Canada joins U.S. and Allies in Beijing Olympics boycott.

By Rob Gillies, Associated Press

TORONTO (AP) — Canada will join the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia in a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics over human rights concerns, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday.

The announcement came after the White House, the Australian government and the UK government confirmed diplomatic boycotts of the Winter Games in February to protest Chinese human rights abuses. China has vowed to react with “firm countermeasures.”

Trudeau said his government has been talks with allies about it in recent months.

“We are extremely concerned by the repeated human rights violations by the Chinese government,” Trudeau said. 

“They should not be surprised we will not be sending any diplomatic representation.

The diplomatic moves by Canada, the U.S., Britain and Australia do not affect their athletes’ ability to compete in the games.

Rights groups have called for a fullblown boycott of the Beijing Winter Games, citing Chinese human rights abuses against its Uyghur minority in the northwest Xinjiang province, which some have called genocide. They also point to Beijing’s suppression of democratic protests in Hong Kong and a sweeping crackdown on dissent in the semiautonomous territory.

The White House confirmed Monday that it was staging a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming games and Australia followed suit Wednesday, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison saying it was “in Australia’s national interest.”

Relations between Canada and China have been poor since China arrested two Canadians in China in Dec. 2018, shortly after Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, Huawei Technologies’ chief financial officer and the daughter of the company’s founder, on a U.S. extradition request. Many countries labeled China’s action “hostage politics, while China has described the charges against Huawei and Meng as a politically motivated attempt to hold back China’s economic and technological development.

China, the U.S. and Canada essentially completed a highstakes prisoner swap earlier this year but the reputation of the Chinese government has been severely tarnished in Canada. 

“Concerns around arbitrary detention are real and shared by many countries around the world,” Trudeau said. 

Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly said more countries need to take similar action.

“It is important to send a strong signal to China, Joly said. “Human rights violations are not acceptable.”

The Holocaust as an underlying condition

By Steve Hendrix and Shira Rubin, Washington Post

In Israel, the pandemic takes an emotional toll on survivors of Nazi atrocities.

HAIFA, Israel — For 10 grinding months, Shimon Sabag has worked to keep the coronavirus from devastating one of Israel’s most vulnerable populations: the dwindling number of Holocaust survivors living out their final years in the Jewish state.

Now he’s worried about the pandemic endgame.

“This is the moment of truth,” Sabag said of the nail-biting contest between an exploding resurgence of covid-19 cases and Israel’s aggressive vaccination program. “Holocaust survivors see the finish line, but emotionally they are collapsing.”

In this hilly port city that is home to the country’s largest population of survivors, Sabag runs Yad Rosa, one of several private charities straining to ensure that lives that began in one mass tragedy don’t end in another.

Shimon Sabag founded Yad Rosa 20 years ago. The charity has been transformed by the pandemic. (Corinna Kern for The Washington Post)

Israel’s remaining 192,000 registered survivors are a community both revered and neglected. A quarter live below the poverty line, and the underfunding of programs meant to help them is a chronic scandal made worse by the country’s political and budget paralysis of recent years. A government report in October showed that only 30 percent of funds allocated for survivors had been delivered because of bureaucratic red tape.

The first Israeli to die of covid-19 was an 88-year-old Hungarian who had hidden out as an adolescent after his father was taken to Nazi Germany’s Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. Since then about 5,300 survivors have been infected and 900 have died, according to government figures. But beyond the physical toll, this population of survivors — elderly, often isolated and haunted by memories — is uniquely at risk. The sudden closing of the country has made for a year of crisis for many of them.

“I haven’t been able to breathe the air for months,” Jenya Rosenstein, 85, said by phone from the cramped Tel Aviv apartment that now reminds her of Mogilev-Podolsk, the transit camp in Ukraine where she was beaten and burned as a child. “It is like I’m back in prison.”

Survivors have been eligible for the early rounds of Israel’s vaccine program, but many required special assistance to reach the inoculation centers. Yad Rosa’s staff drove 1,800 survivors to get their shot in just two weeks.

As Israel waits for immunity to build and the infection rate to wane, advocates worry that survivors are at the end of their emotional ropes.

Shutov, a Yad Rosa manager, delivers food to Holocaust survivor Yelena Samueleno, 92. (Corinna Kern for The Washington Post)

Recent research shows that while many survivors — a resilient group almost by definition — are holding up well, others are suffering higher rates of post-traumatic stress, loneliness and fear than the general population. A Bar-Ilan University study says that survivors who experienced tuberculosis, dysentery and other diseases that were rampant in the concentration camps are the most likely to be feeling anguish after months of isolation and watching their televisions repeat dire updates about the growing global death count.

“They’re returning back to memories of the ghetto, of the camps, of death,” said Isabella Greenberg, a psychiatrist specializing in the treatment of survivors who is seeing a spike of psychoses and cognitive decline among her patients. “Some of my patients feel that this is like Auschwitz.”

For Sabag, the pandemic has transformed the survivors’ support network he founded and has run in Haifa for 20 years. Yad Rosa maintains a complex of apartment buildings for about 100 survivors in central Haifa. Before the virus, it ran a common dining hall and social events that included a yearly beauty contest. The staff handed out 130 meals a day to survivors in the surrounding community.

