INDEPENDENT 2024-02-14 18:03:49


Ukraine says it has destroyed Black Sea ship as Putin’s troops advance

Ukrainian forces have destroyed a large Russian military ship off the occupied peninsula of Crimea, Kyiv‘s military has said.

A Ukrainian news outlet published several videos showing a column of smoke rising over the sea off the southern coast of Crimea, as well as helicopters flying over the sea.

“The Ukrainian Armed Forces, together with the Defence Ministry’s intelligence unit, destroyed the Tsezar Kunikov large landing ship,” the military said. “It was in Ukrainian territorial waters near Alupka at the time of the hit.”

It comes as the Ukrainian military warned that Vladimir Putin’s troops have advanced along the “entire front line” in Ukraine as Kyiv was forced to switch to defensive operations, the country’s military warned.

The newly-appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrskyi, said the situation was “difficult” and his focus was now to exhaust the Russian advance.

“At this time, the situation can be assessed as difficult. The enemy is now advancing along almost the entire front line, and we have moved from offensive operations to conducting a defensive operation,” Syrskyi told German TV channel ZDF.

Family who left arranged marriage bride in vegetative state are jailed

A family who left an arranged marriage bride in a vegetative state after she was forced to take pills and doused with a corrosive substance has been jailed.

Ambreen Fatima Sheikh was 30 when she was “tricked or forced” to take the anti-diabetes drug glimepiride – which induced catastrophic brain injury – after she was brought to the UK from Pakistan following an arranged marriage, Leeds Crown Court heard.

Ms Sheikh was also doused in a caustic substance, probably some kind of cleaning fluid, which left severe burns, as she was abused in the house in the days leading up to her admission to hospital on 1 August 2015, a judge said on Wednesday.

It was initially thought Ms Sheikh, who is now 39, would die but, when her ventilator was turned off in hospital, she began to breathe for herself. The court heard that she has been left unaware of herself or her environment, without motor response or response to pain, and will never recover. Prosecutors said she only survives by being fed through a tube and will eventually die as a consequence of what happened to her, although this may not happen for many years.

Sentencing judge, Ms Justice Lambert said: “It is difficult to imagine a more serious injury, short of death.”

On Wednesday, Ms Sheikh’s husband, Asgar Sheikh, 31, was jailed for seven years and nine months along with his father, Khalid Sheikh, 55, and his mother, Shabnam Sheikh, 52. Asgar Sheikh’s brother, Sakalayne Sheikh, 25, was given a six-month sentence, suspended for two years, and his sister, Shagufa Sheikh, 29, was given an 18-month sentence, also suspended for two years.

The court has been told:

The court heard that Ms Sheikh came to the family’s home in Clara Steet, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, in 2014 after an earlier arranged marriage with Asgar in Pakistan. The judge said she rarely left the house and never by herself. She had no independent income, no friends in the UK and could speak only a little English.

None of the family gave evidence in court and the judge said she could not say for sure when the abuse began.

The trial heard evidence that, soon after Ms Sheikh arrived in the UK, the family were not happy with her housework and chores, and Khalid Sheikh had suggested she should be sent back to Pakistan.

Concerns were raised by members of the extended family and two police officers carried out a welfare check in July but reported Ms Sheikh as being fit and well. The judge said she attached “little weight to that assessment” because Ms Sheikh spoke little English and her father-in-law was present during the visit.

She said she did not know who administered the corrosive substance, which left severe burns on Ms Sheikh’s lower back, bottom and right ear, and must have left her in considerable and lasting pain. And she said she did not know who “tricked or forced” her to take the glimepiride, which was prescribed to Shabnam Sheikh and is extremely dangerous to non-diabetics, even in small doses.

The judge decided there was a two to three-day delay between Ms Sheikh falling unconscious and the family calling an ambulance, during which she became highly dehydrated and inhaled fluids which may have exacerbated her brain injury.

Even when the family called 999, they lied about what had happened to her, the judge said.

“You would all have been aware of her pain and distress,” she said. “It’s just not realistic to conclude that you did not all know of Ambreen’s predicament and her desperate need for emergency medical care. You all also knew why she was in that condition.”

The court heard that Ms Sheikh is now being looked after in a palliative care setting and will not recover but could live for decades more.

She was in good health before her collapse and there is some evidence that she was a teacher in Pakistan, the court heard. One witness said she was “intelligent, bright, ambitious and happy-go-lucky” before she moved to the UK, and the judge said she was someone who would “light up a room”.

The judge said Ms Sheikh’s father is now dead and her mother is in poor health in Pakistan. She has seven siblings and one of her brothers has been over to visit her.

Asgar, Khalid, Shabnam and Shagufa Sheikh were all found guilty after a trial of allowing a vulnerable adult to suffer physical harm after a trial last year.

