TIME Syria

Meet The Two Candidates Taking on Assad For Syria’s Presidency

Two rival candidates are vying for Bashar Assad's job in Syria's upcoming elections. Are they defying the odds, foolish, or just patsies put in place to make the polls look more legitimate?

It takes a certain kind of chutzpah to campaign against Syrian President Bashar Assad. Yet when the 2014 presidential election was thrown open to outside entrants for the first time in Syria’s history late last month, 24 would-be candidates nominated themselves to the post. Until now, the vote for Syria’s president has always been a yes or no referendum, first for Assad’s father Hafez, and then for Assad himself. That all changed earlier this year when Syria’s parliament decided to let in some competition for the presidential elections set to take place on June 3. By the time Syria’s judiciary vetted the nominees according to stringent criteria—candidates must be Muslim, must have lived in Syria for the past 10 years (conveniently disqualifying exiled opposition figures) and must have the support of at least 35 members of the 250-strong parliament—only two remained.

The revelation that candidates Maher Abdul-Hafiz Hajjar, 46, and Hassan bin Abdullah al-Nouri, 54—little-known lawmakers whose names drew much head-scratching inside Syria—made the cut elicited guffaws from members of the main opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition. They believe the candidates are patsies and proof that this election, like all those before it, will be a “farce.” In a May 7 address to the Unites States Institute for Peace in Washington, D.C., Ahmad Jarba, leader of the SNC, said the election was taking place “on the dead bodies of Syrians,” and would give Assad “license to kill for many years to come.”

With less than a month to go, campaigning isn’t exactly in full swing—the streets of Syria’s main cities are adorned with posters praising Assad, and little else—but speculation is fevered. There is no question Assad will win, say Syrians, but by how much? In 2007, he got 97.6 percent of the ballots (2.2 percent of the votes cast were considered invalid). With two other candidates in the running, the vote will likely be divided in a way that casts some legitimacy on the process.

On May 6, one of the unsuccessful candidates was kidnapped by anti-government rebels and paraded in a video posted to opposition social media sites. Clearly under stress, and flanked by two armed men, army colonel Mohammad Hassan Kanaan said that he had been coerced into nominating himself for the presidency by his commanding officer under threat of death. In further questioning by his captors, he said that other nominees had been similarly pressured to run. “It’s a political game and media fabrication,” he said.

It is impossible to know if Kanaan was speaking the truth or succumbing to pressure on the part of his captors, as government officials assert, but his statement further confirms some Syrians’ suspicions that Assad’s rivals have no real aims for the presidency but are there only to plump up an anemic field to legitimize the race. The elections may yet reveal interesting results, especially considering that nearly half the population has been displaced, and voting will not take place in opposition controlled areas. In the meantime, a look at the two men brave enough, or foolish enough, to take on Syria’s president:

Maher Abdul-Hafiz Hajjar, a former communist parliamentarian from Aleppo, was the first to nominate himself for the presidential post, and seems to take the campaigning seriously. Sort of. On his official Facebook campaign page he takes on calls from Syria’s minority Christian population to boycott the vote given that Christian candidates are excluded from running according to the country’s constitution. “Let’s speak frankly,” he admonishes his audience. “Christians in Syria have been neutral and they have not offered anything to this country in its struggle against the conspiracy… Thus, they can’t ask for a Christian president.” Calling Christian demands for the right to run “illogical,” he goes on to promise that if elected, he will guarantee all Christians “more rights.” He concludes with an exhortation to “Vote for #Maher_president_for_Syria so all sects and factions can enjoy religious freedoms.”

Hassan bin Abdullah al-Nouri, a former member of Parliament from Damascus, is significantly more obscure. Like Hajjar, he is a member of Syria’s officially tolerated opposition. Educated in the United States, he has two masters degrees—one in management from the University of Wisconsin and another in human resources development from John F. Kennedy University in California, according to state television. He was the second candidate to post his nomination, yet he doesn’t appear to have any campaign platform at this time.

–With reporting from Hania Mourtada/ Beirut

TIME Syria

Syrian Army Moves Into Homs

Syrian Army Homs
Syrian army sit on their armored vehicles while patrolling streets in Homs, Syria, May 9, 2014. EPA

The Syrian army has moved into Homs, a now-former rebel stronghold

Syrian government forces have entered the city of Homs after a two-year siege by opposition fighters, Reuters reports.

