11/21/2013 05:03 PM
Brooms for Beer: Amsterdam Enlists Alcoholic Street Cleaners
By Rainer Leurs
Amsterdam has begun employing alcoholics to clean the city's streets, paying them in cash, tobacco and beer. City authorities say it's solving the problems related to public drunkenness. Critics question whether the program unethically enables addiction.
The idea came about some time ago in a somewhat messy way in Amsterdam's Oosterpark. The green space near the city center, with its duck pond and expansive lawns, was a pleasant retreat for families. If not for the drinking, that is. "There were complaints from residents for years," says Caspar Itz, spokesman for the Oost district government. A group of as many as 40 alcoholics were making the park unsafe, he says, with fist fights, public urination and plenty of shouting.
City authorities tried everything to fix the problem, Itz says, including fines and an absolute ban on alcohol in the park. It was all in vain, until someone came up with the street cleaning project.
It's the brand of social work that could only happen in Amsterdam, one of Europe's most liberal big cities, where relaxed pragmatism dominates drug policy and the occasional waft of cannabis smoke blows across nearly every street corner.
The deal works as follows: Alcoholics are provided with a broom to go about keeping the streets and parks clean. In return they receive €10 ($13.50) per day, as well as a half a pack of rolling tobacco and up to five cans of beer -- two in the morning, two in the afternoon and one more after they finish the day's work.
'We Need Alcohol to Function'
The project was developed with addiction experts about a year ago, Itz says, and it has been a resounding success. "These people get something to do, a structured daily routine," he says. "And they're gone from the park." Nineteen alcoholics are currently participating in the project, he says, hastily adding that the free beer is not meant as payment for their work, but rather as part of a medical treatment.
"It works like giving heroin to addicts," he says. "An addiction expert is always there and controls how much each individual is getting." Even the five cans of beer per day amount to less than what the alcoholics would be drinking if left to their own devices, he adds, which is one of the reasons why they don't just give out money. "We wouldn't have any control. With us, there's a fridge, and the fridge has a lock. And we decide when that lock is opened."
The project was the subject of a recent report by the news agency AFP, which said the atmosphere of mutual trust means if the supervisor is away, the alcoholics themselves write down how much they've had to drink.
"I think I can speak for the group and say that if they didn't give us beers then we wouldn't come," 45-year-old participant Frank told the agency. "We need alcohol to function, that's the disadvantage of chronic alcoholism."
German Experts Skeptical
The workday begins at 9 a.m. in a tool shed that functions as the project headquarters. Each person gets a coffee, a cigarette and two cans of Grolsch, a Dutch domestic brew. Then they don their neon orange safety vests, grab a garbage bag and litter picker and hit the streets of Amsterdam.
"Our intent is not to replace the regular employees of our city cleaning service," says Itz. "The main goal is to give them a task and to keep them out of the park." The project is financed by the city's social fund. "But it's really cheap in comparison to the repressive methods we applied before," he adds -- €19 per person, per day. Other cities in the Netherlands have expressed an interest in replicating the program, which is already being expanded into the Amsterdam neighborhoods of West and Noord, among others. "Parks or train stations with drinkers who cause problems are everywhere," Itz says.
German experts respond to the project with more reservation. "It certainly makes sense to give alcoholics a task, and thus a fixed daily structure," says Christa Merfert-Diete, spokeswoman for the German Central Office for Questions of Addiction. "But we don't see why you should give out tobacco and alcohol along with money." Alcoholics can buy beer in supermarkets anyway, she said, and there's no reason to give it away for free.
Itz says there's been discussion in the Netherlands, too, about whether it's ethical to provide beer to alcoholics. But he says people in his city have learned something in the fight against addiction: "Only when you first analyze how you can influence addiction are you able to help the addicts, and in turn also solve the problems of the residents."
As to the question of whether the alcoholics will end up drinking less, participant Frank is skeptical. When he and his coworkers are done for the day, they just go to the grocery store to buy more beer. "Of course we drink in a more structured way," he says, "but I don't think that we drink less."
11/22/2013 12:24 PM
Modern Missionaries: Shrinking Catholic Church Imports Priests
By Simone Salden
Faced with a shortage of priests, the Catholic Church in Germany is recruiting an increasing number of preachers from abroad like Benjamine Gaspar, who hails from India and now holds sermons at a church in the town of Bocholt.
When Benjamine Gaspar first heard the name of the diocese -- Münster -- he kneeled down and prayed. As he recalls it, he then got up, sat down in front of his computer and looked up the name on Wikipedia, where he learned that Münster is a city in northwestern Germany, has a population of 300,000, is the seat of a bishopric and is known as a "bicycle city."
Gaspar, 32, is an Indian and a Catholic. When he first learned about his move to Münster in 2012, Gaspar was living in the southern Indian city of Chennai, where he walked around in jeans, a white polo shirt and sandals.
From the start, Gaspar appeared to be open and excited about his German adventure. "God has a plan," said Father Benjamine, as his former congregation called him. "He knows where he is sending us." Today, he works for the Catholic Diocese of Münster in the town of Bocholt near the Dutch border.
The days are long gone when German missionaries ventured out into the world. These days, the Catholic Church in Germany is experiencing a shortage of new clergy. Almost 10 percent of Catholic priests in Germany, or about 1,300, are foreign -- and many are from India. SPIEGEL visited Gaspar in both his native India and in Germany.
Chennai, India, May 2012
Benjamine Gaspar is gazing out over the Indian Ocean, where the horizon is only a shimmering line in the midday heat. He is about to embark on a long journey.
Gaspar is part of a community called the "Missionary Society of Heralds of Good News," whose members preach in churches worldwide. For the young man, his commitment to the church is also an opportunity to see the world. "My family has been Christian for 10 generations," says Gaspar, noting that perhaps his ancestors found their way to the Christian faith through European missionaries. "The fact that I could become a priest and am now going to Germany is like a dream come true," he says.
The young minister doesn't get to decide where he goes; that's up to the Catholic Church bureaucracy. Language skills are not a factor in its decision. "We do our best, no matter where we are sent," says Gaspar. God knows no borders, he adds.
But the German authorities do. To obtain a visa, Father Benjamine has to prove that he speaks at least some German. That's why he maneuvers his motorcycle through busy streets each morning, passing slums and opulent colonial mansions, on a roughly 20-kilometer (13-mile) ride from the seminary to the Goethe Institute.
The language center is housed in a modern glass and concrete building, with a rooftop terrace overlooking the turbulent sea. For six hours a day, Gaspar grapples with German pronunciation and syntax, often spending additional time memorizing vocabulary after his evening church service. In about three months, the young priest is expected to be ready to communicate effectively on a day-to-day basis in Germany.
Gaspar's teacher, Jerome Rajan, calls his German course, "my holy class." At times, half of the seats in the classroom are filled with shy and diligent priests. Indeed, the priest shortage in Germany is responsible for sold-out German courses more than 10,000 kilometers away.
The Indian priests tend to speak English fluently, have graduated from high school and completed their training in seminars. "But many come from poor backgrounds," the teacher explains, "and not all are as good at languages as Benjamine." For them, says Rajan, it is a great challenge to reach the goals of the course and not disappoint their orders or their families.
Is the German course truly preparing him for everyday life as a minister in Germany? Sometimes Gaspar is skeptical. Today's lesson in his German book is called "Bargain Hunting." One of the exercises reads, "I bought a new cuckoo clock from you two days ago. I would like to return it." Gaspar skips the exercise and flips through the book.
He has a tight schedule, especially on weekends, leaving him little time to practice his German. In some congregations, mass is read eight times on a Sunday, with each priest conducting up to four services a day. During a service at Gaspar's congregation, between 500 and 600 people sit on simple white plastic chairs. When the mass is conducted in Tamil, the local language, the turnout can be as high as 2,000 people. In the summer, when temperatures reach 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit), attendance at mass is especially high in the early morning hours, at 5:00 or 6:00 a.m.
Most churchgoers are young women, wrapped in luminous cobalt blue or pink saris, and many are carrying a baby on their arm. Some men wear the dhoti, traditional cotton trousers that resemble a wrap skirt.
Christians are a minority in India, where they make up about 2.3 percent of the population. Given that India is one of the world's most populous countries, however, that's still 28 million people. Southern India is home to a particularly large number of Christians, whose roots date back to the so-called Saint Thomas Christians. Thomas the Apostle reportedly reached India in 54 A.D., which would make the Christian church in India older than that in Europe.
The Christians in Chennai sing loudly and powerfully. The service, held outdoors on the grass under floodlights, is permeated by a scent of incense and ripe mangoes. The sequence barely differs from a mass in Germany, since the liturgy of the Catholic Church is the same everywhere. Gaspar spreads his arms and blesses the children.
