New virus doesn't spread easily person-to-person, WHO says

A new virus that has killed one person and landed another in a London hospital does not appear to spread easily from person to person, the World Health Organization said Friday.

The discovery this month of a never-before-seen coronavirus, part of a family of viruses that range from the common cold to the SARS virus that killed hundreds, had caused fear that it might spread further. The fact that the two known cases were linked to Saudi Arabia added to the concern, with millions of people headed to the country for an annual Muslim religious pilgrimage.

However, no new cases have emerged since Britain informed the WHO last week that a 49-year-old Qatari man with a history of traveling to Saudi Arabia  was suffering a severe respiratory infection. The first case was a 60-year-old Saudi national who died of the infection this year.

Though the virus does not appear to be spreading, the United Nations agency said it was still monitoring the situation, given the severity of the two known cases of the new virus. It has not recommended any travel or trade restrictions for Saudi Arabia or Qatar.

European Center for Disease Prevention and Control scientists wrote in a newly published paper that the infection probably originated with animals. Though it is in the same family of viruses as SARS, it is “quite different in behavior from SARS,” the scientists wrote in the  Eurosurveillance  journal.

The two people known to have been infected with the new virus suffered from fever, coughing and shortness of breath.

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Muslim women on pilgrimage from Nigeria detained in Saudi Arabia

Hajj

This post has been updated. See the note below for details.

More than 1,000 Muslim women from Nigeria on a religious pilgrimage to Mecca have been turned away or detained in Saudi Arabia over allegations they weren’t traveling with husbands or other suitable male guardians, according to Nigerian news reports.

Nigerian media reported Wednesday that 171 women pilgrims were deported from Medina and hundreds more were being held after arriving at a Jidda airport. A Nigerian official told the Associated Press on Thursday that more than 500 women were returning to their country after being refused entry to Saudi Arabia.

Women from Nigeria had reportedly been allowed in the past to make the pilgrimage with Nigerian government officials instead of a husband or male relative. In Saudi Arabia, women are expected to have a male chaperon and are required to get permission from a male guardian to study, travel or work.

Saudi officials reportedly were stricter than usual this year, even stopping women traveling with their husbands, apparently because they had different last names.

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New virus akin to SARS reported; man hospitalized in London

A Qatari man hospitalized in London is suffering a severe infection in the same family as the SARS virus that killed hundreds and sickened thousands across the globe roughly a decade ago, the World Health Organization and British authorities have announced. The hospitalized man is the second of two known cases this year.

The 49-year-old man, who had a history of traveling to Saudi Arabia, showed symptoms of the illness three weeks ago and was admitted to an intensive care unit in Doha four days later, according to  WHO officials. He was transferred to Britain by air ambulance on Sept. 11.

The virus, detected with laboratory testing, was very similar to another virus that killed a 60-year-old patient from Saudi Arabia earlier this year, the health organization said in a statement Sunday. Both are coronaviruses, a large family of viruses that cause a range of ailments from the common cold to SARS. The two people known to have been infected with the new virus were struck with fever, coughing and shortness of breath.

The new virus is different than any previously identified in humans, the British Health Protection Agency said. Health officials are still investigating where it came from and how it is spread; similar viruses are typically passed when someone who is infected coughs or sneezes.

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Egypt president to Syria's Assad: Step down before it's too late

Morsi

CAIRO -- In his first speech to the League of Arab Nations, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi on Wednesday told Syrian leader Bashar Assad to learn from recent history and step down immediately "before it’s too late."

Addressing Arab foreign ministers in Cairo, the Islamist president urged them to make Syria their first priority.

The address was Morsi's first key foreign policy speech since he was elected two months ago following the uprising that deposed Hosni Mubarak last year. In the Middle East, his comments were perceived as a tenacious effort to assert the country’s influence in the region. 

“Our Syrian brethren are dear to us all and Syria is in our hearts. I repeat what I said in Mecca and Tehran: The blood of the Syrian people is on all of our necks,” he told 21 members of the Arab League, excluding Syria, whose membership was suspended in November.

Morsi said Egypt would support the Syrian people’s struggle for freedom without interfering in the country's internal affairs. 

He also said that foreign intervention in Syria would not be welcomed. The comment was seen as directed at Iran, whose leaders have previously expressed support for the Syrian regime. The Assad family, which has ruled Syria for four decades, are Alawites, an offshoot of the Shiite Muslim faith that predominates in Iran.

