PAZARDIJIK, Bulgaria: Bulgarian nurse Valentina Siropoulo was once condemned to death in Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya. Ten years after she and four colleagues were released and allowed home, appreciation of their freedom overwhelms memories of their harrowing ordeal.
“My busy day-to-day life lets me forget the abuse. I have learnt to better appreciate my health, my freedom, my family,” says the 58-year old.
She has resumed her work at the hospital in Pazardjik, a small town in southern Bulgaria which seems a million miles away from chaos-riven Libya.
The five nurses were jailed in 1999, along with a Palestinian doctor, for allegedly infecting over 400 children with HIV-tainted blood at a paediatric hospital in the eastern city of Benghazi. They were tortured while in detention and twice sentenced to death.
Tripoli only agreed to commute their death sentences to life imprisonment in 2007, after which they were flown back to Bulgaria.
“I was abducted one evening in 1999,” Siropoulo recalls with a shudder.
“Men taped up my mouth, then tortured me for months, with electric shocks, batons and threats of being attacked by dogs. The rest of the time I was lying alone in a cell waiting for death.”
She had enjoyed the work on a paediatric ward, where she was much better paid than back home.
But the foreign medics were held responsible for tainted blood transfusions and accused of deliberately infecting 438 children with HIV.
Their savior came in the form of Cecilia Sarkozy, wife of the then French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who visited Libya twice in July 2007 for talks with Qaddafi.
Despite an official French inquiry, Cecilia’s precise role remains unclear, but the freed medical workers have no doubt she was instrumental in their release.
One of those close to the ordeal is Bulgaria’s former Foreign Minister Solomon Passy, who describes a tangled web of negotiators including British intelligence agents, and UN and EU officials.
“It was a long match played by the international community, then President Sarkozy pops up in the 90th minute to score the winning goal,” Passy tells AFP.
Despite repeated denials of a ransom, a slew of contracts was signed between Paris and Tripoli in the years following the release and Qaddafi made an official visit to France in 2007.
Last November, a French magazine published documents appearing to exonerate the medical workers and suggesting that the children were in fact injected with tainted blood by Libyan intelligence and special forces commanders.
The testimony was found in a diary belonging to Shukri Ghanem, who served as Qaddafi’s prime minister from 2003 until 2006.
The diary, which had reportedly ended up in the custody of French magistrates, suggested the infections were an act of hostility against Benghazi, a stronghold of opponents of the then-Libyan ruler.
PAZARDIJIK, Bulgaria: Bulgarian nurse Valentina Siropoulo was once condemned to death in Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya. Ten years after she and four colleagues were released and allowed home, appreciation of their freedom overwhelms memories of their harrowing ordeal.
DILI, East Timor: East Timor headed to the polls to elect a new Parliament Saturday as Asia’s youngest democracy battles economic challenges 15 years after gaining its independence from Indonesia.
About 760,000 people were expected to cast their votes for candidates from 21 parties in the tiny half-island nation, in the first parliamentary election since the departure of UN peacekeepers in 2012.
The polls come at a tough time for the country, with key oil reserves running dry while the government struggles to resolve a long-running row with Australia over lucrative energy fields.
But despite fears of violence, there were no reports of unrest in the run-up to the election and on Election Day.
“I am proud that as president I can ensure that the (election) process went peacefully and that we have established a democratic country…,” said President Francisco Guterres.
Voters turned up at polls early, eager to vote for their favorites.
“I am happy I can vote today because it’s important we choose the best to lead our country,” Mateus Araujo told AFP.
The parliamentary election will determine the choice of prime minister for the former Portuguese colony.
The prime minister, chosen by the winning party or a coalition of parties in Parliament, oversees the government and is the most influential political figure in the country.
The presidency is a largely ceremonial role, but one that can help keep the peace between feuding politicians.
The two main parties — Fretilin and CNRT — are expected to fare well in the parliamentary election.
But the newly established People’s Liberation Party is also predicted to become an important force in this election, with leader and former President Taur Matan Ruak promising to tackle corruption.
But the head of CNRT, Xanana Gusmao, was optimistic about the election outcome.
“The party has high hopes that we will win,” Gusmao said.
East Timor faces huge problems: Half of its population lives in poverty and the current government is struggling to improve the livelihoods of its 1.2 million people.
As well as diversifying the resource-rich economy away from a reliance on oil, the country’s leaders must agree a new sea border with Australia after tearing up a contentious maritime treaty that cuts through energy fields.
Preliminary results will be known by Saturday evening, though official results will be announced early August.
