on: Dec 11, 2013, 07:32 AM
|Started by Steve - Last post by Rad|
December 10, 2013
Chinese Professor Who Advocated Free Speech Is Fired
By ANDREW JACOBS
BEIJING — Officials at one of China’s most respected universities have reportedly fired an outspoken legal scholar for advocating free speech and for repeatedly calling on the government to abide by its own Constitution.
Zhang Xuezhong, who teaches at the East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai, said administrators notified him on Monday that he would be dismissed after he refused to apologize for writings that championed the protections guaranteed by China’s Constitution. Professor Zhang’s teaching privileges were temporarily suspended in August after the publication of an article detailing the Communist Party’s growing hostility toward the nation’s legal system.
“I told them I had made no mistakes whatsoever,” he said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “I’m just a university faculty member who expresses his own opinions, thoughts and proposals, which is absolutely my right. This is an out-and-out witch hunt.”
University officials did not respond to telephone calls and a fax seeking comment. But in an internal school memo that Professor Zhang obtained and circulated online Tuesday, officials also cited an e-book he wrote this year called “New Common Sense: The Nature and Consequences of One-Party Dictatorship.” According to the notice, Mr. Zhang violated university rules by “forcibly disseminating his political views among the faculty and using his status as a teacher to spread his political views among students.”
The dismissal is sure to send a chill through Chinese academia, which has come under increasing pressure amid an ideological campaign that seeks to rein in liberalism and promote obedience to the ruling Communist Party. At a time when American educational institutions are rushing to open Chinese branches and build partnerships with local universities, Professor Zhang’s removal is also likely to draw renewed attention to the political constraints that hamper open discourse at even the most respected Chinese schools.
In October, Peking University fired a noted economist who is a critic of single-party rule. Administrators claimed that their refusal to renew the contract of the professor, Xia Yeliang, was based on poor teaching and his failure to keep up with the school’s publishing requirements.
Mr. Xia, a vocal champion of multiparty elections, said he had been repeatedly warned to tamp down his politically charged words and activism.
Mr. Xia’s dismissal reverberated well beyond China, especially on American and European campuses that share academic programs with Peking University, considered one of the nation’s pre-eminent educational institutions. Despite some initial hand-wringing, notably at Wellesley College and the London School of Economics, none of the schools altered their relationship with Peking University.
On its website, East China University of Political Science and Law, commonly known as Hua Zheng, boasts of nearly three dozen international partnerships, including an exchange program with Willamette University in Oregon and another with the University of Wisconsin, which offers a joint executive master’s of law program with the school.
Professor Zhang has had run-ins with school administrators over his writings, but their unhappiness with him deepened in May after he publicized the contents of a secret document, produced by the central government, detailing seven subjects that are not allowed to be discussed in Chinese classrooms. The topics included democracy, freedom of speech and past mistakes of the Communist Party.
But it was his defense of China’s 1982 Constitution that ran head-on into a campaign by the Chinese leadership that seeks to bolster the supremacy of the party. After assuming power in November 2012, President Xi Jinping initially expressed support for the rule of law, but in recent months the state-run news media has sought to demonize constitutionalism as a Western plot to overthrow the party.
Professor Zhang’s undoing appears to be an article he published online in June titled “The Origin and the Perils of the Anti-Constitutionalism Campaign in 2013.” A few days later, he said, four school officials summoned him for a meeting to warn him that the article violated both the nation’s code of teaching ethics and the Chinese Constitution.
Professor Zhang appears to have been a fairly popular lecturer at the school. On Pinglaoshi, a website where students can anonymously evaluate their teachers, Professor Zhang received a rating of 4.6 on a scale of 5, with most of the 21 posts favorable. “We admire and respect you,” said one post from September. “You are China’s backbone.” A post from August said, “You are a true warrior with integrity.”
During his meeting with school officials on Monday, Professor Zhang, who is also a practicing rights lawyer, said he did not put up much of a fight. Instead, he warned the dean of the law school that his dismissal would do lasting harm to the school’s image. “The impacts to me will be short-lived because I can find another job, but the stain on the school’s reputation will be permanent,” he said he told the dean. “You can never wipe it clean.”
Patrick Zuo contributed research.
on: Dec 11, 2013, 07:29 AM
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Japan sets up amphibious military unit to counter China threat over islands
Draft of Japan's defence plan outlines military build-up as concerns grow over China's claim to disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands
Reuters in Tokyo
theguardian.com, Wednesday 11 December 2013 12.19 GMT
Japan will set up a new amphibious military unit and deploy unarmed surveillance drones in its south-west, where it faces a row with China over disputed islands, according to drafts of the nation's latest defence plans seen on Wednesday.
The prime minister, Shinzo Abe, ordered the defence policy review after returning to office last December, pledging to strengthen the military and boost Japan's global security role.
The defence guideline and military build-up plan, to be approved by the government next week, follow China's declaration in November of a new air defence identification zone in an area that includes the disputed isles, triggering protests from Tokyo, as well as Washington and Seoul.
The drafts of the two plans were made available at a meeting of the ruling Liberal Democratic party lawmakers and shown to reporters. Final versions of the guideline, which lays out Japan's policy for the next 10 years, and the build-up plan, called the mid-term defence programme and covering a five-year period, will be unveiled next Tuesday.
Citing Japan's concerns about what it calls Beijing's attempts to change the status quo with force, the guideline says Japan will "respond calmly and resolutely to the rapid expansion and step-up of China's maritime and air activities".
