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Bangladesh arrests journalist known for unearthing graft

Asia|: Dhaka: Police in Bangladesh's capital have arrested a journalist known for her strong reporting against official corruption in the South Asian country where journalists are often threatened with dire consequences for professional work. Rozina Islam, a senior reporter with the country's leading Bengali-language Prothom Alo daily newspaper, was confined for more than five hours till late Monday in a room of a personal assistant of the secretary of the Ministry of Health, said her younger sister Sabina Parvin. A secretary is the top bureaucrat of a ministry, and the room was inside the Bangladesh Secretariat, the downtown Dhaka premises where almost all government ministries are located. She was then handed over to police and faces charges under the Penal Code and Official Secrets Act for the theft and photographing of sensitive state documents, said Harun-or-Rashid, an additional deputy commissioner of Dhaka Metropolitan Police. On Tuesday morning, she was produced before a court in Dhaka where police sought that she be remanded to their custody for five days to be interrogated. According to the case documents seen by The Associated Press, Islam is alleged to have used her mobile phone without permission to photograph documents related to Bangladesh's negotiations for buying and collecting coronavirus vaccines while she waited inside a room of a bureaucrat involved with the process. The charges she faces carry up to 14 years in prison and the death penalty if she is convicted, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement. Maidul Islam Prodhan, a spokesman for the health ministry, said Islam took photos of "important" documents. "She was also taking away some documents. An additional secretary and a policeman challenged her at the time. Later, the policewomen were called in," he said. Islam's colleagues at the Prothom Alo said she was at the ministry for professional reasons, while many questioned the illegal confinement of a journalist inside the room of a bureaucrat for more than five hours. Islam's family said she was physically and mentally harassed during the confinement. Video and images that went viral on social media showing a physical confrontation against Islam could not be verified. Islam is known for her reporting on corruption involving the Ministry of Health and others. Several of her recent stories drew attention to the millions of dollars spent procuring emergency health equipment in dealing with coronavirus pandemic. Journalists groups in Bangladesh and the CPJ demanded her release. "We are deeply alarmed that Bangladesh officials detained a journalist and filed a complaint under a draconian colonial-era law that carries ridiculously harsh penalties," said Aliya Iftikhar, CPJ's senior Asia researcher. "Bangladesh police and authorities should recognize that Rozina Islam is a journalist whose work is a public service and should immediately drop the case against her and allow her to go free." Human Rights Watch in a statement earlier this month said Bangladeshi journalists are risking arbitrary arrests, torture and harassment while a controversial Digital Security Act was being used against many journalists. It said at least 247 journalists were reportedly subjected to attacks, harassment, and intimidation by state officials and others affiliated with the government in 2020. More than 900 cases were filed under the Digital Security Act with nearly 1,000 people charged and 353 detained -many of them journalists, it said.

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US approves release of oldest Guantanamo prisoner

