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Syrian WHO Chief Accused of Corruption, Fraud and Abuse

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Syrian WHO Chief Accused of Corruption, Fraud and Abuse

Staff at the WHO World Health Organization office in Syria claim their boss wasted millions of dollars, lavished presents on government officials (including laptops, gold coins, and cars), and acted carelessly as COVID-19 swept the country.

The Associated Press obtained more than 100 confidential documents, messages, and other materials from WHO officials who told investigators that the agency’s Syria representative, Dr. Akjemal Magtymova, engaged in abusive behaviour, pressured WHO staff to sign contracts with high-ranking Syrian government politicians, and consistently misappropriated WHO and donor funds.

Magtymova refused to comment on the claims, claiming that she was “forbidden” from releasing information “due to (her) duty as a WHO employee member.” She called the allegations “defamatory.”

According to staffers involved in the investigation, complaints from at least a dozen personnel spurred one of the largest internal WHO investigations in years, involving more than 20 investigators at times.

WHO acknowledged in a statement that it is evaluating the charges brought against Magtymova and has requested the assistance of external investigators.

“It has been a lengthy and complex study, with the circumstances in the country and the challenges of securing proper access while assuring staff protection adding further complications,” WHO added. The agency has progressed in analyzing Magtymova’s concerns and obtaining relevant material in recent months.

“Given the security circumstances, confidentiality and due process do not permit us to comment further on the particular claims,” WHO added. There was no indication of when the probe will be concluded.

WHO workers were mistreated

Last year, WHO’s Syria office had a budget of roughly $115 million to address health issues in a war-torn country where almost 90% of the population lives in poverty, and more than half critically needs humanitarian aid. For several months, investigators have been looking into claims that Syrians were mistreated and WHO workers were mistreated:

— According to financial documents, Magtymova once gave a $10,000 party at WHO’s expense, primarily to commemorate her own successes when the country struggled to procure coronavirus vaccines.

— In December 2020, amid the outbreak, she entrusted the country’s more than 100 WHO workers with learning a flash mob dance and filming themselves performing the rehearsed steps for a United Nations celebration, according to recordings and communications from The Associated Press.

— Six Syrian WHO public health experts alleged Magtymova repeatedly labelled personnel “cowards” and “retarded.” Worryingly, officials told agency investigators that Magtymova “offered favours” to key Syrian regime lawmakers and met secretly with the Russian military, potentially violating WHO’s neutrality as a U.N. entity. The employees preferred not to be identified for fear of retaliation, and three quit WHO.

A Syria-based staffer complained to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in May that Magtymova employed incompetent relatives of regime officials, including individuals guilty of “countless human rights crimes.”

“Dr. Akjemal’s aggressive and abusive actions are negatively impacting WHO’s performance in supporting Syrian people,” the staffer wrote, adding that “vulnerable Syrian people are losing a lot due to favouritism, frauds, and scandals instigated and supported by Dr. Akjemal, which is breaking all trust (and) driving donors away.”

Tedros did not reply to the allegation of the staffer. After Magtymova was placed on leave, WHO’s regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean nominated an acting representative in Syria in May. However, she is still designated as the agency’s Syria representative in its staff directory and is paid at the director level.

Covid-19 relief in Hampered in Syria

Magtymova, a Turkmen national, has previously worked as the agency’s envoy to Oman and as the emergency coordinator in Yemen. She arrived in Syria in May 2020, just as COVID swept the globe.

“What we do (at WHO) is honourable,” she said in a statement announcing her appointment. “We earn respect via our competence, professionalism, and the outcomes we achieve.”

Numerous WHO personnel in Syria have informed investigators that Magtymova underestimated the severity of the pandemic in Syria, endangering the lives of millions.

“The situation in Syria was horrible during COVID-19,” one former WHO employee claimed. “However, the WHO was not giving sufficient relief to Syrians.” Medical supplies were “typically concentrated on Damascus solely, and not addressing other locations in Syria,” where drugs and equipment were in short supply.

Syria’s healthcare system has been destroyed by more than a decade of conflict, and the country has relied nearly entirely on international health assistance for many years. The presence of WHO in government-controlled areas has frequently sparked claims that its help is directed by Damascus, sanctioned by the US and the EU.

The war has displaced about 7 million people within Syria, with the majority living in tented camps in places outside of government authority.

