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Iran Votes, Syria Ceasfire Looms, Dying Discos

Voting day in Qom, Iran
Voting day in Qom, Iran

While You Slept

IRAN VOTES

Polls have opened throughout Iran as the country votes for two assemblies in the most important election since the 2013 presidential campaign that ushered in the reformist Hassan Rouhani.

Voters will cast ballots for the unicameral "Islamic" parliament (Majles) and the Assembly of Experts (Majles-e khobregan), a body of clerics and "experts" deemed versed enough in public affairs and laws to merit choosing, in time, the next supreme leader. Rouhani’s camp hopes to make gains that could allow for more significant reform. Read more from our Take 5 feature: Iran Election: Five Questions To Understand What’s At Stake.


FIGHTING CONTINUES AS SYRIA CEASEFIRE LOOMS

Intense fighting continues across western Syria, with reports today of heavy airstrikes on rebel-held areas east of Damascus ahead of a U.S.-Russia-brokered ceasefire due to begin at midnight local time, Reuters reports. Among the fronts on which the Syrian army is trying to take back territory is the northwestern province of Latakia, close to the Turkish border. In the Aleppo province meanwhile, government forces backed by Russian warplanes recaptured the town of Khanaser yesterday, driving out ISIS fighters, and continued to make gains against ISIS and al-Nusra around Homs and Hama, state news agency SANA reports.

  • Speaking on the imminent ceasefire, U.S. President Barack Obama said yesterday that there were “many potential pitfalls” and “plenty of reasons for skepticism.” But he added that “history would judge us harshly if we did not do our part in at least trying to end this terrible conflict with diplomacy.”

  • Jihadist groups like ISIS and al-Nusra are not included in the ceasefire agreement and other rebel groups are concerned that the Syrian army might target them on the pretext that they are jihadists. Bashar al-Assad’s government has also warned that the agreement could fail if the rebels use the ceasefire to rearm with the help of foreign powers.

THREE KILLED IN KANSAS

At least three people were killed and another 14 injured in the city of Wichita, Kansas, after a gunman opened fire on a highway and later at his workplace. Police fatally shot the gunman late Thursday afternoon, reports The Wichita Eagle.


TURKISH JOURNALISTS FREED

Two Turkish journalists who had been arrested after publishing a report alleging that the Turkish government was involved in the supplying of weapons to jihadists in Syria were freed from prison yesterday, Today’s Zaman reports. Turkey’s Constitutional Court ruled that the detentions of Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, from the newspaper Cumhuriyet, amounted to a violation of their rights as journalists. "We think the Constitutional Court's ruling is a historic one," Dundar told reporters outside the prison. "This verdict has cleared the way not only for us but for all of our colleagues and freedom of press and expression." Read an open letter Dundar wrote last month from prison.

GENERAL ELECTION IN IRELAND

Irish voters have begun voting this morning to choose their next Parliament with Prime Minister Enda Kenny hoping to become the first of his liberal-conservative Fine Gael party to win a second consecutive term in office. But according to the Irish Independent, the outcome of the election is all but certain, and deep “voter schism” could force the two main parties into a “historic grand coalition.” Vote counting will begin Saturday.

100,000 TONS

Scientists in California have found that the methane leak in the Porter Ranch area was the biggest in in U.S. history, with an estimated 100,000 tons of gas released into the atmosphere in four months, The Los Angeles Times reports. The amount of methane leaked effectively doubles the emissions rate for the entire Los Angeles Basin. The leak was sealed permanently on Feb. 18.

COURT CLEARS WAY FOR CALAIS EVACUATION

A French court green lighted late yesterday the evacuation of a large part of the refugee camp in the coastal city of Calais, commonly referred to as “The Jungle,” Le Monde reports. The port city is currently home to an estimated 4,000 refugees. French officials have stated that the number of refugees who will be affected in the targeted southern sector is around 1,000, while humanitarian organizations claim the actual number to be three times higher. Authorities say that refugees will be encouraged to visit temporary welcome centers where they can apply for asylum.


MY GRAND-PERE'S WORLD

CYCLONE TOLL: 35,000 HOMELESS, DOZENS DEAD

Fijian officials reported on Thursday that at least 42 Fijians were killed and 35,000 remain homeless and living in evacuation shelters in the aftermath of the cyclone that hit the country last weekend, Reuters reports. Various international aid agencies say supplies are on their way, but that the damage to the country’s infrastructure makes it hard to reach remote communities.


ON THIS DAY

We know where he found his thrill, but now you know when Fats Domino? Find out what else happened on Feb. 26 in today's shot of history!


U.S. TO DEPLOY TO BOKO HARAM FRONTLINES

The Pentagon plans to deploy dozens of Special Operations advisers to the front lines of Nigeria’s fight against the ISIS-allied militant group Boko Haram, reports today’s New York Times. Since the withdrawal of the majority of forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. has relied heavily on Special Operation forces to train and advise local troops fighting ISIS as well as carrying out clandestine operations. Military officials state that in Nigeria, U.S. forces will serve only in noncombat advisory roles.


SPARKS FLY AT GOP DEBATE

With billionaire Donald Trump on the verge of running away with the race for the Republic nomination, his two closest challengers, Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, went on the attack in last night’s debate. It was not a cordial affair, and CNN has compiled a video of the 20 best/worst insults.


FIFA VOTES FOR BLATTER SUCCESSOR

Soccer’s scandal-plagued worldwide governing body, FIFA, is voting today for the successor of its longtime chief Sepp Blatter. Follow the latest on ESPN.

DISCOS OF EUROPE ARE DYING

Nightclubs and discoteques across the Old Continent are losing their grove. Italian daily La Repubblica has published a multi-part series that explores the widespread closures of dance spots in the UK, the Netherlands, Italy and elsewhere. Read more in English on Le Blog

â€" Crunched by Carl Karlsson
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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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