Do Macedonians want their country to join NATO and the EU?

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF GLOBAL VOICES)

 

Do Macedonians want their country to join NATO and the EU? A historic referendum will decide

Rally in Skopje, MAcedonia in support for the referendum on EU and NATO accession.

Pro-referendum rally on 16 September 2018 in Skopje. Photo by Andreja Stojkovski via Twitter, used with permission.

On September 30, Macedonians will vote in a referendum to decide whether their country should join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance and the European Union (EU).

The referendum is part of a process that began in 1993, when all political parties in the then newly independent Republic of Macedonia declared joining NATO a key strategic priority. Many believe that membership in the military alliance would help protect Macedonia, located in the volatile Balkans region, from external aggression and civil war. Years later the country made a similar commitment to strive for EU membership.

Admission to both NATO and the EU require the consensus of all existing members, so Macedonia needed first solve bilateral disputes with its neighbors, some of which already belonged the two organizations.

The biggest obstacle was the long-standing naming dispute with Greece, which has hindered Macedonia’s development for 27 years. In June 2018, as a precondition for removing the Greek veto on its EU and NATO membership, Macedonia signed an agreement which obliges the country to change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia.

In spite of the agreement, the name change remains a core issue. The September 30 referendum explicitly asks:

‘Are you in favor of EU and NATO membership by accepting the Agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Greece?’

A majority must participate

The referendum is not legally binding but rather consultative, and will only be considered valid if a majority of registered voters participate. But failure to reach the required 50 per cent voter turnout would not stop the NATO and EU accession process, which requires further action by parliament.

According to one Twitter user:

Мутен@toVornottoV

30 септември дава можност за конечно помрднуење од status quo-то у кое што смо заглавени и конечно ослободуење од бизарен проблем што не влече надоле скоро 30 године. Затоа ќе .

September 30 provides an opportunity to finally move from the status quo which has stymied us, to finally break free from a bizarre problem that has been holding us down for almost 30 years. That’s why #IVote.

For other voters, the referendum is both symbolic and cathartic, representing a return “to the right path” after “the lost decade” of democratic backsliding, and many have been holding their breath in anticipation:

mindрluмbеr@mindplumber

Цела држава се неуротизирала, све се остава за „после 30-ти“.
А бе, сендвич да сакаш да купиш, таа на скарата ќе ти каже „немој сеа, ај после 30-ти, да се расчисти“

The whole state has become neurotic, everything is left [for] ‘after the 30th’. Even if you want to buy a sandwich, the barbecue lady might say, ‘Not now, let’s do it after the 30th, after the situation clears’.

Calls for a boycott

This anxiety may have to do with the boycott campaign being waged by right-wing populist opponents and led by several fringe non-parliamentary parties, including pro-Russian, Euro-skeptic and anti-NATO United Macedonia, which styles itself on Putin’s United Russia.

The campaign stokes the fears of ethnic Macedonians by presenting the country’s name change as the first step along a slippery slope that will lead to genocide, or ethnocentric. The campaign is steeped in disinformation and hate speech, from intentional misinterpretations of the consequences of the agreement with Greece, to claims that the government has given citizenship to Albanians from Kosovo to boost the number of “yes” votes. There have even been suggestions of election fraud, to which one Twitter user replied:

Ленка многу кенка@RedRadish5

Кога стварно мислиш дека ќе местат гласање излегуваш да гласаш за да им отежнеш, а не седиш дома

When you really think that authorities plan voter fraud, citizens go out and vote to make it harder for them, they don’t sit at home.

Meanwhile, the main opposition party VMRO-DPMNE, a member of the conservative European People’s Party (EPP), has sat on the fence, neither openly endorsing the boycott campaign nor encouraging its supporters to participate in the referendum and vote against the agreement with Greece, which it considers “a capitulation”.

Other EPP members have accused VMRO-DPMNE of hypocrisy, as high ranking party officials participated personally in the boycott, and the campaign was vigorously promoted by media outlets reputed for being party mouthpieces.

Representatives of the ruling SDSM have also claimed that VMRO-DPMNE had attempted to make a deal, promising to throw its support behind the referendum if its former party leaders on trial for corruption were given an amnesty. The government refused, and the VMRO-DPMNE’s indecisive position is largely being interpreted as sign of weakness:

НиколаСтрез@NikolaStrez

За едно од најважните прашања за Македонија, вмро нема став и повикува секој да гласа по свое убедување.

Очекувам на следните избори, кога ќе сакаат да дојдат на власт, да излезат со истиот став и да не сугерираат за кого да гласаме.

VMRO-DPMNE has no official position on one of the most important issues for Macedonia, and has declared that people should vote according to their own preference. In the next elections, I expect that they will adopt the same position and won’t advocate whom to vote for.

Social media tactics and allegations about Russia

On social media the “I boycott” campaign (#бојкотирам) started over the summer, and involved mainly anonymous social media profiles and sock puppets from the VMRO-DPMNE troll army. Observers noticed a high number of new profiles appear in August 2018, suspected to be automated bots originating outside the country. The campaign was also shared via profiles linked to specific individuals, including VMRO-DPMNE’s foreign lobbyists, Macedonian nationalist organizations operating in the diaspora, and Macedonia’s president, who gained his position with the party’s support.

Around 50 people attended the Boycott campaign rally in Ohrid on 22 September. Photo by GV, CC-BY.

Western sources alleged that Russia was trying to obstruct the consolidation of the NATO and EU process; when asked, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev diplomatically said that the authorities have not found “evidence of direct Russian influence with fake news” regarding the referendum, and that he trusts Macedonia’s NATO allies on this matter.

Prior to that statement, however, Zaev was less reserved in pointing to Kremlin-related attempts — including the funding of violent protests by a Greek-Russian oligarch — to obstruct the deal with Greece. Moreover, an independent journalist discovered that back in 2015, a Russian troll farm specialist named Anna Bogacheva had visited Macedonia on business. She has since been named as one of 13 Russian nationals indicted over alleged interference in the 2016 United States election.

The “I Boycott” campaign has also employed tactics used by the American alt-right, including use of the Pepe the Frog meme, which was ridiculed even by VMRO-DPMNE members who couldn’t understand how their party’s symbol, the mighty lion, was reduced to a frog.

Ready for change

There have been attempts, mostly through cyber-bullying, to intimidate activists and ‘dissenting’ right-wing figures who have said they will take part in the referendum. Former VMRO-DPMNE government minister Nikola Todorov’s revelation that he would vote “no” exposed him to particularly vicious harassment on Facebook. But in spite of some of the threats issues, observers don’t expect much violence.

