Hotel quarantine report blasts government failures, but political fallout is likely to be minimal


James Ross/AAP

Mirko Bagaric, Swinburne University of Technology

The final report of the COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Inquiry, issued by former judge Jennifer Coate, outlines monumental errors made by the Victorian government and its public servants.

Despite this, the governmental failings that led to a second wave of the pandemic, resulting in 800 deaths, are likely to be politically irrelevant.

The clever strategy by Premier Daniel Andrews to defer analysis of these missteps until the virus had been suppressed makes the findings largely academic and historical.

Victoria Premier Dan Andrews told the inquiry that Health Minister Jenny Mikakos was responsible for the program.
James Ross/AAP

Program based on ‘assumptions’, not clear decision-making

The report also contains no real surprises — it’s just a confirmation of the muddled and incomprehensible decision-making approach we already knew about.

Victoria’s hotel quarantine program was established over the weekend of March 28–29. At this point, it was known COVID-19 was highly contagious and presented the gravest public health risk to Australians in a century.

Instead of using professional and trained staff to manage the risk, the Victorian government used contract security staff, many of whom were largely oblivious to appropriate protocols for dealing with the 21,821 returned travellers who went through the program, according to the report.

Just 236 people tested positive for COVID in quarantine, but despite this low number, containment breaches caused the virus to spread to the wider community in May and June.




Read more:
Hotel quarantine interim report recommends changes but accountability questions remain


Much of the focus of the inquiry was on who was responsible for appointing untrained workers to deal with the most serious public health threat confronting Victorians in living memory.

The most compelling theme of the final report is the ruthless incompetence of the Andrews government and its agencies to put in place coherent systems and protocols to deal with such an enormous risk.

Perhaps most significantly, the report says decisions relating to the program were made at the wrong level — absent scrutiny by ministers or senior public servants. Instead, decisions were made by people

without any clear understanding of the role of security in the broader hotel quarantine program [who] had no expertise in security issues or infection prevention and control. They had no access to advice from those who had been party to the decision to use security and had limited visibility over the services being performed.

Competent institutions deal with complex problems by following several key principles. Within governments, the scope of each person’s responsibility is carefully defined and there should be meticulous attention to detail when it comes to implementing crucial decisions such as this.

The Victorian government failed abysmally on both of these measures.

The report said ‘no actual consideration’ was given to using ADF personnel instead of security guards at the start of the program.
James Ross/AAP

It beggars belief, for example, for highly-paid public servants to tell the inquiry that decisions in the hotel quarantine program were actually not made, but instead were creeping “assumptions”.

Even more disturbing is that it might actually be true, in which case the Victorian government system is fundamentally broken. Certainly, there is nothing in the report to contradict this position. The report noted the decision to appoint private security guards was

made without proper analysis or even a clear articulation that it was being made at all. On its face, this was at odds with any normal application of the principles of the Westminster system of responsible government.

That a decision of such significance for a government program, which ultimately involved the expenditure of tens of millions of dollars and the employment of thousands of people, had neither a responsible minister nor a transparent rationale for why that course was adopted, plainly does not seem to accord with those principles.

Why was the program allowed to continue?

If such errors or negligence happened in other government programs, the problem might be fixed by throwing more taxpayer money at it.

COVID was different. It was not a rail overpass or cultural event. It was a public health issue, which could only be managed through intelligent design and thorough implementation.

Of course, Victoria is now COVID-free, and the Andrews government will point to this as evidence of the success of its response.

The realty is different. Effectively barricading millions of residents at home for three months was a sure-fire way to suppress the virus. But the fact Victoria alone was the only jurisdiction in Australia that had to resort to this extreme measure is the reference point against which the actions of the Victorian government should be evaluated.




Read more:
Victoria’s hotel quarantine overhaul is a step in the right direction, but issues remain


A telling aspect of the report is what it failed to address. The inquiry (and the media) had a near-obsessive focus on who was responsible for appointing private security guards in the first place.

What hasn’t received as much scrutiny is the more pressing issue of why the government continued with this arrangement despite clear questions from the onset as to whether it was a viable approach.

It also continued using security guards for a month after ministers were first made aware of a guard testing positive at the Rydges Hotel in Carlton.

This decision to continue with a failed system is arguably far more ethically and legally problematic than how the program was set up in the first place, especially since this was an unprecedented health threat.

The Victorian government’s failure to speedily unwind the security guard quarantine program is the legal equivalent of not repairing a crater-sized hole on a busy road for many weeks: utterly reprehensible.

Rydges Hotel, one of the sources of Melbourne’s coronavirus outbreaks.
James Ross/AAP

A shrewd move to minimise political fallout

Perhaps that most important message to emerge from the inquiry is that Andrews is the shrewdest politician in Australia.

In the midst of one of longest and harshest lockdowns on the planet, his decision to launch the inquiry allowed him to deflect any questions regarding his responsibility for the second wave.

The timing of the report — well after the second wave has passed — has also lessened any political damage his government is likely to experience from the failures of the program.




Read more:
Melbourne’s hotel quarantine bungle is disappointing but not surprising. It was overseen by a flawed security industry


The disappointment and anger that many Victorians were experiencing at the height of the lockdown is now a distant memory as people are focusing on their Christmas plans in a COVID-free environment.

