Pentagon chief to nudge ties with Vietnam as human rights concerns linger

By Idrees Ali

HANOI (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will on Thursday look to nudge forward security ties with Vietnam that have been slowly deepening as both countries watch China’s activities in the South China Sea with growing alarm.

Despite growing military relations, more than four decades after the Vietnam War ended in 1975, President Joe Biden’s administration has said there are limits to the relationship until Hanoi makes progress on human rights.

Vietnam has emerged as the most vocal opponent of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and has received U.S. military hardware, including coastguard cutters.

“(Vietnam) wants to know that the U.S. is going to remain engaged militarily, it’s going to continue its presence in the South China Sea,” said Greg Poling, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Lieutenant General Vu Chien Thang, director of the Defense Ministry’s Foreign Relations Department, said on Tuesday the two sides would discuss the coronavirus and measures to “enhance maritime law enforcement capability.”

A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they would also sign a “memorandum of understanding” for Harvard and Texas Tech University to create a database that would help Vietnamese search for those missing from the war.

On Sunday, the United States shipped 3 million doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to Vietnam, raising the amount given by the United States, via the global COVAX vaccine scheme, to 5 million doses.

Austin will meet his counterpart along with Vietnam’s president and prime minister.

Poling said there was a limit to how fast and far the Vietnamese were comfortable with deepening ties.

Experts say there are lingering concerns in Vietnam about Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, withdrawing from the Trans Pacific Partnership trade pact in 2017.

“That really left a lot of countries standing at the altar for lack of a better way to put it, and especially Vietnam,” Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, said.

There are also limits to how far the United States is willing to deepen relations.

As important as Vietnam is in countering China, the United States has said it needs to improve its human rights record.

Vietnam has undergone sweeping economic reforms and social change in recent decades, but the ruling Communist Party retains a tight grip over media and tolerates little dissent.

In Singapore on Tuesday, Austin said the United States would always lead with its values.

“We will discuss those values with our friends and allies everywhere we go and we don’t make any bones about that,” Austin said.

This month, Marc Knapper, Biden’s nominee to be the next U.S. ambassador to Vietnam vowed to boost security ties but said they could only reach their full potential if Hanoi made significant progress on human rights.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Iran names hardline cleric as top judge amid calls for probe into past abuses

DUBAI (Reuters) -Iran’s supreme leader promoted a hardline cleric to serve as head of the judiciary on Friday, amid international calls for investigations into allegations of abuses.

Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei, now the judiciary’s deputy head, will replace Ebrahim Raisi, who takes office in August as president after winning a June 18 election.

Ejei was put on U.S. and EU sanctions blacklists a decade ago for his role in a crackdown on a popular uprising when he served as intelligence minister during a disputed election.

The choice of someone with such a high profile as a hardliner could draw further attention to allegations of past abuses by Iran at a time when the new U.S. administration is trying to negotiate a thaw with Tehran.

This week, a U.N. expert called for a new investigation into Raisi’s alleged role in the deaths of thousands of political prisoners when he served as a judge in the 1980s. Raisi denies wrongdoing.

Rights groups have criticized the election of Raisi in a vote in which prominent rivals were barred from standing.

In a statement, Khamenei urged Ejei to “promote justice, restore public rights, ensure legitimate freedoms, and oversee the proper implementation of laws, prevent crime, and resolutely fight corruption,” state news agency IRNA reported.

The U.N. investigator on human rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman, told Reuters this week there should be an independent inquiry into allegations of state-ordered executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988, and the role played by Raisi as Tehran deputy prosecutor at the time.

“As I have described in my reports, there is a widespread and systemic impunity in the country for gross violations of human rights, both historically in the past as well as in the present,” he said. “There are very few if any real avenues for accountability in line with international standards within domestic channels.”

