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US judge overturns mandatory mask mandate on planes, trains | Coronavirus pandemic News

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Ruling suspends mask-wearing rule on public transit nationwide as judge says federal agencies exceeded their authority.

A federal judge in the US state of Florida has ruled a United States government order requiring people to wear masks on public transportation is unlawful, overturning a Biden administration effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Last week, US health officials had extended by 15 days the mandate requiring travellers to wear masks on airplanes, trains, and in taxis, ride-share vehicles or transit hubs, saying they needed time to assess the effect of a recent rise in COVID-19 cases.

But a ruling on Monday by US District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle said the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had exceeded its authority with the mandate, had not sought public comment, and did not adequately explain the decision.

Mizelle’s ruling came in a lawsuit filed last year in Tampa, Florida, by a group called the Health Freedom Defense Fund, which has challenged state and federal vaccine and mask mandates in courts across the country.

Travelers queue up in long lines to pass through the south security checkpoint in Denver International Airport.
Masked travellers queue to pass through a security checkpoint at Denver International Airport [File: David Zalubowski/AP Photo]

The CDC first issued a public health order requiring masks on interstate transportation in February 2021. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) issued a security directive to enforce the CDC order.

In her 59-page ruling, Mizelle said the only remedy was to vacate the rule entirely across the country because it would be impossible to end it for the limited group of people who objected in the lawsuit.

The judge said “a limited remedy would be no remedy at all” and that the courts have full authority to make a decision such as this — even if the goals of the CDC in fighting the virus are laudable.

“Because our system does not permit agencies to act unlawfully even in pursuit of desirable ends, the court declares unlawful and vacates the mask mandate,” she wrote.

The judge sent the issue back to the CDC. It was not clear whether the judge’s order would take immediate effect and the TSA’s order for the mask mandate appeared to still be in effect.

“What we announced last week was just a two-week extension in order to have time to assess what we’ve all seen as rising cases and make an assessment, a recommendation with that in mind,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said during a news briefing on Monday afternoon.

“So of course it’s disappointing,” said Psaki, of Judge Mizelle’s ruling.

Industry groups and Republican lawmakers had wanted the Biden administration to immediately end the 14-month-old mask mandate last week. But the CDC said it wanted more time to study the BA.2 Omicron subvariant now spreading rapidly in the US.

The City of Philadelphia on Monday re-imposed a local mandate requiring people to wear masks in all indoor public spaces such as restaurants due to rising infections.

A sign requiring masks as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus on a store front in Philadelphia.
A sign requiring masks as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus on a store front in Philadelphia [File: Matt Rourke/AP Photo]

Monday’s ruling in Florida could create confusion on planes, where the mask mandate has caused a surge in incidents and altercations between airline officials enforcing the mandate and passengers rejecting the demand they cover their faces.

The Federal Aviation Administration said that since January 2021, there have been a record 7,060 unruly passenger incidents reported – and 70 percent involved masking rules.

Airlines for America, for example, had urged the Biden administration “to lean into science and research, which clearly support lifting the mask mandate”.

“It makes no sense to require masks on a plane when masks are not recommended in places like restaurants, bars or crowded sports facilities,” the group, which represents major US passenger airlines, said. It did not have an immediate comment on Monday’s ruling.



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Asylum seeker father faces 10 years in Greek jail for son’s death | Migration

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Athens, Greece – A 26-year-old asylum seeker from Afghanistan is facing up to 10 years in prison in Greece for the death of his five-year-old son, who drowned after boarding a dinghy from Turkey to Greece with his father on November 8, 2020.

Hafez, the pseudonym of a defendant who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, will stand trial on Wednesday, charged with endangering the life of his child.

Hafez spoke quietly as he remembered the fateful trip that led to the death of his son.

He described hugging his son tightly as the boat with 24 people on board hit rocks off the Greek island of Samos in the eastern Aegean and capsized.

The boy disappeared in the water and was later found by Greek authorities, washed up on the shores of Cape Prasso, a steep and treacherously rocky part of the island, sometimes referred to as “the Cape of Death”.

Hafez found it difficult to go into the details of that night but said that he came to Europe, as hundreds of thousands of others have done, seeking a better life for his child.

