Steep Fines, Possible Jail Time in Britain for COVID-19 Travel Violations

British Health Secretary Matt Hancock Tuesday introduced tough new travel rules for British and Irish residents who travel from COVID-19 hot spots, and penalties for those who break them, including fines of more than $13,000 and 10-year jail sentences. Hancock announced the new rules to Parliament, saying they build on rules that are already in place and noting that it is already illegal to travel abroad without permission.He said the new rules require legal residents arriving in Britain from the most high-risk countries — those on the “red list” such as South Africa — quarantine in an assigned hotel room for 10 days from the time of arrival, and pay $2,400 for the “quarantine package,” covering the cost of accommodation, transport and testing.WHO Urges Measures to Stop Spread of COVID-19 Amid Vaccinations Warning comes after South Africa suspends their vaccine campaign, citing concerns it was not as effective against variants Hancock said anyone failing to quarantine in hotels when required faces fines of nearly $7,000, rising to nearly $14,000. Arrivals who fail to declare they have been in any of the 33 red list countries face prison sentences of up to 10 years.Hancock told Parliament the new program begins Monday, and 16 hotels have so far been contracted for the program. He said a new “enhanced testing” regime for all international travelers would also begin on Monday, with two tests required during the quarantine process. “People who flout these rules are putting us all at risk,” Hancock said. “Passenger carriers will have a duty in law to make sure that passengers have signed up for these new arrangements before they travel, and will be fined if they don’t.”

Digital Radio Powering Global Communications

Many broadcasters are using a variety of digital radio for high quality transmissions reaching faraway lands.  Mike O’Sullivan reports on one format that is starting to play an important role in global communications.

Hong Kongers in Britain Organize Support for Thousands of Newcomers 

While China was preparing to implement a new National Security Law in Hong Kong in the summer of 2020, Jennifer was planning to relocate her family to Britain.  Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers are expected to move to the United Kingdom in the coming years, where they are eligible to apply for British citizenship. Many of the thousands of newly arrived are now organizing initiatives to support others planning their move to Britain.  
 
Like many others, Jennifer participated in the 2019 pro-democracy and anti-government demonstrations. But the law passed last summer has Jennifer and others worried their civil liberties could be undermined.  
 
The National Security Law would prevent and punish what it calls acts of “secession, subversion or terrorism activities” that threaten national security. The law would also allow Chinese national security organizations to set up agencies in Hong Kong. Critics say it effectively curtails protests and freedom of speech; China says it is needed to restore order and stability.  
 
Jennifer, who requested that her real name not be used, spent months online preparing to move her family:  
    
“When I came, I was quite well-prepared because I could have everything for me settled by myself, through a lot of hard work in Hong Kong. So, I did a lot of online research and approaching different organization and departments in the U.K. to arrange my place to live and arrange school for my child and arrange my account and all that. Most of the families, they come here for the children’s future,” Jennifer said.FILE – A British National Overseas passport (BNO), right, and a Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China passport are pictured in Hong Kong, Jan. 29, 2021.Despite never having lived in Britain before, she holds a British National Overseas passport. Her family is eligible to apply for a new visa that offers a path to British residency and citizenship. The British government estimates nearly 3 million people are eligible along with about 2.3 million dependents. Applications opened January 31. So far 7,000 people with a BNO passport have arrived from Hong Kong since July 2020.Hong Kong is a former British colony over which China regained control in 1997.  
 
Jennifer now shares her knowledge about the moving process with other Hong Kongers through volunteer organizations. In recent months, several organizations were established in Britain to provide support to people arriving from Hong Kong and to those planning their move.  
 
Simon Cheng is the co-founder and chairman of one such support group, Hongkongers in Britain. The volunteer-run organization hopes to fill information gaps and smooth the process for the 300,000 Hong Kongers believed to resettle in Britain over the next few years.  
 
Cheng says that while there are a lot of questions about the practicality of relocating, such as finding employment and schools, there are deeper concerns regarding China’s ability to retaliate – even in Britain.  
    
“About one month ago, we did the policy study to identify their needs and their concerns. The security would be the area of the concern. And they were a little bit worried that if they come here when they’ve been harassed, the Chinese authority would be very upset about it. We’re not sure yet about the future and potential retaliation,” Cheng said.FILE – Simon Cheng, founder of Hongkongers in Britain, attends an event protesting shrinking political freedoms in Hong Kong, in Leicester Square, central London, Dec. 12, 2020.There are dozens of YouTube channels, Facebook groups and other online platforms where relocated Hong Kongers are sharing information about the visa application and the resettling process.  
 
