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US to slash H1-B visas for skilled workers by a third

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The new limits expand Trump’s temporary suspension of the H1-B programme, which typically grants visas to skilled workers like computer programmers, accountants and architects.

US President Donald Trump’s administration announced plans on Tuesday to sharply limit visas issued to skilled workers from overseas, a move officials said was a priority amid job losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Department of Homeland Security and Department of Labor officials said new rules on who can obtain the visas and how much they should be paid would be released soon to restrict the use of what is known as the H-1B programme.

Acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli said DHS estimates that about one-third of applicants would be denied under the new rules, which include limits on the number of speciality occupations open to H-1B holders.

In June, Trump issued an order temporarily suspending the H-1B programme until the end of the year.

These broader limits reflect his administration’s pledges to curb both legal and illegal immigration under Trump’s watch, an issue important to his Republican base, even though it figures less prominently in his 2020 campaign than it did in his 2016 run.

A new requirement that employers pay higher prevailing wages to foreign workers will take effect in the coming days, reflecting the need to help the job market recover from the coronavirus shutdown, said Deputy Secretary of Labor Patrick Pizzella.

“With millions of Americans looking for work, as the economy continues its recovery, immediate action is needed to guard against the risk lower-cost foreign labour can pose to the wellbeing of US workers,” Pizzella said.

The H-1B program was created under President George H W Bush to help companies fill specialised jobs as the tech sector began to boom and it was harder to find qualified workers. Many companies insist they still need the programme to fill critical positions.

Cuccinelli and Pizzella said the programme has been abused to allow companies to displace American workers with less expensive employees from overseas.

“US workers are being ousted from good-paying, middle-class jobs and replaced with non-US workers,” Pizzella said. “It has also caused US wages in some instances to stagnate. That is wrong.”

Among the new rules are significant limits on “offsite” firms that bring in large numbers of H-1B visa holders and then provide those workers under contract to other companies for a fee, a loophole that has been the subject of fraud and other abuse.

There would also be increased workplace inspections and additional oversight of the H-1B programme, Cuccinelli said.

The US can issue up to 85,000 H-1B visas per year for jobs such as computer programmers, accountants, architects and database administrators. They are typically issued for an initial period of three years and can be renewed. People from India and China make up the majority of the estimated 500,000 H-1B visa holders in the US.

Officials said the Department of Labor rules would take effect immediately after publication in the federal register later this week, while those that fall under the Department of Homeland Security would be adopted after a public comment period.

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Rwandan genocide suspect Kabuga to be sent to The Hague

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Felician Kabuga, 84, is likely spend several months in The Hague and be brought before an international judge.

A United Nations judge on Wednesday ordered that Rwandan genocide suspect Felicien Kabuga, who has been in a French jail since May, be sent to a detention unit in The Hague out of health considerations amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The decision means that Kabuga, 84, is likely to spend at least several months in The Hague and be brought before an international judge there for an initial appearance in his war crimes case, rather than in Arusha, Tanzania as originally planned.

“I hereby amend the arrest warrant and order of transfer,” Arusha-based judge Iain Bonomy said, ordering the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals “to modify Kabuga’s conditions of detention to allow for his detention there”.

“I consider that there are exceptional circumstances and that it would be in the interests of justice” to have Kabuga sent to The Hague, Bonomy said in a written decision from Arusha.

Kabuga, a Hutu businessman and once one of Rwanda’s wealthiest people, was indicted in 1997 on seven criminal counts including genocide.

UN prosecutors accuse the former tea and coffee tycoon of bankrolling and importing huge numbers of machetes for ethnic Hutu militias who killed hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda during a 100-day period in 1994.

Kabuga, who has yet to appear before the UN court, dismissed accusations against him as “lies” during French extradition hearings.

It had been uncertain where exactly Kabuga would be sent after France’s top civil court ruled on September 30 he could be turned over to the UN custody in Arusha, Tanzania.

Former UN tribunals for war crimes in Rwanda and Yugoslavia have been rolled over into a successor court that has dual offices in The Hague, Netherlands, and Arusha.

Bonomy’s order said the court has yet to receive Kabuga’s medical files, and that the relatively short distance between Paris and The Hague meant Kabuga’s transfer there would pose “far less risk”.

He said the date of Kabuga’s initial appearance is not certain due in part for a need for him to be quarantined for 10 days after arrival.

The Netherlands is one of Europe’s COVID-19 hotspots, while Tanzania’s president has said its coronavirus outbreak is over. However, the country has been criticised by the World Health Organization (WHO), accused of not sharing enough data.

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Burundi ex-leader rejects life sentence for murder

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Pierre Buyoya derides the court sentence handed down for the assassination of President Melchior Ndadaye in 1993.

Burundi’s former President Pierre Buyoya has rejected a life sentence he received in absentia this week over the 1993 assassination of his successor, dismissing the case as a “sham”.

“We reject these judgments, which are in no way binding on us,” Buyoya, who is currently the African Union’s representative in Mali, said on Wednesday in a statement.

Burundi’s top court sentenced Buyoya to life imprisonment on Tuesday for “an attack against the head of state” over his role in the death of President Melchior Ndadaye in 1993.

Buyoya, an ethnic Tutsi, first came to power in Burundi in a coup in 1987, but stepped down after losing an election to Ndadaye.

Ndadaye, an ethnic Hutu, then became the East African country’s first democratically elected president in 1993. But he was killed just four months into the job by hardline ethnic Tutsi soldiers.

His murder plunged the nation into years of civil war between the majority Hutus and minority Tutsis.

A section of the court ruling seen by AFP news agency does not give details on the evidence against Buyoya, or his alleged role in the killing.

In his statement, Buyoya dismissed the case against him and 18 other officials who received the same sentence.

