DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran’s parliamentary speaker warned Sunday that protests over the death of a young woman in police custody could destabilize the country and urged security forces to deal harshly with those he claimed endanger public order.
Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf told lawmakers that unlike the current protests, which he said aim to topple the government, previous demonstrations by teachers and retirees over pay were aimed at reforms, according to the legislative body’s website.
“The important point of the (past) protests was that they were reform-seeking and not aimed at overthrowing” the system, said Qalibaf. “I ask all who have any (reasons to) protest not to allow their protest to turn into destabilizing and toppling” of institutions.
Thousands of Iranians have taken to the streets over the last two weeks to protest the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who had been detained by Iran’s morality police in the capital of Tehran for allegedly not adhering to Iran’s strict Islamic dress code.
The protesters have vented their anger over the treatment of women and wider repression in the Islamic Republic. The nationwide demonstrations rapidly escalated into calls for the overthrow of the clerical establishment that has ruled Iran since its 1979 Islamic revolution.
The protests have drawn supporters from various ethnic groups, including Kurdish opposition movements in the northwest of Iran that operate along the border with neighboring Iraq. Amini was an Iranian Kurd and the protests first erupted in Kurdish areas.
Iranian state TV has reported that at least 41 protesters and police have been killed since the demonstrations began Sept. 17. An Associated Press count of official statements by authorities tallied at least 14 dead, with more than 1,500 demonstrators arrested.
Qalibaf, the parliamentary speaker, is a former influential commander in the paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guard. Along with the president and the head of the judiciary, he is one of three ranking officials who deal with all important issues of the nation.
The three meet regularly and sometimes meet with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters.
Qalibaf said he believes many of those taking part in recent protests had no intention of seeking to overthrow the government in the beginning and claimed foreign-based opposition groups were fomenting protests aimed at tearing down the system. Iranian authorities have not presented evidence for their allegations of foreign involvement in the protests.
“Creating chaos in the streets will weaken social integrity, jeopardizing the economy while increasing pressure and sanctions by the enemy,” he said, referring to longstanding crippling U.S. sanctions on Iran.
Qalibaf promised to “amend the structures and methods of the morality police” to prevent a recurrence of what happened to Amini. The young woman died in the custody of the morality police. Her family alleged she was beaten, while officials claim she died of a heart attack.
His remarks came after a closed meeting of Parliament and a brief rally by lawmakers to voice support for Khamenei and the police, chanting “death to hypocrites,” a reference to Iranian opposition groups.
The statement by Qalibaf is seen as an appeal to Iranians to stop their protests while supporting police and the security apparatus.
Meanwhile, the hard-line Kayhan daily said Sunday that knife-carrying protesters attacked the newspaper building Saturday and shattered windows with rocks. It said they left when Guard members were deployed to the site.
On Saturday, protests continued on the Tehran University campus and in nearby neighborhoods and witnesses said they saw many young girls waving their head scarves above their heads in a gesture of defiance. Social media carried videos purportedly showing similar protests at the Mashhad and Shiraz universities but The Associated Press could not independently verify their authenticity.
A protester near Tehran University, 19-year-old Fatemeh who only gave her first name for fear of repercussions, said she joined the demonstration “to stop this behavior by police against younger people especially girls.”
Abdolali, a 63-year-old teacher who also declined to give his last name, said he was shot twice in the foot by police. He said: “I am here to accompany and support my daughter. I once participated in the 1979 Islamic Revolution that promised justice and freedom; it is time to materialize them.”
There were no immediate official reports of Sunday demonstrations, though some on social media said protests had resumed at universities in Tehran and Mashhad.
On Sunday afternoon, witnesses said security was tight in the areas nearby Tehran University and its neighborhoods downtown as hundreds of anti-riot police and plain clothes with their cars and motorbikes were stationed on junctions and squares. Local shops and businesses appeared open as normal.
Also on Sunday, media outlets reported the death of another Revolutionary Guard member in the southeastern city of Zahedan. That brought to five the number of IRG members killed in an attack on a police station by gunmen that, according to state media, left 19 people dead.
It wasn’t clear if the attack, which Iran said was carried out by separatists, was related to the anti-government protests gripping Iran.
Experts raise concerns as Nigeria limits cash withdrawals
By Chinedu Asadu in Abuja
ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — Experts on Wednesday raised concerns over a new policy announced by the Central Bank of Nigeria that heavily limits withdrawals of money in a push for a cashless economy.
The monetary policy, which applies to ATMs, banks and cash back from purchases, follows the launch of the West African nation’s newly designed currency notes to control the money supply.
The central bank limited weekly over-the-counter cash withdrawals to 100,000 naira ($225) for individuals and 500,000 naira ($1,124) for corporations, with a processing fee required to access more.
When the policy takes effect in Jan. 9, ATMs will no longer dispense Nigeria’s high denominations of 1,000 naira ($2.25) and 500 naira ($1.10) while withdrawals from ATMs and point-of-sale terminals also will be limited to 20,000 naira ($45) daily.
“In compelling circumstances, not exceeding once a month, where cash withdrawals above the prescribed limits are required for legitimate purposes, such cash withdrawals shall not exceed 5,000,000 naira ($11,236) and 10,000,000 naira ($22,471) for individuals and corporations, respectively,” said Haruna Mustafa, the bank’s director of banking supervision.
