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News of the week
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Refugees die at sea and in lorry
The death toll of refugees trying to reach Europe keeps rising. On Thursday, two boats carrying a combined number of about 450 people sank off the Libyan coast. It was unclear on Friday how many of them were rescued by Libya’s coast guard, but it was believed to be less than half of the passengers. On Wednesday, the bodies of 52 people were found in a stricken ship off Libya's coast, while a Swedish coastguard ship rescued more than 400 survivors. According to the UN, about 2,400 refugees have died trying to cross the Mediterranean so far this year.
In Austria, 71 dead bodies were found in a lorry on Thursday. Since a Syrian travel document was found inside the truck, Austrian police assumed the deceased were Syrian refugees. The vehicle was abandoned an a motorway near the Hungarian border. The police said all those on board appeared to have suffocated and died before they entered Austria. The bodies were badly decomposed when they were discovered. Police in Hungary arrested three people: a Bulgarian national of Lebanese origin, who owned the truck, and two drivers.
Sources: BBC, Guardian, CNN
ISIS destroys ancient temple in Palmyra
Militants of the Islamic State (ISIS) have blown up the 2000-year-old temple of Baal Shamin in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. A video of the destruction was published on the internet on Tuesday. Irina Bokova, head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) called the destruction of the World Heritage site “a war crime” and “an immense loss for the Syrian people and for humanity”. Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s antiquities chief, told The Guardian: “I felt insulted before this criminal act and our powerlessness and the powerlessness of the international community to stop it.”
The destruction came one week after ISIS had killed Khaled al-Asaad, the keeper of Palmyra. The 82-year-old archaeologist had looked after the ruins for four decades. According to UNESCO, the structure of the Baal Shamin temple dated to the Roman era. It was erected in the first century AD and further enlarged by Roman emperor Hadrian. The temple was one of the most important and best preserved buildings in Palmyra, while Palmyra itself is one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world, famed for its Greco-Roman monumental ruins.
Sources: UN, The Guardian, UN News Centre
Former minister of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime dies
One of the last senior figures of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime has died. Ieng Thirith, former social affairs minister and the highest-ranking woman of the murderous regime, died last Saturday at the age of 83. She had been suffering from dementia, heart troubles and other health problems. Ieng Thirith was one of originally five persons accused by the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal. Because of her illness, she was declared unfit for trial in 2012 and released from detention, but the charges against her were not dropped.
Ieng Thirith was charged with crimes against humanity, genocide, homicide, torture and religious persecution. She was the wife of Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary, who died in 2013, and sister-in-law of its late leader Pol Pot. Only three people have been sentenced so far by the tribunal that was established in 2006 to try the “most senior leaders” of the regime that killed an estimated 2 million Cambodians between 1975 an 1979.
The only members of the Khmer Rouge leadership who remain alive are Nuon Chea, Pol Pot’s second in command, and Khieu Samphan, former head of state. Both are appealing their 2014 life sentences for crimes against humanity and remain on trial.
Sources: LA Times, Cambodia Daily
South Sudan’s President signs peace deal
South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir finally signed a peace deal on Wednesday. Its aim is to end the ongoing armed conflict in the country. Rebel leader Riek Machar had signed the document already the previous week. The South Sudan government had asked for more time to deliberate. But with international pressure mounting and the UN Security Council threatening with an arms embargo, Kiir at last decided to put his signature under the peace deal. Several heads of neighbouring East African nations were present at the ceremony in the capital Juba.
While South Sudanese citizens expressed joy about the peace agreement, there are also strong opposing elements. Kiir’s top general does not support the deal. Neither do several factions of the rebels which split from Machar on account of his signing the agreement; some have already said they would not support the peace treaty. The president himself expressed his reservations. At the signing ceremony, the government tried to attach a 12-page list of reservations to many points of the agreement. The USA, one of the strongest supporters of President Kiir, stated that they “would not recognise any reservations or addendums to that document”, as the White House speaker said.
During the almost two years of armed conflict in South Sudan, several peace treaties were signed and broken. But in view of the strong international pressure to end the conflict and the looming threat of an arms embargo, experts consider the chances of this peace deal being kept to be better than in previous cases.
Sources: Radio Tamazuj, Al Jazeera, Gurtong.net
UN Security Council holds historic meeting on LGBT rights
In its first-ever meeting on LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) rights, the UN Security Council discussed the risk of violence experienced by LGBT people in areas controlled by ISIS. Hostility against members of sexual minorities is frequent in many authoritarian states of the Middle East. However, under the ISIS terror regime the situation has worsened. Witnesses gave their testimony before the Security Council, telling of the brutal killings of people accused of “sodomy”, including beheadings and persons thrown from the top of buildings.
In Syria and Iraq, the presence of ISIS “has increased the vulnerability of millions and further entrenched structural and cultural violence against women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons,” explained Jessica Stern, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, before the Security Council on Monday. Stern called on governments and the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) to help resettle gay refugees who fled from areas controlled by ISIS.
Sources: Newsweek, Al Jazeera, The Independent
These items were compiled by Katja Dombrowski and Sheila Mysorekar on the basis of international media coverage.