Employees also questioned some of Magtymova’s own behaviour and directions to staff as coronavirus infections increased globally – even as WHO’s chief stated that the entire organization was working “tirelessly” to stop COVID-19.

Magtymova violated COVID-19 guidelines.

At least five WHO employees told investigators that Magtymova violated WHO’s own COVID-19 guidelines. They claimed she discouraged remote working, came to work after catching COVID, and held meetings in public. Four WHO employees claimed she contaminated others.

Magtymova directed the Syria office to learn a flash mob dance popularized by a social media challenge for a year-end United Nations function in December 2020, deep in the first year of the epidemic. Senior WHO officials in Geneva were recommending governments at the time to implement coronavirus safeguards, including the cancellation of any non-essential events.

“Kindly note that we want you to listen to the song, practice the moves, and shoot you dancing over the music to be part of our worldwide flash mob dance video,” said Rafik Alhabbal, a WHO communications worker, in an email to all Syria personnel. Magtymova also gave a link to a YouTube website that she characterized as having “the best tutorial.”

Several films show personnel, some wearing WHO vests or jackets, executing “the Jerusalema challenge” dance at medical supply offices and warehouses. Magtymova commended “extremely nice looking and gorgeous individuals” in footage shot in Aleppo and Latakia.

The following October, during one of the country’s worst COVID outbreaks, Magtymova engaged a choreographer and film studio to create a movie of personnel performing another dance to commemorate United Nations Day. There was no social separation during Magtymova’s celebration for dozens of uncovered people, which featured a “cake-eating ceremonial,” according to photos and video.

Magtymova unapologetic

Magtymova shared one of the dance videos on WHO Syria’s social media sites, but it drew so much backlash that her bosses asked her to take it down. According to Anas al-Abdah, a major Syrian opposition politician, the movie was “disgraceful.” “The organization should have (rather) captured the horrible plight of our people and sought justice,” he said.

Magtymova, on the other hand, was unapologetic.

“My message here is to not be discouraged,” she told the staff. “We have a big job to do and a big obligation to people; therefore, we did something very out of (the) box: we dared to shine.”

Internal records, emails, and texts also raise major concerns about how WHO’s taxpayer-funded money was utilized under Magtymova, with colleagues charging she frequently misappropriated restricted donor monies meant to help the more than 12 million Syrians in desperate need of medical assistance.

Among the occurrences being investigated is a reception Magtymova hosted last May after receiving a leadership award from her alma mater, Tufts University. The party, held at Damascus’ elite Four Seasons hotel, had a guest list of roughly 50 people at a period when less than 1% of the Syrian population had received a single dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

According to a hotel invoice, the reception menu included Singaporean-style beef satay, fried goat cheese with truffle oil croquettes, sriracha chicken sliders, and a variety of seasonal mocktails. According to an internal WHO report, a production company was engaged to film the event and create a promotional video.

The evening’s itinerary included speeches from Syria’s health minister, followed by a reception and over two hours of live music. According to WHO documents, while the event was billed to celebrate WHO’s designation of 2021 as the Year of the Health and Care Worker, the evening was devoted to Magtymova rather than health workers. According to a spreadsheet, the total cost is more than $11,000.

Officials were concerned

Magtymova, like many other United Nations expatriate personnel in Syria, slept at Damascus’ ornately designed Four Seasons hotel. But, unlike the rest of the workers, she elected to remain in a multi-room suite with two bathrooms and a panoramic view of the city.

According to U.N. documentation, she stayed in the suite from October 2020 to this past May at a discounted rate of roughly $450 per night, more than four times the price of comparable U.N. employee accommodations. A hotel employee says similar suites typically cost around $940 per night.

The United States and the United Kingdom sanctioned the hotel due to its owner’s participation in financing Bashar Assad’s dictatorship; the United Nations is estimated to have spent $70 million there since 2014.

Other WHO officials were concerned about the organization’s inability to track its assistance to health facilities in Syria. In January, workers wrote about a concerning “spot check” performed on a health project in northern Syria, citing disparities between what WHO paid for and what was discovered.

The following flaws were identified: “the medicines quantities checked did not match the bills,” the employees lacked medical knowledge, there was missing equipment such as wheelchairs, crutches, and hearing aids, and the majority of the building was rented to store such things were empty.