Japan plans to set up an amphibious unit designed to take back the remote islands, called the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, in case of invasion and boost the number of fighter jet squadrons at its Naha base on Japan's southern island of Okinawa to two from one to maintain air superiority.
One squadron usually consists of 20 fighter jets.
It also plans to procure unmanned surveillance drones and establish a unit of E-2C early warning aircraft at the Naha base, the draft said.
E-2Cs, routinely used to keep watch in the area surrounding the disputed islands are based in northern Japan's Misawa base.
Japan will also bolster its overall capability to respond to missile attacks in the face of improvement in North Korea's ballistic missile technology, the draft guideline said.
But it stopped short of a call to acquire the capability to strike enemy targets – a controversial and costly step that would further stretch what Japan dubs its "purely defensive" posture allowed under decades-old interpretations of its post-second world war pacifist constitution.
"North Korea has repeated conduct that heightens regional tensions … Its nuclear and missile development, along with provocative words and deeds against us, represent a grave and imminent threat to our country's security," the draft said.
Japan's concerns over China and the unpredictability of North Korea were also echoed in the country's new national security strategy, a draft of which was also made available.
In a move likely to raise red flags among Abe's critics, who say the hawkish leader is a nationalist ideologue, the draft strategy document calls for "cultivating love of country" and expanding "security education" in institutions of higher learning. Putting more patriotism in school curricula was the aim of a revision of a law on education enacted during Abe's first term in 2006-07, which ended when he abruptly quit in the face of a parliamentary deadlock and ill health.
As expected, the security strategy draft also said Japan will review its self-imposed ban on weapons exports, a move that could reinvigorate Japan's struggling defence industry.
Japan in 1967 drew up "three principles" on arms exports – banning sales to countries with communist governments, those involved in international conflicts or those subject to United Nations sanctions.
The rules eventually became almost a blanket ban on arms exports and on the development and production of weapons, stifling Japanese defence contractors and making it difficult for them to keep up with cutting-edge arms technology. Recent governments have made some exceptions including for joint development with the US.
Japan setting aside $970 million to store tons of soil contaminated by radiation
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, December 11, 2013 7:10 EST
Japan is planning to earmark $970 million for a storage facility for tens of thousands of tons of soil contaminated with radiation from the Fukushima disaster, a report said Wednesday.
The government will set aside the cash to buy some 1.2 to 2 square miles of land somewhere near the crippled plant, the Asahi Shimbun reported.
But finding a candidate site for the facility, which the government envisages using for 30 years, is a political challenge as no local authority has so far raised its hand.
Tokyo would like to use land in three heavily contaminated towns near the plant, said the paper, adding environment minister Nobuteru Ishiara will speak with local officials this weekend.
The mayors of the towns — Futaba, Okuma and Naraha — along with the governor of Fukushima prefecture Yuhei Sato, are believed to be concerned that the temporary site could easily become permanent.
A large area around the plant was evacuated in the weeks after the March 2011 disaster when a huge tsunami sparked reactor meltdowns.
While some areas are now deemed safe for residents to return to, many others remain off-limits, with scientists warning that certain spots may be uninhabitable for decades because of high radiation readings.
Buying up land in these areas could be one way that the central government breaks the present deadlock in which evacuees remain in temporary housing because they are unable to buy new land or a new house without selling their now-worthless home.
No one from the environment ministry was available for comment on the report.
As of the end of August, the total amount of contaminated soil and debris collected through decontamination efforts, in which the top layer of soil is stripped from the land, stood at 132,738 tons, about 80 percent of which is from Fukushima prefecture.
This contaminated waste is currently stored at waste incineration plants, sewage treatment plants and agricultural and forestry facilities nationwide.
Experts say a more long-term solution needs to be found because storage capacity at these facilities is reaching its limits.
on: Dec 11, 2013, 07:27 AM
|Started by Steve - Last post by Rad|
India's supreme court upholds ban on gay sex
Rights campaigners say decision to overturn 2009 ruling on colonial-era law takes country back to the dark ages
Reuters in New Delhi
theguardian.com, Wednesday 11 December 2013 08.48 GMT
India's supreme court has thrown out a 2009 ruling by a lower court that had decriminalised gay sex in a huge setback for gay rights in the world's largest democracy.
The top court stated that only India's parliament could change the law, by deleting a section of the penal code dating back to the 19th century, thus ruling that the Delhi high court had overstepped its powers with its decision four years ago.
The move shocked gay rights activists, who had expected the court to rubber-stamp the earlier ruling. In recent years, India's supreme court has made progressive rulings on several rights issues.
"We see this as a betrayal of the very people the court is meant to defend and protect," said Arvind Narayan, one of the lawyers representing the consortium of gay rights groups that was defending the 2009 judgment.
"In our understanding, the supreme court has always sided with those who have no rights."
Section 377 of India's penal code bans "sex against the order of nature", which is widely interpreted to mean homosexual sex, and can be punished with up to 10 years in jail. The rule dates back to the days of British colonial rule in India.
"One would never expect the supreme court of India to make such a retrograde order, that is so against the trend internationally," said rights lawyer Colin Gonsalves.
"This takes us back to the dark ages. This is a day of mourning for us in India."
India's law minister, Kapil Sibal, said he could not comment on the judgment and did not say if the government planned to seek an amendment to the law.
But it seems unlikely the government will risk taking a stand on the issue in the short term. General elections are coming up in May in largely socially conservative India, and the Hindu nationalist opposition is already gathering momentum.