"I'm excited about the services in Germany," says Gaspar. He has heard that church attendance is declining in Germany, but he doesn't understand why. Are the Germans losing their faith? Or just their faith in the Church? "In any case, I want to help change this." he says.
Bocholt, Westphalia, Fall 2013
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." Gaspar crosses himself as the service comes to an end and looks out at his new congregation in Bocholt. Standing in front of a massive Baroque altar, he folds his hands loosely across his chest. He accentuates each word, in German: "I. Wish. You. All. A. Nice. Day." Then he smiles.
"He's really trying hard," says an 84-year-old woman with curly, white hair. She felt that the new priest from India was "likeable at first glance," adding, "the young man has adjusted very well." The Indian priest is a hard worker who reads the mass "very piously," which she likes -- unlike the African who gave a sermon in a neighboring congregation a few months ago and couldn't be understood.
Gaspar beams when he is told about the conversation with the old woman. It isn't always easy to win over the older people in the congregation, he says, "but that's my most important goal." In fact, the elderly are his most important customers. There are about 70 attending Gaspar's service on this particular Tuesday morning. Almost all are women, everyone is over 60, and the prevailing colors of their summer jackets are brown and beige. Their thin voices quickly fade away in the stone nave.
'A Great Opportunity for the Church'
A few years ago, the Our Lady's Parish where Gaspar works was merged with four others from the surrounding area, and a fifth will be added in 2016. Now a team of seven priests attends to almost 16,000 Catholics. "We're in urgent need of support," says 70-year-old pastor Matthias Conrad. "Benjamine Gaspar is a Godsend for us." Noting that times are changing, Conrad says the need to recruit new priests from abroad would have been unthinkable in the past.
Motivated young men like Gaspar, says Conrad, are "a great opportunity for the church in Germany" because they bring a breath of fresh air into the congregations. "The advantage of a global church like the Catholic Church is that you can get to know other cultures." Conrad sees the contemporary church "as a wide, two-way street." He adds, "For much too long, it was a one-way street from Europe to the rest of the world."
Gaspar, though, has realistic expectations for his new position. "Both sides simply can't expect any miracles," he says. Building trust takes time, explains Gaspar, whose current German visa is valid for five years. He doesn't want to take anyone by surprise. A family invited him to lunch a few days ago. It was a great opportunity to exchange views and one that he would like to have more often, Gaspar says. "Sometimes I encounter skepticism, but also a lot of gratitude and respect."
During Gaspar's opening introduction to the congregation, he asked for encouragement. "I need your help, support, cooperation and, most of all, the Spirit of God, so that I can live and work here as a priest," he haltingly read from a prepared statement, even though he had practiced in front of the mirror.
'They Come to Cry, But Rarely To Laugh'
Although a member of the congregation edits his sermons for him, Gaspar is now able to conduct morning mass on his own. And he will soon begin officiating at funerals. "I still have a lot to learn, but I feel very comfortable in this parish. These people are almost like a family to me by now," says Gaspar.
Summing up his initial impressions, Gaspar says: "In contrast to India, the young people here don't seem to have a lot of worries -- or at least they don't tell us about them in church." Only when it comes to the existential things in life do the Germans seek solace with a priest, he adds. "They come to cry, but rarely to laugh."
In India, he would often spend afternoons spontaneously visit members of his congregation at their homes, to ask about their children or perhaps a sick mother-in-law. In Bocholt, he quickly learned that there are stricter societal rules to be observed. "I already knew that the Germans are punctual, but now I also know that you always have to call before you visit," Gaspar says with a chuckle.
He often cycles around Bocholt and the surrounding countryside in the evening on his new bike -- a welcome gift from the parish. Gaspar is visibly moved when he tells the story of how his colleagues gave it to him during a service. It made him think of the Wikipedia article he had read in Chennai, and that strange expression: "bicycle city."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
11/22/2013 12:49 PM
Housing Shortage: Berlin Bans Tourist Apartments
Berlin's tourist boom has led many locals to rent out their apartments to visitors for short-term stays. Now the Berlin senate, amid soaring rents, has passed a law banning the practice. Critics, however, are unsure of how effective it will be.
Berlin has long had a reputation as a cheap place to live, especially when compared to other major Western European cities. But recently, soaring rents have threatened that image. The rise in prices has been exacerbated by the popular practice of renting out apartments exclusively as vacation accomodations. Berlin's senate now plans to change that by introducing rules banning these apartments.
The Law on the Prohibition of Misuse of Housing was passed by the city-state's senate on Thursday amid rising anger over not only a lack of affordable apartments, but also complaints of constant parties, noise and rubbish generated by tourists staying in such short-term rentals.
According to official estimates, 12,000 apartments have been taken off the long-term rental market for this more lucrative purpose -- they are seen by landlords as a good way to get rid of unwanted tenants and increase the yield on their investments as increasing numbers of tourists flock to Berlin. Websites such as Airbnb make the process of renting out apartments for short stays easy and economical.
A Two-Year Transitional Period
The law provides for the possibility of restricting the ban to the worst-affected neighborhoods, and also allows for exceptions where the public interest is served, such as housing for asylum seekers, medical surgeries, nurseries or child-care providers. The ban does not apply to fixed-term leases for workers posted to the city, au pairs, interns or embassy staff, stressed Iris Spranger, a member of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), the senior partner in State of Berlin's ruling coalition. It is unclear how the new rules would affect people who rent out their own apartments for short periods when, for example, they are out of town.
Speculative vacancies -- where landlords leave properties empty for more than six months -- and the demolition of apartments have also been made much more difficult. According to the Berliner Zeitung newspaper, Michael Müller, the SPD senator for urban development, said, "We are creating the law so that the uncontrolled growth on the housing market is no longer possible." Details of the law will be laid down in an ordinance which will be passed by March at the latest, Müller added, but are set to include heavy fines for those who don't follow the rules.
Some critics are angry about the length of the transitional period for the law, which allows landlords two years to register and adjust to the new rules. Katrin Schmidberger, a member of the Berlin parliament for the Greens. She said: "They are giving the operators of these vacation apartments a two-year carte blanche to simply carry on as before."
There also concerns that the individual districts do not have the manpower to cope with the necessary inspections and processing of applications.
'Housing Policy Placebo'?
But many Berliners will, above all, be anxious to see if the new measures have an effect on rents, or make it easier to find an apartment. According to Matthias Brauner of the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), the junior partner in the coalition, the move should see between 8,000 and 12,000 apartments within the city's orbital Ringbahn railway come back onto the market within two years.
The Chamber of Industry and Commerce, however, had already dismissed the law as a "housing policy placebo," with no scope for an increase in supply of apartments until 2016. The Association of Berlin-Brandenburg Housing Companies, meanwhile, said the introduction of a few thousand apartments was just a drop in the ocean compared to the huge influx of people to the city, and that massive new construction was needed.
And according to the Tagesspiegel newspaper, the Berlin Apartment Alliance, a group of 25 holiday apartment operators, dismissed the law as actionism. "We should not be punished for the long-lasting failures in housing policy," said Immanuel Lutz from the alliance.
11/21/2013 05:51 PM
Sunken Sub: German WWII U-Boat Found Near Indonesia
The rusted remains of a Nazi-era submarine have been discovered off the coast of Java, Indonesia. Researchers are looking through the wreckage, which includes human bones and plates with Nazi insignia, for clues that could identify the ship.
Researchers have apparently discovered the remains of a World War II-era German U-boat and the skeletons of its crew off the coast of Indonesia. Experts say its an unprecedented find that could provide insight into how the war was fought in the South West Pacific theater.
The first inspection uncovered binoculars, batteries and dinner plates emblazoned with swastikas, according to an AFP report printed by the newspaper The Star on Thursday. There were also reportedly 17 human skeletons buried in the wreckage, and more bones may yet be discovered.
"This is the first time we have found a foreign submarine from the war in our waters," said Bambang Budi Utomo, head of the research team at the National Archeology Center that found the vessel off the coast of Java. "This is an extraordinary find that will certainly provide useful information about what took place in the Java Sea during World War II."
The researchers believe the wreck is that of the U-168, which German naval forces used to successfully sink several allied ships. The U-boat was eventually torpedoed by a Dutch submarine while en route to Australia. According to a report by German newspaper Die Welt, the Dutch vessel fired six torpedos from 900 meters, but only one of the explosives detonated. Twenty-three German sailors reportedly died in the attack, and the captain and 26 crew members survived.
The daily Süddeutsche Zeitung reports that the wreck could also be that of the U-183, which was sunk on April 23, 1945 in the Java Sea. That attack had only one surivor of 55 men on board. Both of the U-boats were part of Nazi Germany's "Monsoon Group," which attacked allied ships in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea.