When Israel’s first national lockdown was imposed in March, all the social contact ended. Foreign health aides fled the country, leaving patients with no help. Even those survivors strong enough to venture out were afraid of being infected on a bus or in a grocery store.

The panicked calls started immediately.

“They crashed our phones,” Sabag said in his new call center on a recent morning, recounting the chaos of the past months amid a cacophony of conversation and shouted consultations. “Coronavirus taught us to change quickly.”

The group dispatched a mobile dentistry van and began providing rides to doctor’s appointments for survivors afraid of riding the bus. The small call center staffed by 40 volunteers began to phone thousands of survivors a day, providing a moment of human contact and checking on their needs for food and medicine.

With layoffs and school closures across Israel came a flood of volunteers. Idled contractors built food bank storage and did household repairs in survivors’ homes. Students were recruited to pay regular visits — distanced and masked — to “adopted” survivors. One student spotted a utility cutoff notice unopened on a table, and Yad Rosa was able to pay the bill.

Yad Rosa doubled, then quintupled, its capacity. With emergency funding from the New York-based Bnai Zion Foundation and other donors, the charity hired a caterer and began delivering more than 1,000, and now 2,000, frozen meals a day to apartments and senior centers around the city.

Paid contractors, along with volunteers from the army and police and ultra-Orthodox Jews who do community service in lieu of enlisting in the military, now make 4,500 phone calls a day, Sabag said. Clients who are sick or in emotional distress are called more than once.

When someone on the call list doesn’t respond, operators try a neighbor or family member, if there is one. If that doesn’t work, they dispatch a staffer on one of a fleet of scooters to check on the person. Staffers often find a senior who has fallen or needs emergency care.

On one wall of the call center, a widescreen monitor showed one such response unfolding in real time. A woman had called to say she was nearly out of food. Half an hour later, a staffer zipped through the city on a scooter, his ride captured on his body camera in dizzying high definition. It relayed his arrival at an apartment and the shaky gratitude of an elderly woman when he carried in a box of food: 14 frozen meals (chicken schnitzel, couscous, green beans) and 10 cans of tomatoes, spinach and other vegetables.

Yad Rosa staffers peered at the screen, checking the cluttered room for safety hazards or other potential signs of trouble. “This is a way for the whole office to see into their homes,” Sabag said.

Yad Rosa has also installed cameras in 120 homes, part of a pilot program for remote elder care that Sabag says could be rolled out to 30 new survivor support centers in Israel.

“What they’re doing is taking the technological advances that we’re using in many parts of our lives and using it to help the most vulnerable,” said Ari Lamm, CEO of the Bnai Zion Foundation, which supports Yad Rosa’s expansion plans.

So far, none of the Holocaust survivors who live in Yad Rosa housing have died of covid-19, although two others living in the surrounding community have.

For many, the hardest part is simply hanging on.

Renate Kaufmann, who opened her door to a Yad Rosa volunteer bringing a requested wheelchair, has been cooped up for months. The 83-year-old is eager to emerge but willing to wait, a lesson in patience she said she learned during two years of living in secret rooms and cramped hiding spaces in Nazi Germany.

“Who is safe?” she asked. “There is no safe place in this world.”

Each year 1,000 Pakistani girls forcibly converted to Islam

KARACHI, Pakistan, Associated Press (AP)

Neha loved the hymns that filled her church with music. But she lost the chance to sing them last year when, at the age of 14, she was forcibly converted from Christianity to Islam and married to a 45-year-old man with children twice her age.

She tells her story in a voice so low it occasionally fades away. She all but disappears as she wraps a blue scarf tightly around her face and head. Neha’s husband is in jail now facing charges of rape for the underage marriage, but she is in hiding, afraid after security guards confiscated a pistol from his brother in court.

“He brought the gun to shoot me,” said Neha, whose last name The Associated Press is not using for her safety.

Neha is one of nearly 1,000 girls from religious minorities who are forced to convert to Islam in Pakistan each year, largely to pave the way for marriages that are under the legal age and non-consensual. Human rights activists say the practice has accelerated during lockdowns against the coronavirus, when girls are out of school and more visible, bride traffickers are more active on the Internet and families are more in debt.

The U.S. State Department this month declared Pakistan “a country of particular concern” for violations of religious freedoms — a designation the Pakistani government rejects. The declaration was based in part on an appraisal by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom that underage girls in the minority Hindu, Christian, and Sikh communities were “kidnapped for forced conversion to Islam… forcibly married and subjected to rape.”

While most of the converted girls are impoverished Hindus from southern Sindh province, two new cases involving Christians, including Neha’s, have roiled the country in recent months.

The girls generally are kidnapped by complicit acquaintances and relatives or men looking for brides. Sometimes they are taken by powerful landlords as payment for outstanding debts by their farmhand parents, and police often look the other way. Once converted, the girls are quickly married off, often to older men or to their abductors, according to the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

Forced conversions thrive unchecked on a money-making web that involves Islamic clerics who solemnize the marriages, magistrates who legalize the unions and corrupt local police who aid the culprits by refusing to investigate or sabotaging investigations, say child protection activists.

One activist, Jibran Nasir, called the network a “mafia” that preys on non-Muslim girls because they are the most vulnerable and the easiest targets “for older men with pedophilia urges.”

The goal is to secure virginal brides rather than to seek new converts to Islam. Minorities make up just 3.6 percent of Pakistan’s 220 million people and often are the target of discrimination. Those who report forced conversions, for example, can be targeted with charges of blasphemy.

