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Russia’s whale trade under the spotlight
22 February 2019, 10:02 AM

Dozens of orcas and beluga whales captured for sale to oceanariums have brought Russia’s murky trade into the spotlight, but efforts to free them are blocked by government infighting.

Russia is the only country where orcas, or killer whales, and belugas can be caught in the ocean for the purpose of “education”.

The legal loophole has been used to export them, especially to satisfy demand in China’s growing network of ocean theme parks.

The practice sparked a global outcry after pictures surfaced of an unprecedented number of the marine mammals – a total of 11-orcas and 87-belugas – crammed into small enclosures at a secure facility in the Far Eastern town of Nakhodka.

“There have never been that many animals caught in one season and kept in the same facility before anywhere in the world,” said Dmitry Lisitsyn, head of the Sakhalin Environmental Watch group who has emerged as a point person in the campaign to release the whales captured last summer back into the wild.

Under public pressure, Russian investigators launched two probes into poaching and cruel treatment of the whales, while Russia’s environmental watchdog said it has refused to issue permits to export them.

But the investigations and any potential court case could drag on for months.

And a major hurdle remains in the Russian government which is split between the environment ministry that says the animals must be urgently released, and the fisheries agency that defends their capture as part of a legitimate industry.

The captured killer whales belong to the rarer seal-eating, or transient, population of the species, which does not interbreed or interact with fish-eating orcas.

The environment ministry has tried to list the seal-eating type as endangered, ministry representative Olga Krever said.

“This population has only 200-adult animals” in Russian waters, she said.

But the agriculture ministry, which controls the fisheries agency and oversees non-protected sea species, views orcas as a dangerous competitor for Russia’s fish stocks and doesn’t believe they are under threat, Krever said, calling the dispute a “big problem.”

The heads of the two ministries could sit down and decide the fate of the Nakhodka animals quickly as “this needs a political solution,” she said.

But while marine mammal researchers say there are good chances of a successful release, the fisheries agency told AFP that releasing the captured animals “carries high risks of their mass death”.

“Neither orcas nor belugas are endangered,” and are simply a resource that can be used according to existing legislation, agency representative Sergei Golovinov said.

The high-profile clash became heated at a Moscow conference last week where Alexander Pozdnyakov, a fishing lobbyist tied to firms keeping the animals in Nakhodka, suddenly linked it to Russia’s geopolitical struggle with the United States.

“Today there is a battle for the Chinese market,” Pozdnyakov said. If the Nakhodka animals are not delivered there, “this market will be taken over by American companies.”

What he failed to mention is that catching wild orcas stopped in both the United States and Canada in the 1970s due to public opposition.

There are 74 operational ocean theme parks in mainland China featuring whales and dolphins, according to the China Cetacean Alliance, which monitors the industry. More are under construction.

“Orcas are like the cherry on the cake” for new Chinese venues, said Greenpeace Russia campaigner Oganes Targulyan at a recent protest against whale capture.

“They are the stars of the shows.”

All 17-killer whales that Russia has exported since 2013 – valued at over $1-million each by customs — have gone to China, according to CITES wildlife trade figures.

Though the animals in Nakhodka are unlikely to get green-lighted for export, their fate is unclear: it could be up to President Vladimir Putin to make the political decision on their release, campaigner Lisitsyn said.

In the West, there is widespread opposition to keeping the highly intelligent marine mammals in parks like the US chain Sea World, but in Russia public opinion is not so certain.

Companies that caught the animals are not giving up. At the weekend, they launched a new Instagram account, praising the Nakhodka facility and defending the oceanarium industry.

On Saturday, dozens of pro-industry supporters disrupted a rally to free the whales. They showed up with signs reading “Each orca is 10 jobs” for the crews hired to catch them, and only left when police arrived on the scene.

“We see that the capturing companies are putting up a fight,” Lisitsyn said. “They are using their lobbyist muscle.”

Researchers meanwhile are already starting to organise to prepare for a potential release of the animals.

“There has never been so many animals released in the past,” said Dmitry Glazov, a beluga whale researcher at the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution in Moscow.

He said a project of that scale would certainly require international expertise and funding. The whales, which have been fed dead fish, would need to go through an adaptation period to make sure they can rely on their natural food sources.

“For science, releasing this many animals would be invaluable,” he said. “But there needs to be a decision first.”

Minister of Public Service & Administration Ayanda Dlodlo.
Minister denies any forced age retrenchments
22 February 2019, 9:14 AM

Public Service and Administration Minister Ayanda Dlodlo says public servants who want to exit the service will be allowed to do so without incurring any penalties.

She says of the 1.3 million public servants, about 127 000 have indicated their desire to take early retirement.

During his Budget Speech this week Finance Minister Tito Mboweni spoke of the need to reduce the public sector’s massive wage bill by R27-billion over three years. He said the Minister said that this will include offering early retrenchment packages to public servants 55-years old and up.

It is estimated to include about 30 000 people. In addition, he said that performance bonuses which totals about R2-billion a year, will be phased out.

This as the Department of Public Service and Administration is battling with unions over wage increases of personnel.

Dlodlo says, “We deny that we are retrenching. What has happened over time is that people have approached us, and lots of people in the public service, wanting to retire early, not retrench. We are not retrenching because we also trying to ensure that we bring in younger people into the establishment. So it’s an early retirement that bears no penalties.”

Dlodlo say the Wage Bill is a concern and is being addressed.

