Pompeo to declare Houthis a terrorist group amid fears it will worsen Yemen crisis

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said the United States will designate Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels as a foreign terrorist organization, a move aid groups have warned could hamstring attempts to deal with what many consider to be the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

The designation will take effect on Jan. 19, the day before President-elect Joe Biden takes office, Pompeo said in a statement late Sunday. He said he also intends to designate three of the group’s leaders Abdul Malik al-Houthi, Abd al-Khaliq Badr al-Din al-Houthi, and Abdullah Yahya al Hakim as specially designated global terrorists.

“These designations will provide additional tools to confront terrorist activity and terrorism by Ansarallah,” he said, referring to the group also known as the Houthis.

The Trump administration had been locked in an internal debate about whether to formally designate the Houthi rebels as a terrorist group, as aid groups and United Nations officials warned the move could worsen what is already a humanitarian disaster in Yemen.

After six-years of grinding conflict pitting the Houthi rebels against the internationally-recognized Yemeni government, 80 percent of Yemen’s population of more than 29 million people is in need of humanitarian assistance and experts have declared famine-like conditions for almost 17,000 people, according to the International Rescue Committee.

Since 2015, more than 112,000 people are estimated to have died as a direct result of the violence.

The Houthi group is the de facto authority in northern Yemen and aid agencies have to work with it to deliver assistance.

Pompeo said Sunday that the U.S. planned to put in place measures to reduce the designations’ impact on certain humanitarian activity and imports into Yemen.

The measures will include the issuance of special licenses by the Treasury to allow U.S. assistance to continue in Yemen, as well as the activities of certain international and non-governmental organizations such as the United Nations, Pompeo said. Critical imports such as food and medicine will also be covered by the licenses, he added.

A spokesperson for Oxfam disagreed, saying the consequences of the designations will be felt across the country as banks, businesses and humanitarian donors decide cannot risk operating in Yemen.

Save The Children said the designations could place thousands of youngsters at further risk of starvation and disease at a time when millions of people are edging closer to famine.

And the Norwegian Refugee Council warned that the designation would deal a further “devastating blow” to a country already in the middle of a “full-blown” humanitarian catastrophe.

The civil war in Yemen started in 2014 when the Tehran-backed Houthi rebels took control of the capital Sanaa. A Saudi-led military coalition then intervened on behalf of the government in 2015, turning the conflict into a proxy-war between regional foes Iran and Saudi Arabia as well as domestic conflict.

Tehran began providing money, weapons and training to the Houthis following the Arab Spring, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based research institute.

The move Sunday came as the Trump administration persists with its maximum pressure campaign against Iran in the last weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Supporters of the designation view it as a parting blow to Iranian influence in the Middle East and expected efforts by the incoming Biden administration to re-engage Tehran on the 2015 nuclear agreement.


Saudi Arabia restores diplomatic ties with Qatar after three-year rift

Saudi Arabia has reinstated diplomatic relations with Qatar, more than three years after Riyadh and several Arab countries severed ties with Doha.

Kuwait, a mediator for both sides, announced that Saudi Arabia is reopening its airspace, sea and land borders with Qatar.

Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, arrived in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday for the first time since the dispute erupted in 2017. He was there to attend the annual Gulf Cooperation Council summit in the ancient city of Al-Ula.

Relations among the Arab nations soured in 2017, when Saudi Arabia and its allies — the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt — imposed a diplomatic, trade and travel blockade on Qatar. They accused the tiny Gulf nation of supporting terrorism and of being too close to Iran, allegations that Doha has always denied.

The dispute plunged the region into a diplomatic crisis not seen since the 1991 war against Iraq, and exposed deep ideological differences in the region.

Qatar’s emir in 2018 said the dispute was a “futile crisis,” and that Qatar preserved its sovereignty despite “aggression” from its neighbors.

Saudi-owned media Al-Arabiya also reported on Tuesday that Egypt has agreed to reopen its airspace to Qatar.

Ahead of the summit, the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, said in a tweet the GCC meeting will restore Gulf cohesion. “There is still work to be done and we are in the right direction,” he said.

