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Iran urges US to free Iranian prisoners amid coronavirus pandemic

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Iran's government has urged the United States to release Iranians held in US jails on sanctions-related issues due to fears about the coronavirus outbreak.

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif accused Washington of holding a number of Iranians in its prisons and said under these circumstances they should be set free.

Meanwhile, the death toll in Iran from the coronavirus rose to 2,378 on Friday, a jump of 144. Iran is one of the worst hit countries in the world.

Zarif also referred to a report by The Guardian newspaper about Sirous Asgari, a science professor, who it said was still being held in a crowded facility after being acquitted in November on US federal charges of stealing trade secrets.

"US has taken several Iranian scientists hostage - without charge or on spurious sanctions charges - & not releasing them; even when its OWN courts reject the absurd charges," Zarif tweeted.

On Thursday, the US blacklisted five Iran and Iraq-based companies and 15 individuals accused of supporting "terrorist groups", its third round of sanctions on Iranian targets in the last two weeks even as Tehran battles the coronavirus outbreak.

Humanitarian supplies are exempt from sanctions Washington reimposed on Tehran after US President Donald Trump abandoned the 2015 international agreement curbing Iran's nuclear programme.

However, broader US sanctions deter many firms from humanitarian trade with Iran.

Earlier, Iran's health ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said 144 people had died in the past 24 hours, bringing the death toll to 2,378, while the total number of confirmed coronavirus cases increased by 2,926 to 32,332.


https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/03/iran-urges-free-iranian-prisoners-coronavirus-pandemic-200327153011806.html

 

Palestinian groups cancel mass Gaza rallies due to coronavirus

Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip have cancelled mass rallies planned for next week along the border with Israel amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus in the densely-populated territory, organisers said on Saturday.

The rallies were called for March 30 to mark the second anniversary of the so-called "Great March of Return" which had prompted weekly protests by Palestinians seeking to regain access to land, now in Israel, from which their ancestors were forced to flee during the Nakba, the Palestinian exodus, in 1947-48.

They also mark Palestinian Land Day which commemorates the events of March 30, 1976, when Israeli police shot and killed six Palestinian citizens of Israel as they protested against the Israeli government's expropriation of land.

"We call upon our people not to go to the Return encampments on March 30 and to stay home in order to maintain the safety of our people in the face of this lethal pandemic," said Khaled al-Batsh, a senior member of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) armed group.

Instead, al-Batsh called on Palestinians in Gaza to mark the day by raising Palestinian flags on their rooftops and burning Israeli ones.

Traffic will also be stopped for an hour and sirens will sound across the territory to mark the occasion, the statement said, adding that a news conference would also be held for a limited number of attendees.

According to Gaza medical officials, 215 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli soldiers firing from the other side of the border during the protests, with another 8,000 suffering gunshot wounds. In the past few months, the weekly protests have been smaller.

One Israeli soldier was killed by a Palestinian sniper during the demonstrations.

In 2019, UN Human Rights Council investigators said Israeli forces may have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, with children and paramedics among the casualties.

So far, nine out of the 97 coronavirus cases in the Palestinian territories have been confirmed in the Gaza Strip.

Gaza's hospitals, which were overwhelmed during the protests by gunshot wounds and amputations, are now gearing up for the challenge of containing the coronavirus in the coastal enclave of two million Palestinians, many living in refugee camps.

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/03/death-toll-york-state-passes-1000-live-updates-200329234257896.html

 

Sri Lanka pardons soldier who killed Tamil civilians

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Sri Lanka's president on Thursday pardoned and released an army officer sentenced to death for slitting the throats of Tamil civilians, including four children, during the island's bloody ethnic war.

Staff Sergeant Sunil Ratnayake was to be hanged for the December 2000 killing in a case held up by previous Sri Lankan governments as an example of rare accountability over abuses during the conflict.

A court convicted him of murdering eight members of the Tamil minority, including a five-year-old and three teenagers after a 13-year trial.

They were killed as they returned to their bombed homes to salvage what was left of their belongings and their bodies were found buried in a cesspit near an army camp at Mirusuvil on the Jaffna peninsula.

The Supreme Court unanimously rejected the officer's appeal and upheld the death penalty last year.

But President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has now "instructed the Ministry of Justice to release Sergeant Ratnayake from prison", a spokeswoman for his office said.

Human Rights watchdog Amnesty International condemned the pardoning and said it was "reprehensible" to use the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to release those convicted of heinous crimes.

"After many long years, the victims of the Mirusuvil massacre ... finally got a semblance of justice in 2015. It is despicable to have that justice reversed through an arbitrary executive decision," Amnesty's regional director Biraj Patnaik said in a statement.