Against this context, the criticisms in the report are unlikely to get much traction. Rather, they will likely just become background noise as attention focuses on the new outbreak in NSW — and who is to blame for this latest quarantine failure.The Conversation

Mirko Bagaric, Professor of Law, Swinburne University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Victoria’s hotel quarantine overhaul is a step in the right direction, but issues remain


Peta-Anne Zimmerman, Griffith University; Matt Mason, University of the Sunshine Coast, and Vanessa Sparke, James Cook University

On Monday the Victorian government announced an overhaul of the state’s hotel quarantine program. The government has introduced a new oversight agency, COVID-19 Quarantine Victoria, and crafted a “reset” of rules and regulations in the hotel quarantine process.

This robust suite of interventions, based on nationwide experience, aims to prevent transmission of COVID-19 to the Victorian community primarily from returning international travellers who have a high risk of infection.

From an infection prevention and control standpoint, the new system definitely has some improvements. But there are still issues yet to be resolved, and some unknowns that haven’t been made clear to the public.

No more private security

One of the most obvious changes, and possibly the most controversial, is Victoria Police taking the lead on security and management. They will be assisted by the Australian Defence Force (ADF), in a bid to avoid a repeat of the previous program’s high-profile breaches.

Corrections Commissioner Emma Cassar will lead the new agency, and will report to police minister Lisa Neville, who will have overall responsibility for the new system.

But we are concerned this could be perceived to be an armed security detail, with a custodial approach rather than a public health focus. Experience has shown this can be detrimental. Gaining community trust, rather than appearing to take a punitive approach, is vital. Recent events in Adelaide highlight the crucial importance of people being able to cooperate with contact tracers without fear of the ramifications.

Infection control must be handled by experts

The government has repeatedly said the new system will have stronger infection prevention and control protocols, with rigorous training and evaluation. Failure to comply with infection prevention and control resulted in numerous incidences of transmission in hotel quarantine in the past.

Reinforcing these procedures can only be a good thing, as long as the expertise is sourced from recognised experts, and supported by advice from other specialities such as public health and occupational hygiene.




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Staff ‘bubbles’ and daily testing

The new system will also feature “staff bubbles”. Having a group of staff who consistently work together on the same shifts, with no crossover with staff on other shifts, aims to minimise the number of people an infected person can be in contact with.

This approach has been used in a range of industries, and has been recommended by occupational hygiene experts throughout the COVID-19 response.

The addition of the current active simulation exercises, which stress-test Victoria’s strategy, can only be a positive.

Daily COVID testing of staff and weekly testing of their household contacts is another big change. Daily testing of staff has some merit, although the suggested changes and restrictions being placed on their household contacts such as increased testing and limitations on where they can work is concerning.

There are significant privacy concerns with the new “contact tracing in advance” system, which will identify staff and all their significant contacts, such as members of their households and other frequent contacts, in advance. These contacts will have to provide information on their places of work, schooling and so on. In the event a staff member contracts COVID, part of the legwork is already done.

But while undoubtedly useful for contact tracing, privacy breaches from government IT systems are not uncommon.

Also troubling is the suggestion that recruitment may exclude those with contacts who work in other high-risk industries, such as aged care. This measure could potentially put existing staff out of work. COVID-19 Quarantine Victoria suggests that other places to live may be found if workers live with an at-risk contact, which has human rights implications and doesn’t take into account family or carer responsibilities.

The hotel quarantine overhaul will also see staff exclusively employed or contracted by COVID-19 Quarantine Victoria, with cleaners and others only working at one site. This will mean more secure work for some, which is a positive, and may reduce the risk of transmission between workplaces. Indeed, insecure and casual employment has been a common theme in the spread of COVID-19.

But we don’t yet know exactly how this will work. For example, it’s not clear whether this also applies to the police, who may have casual jobs on the side.




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Regional quarantine not necessarily better

Some experts have raised the possibility of having quarantine facilities in regional areas, to reduce the risk of breaches in dense urban areas.

The Northern Territory’s quarantine program for returned travellers at Howard Springs has shown that this approach can work, but there are potential issues.

Such a facility needs a sustainable workforce who aren’t travelling between locations. There is little point in moving quarantine outside of cities only to have the workforce commute from cities or elsewhere, with the associated transmission risks this brings.

Also, extensive health care would need to be provided for returned travellers. Returnees could have many chronic and acute health-care needs that may strain local health services. A proliferation of sites like Howard Springs would test the capabilities of AUSMAT (multi-disciplinary medical assistance teams deployed during crises) and the state and territory health services that support them, particularly as we head into the storm and bushfire season.

As with anything during COVID-19, only time will tell how successful this new strategy will be. The Victorian government is certainly showing a capacity for reflection, and a determination to do better. But there is only so much preparation we can do when facing the greatest variable and challenge in any outbreak response: human nature.




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AUSMAT teams start work in aged care homes today. But what does this ‘SAS of the medical world’ actually do?


The Conversation


Peta-Anne Zimmerman, Senior Lecturer/Program Advisor Griffith Graduate Infection Prevention and Control Program, Griffith University; Matt Mason, Lecturer and Program Co-ordinator: Nursing, University of the Sunshine Coast, and Vanessa Sparke, Lecturer in Nursing and Midwifery, and Course Coordinator of the Graduate Certificate of Infection Control, James Cook University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Hotel quarantine interim report recommends changes but accountability questions remain



James Ross/AAP

Kristen Rundle, University of Melbourne

The division of the findings of the Victorian COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Inquiry into two – the interim report published today, with a final report due December 21 – is aimed at making a timely contribution to the redesign of the quarantine systems that will remain key to Australia’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic for some time to come.