Iran has repeatedly dismissed the criticism of its human rights record as baseless and a result of a lack of understanding of its Islamic laws. It says its legal system is independent and not influenced by political interests.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said last month that Raisi’s election was a blow for human rights and called for him to be investigated over his role in the 1988 executions.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Robin Emmot in Brussels and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Editing by William Maclean and Howard Goller)

Biden, Putin to meet in Geneva on June 16 amid disagreements

By Nandita Bose and Arshad Mohammed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet in Geneva on June 16, the White House and the Kremlin said on Tuesday amid sharp disputes over election interference, cyberattacks, human rights and Ukraine.

Earlier this month, Reuters reported that both countries were lowering expectations for breakthroughs at the superpower summit, with neither in a mood to make concessions on their disagreements.

“The leaders will discuss the full range of pressing issues, as we seek to restore predictability and stability to the U.S.-Russia relationship,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Tuesday.

The Kremlin said in a statement that the two leaders would discuss bilateral ties, problems related to strategic nuclear stability, and other issues including cooperation in the fight against COVID-19 and regional conflicts.

Biden has previously said he wants Putin to stop trying to influence U.S. elections, stop cyberattacks on U.S. networks emanating from Russia, stop threatening Ukraine’s sovereignty and release jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

The White House has avoided describing Biden as seeking a “reset” in relations with Putin, a term often used by former U.S. presidents as they seek to improve relations with Russia.

Rather, U.S. officials see the face-to-face meeting as an opportunity to tilt the relationship away from what they view as former President Donald Trump’s fawning overtures to Putin.

Russian officials told Reuters they regard the summit as an opportunity to hear from Biden directly after what a source close to the Russian government said were mixed messages from the U.S. administration that took office on Jan. 20.

Putin views U.S. pressure over Navalny and its support for pro-democracy activists in Russia and Belarus as tantamount to interfering in Russian domestic affairs.

Russia is also unhappy about U.S. sanctions, including those announced on April 15 that included curbs to the Russian sovereign debt market to punish Moscow for interfering in the 2020 U.S. election, cyber hacking, bullying Ukraine and other alleged malign actions which Russia denies.

The U.S. government blacklisted Russian companies, expelled Russian diplomats and barred U.S. banks from buying sovereign bonds from Russia’s central bank, national wealth fund and Finance Ministry. The United States warned Russia that more penalties were possible but said it did not want to escalate.

Russia denies meddling in U.S. elections, orchestrating a cyber hack that used U.S. tech company SolarWinds Corp SWI.N to penetrate U.S. government networks and employing a nerve agent to poison Navalny, who is imprisoned on charges he says are politically motivated.

Biden has also voiced concerns about the buildup of Russian forces in Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine in March 2014, and along the border with Ukraine, which have raised U.S. worries about a possible invasion.

Another topic likely to come up is Western outrage at Belarus, which scrambled a fighter and forced a Ryanair plane to land on Sunday in Minsk, where authorities arrested a Belarusian dissident journalist aboard the plane.

Russia has denied reports four of its citizens got off the plane in Minsk, which sparked suspicions of Russian involvement.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and Nandita Bose; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Howard Goller)

Human rights activists urge athletes to boycott Beijing Games

(Reuters) – Human rights activists on Tuesday called for athletes to boycott next year’s Winter Olympics in China and put pressure on the International Olympic Committee over the staging of the Games.

Beijing is set to host the Olympics in February 2022, but the IOC has faced criticism over its decision to award the country the Games in light of China’s human rights record.

The calls for a full boycott came ahead of a U.S. congressional hearing at which the Winter Olympics and China’s human rights record were being discussed.

Representatives of the World Uyghur Congress, Tibet Action Institute, China Against the Death Penalty, Students for a Free Tibet and Campaign for Uyghurs told a media conference that continued alleged human rights violations by China meant they had no option but to seek a full boycott.

“There’s still time to make a difference. This does not have to be the end of the story,” said Lhadon Tethong, of the Tibet Action Institute. “Athletes have incredible power and the platform to change the world. If they can speak out for the right of all people to exist, and to live free from fear and repression… that at this point would make a huge difference. We appeal to the athletes to speak out and use their power because they have a lot.”