Restoring diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Qatar is part of Washington’s latest effort to broker deals in the Middle East. In a diplomatic win for President Donald Trump, the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco normalized relations with Israel in 2020.

Turkey’s ministry of foreign affairs on Monday welcomed the reopening of borders between Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

“It is our hope that a comprehensive and lasting solution to this conflict will be reached on the basis of mutual respect to sovereignty of all countries and that all other sanctions against the Qatari people will be lifted as soon as possible,” the ministry said in a press release.


Denmark strengthens rape laws, outlawing sex without explicit consent

Denmark has toughen its rape laws by criminalising sex without explicit consent.

The new law approved by parliament on Thursday also spreaded the circumstances that could constitute rape – as per the old legislation, prosecutors had to prove the rapist had used violence or attacked someone who was unable to resist.

“Now it will be clear, that if both parties do no consent to sex, then it’s rape,” the justice minister, Nick Haekkerup, said in a statement.

A similar law introduced in neighbouring Sweden in 2018 contributed in a 75% surge in rape convictions, to 333.

About 11,400 women a year are raped or to attempted rape in Denmark, according to the ministry’s figures.

Amnesty International said Denmark had become the 12th country in Europe to accept non-consensual sex as rape.

Anna Blus, a women’s rights researcher at Amnesty, said. “This is a great day for women in Denmark as it consigns outdated and dangerous rape laws to the dustbin of history and helps to end pervasive stigma and endemic impunity for this crime.”

The law will be effective from January 1st.


A nationwide curfew in Fiji due to Yasa

Tropical Cyclone Yasa caused landfall in Fiji Thursday afternoon, local time, slamming into the island of Vanua Levu packing winds of 240 kph equivalent to a category 4 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale. This is the second time this year the Fiji archipelago has had a direct landfall from a major tropical cyclone.

Local officials have warned the potential effect of the storm could be devastating.

The country ordered a 14-hour nationwide curfew from 4 p.m. (10 p.m. ET Wednesday) with people living in low-lying areas requested to move to higher ground before nightfall, Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said in a video posted to Facebook.

“The impact for this super storm is more or less the entire country,” Bainimarama said in the video.

The United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warns that even well built homes could face “severe damage” as a result of winds more than 200 kph (124 mph), while trees and power poles could be downed, bringing more destruction and disruption.

Yasa would “easily surpass” the strength of 2016’s Cyclone Winston, Bainimarama said, referring to the Southern Hemisphere’s most intense tropical storm on record, which killed more than 40 Fijians and left tens of thousands of people homeless.

More than 850,000 Fijians, or 95% of the population, live in the direct path of Yasa, Bainimarama said, adding that weather forecasts anticipated flash flooding and “severe coastal inundation” that included waves up to 10 meters (33 feet) high.

Police would enforce a ban on public transport, said the country’s National Disaster Management Office, which added that the country had declared a “state of natural disaster” that gives law enforcement authorities increased powers.

By 8 p.m. (2 a.m. ET) Thursday, the center of Yasa was forecast to be 100 km (62 miles) east of the village of Yasawa-i-Rara and potentially over Fiji’s fifth-most populous province of Bua, home to 15,000 people, the office said.

Strong cyclones have become increasingly common in the Pacific in recent years, something Bainimarama has put down to climate change. Earlier this year, he said that global warming was the cause of worsening wildfires in Australia as well as heavier storms in the Pacific.

“My fellow Fijians, as the world is getting warmer these storms are getting stronger. Every one of us must treat these climate-fuelled catastrophes with deadly seriousness,” Bainimarama wrote in a Facebook post Thursday.


Australia worried by reports of Chinese restrictions on its coal

Australia seems to be troubled with Beijing placing new restrictions on imports of Australian coal.

Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham on Tuesday said he was “deeply troubled” by new reports in Chinese state media that the country’s top economic planner has banned certain coal imports from Australia. According to a report the country’s National Development and Reform Commission has given power plants approval to buy overseas coal without restrictions except from Australia.

If true, the reports “would indicate discriminatory trade practices being deployed by Chinese authorities,” Birmingham told Australia’s Radio National. China has already banned or imposed tariffs on a range of other Australian exports.

