World Newsletter

23 Oct 2020



President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden started off their

final presidential debate on Thursday without interrupting each other but

disagreeing on the coronavirus pandemic in a head-to-head match with a

dramatically different tone from their first one.

Biden criticised Trump for having no plan to stop a "dark winter" of

coronavirus deaths as they sparred in their last head-to-head clash 12 days

before the election.

With more people dead in the United States than in any other country, Trump

insisted that Covid-19 would soon go away through medical breakthroughs and

pointed to his own recovery since his first debate.

"220,000 Americans dead. If you hear nothing else I say tonight, hear this,"

Biden said at the televised debate in Nashville, where the two candidates

avoided shaking hands due to safety risks.

"Anyone who's responsible for that many deaths should not remain as

president of the United States of America," Biden said.

"We're about to go into a dark winter," he said. "And he has no plan."

After a strikingly bitter first debate, the tone initially changed, with the

debate organisers empowered to mute the candidates' microphones.

Trump hit back that there would be no "dark winter" - and defended his push

to reopen the United States as soon as possible.

"We're rounding the turn. We're rounding the corner. It's going away," Trump


"We have a vaccine that's coming, it's ready, it's going to be announced

within weeks."

Trying to hold on to his sizeable lead in the polls, Biden was keen to keep

the debate focused on the Covid-19 pandemic.

Trump's demeanor changed in the first moments of the debate.

As he had signalled he would do before the debate, Trump raised murky

accusations that Biden profited from corrupt business relationships

involving his son Hunter during the years that he served as vice president

under Barack Obama.

"I think you owe an explanation to the American people," Trump charged - to

which Biden responded that he had never received "a penny" from foreign

sources in his life.

Trump described the air in India, China and Russia as "filthy" as he

defended his decision to withdrew from the Paris climate accord, which, he

said, would have made America a non-competitive nation.

"Look at China, how filthy it is. Look at Russia. Look at India. The air is

filthy. I walked out of the Paris Accord as we had to take out trillions of

dollars and we were treated very unfairly," he said during the televised

debate with Democratic White House challenger Joe Biden.

"I will not sacrifice millions of jobs. thousands of companies because of

the Paris Accord. It is very unfair," he added.

Whether the showdown at Belmont University in the country music capital can

really shift the election is itself up for debate.

Some 45 million Americans are estimated to have joined an unprecedented wave

of early voting and polls indicate that almost all voters have already

firmly made up their minds. Biden is steadily ahead, with the Quinnipiac

University national poll putting him up at 51 percent to Trump's 41.





South Korean officials refused on Thursday to suspend a seasonal influenza

inoculation effort, despite growing calls for a halt, including an appeal

from a key group of doctors, after the deaths of at least 25 of those


Health authorities said they found no direct links between the deaths and

the vaccines.

At least 22 of the dead, including a 17-year-old boy, were part of a

campaign to inoculate 19 million teenagers and senior citizens for free, the

Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said.

"The number of deaths has increased, but our team sees low possibility that

the deaths resulted from the shots," the agency's director, Jeong

Eun-kyeong, told parliament.

South Korea ordered a fifth more flu vaccines this year to ward off what it

calls a "twindemic", or the prospect that people with flu develop

coronavirus complications and overburden hospitals in winter.

"I understand and regret that people are concerned about the vaccine," said

Health Minister Park Neung-hoo, who confirmed the free programme would go


"We're looking into the causes but will again thoroughly examine the entire

process in which various government agencies are involved, from production

to distribution."

It was not immediately clear if any of the vaccines made in South Korea were

exported, or if those supplied by Sanofi were also being used elsewhere.

The Korean Medical Association, an influential grouping of doctors, urged

the government to halt all inoculation programmes for now, to allay public

concerns and ensure the vaccines were safe.





Questions swirled on Thursday about the origins of Pope Francis' bombshell

comments endorsing same-sex civil unions, with all evidence suggesting he

made them in a 2019 interview that was never broadcast in its entirety.

The Vatican refused to comment on whether it cut the remarks from its own

broadcast or if the Mexican broadcaster that conducted the interview did.