The IOC did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment, but has said in the past that it is a non-political organization and takes allegations of human rights violations very seriously.

“Many of the athletes that we are engaged with are incredible people,” said Julie Millsap of the Campaign for Uyghurs. “I would just ask them to consider what all of these people who are asking for the boycott have lost. This is a horrible position to be in. But this is what’s necessary.”

Activist Zumretay Arkin of the World Uyghur Congress said more than 50 of his relatives had been detained in China.

“We have lost entire families and relatives and friends,” Arkin added. “I urge (the athletes) to put themselves in our shoes. They might lose one Olympic Games but we have lost (our families) for we don’t know how long.

“I think it’s important for them to use the power they have, because athletes are not just puppets that the IOC or governments can just control.”

The Chinese government has denied any human rights violations.

(Reporting by Iain Axon, writing by Simon Jennings in Bengaluru; Editing by Ken Ferris and Dan Grebler)

Myanmar marks 100 days of junta rule with protests, strikes

(Reuters) – Protesters rallied in towns and cities around Myanmar on Tuesday to denounce its military rulers, 100 days after the generals’ overthrow of an elected government pitched the country into its biggest crisis in decades.

Demonstrators took part in marches, motorcycle convoys and flash protests to evade security forces, some making three-finger gestures of defiance as anti-coup groups renewed calls for the toppling of a junta that has been condemned around the world for killing hundreds of civilians.

The junta has struggled to govern Myanmar since seizing power on Feb. 1. Protests, strikes and a civil disobedience campaign have crippled businesses and the bureaucracy in an overwhelming public rejection of the return of military rule.

Protesters in the biggest city Yangon carried a banner saying “Yangon strikes for complete removal of the enemy,” while demonstrators in Hpakant in Kachin State marched chanting “the revolution must prevail”.

Demonstrators in Hpakant, the Saigang region and elsewhere held signs in support of a National Unity Government (NUG), an anti-junta coalition that has declared itself Myanmar’s legitimate authority. Last week the NUG announced the formation of a “People’s Defense Force”.

The NUG’s spokesman Dr. Sasa, said in a tweet he and other ministers of the parallel government would meet with a U.S. assistant secretary of state on Tuesday to discuss how the United States and its allies “can work together to end this reign of terror”. He did not elaborate on the meeting.

The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request for confirmation of the meeting.

The military arrested elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi hours before the coup. It said its takeover was to protect Myanmar’s fledgling democracy after a November election that it said was marred by fraud. Suu Kyi’s party says its landslide win was legitimate.

INTERNATIONAL CRIMES

In a statement on Tuesday, the NUG said rank-and-file members of the military should recognize that they were responsible for committing international crimes.

“It is time to answer the question clearly whether you will stand on the side of human rights and fairness, or you will continue to violate human rights by committing violence and then face the international court,” it said.

Despite the imposition of limited economic sanctions by the United States, the European Union and others, the junta has shown no sign of compromise. It has the tacit support of neighboring China, a major investor and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

Tuesday’s protests took place amid sporadic violence in the country that has included deadly attacks on military-appointed administrators and weeks of small explosions involving homemade bombs, which the junta says is the work of the ousted government.

The NUG has said the military has orchestrated such attacks as a pretext for its crackdown.

In its nightly news bulletin, state-run MRTV said two members of the security forces were killed and three others wounded on Monday evening in an attack by “terrorists” in the Sagaing region.

A group calling itself the Sagaing People Defense Force, in a statement earlier on Tuesday, claimed responsibility for an attack on security personnel around the same time in the same area, which it said killed three people.

News reporting and information flow inside Myanmar has been severely impacted since the coup, with restrictions on internet access, a ban on foreign broadcasts and some news organizations ordered to close, accused by authorities of inciting rebellion.

Security forces have killed 781 people since the coup, including 52 children, and 3,843 people are in detention, according to the Association for Political Prisoners monitoring group, whose figures are being used by the United Nations.