Spokesman Wang Wenbin acknowledged that “Chinese authorities have recently taken relevant measures against certain Australian products exported to China in accordance with the law and regulations.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, said that the government is “seeking clarification” on the reports, adding that the country has yet to hear from the Chinese government. He called reports that China is blocking Australian coal a “bad outcome for the trading relationship” between the two nations.

Relations started worsening since April, when Morrison asked for an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. Beijing at the time called that move “political manipulation.”

Since then, China has imposed Australian winemakers with heavy tariffs, and banned or taxed exports of other products, including beef and barley.

Morrison said Tuesday that Australia sends 4 billion Australian dollars ($3 billion) worth of thermal coal to China each year, adding that Japan is a bigger market than China for those exports. Thermal coal is primarily used to generate power. In total, Australia exported some 14 billion Australian dollars ($10.5 billion) worth of coal to China in the 2018-2019 fiscal year.

But the impact on trade of any move against Australian coal is tough to measure. Australian media pointed out weeks ago that hundreds of millions of dollars worth of coal was already being held off the coast of China, an indication that Beijing was at least informally putting pressure on Australia’s vital mining industry.

“This opacity makes it hard to say how much of an escalation this news is,” said Sean Langcake, senior economist at Oxford Economics, noting the existing disturbance in thermal coal trade. “These have clearly not been resolved, and it’s hard not to see this news as a further deterioration.”

Investors in Australia’s major coal producers are apprehensive. Shares in Coronado Global and Yancoal Australia each plunged more than 8% in Sydney on Tuesday. Whitehaven Coal dropped nearly 6% on Tuesday, and is down 10% so far this week.

Analysts at ANZ Research wrote in a research note that the Chinese reports confirm “what has been assumed ever since reports of import restrictions on coal from Australia emerged in October.” They noted that while China has been an important market for Australian thermal coal — it made up nearly a third of Australia’s total exports in 2018 — that market share has been falling ever since.

“Australian exporters have found additional buyers in South Korea, Vietnam and Japan,” the analysts wrote. “As such we see Australia’s thermal coal exports holding up relatively well, despite the Chinese ban.”

Economists have said that other mining materials, majorly iron ore and coking coal used in steelmaking, make up a particularly large share of Australian exports. Langcake told earlier this month that restrictions on such exports are unlikely, given how reliant China’s steel industry is on them.


Japanese ‘Twitter killer’ sentenced

A Japanese man known as “Twitter killer” who was found guilty of killing nine people in a high-profile mass murder case in 2017 was sentenced to death on Tuesday, the Tokyo District Court Tachikawa branch confirmed.

Takahiro Shiraishi, 30, was convicted of murdering, raping, dismembering, and storing the nine victims’ bodies in his apartment in Zama, Kanagawa prefecture, on the outskirts of Tokyo, the court said.

Shiraishi was arrested in October 2017 when police searched his home to investigate the disappearance of a 23-year-old woman who had posted suicidal notes on social media, including Twitter.

Three cooler boxes and five containers were found in Shiraishi’s room, containing human heads and bones with the flesh scraped off, according to the reports.

The nine victims, eight women and one man were aged between 15 and 26, were found.

The victims had posted online that they wanted to kill themselves, and were subsequently contacted by Shiraishi through social media platforms.

Using a handle which loosely translates as “hangman,” Shiraishi invited them to his apartment in Zama, promising to help them die.

Shiraishi pleaded guilty to murdering the victims, saying in court that he had killed them to satisfy his sexual desire.

Shiraishi does not intend to appeal the verdict and will be on death row until Japan’s justice minister signs the execution order as per reports.

In Japan the death penalty is executed by hanging, with execution dates not made public till the penalty is carried out.


Investigation identifies Russian officers who tailed Navalny before poisoning

An undercover team working for Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) followed opposition leader Alexei Navalny on more than 30 trips to and from Moscow starting in 2017 before he was poisoned in August, according to an investigation led by Bellingcat.

