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Netanyahu charged in corruption cases, deepening Israeli political disarray
21 November 2019, 9:12 PM

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was indicted on corruption charges on Thursday, heightening uncertainty over who will ultimately lead a country deep in political disarray after two inconclusive elections this year.

The decision announced by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit was the first of its kind against a serving Israeli prime minister and represented Netanyahu’s gravest crisis of his lengthy political career.

He was charged with breach of trust and fraud in all three corruption cases against him, as well as bribery in one of the investigations, according to a charge sheet released by the Justice Ministry.

Netanyahu, in power since 2009, has dominated Israeli politics for a generation and is the country’s longest-serving leader. He has denied wrongdoing in the three corruption cases, saying he is the victim of a political witch hunt.

He is under no legal obligation to resign after being charged. The opening of a trial could be delayed for months by a new election and any moves by the right-wing prime minister to seek parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

Netanyahu, 70, was due to make a statement from his official residence at 2030 GMT.

Earlier, during one of the most unusual days in Israeli political history, the country’s president told lawmakers to name a candidate to form a new government after right-winger Netanyahu and centrist challenger Benny Gantz both failed, a development that probably sets the stage for a third election within a year.

“These are harsh dark days in the annals of the State of Israel,” President Reuven Rivlin said as he announced that Gantz had not mustered enough support for a stable coalition.

Police recommended in February that Mandelblit file criminal charges against Netanyahu in the long-running investigations dubbed Cases 1000, 2000 and 4000.

Netanyahu is suspected of wrongfully accepting $264,000 worth of gifts, which prosecutors said included cigars and champagne, from tycoons and of dispensing favors in alleged bids for improved coverage by Israel’s biggest selling newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, and the Walla website.

Netanyahu could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of bribery and a maximum 3-year term for fraud and breach of trust.

Even though he was under suspicion, that was not enough to dissuade most of his traditional allies from sticking with him in coalition negotiations, effectively blocking Gantz’s path to the premiership.

But the two elections that neither Netanyahu nor Gantz won exposed a rare political vulnerability in the prime minister after a decade in office.

The prolonged political stalemate comes at a tricky time for Israel and its most prominent statesman on the domestic and international fronts.

Its conflict with arch-foe Iran has deepened – Israeli warplanes hit Iranian targets in Syria on Wednesday after rockets were fired toward Israel – while fighting with Palestinian militants in Gaza flared last week.

The introduction of criminal charges could further complicate the eventual rollout of the U.S. administration’s long-delayed Middle East peace plan by imperiling the political future of one of the key players whose support is needed.

Presidential election in chaotic Guinea-Bissau could resolve political impasse
21 November 2019, 8:15 PM

After weeks of political turmoil including violent protests, an alleged coup attempt and the emergence of two competing prime ministers, Guinea-Bissau is holding a presidential election on Sunday that many hope will usher in a semblance of calm.

The vote will pit President Jose Mario Vaz against old rival and former Prime Minister Domingos Simoes Pereira, and 10 other candidates seeking to draw a line under five years of turbulence under Vaz characterized by high-level sackings and a barely functioning parliament.

“As soon as a new president is elected, Bissau will turn one of the gloomier pages of its history,” said homemaker Virginia Mendes on her way to the shops in the capital Bissau this week.

Pereira, who has styled himself as a modernizer, is seen as the front-runner by political observers in Guinea Bissau and internationally.

Whatever the result, the vote represents a milestone of sorts for Guinea Bissau, which has suffered nine coups or attempted coups since independence from Portugal in 1974.

The West African country’s scattered Atlantic islands, mangrove mazes and unpoliced waters have made it a paradise for adventurous tourists and cocaine traffickers en route from South America to Europe.

 Vaz will be the first democratically elected president to have completed a full term in the country of 1.6 million.

“It used to be coups and assassinations and now it’s the busy politics of coalition and all sorts of political maneuvering,” said Vincent Foucher of the French National Centre for Scientific Research.

The next president will inherit difficulties caused in part by the political system, in which the majority party or coalition appoints the government but the president has the power to dismiss it in certain circumstances.

A pre-election crisis arose from a long-running power struggle between Vaz and the ruling party that has led to a carousel of seven prime ministers since he took over in 2014.

In the latest round of prime-ministerial musical chairs, Vaz fired premier Aristides Gomes on Oct. 29 and appointed a successor to him, but Gomes refused to step down.

