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Brussels court suspends extradition of ex-Catalan leader #Puigdemont

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A Brussels court has suspended the extradition of former Catalan pro-independence leader Carles Puigdemont (pictured), his lawyer said on Thursday (6 August), write Jorrit Donner-Wittkopf in Brussels and Nathan Allen in Madrid. 

Paul Beckaert told Reuters that the Belgian judge in charge of the case had ruled in favor of Puigdemont and Toni Comin, another former member of the Catalan government, citing their immunity as members of the European Parliament (MEPs).

The Belgian federal prosecutor’s office was not immediately available for comment.

The pair are wanted in Spain on charges of sedition after organizing a failed Catalan independence referendum in 2017 but Madrid’s three previous extradition requests have been refused.

Another Catalan leader and MEP, former vice-president Oriol Junqueras, is serving a prison sentence for his role in the banned referendum.

Last month, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) said that Junqueras was entitled to immunity since he was elected as a member of the European Parliament in May 2019, implying that Puigdemont and Comin should benefit from the same immunity.

However it is still not clear whether they will be allowed to take their seats, despite receiving parliamentary accreditation in Brussels last month.

Puigdemont cheered the suspension on Twitter and called on Spain to free Junqueras from prison.

“Spain must act in the same way as Belgium has done and respect the law,” he said in a tweet.

On Monday (3 August) Spain’s state attorney recommended that the Supreme Court release Junqueras, in line with the ECJ ruling. The court is expected to give a ruling in the coming weeks.

Belgium

#COVID-19 - Sassoli: Strasbourg declared red zone

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European Parliament President David Sassoli (pictured) said: "The seat of the European Parliament is Strasbourg, this is laid down in the Treaties that we want to respect. We have done everything to resume the normal course of our plenary sessions in Strasbourg. However, the resurgence of the pandemic in many member states and the decisions taken by the French authorities to classify the entire Lower Rhine department as a red zone, obliges us to reconsider the move to Strasbourg.

"While we are very disappointed about this decision, we have to consider that the transfer of the administration of the European Parliament would entail quarantine for all staff upon their return to Brussels. We are going through a difficult time and I am grateful for all the co-operation, availability and expertise shown by the City of Strasbourg, the health authorities, and the government. The European Parliament's wish is to return to Strasbourg and we are confident that, in the face of a decline of the pandemic, this will be possible. The plenary session of the European Parliament from 14 to 17 September will take place in Brussels."

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Deep concerns in Brussels about the fight against corruption in #Ukraine

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Brussels observers of the fight against corruption in Ukraine have expressed deep concerns about the efficiency of policies put in place in the last five years, during an online dialogue between the Polita think tank in Kyiv and the Brussels Press Club on 2 September, writes Willy Fautré, Human Rights Without Frontiers.

On 28 August, the Constitutional Court declared a decree by President Petro Poroshenko in April 2015 appointing Artem Sytnyk as the director of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) unconstitutional.

In May 2020, the Constitutional Court received a motion from 51 MPs challenging the constitutionality of the presidential appointment of Sytnyk as NABU director five years earlier. Some anti-corruption watchdogs consider Sytnyk to be the victim of a cabal organized behind the scenes by billionaire businessmen such as Igor Kolomoisky and Oleg Bakhmatyuk, along with Minister of Interior Arsen Avakov. NABU has investigated controversial activities of their companies as well as of Avakov’s family.

This latest incident on the bumpy road of reform for the judiciary demonstrates that anti-corruption policies are still undermined by very powerful stakeholders in Ukraine. There are also too many anti-corruption institutions that can be manipulated by prosecutors, judges and MPs who are on the payroll of extremely rich businessmen.

National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU)

NABU was created in 2015. It currently has 653 employees, including 245 detectives, who are paid high salaries to mitigate the temptations of corruption.

NABU boasts of having opened 406 criminal proceedings and served 125 individuals with charges during the first half of 2020. However, only 33 cases have been sent to court and, in total, only five convictions have been handed down against six people.

One of the reproaches of Ukrainian human rights organizations is that since 2015, no prominent corrupt official has been convicted. In its issue published on 21 February 2020, Kyiv Post reported that as of 1 January 2020, only 32 guilty verdicts had been issued in five years and that of these only lower level bureaucrats had been sentenced and smaller schemes had been dismantled. Two emblematic cases, among many others, remain unresolved as of today.

The first case concerns the Privatbank owned by Igor Kolomoisky and Gennadiy Bogolyubov. It was subject to large scale coordinated fraud which resulted in losses amounting to at least USD 5.5 billion before nationalisation in 2016. As a last resort, Ukrainian tax-payers had to bail this bank out.

