The Czech government has downplayed the significance of Russia’s lethal attack on a Czech weapons depot in 2014, but further retaliatory measures, including at EU level, could follow.
“It was not an act of state terrorism. [Russian] agents attacked the goods of a Bulgarian arms dealer, who probably sold them to parties fighting against Russia. The ammunition was to explode along the way [to the warehouse],” Czech prime minister and business tycoon Andrej Babiš said on TV on Monday (19 April).
“But it is, of course, unacceptable that they carried out this operation here, which they messed up,” he added.
He spoke following a government meeting in which he shared classified evidence from a recently completed investigation into the incident seven years ago, which killed two Czech citizens.
The pro-Russian Czech president, Miloš Zeman, a political ally of Babiš, has said nothing.
Earlier the same day, speaking at an EU foreign affairs ministers’ video-conference, the Czech Republic’s acting foreign minister, Jan Hamáček, did brief his peers on the attack.
He asked for EU “solidarity”, which was duly expressed in two brief statements, one by EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell and a second one by a European Commission spokesman.
But according to diplomatic sources, Hamáček did not ask for any concrete actions, such as coordinated expulsions of Russian diplomats by other EU countries.
“They called for solidarity in general, not for specific measures”, an EU diplomat told EUobserver.
When asked why the EU reaction had been so muted for now, the diplomat added: “Because common sense is not common practice [in Europe]”.
Prague has so far expelled 18 Russian diplomats as a response, prompting Russia to expel 20 Czech ones in retaliation.
But the developments were widely seen as disproportionate, given that Russia had over 120 diplomats in the Czech Republic, while the Russian move left just a handful of Czech ones in Moscow.
And for some commentators, Babiš and Hamáček’s manoeuvring on Monday was because they were taken aback by Russia’s firm response.
“It was an unexpected and pleasant surprise that they decided to do so [expel the 18 Russians]. And now it seems as if they are afraid of their vigorous approach,” Petr Kolář, the Czech Republic’s former ambassador to the US, told Czech media on Monday.
“I think that the way we are approaching this now embarrasses not only me and some colleagues, but also allies abroad. I think they [EU and Nato allies] expected a much more emphatic continuation of how we started,” he added.
“The Czech public must also be confused,” Kolář said.
The Czech side is expected to brief Nato ambassadors at a meeting of the allies’ North Atlantic Council later this week.
And for one EU diplomat, further reactions both in the Czech Republic and in the West could still follow.
“I have a feeling that this is just the beginning,” the diplomat said.
For its part, the foreign policy committee of the Czech senate asked the Czech government, also on Monday, to reduce the number of Russian diplomats in the country to just one – the Russian ambassador himself.
The Czech trade minister, Karel Havlíček, also indicated that Russian firm Rosatom will be excluded from a tender to build a nuclear power plant in the country.
But for some Nato countries, the 2014 incident should be treated at least as gravely as Russia’s attempt to assassinate a former Russian spy in the UK in 2018, when Europe and the US collectively expelled over 300 Russian envoys.
The Czech explosion “was a direct attack on a Nato-member country”, Tom Tugendhat, a British MP who chairs the parliament’s foreign affairs committee, told the Sky News broadcaster over the weekend.
“If this was not an act of war, then I have trouble understanding what should be considered as one,” he added.
Belgium goes into three-week ‘lockdown light’
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.
Interpol’s president: alleged torturer rises as symbol of UAE soft power | Global development
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.
France reminds Poland on law in Paris meeting
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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