Spanish government drafts strict anti-protest laws
Opposition and activists criticise plan to introduce steep fines for activists who take part in unauthorised protests
Ashifa Kassam in Madrid
theguardian.com, Thursday 21 November 2013 17.54 GMT
Spain's ruling People's party has drafted strict new laws against public protests, in a move denounced by the opposition as a blow to democracy.
The legislation, expected to be presented in a cabinet meeting on Friday, would introduce steep fines for activists who take part in unauthorised protests, publish images of police or interrupt public events.
Demonstrating near parliament without permission could result in a fine of up to €600,000, while insulting a police officer during a demonstration could cost up to €30,000.
The prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, said the law was not meant to gag citizens but protect them. "One of the obligations of the government is to guarantee the liberty and security of all of its citizens," he said.
But Joan Coscubiel, a spokesperson for the Izquierda Plural group in parliament, called the law a "kick in the teeth for democracy".
The proposed law has outraged activists. "It's an attack on one of the pillars of our democracy," said Stéphane Grueso, a Madrid-based activist and blogger.
Previously, he said, actions such as demonstrating outside the homes and offices of public figures would land protesters in court, defending their actions in front of a judge. But this legislation would automatically deem certain tactics to be outside of the law.
"It worries me how the government has decided, all of a sudden, that they didn't need judges and that they could solve everything themselves," Grueso said.
Manuel Ballbé, a law professor at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, said the legislation was less about cracking down on demonstrators and more about winning votes for the conservative government.
"They need to radicalise these movements, to create a climate of violence. Then the government can come out and show that they are the best party to institute law and order," he said. "Despite the crisis, there hasn't been any increase in crimes or violence. With six million unemployed and half of our youth unemployed, there's been no rise in delinquency."
The anti-eviction leader Ada Colau called on her nearly 100,000 Twitter followers to stage a day of general disobedience if the law is passed. Her group, the Mortgage Victims' Platform, added their own message aimed at those promoting the law: "We're not scared. We know the power that we the people have."
Silvio Berlusconi was 'bunga bunga' ringmaster, says court document
Document explaining reasons behind Italian ex-PM's conviction says there is proof he had sexual relations with 17-year-old
Reuters in Milan
theguardian.com, Thursday 21 November 2013 16.20 GMT
Silvio Berlusconi was the ringmaster of "bunga bunga" sex parties at his luxurious villa near Milan, giving the go-ahead for young women to perform pole dances and stripteases, according to a court document.
The former Italian prime minister, who faces potential expulsion from his Senate seat next week after receiving a final conviction for tax fraud in a separate case, was handed a seven-year jail sentence in June for abuse of office and paying for sex with a minor during the parties.
In a document released on Thursday explaining the reasons behind the conviction, the court said there was sufficient proof that the 77-year-old had sexual relations with the former nightclub dancer Karima el-Mahroug, who was 17 at the time, in exchange for money and jewellery.
It said Berlusconi directed women to perform and dance erotically during the parties.
"It is proven that the director of the young women's sexual performances was Berlusconi himself," the court said.
Berlusconi has described the evenings as "elegant dinners" and is appealing against the verdict. He will not have to serve any jail time for the conviction unless it is upheld after two appeals.
The court said it was Berlusconi who decided when to begin "the so-called 'bunga bunga' in which female guests worked to satisfy the desires of the defendant, that is to 'make him feel bodily pleasures' … performing pole dances, striptease, dressing in disguises and fondling each other".
Evidence also shows Berlusconi was aware that Mahroug, also known by her stage name Ruby the Heartstealer, was under 18 at the time, below the legal age limit for prostitution in Italy, the court found.
In May 2010, the then prime minister called a Milan police station to instruct officials to release Mahroug, who was being held on suspicion of stealing a €3,000 (£2,500) bracelet.
Berlusconi's lawyers said he had made the call to avoid a diplomatic incident because he believed Mahroug was the granddaughter of Hosni Mubarak, then Egyptian president. But prosecutors said he was anxious to cover up their sexual relations.
The court said in the document that if Berlusconi had not known Mahroug was underage, he would have had no reason to make the call and try to secure her release.
The prostitution case forms only one part of Berlusconi's legal problems. In August Italy's top appeals court confirmed his conviction for massive tax fraud at his Mediaset TV empire, a decision he says was politically motivated.
The Senate is due to vote on 27 November on whether to expel him from his seat. Berlusconi, whose centre-right party is part of Italy's coalition government, has said he may no longer back the prime minister, Enrico Letta, if he is kicked out. But a split in his party has left him without the numbers to bring the government down.
Greek government insists end of austerity is in sight
2014 budget presented to parliament ahead of meeting between prime minister Antonis Samaras and Angela Merkel
Helena Smith in Athens
theguardian.com, Thursday 21 November 2013 15.42 GMT
Amid growing political tensions at home – and increasing exasperation in Europe – the Greek government insisted today that it was finally exiting years of recession as it presented parliament with its 2014 budget.
Ahead of a highly anticipated meeting between the Greek prime minister, Antonis Samaras, and the EU's most powerful leader, Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel, Athens' ruling alliance announced that it expected the country's defunct economy to grow by 0.6% next year
"The sacrifices of the Greek people are paying off," said the deputy finance minister, Christos Staikouras, after finance minister Yannis Stournaras had submitted the bill, adding that the debt-stricken nation would – for the first time in more than a decade – post a primary surplus in 2013.
In further good news, Staikouras revealed that the budget balance – exclusive of interest payments – was expected to exceed €810m, a long-cherished target that would make the country eligible for much needed debt relief. At almost €320bn, Greece's gargantuan debt load is by far the highest in the western world.
Presentation of the 250-page budget came as Athens concluded strained negotiations with the EU, European Central Bank (ECB) and International Monetary Fund (IMF), the international bodies that have kept its economy afloat with bailouts worth €240bn since May 2010.
After more than two months of on-off talks, the lenders – known collectively as the "troika" – wrapped up a quarterly review of Greece's economic programme saying that while progress had been made, "a few issues remained outstanding".
Elsewhere, the criticism was more blunt. "Many finance ministers of the Eurozone are starting to lose patience [with Greece]," said Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch Eurogroup president, echoing the growing disgruntlement that has returned to haunt the country's ties with its creditors.
In sharp contrast to other rescued nations on the periphery of Europe, "Greece still has plenty of work to do", he told the Greek daily Ta Nea, referring to mass layoffs in the public sector, privatisations and other structural reforms Athens has so far put off adopting.
Much of the rancour has focused on the size of a fiscal gap which by 2014 the troika estimates could be as much as €2.9bn. The budget black hole, which opens the prospect of yet more austerity being imposed on a population that has already seen its disposable income drop by 40% since the eruption of the crisis, has placed Samaras's two-party coalition under increasing pressure.
With a four-seat majority in the 300-seat house, MPs have signalled they will vote down extra measures if called upon to pass them. In addition to slashing 25,000 civil servant jobs by 2015, foreign lenders are demanding that the government dismantle the country's loss-making defence industry, close more than 100 public sector organisations and enact a new round of across-the-board pay and pension cuts.
This week, in one of the most dramatic signs of the toll the debt drama has had, the National School of Public Health said the life expectancy of Greeks had dropped from 81 to 78 years since the crisis began. Unemployment is over 27% and poverty levels have also shot up.
In a climate that has become increasingly volatile, the prospect of further belt-tightening has not only sent tensions soaring within the government – which narrowly survived a no-confidence motion on 10 November – but has been met with bitter hostility from the anti-austerity political opposition, led by the radical left Syriza party, currently frontrunner in polls.
Yesterday the party's leader, Alexis Tsipras, joined cleaners protesting against dismissals outside the finance ministry where he vowed that "when we are in government, together we will clean the troika away".
With the rhetoric at such heights, the ruling coalition is refusing outright to implement further cuts.
Stournaras, who has described fresh measures as "dangerous and unnecessary", is adamant the shortfall can be covered by improved tax collection and better management of the social security system.
In a bid to defuse the stand-off, Samaras is expected to appeal to Merkel to intervene when he holds talks with the German chancellor in Berlin on Friday. The prime minister will tell Europe's most powerful leader that Greece's political stability will be put at risk if it is made to adopt more austerity, aides said. On the eve of the talks Merkel sounded upbeat, telling a business conference that changes Greece had implemented were "absolutely remarkable".
But her spokesman warned against over expectation, saying Samaras's visit to Berlin was more about informing the leader than negotiating with her.
