Saudi court sentences prominent female activist to nearly six years


A prominent Saudi women’s rights activist has been sentenced to nearly six years in prison by an anti-terrorism court in a high-profile case that has drawn widespread international criticism and intensified scrutiny on the kingdom’s human rights record.

Loujain al-Hathloul, who campaigned for the right for women to drive, was charged with incitement to change the absolute monarchy’s political system, serving a foreign agenda and co-operating with individuals and entities accused of violating the kingdom’s anti-terrorism act, according to Saudi media affiliated to the state.

Ms Hathloul was sentenced to five years and eight months, effective from the date of her arrest in May 2018, with two years and 10 months suspended, meaning she could be released in a few months, said Lina al-Hathloul, her sister. She will be banned from travel for five years, her sister said on Twitter.

The sentencing comes as US President-elect Joe Biden is expected to put greater scrutiny on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s autocratic rule, under which hundreds of royals, businessmen, activists, bloggers and academics have been jailed.

Jake Sullivan, Mr Biden’s pick to be national security adviser, on Monday said Saudi Arabia’s sentencing of Ms Hathloul “for simply exercising her universal rights is unjust and troubling.”

“As we have said, the Biden-Harris administration will stand up against human rights violations wherever they occur,” he said on Twitter.

In October, Mr Biden said his administration would “reassess” the US’s relationship with Saudi Arabia as he used the second anniversary of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the veteran journalist, to pledge that human rights would be a priority “even with our closest security partners”.

Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s de facto leader, has spearheaded sweeping changes in recent years as he has pledged to modernise the ultra-conservative kingdom and reform the oil-dependent economy.

But the easing of social restrictions under his watch, including allowing women to drive and live independently and marry without the approval of male guardians, has been accompanied by waves of crackdowns against any hint of dissent.

Murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi © Hasan Jamali/AP

The murder of Khashoggi by Saudi agents at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 triggered Riyadh’s worst diplomatic crisis in decades. But President Donald Trump stood by Prince Mohammed and was accused by activists of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Arab world.

The paradox of Prince Mohammed’s rule was highlighted by the arrest of Ms Hathloul, 31, and more than 10 other female activists who had also campaigned for the lifting of a decades-old ban on women driving. They were detained just weeks before the ban was lifted in what was widely interpreted as a signal from the authorities that all forms of activism would be quashed.

Ms Hathloul’s family alleged that she had been tortured while she was detained, but a court last week cleared the authorities, saying there was no evidence to support the claims.

Her case was transferred to a court that typically hears terrorism cases last month.

Alqst, a London-based human rights organisation, said it was a “travesty of justice” that Ms Hathloul was “sentenced under the counter-terrorism law, based on charges relating solely to her peaceful activism”. It added that her trial “has been flawed from start to finish”.

Human rights groups say scores of activists remain in prison. This month, a court sentenced Walid Fitaihi, a Saudi-US doctor, to six years in jail on what Human Rights Watch described as “vague charges mostly tied to his peaceful political views and expression”.

US to require people flying from the UK to test for Covid


The Trump administration is demanding that travellers from the UK get a negative coronavirus test 72 hours before flying to the US, under new restrictions designed to stop the spread of the new strain of the disease.

The US government announced the measure on Thursday night, becoming the latest country to impose travel restrictions on British travellers since the discovery of the more contagious strain, which has ripped through the south-east of England.

Donald Trump, US president, is due to sign an order putting the restrictions in place on Friday, though they will not take effect until Monday.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement: “This additional testing requirement will fortify our protection of the American public to improve their health and safety and ensure responsible international travel.”

The US move comes after several other countries took similar measures to restrict movement from the UK. More than 50 countries have now banned travel from Britain altogether after a warning from Boris Johnson, British prime minister, about the highly infectious coronavirus variant.

Scientists say the new strain is up to 70 per cent more transmissible than others and believe it is responsible for a sudden jump in cases in London and the surrounding counties over the past few days.

France reopened its border earlier this week to anyone who tests negative, after a 48-hour closure which caused huge disruption to British-French freight routes.