The 2009 ruling to exempt gay sex between consenting adults from the ban was the result of a case brought by the Naz Foundation, an Indian sexual rights organisation, which fought a legal battle for almost a decade.
After the Delhi high court ruling in its favour, a collective of mostly faith-based groups took an appeal to the supreme court.
"All the major communities of the country – the Hindus, the Christians and the Muslims – had appealed against the ruling of the Delhi high court," a lawyer for a Muslim charity told reporters.
"They had said that this unnatural sex is not permissible in all the religions of the world."
There could be an appeal against Thursday's decision through a "curative petition", which would be heard by a panel of five judges.
"The supreme court's ruling is a disappointing setback to human dignity and the basic rights to privacy and non-discrimination. But now the government should do what it should have done in the first place and seek to repeal section 377," Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said.
"Now it should join countries like Australia and New Zealand that have already abolished this colonial law that they too inherited and take the lead in ending such discrimination."
In an apparent protest against the ruling, suspected hackers posted the phrase "supremecourt is so gay" on Pepsi India's Twitter account on Wednesday. The post was deleted and Pepsi India said its account had been "compromised".
India Ink - Notes on the World's Largest Democracy
December 11, 2013, 1:55 am
Death of Prince Marks End of Mysore Royal Family Line
By RAKSHA KUMAR
BANGALORE, Karnataka — The 600-year-old Kingdom of Mysore has come to an end after Srikantadatta Narasimharaja Wodeyar, the last remaining member of the Mysore Royal family, died of a heart attack in Bangalore at the age of 60 on Tuesday.
Mr. Wodeyar was the last prince of the dynasty, as he had no children. The only son of Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar, the last ruler of Mysore and the first governor of the erstwhile Mysore state, Mr. Wodeyar is survived by his wife, Pramoda Devi.
The state of Karnataka declared Wednesday a state holiday in his memory. All government offices, schools and colleges are closed.
Mr. Wodeyar had been suffering from diabetes for many years, and recently he was also on regular dialysis. He had developed more complications after he underwent a bariatric surgery three years ago.
Mr. Wodeyar was admitted to the hospital on Tuesday afternoon. “Around 2 p.m., he fell unconscious,” Dr. Madan Kumar, the administrator of Vikram Hospital in Bangalore, said at a news conference. “A team of doctors tried its best to revive him, but failed. We declared him dead at 3:30 p.m.”
His funeral was set to be held on Wednesday, starting at 11 a.m., with the chief minister of Karnataka, Siddaramaiah, in attendance.
Mr. Wodeyar studied political science at Mysore University and was elected to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, from Mysore four times – 1984, 1989, 1996 and 1999 – as a Congress Party candidate.
But in the last decade he shifted his interest to cricket administration. In 2007, Mr. Wodeyar was elected president of the Karnataka State Cricket Association. However, in 2010, he lost to Anil Kumble, a former cricketer, and had only recently regained his position by defeating Mr. Kumble’s nominee on Dec. 1.
One of the richest scions of a royal family, whose kingdom is believed to have been have been founded in 1399, Mr. Wodeyar disclosed that his assets were worth over 15 billion rupees, or $244.4 million at current exchange rates, while he was running in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections.
He was the owner of the famous Mysore and Bangalore palaces, although he had regular battles with the government of Karnataka over the ownership of these palaces.
As an entrepreneur and fashion designer, Mr. Wodeyar was known for his grandiose lifestyle, especially for his love of luxury cars. All his cars bore registration number 1953, the year he was born. As a fashion designer, he promoted Mysore Silk Sarees under the Royal Silk of Mysore brand.
on: Dec 11, 2013, 07:25 AM
|Started by Steve - Last post by Rad|
December 10, 2013
Impasse Over Security Deal Adds to Afghan Economy’s Troubles
By AZAM AHMED
KABUL, Afghanistan — The stubborn impasse over a long-term security deal with the United States has not only raised concerns about the future of the Afghan security forces, but put an instant and alarming drag on the Afghan business climate, already suffering as Western forces have pulled out.
Nearly every anecdotal indicator of economic confidence has turned negative in the days since President Hamid Karzai insisted on delaying his signing of the agreement, which would pave the way for a continued American troop presence and billions of dollars in annual international aid after 2014, according to interviews with business leaders and Afghan officials.
Food and fuel prices have started to rise. Banks have slowed lending, and domestic travel has taken a hit. Private investment, already modest, has all but frozen.
Even the price of firewood, an essential commodity during the brutal Afghan winter, has risen steeply because of a sharp move in the currency exchange rate and the general cloud of uncertainty over the country’s future.
Chopping chunks of oak at his roadside stall in northern Kabul, Gul Rahman said there was little choice for the poor hoping to keep warm during the cold months. Typically, a family of six will need up to a ton and a half of wood for the winter, sellers said.
But with wood prices rising as much as 12 percent because of fuel costs, insecurity and currency fluctuations, “there’s no way out for the poor,” Mr. Rahman said. “All they can do is buy less.”
There is a broader fear gripping business leaders, as well as politicians. The economy relies almost entirely on foreign aid: In 2010, such aid was equal to about 97 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Spending on government activity in 2012 totaled about $10 billion, according to rough estimates. Only $2 billion of that was from the country’s own revenues.
Put another way, Afghanistan earns nowhere near what it spends.
