INDEPENDENT 2024-07-10 16:08:46


Australia appoints special envoy to confront rise in antisemitism

The Australian government named a special envoy Tuesday to confront a rise in antisemitism across the country since the Israel-Hamas war began.

A similar envoy will soon be appointed to challenge Islamophobia in Australia and both will promote social cohesion, prime minister Anthony Albanese told reporters at the Sydney Jewish Museum.

Mr Albanese’s own Sydney office has been targeted with pro-Palestinian graffiti as rival activists clash over the Israeli-Hamas war in Australian cities and university campuses.

Mr Albanese appointed Jillian Segal, a Sydney lawyer and business executive, to be “special envoy to combat antisemitism in Australia” for three years. She will consult with community groups and report back to Mr Albanese and Multicultural Affairs Minister Andrew Giles.

Segal called statistics on antisemitism in Australia “shocking.” Reports of antisemitism spiked 700 per cent immediately after Hamas militants sparked the war in Gaza by attacking Israel on Oct. 7, and are still running 400 per cent to 500 per cent higher than before the conflict, she said.

The reports include Jewish-owned businesses being boycotted and vandalized as well as Jewish artists being excluded or subjected to social media shadow bans that restrict their visibility on platforms, Segal said.

“Unfortunately there is no single answer to the perennial problem of antisemitism,” she said.

“But the creation of this role shows a determination by the government to confront this evil and to ensure that it does not erode the goodness that exists in our society,” she added.

Mr Albanese said a graffiti attack that marked his inner-Sydney office as a Hamas target in December was being taken seriously and acted upon.

He also condemned last month’s vandalism with spray paint at the Australian National Korean War Memorial and the Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial in the national capital, Canberra.

“I have spoken with members of the Jewish community here, in Melbourne, right around Australia, who have not felt safe, members of the Jewish community whose children are worried about wearing their school uniform in our capital cities,” Mr Albanese said. “That’s not acceptable. Not acceptable, ever. And certainly not in Australia in 2024.”

“What we need to do is to make sure that the conflict that is occurring in the Middle East that has caused a great deal of grief for the Jewish community, for members of the Islamic and Palestinian communities – Australians overwhelmingly do not want conflict brought here,” Mr Albanese added.

Pregnant women infected as India suffers Zika virus outbreak

India is seeing a surge in Zika cases with authorities identifying at least six pregnant women infected by the virus.

A 74-year-old man is reported to have died from the infection in the southern state of Karnataka. Since the man had comorbidities, doctors are yet to ascertain if his death was caused directly by the virus.

In any case, he is the first patient in the state found with Zika traces at the time of their death, The Times of India reported.

While Zika, transmitted by the Aedes mosquito, is typically not fatal, it is linked to microcephaly, a condition where children are born with significantly smaller heads and have neurological problems.

Also linked to dengue, chikungunya and urban yellow fever, the Aedes usually bites during the day. Zika can be transmitted from the mother to her foetus during pregnancy, as well as through sexual contact, blood transfusion and organ transplantation.

Infected people are usually asymptomatic and those developing symptoms show them three to 14 days after infection. The symptoms include rash, fever, conjunctivitis, muscle and joint pain, malaise and headache, and they usually last for two to seven days, according to the WHO.

The Zika outbreak has particularly raised alarm in Pune, Kolhapur and Ahmednagar in western Maharashtra state, which is grappling with floods after a heavy downpour.

The southern state of Kerala has also reported Zika cases.

Pune has counted at least 12 cases so far, six of them pregnant women. “We have stepped up our surveillance activities,” said Dr Rajesh Dighe, assistant chief medical officer at the Pune Municipal Corporation.

“Samples have been sent to the National Institute of Virology as part of the screening of pregnant women from areas where Zika cases were detected. Overall, 68 samples from pregnant women have been sent to the apex laboratory,” he was quoted as saying by The Indian Express.

The city’s health department imposed a fine of Rs10,000 (£93) on a builder after a mosquito breeding site was found near his housing complex and a pregnant woman tested positive for the virus.

