US warns China on South China Sea ruling

China risks “terrible” damage to its reputation if it ignores an impending international court ruling on the South China Sea, the United States says, while urging Southeast Asian countries to rally behind the court decision.

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The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is expected to rule in coming weeks on a case the Philippines has brought against China’s claim to virtually all of the South China Sea, a strategic route for a quarter of the world’s trade and oil.

The ruling is widely expected to favour the Philippines and risks significantly raising regional tensions because China, although a signatory of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea under which the case is being heard, rejects the court’s authority to hear it.

US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a House of Representatives hearing China “can’t have it both ways,” by being a party to the convention but rejecting its provisions, including “the binding nature of any arbitration decision.”

“China has a decision to make,” he said. (“If) it ignores the decision … it risks doing terrible damage to its reputation, further alienating countries in the region and pushing them even closer to the United States.”

Washington has been lobbying hard to convince countries to state that the court’s ruling, expected in late May or early June, must be binding. The court has no enforcement powers and its decisions have been ignored in the past.

Blinken said the United States had worked hard to build up the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as an organisation that “might feel some greater strength in numbers” to take on difficult issues like the South China Sea.

He referred to a February summit at which US President Barack Obama and ASEAN leaders – four of whose countries have rival claims in the South China Sea – agreed that territorial disputes should be resolved peacefully and via legal means.

“We are looking to ASEAN, as it did most recently at that summit, to express its support for these basic principles and we would like to see that happen when the arbitration decision is issued as well,” Blinken said.

China has been lobbying hard too and said on Sunday that it had agreed with three ASEAN members – Brunei, Cambodia and Laos – that South China Sea territorial disputes should not affect relations between the bloc and Beijing.

Asked if this was a Chinese attempt to split ASEAN, Blinken said: “I think there’s a lot less there than meets the eye.”

Protest against student’s killing in Sudan

Police have fired tear gas at hundreds who gathered in central Khartoum and outside the city’s main university, protesting against the killing of a student at a campus demonstration a day earlier, witnesses say.

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Crowds chanted: “Killing of a student, killing of a nation, down with military rule,” at the rare rally in the centre of the heavily-guarded Sudanese capital on Thursday.

Protesters later blocked a road and set fire to tyres outside Khartoum university.

Police fired tear gas canisters and used batons to beat protesters who hurled rocks back at them.

Students had initially demonstrated on Wednesday against government plans to sell off Khartoum University buildings, before witnesses said gunmen in plain clothes opened fire on them, killing 20-year-old Mohammed al Sadek.

Anti-government-protests erupted at his funeral later on Wednesday.

The government said on Thursday that unnamed armed groups were trying to undermine security at Sudan’s universities – long centres for political activism and debate.

“The government will not allow any disruption to the stability of universities,” President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s aide, Ibrahim Mahmoud, told the Sudanese Media Centre, an agency which is close to Sudanese security services.

Bashir, who took power in a 1989 coup backed by the army and Islamists, brooks little dissent in Sudan, which has been suffering from an economic crisis since South Sudan seceded in 2011, costing Khartoum more then 70 per cent of its oil revenues.

The former army officer is wanted by the Hague-based International Criminal Court on charges of masterminding genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes during Sudan’s Darfur conflict. He denies wrongdoing.

“I remain concerned about a number of human rights issues in the country,” Aristide Nononsi, the United Nations Independent Expert on the Situation of Human Rights in the Sudan, said in a statement on Thursday.

A-League fans forced to hit the road for grand final

When it comes to passion Western Sydney Wanderers fans are hard to beat.

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Their desire not to miss what could be the club’s first ever grand final victory when the team plays Adelaide United on Sunday has seen thousands forced to carpool and in some cases hire coaches.

Hektik Hektor, as he’s known by Wanderers fans, has booked two 50-seat vehicles and he’s managed to fill both.

“We’re buzzing, it’s so close to this huge road trip. Bring it on,” he told SBS News.

The reason many fans couldn’t get seats on planes was two-fold.

Ticket prices had started to skyrocket as demand went through the roof, and flights were soon filled to capacity.

Jeff Walsh is taking the journey from Sydney to Adelaide by car. 

He’s driving because he didn’t want to pay the $2,000 that was being asked for a return ticket at one stage.

“People were noticing it was going up on their phones during the game, ” he told SBS News.

It takes just under 15 hours to drive from Sydney to Adelaide and that’s not counting stops. 

But if their club manages to deliver a maiden A-League title on Sunday afternoon, the road trip will all just be part of the fun.