In the feudal Kashmore region of southern Sindh province, 13-year-old Sonia Kumari was kidnapped, and a day later police told her parents she had converted from Hinduism to Islam. Her mother pleaded for her return in a video widely viewed on the internet: “For the sake of God, the Quran, whatever you believe, please return my daughter, she was forcibly taken from our home.”

But a Hindu activist, who didn’t want to be identified for fear of repercussions from powerful landlords, said she received a letter that the family was forced to write. The letter claimed the 13-year-old had willingly converted and wed a 36-year-old who was already married with two children.

The parents have given up.

Arzoo Raja was 13 when she disappeared from her home in central Karachi. The Christian girl’s parents reported her missing and pleaded with police to find her. Two days later, officers reported back that she had been converted to Islam and was married to their 40-year-old Muslim neighbor.

In Sindh province, the age of consent for marriage is 18 years old. Arzoo’s marriage certificate said she was 19.

The cleric who performed Arzoo’s marriage, Qasi Ahmed Mufti Jaan Raheemi, was later implicated in at least three other underage marriages. Despite facing an outstanding arrest warrant for solemnizing Arzoo’s marriage, he continued his practice in his ramshackle office above a wholesale rice market in downtown Karachi.

When an Associated Press reporter arrived at his office, Raheemi fled down a side stair, according to a fellow cleric, Mullah Kaifat Ullah, one of a half-dozen clerics who also performs marriages in the complex. He said another cleric is already in jail for marrying children.

While Ullah said he only marries girls 18 and above, he argued that “under Islamic law a girl’s wedding at the age of 14 or 15 is fine.”

Arzoo’s mother, Rita Raja, said police ignored the family’s appeals until one day she was videotaped outside the court sobbing and pleading for her daughter to be returned. The video went viral, creating a social media storm in Pakistan and prompting the authorities to step in.

“For 10 days, the parents were languishing between the police station and government authorities and different political parties,” Nasir, the activist, said. “They were not being given any time… until it went viral. That is the real unfortunate thing over here.”

Authorities have stepped in and arrested Arzoo’s husband, but her mother said her daughter still refuses to come home. Raja said she is afraid of her husband’s family.

The girl who loved hymns, Neha, said she was tricked into the marriage by a favorite aunt, who told Neha to accompany her to the hospital to see her sick son. Her aunt, Sandas Baloch, had converted to Islam years before and lived with her husband in the same apartment building as Neha’s family.

“All Mama asked when we left was ’when will you be back?’” remembered Neha.

Instead of going to the hospital, she was taken to the home of her aunt’s in-laws and told she would marry her aunt’s 45-year-old brother-in-law.

“I told her I can’t, I am too young and I don’t want to. He is old,” Neha said. “She slapped me and locked me up in a room.”

Neha told of being taken before two men, one who was to be her husband and the other who recorded her marriage. They said she was 19. She said she was too frightened to speak because her aunt threatened to harm her two-year-old brother if she refused to marry.

She learned of her conversion only when she was told to sign the marriage certificate with her new name — Fatima.

For a week she was locked in one room. Her new husband came to her on the first night. Tears stained her blue scarf as she remembered it:

“I screamed and cried all night. I have images in my mind I can’t scratch out,” said Neha. “I hate him.”

His elder daughter brought her food each day, and Neha begged for help to escape. Although the woman was frightened of her father, she relented a week after the marriage, bringing the underage bride a burqa — the all-covering garment worn by some Muslim women — and 500 rupees (about $3). Neha fled.

But when she arrived home, Neha found her family had turned against her.

“I went home and I cried to my Mama about my aunt, what she said and the threats. But she didn’t want me anymore,” said Neha.

Her parents feared what her new husband might do to them, Neha said. Further, the prospects of marriage for a girl in conservative Pakistan who has been raped or married before are slim, and human rights activists say they often are seen as a burden.

Neha’s family, including her aunt, all refused to talk to the AP. Her husband’s lawyer, Mohammad Saleem, insisted that she married and converted voluntarily.

Neha found protection at a Christian church in Karachi, living on the compound with the pastor’s family, who say the girl still wakes screaming in the night. She hopes to go back to school one day but is still distraught.

“At the beginning my nightmares were every night, but now it is just sometimes when I remember and inside I am shaking,” she said. “Before I wanted to be a lawyer, but now I don’t know what I will do. Even my mama doesn’t want me now.”

Chilling video captures Russian dancer killed by masked assassin

By Yaron Steinbuch, NY Post

A 30-year-old accomplished Russian dancer was gunned down in Moscow in what is being investigated as a “contract killing” after reportedly having an affair with a wealthy politician, according to a report.

Natalia Pronina — who won international dance competitions, including in the UK — was shot twice in the chest by the masked assassin outside her apartment building near the Akademicheskaya train station, East2West News reported.

She was targeted as she returned home from a choreography session, according to the news outlet.

Chilling surveillance footage captured the moment the striking brunette saw her killer approach from the shadows before he opened fire from close range.

He dropped the gun and fled, according to local reports. The video has not helped investigators track down the shooter, police sources said.

Pronina was rushed to a hospital, where she underwent surgery, but died two hours later, East2West News reported.