With a view to the expected influx of returnees at Christmas, the national cabinet is due to discuss necessary changes later this month. Justice Jennifer Coate’s clear recommendations for how to devise and operate a quarantine system will surely be pivotal to its deliberations.

Key recommendations

Coate’s primary message is that quarantine – in whatever form it might take – is a public health operation. So any future quarantine system needs to be designed in a manner that ensures the centrality of this public health imperative.

We must wait until the final report to find out what Coate has to say on the larger governance and accountability questions surrounding “the decision” to contract out the front line of Victoria’s hotel quarantine operation to private security provision. However, her interim report already tells us a lot – if indirectly.

The report states it “is clear from the evidence to date” that the majority of those involved in the hotel quarantine program who contracted the virus were:

private security personnel engaged by way of contracting arrangements that carried with them a range of complexities.

It is therefore unsurprising that the issue of the appropriateness of contracting-out is the elephant in the room across a number of its key recommendations.

In particular, the recommendations record that the expertise of those involved in future quarantine operations will be crucial. Moreover, every effort should be made to ensure people working at quarantine facilities are “salaried employees” who are “not working in other forms of employment”.

Rydges on Swanston was one of the quarantine hotels where coronavirus outbreaks occurred.
James Ross/AAP

It takes little effort to surmise that contracted-out service delivery is unlikely to meet any of these demands.

As I have explained elsewhere, to contract out a statutory function in whole or in part requires that it be translated into a “service” that private sector providers are capable of delivering.

In the Victorian case, this meant the front line of the hotel quarantine operation was performed pursuant to an “observe and report” security services contract. It was carried out by an entirely casualised workforce with little infection-control training and no lawful powers of enforcement. Many or most of them worked in other jobs at the same time.




Read more:
Melbourne’s hotel quarantine bungle is disappointing but not surprising. It was overseen by a flawed security industry


Coate also recommended that, alongside the “embedded” presence of expert infection-control personnel, a 24/7 police presence be established at every facility-based quarantine operation. This clearly points to the failure of contracting-out from an enforcement perspective as well.

So, by implication or otherwise, the interim report confirms that too little thought was given to whether the contracted service could meet the dual public health and detention demands of the function at issue.

Coate’s conclusions on how a facility-based quarantine program should work make the multiple dimensions of this mismatch plain.

Where to from here?

The final report of the inquiry may well prove to be the most sustained critique of contracting-out, from the perspective of public expectations of government action, that Australia has yet seen. This would be a welcome shift from what has prevailed so far, with much more effort dedicated to refining and expanding the practice than to challenging it.

As for where the interim report fits with the “whodunnit” exercise that has dominated so much of the interest in the inquiry’s work so far, Coate makes clear we must wait until the final report to find out more. Whether Victoria ended up with private security at the front line of its hotel quarantine program as a result of a “decision” by one or more individuals, or (as counsel assisting Rachel Ellyard described it) a “creeping assumption that became a reality”, is something that ultimately might never be clear.

Either way, the question of accountability will remain. Providing a clear answer to it stands to be every bit as complicated as it has been so far.

The inquiry, which found the bungled scheme cost the state $195 million, has shown the relationship between contracting-out and political accountability is incoherent. Substantial reform in both directions is needed to make it otherwise. Coate’s final report will hopefully guide that much-needed conversation.

But, again, we can already take a lot from the interim report about where – minimally – we need to be. Any future Victorian quarantine program must be operated “by one cabinet-approved department”, in accordance with a “clear line of command vesting ultimate responsibility in the approved department and Minister”.

That department must in turn be “the sole agency responsible for any necessary contracts”. Among other things, its responsible minister must also ensure senior members of its governance structure “maintain records […] of all decisions reached”.

Such is the vision for the future. But it also highlights why it is so important not to lose sight of the “why” questions when the issue of accountability for what actually happened in Victoria’s disastrous hotel quarantine program is again upon us.

If the front line of the hotel quarantine system was simply too important a responsibility to be outsourced, it is time to get to the bottom of why this was the case, and why it might also be the case for other high-stakes government functions that carry serious consequences for public health or safety.

Providing sensible answers to those questions needs to be the goal. But what matters above all else is that we actually start asking them.




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This piece was co-published with the University of Melbourne’s Pursuit.The Conversation

Kristen Rundle, Professor of Law, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Another day, another hotel quarantine fail. So what can Australia learn from other countries?



Shutterstock

Maximilian de Courten, Victoria University; Bo Klepac Pogrmilovic, Victoria University; Deborah Zion, Victoria University, and Jaimie-Lee Maple, Victoria University

This week, we heard how conditions at a Sydney quarantine hotel were so bad almost 400 returned travellers had to be moved to another one.

Before that, we heard from Victoria’s inquiry into hotel quarantine. We learned the bulk of cases during the state’s second wave could be tracked down to a family of four returned travellers staying at a single quarantine hotel.

But Australia isn’t the only country to have quarantine issues. Some countries don’t use hotel quarantine at all. And others have turned to technology to keep track of returned travellers.

So what can we learn from other countries’ successes and failures?

A short trip around the world

Cyprus

The Mediterranean island of Cyprus also uses hotel quarantine for international arrivals. But rather than “hotel quarantine hell”, hotels in Cyprus are said to have a “holiday vibe”, despite not being able to leave your room.

Travellers praised Cyprus for its luxury and positive hotel quarantine experience. Some have even said they would return for a (real) holiday.

Hotel quarantine, Cyprus style.

Cyprus recorded a peak in daily cases of only 58, in early April, and now has an average of new cases a day in the teens.