Americas|: Washington: A 73-year-old from Pakistan who is the oldest prisoner at the Guantanamo Bay detention center was notified on Monday that he has been approved for release after more than 16 years in custody at the US base in Cuba, his lawyer said. Saifullah Paracha, who has been held on suspicion of ties to al-Qaida but never charged with a crime, was cleared by the prisoner review board along with two other men, said Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, who represented him at his hearing in November. As is customary, the notification did not provide detailed reasoning for the decision and concluded only that Paracha is "not a continuing threat" to the US, Sullivan-Bennis said. It does not mean his release his imminent. But it is a crucial step before the US government negotiates a repatriation agreement with Pakistan for his return. President Joe Biden's administration has said it intends to resume efforts to close the detention center, a process that former President Donald Trump halted. Paracha's attorney said she thinks he will be returned home in the next several months. "The Pakistanis want him back, and our understanding is that there are no impediments to his return," she said. A Pentagon spokesman had no immediate comment. The prisoner review board also informed Uthman Abd al-Rahim Uthman, a Yemeni who has been held without charge at Guantanamo since it opened in January 2002, was also notified that he had been cleared, according to his attorney, Beth Jacob, who spoke to him by phone. "He was happy, relieved and hopeful that this will actually lead to his release," Jacob said. Paracha, who lived in the US and owned property in New York City, was a wealthy businessman in Pakistan. Authorities alleged he was an al-Qaida "facilitator" who helped two of the conspirators in the Sept. 11 plot with a financial transaction. He says he didn't know they were al-Qaida and denies any involvement in terrorism. The U.S., which captured Paracha in Thailand in 2003 and has held him at Guantanamo since September 2004, has long asserted that it can hold detainees indefinitely without charge under the international laws of war. In November, Paracha, who suffers from a number of ailments including diabetes and a heart condition, made his eighth appearance before the review board, which was established under President Barack Obama to try to prevent the release of prisoners who authorities believed might engage in anti-US hostilities upon their release from Guantanamo. At the time, his attorney said he was more optimistic about his prospects because of Biden's election, his ill health and developments in a legal case involving his son, Uzair. Uzair Paracha was convicted in 2005 in federal court in New York of providing support to terrorism, based in part on testimony from the same witnesses held at Guantanamo whom the US relied on to justify holding the father. In March 2020, after a judge threw out those witness accounts and the government decided not to seek a new trial, Uzair Paracha was released and sent back to Pakistan. Saifullah Paracha is one of 40 prisoners still held at Guantanamo, down from a peak of nearly 700 in 2003. With this latest review board decision, there are now about nine men held at Guantanamo who have been cleared for release, including one who has been approved since 2010. Under Obama, the U.S. would not return men to Yemen because of the civil war there and often struggled to find third countries to accept former prisoners. Given that history, Jacob was only cautiously optimistic about her client's release. "I'm just hoping that in 11 years he's not just still sitting there with his clearance still at Guantanamo," she said. There are 10 facing trial by military commission and two who have been convicted, including one awaiting sentencing. Proceedings in the tribunals have been on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Red Cross urges ‘extraordinary steps’ to hike COVID-19 jab access

Europe|: Geneva: The Red Cross on Tuesday stressed the need for “extraordinary steps” to increase access to COVID-19 vaccines around the world, including speeding up negotiations towards patent waivers. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement called for states and pharmaceutical companies to move much faster towards evening out glaring inequities in access to the jabs around the world. Among other things, countries should accelerate thorny negotiations at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) towards removing intellectual property protections for the Covid vaccines, and other barriers blocking a rapid scale-up of production of the jabs around the world, it said. “In the middle of the worst pandemic in 100 years, the intellectual property waiver for COVID-19 vaccines is a necessary political commitment to address inequities in access at the scale and speed we need,” Francesco Rocca, president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), said in a statement. “Millions of lives depend on it and on the equally important transfer of technology and knowledge to increase manufacturing capacity worldwide,” he added. The WTO has since October faced calls led by India and South Africa for the temporary removal of intellectual property protections on COVID-19 vaccines, in what proponents say will boost production in developing countries and address the dramatic inequity in access. But that notion has long met with fierce opposition from pharmaceutical giants and their host countries, which insisted patents were not the main roadblocks to scaling up production and warned the move could hamper innovation. The positions appeared to shift earlier this month, when Washington came out in support of a global patent waiver for the jabs, and the European Union, France and other longtime opponents said they were open to discuss the proposal. ‘No silver bullet’ But the Red Cross statement cautioned Tuesday that the world could not afford “to become bogged down in negotiations over the next six months.” It urged governments to speed up the sharing of their existing vaccine stocks to ensure a more equitable distribution, especially in countries now seeing surging Covid-19 outbreaks. The Red Cross pointed out that currently the poorest 50 countries in the world account for only two percent of doses administered globally. Africa for instance accounts for 14 percent of the global population, but has administered just one percent of the doses given so far. At the same time, the richest 50 countries are vaccinating at a rate that is 27 times higher than that of the 50 poorest countries. “Every option should be explored to overcome bottlenecks to equitable access,” Peter Maurer, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said in the statement. “This includes a better distribution of existing vaccine doses globally, the transfer of technology and the ramping up of manufacturing capacity,” he said. “There’s no silver bullet to equitable access. All possible means need to be considered.”

