Opposition candidate wins Istanbul mayor’s race in blow to AKP

24 June 2019

In a country that has been in perpetual campaign mode for the last five years, the sudden end of the Istanbul election do-over came as shock few could have predicted. Cheers and car horns echoed through the streets of the central Beyoglu district as the Binali Yildirim, the candidate of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), conceded defeat in a televised speech, ending his party’s long dominance over Turkey’s largest city.

“As of now my rival is leading,” Yildirim said minutes after the initial results were released, showing Ekrem Imamoglu, the candidate of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), with 54% of the vote. “I congratulate him and wish him all the luck. My wish is for Imamoglu to serve Istanbul well.”

Preliminary results reported by the state news outlet Anadolu Agency showed Imamoglu with 4.7 million votes to Yildirim’s 3.9 million votes with more than 99% of ballots counted at 9 p.m. Sunday night.

The election do-over came after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AKP contested the initial March 31 municipal vote in which Imamoglu won by a slim margin. Following the original defeat, AKP officials brought forth a succession of vote recounts and appeals until Turkey’s top election board annulled the results, citing irregularities due to the credentials of some ballot box observers.

Preliminary results indicate Imamoglu significantly widened his margin in Sunday’s election, which saw a voter participation of roughly 84%. In a televised speech, the Istanbul mayor-elect warned party officials and ballot box observers not to leave their posts until all ballots had been officially registered, and to avoid early celebrations.

“This victory will pave the way for the democratization of Turkey,” Tuba Torun, a CHP official, told Al-Monitor. “We have a government that is ready to do anything to keep its power. As you know, we won last time and they didn’t accept the results, but this time the voting margin is so wide that they can’t deny the defeat here.”

Read the full story on Al Monitor: https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/06/ekrem-imamoglu-chp-wins-istanbul-mayor-race-blow-to-akp.html#ixzz5rhxMAz14

Gezi Park detainees to finally get day in court

20 June 2019

This weekend, the Istanbul election do-over will provide a vital test for Turkey’s democratic institutions. The assessment will continue on Monday, when the nation’s judiciary will be put in the spotlight with the start of the much-awaited Gezi trials.

Sixteen people are facing life imprisonment without parole for allegedly organizing and financing the 2013 Istanbul Gezi Park protests. Among them are the philanthropist Osman Kavala, who has been in pretrial detention since November 2017, and Yigit Aksakoglu, an early childhood education advocate who’s been jailed for more than seven months.

657-page indictment issued on Feb. 20 charged the defendants with orchestrating a plot to overthrow the Turkish government through the Gezi protests, which spread across the nation after peaceful demonstrators tried to preserve a green space in central Istanbul in 2013. The defendants have denied the allegations and human rights advocates have criticized the indictment for containing evidence they claim does not amount to reasonable grounds for incrimination.

“It seems to be a politically motivated trial,” Emma Sinclair-Webb, the Turkey director for Human Rights Watch, told Al-Monitor. “The prosecutors provided all these phone calls, photographs and hundreds of intercepted conversations whose significance isn’t clear. … So you get this mass of evidence that’s not evidence at all.”

Read the full story on Al Montior: https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/06/gezi-trials-open-turkey.html#ixzz5rPqNrW5r

Greek Cyprus calls for arrest of Turkish drilling crew

12 June 2019

Tensions are escalating between Greek Cypriots and Ankara after international arrest warrants were issued for crewmembers aboard a Turkish drilling ship in disputed waters off the coast of Cyprus.

On Monday, authorities in Greek Cyprus sought the arrest of 25 individuals, including workers on Turkey’s Fatih drilling ship, which has been conducting gas exploration activities in territorial waters claimed by Cyprus, as well as several officials from companies working with the Turkish Petroleum Corporation. The rebuke to Turkey’s ongoing gas development projects in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, or EastMed, was condemned by officials in Ankara, who have vowed to move forward with energy exploration activities near Cyprus.

