The Guardian 2024-02-19 22:31:08


O’Neil accuses Dutton of ‘outright lies’ on border security funding; body found in NSW shopping centre charity bin

The home affairs minister, Clare O’Neil, is speaking to ABC RN about the more than 40 people who arrived in Western Australia last week by boat and have since been transferred to Nauru.

The opposition leader, Peter Dutton, has been arguing that Labor has stripped funding from Operation Sovereign Borders, and this is why the boats weren’t detected.

O’Neil rejected this notion and argued funding had increased by $470m under the Labor government.

We have invested an additional almost half a billion dollars in this operation compared to what the previous government was looking to spend … this particular operation is better funded today than it has ever been in the past. That is a matter of fact and should not be the subject of any further conjecture by politicians or journalists around this country.

She wouldn’t go into specifics of the border operations, saying “I’m not going to telegraph to people smugglers the specifics of how we police our borders”.

But, she said Operation Sovereign Borders was “very well-funded”, run by one of the most senior naval officers in the country and was an operation Australians “should be proud of”.

It is very effective at policing our borders. We will continue to adjust our approach, of course, because the people smugglers continue to adjust their approach. But we do not need politicians running around the country, as Peter Dutton has done, telling outright lies.

FactcheckPeter Dutton says Labor has weakened Australia’s asylum policy. Is he right?

Explainer

Factcheck: Peter Dutton says Labor has weakened Australia’s asylum policy. Is he right?

Opposition leader claims government has cut $600m from border enforcement and reduced surveillance flights. Budget numbers tell a more nuanced story

  • Follow our Australia news live blog for latest updates
  • Get our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcast

The arrival of an asylum seeker boat in Western Australia has renewed a war of words about Operation Sovereign Borders, with the opposition leader, Peter Dutton, claiming Labor has weakened Australia’s harsh deterrence policies.

Although Labor supports OSB – including boat turnbacks and offshore detention – Dutton now claims the Albanese government has made cuts to the program.

What is Dutton claiming?

On 2GB and Channel Seven’s Sunrise, Dutton claimed Labor has “taken $600m out of border protection” and “reduced the amount of surveillance flights”.

What is the basis of the claimed $600m cut?

In 2022-23, $1.23bn was spent on border enforcement, according to the home affairs parliamentary budget statement.

  • Sign up for Guardian Australia’s free morning and afternoon email newsletters for your daily news roundup

The 2023-24 budget projected a smaller funding allocation for that program of $1.2bn in the first year, dropping to $1.04bn in the fourth year.

If the 2022-23 level of funding had been maintained for the next four years, a cumulative total of $600m more would be spent.

Is that the way cuts are measured?

Not usually.

In Senate estimates in May 2023, the home affairs department chief finance officer, Stephanie Cargill, explained that “the major component of the reduction is actually related to the fact the 2022-23 budget was overspent”.

So, the Coalition claim is based on extrapolating out an unusually expensive year for a further four years.

Cuts are usually measured by looking at projected spending for the next four years, relative to what was projected for the same years in the previous budget.

When measured in this way, the Albanese government spent $252m more on border enforcement and border management this year than was projected in the Coalition’s last budget, and cumulatively $470m more in the four years to 2025-26.

The head of the Australian Border Force, Michael Outram, contradicted Dutton’s claim that Labor had made cuts to OSB, saying in a statement funding had never been higher.

Outram said: “Border Force funding is currently the highest it’s been since its establishment in 2015 and in the last year the ABF has received additional funding totalling hundreds of millions of dollars, to support maritime and land based operations.”

Will more or less be spent?

The former departmental secretary, Michael Pezzullo, also rejected the Coalition’s characterisation of this as a “planned reduction” at Senate estimates in May.

“What happens at every [mid-year update] … is there’s an adjustment made in relation to Operation Sovereign Borders and its estimates variation, which is always the biggest moving amount,” he said.

“Governments always, in my experience, consider very carefully propositions that come forward to shore up and reinforce the Border Force’s maritime capabilities, detention capability and so on and so forth.”

The point Pezzullo was making was that spending is essentially demand-driven: if home affairs and Border Force ask for more money for OSB, they are likely to get it, and actual spending in those years may be higher.

The projections are therefore better characterised as a floor rather than a ceiling.

What is the basis of claimed fewer flights?

According to the department’s 2022-23 annual report, that financial year12,691 flying hours were completed, representing a 14.24% (2,107) decrease in flying hours compared to 14,798 in 2021–22”.

The report explained the causes and intended solution:

This was influenced by under-resourced aircrews and difficulties operating in remote offshore areas, resulting in increased aircraft maintenance requirements that, in turn, affected aircrew availability. ABF has engaged the service providers to formulate remediation plans to improve aircrew recruitment and retention and address the current decline in aerial surveillance hours.

On 23 October Outram told Senate estimates that as a consequence, “we would probably ask … to get Defence assets to supplement our aerial surveillance”.

Rear Admiral Justin Jones, then commander of OSB, explained he “can call on additional assets from Defence through joint operations command”.

Asked by the shadow home affairs minister, James Paterson, if the shortfall in flights is being “adequately mitigated”, Jones replied: “Yes, it is.”

What about temporary protection visas?

Dutton has repeatedly cited the fact Labor has abolished temporary protection visas as another difference in its implementation of OSB.

But TPVs and their replacement were not given to unauthorised maritime arrivals who arrived after the mid-2013 deadline, after which the major parties resolved that nobody who came to Australia by boat would settle here.

So it is a difference, but not a relevant one for assessing whether policies are a “pull” factor for people departing on boats almost a decade later.

Verdict?

The claim of a $600m reduction in funding is largely an accounting trick based on a comparison with one reference year, not a like-for-like comparison with projections in the Coalition’s final budget. Projections are also likely to under-estimate actual spending.

It is correct that fewer surveillance flights were operated in Labor’s first year in office, but the defence force says this was due to operational difficulties not a policy or planned reduction.

OSB remains in place, and is not being implemented substantially differently by the Albanese government.

Explore more on these topics

  • Australian immigration and asylum
  • Australian politics
  • Peter Dutton
  • Coalition
  • Australian military
  • Labor party
  • explainers
Reuse this content

Wage growth hopesEmployers expect wages to grow faster than inflation in 2024, survey finds

Australia’s employers expect wages to grow faster than inflation in 2024, survey finds

Report says workers can expect to earn 3.7% more by the end of the year, up from 2.6% annual growth expected three months ago

  • Follow our Australia news live blog for latest updates
  • Get our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcast

Demand for labour is expected to hold up well in 2024, with wages growing faster than inflation and fewer organisations planning to cut jobs in the March quarter, according to a survey of human resources professionals.

Workers can expect wages excluding bonuses to increase 3.7% in the 12 months to January 2025, the Australian Human Resources Institute’s March outlook report found. The survey, which tallied more than 600 responses, was sharply higher than the 2.6% increase expected for the year to October 2024 in a poll three months ago.

Just over one in three organisations, or 36%, expected to expand their workforces in the current quarter, with only 3% planning to shrink staff numbers. Those reporting recruitment difficulties eased to 38% from almost one in two surveyed in November.

“Although recruitment difficulties have eased, many organisations are still having trouble both recruiting and retaining staff,” said Sarah McCann-Bartlett, the institute’s chief executive.

“Seventy per cent of employers told us they are adopting tactics to avoid or reduce redundancies, with the most popular options being raising prices (27%), exercising greater control over non-staff operation costs (23%) and reducing the use of non-permanent staff (21%),” she said.

Households are banking on the labour market remaining resilient this year in order to keep paying off higher mortgage costs and consumer prices. The labour market posted a second weak month in a row in January, with the economy adding just 500 jobs and the unemployment rate rising to a two-year high of 4.1%, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported last week.

  • Sign up for Guardian Australia’s free morning and afternoon email newsletters for your daily news roundup

The ABS on Wednesday will also release the wage price index for the December quarter. Economists such as Jarek Kowcza from St George Bank expect the index to have risen 4.1% or the highest annual pace since the March 2009 quarter.

Compared with the September quarter though, the WPI will slow from a record 1.3% to 0.9%. Kowcza said the index’s annual rate was near its peak and should slow over the rest of 2024.

The institute’s 3.7% projected annual increase is in line with recently updated Reserve Bank forecasts. By year’s end, the consumer prices index should be down to 3.2% compared with 4.1% for the December quarter.

The quarterly survey also found hiring plans were strongest in the public sector, with 46% indicating they would take on more staff, compared with 29% among private sector respondents.

To address recruitment difficulties, 42% of those surveyed said they would seek to increase the skills of their present employees, with only 18% saying they would use apprenticeships.