“She had no enemies, I can say with absolute certainty,” her friend Valeria told the tabloid daily Komsomolskaya Pravda. “Only one of her admirers could be behind this because of jealousy.”

A former dancing colleague, Anzhelika, said that “Natasha not only danced beautifully, she is a real beauty. Men always clung to her and it is possible that one of the rejected fans could have killed her.”

Another theory being investigated is that the former nightclub performer had an affair with a wealthy politician whose wife discovered the secret relationship, according to East2West.

The husband, believed to be a member of parliament, was trained in martial arts, according to the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper.

“They had been dating until this summer, when the MP’s wife learned about the affair,” according to the report, which said the dancer had faced “threats” from the wife.

The masked killer — dressed in a hoodie and wearing glasses — used a non-lethal self-defense gun that was redesigned to fire real bullets for the hit, according to East2West.

Pronina’s boyfriend Alexander Kravchenko, 33, has denied any involvement in the murder and said he was working in Yalta in the Crimea at the time, the Sun reported.

He also claimed she had a stalker and separately that she had a £6,000 — about $8,000 — debt that she had to repay.

Pronina, a “master of sport” in ballroom dancing, formed her own team to perform at VIP parties and elite clubs, including striptease, the outlet reported.

Anzhelika said her former colleague “was not the type who dreams of a white dress and a bunch of kids.”

“Her work was her life. She earned well, she could afford a lot,” she said.

“Last year, she definitely traveled four times to Milan, where she also had fans. But this year, due to the pandemic, she did not fly anywhere,” she added.

Loujain al-Hathloul: Saudi woman activist jailed for five years

Reuters

Loujain al-Hathloul was detained in 2018

A prominent Saudi female activist, who campaigned for women’s right to drive, has been sentenced to more than five years in prison.

Loujain al-Hathloul, 31, has already been in a maximum security prison for two and a half years.

She and other activists were detained in 2018 on charges including contacts with organisations hostile to Saudi Arabia.

International human rights groups have repeatedly called for her release.

But on Monday, the country’s Specialised Criminal Court, which was set up to try terrorism cases, convicted her of various charges including trying to harm national security and advance a foreign agenda.

It sentenced her to five years and eight months in prison. Two years and ten months of the sentence are said to have been suspended.

She and her family have denied all charges. They have also said that she has been tortured in jail – accusations the court dismissed.

• Saudi Arabia’s human rights problems that won’t go away

• Activist ‘offered freedom if she denies torture’

• How Saudi’s ‘new direction’ is changing life for women like me

Hathloul was detained just weeks before Saudi women were finally allowed to drive in 2018 – the cause she championed.

Saudi officials insist her detention has nothing to do with that issue.

Saudi women hit the road

Hathloul’s family says she was held incommunicado for three months following her arrest, and that she was subjected to electric shocks, whippings, and sexual harassment. They also allege that she was offered freedom if she agreed to say she was not tortured.

Human rights experts have said her trial did not meet international standards.

In November, Amnesty International condemned her transfer to the Specialised Criminal Court, saying it exposed “the brutality and hypocrisy” of Saudi authorities.

The case is seen as further damaging the reputation of Saudi Arabia’s controversial de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, known as MBS.

He has led a programme of reforms, including lifting the ban on women driving, in a bid to open up the conservative kingdom to investment.

But he has also been condemned for the continued crackdown on rights activists, as well as the Saudi authorities’ role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Loujain Al-Hathloul is now even more famous for her incarceration than she was for her bold activism in the campaign for the right to drive.

She has come to symbolise the human rights abuses that stubbornly cast a long shadow over Saudi Arabia’s drive for economic and social reform – while it keeps an increasingly tight rein on political dissent.

When Joe Biden takes over as US president, he is expected to take a tougher stance on human rights violations.

But Saudi officials insist they will continue to chart their own course. The Kingdom believes its role as the world’s top oil exporter and regional power player matter to the international community above all else.

Al-Hathloul’s sentence, including years of suspended and already-served time, mean she and other activists could be freed in the new year.

That may help ease pressure on a Kingdom, which also does not want to be seen as bending to the dictates of others.

From royal splits to PR crises, Queen Elizabeth had a rough 2020. But the pandemic gave her renewed relevance.

By Max Foster and Lauren Said-Moorhouse, CNN

London (CNN) — 2020 was a tumultuous year for most people, and that’s no less true for Queen Elizabeth II.

Britain’s monarch has long occupied two roles — one as the head of the state and nation, the other as the head of her own family — and over the past 12 months she has been forced to confront crises on both fronts.

Here’s a look back at one of the Queen’s most challenging years to date.

A rocky start

The new year was barely underway when Prince Harry and his wife Meghan announced to the world — and the rest of the family — they were quitting their roles as senior royals.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex said in a bombshell statement on their official Instagram account on January 8 they hoped to continue supporting the monarch but wanted to seek financial autonomy. The pair credited the Queen with providing the encouragement “particularly over the last few years” that led them to make such a dramatic announcement.

But CNN understands conversations over the couple’s future were already underway and the Queen was “disappointed” that her grandson had opted to reveal as much publicly. The monarch had explicitly told Harry to continue negotiations privately and was said to been left “upset.”

Prince Harry and Meghan depart Canada House on January 7 in London, England.”

Prince Harry and Meghan depart Canada House on January 7 in London, England.

