LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has not intervened in an internal investigation into breaches of COVID-19 rules at his Downing Street office and residence, education minister Nadhim Zahawi said on Sunday.
Britain’s opposition Labour Party has called on Johnson to explain why he met senior civil servant Sue Gray to discuss publication of her final report into parties held at Johnson’s Downing Street office during COVID-19 lockdowns, which is expected next week.
“The Prime Minister has never intervened in the investigation that Sue Gray conducted,” Zahawi told Sky News, adding that he could not say who had called the meeting.
Johnson has faced widespread calls from opposition politicians and some in his own party for him to resign over the “partygate” scandal after it emerged that he and officials had broken stringent lockdown laws enacted by his government.
BEIRUT: Fearing visa hassles could cost him his job in Dubai while an economic collapse had dashed any homecoming options, Lebanese executive Jad splurged around $135,000 on a new citizenship for himself and his wife.
Within a month of making the payment last year, the 43-year-old businessman received a small package in his mailbox.
Inside were two navy blue passports from the Caribbean island nation of Saint Kitts and Nevis — his ticket to visa-free access to more than 150 countries, including in Europe.
This was a major upgrade from the Lebanese passport, which is ranked among the worst in the world and has become nearly impossible to renew because the cash-strapped state is running out of stocks.
“Three years ago, I would not have imagined I would buy a passport,” said Jad, who had previously grappled with lengthy visa procedures for business trips.
“But now because of the situation in Lebanon — and because we can afford it — we finally did it,” he said, asking for his full name to be withheld for privacy reasons.
A Saint Kitts passport ranks 25th in the world while Lebanon languishes at 103rd on the Henley passport index for freedom of travel.
With a population of under 55,000, it started selling citizenships a year after gaining independence in 1983.
Citizenship by investment schemes have become a booming business internationally, attracting the well-to-do from volatile countries like Iraq, Yemen and Syria.
Some EU member states, including Bulgaria, Cyprus and Malta, have also operated “golden passport” schemes, but they have run into opposition from the European Commission over the back door they offer to EU citizenship.
Wealthy Lebanese, mostly living in Gulf or African nations, are now among those hunting for passports that offer easier travel and a safety net from the economic crisis at home.
Commonwealth Caribbean nations are particularly attractive because of their long-standing schemes offering citizenship within months in exchange for a lump sum.
Applicants are not even required to visit.
When Jad first went to Paris as a Kittitian, officers at passport control told him: “You come from a nice country.”
“But actually I have never been there,” he said.
Jad’s Lebanese friends in the Gulf were also shopping for “island passports” or investing in real estate in Greece and Portugal to obtain residency as part of so-called “golden visa” schemes, he said.
“This is not just a trend. It’s a solution.”
A single passport usually costs around $150,000, a sum funnelled into a sustainable growth fund for the country, which only installed traffic lights in its capital Basseterre in 2018.
Other Caribbean islands including Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada and Saint Lucia also sell passports.
Few people can afford such a purchase in Lebanon, a country in an economic crisis that has seen the currency nosedive, banks freeze deposits and most of the population fall into poverty.
Yet demand for foreign citizenship has spurred a boom in passport consultancy, with firms advertising on social media, billboards and even inside Beirut’s airport.
Among them is Global Pass, converted in 2020 from a real estate company after Lebanese started complaining of higher visa rejection rates.
“Our business has grown by at least 40 percent from 2020 to 2021,” said founder Ziad Karkaji.
Even international firms are raking in a profit.
Jose Charo, who heads the Beirut office of Swiss-based Passport Legacy, said Lebanese now account for one-quarter of the company’s clientele.
Their number has grown fivefold due to the economic crisis that was made worse by a devastating explosion at Beirut’s port in 2020, Charo said.
Having Grenadian citizenship makes applying for a US investor visa easier for business people, he said, while those looking to retire or settle abroad can invest around a quarter of a million dollars in Greece or Portugal to secure permanent residency.
“The industry will keep on growing,” Charo said.
“They are buying their freedom.”
CHICAGO: Emanuel “Chris” Welch, the speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, announced on Friday during a visit to a mosque that he supports the adoption of a law that would grant Arab and Muslim contractors special “minority” status when they bid for a share of more than $46 billion in annual state contracts.
The state’s Minority Business Enterprises and Women’s Business Enterprises policies set aside up to 30 percent of state contracts for businesses that are majority-owned by individuals from designated ethnic minorities — Asian-Indian, Asian-Pacific, Black, Hispanic or Native American — and 5 percent for those majority-owned by women.
Welch said he supports legislation, introduced by Illinois State Representative Cyril Nichols, that would include Arabs as a “recognized minority group” so that they can receive “their fair share” of these state contracts.
