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Thousands flee amid fighting between Taliban and Afghan forces

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Official says 30,000 people forced to leave homes in Helmand province as clashes between Taliban and security forces continue.

Tens of thousands of people in southern Afghanistan have fled their homes following days of heavy fighting between the Taliban and security forces, officials said, as violence continues to soar despite ongoing peace talks.

Taliban fighters launched a series of attacks on the city of Lashkar Gah in Helmand province on Sunday night, prompting the United States to call in air strikes to defend the Afghan forces.

The fighting triggered an exodus of local residents who crammed onto motorcycles, taxis and buses.

“More than 5,100 families or 30,000 people … have fled the fighting so far,” Sayed Mohammad Ramin, director of the refugees department in Helmand, told AFP news agency.

“Some families are still living in the open in the streets in Lashkar Gah, we don’t have tents to give them.”

Afghans flee their villages after fighting intensified between Taliban and security forces in Helmand [EPA]

Local resident Hekmatullah said he was forced to flee after a mortar hit his neighbour’s house, killing two women.

“The fighting was so intense that I did not have time to take any extra clothes. I only took my family,” said Attaullah Afghan, a farmer who fled with his family of 12.

Fighting was continuing in at least four districts on Wednesday, Afghan officials said, adding that security forces have repelled repeated Taliban assaults in the area.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said thousands had fled and called on Taliban fighters and security forces “to take all feasible measures to protect civilians, including safe paths for those wishing to leave” the area.

Helicopters collide

Meanwhile, a collision between two helicopters early on Wednesday in Helmand’s Nawa district also killed at least nine people, according to Omar Zhwak, a spokesman for the provincial governor.

The two Soviet-era Mi-17 helicopters crashed due to technical problems while taking off in Nawa district, an Afghan defence ministry statement said.

The nine dead were all Afghan crew and soldiers who had been on board the aircraft.

Zhwak, the provincial governor’s spokesman, said the helicopters were carrying wounded soldiers when they collided late on Tuesday.

First major attack since peace talks began

Helmand – a Taliban stronghold – is where international forces fought some of the bloodiest campaigns of Afghanistan’s 19-year war.

Under a deal the Taliban signed with the US in February, the group is not supposed to hit urban areas and are meant to keep violence down.

The US committed to pulling all foreign troops from the country by next May as part of the deal in return for Taliban security pledges and an agreement to begin peace talks with the Afghan government in Qatar’s capital, Doha.

Last week, President Donald Trump said he would bring home the remaining US troops from Afghanistan by Christmas.

The Taliban assault on Helmand is their first big offensive since talks began last month between the Taliban and Afghan government in Doha but appear to be stalled as the two sides have struggled to establish a basic framework for negotiations.

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Democrats are cheering a Supreme Court ruling on mail-in ballots. Here’s why it’s worse than it looks.

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The Supreme Court handed down a brief, unsigned order on Monday, which effectively rejected radical arguments by the Republican Party of Pennsylvania that sought to make it harder to vote in that state. This order, in other words, is a victory for voting rights — but that victory may only last a matter of days.

Republican Party of Pennsylvania v. Boockvar involves a state Supreme Court order holding that many ballots received up to three days after Election Day must be counted. Monday’s order means that this state Supreme Court decision will stand, for now.

The Court’s decision not to grant relief to the GOP in Republican Party is not especially surprising. What is surprising is the vote breakdown in this case. The Court voted 4-4, with Chief Justice John Roberts crossing over to vote with the three liberal justices.

So in the almost certain event that Trump Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed to join the Supreme Court, there could be five votes on the Supreme Court who support the GOP’s effort to toss out many ballots in the state of Pennsylvania. Indeed, it is possible that Republicans will attempt to raise the same issue before the justices after Barrett is confirmed.

The dissenting justices did not explain why they dissented

The Supreme Court’s order in Republican Party is only two sentences long. The first sentence states that the GOP’s request to stay the state Supreme Court decision is denied. The second merely states that “Justice Thomas, Justice Alito, Justice Gorsuch, and Justice Kavanaugh would grant the application.” None of the four justices in dissent explained why they dissented.

In its brief asking the Supreme Court to block the state court’s decision, however, the GOP advanced two legally dubious theories.

The first is that a federal law providing that the election shall take place “on the Tuesday next after the first Monday in November.” Republicans argue that federal law requires “the 2020 general election to be consummated on Election Day (November 3, 2020).” So any ballots that may have been mailed after this date must be tossed.

