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Afghanistan-Pakistan border slowly eases open to people and trade

Pakistan allowed thousands of stranded Afghans to return home after reopening the two primary border crossings between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Islamabad said the two border crossings on the Durand Line, Chaman-Spin Boldak border crossing in Afghanistan’s southeastern Kandahar province and the Torkham gate near the Pakistani northern city of Peshawar, were reopened at a special request from Kabul. The crossings had been closed for a month because of COVID-19.

The Durand Line, established by the British in 1893, divided Afghanistan’s majority Pashtun tribe with Pakistan and still is not officially recognized by Afghanistan as the national border. Federally Administered Tribal Areas serve as the buffer along the Durand Line, of which the Pakistan government retains little control.

The four-day opening ended when Pakistan’s interior ministry shut down the border crossings to slow the spread of COVID-19 through at least April.

Nangarhar governor’s spokesman Attaullah Khogyani (center) speaks at a press conference on Dec. 17, 2016 in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. (Photo: Pajhwok)

Nangarhar’s governor spokesman Attaullah Khogyani said he expected 10,000 containers transited into Afghanistan from Pakistan over the weekend. Another avenue of trade between the two countries is Pakistan’s Karachi Port, where currently 1,900 containers with Afghan Transit Trade items are stuck.

Despite lockdowns on both sides, Pakistan’s cement exports to Afghanistan have grown 49%, said the All Pakistan Cement Manufacturers Association. Exports rose in March despite the COVID-19 border restrictions.

Afghanistan’s Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs Hanif Atmar met Pakistan’s Ambassador Zahid Nasrullah Khan recently to discuss the border crossings and the Afghan refugees, especially those affected by the outbreak of #COVID-19. The first Afghan national, 45 years old, died last month from the COVID-19 pandemic in Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The outpatient departments of major hospitals in Peshawar and elsewhere in the country have been shut due to the rapid spread of the virus. Pakistan reports 15,759 people have tested positive for the virus and 346 have died. Just a week ago, 5,715 people tested positive and 98 had died.

Compiled from news reports of Pajhwok Afghan News.

(Editing by Stephanie Mikulasek and Allison Elyse Gualtieri.)

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Beyond Meat and its rivals rely on Chinese ingredients, opening food-safety debate in the COVID-19 era

While America’s biggest beef and pork producers were nearly laid low in April by COVID-19 cases in their workforce, sales of what detractors call “fake meat” boomed. But the pandemic may in time affect sales of plant-based protein, too, as U.S. consumers become more wary of all things China—which supplies a majority of the products’ ingredients.

The market research firm Nielsen said nationwide sales of meat alternatives rose 224% in the week ending April 25, compared with the same period in 2019. During the last eight weeks, the gain over last year was more than 269%.

China’s food-processing factories provide most of what goes into vegan burger patties and other meat replacements made by market leaders Beyond Meat and Impossible foods—an arrangement that could damage their standing among consumers in the coronavirus age.

 

Four “Beyond Meat” brand beyond sauasages are wrapped on November 18, 2018. (Photo: Helen Alfvegren on CC 2.0 License)

Beyond Meat recently signed a significant deal with Shuangta Foods, located in China’s Shandong province. Shuangta will provide 85 percent of the pea protein for its products. The company said its first purchases will total some 285 tons.

Ever since the emergence of the novel coronavirus in China’s Wuhan province, the world press has criticized the Middle Kingdom for its sanitary standards and its lack of institutional transparency.

“We have lots of opportunities to buy food—whether plants, real meat or other foods—that is grown and produced right here in North America,” Will Coggin, managing director of the Center for Consumer Freedom, a food industry-backed advocacy group, said. His organization runs CleanFoodFacts.com, an unsubtle dig at imitation meat brands.

“The coronavirus crisis has many Americans questioning the wisdom of being so reliant on China, both from a practical and ethical point of view,” he said. “Once American consumers learn that so much ultra-processed plant protein comes from China, fake meat won’t seem so appetizing.”