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Ransomware hits AXA units in Asia, Irish healthcare

Asia|: Bangkok: The Thai affiliate of Paris-based insurance company AXA said Tuesday it is investigating a ransomware attack by Russian-speaking cybercriminals that has affected operations in Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong and the Philippines. Meanwhile, a cyberattack on a public health provider in New Zealand took down information systems across five hospitals, forcing staff to cancel some elective surgeries and creating all sorts of other problems. In Bangkok, Krungthai AXA said it has formed a team with AXA’s Inter Partner Assistance to urgently investigate the problem. It was unclear how long it might take to evaluate the exposure of personal data after the criminals claimed to have stolen 3 terabytes of data including medical records, customer IDs and privileged communications with hospitals and doctors. Kanjana Anantasomboon, Asia vice-president for corporate and internal communications at Krungthai-AXA Life Insurance, said the company handles some of its services inhouse, so only part, she declined to say how much, of its customer data was with Inter Partner Assistance’s claim service. Other AXA affiliates in the Phlippines, Malaysia and Hong Kong did not respond to requests for comment. Few details AXA Partners, the Paris insurer’s international arm, has given few details. It said Sunday that the full impact of the attack was being investigated and that steps would be “taken to notify and support all corporate clients and individuals impacted.” It said the attack was recent, but did not specify when exactly. It said data in Thailand was accessed. In New Zealand, Waikato District Health Board Chief Executive Kevin Snee said its emergency department was now only taking urgent patients. He said administrators were working to resolve the issue but he gave no timeline for when the system might be restored. Dr Deborah Powell, the national secretary for two unions representing doctors and other health professionals, said the attack hit every part of the operation, with doctors unable to access clinical records to quickly assess patients. Still, Powell said she didn’t believe patients were at extra risk because staff were using workarounds. Hospital discharges were being done by hand, and a pager system to alert multiple doctors when a patient suffered a cardiac arrest that was down was replaced by a system of personal mobile numbers. People trying to contact patients were encouraged to try calling their cell phones. Powell said she was told it was a ransomware attack but she didn’t have all the details. New Zealand’s Ministry of Health described it only as an “attempted cyber incident.” It was unclear if the event was linked in any way to others, including a cyberattack that has nearly paralysed Ireland’s national healthcare IT systems. Conti, a Russian-speaking ransomware group different from the one involved in the attack on AXA, was demanding $20 million, according to the ransom negotiation page on its darknet site, which The Associated Press viewed. That gang threatened Monday to “start publishing and selling your private information very soon.” The Irish government’s decision not to pay the criminals means hospitals won’t have access to patient records - and must resort mostly to handwritten notes - until painstaking efforts are complete to restore thousands of computer servers from backups. News of the Asia attack was first reported by the Financial Times. The attackers used a ransomware variant called Avaddon. Avaddon threatened to leak “valuable company documents” in 10 days if the company did not pay an unspecified ransom. So-called “big-game” hunters like Avaddon and Conti identify and target lucrative victims, leasing their “ransomware-as-a-service” to affiliates they recruit who do most of the heavy-lifting _ taking more risk and a higher share of the profits. AXA, among Europe’s top five insurers, said this month that it will stop writing cyber-insurance policies in France that reimburse customers for extortion payments made to ransomware criminals. It said it did so out of concern that such reimbursements encourage cyber criminals to demand ransom from companies they prey on, crippling them with malware. Once victims of ransomware pay up, criminals provide software keys to decode the data. Ransomware attacks returned to headlines this month after hackers struck the United States’ largest fuel pipeline, the Colonial Pipeline. The company shut it down for days to contain the damage. Last year, ransomware reached epidemic levels as criminals increasingly turned to “double extortion,” stealing sensitive data before activating the encryption software that paralyzes networks and threatening to dump it online if they don’t get paid. That appears to be what happened to the AXA subsidiaries and Ireland’s health care system. The top victims of ransomware are in the United States, followed by France, experts say. The extent of damage and payouts in Asian countries is unclear. Like most top ransomware purveyors, Avaddon’s ransomware is programmed not to target computers with Russian-language keyboards and enjoys safe harbor in former Soviet states. Conti also enjoys Kremlin tolerance and is among the most prolific of such gangs. It recently attacked the school system in Broward County, Florida, which serves Fort Lauderdale and is one of the largest US school districts.

