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China confirms human-to-human transmission of new coronavirus

Human-to-human transmission of a new coronavirus strain has been confirmed in China, fueling fears of a major outbreak of the SARS-like virus as millions travel for the Lunar New Year holiday.

Zhong Nanshan, head of the National Health Commission, said on Monday patients may have contracted the new virus without having visited the central city of Wuhan where it was discovered before spreading across China and reaching three other Asian nations.

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“Currently, it can be said it is affirmative that there is the phenomenon of human-to-human transmission,” he said in an interview with China’s CCTV state broadcaster.

Zhong said two people in Guangdong province in southern China caught the disease from family members who had visited Wuhan.

He added that 14 medical personnel helping with coronavirus patients have also been infected.

Human-to-human transmission could make the virus spread more quickly and widely.

Alarm in the region

The new coronavirus strain has caused alarm because of its connection to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed nearly 650 people across mainland China and Hong Kong in 2002-2003.

The total number of people diagnosed with the latest strain of the virus rose to 218, according to CCTV.

South Korea on Monday reported its first case – a 35-year-old woman who flew in from Wuhan.

Thailand and Japan previously confirmed a total of three cases – all of whom had visited the Chinese city.

Meanwhile, a third person died in Wuhan, according to the local health commission.

Experts believe the epidemic “can still be controlled”, the National Health Commission said on Sunday.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said the new cases in China were the result of “increased searching and testing for [the virus] among people sick with respiratory illness”.

Wuhan authorities said they have installed infrared thermometers at airports, and railway and coach stations across the city. Passengers with fever were being registered, given masks and taken to medical institutions.

State TV footage showed medical staff working inside an isolation ward at a Wuhan hospital in hazmat suits.

In Hong Kong, health officials said they were expanding enhanced checks on arrivals to include anyone coming in from Hubei province, not just its capital, Wuhan. More than 100 people are being monitored in the city.

Passengers are also being screened at some airports in Thailand and the United States.

Better handling

Chinese state media moved to calm the mood as discussion swelled on social media about the coronavirus spreading to other Chinese cities.

Weighing in on the matter for the first time, China’s President Xi Jinping said on Monday that safeguarding people’s lives should be given “top priority” and that the spread of the epidemic “should be resolutely contained”, according to CCTV.

Source: Aljazeera

Iran's new Quds leader vows 'manly' revenge for Soleimani killing

In the few public statements Qaani has made, he denounced the US and Israel [File: Hossein Zohrevand/Tasnim via AP]

The newly appointed commander of Iran‘s elite Quds Force said the United States killed his predecessor, Qassem Soleimani, “in a cowardly way” and promised to “hit his enemy in a manly fashion”.

Esmail Qaani made the remarks on Monday at an introduction ceremony held for him by top Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGCcommanders to mark the formal beginning of his tenure.

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“They (US) hit him (Soleimani) in a cowardly way, but with God’s grace and through endeavours of freedom-seekers around the world who want vengeance over his blood, we will hit his enemy in a manly fashion,” he said.

Soleimani’s assassination in a US air strike in Baghdad on January 3 pushed the US and Iran to the brink of war, but fears of an all-out conflict eased when retaliatory Iranian attacks against US targets in Iraq on January 8 concluded without any fatalities.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei has since called for the expulsion of all American troops from the Middle East.

IRGC

The Quds Force is part of the 125,000-strong IRGC, a paramilitary organisation that answers only to Khamenei.

IRGC oversees Iran’s ballistic missile programme, has its naval forces shadow the US Navy in the Gulf, and includes an all-volunteer Basij force.

Under Soleimani, the Quds Force helped boost Iranian influence across the Middle East by building up a vast network of proxies.

In Syria, the unit played a key role in shoring up support for embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after the country descended into war in 2011.

It also armed and trained militias that helped defeat the armed group ISIL (ISIS) in both Syria and Iraq.

Khamenei, while announcing Qaani’s appointment, said the Quds Force’s new chief was “among the most prominent IRGC commanders” during the 1980-1988 war between Iran and Iraq, adding the unit under the veteran soldier will follow an “identical” strategy to that pursued by Soleimani.

At the slain commander’s funeral days later, Qaani, 62, pledged to continue on his predecessor’s path “with the same force”, saying his assassination “will be reciprocated in several steps by removing the US from the region”.

Qaani’s tenure

Born in the late 1950s in the city of Mashhad in northeast Iran, Qaani joined the IRGC in 1980, a few months before Iraqi forces invaded western Iran, triggering a bloody eight-year war that killed about one million people.

Soon after the war, Qaani was appointed as deputy chief of the IRGC’s ground forces.