About 29% said they would improve job security, one in four would lift wages or improve employment conditions and a similar share would make “greater efforts to recruit people from under-utilised groups”. The latter include parents returning to the workforce.

Explore more on these topics

  • Wages growth
  • Australian economy
  • Business
  • news
Reuse this content

Asbestos mulch locationsFull list and map of sites in Sydney where asbestos has been found

Asbestos mulch locations: full list and map of sites in Sydney where asbestos has been found

Hundreds of sites including schools are being investigated by the EPA for asbestos removal amid the contaminated mulch crisis across NSW. This map shows confirmed contaminated parks and other locations

  • Get our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcast

Asbestos-contaminated mulch has potentially been used at hundreds of locations across Sydney and regional New South Wales.

The premier, Chris Minns, has said the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) is examining the sites as it undertakes its largest investigation ever.

The escalating crisis started in early January when a child took home a piece of bonded asbestos from a playground at Rozelle parklands in the city’s inner west.

An investigation by the transport department found bonded asbestos in recycled mulch at 17 locations in and around the park built on top of the Rozelle interchange.

Since then, more sites have been confirmed to have asbestos including transport infrastructure projects, primary and secondary schools, supermarkets and hospitals.

  • Sign up for Guardian Australia’s free morning and afternoon email newsletters for your daily news roundup

All but two samples have been bonded asbestos – meaning it is mixed with a harder substance such as concrete and is considered less immediately dangerous because the toxic particles are less likely to become airborne.

All of the mulch found to be contaminated has been supplied by the landscaping products manufacturer Greenlife Resource Recovery. Greenlife has said it “maintains that mulch leaving GRRF’s facility has tested negative for asbestos”.

The following map shows where asbestos has been found so far:

Here are the same locations in a searchable list:

Where has asbestos-contaminated mulch been found in Sydney and NSW?

  • Rozelle parklands – 17 locations in and around the park

  • Two sites along the Prospect Highway project between Prospect and Blacktown

  • Electricity substation at Dulwich Hill railway station

  • Electricity substation at Canterbury railway station

  • Electricity substation at Campsie railway station

  • Belmore railway station in a landscaped area near the car park

  • Punchbowl railway station in the railway corridor

  • Nowra Bridge

  • Regatta Park in Emu Plains

  • Liverpool West public school

  • Campbelltown hospital

  • Belmore Park in Haymarket

  • Victoria Park in Camperdown

  • Harmony Park in Surry Hills (friable asbestos)

  • The Parramatta light rail project in Telopea

  • St John of God hospital in North Richmond

  • Woolworths in Kellyville

  • Transport for NSW park in Wiley Park

  • Allambie Heights public school

  • Munn Park in Millers Point

  • Two residential estates under construction in Sydney’s south-west (not publicly accessible)

  • Penrith Christian school in Orchard Hills

  • St Luke’s Catholic college in Marsden Park

  • Three sites that the EPA said were “not being identified for privacy reasons”

  • Domremy College in Five Dock

  • Aldi Supermarket in Cobbitty

  • Riverstone Sports Centre in Riverstone

  • Bicentennial Park 1 in Glebe (friable asbestos)

  • North Rosebery Park in Rosebery

  • A private aged care facility in St Ives

  • An industrial area in Rouse Hill

  • A private property

  • Mary Mackillop Catholic parish in Oran Park

Schools being tested for asbestos-contaminated mulch

Schools have been testing for asbestos in mulch. The NSW EPA says it is “precautionary testing only” and so far there is no evidence of contamination at the following schools:

  • Mount Annan Christian college in Currans Hill

  • Trinity Catholic primary school in Kemps Creek

Explore more on these topics

  • Sydney
  • New South Wales
  • news
Reuse this content

Police attending mental health incidents ‘not in the best interest of anyone’, ACT police chief says

Australia needs a national approach to dealing with mental health incidents, ACT police chief says

Exclusive: Neil Gaughan argues clinicians, not cops, should attend most call-outs and suggests ‘it’s pointless’ having a few jurisdictions go it alone

  • Follow our Australia news live blog for latest updates
  • Get our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcast

One of Australia’s most senior police officers has called for a national overhaul to the way mental health episodes are dealt with, arguing clinicians, not cops, should attend cases if lives are not at risk.

The Australian Capital Territory’s chief police officer, Neil Gaughan, told Guardian Australia: “I don’t think police attending those particular incidents is in the best interest of anyone.”

“It’s clear that people do not act very well when they’re having a mental health episode with a person [attending] carrying a firearm,” Gaughan said.

A “significant proportion” of police call-outs in the ACT were mental health-related, he said.

The outgoing deputy commissioner’s comments come as New South Wales police finalise an internal review of their mental health policies after a string of fatal shootings. The findings are yet to be made public.

The NSW mental health minister, Rose Jackson, last year flagged significant reforms to the way police respond to people in acute distress. She conceded there were instances where the current system had “failed”.

Clare Nowland, Steve Pampalian, Jesse Deacon and Krista Kach were fatally wounded or shot by officers between May and September last year while in mental distress. Fifty-two people experiencing mental health distress died as a result of interactions with NSW police over the past five years.

The then acting NSW police commissioner, David Hudson, admitted in September that “showing up in uniform … can escalate a situation rather than de-escalate it”.

Gaughan said the ACT and NSW should not be the only states engaging in reform. He is advocating for all states and territories “to start a conversation” on a new national model.

“If we’re going [to] have a conversation about it, I think it needs to be a national one,” he said. “It’s pointless having two jurisdictions go at it alone.”

In late January a 26-year-old man was fatally shot in suburban Townsville by Queensland police during a mental health episode after a failed attempt to use a Taser.

  • Sign up for Guardian Australia’s free morning and afternoon email newsletters for your daily news roundup

There has been a spate of other fatalities during mental health incidents in Queensland, including the death of 52-year-old Steven Angus in Townsville after reports he was threatening to self-harm. Angus was shot by police after allegedly charging at officers with knives just hours after he was discharged from hospital.

Gaughan thinks officers in Australia should still attend when a person is self-harming or there is a risk to another person’s life because they can respond quickly.

He suggested Australia could follow the lead of London’s Metropolitan police where – since late 2023 – officers do not attend mental-health call-outs if no crime is being committed and there is no risk to life.

But he argued health experts should lead the discussion on how to change Australia’s approach, given mental distress was a health issue.

“It’s a political discussion as well because it will come with some funding [requirements], I suspect,” Gaughan said.

London’s new scheme – called “right person, right care” – aims to stop police officers being diverted from crime fighting when health workers are better trained to conduct welfare checks and transport people to mental health facilities.

Some health experts in the UK have expressed concerns, however, that mental health calls have gone unanswered under the new model, which also has not addressed the gap in police understanding of mental health issues.

Prof Pat McGorry, the executive director of Orygen in Australia, echoed those concerns, suggesting mental health professionals in the UK had not been resourced to cope with the additional demand.

“Police have taken a step back, but nobody has taken a step forward,” he said.

Australia trialled a similar approach 30 years ago, McGorry said. That model included community-based mobile teams travelling to the homes of people in crisis but “fell by the wayside” due to under-resourcing.

“Because they weren’t properly funded or resourced, they got overwhelmed with the demand, and then they began to rely on the police to take the lead [again],” McGorry said.

The ACT, NSW and Victoria have introduced the Police Ambulance and Clinician Early Response (Pacer) program whereby a mental health worker, a paramedic and a police officer can be sent as first responders to certain mental health incidents.

Gaughan said the program had been successful in the ACT but demand had outstripped capacity – meaning police were still often sent alone.

Last year NSW police disclosed it was in the early stages of looking at alternatives to Pacer in its response to a landmark law enforcement conduct commission report.

Assoc Prof Chris Maylea is a La Trobe University expert in mental health and law who worked on a report released last year that found police often escalate incidents.

Maylea said health professionals were reliant on police support, meaning any overhaul would require a complete invigoration of Australia’s mental health system.

“About 70% of people are sent home after they’ve been taken there [hospital] by police, so we don’t have a system that is working already,” he said.

In January Alexander Stuart Pinnock was shot dead by police outside a medical clinic in NSW after he allegedly attempted to take hostages while armed with a gun.

His family told the Sydney Morning Herald the death of Alex – who was in and out of hospitals and care facilities – showed what happens when the mental health system fails.

“We’ve got this problem of the missing middle,” McGorry said of the people who aren’t covered by commonwealth-funded primary care and the states’ focus on emergency treatment.

“They don’t get proper care and then the situation deteriorates to where they’re acutely ill and in desperate situations. That’s why these crises occur and why people get shot.”

