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Swiss Voters Narrowly Approve a Ban on Face Coverings


GENEVA — Switzerland on Sunday became the latest European country to ban the wearing of face coverings in public places, prohibiting the veils worn by Muslim women.

Official results of the nationwide referendum showed 51.2 percent of voters supported the ban on full facial coverings, which was proposed by the populist, anti-immigrant Swiss People’s Party (S.V.P.), compared with 48.8 percent opposing it, a much narrower margin of victory than pollsters had initially predicted.

The initiative, started long before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, makes exceptions for facial coverings worn at religious sites and for security or health purposes, but also bans coverings like the ski masks worn by protesters. Officials have two years to write legislation to put the ban into effect.

The federal government had urged voters to reject the ban as tackling a problem that didn’t exist and arguing that it would damage tourism.

Critics of the ban cited a study showing only some 30 women in Switzerland wear the veils and most of them were born in Switzerland and had converted to Islam. The only people seen wearing the burqa, a full head-to-toe covering, are visitors from the Middle East, mostly wealthy tourists from the Persian Gulf bringing welcome revenue to the country’s hospitality industry.

France, Denmark, the Netherlands and Austria ban face coverings, and opinion polls at the start of the year showed the Swiss initiative garnering the backing of around 65 percent of voters, but the gap narrowed quickly as liberals and women’s groups pushed back against a ban they condemned as racist, Islamophobic and sexist.

The Swiss People’s Party has “always profited from campaigning against minorities, and feel they have to keep doing it,” said Elena Michel, a manager of a campaign against the ban for Operation Libero, an activist group supporting liberal causes. “In the end all our freedoms are at stake. If we open that door, it shows a tendency that it’s OK to take away the fundamental rights of minorities.”

Switzerland’s Central Council of Muslims called the result of the vote “a dark day” for Muslims and issued a statement saying, “Today’s decision opens old wounds, further expands the principle of legal inequality, and sends a clear signal of exclusion to the Muslim minority.”

The proposal put forward by the Swiss People’s Party, the country’s largest, did not mention Islam or niqabs and burqas — veils traditionally worn by Muslim women — calling instead for a ban on “full facial covering.” But the party left no doubt as to whom it was targeting.

Menacing campaign posters depicting a black-garbed woman scowling from behind her veil carried the slogan “Stop Extremism!”

The initiative evoked memories of a successful 2009 campaign by the S.V.P. to ban the construction of minarets, the towers from which mosques traditionally broadcast the call to prayers. Switzerland had three minarets at the time but the party challenged such architecture as alien to the Alpine nation’s culture and landscape, and hammered home the message with posters depicting minarets as missiles.

The S.V.P. framed its campaign leading up to Sunday’s vote as part of a “war of civilizations” in which it was defending Switzerland against “the Islamization of Europe and our country.”

To win support from other parts of the political spectrum, the party also framed the initiative as liberating women from religious oppression and said it would help the police deal with hooligans in street protests and at sporting events.

Some liberal-leaning Muslims supported the ban.

“What the full veil represents is unacceptable; it is the cancellation of women from public space,” Saïda Keller-Messahli, president of the Forum for a Progressive Islam, told Swiss media.

Social commentators say Switzerland’s 400,000 Muslims, who make up around 5.5 percent of the population, are better integrated than those in France or Germany.

Some who campaigned against the ban called the outcome better than expected.

“We lost the battle but not the war,” said Ines el-Shikh, a Muslim and co-founder of the Violet Scarves, a feminist group, who celebrated the sharp drop in support for the ban. “This is huge. It shows the power that feminism as an organized movement can bring to public debate.”

Others said they feared the outcome would merely stoke the politics of division and fuel anti-Muslim sentiment.

“Things are going in a bad direction and this is going to make them worse,” Sanija Ameti, a political activist and member of the Green Liberals Party, said. “That frightens me.”



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Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe Is Freed in Iran but Faces New Court Date


LONDON — Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian woman who has been detained in Tehran since 2016, had her house arrest orders lifted as her sentence ended on Sunday, but her return to London remained uncertain as she faced new charges.

Over the past five years, Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case has deepened a diplomatic rift between Britain and Iran and drawn international condemnation. But exactly what will happen next is still unclear — a common state of affairs during much of her time in custody, a period filled with raised expectations and dashed hopes for her family and supporters.

Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe was convicted of plotting to overthrow the Iranian government, and had been detained in her parents’ home in Tehran since last year. On Sunday afternoon, her lawyer Hojjat Kermani told the Iranian state news outlet IRNA that Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been freed from house arrest but ordered to appear in court next week on additional charges.

Her ankle monitor was removed, but she is still without her passport.

“It is, in my view, clearly a game of chess. She’s the pawn,” her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, said in an interview last week. “And it’s not the beginning of that game.”

Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 43, has denied the charges. Rights groups, Western officials and the United Nations have said that her case is one of several instances in which Iran has arbitrarily detained foreigners on baseless charges, many of them dual citizens like Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

Rights groups have accused Iran of trying to normalize what they call hostage diplomacy with the West by arresting people on trumped-up charges and then using them as political bargaining chips. Iran has denied those accusations and argued that its dealings with Iranian citizens like Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe are a domestic matter.

The British foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, said on Sunday that, while he welcomed the removal of Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s ankle tag, her “continued confinement is unacceptable.”

“She must be released permanently so she can return to her family in the U.K.,” Mr. Raab said in a statement. “We will continue to do all we can to achieve this.”

Earlier interactions with the Iranian authorities had left Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s family preparing for the worst before the Sunday deadline, including that the day could pass without her release. Mr. Ratcliffe said that he worried she would “drift past a point that was the obvious decision point, that was making us hope we would get her home.”

The ordeal began in April 2016, when Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe was stopped at Tehran’s airport after visiting family in Iran with her daughter, Gabriella.

Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was working as a project manager for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was tried and eventually jailed in the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran, where she spent time in solitary confinement and struggled with her mental and physical health.

The British government granted her diplomatic protection in 2019 in an attempt to win her freedom, and her transfer to house arrest last March as the coronavirus pandemic swept Iran raised hopes that she would be granted clemency and permission to return to Britain.

But in September, Iran filed fresh charges against her and scheduled a new trial, though that was eventually halted. The request for her to appear in court in Tehran this month is related to those charges, in which she is accused of spreading propaganda against the Iranian government, her lawyer said.

Her husband had earlier expressed hope that she might be on a plane by Monday, but Sunday’s developments made that seem improbable.

“She’d been counting down to this date for 18 months,” Mr. Ratcliffe said. “There is something deeply unsettling about going through that threshold, because if this can happen, anything could.”

According to her husband, Iranian officials told Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe that her detention would end when Britain settled a four-decade-old debt of 400 million pounds, now worth about $550 million, related to a failed arms deal with the shah of Iran before his overthrow in 1979.

Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe was detained just before a battle over the debt was set to begin in a court in London. Iran has said that the debt was not a factor in her detainment.

Mr. Ratcliffe has been critical of what he describes as a wait-and-see approach by British officials over his wife’s status, but he said that he was more hopeful after meeting with Mr. Raab, the foreign secretary last week.

A spokesman for the British Foreign Office said in a statement that Mr. Raab and the department remained “in close contact with Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family, and continue to provide our support.” It criticized her detention “as diplomatic leverage.”

“We continue to do everything we can to secure the release of arbitrarily detained dual British nationals so that they can be reunited with their loved ones,” the statement read.

Kate Allen, the director of Amnesty International UK, called the developments on Sunday “bittersweet” and urged the British Foreign office to take action.

“After all Nazanin’s been through, this feels like yet another example of the calculated cruelty of the Iranian authorities,” Ms. Allen said in a statement, adding that the possibility of a new trial was designed to delay Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release and exert pressure.

“This won’t be over until Nazanin has her passport and is on a flight heading home to the U.K.,” Ms. Allen said.

For now, Ms. Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family are in a holding pattern.

“It’s perpetual ambiguity,” Mr. Ratcliffe said, citing the constant wondering about “maybe she’ll be home, maybe it’ll get worse, maybe it will stay the same.”



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Dalai Lama Receives Covid Vaccine


The Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, received his first shot of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine on Saturday in the northern Indian town of Dharamsala.

He used the moment to also encourage people to take the vaccine, saying it would prevent “some serious problem.”

“This injection is very, very helpful,” the 85-year-old, a leader of Tibetan Buddhism, said in a video message after the inoculation, indicating that he hoped his example would inspire more people to “have courage” to get themselves vaccinated for the “greater benefit.”

The Dalai Lama received the shot at a hospital in Dharamsala, which has served as the headquarters of the Tibetan government in exile for more than 50 years after a failed uprising against Chinese rule.

India has hosted Tibetan refugees since the Dalai Lama’s exodus in 1959, on the condition that they not protest against the Chinese government on Indian soil. China considers the Tibetan leader to be a dangerous separatist, a claim that he denies.

Videos showed the spiritual leader being driven to the hospital and his followers, who were masked, lining up on both sides of the road, with hands folded and heads down as he waved.

Dr. G.D. Gupta, an official at the hospital where the shot was administered, said that the spiritual leader “volunteered to come to the hospital” and that 10 others who live in his residence also received the Covishield vaccine, which was developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University and manufactured by the Serum Institute of India.

As of Saturday, India has more than 11.1 million confirmed cases and the fourth-highest virus death toll in the world, after the United States, Brazil and Mexico, at more than 157,000 deaths, according to a New York Times database. India began its nationwide vaccination campaign in mid-January with health care and frontline workers.

The country recently expanded eligibility to older adults and those with medical conditions that put them at risk, but the ambitious drive to vaccinate its vast population has been slow.



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