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Don't bother yelling 'Taxi!' in Saudi Arabia anymore

Saudi woman boards taxi in Riyadh
Saudi Arabia's Transport Ministry has come up with a novel way to cut traffic in the kingdom's congested cities: Taxis will now be banned from cruising the streets and picking up passengers without an advance booking.

The new policy, announced Friday, is part of a major revamping of the taxi system that will require drivers to install an Automated Vehicle Locator in their cars. The Big Brother-like device will allow authorities to track their every movement. Unauthorized stops, excessive speeds or driving without an assigned passenger pickup can lead to fines up to $1,300 or license revocation for repeat offenders,  Al Madina newspaper reported.

The new monitoring system was necessary to limit the number of vehicles on busy streets in the two main urban centers of the kingdom, Riyadh and Jeddah, where 31,000-plus taxis are licensed to operate, the newspaper said.

The change is expected to primarily affect women, who are prohibited from driving in Saudi Arabia and banned from bus travel on most urban routes as well.

Anyone wanting a taxi -- even from heavily traveled venues like airports and shopping centers -- will have to call in advance to get a car dispatched, Al Arabiya news agency reported.

Neither news story specified when the new tracking system would go into effect.

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Photo: Saudi women are dependent on taxis for travel and errand-running as the kingdom prohibits women from driving, and most urban bus travel is exclusively for men. Credit: Fayez Nureldine / AFP/Getty Images


Gambia, Iraq executions buck worldwide abolitionist trend

Protesters in Senegal denouncing Gambian executions
Human rights advocates the world over have been shocked and outraged by Gambia's first executions in 27 years and an escalation in hangings in Iraq that has already sent 91 to their deaths this year.

GlobalFocusThe rash of executions in the two countries -- nine in Gambia last week and 21 in Iraq on Monday alone -- are particularly disturbing for the targeting of prisoners convicted on what appear to be politically instigated charges in secretive and unfair trials, international law experts said.

Yet as lamentable as the recent death row purges may be to those who monitor and censure human rights abuses, they are in stark contrast to a global trend toward abolition of the death penalty and de facto moratoriums on executions in an ever-larger number of countries.

About two-thirds of the 196 countries tracked by Amnesty International  have renounced the death penalty in law or in practice, the London-based rights champions calculate. That has grown from only 16 countries that had outlawed executions before Amnesty launched its global campaign to eradicate the death penalty in 1977.

"Even in countries like China, while we don’t know how many they have executed, we do know that they have reduced the number of crimes that can be punished by death and they have reduced the number of people executed in recent years dramatically," Christof Heyns, assigned by the United Nations to monitor extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said in a telephone interview from his home in Pretoria, South Africa.

On behalf of the world body's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Heyns delivered a message to Gambian President Yahya Jammeh this week to "strongly condemn" the autocrat's proclaimed intent to execute all 48 death row inmates in the tiny West African country by mid-September. Nine were executed last week, Jammeh's government confirmed Monday, and the remaining 39 condemned prisoners have been moved from their cells to the execution site.

Heyns' letter demanded that Gambia refrain from any further executions, calling last week's deaths "a major step backwards for the country, and for the protection of the right to life in the world as a whole.” The U.N. agency rebuke joined others from Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, European nations and an expression of "great concern" from the United States, which itself ranks high on annual rights agencies' lists of countries with the most executions.

Gambia had last executed a prisoner in 1985, and had adhered to the practice increasingly prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa of reducing the list of crimes for which the death penalty can be applied as well as the number of capital sentences, noted Sandra L. Babcock, a law professor at Northwestern University and founder of its Center for International Human Rights.

Babcock attributes the Gambia executions to "the whim of an unpredictable and, by all accounts, unbalanced dictator," and she sees little threat of Jammeh's crackdown inspiring emulation.

"It's an exception to the general rule that once a nation heads down that path of refusing to carry out executions, that it leads to abolition as a matter of law over time," said Babcock, whose center maintains a database on the Death Penalty Worldwide.

Iraq's mounting zeal for executions is the more disturbing, Babcock said, as many of the 1,000-plus condemned Iraqis were convicted of treason or terrorism, often "thinly disguised justification for prosecuting political opponents."

Iraq has long featured in the dubious ranks of the Top Five countries carrying out the most executions each year. In 2011, China led Amnesty's list with executions estimated at more than 1,000, but it also eliminated the death penalty for 13 crimes that previously could draw the ultimate punishment. Iran acknowledged executing at least 360 people, followed by Saudi Arabia with 82 reported executions, Iraq with 68 and the United States 43.

Despite the rise in executions in some of the most active "retentionist" nations, as the rights groups refer to those that haven't signed on to the international covenant that defines the death penalty as a human rights violation, there are positive trends even in areas where the death penalty long enjoyed broad public support, the law experts said.

