A putrid, nicotine-shaded mist loomed over Beijing on Thursday after a massive sandstorm slammed into the Chinese capital bringing the latest "airpocalypse" to this smog-choked city. Dozens of flights were reportedly cancelled at Beijing’s airport, the world’s second busiest, and authorities urged residents to stay indoors after levels of PM10, a tiny inhalable particle linked to a variety of lung complaints, soared to above 2,000 micrograms per cubic metre. "This is insane," Li Shuo, Greenpeace’s Beijing-based climate campaigner, tweeted after the sandstorm swept across northern China in the early hours of Thursday. "Sand storm + industrial pollution = airpocalypse in the middle of spring," Li added. China’s official news agency, Xinhua, said at least nine Chinese regions - from Xinjiang and Gansu in the west to Hebei and Heilongjiang further east - would be affected by the air pollution between Thursday and Friday. Visibility in Beijing had plummeted to about 1km in the capital and was expected to deteriorate further. Before and after shots of Beijing published by Chinese state media captured the severity of the city’s latest air pollution crisis, which local authorities blamed largely on sand that winds had blown in from Mongolia and the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia. The Chinese magazine Caixin warned readers that high concentrations of particulates such as PM10 and PM2.5 had been linked to lung cancer and strokes. Li, the Greenpeace activist, said the sandstorm was reminiscent of those witnessed about two decades ago before a large-scale reforestation campaign in northern China helped reduce the number of sandstorms reaching the capital. "We have had a lucky few years recently. Sandstorms have traditionally been a problem for Beijing and for the northern part of China around this season in March, April or May. But we have made some progress in terms of combating sandstorms over the past few years," Li said. "The peak point was in the late 1990s, early 2000s. Then, we could have not just one but several such episodes in the spring and they would be as severe or even worse than what we have seen today." Li said Beijing’s latest "airpocalypse" would make it harder for China to meet its air quality targets and should serve as an alert that progress in the fight against air pollution appeared to be losing steam. After a period of advances, recent months had seen "quite a significant slowdown" in the rate of air quality improvement as a result of the ramping up of industrial activity around Beijing, Li claimed. Last December tens of thousands of "smog refugees" were forced to flee China’s pollution-stricken north after a dangerous cocktail of pollutants enveloped swaths of north and central China. Li said he hoped Beijing’s latest air pollution crisis would also remind the public that while industrial smog remained a pressing issue, desertification, which some view as one of China’s most urgent environmental challenges, was also still a problem as a result of deforestation, urbanisation and industrial development.
Writers and stars of Veep have responded incredulously to the news an Australian politician required stitches after knocking himself unconscious while laughing at the new season. Graham Perrett, a federal Labor MP in Queensland, was eating sushi while watching the US political satire on Sunday night when "some of the rice went down the wrong way", causing him to fall and knock himself unconscious. As reported in the Australian’s Strewth column on Thursday, he incurred a black eye and required three stitches as a result of his unfortunate "intersection of comedy, dinner and a kitchen bench". Veep star Julia Louis-Dreyfus responded to BuzzFeed journalist Mark Di Stefano’s tweet about the report: "I mean, c’mon, I’m actually having a hard time believing it. But the real question is – what episode?" Perrett later told BuzzFeed News the scene that induced the laughter that led to choking was one in the first episode of the new season in which Congressman Jonah Ryan is caught shaving his head to fake having cancer. "I was laughing so hard … some of the rice went down the wrong way," Perrett told BuzzFeed News. "I started choking and I kind of stumbled forward and knocked my head on the corner of the kitchen cabinet." His wife found him unconscious on the ground, "with blood everywhere". "I must have been out for only a few seconds because, when I came to again, I was still laughing at Jonah." Timothy Simons, the actor who plays Jonah, responded on Twitter: "hahahahahahaha oh my god. oh my god." He promised: "We’ll tone it down a bit next year for this guy’s sake, or maybe send him some edited eps." David Mandel, the executive producer of Veep, told Guardian Australia he was "very glad someone thinks the episode was as funny as we do". "I can think of a few officials in the USA that I may send the episode to," he added. "With any luck, their wives won’t be home." Last year, the show’s writers and stars responded with similar astonishment at news the Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, was campaigning with the slogan "Continuity and change": almost word-for-word that used by Louis-Dreyfus’ presidential candidate, Selina Myer, in season four. Armando Iannucci, the creator of Veep and The Thick of It, had discussed the mirroring of satire and real life in Sydney on Tuesday night. Guardian Australia has contacted him for comment on Perrett’s injury via a representative. Asked whether the state of modern politics made his job harder or easier, Mandel said, oddly it was harder. "When the world is boring, the comedy bar is lower, [but] politicians keep doing stupid/crazy and funny things. We have to compete."