“We will continue our efforts to achieve regional peace by distributing the riches of Cyprus Island and the Mediterranean in a fair manner,” said Turkish Energy and Natural Resources Minister Fatih Donmez on Tuesday, stating the territorial energy rights of Turkish Cypriots in Northern Cyprus were being violated. “Our extensive and long-term exploration and drilling activities in the region will resume as planned without making concessions to our legitimate rights on license areas.”

The spat comes as officials in the United States and Israel have increased cooperation with Greek Cypriots to develop energy resources in the EastMed, which is believed to hold enough gas to meet regional needs and potentially serve as an alternative energy source for European markets, which largely rely on Russian gas imports. Despite repeated appeals for Turkey to stop its “provocative” gas exploration activities near Cyprus, officials in Ankara are pressing ahead, risking a wider confrontation with not just Greek Cypriots but also regional stakeholders, which include the United States.

Read the full story on Al Monitor: https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/06/greek-cyprus-arrest-warrants-turkish-drilling-crew.html#ixzz5qevrvbQy

Istanbul mayoral candidates to debate in rare TV face-off

11 June 2019

In healthy democracies, a candidate’s willingness to participate in a televised debate ahead of elections is not newsworthy. In Turkey, where the last major political debate took place in 2002, such a decision can be seen as a watershed moment.

On June 16, Binali Yildirim, the Istanbul mayoral candidate from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), agreed to take part in a debate with his rival, Ekrem Imamoglu of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), ahead of the do-over elections scheduled for June 23. In March, Imamoglu surprised many when he narrowly won the Istanbul mayoral seat — long held by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP and its ideological forerunners — but his victory was revoked after Turkey’s electoral board ruled some ballot box committees had violated electoral laws and a redo was set in motion.

With less than two weeks before voting day, Yildirim continues to trail behind in opinion polls and is now set to face off against the charismatic Imamoglu on live television in a much anticipated political event that some observers see as a rare sign of weakness from the AKP. For nearly two decades, the party has governed Turkey and most of its largest cities, setting its own terms on public discourse as opposition leaders and media outlets have been increasingly silenced. Yet after losing most major metropolitan areas in the March 31 municipal elections, the AKP has been forced to alter its campaign strategy at the risk of losing Istanbul a second time.

“Given that Binali Yildirim already has state support, government support and name recognition, I think he is doing this because he’s trailing behind Imamoglu,” Berk Esen, an assistant professor of international relations at Bilkent University in Ankara, told Al-Monitor. “[The AKP knows] they are running out of time and options to close the gap.”

Read the full story on Al Monitor: https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/06/akp-debate-shows-weak-desperate.html#ixzz5qZdHWmYT

Rohingya refugees prepare camps for monsoon season: Part 3

09 June 2019

Though Cyclone Fani spared the camps, the first major rainfall to hit Cox’s Bazar this season affected 170 shelters, displacing a number of families, according to Gemma Snowdon, a communications officer for WFP. In addition to the SMEP preparations, constant work is needed to maintain reinforcement walls and humanitarian workers have been setting up storm shelters, as well as, providing cyclone preparedness training courses.

In recent months, Navin Karki, a site management officer for IOM, has also been distributing “tie-down kits” to help secure rooftops and minimize storm damage. He expressed fears financial support for such measures would diminish with time as the initial emergency response turns into a protracted crisis.

“If there is a lack of support from the international community, then it will be very difficult for everyone to continue their daily activities because these projects require constant upkeep,” Karki told DW. “The need here is huge.”

Rohingya refugees prepare camps for Monsoon season: Part 2

08 June 2019

Alshalabi oversees the many construction crews that are chopping hills in half, making graded terraces of their slopes and reinforcing them with treated-bamboo retention walls. Native vegetation is then planted on the terraces to help hold the soil together. In recent months, several new camps have been built in this manner, allowing Rohingya families to relocate to safer shelters than those initially built as the crisis unfolded.