One serious problem with this argument, however, is that the provisions of federal law setting an election date should not be enforceable in federal court. As I’ve previously explained, private parties are only allowed to bring a lawsuit seeking to enforce a federal statute if that statute contains particular language. And the federal law setting the date of the election does not contain such language.

The GOP’s other argument is potentially breathtaking in its implications. The Constitution provides that “each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct,” members of the Electoral College. In their brief, the GOP hones in on the word “Legislature,” arguing that only the Pennsylvania state legislature may set the state’s rules for choosing presidential electors — not the state Supreme Court.

But there’s a glaring problem with this argument. As the Supreme Court held in Marbury v. Madison (1803), “it is emphatically the province and duty of the Judicial Department to say what the law is.” In Republican Party, two parties had a disagreement about what Pennsylvania law says about how ballots should be counted. Ultimately, the state supreme court resolved that disagreement in a manner that the GOP disagrees with.

The GOP argues in its brief that the state Supreme Court’s decision relied on reasoning that is “tortured at best.” But so what? There was a disagreement between two parties. Someone had to resolve that dispute. And, in questions of state law, the state Supreme Court is supposed to be the final word on such disputes.

One of the most basic principles of American law is that the Supreme Court of the United States has the final word on questions of federal law, but state supreme courts have the final word on how to interpret the law of their own state.

Indeed, if state supreme courts cannot interpret their state’s own election law, it’s unclear how that law is supposed to function. There will inevitably be legal disagreements between candidates, parties, and election officials during an election. Perhaps the Democratic Party believes that a particular ballot should be counted, and the Republican Party disagrees.

But someone has to have the power to resolve such disagreements, and, in this country, disputes about the proper meaning of an existing law are resolved by the judiciary. If the judiciary cannot perform this function, we have no way of knowing what the law is — and we may have no way of knowing who won a disputed election.

In any event, because the four dissenting justices did not explain their reasoning, we do not know whether they voted with the GOP because they were moved by one or both of the GOP’s arguments — or maybe because they came up with their own reason to back their own political party in this case.

What we do know is that four plus one equals five. Thus, in the likely event that Judge Barrett becomes Justice Barrett, there will probably be a majority on the Supreme Court to hand a victory to the GOP in cases like this one.

Indeed, the GOP may be able to raise this issue again after Barrett is confirmed, potentially securing a Court order requiring states like Pennsylvania to toss out an unknown number of ballots that arrive after Election Day. If the election is close, that could be enough to change the result.


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Sudan sees economic hope as Trump signals terror list removal

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Khartoum, Sudan – After months of negotiations between the transitional Sudanese government and the US administration about a deal to remove Sudan from Washington’s list of state-sponsors of terrorism (SST), the disclosure of an imminent breakthrough was made, unsurprisingly, in the form of a tweet.

“GREAT news!” US President Donald Trump declared on Twitter on Monday. “New government of Sudan, which is making great progress, agreed to pay $335 MILLION to U.S. terror victims and families. Once deposited, I will lift Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. At long last, JUSTICE for the American people and BIG step for Sudan!”

The announcement was swiftly welcomed by Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, whose government has been pushing for the delisting to help it revive Sudan’s struggling economy ever since taking office last year following the military overthrow of longtime President Omar al-Bashir in the face of months-long protests.

“We very much look forward to your official notification to Congress rescinding the designation of Sudan as a state-sponsor of terrorism, which has cost Sudan too much,” Hamdok wrote, also on Twitter.

The US Congress would need to approve the removal after being formally notified by the president.

Economic lifeline

The US placed Sudan on the list in 1993, four years after al-Bashir seized power, accusing his government of supporting “terrorism” by sheltering al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Washington further accused Khartoum of providing logistical and financial support to al-Qaeda and of helping it bomb the US embassies in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya in 1998 and to attack the USS Cole off the port of Aden in 2000. It also placed comprehensive economic and trade sanctions on Sudan which were only eased by former US President Barack Obama during his final weeks in office in 2017.

In return for being delisted, Sudan’s transitional government has agreed to pay $335m to victims of the attacks on the embassies and the US destroyer.

The SST removal would pave the way for Sudan to be relieved of its debts under the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank’s Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative, as well as to attract much-needed investment.