Explore more on these topics

  • Mental health
  • Australian police and policing
  • New South Wales
  • Australian Capital Territory (ACT)
  • Health
  • Queensland
  • Victoria
  • news
Reuse this content

Most viewed

  • Russian pilot who defected found dead in Spain, says Ukraine security agency
  • ATO eyeing ramp-up of controversial robotax scheme in bid to recoup $15bn in ‘on-hold’ debts
  • Cleaner sacked for eating leftover tuna sandwich takes legal action against City law firm
  • John Oliver offers to pay Clarence Thomas $1m a year if he resigns from supreme court
  • LiveAustralia news live: O’Neil accuses Dutton of ‘outright lies’ on border security funding; body found in NSW shopping centre charity bin

ATO eyeing ramp-up of controversial robotax scheme in bid to recoup $15bn in ‘on-hold’ debts

ATO eyeing ramp-up of controversial robotax scheme in bid to recoup $15bn in ‘on-hold’ debts

Exclusive: Freedom of information documents reveal tax office plan to target 1.8 million taxpayers including older and low-income Australians

  • Follow our Australia news live blog for latest updates
  • Get our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcast

The Australian Taxation Office is preparing to expand a controversial scheme that resurrects decades-old debts in its pursuit of more than $15bn, despite rising numbers of complaints, transparency concerns and at least one systems error resulting in miscalculations.

Internal ATO documents released to Guardian Australia show the program is designed to ramp up this year to eventually capture up to 1.8m entities, largely consisting of individuals.

The documents, released under freedom of information laws, show the ATO had decided against seeking a reprieve for older Australians and those on lower incomes as part of the plan to recoup historical debts. But it said in a statement it was “currently assessing next steps” for the scheme.

Dubbed robotax, the initiative has drawn comparison to the flawed robodebt compliance program that relied on automated processes, and has been described as “brutal” by taxpayers, including those who say they do not know how the debts were incurred and no longer have documents required to challenge them.

The old debts are described as “on-hold”, marked to be scraped from tax refunds.

  • Sign up for Guardian Australia’s free morning and afternoon email newsletters for your daily news roundup

The surge in ATO activity stems from a policy change to adjust parameters on its automated systems that had previously ignored old debts deemed uneconomical to pursue, some of which are more than two decades old.

The amounts are often linked to old business activity statements, GST payments, PAYG instalments and non-lodgment fines applied to those living overseas, with many of the debts unknowingly accrued and invisible to taxpayers for years.

The tax department started removing exemptions on its systems in 2022 that had previously filtered out the old debts.

An ATO spokesperson said on Monday night the tax office had “paused all communications and offsetting for those who had their debt placed on hold before 2017”. Offsetting refers to the initiative to extract the older debts from tax refunds.

“We are currently assessing next steps and no decision has been made yet as an outcome of this review,” the spokesperson said.

The ATO has consistently said it had no option under the law to cancel the debts, following advice that found an apparent flaw in its policies.

“The ATO has no discretion under the law to write these amounts off even though some of them might be quite aged, and must offset any future refund against these amounts no matter how small except in limited circumstances,” the spokesperson said.

“We are legally required to offset debts that were placed ‘on hold’ against any tax credits or refunds the taxpayer may become entitled to.”

The ATO plans to remove the last-remaining exemption, related to the age of the debt, before the end of this financial year, according to the documents, in an expansion of the program.

The exemptions had previously filtered out debts if they were very old, small, or the taxpayer was aged over 70 years or earning a taxable income of less than $50,000.

ATO correspondence shared with the federal government said: “When all exclusions are removed, all clients may have credits offset against their debts.”

The ATO’s approach to remove the exemptions had been discussed with Treasury officials as far back as mid 2022, according to the documents. There have also been periodic updates provided by the ATO to the office of the assistant treasurer, Stephen Jones.

Pre-empting questions about the program, the ATO also shared its “media holding lines” with government officials.

A spokesperson for Jones said it was a matter for the ATO but the government was deeply concerned about the way the initiative had been communicated with taxpayers, and the stress caused.

“The ATO should ensure they communicate with compassion and understanding to impacted individuals,” the spokesperson said.

Last year the ATO paused a letter campaign alerting taxpayers to historical debts after conceding its communications caused “unnecessary distress”, although the debts still remain.

No reprieve

While tens of thousands of Australians have started having their old debts paid from their tax refunds, the number of people affected is set to escalate.

Up to 1.8 million ATO “clients”, which mainly refers to individuals but also includes small businesses and other entities, collectively owe more than $15bn of on-hold debts, the documents show.

The internal documents show the ATO decided against asking the finance minister to seek a waiver for some people, such as lower-income earners and older Australians.

It defended the blanket approach in correspondence with government officials by arguing it would be unfair to other taxpayers to let some off, and that it might set a bad precedent.

As a result, some taxpayers have been pushed further into hardship by having their anticipated tax refunds scraped for old debts, a scenario that has drawn criticism from the tax ombudsman.

The ATO began extracting debts from tax refunds before providing records to affected taxpayers that would have allowed them to see how the debts were accrued.

The lack of transparency has been a common complaint given some of the debts are so old they are almost impossible to challenge, far exceeding the five-year retention period most taxpayers are required to keep records.

“We are giving visibility to clients of their existing debts ‘on hold’ in two stages, prioritising those who we believe are more active in the system,” correspondence from the ATO to the assistant treasurer’s office said in August 2023.

“By 30 June 2025, we will provide visibility to all remaining clients.”

In separate correspondence with Treasury officials the same month, the ATO acknowledges a “small number of clients” had been impacted by a systems error that resulted in the amount to be offset being miscalculated.

After debts were extracted from a batch of 29,015 individuals and small businesses, the ATO disclosed it received 167 complaints from those affected.

The ATO commissioner, Chris Jordan, is due to give a major public address at the National Press Club on Wednesday shortly before stepping down from his role at the end of the month.

  • Do you know more? Email jonathan.barrett@theguardian.com

Explore more on these topics

  • Tax
  • Australian politics
  • Australian economy
  • Personal finance
  • Business
  • news
Reuse this content

Pilot who defected found dead in Spain, Ukraine security agency says

Russian pilot who defected found dead in Spain, says Ukraine security agency

Maksim Kuzminov, who changed sides in secret operation, killed after allegedly moving to Alicante, reports suggest

A Russian helicopter pilot who defected to Ukraine last year in a secret operation has been found dead in Spain, according to the main military intelligence agency in Kyiv.

Reports in Russian and Spanish media on Monday said Maksim Kuzminov was found dead after allegedly moving to the town of Villajoyosa in Alicante on the Mediterranean coast, in an area popular with holidaymakers. His body was discovered last Tuesday, it was said, on the car park ramp underneath an apartment block.

The reports claimed he had been murdered by unknown gunmen who fired 12 shots. A burnt-out car was discovered nearby in the Costa Blanca town of El Campello. Spanish police had initially thought the shooting was gang-related before reportedly learning of the victim’s extraordinary backstory and his former role in Russia’s war and invasion.

Kuzminov crossed the frontline last August while on a flight between two Russian airbases. He was supposed to transport parts for SU-27 and Su-30 fighter jets. Instead, he landed his twin-engine Mi-8 AMTSh helicopter on Ukrainian territory.

His two fellow pilots were killed. Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s GUR intelligence agency, said his officers had persuaded Kuzminov to defect during an elaborate six-month operation. Before that, the pilot’s family were extracted from Russia, Budanov said.

The newspaper Ukrainskaya Pravda, citing a GUR source, said the pilot’s former girlfriend had found Kuzminov’s body. “He decided to move to Spain instead of being here [in Ukraine]. From what we know: he invited his ex to his place and was found shot dead,” the source reportedly said.

Andrii Yusov, the intelligence agency’s press spokesperson, said merely: “We confirm the fact of death.”

Yusov declined to say whether the pilot had been murdered, or – if so – who might have been responsible. Spain’s national police had no immediate comment.

Some Russian commentators close to the Russia’s defence ministry claimed reports about Kuzminov’s killing were planted by Ukraine’s intelligence services to fake the pilot’s death.

“Don’t get too excited,” Vladimir Rogov, a Russian-appointed official in southern Ukraine, wrote on Telegram. “They want to create a new biography with a clean slate and a new name for the traitor.”

If Kuzminov’s death is confirmed, the finger of blame is likely to point to the Kremlin. In the past, its assassins have carried out a series of killings across Europe. On Monday, Yulia Navalnaya, accused Vladimir Putin of murdering her husband, Alexei Navalny. The Russian opposition leader died on Friday in a remote Arctic prison camp.