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EU hits 200-million COVID-19 jab milestone

Europe|: Brussels: At least 200 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been given in the European Union as of Tuesday, according to AFP data tallying up official figures given by member states’ health services. The milestone indicates that the EU should be on track to meet its goal of fully vaccinating 70 per cent of adults - meaning roughly 255 million people out of its total 448 million population - by late July. As of 0830 GMT, at least 200 million doses have been administered in the EU, according to the AFP data. At least 52.9 million people have been completely vaccinated, with two doses in the case of the vaccines from BioNTech/Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca, or one dose for those inoculated with the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. That figure amounts to 11.8 per cent of the EU population. The data showed that Malta was leading the EU table, with 32.5 percent of its small population fully vaccinated, while Bulgaria was trailing badly, with just 6.1 percent inoculated. Of the big EU countries, Germany has 11.1 percent fully vaccinated, France has 13.5 percent, Italy has 14.6 percent and Spain has 15.4 percent. Globally, the AFP data showed that 1.5 billion doses have been administered. By way of comparison with other wealthy territories, Israel has 59 per cent of its population inoculated with two doses, while the United States has 35 per cent fully vaccinated, and Britain has 30 percent done. The European Commission, contacted by AFP, did not immediately respond with comment about the vaccination milestone. It did however say that its vaccine export authorisation mechanism had, between January 30 and May 11, approved 941 export requests from pharmaceutical companies producing COVID-19 vaccines in the EU and rejected one - a March shipment of 250,000 AstraZeneca doses meant for Australia. The vaccines exports went to 45 countries and territories, it said, including the United States, Britain, Israel, India, Australia, Canada and Brazil.

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COVID-19: CBSE extends deadline till June 30 for schools to tabulate, submit marks for class 10

India|: New Delhi: The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) on Tuesday extended the deadline up to June 30 for schools to tabulate class 10 marks and submit it to the board, according to officials. The board had earlier announced that the entire exercise of tabulation of marks will be completed by June 11 and the result will be declared by June 20. The decision has been taken in view of the lockdown in several states due to the COVID-19 pandemic situation and to ensure safety of teachers and staff members. "CBSE accords highest priority to safety and health of teachers. Keeping in view the situation of pandemic, lockdown in states and safety of teachers and other staff members of affiliated schools, the board has decided to extend the dates," said Sanyam Bhardwaj, Controller of Examinations, CBSE. "The marks will have to be submitted to the board by June 30. For rest of the activities, the result committees can make their own schedule based on the scheme provided by CBSE, " he added. The CBSE had earlier this month announced a policy for tabulation of marks for class 10 board exams which have been cancelled in view of the COVID-19 pandemic situation in the country. According to the policy, while 20 marks for each subject will be for internal assessment as every year, 80 marks will be calculated on basis of the students' performance in various tests or exams throughout the year. The board had asked schools to form a result committee consisting of principal and seven teachers for finalising esults. Five teachers from the school should be from Mathematics, Social Science, Science and two languages, and two teachers from neighbouring schools should be co-opted by the school as the external members of the committee. "The schools will form eight-member result committees by May 5. The provision for school-wise distribution of marks as well as finalisation of rationale document will happen by May 10. For candidates who have not appeared in enough tests through the year, the schools will conduct online or telephonic assessment for them by May 15 and will have to finalise the result by May 25," Bhardwaj had then said. The CBSE had on April 14 cancelled class 10 exams and postponed class 12 exams in view of surge in COVID-19 cases. The decision was taken at a high-level meeting chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The board exams are usually conducted in February-March. However, the board had decided to conduct them in May-June this year due to the pandemic situation. Schools across the country were closed in March last year to contain the spread of COVID-19 ahead of a nationwide lockdown. Several states started reopening the schools partially from October last year, but physical classes are again being suspended because of the rise in coronavirus cases. Last year, the board exams had to be postponed mid-way in March. They were later cancelled and the results were announced based on an alternative assessment scheme.

