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Mongolia speaker expelled amid ongoing battle against corruption

The Mongolian parliament this week voted to expel House Speaker Miyegombyn Enkhbold in an unprecedented move capping a tumultuous two months in the country’s politics involving multiple corruption scandals, protests and party infighting. At the heart of the ongoing turmoil is what has become known locally as the “SME scandal”. Fourteen parliamentarians, two cabinet members…

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Mongolia speaker expelled amid ongoing battle against corruption

The Mongolian parliament this week voted to expel House Speaker Miyegombyn Enkhbold in an unprecedented move capping a tumultuous two months in the country’s politics involving multiple corruption scandals, protests and party infighting.
At the heart of the ongoing turmoil is what has become known locally as the “SME scandal”.

Fourteen parliamentarians, two cabinet members and other high-ranking officials were accused in November of embezzling more than $1m in government funds, diverting resources intended to support small and medium enterprise (SME) development to their family and friends.

Amid an ongoing investigation by the country’s anti-corruption agency, the scandal divided the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP), which holds an 85 percent majority in the 76-member parliament.

Enkhbold, who was dismissed on Tuesday on the back of allegations over a separate 2016 corruption scandal, was among the MPP members who initiated a vote-of-no-confidence against their own party’s Prime Minister Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh, demanding accountability for the SME case.
Khurelsukh narrowly survived the vote in late November, with 40 MPs backing him and 33 going against him.
During the debate in parliament, the prime minister urged those implicated in the SME scandal to return the funds and ask for the public’s forgiveness.

His pleas led to a backlash on social media, where a hashtag translating to “we will not forgive SME” started making the rounds amid long-standing public frustration in a country ranked 93rd out of 180 on Transparency International’s (TI) global Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI).

Luvsanvandan Bold, an MP who broke with the opposition Democratic Party (DP) in December after voting in favour of Khurelsukh, said there are about 30 funds similar to the SME one.

“A very large embezzlement network has been established to milk these funds over the last 10 years,” he told Al Jazeera, calling for “a full and comprehensive investigation” to “punish the culprits”.

‘Sheer political mastery’

On December 18, fewer than three weeks after the vote-of-no-confidence, Mongolian news agency Ikon reported that Khurelsukh’s brother had received 1.3 billion Mongolian tugriks ($520,000) from the state’s SME fund. The prime minister has denied any link to the reported case, while so far there hasn’t been any action against his brother.

Mogi Badral Bontoi, the chief executive of the Cover Mongolia newswire, told Al Jazeera that after his own near dismissal amid mounting corruption claims, Khurelsukh and his faction engaged in “sheer political mastery, cleverly turn[ing] the table around on their main political rival”.

In a public offensive, the prime minister accused Enkhbold of leading what he calls Mongolia’s “30 families”, an elite group of wealthy members of both the MPP and rival DP that he alleges is attempting to topple the government because it is interfering with their business interests.

Khurelsukh and his circle began demanding Enkhbold’s resignation, citing an unresolved scandal from Mongolia’s 2016 parliamentary elections. Known as the “60 billion tugrik scandal”, the case refers to allegations that ahead of that vote, Enkhbold sold cabinet positions in the MPP’s future administration in exchange for campaign funds.

Julian Dierkes, a Mongolia expert and professor at the University of British Columbia, said the fallout from the SME scandal, coupled with widespread public anger over high-level corruption, created a long-awaited opening for Khurelsukh to push Enkhbold out.
“The allegations against former speaker Enkhbold have been mounting since the 2016 parliamentary election, so in some ways, it was the time for him to go,” Dierkes told Al Jazeera.

“He shouldn’t have been there in the first place. He never, really, denied the ’60 billion tugrik’ allegations,” added Dierkes, suggesting Enkhbold’s denials were not able to successfully refute the claims against him. “So, just on corruption grounds, it was long coming.”

In recent weeks, as Enkhbold was trying to keep the SME scandal in the public eye, Khurelsukh’s supporters organised two protests in Ulaanbaatar to back the calls for the speaker’s resignation.
Accounts over the size of the demonstrations on December 27 and January 10 in the capital’s Sukhbaatar Square became, however, a subject of controversy – international news outlets published what appeared to be inflated turnout numbers provided by the protests’ organisers, leading to criticism on social media and refutation in the Mongolian press. Aerial photography of the events and official accounts suggest that the turnout for each protest was under 5,000 people, rather than the reported 20,000 to 30,000.