The offence carried a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison at the time of the offence but this has since been increased by Parliament to 14 years.

Asgar, Shabnam and Shagufa Sheikh were also found guilty of doing an act intending to pervert the course of justice.

All five defendants were found guilty of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.

Following sentencing, DCI Matthew Holdsworth of the homicide and major enquiry team, said: “This has been an awful case in which a young, healthy woman has been catastrophically injured and robbed of her future by the very people she should have expected to protect her.

“While Ambreen still technically lives, it is tragically believed she may never regain consciousness.

“I am grateful that justice has at least been delivered for Ambreen today and that those responsible for her suffering have been punished for the truly wicked offences they committed.”

Police officer describes horrifying moment Constance Marten’s baby was found in Lidl bag

Jurors have been shown the horrifying moment police discovered the remains of Constance Marten and Mark Gordon’s baby covered in leaves in a rubbish-filled shopping bag.

The infant, named Victoria, was found by officers in a disused allotment shed strewn with rubbish, out of date food and a blue tent, a court heard.

Police footage from body cameras played to the Old Bailey on Wednesday showed officers rifling through a tatty red Lidl carrier bag, pulling out nappies and an old Budweiser beer can before reaching into the bottom of the bag where the child’s body was discovered.

Marten, 36, who was in court wearing a pink blouse and black trousers, appeared to shake her head in the dock alongside Gordon, 49, after the distressing footage was played.

The couple both deny gross negligence manslaughter of their newborn daughter, whose remains were eventually found in the disused shed covered in rubbish “as if she was refuse”, the court heard.

The prosecution allege the couple’s “reckless and utterly selfish” behaviour led to the “entirely avoidable” death of the infant, after the pair spent weeks on the run living in a tent in freezing conditions to avoid the child being taken into care.

Giving evidence, PC Allen Ralph told the Old Bailey that the first thing he and a colleague noticed was the smell when he entered the shed in an abandoned area of a Brighton allotment on 1 March last year.

“I remember saying to him [his colleague] directly, either something is dead in there or something has died,” he told the court.

The officers discovered the bag for life tucked in a corner “out of the way” under a makeshift table – on which there was out of date milk and bread.

He added: “I lifted it and it was heavy and there was no reason for it to be heavy from what I could see inside.”

Asked what he could see, he continued: “To be fair I remember it quite clearly it was just a lot of rubbish. The only thing that made me bring it out more is I found two newborn baby nappies. That’s the first thing I could see.

“And then underneath that there was a pink rolled up bloody blanket. And then underneath that there was the rubbish, there was cans there was bottles. There were leaves – a lot of leaves – in the bag.”

PC Ralph said he saw what looked like the head of a doll in the bag, the court heard.

Forensics later arrived and confirmed the bag contained the remains of a deceased female infant.

Other items found in the bag included a quantity of soil and leaves, two golf club score cards, a bottle of petrol, a baby grow, a black blanket, some pages from the Sun newspaper dated 12 January, an old coke can and an egg mayonnaise sandwich packet with a 15 January use by date, the court heard.

The footage comes after the court heard how Gordon demanded to be treated with respect during his police interview as detectives were still searching for the baby, insisting: “I don’t think I should be talked to like a nobody.”

Jurors were told how Gordon refused to respond to questions about whether his child was dead or alive but demanded pain killers from police after he was arrested with Marten after almost eight weeks on the run.

In transcripts of police interviews read to the jury on Wednesday, Gordon told a detective he was getting “sub-par” treatment when he was interviewed at 12.27am on 1 March last year – as officers searched for the baby.

The Old Bailey heard he had seen a nurse about his swollen feet and numb hands before the interview began at Worthing Police station, but demanded to see a doctor.

“Like I’m getting sub-par treatment and I don’t think I should be talked to like a nobody…I should be treated with respect,” the court heard.

“I don’t appreciate being looked down on and talked to like I’m a nobody. Yes I’m in custody but it doesn’t mean I’m a nobody.”

He went on: “Firstly I am a detainee, I am not charged with anything, therefore why am I being treated like I’m in HMS down there…just sub-par treatment. The amount of prisoners dying out there because of how these prisons are run.”

He later added: “I just feel like I am scum. I feel like I’m a scumbag actually. I feel like a piece s**t – like that’s how I’ve been treated.”

Jurors were told that Marten, who was taken to a custody suite in Brighton, responded ‘no comment’ when she was interviewed on 28 February, before officers knew if the child was dead or alive, and again on 1 March after the infant’s remains had been found.

Last week the court heard how Marten claimed her name was Arabella and told police “you can’t arrest someone for hiding a pregnancy” after she was arrested in Brighton at 9.35pm on 27 February.