Fans of meat alternatives cite animal welfare, climate change, global food shortages and human health as reasons for their devotion. As a result, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have made their way into the mainstream, signing deals with Dunkin Donuts and Burger King.

But food safety scandals have long plagued China. Plant-based proteins sourced from China were used to produce pet food that killed nearly 4,000 cats and dogs across the United States in 2007. The food was contaminated with melamine, an ingredient found in plastics and glues.

Some farm animal feed was also affected.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture later concluded that between 2.5 million and 3 million Americans had eaten chicken and pork from animals that consumed tainted Chinese feed.

The Impossible Whopper from Burger King is wrapped in its signiture green label on August 19, 2019. (Photo: Tony Webster on CC 2.0 License)

Chinese-made baby formula laced with melamine killed six children and hospitalized 53,000 there a year later. Manufacturers had added the nitrogen-rich chemical to milk in order to mask the results of tests measuring protein, according to the World Health Organization. The milk’s protein levels were low, the agency said, because it had been watered down.

Undeclared wheat gluten was the other culprit in the damaging Chinese pet-food episode. The FDA reported in January 2020 that pet food is “not subject to mandatory inspection” in China. The agency concluded that it “does not know which regions of the country may or may not be impacted by the problem, which firms are the major manufacturers and exporters of vegetable proteins to the United States, where these vegetable proteins are grown in China, and what controls are currently in place to prevent against contamination.”

While many American food companies source their pea protein from China, few disclose much to American or European regulators. Axiom Foods provided more than 100 pages of data to the FDA when it asked the agency to certify that its ingredients are “Generally Recognized As Safe,” a designation that would exempt it from many food safety regulations. The company mentioned Chinese production in just one paragraph.

Now Foods published a report about a trip to audit its providers in China, but details were similarly thin.

Representatives from Now Foods and Beyond Meat did not respond to requests for comment about how the safety and quality of food sourced from China can be guaranteed in light of that nation’s role in sparking the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lucas Thompson, a spokesman for Impossible Foods, said the company’s supply chain and production volumes haven’t been affected, and that it is “continuously evaluating our entire supply chain with the goal of ensuring product safety and minimizing delays or disruptions.”

The company is restricting external visitors to its facilities and those of its manufacturing partners, he said, and is sanitizing, disinfecting and deep cleaning all workplaces to ensure strict hygiene standards and worker safety.

“Impossible Foods meets or exceeds all guidelines set forth by applicable public health agencies and continuously consults with experts in the public and private sector,” he said.

The “Supplier Code of Conduct” handed out to Impossible Foods vendors lays the food safety burden on their shoulders, however, saying they must ensure ingredients “are accurately labeled and comply with all federal, state and local requirements. Suppliers are required to immediately report to us any issue that could negatively affect the quality or safety of any Impossible Foods product.”

The code is thin on enforcement mechanisms. It offers Hong Kong whistleblowers—but not those in mainland China—a toll-free hotline.

It’s unclear whether Chinese suppliers are better at maintaining food safety standards than they used to be.

A poter advertises “The Impossible Burger” on April 22, 2018. (Photo: anokarina/Flickr on CC 2.0 License)

Burger King, KFC, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Starbucks were forced to apologize six years ago for selling expired meat sourced from Shanghai Husi Food Co. Ltd. A television exposé found workers handling meat with their bare hands and packaging ground beef patties that had sat on the floor.

Then came aluminum-laced dumplings and cadmium in rice. And Hunan province police in 2010 raided a network of underground businesses that made and sold “peas”—in reality small soybeans mixed with illegal dyes and sodium metabisulfite, a preservative also used as a disinfectant. People who attempted to cook them found they turned yellow, and the water turned green.

A 2018 study from the Clean Label Project, a nonprofit watchdog that licenses safety certifications to food producers, found significant levels of lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium and other toxins in a majority of 130 protein powders sold at Amazon and organic food retailers.