“We’re buzzing, it’s so close to this huge road trip. Bring it on.”

Keegan Dunford managed to score a plane ticket because his mum was hovering over the computer at home during the dramatic 5-4 extra time victory over Brisbane. 

But even though he’s traveling in relative luxury compared to some of his fellow fans, a Monday off work may be needed to deal with the fallout from celebrations should Wanderers win.

“Work could be postponed – sorry guys,” he told SBS News.

Whoever wins on Sunday at Adelaide Oval, grand final history will be made with both Adelaide and the Wanderers looking to bring home their first A-League crown.

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Syrian government solely behind Aleppo hospital strike: US

State Department spokesman John Kirby said Washington was still learning more about the attack on Wednesday night that killed children and doctors at the hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders.

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“The indications that we have now are that these strikes were conducted solely by the regime,” Kirby said. He denied statements by the Russian Defense Ministry that a plane belonging to the U.S.-led coalition was seen over Aleppo on Wednesday evening.

Russia’s backing for Syrian government forces has helped swing the war in favor of Assad, although Russia previously denied hitting civilian targets in Syria where it launched air raids late last year to bolster its ally.

Asked whether the strikes on the hospital were conducted with the backing of Russian forces, Kirby added: “Not from any measure that we can tell at this point.”

But he said Moscow still wielded influence over Assad.

“We’re not at the point where we’d say they don’t have influence over Assad,” Kirby said, adding: “What’s curious and what we’d like to know more is to what degree are they actually assertively, aggressively using that influence right now because on the face of it … it would appear that influence isn’t being asserted as energetically as we believe it could be.”

The city of Aleppo has been at the epicenter of a military escalation undermining peace talks in Geneva to end the five-year-old war. U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura appealed to the presidents of the United States and Russia to intervene.

Kirby said the Syrian cessation of hostilities was “very much in peril” because of the violations and urged Moscow to use its influence over Assad to halt the attacks.

Education shakeup expected in federal budget

The federal government is expected to force university students to pay back their HECS debts earlier by lowering the income threshold in next week’s budget.

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When students finish university they have to earn at least $54,000 a year before small HECS repayments start.

That is tipped to be lowered to around $40,000, meaning many graduates will have to worry about their debts sooner.

Second year University of Technology, Sydney nursing and international studies double degree student Rochelle Elegado told SBS her studies eat up so much of her time she could only work one day a week and lived at home with her parents.

Her university fees total more than $5,000 a semester, but Ms Elegado, 19, said most of it was covered by student loans under the HECS-HELP scheme.

“I’m content with how it is right now, and having my fees deferrable and being able to pay them later,” she said.

“If they made it any harder I don’t think I’d be very impressed.”

Ms Elegado said changes to the HECS scheme could see some potential students forgoing tertiary education.

“Not many people are conscious about their fees, because [they think] ‘oh it’s just deferrable, I’ll think about it later’,” she said.

“I think it would make uni less attractive to students or aspiring students.”

Professor Bruce Chapman designed the HECS system in the late 1980s and told SBS the threshold could be lowered and still be fair if the government made other concessions.

“You can still maintain the essence of that fairness by lowering the threshold so long as it’s not too much and so long as you at the same time cut the rate of repayment, the system would remain equitable,” he said.

“If you took it down to say $45,000 I think they need to also cut the rate. That is, not leave it at four per cent but to have it at say two per cent.

“I think the behavioural consequences for the students or the graduates who are repaying would be quite small.”

Money for schools is another area to keep an eye on during Tuesday’s budget.

Last year the government announced a funding increase to $4 billion over four years.

Federal secretary of the Independent Education Union of Australia, Chris Watt, said that money must go towards education reforms recommended by the independent Gonski report on school funding.

“This budget really needs to do better than the last one in terms of the future planning for school funding for 2018 and 2019,” he said

“There’s no point just throwing money at a situation and not having a plan around it.

“We can’t meet those needs without the money. We aren’t looking to throw money away willy nilly, we know what those needs are – it’s about having the money to meet those identified needs.”

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China’s pharmaceutical minnows thriving

Armed with Beijing funds and friends in the right places, Chinese drug minnows are thriving, luring money from ‘Big Pharma’ majors struggling to restore the strong growth they once enjoyed in the world’s second-largest medicine market.

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Chinese healthcare mergers and acquisitions nearly tripled last year to more than $US50 billion ($A65.56 billion), helped by giants like GlaxoSmithKline PLC and Eli Lilly and Co tapping small biotech and research innovators. The targets offer vital regulatory know-how as Beijing builds a domestic drug industry.