“This case is a purely political trial,” he said, suggesting Burundi’s current government was exploiting it for electoral ends.

He added defence lawyers had been blocked from accessing case files and said the trial violated the 2000 Arusha peace accord that helped end Burundi’s civil war.

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Opposition complains of repression as Tanzania heads to the polls

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A week from now, Tanzanians will head to the polls to decide who will be the country’s next president.

Incumbent John Magufuli is widely expected to win re-election despite the recent return to Tanzania of main opposition challenger Tundu Lissu, who took exile in Belgium after suffering 16 bullet wounds when he was shot by unknown assailants in 2017.

In the run-up to the October 28 polls, opposition parties have complained of threats and repression, and rights groups have accused the government of curtailing free expression and press freedom. The government has previously rejected such accusations.

Last week, Amnesty International said in a new report Magufuli’s government has built up a formidable arsenal of laws to stifle all forms of dissent, effectively clamping down on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

“Tanzania has weaponised the law to the point that no one really knows when they are on the right or wrong side of it,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty’s director for East and Southern Africa. “Politicians have been arrested for holding or attending meetings, media houses suspended and banned, online activism criminalised and NGOs stifled with endless regulations.”

In August, Lissu’s party Chadema said its offices in the northern city of Arusha were firebombed and destroyed.

“No amount of terror and intimidation will stop this tsunami for change in Tanzania,” Lissu said shortly after the incident.

But analysts said the opposition’s chances of an electoral upset are slim.

“President Magufuli retains a strong core rural support base, among which his anti-corruption drive and pursuit of major infrastructure projects remains popular,” said Fergus Kell, projects assistant at Chatham House.

“He will also have significantly benefitted from considerably wider media coverage throughout the campaign period, whereas reporting on the opposition candidates has been minimal, particularly from state media outlets.”

Lissu, meanwhile, has questioned the independence of the electoral commission, whose ethics committee on October 2 barred him from campaigning for a week over alleged violations while campaigning. Dozens of opposition candidates, meanwhile, have been barred from running in the polls.

Earlier this month, Lissu told Al Jazeera that the opposition was “not going to accept stolen elections”.

“We will call millions of our people onto the streets who will take mass democratic and peaceful action to defend the integrity of the election, to defend their voice – if it comes to that,” said Lissu, who has also been endorsed by leaders of the ACT-Wazalendo party in what has been dubbed as a “loose” coalition between the two main opposition parties.

Chadema party’s Tundu Lissu is hoping to cause an upset by beating Magufuli, the ruling party candidate [AFP]

Tackling corruption

More than 29 million people are eligible to cast their ballots next week in some 80,000 voting centres spread across the country.

Magufuli is seeking a second and final term as the candidate of Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), a party that – along with its predecessor, TANU – has uninterruptedly governed Tanzania since independence in 1961.

A former minister of public works nicknamed “the bulldozer” for his no-nonsense approach and his ability to get things done, Magufuli has been crisscrossing the country pledging to continue the fight against corruption and wasteful spending of public money.

Since taking office five years ago, Magufuli has fired several senior officials over alleged corruption and mismanagement of government contracts.

“There are consequences for anyone involved in corruption now,” David Kafulila, a former MP and a CCM member, told Al Jazeera. “Many officials have been prosecuted and others have lost their jobs.”

In 2015, Tanzania was ranked 117 out of 198 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Last year, it stood at 96.

Magufuli, 60, also severely restricted foreign trips by public civil servants, a move that resonated with many Tanzanians. In a 2017 report, the country’s central bank said the government had saved at least $430m on foreign travel in one year.

Meanwhile, Magufuli himself has not attended the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York and has not made official trips to Western nations.

While pledging to continue his anti-corruption crusade, the president, from the campaign trail, has also been touting the government’s record of improving infrastructure, including expanding the country’s road and rail network.

Some 3,500km (2,175 miles) of tarmacked roads have been built since 2015, the president said, as he dissolved parliament in June.

A new 300km (185-mile) standard gauge railway line between the commercial capital Dar es Salaam and Morogoro in the country’s east is almost complete, Magufuli said. Another 422km (262-mile) line from Morogoro to the administrative capital, Dodoma, was a third complete, according to the president.

Lissu, during a campaign rally in September, said most of the projects were awarded to foreign firms who took the money out of the country.

And in a speech earlier this month in the northwestern Geita region, Lissu went further and said: “Flyovers, no matter how good, they do not have any impact on the 99 percent of Tanzanians living in mainland regions and have infrastructure challenges.”

Coronavirus-free?

In July, the World Bank moved Tanzania from low to a lower-middle income country. It said Tanzania’s gross national income (GNI) per capita increased from $1,020 in 2018 to $1,080 last year, exceeding the threshold of $1,036 for lower-middle income status.

The World Bank said the upgrade was due to the country’s strong economic performance over the past decade that saw it recording on average real gross domestic product (GDP) growth of more than six percent.

While economic growth is expected to slow down this year due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, analysts still expect the country to perform better than most others.

With its economy largely open, Tanzania stopped releasing figures about new COVID-19 infections and deaths in April. The same month, Magufuli ordered a herbal remedy from Madagascar, whose efficacy has not been proven scientifically, to treat the virus.

By June, Magufuli had declared the country of almost 60 million people coronavirus-free, saying prayers had helped eliminate COVID-19.

Tanzania’s response to the pandemic has been chided by the World Health Organization, while opposition figures have accused the government of covering up the true extent of the outbreak, allegations which government officials have denied. Lissu has described the government’s handling of the pandemic as a “national embarrassment”.

Kell, the analyst, said Magufuli’s government “emphasised that protecting the economy and minimising food insecurity were a higher priority than suppressing the virus”.

He added: “These are valid concerns, particularly when considering the prevalence of Tanzania’s informal economy.”

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