Iran nuclear negotiator digs heels in over right to enrich uranium
Senior negotiator at Geneva nuclear talks dashes hope of possible compromise offered by Mohammad Javad Zarif
Julian Borger and Saeed Kamali Dehghan in Geneva
theguardian.com, Thursday 21 November 2013 13.04 GMT
Iran entrenched its position at nuclear talks in Geneva on Thursday, insisting it would not sign an agreement that did not have specific guarantees of its right to enrich uranium.
The talks adjourned for the night, with no sight of a breakthough. Iran's deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araqchi, said: "We are working on narrowing the gaps, but the gaps are still there."
Western officials said that Iran's right to enrich was one of the most serious of those gaps.
The issue is one of the thorniest at the negotiations and one of the main reasons the last round of talks here broke up without agreement on 10 November despite intense bargaining by ministers including the US secretary of state, John Kerry, and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif.
This week Zarif appeared to offer a concession, suggesting Tehran might no longer insist on hammering out wording in the interim agreement that explicitly guaranteed Iran the right to enrich uranium, saying there could be references to the right already, under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
But an Iranian negotiator at the talks denied the Iranian position had eased. "If this element is not in the text, it is unacceptable to us. Without that, there will be no agreement."
The 1968 NPT is vague on the subject. It guarantees a nation's right to a peaceful nuclear programme, without mentioning enrichment specifically. But signatories are obliged not to develop weapons and to agree on inspection regimes with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
A compromise had been floated in the days running up the latest Geneva talks whereby the agreement text would mention NPT rights and the parties would interpret that in their own way. However, the Iranian negotiator said that would not be enough for Tehran. "It is because there are different interpretations of the NPT that there is a need to spell it out in the text. We are trying to find language that is the least problematic for all parties, but what is essential is the element of enrichment."
Western states acknowledge that they will have to accept some degree of Iranian enrichment as a fait accompli in any interim agreement. This is the focus of the Geneva agreement being negotiated, a deal that aims to slow down, stop or reverse elements of the nuclear programme in exchange for limited sanctions relief.
However, Washington and its allies, particularly France, do not want to put that acceptance in writing, lest it serve as a legal precedent for global proliferation. Enrichment of uranium is a dual-use technology which can produce weapons-grade fissile material for warheads as well as fuel for nuclear power stations.
The Iranian official at the talks said he had not read Zarif's earlier, apparently conciliatory, remarks on enrichment.
Western officials at the talks said the Iranian delegation had stressed how much pressure they had been under at home from hardliners. Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, declared on the eve of the new round of talks in Geneva that the negotiators had been set strict red lines on what they could accept.
Zarif met the EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, on Thursday morning for detailed talks on the current draft agreement, which has disputed paragraphs in brackets, and negotiators said the general atmosphere was positive.
Contingency preparations have been made for Kerry and foreign ministers from the other five nations at the talks – the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China – to fly to Switzerland at short notice if a deal is near.
Araqchi said that if the remaining gaps in the negotiations narrowed, the foreign ministers would probably fly in.
However, France signalled on Wednesday that it would stick to its tough line on Iran and that it was not ready to make more concessions.
Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, said he hoped a deal could be clinched but added: "This agreement can only be possible based on firmness. For now, the Iranians have not been able to accept the position of the six. I hope they will accept it."
The Iranian official said that in contrast to the last round of talks, when Fabius openly voiced objections to a draft text, the six-nation group had stayed united on this occasion and let Ashton talk on their behalf. "The French are no longer in the forefront of negotiations," he said.
******************Iranian concession and Cameron phone call raise nuclear deal hopes
Signs of behind-the-scenes progress in dispute over nuclear programme as British PM calls Iranian president
Julian Borger, Saeed Kamali Dehghan, and Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem
The Guardian, Tuesday 19 November 2013 21.47 GMT
Differences between Iran and the west that have so far prevented a historic nuclear deal appear to have narrowed considerably as negotiators gather for a new round of talks in Geneva on Wednesday.
On Tuesday the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, launched a slickly produced YouTube channel with a declaration that the path to a resolution of the decade-old dispute over Iran's nuclear programme was open, and called on the world powers to seize a "historic opportunity".
Zarif's move came as David Cameron spoke on the phone to Hassan Rouhani, becoming the first British prime minister to speak to an Iranian president in a decade.
"The two leaders discussed the bilateral relationship between Britain and Iran welcoming the steps taken since President Rouhani took office, including the appointment of non-resident Charges d'Affaires last week," a spokesperson for the PM said. "They agreed to continue efforts to improve the relationship on a step by step and reciprocal basis."
"On Iran's nuclear programme, both leaders agreed that significant progress had been made in the recent Geneva negotiations and that it was important to seize the opportunity presented by the further round of talks which get underway tomorrow."
Mohammad Javad Zarif's YouTube messagehttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ao2WH6GDWz4
The previous round of Geneva talks adjourned early, on 10 November, after an intense and dramatic three days of discussions fell just short of agreement following an intervention by the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, to toughen the western bargaining position.
In a Saturday night meeting with the US secretary of state, John Kerry, Fabius insisted that the six powers at the talks – the US, France, the UK, Germany, Russia and France – should not grant Iran's right to uranium enrichment but should demand the cessation of Iran's construction work on a plutonium-producing heavy water reactor at Arak.
Zarif said he would have to consult Tehran on the 11th-hour changes, and the high-level talks broke up.
Since then, there have been clear signs of behind-the-scenes progress. On Sunday, Zarif was quoted in the semi-official Isna news agency as saying Iran's right to enrich was "non-negotiable", but adding that the Iranians "see no necessity for its recognition as a right".
"The right to enrichment does not need to be recognised because, according to the NPT [nuclear non-proliferation treaty], this right is inalienable," the foreign minister said.
If carried through to the negotiating table, the Iranian concession could remove a huge stumbling block. Western officials all accept that some degree of Iranian enrichment is an inevitable part of any eventual settlement but Washington and its allies have been reluctant to put that acceptance in writing as it would create a potentially dangerous precedent. Uranium enrichment is dual-purpose – it can produce fuel both for nuclear power stations and for warheads.
In the western camp, there have also been hints that a compromise could be found over Arak. The French insistence on a complete halt to work on the heavy water reactor was not shared by the whole government, a French defence source said.
"There is a debate going on in Paris, between the Quai d'Orsay [the foreign ministry] and the Élysée [the presidency] on that position," the source said.
German officials are believed to have shared some of the French concerns about a stopgap deal signed in haste in Geneva under pressure to produce results by the presence of Kerry and other foreign ministers. But the Germans disapproved of Fabius's decision to break ranks and make the divisions within the six-nation group public.
Talks since the last Geneva round appear to have resolved some of the differences inside the western camp. "I'm very optimistic there is an understanding. Some of the sensitive work will be shut down. The Europeans are hopeful this will not now be a problem," said Mark Hibbs, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The purpose of the interim deal under discussion in Geneva is to slow down the Iran programme, halting and rolling back some elements, in return for limited sanctions. The deal would last for six months, during which time negotiations would continue aimed at a more enduring settlement.
Among the elements on the table are a halt to Iranian production of medium-enriched uranium, of 20% purity, and a dilution of the existing stockpile of nearly 200kg or its conversion into oxide for reactor fuel. That would add an extra month or so to the time Iran would need to turn it into weapons-grade uranium if it decided to make a weapon.
A cap on the stockpile of low-enriched, reactor-grade uranium is also likely to form part of the stopgap deal, and a freeze on Iran's enrichment capacity, halting the production and installation of new-model centrifuges, for example.
In return for such concessions, Iran would receive an estimated $10bn (£6bn) in sanctions relief, in the form of unfreezing blocked bank accounts, and the end of restrictions on trade in gold, petrochemicals and aircraft parts.
Officials involved in the talks point out that each of these elements involves separate highly detailed, technical agreements, and so caution that striking a bargain could be a drawn-out and painstaking process.
However, both Washington and Tehran are under pressure to achieve a deal quickly to keep domestic political pressure at bay. The US Congress is threatening to pass new sanctions legislation, which could derail the negotiations.
"The US Congress has recently been seeking to approve a bill to increase sanctions against Iran," said Mohammad-Hassan Asafari a senior member of Iran's parliamentary committee on national security and foreign policy. "It has been decided that the negotiations be suspended if the bill gets through the US Congress."
Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, warned on Monday in a phone conversation with Russia's president, Pig Putin, that "excessive demands" could hamper any possible deal.
"At the recent Geneva talks good progress was made, but everyone must realise excessive demands could complicate the process towards a win-win agreement," the Iranian president told Putin, according to the state English-language television Press TV. "From our point of view, there should not be a situation in which the will of parties to reach mutually acceptable agreement is affected."
The negotiations continue to put a severe strain on US-Israeli relations. Following persistent warnings against striking a deal in Geneva from the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, Kerry made it clear that he would not be visiting Jerusalem later this week, despite an announcement to that effect made by Netanyahu.