Dr. Ahmed Al-Mandari, WHO’s eastern Mediterranean regional director and Magtymova’s boss, also criticized her for the Syria office’s failure to account for its spending.

He notified her in an email last October that there were numerous unsolved audit and compliance issues. Magtymova, according to Al-Mandari, had not completed multiple long-overdue reports showing how money was spent in Syria that required “urgent attention.” Without these reports, donors had little indication that Syria and WHO was using their monies as planned.

Magtymova spent WHO funding on gifts.

Three WHO procurement officials informed investigators that Magtymova was involved in multiple problematic contracts, including a transportation arrangement worth millions of dollars to a supplier with whom she had personal relationships.

Another staffer connected to Magtymova received $20,000 in cash to acquire pharmaceuticals, despite the lack of a request from the Syrian government, which is generally required to trigger such a purchase.

At least five employees reportedly complained that Magtymova spent WHO funding on gifts for the Ministry of Health and others, such as “very fine servers and computers,” gold coins, and costly cars. The Associated Press was unable to verify their claims. Several WHO employees claimed they were pressured to arrange deals with top members of the Syrian government for essential supplies such as petrol at inflated costs and that if they did not, they were demoted.

The allegations against WHO’s top representative in Syria follow a string of complaints against the UN health agency in recent years.

The Associated Press revealed in May that senior WHO management was aware of sexual assault during the 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak in Congo but did little to stop it; a panel later discovered that more than 80 staff under WHO’s supervision sexually exploited women.

In January, the Associated Press reported that Dr. Takeshi Kasai, the director of WHO’s Western Pacific office, used racial language to berate colleagues and unlawfully shared confidential coronavirus vaccine material with his home nation, Japan, after an early inquiry confirmed some of the charges, WHO suspended Kasai from his position indefinitely in August.

The fresh allegations against WHO’s Magtymova are “very alarming,” according to Javier Guzman, director of global health at the Center for Global Development in Washington.

“This is a systematic issue,” Guzman added. “These charges occur not only in one of WHO’s offices but across numerous regions.”

Although some see Tedros as the world’s moral conscience during COVID-19, having consistently criticized vaccine inequities and asked for governments to act in solidarity, he claims that charges of misbehaviour have badly harmed the agency’s credibility. Guzman demanded that any inquiry report regarding Magtymova and the Syria office be made public.

According to WHO, probe reports are “usually not public papers,” but “aggregated, anonymized data” are shared with the organization’s Executive Board and made public.

Source: The Associated Press, CTN News

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Ukraine War: Zelensky Says 31,000 Troops Killed Since Russia’s Full-Scale Invasion

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Volodymyr Zelensky claims 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers were killed during Russia’s full-scale invasion.

The Ukrainian president stated that he would not disclose the number of wounded because it would facilitate Russian military plans.

Typically, the Ukrainian government do not release casualty counts, and other estimates are significantly higher.

The defence minister said half of all Western aid to Ukraine had been delayed, costing lives and land.

Mr Zelensky said on Sunday that he would provide an updated death toll in reaction to Russia’s inflated estimates.

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Ukraine War: Zelensky Says 31,000 Troops Killed Since Russia’s Full-Scale Invasion

“31,000 Ukrainian soldiers have killed in this conflict. Not 300,000, 150,000, or whatever Putin and his dishonest circle claim. But each of these losses is a significant loss to us.”

Speaking about the war’s overall losses, Mr Zelensky stated that tens of thousands of civilians had been killed in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, but the exact figure was unknown.

“I don’t know how many of them died, how many were killed, how many were murdered, tortured, how many were deported.”

Ukraine rarely reports a military death toll, and other estimates suggest a far higher figure.

In August, US officials estimated that 70,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed, with up to 120,000 injured.

In terms of Russian losses, Mr Zelensky stated that 180,000 Russian soldiers were killed and tens of thousands more injured.

BBC Russian, in collaboration with the Mediazona website, has identified the names of more than 45,000 Russian servicemen who have perished. However, it thinks that the total number is larger than that.

In February, the UK military ministry claimed that 350,000 Russian soldiers had been killed or injured.
President Zelensky’s speech came after his defence minister, Rustam Umerov, chastised the country’s

Western partners for delays in military assistance.

“At the moment, commitment does not constitute delivery,” he added.