Just before European Union leaders agreed their guidelines for the Brexit negotiations last week, the president of the EU council, Donald Tusk, said: "It is clear that progress on people, money and Ireland must come first." It was rather startling to find Irish concerns up there on the list of fundamental priorities, with the rights of EU citizens in Britain and with the settling up of the final bill. And when the guidelines were agreed, it was clear that this was more than rhetoric. EU governments have essentially committed themselves to allowing Northern Ireland to rejoin the EU if Ireland is united. This is a very big deal. It suggests at one level that Brexit really does mean Brexit – in the very literal sense that the entity that is exiting is Great Britain and not the United Kingdom. There has been a habit of using Britain and the UK as synonymous terms, but of course they are not. The very name of the state – the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – acknowledges a distinction. Now, suddenly, the difference is stark. The EU has just done what the Brexiteers steadfastly refused to do – acknowledge that Northern Ireland is not just another British region. The 27 remaining member states have signed up to treat Northern Ireland as a place of its own. Britain’s departure from the EU is (in principle) to be final; Northern Ireland’s is now contingent. Britain is getting a divorce; Northern Ireland is being offered a trial separation. For Britain, there is a one-way ticket; for Northern Ireland, there is an automatic right of return. The implicit offer is two unions for the price of one: unite Ireland and you reunite with Europe. We should not downplay the significance of this. Even with the glaring exception of German unity, the EU is not inclined to mess with existing national borders. Spain, in particular, can’t be comfortable with conceding that regions within existing states might be able to forge their own future relationships with the EU. But in a diplomatic coup for the Irish government, these hesitations have been overcome. The EU has just done something it has never done before: it has offered an incentive to part of an existing European state to join another state. The language may be quiet but the message is pretty loud. People in Northern Ireland have just been told that if Brexit is a disaster for them (which it may well be), they can vote to rejoin. They will be let back in without conditions or negotiations. Nobody else in the UK has this offer of satisfaction with Brexit or your EU passport back. Perhaps for the first time in its troubled history, being from Northern Ireland is a distinct advantage. We have to be careful about this, however. What’s just happened is that Brexit has pushed the question of a united Ireland further and faster than the vast majority of Irish people, nationalist as well as unionist, really want to go. Ireland and Europe have been forced into a kind of time travel – we have to delve into a future for which no one is prepared. Everyone – even Sinn Féin – knows that it is foolish to talk about a united Ireland without talking about a united Northern Ireland first. Forcing a million unionists into a new Irish state without their consent is in nobody’s interest. And it can’t be assumed that even a bad Brexit will suddenly make unionists change their minds about wanting to stay in the UK: political and religious identity often trump economic self-interest.