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Sandpapergate: Stop the rumour-mongering and innuendo, says Starc & Co

ICC|Oceania|: Kolkata: Australian cricket looked a divided house as their star bowling attack opened up on Tuesday against the insinuations of them being aware of the plan in ‘Sandpapergate’ in South Africa in 2018 - which resulted in bans on the erstwhile captain Steve Smith, vice-captain David Warner and opener Cameron Bancroft. Michael Clarke, former Australian captain, had joined the issue with former Test opener Bancroft, who said the bowling unit was complicit to the plan - thought Bancroft has now moved to defuse tensions from his bombshell interview by reaching out to Australia’s bowlers and telling CA he had nothing to add to his 2018 testimony. In a joint statement released to Australian media, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc and Nathan Lyon called for an end to the “rumour-mongering and innuendo” relating to the incident. MORE ON CRICKET No surprises in Bancroft's revelations on ball tampering scandal, says Michael Clarke On this day: when Sandpapergate rocked the cricket world 2018 In Review: Sandpapergate scandal dominates cricketing year David Warner calls for respect from South Africa fans The quartet, who did not take any names, left little to imagination when they said: “We pride ourselves on our honesty. So it’s been disappointing to see that our integrity has been questioned by some journalists and past players in recent days in regard to the Cape Town Test of 2018.” “We have already answered questions many times on this issue, but we feel compelled to put the key facts on the record again: “We did not know a foreign substance was taken onto the field to alter the condition of the ball until we saw the images on the big screen at Newlands. And to those who, despite the absence of evidence, insist that ‘we must have known’ about the use of a foreign substance simply because we are bowlers, we say this: The umpires during that Test match, Nigel Llong and Richard Illingworth, both very respected and experienced umpires, inspected the ball after the images surfaced on the TV coverage and did not change it because there was no sign of damage.” The defining moment: Cameron Bancroft (centre) is being questioned by the umpires regarding ball-tampering in South Africa. Steve Smith can be seen in the distance. Image Credit: AP The clarification from the bowlers’ side, which some may not find tenable, raises questions about the mutual trust and bonding of the side - while England seam bowler Stuart Broad tried to stoke the fire by saying it will be ‘‘interesting’’ to read a book written by Warner whenever the latter retires considering the conversation that has cropped up in recent days about the 2018 ball-tampering scandal. “I have seen a couple of comments from David Warner’s agent, too, and I think it will be an interesting time when he stops playing for Australia and writes a book,” said Broad, according to ESPNCricinfo. Broad said that the incident may not be the focus during the Ashes later in the year but the England fans may have a few chants about it. “There’s no doubt the Aussies would have been hoping this episode was signed sealed and delivered. It was an incredibly tough thing for those three players to go through. I can’t see it still being a conversation when the Ashes start in November, December, but I can see it being sung in the Barmy Army stands if they’re allowed,” said Broad. “I’ve obviously never bowled within the Australian bowling attack but I can talk about how, in an England Test team, if I miss the seam by four millimetres, Jimmy Anderson is on me. He’ll be saying why has this ball got a mark on it here? It’s because you’ve missed the seam! Start hitting the seam, will you,” said Broad. “Reverse swing with the red ball can be affected by so many different things. If you chase it to the boundary and throw it into the grass it can smooth the ball over and stop it reversing. If you touch the ball with wet hands, it will stop it reversing. If you shine it in a way that smooths over the rough side it will stop it reversing,” he added.