The Philippines abolished capital punishment six years ago, and all republics of the former Soviet Union except Belarus have renounced the death penalty or ceased carrying it out. Malaysia and Singapore are reconsidering whether all drug-trafficking crimes should be death-penalty eligible, and China is conducting a review of all death sentences, Babcock said. All of Europe is abolitionist, and most of Latin America -- with the glaring exception of the Caribbean states -- have ceased executions.

The only two highly developed democracies that continue to execute are the United States and Japan, the rights groups note. And abolitionists are regaining traction in Japan that was lost 17 years ago when the Aum Shinrikyo cult attacked Tokyo subway riders with sarin gas, killing 13 and poisoning 6,000.

Moving the United States into the execution-free category is going to take time because of the 50 separate state penal codes and popular support for the death penalty in some regions, Babcock said.

But she pointed out that the rising cost of keeping the death penalty on the books in states like California, with 729 on death row, is beginning to make inroads with death penalty supporters who have been unmoved by the moral arguments against the state taking lives.

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 Photo: Protesters gathered outside the Gambian Embassy in Senegal on Thursday to demand President Yahya Jammeh halt the mass execution of prisoners. Two of those executed by Gambia last week were Senegalese, including a woman. The banner reads "Gambia. Stop the reign of fear." Credit: Seyllou / AFP/Getty Images


Egyptian designer runs afoul of Saudi princess, gets 500 lashes

Nagla_Wafa600

CAIRO — Human-rights activists are demanding the release of Nagla Wafa, an Egyptian wedding planner and designer sentenced to 500 lashes and five years in prison in Saudi Arabia following a business dispute with a princess.

Wafa ran afoul of a royal in the Saudi kingdom over the finances of a joint business venture, according to her family. She was reportedly accused of cashing a check from the princess but not following through on their deal to start a restaurant.

 “As of May of 2012, Ms. Wafa has been subjected, on a weekly basis, to 50 floggings per week within the ‘Al-Malz’ Prison. She currently faces 200 more floggings ... despite her suffering from distortions to her spine,” the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights said in an online statement.

Accusing Saudi Arabian authorities of unlawfully detaining the 39-year-old mother of teenage twins, the organization said the case was a “blatant violation” of human rights and filed a complaint with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Nashwa Ismael, Wafa’s mother, who lives in Cairo, said her daughter wasn’t accused of fraud charges until about 20 months after she was arrested in 2009. Ismael said the family wasn’t able to find a Saudi Arabian lawyer to take Wafa’s case until June, when they first went public with the issue. 

“Nagla’s case should have appeared before a business court and she should have been notified of her accusations right away,“ Ismael told The Times. 

Ismael added that since the family decided to go public, Saudi Arabian authorities have kept Wafa from outside contact. She was previously allowed one phone call a month.

 “Last time I spoke with her was about a month ago. She was utterly devastated and tired because she lost everything, her sons, her livelihood,” Ismael said.

Egypt’s National Council for Women has also sent a letter to the Saudi Arabian ambassador in Cairo demanding Wafa’s release for “lack of conviction.” The council urged Saudi Arabian authorities to halt Wafa’s flogging sentence.

About 2 million Egyptian expatriates currently live and work in Saudi Arabia. Over the years, Egyptian human-rights activists and protesters have repeatedly accused Saudi Arabian officials of mistreating Egyptian nationals, who travel to there seeking better job opportunities.

In April, the two Arab countries had a falling out when hundreds of Egyptians protested outside the kingdom’s embassy in Cairo for the release of Egyptian lawyer Ahmed al-Gizawi, who was arrested on drug charges while traveling to Saudi Arabia for a pilgrimage.

The protests forced the kingdom to recall its ambassador and shut down the embassy. At the time, analysts said Egypt-Saudi relations hadn’t witnessed such a strain since Egypt signed the Camp David Peace treaty with Israel in 1979.

As Egyptian human-rights advocates continue to demand Wafa's release, Saudi Arabian and Egyptian officials have not commented on the case.

Essam Al-Arian, vice chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, has become one of the few Egyptian politicians to push for her freedom. 

“The [Egyptian] foreign ministry is still silent about Nagla Wafa, who is imprisoned in Saudi Arabia. Why doesn’t the kingdom announce the truths of the case so that such regretful mishaps do not recur? We need clarity,” he said on his official Twitter account.

Wafa’s mother said Egyptian officials have failed to reach out to the family to learn more about Nagla’s case.