“I know that there are some issues that are particularly important to your community and that Representative Nichols has been a leader on those issues,” said Welch, who is the first African American to serve as the Illinois speaker.
“Nichols filed a bill a couple weeks ago that will specifically address the issue of minority status. My office is going to lend him support to make sure we have the necessary hearings on that bill here over the summer.”
Speaking during a meeting at the Orland Park Mosque in suburban Chicago, arranged by American Arab Chamber of Commerce President Hassan Nijem, Welch pledged to push for the bill during the November veto session, when bills are normally reviewed and considered for adoption.
“I think the MBE program is enormously significant because we have been traditionally left out, as minorities, not just in the state of Illinois but in this country,” he said.
“Unfortunately that has been the history of our country and it has taken people like Dr. Martin Luther King and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and all those who came before us, to fight for civil rights and inclusion. That fight continues today. That’s what the MBE program is all about.”
Welch said that the state legislature last month passed a budget worth $46.5 billion and that the “MBE makes sure that money gets into the pockets of people who look like the people of Illinois.”
He added: “Diversity is the strength of the state and everything we do should reflect that diversity, and how we spend that money is very much a part of that.
“Long before I was the speaker, people will tell you, I have fought for diversity on corporate boards, diversity in how we spend our money, diversity in our suppliers.
“And now that I am actually here at the head of the table, trust me, when I am done this community is going to see a big difference.”
Welch urged leaders of the Arab and Muslim communities to “inform and educate” other legislators in the state to help build support for the adoption of the minority classification.
“When Representative Nichols proposes hearings, you need to make sure that the community shows up (and) testifies,” he said. “People that can’t be there, submit written testimony. Let us know why this is such an important issue. How does this help the state? Advocacy really does matter.”
Nichols, who was also at the mosque meeting, said that he realized the real importance of his proposed law in April when he appeared on “The Ray Hanania Radio Show,” which is hosted by the US Arab Radio Network and sponsored by Arab News.
“The speaker is right, you have to call your legislators because I have to get a whole bunch of people to agree with this,” Nichols added. “They need to hear from you. … We always say that if it is righteous, the Most High will make sure that we are covered. We can get a lot done together.”
Welch said: “Power comes from building coalitions and building allies. There is now a Black caucus, a Hispanic caucus and an Asian caucus.”
He added that he anticipates a day when there will be an “Arab Caucus” to help ensure that Arabs and Muslims actively engage at all levels of Illinois government.
“The only way to govern is through inclusive leadership,” Welch said. “I think it is extremely important that your community be a part of this coalition we are building. Nobody is getting left out. Everybody in, nobody left out.
“And that is what this is all about. We are being intentional, we are here for a reason, and we are figuring out ways to make that inclusion happen — and I want to be a part of that … with you.”
Nichols said that Muslims and Arabs in Detroit had raised the issue of minority status, and that he felt the same thing was needed in Illinois, particularly in the Chicago area which is home to more than 450,000 Christian and Muslim Arabs.
Sheikh Kifah Mustapha, the Imam of the Orland Park Mosque, said that the Arab community will communicate and work with legislators to help them understand why the bill is so important to their community.
“With … the potential to be part of future contracts and future business, being declared as a minority is one of the main objectives,” he said. “If it happens, our own community members will have a share of all these contracts, up to 20 or 25 percent … and this means our community will grow and will contribute back to the well-being of the state itself.
“We are happy that the speaker of the house is here, and the representative also, to talk about this issue and what it means and where he can help and support that perspective.”
LONDON: Leading government counter-extremism experts in the UK have questioned a leaked review of the Prevent program that has called for a renewed focus on Islamist risks over far-right extremism.
The review conducted by William Shawcross, former head of the neoconservative Henry Jackson Society think tank, has attracted criticism for calling for more attention to be directed to Islamism while Prevent referrals over the ideology have dropped to 22 percent. Meanwhile, one-quarter now revolve around far-right extremism.
The Shawcross report argues that there is a worrying decline in Islamism referrals that does not match the security situation on the ground, with several recent terror attacks in Britain being conducted by those inspired by the ideology.
But Lewys Brace, an extremism researcher at Exeter University who advises the government, said the Shawcross recommendations do not “reflect what’s going on at all, in any way. Mixed ideologies is where it’s all heading.”
Recent data from the program shows that “mixed, unstable or unclear” ideologies now cover over half of all referrals to Prevent.
Brace told The Observer that Shawcross’s mentality is stuck in “circa 2004-2007,” when Britain endured several high-casualty Islamist attacks, including the 7/7 bombings of 2005 that killed 52.