In 2006, two killers working for Moscow’s federal security service, the FSB, poisoned the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko with a radioactive cup of tea. A public inquiry subsequently concluded that the Putin had “probably” personally instructed the FSB to arrange the murder.

In 2018, two officers from Russia’s GUR military intelligence outfit allegedly tried to kill the Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal.

Kuzminov appeared last September at a high-profile press conference in Kyiv flanked by two uniformed Ukrainian service personnel. He said he had tried to reassure his two fellow pilots they would be well treated in Ukraine. “But they got afraid, began behaving aggressively and eventually rushed out of the helicopter,” he said.

He said he took off at 4.30pm local time on 23 August 2023 from Kursk airfield in Russia. Close to Ukraine he flew at an extremely low altitude and in radio silence. Russian soldiers opened fire as he crossed the border.

“I can’t say for sure who started it, but I assume it was the Russian side. I was shot in the leg with small arms. I then flew about 20km away and landed at the designated location,” Kuzminov said. He claimed he only performed transport operations to move military personnel or cargo, and did not bomb Ukraine.

Reports last September suggested he was considering joining Ukraine’s small airforce. It is unclear whether he changed his mind and why he decided to leave the relative safety of Ukraine for Spain.

Explore more on these topics

  • Russia
  • Ukraine
  • Spain
  • Europe
  • news
Reuse this content

Pilot who defected found dead in Spain, Ukraine security agency says

Russian pilot who defected found dead in Spain, says Ukraine security agency

Maksim Kuzminov, who changed sides in secret operation, killed after allegedly moving to Alicante, reports suggest

A Russian helicopter pilot who defected to Ukraine last year in a secret operation has been found dead in Spain, according to the main military intelligence agency in Kyiv.

Reports in Russian and Spanish media on Monday said Maksim Kuzminov was found dead after allegedly moving to the town of Villajoyosa in Alicante on the Mediterranean coast, in an area popular with holidaymakers. His body was discovered last Tuesday, it was said, on the car park ramp underneath an apartment block.

The reports claimed he had been murdered by unknown gunmen who fired 12 shots. A burnt-out car was discovered nearby in the Costa Blanca town of El Campello. Spanish police had initially thought the shooting was gang-related before reportedly learning of the victim’s extraordinary backstory and his former role in Russia’s war and invasion.

Kuzminov crossed the frontline last August while on a flight between two Russian airbases. He was supposed to transport parts for SU-27 and Su-30 fighter jets. Instead, he landed his twin-engine Mi-8 AMTSh helicopter on Ukrainian territory.

His two fellow pilots were killed. Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s GUR intelligence agency, said his officers had persuaded Kuzminov to defect during an elaborate six-month operation. Before that, the pilot’s family were extracted from Russia, Budanov said.

The newspaper Ukrainskaya Pravda, citing a GUR source, said the pilot’s former girlfriend had found Kuzminov’s body. “He decided to move to Spain instead of being here [in Ukraine]. From what we know: he invited his ex to his place and was found shot dead,” the source reportedly said.

Andrii Yusov, the intelligence agency’s press spokesperson, said merely: “We confirm the fact of death.”

Yusov declined to say whether the pilot had been murdered, or – if so – who might have been responsible. Spain’s national police had no immediate comment.

Some Russian commentators close to the Russia’s defence ministry claimed reports about Kuzminov’s killing were planted by Ukraine’s intelligence services to fake the pilot’s death.

“Don’t get too excited,” Vladimir Rogov, a Russian-appointed official in southern Ukraine, wrote on Telegram. “They want to create a new biography with a clean slate and a new name for the traitor.”

If Kuzminov’s death is confirmed, the finger of blame is likely to point to the Kremlin. In the past, its assassins have carried out a series of killings across Europe. On Monday, Yulia Navalnaya, accused Vladimir Putin of murdering her husband, Alexei Navalny. The Russian opposition leader died on Friday in a remote Arctic prison camp.

In 2006, two killers working for Moscow’s federal security service, the FSB, poisoned the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko with a radioactive cup of tea. A public inquiry subsequently concluded that the Putin had “probably” personally instructed the FSB to arrange the murder.

In 2018, two officers from Russia’s GUR military intelligence outfit allegedly tried to kill the Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal.

Kuzminov appeared last September at a high-profile press conference in Kyiv flanked by two uniformed Ukrainian service personnel. He said he had tried to reassure his two fellow pilots they would be well treated in Ukraine. “But they got afraid, began behaving aggressively and eventually rushed out of the helicopter,” he said.

He said he took off at 4.30pm local time on 23 August 2023 from Kursk airfield in Russia. Close to Ukraine he flew at an extremely low altitude and in radio silence. Russian soldiers opened fire as he crossed the border.

“I can’t say for sure who started it, but I assume it was the Russian side. I was shot in the leg with small arms. I then flew about 20km away and landed at the designated location,” Kuzminov said. He claimed he only performed transport operations to move military personnel or cargo, and did not bomb Ukraine.

Reports last September suggested he was considering joining Ukraine’s small airforce. It is unclear whether he changed his mind and why he decided to leave the relative safety of Ukraine for Spain.

Explore more on these topics

  • Russia
  • Ukraine
  • Spain
  • Europe
  • news
Reuse this content

Australia detains alleged key player in North Korean smuggling scheme after US request

Australia detains alleged key player in North Korean tobacco smuggling scheme after US request

Exclusive: Jin Guanghua was arrested by the AFP in Melbourne last year and is facing extradition to the US

  • Follow our Australia news live blog for latest updates
  • Get our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcast

A Chinese national has been quietly arrested and detained in Australia for 11 months at the request of US authorities investigating an alleged tobacco smuggling conspiracy that generated an estimated A$1.1bn (US$700m) in revenue to North Korea.

Jin Guanghua, 52, was arrested by the Australian federal police in Melbourne last March. Described in US court documents as an Australian resident, Jin was kept in custody in Melbourne for several months before being transferred to immigration detention while awaiting extradition.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation alleges Jin and others conspired for about a decade to supply tobacco to North Korea, which allowed the country to manufacture counterfeit cigarettes that helped fund its nuclear and ballistic weapons program.

According to documents filed in a US federal court in Washington DC, it is alleged bank accounts linked to front companies run by Jin and a co-conspirator were involved in more than $128m (US$84m) in transfers as part of the scheme.

The tobacco they helped smuggle generated an estimated $1.1bn (US$700m) in revenue for two companies owned by the North Korean military and government, the FBI has alleged.

  • Sign up for Guardian Australia’s free morning and afternoon email newsletters for your daily news roundup

“The co-conspirators used false shipping records to smuggle tobacco and other goods into North Korea, and front companies to launder related US dollar payments for these shipments,” the FBI claims in a criminal complaint against Jin.

“In so doing, the co-conspirators deceived correspondent banks in the United States, who would not have otherwise processed these transactions had they known about the nexus to North Korea.”

Jin is set to be charged with 12 offences, including conspiracy to commit bank fraud, offences relating to the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, and the laundering or conspiracy to launder “of monetary instruments”.

The charges relate to allegations Jin’s companies knowingly used the US financial system to bypass international sanctions and provide tobacco and other goods, including a Russian helicopter, to North Korea.

Victorian magistrates court records show that Jin was arrested and taken into custody by the AFP under a US extradition warrant in March last year.

He faced the Melbourne magistrates court on several occasions, with his final appearance in August, the records show.

The Australian Attorney General’s Department confirmed Jin had been arrested in response to a provisional request made by the US and remained in detention “pursuant to the United States of America’s request for his extradition to face criminal charges in the United States”.

“The time taken to resolve an extradition request can vary from a few months to a number of years, depending on the complexity of the matter and whether the person chooses to contest extradition and exercise all rights of appeal,” a department spokesperson said.

“The individual is wanted to face prosecution in the United States for a number of sanctions, bank fraud, money laundering, and conspiracy offences.

“As the extradition matter is ongoing, it would not be appropriate to comment further.”

If found guilty and convicted in the US, Jin is facing decades in prison, fines worth millions of dollars, and the forfeiture of property.

The FBI alleged Jin and his co-conspirators were able to operate the scheme by using a series of front companies registered in the UK, New Zealand, the United Arab Emirates and China.

The alleged co-conspirators include Chinese nationals Han Linlin, 42, and Qin Guoming, 50, who are both wanted by the FBI and are believed by the bureau to have “ties to or may visit Australia”.

There are $764,610 (US$500,000) rewards available for information leading to the arrest and conviction of either man.

A separate $7.65m (US$5m) reward is also offered for the arrest of a North Korean banker, Sim Hyon-Sop, whom the FBI alleges was involved in the scheme.