MANILA: The Philippine Congress on Saturday voted to extend President Rodrigo Duterte’s declaration of martial law in the south until the end of the year to defeat gunmen.
In a special joint session of the House and the Senate, legislators overwhelmingly backed Duterte’s bid to have martial law remain in force in the Mindanao region until Dec. 31.
The vote came as troops continued their two-month long fight to wrest back the southern city of Marawi from Daesh-inspired militants.
Duterte first declared martial law in Mindanao on May 23 shortly after the gunmen, waving the black flags of Daesh, occupied parts of Marawi, triggering weeks of bloody fighting.
The vote was largely a foregone conclusion as Duterte enjoy majorities in both houses of Congress.
But opposition lawmakers dragged out the debate, questioning why martial law was needed for the whole of Mindanao when the fighting was limited to only one city.
“I fear that the plan to extend the martial law in Mindanao will pave the way for a Philippines-wide martial law,” said Sen. Risa Hontiveros ahead of the vote.
A slide presentation accompanying Duterte’s request, seen by AFP, compared the Marawi crisis to Daesh takeover of the Iraqi city of Mosul.
Marawi itself could now become a magnet for foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria, it said.
Most of the militants’ leaders remain at large, the presentation added, while about 90 of the gunmen have slipped past security cordons and can link up with other armed groups in the region to mount similar wide-scale attacks.
At the hearing, defense and security officials justified the extended martial law, saying that aside from Marawi, militants were planning attacks in other parts of Mindanao.
They said almost a thousand pro-Daesh militants, holding 23 hostages, were still active elsewhere in the south.
In Marawi, the military said only about 60 gunmen were left in a 49-hectare area of Marawi, but Duterte said he needed martial law powers to rebuild the city and ensure the war did not spread elsewhere.
“I cannot afford to be complacent,” Duterte told reporters Friday, adding the military would be conducting further “mopping up operations” even after they recapture Marawi.
“If there is a spillage it will not be as bad if you have this stopgap,” he added.
Duterte imposed 60-day martial rule — the maximum period allowed by the constitution — over the Mindanao region on May 23 within hours of the gunmen beginning their rampage.
On Monday he asked Congress to extend it until the end of the year, along with the continued suspension of a constitutional safeguard against warrantless arrests.
Martial law allows the military to establish control with measures such as curfews, checkpoints and gun controls in a country where civilians are authorized to keep licensed firearms in their homes.
However, any martial law extension must be approved by Congress.
The subject remains sensitive in the Philippines, decades after the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos put the country under military rule for part of his 20-year term.
Thousands of critics, political opponents as well as communist guerrillas were killed, detained or arrested during the period, according to historians.
About a dozen protesters in the gallery interrupted Saturday’s hearing, chanting “never again, never again to martial law” before being escorted out.
Duterte had already beaten back a Supreme Court petition to declare martial law in Mindanao illegal.
“Once he feels that there is not enough opposition to a nationwide martial law declaration, he will go for it,” Sen. Antonio Trillanes told AFP on Tuesday.
This is part of a bid to stay in office beyond his mandated six years, he warned.
Duterte, 72, insists he has no plan to stay in office beyond his term.
WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump received the new Saudi ambassador to the US, Prince Khaled bin Salman, at the White House on Friday.
Prince Khaled presented his credentials as the Kingdom’s ambassador to the president. During the meeting, the envoy conveyed the greetings of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Trump, wishing the American people continued progress and prosperity.
Prince Khaled described Saudi-US relations as historic, strategic and based on close cooperation and common interests. He expressed his keenness to exert all efforts to enhance bilateral ties in all fields.
In a statement to the Saudi Press Agency (SPA), he expressed hope that Saudi-US relations will continue to serve both countries’ common interests and overcome common challenges regionally and internationally.
WASHINGTON: The White House is threatening “new and serious consequences” for Iran unless it releases all US citizens who are detained there.
The White House says President Donald Trump is prepared to act in an attempt to end Iran’s practice of using detentions and hostage taking as state policy, but it provides no specifics about potential consequences.
Trump is urging the return of former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who disappeared from Iran’s Kish Island in 2007.
Iran is also holding Princeton graduate student Xiyue Wang, who was arrested last year. Xiyue’s confinement became public this week after Iran’s judiciary announced his 10-year sentence.
Also detained by Iran are Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi and his 81-year-old father, Baquer Namazi. They were taken during the Obama administration and are also serving 10-year sentences.
INDIA: Indian soldiers fired at worshippers outside a mosque in disputed Kashmir on Friday, killing one man and wounding another after some threw rocks, police and residents said.
