World

US and China fight over coronavirus. Guilty plea over Christchurch mosque killings. Detention and torture of Egyptian children exposed. Women at the forefront of Indian protests. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Christchurch killer pleads guilty in NZ

Women embrace near the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch.
Credit: Reuters / JORGE SILVA

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

China: The Covid-19 pandemic has led to heightened tensions between the United States and China, as both nations trade barbs over the causes and origins of the outbreak.

In Washington, Donald Trump has sharply criticised the initial cover-up of cases by local authorities in Wuhan, saying “the world is paying a big price for what they did”. He also switched from using the term “coronavirus” to “Chinese virus”, though he switched back again this week after consulting medical experts.

“Look, everyone knows it came out of China, but I decided we shouldn’t make any more of a big deal out of it,” he told Fox News on Tuesday.

In Beijing, a foreign ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, suggested the virus may have originated in the US. He echoed a conspiracy theory shared on Chinese social media that suggests US soldiers passed on the virus – possibly deliberately – when they took part in the 2019 Military World Games in Wuhan last October. Other Chinese officials have admitted this theory is “crazy”.

As the US now faces a severe outbreak, China has begun to launch a propaganda offensive about the success of its hardline response in stemming the spread of the virus. The state-run media has also featured blanket coverage of its dispatch of testing kits, ventilators, masks and medics to affected countries.

Recipient leaders, particularly in eastern Europe, were quick to thank Chinese leader Xi Jinping after failing to secure help from larger European countries.

“The only country that can help us is China,” Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vučić told reporters. “As for the rest, thanks for nothing.”

On Monday, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, wrote an extraordinarily blunt blog post, saying China – which had itself received European medical aid – was now using its largesse to try to win the “global battle of narratives”.

“China is aggressively pushing the message that, unlike the US, it is a responsible and reliable partner,” he wrote. “But we must be aware there is a geopolitical component including a struggle for influence through … the ‘politics of generosity’.”

The winners of this battle, Borrell noted, will be states that can best respond to the outbreak, quickly learn from other countries, and then effectively communicate their tactics to the world.

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

New Zealand: On Thursday morning in Christchurch, Brenton Tarrant, the Australian who killed 51 people at two mosques last year, appeared at a court hearing that had been hastily convened at his request.

He listened as the names of each of the people he murdered were read aloud – a process that took several minutes. Then, after clarifying one of the names, he pleaded guilty,  a surprising reversal of his plea last June. He also pleaded guilty to 40 counts of attempted murder.

Several journalists from New Zealand media outlets were allowed to attend. They reported that Tarrant, appearing via video link from a prison in Auckland, showed no emotion.

The 30-minute hearing was held just hours after New Zealand entered a state of emergency to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Family members of victims and survivors were unable to attend. The imam of the Al Noor Mosque, Gamal Fouda, and of the Linwood Islamic Centre, Abdul Alabi Lateef, attended on behalf of their communities.

Following the hearing, Hisham Alzarzour, who was shot in the hip during the attack on March 15 last year, told The New Zealand Herald: “It is good… It is very good there will be no trial.”

Mustafa Boztas, who was shot in the liver, told the Stuff website: “Please know there is still a long way to go in recovery for some of us, so thank you for your continued support.”

Tarrant’s six-week trial was due to be held in June. He indicated to his lawyers earlier this week  that he may change his plea and confirmed it in writing on Wednesday. No explanation has been given for the change.

The judge said sentencing will be held when the Covid-19 restrictions end. This will ensure that victims can attend.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Egypt: When the military came to arrest him just over two years ago, Abdullah Boumadian was asleep at home in northern Sinai. During the next six months, he was taken to a series of prisons and allegedly beaten, electrocuted and waterboarded. On one occasion, a fire was lit beneath a bedframe and he was forced to lie on the scorching metal. He was 12 years old.

The abuse of Abdullah was one of 20 cases of detention and torture of children exposed in a report released on Monday by Human Rights Watch and Belady, a charity founded in Egypt. According to the report, hundreds of other children have been abused and tortured by security forces since Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took power in a military coup in 2013. This has been part of a “widespread and systematic” crackdown on dissent, the report said, which has led to the arbitrary prosecution of tens of thousands of critics, journalists and rights advocates. 

The report called for the international community to suspend its support for the Egyptian military until it ends the abuse of detainees and acts against those responsible.

Abdullah was apparently arrested because an older sibling joined an Islamic State affiliate. After six months of torture, he was prosecuted for terrorist offences and held in solitary confinement for 100 days. In December 2018, a court ordered his release. His sister went to collect him from the police on January 18, 2019 and was told he would be released the following day. He has not been seen since.

SPOTLIGHT: Women in India

India: Last week, four men who took part in the rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman on a moving bus in Delhi were executed, seven years after their crime prompted a national outpouring of anger and demands for the police and government to do more to ensure the safety of women.

The protests led to tougher sexual assault laws but have not caused a reduction in violent crimes recorded against women. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, police registered about 34,000 rapes in 2018, an increase of almost 50 per cent since 2012. Many more are believed to go unreported.

India has been rated as one of the world’s most dangerous countries for women. Responding to the hanging of the four men last week, rights campaigners said the country remains afflicted by stark gender inequalities and by the widespread assertion of control by men over women’s lives. “Rather than celebrate the state’s power to hang rapists, let us continue to work for a society which would not produce rapists,” the All India Progressive Women’s Association said.

Recently, women have been at the forefront of a new wave of protests in India, targeting the Modi government’s controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which effectively bars Muslim refugees from gaining citizenship. The measure, coupled with a proposed nationwide register of citizens, threatens to undermine the citizenship of large numbers of the Muslim minority.

Last December, a group of Muslim women staged a protest in Shaheen Bagh, a neighbourhood in Delhi. They were concerned that women may be particularly affected because many lack documents to establish their lineage.

The peaceful Shaheen Bagh sit-in continued for months and became the symbol of nationwide opposition to the laws, prompting mirror protests in other cities. On Tuesday, India’s government ordered a ban on public gatherings to curb the Covid-19 outbreak. Hundreds of police in riot gear turned up at Shaheen Bagh and shut down the protest.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 28, 2020 as "Christchurch killer pleads guilty in NZ".

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