Canada

Returned travellers must give Canadian authorities a plan for how they intend to spend their mandatory 14-day quarantine. This doesn’t have to be in a hotel; it can be at home. You have to monitor your own symptoms, and police will check up on you.

However, violations can result in large fines of up to C$750,000 (A$788,000) or six months in jail.

Taiwan

Taiwan introduced 14-day hotel quarantine for returned travellers who didn’t have a single room with a separate bathroom or who lived with vulnerable people.

Since late June, business travellers from low-risk countries can visit Taiwan and spend only five days in quarantine. But they need to take a COVID-19 test before leaving quarantine.

Taiwan has 18 active COVID-19 cases.

Singapore

After flattening the curve, Singapore decided to relax its 14-day hotel quarantine to seven days self-quarantine for travellers arriving from specific countries.

But all travellers over the age of 12 not staying in a quarantine facility have to wear an electronic tracking wristband. Authorities are alerted if people go outside or tamper with the device.

Hong Kong and South Korea have also introduced wristbands to track people’s movements upon arrival and to check people comply with quarantine regulations.

Poland

Travellers arriving in Poland have to install a home quarantine phone app developed by the Polish government.

For 14 days, the app uses facial recognition and geolocation algorithms to monitor people. It also prompts people to take selfies at random times during the day.

Individuals have 20 minutes to respond to these prompts, otherwise they risk police knocking on their door.

UK

A major “quarantine failure” was the UK’s experience at the start of the pandemic, when 10,000 travellers spread the virus across the country.

Members of parliament accused the responsible ministers of making errors, such as having no border checks, no specific quarantine arrangements, and lifting self-isolation regulations.

This eventually led to the UK dealing with a total of 328,846 cases and 41,465 COVID-19-related deaths.

The UK has since tightened its quarantine arrangements.

These ideas are worth adopting in Australia…

More than 70,000 returned travellers have been quarantined in Australian hotels since it became mandatory in late March. We don’t know exactly how many of these people have gone on to test positive. But about one in five of Australia’s cases were acquired overseas.




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As the headlines show, we can clearly do better in how we manage our quarantine system.

Adopting a “Cyprus-style” model of luxury hotel quarantine is simply beyond reach in Australia given the sheer number of people requiring quarantine facilities. However, improving the quality of facilities, ensuring a safe environment, and supervising staff is vital. This includes training both staff and travellers on infection control measures.

People in quarantine also need access to health care as well as to financial, social and psychosocial support, to ensure their safety and mental health.

…but we need to be careful about electronic tags

We would be particularly concerned about the human rights implications of returned travellers having to wear electronic monitoring devices.

Although we might be familiar with electronic monitoring devices in the criminal justice system, when used in the context of infection they could stigmatise people for simply being at higher risk of disease.




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They go against the presumption that all persons will be law-abiding and perform their civic duty, with no evidence to the contrary.

There are also potential privacy concerns. There is no guarantee data collected through electronic monitoring — especially when using smartphone apps — will not be used for purposes other than monitoring pandemics.

No system is perfect

Even if we implement a world best quarantine system for returned travellers, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, can still slip in.

That’s because people can still be infectious before feeling sick, before being diagnosed, or before being directed to quarantine. This becomes more likely the more people are kept under quarantine.The Conversation

Maximilian de Courten, Health Policy Lead and Professor in Global Public Health at the Mitchell Institute, Victoria University; Bo Klepac Pogrmilovic, Research Fellow in Health Policy at the Mitchell Institute for Education and Health Policy, Victoria University; Deborah Zion, Associate Professor and Chair, Victoria University Human Research Ethics Committee, Victoria University, and Jaimie-Lee Maple, Research Assistant and Policy Analyst, Mitchell Institute, Victoria University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How an Australian-born pastor survived a Molotov cocktail


Wayne Zschech, the Australian-born pastor of Calvary Chapel Kaharlyk, just south of Kiev in Ukraine with a population 15,000, says he will never forget the events that took place in the early hours of Wednesday, October 14th, when attackers smashed a window at the church building, where he and his family live, and threw a Molotov cocktail (petrol bomb) into the building, reports Dan Wooding, founder of ASSIST Ministries.

In an interview he gave me during my recent visit to Kiev, he re-lived the horrifying turn of events that could have caused the deaths of himself and his family as they slept.

“It all started when my wife Olya woke up in the morning to feed the newborn baby and she said she could smell smoke,” said Wayne. “We actually live in the church building and that night, there were six of us (including his mother-in-law) who were sleeping. We had actually sent the kids to school at eight o’clock in the morning and my wife said again that she could ‘really smell smoke.’ So we looked out the back window and there was smoke billowing out of the back of the church.

“Suddenly, it was all hands on deck. I called the fire brigade and then started finding where the fire was coming from. We originally thought that it was an electrical short because it’s an old building. I began opening up all the doors – because I didn’t want the fire brigade knocking them down – and looking in the basement trying to find where the fire was coming from.

“I kept going down into the basement and when I came up for air on the third or fourth occasion, I just happened to walk around the side of the building and suddenly the whole situation became clear. Someone had thrown a Molotov cocktail through the side of the building into our children’s ministry room and had also left spray painted markings on the side of the building saying, ‘Get out of here, you sectarians.’ So suddenly it put a big a whole new spin on the situation.”

I asked Wayne if he had ever experienced trouble before and he replied, “Not directly. We’ve had a couple of youths smashing windows and so we had to put security screens on our apartment, but nothing like this. There was no warning.”

