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Turkey investigates vessel drama, rejects EU sanctions threat | Germany

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Turkey says German crew illegally searched its commercial freighter, as it rejects EU sanctions threat over Cyprus.

Turkish prosecutors have launched an investigation after the crew of a German frigate searched a Turkish commercial freighter.

Turkey has protested the November 22 incident on the Mediterranean Sea, insisting personnel from the German frigate Hamburg, which was participating in a European Union mission to enforce an arms embargo on Libya, illegally searched the Libya-bound freighter Rosaline-A.

Germany has rejected Turkey’s complaints, arguing the frigate’s crew acted correctly.

In a brief statement announcing its investigation on Friday, the Ankara chief prosecutor’s office said the search was conducted without “Turkey’s authorisation and against international regulations”.

The inquiry is not expected to lead to arrests or the extradition of officials involved in the search.

Hamburg is part of the EU’s Operation Irini, a mission launched in March with the goal of enforcing the United Nations’ arms embargo on Libya and tasked with inspecting vessels thought to be carrying weapons to and from Libya.

German officials said the order to board the Rosaline-A came from the mission’s headquarters in Rome and that Turkey objected while the inspection team was on the freighter.

Turkey says the search was “unauthorised and conducted by force” and insisted that its objections prior to the search were ignored.

Turkey rejects sanctions call

Also on Friday, Turkey rejected a call by the European Parliament for sanctions against Ankara over President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent visit to the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in north Cyprus, calling the demand “disconnected from the realities”.

On Thursday, the European Parliament agreed on a non-binding resolution in support of EU member Cyprus urging EU leaders to “take action and impose tough sanctions” against Turkey, a move likely to bolster support for France’s push for sanctions on Ankara at a summit next month.

Turkey is at odds with EU members Greece and Cyprus over hydrocarbon exploration in disputed east Mediterranean waters.

Erdogan incensed Cyprus, whose territory covers the southern half of the partitioned Mediterranean island, on November 15 by visiting Varosha, a resort on the island that has been fenced-off and abandoned in no-man’s land since 1974.

Ankara supported the partial reopening of Varosha last month in a move criticised by the United States, Greece and Greek Cypriots.

‘Prejudiced and disconnected’

Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy denounced the resolution and accused the European Parliament of being “prejudiced and disconnected from the realities” on Cyprus.

“If this approach and mentality are maintained, it would not be possible for EU bodies to make a constructive contribution to the settlement of the Cyprus issue,” Aksoy said.

Cyprus has been divided since a 1974 Turkish invasion after a brief Greek-inspired coup.

Only Ankara recognises Northern Cyprus as an independent state, but not the internationally recognised Greek Cypriot government to the south.

France has not yet drawn up sanctions against Turkey, but diplomats say any measures would probably target areas of Turkey’s economy linked to natural gas exploration in seas off the coast of Cyprus.



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‘Chilling’ crackdown on dissent in Vietnam ahead of key congress | Vietnam News

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As Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party gears up for its most important meeting in years, its leadership has presided over an intensified crackdown on dissent, according to rights groups, activists and data collated by Reuters news agency.

A record number of political prisoners, longer jail terms, and increased harassment of activists in recent years have contributed to the crackdown ahead of this week’s Communist Party congress, a gathering to determine national leadership and policy that takes place once every five years.

The crackdown has left some international human rights groups and legislators questioning whether Vietnam has breached the spirit of trade agreements with Western countries – accords that have helped propel the country to a position of economic strength in Southeast Asia.

“I have been summoned by the police several times since December 9, 2020,” said Nguyen Quang A, a veteran activist in Hanoi, declining to detail the circumstances saying he was subject to an ongoing investigation. He told Reuters Vietnam’s security ministry had in recent weeks rounded up other government critics without saying why, citing his contacts with activists.

“They [the police] summon them and find reasons to convict them under those very fuzzy articles of criminal law. It completely violates the law but they use it very regularly,” said Quang A. “I’ve told them they can’t shut me up.”

