Day: May 2, 2020

Lawyers: Egypt filmmaker who mocked president dies in prison

CAIRO — An Egyptian filmmaker detained without trial for over two years for making a music video that mocked President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi died on Saturday at a maximum-security prison complex, two rights lawyers said.

Attorney Ahmed el-Khwaga said his 22-year-old client Shady Habash died in Cairo’s Tora Prison complex. He said the cause of death was not immediately clear.

There was no immediate comment from the Interior Ministry, which oversees Egypt’s prison system.

Police forces arrested the young filmmaker in March 2018 after he directed a music video by Ramy Essam, an Egyptian musician exiled in Sweden. The video featured a song that mocked the general-turned president, comparing him to a fruit date and condemning alleged government corruption.

Khaled Ali, a rights lawyer, said Habash should have been released two months ago after serving the maximum jail time during pending investigations.

Galal el-Behairy, who wrote the song performed in the video, was also arrested in 2018 after the video provoked the ire of the government when it went viral on social media with millions of views on YouTube.

El-Behairy was sentenced by an Egyptian military court to three years in prison after his conviction on charges of “insulting security forces” and “disseminating false news.”

Following his death, Habash’s friends published a letter he wrote from prison in October in which he spoke of his despair. “Prison doesn’t kill, loneliness does,” he wrote, describing what he called his struggle to “stop yourself from going mad or dying slowly because you’ve been thrown in a room two years ago and forgotten.”

“His psychological state was very bad,” el-Khwaga said of Habash when he saw for the last time two months ago.

Habash’s death again trained a spotlight on the dangers of Egyptian prisons as el-Sissi escalates a crackdown on dissent. Many inmates are serving time for crimes they insist they did not commit, or have not been charged at all. According to rights groups, thousands are held in Egypt’s jails awaiting trial.

The death also comes amid the coronavirus pandemic. Overcrowded prison cells could be breeding grounds for the spread of the virus, which causes the illness COVID-19. Egypt has around 6,200 confirmed cases and over 400 deaths.

Earlier this year, a U.S. citizen who had gone on a hunger strike as part of a six-year battle against what he insisted was wrongful imprisonment, died in prison of heart failure.

Egyptian authorities said at the time they would investigate the death of Mustafa Kassem, 54, an Egyptian-born auto parts dealer from Long Island, New York.

Kassem was in Cairo to visit family in August 2013 when his lawyers say he was mistakenly swept up in a dragnet during the violent dispersal of an Islamist sit-in that killed hundreds of people. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison in a 2018 mass trial of over 700 defendants widely condemned by human rights groups.

The Associated Press

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Rise in virus cases in crowded Indian jails prompts concerns

NEW DELHI — The spreading of the coronavirus in India’s notoriously crowded prisons has prompted authorities to impose jail lockdowns and release thousands of pretrial detainees on parole, as health experts worry that the cramped facilities are serving as breeding grounds that will enable the virus to spread.

Although there are no official numbers on how many inmates have been infected by the virus countrywide, India’s correction facilities are slowly recording more and more coronavirus cases, leading authorities to temporarily ban relatives and friends from visiting prisoners.

On Thursday, authorities locked down Nagpur Central Jail in the coastal state of Maharashtra, among the Indian states worst-hit by the pandemic. It was the eighth prison in the state to be locked down. The move came after 19 inmates in Indore Central Jail in central Madhya Pradesh state tested positive for the virus on Tuesday. Around 250 others who came in contact with them were shifted to a temporary jail.

“It is a terrifying situation. If measures aren’t taken soon, then things can become extremely difficult,” said Madhurima Dhanuka, head of the Prison Reforms Programme for the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.

Considering its population of 1.3 billion, India has done relatively well in containing the coronavirus, confirming around 37,000 infections, including 1,223 deaths. On Friday, the government extended the lockdown it had announced in late March for another two weeks, but eased restrictions in some low-risk areas and is now trying to gradually reopen some industries, including agriculture and manufacturing.