For Big Pharma, acquisitions, licensing deals and joint ventures offer a back door into a market where Beijing expects healthcare spending to rise to $US1.3 trillion by 2020. The majors need the opening: their China growth has stalled to low single-digit pace from over 20 per cent just four years ago as branded generics have lost their shine.

“As a China biotech (company) we have the advantage of knowing policy, understanding the environment and being able to mobilise resources to get things done,” said Li Chen, 54, chief executive of Hua Medicine. Hua has a deal in place to develop drugs including a diabetes treatment licenced from Swiss giant Roche Holding AG.

While firms like Hua can help global drugmakers navigate complex regulatory risks, speeding up approvals in treatment areas like diabetes and cancer, they get something in return – access to what Hua’s Li calls “good assets” and in some cases potential partners to sell their wares overseas.

For Li, a former Roche scientist, Hua’s partnership deal brings the advantages of a tie-up with a global industry leader to a company with a staff of around just 25 people, which he founded himself in Shanghai five years ago.

“We were looking for assets around the world so that’s a really great match – and I know this asset really well,” Li said. Among his firms peers, interest in such tie-ups is growing.

The buzz around China’s healthcare industry has helped it outstrip hotspots like India to become the most active region in Asia for pharmaceutical tie-ups, said Wei Zheng, healthcare analyst at BMI Research.

Chinese healthcare M&A last year surged to $US54 billion from $US18.8 billion the year before, according to Thomson Reuters data, not including the value of numerous joint ventures and licensing deals.

There have already been deals worth more than $US9 billion this year, the data shows, showing demand for the assets remains robust. As well as acquisitions, partnership deals are increasingly being sought after, industry executives say.

“A lot of firms are coming here to tap into a cost-effective way of doing drug development,” said Mireille Gillings, chief executive of US firm HUYA Bioscience International, which has scouts around China hunting for drug development breakthroughs.

At the same time, other small firms are keen to find overseas partners to push their drugs overseas. HUYA has in-licenced a Chinese immunotherapy cancer treatment that is undergoing trials in Japan and the United States.

Shanghai-based research firm WuXi AppTec is one company that may fit that bill. It now employees around 11,000 people worldwide and said this month it was setting up a joint venture with US-listed Juno Therapeutics Inc to develop innovative cancer drugs – in China.

“Honestly, if you manufacture locally, test local and file local, that will give you a time advantage,” the firm’s chief executive, Ge Li, told Reuters. “It’s as simple as that.”

The tilt in strategy for the majors comes as Beijing accelerates efforts to promote a ‘Made in China’ drug industry.

GlaxoSmithKline’s China head, Herve Gisserot, told Reuters late last year that Beijing was putting pressure on off-patent generics, reining in prices and trying to cut out low-quality drugs – positive moves longer-term, but which created short-term challenges.

“The only thing for pharma is that some of the things will happen sooner than others. Price erosion will likely be faster than the accelerated approval of new medicines,” he said.

Australia remembers Port Arthur tragedy

35 people were killed on the historic grounds of Port Arthur by Martin Bryant in 1996.

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Victims have been remembered in Tasmania at the site where it all began.

35 tributes, for 35 lost lives.

Men, women and children were remembered by loved ones and by Australia’s Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull.

“For those of you who lost loved ones and who witnessed the horror of what happened her we will never truly understand the burden you bear, the pain that you endure.”

Around 500 people gathered, tearful as rain fell on the site where the shooting unfolded 20 years ago.

It was a grim milestone in a tragedy that became a catalyst for extraordinary change.  

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten acknowledged the leader behind that change.

“But also out of that tragedy we produced the very best of the Australian spirit, we came together as a nation and from our unity we produced gun laws that have served Australians well ever since, for this we all owe (former Prime Minister) John Howard.”

The shooting shocked the nation.

On April 28, 1996 at the Port Arthur Historical site, Martin Bryant walked into the Broad Arrow Cafe and fired on tourists, locals and workers with an assault rifle.

Bryant was given a life sentence for each person he killed.

His name was not spoken at the service.

Off-duty police officer Justin Noble was outside the cafe on the day of the shooting.

“He started moving the rifle around and trying to acquire targets and he was firing at people. And it’s at that stage I said to my wife that we’re in big trouble.”

Maria Stacey was working at the site that day and has remained a staff member ever since.

She says it’s a close-knit community.

“We deal with the massacre every day as staff members because visitors come here every day with an interest and lots of people, family members, 35 people killed and many, many others injured and many others here on the day, and you spread that out across the country there’s an awful lot of people who have some connection.”