Sitting next to Pastor Zschech was his assistant pastor, American-born Micah Claycamp, who is married with four children, who then described what he saw when he arrived at the church that morning.

“I had come to the church to do a language lesson and, as I walked in, I saw a big hose running from the back of the church into the room that had been firebombed and I could smell smoke,” he said. “They had just finished cleaning everything up and I went around to the side of the building and saw what had been spray painted and started talking to Wayne who had got the situation figured out and he told me what exactly had happened.

“This was the first big thing we’ve seen in our town. It is pretty quiet for the most part. I don’t feel threatened living there but this obviously is a situation that is a lot different and when you walk into something like this it makes you appreciate the things that you see God do, the unseen things. It makes you realize how much God protects our lives in ways you don’t see every day. So it just makes you more appreciative of His protection.”

I then asked Wayne how an Australian from Brisbane whose family hailed from the Prussian part of Germany finished up in a small town in Ukraine.

“Well, to be perfectly honest, I think God played a trick on me,” he smiled. “I graduated from school and wanted to get into the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and when I applied for the Australian Defence Force Academy I got the chickenpox and so they didn’t let me in that year, even though my academic achievements were fine.

“So I quickly did a deal with God and said, ‘I’ll give you a year of my life’ and the next thing I knew three months later I was in Ukraine and started a Bible-based English schooling programs in communist government schools where kids were learning about Jesus. I was just seventeen years old at the time and began travelling all over the country and I’ve been here ever since. That is some sixteen and a half years now.”

Had he seen big changes in the country?

“Yes, many changes,” he said. “We’ve had currency changes and also seen mindset changes. We see economic things going on and we’ve learned a lot of things. But along the way, I found a beautiful Ukrainian girl and we have a wonderful marriage and we have three Ukrainian kids.”

Wayne then spoke about how he got involved in this Calvary Chapel.

“Well, I got tricked also into becoming the pastor of this church in what was then a village,” he said. “The founding pastor who moved with me from Kiev to Kaharlyk went back home to Australia to do his deputation work and a couple months later, he wrote me an email saying that he was ‘not returning to be the pastor of the church.’ He added, ‘So congratulations. You’re the pastor.’ So not only did I become a missionary by hook or by crook but also became a pastor and I’m thrilled.

“I never wanted to be those things but God has turned things around totally and I’m absolutely content and happy and it’s a very exciting life to see what God is doing despite the fact that humans would have had other choices.”

I then asked Wayne what Kaharlyk was like when he first arrived.

“We are about 80 kilometers (nearly 50 miles) south of Kiev and it was a town that had been in economic ruin as most of the country had been after the collapse of the Soviet Union,” he said. “Unemployment was rife. There were no jobs, no income and there was lots of mental and cultural baggage as the country was trying to reacclimatize to the real world situation.

“Now some 12 years later, we’re basically on the outskirts of Kiev although obviously the town hasn’t moved geographically. But it’s a thriving little town. It hasn’t grown numerically that much but you can definitely see there are changes. There are people moving out of Kiev to come and live in our town. That was never in our plan and we’re also seeing bits of investment coming in and things like that show what was once basically dead is now starting to show signs of life.”

I then asked him to describe the types of people who attended his church.

“We’re a young church and we’re different from the mainstream Orthodox and older style Baptist churches,” Wayne explained. “But the truth is that we are reaching out to orphans, to the elderly and we have a beautiful mix of all those generations in between. When you see a grandmother coming with her son and her grandson to church, you see the wholesomeness that the Gospel brings when God enters a family’s life.

“Back in the early days everyone was warned about people like us saying that these are the people ‘you’ve been warned about for all those years’ and that ‘they’ve come here to hypnotize you and take all your money.’ But that was more then based out of ignorance.

“We had an Orthodox priest back then and we had some very serious chats with him and he said, ‘Look publicly, I have to hold the government line or the Orthodox line, but personally I see that you’re a brother in Christ. So that was good. I wouldn’t call that major persecution, but I can understand the fear from their side.”

He then spoke about a unique business he has begun in the town.

“We decided that we had to become producers so people can put bread on the table and we have to show how God is in everything,” said Wayne. “So we have started a little mushroom-growing enterprise and now we’re making biodiesel. We actually collect oil from a number of restaurants, including McDonald’s Ukraine, and we make biodiesel and sell it and save money for the church and make money for the church and employ people and reinvest into the local town.”

Micah then said that he runs his car on biodiesel which he says smells like “fried chicken.”

“I can run it and I haven’t had any problems at all,” he said. “It’s also cheaper and I’ve put advertisements on the van to let people know the phone numbers so that people know what’s going on.”

It was Micah that picked me up at the Kiev (Borispol) Airport and drove me to my hotel and I have to confess that I didn’t catch a whiff of fried chicken from the exhaust of the van, though I did have a bad cold at the time.

I concluded by returning to the topic of the firebombing and asked Wayne if he had further thoughts about it.

“As soon as we discovered that it was intentional, you can just imagine the situation in your mind with totally charged different emotions,” he said. “We were targeted from the side of the building so that everyone in the town walking past it could see the damage and the spray painting.

“It was basically a political statement in that respect. The fact that the family was asleep in the building when it happened my mother in-law was staying at the time and she said that she heard some banging around at five o’clock in the morning and we looked at the fire damage and we see that it was a real a miracle. There was a fire but the damage was minimal. It should have been so much worse. What turned out to be a couple thousand dollars worth of damage when we could have lost the whole room.

“If they, for some, reason had chosen another window to throw it in, just the next window, the floor boards are totally bear there we don’t have thick linoleum on them, so the fire would have spread immediately. There’s a big air gap right under those boards and it runs right to our family’s bedrooms.”