“These charges arise from an illicit scheme by … North Korea, through its state-owned companies, to generate revenue for North Korea and its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proliferation programs, through the purchase and sale of tobacco and other products,” the FBI alleges in its indictment.

“The entities were a group of companies run by Chinese nationals, defendants JIN … QIN … and HAN. These defendants founded at least eight companies in Dubai using variations of the same business name [Winney] to act as middlemen and facilitators for North Korean entities.”

It alleged the tobacco purchases were for the benefit of companies “owned by the North Korean military and government” to produce “counterfeit cigarettes” and other products.

The AFP referred questions about the case to the Attorney General’s Department. The FBI did not respond to a request for comment.

While the FBI documents outline sweeping details about the allegations against Jin, including conversations with undercover operatives and details about procuring a $648,360 (US$424,000) helicopter from Khabarovsk for North Korean customers using a Zimbabwean company, little is known about his time in Australia.

Company and property records show that he was the founding director of an Australian company, Solomon Australia Pty Ltd, that was registered in 2021, and that he listed his address on company documents as a $5m house in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.

Property records for that house show it was owned by another man, who did not respond to a request for comment. The man is an accountant whose website says he provides “compliance work” for Chinese investors in Australia, including in property.

US court documents do not name the companies from which Jin and others were alleged to have sourced tobacco and there is no suggestion Solomon Australia Pty Ltd is involved in any wrongdoing.

The indictment in the case was released in April 2023, on the same day as it was announced that British American Tobacco and a subsidiary had agreed to pay combined penalties of almost $963m (US$630m) to resolve bank fraud and sanctions violation charges relating to doing business in North Korea.

It is unclear if the two cases are related.

Explore more on these topics

  • Australian police and policing
  • Tobacco industry
  • North Korea
  • Australian federal police
  • FBI
  • China
  • news
Reuse this content

Labor accused of trying to ‘silence Aboriginal voices’ over possible changes to project consultations

Labor accused of trying to ‘silence Aboriginal voices’ over possible changes to gas project consultations

Exclusive: Bill also criticised by Greens and Environmental Defenders Office who claim it will help fast-track offshore gas developments

  • Follow our Australia news live blog for latest updates
  • Get our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcast

An Indigenous activist who took on Woodside in the federal court has accused Labor of seeking to “silence Aboriginal voices” over changes that may water down consultation requirements for offshore gas development.

Raelene Cooper, a Mardudhunera woman and founder of the organisation Save Our Songlines, has spoken out about a bill that aims to preserve approvals for offshore gas projects against reconsideration if rules are tightened in future.

The offshore petroleum and greenhouse gas storage amendment, introduced by the resources minister, Madeleine King, on Thursday, has also prompted warnings from the Environmental Defenders Office and the Greens, who claim it will help fast-track gas projects.

King has rejected the claims, insisting there is no change to assessments and environmental standards will not be watered down.

In a bill largely about worker safety, the provision of concern is described in the explanatory memorandum as designed to “provide certainty to stakeholders” that existing approvals will “remain effective” after changes to environmental regulations.

In a brief for environmental stakeholders, the EDO said “it appears that rules or processes could be substantially changed and there would be no need to reconsider or reissue accreditation” for offshore gas.

The EDO explained that neither the existing law nor the proposed nature positive reforms overseen by the environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, “allow changes to an approved policy, plan, or program without oversight”.

“In contrast, this bill does not include an equivalent safeguard. In fact, it appears to directly override oversight and scrutiny.”

  • Sign up for Guardian Australia’s free morning and afternoon email newsletters for your daily news roundup

The EDO warned there was a “real and imminent risk that standards for community consultation may be reduced” and that the offshore gas industry could face lower standards than other industries “if the minister has a broad power to amend legislation or regulations without reference to national environmental standards”.

Cooper said: “Just months after the voice failed, [the government is] undermining their own review process and sneaking things into legislation to avoid consulting with traditional custodians.”

A former chair of the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, Cooper previously asked the federal court to stop Woodside’s seismic blasting for the controversial $16.5bn Scarborough gas development due to inadequate consultation of traditional owners.

She noted that King’s review of the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority was not complete. She argued that the minister had “completely pre-empted it by introducing new laws to make it easy to sidestep regulations and whitewash community concerns”.

“It is shameful the government is using a bill designed to protect workers … to wipe out environmental approvals.

“This is just another move designed to cut Aboriginal people out of decision-making and to silence Aboriginal voices.”

Environmental stakeholders are concerned that King’s bill responds to industry pressure to water down consultation requirements after two high-profile litigation cases – Cooper’s challenge against the Scarborough development and a Tiwi Islander challenge against Santos’s $5.8bn Barossa offshore gas project in 2022 – slowed down the approval process.

The Greens resources and First Nations spokesperson, Dorinda Cox, said the cases relating to the Barossa and Scarborough gas projects “showed the clear need for stronger consultation”.

“This is about the Albanese government and the minister for resources gaining support from the Coalition for changes to the petroleum resource rent tax,” she said.

In November the Coalition revealed four demands in return for helping Labor pass PRRT tax changes which are struggling to win crossbench support due to the fact they don’t raise extra revenue or tackle deductions. The demands included reforming the offshore environment regulations to provide clarity on consultation requirements and restart offshore gas investment.

Sarah Hanson-Young, the Greens environment spokesperson, said King’s “attempt today to bypass our already weak environment laws undermines minister Plibersek’s commitment to strengthen them and listen to the community”.

“What is the point of reforming our environmental laws when this power could allow the resources minister to bypass and ignore them?”

Hanson-Young said the change “should be dumped immediately” and that the Greens would refer the bill to a Senate inquiry.

A spokesperson for King said “there will be no fast track for offshore projects”.

“This bill does not change the legal requirements for consultation for offshore projects.

“The government is consulting on ways to make consultation clearer for offshore resources projects. Environmental organisations, First Nations groups, industry, and resources companies have all told us that our system of consultation is not working effectively.

“We are happy to work with stakeholders on sensible amendments to the current bill, to give everyone further confidence about the intent of the changes.”

Explore more on these topics

  • Indigenous Australians
  • Australian politics
  • Gas (Environment)
  • Gas (Business)
  • Australian Greens
  • Sarah Hanson-Young
  • Labor party
  • news
Reuse this content

Israel says it will launch attack if hostages not freed by Ramadan

Israel says it will launch Rafah assault if hostages not freed by Ramadan

Minister says fighting will reach southern border city if remaining hostages not released in next few weeks

A member of Israel’s war cabinet has said the country will launch its threatened ground offensive against Rafah, the last place of relative safety in Gaza, if Hamas does not release its remaining Israeli hostages by the beginning of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan in just under three weeks.

“The world must know, and Hamas leaders must know – if by Ramadan our hostages are not home, the fighting will continue everywhere, including the Rafah area,” Benny Gantz, a retired Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff, told a conference of American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem on Sunday.

As Israeli forces have expanded ground operations steadily southwards in their war against Hamas over the past four months, Rafah – situated on the border with Egypt, and before the conflict home to about 280,000 people – has become the last refuge for more than half of the strip’s population of 2.3 million.

Widespread destruction and continuing fighting across the territory, two-thirds of which is already under Israeli evacuation orders, means it is unclear how civilians are expected to flee the long-awaited offensive.

In Gaza on Monday, the IDF claimed victory in the weeks-long fight for the central town of Khan Younis and nearby refugee camps, making the prospect of a Rafah ground attack more likely. Seven patients died at Khan Younis’s Nasser hospital after power cuts caused by a days-long Israeli raid on the premises, and another 20 were in urgent need of referral, the World Health Organization said.

Airstrikes and ground fighting over the past day killed more than 100 people, mostly women and children, pushing the death toll over 29,000, said the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry. About 85% of the population have been displaced from their homes, and one in four are starving, according to the UN.

The war, now in its fifth month, was triggered by Hamas’s attack on Israel on 7 October last year, in which 1,200 people were killed and 250 taken hostage. Of the remaining 130 hostages still in Gaza, about 30 are presumed dead, according to Israeli officials.

Gantz’s threat that Israel will not slow or stop its operation in Gaza comes amid stalling negotiations aimed at a ceasefire and prisoner and hostage exchanges. A major offensive in Rafah, which world leaders fear could lead to a humanitarian catastrophe, during Ramadan could also serve as a trigger for further violence across Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories and the wider region. Iran-backed militias in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon have already been drawn into the conflict.

The fasting period is often tense in Jerusalem. Clashes in Ramadan over access to the divided city’s Temple Mount, or al-Haram al-Sherif, the holiest site in Judaism and the third holiest in Islam, have helped to ignite wars in the past.