“She has been asked to consult her doctor, take folic acid tablets as directed and undergo the screening test to check whether the baby is at risk of any congenital conditions and if further tests are required,” Dr Dighe said.

The federal health ministry issued an advisory last week advising state governments to “alert the clinicians for close monitoring” of the affected pregnant women.

“States are urged to instruct the health facilities in the affected areas or those catering cases from affected areas to screen the pregnant women for Zika virus infection, monitor the growth of the foetus of expecting mothers who have tested positive for Zika.”

The ministry also instructed states to report Zika cases to the Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme and the National Centre for Vector Borne Diseases Control. It also advised them to intensify vector control activities in residential areas, workplaces, schools, construction sites, institutions, and health facilities.

Thai police investigating tourist couple for having sex in public

Police in Thailand are investigating a Chinese couple for having sex in a car park at a popular sightseeing spot in the country.

Social media erupted in outrage after photos circulated showing the tourists almost naked and being interrupted by police in Chiang Mai, on of Thailand’s most popular destinations for international travellers.

The woman undressed her partner in the car park of Chiang Mai University, a popular site among Chinese tourists to the city, after ordering food from a nearby vendor at around 5pm on 4 July, eyewitnesses told The Thaiger, prompting shocked bystanders to alert police.

Senior police lieutenant colonel Awirut Sookyam said the couple admitted to having cannabis and alcohol before the incident, Khaosod English News reported. They were covered with sheets and umbrellas, given clothes to wear and taken to a local hospital, it said.

Although the university declined to take legal action, police now are pursuing the couple for violating public decency laws.

A homeless Thai couple were arrested for a similar offence in Khon Kaen earlier this year.

In April another foreign couple were charged with engaging in sexual activity in the sea at Patong Beach in Phuket, The Thaiger reported.

No legal action was taken against them or other foreign couples who have been involved in similar incidents in Phuket, it added.

Families demand answers from self-styled guru over crush deaths

Somwati Devi, 60, wanted prosperity for her family: jobs for her four sons and good marriage prospects for her daughters. With her husband unemployed and unable to lift them out of poverty, she became a devotee of Bhole Baba in the hope of divine intervention.

But on 2 July, she was one of 121 people killed in a stampede at a prayer meeting organised by spiritual leader, who reinvented himself as a religious figure after retiring as a police constable.

“Her blind faith has killed her,” her son Brijesh Kumar, 32, tells The Independent. “She just wanted some stability and success” for all of her eight children.

Ravi Kumar, 30, saw how the disaster began after dropping off his uncle at the gathering in Hathras, in northern India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh.

“After the congregation was over, people ran after him (Bhole Baba) to collect the soil that his feet touched in the hope that their fortunes might change,” he tells The Independent. “Since there was rainfall, people slipped on top of each other,” he says. It resulted in one of the deadliest stampedes the country has seen.

Speaking from his home in Patiali, a village in Hathras not far from the scene of the stampede, Brijesh Kumar describes the moment he found out about the unfolding tragedy. “I received a call saying that my mother is unconscious but she is breathing,” Kumar says. “But someone else snatched the phone saying she is dead.

“As soon as I heard, I left for the hospital in Etah (district), where I was told she had passed away. But I was not allowed to touch her, see whether she had a slow beating heart, or if she had a pulse.

“She was put in a room with 20-25 dead people. I don’t even know whether she was alive when I reached there or if she was left to die with others.

“We have not been given any reason for how she died, even though they have done the post-mortem,” Kumar says. He holds the state administration, the organisers of the event, and the self-styled godman responsible for the stampede.

“What kind of religious preacher is he, if he could not prevent the stampede and on top of that ran from the spot,” asks Brijesh Kumar’s sister, Mangesh Bhoj, 40. “He should have shown his power. Then was the time.”

Police say the organisers had permission for a gathering of 80,000 people but around 250,000 turned up.