The Manchester Arena attack of 2017 that killed 22 was conducted by an Islamist perpetrator, but Brace warned that the terror risk has developed since then.
He said Jake Davison, who killed five people last August in Plymouth, reportedly associated with “incel” culture, a violent, predominantly online space where extremist misogynistic views are expressed.
Brace added: “Since Plymouth they (counter-extremism officials) have been a lot more concerned about that sort of amorphous ideology.”
Defenders of the leaked Shawcross report’s suggestions have pointed to the 2020 Reading stabbings, where an Islamist killed three, and the Streatham attack in February that year, where an Islamist released from jail went on a stabbing spree.
But the security services have continued to observe people at risk who display unclear or “blended” ideologies.
LONDON: Britain is seeing daily infections of the rare monkeypox virus that are unconnected to any travel to West Africa, where the disease is endemic, a health official said on Sunday.
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said new figures would be released on Monday, after it registered 20 cases on Friday.
Asked if community transmission was now the norm in Britain, UKHSA chief medical adviser Susan Hopkins said “absolutely.”
“We are finding cases that have no identified contact with an individual from West Africa, which is what we’ve seen previously in this country,” she told BBC television.
“We are detecting more cases on a daily basis.”
Hopkins declined to confirm reports that one individual was in intensive care, but said the outbreak was concentrated in urban areas, among gay or bisexual men.
“The risk of the general population remains extremely low at the moment, and I think people need to be alert to it,” she said, adding that for most adults, symptoms would be “relatively mild.”
The first UK case was announced on May 7, in a patient who had recently traveled to Nigeria. The disease is also spreading in Europe and North America.
Monkeypox can be transmitted through contact with skin lesions and droplets of a contaminated person, as well as shared items such as bedding and towels.
Symptoms include fever, muscle aches, swollen lymph nodes, chills, exhaustion and a chickenpox-like rash on the hands and face. They usually clear up after two to four weeks.
There is no specific treatment but vaccination against smallpox has been found to be about 85 percent effective in preventing monkeypox.
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said the UK government had already started buying up stocks of smallpox vaccine.
“We’re taking it very, very seriously,” he told the BBC.
SUNAMGANJ, Bangladesh: North-east Bangladesh’s worst floods in nearly 20 years began receding on Sunday, but rescue workers were struggling to help millions marooned by extreme weather across the region that has killed around 60 people.
Floods are a regular menace to millions of people in low-lying Bangladesh and neighboring northeast India, but many experts say that climate change is increasing the frequency, ferocity and unpredictability.
In the past week after heavy rains in India, floodwater breached a major embankment in Bangladesh’s Sylhet region, affecting around two million people, swamping dozens of villages and killing at least 10.
Arifuzzman Bhuiyan, head of the state-run Flood Forecasting and Warning Center, said that the floods had hit some 70 percent of Sylhet district and about 60 percent of neighboring Sunamganj.
“It is one of the worst floods in the region,” he said.
But he said the situation would improve further in the next few days after heavy rains stopped.
Police said that a scuffle broke out in the rural town of Companyganj on Saturday as authorities stepped up relief operations for the roughly two million people hit.
“There were more flood-affected people than the estimated relief packs. At one point everyone started to snatch relief goods when police dispersed the crowd,” local police chief Sukanto Chakrobarti said.
Mozibur Rahman, head of Sylhet district, said that the embankment washed away along the Bangladesh-India border was yet to be repaired.
“It is impossible to fix the embankment unless waterflow from India plunges. The inundation scenario in Sylhet city has improved. But outer towns are still underwater,” Rahman said.
“We are trying to send relief and have opened hundreds of shelters for the flood-hit people.”
Mofizul Islam, a resident of Sylhet city where floodwaters were slowly subsiding, said that he fell off his motorbike after he hit a pothole hidden under the water on Sunday.
“It is very risky for the people who are going out today,” Islam said.
Over the border in India, around 50 people have been killed in days of flooding, landslides and thunderstorms, according to local disaster management authorities.
In the north-eastern state of Assam, authorities said on Sunday that the death toll from the floods had reached 18.
According to the Assam State Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA), almost 3,250 villages were partially or fully submerged.
ASDMA officials said the situation had improved slightly but that it remained critical in some districts.
According to their estimate, more than 92,000 people were in relief camps.
The state and national rescue forces, helped by the army, were working to rescue people from villages and distribute food, clean drinking water and other essentials, as well as to clear roads.
West of Assam, at least 33 people were killed in Bihar state in thunderstorms on Thursday.
Bihar, in common with other parts of northern India and Pakistan, has been suffering an intense heatwave, with temperatures reaching 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).