The U.N.-supervised evacuation was part of a deal struck between the government and opposition forces. In the deal, Syrian rebels were transported to northern parts of the country still held by the resistance. In exchange, rebel forces released dozens of pro-government prisoners.

Opposition fighters took hold of Homs in 2011, but government forces have gradually been regaining parts of the city over the last two years. Much of the city has been completely destroyed by near-constant bombardments.

Syrian state television reported two soldiers died Friday while searching for mines and explosives potentially left by fleeing rebel fighters. More than 150,000 people are believed to have been killed in the conflict since it began approximately three years ago.

[Reuters]

TIME Syria

Syria Chemical Weapons Facilities Must Be Destroyed, Official Says

A top State Department official said the country's entire infrastructure for chemical weapons must be destroyed

Syria must destroy all the facilities used to create chemical weapons in order to comply with international agreements, a top U.S. official said Friday.

The country has already prepared about 92 percent of its chemical weapons to be shipped out of the country. But Rose Gottemoeller, the State Department’s top arms control official, said destroying the last eight percent won’t be enough. Gottemoeller said the Syria must also destroy all relevant facilities, including hangars and tunnels, the Associated Press reports.

She told reporters that the remaining chemical weapons are all in a single site in Damascus. These last 16 containers are in an area currently inaccessible due to fighting, a top United Nations official said Thursday.

Gottemoeller’s comments come amid growing skepticism that Syrian President Bashar Assad will deliver on a promise to destroy the country’s chemical arsenal by June 30.

[AP]

TIME Vatican

Pope Francis to World: Redistribute The Wealth

Pope meets Ban Ki-moon in Vatican
Pope Francis meets UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and members of UN System Chief Executives Board for the biannual meeting on strategic coordination in the Consistory Hall of the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City on May 9, 2014. Osservatore Romano/EPA

Pope Francis reaffirmed his plea on Friday for world leaders to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor during an address before top U.N. officials and called for a global initiative to reduce the income gap

Pope Francis on Friday renewed his call on global leaders to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor.

Francis made his plea during an address to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other U.N. leaders gathered in Rome for an audience with the pope, CBS News reports.

Railing against an “economy of exclusion,” Francis called for a state-led global initiative to close the widening gap between rich and poor through redistribution.

Specifically, this involves challenging all forms of injustices and resisting the economy of exclusion, the throwaway culture and the culture of death which nowadays sadly risk becoming passively accepted,” Francis said.

The comments were in keeping with the Pope’s previous critiques of income inequality at the World Economic Forum in January and in a private March meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama.

The Pope and Ban skirted the issue of an ongoing U.N. investigation into the Vatican’s handling of sexual abuse cases and briefly touched upon the Catholic church’s stances on birth control and abortion.

[CBS News]

TIME

This Startup Paid the Fake Sign Language Interpreter From Mandela’s Funeral a Ton Of Money to Star in Its Ad

Today in questionable advertising methods

Thamsanqa Jantjie’s brush with celebrity should have been fleeting. In case the name doesn’t ring a bell, Jantjie was the phony sign language interpreter during Nelson Mandela’s funeral who signed things like “hand me scissors” while dignitaries honored one of the last century’s greatest leaders.

But no. While Jantjie was in a mental institution—he told anyone who would listen that his ineptitude was brought on by visions of angels and a history of schizophrenia—an Israeli startup thought it would be a great idea to send a journalist into a mental ward to pitch him a job as being the spokesman for a live streaming video app.

This worked for Jantjie because, as he told Betabeat: “I want to be a professional actor—[being famous] was my dream since I was a little boy.”

And so, in the ad, Jantjie lies about having an “ancestral ceremony” to attend so he could bust out of the hospital for a day and star in a completely tone-deaf commercial for Livelens, an app that streams videos to your friends. He jokes about essentially turning Mandela’s funeral into a farce (“I speak sign language—not,” he signs) and got paid a lot of money to do it. Or at least enough to buy a new house for his family, Jantjie told Betabeat before clarifying that he wasn’t sorry for any of his actions at the funeral.

“We needed something surprising,” Livelens’ Sefi Shaked told the New York Daily News. “We wanted to choose a presenter who is the worst presenter for a live app possible; you know, the person who did the worst screw up on live TV — ever.”

And Livelens’ pandering for shares is obvious. Jantjie even signs “I’m on a horse” as his head is photoshopped on an image of the “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” riding a horse in an Old Spice ad.