Numerous citizens have also expressed their support for both the referendum as the ultimate tool of democracy, and for the government-backed campaign to vote in it:

Бени@Shushmula

Скоро три полни децении живееме во пештера а сакаме светот да не знае и прифати.
Од сето тоа светот знае само дека живееме во пештера.

Almost 3 decades we’ve been living in a cave, while wanting the world to know about as and to accept us.
Out of all that, the world only knows that we’ve been living in a cave.
#IVote!

If surveys conducted in the months before the referendum are anything to go by, most Macedonian citizens are ready for change, even if that means swallowing the bitter pill of the name change in exchange for the long-term benefits of NATO and EU membership.

As Colombia’s peace process falters, scores of social activists are being killed

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF GLOBAL VOICES)

(IT DOES SOUND LIKE COLUMBIA’S NEW PRESIDENT IS ONLY FUEL ON THE FIRE)

As Colombia’s peace process falters, scores of social activists are being killed

Screenshot of the video “No están solos” (You’re not alone) with images of the protests in Colombia in defense of social activists. Video and images shared by Contagio Radio, a Colombian local independent radio station devoted to human rights.

Colombia, one of the most dangerous nations for human rights activists, has attempted to halt its 50-year armed conflict through a complex peace process that began in 2012. As this peace process falters, social activists including local community leaders, land defenders, gender and sexuality rights protectors, teachers and journalists are being targeted and killed at an alarming rate, and the numbers continue to rise.

Recently-elected president Ivan Duque’s government is slow to respond to these killings and sometimes denies the systematic nature of the violence, making it difficult to track and monitor these cases.

In a special report by the newspaper El Tiempo, a map of the killings reveals vulnerable areas where the armed conflict has been most active. The non-governmental organization Indepaz (“Institute of Peace and Development”) calculates that in 2018 alone, around 124 social activists have been killed, and approximately 300 social activists have been killed since the peace agreements began in 2012.

No land, no peace

Colombia’s deeply-rooted land rights conflict stems from the country’s extremely unequal land distribution. The evolving and ongoing violence is the direct result of complications from poorly implemented peace agreements that were partly designed to protect land rights.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the main rebel group, has agreed to demobilize and surrender arms, but this has left a power vacuum in which some members who abandoned FARC still remain active in the conflict. Perhaps some are motivated by economic interests while others refuse to accept the uncertainties of civilian life. In fact, a number of ex-FARC members have been targeted and killed as they try to reintegrate into society. Other illegal armed groups, notably the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC), are attempting to gain territorial control in the regions that were FARC strongholds.

Some civil society groups are certain that corporate entities may be behind the attacksnot just illegal armed groups. President Duque’s plans to further develop an extractive economy leaves social activists fearing for their safety as larger international corporations take a vested interest in contested lands.

In December 2017, leaders from Bajo Atrato, a northern Colombian region hardest hit by the violence, visited Congress with their faces covered with white masks after two of their leaders were killed while defending their land from palm oil and banana farming investors:

We’re the families of the leaders who have been killed in the region. We’ve all been threatened with death as a strategy put together by corporations that have already been charged by different legal institutions and business people who have already been denounced. How much longer [will this go on] and how many more [will die]?

“It’s all happening before our eyes…”

La Pulla, an opinion-focused Youtube channel, produced  “I’ve just heard about it” (Me acabo de enterar) to explain the context of these killings using some characteristically dark humor. They describe the murdered social activists as people who “demanded a few basic little things: land to farm, schools, medical centers, potable water, roads…Oh! And peace…”

The presenter continues:

These people are the thorn in the flesh for the armed groups’ interests: the control of the land, illegal mining and drug trafficking routes. These have a lot of consequences; when they kill a social activist they’re killing the possibilities of change in that community, because the projects that this person was in charge of are abandoned and people are scared to continue. Often times people leave town, in fear of having the same fate, or because they’ve been threatened already. The message is well understood. That way, any opposition is eliminated and everything remains untouched. The ones who are screwed, are even more screwed, and the warlords remain the owners of everything. All of this is happening before our eyes, while the government comes up with just band-aid solutions and even dare to suggest that some of the victims are criminals.

Father Alberto Franco, from the Inter-Church Commission of Peace and Justice (Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz), also worries about these new uncertainties, saying that President Duque:

represents a group that has historically opposed peace processes, land restitution and the modernization of Colombian democracy.

In July 2018, thousands of Colombian citizens took to the streets to show solidarity with social activists and human rights defenders, recognizing the need to protest loudly against extrajudicial killings.

Most of their activities, petitionsdocumentaries, and news can be followed through #NosEstánMatando (#They’reKillingUs) and #NoEstánSolos(“You’reNotAlone), trending hashtags devoted to denouncing the killings and telling the stories of victims to keep their memory and hard work alive.

Myanmar sentences Reuters journalists to 7 years in prison

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF ‘GLOBAL VOICES’)

 

Myanmar sentences Reuters journalists to 7 years in prison

One of many online campaigns’ images demanding the release of wrongly accused journalists.

Two Myanmar reporters who were covering the killing of Rohingya in Rakhine state last year were sentenced to seven years prison on September 3 for violating the Official Secrets Act of 1923 after a nine-month-long trial.

Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were working for Reuters when they were arrested in December 2017 for possessing state documents regarding military operations in Rakhine state. In court proceedings earlier this year, police testified that they had handed the documents to the reporters without explanation, shortly before the arrest.

The two reporters were investigating the killings of 10 Rohingya villagers by the military in Inn Din village in the northwest of Rakhine on the aftermath of the clashes between the army and Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in August 2017. The clashes were followed by the displacement of more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh.

Myanmar’s government does not recognize Myanmar-born Rohingyas, most of whom are Muslim, as citizens or as an ethnic group living in Myanmar. The government designates ARSA as a terrorist organization.

In April 2018, police captain Moe Yan Naing testified in court that he and a colleague were ordered to entrap the reporters. He was sentenced to one year in prison after that testimony for violating the Police Disciplinary Act. He told reporters after the hearing that sentenced him: “Putting me in prison stops other police officers from saying the truth”.

Immediately after the court decision, Free of Expression Myanmar (FEM), a local civil society group, released its statement denouncing the state for its failure to protect journalists.

The conviction shows the lengths to which the Myanmar state is willing to go to hide its wrongdoing. In the past, the state has mostly bullied and jailed local journalists, but now it has picked on one of the most renowned media houses in the world.”

Local voices demand justice

The case has attracted outrage not only internationally, but inside Myanmar too.