Neil Jameson of UK Welcomes Refugees, an umbrella group helping people enter British society, says providing the right support and information to BNO holders will test British institutions:  
    
“The problem would be landlords, the National Health Service, the police, and then they will suddenly see these papers they haven’t seen before, which is BNO passports. The vast number of people who will be coming, will be coming legitimately, do need to be welcomed, do need ideally to have a trusted group to go to in the places they choose to settle,” Jameson said.
    
Britain announced the updated British National Overseas passports visa program after the ongoing crackdown on pro-democracy activists by Chinese authorities in Hong Kong. The Chinese government announced it would stop recognizing the BNO as a valid travel document from the moment the BNO application program opened to Hong Kong residents.
 

Mystery Metal Monolith Vanishes from Ancient Turkish Site

A metal monolith that mysteriously appeared on a field in southeast Turkey has now disappeared, Turkish media reported Tuesday, four days after it was discovered.
The three-meter-high (about 10-foot-high) metal slab bearing an ancient Turkic script, was found Friday by a farmer in Sanliurfa province. It was discovered near the UNESCO World Heritage site of Gobekli Tepe, which is home to megalithic structures dating to the 10th millennium B.C., thousands of years before Stonehenge.
The shiny structure, however, was reported gone Tuesday morning, days after authorities said they were investigating its appearance by looking through closed circuit television footage and searching for vehicles that may have transported it to the site.
It wasn’t immediately clear if it had been taken down by the authorities. Officials at the Sanliurfa governor’s office weren’t immediately available for comment.
The state-run Anadolu Agency quoted the field’s owner as saying he was baffled by both its appearance and disappearance.
“We don’t know if it was placed on my field for marketing purposes or as an advertisement,” Anadolu quoted Fuat Demirdil as saying. “We saw that the metal block was no longer at its place. Residents cannot solve the mystery of the metal block either.”
The agency also quoted local resident Hasan Yildiz as saying the block was still at the field Monday evening, but had disappeared by the morning.
The monolith bore an inscription that read: “Look at the sky, you will see the moon” in the ancient Turkic Gokturk alphabet, according to reports.
Other mysterious monoliths have similarly appeared and some have disappeared in numerous countries in recent months.
Gobekli Tepe was the setting of the Turkish Netflix mystery series, “The Gift.”

Pandemic Handling Gets Mixed Reviews Across US, Europe

Public opinion is mixed on how well Western governments have handled the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new survey from the Pew Research Center, which also questioned people on their attitudes regarding compulsory vaccinations.Seventy-seven percent of Germans thought their government did a good job in handling the outbreak, while 58% of Americans say the U.S. government is doing a bad job.More than 4,000 adults were questioned in the United States, Britain, France and Germany.The survey was conducted in November and December 2020, before U.S. President Joe Biden took office in mid-January and just as vaccination programs were beginning to roll out in the United States and Britain.The European Union has been far slower in getting its vaccination programs under way, leading to some criticism of the bloc’s vaccine approval and procurement policy among EU citizens.An elderly visitor receives a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the Cent Quatre cultural center in Paris, France, Feb. 1, 2021.France and other EU states have argued the process must not be rushed, fearing a loss of public trust. France has one of the highest levels of so-called “vaccine skepticism” in the world.A recent newspaper poll suggested that just over 40% of the adult population intend to get the coronavirus vaccine. French President Emmanuel Macron recently rejected calls for mandatory vaccines.The Pew survey questioned respondents on their attitudes to compulsory vaccinations.“In three of the countries where we asked that question, most people do not find that an acceptable idea,” report co-author Kat Devlin told VOA. “So, for instance, 75% in France do not like the idea of a government-mandated vaccine. The U.K. was the one country where we found more acceptance of the idea of a government-mandated vaccine — 62% find that an acceptable proposition.”Sorry, but your browser cannot support embedded video of this type, you can
download this video to view it offline.Download File360p | 9 MB480p | 13 MB540p | 17 MB720p | 32 MB1080p | 71 MBOriginal | 224 MB Embed” />Copy Download AudioThe vaccination program is accelerating in Britain, with over 12 million people having now received their first dose. Britain has also suffered the highest number of coronavirus deaths in Europe.Analysts say local elections scheduled for May will offer another measure of public approval for the British government’s handling of the pandemic. 