For around 10 days the country had two prime ministers until Vaz backed down under pressure from the international community, which said his moves were illegal.

Regional bloc ECOWAS had warned of the threat of civil war and urged the authorities not to allow the election to be derailed.

ECOWAS has played a prominent role in trying to resolve the crisis, imposing economic sanctions on people it judged to be undermining efforts to end the impasse in 2018, including members of Vaz’s faction and his son.

In late October, Prime Minister Gomes accused presidential candidate Umaro Cissoko Embalo of planning a coup. Embalo denied the charge. Meanwhile one protester was killed in a violent anti-government demonstration in early November.

The African Development Bank says the protracted instability has muddied the outlook for the economy, which despite annual growth of around 5% is already hostage to the volatile price of cashew nuts that are the main income source for over two-thirds of households.

“There is a hope that this election, which comes after the legislative election earlier this year, will bring some stability … with a more solid ruling coalition,” Foucher said.

Drugs and corruption remain a problem, however. There have been high-profile busts this year, including the discovery in September of a record 1.8 tonnes of cocaine hidden in flour bags.

 

In the past the army has been quick to intervene in politics. Most recently, the 2012 leadership race was abandoned after soldiers stormed the presidential palace.

But the military has not picked sides in the current crisis and has said it will support the police in safeguarding Sunday’s vote.

Apart from Vaz and Pereira, main contenders in the race include former prime ministers Umaro Sissoco Embalo and Carlos Gomes Junior, and Nuno Nabiam who is supported by the country’s large Balanta ethnic group. There are 750 000 registered voters.

Embalo and Nabiam have used the campaign trail to accuse ECOWAS of overreach and threatening Guinea-Bissau’s sovereignty.

A train carrying protesters from Atbara, the birthplace of an uprising that toppled Sudan's former President Omar al-Bashir, approaches a Khartoum train station.
Unfinished business in the birthplace of Sudan’s revolution
21 November 2019, 12:46 PM

Standing on the platform where he and other protesters packed a train to Khartoum in April to pressure Sudan’s military to share power with civilians, Abdelaziz Abdallah made clear the revolution driven by their city has much further to go.

A veteran railway worker-turned union leader, Abdallah was among the first to take to the streets in this labour stronghold in December, sparking a national uprising that toppled long-time ruler Omar al-Bashir almost four months later.

It took another four months for the military, which had ousted Bashir, to formally agree to a three-year power sharing deal with a civilian-led transitional government.

People in Atbara, a colonial-era railway hub, support the national government in the capital some 350 km to the south, but say some of the main grievances which drove their uprising – poor salaries and unemployment – remain.

“Railway workers have among the lowest state salaries” earning as little as 1,200 Sudanese pounds a month while needing at least 10,000 pounds to get by, said Abdallah, who took over the union after Bashir’s ouster.

They also want funds to revive the railway — once Africa’s longest network but now largely derelict.

They are tough demands for Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who is trying to avert the collapse of an economy wrecked by three decades of mismanagement and US sanctions.

Whether he can meet the expectations of thousands of railway workers will be a test for the whole country, as Atbara has been a hotbed of unrest since independence from Britain in 1956.

RESISTANCE COMMITTEES

The protesters have formed resistance committees, which helped maintain the uprising and now want a say in their city.

Able to meet freely since bans on gatherings were lifted with Bashir’s fall, they discuss issues such as how to create jobs for the youth by trying to find farmland to grow crops.

But they also fume that the city is still run by a military governor. Bashir’s security network has lost some power but its officers remain in Atbara as elsewhere and soldiers, while no longer patrolling the streets, are stationed in nearby barracks.

“Nothing has changed for citizens and the youth. The civil service is still made up of the former regime,” said Adel Sheikh, a senior member of Atbara’s Forces for Freedom and Change coalition, the main umbrella group that negotiated the national power sharing deal with the generals.

Finding jobs is on many people’s minds.

“I hope to get a job as engineer,” said Mohamed Abdelathim, jobless since 2007. “State jobs under the (old regime) were for regime people,” he said.

COUPS

Atbara, at the junction of the Nile and Atbara rivers, has been a barometer for Sudan since British colonialists established a railway hub here, building dozens of villas to house railway managers which now lie empty.

