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Fears over most vulnerable Palestinian prisoners amid coronavirus

Noureddine Sarsour was not surprised when his test for COVID-19 came back positive. He received the news a day after his release from an Israeli prison on March 31. During his two-week detention at Israel’s Ofer prison in the occupied West Bank – on charges of throwing stones and firebombs at Israeli forces – the…

Fears over most vulnerable Palestinian prisoners amid coronavirus

Noureddine Sarsour was not surprised when his test for COVID-19 came back positive. He received the news a day after his release from an Israeli prison on March 31.
During his two-week detention at Israel’s Ofer prison in the occupied West Bank – on charges of throwing stones and firebombs at Israeli forces – the 19-year-old said he underwent two blood tests and a throat swab. A day later, the charges against him were dropped and he was released, although he was not informed of the test results.
“Usually, before the prisoner is released from Israeli prisons, he should meet the prison manager,” Sarsour, who in 2017 has previously been detained and released without charge, told Al Jazeera from isolation in a hotel in Ramallah.
“When I went to see him, the manager was wearing an anti-static uniform with a face mask and spoke to me while standing about three metres away. At that moment, I felt there was something wrong,” he said.

Noureddine Sarsour said authorities did not take precautions to prevent infection in Ofer [Al Jazeera]

Sarsour’s suspicion that he had been infected with the new coronavirus increased when the guards who escorted him to the car as he was leaving kept their distance.
“I myself opened the car door and closed it behind. They didn’t approach me until I was dropped near a checkpoint,” he said.
Upon his arrival at the checkpoint, he was transferred by Palestinian medical crews to a Ramallah hospital and tested for coronavirus. The test returned positive the next day, and in the following days, he began showing mild symptoms, including a headache, fever and throat pain.
“My big fear is about the prisoners in Ofer prison. I mixed with about 30 to 70 prisoners while staying in Ofer prison, as the Israeli prison service keeps moving new prisoners between sections.”

He said the authorities did not take special precautions to prevent infection inside the prison, such as enforcing social distancing. According to Sarsour, the prisoners asked the Israeli prison service multiple times to place new prisoners in a 14-day quarantine, before allowing them to mix with other prisoners.
“All these calls went unheard,” Sarsour said.
In the days after his release, some of the inmates at Ofer held a demonstration to call for testing for the inmates who had been in contact with Sarsour. The Palestinian Prisoners’ Society said about nine prisoners who were known to have mixed with Sarsour were placed in quarantine.
The Israeli Prison Service (IPS) said in a statement on April 2 that “every new detainee” was held separately for 14 days before being absorbed into a regular part of the prison.
Thaer Shretieh, head of the media unit for the Commission of Detainees and Ex-detainees’ Affairs, told Al Jazeera the commission sent a letter to the IPS calling for an investigation into Sarsour’s case. The letter also called on the prison service to implement preventive measures, especially with prisoners who had been in recent contact with Sarsour, he added.
“The Israeli side totally denied that the prisoner was infected inside their prisons. Despite that, Israel has confirmed that three guards at Ofer prison and al-Ramleh prison tested positive for coronavirus,” Shretieh said.
The IPS said on March 31 that prison guards at Ofer who had tested positive for COVID-19 were placed into isolation and investigations showed they had not been in direct contact with prisoners.
As of April 16, Israel has reported more than 12,000 cases of coronavirus infections and 143 deaths linked to it. The Palestinian Authority has confirmed a total of 295 cases across the West Bank and Gaza, of whom two people have died.
Calls for release
The detainees’ commission has called on the Red Cross and the WHO to intervene to release prisoners who may be more susceptible to the coronavirus. According to the commission, there are 5,000 Palestinians currently held in Israeli prisons, including 700 who are sick.
On April 17, Palestinians mark Prisoners’ Day to remind the public of the plight of those thousands of Palestinians imprisoned in Israeli military jails.
Yehia Masawdeh, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Jerusalem and the West Bank, told Al Jazeera that “non-public meetings” are carried out weekly with the Israeli authorities to discuss the conditions of prisons. “We made sure that the infected Israeli guards were put in quarantine,” he said.
“We urge the Israeli authorities to commit to the prevention and sterilisation standards, in accordance with international humanitarian law,” he added.

Masawdeh said the ICRC has stopped family visits, as well as visits by lawyers and ICRC delegates to prisons, and is holding weekly meetings with Israeli authorities to inspect prison conditions through visits by an international doctor.
“We have received many demands for the release of prisoners, and the ICRC, in turn, has demanded the Israeli authorities to release prisoners over the age of 65 in addition to those suffering from chronic diseases.”
On April 16 the IPS announced it had begun a programme of coronavirus testing for prisoners and staff.
“The testing process began on April 14 and will initially be conducted by 100 prisoners and staff serving in the IPS Medical Center (ROSH),” the statement said.
“Further, and according to the rate of issuance of test kits from the Ministry of Health, the sample testing procedure will continue for the entire IPS population”, it said.
‘My son is dying slowly’
For the relatives of the most vulnerable Palestinian prisoners currently held in Israeli jails, the outbreak has been agonising. Sabbah al-Jerjawi’s son Iyad is currently serving a 9-year sentence for multiple charges in Gilboa Prison in northern Israel. Iyad is 34 years old and was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumour two months ago.

