Week of April 20

A group of teen girls are developing two types of cheap ventilator devices using Toyota car spare parts to help the fight against the coronavirus pandemic in Herat, west of Kabul, Afghanistan. Credit: AP

Can Cannabis Fix the Lebanese Economy?

On Tuesday, the Lebanese parliament passed legislation to legalize cannabis cultivation for medical and industrial purposes. The move had been recommended by economic advisers even before the coronavirus pandemic dealt yet another blow to the country’s struggling economy. Although the plant has long been widely and openly grown and harvested in Lebanon, particularly in the country’s eastern Bekaa Valley, doing so was illegal. growing cannabis was strictly illegal. Recreational marijuana will remain a criminal offense.

The new law will allow for cultivation for export for medicinal and industrial purposes in the hopes that Lebanon could foster a new legal industry producing cannabis pharmaceutical items, including wellness products and CBD oil. Lebanon has $80 billion dollars of national debt and defaulted on its repayment for the first time last month. Some say the legislation should go beyond cultivation and argue that recreational use should also be decriminalized. Separate legislation, which would have provided amnesty to any recreational cannabis and drug offenders while also reducing the sentences of other prisoners, was sent back to a parliamentary committee for further review.

Iran Launches a “Military Satellite”; Trump Issues Twitter Warning

On Wednesday, Iran successfully launched into orbit what it called its first “military satellite” hours before President Trump declared he had instructed the Navy to sink any Iranian fast boats that “harass our ships at sea.” The order, if followed, could sharply escalate the confrontations between the two nations.  While Iran was vague about the military capabilities of the satellite, the launch was notable in part because it originated from a mobile launch vehicle that could also be used to launch missiles into space before the United  States has time to respond. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo immediately condemned the launch as a violation of a United Nations Security Council resolution and declared that Iran would be “held accountable,” without clarifying how.

When he was CIA director, Pompeo  fast-tracked a secret American program to sabotage Iranian launches, but after several failures, Wednesday’s launch was a notable success that state televison recognized by airing photos of officers from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, many in face masks, in a celebration in a control room. Members of Trump’s administration tried to downplay his Twitter threat to sink Iranian boats, with official claiming the comment was “more of a warning to the Iranians than a change to the current rules of engagement,” according to The New York Times.

Turkey Claims to Turn the Corona Corner

Whereas the previous week saw Turkey surpass Iran in regional COVID cases and fatalities, on Wednesday the country’s health minister claimed Turkey had the coronavirus outbreak “under control” but should not relax containment measures. President Erdogan said that restrictions could begin easing up by the end of May but Fahrettin Koca, the minister, advised against any such relaxation, especially during the upcoming holy Muslim month of Ramadan, which began on Friday (or Saturday, read more below), and typically involves fast-breaking dinners with family and friends: “Let’s delay crowded (dinners) … and Ramadan gatherings until next year.” The country is imposing weekend curfews and among other measures, has banned people above the age of 65 and below the age of 20 from leaving home. 

Saudi Arabia Ends Capital Punishment for Juvenile Offenders

On Saturday, Saudi Arabia’s state-backed Human Rights Commission (HRC) announced in a statement that a royal decree by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud that the kingdom would no longer impose the death penalty on individuals who committed crimes as minors. “The decree means that any individuals who received a death sentence for crimes committed while he or she is a minor can no longer face execution. Instead, the individual will receive a prison sentence of no longer than 10 years in a juvenile detention facility,” HRC President Awwad Alawwad said in the statement. It was not immediately clear when the decree would take effect.

The announcement came just two days after the kingdom discontinued the criminal punishment of flogging, in a decision by the General Commission for the Supreme Court. That punishment will be replaced by prison time or fines. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled in a 2005 decision called Rover v. Simmons that the execution of people who were under 18 at the time of their crimes violates the federal constitutional guarantee against cruel and unusual punishments. 

Ramadan during Lockdown

Ramadan the Islamic holy month of dawn-to-dusk fasting and self-relfection began last week amidst a global pandemic when the crescent moon was sighted in different countries. Saudi Arabia and some other Muslim-majority nations, including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, declared that the month would begin on Friday, while religious authorities in Oman and Iran reported later sightings and began Ramadan on Saturday. Regardless of the precise timing, the communal and cultural events associated with the celebration will be disrupted by the fight to contain COVID. Middle East Eye takes a closer look at how social distancing measures expected to last through Ramadan and into the subsequent Eid celebrations (May 23-24) are being applied – or loosened – in different countries across the region. 

Afghan Girls’ Robotic Team Takes on the Pandemic

Lastly, for a different feel-good perspective on the COVID crisis, take a glance at this story on the prolific Afghan girls’ robotic team building ventilators out of old car parts. Aghanistan has only 400 ventilators for a population of more than 36.6 million and the prize-winning team feels they have an obligation to use their skills to help their country. So far, Afganistan has reported just over 900 coronavirus cases, including 30 deaths, but the actual number is suspected to be much higher since test kits are in short supply.

At their workshop, the team is experimenting with two different designs, including an open-source blueprint from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The parts being used include the motor of a Toyota windshield wiper, batteries and sets of bag valve masks, or manual oxygen pumps. A group of mechanics helps them build the frame of a ventilator. Tech entrepreneur Roya Mahboob, who founded the team and raises funds to empower girls, said she hopes Farooqi’s group will finish building a prototype by May or June. The ventilator model, once completed, would then be sent to the Health Ministry for initial testing on animals. 

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