The future is hardly brighter. Despite some lingering hope that the Afghan government will eventually close deals allowing mining and resource revenue to begin coming in, economists say that the country will remain incapable of funding itself for years to come.
Unemployment is already high and likely to get worse. More than 400,000 Afghans will enter the potential labor force each year for the next five years, even as the number of available jobs is expected to sharply contract.
Anger toward Mr. Karzai is audibly rising in the capital, with many criticizing him for digging in his heels and putting badly needed financial aid in jeopardy.
After Mr. Karzai rejected instructions from a gathering of Afghan leaders, the loya jirga, to sign the deal last month, visits by the American national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, and the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, James F. Dobbins, failed to make any headway. American officials have warned that they are beginning to plan for the possibility of a total and final troop withdrawal by the end of 2014, which would probably jeopardize most if not all international aid.
“He is wasting the time of the nation, and the nation is paying the price,” said Abdullah Abdullah, a presidential candidate in the 2009 and the 2014 elections, referring to Mr. Karzai and the higher cost of goods in the country. “Uncertainty is the worst thing you can impose on a country, especially at a time when we need to focus on the way forward.”
Mr. Karzai says it is the Americans who are undermining the economy. In an interview published in Le Monde on Tuesday, he accused the United States of “psychological war against our economy, in encouraging businesses to leave Afghanistan, in encouraging capital to leave Afghanistan, in terrifying the Afghan population about the consequences of 2014.”
The economy was already slowing. Growth this year has slowed substantially, from about 14 percent in 2012 (thanks to a huge agricultural harvest) to an estimated 3.1 percent this year, according to the World Bank. New business registrations have dropped from 3,500 in the first half of 2012 to 2,000 during the same period in 2013.
But the impasse has added a more immediate layer of uncertainty. Currency exchangers, fearing that the once-stable afghani will continue its slide if the deal is not completed, have started hoarding dollars.
In the hopes of preventing an economic collapse, business leaders have been lobbying the government to sign the deal, known as the bilateral security agreement, or B.S.A.
Khan Jan Alokozai, the acting director of the Afghan Chamber of Commerce and Industries, said business activity had dropped 25 percent across the country since the loya jirga approved the security deal in late November, citing data his organization compiles from members, which could not be independently verified. Retail prices have increased by 15 percent during that time, he said.
Worse still for his members, unlawful fees have been levied on imported goods, he claimed. As evidence, he produced a petition, trailed by five pages of stamps and signatures, bemoaning the $2,000 unofficial tax he says his members have been forced to pay on shipping containers brought into the country during the last two weeks.
“If the B.S.A. is not signed, things will turn back to the dark days of the past,” Mr. Alokozai said. “The people now in the government were fighting like wolves in the past, and they will again.”
Banks, too, have pulled back on lending, a trend well underway before the controversy over the security agreement erupted. The turnover of cash has dropped. Deposits have dropped.
“We are taking big precautions when it comes to lending,” said Inayatullah Fazli, the chief executive of Azizi Bank. He said lending dropped to less than $60 million this year, down from about $150 million last year. “We need to be 400 percent sure we are safe before we lend.”
The banking sector, like nearly every other, is heavily indebted to foreigners. For instance, Azizi Bank’s business largely circulates around bid guarantees, a form of financing that supports businessmen seeking to bid on infrastructure contracts in the country, projects largely financed by foreign donors. Another segment of the bank’s business is handling payroll for the 60,000 Afghan government employees, all paid indirectly by foreign money.
A significant drop in aid would also greatly hurt businesses that are providing jobs for Afghans.
Zamari Kamgar, the chief executive of the Kam Group, a consortium that owns Kam Air, said business had come to a standstill.
“Everyone is waiting and watching,” said Mr. Kamgar, who employs around 1,100 people in his various businesses. “They want to keep their money in case something happens.”
In the last month, he said, he has seen a nearly 40 percent drop in domestic ticket sales from a year ago, a decline he attributes to fewer businessmen traveling to and from the capital.
But he is a rich man. Like a handful of other entrepreneurs, he has earned millions with his various businesses in the past decade, a wealth that affords him the flexibility to move abroad if needed and start again.
“But what about the people who work for me?” he asked. “Say they each feed 10 people: That’s 11,000 people who go hungry.”
Jawad Sukhanyar contributed reporting.
on: Dec 11, 2013, 07:22 AM
|Started by Steve - Last post by Rad|
Kerry warns Congress: sanctions threat endangers historic Iran nuclear deal
• Proposal for more further sanctions is 'gratuitous', Kerry says
• Influential house committee opposes agreement with Tehran
Paul Lewis in Washington
theguardian.com, Tuesday 10 December 2013 21.48 GMT
John Kerry testifies before the House committee. John Kerry testifies before the House committee. 'Let me be clear: this is a delicate diplomatic moment.' Photograph: Ron Sachs/Corbis
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, struggled to persuade a deeply sceptical Congress to abandon a plan for new sanctions against Iran on Monday, warning lawmakers that they risked scuppering a major nuclear agreement.
Kerry said the notion of introducing new sanctions, a month after a historic interim agreement was reached with Tehran, and in the midst of negotiations for a final, comprehensive deal, was "gratuitous".
"I'm not saying never," Kerry told members of the House foreign affairs committee, most of whom favour more sanctions to increase pressure against Iran. "I'm just saying: not right now. Let me be very clear: this is a delicate diplomatic moment."
Kerry's attempts to sell the current policy towards Iran, however, met a wall of opposition from members of the committee, who appeared almost entirely unified against the deal, which some argued had endangered the US and its ally Israel.