Policymakers say the withdrawal limits and recent monetary initiatives from the central bank would bring more people into the banking system and curb currency hoarding, illicit flows and inflation.
But analysts worry that with digital payments often unreliable in Nigeria, the initiative could hurt daily transactions that people and businesses make.
“The policy is intended to cause discomfort, to move you from cash to cashless because they (the central bank) have said they want to make it uncomfortable and expensive for you to hold cash,” economic analyst Kalu Aja said.
“That is a positive for the CBN (because) the more discomforting they are able to achieve, the more people can move,” Aja said.
In Nigeria, the majority of people work in the informal sector — mainly activities outside of the legal framework and government regulation such as farming, street and market trade, and public transport. The economy is heavily dependent on this sector, and cash is usually preferred for transactions because many lack bank accounts.
Only 45% of adults in Nigeria have accounts with regulated financial institutions, according to the World Bank. In the absence of bank accounts, point-of-sale terminals have emerged as one of the fastest-growing areas of financial inclusion in the country.
Through the withdrawal limits, the central bank is “directly attacking” such agency banking services and “people will essentially begin to hoard their money,” said Tunde Ajileye, a partner at Lagos–based SBM Intelligence firm.
“It is not going to drive people to start to try doing electronic transactions. On the contrary, it is going to move people away from the financial institutions,” he said.
China eases anti-COVID measures following protests
By Joe Mcdonald in Beijing
BEIJING (AP) — China rolled back rules on isolating people with COVID-19 and dropped virus test requirements for some public places Wednesday in a dramatic change to a strategy that confined millions of people to their homes and sparked protests and demands for President Xi Jinping to resign.
The move adds to earlier easing that fueled hopes Beijing was scrapping its “zero COVID” strategy, which is disrupting manufacturing and global trade. Experts warn, however, that restrictions can’t be lifted completely until at least mid-2023 because millions of elderly people still must be vaccinated and the health care system strengthened.
China is the last major country still trying to stamp out transmission of the virus while many nations switch to trying to live with it. As they lift restrictions, Chinese officials have also shifted to talking about the virus as less threatening — a possible effort to prepare people for a similar switch.
People with mild cases will be allowed for the first time to isolate at home, the National Health Commission announced, instead of going to sometimes overcrowded or unsanitary quarantine centers. That addresses a major irritation that helped to drive protests that erupted Nov. 25 in Shanghai and other cities.
Public facilities except for “special places,” such as schools, hospitals and nursing homes, will no longer require visitors to produce a “health code” on a smartphone app that tracks their virus tests and whether they have been to areas deemed at high risk of infection.
Local officials must “take strict and detailed measures to protect people’s life, safety and health” but at the same time “minimize the impact of the epidemic on economic and social development,” the statement said.
China’s restrictions have helped to keep case numbers low, but that means few people have developed natural immunity, a factor that might set back reopening plans if cases surge and authorities feel compelled to reimpose restrictions.
Still, after three years spent warning the public about COVID-19’s dangers, Chinese officials have begun to paint it as less threatening.
People with mild cases “can recover by themselves without special medical care,” said Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist of the China Centers for Disease Control, on his social media account.
“The good news is that the data show the proportion of severe cases is low,” said Wu.
The latest changes are “small steps” in a gradual process aimed at ending restrictions, said Liang Wannian, a member of an expert group advising the National Health Commission, at a news conference.
The government’s goal is “to return to the state before the epidemic, but the realization of the goal must have conditions,” said Liang, one of China’s most prominent anti-epidemic experts.
Dr. Yanzhong Huang, an expert on public health in China, also emphasized the gradual nature of the announcement.
The new measures are a shift away from “zero COVID” — but “not a roadmap to reopening,” said Huang, director of the Center for Global Health Studies at Seton Hall University.
“When implemented, these measures may generate dynamics that fuel the rapid spread of the virus even though China is not ready for such a dramatic shift,” he said.
The government announced a campaign last week to vaccinate the elderly that health experts say must be done before China can end restrictions on visitors coming from abroad. They say the ruling Communist Party also needs to build up China’s hospital system to cope with a possible rise in cases.
But public frustration is rising now, as millions of people are repeatedly confined at home for uncertain periods, schools close abruptly and economic growth falls.
The changes have been rolled out despite a renewed spike in infections started in October. On Wednesday, the government reported 25,231 new cases, including 20,912 without symptoms.
Xi’s government has held up “zero COVID” as proof of the superiority of China’s system compared with the United States and Western countries. China’s official death toll is 5,235 since the start of the pandemic versus a U.S. count of 1.1 million.
Rules were left in place that warn apartment and office buildings might be sealed if infections are found. Complaints that families are confined for weeks at a time with uncertain access to food and medicine were a key driver of the protests.
The ruling party switched early this year to suspending access to neighborhoods or districts where infections were discovered instead of isolating whole cities.
On Wednesday, the government said the scope of closures will be narrowed still further to single apartment floors or buildings instead of neighborhoods.
It said schools in communities with no outbreaks must return to in-person teaching.
That appeared to be a response to complaints that local leaders, threatened with the loss of their jobs in the event of outbreaks, impose closures that are destructive, might be unnecessary and exceed what the central government allows.
The demonstrations in at least eight major cities and on dozens of university campuses were the most widespread display of public dissent in decades. In Shanghai, some protesters shouted the politically explosive demand for Xi, China’s most influential figure in decades, to resign.
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