And it did not respond to questions about why it allowed the comments to be

aired now in the documentary Francesco, which premiered on Wednesday.

In the movie, which was shown at the Rome Film Festival, Francis said gay

people have the right to be in a family since they are "children of God".

"You can't kick someone out of a family, nor make their life miserable for

this," the pope said. "What we have to have is a civil union law; that way

they are legally covered."

Those comments caused a firestorm, thrilling progressives and alarming

conservatives, given official Vatican teaching prohibits any such

endorsement of homosexual unions.

While serving as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis endorsed civil unions

for gay couples as an alternative to same-sex marriages. However, he had

never come out publicly in favour of legal protections for civil unions as


One of Francis' top communications advisers, the Rev Antonio Spadaro,

insisted the pope's comments were old news, saying they were made during a

May 2019 interview with Mexican broadcaster Televisa.

"There's nothing new because it's a part of that interview," the Rev Spadaro

told the Associated Press after the premiere. "It seems strange that you

don't remember."

Televisa has not confirmed that the comments were made during its interview,

but the scene of the documentary is identical to the Televisa interview,

including the yellow background, a chair in the corner and slightly

off-centre placement of the chain of Francis' pectoral cross.

The head of the Vatican communications branch, Paolo Ruffini, refused to

speak to reporters who attended an award ceremony Thursday in the Vatican

gardens for Afineevsky, and the director himself kept his distance.





The controversial 20th Amendment to Sri Lanka's Constitution that envisages

expansive powers and greater immunity for the Executive President was passed

in Parliament with a two-thirds majority, following a two-day debate.

The 20th Amendment was the Rajapaksa administration's first big test in the

legislature, since it triggered concern and resistance from not just the

political opposition, but also the influential Buddhist clergy that Sri

Lanka's southern polity venerates.

As many as 156 MPs in the 225-member House voted for it, while 65

legislators voted against the Bill.

Significantly, eight opposition MPs voted in favour of the legislation that

their parties and leaders not only vehemently opposed, but also challenged

at the Supreme Court. Following as many as 39 petitions filed by opposition

parties and civil society groups, the Supreme Court determined that the

passage of the legislation required only a two-thirds majority, except for

four clauses that needed additional public approval through a referendum,

unless they were amended in line with the determination.

The 20th Amendment rolls back Sri Lanka's 19th Amendment, a 2015 legislation

passed with wide support from the Rajapaksa camp - then in Opposition - that

sought to clip presidential powers, while strengthening Parliament. The new

legislation in turn reduces the Prime Minister's role to a ceremonial one.





U.S. officials say Iran is behind a flurry of emails sent to Democratic

voters in multiple battleground states that appeared to be aimed at

intimidating them into voting for President Donald Trump.

John Ratcliffe, the government's top intelligence official, says, "These

actions are desperate attempts by desperate adversaries."

Ratcliffe and FBI Director Chris Wray insist the U.S. will impose costs on

any foreign countries that interfere in the 2020 U.S. election and say the

integrity of the election is still sound.

The activities attributed to Iran mark a significant escalation at a time

when most public election interference discussion has centered on Russia.





US regulators have given full approval for the antiviral drug remdesivir to

treat Covid-19 patients in hospitals.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said Veklury, the drug's brand

name, cut the recovery time on average by five days during clinical trials.

"Veklury is the first treatment for COVID-19 to receive FDA approval," the

FDA said in a statement.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said last week remdesivir had little to

no effect on patients' survival..

The WHO said this was based on its own study - but the drug's manufacturer

Gilead rejected the findings of the trial.

Remdesivir had been authorised for emergency use only in the US since May.

It was recently given to President Donald Trump after he tested positive for

Covid-19. He has since recovered.





Former U.S. security contractor Edward Snowden has been granted permanent

residency in Russia, his lawyer said on Thursday.

Mr. Snowden, a former contractor with the U.S. National Security Agency, has

been living in Russia since 2013 to escape prosecution in the U.S. after

leaking classified documents detailing government surveillance programs.

"Today, Snowden was handed a residency permit for an unlimited period of

time," his Russian lawyer Anatoly Kucherena told Russia's state Tass news


Mr. Kucherena told the Interfax news agency that the application was

submitted in April, but because of the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown

restrictions, it took immigration authorities more time to consider it.