Many people in the country, including civil society organization and activists, have been speaking out against the journalists’ arrest since last year.

Last month, A-than (Voice), a local civil society group working for the abolition of Myanmar’s online defamation law, launched a video campaign on social media featuring several activists from Myanmar calling for the release of the journalists. The statement message of the campaign posts read as:

Reuters Journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested and detained when they were doing their investigative report on the killings in Inn Din village committed by Ta-ma-taw [Army]. Inn Din village killings were admitted by Ta-ma-taw and seven army officers have been convicted by war court already. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were acting ethically in order to get reliable information for people. Captain Moe Yan Naing has already testified that [the reporters] were set up by the police because of the news that they were covering.

A few days before the hearing on September 3, many marched in the city of Yangon, Myanmar’s economic capital, to demand journalists’ release.

For some, the case reinforces the growing disappointment with the government of the National League for Democracy (NLD), headed by noble peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Peace activist Moe Thway expressed his disappoint for Aung San Suu Kyi for not speaking out to protect the journalists.

The fact that Wa Lone (and Kyaw Soe Oo) were given unjust prison sentences is not because of the court alone.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her government are also responsible for approving their arrests and saying that they were guilty.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has clearly revealed her characteristic of a dictatorship.

In a statement [pdf] condemning the verdict, organized by A-than and signed by 63 local NGOs, supporters wrote:

We believe that the decision by the court is irrational and the case was brought against the two journalists….to justify [their] arrest and imprisonment…We take this as a crackdown on the right of access to information and media freedom, and an oppressive gesture [against] all concerned people of Myanmar who are aspiring [to]….a society characterized by rule of law, accountability, freedom and justice.

The court decision was also condemned by the international community, including statements released immediately by US Embassy in Myanmar and EU Union in Myanmar.

Is Russian social media giant VKontakte sidestepping the GDPR?

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF GLOBAL VOICES)

 

Is Russian social media giant VKontakte sidestepping the GDPR? One user is trying to find out.

As if revealing their users’ personal data to Russian authorities wasn’t bad enough, VKontakte may now run in serious trouble in Europe // Martinsson Serg, CC2.0

Russian social media network VKontakte has been having a bad few months. Multiple platform users have been prosecuted for their posts, and the company has been publicly shamed for its lack of transparency regarding how it shares user data with law enforcement authorities.

Now, VKontakte (VK) is facing a new privacy-related challenge: Kristian Shinkevich, a Belarussian activist living in Poland, is demanding that VK give him all the personal data that it has pertaining to him. The company has yet to comply. And in the meantime, it has suspended his access to the account.

Shinkevich first began wondering about VK’s data collection practices after he faced legal threats for participating in a demonstration in Belarus. Shortly thereafter, he was expelled from his university, where he says an administrator told him that the school had access to all their students’ VKontakte data, including which posts they had liked. In his case, this would have revealed his involvement with demonstrations.

Between this, and the fact that other Belarussian activists have been arrested for VKontakte posts promoting protests (an indication that authorities in Belarus also monitor activity on the social network), Shinkevich found himself wanting to know more about VK’s data collection practices.

So he looked to the European Union’s newly-instituted General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a set of policies aimed at standardizing the handling of personal information by companies and organizations. Under the GDPR, any company that processes the personal information of EU subjects must comply with certain rules regarding the protection and transfer of such data.

Another provision stipulates that EU subjects have a right to access the personal information that companies retain about them, and that they have a right to know how this information is used.

Although Shinkevich is a citizen of a non-EU state, Belarus, he is entitled to request this information under the GDPR, as an EU resident (or “subject”, as described in the GDPR) in Poland. Additionally, despite the fact that VKontakte is a Russian company, it must still comply because it is providing services to EU subjects abroad and handling their information.

Noncompliance would give EU authorities the power to levy a fine of either 20 million euros or 4 percent global gross revenue, depending on which is higher.

When Shinkevich filed a request to VKontakte Support to get access to all the data VKontakte had collected about him, he received the requested file. He described what he found on Facebook:

Today I have received the file, and that’s freaking serious.

They store:
1. the whole name and surname changes history
2. groups and public pages I’ve managed
3. name of files uploaded, from which IP address, city, links to the deleted files, moreover, even simple voice messages from deleted conversations are there
4. complete list of files I’ve removed from my page, their exact address, name, date added, direct link – no matter that they all have been removed – voice messages, PDF documents etc.
5. adresses [sic] of pictures from Saved Photos album (protected). Direct links can be opened without being logged in
6. complete history of conversations, including removed, up to 27.06.2018 20:43:51 (the first message is dated 01.09.2016 21:40:30), with all the attachments including removed ones.
7. complete history of phone number ever linked to the account
8. history of password retrieval requests
9. all the comments and posts from my page timeline, including ones removed about 1-2 years ago (the section is titled “Messages posted on the user’s wall”)

This file is about 1,5 Mbytes but it has al [sic] the history of my activity on VK since 2016 (when my page was created).

Shinkevich was not surprised by what the file contained — but he was surprised at what it lacked. “I am pretty sure that what they have sent me is not the whole information, and they have much more,” he wrote on Facebook.

Indeed, VKontakte’s privacy policy indicates (in section 4.2.1) that the company processes a wide range of information about users and their activities, including but not limited to information about the “user’s operating system, type of a browser, geographic position, the Internet provider, contacts, data obtained accessing the camera, microphone and similar devices.” The policy does not clearly define how this data is treated after being processed. VK’s terms of service (7.2.5) indicate that “the Site Administration has the right to keep archive copies of the user Content for an indefinite period.”

Do these and other types of information qualify as “personal data”? It depends on where you ask the question. While Russian Federal Law 152 defines personal information as any information directly or indirectly related to a specific individual, the GDPR has a very specific breakdown of this wide interpretation. But as the terms of the GDPR apply to all companies providing services to EU subjects, VKontakte is required by law to follow these terms when dealing with customers in the EU.

When Shinkevich asked VKontakte for the rest of the information, it evaded his request. The company later blocked his access to his account at the end of July. His page is still online, but he cannot log in to it or reset his password.

When Russian news aggregator TJournal reached out to VKontakte, they said:

We didn’t block the user’s page. Access was restricted after the user changed several key parameters, including first name, last name, gender, and so on. Such activity is considered suspicious and could be proof that the account was sold or given to another person.

Restricting access to the page isn’t in any way related to the user’s GDPR information request.