Harry and Meghan had hoped to carve out a role the establishment had never seen before, a hybrid position where they would choose which formal positions they would keep and which they would leave behind while they developed their own private income streams and independence. It’s clear they also felt unsupported and unprotected by the palace machinery against what they felt was a constant barrage of media abuse and lies.

Related: Harry and Meghan’s decision to step back has been on the cards for some time

But royal roles are in the gift of the monarch, and the Sussexes’ “half-in, half-out” model wasn’t seen as workable. The Queen was left in the uncomfortable predicament of trying to give her beloved grandson what he wanted without compromising the institution. It was perhaps the most delicate moment for the British monarchy since the aftermath of Diana’s death in 1997.

The situation culminated in a crisis summit at her Sandringham residence where she was joined by the heir to the throne Prince Charles, his elder son Prince William and Harry. In a statement after the meeting, the Queen said Harry, Meghan and their son Archie would “always be much loved members of my family.”

“I recognize the challenges they have experienced as a result of intense scrutiny over the last two years and support their wish for a more independent life,” she said. “I want to thank them for all their dedicated work across this country, the Commonwealth and beyond, and am particularly proud of how Meghan has so quickly become one of the family.”

The terms of the split stipulated that while the pair would always remain part of the family, they would no longer use their HRH titles; they would receive financial assistance from Charles, and could supplement their income with appropriate opportunities.

Harry’s frustration over the result was evident. “It brings me great sadness that it has come to this. The decision that I have made for my wife and I to step back is not one I made lightly,” he told a charity event in London in late January.

“Our hope was to continue serving the Queen, the Commonwealth, and my military associations, but without public funding. Unfortunately, that wasn’t possible.”

By the end of March, Harry and Meghan’s transition out of their royal roles was complete. The current arrangements are due to be reviewed by the Sussexes and the rest of the family in March.

It was a dramatic start to the year, but arguably left the monarchy in a stronger position. The Crown can modernize as much as it likes, but ultimately it’s built on a hierarchy, and the direct line of succession — Elizabeth, Charles and William — showed a united front.

Related: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s media empire expands with Spotify podcast deal

Charles catches Covid-19

Having settled the family drama, the Queen was immediately presented with one the biggest crises she’s ever faced as head of nation — keeping everyone united as the Covid-19 pandemic hit and the country went into an uncomfortable lockdown.

As Covid-19 spread through the UK, she was prevented from doing what she does best when her busy diary of public engagements was suddenly curtailed. She made the decision to relocate from Buckingham Palace in London to form a bubble in Windsor with Prince Philip and key staff “as a sensible precaution.”

Prince Charles is seen on a monitor as he speaks during the opening of the “NHS Nightingale” field hospital, at the ExCeL London exhibition center, in London on April 3.

Those words rang true days later, when Prince Charles announced he had tested positive for the coronavirus. The Prince of Wales was said to have had only mild symptoms and is otherwise in good health, but the mere fact that the 71-year-old was unwell emphasized to all how the virus did not discriminate.

William also caught Covid-19 in the spring, but only revealed it later in the year, telling an “observer” that he opted not to go public with his diagnosis because “there were important things going on and I didn’t want to worry anyone.” His decision to initially withhold news of his illness from the public sparked some criticism.

Related: Why wasn’t the UK public told about Prince William’s Covid diagnosis?

Royal resilience

As cases and deaths from the virus across the UK started to spiral in April, so too did criticism of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s handling of the pandemic. In co-ordination with Downing Street, the Queen agreed to address the nation in a televised speech.

“I am speaking to you at what I know is an increasingly challenging time. A time of disruption in the life of our country: a disruption that has brought grief to some, financial difficulties to many, and enormous changes to the daily lives of us all,” the Queen said in early April.

The Queen seldom makes national addresses, save for Christmas and when a new Parliament is installed. The moment was a somber but reassuring acknowledgment of the hardships society was facing. News channels the world over — including CNN — broke in as the pre-recorded video was broadcast to the UK and the 54 nations of the Commonwealth.

In the speech, she drew on her first broadcast alongside her sister Princess Margaret in 1940 to relay that the nation and those watching would overcome the current crisis.

“We, as children, spoke from here at Windsor to children who had been evacuated from their homes and sent away for their own safety. Today, once again, many will feel a painful sense of separation from their loved ones. But now, as then, we know, deep down, that it is the right thing to do,” she said, while also thanking frontline healthcare professionals.

Royal expert and historian Kate Williams said the speech sounded a note of hope that many Britons needed to hear in that moment.

“It’s so rare that she gives an address [and] the address she gave was so striking,” Williams said. “It was dark days when everyone was very isolated, [and] couldn’t go out at all … it was a quite brilliantly delivered speech.”

That optimistic sentiment — which she would echo in other 2020 speeches marking events like Easter and the 75th anniversary of VE Day — reasserted her role as a hands-on leader and set the tone for how she and her family would conduct themselves for the remainder of the year. After imploring the public to remain at home, the royal family transitioned from walkabouts to video calls, embracing a new work-from-home life like millions of other Britons.

“We all knew Brexit was coming, but Covid is what we didn’t see coming … the Queen feels it’s her job to lead by example and to hold leaders to account,” Williams said. “I don’t think it’s been easy for her not being able to have face-to-face meetings with the Prime Minister — that’s what she prefers.