Seventy-five percent of the protein powders had elevated levels of lead; 55 percent had elevated levels of BPA, an endocrine disruptor that medical research suggests may be linked to Type 2 diabetes.

Many of those products originated in China or were made with Chinese components.

Despite a raft of scandals, China’s global dominance of food processing continues. Today China processes up to 79 percent of the soy protein isolate, 50 percent of the textured soy protein, and 23 percent of the soy protein concentrate used worldwide, according to research published by the Good Food Institute, an advocacy group that promotes vegan food.

These same raw materials are often used in protein supplements, including energy bars and milkshake powders widely consumed by Americans and Europeans.

Fake Meat, Diced Onions and Bell Pepper fry in a pan on November 25, 2010. (Photo: “lvalue” on Flickr, CC 2.0 License)

China’s share of the global food processing market has climbed sharply since 2016. “As of 2017, there were seven pea producers in China with a total processing capacity of 67,453 tonnes per year, which will increase to 146,313 tonnes per year by the end of 2019, according to expansion plans,” the Good Food Institute wrote in 2019.

Dietary vegans who spoke with Zenger News said they try to rely mostly on unprocessed sources of protein instead of meat substitutes.

Montreal resident Camilo Gómez said he occasionally uses protein powder in a smoothie, but covers his protein needs with tofu, tempeh, beans, lentils, quinoa and nuts. “I see [them] as treats, when I crave a burger, I’ll have one,” he said of meat alternatives like Beyond’s burgers and faux chicken nuggets, “but I don’t rely on them as my protein source.”

Aleksandra Denda, a vegan who lives in New York City, said she’s “not a fan of any kind of protein powders” because of the lack of heavy metals testing. The contamination, she said, brings “larger damage than benefit.”

Chaya Bender, a vegan from Greenwich, Connecticut, told Zenger she consumes meat substitutes regularly. “I think fake meat is delicious and I do eat it about once a week,” she said. “I really think it’s for vegetarians and meat eaters, primarily. It’s like gateway veganism.”

More casual consumers of meat alternatives could be driven away as grassroots anger against China builds this year.

A Pew Research Center study found 60% of Americans already had an unfavorable view of China in 2019, a 14-year high. Nearly 24% of Americans saw China as the biggest threat to America, tying with Russia and well ahead of North Korea’s 12%.

Impossible Foods founder and CEO Pat Brown predicted robust growth at the end of the year.

“Demand has soared from every category in which we do business.” Brown said then, citing “large fast-food chains, individual restaurants, colleges and universities, corporate campuses, theme parks and more.” No such projections have circulated since the COVID-19 panic shut down many restaurants across the country.

(Editing by Allison Elyse Gualtieri)

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Test your news knowledge with Zenger: May 7

Which state has canceled its upcoming Democratic presidential primary election?


Pixabay

Correct!
Wrong!

Saturday Night Live did a skit with a fake TV message from which state governor?


Joe Senft/Flickr

Correct!
Wrong!

Cecily Strong played Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Which NBA team returned a $4.6 million federal loan intended for small businesses?


Kenny Westray

Correct!
Wrong!

The Lakers are the most recent major company to return a loan from the federal government intended to grant small businesses relief from the COVID-19 epidemic.

The Pentagon released unclassified footage of “unidentified aerial phenomena” from which years?


Pentagon

Correct!
Wrong!

The Department of Defense released the footage from 2004 and 2015 taken by Navy pilots.

Model Gigi Hadid is expecting a baby with which former member of One Direction?


Eva Rinaldi on CC 2.0 License

Correct!
Wrong!

TMZ reported that Hadid is around 20 weeks along.

AMC Theaters will no longer show which studio’s movies after a dispute over whether to release films in theaters before allowing the public to stream them?


U.S. Air Force photo by R.J. Oriez

Correct!
Wrong!