“We call it ‘decongesting the camps,'” Alshalabi told DW. “Almost 25,000 people have been relocated into the camp 20 and camp 4 extensions. But the old camps are so densely populated that it doesn’t seem like that many people moved.”

Taken together, the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar are the largest refugee settlement in the world. A report by Human Rights Watch published in August 2018 found the camp to be severely overcrowded, with an average usable space of just 10.7 square meters per person. The report called for Rohingya refugees to be relocated to safer areas outside the camps, but the long-term prospects of hosting the displaced community has become a contentious subject in Bangladeshi politics.

Government officials continue to put pressure on Myanmar to repatriate Rohingya refugees and, in viewing their stay as temporary, have banned the use of permanent construction materials in the camps, compounding existing infrastructure problems.

Yet for the time being, earthmoving projects continue and, in the process, provide much needed employment for camp residents, who are neither permitted to work nor attend schools. Several thousand Rohingya refugees have signed up to participate in the program and are paid roughly $5 (€4.5) for an eight-hour workday, the minimum wage in Bangladesh. Among them is Mohamed Elias, a 35-year-old refugee who has been living in the camps since 2017.

“During the rainy season, it gets very wet here,” Elias said as he worked to level out a terrace. “The soil breaks down easily and the hills collapse, so what we are doing now will protect our homes … it also feels good to work.”

Rohingya females also take part in the infrastructure projects and compose about 30% of the total workforce. Roshida Begum, a mother of four whose husband was killed in Myanmar, said she waters vegetation on the terraces in the morning, carries soil to construction sites in the afternoon, and cooks meals for her children during breaks.

“The salary has helped me buy many things like cooking oil, rice and additional food to supplement the food aid we are getting,” Begum told DW.

“In Myanmar, the security situation was not good for Rohingya, but in Bangladesh they are quite good at keeping us safe,” she continued. “The food rations go up and down, but security is good.”

Read the full story on Deutsche Welle:


Rohingya refugees prepare camps for Monsoon season

31 May 2019

In early May, Cyclone Fani was projected to hit Bangladesh with 175 kilometers per hour (108 miles per hour) winds and heavy rains. Humanitarian groups sprung into action, dispatching disaster response teams and distributing supplies to the highly vulnerable Rohingya camps, which host over 910,000 refugees along the nation’s southern coastal area.

Built on hills made of a fine, silt-like soil, the camps near the Cox’s Bazar district are particularly prone to landslides and flash floods, meaning downpours can wreak havoc on the successive waves of Rohingya refugees who have taken shelter there. As Cyclone Fani approached, both refugees and the many agencies that manage the camps watched nervously as the storm veered west, largely missing Cox’s Bazar, but causing extensive damage in India and western Bangladesh.

The episode would serve as a precursor to the potentially catastrophic events that lie ahead. Now, as monsoon season begins in Bangladesh, massive earth-moving projects that have been undertaken over the last year to reinforce camp settlements against the worst weather conditions will be put to the test.

Working side by side with local residents and NGOs, Rohingya refugees have been taking part in a program as paid laborers to build roads, bridges, drainage systems and reinforcement walls. Known as the Site Maintenance Engineering Project (SMEP), the program seeks to address critical infrastructure issues in the camps, most of which were hastily built in 2017 as over 700,000 refugees fled ethnic violence in Myanmar.

“These slopes are not stable, at any moment you could have a landslide,” said Mosa Alshalabi, an engineer with the World Food Programme (WFP), which is coordinating the program with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Read the full story on Deutsche Welle:



Bathing in the Ganges

28 May 2019

Hindu pilgrims bathe in the Ganges river in Varanasi, India, performing a sacred ritual believed to wash away their sins.


Kolkata Commute

25 May 2019

Commuters on a bus cross the Howrah Bridge in Kolkata, India.

Final Voting Round in Varanasi

19 May 2019

Today, Indians are voting in the 7th and final phase of national elections, which are seen as a referendum on PM Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Results to be announced 23 May.