Iyad’s parents have called for his release [Al Jazeera]

Iyad, originally from Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, was detained in June 2011 at the Israeli-controlled Erez crossing, on his way back from receiving medical treatment in Israel.
“My life has turned upside down two months ago, after the medical check-ups of my son, Iyad, showed that he suffers from a brain cancer,” 58-year old Sabbah said. “Since then, we called all bodies and the Red Cross to intervene to release my son and to let him receive the proper treatment outside the prison, but in vain. My son is dying slowly in prison.”
“Since the outbreak of coronavirus, we’re not sleeping due to our anxiety and fear. The conditions of prisoners in Israeli prisons are very deteriorated. They don’t have the immunity to confront this pandemic that spreads across the world,” she added.
“Only 60 days are remaining for the release of my son, but my joy turned into horror, because every day that passes without intervention increases the risk of a coronavirus outbreak inside Israeli prisons.”
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Fears

‘Bali will die’: Fears for future in Indonesia’s tourism hotspot

Jakarta, Indonesia – Indonesia will suspend its visa-on-arrival policy for a month from Friday to curb the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus in the archipelago. The move will effectively shut down the country’s tourism industry, bringing the same economic pain already rippling through Rome, Singapore, Barcelona and other destinations that were once magnets for…

‘Bali will die’: Fears for future in Indonesia’s tourism hotspot

Jakarta, Indonesia – Indonesia will suspend its visa-on-arrival policy for a month from Friday to curb the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus in the archipelago.
The move will effectively shut down the country’s tourism industry, bringing the same economic pain already rippling through Rome, Singapore, Barcelona and other destinations that were once magnets for tourists.
But on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, where more than three-quarters of the economy is linked to tourism, the de-facto border closure could prove catastrophic for the population of 4.2 million people.
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“From our research, we know about 80 percent of Bali’s GDP is based on tourism,” said Ross Taylor, president of the Indonesia Institute, a foreign policy think-tank at Melbourne’s Monash University.
Over the last 15 years, young people have moved to tourist areas for jobs, while at the same time, their parents have sold their rice paddies to developers.
“There’s been this huge transition where almost everyone has placed all their eggs in the tourism basket,” Taylor added. “The result of taking that away would be catastrophic.
“In most Western countries, households have some financial buffer. But in Bali, most people earn only a couple of hundreds of dollars a month. They live from day-to-day or month-to-month. If they lose their jobs, they will have nothing to fall back on.”

The normally bustling Kuta Beach is now deserted [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

Hasrat Aceh, one of thousands of hospitality workers on the island who have already been placed on holidays or unpaid leave, puts it more starkly: “Without tourists, Bali will die.”
Cracks beginning to show
For the past few weeks, Bali has proven particularly resilient to the global decline in tourism caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the disease first surfaced in China in January, the number of foreigners visiting Bali actually increased 3 percent compared with the same month the year before, according to data from Bali’s Ngurah Rai International Airport.
Foreign arrivals dropped 20 percent last month, following a February 5 ban on tourists who had been in China in the past 14 days.
But with no cases of COVID-19 reported in Indonesia, 400,000 tourists from Australia, Russia, South Korea, India, Japan and more than 100 other countries headed to Bali. In the first 12 days of March, a further 114,000 foreigners arrived.
Hilary Faverman, an American who arrived in Bali two weeks ago with her young family, explained why she did not want to defer the trip. “We were already overseas, and we’re healthy people, not at risk,” she said. “We actually feel safer in Bali right now. We’re more concerned about having our kids exposed to the hysteria that’s taken over in the West. No one here is panicking or hoarding food.”
But chinks in the armour began to appear last week when Indonesia reported its first COVID-19-related death: a 52-year-old British woman who died while under isolation in a private hospital in Bali. As of March 18, 17 people have died, and 227 have been infected with COVID-19 in Indonesia, although experts from other countries have long worried the real number is probably much higher.