Health experts, however, fear that crowded facilities such as prisons can prove deadly, threatening the lives of detainees and guards, as well as the outside population.

The virus has spread rapidly in overcrowded prisons across the world, leading governments to release inmates en masse. United Nations experts and the World Health Organization have urged governments to reduce their prison populations during the pandemic.

In March, India’s top court said that it was “difficult for prisoners to maintain social distancing” and ordered that detainees convicted of crimes with jail terms of no more than seven years be given parole. Many states started releasing thousands of inmates.

Attempts to reduce the prison population, however, were not enough, critics say.

Indian prisons are highly overcrowded. According to the latest data, put out by the National Crimes Record Bureau in 2018, India has some 450,000 prisoners, exceeding the country’s official prison capacity by about 17%. Prisons in New Delhi and neighbouring Uttar Pradesh state have the highest occupancy rates, at over 50% above capacity.

Making matters worse, “the health facilities in prisons are not up to the mark,” said Dhanuka.

The official data shows that only 4% of total prison expenditure was spent on inmates’ medical needs in 2018. It also shows a 40% shortage of medical personnel in Indian prisons.

Dhanuka said the combination of a low health care budget, a shortage of doctors and “horrible hygiene facilities” has created ideal conditions for the coronavirus to spread in Indian prisons. “There is an urgent need to decongest them,” she said.

While the government said it already has released thousands of prisoners and plans to set more free, worried families whose loved ones are still in jail are distraught. In April, the family of Mian Qayoom, a 73-year-old human rights lawyer from disputed Kashmir who is jailed in New Delhi’s Tihar jail, wrote to authorities to urge them to release him on parole due to his ailing health. The family said that Qayoom was a diabetic and had a serious heart condition.

But on April 29, the Indian government said that Qayoom’s potential release was not covered in the guidelines issued by the country’s top court.

Qayoom was arrested in August under the Public Safety Act, which allows people to be held for up to two years without trial.

“He is most prone to this virus attack,” said Qayoom’s nephew, Mian Muzaffar, who is also his lawyer. “It’s a death sentence to keep him inside India’s most notorious and one of the most crowded jails in these times.” ___ Associated Press writer Aijaz Hussain in Srinagar, India, contributed to this report.

Sheikh Saaliq And Ashok Sharma, The Associated Press

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More remains found as helicopter search turns to recovery

After scouring a littered seascape with its NATO allies, a Canadian Forces warship formally ended its search for survivors Friday after its maritime helicopter crashed off the coast of Greece.

The search for five lost crew in the Wednesday Cyclone helicopter crash formally ended after three days, the Canadian Forces said.

Six military personnel were aboard the helicopter when it went down in the Mediterranean Sea as it was returning to the Halifax-based frigate, HMCS Fredericton.

“This decision was not taken lightly,” Rear Admiral Craig Baines, the commander of the navy’s maritime command, told reporters on a windswept pier in Halifax.

The Fredericton, as well as Turkish, Italian, Greek ships, helicopters and planes, thoroughly searched the area for survivors and came up short, he said.

“While searches on the sea are never easy, these units have completely saturated the area for the duration of the search over a known crash location,” said Baines. “So we are certain that if there were survivors, we would have found them within the past 48 hours.”

Baines confirmed the search for five Canadians service members had formally turned into “search and recovery efforts” instead of a rescue effort. The body of Sub-Lt. Abbigail Cowbrough was previously recovered from the wreckage.

The Forces said it also recovered the remains believed to be those of people aboard the helicopter but they can’t yet be identified. Baines said Italian and Turkish ships are remaining at the scene of the accident to assist with recovery operations for at least the next 48 hours.

The helicopter was part of the Fredericton’s NATO mission when it went down while concluding a training exercise.

The Fredericton was bound for an Italian port and was expected to arrive Saturday. The crew planned to hold a vigil for their lost comrades.