The aristocrat was also heard begging “please stop – he’s not been well” as Gordon was handcuffed and pinned to the ground after they were spotted by a member of the public.

The couple were heard telling each other they loved one another shortly after they were captured by police, the court heard.

The pair both deny manslaughter by gross negligence of their daughter between 4 January and 27 February last year.

They also deny charges of perverting the course of justice by concealing the body, concealing the birth of a child, child cruelty and allowing the death of a child.

The infant’s remains were found in a plastic bag in a locked shed at an overgrown allotment in the Hollingbury area of Brighton on 1 March. The discovery came after Marten and Gordon were arrested in nearby Stanmer Villas.

The trial, scheduled to last until 8 March, continues.

A Downton Abbey comeback is precisely the palate-cleanser we need

Hold on to your cloche hats: a seventh season of Downton Abbey is reportedly in the works, almost a decade after the wildly popular costume drama’s finale. According to the Daily Mail, “filming has been going on for a few weeks now”, with secrecy around the production sky-high. “It was such a huge success before and there are so many more stories to be told, it seemed such a shame not to be able to make more of it,” a source told the paper.

Yes, if the rumours are true, it’d be yet another revival of an old TV hit – but before you start rolling your eyes in tribute to Maggie Smith’s permanently unimpressed Dowager Countess, hear me out. For a long while, our TV schedules have been sorely lacking a soapy, silly period drama that’s easy on the eye, not too taxing on the brain and relatively family-friendly (have you tried watching Bridgerton with mum and dad? Exactly). In an entertainment landscape where every other new launch is a depressing police procedural or gruesome true-crime story, a Downton comeback is precisely the sort of comforting, low-stakes palate-cleanser that we need.

When the first season of Downton aired on ITV back in 2010, it was a phenomenon. Julian Fellowes’ show combined lavish costumes and fancy period settings with enjoyably outrageous storylines for characters on both sides of the upstairs-downstairs divide. Remember when Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) slept with a Turkish diplomat and he promptly… died of a heart attack, leaving her and long-suffering servant Anna Smith (Joanne Froggatt) to dispose of the body? Or the evil maid Sarah O’Brien’s (Siobhan Finneran) Machiavellian scheming? Add acid one-liners, mostly delivered by Smith’s slightly terrifying matriarch, and a strong emotional core, too, in the form of Lord and Lady Grantham’s idealistic youngest daughter Sibyl (Jessica Brown Findlay), and you had all the makings of a hit. No wonder at its peak it managed to pull in an average weekly audience of 11.5 million.

Admittedly, the wheels began to fall off the horse-drawn carriage as the six-season run went on. Things started to get a bit bonkers when Lady Mary’s paramour Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), the man she’d finally married after multiple series of posh yearning, was brutally mown down in a car accident moments after meeting his new son and heir, in possibly the least festive Christmas special ever. Still, by this point we were too invested in the core cast of characters to switch off. Would Lady Mary find happiness again? Would Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) ever stop being so catastrophically unlucky in love? Would the family dog Isis be able to remain part of the show once its name became irrevocably associated with a terrorist group?  

Even though Downton ostensibly ended in 2015, it wasn’t really over. Spin-off films followed in 2019 and 2022, earning universally mediocre reviews but doing well at the box office. The show didn’t really suit the feature-length format, which required Fellowes to lean heavily on dramatic set-piece scenes (like one bizarre incident in the first movie, in which someone tries to assassinate the King at a village parade, only to be thwarted by the Grantham’s chauffeur turned son-in-law, Branson, played by Allen Leech) instead of weaving together a tapestry of smaller plots and characters, as he does in his best Downton episodes.

With Fellowes going back to episodic TV after giving the Crawley family a few years of breathing space, I have my fingers crossed for a return to the show’s earlier glory days. Plus, picking up their story a little later (and allowing his characters to age a bit, which he seems to have avoided for reasons of plausibility while the Dowager was on the scene) means that he will have a brand new period to tackle. The run-up to World War II saw many aristocrats struggle to hold on to their family seats (and some of them dabbling with the far-right, Remains of the Day style), which should provide fertile territory.

The potential cast list remains vague. How many more times can the ever-reliable but increasingly elderly Mr Carson (Jim Carter) be brought out of retirement to train up a new recruit? At this point, he’s practically butlering’s answer to Cher, constantly embarking on farewell tours only to pop back up again to oversee an important dinner party. And now that Maggie Smith has finally said her goodbyes to the show (after a few years of making enjoyably shady comments about phoning in her performance: “I didn’t really feel like I was acting in those things,” she told the Evening Standard back in 2019), there’s a gap in the market for a sharp-tongued old battle axe. I’m sure the Dames are queuing up.

Am I the only person under the age of 70 excited at this rumour? It’s quite possible. But for TV comfort food, Downton is hard to beat. Bring on the second helpings.