Turkey’s Opposition HDP Faces Ban

The future of Turkey’s second-largest opposition party is hanging in the balance, with mass arrests and growing calls for its closure. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accuses the pro-Kurdish HDP of militant links, but the party says it’s a victim of increasing government authoritarianism. The HDP claims it’s facing an unprecedented legal crackdown with 16,000 members detained and dozens of deputies ousted from parliament and jailed under Turkey’s anti-terror legislation. Erdogan routinely refers to the HDP as the “pro-PKK party.” The PKK is a Kurdish insurgent group waging a decades-long war for minority rights in Turkey and is designated as a terrorist group by the United States and European Union. The progressive left pro-Kurdish HDP, which denies PKK links, secured six million votes in the 2018 election and 67 parliamentary deputies, making it Turkey’s second-largest party. FILE – Turkish police officers in riot gear block supporters of pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) as they try to gather for a rally in Istanbul, June 17, 2020.The HDP local elected representatives are facing the brunt of the legal crackdown. Sixty out of the 65 mayors have been jailed or replaced by trustees appointed by the Interior Ministry under anti-terror legislation. “When you can’t see ahead clearly, this affects your work in a negative way,” said Adalet Fidan, HDP mayor for Silopi in Turkey’s predominant Kurdish southeast, “because you are continuously thinking that at any moment there can be a trustee appointed to take over.”But the HDP’s existence is now in question. “Opposing the closure of the HDP means undermining justice and the fight against terrorism,” said Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, and Erdogan’s parliamentary coalition partner. FILE – Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahceli delivers a speech in Istanbul, Turkey, May 18, 2018.Bahceli, a hardline Turkish nationalist, is widely seen as the driving force behind the crackdown against the HDP. Erdogan has in the past voiced reluctance in supporting calls to ban the pro-Kurdish party.  But last month’s launching of a far-reaching prosecution against key members of the HDP is being interpreted by some observers as preparing the ground for the party’s closure. Turkey’s chief prosecutor’s office indicted 108 people for initiating fatal protests in 2014. The unrest was sparked by Ankara’s failure to offer support to Kurdish fighters besieged by the so-called Islamic State group, in the Syrian town of Kobane, on Turkey’s border. FILE – Turkish Kurds and others rally in support of Kurdish fighters who have gone to defend the Syrian town of Kobane against Islamic State extremists, in the central Turkish city of Ankara, Nov. 1, 2014.Prominent and former senior members of the HDP face life imprisonment without parole. “What we see in the indictment is a lot of tweets and politicians’ speeches which are then used to suggest and hold politicians responsible for the murder of 37 people during violent protests in 2014,” said Emma Sinclair Webb, senior Turkey researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch.  “Bottom line, through tweets, they committed murder, which is extraordinary,” she added. Sinclair Webb also voiced concern about HDP politicians being indicted with leading PKK members. “It shows the government sees the HDP party as no different from an armed organization, the PKK, and that is completely unacceptable as a way at looking at a democratic party which is playing by the rules of democratic elections.”  Strained relations with EUThe indictment threatens to exacerbate already strained Ankara-European Union relations. Among the accused is former HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas, who has been held in pre-trial detention since November 2016 on anti-terror charges. FILE – Supporters of Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) hold masks of their jailed former leader Selahattin Demirtas during a rally in Ankara, Turkey, June 19, 2018.The European Court of Human Rights in December ruled for Demirtas’s immediate release, saying his imprisonment was for an “ulterior political purpose.”  “The Turkish prosecutorial authorities with this latest indictment are flouting the ECHR decisions which calls for the immediate release of Selahattin Demirtas from jail,” said Sinclair Webb. While Turkey is beholden to comply with European Court decisions, Erdogan in December dismissed the Demirtas ruling as “politically motivated” and “hypocritical.” But the escalating HDP crackdown comes at an inopportune time for Erdogan, as he is seeking to improve ties with the EU, promising a new chapter in relations.  Later this month, Erdogan is scheduled to announce a raft of democratic and legal reforms. Analysts warn Brussels views Erdogan with deep skepticism. “The Turkish president’s reputation is at stake; this is the problem,” warned Huseyin Bagci, head of the Ankara-based Foreign Policy Institute. “The Europeans expect from Turkey no more words, but deeds; Turkey should act.” Electoral predictionWith Erdogan’s ruling AKP slipping in opinion polls, observers say he is becoming increasingly reliant on the support of his nationalist MHP coalition partner, which is pressing for a tougher stance against the HDP. Electoral calculations have added importance with growing speculation that the 2023 vote could be called as early as the end of the year. Analysts point out that if the HDP were to be closed down, Erdogan could secure an electoral advantage, given the vote in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast is traditionally split between the HDP and the AKP.  Fidan acknowledges she could well be living on borrowed time as HDP mayor for Silopi. “Most of the people I campaigned with during the local elections, who became mayors, some were even lawyers themselves, were taken from their post for nonsense reasons,” said Fidan. “And I fear the same thing can happen here as well, but all you can do is keep working.” 
 