“Upon arrival in Italy the ship will transfer the remains to our team on the ground who will facilitate their return to Canada via Canadian military airlift,” Baines said. “The remains of our fallen will be brought home next week.”

Baines said Fredericton’s crew would remain in Italy for several days before returning to resume its role in the NATO mission.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said all Canadians were mourning the loss of six military members.

“Every day these brave Canadians in uniform put themselves in harm’s way to keep our country and our citizens safe, and together we will honour their service to Canada and our closest allies,” Trudeau said in a statement.

“I also thank our NATO allies who worked side by side with members of our Armed Forces to search for the fallen.”

Gen. Jonathan Vance, the chief of the defence staff, said it was a “particularly difficult” situation for the families of those who died.

“What makes this all the more difficult to bear is our inability — thus far — to recover all of our fallen comrades,” Vance said Friday in his weekly letter to troops.

Vance said an investigation would hopefully find the cause of the crash.

“In the meantime, we grieve.”

The Canadian military also sent a flight investigation team to the region to determine the cause of the crash.

The Cyclone’s flight-data and voice recorders have been recovered after they broke away from the helicopter when it crashed and will soon be returned to Canada for analysis.

The missing Canadian servicemen have been identified as Capt. Brenden Ian MacDonald of New Glasgow, N.S.; Capt. Kevin Hagen of Nanaimo, B.C.; Capt. Maxime Miron-Morin from Trois-Rivieres, Que.; Sub-Lt. Matthew Pyke from Truro, N.S.; and Master Cpl. Matthew Cousins from Guelph, Ont.

“These proud military members died heroes, and we will always remember them,” said Col. James Hawthorne, the commander of 12 Wing Shearwater, the Cyclone’s base.

“To the families of these members, remember that we are here to support you — you are part of the military family and now we are in service to you.”

Hawthorne described MacDonald as a “proud father in a house full of boys” and one of three military siblings.

MacDonald was a “natural in all respects,” said Kevin A. MacDonald, a Halifax lawyer who knew the missing pilot when he was a teenager in the Air Cadets. The two MacDonalds are not related.

Kevin MacDonald was an instructor and operations officer at the school, and says he met Brenden when he moved on to take his pilot’s license in 2002.

“You don’t get to where he did without being a quick study in all respects, not only in terms of technical aptitude but also in terms of academics. You can tell usually within the first flight or two whether or not they are going to stick with it and whether or not they are going to go on to greater things, and he was destined for what he was doing.”

Kyle Hagen described his brother, Kevin as the “perfect brother” to he and his sister.

“He’s been a shining example of truth, duty and valour for us. We’ve been proud of him our whole lives, he’s been my closest friend, and I can’t describe how hard his loss has been for us,” he said in a Facebook message.

“The military community and representatives have been compassionate and professional, and I’m sorry to Kevin’s brothers- and sisters-in-arms for this awful loss.”

Miron-Morin dreamed of serving in the Forces since he was a teenaged cadet, and became an air combat systems operator in the Royal Canadian Air Force, said Hawthorne.

Cousins was “an outstanding aviator who kept the officers of his crew in line and focused on the mission, said Hawthorne.

Hawthorne said Pyke and Cowbrough were “brothers- and sisters-in-arms” as well as friends.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 1, 2020.

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Will there be a silver lining to this pandemic?

Jim Harding
Transmission electron micrograph of SARS-CoV-2 virus particles, isolated from a patient. (Image: NIAID/Flickr)

Our world has lost its habit, and we try to cope with the uncertainties lying ahead. Meanwhile, pressure builds to quickly “open up” the economy, because, for some, the loss of wages seems more threatening than the virus.

Angus Reid polling indicates three-quarters of us don’t think it is worth the risk. Meanwhile, half of us report mental health worsening. A third, however, have more gratitude. But domestic violence is on an upswing. Uncertainties about the rate of infection, our immunity, whether a vaccine will come and how soon, and dangers from recurring waves, will keep many of us up at night.