The U.N. human rights body said on Tuesday the military was showing no let-up in its efforts to consolidate power and its human rights violations went far beyond killings.

“It is clear that there needs to be greater international involvement to prevent the human rights situation in Myanmar from deteriorating further,” said Rupert Colville, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

(Reporting by Reuters Staff; writing by Martin Petty; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Analysis-Biden poised to pivot U.S. arms deals toward security, human rights

By Mike Stone

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Ninety minutes before President Joe Biden took office on January 20th, the United States signed a $23 billion dollar deal to sell F-35 jets, drones and advanced missiles to the United Arab Emirates.

It was part of flurry of last minute deals President Donald Trump had told Congress were coming in his last two months in office, forcing the Biden administration to make quick decisions on whether or not to stick with the geopolitically sensitive weapons sales.

To the surprise of some Democratic allies, Biden has so far kept the lion’s share of Trump’s more controversial agreements. Executives at five large defense contractors who requested anonymity to speak freely were also surprised by the speed of the Biden administration’s deliberations.

Longer-term, however, those executives and five more people in and around the administration told Reuters that Biden’s policy will shift to emphasize human rights over Trump’s more commercial approach to exporting military equipment.

Biden’s posture towards arms exports – specifically around reducing weapons used to attack others – could shift sales at Boeing Co, Raytheon Technologies Corp and Lockheed Martin Corp. That means fewer bullets, bombs and missiles, while security products like radars, surveillance equipment and defenses against attacks get the green light.

In an interview last week, Raytheon’s CFO Neil Mitchill said that offensive munitions exports, “going forward, the kinds of sales that we were talking about have been declining,” adding there has been a multi-year downward trend of offensive weapon sales to foreign customers.

Boeing and Lockheed declined to comment.

In the early days of the Biden administration, officials paused weapons sales to Middle East allies, including sales of Raytheon’s and Boeing-made precision guided munitions to Saudi Arabia.

Eventually a determination was made to only sell the Kingdom “defensive” arms, while limiting weapons that could be used to attack out of concern over casualties in Saudi Arabia’s war with Yemen.

Biden’s team ultimately decided to stick with the massive UAE deal. The move spurred criticism from the human rights group Amnesty International which immediately bashed the decision and drew complaints from lawmaker Robert Menendez, Chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

One former U.S. official familiar with the Biden transition team’s thinking noted that many aspects of the F-35 sale still need to be negotiated, giving them leverage as the Abraham Accords between UAE and Israel are implemented. The F-35 sale was a side deal to the accords.

PIVOT TO DEFENSE

But arms deals like Trump’s UAE agreement, and others with governments that have poor records on human rights records look far less likely from the Biden White House.

“While economic security will remain a factor” when reviewing weapons sales, the Biden Administration will “reprioritize” other factors including U.S. national security, human rights and nonproliferation, a U.S. official has told Reuters.

“I’m hopeful that as we hear statements that support human rights as being front and center in arms transfer deliberations, we’ll see that play out through actual decisions, and not just words,” Rachel Stohl, vice president at the Stimson Center in Washington said.

During the transition period from election day in November to Biden’s inauguration, Trump’s team sent notification of $31 billion of foreign arms sales to Congress. Congressional notifications occur for most foreign military sales before a contract can be signed to sell a weapon.

On average, foreign military sales under Trump amounted to $57.5 billion per year, versus an average of $53.9 billion per year for the eight years under his predecessor Barack Obama, in 2020 dollars, according to Bill Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy think tank.

Biden’s approval of several late-Trump deals will ease the political and diplomatic transition from one administration to another, according to a State Department official. In the case of the UAE deal, the official said, it helps the two nations “meet our mutual strategic objectives to build a stronger, interoperable, and more capable security partnership.”

As Lockheed’s CEO Jim Taiclet put it to Reuters late last year, “alliances are really important… Foreign Military Sales are part and parcel of that.”

The Biden administration inherited a backlog of more than 500 weapons export deals teed up by the Trump administration, one person briefed on the State Department’s backlog said.