I concluded by asking Wayne what his prayer needs were at this time.

“That Christ would be glorified to the maximum through this and the next circumstances and that He would save people and that the Christian body locally and throughout the world would pray harder to understanding the privileges that we have in our situations and that God can change them any time that He wants.”

Micah then added his prayer request: “That our church would grow together in this as they would see that God allows these things to happen to strengthen the body, to cause our eyes to be back upon Him and that for His glory to be done and bring more people to Christ.”

By the way if the name Zschech rings a bell with you, he is related to Darlene Zschech, who is perhaps most famous for the chorus "Shout to the Lord," a song that is sung by an estimated 25 to 30 million churchgoers every week, who has married in the Zschech family. “I was a Zschech first,” laughed Wayne.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

MEXICO: CHRISTIANS JAILED FOR ACTEAL MASSACRE WIN RELEASE


Supreme Court rules their rights were violated; violence threatened in Chiapas.

MEXICO CITY, Aug. 13 (Compass Direct News) – At least 20 men accused of participating in a massacre in Chiapas state in December 1997 left prison early this morning – amid concerns over threats of violence at their home communities near San Cristobal de las Casas – following a Supreme Court ruling yesterday that their convictions violated fundamental norms of justice.

The release of the 20 men, most of them evangelical Christians, came after Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled in a 4-1 decision that they had been convicted in unfair trials in which prosecutors fabricated testimony and illegally obtained evidence. Area evangelicals view the imprisoned Christians as caught between survivors clamoring for convictions and government police and military forces eager to shift blame away from their minions following the Dec. 22, 1997 killing of 45 civilians in Acteal village.

“Acteal is a double tragedy,” attorney Javier Cruz Angulo reportedly said after the ruling. “On the one hand you have an abominable massacre, and on the other more than 50 human beings imprisoned without proofs.”

The court will review the cases of another 31 men convicted in connection with the massacre, and six more will be given new trials, according to news reports.

The identities of those released were not immediately known. As 32 of those imprisoned for the crime were Christians and another 15 received Christ while in prison, most of the previous total of 57 prisoners are Christians.

“In prison, the majority of us converted to the Presbyterian faith,” Tomas Perez Mendez, 60, told El Universal before the Supreme Court decision; at press time it was not known if he was among those released.

He told the Mexican newspaper that he bears no resentment even though his imprisonment led to illnesses that contributed to the deaths of family members. “My wife is ill, my father and one brother died from sorrow at seeing us here in prison . . . I no longer feel anger or resentment against those who accused me, and I plan to preach.”

Authorities had told a total of 57 prisoners that they would be freed after their paperwork was reviewed, a source in Chiapas told Compass.

“Naturally, those prisoners who had been informed of their impending release last week are extremely disappointed, as well wondering if they will ever be released,” said the source, who requested anonymity.

Two brothers, Pablo and Juan Hernandez Perez, reportedly said that they have no home to return to; their house was burned to the ground while they were in prison. Another hoping for release, Javier Vazquez Luna, told El Universal he played no part in the crime, and that indeed his father was one of the victims of the massacre.

The Supreme Court justices stated that they were not ruling on the guilt or innocence of the men, only on the violation of due process.

“During the investigation, their constitutional rights were violated,” the court said in a statement. “The majority of cases … were based on the use of illegally obtained evidence.”

In recent months relatives of the imprisoned men ratcheted up citizen campaigns seeking their freedom, backed by many others. For several years Presbyterian churches have carried banners outside their buildings requesting justice for those wrongly convicted in the Acteal violence. The Chiapas government had said it could do nothing because the case was under federal jurisdiction.

Pressure to reopen the case has intensified each December with remembrances of the massacre. In spite of intense political pressure to the contrary, the Supreme Court finally agreed to review the facts.

Threats of Violence

Amid statements by survivors of the Acteal crime that tensions could heighten in the area – and a grim warning from a former leader of Las Abejas, a supposedly non-violent group sympathetic to rebel militants whose members were killed in the massacre – defense attorneys and family members of the released men appealed to authorities to provide security and guarantee social peace.

“A former leader of the Abejas made a public declaration that if the men returned to their homes, the Abejas would be waiting for them, and the released prisoners would be repaid for the pain they caused 12 years ago,” the Chiapas source told Compass. “Tensions exist, and with statements like he made, the government is nervous about letting the men return to their homes due to possible violence. At this point, there are still no violent actions, but the threat of an outbreak is real.”

At press time authorities had prevented the released men from returning to the Acteal area, keeping them in a hotel in Berriozabal after loading them onto a truck through a back door of the El Amate prison at 3:35 a.m., El Universal reported.

Initially the prison director refused to see the men’s lawyers when they arrived at El Amate prison in Chiapas near midnight with orders for their release, the Compass source said.

“When he finally relented and met with the lawyers, it was only under extreme pressure from the Mexico City lawyers who refused to be dissuaded,” the source said. “There was an extended time of wrangling before the warden eventually released the prisoners, only under threat of returning to the Supreme Court and the Human Rights Commission about his intransigence.”

The released men had been promised there would be a government-paid bus waiting to take them to San Cristobal de las Casas, he said, but instead they were taken to the hotel in Berriozabal.

“The men were to meet with government officials today in Tuxtla, and we are still awaiting word on their arrival in San Cristobal after some five hours of waiting,” the source said. “It appears there are delaying tactics, hindrances and lack of cooperation in the entire release process.”

