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Public spat with Brussels mars start of Slovenian presidency

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Questions over the rule of law and respect for democratic values marred the start of the Slovenian presidency of the EU Council, with a pubic rift between Brussels and Ljubljana as host prime minister Janez Janša declared that “smaller countries in the EU are treated as second class”.

And in a sign of behind-the-scenes tensions, the head of the Green Deal and former EU commissioner for the rule of law, Frans Timmermans, refused to join a group photograph with the right-wing premier, over Janša’s “unacceptable attack” on two Slovenian judges and two socialist MEPs.

After questions arose over the independence of the judiciary in Slovenia during the opening meeting between the Slovenian government and the European Commission, Janša showed a photo in which the two judges and two MEPs appeared and identified them as political enemies.

Speaking to the press on Friday (2 July), the conservative prime minister said that Timmermans got upset when the Slovenian government demonstrated “how members of the high court in Slovenia are making political campaigns on Sunday, and delivering independent rulings on Monday”.

“This is not independence,” Janša said, arguing that Timmermans’ questions over the rule of law were thereby answered.

“We did not start the discussion…If he was offended by our replies, we only try to explain it,” Janša added. “If you dislike the truth this is actually your problem, not a problem for the truth.”

Meanwhile, an off-the-cuff remark from Slovenia’s interior minister Aleš Hoj raised eyebrows in Ljubljana and beyond.

When asked about previous tweets in which he referred to anti-government protesters as pigs, Hoj said that he would call a certain individual a “swine” who is not on Prešeren Square – where the protests took place – but sitting “high in the EU bureaucracy”.

After many interpreted the comments as a reference to Timmermans, the interior minister clarified on social media that he was not referring to commission vice president when answering the journalists’ questions.

‘Imaginary values’

The tensions between Brussels and Slovenia come just a few days after a row broke out at an EU leaders’ summit over the new anti-LGBTIQ law approved in Hungary – with Janša and Poland’s premier Mateusz Morawieck backing Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán.

“If you judge someone on imaginary European values which everyone perceives differently and where dual standards are used, this is the fastest road to collapse,” Janša said, arguing that “an honest discussion” was necessary within the context of the Conference on the Future of Europe in order to clarify certain notions.

If the discussion about the future of Europe excludes some points of view, the EU “will continue to shrink,” he also said, pointing out that Orban has the right to express how he envisages the future of the EU.

“The EU without central Europe is not the EU,” he added.

For Janša, the EU is composed of 27 member states and it will not become a “melting pot” in which everyone thinks alike, saying that was “idealistic”.

When asked about the situation of media freedom in Slovenia, the prime minister showed a video produced by his government that questions the threats and obstacles journalists have reported.

He pointed out that some journalists in the country end up becoming politicians, arguing this was “wrong” if it only happens one on one side of the political spectrum.

“Freedom of the media enables people to exercise the freedom of expression,” he said, claiming that freedom of expression comes first. Janša himself is a former journalist.

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Delta COVID Variant Reportedly Draws Biden’s Attention, Resources Away From Other Priorities

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Despite high overall rates of vaccinations in the US, more and more Americans are getting infected with the new, rapidly spreading ‘delta’ variant of the coronavirus, once again testing the limits of hospitals and reportedly sparking talks about new mask-up orders from authorities.

The rapidly increasing number of new COVID-19 cases in the US caused by the more infectious delta strain of the virus is frustrating the Biden administration, as the problem draws attention and resources away from other priorities that the White House would like to concentrate on, the Washington Post reported, citing several anonymous sources. Among the problems that the administration reportedly had to de-prioritise are Biden’s infrastructure initiatives, voting rights, an overhaul of policing, gun control and immigration.

The White House reportedly hoped that the pandemic would be gradually ebbing by this time, allowing it to focus more on other presidential plans. Instead, the Biden administration is growing “anxious” about the growing number of daily COVID-19 cases, the newspaper sources said. The White House press secretary indirectly confirmed that Biden is currently preoccupied with the pandemic the most.

“Getting the pandemic under control [and] protecting Americans from the spread of the virus has been [and] continues to be his number-one priority. It will continue to be his priority moving forward. There’s no question,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on 22 July.

The administration had reportedly expected new outbreaks in the country, but not as many as they’re seeing. Current analytical models predict anything between a few thousand new cases and 200,000 new infected daily, the Washington Post reported. Washington also fears that daily deaths might reach over 700 per day, up from the current average of 250. However, the White House doesn’t expect the pandemic numbers to return to their 2020 peak levels.

At the same time, the Biden administration is trying to find scapegoats to blame for the current shortcomings in fighting the coronavirus pandemic in the country. Namely, Biden  last week accused the social media platform of failing to combat the spread of disinformation on COVID-19 and thus “killing people”. The statement raised many eyebrows since many platforms mark COVID-related posts and insert links to reliable sources of information regarding the disease and the vaccination efforts aimed at fighting it. The White House also hinted that the Republican-controlled states became the main sources of new COVID cases, while often underperforming in terms of vaccination rates.



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Sierra Leone abolishes death penalty | Global development

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Sierra Leone has become the latest African state to abolish the death penalty after MPs voted unanimously to abandon the punishment.

On Friday the west African state became the 23rd country on the continent to end capital punishment, which is largely a legacy of colonial legal codes. In April, Malawi ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional, while Chad abolished it in 2020. In 2019, the African human rights court ruled that mandatory imposition of the death penalty by Tanzania was “patently unfair”.

Of those countries that retain the death penalty on their statute books, 17 are abolitionist in practice, according to Amnesty International.

A de facto moratorium on the use of the death penalty has existed in Sierra Leone since 1998, after the country controversially executed 24 soldiers for their alleged involvement in a coup attempt the year before.

Under Sierra Leone’s 1991 constitution, the death penalty could be prescribed for murder, aggravated robbery, mutiny and treason.

Last year, Sierra Leone handed down 39 death sentences, compared with 21 in 2019, according to Amnesty, and 94 people were on death row in the country at the end of last year.

Rhiannon Davis, director of the women’s rights group AdvocAid, said: “It’s a huge step forward for this fundamental human right in Sierra Leone.

“This government, and previous governments, haven’t chosen to [put convicts to death since 1998], but the next government might have taken a different view,” she said.

“They [prisoners] spend their life on death row, which in effect is a form of torture as you have been given a death sentence that will not be carried out because of the moratorium, but you constantly have this threat over you as there’s nothing in law to stop that sentence being carried out.”

Davis said the abolition would be particularly beneficial to women and girls accused of murdering an abuser.

“Previously, the death penalty was mandatory in Sierra Leone, meaning a judge could not take into account any mitigating circumstances, such as gender-based violence,” she said.

Umaru Napoleon Koroma, deputy minister of justice, who has been involved in the abolition efforts, said sentencing people on death row to “life imprisonment with the possibility of them reforming is the way to go”.

Across sub-Saharan Africa last year Amnesty researchers recorded a 36% drop in executions compared with 2019 – from 25 to 16. Executions were carried out in Botswana, Somalia and South Sudan.

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[Ticker] EU to share 200m Covid vaccine doses by end of 2021

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The European Commission announced it is on track to share some 200 million doses of vaccines against Covid-19 before the end of the year. It says the vaccines will go to low and middle-income countries. “We will be sharing more than 200 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines with low and middle-income countries by the end of this year,” said European commission president Ursula von der Leyen.

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