Although it is unclear when Qaani joined the Quds Force, Iran’s state news agency IRNA said he was appointed as the unit’s deputy in 1997, the same year that Soleimani was named its commander.

With a clear division of labour and maintaining geographically distinct spheres of influence, Soleimani and Qaani together played a strategic role in expanding Iran’s influence in neighbouring nations.

In the few public statements Qaani has made, he slammed the United States and Israel and said in a 2017 article that US President Donald Trump’s “threats against Iran will damage America”.

Source: Aljazeera

Lampard Hints At PSG Striker Cavani Joining Chelsea

Chelsea manager Frank Lampard has said he is open to signing players on short-term deals in the January transfer window and has not ruled out a move for PSG striker Edinson Cavani.

The 32-year-old’s contract expires at the end of the season but he has told the French champions he wants to leave this month, having made only four starts in Ligue 1 this season.

Also Read: Ancelotti: ‘Iwobi Doing Well, But Won’t be Risked vs Newcastle’

Lampard has made no secret of his desire to sign a new forward this month due to Chelsea’s problems breaking down defensive opponents.

It was an issue once again for Chelsea on Saturday when they failed to score against Newcastle, despite dominating the match, before conceding a stoppage-time winner.

The result leaves Chelsea just five points above fifth-placed Manchester United in the race for the top four.

And Lampard says they need reinforcements if they want to hold onto a Champions League spot.

“I think long term in January is very difficult so short term is something we would look at,” said Lampard when asked what kind of deals Chelsea may make this month.

“I think there are issues that are pressing for us to finish where we want to get to. Short term is something we are looking at.

“He’s (Cavani) a great player – I played against him and I always loved his mentality and his attitude. His goal-scoring record speaks for itself. I’m not absolutely aware of what the situation is, so we’ll see.”

Lampard added:”He’s an experienced player but so are many other players out there! We are young as a squad so the idea of bringing in experience is not something I’m looking away from. Sometimes the younger players need a bit of help.”

Chelsea will hope to bounce back from this weekend’s defeat to Newcastle United when they host Arsenal at Stamford Bridge.

The Blues came from a goal down to beat Arsenal 2-1 in the reverse fixture at the Emirates stadium.

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Source: Complete Sports

As trial nears, Trump lawyers call impeachment case 'flimsy'

United States President Donald Trump speaking in the White House in Washington, US [File: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

United States President Donald Trump‘s legal team asserted Monday that he did “absolutely nothing wrong”, calling the impeachment case against him “flimsy” and a “dangerous perversion of the Constitution”.

The brief from Trump’s lawyers, filed before arguments expected this week in the Senate impeachment trial, offered the most detailed glimpse of the lines of defence they intend to use against Democratic efforts to convict the president and oust him from office over his dealings with Ukraine. It is meant as a counter to a brief filed two days ago by House Democrats that summarised weeks of testimony from more than a dozen witnesses in laying out the impeachment case.

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The 110-page filing from the White House shifted the tone towards a more legal response. Still, it hinged on Trump’s assertion that he did nothing wrong and did not commit a crime – even though impeachment does not depend on a material violation of law but rather on the more vague definition of “other high crimes and misdemeanors” as established in the US Constitution.

The filing says the two articles of impeachment brought against the president – abuse of power and obstruction of Congress – don’t amount to impeachment offences. It asserts that the impeachment inquiry centred on Trump’s request that Ukraine’s president open an investigation into Democratic rival Joe Biden was never about finding the truth.

“Instead, House Democrats were determined from the outset to find some way – any way – to corrupt the extraordinary power of impeachment for use as a political tool to overturn the result of the 2016 election and to interfere in the 2020 election,” Trump’s legal team wrote. “All of that is a dangerous perversion of the Constitution that the Senate should swiftly and roundly condemn.”

The prosecution team of House managers was expected to spend another day on Capitol Hill preparing for the trial, which will be under heavy security. Before the filing, House prosecutors arrived on Capitol Hill to tour the Senate chamber. Opening arguments are expected within days following a debate over rules.

The White House brief argues that the articles of impeachment passed by the House are “structurally deficient” because they charge multiple acts, creating “a menu of options” as possible grounds for conviction.

The Trump team claims that the Constitution requires that senators agree “on the specific basis for conviction” and that there is no way to ensure that the senators agree on which acts are worthy of removal.

Source: Aljazeera

Mainstream Democrats failed the impeachment process

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi signs the two articles of impeachment of US President Donald Trump before sending them over to the Senate on January 15, 2020 [Reuters/Leah Millis]

On December 19, Donald Trump became the third president in US history to be impeached by the House of Representatives. Now, it is up to the Senate to conduct a fair trial.