Shinkevich has since filed a complaint with Poland’s personal data security service and has taken the controversial step of advocating that VKontakte be blocked in Poland.  He joins a growing number of voices urging users to stop using VKontakteand delete their pages.

Last year, VKontakte’s total revenue was over $200,000,000.If found in violation of GDPR, their fine would be ten percent of that amount. With upwards of two million EU users, the social network could soon pay a hefty price if it doesn’t address privacy concerns.

Death of a 12-year-old boy lays bare the plight of Iran’s Ahwazi minority

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF GLOBAL VOICES)

 

Death of a 12-year-old boy lays bare the plight of Iran’s Ahwazi minority

Ahwazi children walk alongside a canal. A 12-year-old boy has been the latest casualty of Ahwaz’s continued state of poverty and struggle. Image: Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 3.0

A 12-year-old Ahwazi boy was reported dead by suicide on the evening of July 24, 2018, in the Republic of Iran, sparking outrage over the discrimination and hardship faced by the country’s minority Ahawzi population.

Suicide rates and cases of self-immolation continue to rise among the Ahwazi, an Arab community who live in Iran’s oil and gas-rich southern provinces and constitute 10 percent of the country’s population. Viewed as inferior because of their ethnicity, most Ahwazis exist below the poverty line, with limited or no access to employment, education, healthcare, or basic utilities.

The mother of the young boy, who was identified only as Meysam, returned to the family home in Abadan, in the province of Khuzestan, on Tuesday evening to find that her 12-year-old son had hanged himself. The boy was the eldest of two children, the other a five-year-old girl.

The mother, the sole wage-earner of the household, worked as a housekeeper and cleaner and struggled to provide for herself and her children. According to activists, shortly before her son’s death, the woman had sold some of the family’s meager possessions, including her son’s mobile phone and bicycle, in order to pay outstanding rent.

Meysam’s suicide is the latest to afflict the Ahwazi Arab community. In the past couple of years, a high number of Ahwazi Arab young men have protested through acts of suicidal self-immolation, often in front of the oil and gas companies’ headquarters and government offices.

In an interview with Ahwaz monitor in April 2017, the Ahwazi activist Karim Khalaf Dohimi pondered the reasons behind those events:

There is a surge of high incidence of suicide across Al-Ahwaz due to poverty and the high rate of unemployment as well as the closure of the Ahwazi Arab free market that led to Ahwazi youth and especially those who are married to commit suicide. The suicide attempts also increased in rural areas in Ahwaz since 90 percent of Ahwazi Arab people in rural areas are suffering from poverty and very low income. They are overwhelmingly dependent on agriculture and fishing for their food but these people have been left with no alternative source of income after their entire arable lands on the banks of the Karoon River were forcibly confiscated by regime officials with very low compensation.

There is, however, an economic crisis occurring across Iran, and there is a general upswing of suicide rates across the country. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), and various studies led inside of Iran reported by Iranian news agencies such as the Iranian Labour News Agency (ILNA), suicide rates in Iran are on the rise. In 2014, the WHO reported that 5,3 out of 100,000 Iranians committed suicide.

On social media, in reaction to the harsh news, one Iranian remarked on the sad state of the country reflected in both Meysam’s suicide, alongside similar deaths amongst another Ahwazi boy of 17 years old alongside another 15 year old girl from an Arab dominated city of Iran.

vania🏳@bigvania88

حکومت جمهوری اسلامی تو یک هفته؛
۱. خودکشی پسر ۱۲ ساله آبادانی
۲. خودسوزی پسر ۱۷ ساله اهوازی
۳. دختر ۱۵ ساله‌ی شهرک الغدیر

+ هر سه به دلایل معیشتی خودکشی کردن. چه شعارهایی قبل از ۵۷ دادند، حالا بعد از چهل سال همون مردم دارن‌ برای بقا مبارزه میکنند.

The Islamic Republic of Iran in one week

  1. The suicide of a 12 year old boy from Abadan
  2. The suicide of a 17 year old boy from Ahwaz
  3. A 15 year old girl from the city of al-Ghadir

+ all 3 killed themselves because of the struggle for a livelihood. What slogans were there before 1979, and now after 40 years of it? #become_united

In Ahwaz, the region’s natural wealth has been turned into a source of suffering for its people. On one hand, the Ahwazi bears the brunt of the environmental pollution caused by the oil and gas drilling operations; on the other, profits from operations in the region bolster the authorities’ security apparatus, who are employed to crush any resistance in the region.

The number one cause of suicide is untreated depression. Depression is treatable and suicide is preventable. You can get help from confidential support lines for the suicidal and those in emotional crisis. Visit Befrienders.org to find a suicide prevention helpline in your country.

At Least 25 Killed In Nicaragua Protests

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF GLOBAL VOICES)

 

#SOSNicaragua: At least 25 killed in Nicaragua protests, including one journalist, say human rights groups

Protesters killed in Nicaragua, confirmed by independent news site Confidencial. Photo compilation by Confidencial. Individual photos via various social media channels.

In Nicaragua, what began as demonstrations against social security reforms have become a national outcry against corruption, censorship and overall repression.

In just five days of demonstrations, the government has carried out a violent crackdown. While state sources are reporting a death toll of 10, human rights and protest groups estimate that at least 25 people have been killed in protests, with many more injured, and dozens detained or disappeared. One journalist and one police officer are among the dead.

Multiple TV networks have been banned from broadcasting the demonstrations. Access to Confidencial, a local independent news site reporting on the protester death tollwas faltering shortly before this article was published.

On April 18, the government – led by President Daniel Ortega and First Lady Rosario Murillo, who is also the vice president – unilaterally adopted an executive decree reducing the pension allowance by 5% and implementing additional social security taxes to employers and employees.

In response, retirees and students organized peaceful demonstrations to voice their disagreement but were met with anti-riot police forces and members of the Sandinista Youth parastatal group. Chaos erupted from there. Clashes have since turned violent and some protesters have reported that police are using live ammunition.

Video journalist Ángel Gahona was shot dead on April 21 while live broadcasting a protest through Facebook Live.

Sandra Cuffe@Sandra_Cuffe

Nicaraguan journalist Angel Eduardo Gahona spent the last four minutes of his life covering youth protest and incoming riot police tonight in Bluefields. He was streaming live on facebook when he was shot and killed. This was his last broadcast: https://www.facebook.com/ElMeridianoBluefields/videos/1525050757617208/ 

Other journalists have been attacked and assaulted, and have had their equipment stolen. In parallel, at least three TV channels were banned from reporting on the protests.

In a country where media freedom is fleeting, censorship has not deterred Nicaraguans, who are live broadcasting, tweeting and video blogging about the crisis on the ground.