A cuddly toy is placed on the grave of a five-year boy from Afghanistan
A cuddly toy on the grave of a five-year boy from Afghanistan on the island of Samos [File: Thanassis Stavrakis/AP]

His asylum application had been rejected twice in Turkey and he faced deportation to Afghanistan.

“I just came here for my son’s future,” he said, recalling the numerous times his son asked him when he could go to school.

Hafez cannot understand why he is facing jail time for this tragic event that saw his son die.

“It’s not just me. There are many people who have lost their families, their sons, their wives [en route to Greece],” he said. “What can they prove? That the accident happened to us?”

Alan Kurdi

Hafez’s son is one of many children who died in the Aegean while seeking safety in Europe.

One of the most well-known cases was that of two-year-old Syrian, Alan Kurdi, who drowned after his boat capsized on the journey from Turkey to Greece, and whose body washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015.

Kurdi would become a symbol of the refugee crisis when more than a million people arrived to claim asylum in Europe.

Dimitris Choulis, Hafez’s lawyer, said that as far as he knows, Hafez’s case is the first case of an asylum seeker being charged in Greece for the death of his child in a shipwreck.

Choulis told Al Jazeera that he believes the charges against his client have no merit.

“I believe he will be found innocent,” he said firmly.

An Afghan father watches television in his room, at the port of Vathy on the eastern Aegean island of Samos, Greece
Still devastated from losing his only child, Hafez has found himself charged with a felony count of child endangerment [File: Thanassis Stavrakis/AP]

The timeline of events that night in the Aegean is also in question. Choulis said it took authorities more than six hours to conduct a rescue operation that night.

Aegean Boat Report, a Norwegian NGO that monitors asylum seeker arrivals in Greece and is often contacted by arrivals in distress, confirmed to Al Jazeera that they had called the port police on Samos at 12:06am on November 8 (21:06 GMT on November 7), 2020 to inform them of an arrival and that there were people missing.

According to Choulis, asylum seekers who made it onto the rocks from the shipwreck testified that they saw a boat patrolling the area which shone its lights on them but then left.

The Greek Coast Guard told media at the time it had initially responded to a distress call but had not found anybody.

At 6am (03:00 GMT), Hafez, who had been desperately searching for his son, encountered police officers and told them what happened.

By the time his son was found that morning, it was too late to save him. The boy’s body was recovered near that of a pregnant woman, who was unconscious but alive and gave birth days later in the island’s hospital.

The ordeal did not end there, Choulis remembers how Hafez was then taken in handcuffs to identify his son’s body.

The lawyer recalls waiting outside for the bereaved father after he had been to see his child’s body. Hafez was inconsolable, Choulis said.

“When they came [out] his handcuffs were off, [the police officers] were supporting him as he couldn’t walk,” said Choulis.

“I don’t think that he was ever OK after that.”

Another defendant

Choulis is also representing another asylum seeker, Hasan (another pseudonym), ,who will stand trial on the same day as Hafez, for being the driver of the boat that Hafez and his son were in.

Hasan, also from Afghanistan, is facing life imprisonment for the five-year-old’s death, on top of up to 230 years in prison for endangering the lives of 23 people excluding himself.

Hasan is one of a growing number of asylum seekers who have faced smuggling charges in Greece for being at the wheel of the boat, in what human rights groups and academics have said is an increasing trend to criminalise migration.

Hasan says he was forced by smugglers to steer the boat and had no other choice but to comply.

“This trial is part of a broader pattern of states criminalising those seeking safety from war and persecution, as well as individuals and organisations seeking to support them,” Dr Gemma Bird, senior lecturer of politics and international relations at the University of Liverpool in the UK, told Al Jazeera.

“Over recent years, we have seen similar things happening in Greece and Italy as well as a move towards violent responses of state actors on land and sea borders throughout Europe, which have repeatedly been shown to put people at risk,” she said.

On May 5, 2022, three asylum seekers from Syria, who were on board a boat which was capsized off the Greek island of Paros in December 2021, were convicted for “facilitating unauthorised entry” in Greece and collectively sentenced to 439 years in prison.

‘Tough but fair’

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has consistently defended his country’s approach to migration, denying reports of illegal pushbacks of asylum seekers at the borders and insisting that authorities follow the letter of the law.

