World

Covid-19 surge pushes Indonesia into more restrictions. Hong Kong’s Apple Daily forced to close under Chinese pressure. Famine and growing ethnic violence in Ethiopia.

By Jonathan Pearlman.

Iran’s new leader accused of crimes against humanity

An Ebrahim Raisi supporter holds his portrait during a rally for his election victory in Tehran at the weekend.
Credit: Majid Asgaripour / WANA

Great power rivalry

Iran: On Monday, Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline cleric and Iran’s incoming president, held his first press conference since his election victory and was forced to address – on live television – his alleged role in the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988.

Raisi, the 60-year-old head of the judiciary, won in a landslide last week after moderate and reformist candidates were prevented from running.

Raisi has promised to tackle corruption and address the ailing economy, but his election was seen as part of a hardening of control by the country’s conservatives. In August, he will replace Hassan Rouhani, a centrist who was elected in 2013.

A committed “revolutionary”, Raisi participated in the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and is seen as a potential successor to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. In 1988, he was one of four judges to serve on the infamous “Death Committee”, which secretly oversaw the execution of as many as 5000 political prisoners.

Asked about his role by an Al Jazeera reporter, Raisi refused to comment on the allegations but insisted he had acted to promote security and human rights. “Everything I’ve done in my time of holding office has been to defend human rights,” he said.

Raisi also indicated he will take a tough approach towards negotiations to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement, from which the Trump administration withdrew. He rejected calls by the US for a broader deal that would limit Iran’s ballistic missiles and its support for regional militant groups.

“My serious recommendation to the US government is to immediately return to their commitments, lift all the sanctions,” he said.

Asked if he was willing to meet United States President Joe Biden, he said: “No.”

At last weekend’s election, Raisi won almost 62 per cent of the vote. But the poll turnout was the lowest on record as voters stayed away due to widespread concerns about the limited options and the government’s struggles to deal with Covid-19 and its worsening economy.

Following the election, Amnesty International, which has documented Raisi’s role in the 1988 executions, called for the president-elect to be investigated for crimes against humanity.    

The neighbourhood

Indonesia: Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s president, tightened restrictions on retail and office activities this week as the nation faced surging numbers of Covid-19 cases.

The outbreak has left hospitals struggling to cope and has forced cemeteries to expand their burial grounds. Health authorities say the surge was due to the travel and celebrations during the Eid al-Fitr holidays last month, as well as the spread of the highly infectious Delta variant.

On Monday, the Health Ministry reported 14,536 new infections, a record daily increase. As of Wednesday, Indonesia, which has about 270 million residents, had recorded about two million cases and 55, 594 deaths.

Widodo has been reluctant to impose full-scale lockdowns due to concerns about the economic and social costs. The new measures this week included a requirement that shopping centres and markets operate at 25 per cent capacity and close by 8pm. The two-week restrictions, which started on Tuesday, apply to 29 zones where case numbers are surging. In these areas, government offices must allow 75 per cent of employees to work from home, and parks and tourist sites have been closed. In Jakarta, where more than 80 per cent of hospital beds are full, police have set up roadblocks to prevent travel between zones.

As of Monday, less than 10 per cent of the population had been partially or fully vaccinated. The slow rollout has been due to a lack of vaccine supply, high levels of vaccine hesitancy, and the difficulty of getting to a population across a vast archipelago.

Democracy in retreat

Hong Kong: Apple Daily, the 26-year-old tabloid that has vocally campaigned for democracy in Hong Kong, printed its final edition on Thursday as the Chinese Communist Party continued its assault on the territory’s freedoms.

On Monday, the newspaper and website ran an editorial saying the publication was struggling to survive after a series of police raids and arrests, and the freezing of assets. It said the national security law imposed by Beijing last year was being used to stifle the press and destroy freedom of speech.    

“Other than the huge impact on Apple Daily, the searches and arrests by the police are sounding an alarm for the local press freedom at a volume that has never been heard before,” said the editorial, which was written by Lo Fung.

Last week, the newsroom was raided by 500 police who searched desks and seized computers. Five executives were arrested, including several top editors. The five were accused of “colluding with foreign forces”. Authorities also froze the assets of the publication’s owners, leaving it unable to pay staff.

Apple Daily, which was launched before the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China in 1997, is one of the territory’s highest-selling newspapers but has faced growing threats in the past two years as Beijing has quashed the pro-democracy movement.

Jimmy Lai, the 72-year-old owner of the newspaper, was jailed last December after being charged with protest-related offences and foreign collusion.

In April, he wrote to staff from jail, telling them: “The era is falling apart before us, and it is time for us to stand tall.”

Mark Simon, Lai’s close adviser, who has fled to the US, told Reuters that Xi Jinping had been  determined to shut Apple Daily before July 1, which marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of China’s Communist Party.

Spotlight: Crisis in Ethiopia

In 2019, Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, won the Nobel peace prize after helping to end a devastating war with Eritrea and launching reforms that included tackling corruption, releasing political prisoners and promoting women to cabinet.

But the country has since faced growing ethnic violence, particularly in the northern region of Tigray, where Abiy launched a brutal assault in November against forces aligned with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which had previously dominated the nation’s politics. Soldiers on both sides have been accused of massacres, sexual violence and attacks on medical clinics. Earlier this month, the United Nations warned the region is now facing famine conditions that have affected 353,000 people and left 33,000 children at risk of death.

On Monday, amid this worsening disorder in Tigray and elsewhere, Ethiopia held long-delayed parliamentary elections. Abiy’s Prosperity Party was expected to win, though counting may take weeks.

But the election is unlikely to deliver much-needed stability. Four of the country’s 10 regions, including Tigray, were unable to hold elections due to war, opposition boycotts, communal violence, and logistical problems such as a lack of ballot papers.

As counting began, Tigray’s rebel forces said they had seized several towns and captured federal soldiers. An Ethiopian army spokesperson denied the claims but admitted that fighting had occurred.

In an address last week to a stadium filled with his supporters, Abiy, a 44-year-old former military intelligence officer, said: “The whole world is saying we will fight [each other] but we will show them differently.” 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 26, 2021 as "Iran’s new leader accused of crimes against humanity".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.