Going forward, the Stimson Center’s Rachel Stohl said Biden’s State Department team is “looking at countries, at individual weapons systems, as well as individual sales.” But as more appointees take their posts at the State Department she said there could be a “paradigm shift on the way in which arms sales are considered as part of holistic efforts to develop and build partnerships and capacity.”

(Reporting by Mike Stone in Washington; editing by Chris Sanders and Edward Tobin)

Myanmar security forces kill nine as Indonesia, envoys call for end to violence

(Reuters) – Security forces killed at least nine opponents of Myanmar’s Feb. 1 coup on Friday, a funeral service and media said, as Indonesia urged an end to violence and Western ambassadors condemned what they called the military’s immoral, indefensible actions.

Police and soldiers have used increasingly violent tactics to suppress demonstrations by supporters of detained elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but that has not deterred the protesters and crowds turned out again on Friday.

Security forces opened fire in a confrontation in the central town of Aungban as they tried to clear a protesters’ barricade, media and a witness reported.

“Security forces came to remove barriers but the people resisted and they fired,” the witness, who declined to be identified, said by telephone.

An official with Aungban’s funerary service, who declined to be identified, told Reuters eight people were killed, seven on the spot and one wounded person who died after being taken to hospital in the nearby town of Kalaw.

The spokesman for the junta was not immediately available for comment but has previously said security forces have used force only when necessary. Critics have derided that.

One protester was killed in the northeastern town of Loikaw, the Myanmar Now news portal said. One person was shot and killed in the main city of Yangon, social media posts showed. Reuters could not confirm that death.

Police ordered people in some Yangon neighborhoods to dismantle barricades and have been hunting for protest leaders, residents said. Video on social media showed police forcing a man to crawl down on a street on all fours.

Demonstrators were also out in the second city of Mandalay, the central towns of Myingyan and Katha, and Myawaddy in the east, witnesses and media reported.

Ambassadors of Western countries condemned the violence as “immoral and indefensible”, in particular in Yangon’s Hlaing Tharyar industrial district, where dozens were killed over several days after Chinese-owned garment factories were torched last weekend.

“Internet blackouts and suppression of the media will not hide the military’s abhorrent actions,” they said in a statement.

The total number of people killed in weeks of unrest has risen to at least 234, based on a tally by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners activist group.

‘NO MORE VICTIMS’

Myanmar’s Asian neighbors, led by Indonesia, have offered to help find a solution but failed to make headway.

The 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has long held to the principle of not commenting on each other’s internal affairs, but there are growing signs that the Myanmar crisis is forcing a reassessment of that.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo made some of the strongest comments yet from a regional leader on the crackdown.

“Indonesia urges that the use of violence in Myanmar be stopped immediately so that there are no more victims,” Jokowi, as he is known, said in a virtual address.

“The safety and welfare of the people must be the top priority. Indonesia also urges dialogue, that reconciliation is carried out immediately to restore democracy.”

Myanmar’s coup leader, General Min Aung Hlaing, took part in a video conference with regional defense chiefs on Thursday, his first international engagement since seizing power, state television showed.

At the meeting, the head of Indonesia’s armed forces, Hadi Tjahjanto, expressed concern over the Myanmar situation, the Indonesian military said on its website.

Singapore’s military chief, Lieutenant-General Melvyn Ong, also expressed “grave concern” and urged Myanmar to avoid lethal force, the Singapore defense ministry said.

INTERNET RESTRICTIONS

Authorities have tightened restricted on internet services, making information increasingly difficult to verify, and also clamped down on private media.

The U.N. human rights office said this week about 37 journalists had been arrested so far. Two more were detained in the capital, Naypyitaw, on Friday while covering a hearing for an arrested member of Suu Kyi’s party, said the Mizzima news portal, the former employer of one of them, Than Htike Aung.

The other detained reporter was Aung Thura of the British Broadcasting Corp (BBC). The BBC said they were taken away by unidentified men and it called on authorities to help find its accredited journalist and confirm he was safe.

