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Afghanistan: Hundreds of Afghans evacuated to Spanish air base in operation lauded by EU leaders | International

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A group of Afghan evacuees arrives at the Torrejón de Ardoz air base in Madrid.
A group of Afghan evacuees arrives at the Torrejón de Ardoz air base in Madrid.Iñaki Gómez/Ministerio de Defens

Spain has become a global reference point for the management of the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan, a country that has been left in chaos since the withdrawal of United States’ troops, the advance of the Taliban and the collapse of the government. In response to the crisis, and in less than 24 hours, the Spanish authorities last week set up a European reception center for Afghans fleeing the country at the Torrejón de Ardoz air base in Madrid.

On Sunday, 177 people arrived from Kabul at the base on two of the A400 aircraft the Spanish government is using for the operation. Of these, 110 were aid workers and the rest Afghans that had worked for the US. On Saturday, another Spanish transport evacuated 110 people, which included 64 Afghans who had worked with Washington.

Until now, five flights sent by Spain to Afghanistan have managed to rescue 445 Afghans and five Spaniards. SInce Thursday, the base at Torrejón has also received three flights from the European Union’s External Action Service carrying 110 people.

According to Spanish Defense Minister Margarita Robles, the camp has become “the envy” of Spain’s NATO allies. The minister proposed that those in Kabul who do not have a travel document or are trying to reach the airport “shout ‘Spain,’ or carry the [Spanish] flag or something red to be able to enter.”

A sign of the interest that the operation at Torrejón de Ardoz has sparked was reflected by a visit made on Friday by David Carlson, defense attaché at the United States embassy in Madrid, in order to see the reception and accommodation system for the Afghan asylum seekers. Representatives from the embassy had requested the collaboration of the Spanish government for the evacuation process and emergency processing of refugees, according to sources from the Spanish government.

At the weekend, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and US President Joe Biden agreed that Spain would house Afghans who had worked with Washington at the Spanish-American bases of Rota in Cádiz and Morón de la Frontera in Seville, until they can be transferred to other countries.

On Saturday, the presidents of the European Commission and the European Council, Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, also visited the air base at Torrejón de Ardoz. There they expressed their gratitude to Prime Minister Sánchez for the operation to take in the Afghan refugees who have worked for the European Institutions.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen speaking at the Torrejón de Ardoz air base on Saturday.

“In the times of need, Spain has shown humanity, and Spain has proven a great sense of solidarity,” said Von der Leyen after a visit to the base, which is located around 30 kilometers from the Spanish capital. “So Spain is here an example for the European soul at its best, and I really want to thank you,” she said, in reference to the prime minister, before going on to thank others involved in the operation.

The operation at Torrejón de Ardoz is divided into three areas. In the first they are given coronavirus tests – so far there have been no cases. In the second, staff from the Migration department coordinates with the Red Cross. And in the third, the Afghans are interviewed and the bureaucratic process begins to process them in Spain or another country. The United States is likely to use the same model at Rota and Morón, according to sources consulted by EL PAÍS.

“The Torrejón base has become a humanitarian lifeline until the people rescued can travel to the different countries for whom they have worked,” the minister for the prime minister, Félix Bolaños, stated.

As well as the working group that is supervising the repatriation of the Spanish contingent, a technical team overseen by Bolaños is meeting every day in the morning. The group is supervising the situation and the actions that are taking place at the Torrejón base and Kabul airport, and supervising the latest arrivals. The team is made up of around 35 people from the Defense, Foreign, Interior, Migration and Health ministries.

A total of 110 military personnel from Spain are taking part in the evacuation plan. What’s more, the Foreign Ministry has sent more than 120 staff to participate. A further two diplomatic staff have been sent to Kabul to strengthen the operation there – the ambassador, Gabriel Ferrán, was already present along with another diplomat.

English version by Simon Hunter.



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Belgium goes into three-week ‘lockdown light’

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Belgium is to go into a three-week ‘lockdown light’, following a meeting of federal and regional governments on Friday (26 November).

“We have to admit that we have been ambushed by the virus and that the situation is much more serious than we saw a few weeks ago”, Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo told a lunchtime press conference.

De Croo added that “the pressure on our hospitals is seriously increasing and that the situation is not tenable. We have to action now.”

The Belgian concertation committee of federal and regional governments decided that social life will be restricted in a variety of ways for the next three weeks.

Nightclubs will be closed, and indoor concerts where people are not seated will be cancelled. This measure will go into effect on Monday (29 November).

Bars, restaurants and night-shops will need to close their doors at 11PM. The number of people on one table in restaurants will be restricted to six, except for families larger than six. These measures will go into effect on Saturday (27 November).

Private parties will be forbidden, with an exception for weddings and funerals. However, it is still allowed to have guests at home.

At work and school, on the other hand, there are no upgraded restrictions. The last committee decided that teleworking is mandatory four days a week, and that people can only go to the office one day a week.

Schools will remain open, as will universities.

De Croo reiterated that these “measures will only makes sense if everyone follows them.”

The committee decided to accelerate the vaccination campaign. Regional governments will organise test centres where people can get tested for free.

The committee decided to meet urgently after hospitals and doctors said they could no longer handle the situation. From 16 to 22 November, on average 16,100 people tested positive for Covid daily. On 22 November that number was already 25,365 .

Currently, 669 intensive-care beds are filled with Covid patients, well over the emergency threshold of 500, and in the worst-case scenario, 1,250 intensive-care beds, a maximum capacity, would be filled by Christmas.