Being on the list has kept foreign investors away from Sudan, depriving it of much needed hard currency to sustain an economy that was dealt a heavy blow when South Sudan became independent in 2011, taking with it three-quarters of Sudan’s oil output.

With no foreign trade and starved of hard currency, authorities have long struggled to contain the country’s spiralling inflation. Last month, annual inflation rose to 212.29 percent from 166.83 percent in August, according to the country’s Central Bureau of Statistics.

Meanwhile, the Sudanese pound has lost more than 50 percent of its value against the US dollar in the past two months, and the cash-strapped government is struggling to pay for the supplies of items it subsidises such as wheat, fuel and medicines.

The impact of the lack of hard currency can be seen daily in the long queues for bread and fuel filling the sidewalks of Khartoum.

“I’ve been standing in line for fuel for more than five hours now and this is something I go through every four days because I’m a taxi driver,” said Abdel-malik Mamoun, a resident of the capital.

“After every four days, I spend a whole day waiting for fuel. The situation is going from bad to worse, like a downward spiral and we don’t know where the end is.”

In recent weeks, the talks between the Sudanese and US officials sides appeared deadlocked after reports emerged that the US had tried to link the delisting with Sudan establishing diplomatic ties with Israel, following similar US-brokered deals in August by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

During a visit by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Khartoum in late August, Hamdok told Washington’s top diplomat that his transitional administration, which is meant to lead the country to polls in 2022, was not mandated to make such a move because it was not an elected government.

While Trump’s tweet made no mention of the US attempts to get Sudan to establish relations with Israel in exchange for expediting the delisting process, senior Sudanese officials speaking to Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity said the issue was not off the table and that there are still efforts under way to make Sudan join the list of countries officially recognising Israel.

In September, talks between the two sides in the UAE failed to produce a deal, with reports suggesting that Sudan had asked for oil and wheat shipments, as well as billions of dollars to aid its deteriorating economy in return for such a move.

US congressional aides who spoke to Al Jazeera said Sudan could still get the aid and support from the US even if it does not recognise Israel because Washington wants to see the transitional government successfully lead the country to democracy.

“This Tweet,” Hamdok said in a later Twitter post, “and that notification [to Congress] are the strongest support to Sudan’s transition to democracy and to the Sudanese people”.

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Ghislaine Maxwell loses bid to keep her Epstein testimony secret

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Judge ruled there was a public interest to see Maxwell’s deposition on relationship with paedophile Epstein.

A US appeals court on Monday dealt Ghislaine Maxwell a blow by refusing to block the release of a deposition she gave concerning her relationship with the late financier and registered sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

The 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan said there was a presumption the public had a right to see the April 2016 deposition, which was taken in a now-settled civil defamation lawsuit by Virginia Giuffre, one of Epstein’s accusers.

In its unsigned order, the appeals court also said US District Judge Loretta Preska in Manhattan did not abuse her discretion in rejecting Maxwell’s “meritless arguments” that her interests superseded that presumption.

Lawyers for Maxwell did not immediately respond to requests for comment, including whether they plan a further appeal.

The British socialite had argued that she thought the 418-page deposition was confidential, and that releasing it could undermine her ability to defend against criminal charges that she enabled Epstein’s sexual abuses.

A protester holds up a sign of Jeffrey Epstein in front of the federal courthouse in New York in 2019 [Stephanie Keith/Getty Images]

Her lawyers have said bad publicity from disclosing “intimate, sensitive, and personal” details from the deposition would violate Maxwell’s right against self-incrimination, and imperil a fair trial because jurors might hold it against her.

The appeals court separately rejected Maxwell’s request to modify a protective order in her criminal case, and let her use confidential materials produced by the government to try to persuade Preska not to unseal the deposition.

Maxwell, 58, has pleaded not guilty to helping Epstein recruit and groom underage girls as young as 14 to engage in illegal sexual acts in the mid-1990s, and not guilty to perjury for having denied involvement in the deposition.

Giuffre said she was a teenager when Maxwell pulled her into Epstein’s circle, where she was groomed and trafficked for sex with Epstein and other wealthy, powerful men.

The push to have the deposition unsealed came from Giuffre and the Miami Herald newspaper, which had done investigative work about Epstein’s conduct, his accusers and his efforts in 2007 to avoid federal sex trafficking charges.

Lawyers for Giuffre and the newspaper were not immediately available for comment.

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