But Mitch McConnell, the majority leader of the Senate, has already announced that he will not be impartial. In fact, he has shown his contempt for the House vote for impeachment and sided with the defendant even before the trial has begun. It seems that Trump will escape removal from office because the Republican-controlled Senate will acquit him.

The president is being impeached for manipulating foreign policy to benefit his domestic reelection prospects and blocking Congressional oversight. While these are certainly high crimes and misdemeanours, they represent an extremely truncated list of Trump’s offences that is far too legalistic to shift most Americans, whose opinion of him has largely remained unchanged.

In addition to the two narrow articles of impeachment, Democrats should have pushed for public scrutiny of Trump’s dreadful policies: putting children in cages, waging undeclared wars, undermining democratic processes in other countries, cracking down on dissent, cutting and privatising essential services like healthcare and education, introducing tax breaks to the wealthy, and violating our treaty obligations on issues including trade, the environment, and migration.

It is this picture of a disastrous presidency – with or without the impeachment trial – that the American people need to grasp.

But the Democrats failed to turn the House impeachment proceeding into an x-ray of Trump’s entire record, and now the Republicans will turn the Senate proceedings into a trial of Joe Biden, Hilary Clinton, and the Democratic Party.

In other words, they will use the spectacle as fodder for Trump’s reelection campaign. The Democrats should have done the same when they had the chance, but they did not, and for one reason: most of the things Trump has done, the mainstream Democrats did before.

Before Trump, Democratic presidents mistreated immigrants, waged wars, undermined democracy abroad, cracked down on dissent, pursued austerity, privatised public services, and undercut multilateralism. They were less brazen, but the neoliberal upper echelon of the Democratic leadership has essentially agreed with Republicans on such policies since the 1990s.

It is remarkable just how politically and morally tone-deaf both parties have been. Within two years of the Iraq invasion, a majority of the country wanted the troops home, yet both Republican and Democrat presidents continued the bloodshed. After the 2008-09 financial crisis, a majority of the country supported bailouts for homeowners instead of banks, but Republicans and Democrats preferred Wall Street over Main Street.

Today, two-thirds of the country supports a higher minimum wage, but Republicans and Democrats have failed to raise the minimum wage since 2009. The American people have good instincts; they know what is good for them, for the country, and for the world. It is American politicians who have forgotten how to listen, if they ever knew.

The problem is that failure to listen means our leaders do not change their behaviour. Republicans must face the classism, racism, xenophobia, and sexism of their leader. Democrats must face their own history.

The impeachment trial in the Senate is our opportunity to hold both parties to account. Even if it becomes a travesty of a public trial without witnesses in the Senate, the media, citizen’s groups and progressive thinkers can hold hearings, teach-ins and use all means to create public awareness of the issues that matter to us ordinary citizens – human rights in all areas including healthcare and education.

Offensive as he is, Trump advances and represents a clear agenda, and the Senate Republicans will use the impeachment proceedings to remind everyone that the Democrats do not.

Trump represents the interests of a narrow faction of the elite and pads his classism with racist, xenophobic, and sexist appeals. His opposite will be someone who represents the interests of poor and working people, and blends economic justice with anti-racist, anti-xenophobic, and feminist appeals.

Therefore, the progressive Democrats must lead the way while there is still time and construct a larger narrative for the American public. They need to put forward a progressive agenda which will not stop with highlighting Trump’s bad policies, but will present positive policies that will serve the common good.

Chief among these policies has to be the complete elimination of discrimination in every sphere including discrimination against the nonwhite immigrants and undocumented workers. In addition, social and economic policies such as universal healthcare and better access to education for the disadvantaged need to be a central part of this progressive agenda.

Our best hope is that the mainstream Democratic leaders will finally come to their senses and stop prevaricating in the name of sweet moderation.

Failure to seize this opportunity means the victory of Trump’s barbaric agenda. Of course, such an agenda can never be legitimate, but winning an election provides a veneer – they put caged children in front of us and we failed to resist. But resist we must.

Our leaders have so far failed to make clear what is at stake; the trial in the Senate is our opportunity to do so. Either we put Trump’s entire agenda on trial, including Democrat antecedents and complicity, or we sink further into barbarity.

Source: Aljazeera

Putin's constitutional reforms could lead to his political demise

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his annual address to the Federal Assembly in Moscow on January 15, 2020 [Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/via Reuters]

On January 15, during his state of the nation annual speech, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced major constitutional changes. As a result, the government of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who reportedly did not know this was in the making, resigned.

The amendments the Russian president put forward include term limits for the president, more authority for the parliament, which will be able to choose the prime minister, and wider powers for the State Council.