Belgium has not been able to organise roll-out of the booster jab in time to prevent the fourth wave. De Croo announced that on Saturday (27 November) a plan will be made to accelerate the booster jab for every adult.

Before the Belgian governments met, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen announced the bloc will take the initiative to block all air travels from Southern Africa, where a new variant of Covid-19 has been found.

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Interpol’s president: alleged torturer rises as symbol of UAE soft power | Global development

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Maj Gen Ahmed Nasser al-Raisi’s ascent through the ranks of the interior ministry in Abu Dhabi is associated with the United Arab Emirates’ transformation into a hi-tech surveillance state.

His personal achievements include a diploma in police management from the University of Cambridge, a doctorate in policing, security and community safety from London Metropolitan University and a medal of honour from Italy.

Now, in a big soft-power win for the UAE and its attempt to legitimise its policing methods internationally, he has been elected the president of the global policing organisation Interpol – to the dismay of human rights defenders.

Often photographed smiling, Raisi is the longstanding inspector general for the interior ministry, responsible for the supervision of detention centres and policing. Multiple former detainees accuse him of using this position to green-light abuses, including torture.

“Raisi’s rise to the Interpol presidency legitimises the role and conduct of security forces in the UAE,” said Matthew Hedges, a British academic and expert on the Emirates who was detained there for seven months on espionage charges. Hedges, who was eventually pardoned, says Raisi was responsible for his arrest and also oversaw the torture he says he suffered in detention.

“This translates to a green light for states to continue acting in a way that abuses accountability and human rights, legitimises the dilution of rule of law and emboldens authoritative and abusive systems of detention,” Hedges said. “This is really a warning to the international community that cross-border abuses can and will occur.”

The Gulf state has previously said Hedges was not subjected to any physical or psychological mistreatment during his detention. On Thursday its interior ministry heralded Raisi’s win as “recognition of the vital role of the UAE all over the world”.

“The UAE,” it said, “is now at the helm of this international organisation working in the fields of security and policing and will do its best to make the world a safer place.”

In an unusually public campaign for the role, Raisi boasted of technological transformations that overhauled policing and surveillance in the UAE. These included the introduction of iris and facial scanning technology, and the creation of the interior ministry’s first “general directorate of happiness”.

His domestic policing changes underpin Abu Dhabi and Dubai’s status as two of the world’s most surveilled cities. One system, called Falcon Eye, deploys thousands of cameras to monitor not just traffic violations but also “behavioural issues like public hygiene and incidents like people gathering in areas where they are not allowed to”, according to a report by the state news agency WAM.

The rise in surveillance has been accompanied by a crackdown on domestic criticism and dissent. Human Rights Watch has said: “The government’s pervasive domestic surveillance has led to extensive self-censorship by UAE residents and UAE-based institutions; and stonewalling, censorship, and possible surveillance of the news media by the government.”

Abdullah Alaoudh, from the Washington DC organisation Democracy for the Arab World Now, said the UAE had been applying a two-pronged approach epitomised by Raisi’s Interpol win: “Cracking down hard on every voice of dissent, while investing in public relations like lobbying, soft power, sports and entertainment.”

Christopher M Davidson, the author of a book on statecraft in the Middle East, described Raisi as an example of “high-performing technocratic members of UAE political society” who had found success under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

“The key to the regime of Mohammed bin Zayed has been to get things done, to stamp out corruption. Despite all criticisms levelled at the UAE and Abu Dhabi today, it is a far less corrupt place than it was 15 years ago. These were the people entrusted to clean up ministries,” said Davidson.

Stamping out corruption has, at times, included arresting the wealthy and critics. Khadem al-Qubaisi, a former adviser to the royal family and a businessman who said he was “scapegoated” by the Abu Dhabi authorities for embezzling millions, is detained in Al Wathba prison. The prison, overseen by Raisi, also holds the human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor.

Riyaadh Ebrahim, who spent more than a year in the prison, said he witnessed torture there. “There is wrongful imprisonment, no application of the rule of law. People are being persecuted for crimes they did not commit,” Ebrahim said. He said he was “totally appalled” by Raisi’s victory in the Interpol election race.

Davidson said the UAE was using its wealth and resources to buy reputational shortcuts on the international stage.

“Policing in the UAE still has its problems, but this is a way of saying to the world that [they] are credible and respectable,” he said. “Obtaining the presidency of Interpol symbolises moving in the right direction.”

Jalel Harchaoui from the Geneva-based organisation the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime said Raisi’s election highlighted the struggle between liberal and illiberal nations within international institutions such as Interpol, and was a victory for anti-democratic countries.

“On the surface, Abu Dhabi – thanks to excellent soft-power outreach – markets itself as a modern state, which happens to be a dependable friend to all the major western democracies,” he said. “In reality however, the Emiratis, whose governance style has been partly inspired by China’s strict form of authoritarianism, always campaign against liberalism and its key principles.”

A spokesperson for the UAE embassy in London did not respond to a request for comment.

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France reminds Poland on law in Paris meeting

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French president Emmanuel Macron urged Polish president Mateusz Morawiecki to solve a rule-of-law dispute with the EU, while voicing solidarity on the Belarus migration crisis, in a meeting in Paris on Wednesday. Poland should “find a solution that safeguards the core values of the European Union”, Macron’s office said. Russian president Vladimir Putin told EU Council president Charles Michel by phone extra EU sanctions on Belarus would be “counterproductive”.

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