Washington, Mar 4 (AP/UNB) — The family of a dual Saudi-U.S. citizen imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for more than a year are claiming that he has been subjected to routine torture and is on the verge of an emotional breakdown.
After months of quietly trying to secure his release, the family of Dr. Walid Fitaihi is now seeking to publicly pressure both the Saudi government and the Trump administration on the issue.
"There is an American citizen being tortured in a Saudi prison," said Howard Cooper, a lawyer working with the Fitaihi family. "He has been not only psychologically tortured but physically tortured and he can't hold out much longer."
In seeking to publicize the issue, Cooper and the Fitaihi family will have to contend with the extremely tight public relationship between President Donald Trump and powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, popularly referred to as MBS.
Fitaihi gained his American citizenship while studying and working in the U.S. for years. He received undergraduate and medical degrees from George Washington University and a master's in public health from Harvard, said Cooper a Boston-based attorney who has known Fitaihi for more than 10 years.
He returned to Saudi Arabia in 2006 to help found a hospital built by his family and also became a popular motivational speaker on television. In November 2017, Fitaihi was one of about 200 prominent Saudis detained in a mass roundup and held prisoner in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton hotel.
The Saudi government described the mass arrests as a crackdown on corruption; critics, however, decried it as a move to consolidate power by Prince Mohammed and claimed the detainees were being tortured.
Most of those detainees were eventually released after agreeing to pay massive financial penalties, but Fitaihi and a small handful of others were instead transferred to a prison in Riyadh. Cooper said Fitaihi was recently moved to a different prison in the coastal city of Jeddah and that he was now in the prison hospital after suffering "an emotional breakdown" after months of physical and psychological torture.
Trumps relationship with Saudi Arabia has already been tested by last year's grisly murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi by Saudi agents inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Trump however stood firmly by Prince Mohammed; in the face of widespread international skepticism, Trump repeatedly backed the official Saudi explanation that the murder was a rogue operation that took place without the crown prince's knowledge.
Despite the Kashoggi controversy, the relationship remains strong and the Trump administration continues to depend on Prince Mohammed as a key regional ally. Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner met with Prince Mohammed last week to discuss Kushner's plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
National Security Adviser John Bolton was briefly asked about Fitaihi's case during a Sunday interview on CNN's "State of the Union." Bolton said he knew only that American diplomats had recently met with him in prison.
"Beyond that, we don't really have any additional information at this point," Bolton said.
In response to an Associated Press query, the State Department released a statement confirming that U.S. diplomatic representatives have met with Fitaihi and have "raised his case" with the Saudi government.
"We take all allegations of abuse and torture extremely seriously. We urge the Government of Saudi Arabia, and all governments, to ensure fair trial guarantees, freedom from arbitrary and extrajudicial detention, transparency, and rule of law," the statement said. "We also call on the Government of Saudi Arabia, and all governments, to treat prisoners and detainees humanely, and to ensure that allegations of abuse are investigated quickly and thoroughly."
The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
Kabul, March 3 (Xinhua/UNB) - At least 20 people were killed and many others went missing after flash floods hit Afghanistan's southern province of Kandahar, authorities said Sunday.
Triggered by the heavy rain, the floods have killed 20 people, including a number of children, when their homes collapsed or the vehicles they were travelling in were swept away since early Friday, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Afghanistan said in a statement.
Houses and infrastructure have been damaged or destroyed, the statement said, adding "Provincial Disaster Management Committee convened an initial meeting, and rapid assessment teams have been deployed. At least 10 people, including children, are still missing."
The Afghan officials and UN agencies are still working to find the full extent of needs for the victims, the statement added.
While heavy snow hit most parts of the country, floods also damaged dozens of houses and shops in western provinces over the period, according to officials.
Beijing, Mar 3 (AP/UNB) — In an unusual step, China's ceremonial legislature is due to endorse a law meant to help end a bruising tariff war with Washington by discouraging officials from pressuring foreign companies to hand over technology.
The battle with China's biggest trading partner is overshadowing the National People's Congress, the country's highest-profile event of the year. It brings 3,000-plus delegates to the ornate Great Hall of the People in Beijing for two weeks of speeches, meetings with senior leaders and political ritual to endorse the ruling Communist Party's economic and social welfare plans.
A gathering of noncommunist groups held at the same time brightens Beijing's drab winter, drawing tech billionaires, movie stars and ethnic minorities in distinctive traditional dress.
That gives President Xi Jinping's government a platform for advertising changes aimed at ending the fight with President Donald Trump that has disrupted trade in goods from soybeans to medical equipment.
The technology measure is part of a proposed law on foreign investment that aims to address complaints by Washington, Europe and other trading partners that China's system is rigged against foreign companies.
Trump cited complaints Beijing steals or pressures companies to hand over technology when he slapped punitive tariffs on $250 billion of Chinese imports in July. Europe, Japan and other trading partners disapprove of the tariff hikes but echo U.S. complaints.
China has balked at changing its strategy for nurturing technologies that American officials worry might challenge U.S. industrial dominance. But communist leaders face pressure to reach a settlement after economic growth sagged to a three-decade low of 6.6 percent last year.
On the domestic front, companies and investors are hoping officials announce details of how Beijing will carry out promises to curb the dominance of state industry and support entrepreneurs who generate much of China's new jobs and wealth. They are looking for details of a promised cut of up to 1.3 trillion yuan ($200 billion) in value-added and other taxes.
The congress opens Tuesday with an annual "work report" on government plans by Premier Li Keqiang, the No. 2 ruling party leader behind Xi and China's top economic official.
State media have cited other potential topics including revising China's patent law — another source of foreign complaints — and measures to encourage foreign investment in agriculture and technology and developing free-trade zones.