AMC Theatres will no longer play Universal films effective immediately, after NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell commented on its decision to skip a traditional theatrical release for “Trolls World Tour” during the coronavirus pandemic and make it a digital exclusive.

Swiss authorities said children younger than 10 can now do what as the country begins to ease its coronavirus restrictions?


Pixabay

Correct!
Wrong!

The Swiss health ministry’s infectious diseases chief Daniel Koch said scientists “now know young children don’t transmit the virus.”

Which U.S. state is NOT among the five with the most reported COVID-19 cases, as of the end of April?


Videoblocks

Correct!
Wrong!

The top five states, in order, are New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Illinois and California.

Which American multinational corporation plans to cut about 10% of its jobs as the coronavirus pandemic wreaks havoc on earnings?


Videoblocks

Correct!
Wrong!

Boeing posted its second consecutive quarterly loss after turning a profit for more than 40 straight quarters.

Which talk show is airing longer episodes during the coronavirus pandemic?


Jorge Franganillo/Flickr

Correct!
Wrong!

For the first time in its history, “The Daily Show” will air for 45 minutes instead of 30 minutes amid the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.

Test your news knowledge with Zenger: May 7

News Novice
Casual Content Consumer
Current Events Connoisseur
Certified News Junkie

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Chile turns to controversial ‘immunity passports’ in plan for reopening

Chile will issue “immunity passports” for recovered COVID-19 patients, a measure critics say puts the economy before people’s health.

Under the “Safe Return Plan,” Chile’s government aims to restart the economy over the next weeks. President Sebastián Piñera had ordered 60,000 public employees to return to their offices. Shopping malls can gradually reopen as other private companies will receive support, too. School is expected to restart in May.

A controversial measure under the plan involves offering patients who have recovered from COVID-19 an “immunity passport.” This will allow them to leave their homes, even if their locality is under quarantine.

Patients count as “recovered” if they have not shown symptoms for 14 days—28 days for those with a compromised immune system—according to the Health Ministry. But the measure sparked controversy.

A 1992 Chilean Passport. (Public Domain)

Although it did not mention Chile directly, the World Health Organization took aim at the idea: “Some governments have suggested that the detection of antibodies to the SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, could serve as the basis for an ‘immunity passport’ or ‘risk-free certificate’ that would enable individuals to travel or to return to work assuming that they are protected against re-infection. There is currently no evidence that people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection.”

Health experts also criticized the passports because the tests may not be accurate. Someone could carry antibodies for other coronaviruses without having had COVID-19, thus test positive and get an “immunity passport.”

The government’s proposal is based on research that solely proves a carrier is unlikely to infect others after 10 days. Yet, as scientific evidence for immunity is still missing, experts believe the government’s rationale owes to economic pressure.

“I think the government is currently in a limbo between health and economy. The first weeks of the outbreak in Chile we did great, because we all complied with the rules imposed by the president,” said Dr. Catterina Ferreccio, a virologist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile and a government adviser. “Now, several weeks later, we see that the health situation becomes a normality and the fear now shifts toward the economy.”

Earlier in April, Chile’s Central Bank predicted a 2.5% contraction for 2020. The export-reliant economy already took a hit from the social protests that erupted last October and the pandemic threatens to plunge the country into even deeper trouble. Unemployment is at 8%, and the president admitted the rate is probably higher and will continue to grow.

Sebastián Piñera, a billionaire elected on his economic promises, has enjoyed rising approval ratings since the outbreak. From a historic low of 6% at the height of the social protests to around 22%, according to the latest national survey, his management of the pandemic, rather than the protests, will help him. Managing the pandemic enabled him to take back the steering wheel.

Nevertheless, canceling telework for public employees and ordering them back to their offices came unexpectedly. “I often give counsel to the president. For me, the announcement came as a complete surprise. I and other health experts were not consulted about it. There seems to be a lot of pressure from the economic lobby to reopen the country,” Ferreccio said.

The public employees union refused the order.