Arab religious and political leaders on Monday reacted with anger to news that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had accepted the recommendations of his far-right national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, to limit access to the holy site for Palestinians during Ramadan. Unusually, this year’s restrictions will also extend to Israel’s Muslim minority, which makes up about 18% of the population.

“Netanyahu’s decision [is a] gross blow to the freedom of religion. The man is held prisoner by the convicted terrorist Ben-Gvir over the October 7 collapse,” said Ahmad Tibi, the leader of the Knesset’s leftwing Arab Taal party.

“This is a government of pyromaniacs. The time has come for President Biden to impose sanctions on Ben-Gvir,” he added, referring to sanctions placed by the US, UK and France on dozens of hardline Israeli settlers living in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Ramadan, a month of fasting culminating in Eid al-Fitr, is expected to begin on 10 March. Security restrictions at Temple Mount were not final and would be decided “in accordance with situation assessments”, Gantz said.

Netanyahu’s office said in a statement: “The prime minister has made a balanced decision that allows for religious freedom within the limits of the security needs as established by heads of the security establishment. Any reports to the contrary are false.”

Netanyahu, who fears becoming more vulnerable in his three corruption trials if he is ousted from office when the war ends, is widely believed in Israel to be kowtowing to the demands of his far-right coalition partners, who have repeatedly threatened to collapse his government over concessions to either Hamas or Palestinians in general.

The prime minister has also been accused of slow-walking ceasefire talks. Netanyahu said on Saturday that while he had sent a delegation to ceasefire talks in Cairo last week at Joe Biden’s request, he did not see what would be gained by sending them again.

The families and friends of those held captive in Gaza have kept up an active campaign for their release. However, polling published on Monday by the Israeli thinktank the Jewish People Policy Institute found that 40% of respondents, if they had to choose, would prefer the removal of Hamas from Gaza over returning the hostages.

While the US, Israel’s most important ally, has provided crucial military support and diplomatic cover for the Israeli war effort, relations between Biden and Netanyahu have reached a nadir over the colossal, and growing, death toll in Gaza.

Also on Monday, the international court of justice (ICJ), the UN’s top court, began hearing oral arguments after a landmark 2022 UN general assembly resolution requested an advisory opinion on the “legal consequences arising from the policies and practices of Israel in the occupied Palestinian territory” – a move seen as important because while various UN bodies have found that aspects of the occupation are illegal, there has never been a judgment on whether the occupation itself, now in its 57th year, either is or has become unlawful.

The ICJ is due to hold hearings all week on the legal implications of the occupation, with an unprecedented 52 countries, including the US and Russia, expected to give evidence. Israel will not participate in the hearings but submitted a written contribution dated 24 July 2023, in which it urged the court to dismiss the request for an opinion.

Israel is facing two other major international legal cases over its treatment of Palestinians.

South Africa also filed a case against Israel before the court in December, alleging that Israel’s offensive in Gaza amounted to genocide. An interim judgment from the court last month said Israel must “take all measures within its power” to prevent such acts.

The international criminal court decided in 2021 that it had a mandate to investigate violence and war crimes committed by Israeli and Palestinian factions, although Israel is not a member of the court and does not recognise its authority.

  • Guardian Newsroom: The unfolding crisis in the Middle East

On Wednesday 20 March, 7-8.15pm GMT, join Devika Bhat, Peter Beaumont and Ghaith Abdul-Ahad as they discuss the fast developing crisis in the Middle East.

Book tickets here or at theguardian.live

Explore more on these topics

  • Israel-Gaza war
  • Israel
  • Gaza
  • Palestinian territories
  • Ramadan
  • Middle East and north Africa
  • news
Reuse this content

Israel says it will launch attack if hostages not freed by Ramadan

Israel says it will launch Rafah assault if hostages not freed by Ramadan

Minister says fighting will reach southern border city if remaining hostages not released in next few weeks

A member of Israel’s war cabinet has said the country will launch its threatened ground offensive against Rafah, the last place of relative safety in Gaza, if Hamas does not release its remaining Israeli hostages by the beginning of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan in just under three weeks.

“The world must know, and Hamas leaders must know – if by Ramadan our hostages are not home, the fighting will continue everywhere, including the Rafah area,” Benny Gantz, a retired Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff, told a conference of American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem on Sunday.

As Israeli forces have expanded ground operations steadily southwards in their war against Hamas over the past four months, Rafah – situated on the border with Egypt, and before the conflict home to about 280,000 people – has become the last refuge for more than half of the strip’s population of 2.3 million.

Widespread destruction and continuing fighting across the territory, two-thirds of which is already under Israeli evacuation orders, means it is unclear how civilians are expected to flee the long-awaited offensive.

In Gaza on Monday, the IDF claimed victory in the weeks-long fight for the central town of Khan Younis and nearby refugee camps, making the prospect of a Rafah ground attack more likely. Seven patients died at Khan Younis’s Nasser hospital after power cuts caused by a days-long Israeli raid on the premises, and another 20 were in urgent need of referral, the World Health Organization said.

Airstrikes and ground fighting over the past day killed more than 100 people, mostly women and children, pushing the death toll over 29,000, said the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry. About 85% of the population have been displaced from their homes, and one in four are starving, according to the UN.

The war, now in its fifth month, was triggered by Hamas’s attack on Israel on 7 October last year, in which 1,200 people were killed and 250 taken hostage. Of the remaining 130 hostages still in Gaza, about 30 are presumed dead, according to Israeli officials.

Gantz’s threat that Israel will not slow or stop its operation in Gaza comes amid stalling negotiations aimed at a ceasefire and prisoner and hostage exchanges. A major offensive in Rafah, which world leaders fear could lead to a humanitarian catastrophe, during Ramadan could also serve as a trigger for further violence across Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories and the wider region. Iran-backed militias in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon have already been drawn into the conflict.

The fasting period is often tense in Jerusalem. Clashes in Ramadan over access to the divided city’s Temple Mount, or al-Haram al-Sherif, the holiest site in Judaism and the third holiest in Islam, have helped to ignite wars in the past.

Arab religious and political leaders on Monday reacted with anger to news that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had accepted the recommendations of his far-right national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, to limit access to the holy site for Palestinians during Ramadan. Unusually, this year’s restrictions will also extend to Israel’s Muslim minority, which makes up about 18% of the population.

“Netanyahu’s decision [is a] gross blow to the freedom of religion. The man is held prisoner by the convicted terrorist Ben-Gvir over the October 7 collapse,” said Ahmad Tibi, the leader of the Knesset’s leftwing Arab Taal party.

“This is a government of pyromaniacs. The time has come for President Biden to impose sanctions on Ben-Gvir,” he added, referring to sanctions placed by the US, UK and France on dozens of hardline Israeli settlers living in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Ramadan, a month of fasting culminating in Eid al-Fitr, is expected to begin on 10 March. Security restrictions at Temple Mount were not final and would be decided “in accordance with situation assessments”, Gantz said.

Netanyahu’s office said in a statement: “The prime minister has made a balanced decision that allows for religious freedom within the limits of the security needs as established by heads of the security establishment. Any reports to the contrary are false.”

Netanyahu, who fears becoming more vulnerable in his three corruption trials if he is ousted from office when the war ends, is widely believed in Israel to be kowtowing to the demands of his far-right coalition partners, who have repeatedly threatened to collapse his government over concessions to either Hamas or Palestinians in general.

The prime minister has also been accused of slow-walking ceasefire talks. Netanyahu said on Saturday that while he had sent a delegation to ceasefire talks in Cairo last week at Joe Biden’s request, he did not see what would be gained by sending them again.

The families and friends of those held captive in Gaza have kept up an active campaign for their release. However, polling published on Monday by the Israeli thinktank the Jewish People Policy Institute found that 40% of respondents, if they had to choose, would prefer the removal of Hamas from Gaza over returning the hostages.

While the US, Israel’s most important ally, has provided crucial military support and diplomatic cover for the Israeli war effort, relations between Biden and Netanyahu have reached a nadir over the colossal, and growing, death toll in Gaza.

Also on Monday, the international court of justice (ICJ), the UN’s top court, began hearing oral arguments after a landmark 2022 UN general assembly resolution requested an advisory opinion on the “legal consequences arising from the policies and practices of Israel in the occupied Palestinian territory” – a move seen as important because while various UN bodies have found that aspects of the occupation are illegal, there has never been a judgment on whether the occupation itself, now in its 57th year, either is or has become unlawful.

The ICJ is due to hold hearings all week on the legal implications of the occupation, with an unprecedented 52 countries, including the US and Russia, expected to give evidence. Israel will not participate in the hearings but submitted a written contribution dated 24 July 2023, in which it urged the court to dismiss the request for an opinion.

