Thai, Saudi officials meet over case of young Saudi woman
By TASSANEE VEJPONGSA and TREVOR MARSHALLSEA
Tuesday, January 8
BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand’s immigration police chief met Tuesday with officials from the Saudi Embassy in Bangkok, as Saudi Arabia tried to distance itself from accusations that it attempted to block a young woman’s effort to flee from her family and seek asylum abroad.
Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun arrived in Bangkok from Kuwait late Saturday after slipping away from her family, whom she accused of abusing her. The 18-year-old was stopped by officials in Thailand who confiscated her passport.
Her urgent pleas for help over Twitter from an airport hotel room garnered tens of thousands of followers and the attention of the U.N.’s refugee agency, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Public pressure prompted Thai officials to return her passport and let her temporarily stay in Thailand.
Alqunun alleged several times that Saudi officials were involved in seizing her passport. However, in repeated statements, including one issued Tuesday, the Saudi Embassy in Thailand said it is only monitoring her situation.
Its latest statement, which described Alqunun’s case as a “family affair,” said Saudi Arabia did not demand her deportation back home. The embassy — and Thai officials — earlier also said that Alqunun was stopped by Thai authorities in Bangkok because she did not have a return ticket, a hotel reservation or itinerary to show she was a tourist, which appeared to have raised a red flag about the reasons for her trip.
Thailand’s immigration police chief, Maj. Gen. Surachate Hakparn, told reporters Tuesday that Saudi diplomats told him they are satisfied with how her case had been handled.
“The position of two countries on this matter is the same — that the priority is to provide her safety. We are both concerned for Miss Rahaf’s safety and well-being,” Surachate said.
He said Alqunun’s father and brother were due to arrive soon in Bangkok, but that it was her decision whether to meet with them. On Twitter, she has expressed fear of such a meeting. The father had previously been expected Monday night.
A spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees at its Geneva headquarters, Babar Baloch, said it could take several days for the agency to look into Alqunun’s claims. He said it was “too early to tell” if she will be granted asylum or refugee status.
Baloch noted the power of social media in making her plight a matter that officials could not ignore.
“For us, all individual cases are alike. It’s different the way we get access to those individuals … (what’s) different in this case is the wave of all of the voices of solidarity and support came together, joined up in terms of caring for this individual,” he said. “This should be the standard for any individual who claims that his or her life is in danger.”
Saudi Arabia’s human rights record has come under intense scrutiny since the killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi in October. Khashoggi, who wrote critically of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in columns for The Washington Post, had been living in self-imposed exile before he was killed and dismembered inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul by Saudi agents.
The kingdom offered various shifting accounts of the circumstances of his death before eventually settling on the explanation that he died in a botched operation to forcibly bring him back to Saudi Arabia.
Some female Saudi runaways fleeing abuse by their families have been caught trying to seek asylum abroad in recent years. Saudi activists say the kingdom, through its embassies abroad, has at times put pressure on border patrol agents in foreign countries to deport the women back to Saudi Arabia.
In 2017, Dina Ali Lasloom triggered a firestorm online when she was stopped en route to Australia, where she planned to seek asylum. She was forced to return to Saudi Arabia and was not publicly heard from again, according to activists tracking her whereabouts.
Australian national broadcaster ABC reported that the country’s Home Affairs Department announced late Tuesday that it would consider Alqunun’s application for asylum if she was found to be a genuine refugee, and called on Thai authorities and UNHCR to assess her claim as quickly as possible.
Human Rights Watch earlier called on the Australian government to allow Alqunun’s entry into that country, amid worries about her visa status.
The organization’s Australian director, Elaine Pearson, said she had seen electronic confirmation of her tourist visa, but that Alqunun could no longer access her visa page on Australia’s immigration website on Tuesday, sparking concern that the document had been canceled. An Australian visa is usually processed electronically and not stamped in one’s passport, but confirmed by a document that the visitor can print out.
Since Australia has expressed concern in the past about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, it should “come forward and offer protection for this young woman,” Pearson said.
Marshallsea reported from Sydney. Associated Press writers Kaweewit Kaewjinda in Bangkok, Jamey Keaten in Geneva and Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.
Venezuelans want President Maduro out, but most would oppose foreign military intervention to remove him
January 8, 2019
Author: David Smilde, Professor of Sociology, Tulane University
Disclosure statement: David Smilde is a senior fellow at the not-for-profit Washington Office on Latin America.
Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro, who has led his country into one of the world’s worst economic crises, will be sworn in for a new six-year term on Jan. 10.
It will be a lonely inauguration. Some 40 countries – including the United States, Brazil, Colombia and the entire European Union – refuse to recognize Maduro as Venezuela’s legitimate president because they believe his May 2018 re-election was rigged.
How else could a leader with a 21 percent approval rating win 68 percent of the vote?
Oil producer Venezuela, once among Latin America’s more prosperous nations, has seen severe food and medicine shortages since 2014. Thousands of people flee dire conditions in the country every day.