Rajapaksa, a retired army officer, came to power in November promising to free military personnel jailed for a string of offences during the previous administration.

He and his brother Mahinda, now serving as prime minister, are adored by the island's Sinhala majority for spearheading the defeat of separatist Tamil rebels to end the country's 37-year Tamil separatist war in 2009.

The armed forces were internationally condemned for atrocities committed during the conflict, but Sri Lankan soldiers have seldom been tried in civilian courts.

Government troops are alleged to have killed at least 40,000 Tamil civilians in the final stages of the war - an allegation the Rajapaksas have denied.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), Sri Lanka's main political party for the minority community, condemned what it said was an "opportunistic" decision to release Ratnayake.

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/03/sri-lanka-pardons-soldier-killed-tamil-civilians-200327033617104.html

   

Fears mount as Syria reports first coronavirus case

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Authorities step up lockdown efforts in war-torn country after 20-year-old woman tested positive.

Health officials in war-battered Syria have announced the first case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, as authorities in the country prepare to halt all public transportation in a bid to curb the spread of the virus.

Health Minister Nizar Yazji told a news conference in the capital Damascus on Sunday that “necessary measures” had been taken to ensure that the patient, a 20-year-old woman who had come from abroad, was quarantined for 14 days.

 

Yazji said the patient did not exhibit all of the symptoms upon arrival, but was identified by a "detection team" responsible for scanning incoming travellers, state news agency Sana reported.

A ban on public transport as well as on private transport services will come into effect on Monday night, the agency reported. A similar ban on transportation between various cities and provinces will come into effect on Tuesday night.

Earlier, the government shut down schools, parks, restaurants and various public institutions, and called off army conscription.

Syria's healthcare system, among other infrastructure, has been ravaged by nine years of war.

Flights from Iran

On Sunday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued a prisoner amnesty, according to state media, which said it was a move to relieve congestion that risked the spread of the virus.

Bakeries across the country would no longer open and bread would be home-delivered, state media said.

Medics say the country is also vulnerable with thousands of Iranian-backed militias fighting alongside Assad's forces, who maintain a strong presence in Syria's big cities and have their headquarters in the Damascus Shia suburb of Set Zaynab.

Thousands of Shia pilgrims from Iran also visit Damascus.

Iran, one of the countries most affected by the pandemic outside China, is Syria's main regional ally and operates military and civilian flights that bring the militia fighters into the country.

Iran's Mahan Air still has regular flights from Tehran to Damascus, according to Western diplomats tracking Syria, even though other Syrian flights have been suspended.

Iranian-backed militias also still enter Syria using the al-Bukamal border crossing with Iraq, where the virus is spreading, according to local residents and Western intelligence sources.

Displacement camps

The army's general command announced on Saturday it had raised the level of preparedness in military hospitals and gave orders to minimise gatherings, including military sports activities or any that take place in closed areas.

UN officials and humanitarian workers, meanwhile, fear a large outbreak in Syria could be particularly catastrophic.

Medics in the opposition-controlled northwestern region - the last rebel-held bastion in the country - also fear the coronavirus could spread quickly in crowded camps for tens of thousands of displaced Syrians who fled months of relentless Russian-backed bombing of rebel-held areas.

Since December last year, and up until earlier this month, an escalation in fighting between Syrian government forces, backed by Russia and Iran, and the Turkish-backed opposition in the region displaced nearly one million people, many of whom amassed in the already overcrowded camps near the Turkey-Syria border.

Aid agencies have been unable to respond to the overwhelming surge of new arrivals at the camps, which has forced many to share their tents throughout the harsh winter months, while others camped under trees or in their vehicles.

A campaign to help spread awareness among the camp’s residents kicked off last week but limited access to running water, pharmacies and medical facilities mean displacement camps are more susceptible to the spread of the highly infectious virus.

The area is especially vulnerable as most hospitals and medical facilities have been bombed, rendering them out of order.

The UN has previously accused Syrian government ally Russia of deliberately hitting civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, acts that could amount to war crimes.

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/03/fears-mount-syria-reports-coronavirus-case-200323072420219.html

 

Fear, anxiety as besieged Gaza confirms first 2 coronavirus cases

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Authorities in the coastal enclave have shut restaurants and cafes, while Friday prayers have also been suspended.

Palestinian officials have announced the first two cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, in the besieged Gaza Strip.

Deputy Health Minister Youssef Abulreesh said late on Saturday the two Palestinian patients had returned from Pakistan via Gaza's Rafah border with neighbouring Egypt on Thursday.