Israel is facing two other major international legal cases over its treatment of Palestinians.

South Africa also filed a case against Israel before the court in December, alleging that Israel’s offensive in Gaza amounted to genocide. An interim judgment from the court last month said Israel must “take all measures within its power” to prevent such acts.

The international criminal court decided in 2021 that it had a mandate to investigate violence and war crimes committed by Israeli and Palestinian factions, although Israel is not a member of the court and does not recognise its authority.

  • Guardian Newsroom: The unfolding crisis in the Middle East

On Wednesday 20 March, 7-8.15pm GMT, join Devika Bhat, Peter Beaumont and Ghaith Abdul-Ahad as they discuss the fast developing crisis in the Middle East.

Book tickets here or at theguardian.live

Explore more on these topics

  • Israel-Gaza war
  • Israel
  • Gaza
  • Palestinian territories
  • Ramadan
  • Middle East and north Africa
  • news
Reuse this content

Trump acknowledges Russian opposition leader’s death days later, without mentioning Putin

Trump acknowledges Navalny’s death days later, without mentioning Putin

Ex-president links Russian opposition leader’s death to his own political grievances after criticism from Haley

Donald Trump has offered a belated acknowledgement of the purportedly sudden death of Alexei Navalny, three days after the Russian opposition leader collapsed in one of Russia’s penal colonies. But Trump failed to join with – or acknowledge – international outrage at Navalny’s political nemesis, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

“The sudden death of Alexei Navalny has made me more and more aware of what is happening in our country,” Trump posted on his Truth Social network. The former US president and presumptive Republican White House nominee added: “It is a slow, steady progression, with CROOKED, Radical Left Politicians, Prosecutors, and Judges leading us down a path to destruction.”

Trump’s statement, which turned a grave global political issue into one of significance to his agenda, comes one day after Nikki Haley – his lone remaining opponent in the Republican presidential primary – criticized him for avoiding substantial comment on Navalny’s death.

“Either he sides with Putin and thinks it’s cool that Putin killed one of his political opponents – or he just doesn’t think it’s that big of a deal,” Haley said on Sunday on ABC News’ This Week. “Either one of those is concerning. Either one of those is a problem.”

Separately, minutes before his Truth Social post about Navalny on Monday, Haley had appeared on Fox News and said: “It is amazing to me how weak in the knees [Trump] is when it comes to Putin.”

“He is yet to say anything about Navalny’s death, which – Putin murdered him,” Haley said.

Haley, who served as US ambassador to the United Nations during Trump’s presidency, joined other prominent American politicians, including Joe Biden, in condemning Putin for Navalny’s death.

Navalny’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya, on Monday accused Putin of killing her husband. She also accused Russian authorities of hiding his corpse and of waiting for traces of the Novichok nerve agent to disappear from his body.

“I urge you to stand next to me,” Navalnaya said in comments directed to Russians generally. “I ask you to share the rage with me – rage, anger, hatred towards those who dared to kill our future.”

But Trump, who frequently praised Putin during his single term in the White House, has largely elected to remain silent about Navalny’s death.

Haley’s criticism of Trump’s approach to Navalny’s death comes as the former president leads her by 30 percentage points in polling ahead of the forthcoming Republican presidential primary in South Carolina, where she was once governor.

At a recent campaign rally in that state, Trump claimed to have told the head of state “of a big country” while he was in the Oval Office that if the foreign leader’s nation did not meet its financial obligations to Nato, then Russia could “do whatever the hell they want” as far as Trump was concerned.

The Republican US senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina on Sunday said that he supported Trump’s call for fair contributions to the Nato alliance. “I want to have a system where if you don’t pay, you get kicked out,” he said.

But, Graham added, “No, I’m not inviting Russia to invade Ukraine,” as it did nearly two years ago.

In his statement on Navalny, Trump identified only his personal political priorities and issues, alluding to the immigration crisis at the US-Mexico border and his lies that he lost the 2020 election to Biden because of electoral fraud.

He also referred to “unfair courtroom decisions” as he faces more than 90 pending criminal charges, including for subversion of the election that he lost to Biden. Trump additionally is grappling with how to pay civil judgments in excess of half a billion dollars after being adjudicated a business fraudster as well as being found liable for sexually abusing and defaming the magazine columnist E Jean Carroll.

“WE ARE A NATION IN DECLINE, A FAILING NATION!” he wrote in his post about Navalny.

Despite his reluctance to dwell on Navalny, polls at the moment suggests Trump enjoys a slight advantage with the American electorate over Biden.

Explore more on these topics

  • Donald Trump
  • Alexei Navalny
  • Vladimir Putin
  • US politics
  • Russia
  • Nikki Haley
  • news
Reuse this content

Majority of Sydney’s rough sleepers don’t live to 56th birthday, new data shows

Rough sleepers dying ‘alarmingly’ premature deaths, Sydney homeless data shows

People suffering from schizophrenia especially at risk, homelessness advocates say

  • Follow our Australia news live blog for latest updates
  • Get our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcast
  • Out in the cold: read more from Guardian Australia’s 12-month investigation into homelessness deaths

One of Sydney’s largest homelessness services says its client data shows the city’s rough sleepers are dying at “alarmingly” premature rates, particularly those with schizophrenia.

Matthew Talbot Hostel, based in the inner-city suburb of Woolloomooloo,
said data from about 4,000 patients attending its health clinic shows those experiencing homelessness are dying at an average age of 55.9.

For those diagnosed with schizophrenia, the average age was even lower, at 52 years.

The data, captured as part of a study last year, is further evidence of a disturbing life expectancy gap between those experiencing homelessness and the general population in Australia.

  • Sign up for Guardian Australia’s free morning and afternoon email newsletters for your daily news roundup

The clinic manager at the Matthew Talbot Hostel, Julie Smith, has worked in homelessness health since 1990. She has not seen a significant change in the age of death of those experiencing homelessness in that time.

“We have been aware that homeless people die 25 to 30 years younger – we’ve known forever that they die prematurely and they die, in many cases, of preventable illness, due to their circumstances,” Smith said.

She said it was “extraordinary” such deaths persisted in a country as rich as Australia.

“I remain shocked at the amount of people with serious illness, particularly serious mental illness, who remain on the streets, that it’s so difficult to get housing and healthcare for these people.

“Sydney is an extremely wealthy, western-style society, and I find it really difficult to grapple with the knowledge that there are so many disadvantaged people living on the streets, living in incredibly substandard housing, and without protection.

“Their vulnerabilities mean they require protection and they require targeted services and they require specific types of housing and care in many places. It’s shocking – the number of people with schizophrenia that we allow to remain homeless.”

Earlier this month, the Guardian revealed the results of a 12-month investigation into homelessness deaths, which included an analysis of 627 cases reported to the coroner. The average age of death among those cases was 44. That is in line with studies in Perth and Melbourne, and the Sydney study that included Matthew Talbot Hostel clients, led by Macquarie University.

The Macquarie University study analysed 324 deaths among clients of three homelessness services in inner-city Sydney and found the median age at death was 50.7.

Dr Olav Nielssen, one of the study’s authors and also a psychiatrist at the Matthew Talbot clinic, said the absence of supported housing was a major factor in poor health.

“We found quite an alarming mortality and that the mean [age] of death was alarmingly low. The mean age of death … was in the 50s, and for those who had substance abuse issues, it was even younger.”

Emeritus Prof Ian Webster, a physician who worked for more than 40 years with people who have experienced homelessness, said the average life expectancy had not changed since his time in the field.

“There are many factors which lead to premature ageing in this group,” he said. “Exposure to the elements, exposure to infection, lifestyles which include, among other things, extraordinarily heavy levels of smoking and, of course, of alcohol use and, these days, use of opiate and related substances too.

“I often regard this group of people as prematurely aged or prematurely ageing.”

Explore more on these topics

  • Australia news
  • Out in the cold
  • Homelessness
  • Sydney
  • Health
  • news
Reuse this content

Coles, Qantas, Telstra among top Australian companies with no clear plan, report says

Ten of Australia’s top companies lack clear plans to stop using or supporting fossil fuels, report says

UTS researchers say firms including Coles, Woolworths, Telstra, Rio Tinto and Qantas have no ‘comprehensive, independently verified and fully costed plan’ to reduce emissions

  • Follow our Australia news live blog for latest updates
  • Get our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcast

Ten of Australia’s best-known corporations – including Coles, Telstra, Woolworths and Qantas – have no clear plans to stop using or supporting fossil fuels despite having targets to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions, according to a report.