Instead, Kerry's aides said he would try to find time for a trip after the Thanksgiving holiday at the end of November.
On Monday, the secretary of state spoke about Netanyahu's right "to publicly state his position and defend what he believes is his interest". But, in a direct rebuttal of Israel's position, he added: "Nothing that we are doing here, in my judgment, will put Israel at any additional risk. In fact, let me make this clear, we believe it reduces risk."
The progress in Geneva came as the White House also appeared to be holding congressional hawks at bay in Washington.
Barack Obama held a meeting with US senators at the White House on Tuesday to ask them to hold off further sanctions for now while the talks appeared so close to a breakthrough.
Obama revealed details of the proposed deal with Iran during a conference in Washington on Tuesday afternoon.
It would relax some sanctions, but not oil exports or banking, in exchange for a temporary suspension in Iran's nuclear efforts while all sides seek a lasting solution.
"Some of the reporting has been inaccurate, understandably because the [countries involved] have kept the negotiations tight, but the essence of the deal would be that they would halt advances on their nuclear programme, they would roll back some elements that would get them closer to break out capacity where they could run for a weapon before the international community had a chance to react, and they would subject themselves to more vigorous inspections," Obama told a conference of business leaders.
"In return, [we would] open up the spigot a little bit for a very modest amount of relief that is entirely subject to reinstatement if they violate the agreement," he added.
"It would purchase a period of time, lets say six months, during which we could see if they could get to the end state of a position where we, the Israelis and the international community could say with confidence that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapon."
Details of the proposed deal, hitherto hazy, may add to pressure from Israel and hawkish Republicans in Washington who say Iran is being let off the hook.
************David Cameron speaks to Hassan Rouhani on phone
Phone call to Iranian president is first by British prime minister in over a decade
theguardian.com, Tuesday 19 November 2013 20.16 GMT
David Cameron has become the first British prime minister to call an Iranian president in more than a decade in a fresh sign of thawing relations.
The PM spoke to Hassan Rouhani by telephone on Tuesday afternoon before negotiations over Tehran's nuclear ambitions in Geneva this week.
A Downing Street spokesman said: "The two leaders discussed the bilateral relationship between Britain and Iran, welcoming the steps taken since President Rouhani took office, including the appointment of non-resident charges d'affaires last week.
"They agreed to continue efforts to improve the relationship on a step by step and reciprocal basis.
"On Iran's nuclear programme, both leaders agreed that significant progress had been made in the recent Geneva negotiations and that it was important to seize the opportunity presented by the further round of talks which get under way tomorrow.
"The prime minister underlined the necessity of Iran comprehensively addressing the concerns of the international community about their nuclear programme, including the need for greater transparency."
In September Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani held the first direct talks between American and Iranian leaders since the 1979 Islamic revolution, exchanging pleasantries in a 15-minute telephone call.
Rouhani's conciliatory language marked a radical change from the presidency of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and a break from tradition dating to the 1979 revolution of referring to the US as the "Great Satan". It mirrored a change on the streets of Tehran, where the ritual chanting of "death to America" has almost died out at public gatherings since the elections.
Hamid Karzai delays signing new US-Afghan military pact
Afghan president puts negotiations in crisis saying plan for retaining US forces should be signed after presidential elections
Emma Graham-Harrison in Kabul
theguardian.com, Friday 22 November 2013 11.30 GMT
The tumultuous relationship between Washington and Kabul plunged back into crisis hours after leaders from both sides pinned down the final details of a long-term military co-operation pact, which was expected to put a seal on a year of difficult negotiations.
The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, blindsided US diplomats – and reportedly some of his own advisers – with a suggestion on Thursday that the bilateral security agreement, even if approved, should only be signed after presidential elections next year.
A spokesman for the US president, Barack Obama, responded hours later with a warning that the deal must be signed before the end of this year for the Pentagon to plan its mission in Afghanistan after the final combat troops head home next year.
Failure to finalise a deal would "prevent the United States and our allies from being able to plan for a post-2014 presence in Afghanistan", the White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
The draft pact is being pored over this week by a loya jirga, or grand assembly, in Kabul of hand-picked delegates from around the country who are largely in favour of the deal and are expected to approve it in a nominally independent vote.
It was expected to be a largely ceremonial seal on a complex process, spreading the political risk of acceding to another decade of US soldiers on Afghan soil away from a president always wary of being branded a US puppet.
But in his opening speech to 2,500 delegates, and after reluctantly commending the pact, Karzai suggested it should only be signed after his successor is chosen in next April's poll. He cannot stand again. "This pact should be signed when the election has already taken place, properly and with dignity," he said.
Still, Karzai has stepped away from ultimatums before, most recently a demand for an absolute ban on US forces entering Afghan homes, and most of the heavyweight candidates vying to replace him are likely to support the pact. The loya jirga could also potentially call on him to sign the deal now.
The agreement is vital to secure the $4bn annual funding Afghan security forces will need after 2014, and training for a still weak and badly equipped force. For Washington it allows counter-terrorism forces to pursue al-Qaida and linked groups along the border, and support a decade of investment in lives and money.
Without it no other nations will leave troops in Afghanistan after 2014, as they need American political backing and on-the-ground support from medical evacuation to food supplies.
November 21, 2013
Vote Fraud Is Claimed by Maoists in Nepal
By GARDINER HARRIS
NEW DELHI — In the face of an apparent electoral drubbing, the leader of Nepal’s largest Maoist party demanded a halt to the nation’s vote counting on Thursday because of what he called widespread vote fraud.
“Serious national and international forces are behind this, and we demand a suspension to vote counting,” said the Maoist leader, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the head of the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist).
Mr. Dahal said that election workers had smashed ballot boxes and accepted false ballots. He called for an independent investigation and warned that his party might rejoin hard-line Maoists and refuse to participate in the Constituent Assembly if his demands were not met.
“We will not join” the assembly, he declared, as Maoist party members marched outside the party’s headquarters, shouting, “We are ready to fight!”
In a Constituent Assembly with more than 600 members, Mr. Dahal’s party was leading in just 19 constituencies on Thursday, compared with 75 for the Nepali Congress, a right of center party, and 48 for the Unified Marxist-Leninists, according to preliminary results released by Nepal’s Election Commission.
Mr. Dahal’s own attempt to win a Katmandu constituency appeared headed for defeat, as did that of Hisila Yami, a Maoist leader and the wife of a former prime minister. Mr. Dahal was also competing in another constituency, which he appeared likely to win.
But Maoist threats to end participation in this Himalayan country’s fledgling democracy could prove troublesome. A bloody 10-year insurgency ended in 2006, and the 2008 elections were considered a triumph in part because of Maoist inclusion.
Neel Kantha Uprety, Nepal’s chief election commissioner, promised to continue the vote count despite Maoist complaints. The first phase of counting is expected to be completed early next week, followed by a two-week process to determine each party’s proportional representation.
“There is no alternative but to accept the people’s verdict,” Mr. Uprety said.
Independent election observers largely dismissed the Maoists’ assertions of fraud and declared that the elections were well conducted.
“I am very disappointed to hear of the U.C.P.N. (Maoist) rejection of the counting process and withdrawal of their party agents,” said former President Jimmy Carter, one of the observers. “I trust that they will respect the will of Nepali voters as expressed on Election Day.”
Experts had predicted some erosion in the Maoists’ dominant position in the assembly, following claims of corruption and mismanagement while in power. But few foresaw the rout that seems to have taken place. One crucial change may have been efforts by Nepal’s Election Commission to cut down on voter fraud by issuing identification cards with fingerprints and photographs.
The new identity demands pared the voter rolls to 12.2 million from 17.6 million and were intended to prevent the kind of obvious irregularities that led former Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai to win his constituency in 2008 with more votes than there were voters.
Mr. Dahal said efforts to combat such irregularities may have cost his party the election.
“We were aware of the changes in voter rolls, which defeated us,” he said.
More than 70 percent of Nepal’s eligible voters participated despite an election boycott and transportation strike by a coalition of 33 parties, including hard-line Maoists.
The new assembly is charged with writing the country’s constitution, an effort the previous assembly was unable to complete after it became deadlocked over whether to adopt a parliamentary or presidential system of government, and whether ethnicity or geography should be used to divide the country into states.
It was hoped that the election would help fix Nepal’s political paralysis, which has afflicted its economy and forced many young Nepalese to emigrate.
Bhadra Sharma contributed reporting from Katmandu, Nepal.