“This is one of the great crises of recent British history. More people have died than in the Blitz. It is like the war. I don’t think that she thought she was going to have a quiet few years in her 90s but … a lot of what she’s seen are political crises and diplomatic conflicts and conflicts, and this is very different. It cannot be solved by getting people together around a table.”

A new normal

The Queen would not reopen the royal diary of engagements until July 17, when she knighted Captain Thomas Moore — the 100-year-old World War II veteran who had raised millions for the UK’s National Health Service. Hours earlier, she had attended a private wedding ceremony for her granddaughter Princess Beatrice. And as the spring wave finally abated, members of the royal family resumed socially distanced engagements with the public at foodbanks, hospitals and businesses hit by the pandemic.

Williams said it has always been very important to the Queen to be there for the public and it will have been hard for her that Covid has limited her movements. She says the Queen knows for monarchy to work “it needs to be seen.”

“It’s part of the contract it has with the people. It doesn’t work if you just sit in the palace,” she added. “Monarchy has had to completely reinvent in the same way that businesses have had to.”

It hasn’t been a year entirely untainted by scandal: lingering questions remain over Prince Andrew’s relationship with the late American financier Jeffrey Epstein. The Queen never said anything publicly about the matter, but she made a major statement in accepting what was billed as Andrew’s decision to step back from public duties. The move came in the wake of Andrew’s disastrous interview with the BBC in late 2019, when he denied having sex with an underage girl and said he had seen nothing suspicious when he was around Epstein, a convicted pedophile. It would have been a painful decision for both Andrew and his mother but ultimately one that again she felt was right for the institution.

The latter part of the year also saw the family face several other challenges.

In October, the Queen undertook her first public engagement since the spring lockdown — a visit to Porton Down science park in southern England with William. But she was criticized by some for not wearing a mask despite a resurgence in the virus. In response, Buckingham Palace said the Queen had chosen to forego a mask after consulting her own medics and scientists at the military research facility. Social distancing guidelines were in place at the event and everyone the British monarch met had tested negative for the virus. A month later, she appeared in a mask for the first time at a commemorative ceremony in London.

The Queen during a ceremony in Westminster Abbey to mark the centenary of the burial of the Unknown Warrior on November 4.

The latest installment of “The Crown” brought a fresh flurry of international interest to palace gates in November. The fourth season of the Netflix drama heralded the arrival of Princess Diana, and painted Charles as a petulant prince and cruel husband. Critics said the portrayal of Charles — along with a number of other scenes — was inaccurate, and it prompted a call from one UK government official for Netflix to tack an extra disclaimer onto each episode of series.

“It’s a beautifully produced work of fiction, so as with other TV productions, Netflix should be very clear at the beginning it is just that,” Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden told the UK’s Mail on Sunday. “Without this, I fear a generation of viewers who did not live through these events may mistake fiction for fact.” Netflix refused to add the warning to the show.

And in December, several family members were accused of breaking coronavirus regulations. In pictures published by The Mail Online, William and his family appeared to be walking alongside his uncle Prince Edward and his family during an outing to a Christmas-themed woodland walk. The photographs seemingly contravened England virus rules, which limits outdoor gatherings to just six people.

The Queen and members of the royal family gave thanks to local volunteers and key workers for their work in helping others during the coronavirus pandemic and over Christmas at Windsor Castle on December 8.

Like millions of Britons, the monarch sacrificed the traditional holiday festivities with her family at Sandringham. Instead, for the first time in 33 years, she remained at Windsor with 99-year-old Prince Philip.

The situation is a fitting way to end the year, according to royal historian Williams. “It’s unprecedented for them to be spending it just the two of them. Even in the war, [Christmas] was a big family time,” she said.

The Queen acknowledged what a sad and unusual festive season it would be for many in her annual Christmas speech, assuring those missing out on time with loved ones, and whose only wish was for “a simple hug or a squeeze of the hand,” that “you are not alone.”

This year has seen the world grapple with something nobody could have predicted 12 months ago. For the Queen’s part, she has reaffirmed her position as the unifier-in-chief for family, and for nation.

At a time in her life when she might be expected to step back, the Queen has shown she is still in charge, even as she delegates more duties to Charles and William. Any rumors that she plans to abdicate and handover the crown have been quashed for another year.

U.S. Will Close Last Two Consulates in Russia

By Pranshu Verma, NY Times

The closure would leave the United States with one remaining diplomatic outpost in Russia amid heightened tensions between the two countries.

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has notified members of Congress that it plans to close the last two remaining United States consulates in Russia.

In a letter dated Dec. 10, the State Department said it plans to close the consulate in Vladivostok, a major port city in far-east Russia, and temporarily suspend its operations at the consulate in Yekaterinburg, east of the Ural Mountains.

The closure of these consulates would leave the United States with one remaining diplomatic outpost in Russia — the embassy in Moscow — amid heightened tensions between the two countries.

The State Department notification was sent days before reports emerged of a suspected Russian cyberattack against numerous federal agencies and companies. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday said that “we can say pretty clearly that it was the Russians that engaged in this activity.”

According to the notification to Congress, the consulates are being closed because of caps imposed by Russian authorities in 2017 on the number of American diplomats allowed to work in the country.