Suu Kyi, 75, faces accusations of bribery and other crimes that could see her banned from politics and jailed if convicted. Her lawyer says the charges are trumped up.

The army has defended its takeover, saying its accusations of fraud in a Nov. 8 election swept by Suu Kyi’s party were ignored by the electoral commission. It has promised a new election but not set a date.

(Reporting by Reuters Staff; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Stephen Coates, Clarence Fernandez and Frances Kerry)

U.S. warns firms of human rights abuse risks in China’s Xinjiang province

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Wednesday issued an advisory warning U.S. companies about the risks they face from maintaining supply chains associated with human rights abuses in China’s western Xinjiang province.

The advisory, issued by the U.S. State, Treasury, Commerce and Homeland Security departments, seeks to add more U.S. pressure on China at a time of heightened tensions over China’s treatment of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang and Beijing’s new national security law for Hong Kong.

The advisory said that companies doing business in Xinjiang or with entities using Xinjiang labor face “reputational, economic, and legal risks” from human rights abuses, including forced labor, mass detention and forced sterilization.

“CEOs should read this notice closely and be aware of the reputational, economic and legal risks of supporting such assaults on human dignity,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters on Wednesday.

The action follows a U.S. Commerce Department move last month that added seven companies and two institutions to an economic blacklist for being “complicit in human rights violations and abuses committed in China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, forced labor and high-technology surveillance against Uighurs” and others.

China’s foreign ministry said in May it deplored and firmly opposed U.S. sanctions over Xinjiang, calling it a purely internal affair for China.

(Reporting by David Lawder and Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Richard Chang)

Don’t let impact of coronavirus breed hate, urges EU human rights agency

Reuters
By Megan Rowling

BARCELONA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The global outbreak of coronavirus will impinge on people’s freedom and other human rights but steps must be taken to stop “unacceptable behaviour” including discrimination and racial attacks, said the head of a European human rights watchdog.

Michael O’Flaherty, director of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, said he was shocked when a waiter told him the best way to tackle coronavirus would be to stop migrants coming into his country because they have poor hygiene.

He noted other media reports of people being beaten up in the street for looking Chinese and others stopped at airports based on similar prejudices around ethnicity.

“That’s the sort of really worrying fake news-based spreading of hate and distrust which further undermines the ability to be welcoming, inclusive, respectful societies,” the Irish human rights lawyer told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The U.N.’s children’s agency UNICEF on Wednesday also said that fear of the virus was contributing to “unacceptable” discrimination against vulnerable people, including refugees and migrants, and it would “push pack against stigmatisation”.

O’Flaherty said it was necessary for public health responses to limit human rights to stem the coronavirus spread, but warned governments should not “use a sledgehammer to break a nut”.

“It’s about doing just enough to achieve your purpose and not an exaggerated response,” he added.

His Vienna-based agency, which advises EU and national decision makers on human rights issues, is working with teams of researchers across the European Union to prepare a report this month on ways to protect rights in a time of global turmoil.

“I am not saying everything that’s being done there is wrong … but there is an impact: a reduction in the enjoyment of human rights,” he said.

The World Health Organization described the coronavirus outbreak as a pandemic on Wednesday, with its chief urging the global community to redouble efforts to contain the outbreak.

As well as curtailing people’s freedom of movement, O’Flaherty said there was bound to be a ripple effect from the virus that has so far infected more than 119,000 people and killed nearly 4,300, according to a Reuters tally.

This would range from poor children being deprived of their main daily meal as schools closed, to gig economy workers being laid off with little access to social welfare, he noted.

In response, some governments – from Britain to Ireland and Spain – have introduced measures to boost social security payments or help small businesses stay afloat.

Governments may also need to tackle price inflation and profiteering from in-demand medicines and equipment like face masks, as well as ensure equal access to any treatments or vaccines that may be developed in future, he added.

Extra care was required to protect marginalised social groups from the virus, such as the homeless and refugees living in crowded conditions without decent shelter or healthcare.

