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Ex-Syrian agent convicted by German court in landmark torture trial | World News

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A former member of Syrian president Bashar al Assad’s secret police has been sentenced by a German court to four-and-a-half years in jail for facilitating the torture of prisoners.

Human rights activists hope the landmark ruling will set a precedent for other cases connected to the 10-year-old Syrian civil war.

Eyad al Gharib was convicted of accessory to crimes against humanity and sentenced by the Koblenz state court.

It was the first time that a court outside Syria had ruled in a case alleging Syrian government officials committed crimes against humanity.

The court heard Gharib had arrested at least 30 anti-government protesters at the start of the conflict in 2011 and sent them to an intelligence facility where he knew detainees were tortured.

The verdict gives hope to the 800,000 Syrians in Germany who say they were tortured in government facilities after attempts to establish an international tribunal for Syria failed.

Gharib’s lawyers had asked for an acquittal, saying he had carried out the arrests in and around Damascus under duress by his superiors.

The 44-year-old had asked the court to consider him a witness in broader legal efforts against the Syrian government.

Syrian government officials did not testify during the trial and the Assad regime has denied it tortures prisoners.

Syrian defendant Eyad Al-Gharib in court in Germany
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Gharib’s lawyers had asked for an acquittal, saying he had carried out the arrests under duress

“This is an important step forward in the process of securing accountability for the Syrian government’s systematic use of torture against civilians,” said Steve Kostas, a lawyer with the Open Society Foundation’s Justice Initiative, which is representing Syrian plaintiffs.

Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar al Bunni said the unprecedented verdict would speed up efforts to bring charges against former members of the Syrian government suspected of war crimes who have fled to Europe.

He said: “History has been made. The first verdict against a member of the Syrian regime’s torture and murder machine is a verdict against the whole regime, not just against one individual.

“It gives hope that justice is possible.”

The same court will continue hearings in the case of a second suspect, a former intelligence officer charged with 58 murders in a Damascus prison where prosecutors say at least 4,000 opposition activists were tortured in 2011 and 2012.

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Myanmar junta releases over 23,000 prisoners but fate of detained protesters unknown | World News

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Myanmar’s junta has claimed to have pardoned and released more than 23,000 prisoners – but it is not known if the figure includes pro-democracy activists detained in the wake of February’s coup.

The release was announced to mark the new year holiday.

State broadcaster MRTV said Myanmar‘s military leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing pardoned the 23,047 prisoners, including 137 foreigners who will be deported.

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He also reduced sentences for others.

Early prisoner releases are customary during major holidays, but this is the second time the ruling junta has done so since it ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, triggering daily protests, arrests and deaths by security forces.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which monitors casualties and arrests, government forces have killed at least 726 protesters and bystanders since the takeover.

The group says 2,728 people, including Ms Suu Kyi, are in detention.

Following the release of more than 23,000 convicts to mark Union Day on 12 February, there were reports on social media that some were recruited by the authorities to carry out violence at night in residential areas to spread panic.

Heavy clashes erupted during demonstrations in Yangon on Sunday 28 March
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Heavy clashes erupted during demonstrations in Yangon on Sunday 28 March

Some areas responded by setting up their own neighbourhood watch groups.

The military said it staged the coup because a November election won by Ms Suu Kyi’s party was rigged – an assertion dismissed by the election commission.

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COVID-19: Pandemic has now killed three million across the world – as countries see surge in cases | World News

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The global death toll from coronavirus has topped three million people amid repeated setbacks in the worldwide vaccination campaign and a deepening crisis in places such as Brazil, India and France.

The number of lives lost, as compiled by Johns Hopkins University in the US, is about equal to the population of Kyiv, Ukraine; Caracas, Venezuela; or metropolitan Lisbon, Portugal.

It is bigger than Chicago (2.7 million) and equivalent to Philadelphia and Dallas combined.