The Trump administration had already cut travel from the UK by 90 per cent after imposing an entry ban in March on anyone who had been in Britain during the previous 14 days. That ban does not apply to US citizens however, or anyone who is granted an exemption for reasons of “national interest”.

Some politicians have called on the federal government to tighten the restrictions in recent days, either by banning flights outright or imposing testing requirements.

Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, earlier this week accused the Trump administration of failing to act quickly enough to restrict travel from Britain. “This is what happened in the spring. It is déjà vu. It is the same mistake the federal government made that killed thousands of people,” he said.

Under the rules, anyone flying from the UK will be required to take either a polymerase chain reaction test or a more rapid antigen test and provide written confirmation of a negative result to their airline. Airlines will be required to confirm the negative results, and to ban any traveller who refuses to take a test.

Several US air carriers had already announced they were due to impose similar restrictions, including United Airlines and Delta Air Lines.

Johnson and Von der Leyen intensify ‘hotline’ talks in push for Brexit deal


Boris Johnson and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen have begun an intensified phase of “hotline” talks as the two sides strive to agree a Brexit trade deal by Wednesday night.

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, told ambassadors on Tuesday evening that the latest UK offer on fishing rights — the key remaining sticking points in the talks — was unacceptable.

But he stressed that negotiations were continuing, with many other issues already solved or close to being settled, according to participants at the closed-door briefing.

Although both sides say talks could continue after Christmas, they share a desire to close a deal by Wednesday night if at all possible, as exhausted negotiators hand the baton to their political bosses.

“Nothing’s impossible,” said one British official, while stressing that significant differences remained. “Getting home for Christmas is something everyone would like.”

Ms von der Leyen and Mr Johnson have held regular calls in the last 24 hours, according to British and EU officials, taking hands-on control of negotiations in a bid to reach a compromise on EU fishing rights in UK waters.

Mr Barnier told members of the European Parliament at a separate closed-door meeting on Tuesday that the two sides were still far apart on fish and he felt the issue would have to be solved by Ms von der Leyen and Mr Johnson, according to one meeting participant.

“EU negotiators are in a last push now to make progress and to clinch a deal acceptable for both sides,” said one diplomat after Mr Barnier’s presentation.

Mr Barnier told ambassadors that the EU side was prepared to negotiate until the end of the year, when Britain’s post-Brexit transition period will end, and even beyond.

But officials on both sides said they were striving to wrap up a deal before Christmas in order to leave the time between December 25 and the new year for ratification or other processes needed to bring the deal into effect.

The European Parliament has already said that it will not hold a ratification vote before the end of the year, with the EU now exploring a stopgap approach known as “provisional application”.

The EU has offered to sacrifice 25 per cent of its existing €650m-worth of fishing rights in UK waters as part of a six-year transition period. Mr Barnier said the UK was seeking a 35 per cent cut rising to 60 per cent if a wider range of species were factored in to the calculations. The UK transition offer was also shorter — only three years, he said.

A person briefed on the British negotiating position said Mr Barnier’s account was not accurate, without offering further details.

Mr Johnson on Tuesday was warned by the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation not to “betray” the industry, whose main base is in the north-east of Scotland where the Conservatives hold three parliamentary seats.

Elspeth Macdonald, chief executive of the body, said: “Repatriating only 35 per cent of the EU’s landings to the UK phased in over a period of several years would be a terrible deal for the fishing industry.”

But European fishing groups have made similar warnings about the prospective deal, suggesting both sides may end up disappointing their fishing sectors, which make up a tiny part of the UK and EU economies.

But Mr Johnson has, so far at least, managed to keep on side Eurosceptic Conservative MPs, who have been updated on the state of talks in Brussels and have been briefed that a deal could be agreed on Wednesday evening.

The Tory European Research Group has placed its lawyers on standby to go through any deal with a fine tooth comb over Christmas, ahead of a mooted parliamentary vote on December 30.

