the political prisoners being held in Tehran prison are in great danger. Save them,” Safari said.

In some places, prisoners appear to be lashing out in fear of the virus. Italy, Colombia and Jordan have all seen riots by inmates complaining of insufficient protections, and a string of prison riots has broken out in Iran. Palestinians in Israeli prisons have threatened hunger strikes after one guard tested positive.

In eastern Syria, Islamic State group militants rioted in a prison run by U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters. A spokesman for Kurdish-led forces, Mustafa Bali, said there did not appear to be a connection to coronavirus fears. But overcrowding has plagued the more than two dozen facilities where the Kurds are holding some 10,000 IS militants, including 2,000 foreigners whose home countries have refused to repatriate them.

Afghanistan’s largest prison, Pul-e-Charkhi, was built in the 1970s to house 5,000 prisoners but now holds 10,500.

Keeping a safe distance is impossible “with two persons sleeping together in a one-meter space,” said Naiz Mohammad, one of around 3,000 Taliban in the prison, speaking by telephone from his cell. He said promises of extra soap and disinfectant had not materialized.

“Everyone here is worried. If you see inside the cells, the bars, the locks, everything is all dirty,” he said.

In Egypt, families are desperate for information on loved ones in prisons, where rights groups say overcrowding, abuses and poor hygiene are rampant.

Tens of thousands have been jailed in crackdowns since 2013 that expanded from Islamists to secular democracy advocates and critics of the government. Over that time, the government has built more than a dozen new prisons and it repeatedly has said conditions are humane. In recent weeks, a handful of activists and other prisoners have been released.

But former prisoners have said cells are still often packed tightly. One meme circulating online showed a photo of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi sitting 2.5 metres from his ministers — and noted that in the prisons, that space might be filled by 10 detainees. Former president Mohammed Morsi, deposed by el-Sissi in 2013, collapsed in court and subsequently died last year, and his family and lawyers blamed poor conditions and lack of medical care.

Celine Lebrun Shaath said her husband, Palestinian-Egyptian activist Ramy Shaath, is kept in a 25 square meter cell with 18 others, and any illness or scabies passes easily among them. Ramy Shaath, the son of a former Palestinian foreign minister, was detained last summer but has not been charged, and his wife, a French citizen, was deported.

She noted that while visits and deliveries of food or other supplies to prisoners is forbidden, guards and other staff move in and out to their homes and neighbourhoods, taking crowded public transportation.

“The doors are open for them. We are worried about the entire system.”

___

El Deeb reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank; Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem; Zarar Khan in Islamabad and Tameem Akhgar in Kabul contributed to this report.

Maggie Michael, Sarah El Deeb And Lee Keath, The Associated Press




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source https://toronto.citynews.ca/2020/03/31/crammed-in-filthy-cells-political-prisoners-fear-infection/

By The Wall of Law March 31, 2020 Off