Mitsotakis has said the country has a “tough but fair” immigration policy where human rights are fully respected.

Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi, speaking about Hafez’s case to media at the time, said it was important that the circumstances of any deaths were thoroughly probed.

“If there is the loss of human life, it must be investigated whether some people, through negligence or deliberately, acted outside the limits of the law,” he said.

“The people who choose to get into boats which are unseaworthy, and are driven by people who have no experience of the sea, obviously put human lives at risk.”

Hafez still has no idea how to pick up the pieces of his life from that night.

“What’s happened to me is in my mind this time for a long time, I want to erase it, but I cannot,” he said.

Hafez will stand trial on Samos this week, the island where his son is buried in a graveyard alongside many others who perished seeking asylum in Greece.

“I thought that maybe here would be safe for my son, maybe I would build my son’s future here,” said Hafez slowly. “I’ve not been myself since then.”

A spokesperson from the Greek foreign ministry told Al Jazeera it could not comment on the trial.

“Cases under judicial investigation and court decisions, cannot be commented by the Greek authorities, since the judiciary is independent,” the ministry said.



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Counterattack: Russian troops pushed back to the border – Kyiv | Russia-Ukraine war News

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If confirmed, it would suggest a counteroffensive by Ukrainian soldiers is having increasing success in expelling Russian forces from the northeast.

Ukraine says troops defending the country’s second-largest city Kharkiv have pushed Russian forces back and advanced as far as the border with Russia.

Fighting was reported near Kharkiv on Monday in what interior ministry adviser Vadym Denisenko said was “our counteroffensive”.

“It can no longer be stopped … Thanks to this we can go to the rear of the Russian group of forces,” said Denisenko.

The Ukrainian defence ministry published a video on Facebook purportedly showing about a dozen Ukrainian soldiers at a border post on Sunday.

Kharkiv regional governor, Oleh Sinegubov, wrote on the Telegram messaging app the troops had restored control of the area.

“We thank everyone who, risking their lives, liberates Ukraine from Russian invaders,” Sinegubov said.

The defence ministry said the 227th Battalion of the 127th Brigade of Ukraine’s Territorial Defence Forces reached the border with Russia, adding: “Together to victory!”

Al Jazeera could not immediately verify the claim. If confirmed, it would suggest the Ukrainian counteroffensive is having increasing success in removing Russian forces from the northeast.

INTERACTIVE Russia Ukraine War Who controls what Day 82

Ukraine has scored a series of successes since Russia invaded on February 24, forcing Russia’s commanders to abandon an advance on the capital Kyiv before making rapid gains around Kharkiv, 50km (30 miles) from the border.

The second city had endured weeks of heavy bombardment from Russian artillery.

Al Jazeera’s Assed Baig, reporting from near Kharkiv, said the situation in the city was returning to normal.

“When we first came to Kharkiv [a month ago] we couldn’t enter without wearing body armour, the streets were empty, and there was constant firing and shelling going on all around us,” Baig said.

“Now people have returned, people are outside, and some cafes and restaurants have opened up. Today is also the first day that public transport is running … The atmosphere has completely changed and that’s because the Ukrainians have managed to push the Russians further away.”

Donbas battle

Western military agencies said on Sunday that Moscow’s offensive in two eastern Ukraine provinces known as the Donbas had stalled.

However, the governor of the Luhansk region in Donbas, Serhiy Haidai, said the situation “remains difficult”, with Russian forces trying to capture the main city of Severodonetskh.

He said leaders of the Luhansk People’s Republic, the territory in Luhansk controlled by Russian-backed separatists, declared a general mobilisation, adding it was “either fight or get shot, there is no other choice”.

In the south, fighting was raging around the city of Kherson and Russian missiles struck residential areas of Mykolaiv, the presidential office in Kyiv said.

Russia calls its invasion of Ukraine a “special military operation” to rid the country of fascists, an assertion Kyiv and its Western allies say is a baseless pretext for an unprovoked war.

Thousands of people, including many civilians, have been killed across the country, towns and cities have been blasted into ruins, and more than six million people have fled their homes to seek refuge in neighbouring states in scenes not seen in Europe since the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Russia denies targeting civilians.