The 10th anniversary memorial service in 2006 was meant to be the last.

There are many in Tasmania and across the country who say they would prefer to forget the mass shooting.

But others, deeply affected by it, say those who died need to be remembered.

Stephen Large, Chief Executive Officer of the Port Arthur Historic site, says the response from families of victims about a 20th memorial service was overwhelmingly in favour.

“It’s really good to know there are some people that haven’t been back to the site in 20 years that are coming to the service. And we certainly hope they get the same benefits that people coming back on the 10th anniversary in 2006 got from that particular service.”

Tasman Mayor, Roseanne Heyward says the tragedy touched all Australians.

“Well it happened in this community and I don’t think we can ever get over that it will always be remembered as part of our history. Although it happened in this community it had an effect all around Australia really.”

 

 

 

Vatican reports dodgy financial activities

The Vatican has received 544 reports of suspicious financial activity in 2015, nearly four times more than the year before, its financial watchdog says, putting the increase down to better compliance, not more crime.

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After a string of scandals, some stretching back decades, Pope Francis made cleaning up Vatican finances a priority, and the man in charge of overseeing that says it’s new awareness of reporting obligations that has produced the spike in cases.

“It shows the system is working,” Rene Bruelhart, head of the Vatican’s Financial Intelligence Authority (AIF), told a news conference on Thursday, insisting the quadrupling of cases “was not due to a higher financial crime rate”.

Bruelhart said “a very low bar” had been set for filing “Suspicious Transaction Reports” and most of the 544 were routine, relating to closing accounts and tax compliance. Only 17 were cases were passed on to the prosecutor.

Those related to serious offences such as money laundering and insider trading, the AIF said.

That appeared to be a reference to an investigation last year that found a department which oversees real estate and investments, known as APSA, was used for possible money laundering, insider trading and market manipulation.

The AIF said it had concluded a review of clients of the Vatican bank, the Institute for Works of Religion, for decades embroiled in scandals involving Italians who used it for money laundering and tax evasion, according to Italian magistrates.

“That nightmare is behind us,” said AIF director Tommaso Di Ruzza.

He said 4935 accounts had been closed, an exercise that was a key part of Pope Francis’ aim to achieve transparency. About 15,000 accounts remain.

In December, the European watchdog agency Moneyval said the Vatican had made great strides in financial transparency but that its prosecutor should be more aggressive in indicting people for financial crimes.

UK Labour Party in anti-Semitism row

Britain’s opposition Labour Party has suspended former London mayor Ken Livingstone in a row over anti-Semitism, as the party struggles with deep divisions since electing a hard-left leader last summer.

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Dozens of Labour lawmakers had demanded that leader Jeremy Corbyn suspend Livingstone – his ally and a party veteran – over remarks he made about Hitler being a Zionist in defence of a colleague the party suspended a day earlier over anti-Semitic remarks.

“Ken Livingstone has been suspended by the Labour Party, pending an investigation, for bringing the Party into disrepute,” the Labour Party said in a statement on Thursday.

It said another lawmaker, John Mann, had been summoned over his behaviour after he was filmed shouting “You’ve lost it” at Livingstone and accusing him of being a “Nazi apologist” over the former mayor’s comments that Hitler had supported Zionism “before he went mad and ended up killing 6 million Jews”.

Prime Minister David Cameron condemned the comments, saying anti-Semitism, like racism, was unacceptable.

“It is quite clear that the Labour Party has a problem with anti-Semitism.”

Jewish leaders said the party should introduce a zero-tolerance policy against anti-Semitism, and some Labour lawmakers, including the party’s candidate for mayor in an election next week, distanced themselves from Livingstone.

The former mayor made his comments while mounting a defence for another lawmaker, Naz Shah, 42, who in 2014 had expressed views on Facebook supporting the relocation of Israel to the United States.

Shah was “administratively suspended” from the party on Wednesday pending investigation and has apologised for her remarks.

In an interview with BBC London, Livingstone said neither Shah nor the Labour Party were anti-Semitic.

“I’ve heard a lot of criticism of the state of Israel and its abuse of Palestinians, but I’ve never heard someone be anti-Semitic,” Livingstone said.

“Let’s remember when Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism – this before he went mad and ended up killing 6 million Jews.”

Chernobyl 30 years on: Australian survivor recounts ‘catastrophic time’

Memorials have been held across the globe this week to remember the victims of the Chernobyl disaster.

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Survivor Alexander Vainer, who moved to Australia soon after the accident, spoke to SBS about the event.