Chinese officials deny Beijing steals or pressures companies to hand over trade secrets and technology. But they are trying to mollify Trump and other governments by promising better legal protections.
"I think the (American and European) complaints have been reflected in the revision of the law," said Citigroup economist Li-Gang Liu.
Under the proposed law, officials would be barred from using "administrative methods to force technology transfers."
The chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, Tim Stratford, called the measure a "step forward." But business groups say they need to see how it will be enforced.
It was unclear whether the vaguely worded measure would appease Trump. The American Embassy in Beijing said it had no comment.
Companies have been disappointed in the past after "hearing positive words," said Stratford, a former deputy U.S. trade representative.
The European Union Chamber of Commerce in China said the law's "vague language" gives regulators too much discretion. The focus on "administrative methods" would leave officials free to use other pressure tactics, it said.
The state press has cited other potential topics including revising China's patent law — another source of foreign complaints — and measures to encourage foreign investment in agriculture and technology and developing free-trade zones.
United Nations, March 2 (Xinhua/UNB) - More than two million boys and girls are currently out of school in Syria, people's resources are depleting, and more than eight in ten people live below the poverty line, the UN Humanitarian Needs Overview for Syria said on Friday.
Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, told reporters at a regular briefing that the 2019 overview is a reminder that the crisis is far from over for millions of people in Syria who have lived through eight years of war.
More than 11 million people remain in need of some form of assistance, including for food, health care, shelter, water, sanitation, hygiene and even their livelihood, Dujarric said.
"The UN and its partners are appealing for continued donor support to support the critical life-saving, protection and livelihood needs of over 11 million people," Dujarric said.
"Displacement continues to be a defining feature of the crisis, with an estimated 6.2 million people who are internally displaced," Dujarric said.
Syria, Mar 2 (AP/UNB) — U.S.-backed Syrian forces on Friday resumed military operations to liberate the last piece of territory held by the Islamic state group in Syria after evacuating thousands of civilians and hostages who have been besieged inside, a spokesman said.
Mustafa Bali said fighters from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have begun clashing with the militants and advancing after the last batch of civilians left the territory.
"Those left inside are fighters who do not wish to surrender," he told The Associated Press.
The military campaign to uproot the militants from the eastern banks of the Euphrates River began in September, pushing them down toward this last corner in the village of Baghouz, near the Iraqi border. The military operation was halted on February 12 as the SDF said a large of civilians and hostages were holed up in the territory, which sits atop caves and tunnels where they had been hiding.
The remaining speck of IS-controlled land in Baghouz village is also along the Euphrates from one side and the desert near the Iraqi border from the other. Thousands of civilians were living in a tent encampment and houses along the riverside.
Over the last two weeks, thousands of civilians have been evacuated, many of them women and children in desperate conditions. The only aid group at the evacuation site, the Free Burma Rangers, estimated that at least 10,000 civilians have left the IS pocket since Feb. 20, in trips organized by the SDF.
The evacuees, who included IS family members, said food was running low and clean water and medicine were scarce. Despite its demise, many defended what remained of the group's territorial hold, which once spanned a third of Iraq and Syria.
As they trickled out, SDF and coalition officials screened them. Women and children were transferred to camps miles away. Men suspected of links to the militant group were taken into custody at other facilities.
U.S. President Donald Trump said Thursday that IS has lost "100 percent" of the territory it once controlled in Syria, but officials estimate there are hundreds of militants left in the small patch of territory in Baghouz, and that they will likely fight till the end.
Bali would not speculate on how long the military operation might take but said he expects a "fierce battle."
He said the battles are expected to take place in a very small area that includes a complex network of tunnels, as well as suicide bombers and land mines.
"The battle to finish off what is left Daesh has started," said SDF commander Adnan Afrin, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
Afrin said he expects "resistance" from the remaining fighters who are likely to deploy all their weapons, including suicide bombers.
He said most of the remaining fighters are Europeans, Asian, Iraqi and Arabs from the area.
On Friday, the smallest batch of evacuees, just over 200, came out of the pocket in around six trucks used to transport sheep. About 10 trucks sent to the perimeter of the IS pocket came back empty, and drivers said no more evacuees came out after hours of waiting.
The evacuees Friday included wounded men but were mostly women and children. There were Russians, Indonesians, Bosnians, Dagestani, Kazaks, Egyptians, Syrians and Iraqis. They dragged along few belongings, distraught children and broken spirits.
Umm Mohammed — or mother of Mohammed — a 38-year-old Syrian, left Baghouz with her three children Friday but her husband stayed behind in support of IS. "There are many fighters and families inside," she said. "The Islamic State is weak only in Baghouz but elsewhere it is expanding and growing."
The capture of the last pocket still held by IS fighters in Baghouz would mark the end of a devastating four-year global campaign to end the extremist group's hold on territory in Syria and Iraq — their so-called "caliphate" that at the height of the group's power in 2014 controlled nearly a third of both Iraq and Syria.
It would allow U.S. President Donald Trump to begin withdrawing the estimated 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, as he declared in December he would do. Though last week he partially reversed course and agreed to keep a residual force of perhaps a few hundred troops as part of an international effort to stabilize northeastern Syria.
The resumption of military operations against IS breaks a dayslong standoff while the civilians were being evacuated. In the last week alone, 13,000 people, most of them women and children, arrived at the al-Hol camp in Hassakeh province which now houses approximately 45,000 people, according to the United Nations.
In a statement Friday, the U.N. cited reports that more than 84 people, two thirds of them young children under five years of age, have died since December on their way to al-Hol camp after fleeing the extremist group in Syria's Deir el-Zour province.
"Many of the arrivals are exhausted, hungry and sick," according to Jens Laerke, spokesman of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, at a news briefing in Geneva.