Netherlands Freezes International Adoptions

The Netherlands says it is freezing international adoptions after a government commission discovered children had been stolen or bought from their parents.  
 
In cases going back to the 1960s, the commission found abuses such as “the falsification of documents, the abuse of poverty among the birth mothers and the abandonment of children for payment or through coercion.”
 
The commission was formed as adopted adults found their documents had been either lost or fake or that their adoption was illegal.
 
The commission reviewed cases from Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Brazil, and Colombia between 1967 and 1998. However, it found that the abuse had been going on before and after this time period.  
 
Rights minister Sander Dekker said he “understood that this will be painful for some people but let us not forget … we are protecting children and their biological parents.”
 
Dekker said the job falls on the next administration to decide whether or not to renew an international adoption process without abuses. 

China Appears to Block Popular Clubhouse App

After a brief honeymoon, China appears to have blocked a popular, invite-only audio app called Clubhouse.
The iPhone-only app had seen a surge in users over the weekend as users were able to discuss taboo topics like reunification with Taiwan and the plight of the Muslim minority in Xinjiang province.
But on Monday, users began reporting difficulty connecting, fueling speculation the app had been blocked by the so-called Great Firewall.
According to Bloomberg, Clubhouse was a hot topic on Chinese social media, and some were even selling invitations to the app on Alibaba’s online retailer. Some of the invites were going for as much as $44.60, according to Bloomberg.
As with many banned apps, Chinese users can still access Clubhouse using a virtual private network (VPN), and CNN reported that many were doing so. One such user was Susan Liang, a 31-year-old from Shenzhen.
“It is too rare an opportunity. Everyone has lived under the Great Firewall for so long, but on this platform, we can talk about anything,” she told CNN. “It’s like someone drowning and can finally breathe in a large gulp of air.”
She said she feared a crackdown as VPNs not approved by the government are illegal.
Clubhouse has so far not responded to media inquiries, Reuters reported.

Britain Vaccine Minister Suggests AstraZeneca Vaccine Could Be Modified

A British health official Monday downplayed a study suggesting the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine was minimally effective against a variant of the virus and suggested the vaccine could be modified to address such strains.  
 
South Africa halted its rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine after researchers from the University of Witwatersrand and the University of Oxford said the vaccine provided minimal protection against mild or moderate infection from the so-called South African variant among young people.
 
But in an interview Monday, Britain’s Minister of State for Health Edward Argar and other health experts looking at the study suggested there was no evidence that the vaccine would not be effective in preventing hospitalization and severe illness and death from the South African strain.
 
Argar also suggested the vaccine could be modified the way flu vaccines are each year to address a variety of strains.  He said the German pharmaceutical company CurVac – with which the British government has a contract – is already working on this.  
 
Argar said just 147 people are known to have been infected with the South African variant in Britain.
 
The country has the world’s fifth worst COVID-19 death toll with more than 110,000.  So far, a little more than 12 million Britons have received first doses of COVID-19 vaccines. 

Putin, Kremlin Critic Navalny Set Battle Plans for Next Phase in Struggle for Mastery

“Who cares about him?” Russian President Vladimir Putin said during a December news conference when asked about Alexey Navalny, the Kremlin critic who survived a near-fatal poisoning and was arrested last month in Moscow on his return following life-saving treatment in Germany.
 
The answer came on two consecutive weekends of protests, the largest displays of mass discontent with Putin since 2011. And in a sense Putin answered his own question with the heavy-handed policing of the pro-Navalny demonstrations as well as by imprisoning his most prominent critic.
 
But does Navalny represent a serious threat to Putin’s rule?
 
Former British envoy to Moscow Andrew Wood says he believes fear of losing control has been guiding Putin’s tactics in almost all his major decisions, including jailing Navalny, since becoming Russia’s leader two decades ago. And the retired diplomat sees that as the main driver behind Putin’s re-writing of Russia’s constitution last year, paving the way for the former KGB officer to remain in power for years to come.FILE – A still image taken from video footage shows Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny making heart gesture with his hands during the announcement of his court verdict in Moscow, Russia, Feb. 2, 2021.The fear has only ballooned. Navalny “may be jailed but Putin is the one under siege,” Wood says in commentary for Britain’s Chatham House research group. “Navalny’s return from Berlin to Moscow on 17 January this year set off an explosion. Putin’s 2020 legalized transition towards outright dictatorship is now in serious question.”  
 
Wood points to the surprising size of the protests and their geographical range across all 11 time zones of the Russian Federation, reflecting “a common sentiment across Russia that enough is enough.”
 