Maps entitled “Sudan railways” still hang on walls in administrative buildings where receipts printed in English and Sudanese lie on abandoned desks.

Workers here pushed for independence, formed the backbone of a powerful post-independence Communist Party and have risen up against various military rulers ever since, paying the price for their activism with mass dismissals.

Sudan has had only three brief three civilian governments, all toppled by generals who took over after saying that civilians had failed to fix an economy in crisis.

Hamdok is in a similar situation, heading a government shared with military. He wants to increase public salaries and compensate some 4,000 workers fired by Bashir but needs up to $5 billion in donor support for next year alone.

That dilemma gives Atbara’s activists pause.

“Honestly we have fears (of a new coup) if the main issues aren’t solved,” said 70-year Ali Abdallah, a former national head of the railway union imprisoned under Bashir and now a respected figure among the townspeople.

The United States says it hopes to be able to lift sanctions imposed in 1993 over allegations Bashir’s Islamist government supported terrorism, so that donor money can flow.

Western countries are wary, but also fear that instability in Sudan will increase migration to Europe and encourage Islamist militants.

It will take time to heal local wounds.

When protests began in December, security forces opened fire, killing, among others, 23-year-old engineering student Tareq Ahmed.

“He was not political person but fed up with the regime and inflation,” said his father driving on pot-holed roads around Atbara to show its neglect.

He could not bring himself to go to the spot where his son got killed but stopped at the university where students have painted his face on a wall to keep memories fresh. There he struggled to hold back his tears.

“He sacrificed himself for a change in Sudan,” he said. “We will never forget.”

People take part in a protest demanding immediate political change in Algiers, Algeria.
Algerian protesters step up pressure with new demonstrations
21 November 2019, 8:12 AM

Hundreds of Algerians marched in the capital Algiers late on Wednesday, stepping up pressure on the authorities to cancel a December 12 presidential election.

Weekly protests have taken place on Tuesdays and Fridays since February, but demonstrators appear eager to increase their street presence in the run up to the vote.

Marching through the main streets of Algiers, the protesters chanted “No vote, no vote” as security forces intervened to disperse them.

The protest movement erupted in February as veteran president Abdelaziz Bouteflika prepared to stand for another term in an election that was originally scheduled for July.

Hundreds of thousands of people marched in Algiers and other towns and cities calling for him and the rest of the old ruling elite that had governed since independence from France in 1962 to quit power.

Bouteflika stepped aside in April as the army withdrew its support and the authorities began detaining his allies and other senior officials and businessmen on corruption charges.

The July election was then postponed creating a constitutional limbo with interim president Abdelkader Bensalah still in place. The army and its powerful chief Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaed Salah see the election as the only way to restore normality and quell the protests.

The demonstrators reject any election that takes place while old members of the ruling elite remain in place, saying it could not be fair.

The army, now the main player in Algeria’s politics, has repeatedly vowed transparency for the vote, saying the military would not back any candidate.

The five men running in the election are all former senior officials, though some had later spoken out against Bouteflika or opposed him in earlier elections.

Since the presidential campaign officially began on Sunday, some protesters have been hanging bags of garbage, or posters of detained opposition figures, in public spaces reserved for election material.

A court on Tuesday imposed rapid 18-month jail sentences on four protesters convicted of disrupting an election event on Sunday. Human Rights Watch said last week the detention of scores of demonstrators in recent months appeared aimed at weakening the protest movement.

Conservative leader Boris Johnson listens during a televised debate with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn ahead of general election in London.
Twitter says UK PM Johnson’s party misled public with ‘factcheck’ account
20 November 2019, 10:43 AM

Twitter said British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party misled the public by changing the name of one of its Twitter accounts to make it look like a fact checking service during a televised election debate.

The Conservative Campaign Headquarters press office account, followed by nearly 76,000 users, changed its name to “factcheckUK” from its usual ‘CCHQPress’ and switched its avatar to a white tick against a purple background.

Twitter said it would take “decisive corrective action” if a similar stunt was attempted again, the BBC reported on Wednesday.

“Twitter is committed to facilitating healthy debate throughout the UK general election,” a Twitter spokesperson was quoted as saying.

“We have global rules in place that prohibit behaviour that can mislead people, including those with verified accounts. Any further attempts to mislead people by editing verified profile information – in a manner seen during the UK Election Debate – will result in decisive corrective action.”

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