Most Venezuelans hold Maduro – the late Hugo Chávez’s handpicked successor, first elected president in 2013 – responsible for their suffering.
But holding Maduro accountable has proven vexingly difficult.
Seeking change democratically
There are three ways that citizens can democratically demand change from poorly performing leaders: vote them out of office, protest for them to change course or resign, or make demands through face-to-face dialogue.
Venezuelans have tried all three.
The last free elections in Venezuela were held in December 2015. Opposition parties won the Venezuelan legislature in a landslide, securing a super-majority that gave them unprecedented strength to check Maduro.
His ruling United Socialist Party responded by progressively stripping the legislature of its powers and ensuring the Socialists would not lose another election.
First, the government-run national electoral agency canceled a proposed presidential recall vote in 2016. Then, in July 2017, the Socialist Party called an unconstitutional vote to elect an alternative legislature. Later that year, party officials openly committed fraud in regional elections.
When Maduro stood for re-election in 2018, Socialist Party officials disqualified leading opposition politicians and parties from running and forced the vote seven months early to prevent them from reorganizing.
Many Venezuelans fought for their democracy.
From April to July 2017, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets nationwide, mostly in peaceful protest. Marchers in Caracas who neared the presidential palace or government ministries were met by police and soldiers in riot gear who scattered them using tear gas, water cannons and, often, live ammunition.
At least 124 people were killed during Venezuela’s 2017 protests. Another 4,000 were injured and 5,000 were arrested, according to the Inter-American Human Rights Council. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, were tortured.
Amid all of this, Venezuela’s opposition also tried talking with Maduro’s government.
But dialogues in 2014, 2016 and 2018 — including one mediated by the Vatican — achieved little. Arguably, the talks weakened the opposition-led protest movement by giving the appearance of government concessions.
The military option
After democratic elections, protest and dialogue failed to resolve Venezuela’s political crisis, some international leaders proposed a more drastic measure to seek political change.
In August 2017, shortly after the U.S. slapped economic sanctions on President Maduro himself, President Donald Trump said that the United States was considering a “military option” in Venezuela.
“Venezuela is not very far away and the people are suffering, and they are dying,” Trump said. “We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option if necessary.”
Administration officials even met with Venezuelan military officials plotting a coup before declining to support their plan.
Latin American governments rejected Trump’s “military option.”
But some exiled Venezuela leaders have embraced the idea.
“Military intervention by a coalition of regional forces may be the only way to end a man-made famine threatening millions of lives,” the former Venezuelan minister and Harvard professor Ricardo Hausmann wrote in a January 2018 Project Syndicate column.
Hausmann pointed to the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama and World War II as positive precedents of foreign interventions that ended tyrannical regimes.
Former Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma has used euphemistic language to justify a foreign-backed removal of Maduro, saying it would be a “humanitarian intervention.”
Comparing the crisis there to the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s, Secretary General of the Organization of American States Luis Almagro has suggested that military intervention could be justified under international law, which includes the “responsibility to protect.”
In the view of “military option” supporters, Venezuelans would welcome such an operation if it ended their suffering.
Intervention would be “extremely popular” in Venezuela, according to Diego Arria, a former Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations and a prominent Maduro critic.
Would Venezuelans support foreign military intervention?
My research in Venezuela suggests otherwise.
All credible polling in Venezuela says that most Venezuelans desperately want Maduro out. But that does not necessarily mean they are open to desperate measures.
In November 2018, I worked with Datanálisis, one of Venezuela’s most respected polling companies, to add several questions about about military intervention and potential negotiations to its nationwide tracking poll.
When asked whether they would support “a foreign military intervention to remove President Maduro from his position,” only 35 percent said yes – hardly the warm welcome predicted by advocates. More than half – 54 percent – would reject such an operation.
Venezuelans are also skeptical of renewed talks with Maduro.
Only 37 percent would “agree with a new dialogue between the government and the opposition.” Forty percent are “indifferent” to renewed talks or did not answer the question.
So what do Venezuelans want?
Given how poorly past engagement with Maduro’s government has gone, their doubts are understandable.
Interest in further talks balloons, however, if the same question is reframed to include a positive result.
When respondents were asked about “a negotiated settlement to remove President Maduro from power,” 63 percent said they would support it. That makes negotiations by far the most popular option for restoring democracy in Venezuela, according to this data.
These results should boost current efforts by the European Union and the Boston Group – a coalition of Venezuelan and American politicians – to restore high-level contact between Venezuelan government figures, opposition leaders and foreign officials.
Diplomacy may be slow and frustrating. But a negotiated settlement would have the support of the people who matter most: the Venezuelans who must survive Maduro’s rule.
Neil S. Grigg is a Friend of The Conversation, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Colorado State University: It is good to have some data on what Venezuelans think, but what might the negotiations look like? Are there precedents we can turn to for removal of a hated and repressive regime? What about Maduro’s support from some countries? Russia? Iran? It would be interesting if a knowledgeable researcher could put some of this information out there and make an analysis of what would actually work.