Hashtags such as #SOSNicaragua, #SOSINSS and #QueSeRindaTuMadre have gone viral on Twitter and Facebook, and raw videos are being uploaded on Dropbox. Through online activism, Nicaraguans are pleading for international support — though they are specifically asking the US not to intervene.

Demonstrators in Managua. Screenshot from Euronews video.

While college students are the face of the movement, Nicaraguans from across the political spectrum are actively supporting them, starting with feminist and peasant groups, retirees, and students’ parents. This is why demonstrators stress they are not linked to a specific political party, but are making demands in the name of human rights and democracy in Nicaragua. The protestors call themselves “the self-organized, self-summoned.”

Journalist Wilfredo Miranda filmed a demonstration where protesters ironically shout “here is the minority,” in reference to Vice-President Murillo’s belief that the outcry only represents a minority of Nicaraguans.

Wilfredo Miranda Aburto@PiruloAr

“Aquí está la minoría”, le responden a Rosario Murillo

Since students have born the brunt of police killings and aggression, civilians are gathering supplies and medicines for them in universities and in the Managua Cathedral, as the Church backs the upheaval.

In a video posted to Facebook by Franklin Leonel, we see students and doctors caring for the wounded in university halls. In a caption, he writes:

They are not criminals!!! #SOSNicaragua they’re killing our students!!!

The government’s official position has been shifting in public statements, but the state-enforced violence seems to continue.

President Ortega publicly ignored the protests for three days, before making an appearance on April 21. Military troops multiplied on the streets thereafter. Later, he declared that he was open to a dialogue with the private sector, who accepted the invitation under certain conditions, such as inviting other sectors of society at the table. President Ortega did not reply and instead repealed the social security reform altogether on April 22.

But the protests now have expanded beyond the cause of the social security reform. Demonstrators are demanding justice for those who have been killed by police and military gunfire, and are demanding an end to government corruption. Some are calling for the overall dissolution of Ortega’s government.

On Facebook, protest supporter Leonor Zúniga posted a video explaining the situation:

…the people are tired. It’s been 11 years that we’ve been in a very authoritarian [state], where we’ve been constantly repressed, where state decisions are made in secret, where we’re never taken into account.

[…]

I think that [the social security reform] was the last straw.

The now-repealed social security reform was, as Zúniga says, the last straw in a decline of government accountability, economic conditions, environmental degradation (including recent wildfires in the Indio Maíz nature reserve) and democratic institutions at large.

Nicaragua, a country of six million people, lived under the Somoza authoritarian regime until the Sandinista Revolution toppled the government in 1979. In the 1980s, a civil war raged between the Sandinista regime and the “Contras”, opposition fighters financed and armed by the US government. Daniel Ortega, a former guerrillero and member of the Sandinista National Liberal Front (FSLN in Spanish) was elected president in 1985. He remained in office until he lost a reelection bid in 1990, which brought about the end of the civil war.

Ortega was reelected in 2007 and has remained in power ever since. His tenure has been marked by the abolition of presidential term limits, an increasingly muzzled press, opaque business deals, and direct control over the police, the military and both the judiciary and legislative branches of government.

A Romanian in the UK: ‘Undesirable Migrant’ Or ‘Welcomed Contributor’

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF GLOBAL VOICES)

 

A Romanian in the UK: On the Thin Line Between ‘Undesirable Migrant’ and ‘Welcomed Contributor’

Alexandra Bulat, photo from her official page at UCL, used with her permission.

What is the human side of the Brexit, the UK ‘divorce’ from the EU? Numerous controversies remain, as well as the need to fix the system in order to avoid further suffering for millions of people caught in a bureaucratic uncertainty or facing arbitrary and unjust rules and regulations.

According to the newspaper The Sun, around 3.6 million EU nationals currently live in the UK, including nearly 600,000 children. Among them, eastern Europeans have been specially branded by Leavers (those who support UK’s separation from Europe) as “unwanted” immigrants. They often are tagged as “benefit scroungers, here to steal jobs”. This sentiment is not new, as they already felt like second-class citizens because of working restrictions initially put on migrants from central and eastern Europe when they joined the EU. Arguably, UK’s decision to open its labor market to these countries is what led the voters to become so opposed to migration from the EU.

Photographer Deividas Buivydas shared some captivating images from Boston, Lincolnshire, where tension against eastern Europeans is evident and post-Brexit anxiety is bubbling. This town registered the highest Leave vote in Britain, at 75.6 per cent and was dubbed “the capital of Brexit”. It also is home of the largest proportion of Eastern Europeans in the country.

The life story of Alexandra Bulat, a young scholar from Romania who made a career at top UK academic institutions also offers a telling example, as she referred to a famous phrase by UK Prime Minister Theresa May, uttered in January 2017:

I am a Romanian PhD student, teaching assistant & researcher. One of @theresa_may‘s praised “brightest and the best” whose “contributions are welcome”.

This I want to share my story. Until I got to this point, I was in many ways an “undesirable migrant” ⬇️

Ms. Bulat shared her story in a series of much-retweeted tweets which are summarized bellow.

My first experience in the UK was in 1997. My father got a temporary [National Health Service] contract as there was a skill shortage. I attended the hospital’s nursery for 7 months but my family chose to return to Romania. My mum was unemployed and my father had limited rights to work.

Meanwhile my parents got divorced. I attended a free school and skipped many classes in the last college years. Grew up mainly with “working class kids” sometimes doing dangerous things. But I achieved the highest grade in the Romanian Baccalaureate and this opened many doors.

I returned to the UK at 18 to study. I passed an IELTS exam but this was not enough to understand even half of what my British colleagues were saying. Should I have been “sent back” then as I could not properly engage in English conversations in my first few months?

Three years later I graduated with a first class degree from . It was a fun but difficult time. My mum came looking for work when I was in my second year and we shared a studio room at some point. I worked various part time jobs. Met my British partner.

In 2015 I received offers from both  and  to do my Masters. In the summer I worked as an intern in London to save money. We had no savings and definitely not enough to pay the 10,000 pounds tuition fee. Should I have given up my dreams?

I borrowed money from the bank for my fee and accepted my Master of Philosophy (MPhil) offer at Cambridge. I had barely enough to cover the first term of college accommodation and no idea what to do next. My mum was made redundant and things were not going well.

Meanwhile one of my colleagues was shocked to hear my experience of college – “So you did not have prep classes for Oxbridge interviews???”. Nope. This is maybe why I failed my Oxford interview for undergrad despite passing the written test. Oh, also my poor English.