“Why were additional forces not called when the number of people crossed the limit? Why was there no first aid? Why were there no ambulances in place? Many could have been saved,” says Kumar’s brother-in-law Vikram Bhoj, as he calls for police to take action against those involved in organising the gathering. “There were just 40 police personnel at the site,” he alleges, as he asks: “Do you think it is enough to manage a crowd of 250,000 people?”

The Independent approached the Hathras police headquarters but was told that the officer in charge of the investigation was not available for interview.

Bhole Baba has not been arrested, and could not be reached by The Independent prior to publication. Police have detained six of his aides involved in organising the event, and a man described as the main organiser surrendered to police. “I have faith that anyone who created the chaos will not be spared,” said Bhole Baba in a statement to news agency ANI, as he blamed the stampede on “anti-social elements”.

A three-member judicial commission team has been formed to investigate any administrative lapses that may have contributed to the tragedy.

In the initial days of his rise to fame, Bhole Baba claimed he could bring the dead back to life and even tried to take away the body of a 16-year-old girl from a crematorium, promising a miracle for her family, police told Reuters. Authorities intervened and the matter was closed.

Born Suraj Pal, Bhole Baba – whose name loosely translates to “innocent spiritual guide” – has unexplained wealth, including a sprawling network of 24 ashrams, a fleet of luxury cars and assets, which are estimated to cost at least Rs1bn (£93m). His empire is overseen by Shri Narayan Hari Sakar Charitable Trust, reported the Hindustan Times, citing police sources.

He maintains a significant following despite reports that he left the police due to a 1997 allegation of sexual assault. News channel NDTV reported that the case saw him serve jail time, after which he reinvented himself as a spiritual leader. He has denied being fired from the police, and tells his supporters he took voluntary retirement.

Usually appearing clad in a white three-piece suit, tie, and fashionable glasses, Bhole Baba’s appearance means he stands out among a sea of preachers in India’s crowded divinity scene.

“The case against him is fake,” says one of his followers, speaking close to his ashram in Patiali.

Hari Om, 53, lives in Bhole Baba’s ashram along with 25 other people, spread over hundreds of acres. “I became his devotee about 12 years ago,” Mr Om says. There are seven to eight rooms on one side where the ashram residents live, while there are several handpumps on the other side, where devotees and aides bathe.

The ashram is otherwise relatively empty, and devoid of modern day conveniences. In the verandah are pineapple, lemon and mango trees – some bearing fruit. There is not a single picture of Bhole Baba in the ashram, but his name flashes in red on a hoarding hanging on a school building, which Mr Om says is run by a charitable trust.

“We were facing issues,” says Mr Om, speaking of how his family came to follow the preacher. With a little prodding, he elaborates, “Demons and ghosts used to possess my children. We went to different religious gurus but nothing could be done.

“But since the time I became his devotee, my children have been doing well, they are all educated, are married and have jobs,” he says.

On being asked if he ever went to a doctor to get the children checked for medical issues, he says: “Doctors can only treat diseases, not paranormal activities. But when we took our children to other gurus, they just took money and we were never cured.”

Karishma Rajkumar, 24, lives close to the ashram in Patiali and says she has been associated with the preacher since birth. “We are leading a fine life and are healthy and hearty,” she says, attributing this to Bhloe Baba’s influence.

On being asked if she holds him responsible for the stampede, she says, “How is it Bhole Baba’s fault? He wanted the congregation of only 80,000 people. If thrice the number come and participate, such a thing will happen. How is he responsible for this?”

Ravi Kumar, the stampede witness, tells The Independent: “The poor people, who seldom have luck in their favour and often struggle because of government apathy, are of the belief that Bhole Baba could help alleviate their pain.

“You cannot blame them for hoping that their life condition might improve or diseases might go away,” he says.

Vinod Singh lost his daughter, wife and mother to the stampede, and says he blames Bhole Baba for what happened to his family. The 45-year-old from Sokhna village had to cremate eight-year-old Bhoomi, his 40-year-old wife Raj Kumari and his 70-year-old mother Jaimanti Devi all in one day last Wednesday.