Police said soldiers on patrol were pelted with rocks near the main mosque in Beerwah town, where worshippers had gathered to offer Friday prayers. A firecracker was hurled toward the soldiers, who mistook the loud noise for a grenade and retaliated, police said in a statement.
Residents, however, said only a few rocks were thrown and none hit any soldier. Witnesses said the soldiers fired indiscriminately after some rocks hit the iron shutters of shops that were closed because of a general strike against Indian rule in Kashmir.
The slain man, a tailor in his mid-20s, was hit by multiple bullets and died on the way to a hospital. The wounded man was reported to be in stable condition.
The killing triggered anger and widespread protests in the town. Police fired tear gas, fearing the funeral procession would turn into larger protests in the area as thousands carried the man’s body to a graveyard for burial while chanting slogans against Indian rule.
Some threw rocks at police, who fired shotgun pellets to quell the protest. No one was reported injured.
Shops, businesses and schools were closed in most parts of the region because of the general strike, called by separatists who challenge India’s sovereignty over Kashmir. The separatists also called for a march to the United Nations office in Srinagar, the region’s main city.
Authorities imposed a tight curfew in downtown Srinagar and areas near the UN office in anticipation of the march and anti-India protests. Armed police and paramilitary soldiers in riot gear patrolled streets and blocked roads with razor wire and steel barricades.
Later Friday, scores of people led by a top separatist leader, Mohammed Yasin Malik, defied the security lockdown and tried to hold a protest march in Srinagar. However, police detained Malik and several other activists.
Nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan each administer part of Kashmir, but both claim the Himalayan territory in its entirety. Rebel groups have been fighting since 1989 for the Indian-administered portion to become independent or merge with Pakistan. Nearly 70,000 people have been killed in the uprising and the ensuing Indian military crackdown.
Anti-India sentiment runs deep in Kashmir’s mostly Muslim population and most people support the rebels’ cause against Indian rule.
India has accused Pakistan of arming and training the rebels, which Pakistan denies.
Rebel groups have largely been suppressed by Indian forces in recent years and public opposition to Indian rule is now principally expressed through street protests.
UNITED STATES: An Al-Qaeda suspect linked to a plot to kill a Swedish cartoonist has been brought to Philadelphia from Spain to face terrorism charges in federal court, despite President Donald Trump’s promises to send terror suspects to the military prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Ali Charaf Damache, 52, of Algeria, appeared in court Friday and will be arraigned next month on charges that he conspired with two American women and a high school honors student from Maryland, court officials said.
A 2011 indictment accused him of aiding terrorism, including the plan to kill Swedish artist Lars Vilks, who depicted the prophet Muhammad as a dog. The plot never materialized.
The Trump administration’s decision to bring him to the United States marks a break from Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ oft-stated belief that Guantanamo Bay is the best place for “these kinds of dangerous criminals.”
During the presidential campaign, Trump said he not only wanted to keep the detention center in Cuba open after the Obama administration had long fought to close it, but promised to “load it up with some bad dudes.”
Obama’s Justice Department maintained the US civilian court system was the most legally sound forum in which to prosecute terror suspects captured in the US and overseas and cited hundreds of convictions in New York and other cities as proof.
Yet Sessions and other Republicans have often expressed concern that civilian courts afford legal protections to which suspected terrorists are not entitled. He has warned valuable intelligence can be lost if a detainee is advised of his or her right to remain silent and to have a lawyer.
The Justice Department did not say what led officials to send Damache to federal court or whether it signals a shift in Sessions’ views. The attorney general made no mention of the case during a Friday speech in Philadelphia on sanctuary cities and fighting violent crime.
“The individual involved in this case was indicted in 2011 in federal district court,” the department said in a statement. “The United States has consistently used the extradition process to obtain indicted fugitives who are overseas, so that they can stand trial in our federal courts.”
Former Attorney General Eric Holder, who long defended the prosecution of terrorism suspects in civilian court, said Friday that the Trump administration’s tough rhetoric on Guantanamo was “political and counterproductive.”
“It’s good to see that the president and the Attorney General now seem to share my belief in the effectiveness of the world’s greatest judicial system and its ability to keep the American people safe,” he said.
Damache married a Colorado woman the day she traveled to Ireland to meet him in 2009. Jamie Paulin-Ramirez eventually helped the FBI investigate the terror cell, which included a Pennsylvania woman who called herself “Jihad Jane” online.
Damache, known as “Black Flag” had been fighting extradition after his 2015 arrest in Spain. Lawyer Joseph Mancano, appointed Friday to represent him, said he did not have any immediate comment.