A State Department spokeswoman said that the Mr. Pompeo, in consultation with the U.S. Ambassador to Russia, John J. Sullivan, decided to close the two U.S. consulates in Russia to ensure the safety and security of the U.S. diplomatic mission in the country, as well as to streamline the work of U.S. diplomats.

Ten diplomats assigned to the consulates will be reassigned to the embassy in Moscow, according to the State Department notification. Thirty-three staff members who are locally employed will be laid off.

The consulate in Vladivostok has been closed since March because of the coronavirus pandemic. Its permanent closure is expected to save $3.2 million per year, according to State Department estimates.

The consulate closures, reported earlier by The Associated Press, will likely cause major inconveniences for American travelers and Russians in the country’s far-eastern region. All planned consular services — including visa applications and other travel support for Americans in the country — will now be run out of Moscow.

In 2018, Russian officials ordered the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg to close. This was in retaliation for the U.S. decision to close a Russian consulate in Seattle over the country’s reported involvement in the poisoning of an ex-Russian spy in Britain.

The exact timing of the closures was not disclosed, and it is unclear if they will happen before President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. takes office on Jan. 20.

US charges ex-Zoom employee with shutting down Tiananmen Square events

BBC News

US prosecutors have charged a former Zoom employee with disrupting video meetings marking the anniversary of the 1989 crackdown on protests in Tiananmen Square on behalf of China’s government.

The China-based executive, Xinjiang Jin, is accused of helping to terminate at least four video meetings in May and June, hosted by people based in the US.

A warrant is out for his arrest.

Zoom said it was co-operating with authorities. China has not commented on the case.

The California-based company said it had “terminated” the employee for violating its policies, and had “placed other employees on administrative leave pending the completion” of an internal investigation.

The pro-democracy protests and their suppression are strictly taboo in China.

Tiananmen’s tank man: The image that China forgot

What are the allegations?

A statement from the US Department of Justice said Xinjiang Jin, also known as Julien Jin, had been charged with “conspiracy to commit interstate harassment and unlawful conspiracy to transfer a means of identification”.

Prosecutors say that from January 2019 he conspired to “censor the political and religious speech of individuals located in the United States and around the world at the direction and under the control of officials” in the Chinese government.

Among the actions taken on behalf of China’s government, prosecutors allege that the 39-year-old and others terminated at least four meetings commemorating the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, some of which were attended by dissidents who had participated in and survived the protests.

They allege that he fabricated violations of Zoom’s terms of service to justify his actions to his superiors.

“Jin willingly committed crimes, and sought to mislead others at the company, to help [Chinese] authorities censor and punish US users’ core political speech merely for exercising their rights to free expression,” acting US Attorney Seth DuCharme in Brooklyn said in a statement.

According to the statement, the Chinese authorities “took advantage of information provided by Jin to retaliate against and intimidate participants” residing in China or family members of participants based in the country.

The statement does not mention Zoom by name, but the company confirmed that its former employee had been charged.

“We learned during the course of our investigation that the China-based former employee charged today violated Zoom’s policies by, among other things, attempting to circumvent certain internal access controls,” it said.

It added that the employee “took actions resulting in the termination of several meetings in remembrance of Tiananmen Square and meetings involving religious and/or political activities” and “also shared or directed the sharing of a limited amount of individual user data with Chinese authorities”.

Mr Jin is living in China and is not in US custody. He faces up to 10 years in prison.

What happened at Tiananmen Square in 1989?

Pro-democracy protesters occupied Tiananmen Square in April 1989 and began the largest political demonstrations in communist China’s history. They lasted six weeks, with as many as a million people taking part.

On the night of 3 June tanks moved in and troops opened fire, killing and injuring many unarmed people in and around Tiananmen Square.

Wang Dan one of the leaders of the Tiananmen Square protests

Afterwards the authorities claimed no-one had been shot dead in the square itself. Estimates of those killed in the crackdown range from a few hundred to several thousand.

China has never given an official figure for how many people died.

The army general apologises to states who will get fewer Pfizer doses than they were expecting.

US Joint Chiefs chairman meets with Taliban on peace talks

BY ROBERT BURNS, Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The top U.S. general held unannounced talks with Taliban peace negotiators in the Persian Gulf to urge a reduction in violence across Afghanistan, even as senior American officials in Kabul warned that stepped-up Taliban attacks endanger the militant group’s nascent peace negotiations with the Afghan government.

Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met for about two hours with Taliban negotiators in Doha, Qatar, on Tuesday and flew Wednesday to Kabul to discuss the peace process with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

Although Milley reported no breakthrough, his Taliban meetings represent a remarkable milestone — America’s top general coming face-to-face with representatives of the group that ruled Afghanistan until it was ousted 19 years ago this month in the early stages of what became America’s longest war. Milley served three tours of duty in Afghanistan, the first in 2003 and the last in 2013-14.

Milley’s meetings came amid a new drawdown of U.S. troops, although under current U.S. policy a complete pullout hinges on the Taliban reducing attacks nationwide.

“The most important part of the discussions that I had with both the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan was the need for an immediate reduction in violence,” Milley told three reporters, including one from The Associated Press, who accompanied him to Qatar and Afghanistan. “Everything else hinges on that.”

Under ground rules set by Milley for security reasons, the journalists traveling with him agreed not to report on either set of talks until he had departed the region. It was Milley’s second unannounced meeting with the Taliban’s negotiating team; the first, in June, also in Doha, had not been reported until now.