The Kremlin has denied having any role in the poisoning of Navalny, who is one of the most prominent domestic critics of President Vladimir Putin. But an analysis of “voluminous telecom and travel data” by Bellingcat suggests the poisoning with the nerve agent Novichok “was mandated at the highest echelons of the Kremlin.”

“This investigation is particularly important due to the legal vacuum in which no country other than Russia — the country implicated in the assassination attempt — has offered its jurisdiction for an official investigation into Navalny’s near-fatal poisoning,” writes Bellingcat, an open-source journalism website that also identified the Russian officers behind the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal in the U.K.

In addition to detailing specific movements and calls made by the officers believed to be involved in the poisoning, Bellingcat’s investigation also notes that Russia is operating a clandestine chemical weapons program operating under the cover of an FSB investigative unit.

Bellingcat found the attack was the result of years of stalking that began at least a month after Navalny’s 2017 announcement that he would contest against Putin in presidential elections the next year.

The investigation names two Russian doctors working with at least five FSB operatives who flew with Navalny at least 30 times over three years, and perhaps tried to poison him at least once before the August attack.

Some FSB agents traveled to the hospital in the city of Omsk where Navalny was admitted after the poisoning.

“Believe me when I say discovering Russia has a long running nerve agent based assassination programme targeting its most well known opposition figure was as much a shock to me as it is to you. How can governments across the world ignore this?” Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins tweeted.


New lockdown measures will come into force from Wednesday to stem the spread of coronavirus in Germany

Germany will impose lockdown, starting next week and continuing through the Christmas period, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Sunday, after agreeing to stricter measures with state governments to restrict a wave of coronavirus cases.

As of next Wednesday, all non-essential shops, services and schools will close until January 10, and Christmas Day gatherings will be cut from 10 people to only five from two different households.

This week, Merkel made an impassioned plea for Germans to limit their social contacts ahead of the holidays: despite the country’s respected health system and early success in containing the virus, a recent partial lockdown has failed to stop the second-wave spike. Germany reported record daily deaths on Friday, with 598 fatalities recorded in a 24 hours.

The new measures are aimed at traditional festivities: Christmas church services will be subject to prior registration with no singing allowed, alcohol is to be banned from all public spaces and an annual New Year’s Eve fireworks display will be canceled. Some states are also taking further steps, such as Bavaria, which will have a 9 p.m. curfew.

German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz has promised economic help for all businesses shattered by the lockdown.


Iran executes journalist Ruhollah Zam over his online work

Iran on Saturday executed a journalist over his online work that invoked nationwide economic protests in 2017, authorities said, just months after he returned to Tehran under mysterious circumstances. Ruhollah Zam, 47, was hanged early Saturday morning.

A court sentenced Zam to death in June, saying he had been convicted of “corruption on Earth,” a charge often used in cases like espionage or attempts to overthrow Iran’s government.

Zam’s website AmadNews and a channel he started on the popular messaging app Telegram had spread the timings of the protests and embarrassing information about officials that directly challenged Iran’s Shiite theocracy.

Those protests, which began at the end of 2017, caused the biggest challenge to Iran’s rulers since the 2009 Green Movement protests and set the stage for similar mass unrest in November of last year.

The initial spark for the 2017 protests was a sharp jump in food prices. Many believe that hard-line opponents of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani provoked the first demonstrations in the conservative city of Mashhad in northeastern Iran, aiming to direct public anger at the president. But as protests spread from town to town, and it turned against the entire ruling class.

Soon, cries directly challenging Rouhani and even Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could be heard in online videos shared by Zam. Zam’s channel also shared times and organizational details for the protests.

Telegram shut down the channel over Iranian government complaints it spread information about how to make gasoline bombs. The channel later continued under a different name. Zam, who has said he fled Iran after being framed of working with foreign intelligence services, denied inciting violence on Telegram at the time.

The 2017 protests reportedly saw some 5,000 people arrested and 25 killed.

The details of his arrest still remain unexplained. Though he was based in Paris, Zam somehow returned to Iran and found himself arrested by intelligence officials. He’s one of several opposition figures in exile who have been returned to Iran over the last year.

France previously has criticized his death sentence as “a serious blow to freedom of expression and press freedom in Iran.”