A succession of committee members, Republican and Democratic, told Kerry they did not trust Iran's commitments and said the only viable way to avoid Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon was to press forward with yet tighter sanctions.
Kerry countered that the world was at "a crossroads, one of those hinge points in history", and said there would be "gigantic implications" if the talks broke down. "They know that if this fails, sanctions will be increased," he said of Iran's leaders. "But you don't need to do it [now]. It is actually gratuitous, in the context of the situation. Because you can do it in a week if you need to."
Under the interim agreement, forged last month between Iran and a six-nation group comprising the US, three European countries, Russia, and China, Tehran has agreed to halt progress of its nuclear program, neutralise a stockpile of higher grade uranium and open its facilities to inspectors.
In return, some sanctions have been eased – which, according to US estimates, will provide a $7bn boost to Iran's debilitated economy. The agreement, brokered in Geneva, will last just six months, after which all sides are seeking to achieve a final, comprehensive deal.
The Republican chairman of the foreign affairs committee, Ed Royce, and the Democratic ranking member, Eliot Engel, authored the bill to increase sanctions against Iran, which passed 400 votes to 20 in July. Both said at the hearing that they had serious concerns about the Geneva agreement, arguing that tightening sanctions on Iran at this stage would actually strengthen the hand of US negotiators.
A major concern for sceptics of the deal is the possibility that Iran will be permitted to maintain a limited, civil nuclear-enrichment program on its soil, rather than import nuclear materials from abroad. "Iran is not just another country," Royce told Kerry. "It simply can’t be trusted with enrichment technology, because verification efforts can never be foolproof."
The Royce-Engel bill, which would dramatically tighten existing sanctions, is currently with the Senate banking committee. But there is growing pressure for the legislation to be put to a vote, possibly with a clause that would mean the implementation would be delayed by six months, allowing the current round of talks to continue.
When Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, was asked how Tehran would respond in the event of Congress imposing new sanctions with a six-month delay, the usually conciliatory diplomat responded: “The entire deal is dead. We do not like to negotiate under duress." Zarif, Iran's lead negotiator, told Time magazine: "And if Congress adopts sanctions, it shows lack of seriousness and lack of a desire to achieve a resolution on the part of the United States.”
Although most western leaders have cautiously backed the Geneva deal, Israel's prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has called the agreement a "historic mistake", and his officials have been pressing their case hard in Washington.
Kerry looked visibly irritated during his testy exchanges with members of the committee, warning them that any new sanctions jeopardize the achievements already achieved by negotiations and undermine the unity the US has achieved with other powers such as China and Russia. "It implies a lack of faith in the process, and an unwillingness to play by the rules that our partners are playing by," he said.
He insisted there was only "very limited and reversible" easing of sanctions under the interim agreement, saying the $7bn Iran is forecast to gain from the deal "pales in comparison" to the $30bn it will still lose from the many other sanctions that have remained intact. In an effort to win support, Kerry complimented members of Congress and said they should take "great pride" in the fact that years of sanctions had brought about the historic negotiations.
As well as freezing Iran's nuclear program, Kerry said the provisional settlement provided inspectors with daily access to Fordow, the secret mountain-top enrichment plant, as well as unprecedented access to a heavy-water plutonium reactor, Arak. "I think Congress deserves an enormous amount of credit for that," he said.
Few on the committee were persuaded, repeating that Iran could not be trusted and that the provisional agreement falls short of what the US should be demanding.
The debate over the new sanctions bill is merely a foretaste of the major confrontation between Congress and the Obama administration that could be unleashed in July if a comprehensive deal is reached. Although the White House can ease some sanctions through waiver authorities, experts agree that unraveling the wider sanctions regime, which stretches back three decades, would require congressional approval.
The challenge of securing that support from Congress was laid bare by Kerry's reception from the committee. Obama's critics are not restricted to Republicans, but include hawks from the president's own Democratic party. In the Senate, they include the chairman powerful foreign relations committee, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and the third-ranking Democrat, Chuck Schumer of New York.
Obama insisted on Saturday that regardless of the outcome of talks, the "first-step" deal forged in Geneva had at least postponed Iran's so-called “breakout capacity”. However, the president said that the likelihood of a satisfactory outcome from the negotiations with Iran was no more than “50-50”.
on: Dec 11, 2013, 07:18 AM
|Started by Steve - Last post by Rad|
Greek exit from eurozone remains a possibility
Thinktank points out the Greece's public debt – currently at 170% of GDP – is still unsustainably high
Tuesday 10 December 2013 19.33 GMT The Guardian
It's been a good year for the eurozone crisis in the sense that flare-ups have been few and minor. But here comes thinktank Capital Economics with the gloomy diagnosis that Greece's public debt (currently at 170% of GDP) is still unsustainably high and "the country's crisis is not yet over". That is despite the clear improvement in the public finances since the second bailout in 2012.
The problem is not the short-term one of plugging a funding gap (of maybe €11bn) for 2014 and 2015 that will appear next year. Capital Economics, like others, thinks a deal can be done in which Greece agrees to some extra austerity measures and eurozone governments provide more loans.
Rather, the worry concerns Greece's longer-term debt dynamics. The existing bailout requires Greece to run a primary fiscal surplus (ie, before debt interest payments) of 4% of GDP until 2030 in order to get the public-debt-to-GDP ratio to 90%. Greeks may not tolerate year upon year of austerity.