UK likely to have slipped into recession, experts say

The UK is expected to have slipped into recession at the end of last year after a weak December for the country’s economy, official figures are set to show.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) is predicted to reveal that the UK economy contracted for the second quarter in a row in the final three months of 2023.

Most economists are forecasting a 0.1% decline in gross domestic product (GDP) between October and December.

This would follow a 0.1% contraction in the previous three months, after a downward revision against the zero growth initially estimated.

A contraction in the fourth quarter would mean the UK tipped into a technical recession, as defined by two or more quarters in a row of falling GDP.

Experts have said that if confirmed, it would be a recession in the “mildest of senses” and is likely to be short-lived, with many preferring to describe the UK’s economy as having “stagnated”.

But a recession would deal a blow to Mr Sunak who has promised to grow the economy as one of his five priorities.

The fourth quarter figures will also reveal how the economy fared over 2023 as a whole, with expectations that it will have been weak.

ONS estimates suggest the economy did not grow at all between April and June before shrinking between July and September, which has left the UK at risk of recession in the final three months.

Ellie Henderson at Investec said: “Our base case is that the economy probably did tip into a recession, although this would be in the mildest of senses: a better description of the trend might be stagnation.”

Investec is pencilling in a 0.1% contraction in the fourth quarter, with weak retail data dragging on the all-important services sector and leading to a 0.3% fall in output in December.

Ms Henderson added: “In all, we expect that it was a tough end to the year for the UK economy, but 2024 is likely to have got off to a better start as household budgets look to have loosened a little.

“Indeed, the decline in inflation combined with still high wage growth will continue to drive real household disposable incomes higher, a key factor behind the expected recovery this year.

“There will also be the added lift to post-tax incomes from the 2p cut to employees’ National Insurance Contributions, effective from January 6 – and, in all likelihood, more to come in the March Budget.”

Bank of England governor Andrew Bailey has also signalled that a recession, if confirmed, would likely be brief, telling a Lords committee on Wednesday that the UK economy was beginning to pick up.

Mr Bailey told the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee: “In our February Monetary Policy Report, it was in the balance – we didn’t have a recession in the forecast, but it is at best flat, in the view we took.

“It wouldn’t take much to tip it either way, frankly.

“Going forward, and I think this is in some ways more significant, we are now seeing some signs of the beginning of a pick-up in some of the surveys, for instance … we’ve got a modest pick-up this year which continues thereafter.”

Samuel Tombs at Pantheon Macroeconomics said that while he was also forecasting a 0.1% decline in the fourth quarter, the prospects were already brighter.

He added: “December’s GDP report … will create a negative first impression, but the reality is the economy is now on the up.

“Developments since our last forecast review at the start of January have left us more confident in our above-consensus forecast that quarter-to-quarter growth in GDP will pick up to an average rate of 0.3% this year.”

But a technical recession may further add to the case for an interest rate cut, with the Bank already indicating it is more a case of when, not if, a reduction will come.

Official data on Wednesday showing inflation defied expectations for a rise in January to unexpectedly hold firm at 4% was also seen as giving policymakers at the Bank more room to consider rate cuts, from the current level of 5.25%.

Unmissable New York State experiences

Can any good emerge from the wreckage of the Rochdale by-election?

With the highly honourable and notable exception of its last MP, Tony Lloyd, it’s fair to say that Rochdale has in recent decades not been served well by politicians. The failings of the Labour council during the grooming gangs scandal have been well documented, and governments of all parties have allowed the town, like others, to be “left behind”.

“Levelling up” remains, at best, a vague promise. Even Rochdale’s one-time national celebrity MP, the Liberal Cyril Smith, was eventually uncovered as a serial child abuser. Its last-but-one Labour MP, Simon Danczuk, was suspended from the Labour Party in 2015 after it emerged that he had exchanged explicit messages with a 17-year-old girl. He is now standing in the by-election as the candidate for Reform UK.

Now, Labour’s by-election candidate, Azhar Ali, has been disowned by Labour for some appallingly antisemitic remarks. Yet his name will appear on the ballot paper next to the words “Labour Party”, and he could still win. Labour has thus let the people of Rochdale down badly – but it is not the first time, and neither is it the first party to be guilty of this.

How can Keir Starmer control the PR nightmare engulfing Labour?

With his U-turn on the £28bn green prosperity plan and the Labour campaign in the Rochdale by-election cancelled, it’s fair to say the last few days have been difficult for Keir Starmer. The news has been dominated unexpectedly by splits and antisemitism in his own party, and Starmer has found himself out of control of events. 

His oft-repeated claim that the Labour Party has changed under his leadership has been challenged, and his stance on Gaza continues to be a source of resentment among his MPs. Fortunately, Starmer has better prospects to look forward to in the coming days…