I read my MPhil handbook saying we should not do any paid work. I did paid work throughout my MPhil and finished with 72% overall. Meanwhile mum got a job and things got back to normal around graduation time, after a year of familiarizing myself with Sainsbury’s Basic [a supermarket chain offering low cost produce].

Should me and my mum have been deported due to insufficient resources in those times? “If you do not make a net contribution you should be sent home”, some claim. Life is not a tick-box as the immigration categories are.

Alexandra Bulat. Courtesy photo used with her permission.

In 2016 after a summer of work on a temp contract I accepted my fully funded PhD at . This was the best thing that happened to me. I was sad to leave Cambridge uni but I could not have afforded a PhD with no funding. Funding is very competitive in social sciences.

My mum’s job was again subject to restructuring in 2017. After a few months of job searching she decided to leave to Germany. She also was concerned about  after Brexit. They are not guaranteed yet. She is working in Germany now, the UK lost a skilled professional.

In 2018 all things go well. I speak fluent English, have a lovely British partner and I am halfway through my PhD. But I, like all  and  are still . Our reduced  are not secured in case of no deal.

In the mind of many people rudely commenting on  posts such as the stories shared in ‘s articles, we should be sent back home unless we are a constantly producing tax payment machine. It is important to realize the complexity of migrant stories. According to these people’s logic, my mum should have been deported every time she lost her job and I should not have been allowed in with little English or “insufficient resources”. We have not claimed a single benefit all these years, not even job-seeker’s allowance.

To everyone that tells me to stop criticizing settled status because “I will be fine, cos I am a PhD student and skilled migrant”, I am saying: no. I will not close the gate behind me just because I managed to become a “desirable migrant”.  were promised for all.

On 1 June 2016, few weeks ahead of the Brexit Referendum, the “Vote Leave” campaign issued a statement by Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Priti Patel, and Gisela Stuart, claiming that:

Second, there will be no change for EU citizens already lawfully resident in the UK. These EU citizens will automatically be granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK and will be treated no less favourably than they are at present.

In October of the same year, David Davis, Brexit Secretary tried to downplay the concerns of people like Ms. Bulat’s mother, by claiming that “Five out of six migrants who are here either already have indefinite leave to remain or ​will have it by the time we depart the [EU].” However, the UK fact-checking service FullFact concluded:

This is not fully substantiated by the evidence and will depend on the arrangements we make upon leaving the EU. Whatever happens, EU citizens are not going to be forced to leave en masse.

FullFact also noted other points of uncertainty, which depend on the outcome of the UK-EU negotiations which are still in the works, and are supposed to end by March 2019. For instance, the right to permanent residence under EU law may or may not survive Brexit and might depend on meeting criteria for permanent residence such as “whether they’re working, looking for work, self-employed, studying or self-sufficient…”

Instead, automatic grant of all existing rights promised by Vote Leave is still uncertainty for both EU migrants in UK and British in EU27. Many areas remain unclear and are under negotiations such as some family reunification rights and political rights (EU migrants can vote in local elections only)…

recent protest by the group Highly Skilled Migrants, which says it represents over 600 doctors, engineers, IT professionals, teachers and their families in Britain attempted to raise profile of ‘discriminatory’ Home Office rules. The ‘harsh migration policy’ affects both immigrants from ‘overseas’, and those coming from the EU member countries. Latest data indicates large drop in the number of EU nationals seeking jobs in the UK due to Brexit uncertainty.

Ms. Bulat concluded her story with the following tweet:

We need a solution to protect all , just as promised by Vote Leave. No more “bad migrant”-“good migrant” division games. People’s lives do not fit in a tickbox. Politicians should listen to more real migrant stories to understand.

Murder of Investigative Journalist Ján Kuciak Shakes Slovak Society

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF ‘GLOBAL VOICES’)

 

Murder of Investigative Journalist Ján Kuciak Shakes Slovak Society

Killed Slovak journalist Ján Kuciak. Photo by Aktuality.sk, used with permission.

On February 25, Slovak journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiance Martina Kušnírová were found shot dead in their home about 65 km east of the capital Bratislava. The murders caused widespread shock and protests throughout the country.

Kuciak, 27, had worked for the news site Aktuality.sk. More than a week after the murder, there has been no headway in the official investigation.

According to BBC, between 10,000 and 20,000 people took to the streets across Slovakia on Friday in protest vigils in Kuciak’s memory, with some calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Robert Fico, the leader of the political party Direction – Social Democracy (SMER-SD).

Thousands of people are marching in Bratislava. This is huge reaction on murder of Slovak investigative journalist and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová. It’s probably biggest demonstration since independence of Slovakia.
(Photo credits: Tomáš Benedikovič, @dennikN)

Police and people close to Kuciak suspect his death was related to his work. His most recent investigation, which had yet to be published, looked at connections between Slovak government politicians and Italian mafia interests in eastern Slovakia, aimed at defrauding European Union (EU) subsidies for agriculture.

Several days after the murder, Slovak police arrested but then released Italian citizens Antonino Vadala, Bruno Vadala, and Pietro Catroppa who all are allegedly connected to the large-scale Italian organized crime group ‘Ndrangheta, which Kuciak was investigating prior to his death.

Various independent voices online since have pointed to connections between the ruling party and the Italian mafia.

Some comments have focused on Antonino Vadala, who once referred to Slovakia’s ruling SMER party as “our party”. Shortly thereafter, multiple politicians released statements saying they had no connection to Vadala.

Blogger Jiří Ščobák observed while lead parliamentarian Andrej Danko had posted an image of a candle on his Facebook page, to honor Kuciak, he had in fact previously been friends with Vadala. Ščobák juxtaposed a screenshot of the recent post, alongside a screenshot showing that they had been Facebook friends.

Connections with the Italian mafia is a taboo topic for Slovak media. Kuciak continued investigating them after journalist Ivan Mego from Plus 7 Dní weekly got orders from his superiors to stop his inquires on this topic, and was sacked in February.

Ján Kuciak’s colleagues from Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and his outlet, Aktuality.sk, defied this norm and decided to posthumously publish the last story he was working on.

A former topless model who was hired unexpectedly by Slovakia’s Prime Minister turned out to be the former business partner of a man with ties to the ‘Ndrangheta. /3

You can kill a journalist, but you will never kill the story. We are proud to publish Jan’s last, unfinished investigation. https://www.occrp.org/en/amurderedjournalistslastinvestigation/ 

A Murdered Journalist’s Last Investigation – OCCRP

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) is a global network of investigative journalists.

occrp.org

Kuciak was not the kind of investigative journalist who worked with many secret sources. His style was rooted primarily in collecting and connecting information from public archives.