Fight against corruption

Enkhbold’s dismissal came after the passing of new legislation on January 18 which requires a simple majority for MPs to remove the speaker – a post granted extensive powers by the Mongolian constitution.

While the new law might have been politically expedient, some observers have warned it sets a dangerous precedent for future parliamentary stability. Under it, “the speaker will no longer have the sole discretion of setting the legislative agenda, putting the parliamentary role of checks and balances on the executive branch in question”.
Still, the turmoil of the past two months does not necessarily indicate a crisis for Mongolia’s democracy, according to Mark Koenig, the Asia Foundation’s country representative in Mongolia.

He said his organisation’s research shows that Mongolians are increasingly aware of large-scale corruption and its negative impacts on the country’s citizens and economy.
“The Mongolian public has increased its understanding and awareness of corruption and is showing signs of decreased tolerance,” Koenig told Al Jazeera.

In a 2017 poll conducted by the International Republican Institute, 67 percent of respondents said corruption is a major problem for Mongolia, naming it as one of the top three issues facing their country, alongside unemployment and poverty. Seventy-five percent of those surveyed said parliament does a bad job of combatting corruption. 

“Mongolia needs to improve its fight against corruption, otherwise it will drop to an authoritarian regime,” Batbayar Orchirbat, executive director of TI’s Mongolia branch, told Al Jazeera.

“The prime minister, government, parliament members – they’re all involved in corruption cases. Instead of fighting corruption, they’re fighting Mongolia’s anti-corruption agency and Mongolia’s media and Mongolian NGOs who fight corruption.”

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New Daesh leader was informant for US, says counter terrorism report

NEW YORK: The man widely believed to be the new leader of Daesh was once an informant for the US, according to a new report from the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC), a research body at the US military academy of West Point in New York. “Stepping Out from the Shadows: The Interrogation of the Islamic State’s…

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New Daesh leader was informant for US, says counter terrorism report

NEW YORK: The man widely believed to be the new leader of Daesh was once an informant for the US, according to a new report from the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC), a research body at the US military academy of West Point in New York.

“Stepping Out from the Shadows: The Interrogation of the Islamic State’s Future Caliph” is based on Tactical Interrogation Reports (TIRs) — the paper trail the US military creates when enemy fighters are detained and interrogated — from Al-Mawla’s time in captivity in the late 2000s.

Before his release in 2009, Al-Mawla named 88 extremists involved in terrorist activities, and the information he divulged during his interrogations led US forces in the region to successfully capture or kill dozens of Al-Qaeda fighters, the report claims.

The CTC said it is “highly confident” Al-Mawla became the new leader of Daesh after the previous leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, was killed in a US air raid in Syria in October 2019.

Although Daesh announced that a man called Abu Ibrahim Al-Hashimi Al-Qurashi was Baghdadi’s successor, US officials have also stated that Al-Qurashi’s true identity is actually Al-Mawla — also known as Hajj Abdullah.

Before joining Daesh, Al-Mawla is believed to have been the deputy leader of Al-Qaeda.

While details about the operation resulting in his capture are scarce, the TRIs reveal that he was captured on January 6, 2008.

The following day, US Central Command announced the capture of a wanted individual who “previously served as a judge of an illegal court system involved in ordering and approving abductions and executions.”

In his interrogations, Al-Mawla offered up details of terrorist plots to his interrogators, while minimizing his own involvement. He identified many jihadists by name and offered descriptions of their roles in the terrorist organization and details of their involvement in attacks on US-led coalition forces during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Al-Mawla — a former officer in Saddam Hussein’s army and once Baghdadi’s speechwriter — emerges from the TIRs as a mysterious personality with a vague past, whose ethnicity could not be determined with certainty. The statements in the reports are rife with contradictory elements and open to a wide range of interpretations. As the authors point out in their introduction: “It is incredibly difficult to ascertain whether what Al-Mawla divulges regarding himself or ISI (the forerunner of Daesh) as an organization is true.”