November 21, 2013
Prosecutors Detail Attempt to Sway South Korean Election
By CHOE SANG-HUN
SEOUL, South Korea — Agents from the National Intelligence Service of South Korea posted more than 1.2 million Twitter messages last year to try to sway public opinion in favor of Park Geun-hye, then a presidential candidate, and her party ahead of elections in 2012, state prosecutors said on Thursday.
For months, South Korean politics have been rocked by the opposition’s accusations that officials at the National Intelligence Service, the country’s spy agency, and the military conducted an ambitious but clandestine online campaign to help Ms. Park win the Dec. 19 election.
Prosecutors have indicted several top intelligence officials, including Won Sei-hoon, the former director of the spy agency, on charges of ordering an online smear campaign against opposition candidates in violation of election law. A team of agents posted online messages that lauded government policies while ridiculing Ms. Park’s opposition rivals as untrustworthy pro-North Korean sympathizers ahead of the parliamentary election in April last year and the subsequent presidential election, they said.
But the prosecutors could not clarify how the operation affected the result of the elections. Ms. Park, who won her election by one million votes, has said she neither ordered nor benefited from such a campaign. But the opposition party claimed that she and the conservative government of her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, colluded to manipulate the election results.
The evidence unveiled by prosecutors on Thursday showed that the Twitter campaign was more expansive than previously known. The revelation came as political pressure has mounted on the prosecutors. In the National Assembly, the opposition is pushing for the appointment of an independent investigator, saying that the investigation by the prosecutors cannot be trusted.
During a budget speech to the National Assembly on Monday, Ms. Park lamented the prolonged political strife, which has grounded many economic and tax overhaul bills. She promised to block the intelligence agency from meddling in domestic politics but called for people to trust the prosecutors and the court to investigate the election scandal.
On Thursday, her deputy, Prime Minister Chung Hong-won, said the prosecutors’ new findings were evidence that they were being fair. The governing Saenuri Party also accused the opposition of starting a political offensive to discredit Ms. Park’s legitimacy as president.
“We don’t think that the prosecutors’ fairness and neutrality were compromised,” Yoon Sang-hyun, a deputy floor leader, was quoted by his party as saying during its leadership meeting.
But the main opposition Democratic Party called for the dismissal of Justice Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, accusing him of soft-pedaling the prosecutors’ inquiry to prevent any finding that would hurt Ms. Park. Mr. Hwang, appointed by Ms. Park, oversees the prosecutors. Opposition party leaders have also held a series of rallies in recent months demanding an apology from Ms. Park, whom they accuse of obstructing a fair investigation.
“What’s clear so far is that the National Intelligence Service and other state agencies had engaged in a systematic and massive intervention in elections,” Kim Han-gil, the top opposition party leader, said on Thursday.
The intelligence service said its online messages were posted as part of normal psychological warfare operations against North Korea, which it said used the Internet to criticize South Korean government policies, forcing its agents to defend them online. In a statement on Thursday, it also accused the prosecutors of citing as their evidence online postings that had nothing to do with its agents.
The allegation first surfaced during the election campaign last year, when opposition politicians and officials from the National Election Commission tried in vain to enter an office in Seoul that was locked from the inside by an intelligence agent who refused to answer questions about whether she was part of an illegal online election effort.
Three days before the presidential election, the Seoul police announced that they had found no evidence to support the opposition’s accusations. During her last television debate, Ms. Park excoriated her main opposition rival, Moon Jae-in, over what she called the harassment of a female agent by his party.
But the scandal did not die with Ms. Park’s election.
A senior police investigator told reporters after the election that her supervisor had intervened in the investigation, withholding evidence. The boss, Kim Yang-pan, who is the former chief of the Seoul Metropolitan Police, was indicted with Mr. Won, the former intelligence chief. Both denied the charges against them.
At the time of Mr. Won’s indictment in June, the prosecutors said they had found thousands of online political postings by his agents since 2009. Then, last month, they said they had found more than 55,000 Twitter messages from them. The former head of the prosecutors’ investigation also said his boss in the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office tried to block him from submitting that additional evidence, a charge the boss denied.
In a separate inquiry, military investigators are looking into South Korea’s Cyberwarfare Command after it was revealed last month in Parliament that some of its officials had conducted a similar online campaign against opposition candidates. The Cyberwarfare Command was created in 2010 to guard South Korea against hacking threats from North Korea.
On Thursday, the prosecutors said the 1.2 million Twitter messages they had discovered were mostly copies of the 26,500 original messages that the agents mass-distributed through a special computer program. But even if they were copies, they constituted an act of meddling in domestic politics and elections, Lee Jin-han, a senior prosecutor, told reporters.
11/21/2013 05:22 PM
An Apolitical Virus: Strife Fuels Polio's Return to Middle East
By Christoph Reuter
Polio is making a comeback in a decimated part of Syria, but the delicate politics of the war are making vaccination campaigns difficult. As an epidemic looms over the region, anger over the World Health Organization's inaction is growing.
Dr. Khalid Milaji, a Syrian doctor, is very angry with the World Health Organization (WHO). "They knew it!" he says. "We have been warning them for more than a month that polio is spreading, but they refuse to send the vaccine!" Milaji is part of the Polio Control Task Force, a group trying to rein in a new polio epidemic in Syria with Western assistance, and he is furious that the organization has been resisting their calls for help.
This is the same United Nations organization that has waged an extremely successful campaign against infantile paralysis, or poliomyelitis, since 1988. In that time, cases of polio have been reduced by 99 percent and the number of affected countries has declined from 125 to half a dozen.
And yet, for weeks, WHO had blocked a vaccination campaign aimed at containing what is probably the most dangerous outbreak in years, in the Syrian province of Deir ez-Zor. The UN organization even tried to stop the analysis of virus samples.
The reason: WHO has a policy of cooperating exclusively with the government in Damascus, even in times of war, despite the fact that the central government has long since given up on Deir ez-Zor. President Bashar Assad's army controls only two districts of the provincial capital, with the remainder of the whole province in rebel hands.
A Dangerous New Outbreak
Over the last two years, the province has been decimated by bombing. There is no more electricity, health care, telephone network or sewage treatment plant. Close to half a million refugees are crowded into towns along the Euphrates River, which is where the first polio cases occurred in September. More cases were reported in Idlib and Aleppo provinces in the middle of last week, with a total count of new reported cases reaching 48 by last Friday, and with new cases appearing daily.
Polio has become a new point of contention within the war, pitting the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Syrian doctors and the Turkish Health Ministry against WHO and the government in Damascus.
In the summer, infectious disease experts with the CDC -- cooperating with Syrian doctors from the country's northern and eastern provinces, from which Assad forces had been expelled -- began developing the EWARN early warning system. Personnel at makeshift hospitals were given satellite phones and instructed to report any suspected cases of cholera, typhus, polio and other infectious diseases as early as possible, so any undiscovered spread of these diseases could be prevented. "We have been observing 10 diseases since July," says EWARN Director Dr. Mohammed Alsaad, "so that we can react immediately."
Battle Over Testing
Doctors from this early warning chain discovered a polio outbreak in the town of Sbichan in the southern part of the province in September and, in early October, brought the first stool samples to Turkey. "We called the CDC en route to find out which laboratory in Gaziantep (the nearest big city) could analyze the samples," says Dr. Haytham Shaqla, who accompanied the transport. But when they reached the hospital that had been recommended, they were denied entry. "The management told us WHO had expressly prohibited them from accepting and testing our samples."
Another of the team's doctors, however, had good connections to the provincial government in Gaziantep and called the governor who, in turn, contacted officials in the capital, Ankara. The Turkish Health Ministry immediately sent a team to southern Turkey to pick up the samples.
WHO said that by bringing polio into Turkey, the Syrians had taken the samples outside the jurisdiction of WHO's Middle East division, which includes Syria, and into that of the European division, which includes Turkey. The Turkish government, however, was interested in resolving the situation quickly and had the stool samples from the sick children tested.
A Different Line from Damascus
At the behest of WHO, other samples from Sbichan were sent to Damascus. The Syrian doctors received the official results from the Syrian Health Ministry when they met in Gaziantep, on Oct. 14, to discuss what to do about the outbreak. It claimed that the samples did not contain polio virus, but instead showed evidence of poisoning from oil-contaminated water, and Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare neurological disorder.
Four days later, CDC officials in Atlanta informed Gaziantep doctors about the results from Ankara. All three cases had tested positive for polio. Additional tests in a Dutch reference laboratory had shown it was a "Type 1" polio virus, which had recently also erupted or been repeatedly reported in Israel, Egypt and Pakistan.
"WHO already knew this, but said nothing to us," says Milaji. "Why are they ignoring us? They wouldn't even talk to us until recently, even though the local councils and rebels constitute the only form of government order in Deir ez-Zor. And we were the ones, after all, who discovered all the cases."