Early on, the country saved time and resources by focusing on combating the virus. Leading South America in testing capacity, Chile could keep the death rate comparatively low. The government declared a State of Catastrophe, allowing it to put districts and cities with coronavirus outbreaks under quarantine and imposing a countrywide nightly curfew. These measures have thus far prevented a bigger catastrophe. But the virus is now spreading to the densely populated lower income areas, so predilection for economic growth, leading to measures like the immunity passport, might still spell disaster.

(Editing by Christian Scheinpflug and Allison Elyse Gualtieri)

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UN seeks answers in ‘disturbing’ case of drowned Afghan migrants

The United Nations has called for an investigation into “disturbing” accounts of the torture of dozens of Afghan migrants by Iranian border guards, some of whom reportedly drowned after being thrown into a river.

UN spokesman Stephan Dujarric said the world body was “very concerned” about the incident along the frontier between Iran and Afghanistan’s western Herat province this past weekend and that his colleagues were “looking into it as much as they can”.

“We do hope that the national authorities also investigate these very disturbing reports,” Dujarric said in answer to a question Monday from Zenger News.

According to reports, Iranian border guards intercepted a group of Afghan migrants trying to enter Iran from Herat province without papers on Friday. The migrants were allegedly beaten and forced into the Harirud river, where some of them drowned, on Saturday.

Reports from the scene included grainy cellphone footage showing a half-dozen dead bodies. Eyewitness reports were conflicting, but some accounts suggested that many members of the group had drowned or gone missing.

Afghanistan is probing the incident, which has triggered a diplomatic rift with neighboring Iran, where a virulent outbreak of COVID-19 has claimed thousands of lives and largely shuttered an already-strained economy.

Iranian officials have dismissed allegations of any atrocities. A spokesman from the foreign ministry in the capital Tehran said the incident took place on Afghan soil, not Iranian, and security guards denied any involvement.

Islamic Republic of Iran Army soldiers march during Iran’s “Sacred Defense Week” parade on September 22, 2011. (Photo: Reza Dehshiri on CC 4.0 License)

Itayi Viriri, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, said that 42 surviving male migrants, including four teenagers, were deported back to Afghanistan and had received assistance from the agency in Herat.

A UN human rights team was “looking into the matter with information provided by IOM, but for the time being this remains a state-to-state diplomatic issue being discussed at the level of foreign ministers,” Viriri told Zenger.

The UN’s human rights experts in Geneva have a mixed track record on investigating abuses. Researchers can take many months to publish reports which pull their punches as often as they name and shame a government.

Babar Baloch, a spokesman for the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, said he had been in touch with officials in Tehran and Kabul but that it had been difficult to establish what happened in such a remote borderland.

“These were human beings and human lives that we’re talking about,” Baloch told Zenger in a telephone interview from Geneva. He also stressed the importance of having “respect for human lives and human dignity”.

More than 3 million Afghans live in Iran, including refugees, wage laborers and people without papers, according to UNHCR. Many of them are second- and third-generation refugees.

Afghanistan’s economy has been ravaged by decades of conflict and instability, including the deployment of United States forces to oust the hardline Taliban government in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The Taliban issued a statement Sunday acknowledging widespread poverty noting Afghans leave the country to find work, and called for Iran to investigate the incident and punish those responsible,

Afghans face unemployment rates of some 24% and more than half the population lives below the poverty line in a country that is “extremely poor, landlocked, and highly dependent on foreign aid,” according to the U.S. government’s CIA Factbook.

Hundreds of migrants cross the 500-mile border between war-torn Afghanistan and Iran every day, seeking work. Many of them traverse remote desert regions on the back of pick-up trucks to labor in Iran for several days at a time.

The flow of migrants has reversed in recent months, with a mass exodus of Afghan migrants from the Islamic Republic, which between January and April was battling one of the world’s most virulent COVID-19 outbreaks.