They had all gone to attend the Satsang – religious congregation – addressed by the preacher. During the stampede, the three of them got separated.

Singh was about 175km away in Bareilly on a job hunt when the stampede happened, and he received a phone call from home. He made his way back as fast as he could, but his younger brother ran straight to the scene and was able to find the body of Bhoomi, who was being put in an ambulance. “She was dead,” Singh recalls tearfully.

The family had no idea what happened to his mother until midnight, when a neighbour admitted to a different hospital in the city of Agra spotted spotted her body being carried away, confirming the family’s worst fears.

“Our home is destroyed now. There is no one left. My daughter, wife and mother are all gone now. I do not know what to do. In one day I had to cremate three pieces of my heart.”

“I say that such a congregation should be shut down altogether. They are so poorly organised. If it can happen at our house, to us, then it can happen to anyone else.”

Elite North Korean unit heads to Russia for first military exchange

North Korea has sent an elite army training delegation to Russia, heightening Western concerns about deepening military cooperation between the Asian neighbours in the backdrop of the Ukraine war.

This is the first announced military exchange between the two nations since Russian president Vladimir Putin visited Pyongyang last month and signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with Kim Jong-un.

The People’s Army of North Korea military education delegation left for Russia on Monday, the Korean Central News Agency said. It is led by Kim Kum-chol, president of Kim Il-sung Military University.

The purpose and the duration of the visit have not been revealed.

The university, named after North Korea’s first leader, is a training institute for military officers, Yonhap reported. Kim Jong-un is believed to have taken courses from the school after returning from Switzerland.

The strategic partnership signed by Mr Putin and Mr Kim includes a mutual defence pact, binding the two countries to provide assistance if one is attacked.

The agreement has raised the hackles of South Korea and its chief ally, the US, who fear it could have major military implications.

The US and South Korea have accused the North of supplying artillery, missiles and other weapons to Russia for use in its war in Ukraine in return for advanced military technologies and economic aid. Both North Korea and Russia have denied such claims.

Any military exchange with North Korea will be in violation of UN sanctions that bar member nations from providing military support to Pyongyang.

In a recent interview to Reuters, South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol, who is attending a Nato summit this week, urged Russia to not provide any military assistance to North Korea.

He said Russian military cooperation with North Korea would be a “distinct threat and grave challenge” to the security of Europe and the North Korean peninsula.

He also said he would discuss the matter at the Nato summit and claimed that it “depends entirely” on Russia where it wanted to take future ties with Seoul.

Fence climbing crocodile at Australian wildlife park alarms visitors

Visitors at an Australian wildlife national park were left alarmed after a crocodile attempted to scale the fence that separated the animal from its feeders.

The reptile, named One Eye, managed to get the top part of its body over the fence at the Malcolm Douglas Crocodile Park near Broome but struggled to push itself up fully due to its short legs.

A TikTok video of this incident, posted on 1 July, has been shared widely.

Sophia Armstrong, a visitor who filmed the event, exclaimed “Nah, nope” as she watched from behind another fence separating the visitors from the crocodile.

Tour guides frantically attempted to coax the giant reptile back into its enclosure.

Eventually, the crocodile retreated slightly but remained on its hind legs, peering over the fence with its head and snout.

Owen Douglas, whose grandfather founded the park in the early 2000s, remarked that One Eye was simply eager for a meal, and it wasn’t surprising that he had figured out a faster way to get to his food.

He told 9News Today: “Over the years, they get fed over that feeding bay area, so they learn themselves that maybe if they just hop over the fence, they can probably get (to) the tour guide as well as their usual chicken.

“They’re really smart animals, extremely smart – so that’s just him trying to get his food as soon as possible and you can see in the video when he gets his front legs over, he’s just sort of dangling his head over and it’s quite incredible.”

The park’s website says the daily feeding tour showcased “some of the largest crocodiles on display in Australia”.