A candidate who entered the Iranian election race to help his boss, President Hassan Rouhani, is emerging as a favourite of reformists for his bold and outspoken campaign, even though he is ultimately expected to step aside. Eshaq Jahangiri, the first vice-president, made clear when he registered as a candidate for the top job that he was "supplementing" and not challenging the incumbent – indicating his campaign was a tactical move aimed at defending Rouhani’s achievements. The presidential election on 19 May is the first since the 2015 nuclear deal with the west, when Tehran rolled back its nuclear programme in exchange for the removal of sanctions. None of the candidates have spoken of scrapping that accord but two conservatives – Tehran’s mayor, Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, and the hardliner Ebrahim Raisi – have questioned whether Rouhani has achieved tangible economic benefits. Jahangiri’s strong appearance in the first of three televised debates boosted the reformists but Ghalibaf said it was a "strange phenomenon" that he was running alongside Rouhani. Referring to the marginalisation of reformists after the 2009 disputed presidential vote, which gave hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term in office, Jahangiri responded: "There’s a movement called the reformist movement and you’ve deprived them of all rights and now you are saying that they shouldn’t even have a candidate? "I’ve put myself up as a representative of the reformist movement to speak out … They confined everyone to their houses. They [Ahmadinejad’s government] earned $700bn, they took it, they spent it and they left nothing, just unemployment." Jahangiri has tried to portray Ghalibaf as a continuation of Ahmadinejad, condemning his "military" mindset. On Tuesday night during a nationally televised address, an opportunity given to all candidates, he said: "People have not forgotten those days, people have to be careful and not forget the history. People should be vigilant. The history should not repeat itself in this way." Hossein Rassam, a political analyst, said: "Something particular about Jahangiri is that even if he is outperforming Rouhani, still at the end of the day it’s all attributed to Rouhani. It all goes to Rouhani. At the end of the day, he’s not challenging Rouhani, he’s come to Rouhani’s support." Jahangiri’s role is particularly important because of his influence among reformists. He is a close ally of the former president Mohammad Khatami, who endorsed Rouhani on Tuesday. Khatami still has a huge influence despite falling foul of the establishment over the 2009 disputed elections. In 2013 his backing and that of Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani were crucial in Rouhani’s victory. Last year, reformist-backed candidates supported by Khatami enjoyed a clean sweep of all 30 seats allocated to Tehran in the parliamentary elections.
Saudi Arabia has been accused of using anti-terror laws to suppress free expression and failing to carry out independent inquiries into its Yemen bombing campaign in a hard-hitting report published on Thursday by the UN special rapporteur on human rights. The report follows a five-day visit by Ben Emmerson QC on behalf of the UN to Riyadh, where Saudi officials refused to grant the rapporteur access to prisoners the UN believes are being wrongly held under anti-terror laws. He also said he had heard repeated stories of wrongful arrest, misuse of court procedures, cases of torture to extract confessions and clear cases of miscarriages of justice in recent beheadings. Emmerson also called specifically for the release of 10 named Saudis who he said had been arbitrarily arrested, largely because they had expressed criticism of aspects of the kingdom. His strongly worded statement, passed to Saudi authorities on Wednesday, is unusually powerful since he was granted numerous conversations with senior Saudi judicial figures, who were clearly eager to impress on him that the kingdom was either reforming or acting proportionately in the face of a genuine terror threat. Emmerson praised Saudi rehabilitation work and the standard of its prisons as among the best in the world, but his criticism of human rights abuses gives substance to the concerns openly voiced by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, on her visit to Riyadh this week. He said that, contrary to the basic international human rights standards, Saudi anti-terror laws "enable the criminalisation of a wide spectrum of acts of peaceful expression, which are viewed by the authorities as endangering ‘national unity’ or undermining ‘the reputation or position of the state’". At a press conference he said: "I have received numerous reports about prosecution, on the basis of this law, of human rights defenders, writers, bloggers and journalists in connection with their expression of non-violent views. Despite repeated requests and efforts, the government was unable to give access to any of the individuals whose names I provided to be interviewed. "I strongly condemn use of counter-terrorism legislation with penal sanctions against individuals peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, as well as freedom of religion or belief and freedom of peaceful association and assembly." Emmerson urged the Saudis to set up an independent mechanism to examine "all crimes allegedly committed by speech or writing in order to determine whether they violate the protected rights of expression, thought, conscience, religion or belief, assembly or association". He said there was evidence that complaints of torture were not systematically investigated and called for lawyers to be present "within the first hour of detention and not after permission of the Bureau of Investigation and Public Prosecution". In Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition war to fight back against Iranian-backed Houthis, Emmerson reminded Saudi Arabia "of its international legal obligation to conduct a fact-finding investigation, independent of the chain of command involved in the strike, in any case in which there are reliable indications that civilians may have been killed or injured and to make the results public". He said he wanted the Saudi government to ensure that such investigations were conducted in every case and the true civilian death toll made public.