Ramadan begins, ‘interference’ in port probe, MPs tackle fairer pay for public school teachers: Everything you need to know to start your Tuesday

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Mahmud Fannas, a “Musaharati” or a “Ramadan drummer,” who awakens Muslims for the traditional pre-dawn meal “Suhour,” walks along an alley in the old city of Saida on the first night of Ramadan. (Credit: Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP)

Sunni Muslims begin fasting for the holy month of Ramadan today, with Shiites following tomorrow, though festivities will look very different this year amid soaring inflation and the coronavirus pandemic. Since Ramadan 2020, the cost of the typical iftar meal for a family of five has tripled, rising from around LL600,000 to LL1,800,000, according to the American University of Beirut’s Crisis Observatory. In an attempt to limit the spread of the coronavirus, a curfew has been introduced from 9:30 p.m. to 5 a.m., during which supermarkets and restaurants can only operate delivery services. Nevertheless, Firass Abiad, the head of Rafik Hariri University Hospital, warned that increased social contact could lead to more cases of COVID-19.

Lebanon is claiming more territory in the maritime border dispute with Israel, a move that is unlikely to speed up negotiations that have been stalled since November. Caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab, caretaker Public Works Minister Michel Najjar and caretaker Defense Minister Zeina Akar signed a document expanding Lebanon’s claims for an exclusive economic zone by some 1,400 square kilometers. Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said that Israel, which is already extracting gas from the Mediterranean, would respond with “parallel measures.” President Michel Aoun must now sign the paper ahead of its submission to the United Nations.

The head of the Beirut Bar Association Melhem Khalaf hit out at caretaker Economy Minister Raoul Nehme for “dangerous interference” in investigations into the Aug. 4 Beirut port blast. Nehme had sent a letter asking the lead investigator, Judge Tarek Bitar, to issue a decision ruling out “acts of war or terrorism” as a cause of the explosion because foreign reinsurance companies typically don’t pay out in such cases. The outgoing minister later backtracked, saying he was simply asking the judge to identify the causes of the blast as quickly as possible and offering to rephrase the letter if necessary. Interference in the judiciary by a public official carries a sentence up to four and a half years in prison, lawyer Nizar Saghieh tweeted in response to Nehme’s original letter.

A new parliamentary subcommittee will draft amendments to the law on lifting banking secrecy following the president’s request for the involvement of the judiciary. President Michel Aoun asked that the judiciary play a role in the law’s implementation alongside the National Anti-Corruption Commission, but his proposal was rejected by MPs due to the “politicization” of the judiciary, Finance and Budget Committee head Ibrahim Kanaan said. Due to the “in-depth” discussions on the law, committee members did not address other items on their agenda, including the restructuring of the central bank’s Special Investigation Commission and overseas transfers.

The parliamentary Women and Children’s Committee is developing a plan to ensure families in need can access infant milk formula. The plan will have two main goals, according to committee head MP Inaya Ezzeddine: reduce pressure on limited infant milk supplies by encouraging breastfeeding through a national awareness campaign and provide food and financial aid for vulnerable families. As importers of other essentials such as fuel, pharmaceutical drugs and medical equipment have done in the past, Ezzeddine laid blame on the central bank for failing to approve dollar payments that would facilitate the import of milk formula from abroad. Amid widespread shortages, families are forced to go from pharmacy to pharmacy in search of formula and some have resorted to bartering their possessions online in exchange for the product.

Media workers, public sector employees and security workers will begin receiving Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccines donated by the Chinese government next week. These groups are not part of the Health Ministry’s current priority list for vaccinations, but caretaker Information Minister Manal Abdel Samad justified the inclusion of journalists by claiming that 18 percent of them had been infected with coronavirus over the last year. Separately, the Health Ministry recommended that the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine be administered to people over 30 years old, falling in line with the UK, which made the same recommendation after the announcement of blood clots as a very rare side effect of the vaccine. Last week, hospitals reported that many people failed to show up for their appointments to receive the AstraZeneca jab due to fears over its safety.

Lawmakers will meet today to discuss an urgent draft law that would give public school teachers fairer pay in light of COVID-19 school closures. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri will chair a joint committee session at 10 a.m. to discuss the law. Public school teachers employed on an hourly basis went on strike for over two months earlier this year to demand that they be paid according to the minimum annual working hours stipulated in their contracts. Changes to school scheduling and repeated closures have meant that many teachers have seen a reduction to their hours and therefore their wages, Nissrine Chahine, the head of a committee representing the teachers, told L’Orient Today.

The military appeals court is set to issue a verdict today in the trial of those accused of framing actor Ziad Itani as an Israeli collaborator. Judge Tony Lattouf will determine the fate of former head of the ISF cybercrimes unit Suzzanne al-Hajj and Elie Ghabash, who allegedly worked together to fabricate evidence against Itani. Hajj was acquitted by the tribunal in June 2019, while Ghabash was sentenced to a year in prison, before the verdicts were appealed and the trial started over. The actor was arrested and jailed over the accusations for over 100 days in 2018, during which he says he suffered brutal torture at the hands of state security.

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