In the case of the Rotterdam+ scheme, the fraudulent overpricing of energy is estimated at over USD 710 million. The main beneficiary is said to be businessman Rinat Akhmetov, who controls 90% of the coal in Ukraine.

The High Council of Justice

One highly controversial institution is the High Council of Justice, which is tasked with determining the outcome of the new judicial reform bill that was submitted by President Volodymyr Zelensky to the Ukrainian Parliament on 22 June 2020. Many of its members have a toxic reputation and have been accused of corruption and ethics violations, which they deny.

One of the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) criteria for the payment of USD 5 billion for a reform program was that Ukraine must create a commission tasked with monitoring and firing tainted members of the High Council of Justice. This commission was to include foreign experts to provide impartiality. However, the new bill does not envisage the creation of such a commission and the firing of controversial members of the High Council of Justice would exclusively be decided by a majority of its own members without any involvement of foreign experts.

Furthermore, according to Ukraine’s agreement with the IMF, Kyiv was obligated to create a High Commission of Qualification of Judges by 7 February. This would be the competent body for hiring and firing judges, and would also include foreign experts. These foreign experts should have been appointed by the High Council before mid-January, but they weren’t.

Instead, in December 2019, the High Council of Justice swiftly published rules depriving international experts of any major role in decision making processes, which was in direct contradiction of the IMF deal.

Now, Zelensky’s new bill stipulates that a selection panel comprised of three members of the Ukrainian Council of Judges and three foreign experts would choose new members of the High Commission of Qualification of Judges. It also states that the international experts may be nominated by foreign organizations, but that the High Council of Justice will have the final say regarding the hiring of nominees. This opens the door to manipulation of this process and will likely prevent any real reform, according to some anti-corruption watchdogs.

In conclusion, the June draft law fails to respect the judicial reform criteria of the IMF memorandum which Ukraine must comply with by October 2020 to receive the next tranche of USD 5 billion. The bill even goes in the opposite direction as it strengthens the High Council, which is actively sabotaging the IMF’s reform program.

It is thus unsurprising that 76% of the general public distrust the judiciary according to a Razumkov Center poll published in February, as it is apparent that even the reform process is fraught with corruption.

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Two European patients re-infected with #Coronavirus

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Two European patients are confirmed to have been re-infected with the coronavirus, raising concerns about people’s immunity to the virus as the world struggles to tame the pandemic, write Anthony Deutsch and Philip Blenkinsop.

The cases, in Belgium and the Netherlands, follow a report this week by researchers in Hong Kong about a man there who had been re-infected with a different strain of the virus four and a half months after being declared recovered - the first such re-infection to be documented. That has fuelled fears about the effectiveness of potential vaccines against the virus, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people, though experts say there would need to be many more cases of re-infection for these to be justified.

Belgian virologist Marc Van Ranst said the Belgian case was a woman who had contracted COVID-19 for the first time in March and then again in June. Further cases of re-infection were likely to surface, he said. “We don’t know if there will be a large number. I think probably not, but we will have to see,” he told Reuters, noting that COVID-19 had only been in humans for less than a year. “Perhaps a vaccine will need to be repeated every year, or within two or three years. It seems clear though that we won’t have something that works for, say, 10 years,” he said.

Van Ranst, who sits on some Belgian COVID-19 committees, said in cases such as the Belgian woman’s in which symptoms were relatively mild, the body may not have created enough antibodies to prevent a re-infection, although they might have helped limit the sickness.

he National Institute for Public Health in the Netherlands said it had also observed a Dutch case of re-infection. Virologist Marion Koopmans was quoted by Dutch broadcaster NOS as saying the patient was an older person with a weakened immune system. She said cases where people have been sick with the virus a long time and it then flares up again were better known. But a true re-infection, as in the Dutch, Belgian and Hong Kong cases, required genetic testing of the virus in both the first and second infection to see whether the two instances of the virus differed slightly.

Koopmans, an adviser to the Dutch government, said re-infections had been expected. “That someone would pop up with a re-infection, it doesn’t make me nervous,” she said. “We have to see whether it happens often.” WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris told a UN briefing in Geneva regarding the Hong Kong case that, while anecdotal reports of reinfections had surfaced now and then, it was important to have clear documentation of such cases. Some experts say it is likely that such cases are starting to emerge because of greater testing worldwide, rather than because the virus may be spreading differently.

Still, Dr David Strain, a clinical senior lecturer at the University of Exeter and chair of the British Medical Association’s medical academic staff committee, said the cases were worrying for several reasons. “The first is that it suggests that previous infection is not protective,” he said. “The second is that it raises the possibility that vaccinations may not provide the hope that we have been waiting for.”

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