Iran has started slowly reopening its economy in recent days, and the flows of migrants from Herat and other impoverished parts of Afghanistan had started to pick up again before the reported drowning incident.

(Editing by Allison Elyse Gualtieri)

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Frankfurt prepares to get back to business

Despite the global pandemic, banking is still big business in Frankfurt. But smaller businesses in the German city are suffering as reopening looms.

Bakery owner Yildiray Sentürk and a customer pose while wearing masks in Frankfurt on April 27, 2020. (Marguerite Arnold/Zenger)

Some local merchants admit they are struggling. “Business is reduced by 50%. We don’t expect an uptick for the next four months,” said Yildiray Sentürk, a shop assistant for Eifler, a popular bakery chain with an outlet located at Sudbahnhof, Frankfurt’s second-largest train station.

The state of Hesse, in which Frankfurt is located, has seen more COVID-19 infections and deaths than Berlin, according to statista.com. Overall patient numbers put Hesse in the top five of German states affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Berlin, the nation’s capital, protesters clashed with police about reopening the city last month. But Frankfurt prides itself on a certain business-like resilience. A center of international finance, the city boasts highly educated commuters from foreign countries and the wealthy suburbs. Expats make up about 26% of the population. In addition, some of the best-paid residents of the international community of Frankfurt are well-suited for telework.

The city is also the home to the European Central Bank, a key player in economic response across the continent, which has not shut down.

Though global banks may dominate the skylines, they’re only one part of Frankfurt. German banks have consolidated their retail operations. Smaller neighborhood branches have remained closed, redirecting consumers to central locations if they need in-person assistance.

A better barometer for gauging the local economy might be Frankfurt Airport—one of the world’s busiest travel hubs.

The south runway of Frankfurt airport undergoes repairs on April 22, 2020. (Photo Courtesy: Fraport AG)

The airport’s cargo areas remain busy even though overall plane traffic and passenger numbers are way down since March. “Cargo volumes (airfreight and airmail) fell by 28.5 percent to 29,794 metric tons,” said Frankfurt Airport spokeswoman Dana Kröll.

Two of the airport’s four runways have also been temporarily shut down. “Currently, we bundle all passenger-handling operations in Terminal 1, Concourses B and C. Passenger handling in Terminal 2 is suspended until further notice,” said Kröll. But the airport is far from idle.

Vital supplies such as medicine and medical equipment are still arriving and being processed smoothly. Beyond supply-chain management, other projects are underway that could have happened efficiently only during a global shutdown. “We responded quickly with a range of measures to lower costs and to adjust staff deployment to this reduced demand,” Kröll said. “The partial renovation of South Runway commenced as scheduled on April 6.”

As Frankfurt’s banks and airport find new ways do business, Kurzarbeit—the German term for shortened working weeks in emergencies and supported by the government financially—has been put in place. Under this plan, Germans are working less but remain employed. As a result, the pandemic-induced unemployment rate across the country is lower than that of the U.S.

However, for residents who don’t work in the banking and airline industries, the pandemic and lockdown remain a daily challenge. Public transport, the great lifeblood of all German cities, is still eerily empty. Masks while shopping and traveling on trains and buses have been mandatory for everyone since April 27.

Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, customers line up outside an ice cream parlor in Frankfurt on April 24, 2020. (Marguerite Arnold/Zenger)

Changes could be ahead for the city, which has seen empty streets and closed shops for the last six weeks. Over the last week, “Mainhattan”— as it is known to locals—has cautiously started taking the first steps toward reopening.

In the streets of Sachsenhausen, the neighborhood also known as “Frankfurt’s Brooklyn,” just across the River Main from the central district where skyscrapers loom, foot and bike traffic has already begun to pick up. People have started gathering, politely, outside shops, waiting their turn to get in. Ice cream parlors seemed to be doing a particularly brisk business. Parents went to the park with their children.