However, the true number is believed to be significantly higher because of possible government concealment and the many cases overlooked in the early stages of the outbreak that began in Wuhan, China, at the end of 2019.

Worldwide, COVID-19 deaths are on the rise again, running at around 12,000 per day on average, and new cases are climbing too, eclipsing 700,000 a day.

“This is not the situation we want to be in 16 months into a pandemic, where we have proven control measures,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, one of the World Health Organisation’s leaders on COVID-19.

In Brazil, where deaths are running at about 3,000 per day, accounting for one-quarter of the lives lost worldwide in recent weeks, the crisis has been likened to a “raging inferno” by one WHO official.

A more contagious variant of the virus has been rampaging across the country.

Meanwhile, problems that India had overcome last year are coming back to haunt health officials.

Recent religious event in India could be behind the surge in cases, experts suggest
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Recent religious event in India could be behind the surge in cases, experts suggest

Only 178 ventilators were free on Wednesday afternoon in New Delhi, a city of 29 million, where 13,000 new infections were reported the previous day.

The challenges facing India reverberate beyond its borders since the country is the biggest supplier of shots to Covax, the UN-sponsored program to distribute vaccines to poorer parts of the world.

Last month, India said it would suspend vaccine exports until the virus’s spread inside the country slows.

The WHO recently described the supply situation as precarious.

Up to 60 countries might not receive any more jabs until June, by one estimate.

To date, Covax has delivered about 40 million doses to more than 100 countries, enough to cover barely 0.25% of the world’s population.

Globally, about 87% of the 700 million doses dispensed have been given out in rich countries.

While one in four people in wealthy nations have received a vaccine, in poor countries the figure is one in more than 500.

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Elon Musk’s SpaceX wins $2.9bn NASA contract to send humans to the moon | Science & Tech News

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Elon Musk’s private space company SpaceX has won a $2.9bn (£2.1bn) NASA contract to build a spacecraft to put humans on the moon.

The tech billionaire’s firm was chosen ahead of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and defence contractor Dynetics Inc.

Steve Jurczyk, NASA’s acting administrator, said at a video conference: “We should accomplish the next landing as soon as possible. This is an incredible time to be involved in human exploration, for all humanity.”

SpaceX founder and chief engineer Elon Musk
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SpaceX founder and chief engineer Elon Musk wants to take humans to Mars

SpaceX will need to complete a test flight “to fully check out all systems with a landing on the lunar surface prior to our formal demonstration mission”, NASA official Lisa Watson-Morgan told reporters.

Mr Musk is one of the world’s richest people thanks to his 22% stake in electric car maker Tesla, now the world’s most valuable vehicle manufacturer.

His publicly stated aim is to put humans on Mars – but so far, SpaceX has mainly been used to launch satellites for his Starlink internet venture, and other satellites and space cargo.

The SpaceX programme has suffered considerable teething problems, with another failed landing for its prototype Starship spacecraft last month.

The previous three exploded at touchdown or shortly afterwards.

Those setbacks do not appear to have affected investors’ confidence in his schemes, however, as SpaceX said on Wednesday it had raised about $1.16bn (£838m) in equity financing.

SpaceX lost another Starship, here seen launching in thick fog, in a botched landing on Tuesday
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SpaceX lost another Starship, here seen launching in thick fog, in a botched landing

NASA’s plan is get back to the moon and using that as a platform to send astronauts to Mars and it is looking to team up with private companies that share its vision for space exploration.

In December, NASA announced 18 astronauts who could be involved in plans to get back to the moon by 2024.

Jeff Bezos. Pic: AP
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NASA’s decision is a setback for Jeff Bezos. Pic: AP

It’s a setback for Mr Bezos, a lifelong space enthusiast and one of the world’s richest people, who is more focused on his space venture after deciding to step down as Amazon CEO.

The NASA deal was seen as a way for Blue Origin to establish itself as a desired partner for NASA, and also putting the venture on the road to turning a profit.

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