Second, there is a risk that deflation undermines projections. Prices, according to the bail-out script, are meant to start rising again in 2015. Capital Economics is sceptical. If it is right, Greece's nominal GDP would then rise only slowly, allowing little gain in the main debt-to-GDP target.
Third, if deflation becomes entrenched, eurozone governments might have to look at writing off portions of their loans to Greece. "Needless to say, it is hard to imagine the rest of the eurozone agreeing to provide this kind of support due to domestic political considerations and the potential moral hazard problems that it could create," concludes the thinktank.
Fair comment. Grexit – or Greece's exit from the eurozone – is still a possibility, albeit not soon.
on: Dec 11, 2013, 07:12 AM
|Started by Steve - Last post by Rad|
Writers dub UK leaders 'America's digital pit bull' over surveillance
More than 500 authors issue statement condemning the scale of NSA surveillance revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden
Louise Osborne in Berlin
The Guardian, Tuesday 10 December 2013 18.01 GMT
David Cameron and the British government were labelled "America's digital pit bull" on Tuesday at the launch of a campaign by writers against mass surveillance.
British author Priya Basil told a press conference in Berlin that the political reaction to the revelations from whistleblower Edward Snowden had been "worse in the UK than in Germany".
"You can really feel that our democracy and our freedom of speech are under threat," said Basil, one of a small group of international writers who organised the project. "That's why I hope this appeal will have even more resonance in places like Great Britain." More than 500 of the world's leading authors, including five Nobel prize winners, have issued a statement condemning the scale of mass surveillance revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden and warning that spy agencies are undermining democracy.
The signatories, who come from 81 different countries and include Margaret Atwood, Don DeLillo, Orhan Pamuk, Günter Grass and Arundhati Roy, say the capacity of intelligence agencies to spy on millions of people's digital communications is turning everyone into potential suspects, with worrying implications for the way societies work.
They have urged the United Nations to create an international bill of digital rights that would enshrine the protection of civil rights in the internet age.
At Tuesday's press conference, several new authors – including Italian writer Umberto Eco and British writer William Boyd – were unveiled and organisers said they hoped people around the world would now join the campaign by signing up through the website change.org.
"What Snowden has started with a little ball, we will hopefully turn into the beginning of an avalanche," Danish author Janne Teller told the Guardian. However, she said the campaign should not be seen as targeting governments, but as a move to help them.
"The mass surveillance, secret services and defence industry are far beyond the American government and any of our governments and are a power themselves. This initiative must be seen as helping governments, who like to preserve democracy in the western world. It's not against government, but the abuse of power."
Over the past six months, the Guardian, along with some of the world's leading media outlets, has published a number of stories detailing the mass surveillance techniques of the British intelligence agency, GCHQ, and its US counterpart, the NSA, following leaks from former NSA contractor Snowden.
Two of the most significant programmes uncovered were Prism, run by the NSA, and Tempora, which was set up by GCHQ. Between them, they allow the agencies to harvest, store and analyse data about millions of phone calls, emails and search-engine queries.
The authors' statement does not mention these programmes by name, but it states that the extent of surveillance revealed by Snowden has challenged and undermined the right of all humans to "remain unobserved and unmolested" in their thoughts, personal environments and communications. "This fundamental human right has been rendered null and void through abuse of technological developments by states and corporations for mass surveillance purposes," the statement adds.
"A person under surveillance is no longer free; a society under surveillance is no longer a democracy. To maintain any validity, our democratic rights must apply in virtual as in real space."
At Tuesday's conference Basil said she hoped the movement would encourage people around the world to take a stand. "I think if I was just in the UK, I'd feel so disheartened, but I think part of this worldwide appeal is also for people to know it works differently in different places and it's possible to go further than you think."
on: Dec 11, 2013, 07:10 AM
|Started by Steve - Last post by Rad|
Spanish charity installs 'solidarity machine' to boost food bank donations
Passersby insert change and get a box saying which of 24 items provided by food bank they have chosen to fund
Ashifa Kassam in Madrid
theguardian.com, Tuesday 10 December 2013 15.05 GMT
Tucked between a lifesize nativity scene and a sparsely decorated Christmas tree in downtown Madrid sits a vending machine with a difference. Covered in photographs of milk bottles, lentils and rice, this "solidarity machine" is a charity's attempt to keep up with the increasing number of Spaniards turning to food banks for help.
Passersby insert their change and choose which of the 24 items provided by the food bank they want to fund. Items cost between €1 and €3 (80p-£2.50): 1kg of sugar costs €1 and a dozen eggs €2. The machine spits out a little box that shows what has been purchased.
"People walking by stop and stare. It looks like we have a tobacco vending machine sitting next to a church," said Adrián Gutiérrez, campaign co-ordinator for the Spanish NGO Mensajeros de la Paz. "Most of them laugh when they find it what it's all about. Then they want to try it out."
Volunteers clad in fluorescent yellow vests hover around the machine, happy to answer any questions. "Rice, milk, chickpeas", they yell out when asked for suggestions on what to buy. The machine, designed and donated by a local company, is locked up each night.
The idea came about when the group was brainstorming ways to increase donations to their annual food drive. "We're right in the middle of one of Madrid's main shopping streets, so people aren't likely to be carrying food they can donate," Gutiérrez said. "It's something new, something different, to get people excited about donating."
Juan Ponce de León, a volunteer with the campaign, said the machine was part of a wider effort to bring in as many donations as possible this year. "These days are quite sad in Spain," said the 70-year-old. "The crisis has left so many without food. These are trying times."