Where were you when the accident happened?

I used to work for Chernobyl. I am a builder. I was renovating a children’s pioneer camp when the Chernobyl accident happened and the team were not far from (the power plant). A supervisor came to us saying that Chernobyl had blown up. It was on April 26th 1986. He also told us that instead of renovating the children’s camp, we had to work on the same buildings but make a field hospital from it. We had cars driving from the Chernobyl area into our place every day. Parked in front, these cars had 1,000 roentgen (unit of measurement for radiation). They were in Chernobyl for a whole day and then would come and leave the cars in the camp for a night and the drivers would change. They were rostered daily. No one would work twice (driving into Chernobyl).

The camp became a hospital for workers?

It was for the rescuers who were fighting against the fire in Chernobyl. Those who worked (at the plant) were evacuated to Moscow right after it happened.

What else did you see that day?

The special supervisor who must look after certain areas came to us. He was a friend of mine, and he told us that the fourth station (reactor) in Chernobyl had exploded and that we had to be vigilant, that instead of the pioneer camp we’d be rebuilding a field hospital. As soon as we finished our work we could go home. We stayed there from the 26th of April until the 9th of May. Cars that were employed in the accident area and the drivers would come to our camp every day, new drivers would come and take over and leave the next morning. We were looking after all of it as well, taking on that stuff. The roads were always covered with foam, absorbing radiation. We were very close, there was about 30-35 km to Chernobyl.

Were you scared?

What was there to be scared of? We were practically called up as if mobilised. We couldn’t leave, we had to finish our work and then leave. You don’t joke around with the government. We were told to finish our job at such a catastrophic time like Chernobyl and so we did finish it without leaving the area. Normally, we used to be able to travel to Kiev and back, but after the accident happened, the area was closed down, no one could go in or out of the area. All this time we were there and then they let us go to Kiev.

Were you worried about your family?

We couldn’t communicate with them, they knew where we were and that was it. We had no phones like today. Of course I was worried about my family, how could you not if in Kiev they were saying that in order to lower the radiation, they should mop the floor with a wet cloth. And keep the doors and windows shut.

Was your family scared for you?

What could they do? Our daughter was about to give birth. There was a panic in the city. Airports, train and bus stations were overcrowded, people wanted to flee the city, but they couldn’t and we stayed. As the saying goes ‘what will be, shall be’.

What did you have to do when the camp became a hospital?

We were doing the reconstruction, we lived there as well. We did all the same like in usual times. There was no panic, we simply tried to finish it as quickly as possible so it could be used as a field hospital, and we worked 16 hours per day.

How many people came through?

When we were working there, not many people came through, maybe 12 all together. I don’t know how many came after. We finished on the 9th of May and on the 10th we were placed in the buses and sent back home. You can’t tell, judging by the look of these people, that they were sick. They look just fine, despite catching roentgen. What happened to them after, only God knows. It is not obvious that you are sick at the beginning, a person seems quite healthy. As the time goes by, the roentgens start to affect people, the organs start to rot and so on, different sicknesses come to appear. But at the beginning, a person doesn’t even understand that he caught the radioactive stuff.

Have you had any physical after-effects?

To be honest, it is terrible. I have got diabetes, the legs are in pain, my heart stopped functioning well. Mind that (before the accident), I was a master of sports in wrestling. I was a phenomenally healthy man. Now I’m almost nothing. It’s a blessing that I’m still alive. Only three of us are, of those who worked there. One lives in Israel, another in Kiev and me in here. The one who is in Israel is disabled though. We have another one in Israel but he is at death’s door now. Generally, no healthy man is left after that, bear in mind that everyone was 10-15 years younger than me.

When did these diseases start to come up?

The fourth day after I came to Australia, I was sent for a leg surgery, it was in 1989. My leg just stopped working. I had 23 surgeries on this leg and thanks to Australian medicine I still have it and am alive. My doctor says, had it happened 30 years before I wouldn’t have been here.

Do you believe these health problems are related to Chernobyl?

In my family we have never had a sick person. Everybody was extremely healthy. My grandfather was the World Champion in circus wrestling in 1903. Those were the people of big strength, you wouldn’t believe. He could tear apart a chain that lifts three tonnes, he tore it and it broke. Imagine how strong they were. But my younger daughter had three miscarriages and her son was born with Cerebral Palsy. The only one in our family.  How else can I consider the roots of these health problems? I myself was a master of sports in classic wrestling. And I was acquainted with many professional sport celebrities at that time. I think it’s due to my innate strength that I am still alive.

Translation by Olga Klepova.