“The Egyptian ambassador in Saudi Arabia is more worried about his prestige and salary, rather than doing his job by helping the Egyptian people residing in Saudi Arabia. These kinds of problems have affected many Egyptians abroad, not just us,” she said. 

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Photo: Nagla Wafa and her sons. Credit: The Wafa family

 

 


Saudi Arabia plans industrial city for female workers

Saudi Arabia is planning a new industrial city for female workers, ensuring that female investors and entrepreneurs can go to work in conditions “consistent with the privacy of women according to Islamic guidelines and regulations,” the Saudi Industrial Property Authority said.

The new industrial city in Hofuf will not be closed to men, but will have sections and production halls reserved for women within factories, the authority said in its recent statement. The city will be located near residential neighborhoods to make it easier for women to get from home to work, it added.

The industrial city near Al Ahsa airport is the first of its kind, according to the authority, and has been approved by the minister of municipal and rural affairs. It could provide as many as 5,000 jobs for men and women.

“Saudi women have the ability to enter the labor market and invest in the industrial sector,” the authority said in paraphrased remarks attributed to acting Director General Saleh Rasheed.

Saudi media first reported the proposed cities this summer, saying as many as four such cities could be in the works. Riyadh Chamber of Commerce and Industry Deputy Chairman Saad Mogil told the Saudi Gazette that the industrial project would “offer comprehensive services to all residents of the city besides opening new avenues of employment for Saudi women.”

The plans appear to be a bid to balance religious strictures with the goal of getting more women into the working world. The kingdom has been tugged between modest reforms backed by the king and the objections of religious leaders who resist reducing the sway of Islam in government and public life.

Women in Saudi Arabia face rigid restrictions. They are in effect banned from driving and required to get permission from a male guardian to work, study or travel. The country sent its first female competitors to the Olympics this year, but women are still shut out of most sports, condemned by some clerics as a slippery slope toward immorality. Only a fraction of women work.

Among Saudi women who do work, nearly two-thirds said they did so to achieve financial independence, according to a June survey conducted by YouGov and Bayt.com. More than a third said their workplaces had both male and female workers, but in separate sections.

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In Iran, columnist offers tough talk about Syria

TEHRAN -- As battles rage across Syria, the crisis has provoked a renewed round of saber-rattling in Iran, President Bashar Assad's staunchest international ally.

An influential columnist in an Iranian daily close to hard-liners gave a dire warning this week of the possibility of “world war” as global  powers face off on Syria.

Viewing the conflict in strictly geopolitical terms, columnist Sadollah Zaree wrote that a U.S-led “axis,” including  Saudi Arabia and Turkey, sought to undermine the Syrian government, backed by allies Iran and Russia.

“The anti-Syrian measures are a high risk and can lead to world war,” Zaree thundered in an editorial published in the Kayhan newspaper. The pro-Assad bloc of Russia and Iran, he wrote, had “of course” significantly “more legitimacy.”

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Judo officials reach accord with Saudis over Olympian's hijab

Wodjan

Judo officials say they’ve reached an agreement with the Saudi Olympic committee to ensure that one of the first Saudi women to compete in the Games is able to remain.

The International Judo Federation said last week that Wodjan Shahrkhani couldn’t wear a headscarf during competition, fearing it could be a safety risk as judokas grapple on the mat.

The decision jeopardized Shahrkhani staying in the Olympics. Saudi officials had insisted that their first female Olympians must dress modestly and follow other rules, such as not mixing with men. Her father told Saudi media she would not compete Friday if she had to remove her hijab.

The judo federation and Saudi officials did not explain exactly what they had agreed to, but said “the solution agreed guarantees a good balance between safety and cultural considerations.”

International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams said he had no details about what Shahrkhani would wear, but confirmed they had agreed to “a suitable head covering.”

This is the first year that Saudi Arabia has sent women to the Olympics, under pressure from human rights activists and the International Olympic Committee. Women are tightly restricted from playing sports in the deeply religious kingdom, where athletics are sometimes seen as steps toward immorality. Some Saudis have attacked the female Olympians as “prostitutes” on Twitter.

Because sports for women are so limited in Saudi Arabia, some fretted it would be hard to even find female candidates from the country. Shahrkhani does not hold a black belt and has only practiced judo for a few years, the Agence France-Presse reported.

The other Saudi female Olympian, runner Sarah Attar, grew up mostly in California. She appears without a headscarf on the Olympics website.

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Photo: Wodjan Shahrkhani, center rear, and other Saudi athletes enter the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games on Friday. Credit: Jonathan Brady / European Pressphoto Agency.


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