As an older senior with preconditions, I have trepidation about me and my spouse’s ability to look after ourselves. We will garden for food more strenuously this summer. I worry a second wave may come along with influenza, as we enter the long dark months next winter.

It’s tempting to look for a silver lining to keep hope alive. But delusional hope quickly turns on itself. All talk of the economy quickly “bouncing back” seems questionable. Only three million COVID-19 infections have been globally confirmed; there are more than seven billion of us as potential hosts for this virus.

Trillions have been spent to prop up businesses and workers, but deep down we know we shouldn’t want to return to the past. Systemic inequalities have affected who dies and who survives. We should be converting to a guaranteed livable income and taking precautionary ecological planning to heart.

And perhaps, while we focus on the big picture, we should celebrate that natural systems, even if not the old polluting economy, may bounce back.

This could be our true silver lining.

The planet is getting a deserved rest. Air is clearing. Water is cleaning. Habitats may restore. This could be the start of something new. There are many curves besides COVID-19 that we must flatten and reduce. Global energy demand is projected to drop six per cent in 2020 — dwarfing the impact of the 2008 recession. This puts us in a great position to start the needed emission reduction, worldwide, throughout this decade.

NASA satellite pictures showed the thick and deadly air pollution, from Wuhan to Beijing, disappearing after the lockdown. Emissions from factories, cars and coal plants dropped dramatically. When New York City locked down, it saw an immediate reduction in carbon dioxide and a huge drop in carbon monoxide.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Global Monitoring Division hasn’t yet seen a “significant drop” because the variation in the natural carbon cycle is so large. They would have to use carbon-14 measures to distinguish fossil fuel carbons from ecosystem sources. However, the International Energy Agency (IEA) is already predicting an eight per cent decrease in global emissions from fossil fuels in 2020, which would be the lowest level since 2010.

The IEA remains concerned that, with the sharp decline in revenue in the very unregulated oil and gas sector, there may be less control of methane leaks, venting and flaring. Methane can be as much as 80 times more potent a greenhouse gas (GHG) than C02.

Nevertheless, we all see signs of nature’s resilience. I just saw an unimaginably large flock of pelicans soaring in the wind overhead. During the online concert raising money for food banks, Sarah McLachlan sang the Beatles’ song, Blackbird. One line says, “You were only waiting for this moment to arise.”

Our man-made systems have proven incapable of changing direction quickly enough to avert catastrophic climate change. Our elected leaders, worldwide, ignored pandemic warnings.

So, perhaps it was going to take this novel coronavirus to stop us in our tracks. We clearly need a huge “reset” as a species. Some of our institutions have run their course. Something was going to create evolutionary feedback to our unsustainable practices. We have been acting like an invasive species that can control the planet. We can’t. We can only learn to understand and live within it.

In an Earth Day interview, Jane Goodall noted that we don’t just have wild meat markets, and global trafficking of endangered species, but industrial slaughtering plants and cramped, medicated, intensive factory farms that foster infectious diseases.

Of course, we want medical science to help us out of our immediate mess. But we had better think a lot deeper, while we can, or we will find ourselves right back where we began.

The steady loss of biodiversity and disregard for inter-species boundaries makes future pandemics more likely. Climate change not only brings more devastating extreme weather, to undermine our fragile infrastructures, but it further degrades biodiversity. And on it would go.

We simply must restore biodiversity, reduce emissions, and shift from an economy that promotes endless growth in wants and profits, while not meeting human needs. Human denial is running out of room.

Will our collective foresight be strong enough to resist the false hope of returning to the old normal?

This may also keep us up at night.

Activist author Jim Harding is a retired professor of environmental and justice studies. He is a founding director of the Qu’Appelle Valley Environmental Association (go to: QVEA.CA). He was director of research for Saskatchewan Health’s Alcoholism Commission and for the University of Regina’s Prairie Justice Research Consortium. Other articles on climate and pandemic at:

Image: NIAID/Flickr

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