Vietnam’s foreign ministry, which handles inquiries from foreign media, did not respond to Reuters’s request for comment on activist detentions.

‘Anti-state’

Despite reforms and increasing openness to social change, the Communist Party of Vietnam, led by 76-year-old Nguyen Phu Trong, tolerates little criticism and controls domestic media tightly.

Vietnam drew international condemnation this month when it sentenced three freelance journalists known for criticism of the government to between 11 and 15 years in prison, finding them guilty of spreading anti-state propaganda.

Journalists Pham Chi Dung, right, Le Huu Minh Tuan, centre, and Nguyen Tuong Thuy, left, stand between police during their trial at a court in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam January 5, 2021 [VNA/Handout via Reuters]

The country’s constitution says it protects “freedom of opinion and speech, freedom of the press, access to information, to assemble, form associations and hold demonstrations”.

In reality, public criticism of the party is not tolerated, and groups which promote democratisation are targeted by the authorities in a battle playing out online on platforms like Facebook, Vietnam’s premier platform for both e-commerce and dissent.

A Reuters tally based on state media reports found 280 people were arrested for “anti-state” activities over the five years since the last party congress: 260 were convicted, many being sentenced to more than 10 years in jail. In the five years leading up to the 2016 congress, there were 68 arrests and 58 convictions.

‘Force 47’

Last year, Amnesty International said it had recorded the most “prisoners of conscience” in Vietnam since it began publishing figures in 1996 – 170, close to double the 97 recorded in 2018. Of the 170, some 70 were arrested for online activism, Amnesty said.

In late 2017, Vietnam unveiled a 10,000-strong military cyber-unit, Force 47, to counter what it said were “wrong” views on the internet. According to rights groups, the unit also recruits volunteers online to target dissidents and activists.

Reuters reviewed dozens of posts across multiple Facebook groups and pages from December and January that claimed links with Force 47. Many attacked prominent activists, including Quang A, accused by one group of creating anti-state propaganda.

A woman wearing a traditional conical hat walks past a poster for the upcoming 13th national congress of Vietnam Communist Party on a street in Hanoi, Vietnam, January 18, 2021 [Kham/Reuters]

Some group moderators were dressed in military uniform in their profile photos while others ran pages for official local branches of Communist Party organisations.

Last November, Vietnam threatened to shut Facebook down if it did not toughen rules on local political content on the platform.

Facebook’s local servers were taken offline by the government earlier last year until it agreed to significantly increase policing of “anti-state” posts by local users, a request with which Facebook previously said it complied.

A Facebook spokesman said the company faced “additional pressure” from Vietnam to restrict content last year.

‘Driver’s seat’

For some, the crackdown has a connection with fluctuations in global trade ties with Vietnam.

“During the [former US President Barack] Obama administration, pressure on rights connected with TPP [trade] negotiations helped the cause of human rights activists and political dissidents,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“The early visit of Prime Minister [Nguyen Xuan] Phuc in 2017 to the Trump White House saw human rights completely dropped from the agenda,” he said.

Robertson said trade tensions with China have also left Vietnam “in the driver’s seat” as US and European Union companies look for alternative supply chains, helping the Vietnamese economy thrive.

“The EU had an important opportunity to make real changes through the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement,” said Robertson, referring to a pact that has been a boon for Vietnam. Instead, he said, the EU “fell short, settling for vague promises … instead of substantive changes”.

EU officials did not immediately respond to Reuters’s request for comment.

After the jailing of the three journalists earlier this month, the United Nations human rights office said: “Coming just weeks ahead [of the party congress], the convictions and long sentences are not only a blatant suppression of independent journalism but also a clear attempt to create a chilling effect among those willing to criticise the government.”

The United States described the sentences as the “latest in a troubling and accelerating trend of arrests and convictions of Vietnamese citizens exercising rights enshrined in Vietnam’s constitution”.



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