But there have not been any cries of “betrayal” from the ERG so far, even as deals on contentious issues like the “level playing field” take shape in Brussels. Some MPs do, however, remain worried about the fishing deal.

One Tory MP said: “We have confidence in the prime minister and great confidence in David Frost [Britain’s chief negotiator].” The MP added that a deal on the level playing field and the governance of a trade treaty was “very nearly there”.

Coronavirus: Boris Johnson tears up five-day festive bubble plans


A third of the population of England will be barred from spending Christmas with other households after Boris Johnson ripped up his plans to allow five-day festive bubbles of up to three different households.

Mr Johnson announced at a press conference on Saturday afternoon that he had made the dramatic U-turn after a rapid spike in coronavirus cases in London, caused in part by a more infectious new strain of the virus.

An estimated 18m people living in the new tier 4 areas, which include London and much of the surrounding region, will be ordered to stay at home for a fortnight starting on Sunday morning.

They will be barred from socialising with more than one person even outdoors — meaning no Christmas gatherings of entire families — while shops, leisure facilities, gyms and hairdressers will be closed.

People living elsewhere in England in tiers 1-3 will still be allowed family gatherings over the festive period, but only for Christmas Day itself, rather than the previously planned five days.

The new restrictions — which prompted alarm among business leaders — is a volte-face for the prime minister, who said earlier this week that it would be inhuman to prevent families gathering next week.

Mr Johnson said that the new virus — named VUI2020/12/01 — could be more than 70 per cent more infectious than the previous variant, although there was no evidence that it had a higher mortality rate. 

He said the government wanted people in all tiers to “stay local” at Christmas. “As prime minister, it is my duty to take the difficult decisions, to do what is right to protect the people of this country,” he said.

“Given the early evidence we have on this new variant of the virus, and the potential risk it poses, it is with a heavy heart that I must tell you we cannot continue with Christmas as planned.”

Meanwhile Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, announced a ban on travel between Scotland and other parts of the UK over the Christmas period.

She also slashed the amount of time that families in Scotland could spend in bubbles from five days to just Christmas Day itself — broadly in line with most of England.

Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford announced that its tier 4 rules would come into effect from midnight on Saturday rather than the previous threshold of December 28.

Ms Sturgeon said that the new, more infectious strain of coronavirus had reached Scotland.

“If we don’t act decisively it will take hold here,” she said. “Four weeks ago London’s cases were very low too and now they’re running out of control. That’s what we face in Scotland in the face of this severe warning.”

London cases have doubled in just one week with the new variant accounting for 60 per cent of those new infections, according to Downing Street officials.

Mr Johnson said he knew how important it was for families to be together and for grandparents to see their grandchildren. But he said he believed there was no alternative way to prevent hospitals being overwhelmed and thousands losing their lives. 

Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, said the public were “getting confusion where they need certainty” after the U-turn. He said the public should support the “necessary” measures, but said Mr Johnson had failed to take decisive action quickly enough.

“My frustration is that when I challenged the prime minister on this . . . [for him] three days later to change his mind, just before Christmas, many families will be wondering ‘how on earth did this happen?’”

All Covid restrictions will be reviewed on December 30, including the areas which will be plunged into tier 4 on Sunday such as London, Kent, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Hastings, most of Surrey, Gosport and Havant, the East of England and all of Essex apart from Colchester.

The new restrictions will come into force only a fortnight after Mr Johnson ended a previous month-long lockdown in favour of a new regional system of restrictions.

The new measures prompted alarm among many business groups and Tory MPs.

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, described the decision as “hugely regrettable news” and called for additional financial support.

“Retailers have invested hundreds of millions of pounds making stores Covid-secure for customers and staff, and Sage’s advice has said throughout that closing non-essential retail has a minimal impact on the spread of the virus,” she said.

London First, the lobby group, said the new rules were “a further hammer blow” to Londoners and warned the closure of non-essential retail in the capital could see many businesses go under.

“With such a prolonged period of stop-start measures the public will want to know how the new restrictions will reduce infection rates and the government must stand ready to pump further support to those firms unable to trade normally,” it said.