Details of the specific demographics of Al Mawla’s birthplace of Al-Muhalabiyyah in Iraq’s Tal Afar district are sketchy, but it is generally accepted to have a predominantly Turkmen population. The authors of the report point out that some sources have suggested “this could pose legitimacy problems for him because (Daesh) mostly has Arabs in its senior leadership echelons,” but add that at least two other senior members of the group were reported to have been Turkmen.

Al-Mawla also claimed to have avoided pledging allegiance to ISI because he was a Sufi. The report’s authors cast doubt on that claim, given his quick rise to prominence in the terrorist group and the fact that ISI and Daesh branded Sufism as heresy.

But the authors do believe the TRIs give some valuable insights into Al-Mawla’s personality.

“The fact that he detailed activities and gave testimony against (fellow jihadists) suggests a willingness to offer up fellow members of the group to suit his own ends,” they wrote. “The amount of detail and seeming willingness to share information about fellow organization members suggests either a degree of nonchalance, strategic calculation, or resignation on the part of Al-Mawla regarding operational security.

“He appears to have named individuals in some capacity across all levels of the organization, while describing some individuals in some detail,” they continued.

The US Department of Justice has offered a $10million reward for information about Al-Mawla’s identification or location.

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The poisoning of Alexey Navalny: Five key things to know

What happened on the day Navalny fell ill? On August 20, a Thursday, Alexey Navalny, Russia’s leading Kremlin critic, had finished up campaigning for opposition politicians in Siberia for local elections, which were taking place from September 11 to 13.  He left Xander Hotel and headed for the Tomsk Bogashevo airport. There, he drank a…

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The poisoning of Alexey Navalny: Five key things to know

What happened on the day Navalny fell ill?
On August 20, a Thursday, Alexey Navalny, Russia’s leading Kremlin critic, had finished up campaigning for opposition politicians in Siberia for local elections, which were taking place from September 11 to 13. 
He left Xander Hotel and headed for the Tomsk Bogashevo airport. There, he drank a cup of tea. He was on the way to Moscow.
In the first half-hour of the flight, he fell ill and witnesses said he screamed in pain. He was later in a coma.
He was airlifted to Germany’s capital, a six-hour flight, to the Berlin Charite hospital.The plane made an emergency landing at Omsk. He received treatment in the Russian city, where doctors said he was too unwell to be moved, but two days later on August 22, a Saturday, they said his life was not in danger.
Was he poisoned? 
Navalny’s team believes he was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent, a claim several European countries support.
A laboratory in Germany said it had confirmation on September 2, followed by laboratories in France and Sweden on September 14.
Samples from Navalny have also been sent to the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague for testing.
Russia says there is no evidence to prove Navalny was poisoned, while its ally Belarus has also doubted the claim. The doctors in Omsk said they had not detected poisonous substances in Navalny’s body. 
US President Donald Trump has been criticised for towing Russia’s line, saying on September 4 – two days after Germany’s claim to have “unequivocal evidence” – that “we have not had any proof yet”.
How is Navalny’s condition now?
On September 7, more than two weeks after falling ill on the plane, Navalny’s doctors in Germany said he was out of a coma and that his condition was improving. His spokeswoman said, “Gradually, he will be switched off from a ventilator.”
On September 15, Navalny posted on Instagram that he was breathing alone. He has said he plans to return to Russia. 
If he was poisoned, who may have poisoned him and where?
Navalny’s team believes he was poisoned at the orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin – a claim the Kremlin has strongly denied. 
Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh had initially said she believed Navalny’s tea at the airport was poisoned, but on September 17, his team said the nerve agent was detected on an empty water bottle from his hotel room in the Tomsk, suggesting he was poisoned there and not at the airport. 
What effect has the alleged poisoning had?
The alleged attack has widened a rift between Europe and Russia, with Germany and France leading calls for a full investigation but stopping short of outrightly blaming the Russian government. 
MEPs have called for sanctions against Russia, saying on September 17, “The poison used, belonging to the ‘Novichok group’, can only be developed in state-owned military laboratories and cannot be acquired by private individuals, which strongly implies that Russian authorities were behind the attack.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry has summoned Germany’s ambassador to Moscow, while the United Kingdom has summoned the Russian envoy over the incident.
For its part, Moscow rejects what it called the politicisation of the issue.
Significantly, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is under pressure to halt the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, which transfers Russian gas to Germany. Once again, the Kremlin has warned not to involve the Navalny case in any discussion about the pipeline, with Dmitry Peskov saying on September 16, “It should stop being mentioned in the context of any politicisation.”
 