The pair exhibited symptoms of the illness, which include a dry cough and high fever, Abulreesh told a news conference.

He added that the two were placed in quarantine upon arrival and are now in a field hospital in the border town of Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip.

Abulreesh urged Gaza's nearly two million residents to take precautionary measures and to practise social distancing by staying home in a bid to halt the potential spread of the virus.

Authorities in Gaza, which is run by the Hamas group, have decided to shut down the enclave's restaurants, cafes and reception halls. Friday prayers at mosques have also been suspended until further notice.

Meanwhile, the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), an Israeli military unit that is responsible for civilian matters in the occupied territories, announced that effective on Sunday, all crossings into Israel from Gaza and the occupied West Bank have been closed.

"Merchants, workers and other permit holders will not be permitted to enter from the crossings until further notice," COGAT said on its Twitter page, adding that some exceptions may apply to nurses and health workers, as well as exceptional medical cases.

Palestinians say permits to cross are hard to obtain, even for those with a medical or humanitarian reason, as each application is accompanied by a long logistical process, usually under the pretext of security clearance.

'We are very afraid'

On March 15, authorities in Gaza introduced measures to place incoming residents in quarantine centres.

To date, there are 20 designated facilities in Gaza's south, including schools, hotels and medical facilities, housing more than 1,200 people, according to a report released on Saturday by the Palestinian Authority's health ministry.

The quarantine centres are located in Rafah, Deir al-Balah and the southern city of Khan Younis. According to the report, at least 2,000 other returnees have been self-isolating in their homes, prior to when the mandatory quarantine procedures were implemented last week.

Um Mohammed Khalil is among those who are being quarantined in Rafah.

After returning from a short visit to Egypt last week, the 49-year-old was among 50 other people who were bussed to a school with "poor hygiene standards", where single rooms are shared by seven people.

The news of the first two positive cases sparked fear and anxiety among those quarantined in the school, Khalil told Al Jazeera.

"We were afraid that among us would be infected people, especially as we have been calling for an improvement in the quarantine conditions," she said.

"Our families have been in contact with us since this morning, and they are also seriously concerned. Gaza has endured many wars and crises, but how can it tolerate this pandemic?" she said. "We are very afraid".

Gaza under siege

Gaza's healthcare system is in shambles and its war-battered residents are especially vulnerable as they have lived under an Israeli-Egyptian siege for nearly 13 years.

The air, land and sea blockade has restricted the entry of essential resources such as healthcare equipment, medication and building materials, among others.

Since 2007, Gaza has seen three Israeli assaults that have resulted in the destruction of civilian infrastructure, including medical facilities and a power plant.

Gaza's homes, offices and hospitals receive an average of four to six hours of electricity per day.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned Gaza's healthcare system would not be able to deal with an outbreak, given that the strip's hospitals are overstretched and under-sourced.

Ayman al-Halabi, a doctor at the laboratories run by Gaza's health ministry, is among a team of physicians responsible for testing incoming samples.

"The routine from two weeks ago was to gather samples from returnees at the Rafah border, which undergo a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test - the test of choice utilised to diagnose COVID-19," al-Halabi told Al Jazeera.

Hundreds of other samples of people who may have come into contact with the two first patients are now being tested, al-Halabi said.

Citing Gaza's limited resources, al-Halabi said: "Facing this pandemic is going to be extremely challenging.

"If the biggest and most powerful countries are struggling, how is Gaza supposed to cope?"

'End of the world'

Globally, more than 300,000 people have tested positive for the highly infectious disease, according to data collected by the Johns Hopkins University in the United States. More than 13,000 people have died from the virus, while some 92,000 have recovered.

With the looming threat of an outbreak, many say the virus might be the last straw for Gaza's weary residents.

Amira al-Dremly knew that it would only be a matter of time until the virus made its way to Gaza.

But hearing the news that two had tested positive on Saturday still felt like "the end of the world", al-Dremly told Al Jazeera.

"The biggest fear is that the available resources in Gaza are not enough to act as a temporary solution [to the spread of the virus]," the 34-year-old said.

"I'm very afraid for my children. I am taking measures to educate them about sterilisation and have prevented them from leaving the house," the mother of four said.

"But the psychological effects are difficult, my family and everyone around me are very confused by this news," she added.

Gaza, one of the most densely populated areas in the world, is home to some of the biggest Palestinian refugee camps, and al-Dremly noted that social distancing is something that is "easier said than done".

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA NEWS


https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/03/gaza-confirms-coronavirus-cases-ongoing-blockade-200322072036366.html

   

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