Last September, he filed a criminal complaint because of verbal threats from a known Slovak entrepreneur.

The tax office about which assassinated journalist Jan Kuciak was investigating is up in flames today. Below, evidence burning: https://twitter.com/karelpeka/status/968442142472462336 

Slovak left-wing populist Prime Minister Róbert Fico is known for his verbal attacks on journalists, calling them “hyenas”, “dirty anti-Slovak prostitutes” and even “toilet spiders”.

Nevertheless, just two days after Kuciak’s killing, he put up a reward of one million euros from the state budget for information about the murder.

How is it even possible for PM to take 1 million € from the state treasury in CASH and put it on the table during a press conference? What law allowed him to do this with taxpayers’ money?

Two people with close ties to Fico figured prominently in Kuciak’s stories — Mária Trošková, a former girlfriend of Antonino Vadala, and Viliam Jasaň, who served as the chief of crisis management and state security, and had ties with a Vadala’s company.

Trošková and Jasaň have voluntarily left their posts in the government, pending the conclusion of the investigation of the journalist’s murder. When asked to explain their departure, which they say is temporary, both cited pressure from the media, arguing that “their names are abused in political struggle against Fico”.

Blogger Milan Ftorek pointed to contradictions in the PM’s public behavior:

Has the Slovak Prime Minister gone mad? …during one press conference he managed to both play the part of a person who wants to expose Kuciak’s killers, but at the same time he defended those who were the subject of Kuciak’s investigations?

Newspapers, political opposition voices and many members of the general public reacted with outrage, organizing memorials, marches and protests in Slovakiaand abroad, honoring Kuciak and Kušnírová.

#AllForJan webpage set up by Aktuality.sk commemorating Jan Kuciak (27), and Martina Kušnírová (27)

Kuciak’s media outlet Aktuality.sk is using the hashtag #AllForJan, while many have simply been using a hashtag with the journalist’s name .

Turkish Journalists Sentenced to Life in Prison

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF GLOBAL VOICES)

 

‘They Fear Pens, Not Guns’: Turkish Journalists Sentenced to Life in Prison

Demonstrators on World Press Freedom Day in Turkey, 2013. Image by Amnesty International Turkey.

After spending just over a year behind bars without charge, Turkish-German journalist Deniz Yucel was released from a Turkish jail on February 16. Just hours later, six other journalists in the country were issued a life sentence for “or attempting to overthrow the constitutional order”.

With 155 journalists serving jail time because of their work, these days of highs and lows are beginning to feel routine for Turkey’s embattled independent media community.

BBC described Deniz Yucel’s imprisonment as a long-standing “irritant” in the relations between the two countries. His release came shortly after Turkish PM’s visit to Germany this week.

Deniz Yucel was arrested exactly 367 days ago on suspicion of “inciting the people to racial hatred and enmity” and “spreading the propaganda of a terrorist organization”.

Soon after his release was announced, crowd gathered outside the jail, where Yucel joined his wife who was waiting for him:

But the ordeal is not yet over. Yucel was charged and indicted upon his release, with the prosecution demanding that he be sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Same court that ordered ‘s release has apparently accepted an indictment calling for up to 18 years imprisonment.

Not quite clear what is going on, but a key issue is whether he is being allowed to travel abroad.

In ordering Deniz Yücel’s release, the court also accepted his newly issued indictment. He faces 4 to 18 years in prison. https://twitter.com/cyberrights/status/964462592331796480 

While colleagues and friends celebrated the news of Yucel’s release, another court decision came down, this time affecting the fate of a different group of journalists.

A Turkish court has jailed for life journalists Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan, Nazli Ilicak & Fevzi Yazici & one other defendant for seeking to “overthrow the constitutional order” in alleged coup plot http://www.haberturk.com/nazli-ilicak-ve-altan-kardeslerin-yargilandigi-davada-karar-bekleniyor-1840173 

Esas hakkındaki savunmalar tamamlandı

Haberin detayları için tıklayın

haberturk.com

Awful news coming in from Silivri jus now. & faced a trial in which no credible evidence was presented beyond their words. This verdict does not pass the test of international human rights law. https://twitter.com/rsf_eeca/status/964478858996146177 

Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan, Nazli Ilica, Yakup Şimşek, Fevzi Yazıcı and Şükrü Tuğrul Özsengül were handed a lifetime prison sentence after being convicted of involvement with Turkey’s 2016 coup, despite a lack of direct evidence.

Five of the six defendants are journalists and intellectuals all had strong ties with opposition news outlets in the past. Ahmet Altan is the former editor-in-chief of Taraf newspaper and his brother, Mehmet Altan is an academic and journalist who once wrote for Hurriyet. Nazli Ilıcak has written for Hurriyet, in addition to other newspapers, and briefly served as an MP for the Virtue party.

Yakup Şimşek and Fevzi Yazıcı worked with Zaman newspaper, which was one of Turkey’s largest independent daily newspapers until 2016, when the government seized its operations, alleging that the outlet had ties to Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen.

Anadolu Agency reported that six people were convicted for attempting to overthrow the constitutional order and of having communicated with associates of Gulen, whom Turkey blames for the July 2016 failed coup.

In addition to facing legal threats, all of these journalists have been subject to extralegal harassment. One year ago, President Erdogan called Yucel a terrorist in one of his televised speeches.

Bu konuşmayı tam 1 yıl önce çekmiştim. Deniz sonunda özgür. Darısı Alman vatandaşı olmayan gazeteci arkadaşlarımızın başına.

I filmed this speech one year ago. Deniz is finally free. I wish the same for the rest non-German citizen journalists friends of mine.


Video clip translation:
 They are hiding this German terrorist, this spy at the embassy. They hid him for a month. And German Chancellor asked him from me. She said to release him. I told her we have an independent judiciary. Just like your judiciary is independent so is mine. It is [the judiciary] objective. That is why I am sorry to say, you won’t take them from us. Finally, he was brought to court. He was arrested. Why? Because he is spy terrorist. Who cares he is a German citizen. It doesn’t matter whose citizen you are, if you are spreading terror in Turkey, if they are secretly spies, they will pay the price.

Supporters in Turkey and around the world tweeted their shock at the decision:

Today’s verdict & sentences of life without parole for , & mark an apex of the disintegration of the in . Judge ignored a binding Turkish Constitutional Court decision. The European Court of Human Rights must act.

As Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan and Nazlı Ilıcak are given “aggravated life sentences”, it is worth remembering what that sentence is.

It is life without parole, with up to 23 hours a day in solitary confinement. Forever and ever, amen.

On February 12, both Ahmet and Mehmet Altan were thrown out of the courthouse, for demanding to read the constitutional court decision which ruled for their releasein January. The two brothers demanded that the decision which was overturned within 24 hours by the ruling of the 27th High Court is put on the record.

The next day, on February 13, speaking from high-security prison via video link, Ahmet Altan in his defense said the following:

Those in political power no longer fear generals. But they do fear writers. They fear pens, not guns. Because pens can reach where guns cannot: into the conscience of a society.

When the verdict was handed to Altan brothers today, one observer said cries and screams filled the courtroom.

Meanwhile, there are at least four other German Turkish citizens behind bars in Turkey, while the total number of imprisoned journalists and writers since the coup has now surpassed 150.

The Pollution in Iran’s Ahwaz Region Turns Deadly

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF GLOBAL VOICES)

 

The Pollution in Iran’s Ahwaz Region Turns Deadly

Image: public domain from Pixabay.

Severe sandstorms have blanketed Iran’s Ahwaz region again this past week, with people choking as atmospheric dust levels reach 57 times the safety limit set by the World Health Organization. In late January the news broke that citizens were crowding hospitals across the predominantly Arab region—which is desperately poor despite being home to over 95 percent of the oil and gas resources claimed by Iran—complaining of severe shortness of breath and respiratory problems. Between January 21 and 25, three people died from severe respiratory illnesses.

The area is blanketed by a thick smog of sand and visibility is down to under 200 meters. The government has suspended flights to and from regional airports and closed schools, offices and banks across the once-lush province.

In 2013, the city of Ahwaz, the capital of the region, topped the World Health Organization’s list of most polluted cities in the world. According to the report, Ahwaz’s average Air Quality Index score was 372—the global average is around 71—or “Hazardous”. It was the only city on the list with an average value above 300. Reporting on the situation at the time, the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) wrote that “contributing factors include desertification caused by river diversion and the draining of the marshes and the oil, petrochemical, metals and sugar and paper processing plants in and around Ahwaz.”

More than four years later, the situation in Ahwaz remains unchanged, and the group most affected are the region’s indigenous Ahwazi Arabs, who have long been discriminated against by successive Iranian governments.

The reason for the high rates of pollution is the accelerating desertification of the region, due to the extensive drying of the rivers and marshes as a result of the massive river-damming and diversion project initiated when Hashemi Rafsanjani became president in 1989. The project has seen millions of gallons of water rerouted from the region’s rivers to other parts of Iran and has intensified the already high rates of pollution and environmental degradation in the region.The dust storms combine with the constant clouds of choking pollution released into the atmosphere by the region’s petrochemical refineries and factories—none of which are subject to any environmental regulations or oversight—and also with the pollution produced by the burning of sugarcane.

Speaking on condition of anonymity due to fears of reprisals by the Iranian regime, an Ahwazi high school student told Global Voices that, “The burning used to take place during the day, but after there were protests by local Arabs chanting ‘We might be able to buy potable water, but we cannot buy clean air!’ they have begun burning it at night. This morning, the school grounds were covered in several centimetres of ash from the burning. I already have severe asthma, and this is making my condition worse.”

Sugarcane in the Ahwaz region

Sugarcane is not indigenous to Iran, but has been cultivated in the region since the 1960s. During the tenure of Hashemi Rafsanjani the government embarked on an ambitious state-subsidized sugarcane-farming project that involved the seizure of thousands of hectares of farmland from Ahwazi farmers whose ancestors had farmed there for generations. Thousands of families were driven into abject destitution as their farmland was converted into vast sugarcane plantations.

These efforts have brought little profit: the sugarcane project has proven economically disastrous, with imports far cheaper than local production. The greater concern, however, is the widespread pollution and environmental devastation it has wrought on a region that was once the breadbasket of the Gulf area. Across the Ahwaz region, in cities like Falahiyeh, Muhammarah and Abadan, massive plantations of palm trees whose produce was famed across the Middle East have either been deliberately destroyed or simply left to wither. Also at serious risk are the region’s flora and fauna, as the Falahiyeh wetlands and the Hor-Azim wetlands are almost completely destroyed.

Sugar refineries are depleting the already scarce supply of river water for their water-intensive processes, and polluting the region’s remaining rivers and streams by pumping untreated chemicals used in the sugar-cleaning and refining process back into the waterways. This leaves the water downstream unusable and high in saline, which destroys the arable lands of the region’s poor Ahwazi farmers.

Then there’s the burning of the sugarcane, which takes place on plantations around the Ahwazi capital and other cities in the region before the May-November harvest. The smoke from burning sugar cane is thick and heavy due to the dense sugar and alcohol content; instead of drifting upward it blows across the land, causing severe and sometimes fatal respiratory and skin problems among the population.

The heavy toll on health

At the end of January, at least three Ahwazi Arabs were reported to have died as a result of respiratory problems caused or exacerbated by the region’s severe air pollution. One of them, 43-year-old Kareem Abdul Khani from the city of Susa, who suffered from chronic asthma, was rushed to the city’s Mafi Hospital on January 21 after complaining of dizziness and difficulty breathing due to the severe pollution in the area, which greatly exceeded usual levels. He died the following day.

The second man, 47-year-old Hamid Hamdian from Mollasani County near Ahwaz city, had been suffering from respiratory disease for some time. He died suddenly after being overcome by severe breathing problems.

The third man, 34-year-old Ahmed Chenani from Hamidieh city, 30 kilometers west of Ahwaz, died from chronic respiratory problems on the night of January 25, after suffocating from the air pollution blanketing the area. Family members who rushed him to the Golestan Hospital in Ahwaz city, said that the lack of adequate medical facilities and the negligence of medical staff contributed to his death.

Rates of cancer in the region are also rising. A member of the medical staff at a hospital in Ahwaz who, like other interviewees, wished to remain anonymous, said that ten years ago the hospital had 40 beds that were largely underused. In recent years, the hospital has become overrun with cancer patients.

All this is a huge price to pay, especially for the indigenous Ahwazi Arabs, who are still denied all but the most menial jobs in sugarcane and oil—the two industries wreaking havoc on their home region‚—while ethnic Persians are brought in from other parts of Iran and offered high wages and modern, purpose-built housing in segregated settlements. Despite being natives of the wealthiest region in Iran in terms of resources, the majority of the Ahwazi people live in medieval conditions under a de facto apartheid system.