Despite the effect of the coronavirus on tourism, people in Bali are trying to keep a positive outlook [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

Tourists and expats are now leaving Bali in droves over fears the airport will close and they will be stuck on the island for weeks or even months.
“I’ve decided to leave,” said Camilla Cahill, a British tourist. “It’s not about wanting to leave or stay. My community of friends here are all leaving. If I get sick, I don’t think there will be anyone left to call here. In the UK, I will have my family and support system.”
Australian Karma Voice wrote on a Facebook page for expats in Bali: “With a very heavy heart and tears I just booked a ticket home after reading a reliable source news article saying Australia is recommending it’s citizens go home as they are not sure if they will need to close the borders soon. I have some health issues that if I get sick I wouldn’t want to take hospital space over any locals.”
No Plan B
Hasrat Aceh, who normally works as a butler at a luxury villa, is now working as a motorbike driver with Grab, a popular ride-sharing app in Indonesia.
“People in Bali, we don’t complain. If we have a problem, we try to see a way through it,” he said.
But for the 170,000 Balinese living on less than $2 a day, there is no Plan B, said Ariyo Irhamna, an economist specialising in poverty at the Institute for Development of Economics and Finance in Jakarta.
“Many people will lose their jobs because there will be no tourists. But it will impact the poorest people most,” he said. “What we’re hearing is that the central government in Jakarta may not be able to help them. They are concentrating on incentives for investors and the business community.”
Solemen Indonesia, a charity that supports 2,340 people with physical and mental disabilities in Bali, says the most vulnerable in society are already hugely at risk.

The traffic has disappeared from the usually busy streets of Seminyak [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera] [Al Jazeera]

“Most of our funding comes from the hospitality industry. How can we help people if we have no money?” said Robert Epstone, the charity’s British-born founder. “It will be potentially catastrophic if all our funding is withdrawn because it’s all thousands of people in Bali have to fend off starvation.”
The Balinese have experienced economic calamity repeatedly in living memory: the Indonesian Riots of 1988, the Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005, the Global Financial Crisis in 2009 and the Mount Agung volcanic eruption in 2017. On every occasion, tourists fled only to return in even larger numbers.
After all, there is lots to love about the so-called Island of the Gods: dreamy scenery, luxurious amenities, friendly locals and one of the most unique and best-preserved classical cultures on Earth.
But this time, some fear things are going to be different.
“I was in Bali four days after the bombings. There was still lots of anxiety – people worried about it happening again – but then life returned to normal and make could be made to find a way forward,” said the Indonesia Institute’s Taylor.
“But this is not a normal problem. No one knows how bad things will get in Bali or how long it will last, or how it will affect the countries tourists come from. If you can’t even see the problem clearly, how can you find a way out?”
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US: Fears of violence grip Virginia ahead of pro-gun rally

The US state of Virginia is bracing for a pro-gun rally on Monday that experts and political leaders warn could descend into violence. The rally, billed by its organisers as a peaceful event to lobby legislators to protect the Second Amendment, is expected to draw dozens of militia groups to the state capital, Richmond, according…

US: Fears of violence grip Virginia ahead of pro-gun rally

The US state of Virginia is bracing for a pro-gun rally on Monday that experts and political leaders warn could descend into violence.
The rally, billed by its organisers as a peaceful event to lobby legislators to protect the Second Amendment, is expected to draw dozens of militia groups to the state capital, Richmond, according to social media and statements by the groups.
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“We have received credible intelligence from our law enforcement agencies of threats of violence surrounding the demonstration planned for Monday, January 20,” said Virginia’s Democratic Governor Ralph Northam.
“This includes extremist rhetoric similar to what has been seen before major incidents, such as Charlottesville in 2017,” he tweeted, referring to the Virginia white supremacist rally in which a neo-Nazi rammed his car into a group of anti-racist protesters, killing 32-year-old anti-racist demonstrator Heather Heyer.

Fencing and magnetometers are set up around Capitol Square for the anticipated pro-gun rally at the Virginia State Capitol [Steve Helber/AP Photo] 

Citing the threats, Northam declared a state of emergency in the state capital that bans all weapons from the Capitol grounds from Friday through Tuesday.
Virginia and gun control
The pro-gun “Lobby Day” is an annual event during which pro-gun groups take to the Virginia Capitol grounds to lobby their state legislators. This year’s event, effectively endorsed by President Donald Trump, comes as the now-Democratic state legislature and governor seek to push through new gun control measures.
Those measures include limits on the purchases of handguns, background checks for firearm transfers and enabling local governments to ban guns in parks and other public spaces.
The three bills passed the state Senate last week and could be voted on in the House of Delegates as early as this week. Other bills are being considered, including a so-called “red flag” bill, which would allow law enforcement and lawyers to seek emergency orders to confiscate or block the sale of firearms to anyone deemed “a substantial risk of injury to himself or others”.