Mr. Snowden was able to obtain permanent residency rights because of the

changes in Russia's immigration laws made in 2019, the lawyer said.

Mr.Kucherena added that Mr. Snowden is not considering applying for Russian

citizenship at the moment.

Mr. Snowden, who has kept a low profile in Russia and occasionally

criticised Russian government policies on social media, said last year that

he was willing to return to the U.S. if he's guaranteed a fair trial.





China on Thursday threatened to make a "legitimate and necessary"

retaliation over the US sale of $1.8 billion worth of arms to Taiwan as

Beijing becomes more strident over its claims to the self-ruled island.

The US state department said on Wednesday it has approved the sale of 135

air-to-ground missiles to Taiwan in a move Taipei's defence ministry said

would build its combat capabilities.

"We will not engage in an arms race with the Chinese Communists. We will put

forward requirements and build fully in accordance with the strategic

concept of heavy deterrence, defending our position and defensive needs,"

defence minister Yen De-fa said.

Self-ruled Taiwan lives under constant threat of invasion by China, whose

leaders view the island as part of their territory.

China's foreign ministry on Thursday accused the US of violating agreements

signed by Beijing and Washington in the 1970s establishing diplomatic

relations between the two governments.

The sale is "sending a very wrong signal to separatist forces advocating for

Taiwan independence, and seriously damages China-US relations," ministry

spokesman Zhao Lijian said.

China also promised retaliation after US secretary of state Mike Pompeo said

the previous day the state department was designating the US operations of

six more China-based media companies as foreign missions.





Egypt executed 49 prisoners in just 10 days in October, Human Rights Watch

said on Thursday, calling for authorities to "immediately halt" carrying out

death sentences.

"Egypt's mass executions of scores of people in a matter of days is

outrageous," said HRW's Joe Stork. The systematic absence of fair trials in

Egypt, especially in political cases, makes every death sentence a violation

of the right to life," Mr. Stork said in a statement. Of the 49 killed, 15

were men convicted for alleged involvement in political violence.

They were convicted in three separate cases, including 10 prisoners accused

of carrying out attacks in 2014 for the Islamist insurgent group Ajnad Masrm

(Soldiers of Egypt).

Another three were executed for their alleged involvement in a 2013 attack

on a police station in the Kerdassa suburb of Cairo, and two others for a

violent demonstration in Alexandria in 2013.

The executions come after four security officers in Cairo were reported to

have been killed by prisoners on death row, and four prisoners then killed

when they allegedly tried to escape, HRW said.

Other prisoners put to death had been sentenced for crimes, including murder

and rape.

HRW estimates that since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was elected in 2014,

Egypt has become one of the top 10 countries carrying out death sentences.





The European Union has awarded its top human rights prize to the Belarus

opposition movement and its leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, for their

challenge to President Alexander Lukashenko's long, hard-line regime.

European Parliament president David Sassoli announced the names of the 2020

Sakharov Prize laureates.





Lebanon's President Michel Aoun designated Sunni Muslim politician Saad

al-Hariri as Prime Minister on Thursday to form a new government to tackle

the worst crisis since the country's 1975-1990 civil war.

Hariri won the backing of a majority of parliamentarians in consultations

with Aoun. He faces major challenges to navigate Lebanon's power-sharing

politics and agree a cabinet, which must then address a mounting list of

woes: a banking crisis, currency crash, rising poverty and crippling state


A new government will also have to contend with a COVID-19 surge and the

fallout of the huge August explosion at Beirut port that killed nearly 200

people and caused billions of dollars of damage.

Thursday's nomination follows weeks of political wrangling that has delayed

a deal on a new government.

Hariri was backed by his own Future lawmakers, the Shi'ite Amal party, Druze

politician Walid Jumblatt's party and other small blocs.

The Shi'ite group Hezbollah said it was not nominating anyone, but added it

would seek to facilitate the process.

"We will contribute to maintain the positive climate," Mohammed Raad, head

of its parliamentary bloc, told reporters at the presidential palace.

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