TIME Bolivia

Bolivian Mayor Caught On Camera Groping Woman

The clip, which was was broadcast on Bolivian television, is just the latest in a series of incidents showing the mayor making unwanted advances on women

The mayor of Bolivia’s largest city was caught on camera groping and kissing women – again.

Percy Fernandez, the Mayor of Santa Cruz, is seen in a new video placing his hand on the thigh of Mercedes Guzman, a journalist from a local television channel.

But this is not the first time that the mayor, recently called by President Evo Morales “the best mayor in Bolivia,” was caught making unwanted advances on women. At least two other instances of his sexual harassment were caught on camera in the past. Two years ago, footage showed him twice touching the bottom of his female City Council president, and in 2010 he forced a kiss upon a female engineer while inspecting a bridge.

“[We consider this] an expression of violence against all Bolivian women, especially because the mayor’s actions have happened before,” said Marcela Revollo, a Bolivian lawmaker.

After increasing public outcry, the 75-year-old mayor sent a video to Santa Cruz media in which he apologized to the journalist for the incident.

“I’m worried that I might’ve disrespected you while you were performing your duties. I apologize again to you and your dignified family,” Fernandez says on the video.

But opposition lawmaker Revollo said that the apology was not enough. She has filed a complaint accusing Fernandez of sexual harassment, sexual violence and discrimination.

TIME

China’s Tinder Plots IPO in the Shadow of Anti-Porn Crackdown

Chinese officials launch a ceremony to d
Chinese officials launch a ceremony to destroy thousands of pornographic books and video materials in Beijing on April 24, 2011. AFP/Getty Images

China's dating app has 120 million user profiles, some of which may be too hot for Beijing

China’s dating app Momo has 120 million users, a possible valuation of $2 billion, and an ongoing flirtation with U.S. banks, eager to get a piece of the action should the company go public on a U.S. stock exchange, but a few of the racier user profiles have investors on edge.

The Wall Street Journal reports that some of the photos could run afoul of China’s widening crackdown on internet pornography. A reporter from state news service Xinhua logged onto the app in a popular bar district of Beijing and reportedly found scantily clad women “wearing bikinis to show off their physiques” and profiles suggestive of escort services. The salacious details may not shock users of dating sites the world over, but in China, the pictures can trigger regulatory crackdowns. Web companies Sina and Sohu.com have seen their publishing licenses revoked for explicit content.

In an email to the Journal, a company spokesperson insisted the company supported the government’s crackdown and would expand its team of internal censors from 60 to 100 employees, saying its commercial interests were “totally incompatible with lewd and sexual content.”

[WSJ]

TIME Nigeria

Amnesty: Nigerian Government Knew But Failed to Act on Boko Haram Kidnapping

Amnesty International alleges in a report issued Friday that the Nigerian military had more than four hours of advance warning about Boko Haram’s April abduction of more than 240 schoolgirls, but failed to act ahead of the kidnappings. The majority of the girls remain in captivity and their whereabouts are uncertain.

AI, which calls itself “the world’s largest grassroots human rights organization,” said that the government’s inaction was due to “poor resources and a reported fear of engaging.”

“The fact that Nigerian security forces knew about Boko Haram’s impending raid, but failed to take the immediate action needed to stop it, will only amplify the national and international outcry at this horrific crime,” said Netsanet Belay, Amnesty International’s Africa Director, Research and Advocacy, in a statement. “It amounts to a gross dereliction of Nigeria’s duty to protect civilians, who remain sitting ducks for such attacks. The Nigerian leadership must now use all lawful means at their disposal to secure the girls’ safe release and ensure nothing like this can happen again.”

Boko Haram is an extremist Islamist group that has been roundly criticized by influential voices in the Muslim world. The State Department reported that Boko Haram—believed to have up to a few thousand members—killed more than one thousand people in 2013, in addition to other kidnappings and attacks on civilian and military targets.

TIME

Pictures of the Week: May 2 – May 9

From deadly landslides in Afghanistan and elections in South Africa, to setting the stage for the World Cup and Eurovision’s beautiful, bearded songstress, TIME presents the best pictures of the week.

TIME Music

Watch: Now That’s What I Call Eurovision!

Emotions are flying high ahead of Saturday’s final in the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest as the crisis in Ukraine is casting a political shadow over the competition.

Eurovision is one of the most-watched non-sports events in the world. This year, 37 countries are participating. They’re mostly European countries, but others, such as Israel, get to perform too.

TIME took a stroll down memory to find some of the best – and the worst – songs of Eurovision.

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