World

Fiji leader Frank Bainimarama is revealed to have had heart surgery in Melbourne. The United Nations expresses concern at rising nationalism in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Jailed Yang Hengjun says China tortured him.

By Jonathan Pearlman.

Saudi coalition retaliates after Houthi attacks on Abu Dhabi

A Yemeni man inspects the damage caused by Saudi air strikes in the capital, Sanaa, on Tuesday.
A Yemeni man inspects the damage caused by Saudi air strikes in the capital, Sanaa, on Tuesday.
Credit: Mohammed Huwais / AFP

Great power rivalry

United Arab Emirates: Yemen’s Houthi militants launched attacks against the United Arab Emirates on Monday, as the long-running war in Yemen caused heightened tensions in the Gulf.

Emirati officials said drones may have been used in the attacks, which hit an oil storage facility, killing three people, and caused a fire in a building site at Abu Dhabi International Airport, disrupting flights.

The war in Yemen between the Iran-backed Houthis and Saudi-led forces, which are supported by the UAE, has caused an estimated 377,000 deaths and is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. According to the United Nations, 24 million people – or 80 per cent of the population – need aid and protection.

The Houthis, who overthrew the Yemeni government seven years ago, have regularly launched drone strikes inside neighbouring Saudi Arabia. But attacks against the UAE, which does not share a border with Yemen, have been rare and were previously denied
by Emirati officials.

The drone attack this week appeared to be a response to escalating violence in Yemen, where the UAE has backed an offensive that pushed the Houthis out of areas they had seized in southern and central provinces. On the day before the attack, the Saudi-led coalition claimed its air strikes had killed more than 220 Houthi fighters. Further Saudi air raids on Tuesday killed more than 20 people.

The UAE, Saudi Arabia and Iran have recently indicated they are willing to try to improve ties and to address the crisis in Yemen. Late last year, Iran held separate talks with Emirati and Saudi officials. But the UAE confirmed this week it was investigating the role of Iran in the drone attacks, further weakening the prospects of a rapprochement.

The neighbourhood

Fiji: Frank Bainimarama, Fiji’s prime minister, has been criticised over the secrecy surrounding a trip to Australia for medical treatment. The Fijian government revealed last weekend that Bainimarama, aged 67, was in Melbourne and had undergone urgent heart surgery. He is due to return to work by the end of next month.

Local media and opposition MPs began questioning the whereabouts of Bainimarama after he failed to visit areas hit by a tropical cyclone on January 10. He was last seen in public at a funeral on January 5.

The opposition expressed support for Bainimarama’s recovery but said he should have informed the public before leaving Fiji and should have provided information about his condition.

“We don’t know anything as far as who is the acting prime minister if the prime minister is not in the country,” Biman Prasad, the leader of the National Federation Party, told Radio New Zealand.

“In any decent democracy, if the prime minister is going abroad, the honourable thing for the government to do is to inform the people.”

The speculation about Bainimarama ended when Fiji’s acting prime minister, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, announced he and Bainimarama had both travelled overseas for medical reasons. Sayed-Khaiyum had been in Singapore.

“We expect to have a prime minister back at the helm of the nation, fitter than ever, by the end of next month,” Sayed-Khaiyum said.

Democracy in retreat

Bosnia and Herzegovina: At the end of the Bosnian War in 1995, the warring sides agreed to a peace deal that included the creation of an international high representative – typically a European politician – to oversee the agreement.

Last July, Austrian diplomat Valentin Inzko, who then held the position, outlawed the denial of genocide following efforts by Bosnian Serbs to deny the scope of the massacre in Srebrenica in 1995, in which more than 8000 Bosnian Muslims were killed. Inzko also introduced prison sentences for the glorification of war criminals – a move that followed expressions of adulation for Ratko Mladić, a Bosnian Serb and convicted war criminal.

But the displays of fervent nationalism and hatred have continued. Earlier this month, Bosnian Serbs held parades to celebrate their national day, at which they sang Islamophobic songs and waved pictures of Mladić. Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian Serb leader, has repeatedly denied there was a genocide at Srebrenica and has threatened to push the national military out of Republika Srpska, an autonomous Bosnian Serb-majority region.

The European Union and other observers have warned that the rising nationalistic sentiment could unravel the 1995 peace deal and cause the country to disintegrate.

The United Nations last week expressed concern about the risk of violence and condemned the recent glorification of atrocities.

“The failure to prevent and sanction such acts, which fuel a climate of extreme anxiety, fear and insecurity in some communities, is a major obstacle to trust-building and reconciliation,” said Liz Throssell, a spokesperson for the UN Human Rights Office.

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s current high representative, Christian Schmidt, a German politician, told Politico this week he would not rule out removing Dodik from office. “I know what tools are at my disposal,” he said.

Spotlight: Yang Hengjun speaks

In 2019, Yang Hengjun, a Chinese–Australian novelist, political blogger, scholar and former Chinese diplomat, was arrested at Guangzhou airport after arriving from New York. He was accused of spying and was eventually tried at a secret one-day hearing last May.

For the past three years, few details have emerged about the charges or about his condition. But the 56-year-old was able to release a statement this week through his wife and supporters, in which he said he had been tortured but remained committed to promoting democracy. He reportedly dictated the statement before being blindfolded and returned to his cell.

“I’m not guilty but they treat me like dirt here and they tortured me,” he said.

Yang said he had not confessed to any crimes and remained hopeful that he will be freed. His family and supporters say his health is deteriorating and have called for him to be released on bail and returned to Australia.

Australia’s Foreign Affairs minister, Marise Payne, said the detention of Yang was “arbitrary” and called for his immediate release.

“Neither Dr Yang nor the Australian government have been provided with details as to the charges against him or of the investigation,” she said.

“Australia is also extremely concerned about Dr Yang’s health.”

Before moving to Australia in 2000, Yang worked as a Chinese diplomat, possibly as a low-level spy. He completed a PhD at the University of Technology Sydney and wrote several spy novels before starting a popular blog in which he promoted Chinese democracy. Before his detention, he was a visiting scholar at Columbia University.

Elaine Pearson, the Australia director at Human Rights Watch, this week expressed concern that Yang – like many Chinese prisoners before him – could die as a result of his detention.

“A prison sentence should not be a death sentence in China,” she said in a tweet. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 22, 2022 as "Saudi coalition retaliates after Houthi attacks on Abu Dhabi".

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

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