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El Salvador rights groups fear repression after raids on seven offices | Global development

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Rights activists in El Salvador said they will not be pressured into silence after prosecutors raided the offices of seven charities and groups in the Central American country.

“They’re trying to criminalise social movements,” said Morena Herrera, a prominent women’s rights activist. “They can’t accept that they are in support of a better El Salvador.”

Officials said the raids, which took place at the offices of charities working on education, human rights and women’s rights on Monday, were part of an inquiry into the embezzlement of public funds.

Prosecutors claimed to be investigating several non-governmental organisations (NGOs), with $4.9m (£3.7m) under review, but the groups said the raids represented a crackdown on civil society by President Nayib Bukele’s increasingly authoritarian government.

“They don’t like social criticism, they think it’s all against the government, which isn’t the case,” Herrera said. “They think El Salvador didn’t exist before they came into government, but this is a society that has had to fight for its rights, even to be able to stand in the street and speak its mind.”

Azucena Ortiz, director of Las Mélidas, a women’s rights and health NGO that was raided, said that rights groups, rather than cash, were the targets. “We think this is a rigged procedure, specifically aimed at criminalising us.”

At the offices of Pro-Vida, which monitors water quality in rural El Salvador, authorities seized five computers in a raid. “These questionable raids have affected scheduled activities in the most vulnerable communities that we accompany,” the organisation said.

Bukele – a charismatic strongman with a mastery of social media – has come under increasing criticism for using the judiciary to stifle dissent.

Earlier this month, his government proposed a bill that would require journalists and civil society organisations (CSOs) that receive overseas funding to register as “foreign agents” with the interior ministry.

Transparency International said the draft bill was, “a blatant attempt to control and limit the work of CSOs, which benefit citizens with access to basic rights including healthcare, education, fight against corruption, prevention of violence, among other issues”.

But Bukele has doubled down on his populist style and rhetoric, recently calling himself “the world’s coolest dictator” on his Twitter profile, which has since been changed to “CEO of El Salvador”. His promotion of bitcoin, which he made legal tender in El Salvador in September, has also seen him trade in populist tropes.

Nayib Bukele, the president of El Salvador, at the Latin bitcoin conference at Mizata Beach, El Salvador.
Nayib Bukele, the president of El Salvador, at the Latin bitcoin conference at Mizata Beach, El Salvador. The country was the first in the world to adopt the cryptocurrency as legal tender. Photograph: Marvin Recinos/AFP/Getty Images

“These raids – coupled with the ‘foreign agents’ bill – are yet another example of Bukele’s intolerance with dissent,” said José Miguel Vivanco, director at Human Rights Watch’s Americas division. “Unless the international community puts a stop to his attacks on critics and the rule of law, El Salvador is likely to become yet another Latin American dictatorship.”

The targeted groups said they will continue to speak out.

“They’re not going to silence us, we’ll keep going, fighting for justice and a life free from violence,” said Herrera. “But it’s vital that the government feels that it cannot keep acting like this with impunity, it must understand that the eyes of the world are on it.”

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Biden threatens US blacklisting of Putin

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US president Joe Biden said Tuesday “Yes, I would see that” when asked by reporters if the US would blacklist Russian president Valdimir Putin if he invaded Ukraine. It would be the “largest invasion since World War Two” and would “change the world”, Biden said. The UK and US were also “in discussions” on disconnecting Russia from the Swift international payments system, British prime minister Boris Johnson also said Tuesday.

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Planned change to Kenya’s forest act threatens vital habitats, say activists | Global development

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Environmentalists are deeply concerned by the Kenyan government’s move to allow boundary changes to protected forests, watering down the powers of conservation authorities.

The forest conservation and management (amendment) bill 2021 seeks to delete clause 34(2) from the 2016 act, which makes it mandatory for authorities to veto anyone trying to alter forest boundaries. The same clause protects forests from actions that put rare, threatened or endangered species at risk.

Tabled by the National Assembly’s procedure committee, the amendment would weaken the role of Kenya Forest Service, mandated to protect all public forests, allowing politicians to decide who can change forest boundaries.

In an election year, many have read the proposal, due to be debated at the end of the month, as politically motivated.

The committee’s memorandum to MPs said current laws “unnecessarily limit the rights of any Kenyan to petition parliament” as provided for in the constitution.

An indigenous tree stands in habitat destroyed by charcoal makers
An indigenous tree, believed by local people to be ancient, stands in an area destroyed by charcoal makers in Nyakweri forest, Narok county, Kenya. Photograph: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty

But conservationists have said this would be a serious setback for the country, which was seeking to increase forest cover to 10% of land by 2022, up from 7.4%. Forest authorities said the move puts endangered species at risk, as well as clearing the way for unscrupulous individuals to encroach into forests that, according to a 2014 government paper, have been shrinking at a rate of 50,000 hectares (124,000 acres) annually.

“I am astounded any right-thinking person would consider submitting or supporting such an amendment,” said Paula Kahumbu, chief executive at WildlifeDirect, a conservation NGO. “It will open the door to forest destruction after decades of hard work by agencies, communities and NGOs to increase forest cover, as committed to in our constitution. One can only read mischief in such a motion, with elections around the corner.”

A mural of Prof Wangari Maathai Nobel Peace prize winner by Pius Kiio Kitheka also known as Waji Dice.
A mural of Nobel Peace prize winner, Wangari Maathai, who campaigned to protect Kenya’s forests. Photograph: Boniface Muthoni/SOPA/Rex/Shutterstock

Kahumbu added: “At risk are indigenous forests and the biodiversity therein, the integrity of our water towers, generation of hydropower and productivity of our farms. The environmental experts of Kenya and the conservation community call on all citizens of Kenya to reach out to their MPs to wholeheartedly and aggressively reject this heinous bill.”

She said the amendment would destroy the legacy of Wangari Maathai, the late environmentalist and Nobel Peace prize winner, who was once attacked and seriously wounded as she led a tree-planting exercise in Nairobi’s Karura Forest.

In a tweet, Christian Lambrechts, executive director at Rhino Ark said: “Considering what Kenya has lost in the past, any change that weakens, rather than strengthens the mechanisms to protect our forests, is ill-advised.”

Rhino Ark has been spearheading an initiative to put up electric fences around Kenya’s public forests to hamper poachers and illegal incursions.

Dickson Kaelo, head of the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association, said the move by parliament is intended to “give legitimacy” to those who would destroy Kenya’s biodiversity.

“This is a well-calculated move to open the doors for forest excisions and allocation to private persons for development, and may even be a means to normalise current excisions. It is a threat to our forests coming at a time when we have a low forest coverage and a high risk of climate crisis-induced vulnerabilities. We call upon parliament to reject the amendment,” said Kaelo.

Protecting forests from developers has been a daunting task in Kenya.

Last July, Joannah Stutchbury, a prominent environmental activist, was killed near her home in Nairobi after her protracted opposition to attempts by powerful businessmen to build on Kiambu forest near the capital, Nairobi.

President Uhuru Kenyatta has yet to fulfil a promise to catch her killers.



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EU court set to rule on Hungary, Poland rule-of-law challenge

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The European Court of Justice will rule on 16 February on the legality of the new mechanism linking EU funds to respect for the rule of law, which was challenged by Poland and Hungary last year. The tool has been threatened against Budapest and Warsaw where governments oversaw a decline in EU democratic standards. The court’s adviser ruled last month that their challenges should be rejected.

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