Later in October, only after additional cases had appeared and the epidemic could no longer be kept a secret, the Health Ministry in Damascus suddenly discovered polio virus in the sample. Finally, on Oct. 29, WHO officially announced the outbreak of the epidemic. Why it took weeks for this to happen remains a mystery. Physicians view WHO's behavior as nothing short of negligent.
'Tip of the Iceberg'
That's because polio is incurable once it has been contracted. A simple oral vaccine is enough to prevent infection. Although only an average of one of 200 infected children develops the most serious symptom, permanent paralysis, and others experience only mild symptoms or none at all, anyone who is infected can spread the virus. This is why a minimum vaccination rate of 95 percent is considered necessary to prevent the spread of the disease.
The Syrian outbreak contains all the ingredients for a disastrous epidemic: war, about 5 million internally displaced persons living under crowded and appalling sanitary conditions, a large group of people constantly on the move, and up to 4,000 people a day fleeing across borders into neighboring countries. In large parts of Syria, there is no medical care and there have been no vaccinations in two years.
Dr. Bruce Aylward, assistant director-general at WHO and, since 1998, the head of its polio campaign, calls the outbreak a time bomb, saying the confirmed cases are "merely the tip of the iceberg" and the entire Middle East is at risk for a massive epidemic. WHO now plans to vaccinate all infants in concentric circles surrounding the epicenter of the outbreak, which amounts to 20 million children in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and other neighboring countries.
Crisis at the Epicenter
But little is happening at the epicenter itself. Every morning, hundreds of mothers crowd in front of the improvised infirmaries, waiting for a vaccine that won't arrive. In biweekly shifts, a team of doctors from the Polio Control Task Force comes to the region to follow the epidemic's development and conduct an information campaign, using the radio, mosques and brochures to spread their message. The doctors advise residents to wash their hands after using the toilet and before eating. "But it becomes a joke when you tell people to drink only clean water," says Dr. Bashir, the director of the task force. "Eighty percent of the people here get their drinking water from the Euphrates, where all untreated sewage goes. We are now advising people there to disinfect the water by adding two spoons of chlorine bleach to every 1,000 liters. It isn't exactly healthy, but what should we do?"
The task force would establish a refrigeration chain for shipping and storage, says Bashir, but WHO first has to release the vaccines. "We have a completed plan, we have the health centers, and we could drum up the 1,000 volunteers needed for a door-to-door campaign -- and now we wait." Although he recognizes WHO's dilemma, he disagrees with its decision. "If they accept us," he says, "they'll be breaking international rules. If they don't accept us, no one will stop the epidemic. The regime has no interest in doing so, because children have been vaccinated in the areas it controls."
'The Government Has Never Lied'
But WHO continues to insist on cooperating solely with the Assad government, and no one else.
"If we delivered vaccines across the Turkish border, that would be a red line for Damascus," says Aylward. "And the Syrian government will not accept any results from other labs. Last week, I met the Syrian minister of health, and the government has assured us that it will vaccinate all children in Syria. They have said they will do that, so we have to push them as hard as possible. They have said so, so we will hold them accountable. The government has never lied to us."
This is an odd assumption, given the fact that the regime has been bombing hospitals for more than two years, has prohibited medical personnel from treating victims of the airstrikes in government hospitals and has conducted targeted killings of doctors and pharmacists who treat and supply medicine to people in rebel-held areas.
On Nov. 4, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad said the government grants humanitarian access everywhere and has never blocked aid shipments. But for months now, more than 600,000 people in the northeastern suburbs of Damascus alone have been completely cut off from the outside world. Regime forces are not even allowing food, not to mention drugs and vaccines, to be brought into these areas. In September, children began dying of starvation in two other besieged suburbs south of the capital.
'The Virus is Apolitical'
"It is idiocy or criminal -- depending on your position and responsibility -- to accept the systematic lies of the regime in Damascus," says a Western diplomat in Gaziantep. "The UN should stop closing its eyes to what is happening in plain sight. Otherwise they are failing their mandate."
Throughout last week, experts with WHO and other international organizations held meetings in Gaziantep with doctors and local representatives from the provinces to learn how many people are located in each region. A vaccination campaign could begin within days if WHO released the vaccine. But it doesn't look promising. Dr. Milaji takes a cynical and sobering view: "Assad has his chemical weapons. We have our biological weapon. Although it mostly affects us first, it will eventually spread to the entire region. When it comes to that, the virus is apolitical."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Israel's growing gang violence leads to calls for anti-terror tactics
City of Ashkelon is rocked by car bombs targeting crime family as businesses associated with mobsters are bulldozed
Peter Beaumont in Ashkelon
theguardian.com, Thursday 21 November 2013 18.29 GMT
Simon was standing in his shop in sight of Ashkelon's football stadium when he heard the bomb go off.
At first, said Simon – who declined to give his surname – he thought it was a Palestinian missile from Gaza, a short distance along the coast. "I shut the shop and smoked a cigarette to calm myself," he said. After a few minutes, puzzled he had not heard the air-raid siren, he stuck his head out of his door to see the flaming shell of a car. Its passenger, and the target of the blast, was a member of prominent Israeli crime organisation the Domrani family.
The car bomb on Ort Street, close to a school, was not a solitary incident. In the space of a fortnight spanning the final week of October and the beginning of this month, two car bombs detonated in the southern port city, both targeting Domrani family members.
Ashkelon is not the only Israeli town to be rocked by mob violence this year. On 7 November, a device attached to the car of a prominent state prosecutor, well-known for pursuing Israel's crime families, detonated in Tel Aviv.
This rise in incidents has inspired a fierce debate that reached a climax last week with a call from Israel's hawkish public security minister, Yitzhak Aharonovitch, for the use of anti-terror tactics usually reserved for Palestinian militants – including administrative detention – against Jewish Israeli crime families. As he made his call, several high-profile arrests took place and a number of businesses associated with mobsters were bulldozed in Ashkelon.
If one man embodies the country's reviled organised crime network, it is 38-year-old Shalom Domrani, reputed head of the family that bears his name. It is his war with a former associate that has thrown Israel's gangsters into an unwelcome spotlight. Domrani was arrested on 9 November with six of his associates. The circumstances of his detention underscore another cause for mounting concern over the activities of organised criminals: the fear that crime families are making money by infiltrating local government.
The current case against Domrani is unrelated to gang war. He and his co-accused, Rabbi Yoram Abergil, face charges of issuing threats to another prominent rabbi with a large following in the Negev city of Netivot – a bullish attempt, it is alleged, to influence the outcome of municipal elections.
The difficulty faced by Israel's police in pursuing organised crime, however, was underlined on Wednesday when Domrani was released from jail to house arrest over the vote-fixing allegations.
Ordering the release, Judge Menahem Mizrahi said: "You can't arrest someone just because of his reputation. There are clear rules, including the existence of evidence, progress in the investigation and a clear reason for the arrest."
A short walk from Simon's shop, not far from the seafront, is a corner where the restaurant Pasha stood until it was demolished on Tuesday by police officers from Unit 433 – known as Israel's FBI. This is the force on the frontline of Israel's battle against the mob.
Benny Jannah, who owned Pasha, complained to the Guardian that he was the victim of a misunderstanding. "The restaurant wasn't even open yet," he said, standing several doors down from his destroyed premises. "The police said it had been taken over by the mob. They got it wrong. We have no connection to criminals. They said we had been forced to rent it to some people and we were afraid to speak. It isn't true!"
Whatever the facts of this case, the allegation is unsurprising. In Ashkelon, as elsewhere, Israeli mobsters have targeted businesses for protection rackets, loan sharking and forced takeovers.
The roots of the Domrani crime family are to be found in Ashkelon's impoverished neighbourhood of Shimshon: a place of dilapidated, gimcrack apartment blocks, settled by Sephardic Jews of Moroccan origin, many of whose families arrived in the 1950s – a group long marginalised in Israeli society.
With high unemployment and poor access to the banking system, loan sharking and crime thrived. Always a tough place, Ashkelon earned the nickname "the city without pity" because of the viciousness of its criminal disputes. It was in this environment, it is said, that Domrani emerged as a "soldier".
The public depiction of him in those days is as a small-time gangster who started in the racket of stealing sand from public beaches. Within a decade, the story goes, he had become a household name whose empire spanned protection and illegal gambling parlours.
In Shimshon, a mother and her daughter whose family provide legal services to Domrani agreed to speak to the Guardian. "He's not as bad as people say," the daughter said. "He helps the poorer people. He sends his 'soldiers' around with boxes of vegetables."
So why are the police interested in him? "Well, he is a criminal," the mother said. "He's just not responsible for everything that people say he is."
