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Belgian Terror Arrests, Britain’s Flooding, Saudi Austerity

Belgian Terror Arrests, Britain’s Flooding, Saudi Austerity

BELGIUM ARRESTS TWO TERROR SUSPECTS

Belgian police have arrested two suspected terrorists who were reportedly planning New Year’s Eve attacks on “symbolic targets” in Brussels, newspaper Le Soir reports. The arrests came Sunday and Monday after police raids in the provinces of Brabant and Liège. Police said they hadn’t found any weapons or explosives during the raids, but they seized computer equipment, military clothing and ISIS propaganda material. They also said there was no connection between this investigation and the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, in which several Belgian citizens or residents had participated.


VERBATIM

“2016 will be the year of the big and final victory, when Daesh’s presence in Iraq will be terminated,” a triumphant Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said today, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS, after government forces recaptured the city of Ramadi from the terror group. And he promised more successes ahead. “We are coming to liberate Mosul, and it will be the fatal and final blow to Daesh.”


A SAD RANKING FOR FRANCE

The January terrorist attack against Charlie Hebdo made France the third-deadliest country for journalists in 2015, behind Iraq and Syria, an annual round-up from Reporters Without Borders shows. A total 110 journalists across the world were killed in connection with their work (eight of them in Paris) this year, and the group notes that 2015 marks a shift from last year, when two-thirds of the deaths happened in war zones. This year, two-thirds of the journalists were killed in countries “at peace.”


$7.45 BILLION

Cleanup of the unprecedented flooding in Britain over the Christmas weekend will cost more than $7.45 billion, and widespread lack of insurance will leave many families and businesses financially ruined, The Guardian reports. Prime Minister David Cameron was heckled by flood victims yesterday during a visit to hard-hit Yorkshire, where politicians are accusing him of leaving the north with fewer flood defenses than the richer south. Yesterday’s respite is forecast to end later today with another storm heading towards northern England and Scotland.


WORLDCRUNCH-TO-GO

Already very active within the country, Chinese censorship is now being applied outside its borders, and via the Internet, Murong Xuecun writes in an essay for Le Monde. What are the implications for China, and the rest of us? “If the Internet has imposed itself as the place of freedom where resistance to censorship in China is expressed, it is also spreading the battle beyond our borders at a time when Chinese state-owned companies are networking around the world and when Confucius Institutes for the promotion of Chinese culture and language are being established in many different countries. Soon, the shadows of censorship will not only hang over we Chinese citizens, but will also catch up to you who are living far away, always believing you are safe from its reach.”

Read the full article, How China Tries To Censor The Whole World.


ON THIS DAY


James Joyce, Jude Law and the first-ever YMCA (not to mention a little ditty from the Village People). We’ve got all that and more in today’s shot of history.


SAUDI ARABIA TURNS TO AUSTERITY

Gasoline, electricity and water prices in Saudi Arabia will rise starting today and will continue to do so “gradually over the next five years,” King Salman announced yesterday. The oil-rich country registered a 2015 deficit equivalent to $97.9 billion, 15% of its GDP, Al Arabiya reports. With oil as its main source of revenue, falling oil prices have hit Saudi Arabia’s finances hard, in large part because of its decision to keep production levels high despite falling demand, as part of its “war on shale oil.” According to the Financial Times, the “radical austerity measures” also include major privatization plans.


WINTER STORM GOLIATH’S LAST PHASE

Photo: Nancy Stone/TNS/ZUMA

The winter storm Goliath, engulfing a large part of the United States, killing at least 24 people, is “entering its final chapter” as it moves into the Northeast, The Weather Channel reports. Severe weather across the U.S. over the past week has already killed 43 people and caused extensive damage.


OLMERT’S JAIL SENTENCE REDUCED

Israel’s Supreme Court has reduced former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s jail sentence from six years to 18 months, but the 70-year-old will still become Israel’s first ex-PM to go to prison, The Jerusalem Post reports. Olmert was found guilty of bribery in a real estate deal during his tenure as Jerusalem mayor, before winning the country’s top job. He’s expected to begin his sentence in February.


MY GRAND-PÈRE'S WORLD



FAREWELL LEMMY KILMISTER

Lemmy Kilmister, the frontman of hard rock band Motörhead, has died at age 70, two days after being diagnosed with a very aggressive form of cancer. As the famous rocker had prophesied, “the only time I’m gonna be easy’s when I’m killed expand=1] by death.”

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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