Ukraine is currently facing several setbacks in its efforts to expel Russia from its land.

Mr. Umerov stated that the lack of supplies put Ukraine at a greater disadvantage “in the mathematics of war”.

“We do everything possible and impossible but without timely supply it harms us,” he told reporters.
Germany warned in November that the European Union’s (EU) promise to provide a million artillery shells by March would not be met.

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Ukraine War: Zelensky Says 31,000 Troops Killed Since Russia’s Full-Scale Invasion

In January, the EU stated that little over half of these would reach Ukraine by the deadline, but the promised total would arrive at the end of 2024.

President Zelensky stated that a lack of armaments was one of the reasons Ukraine’s much-anticipated counter-offensive last year began later.

That counter-offensive was mostly unsuccessful, one of several failures for Kyiv following early victories in repelling Russia’s invasion in February 2022.

Last week, it was revealed that Ukrainian troops had withdrawn from the strategic eastern town of Avdiivka, Moscow’s largest victory in months.

Mr Zelensky further blamed the situation on dwindling Western military shipments.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration has claimed that the hold-up in Congress over a $60 billion aid plan for Ukraine led to the town’s fall.

Western leaders travelled to Kyiv on Saturday to demonstrate solidarity with Ukraine as it marked two years since Russia’s full-scale invasion.

There was an announcement that Italy and Canada had inked security agreements with Ukraine, increasing support until the country could join NATO.

Canada’s agreement comprised more than three billion Canadian dollars (£1.7 billion) in financial and military assistance.

zelensky

Ukraine War: Zelensky Says 31,000 Troops Killed Since Russia’s Full-Scale Invasion

It is not only Ukraine that is having difficulty funding its military activities. Western diplomats say Russia is also straining to send ammo and weaponry.

“Russia’s domestic ammunition production capabilities are currently insufficient for meeting the needs of the Ukraine conflict,” according to a Western diplomat.

They also stated that Moscow has only been able to augment its supply by exploring alternative sources of ammunition and weaponry, which provides a short-term answer.

Meanwhile, the director of Ukraine’s security service stated on Sunday that 47 Russian spy networks operating within Ukraine were discovered last year.

Vasyl Malik further stated that around 2,000 suspected “traitors” have been arrested since Russia’s full-scale invasion.

SOURCE – (BBC)

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Kenya Mourns As Marathon World Record-Holder Kelvin Kiptum Is Given A State Funeral

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NAIROBI, Kenya – Kelvin Kiptum, Kenya’s world marathon record holder, was accorded a state funeral Friday after being killed in a vehicle accident earlier this month, prompting many Kenyans to call on the government to do more to protect the country’s famed sportsmen.

Hundreds of dignitaries, including Kenyan President William Ruto and World Athletics Federation President Sebastian Coe, paid their final respects to Kiptum as he was interred in Naiberi, some 6 kilometres (4 miles) from his village of Chepkorio in western Kenya.

The 24-year-old runner and his Rwandan coach, Gervais Hakizimana, died in a collision two weeks ago near the town of Kaptagat in western Kenya, in the heart of a high-altitude region known as a training ground for Kenya’s and the world’s greatest distance runners.

kiptum

Kenya Mourns As Marathon World Record-Holder Kelvin Kiptum Is Given A State Funeral

Kiptum was one of the most promising road runners to emerge in recent years, breaking the world record in only his third competitive marathon outing. Just days before his death, the world track body World Athletics certified his record of 2 hours and 35 seconds achieved at the Chicago Marathon last October.

Kiptum intended to break the two-hour marathon record in Rotterdam in April and make his Olympic debut in Paris this year.

His death echoed throughout Kenya, where runners are the biggest sports heroes, and many people have become accustomed to tragedies involving their best athletes, with dozens dying in traffic accidents or as a result of domestic abuse.

According to officials, Kiptum was driving on the night of February 11 when the car went off the road into a ditch and collided with a huge tree. He and Hakizimana died instantly. Sharon Kosgei, another passenger, was also hurt in the incident.

Kiptum, an only child, leaves his wife, Asentah Cheruto, and their two children. A High Court on Thursday declined to postpone the funeral in response to a woman’s legal claim that Kiptum fathered her kid.

kiptum

Kenya Mourns As Marathon World Record-Holder Kelvin Kiptum Is Given A State Funeral

Kiptum ran the fastest as a marathon debutant in the 2022 Valencia Marathon. The next year, he won two of the world’s most prestigious marathons: London and Chicago. He set a new course record at the London Marathon in April; months later, he set the global record in Chicago.