This isn’t the first instance of a crocodile attempting to climb. In 2018, a 2.5m saltwater crocodile was seen unsuccessfully trying to climb a waterfall on the Roper River in Australia’s Northern Territory.

According to a Reuters report, researchers noted that crocodiles can climb trees despite lacking typical climbing adaptations. Smaller crocodiles can climb vertically, while larger ones prefer angled trunks and branches.

The crocodile population has exploded across Australia’s tropical north since it became a protected species under the law in the 1970s, growing from 3,000 when hunting was outlawed to 100,000 now.

A Northern Territory leader recently said that crocodile numbers cannot be allowed to outstrip the human population in the region after a 12-year-old child was killed while swimming.

Australian police found what appeared to be the remains of the child who went missing after the crocodile attack. The Northern Territory has just over 250,000 people.

Five Indian soldiers killed in ambush by suspected rebels in Kashmir

Suspected rebels fighting against Indian rule in the disputed region of Kashmir ambushed an army vehicle on Monday in the region’s south, killing five Indian soldiers and wounding other five, officials said.

No insurgent group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.

The attack took place in the Kathua district of the Indian-controlled Kashmir while the military was on a routine patrol, a police officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to talk to reporters.

Police and army reinforcements were rushed to the area, a massive cordon was set up and a search operation was underway, the officer said.

The attack was the latest in a flurry of violence that erupted on Sunday, when police said two gunbattles killed two Indian army soldiers and six suspected militants in the Kulgam district. Earlier in the day, militants fired at an army camp in the district of Rajouri, wounding a soldier.

The Himalayan region of Kashmir has been divided between India and Pakistan since 1947 but coveted in its entirety by both. The two nuclear-armed neighbours have fought three wars over Kashmir.

India accuses Pakistan of arming and training insurgents to fight its forces for control of Kashmir, a charge Islamabad denies.

Various rebel groups have been fighting since 1989 for Kashmir’s independence from India or seeking to merge it with Pakistan, which most Muslim Kashmiri residents in the Indian-controlled sector support. Tens of thousands of civilians, rebels and government forces have been killed in the conflict.

Kenyan court rules 2022 killing of Pakistani journalist was unlawful

A Kenyan court on Monday ruled that the 2022 shooting death of a Pakistani journalist by police in Nairobi was unlawful and unconstitutional, a lawyer and his family said.

Justice Stella Mutuku in the ruling in Nairobi also faulted Kenya’s attorney general and the director of public prosecutions for laxity in investigating the shooting of Arshad Sharif, after police opened fire at his car at a roadblock checkpoint.

Sharif’s family has accused an elite Kenyan police unit of intentionally killing Sharif. The 50-year-old journalist had fled Pakistan earlier that year to avoid arrest at home on charges of maligning Pakistan’s national institutions.

A panel of Pakistani investigators in December 2022 concluded that the killing of Sharif was a “planned assassination.” Their report suggested that the bullet that fatally wounded Sharif was fired from either inside the car or from close range.

Kenyan authorities are still investigating the killing and none of the police officers linked to the shooting has been arrested or charged.

In Monday’s verdict, the court asked Kenyan authorities to conclude their probe of the officers. The court also ordered the government to compensate Sharif’s family 10 million Kenyan shillings ($78,000).

Dudley Ochiel, a lawyer for Sharif’s widow, Javeria Siddique, said the ruling was a “big win for the man’s family and friends in Kenya, Pakistan and all over the world.”

Mr Ochiel said he expects the public prosecutor to file a case against two officers suspected of fatally shooting Sharif at the roadblock.

The killing shook Pakistan and days later, thousands came out for Sharif’s funeral.

Pakistan has said no state institution was involved in his death.

Ms Siddique, who filed a complaint against Kenyan police together with Kenyan journalists’ unions, said although she knew that her husband would not come back, “at least now everyone knows that he was killed intentionally”.

Police had initially blamed the shooting on “mistaken identity” during a search for a similar car involved in a child abduction case.

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Musambi reported from Nairobi, Kenya.

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