According to the Catholic charity Caritas, three million Spaniards live in severe poverty (on less than €307 a month), double the number in 2007. Food banks across the country say demand for their services is far outpacing donations.
Ponce de León said he hoped the machine would generate enough interest to help families at least get through the holiday season. "It's the least we can do," he said, shaking his head. "After that, who knows what will happen to all those in need?"
on: Dec 11, 2013, 07:07 AM
|Started by Steve - Last post by Rad|
Portugal offers golden visas to rich foreigners
Buying a property for €500,000 or more qualifies the owner for a five-year stay in the European Union
Guardian Weekly, Tuesday 10 December 2013 14.01 GMT
Pascal Gonçalves, who started the Casa em Portugal (House in Portugal) estate agent's, soon realised that the future of his venture depended on what happened abroad. Debt and austerity measures were threatening to swamp his business in Lisbon, Oporto and on the Algarve coast.
So in 2010 he opened a branch in Paris, and another one in São Paulo, Brazil, the following year. In 2012 he opted for Caracas and Luanda, the capital cities of Venezuela and Angola, respectively. He told them about the attractive houses and flats in his home country, with their characteristic azulejos (painted, tin-glazed) tiles.
In October 2012 Pedro Passos Coelho's centre-right government introduced the vistos dourados (golden visas) scheme in a bid to boost VAT revenue and halt the drain on capital. Foreigners purchasing property worth more than €500,000 ($685,000) would qualify for a five-year visa to Portugal, and consequently the European Union. Gonçalves had backed the right horse.
"Since then we've been booming," Gonçalves says with a smile. So much so that in July he hired Yansi Xu to represent the firm in Shanghai.
"The Chinese are our best customers, ahead of Brazilians and Angolans," he adds.
Buying property is not the only way of qualifying for a visa and access to the Schengen area. Another option is to make an investment exceeding €1m or giving rise to 10 new jobs in Portugal.
The rules, published a year ago, took some time to gain public attention, but middle-class buyers in emerging countries have certainly got the message. According to the Portuguese foreign ministry, quoted by AFP, 356 residence permits have been granted to investors, including 279 Chinese, 16 Russians, 10 Brazilians and nine Angolans.
This adds up to about €222m invested in Portugal. "It's crazy," says Michel Veloso Viera, a lawyer who assists foreigners with the paperwork. "I'm getting an average of 10 applications a week from Chinese families."
Nor is Portugal the only country to be soliciting rich immigrants. Spain, Cyprus, Greece and the Netherlands have deployed similar schemes, in a bid to make up for falling investment, fill homes left vacant by the crisis and kickstart consumption.
At a time when immigration is such a sensitive issue, this initiative, endorsed by Brussels, may seem surprising. Particularly as after five years a golden visa may lead to Portuguese nationality, Veloso Viera explains.
Yet there has been little criticism of the scheme in Lisbon, apart from the leader of the far-right National Renovator party, José Pinto-Coelho, who claims that his country is "prostituting itself". So far even the Socialist opposition has tacitly approved the move. "We're adopting a cautious stance. The origin of funds must be checked, but it does encourage foreign investors, and if it can help our country ..." says the Socialist spokesperson on economic affairs.
The priority is to get Portugal back on its feet. Having survived since 2011, thanks to financial assistance worth €78bn from the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and Brussels, the country is keen to see the back of the troika as soon as possible.
On the whole the Portuguese do not resent the tax breaks awarded to foreigners, even inside the EU. Although families are suffering from austerity policies, which have axed bonuses and increased tax, they are not unduly bothered by the idea that physicians, architects, senior executives and company directors – and all the others on the list of high added-value professions – settling in the country should qualify for a 20% cap on income tax.
In France, where exasperation at rising taxes is particularly acute, the scheme seems appealing. "There's not been a sudden rush, but certainly growing interest," says Carlos Vinhas Pereira, the head of the Franco-Portuguese Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Olivier, who operates a string of salad bars in fashionable Paris neighbourhoods, is adamant that the tax incentives did not prompt him to "drop everything" and start the same venture in Lisbon, about which he knew nothing a year ago. It all started, he maintains, with a national insurance inspection last January during which he and his employee were "treated like dirt".
He was so disgusted he decided to move to Portugal, citing the "booming travel trade" in Lisbon, but also the "low wages, sunshine, cheap rents" and direct flights several times a day. Sufficient to convince him to leave with his wife and children in January.
This article appeared in Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from Le Monde
Want to buy citizenship? It helps if you're one of the super-rich
Malta has announced it is selling passports to foreign investors for £546,000, but that's cheap compared with other countries, such as Britain and the US
Tuesday 10 December 2013 15.34 GMT
Citizenship is like rhythm: if you weren't born with it, it's not easy to get. However, in the EU there is a fast-track for the super-rich. The Maltese government now has a scheme to attract "high-value" foreigners to the country, by selling passports for £546,000. Which, by passport standards, is pretty cheap.
The move has ruffled feathers in the UK. In part, because of worries about unchecked immigration; the passport grants its holders full EU citizenship, including freedom of movement (Maltese citizenship also come with a visa waiver on entry to the US). Labour's shadow immigration minister, David Hanson, told the Financial Times the move risked being "a backdoor route" to EU residence and was "not a tight or appropriate immigration policy". The government faces calls from British and European politicians to intervene and put a stop to the plan.