Mark Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs opposed to lockdown, said the restrictions should be put to a vote in the House of Commons. “As we deliver the vaccine to the most at-risk groups around the country, the public needs to see how this will translate into a return to normal life, with restrictions being lifted at every stage, and a clear road map to all our freedoms being restored as soon as this work is done.”

Additional reporting by Jonathan Eley

Wish shares fall in trading debut


Ecommerce site Wish’s stock fell in its first trades on the Nasdaq exchange on Wednesday, in a contrast to a succession of blockbuster technology listings this year.

Shares in ContextLogic, which does business under the name of Wish, had dropped as much as 14 per cent from their initial public offering price of $24 by mid-afternoon. The company raised about $1.1bn at that price on Tuesday evening, giving it an implied market capitalisation of $14bn.

Wish’s offering came on the heels of Airbnb and DoorDash’s successful market debuts, which revived memories of the dotcom era and signalled the willingness of public investors to buy into fast-growing but lossmaking tech companies.

Investors showed less enthusiasm for Wish, which operates an online marketplace largely known for discounted items originating in China, catering to low and middle-income consumers. The company said its proprietary algorithms keep users engaged with a personalised feed of products, resulting in about 1.8m sales a day.

Wish chief executive Peter Szulczewski drew comparisons to the social media company Facebook, whose shares also fell on their first day of trading following a blockbuster IPO in 2012.

“I was an investor in Facebook early on. That worked out well,” Mr Szulczewski said. “I don’t think we’re any different than we were when we did our roadshow. I’m not even sure what the stock price is now, but I had gone into this with the strategy of not paying attention to short-term volatility.”

Investors should judge Wish on its long-term performance, he said.

The San Francisco-based company has faced some criticism for the quality of products on its site, which often take weeks to ship to customers. In 2014 PayPal temporarily stopped processing payments on Wish’s website “as a result of concerns related to products listed on our platform”, the company wrote in its prospectus.

The company is also largely reliant on Chinese supply chains and warned investors about risks arising from US-China trade tensions.

Wish had historically benefited from the Universal Postal Union Treaty, which allowed for low-cost shipping on items from China but was redrawn in July.

Mr Szulczewski said Wish had taken more control over getting products to its customers and now handled more than 90 per cent of shipments itself, after handling none as recently as 2016.

Wish recorded deepening net losses in the first nine months of this year, rising to $176m from $5m during the same period in 2019. It said it made more than $1.7bn in revenues in the first nine months of this year.

The company’s IPO and first trades implied a lower market capitalisation than the estimates some bankers had at one point cited, which had ranged from $25bn to $30bn. Private investors previously valued Wish at $11.2bn in a round of funding last year led by the investment firm General Atlantic.

Both Airbnb and DoorDash experienced large first-day trading “pops”, alarming some advisers and executives of companies that had been preparing for IPOs this month.

David Baszucki, chief executive of gaming company Roblox, said in an email to employees on Friday that he was kicking his company’s listing into the new year and was working with advisers to make “improvements” on the process. Roblox had been expected to list its shares before the end of the year.

Mr Szulczewski owned a stake valued at more than $2.5bn in Wish at the IPO price. He will also retain control over the company through a dual-class voting structure.

Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan and Bank of America served as the lead underwriters on Wish’s offering.

Europe struggles to free Christmas from Covid’s shackles


Europeans who were looking forward to Christmas and new year holidays free from burdensome Covid-19 lockdowns have been brought abruptly down to earth in the past week, with persistently high infection rates across the continent obliging governments from London to Athens to strengthen or maintain restrictions on free movement. 

Belgium has extended curbs through the holidays and will allow people to invite only one adult friend — known as a “cuddle contact” — to their homes, or two if they live alone. France has cancelled a reprieve for New Year’s Eve gatherings and will impose an 8pm-6am curfew from Tuesday.