A timeline of events surrounding the alleged poisoning attack on Navalny: 
August 20 – Navalny falls ill on flight; plane makes emergency landing in Omsk; his spokeswoman says he was poisoned, perhaps by the tea he drank at the airport
August 22 – Navalny airlifted to Berlin Charite hospital 
September 2 – Germany says it has ‘unequivocal evidence’ Navalny was poisoned, Russia responds by saying the claim is not backed by evidence
September 4 – US President Donald Trump says ‘we do not have any proof yet’
September 6 – Heiko Maas, German foreign minister, threatens action over gas pipeline project, saying, ‘I hope the Russians don’t force us to change our position on Nord Stream 2’
September 7 – German doctors say Navalny is out of an artificial coma
September 11-13 – Russia holds local elections; Navalny’s allies make gains in Siberian cities
September 15 – Navalny posts on Instagram that he is breathing alone
September 16 – Kremlin spokesman warns against politicising Navalny issue in discussions over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project with Germany
September 17 – Navalny’s team now suspects he was poisoned in his hotel room, not the airport, citing traces of nerve agent on an empty water bottle
September 17 – MEPs call for sanctions against Russia 

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Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan to lend voice to Amazon’s Alexa

Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan will be the first Indian celebrity to lend his voice to Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant starting next year, as the Silicon Valley giant expands its presence in the significant market.The 77-year-old actor has been a household name in India for nearly half a century, and his deep baritone is instantly recognisable…

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Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan to lend voice to Amazon’s Alexa

Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan will be the first Indian celebrity to lend his voice to Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant starting next year, as the Silicon Valley giant expands its presence in the significant market.The 77-year-old actor has been a household name in India for nearly half a century, and his deep baritone is instantly recognisable to listeners in the country of 1.3 billion.Foreign firms such as Amazon have spent tens of billions of dollars in India in recent years as they fight for a piece of the Asian giant’s burgeoning digital economy.In a blog post on Monday, Amazon India said Bachchan’s “voice experience” feature will become available for purchase on Alexa next year.”It will include popular offerings like jokes, weather, shayaris (poetry), motivational quotes, advice and more,” the firm said.Alexa first rolled out celebrity voice option last year with actor Samuel L Jackson, following a similar move by Google the year before, which gave users the option of hearing singer John Legend on the Google Assistant.”I am excited to create this voice experience,” the Bollywood megastar said on Amazon’s blog.”With voice technology, we are building something to engage more effectively with my audience and well-wishers.”His earlier foray into vocal blogging in 2010, Bachchan Bol-Bachchan Speak, allowed fans to listen to pre-recorded messages by the star at the push of a button.In addition to competing with voice-activated devices such as Apple’s Siri and Google Assistant for consumers, Amazon is battling Walmart-backed Flipkart and JioMart, owned by Asia’s richest man Mukesh Ambani, for a share of the online retail market.The tech giant, which is owned by Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person, is also trying to win eyeballs with its streaming service that competes with Netflix and Disney+ Hotstar.Bachchan and his family have been among India’s highest-profile coronavirus patients. The superstar, his actor son Abhishek, actress daughter-in-law Aishwarya Rai, and granddaughter Aaradhya were all admitted to hospital in July. All four have since been released.The veteran star returned to work last month filming India’s version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? after authorities eased coronavirus curbs on movie and TV shoots.Nevertheless, with cases in India nearing five million, authorities in Mumbai – the home of Bollywood – have asked production houses to ensure that common facilities are regularly sanitised, masks worn and social distancing “followed as far as possible”.Bachchan’s last film, comedy-drama Gulabo Sitabo, went straight to Amazon’s streaming service in June, after theatres in India shut down in March due to pandemic fears.

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