INTERACTIVE Russia Ukraine War Who controls what in Donbas region Day 82



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Billionaire Adani to buy Holcim’s India cement biz for $10.5bn | Business and Economy News

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Swiss building-materials firm Holcim Ltd. agreed to sell its Indian operations to local billionaire Gautam Adani, currently the richest person in Asia, another step in Chief Executive Officer Jan Jenisch’s pivot away from traditional cement.

The company will sell its 63% stake in Mumbai-listed Ambuja Cements Ltd. to Adani Group, it said in a statement Sunday. Adani said it plans to spend about $10.5 billion on the stake purchases and open offer consideration for Ambuja and related entities.

As part of the deal, Adani will inherit Ambuja’s controlling stake in another publicly traded cement producer, ACC Ltd., and buy Holcim’s direct 4.5% holding in the unit. Holcim expects to receive 6.4 billion Swiss francs ($6.4 billion) of cash proceeds from the sale, according to the statement.

“We have quite a list of businesses we would like to acquire, so I think we can put this money here very well to use,” Jenisch said in an interview on Sunday. “At the moment, we’re working on more than 10 deals.”

Jenisch, who joined Holcim in 2017 from Sika AG, has been selling non-core cement businesses and buying new construction companies to benefit from rising demand for energy efficient buildings. As part of the strategy to expand the so-called solutions and products division, he has spent about $5 billion for acquisitions including Malarkey Roofing Products in December and Firestone Building Products in early 2021.

The 55-year-old German, has been cleaning up the company after the messy mega merger of Holcim and France’s Lafarge SA in 2015. Jenisch divested a Brazilian unit for $1 billion in September and Asian businesses such as Holcim Indonesia in 2019.

Holcim’s sale of its Indian business — which is subject to local regulatory approvals — is expected to close in the second half of 2022, helped by the fact that Adani doesn’t have sizable overlap. The company began reviewing new asset sales over the last year after the roofing acquisitions, and concluded negotiations with a handful of potential Indian buyers in about three months, Jenisch said.

‘Position of Strength’

“That’s something important to us that we have a strong balance sheet,” he said in the interview, adding that quick completion, the right price and good fit were key to choosing the winning bidder. “It’s always wise to be in a position of strength and have the opportunity to realize transactions and not to think about, oh, how can I raise this money.”

For Adani, the deal gives Asia’s richest person a foothold in the subcontinent’s fragmented cement sector. His group beat out other local companies including JSW Group, according to people familiar with the matter. Bloomberg News previously reported that Adani Group was in advanced talks with Holcim.

Adani Group is offering 385 rupees per share for Ambuja Cements, a 7.2% premium to Friday’s closing price, according to Sunday’s statement. It will pay 2,300 rupees per share for ACC.

Shares in Ambuja Cements rose as much as 3.5% in early Monday trading in Mumbai, while ACC advanced as much as 7%.

The conglomerate has been moving beyond its core business of operating ports, power plants, coal mines and renewable energy and into areas like data centers, airports, digital services, retail and media.

Asia’s Richest Man Is Said to Scout for Indian Media Assets

A first-generation entrepreneur with a net worth of about $100 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, Adani has been looking to transform his company into a multi-sector juggernaut like Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Ltd. Adani overtook Ambani as Asia — and India’s — richest man earlier this year.

Read more: Adani Joins Musk, Bezos in Exclusive $100 Billion Club

Adani’s Motivation

The deal for Ambuja will transform Adani Group into a sizable player in the cement sector. Founded in 1983, Ambuja has a cement capacity of 31 million metric tons, and has six integrated manufacturing plants and eight cement grinding units in India, its website shows.

“Our move into the cement business is yet another validation of our belief in our nation’s growth story,” Adani, chairman of his namesake group, said in Sunday’s statement.

Adani Group’s flagship firm Adani Enterprises Ltd. has two cement subsidiaries. Adani Cementation Ltd. is planning to build an integrated facility in the state of Gujarat, according to a compliance report in November. The group established Adani Cement Industries Ltd. in June 2021.

Barclays Plc, Deutsche Bank AG and Standard Chartered Plc worked with Adani on the deal. Holcim led the transaction with its internal deal team supported by BNP Paribas SA, JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Perella Weinberg Partners.



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