Officials said that Damache joined co-defendants Mohammad Hassan Khalid, Colleen “Jihad Jane” LaRose and Paulin-Ramirez in forming a cell that recruited men online to wage jihad in South Asia and Europe, and to recruit women with western passports to travel through Europe in support of the cause.
LaRose is serving a 10-year prison term and Paulin-Ramirez eight years after pleading guilty to providing material aid to terrorism while Khalid, whose family had immigrated from Pakistan, was sentenced to five years.
Paulin-Ramirez took her 6-year-old son with her to Waterford, where he was taught to be a warrior and hate non-Muslims. The boy also endured physical abuse during the four-month stay, according to prosecutors who showed a video at her 2014 sentencing of him reciting inflammatory verses and thrusting a toy weapon as his mother laughed. She told the judge she hoped the boy would forget what she put him through.
A defense expert testified that she had a twisted view of the religion, culled from extremist postings.
Damache’s arraignment was scheduled for Aug. 28.
It’s unclear what the case could mean for future terror cases or for the future of Guantanamo Bay. Sessions, his deputy Rod Rosenstein and other administration officials visited the prison earlier this month to get a look at current operations. Support for it now would represent a reversal of eight years of efforts to close the detention center, which opened on the base in January 2002 to hold and interrogate suspected enemy combatants.
The Obama administration sent no new detainees there, and though it didn’t fulfill a promise to shut it down, whittled the population from 242 to 41. That includes seven currently facing charges by military commissions. All are in the pretrial stage, including the five men charged with planning and aiding in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack.
LONDON: Nearly one young person a week has been stabbed to death in London so far this year, leaving British authorities hunting for ways to stop the increasing violence.
Twenty-seven people under the age of 25 have been stabbed to death in London since the start of 2017, according to figures from city hall.
The alarming figure is but “the tip of the iceberg” according to Patrick Green from the Ben Kinsella Trust, an educational organization set up in memory of a teenage stabbing victim.
Police registered more than 12,100 knife attacks which left 4,400 people injured between April last year and March, the highest figure in five years.
“Many of the victims of stabbing are left with permanent disabilities, permanent scars, and the most awful disability which isn’t reported is the mental trauma,” Green told AFP.
“The fact that you recover doesn’t mean that you return to your normal life,” he added.
In contrast to widely held perceptions, the majority of attacks are unrelated to organized crime. Three out of four cases involve individuals who carry a knive because they believe it will make them feel safer.
“This can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, where young people equip themselves with a knife and in doing so significantly up the ante of their chances of becoming a knife victim,” said Bernard Hogan Howe, the former head of London’s Metropolitan Police who retired last year.
One proposal to cut knife crime was announced on Tuesday by Interior Minister Amber Rudd, who wants to ban the possession of outlawed weapons such as zombie knives — often curved blades inspired by horror films — and knuckledusters on private properties.
As part of a planned consultation on knife crime, the government will also examine whether to extend a ban on possessing a knife in public places and schools to include universities.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan has spearheaded a £7-million program (7.9 million euros), which includes schools where knife crime is prevalent being given metal detectors.
In announcing the plans last month, the mayor hit out at government cuts which he said had led to the closure of 30 youth centers that could have stopped young people turning to crime.
“The only way we can truly beat the scourge of knife crime on our streets is by properly funding youth services,” Khan said.
Police have been visiting hundreds of schools as part of their “Operation Sceptre,” involving everything from quizzes on criminal responsibility to self-esteem classes.
The operation to tackle knife crime was launched in July 2015 and also sees officers carry out checks on businesses selling knives, in addition to confiscating weapons sold illegally.
Bins have been left in public places for people to dump any banned weapons without fear of being arrested.
But at the same time, the crackdown is facing an uphill struggle with knife attacks increasing by 24 percent last year.
Since 2010 the number of police officers in the British capital has been cut by 14 percent.
“It would be a naive answer to say that if you cut a significant amount out of an organization you don’t have any consequences,” said Martin Hewitt, assistant police commissioner.
With funds limited, the police have teamed up with hospitals to collect and share anonymous information on each new attack. The database in intended to help emergency services both prevent and better respond to knife crime.
“Austerity creates a catalyst for change, and hopefully that can be a positive change,” said John Poyton, director of the RedThread charity which addresses youth violence.
UKRAINE: As clashes drag on in east Ukraine between government forces and Russian-backed rebels, health activist Natalia Gurova is fighting another battle of her own.
Gurova manages a project in her insurgent-controlled home city of Lugansk handing out clean syringes and condoms to drug-users and sex workers who are most at risk from HIV and hepatitis.