Some of the released men were able to meet with family members, and most expressed desire to return to the Acteal area, but the prison director said that authorities had determined that it was not safe for them to go back to their communities, according to El Universal. Authorities have reportedly proposed the possibility of providing them land parcels to avoid their returning to the area of the original conflict.

The evangelical Christians convicted were serving 25- or 36-year sentences and had exhausted all appeals. Some of them say they were arrested because rebel sympathizers with whom they had been embroiled in years of land disputes named them. Others said they were simply nearby when authorities made random round-ups.

Of the 34 men originally convicted, one died in prison and another had been released as a minor.

The family of one prisoner, Agustin Gomez Perez, tried to visit him in 2005. He told El Universal that they had an accident on the way, killing one small child and putting his wife in the hospital for 20 days – leaving their other five children without parents during that period.

Controversy over who killed the 45 people has revolved around whether there was a “massacre” by numerous “paramilitary” villagers or a “confrontation” between a handful of neighboring peasants and Zapatista National Liberation Army rebels. Historian Héctor Aguilar Camín has argued that there was both a confrontation and a massacre, with some overlap between each, but that they were largely separate incidents.

Five confessed killers have testified that they and four others engaged only Zapatista militia to avenge the death of a relative, while the federal attorney general’s office charged that at least 50 pro-government “paramilitaries” descended on a relief camp hermitage full of displaced peasants bent on killing and robbing them. The testimonies of the five confessed killers – four others remain at large – agree that the nine avengers were the only ones involved in the firefights, and that the decision to attack the Zapatistas was a private family decision made with no involvement from government authorities.

They also agree that the sole motive was to avenge the assassination of a relative – the latest of 18 unprosecuted murders by Zapatistas over the previous three months, according to Aguilar Camín.

Government prosecutors unduly dismissed much of the testimony of the five confessed avengers, Aguilar Camín wrote in a 2007 article for Nexos, noting that the killers testified that state security forces were nearby and did nothing. He highlights the judicial irregularities of the round-up and conviction of the peasants – apprehensions without evidence or warrant, charging 83 people with homicide when only 45 people were killed and lack of translators and attorneys for the suspects, Tzotzil Mayans who did not know Spanish.

The Supreme Court pointed out those violations in its ruling. Arturo Farela Gutierrez, head of the National Association of Evangelical Christian Churches, praised the court decision.

“We are in the presence of a court different from that of 12 years ago,” he said, according to El Universal. “The court is strengthened without fear of anything or anyone, and it’s the court that democratic Mexico needs.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

MICHAEL JACKSON DEAD AT 50


Controversial musician and dancer Michael Jackson is dead. Jackson has reportedly died of a heart attack at his Los Angeles rented apartment. His Neverland Ranch was located in California, in the United States.

Jackson will be remembered by his fans as one of the greatest musicians (if not the greatest) ever. He will also be remembered as ‘Wacko Jacko’ by others because of his eccentric and strange behaviour over many years, culminating in hanging his young baby over a hotel balcony and allegations of being a pedophile – an accusation not helped by his out-of-court financial settlements.

 

As to whether he was guilty of the pedophilia charges levelled at him I cannot say, but suspicion remains and if he wasn’t, he certainly behaved in a less than prudent manner with children. He is likely to be remembered more for this than his music. It is a sad legacy.

See also:

www.michaeljackson.com

TURKEY: LOCAL OFFICIALS’ ROLE EMERGES IN MALATYA MURDERS


Former police commander, university researcher, suspected ringleader’s father testify.

MALATYA, Turkey, April 15 (Compass Direct News) – Two years after the murder of three Christians in this city in southeastern Turkey, lawyers at a hearing here on Monday (April 13) uncovered important information on the role that local security forces played in the slaughter.

At the 16th hearing of the murder case at the Malatya Third Criminal Court, plaintiff attorneys called a heavy slate of witnesses, including Mehmet Ulger, the gendarmerie commander of Malatya province during the April 2007 murders who was arrested on March 12 for his alleged connection to a political conspiracy, and Ruhi Abat, a theology instructor at the local Ismet Inonu University.

Two Turkish Christians, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and a German Christian, Tilmann Geske, were tied up and stabbed to death at Zirve Publishing Co. offices on April 18, 2007. Plaintiff attorneys have moved the focus of the trial away from the five suspects – Salih Gurler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker, Abuzer Yildirim, and alleged ringleader Emre Gunaydin – to local officials believed to be liaisons or masterminds of the murders.

The retired gendarmerie commander and the theology researcher have suspected links to the crime. In January an anonymous letter sent to Turkish churches and obtained by the media claimed that then-commander Ulger instigated the murders and directed Abat to prepare arguments against missionary activity.

According to phone records, Abat made 1,415 telephone calls to gendarmerie intelligence forces in the six-month period prior to the 2007 murders. During his cross examination, he told the courtroom that the frequent contact resulted from gendarmerie requesting information on his research of local missionary activity.

Abat was part of a team of six researchers that focused on the social effects of missionary activity within the Malatya region.

“The information I gave the police and gendarmerie was aimed at answering the criticisms that missionaries had about Islam,” he said.

When plaintiff attorneys asked Ulger if this level of communication was typical, the former gendarmerie commander said that they communicated on other issues such as translating Arabic documents and further teaching engagements. But lawyers said this level of communication was unusual.

“He called the gendarmerie the equivalent of 10 times a day, seven days a week, which suggests something abnormal going on,” said plaintiff attorney Orhan Kemal Cengiz. “You wouldn’t talk that much to your mother.”