The companies were also failing to report clearly the impact of their businesses on the climate warming caused directly or indirectly from land clearing.

The report, from the University of Technology Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures, examined in detail the climate plans and disclosures of Coles, Woolworths, Telstra, Rio Tinto, Qantas, BlueScope Steel, Origin, AGL, Cleanaway and South 32. The companies were selected as major emitters in their respective industries.

Commissioned by a new Australia-based advocacy group, Climate Integrity, the report said none of the 10 Australian companies had a “comprehensive, independently verified and fully costed plan for reducing their emissions” that was in line with a scientifically credible pathway to decarbonise quickly enough to keep global heating to 1.5C.

Researchers assessed companies against guidelines laid out in late 2022 by a UN expert group after broad concerns that corporate climate pledges were often vague, inconsistent, incomplete, over-reliant on offsets and in some cases amounted to greenwashing.

The level of alignment of the Australian companies with the UN group’s recommendations was “disappointingly low”, the report said.

  • Sign up for Guardian Australia’s free morning and afternoon email newsletters for your daily news roundup

Fewer than half the companies were on track to meet their own targets, the report claimed, and none had targets or plans to stop using fossil fuels.

“The lack of scientific alignment with the need to rapidly phase out fossil fuels is particularly concerning,” the report said. “Without commitments to phase out fossil fuels, it is difficult to see how net zero pledges can be fulfilled.”

The report found companies had aligned themselves with a “plethora of frameworks, assessments, standards and disclosure requirements” that were mostly voluntary.

It said none of the companies disclosed enough information for researchers to understand if or how companies were accounting for the impact of land clearing in their climate targets.

Claire Snyder, the director at Climate Integrity, said there was little consistency in the achievements and failings across the company plans. “That demonstrates there’s no clear standard or shared understanding among companies of what [a credible net zero plan] should look like,” she said.

Snyder said Climate Integrity would push for policy change in Australia that would give the public confidence that claims made by companies were credible and give industry a clearer set of expectations.

The Albanese government is expected to introduce legislation later this year to mandate what information companies should disclose in their financial reports relating to the risks from climate change.

Alison Atherton, one of the report’s authors at UTS, said the research showed a “high degree of variability in the information being provided publicly by companies”.

“Decision makers, researchers, consumers and investors need to be able to have confidence in these plans,” she said.

Only three companies – Woolworths, Coles and Telstra – had targets verified by the international Science Based Targets initiative.

Woolworths Group said it was making “good progress on reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, with our operations switching to 100 per cent renewable electricity within the next two years, and our fleet of 1,200 home delivery trucks set to become electric by 2030”.

Coles said it was committed to cutting emissions and being more efficient with resources “in areas over which we have control and influence”.

About 90% of the company’s emissions were generated in its supply chain, the company said, and it was working with 75% of suppliers to help them set emissions reduction targets by 2027.

“We are on track to achieve our Scope 1 and 2 emissions target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 75% by June 2030. This includes our 100% renewable electricity goal by June 2025.”

The waste management company Cleanaway said it stood proudly by its emissions reduction targets for CO2 and methane – the latter of which accounts for three-quarters of the company’s footprint due to releases from landfills. Capturing methane and lowering emissions in its heavy vehicle fleet, including using alternative fuels and trialling hydrogen and electric trucks, was a focus.

Telstra’s head of environment, Tom Penny, said the company’s target to cut direct and indirect emissions by 50% by 2030 “includes efforts to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels”.

“Telstra takes its role in helping to tackle climate change seriously,” he said, adding the company had a commitment to invest in enough renewable energy generation to match its own electricity consumption by 2025.

AGL, Australia’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, said its climate transition action plan outlined its pathway to becoming a net zero company by 2050, including its direct and indirect emissions.

It was “targeting the closure of our last thermal power station, Loy Yang A, by the end of FY35, at which point we will be net zero for operated Scope 1 and 2 emissions”.

AGL said it expected to spend $8bn to $10bn developing “12 GW of new renewables and firming capacity by the end of 2035” and would “build out the new renewables and firming that will be needed to help Australia meet its climate targets”.

The gas and electricity company Origin said gas would play an “important role in the energy mix for some time, to support variable renewable energy output” and for “customers who cannot easily electrify and for which there is no viable alternative to gas available today”.

It welcomed scrutiny of its “appropriately ambitious” climate plans and expected to meet its 2030 targets largely through direct actions “with limited use of offsets only for residual emissions that are hard to abate”.

Qantas said aviation was a “hard-to-abate sector” and “high integrity offsets were key to us meeting emission reduction targets until sustainable aviation fuel and low and zero-emissions technologies are more readily available”.

The company’s interim target to use 10% sustainable aviation fuel by 2030 would be mostly met with a deal with Airbus and Boeing to secure up to 500m litres.

The Perth-based mining company South 32 said as well as having a target to reach net zero emissions across all areas of the business by 2050, the company had a medium-term target to halve its operational emissions from 2021 levels by 2035.

The mining and metals company said its climate change action plan, first released in 2022, would be reviewed every three years. Having targets aligned with the global Paris agreement was “a critical step as we continue to assess options to align our business to prosper in a low-carbon world”.

The company did not have interim targets related to emissions from the use of its products, but was working with suppliers and customers to reduce those emissions.

Bluescope Steel said it was not in a position to respond and Rio Tinto declined to comment.

Explore more on these topics

  • Business
  • Greenhouse gas emissions
  • Energy
  • Climate crisis
  • Fossil fuels
  • Telstra
  • Australian politics
  • news
Reuse this content

Cleaner sacked for eating leftover tuna sandwich takes legal action against law firm

Cleaner sacked for eating leftover tuna sandwich takes legal action against City law firm

Gabriela Rodriguez cleaned the offices of Devonshires Solicitors for two years

A cleaner is taking legal action against a top City law firm for indirect race discrimination after being fired for eating a leftover tuna sandwich from a discarded platter.

Gabriela Rodriguez from Ecuador cleaned the offices of Devonshires Solicitors for two years.

United Voices of the World union (UVW), which supports migrant workers, claims she was sacked just before Christmas 2023 after contractor Total Clean received a complaint from Devonshires Solicitors that leftover sandwiches were not being returned.

The union confirmed Rodriguez ate a £1.50 tuna sandwich she thought would be discarded after a meeting of lawyers.

She was then let go for taking “client property … without authority or reasonable excuse”. In an attempt to get Rodriguez reinstated, dozens of UVW members – including cleaners, legal sector workers and hospitality workers – protested outside Devonshires’ offices on Valentine’s Day bearing 100 cans of tuna, 300 hand-wrapped sandwiches, several helium heart-shaped balloons, and love letters for Rodriguez.

Petros Elia, the general secretary of UVW, said the union was “mission-bound as a trade union which represents large numbers of cleaners” – most of whom are migrant workers.

Elia added: “Cleaners are routinely dismissed on trivial and, we argue, discriminatory grounds like this every day around the country. Many describe feeling treated ‘like the dirt they clean’ and Gabriela is one of them. We will raise our voices and unite to fight any employer – even big powerful companies like Devonshires Solicitors.

“And just because we clean their dirt, does not mean they can treat us like dirt. We demand respect, dignity and equality, regardless of the language we speak, our country of origin, or the colour of our skin.

“We are taking both Total Clean and Devonshires Solicitors to an employment tribunal. For Total Clean, the claims are for unfair dismissal and direct race discrimination. For Devonshires Solicitors the claims are for direct and/or indirect race discrimination.”

UVW contends that the request for Rodriguez’s removal from the site was an act of discrimination alleging if she was not a Latin American with limited English, Devonshires would not have complained about her, which led to her dismissal.

A Total Clean spokesperson told the Guardian: “While we would not typically comment on personnel issues, we would like to address the misleading and inaccurate information that is being alleged by our ex-employee. It is important to us to maintain the integrity of our workforce and service by ensuring we deal appropriately with any actions that undermine the hard work and reputation of our incredible team who conduct themselves impeccably. Trust and honesty is of paramount importance.

“All steps taken have been in accordance with UK employment law following the proper investigative and disciplinary process. We will be making no further comment on the matter.”

A spokesperson for Devonshires Solicitors said: “Devonshires did not make a formal complaint against Gabriela and expressly told Total Clean not to take any action against her. Total Clean carried out their own investigation and the decision to dismiss Gabriela was taken without any input or influence from Devonshires whatsoever.

“This is a private matter between Total Clean and Gabriela but we have made clear to Total Clean that we would not object – as we never have done – to Gabriela attending and working on our premises if Total Clean changes its position.”

Explore more on these topics

  • Law
  • Trade unions
  • London
  • news
Reuse this content