That puts her at the forefront of the perilous struggle against the spread of infections as more than three years of conflict and rebel rule have hit vital treatment programs.
“Everything has worsened,” Gurova, from the All-Ukrainian Public Health Association, a charitable organization, told AFP.
Getting supplies such as condoms, lubricants and hygienic wipes into rebel-held territory remains a constant challenge as they run the gauntlet of checkpoints to cross the tightly guarded frontline.
While Gurova still manages to keep these programs going, substitute treatments for drug addicts including methadone have stopped entirely.
This has seen users who were being weaned away from injecting themselves turn to dangerous local alternatives — and bolstered the threat of the spread of diseases.
“There are more cases of HIV infections among users and it is very difficult to make contact with them,” Gurova said.
Alongside this problem, activists say there has been a rise in the number of sex workers in the grey zone along the frontline.
Prior to the start of the conflict in April 2014, ex-Soviet Ukraine — especially in its eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk — was already battling one of the most severe HIV epidemics in Eastern Europe.
But thanks to progressive policies the country was making progress and had managed to reduce the rate of HIV infections, most dramatically among young drug users.
After the war flared up in 2014, experts soon warned that the conflict risked jeopardizing any gains that had been made.
As Kiev lost control over Donetsk and Lugansk, health services and key treatments for infections were hit.
In 2015, international actors managed to stave off an imminent crisis by negotiating with Kiev and the rebels to keep supplying antiretroviral drugs to thousands of HIV positive people in the separatist territories.
Emergency funds were provided and the United Nations now estimates that about 10,000 adults and children with HIV in rebel-held areas are receiving the drugs.
But while negotiations have been successful in getting the most urgent treatments through for now, in terms of prevention the situation still looks dire.
Doctor Igor Pirogov, who works at a hospital treating drug users in rebel capital Donetsk, said that the war has seriously disrupted attempts to curb addiction.
“Most of our patients put on a uniform, got a weapon and went off to fight” for the insurgents, Pirogov said.
“Many even said openly that they were using more drugs during the war than when it was peaceful.”
The internationally approved opioid replacement treatments that had become the norm in Ukraine have ended.
Due to security restrictions the Ukrainian authorities say they are unable to deliver substitute drugs across the frontline.
For their part the rebels seem to have followed in the footsteps of their backers in Russia — where methadone is banned — and turned the clock back on progressive treatments.
Activist Gurova said that about 900 patients had lost access to the methadone program, leading many to turn instead to dangerous local alternatives.
At the same time she said more women around the conflict zone have turned to prostitution — also putting them at greater risk.
“There are no jobs, no work, no earnings — this is the only option for them — so it all leads to an increase in the number of sex workers,” she explained.
As it has waged war against the insurgents on the battlefield, the government in Kiev has shown a tendency to disown the health crisis in rebel regions.
While the situation in areas under insurgent control has deteriorated, the rest of the country has continued to make headway tackling HIV as authorities have pushed on with the policies that were yielding results.
“The decline in the rates of HIV epidemic growth is encouraging,” Pavlo Skala from the Alliance for Public Health told AFP.
But experts warn that any improvements being made risk being undermined by a uptick of infections in Ukraine’s rebel-held regions and that Kiev cannot turn a blind eye to the problems happening across the frontline.
“Soldiers stand on the demarcation line between the two territories and they can control the border,” Skala said.
“But they cannot control the spread of epidemics.”
JAKARTA: Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo has instructed law enforcement officers to shoot drug traffickers to deal with a narcotics emergency facing the country.
“Be firm, especially to foreign drug dealers who enter the country and resist arrest. Shoot them because we indeed are in a narcotics emergency position now,” Widodo said in a speech delivered at an event held by one of Indonesia’s political parties late on Friday.
His remarks have drawn comparison to that of Philippine’s President Rodrigo Duterte, who launched a brutal anti-drug crackdown about a year ago that saw many alleged drug dealers killed.
The bloody campaign in the Phillipines has drawn condemnation from the international community, including the United Nations.
Indonesia also has tough laws against drugs. Widodo has previously been criticized for ordering executions against convicted drug traffickers who were given a death penalty by the court. Rights activists and some governments have called on Indonesia to abolish the death penalty.
Friday’s shooting order from Widodo came a week after Indonesian police shot dead a Taiwanese man in a town near the capital Jakarta.
The man, who was part of a group trying to smuggle one ton of crystal methamphetamine into the country, was killed for resisting arrest, police have said.
After the incident, Indonesian National Police chief Tito Karnavian was quoted by media saying he had ordered officers not to hesitate shooting drug dealers who resist arrest.