A small business owner that sells art continues working, while wearing a mask, during COVID-19 on April 24, 2020. (Marguerite Arnold/Zenger)

But Ursula Wintershied, a 66-year-old taxi driver from Bonn who has lived and worked in Frankfurt for the past four decades, is still sitting at home as she has for the past month.

“Business is still down, about 90% from normal,” she said. While she expects to get a call to go back to work sometime in May, Wintershied doesn’t see a rapid return to the way things were. “Things will be slow, for quite some time,” she said.

(Edited by Stan Chrapowicki and Allison Elyse Gualtieri)

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Saudi executions spike amid crackdown on political dissidents

Saudi Arabia executed a record number of people in 2019, including an increased number of political dissidents, in addition to those convicted of murder and drug offenses, according to Amnesty International.

The kingdom executed 184 people last year—six women and 178 men—the human rights group said in its annual report on the topic. That represents an increase of 23% over the previous year, when 149 people were executed.

“Saudi Arabia has consistently executed scores of people for many years. However, in 2019, Amnesty International recorded the highest number of executions in one year in Saudi Arabia,” the organization’s researcher, Oluwatosin Popoola, said.

The majority of those executed in 2019 had been convicted of drug-related offenses and murder, Popoola said.

A crackdown on political dissent under Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman, known as MbS, contributed to the spike, researchers said.

Of 37 people who were executed on April 23 last year, 32 were Shiite men who had been convicted on “terrorism” charges following trials that relied on confessions extracted under torture, Popoola said, compared with one person executed for terrorism-related offenses in 2018.

“They included 11 men convicted by the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) of spying for Iran and sentenced to death after a grossly unfair trial,” Popoola said via a messaging service.

“The mass execution also included 14 men convicted by the SCC in a mass trial for their participation in anti-government protests and a young man who was under 18 years old at the time of the crime.”

Among them was Hussein al-Mossalem, who suffered a broken nose and collar bone and a broken leg after being tortured while he was held in solitary confinement, Amnesty International said in its report.

The kingdom’s mission to the United Nations in New York did not respond to a request for comment.

The SCC was set up in 2008 to prosecute anti-terror cases, but Saudi government critics say it is increasingly used to silence opponents, with some defendants enduring torture and appearing before judges without a lawyer.

Amnesty and other human rights groups have described a worsening crackdown on political freedoms and dissenters since MbS came to power, with critics being locked up as the crown prince seeks to modernize the country and make it less reliant on oil sales.

Amnesty International‘s 59-page report came in the wake of an oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia, two of the world’s top oil producers. Riyadh recently ramped up production in a bid to lower oil prices and leave rival exporters at a disadvantage.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, the number of people executed in Iraq nearly doubled, from 52 in 2018 to at least 100 last year, as the death penalty was used against those accused of being members of the Islamic State group.

“Iraq was a major executing country in the world even before the IS crisis,” Popoola said. “While the increase in executions in 2019 is largely attributable to the insecurity in Iraq, it remains to be seen how the death penalty will be used when the country’s security challenges end.”

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shakes hands with Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud on May 20, 2017, at the Royal Court Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Photo: Shealah Craighead/White House)

The top five countries that carried out executions in 2019, Amnesty said in its report, were China, which executed thousands; Iran, at least 251; Saudi Arabia, 184; Iraq, at least 100; and Egypt, at least 32.

Amnesty’s count does not include a formal figure for China, where the number of executions remains a closely guarded state secret.

Despite outliers like Saudi Arabia and Iraq, global executions dropped by 5% in 2019, hitting a 10-year low, Clare Algar, one of the group’s senior researchers, said.

“The death penalty is an abhorrent and inhuman punishment, and there is no credible evidence that it deters crime more than prison terms,” Algar said in a written statement.

“A large majority of countries recognize this, and it’s encouraging to see that executions continue to fall worldwide. However, a small number of countries defied the global trend away from the death penalty by increasingly resorting to executions,” Algar said

(Editing by Judy Isacoff and Allison Elyse Gualtieri)

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