But the main reason the UK is annoyed is not because we worry foreign millionaires will come here to claim benefits. It is probably that Malta's scheme is more attractive than our own deal for super-rich settlers. The British equivalent, the Tier 1 (Investor) visa programme, assesses applicants on the basis of their ability "to invest £1,000,000 in the UK". Foreign investors who hold £10m of their money here can apply for permanent residence after two years living in the country. Compared to Malta's plan, it looks like a load of hassle.
About 20 countries operate similar systems. In the US, Immigrant Investor Visas are awarded to foreign nationals who invest $1m in the economy and create 10 full-time jobs for US citizens within two years of arrival. Those who do so are awarded permanent residence and, after three more years, can apply for full citizenship. In the Canadian province of Quebec, "Immigrant Investors" must invest $800,000 CAN (£457,000) in an interest-free, five-year bond and show at least two years of proven management experience. (Canada suspended its nationwide immigrant investor programme in July 2012 but Quebec's continues.)
The European schemes tend to be more lenient. Greece, Cyprus and Macedonia offer fast-track resident permits for foreign investors who spend a minimum of €250,000 to €400,000 (£210,000 to £335,000) in the country. Spain grants a residency visa to foreign buyers who spend €500,000 (£418,000) or more on Spanish property, though the wait for permanent residency and EU citizenship is five years.
The major beneficiaries of such schemes are the Chinese global rich. Since October last yea, 318 residence permits have been issued in Portugal to foreign property buyers who spent over €500,000. Of these, 248 went to Chinese nationals; 15 went to Russians, and nine each to Angolans and Brazilians.
The Maltese system may be the most open of the lot: its applicants do not need to be resident in the country, and are not expected to prove any further investment in the islands' economy. It is expected to attract around 40 people in its first year, rising to 300 a year from 2014.
But their stay may be short-lived. Polls show 53% of Maltese oppose the move, and the opposition leader, Simon Busutil of the Nationalist Party, has pledged to revoke the passports if returned to power. In fairness to him, it won't be hard to expel citizens who have never actually lived there in the first place.
on: Dec 11, 2013, 07:03 AM
|Started by Steve - Last post by Rad|
Europe's hazardous highways: mapping the continent's most dangerous roads
Ambitious €1.5m scheme is charting more than 14,000km of roads across 14 countries in attempt to drive down accidents
Harriet Salem in Belgrade
theguardian.com, Tuesday 10 December 2013 10.47 GMT
Two men wearing hard hats and high visibility jackets stand on the side of a highway on a bright and chilly Monday morning. Equipped with asphalt-penetrating radars, a global positioning system, and a camera bolted on to the roof of their yellow van, the pair have been working to create detailed images of more than 3,600km of Greece's most dangerous roads. As winter approaches, their journey finally nears its end.
The men are part of the South East Neighbourhood Safer Routes (Sensor) project, a two-year, €1.5m initiative that is mapping more than 14,000km of roads across 14 countries, from Slovakia in the north to Greece in the south.
The project is not only ambitious in its geographical coverage, it is also the first of its type and scale in this part of Europe, crossing borders to create a network of safe highways throughout the region.
Motoring accidents in south-east Europe claim more than 10,000 lives every year and seriously injure 100,000 people. Road fatality rates in countries such as Albania, Bosnia and Greece are between three and four times higher than in the UK, according to the World Health Organisation.
Despite the high death rates, investment in preventive measures remains a low priority for most of the region's cash-starved governments.
"This is not a sexy topic [and] it tends to be perceived as a costly area of investment. These are two of the main reasons it tends to be neglected," says Olivera Djordjevic, assistant project manager at Sensor. "We are trying … to show governments how small investments in the right places can go a long way. Sometimes a simple measure, such as adding a road barrier or school crossing, can have a big impact in saving lives."
The process begins in Sensor's regional offices in Prague, Belgrade and Athens, where analysts use existing datasets to generate colour-coded risk maps of the region's highways, with ratings ranging from a safe green to a dangerous black. Routes determined to be highest risk are then flagged for inspection on the ground.
Enter the vehicle inspection team. The two men on the side of the Greek highway are vital cogs in the Sensor machine. The team photographs the road at 10-metre intervals, covering about 200km each day. Attention to detail is crucial. The data must be checked and double checked before being sent to specialist laboratories for processing.
"It's absolutely vital that the information is as accurate as possible," says Steve Lawson, research and partnerships director at the European branch of the Road Assessment Programme (Eurorap), which is supporting the Sensor project.
Back at the labs the information-loaded images are used to create a virtual road, which experts analyse for more than 35 factors – including pedestrian volume, street lighting, and lane width – that are known to increase the risk of crashes and fatalities.
The final data series is then used to generate safer road investment plans, detailed documents that identify the most cost-effective ways for governments and development banks to invest in road improvements.
Projects like Sensor are vital across poorer countries, including south-east Europe says Lawson, whose organisation has conducted similar work in several other regions. "It is not just about making one-off investments," he adds. "We started this [mapping] project 12 years ago. Before that, there was no real way to compare networks and pinpoint the hazards."
Preventing accidents saves lives – and it can also boost economic growth. According to Sensor, 2% of south-east Europe's annual GDP is lost to road traffic accidents.
"Economically, road safety is important, not just because of the social and medical care costs associated with accidents, but because safer roads mean better trade routes for the region," says Djordjevic. "In the end, this is about motivating governments to make small investment for a big return. This project can potentially save thousands of lives."