Army Gen. Scott Miller, the top commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, said in an interview at his military headquarters in Kabul on Wednesday that the Taliban have stepped up attacks on Afghan forces, particularly in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, and against roadways and other infrastructure.

“My assessment is, it puts the peace process at risk — the higher the violence, the higher the risk,” Miller said. Miller meets at least once a month with Taliban negotiators as part of Washington’s effort to advance a peace process.

Speaking in the same interview, Ross Wilson, the ranking American diplomat in Kabul, said he also sees growing risk from Taliban violence. He said it has created “an unbearable burden” on the Afghan armed forces and the society as a whole.

In the so-called Doha agreement signed last February by the United States and the Taliban, the administration of President Donald Trump agreed to a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops, going down to zero troops by May 2021 if the agreement’s conditions are upheld. One condition is a reduction in violence by the Taliban, leading to a nationwide ceasefire. The Taliban also agreed to begin peace negotiations with the Afghan government, which are in an early stage.

The Taliban have demanded a halt to U.S. airstrikes, which have been conducted since February only in support of Afghan forces under Taliban attack.

Miller said he was saddened by what he called the Taliban’s deliberate campaign to damage roadways, bridges and other infrastructure as part of the militants’ effort to limit the Afghan government’s ability to reinforce its troops.

“Military commanders on the ground are now starting to do things that are not conducive to peace talks and reconstruction and stability,” Miller said, adding, “Clearly, the Taliban use violence as leverage” against the Afghan government.

Miller said he is executing Trump’s order to reduce U.S. forces from 4,500 to 2,500 by Jan. 15, just days before Joe Biden is sworn in as Trump’s successor. Miller said troop levels are now at about 4,000 and will reach the 2,500 target on time.

Biden has not said publicly whether he will continue the drawdown or how he will proceed with the Doha agreement negotiated by Trump’s peace envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad.

Biden has not laid out a detailed plan for Afghanistan but has made clear he prefers a small U.S. military footprint and limited goals. He has acknowledged that he dissented from then-President Barack Obama’s decision in December 2009 to vastly increase troop levels in hope of forcing the Taliban to the peace table.

“I think we should only have troops there to make sure that it’s impossible for… ISIS or al-Qaida to re-establish a foothold there,” Biden told CBS News in February.

Trump has argued for withdrawing entirely from Afghanistan but was persuaded in November to reduce the force to 2,500 and continue the current missions of counterterrorism and training and advising Afghan forces.

Some believe that the further thinning of U.S. forces in coming weeks could lead to renewed Taliban gains on the battlefield and a weakening of the Afghan government’s position at the peace table.

Stephen Biddle, a defense policy expert with the Council on Foreign Relations and professor of international relations at Columbia University, says the main contribution of U.S. forces at this stage is political rather than military.

“In military terms, the war is a slowly decaying stalemate,” Biddle said in congressional testimony last month. “The U.S. presence can slow the rate of decay at the margin, but we cannot reverse it absent a major reinforcement that seems highly unlikely. This means that if the war continues, the Taliban will eventually prevail regardless of plausible variations in the size or nature of the U.S. troop commitment.”

Milley’s visit comes in the 20th year of a war initially aimed at overthrowing the Taliban regime, running al-Qaida out of the country and laying the groundwork for a global “war on terrorism.” It turned into something more ambitious yet less well-defined and became far more costly in blood and treasure.

Looking back on the long-stalemated war, Milley earlier this month proclaimed the U.S. and its coalition partners had achieved “a modicum of success.”

Taliban-Afghan talks paused until new year

The News.com.pk – DOHA: Peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government held in Qatar will be paused until January 5, both sides said on Saturday.

The insurgents and the Kabul side both tweeted they had exchanged “preliminary lists of agenda items for the inter-Afghan talks and held introductory discussions on the topics” to be covered when the meetings restart.

Javid Faisal, an adviser to Afghanistan´s National Security Council, confirmed a “couple of weeks” pause, adding that Kabul was keen for the next round of negotiations to be held in Afghanistan. “Bring talks home, the important proposal of the Afghan government to the Taliban,” he tweeted. “Peace talks between Afghans should be held within Afghanistan (anywhere the Taliban pick) and impacted by the Afghan realities,” he said, rather than “being affected by foreigners and the conditions outside”.

The meetings, which began in September, had until recently been bogged down by disputes on the basic framework of discussions and religious interpretations. But earlier this month, both sides announced they were ready to proceed after a period of concerted diplomatic effort that saw outgoing United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visit both teams.

The breakthrough was heralded by the US as an “initial major step”.

“Since the agenda items need further consultations, the two sides agreed for a recess and to resume the 2nd round of talks on January 5, 2021,” tweeted Afghan government negotiator Nader Nadery.

Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem tweeted an almost identical statement, but added that from December 14, there would be “consultations” on the agenda items.

The warring sides have been engaging directly for the first time in talks following a landmark troop withdrawal deal signed in February by the insurgents and Washington.

The US agreed to withdraw all foreign forces by May 2021 in exchange for security guarantees and a Taliban pledge to hold talks with Kabul.

Despite the talks, there has been a surge of violence in Afghanistan in recent weeks. Since signing the deal with Washington, the insurgents have launched near daily attacks against Afghan forces, primarily in rural areas.