A sign warns visitors not to enter the Virginia State Capitol building with their firearms as security ramps up before a Monday rally by gun rights advocates and militia members in Richmond, Virginia [Jonathan Drake/Reuters] 

Democrats say the measures will make residents safer.
“The pieces of legislation that we’re offering is to keep guns out of prohibitive hands,” Northam told local media. “It’s very simple. They’re constitutional and they support the Second Amendment.”
But Republicans and gun rights groups say the measures infringe on the right to bear arms.
“Your 2nd Amendment is under very serious attack in the Great Commonwealth of Virginia,” Trump tweeted last week. 
The gun control measures have prompted more than 100 local municipalities to designate themselves as “sanctuary” cities in which they say new laws will not be enforced.
Although leaders of the Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL), the organisers of Monday’s “Lobby Day” insist the day will be a “peaceful event”, they have welcomed the presence of militia groups.
“We welcome our militia brothers and sisters to be part of making the day a success,” said VCDL president, Philip Van Cleave, who previously said he was proud to be labelled “an extremist”.

Philip VanCleave gestures during the meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the Capitol in Richmond, Virginia [Steve Helber/AP Photo] 

Among the groups expected to attend are the Oath Keepers, which has been labelled an “extremist group” driven by conspiratorial rhetoric, by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) watchdog.
“We like to see as many members attend this event or see the membership come out and exercise their 1st amendment rights on 2nd amendment issues that is taking place in the state legislature and other unconstitutional laws that the state is trying to pass into law,” the Virginia branch of the Oath Keepers said on its website.
At least 30 other militia groups, including the Virginia Militia and others from outside the state, have also vowed to attend Monday’s event, the SPLC said, prompting fears of a repeat, or worse, of the 2017 Charlottesville rally.
“It can’t go unstated just how fractious of an issue guns are in this country – and that’s across the political spectrum,” said SPLC senior research analyst Howard Graves, who added that tension is heightened within the “extremist movement”.
“It’s something that is really kind of baked into the DNA of American extremists,” Graves told Al Jazeera.

Gun rights advocates and militia members attend a pre-rally dinner in Richmond, Virginia [Jim Urquhart/Reuters] 

Early on Monday morning, dozens of gun rights advocates and members of militias began queueing outside the Capitol grounds. According to local media, many were armed, but law enforcement reiterated those carrying weapons would not be allowed on the grounds of the Capitol. 
Growth of militia movement
Following deadly confrontations in the 1990s – including the 1992 Ruby Ridge standoff in Idaho and the botched siege in Waco, Texas, the following year – the broader militia movement fanned out around the country.
The SPLC documented a surge in the number of militia groups and activity after the election of former President Barack Obama, the country’s first African American president.
Although the number of anti-government groups, including militias, declined in 2018, Graves said the SPLC was surprised “that in the wake of a Republican victory we saw militia groups continue to stay really active”.
“One of the things I think we can attribute this to is this really deep, pervasive sense within the country that sort of manifested itself in a lot of President Trump’s rhetoric during the 2016 campaign about how America had been usurped by foreign invaders, really leading into anti-immigrant rhetoric,” he said.
Trump has made a crackdown on immigration a centrepiece of his presidency and re-election campaign. Following the Charlottesville attack, the president blamed “both sides” for the violence. 
Graves added that militia groups tend to explain away the contradiction of their anti-government stance but support of Trump by saying “whatever [he] is doing, he’s best by the swamp and that of the deep state”.

Law enforcement officers manage a security checkpoint to access the Virginia State Capitol grounds before a gun rights advocates and militia members rally in Richmond, Virginia [Jim Urquhart/Reuters] 

Last week, six men with links to The Base, a neo-Nazi collective, were arrested across three states on charges ranging from conspiring to kill anti-fascists to transporting a firearm and ammunition with intent to commit a felony. Authorities said they believed at least three of the members were headed to Monday’s rally in Virginia, intending to commit violence.
Those threats, along with the trends in the way militia violence often manifest, have led analysts to express concerns about a potentially volatile situation on Monday.
“What’s important to note is that most of militia violence is a little bit different than a lot of white nationalist violence,” said Shane Burley, author of the book Fascism Today. “It tends to actually spark up when they have large numbers of recruits and they’re doing pretty well as opposed to white nationalist violence, which tends … to be a desperate act.”
Burley explained that it is hard to predict what exactly will happen in Virginia on Monday, but “weapons bans are the number one thing that’s going to spark [militias] to radical behaviour every single time”.
Faced with the potential of violence, gun control groups cancelled their annual vigil for victims of gun violence.
“It is with a heavy heart that I am announcing the cancellation of the annual Martin Luther King Day Vigil and Day of Advocacy,” said Lori Haas, director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
“Citizens who represent the overwhelming majority of Virginians are prevented from lobbying their officials because of credible threats to their safety,” Hass said in a statement.
Militia supporters argue that they will exercise their First Amendment rights on Monday, an assertion Haas dismissed. “This is a full-scale rejection of our democratic elections,” she said. “This is mob rule. It is a grave threat to our democracy.”
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