“We need to find innovative ways and creative ways of ensuring that we bring young people into the establishment. Currently we have almost 1.3-million employees and we are saying we are not bloated. We need those people, but we need to re-skill. Government is moving towards a particular direction into the fourth industrial revolution and many other things, we need to improve service delivery, we need to introduce a new culture.”

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Hoda Muthana
Father of US-born woman who joined IS sues over citizenship
22 February 2019, 9:10 AM

The father of an Alabama woman who joined the Islamic State group in Syria sued Thursday to bring his daughter home after the Trump administration took the extraordinary step of declaring that she was not a US citizen.

Hoda Muthana, 24, says that she regrets joining the extremists and is willing to face prosecution in the United States over her incendiary propaganda on behalf of the ruthless but dwindling group.

A day after President Donald Trump declared on Twitter that he had issued orders to bar her, Muthana’s father filed an emergency lawsuit asking a federal court to affirm that his daughter is a US citizen and let her return along with her toddler son, whose father was a Tunisian jihadist killed in battle.

The brewing legal battle hinges on the murky timeline of bureaucratic paperwork in 1994 when Muthana was born and her father, Ahmed Ali Muthana, left a position at Yemen’s mission to the United Nations.

The US Constitution grants citizenship to everyone born in the country – with the exception of children of diplomats, as they are not under US jurisdiction.

“Upon her return to the United States, Mr. Muthana’s daughter is prepared and willing to surrender to any charges the United States Justice Department finds appropriate and necessary,” said the lawsuit filed with the US District Court in Washington.

“She simply requires the assistance of her government in facilitating that return for herself and her young son,” it said.

In the lawsuit, Ahmed Ali Ahmed said he was asked by Yemen to surrender his diplomatic identity card on June 2, 1994 as the Arab country descended into one of its civil wars.

Hoda Muthana was born in New Jersey on October 28th of that year and the family later settled in Hoover, Alabama, a prosperous suburb of Birmingham.

The State Department initially questioned Hoda Muthana’s right to citizenship when her father sought a passport for her as a child because US records showed he had been a diplomat until February 1995, the lawsuit said.

But it said that the State Department accepted a letter from the US mission to the United Nations that affirmed that he had ended his position before his daughter’s birth and granted her a passport.

The lawsuit said that Hoda Muthana was also entitled to citizenship due to her mother as she became a US permanent resident, anticipating the loss of diplomatic status, in July 1994.

Ahmed Ali Muthana additionally asked for the right to send money to support his daughter and grandson, who are being held by US-allied Kurdish fighters at the forefront of fighting the Islamic State militants.

She furtively went to Syria in 2014 when the Islamic State group was carrying out a grisly campaign of beheadings and mass rape and turned to social media to praise the killings of Westerners.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was named in the lawsuit along with Trump, in a terse statement Wednesday, said that Hoda Muthana was not a citizen.

Pompeo did not outline the legal rationale but in an interview on Thursday, asked if the key issue was that her father had been a diplomat, Pompeo said, “That’s right.”

“She may have been born here. She is not a US citizen, nor is she entitled to US citizenship,” Pompeo told NBC television’s “Today” show.

In a separate interview with the Fox Business Network, Pompeo dismissed the “heart-strings” pitch in Muthana’s pleas to return home.

“This is a woman who inflicted enormous risk on American soldiers, on American citizens. She is a terrorist. She’s not coming back,” he said.

It is extremely difficult for the United States to strip a person of citizenship, a step taken by Britain in the case of homegrown jihadists.

Trump’s order on Muthana came even though he is pushing other Western countries to bring back hundreds of jihadists to prosecute at home as the United States prepares to withdraw troops from Syria.

Suspended NPA senior advocate, Nomgcobo Jiba.
WATCH: Mokgoro Enquiry resumes
22 February 2019, 8:05 AM

Suspended NPA Senior Advocate, Lawrence Mrwebi, has taken the stand to face cross-examination at the Mokgoro Enquiry. On Thursday, Nomgcobo Jiba, was cross-examined.

The Enquiry is probing Jiba and her colleague Lawrence Mrwebi’s fitness to hold office. The two have been accused of mishandling high profile corruption cases.

On Thursday, Jiba argued that she’s been persecuted by those who never imagined to be led by a black woman.

She urged retired Justice Yvonne Mokgoro to come up with recommendations that will protect the independence of prosecutors.

“Really I would want the situation whereby, at the end of it all, whether I’m removed from the NPA or not – I humbly request a situation whereby the independence of prosecutors is not weakened. This enquiry must in fact find ways how it can strengthen the independence of the prosecutors. And in my view take the same format that is afforded to the judges.”

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Road blockages in Soweto due to protests.
Soweto highway and several other roads blocked due to protests
22 February 2019, 8:00 AM

Soweto highway and several other roads in and around Diepkloof in Soweto have been blocked off to traffic due to an ongoing community protest in the area.

Traffic has been heavily affected.

It still not clear at this stage what the protest is about.

Johannesburg Metro Police Department has advised motorists to use alternative routes.

Spokesperson Wayne Minnaar says, “There is a protest in Diepkloof, Soweto this morning (Friday) and it is over a wide area which includes Ben Naude drive, Soweto highway as well as Imming drive. Motorists are advised to drive with caution because there are rocks and burning tyres on those roads. However, Chris Hani drive is flowing smoothly so motorists can use Chris Hani drive as an alternate route.”



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