He became the latest Kenyan celebrity to die in sad circumstances.

David Lelei, an All-Africa Games silver medalist, was killed in a car crash in 2010. Francis Kiplagat, a marathon runner, was among five individuals who died in a crash in 2018. Nicholas Bett, who won gold in the 400-meter hurdles at the 2015 World Championships, was also killed in a car accident in 2018.

Many Kenyans believe the government should do more to protect athletes who bring international attention to their country, such as providing them with security, drivers, and advisors.

Elizabeth Wairimu, a vegetable trader in the western Kenya town of Nakuru, said the number of athletes killed in road accidents was frightening.

“I am asking myself what is the problem with our athletes,” she said. “The government should look into this… figure out what is killing our athletes. Where are we headed?”

She expressed sadness that the government was rushing through the process instead of Kiptum, who had pledged to build a new house for his parents.

kiptum

Kenya Mourns As Marathon World Record-Holder Kelvin Kiptum Is Given A State Funeral

Others in the packed market agreed with Wairimu’s comments.

“The government should not wait until the legends are dead to start caring about their welfare,” said George Thuo, a market seller.

Jimmy Muindi, a six-time Honolulu Marathon winner from Kenya, believes young athletes who reach Kiptum’s level require assistance managing their newfound celebrity status. Former marathoner Isaac Macharia concurred, stating that a support system is required to develop stars.

Jack Tuwei, the president of Athletics Kenya, urged President Ruto and MPs to find a solution to secure the athletes’ well-being and “allow them to have everything they need to be safe.”

Ruto announced that an endowment fund would be established for athletes and that the government would provide Kiptum’s widow with another house and $34,000 in support.

SOURCE – (AP)

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Navalny: Body Returned To Mother, Spokeswoman Says

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The body of leading Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny has been returned to his mother, according to his spokesman.

In a post on X, Kira Yarmysh thanked everyone who asked that the authorities hand over his remains.
“The funeral is yet to take place,” she wrote.

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Navalny: Body Returned To Mother, Spokeswoman Says

Navalny’s mother, Lyudmila, was reportedly told to agree to a “secret” funeral. If she refused, he would be buried in the penal colony where he had died.

She had spent the previous week in the town near the prison where he died, attempting to ascertain the whereabouts of his remains before requesting that they be delivered to her.

After signing a death certificate stating that he died of natural causes, she was allowed three hours to settle on a “secret” burial for her son.

Ms Yarmysh claims his mother was warned that if she did not consent, he would be buried on the grounds of the prison where he had died.

However, Lyudmila appears to have declined to engage with the authorities.

Ms Yarmysh stated that the funeral plans were still unclear.

“We don’t know whether the authorities will interfere with it being carried out in the way the family wants and as Alexei deserves,” she said.

Earlier on Saturday, Yulia Navalnaya, Navalny’s widow, accused Vladimir Putin of holding her late husband’s body “hostage” and demanded its unconditional release.

navalny

Navalny: Body Returned To Mother, Spokeswoman Says

“Give us the body of my husband,” she pleaded in a video message.

“You tortured him living, and now you continue to punish him in death. “You mock the remains of the deceased.”

Ms Navalnaya again accused the Russian president of being responsible for her husband’s death.
The Kremlin has dismissed the charges, calling the Western outrage to the killing “hysterical”.

Navalny died on February 16 in a Russian prison located inside the Arctic Circle.
Details concerning what happened to him are scant. His team has offered security officers €20,000 ($22,000; £17,000) as a prize and aid in fleeing Russia in exchange for information concerning his death in custody.

navalny

Navalny: Body Returned To Mother, Spokeswoman Says

For years, he was the most prominent critic of Russia’s leader.

In August 2020, a team of would-be assassins from the Russian secret services poisoned Navalny with the Novichok nerve agent.

He was airlifted to Germany and recovered before being imprisoned upon his return to Russia in January 2021.

Attempts to commemorate his death have been greeted with a heavy-handed response from Russian authorities, with improvised monuments removed and hundreds jailed.

SOURCE – (BBC)

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