In a heated exchange at the end of the hearing, Ozkan Yucel, plaintiff attorney representing the families of the victims, pressed Ulger to answer whether he considered Christian missionary activity in Turkey to be a crime.

Avoiding a direct answer, Ulger said no such crime existed in Turkey’s penal system, but that gendarmerie classified such activity as “extreme right-wing.”

“The gendarmerie considers this to be the same [level of extremism] as radical Islamic activity,” he said.

 

Suspected Ringleader’s Family Testifies

Onur Dulkadir, a cousin and former classmate of Gunaydin, the suspected ringleader, testified on his interactions with Gunaydin and Malatya’s local Christian community prior to the murders.

Dulkadir claimed that a few months before the crime, he and Gunaydin attended a Christian meeting at a Malatya hotel where approximately 50 people were in attendance. He said they left when someone handed him a brochure about “missionary activity.”

Dulkadir told the court that after they left, Gunaydin said, “I am watching how they structure themselves,” and, “Very soon I am going to be rich.” In past hearings, Gunaydin claimed the Turkish state had promised him support if he would carry out the attacks successfully.

Gunaydin’s father, Mustafa Gunaydin, testified at the hearing that he didn’t believe his son had led the group of five to commit the grisly murder of the three Christians, two of them converts from Islam.

“I went once a week to the jail to see my son, and every time I spoke with my son I tried to bring out the identity of those behind the murders,” said Mustafa Gunaydin. “He swore to me there was nobody behind it . . . I still believe my son couldn’t have done anything. My child is afraid of blood.”

Mustafa Gunaydin works as a technician at Ismet Inonu University. Plaintiff attorneys asked him if he was acquainted with professor Fatih Hilmioglu, recently jailed in a mass arrest of professors associated with a national conspiracy known as Ergenekon. He replied that he knew Hilmioglu, but that he also knew about 70 percent of the university personnel and did not have a close friendship with the arrested professor.

The prosecuting attorneys have frequently contended that Ergenekon, a loose collection of ultra-nationalist generals, businessmen, mafia and journalists who planned to engineer domestic chaos and overthrow the Turkish government, instigated Emre Gunaydin to commit the murders.

Ulger was arrested as part of the Turkish state’s investigations into Ergenekon.

 

Cryptic Comments

Among Emre Gunaydin’s most prominent suspect links to Ergenekon is his jailed former co-worker Varol Bulent Aral, who was arrested in February for being a possible liaison between the five youths on trial for the murders and the true masterminds.

Hamit Ozpolat, owner of a newspaper and radio station in Adiyaman, testified at the hearing that Aral made cryptic comments in regard to his connections with the criminal organization. When Aral approached Ozpolat for a job at one of his news outlets, he declined his application, which he said resulted in Aral shouting threats against him. When police came, Ozpolat testified, Aral shouted, “You can’t do anything to me, I am a member of the deep state.”

Plaintiff attorneys have suspected a connection between the Malatya murder case and Ergenekon for several months, attempting to merge the two cases since last August.

But in a strange turn, the National Intelligence Agency (MIT) has issued a report claiming that Ergenekon and Christian missionary agencies were working together to destroy the Turkish nation. This claim would seem to contradict older Ergenekon documents that make reference to church members in Izmir, Mersin and Trabzon, three Turkish cities where Christians were attacked or killed in the following years.

Malatya plaintiff attorneys told Compass the theory of Christians wanting to destroy Turkey exists in the national consciousness but has no basis in reality.

“One of the core activities of Ergenekon is to struggle against missionary activity,” plaintiff attorney Cengiz said. “They are very hostile against missionary activities, as they see them as an extension of the external enemies in Turkey.”

On Monday (April 13), police raided the home of professor Turkan Saylan, 74-year old president of the Association for Support of Progressive Life (CYDD) and a cancer patient. The seven-hour raid took place on the basis of a MIT report stating her organization had received funds from the American Board, the oldest organization in Turkey with missionary status. The American Board is known in Turkey for building schools and hospitals and funding development projects.

Police reportedly raided her home and office in an attempt to find information linking CYDD finances to the American Board and proselytizing activities. Saylan’s organization has opened three court cases against MIT for past accusations of missionary activities.

In an online report published by Haber50 today, Saylan said that her premises were raided as retaliation for the cases opened against MIT, which for years has been trying to destroy her organization’s reputation in the press.

In addition, the report says Yasar Yaser, president of the Health and Education Association (SEV), used her organization’s printing press in order to produce Bibles.

“The terrible truth is some media, including some Muslim newspapers, were very eager to cover this story,” plaintiff attorney Cengiz said. He emphasized that suspicions of Christian groups in Turkey having such a subversive agenda were baseless.

This Saturday (April 18) will mark the second anniversary of the stabbing deaths of the three Christians. Churches across Turkey will commemorate the event through special services, and the Turkish Protestant Alliance has designated the day as an international day of prayer.

The next hearing of the case is scheduled to take place on May 22.

Report from Compass News Direct

CCTV FOOTAGE OF THE MARRIOT HOTEL IN ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN


CCTV footage of the moments just prior to the terrorist attack on the Marriot Hotel in Islamabad has been released. The footage shows the truck used in the attack slamming into the gates of the compound and the terrorist blowing himself up, just seconds before the massive bomb blast that has now destroyed the hotel, killed many people and injured hundreds of others.

The bombing of the Marriot has all the hallmarks of a classic Al Qaeda attack and shows just how unsafe it currently is in Pakistan.