These reforms outline Putin’s plan for preserving power after the end of his term in 2024. This time, he will not go for a rochade with the prime minister, as he did after the end of his second term in 2008, but a “Kazakh move”, in which the outgoing president will be given a special state organ to lead (the State Council), which will relieve him of day-to-day duties but allow him to retain power. Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev pulled such a feat last year and it seems Putin is walking in his footsteps.

The Russian president will seek to retain control at the federal level through his ruling party, United Russia and at the regional level through the State Council.

These reforms are not necessarily that surprising. Such an option was apparently on the table in 2007, when Putin was mulling ways to retain power after leaving the presidency. What is surprising, however, is that the president launched the implementation of his plan so early.

It is possible that he was worried about Russian society and its elites growing anxious about the lack of vision for a post-Putin Russia early on, which could threaten the political stability of the country. He may have hastened to pass the reforms now, while he is still in full control.

Although his proposal is meant to ensure he retains power even after 2024, it may cost him dearly.

He has now showed his cards, declaring that, just like the party secretaries in Soviet times, he will stay on until death.

The problem is, Russia in 2020 is not the Soviet Union and as president you do not automatically get the right to stay in power forever. Putin’s main challenge will be getting Russian society and its elites to buy into his proposed changes and the idea of him retaining power. In the process, he may actually meet his political demise.

The Russian president has already indicated that while the people should approve these major constitutional changes, he will not call for a referendum. It is likely he is afraid of an opposition boycott and of not being able to get the voter turnout of 50 percent needed for referendum results to be valid.

Whatever form this vote will take (other than a referendum), it is likely that it will lead to political unrest. A quick look at the history of revolutions against authoritarian regimes shows that during national elections – even if they are completely unfree – political sentiments often flare up and trigger political mobilisation.

In other words, national polls can become focal points for public anger in unfree societies. The more repressed civil society is and the narrower the spaces for expressing dissent are, the more important these points become. They turn into opportunities for spontaneous political protest in the absence of strong opposition parties through which to channel political demands.

And there is plenty of public anger simmering under the surface in Russia. The economy, albeit out of recession, remains sluggish as oil prices – a major factor that determines economic growth in Russia – remain low. Over the past few years, this has necessitated a number of painful social changes, including a pension reform that brought down Putin’s approval rating to 60 percent. Today public trust in the president is at 39 percent, and just 38 percent of Russians would vote for Putin if elections were to be held immediately.

Over the summer, the elections for Moscow’s local parliament showed the potential for popular mobilisation around electoral events. The decision of the electoral commission to disqualify opposition politicians from running caused major street protests and unrest.

It is quite likely that the voting on the proposed constitutional changes will trigger another wave of unrest around the country. Already the proposal has caused much dissatisfaction across the country. Whether such upheaval can lead to a revolution in the country remains to be seen, but even if Putin manages to put it down, he will still not be completely “safe”.

For 20 years now, he has presided over a complex power vertical of formal and informal institutions and interests. Although it is quite different from the Soviet system, it similarly involves a delicate balance. In the 1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev tried to introduce reform, he upset the balance and the system collapsed like a house of cards.

Similarly, the changes that Putin proposes – although aimed at securing his power in the long term – are threatening the stability of the system. For example, as a consequence of the changes the president envisions, he will lose direct control over Russia’s various security agencies after 2024.

That already happened once before – in 2008 – but then thanks to the high oil prices and robust economic growth, his position was strong enough to pull the strings of the security sector behind Medvedev’s back.

Today, it is not just the general population who are tired of political and economic stagnation, but also the elites, who apart from those in Putin’s immediate circle are also not too happy with his presidency.

This means that by stepping down in 2024, Putin will be in a much weaker position, even if all the changes he has proposed are implemented; he will also not be able to rely on the security agencies. He would be much more susceptible to internal conspiracies.

In other words, his “Kazakh move” might end up in a “Kyrgyz disaster”. In 2017, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev, who as per the constitution could not run for a second term, passed the presidency to his political ally Sooronbay Jeenbekov after changing the constitution and enhancing the powers of the prime minister.

Many believed that he would seek the premiership in order to retain power. But soon after he stepped down, he fell out with Jeenbekov, who had the parliament strip him of his political immunity and send him to jail.

Russian history also has many examples of conspiracies against political leaders by purportedly loyal supporters – whether it is the palace coup against Emperor Paul I in the 18th century or the plot to oust Nikita Khrushchev in the 1960s.

Friends and cohorts can easily shift loyalty if presented with the right opportunity and reason.

There are already reasons for some within the circles of power to desire Putin’s ouster and soon they may have a convenient opportunity.

Source: Aljazeera