Italy, which at the weekend overtook the UK to register the highest Covid-19 death toll in Europe of 64,036, has imposed some of the continent’s strictest Christmas travel restrictions that will ban Italians from moving between regions from December 20 to January 6. Greece will remain under lockdown until January 7. In the UK, infections have been rising and there is speculation that London and other regions will face a tightening of restrictions to be announced this week.

But it is Germany, which managed the first wave of the pandemic in the spring better than most of its neighbours, that faces one of the most serious threats from the second wave as governments seek to avoid a repeat of the US Thanksgiving celebrations last month that provoked a new surge of infections and deaths.

Chart showing that test positivity has soared since Thanksgiving in the US, underscoring fears that European countries may see a post-Christmas surge

Germany had initially planned to relax the partial shutdown imposed at the start of November for the festive season. It is now doing the opposite, decreeing a much more draconian lockdown that will come into force on Wednesday and last for three-and-a-half weeks. “We have been forced to act,” Angela Merkel, the chancellor, told reporters on Sunday after a meeting with the leaders of Germany’s 16 states.

The trigger has been a sudden, dramatic worsening of the coronavirus situation, with a record of almost 30,000 new infections and 598 deaths from Covid-19 on Friday.

“Corona is out of control,” said Markus Söder, prime minister of Bavaria, on Sunday. “We are at five minutes to midnight.”

Germany imposed a “lockdown-lite” in November that led to the closure of restaurants, bars, theatres and gyms, though most businesses and schools stayed open. But Ms Merkel said on Sunday that those measures had “not been enough” and infections were again growing exponentially.

The leaders decreed that, from Wednesday, most shops and schools would shut. Companies are to encourage their employees to work from home wherever possible. Curbs on private social gatherings of more than five people will remain in place, though they will be slightly relaxed between December 24 and 26 so families can spend Christmas together.

Chart showing that test positivity remains in the double digits in many European countries, and declines have stalled in some places

Public consumption of alcohol will also be proscribed from Wednesday, and big public gatherings and firework displays banned on New Year’s Eve.

The shift in the rhetoric has been striking: even just a few days ago, authorities were discussing loosening the current restrictions for Christmas and the new year. Now there is a growing realisation that all public life must be wound down over the festive season and beyond.

France was quick to impose restrictions as the second wave took hold in the autumn weather after the summer holidays, and until the beginning of December seemed on track to substantially relax the controls for Christmas. Jean Castex, prime minister, boasted last week that France’s infection rate on December 10 was lower than that of Germany, Italy and the US, having been higher than all of them six weeks earlier. 

Chart showing that Covid-19 hospital occupancy is now falling in many European countries, but levels remain high, risking crisis in the event of a winter surge

But the slowdown in the number of people testing positive for Covid-19 in France has stalled and the figure remains stubbornly high at about 14,000 a day — nearly three times the target set by President Emmanuel Macron for a relaxation. Health officials blame a combination of the cold weather and increased contact between people at home, in shops and at work. 

That prompted Mr Castex to announce the new nationwide, night-time curfew and to declare that cinemas, theatres and sports centres would not be able to reopen on Tuesday as planned — although the French will be able to travel away from their homes and will not be required to fill in government forms justifying each movement. Police have made almost 3m checks since October, and more than 285,000 people have been fined for breaking the rules. 

Health minister Olivier Véran said: “One new French person is hospitalised every minute thanks to Covid infection.” 

Even in Spain, where the infection rate has descended steadily since the country imposed curfews and travel restrictions in late October, Pedro Sánchez, prime minister, warned citizens on Friday not to let their guard down during the festive season. “Although we have a level of slightly more than 180 [infections per 100,000 people],” he said, “we should be at 25.” 

Rising infections will lead inevitably in two to three weeks to more hospitalisations and more deaths during a season when medical facilities are already under pressure, and governments are anxious that Christmas festivities will again allow the pandemic to surge out of control. 

“People should really be very, very sensible over that period and over this whole period of risk because this is a very risky period for us,” said Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, last week. 

Additional reporting by Anna Gross in London, Michael Peel in Brussels, Kerin Hope in Athens, Daniel Dombey in Madrid and Miles Johnson in Rome

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