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which Putin has described in the past as “the greatest political tragedy of the 20th century.” The Soviet collapse was jolting and disorienting in its speed, leaving the Kremlin trailing behind events. It remains for Putin and his closest circle a haunting example of how quickly an authoritarian state can fall apart, say Western diplomats.
 
Konstantin Remchukov, owner and editor of Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, says Kremlin officials also discuss among themselves the 1917 revolution and whether Czar Nicholas II could have prolonged his rule, if he’d been tougher.
 
The Kremlin’s conclusion, Remchukov says, is that the czar doomed himself by being weak.
 
Last year’s amendment of Russia’s constitution, paving the way for Putin to remain in power potentially until 2036, doesn’t appear to have made the Kremlin any more confident about the future, despite the fact that 79% of Russians who voted backed the amendment.FILE – Journalists sit in front of an electronic screen during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual end-of-year news conference, held online in a video conference mode, in Moscow, Dec. 17, 2020.But Remchukov and other experienced observers of the Russian scene harbor doubts about whether Navalny and his political allies can loosen Putin’s grip on power in the near term. He points to a disconnect between a broad swath of Russians and political activists.
 
Speaking during a virtual panel discussion hosted last week by the Center for the National Interest, a Washington-based research group, Remchukov said ordinary people might be sympathetic to the pro-Navanly protesters but are more interested in getting on with their lives and earning a living.
 
The real underlying threat to Putin, he argued, rests with the economy — how it performs will determine how long Russia’s president remains in power. “The economic issue is the most serious political factor. If Putin doesn’t have economic growth, he will have problems,” Remchukov said.
 
Without it, ordinary Russians could become more receptive to the opposition’s disclosures about the corruption of a ruling elite that has gorged and enriched itself, say other observers.
 
Anti-Kremlin activists have been stymied before, trying to expand their support base and persuade the broader middle class to join the fight against Russia’s leadership. In 2012, anti-Putin demonstrations petered out, and did so again in 2019 when tens of thousands of activists began holding regular rallies in Moscow to protest rigged city council elections.
 
Exiled former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky also appears to see the struggle between Putin and his political opponents such as Navalny as a longer term struggle, although he told The Times of London in an interview Saturday he remains convinced that Russia is in “the final stage of dictatorship.”FILE – Law enforcement officers clash with protesters during a rally in support of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny in Moscow, Russia, Jan. 23, 2021.Putin’s support is strongest among older Russians who can remember the economic and political turmoil of the 1990s, when their savings disappeared overnight, but mortality will diminish their numbers, Khodorkovsky noted, and the Kremlin is gaining little ground in attracting the support of Russians under the age of 40. Unlike older adults, they get their news and views from the still unruly internet rather than from state-owned television channels.
 
In the meantime, Khodorkovsky sees repression only intensifying. Most Western diplomats agree the Kremlin will likely turn the screws, having little alternative. The Kremlin crossed a line, they say, with the attempted assassination last year of Navalny, which he and Western governments have blamed on the Kremlin. Putin’s political opponents would likely see any easing as an invitation to escalate their challenge and it could prompt self-doubt in the ranks of the security forces, which so far have remained solid in their loyalty to the Kremlin.
 
But there’s little consensus among seasoned observers about the timing of the Navalny poisoning and the logic behind it. “The state persecution of him makes him not just a political fighter, but a moral hero,” notes Andrei Kolesnikov, of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a research group. He adds, “A conflict is not just fought using brute force; there is also moral strength. And right now, that moral strength is on the side of the protesters.”
 
Unrest in neighboring Belarus, which has been rocked since August by mass protests against the authoritarian rule of President Alexander Lukashenko, may have reinforced Kremlin fears of Navalny, triggering a determination to get rid of Navalny ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for September, and following them a presidential election in 2024.
 
“It may have been opportunism,” David Kramer, an assistant secretary of state in the administration of George W. Bush, told VOA recently.
 
The elections could frame Russia’s elective authoritarianism for the next decade and the Kremlin will want to ensure Putin’s United Russia party continues, as it has done since 2007, to dominate the Duma, using any methods necessary to ensure the electoral system, already skewed in the ruling party’s favor, delivers the required managed result. The Duma is Russia’s lower house of parliament.
 
For Putin and his political opponents, the run-up to September is the next stage in a complex and dangerous struggle for mastery. An opinion poll last week showed Putin’s overall approval rating slipping just a point down since November at 64%. That may relieve the Kremlin and disappoint the opposition, but the protagonists can also spot trends and Putin’s popularity is plummeting among younger people.