O’Flaherty urged states to cooperate and learn from each other’s experiences while urging the private sector to do its bit, for example, by clamping down on hate speech and fake news on social media or attempts to market false cures.

If dealt with in the right way, the coronavirus epidemic could help Europeans understand the importance of safeguarding human rights for everyone, especially in tough times, he said.

“My feeling is that if we engage this crisis smartly, it can be an opportunity to help promote the sense, across our societies, that human rights is about all of us,” he said

(Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

Greece blocks 35,000 migrants, plans to deport arrivals after March 1

By Lefteris Papadimas and Bulent Usta

KASTANIES, Greece/EDIRNE, Turkey (Reuters) – Greece has repulsed nearly 35,000 migrants trying to cross onto its territory illegally since Turkey opened its border nearly a week ago, government sources said on Thursday, as it prepares to deport hundreds of others who made it through.

Thousands of migrants have made for Greece since Ankara said on Feb. 28 that it would let migrants cross its borders into Europe, reneging on a commitment to hold them on its territory under a 2016 deal with the European Union.

Ankara has accused Greek forces of shooting dead four migrants. A charge rejected by Athens, which says Turkish forces are helping the migrants to cross the border. Both sides used tear gas at the Kastanies border post on Wednesday.

Turkey’s interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, visited Edirne province bordering Greece on Thursday and announced the deployment of 1,000 special police to the area to halt the pushback of migrants toward its territory.

Soylu, who said on Wednesday that Turkey was preparing a case at the European Court of Human Rights over Greece’s treatment of migrants, accused Greek forces of wounding 164 people and pushing back nearly 5,000 into Turkey.

Greece on Thursday banned vessels from sailing around the Aegean islands of Chios, Lesbos and Samos. They are all close to the Turkish coast and a regular target for dinghies packed with migrants trying to enter the EU.

The ban exempts merchant ships and vessels of the EU’s border agency Frontex.

The Aegean Sea remained choppy on Thursday and there were no further sightings of dinghies carrying migrants.

Lesbos already hosts more than 20,000 asylum seekers, many of them living in filthy conditions in overcrowded camps.

The situation at the Kastanies border crossing was calm on Thursday. Migrants – many of whom are from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as Syria and other Arab nations – huddled in tents and makeshift camps on the Turkish side of the border.

HUMAN RIGHTS CONCERNS

Greek border guards rebuffed nearly 7,000 attempts in the last 24 hours alone, taking the total since Feb. 29 to 34,778 and the number of arrests of those who got through to 244, the Greek government sources said.

Migrants who arrived in Greece illegally after March 1 will be transferred to the northern city of Serres and deported back to their own countries, Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said late on Wednesday.

“Our aim is to return them to their countries,” he told the Athens News Agency.

Mitarachi said migrants who entered Greece prior to Jan. 1, 2019 and are living on its Aegean islands would be transferred to the mainland in the coming days.

Athens announced on March 1 that it would not accept any new asylum applications for a month following the build-up of migrants at the border. This has triggered criticism from human rights agencies.

“It’s very sad that we have seen again human beings treated as political weapons… This is unacceptable,” said Francesco Rocca, head of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), on a visit to the Greek-Turkish border where he struggled to hold back tears.

The U.N. migration agency, the IOM, also urged all countries to respect the migrants’ human rights.

“… international legal obligations must be upheld, in particular with respect to those who may be in need of international protection,” it said in a statement.

Greece and the EU accuse Turkey of deliberately goading the migrants to cross the border as a way of pressuring Brussels into offering more money or supporting Ankara’s geopolitical aims in the Syrian conflict.

Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees and faces another influx amid increased fighting in northwest Syria, says it cannot take in any more and that the EU must do more.

President Tayyip Erdogan discussed the migrant issue with senior EU officials in Ankara on Wednesday but his spokesman said the Europeans had made “no concrete proposition” on how to resolve the crisis.

(Additional reporting by Athens and Istanbul bureaux and by Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; writing by Foo Yun Chee; Editing by Gareth Jones)