The heavy-set Domrani, like his main rival in the gang war, no longer lives in Ashkelon. His fortified home is in a rural farming settlement, or moshav, a short drive away – a safer base than the city, which had become too hot for him to live in even before the latest escalation.
Amid small houses shaded by trees, Domrani's tall compound walls are topped with plastic. It is a conspicuous building: CCTV cameras are set at every corner, monitoring approaches to the house. The front door is inscribed with a verse from Psalm 16: "I have set the Lord always before me."
A woman strolling nearby refused to discuss her neighbour. "We don't talk about that subject," she said, ending the conversation.
Debate over the cause of the current surge in this gang war – and its unusually brutish violence – has inspired intense scrutiny among domestic commentators. Israel's previous surges in criminal violence have been played out with guns and exclusively between gang members. But the availability of explosives and weapons stolen from the Israeli Defence Forces, analysts argue, has changed the nature of gang conflicts. A recent editorial in the Jerusalem Post speculated that there was also an economic motor powering the conflict – the "nearly inevitable result of Israel's burgeoning economy. Like all sectors of Israel's economy, organised crime, too, has enjoyed a major boom."
Amir Zohar, a crime blogger, suggests more personal motives. "There is a lot of money involved. There are a lot of weapons available. And then there is the question of ego. Shalom Domrani's rival was a former member of his crime family who lives in a neighbouring moshav. For a while Domrani was spending a lot of time in Morocco, which was becoming a colony of Israeli crime families. I can't put my finger on it precisely, but during that period they became rivals."
Others blame a lack of support for the police. Lior Akerman, a former senior officer in the Shin Bet – Israel's national security agency – complained in the Jerusalem Post: "The government has been neglecting the police for years. While the military has an outrageously large budget, the police barely receives enough to cover its salaries."
Two alleged members of the Domrani gang swept up in the election-rigging affair – Avner Abargil and Avraham Tanturi – stood last week in a court in Rishon Lezion for a custody hearing. Tanturi, a burly man with a shaved head, mouthed messages about his remand conditions to his friends.
Tanturi's solicitor, Leah Felus, pointed to a lack of evidence and absence of charges as proof that her client's arrest was nothing more than a transparent attempt by the authorities to "stem public anxiety in the wake of the bombings".
Back in Ashkelon, the deputy mayor, Efraim Mor, a former senior policeman who worked the beat in Shimshon for several years, explained the new strategy that has brought Ashkelon's police force and municipality into an alliance targeting the crime families and businesses associated with them.
He described the recent demolitions as part of a wider strategy: "The message is very simple. The criminals have crossed a red line with the bombings. We will make this a place where it is hard for criminals to do business. The law will be enforced. We want to say – it's not worth it to be here."
Aharonovitch's call for the use of administrative detention against mobsters was promptly slapped down by government sources in Jerusalem. But Mor is a supporter of any move to strengthen his city's arsenal against the mob. "We need all the means available in the fight against crime," he said. "If a criminal sets off a bomb on a public street, it's no different to terrorism."
Israel to stop issuing birth certificates to babies born to foreigners
Israel says it is not obliged to issue documentation and wants to stop foreigners using birth certificates to stay in country
Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem
theguardian.com, Wednesday 20 November 2013 16.41 GMT
Israel is to stop issuing birth certificates to babies born to foreigners – a move targeted at migrants but will also encompass diplomats and other international workers. The absence of official documentation is likely to cause major problems when applying for passports and other identity papers.
The plan was disclosed in state papers filed to the high court on Monday in response to a challenge to an existing policy of refusing to include the father's name in foreigners' birth certificates. As part of this policy, Israel also insists that only the mother's family name may be documented as the baby's last name.
The Israeli government says it has no legal obligation to issue official birth certificates to foreigners, and intends to stop doing so to prevent foreigners using such documentation to claim the right to stay in the country. Instead, foreigners will be given hospital-issued birth notices, which are currently hand-written in Hebrew.
A legal challenge, due to be heard on Sunday, has been brought by the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and two other rights groups on behalf of a family of asylum seekers from the Democratic Republic of Congo. A child born to parents with permission to stay in Israel and in possession of work permits was denied a birth certificate including the father's name. The ministry of interior also refused the parents' request to give the child her father's last name.
Israel says including the father's name on an official document without proof of paternity has significant legal ramifications. "Determining paternity is liable to determine the status of the father and child in civil law on matters such as inheritance, child support, custody, conversion, names, citizenship, residency, registration in the population registry and more," according to the court papers.
Amid rising public hostility, the Israeli government has sought to impose severe restrictions on the rights of migrant workers and asylum seekers, which it terms "infiltrators". On Sunday, the cabinet approved a bill to hold all migrants – mainly from Sudan and Eritrea - in a detention centre for a year.
Restrictions on birth certificates have also affected diplomats and other international workers. One western diplomat was barred from being named as his children's father on their birth certificates, and from giving them his family name.
The existing policy was a "hassle rather than a catastrophe" for international staff with well-established support networks, but the new plan was "a step of quite serious concern," he said.
"If Israel is going to stop giving birth certificates to foreigners, it will be a serious problem for all of us – and much worse for someone who doesn't have the infrastructure of support we enjoy." Israel would face "a chorus of concern", he added.
Oded Feller, a lawyer with ACRI, said: "The state has an obligation to protect the identities of all the children in Israel equally. It is also obligated to grant all children, without discrimination, birth certificates. The interior ministry is not authorised to erase elements of a child's identity. It is not entitled to cancel the parenthood of fathers who are not Israeli, nor is it authorised to take away the names given to children by their parents."
A refusal to issue any birth certificates to foreigners would present many difficulties, he added. "Israel's purpose is very simple: they don't want foreigners to apply for legal status here. The ministry of interior wants to make it as hard as possible."
The issue was raised at the United Nations committee on the rights of the child in June. According to minutes of the meeting, the committee "received information that the children of migrants were not issued with official birth certificates, but were instead given a copy of a handwritten birth notification that did not have a personal identification number and did not even include the name of the father. It was reported that families that insisted on the inclusion of the father's name had to pay nearly $2,000 for a DNA test."
The UN convention on the rights of the child, which Israel has signed, says full birth records are a fundamental right.
Israel bars ex-agent from testifying in US lawsuit against Bank of China
Plaintiffs in long-running case that was instigated by Israel claim move is to protect economic ties with Beijing
Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem
theguardian.com, Sunday 17 November 2013 15.39 GMT
Israel has barred a former security official from giving evidence in a landmark lawsuit in New York over the funding of terrorist organisations, in a move criticised as a capitulation to economic pressure from the Chinese government and a betrayal of US citizens caught up in Palestinian suicide bombings.
The dramatic development in a long-running case instigated by the state of Israel came late on Friday when the Israeli government filed a legal motion to prevent its former agent being subpoenaed as a star witness, citing security concerns. The US judge hearing the case had previously said the agent's testimony was crucial.
The plaintiffs and their lawyers claim the move is to protect economic ties with Beijing. Instead of championing justice for the victims of suicide bombings and attacks, Israel has caved in to Chinese demands, critics say.
Two related cases are being brought by US citizens against the state-owned Bank of China for allegedly allowing the transfer of funds to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Palestinian militant organisations responsible for suicide bombings that have killed hundreds of people.
One is a group action on behalf of 22 relatives of victims; the other was brought by the father of Daniel Wultz, a 16-year-old boy killed in a bombing in Tel Aviv in 2006. The families are seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.
The origins of the case lie in Israel's discovery eight years ago that funds were being channelled to Hamas and Islamic Jihad via accounts held with the Bank of China. Israeli security officials were dispatched to Beijing to alert the Chinese authorities to the transfer of funds and to request its cessation.
After the Chinese authorities failed to act, Israel sought and found US citizens prepared to sue the Bank of China, which has branches in America, under US anti-terrorism laws. Hamas and Islamic Jihad are proscribed by the US as terrorist organisations.
The former Israeli agent Uzi Shaya, who was part of the 2005 delegation to Beijing, was due to appear for questioning in New York on 25 November. At an earlier hearing, the judge, Shira Scheindlin, said Shaya "may be the only person who really has the knowledge as to what transpired at the  meeting".
Shaya had previously indicated his willingness to testify, but said he needed authorisation from his government. Now Israel has moved to bar the agent from giving evidence on the grounds that it could endanger national security.
In a statement released on Saturday, prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu's office said: "After conducting a comprehensive review of the matter, the state of Israel concluded that it cannot allow the former official to be forced to disclose in foreign legal proceedings any information that came to his knowledge in the course of his official duties.
"The disclosure of such information would harm Israel's national security, compromise Israel's ability to protect within its border, and interfere with international co-operative efforts to prevent terrorism."
It added that Israel "stands with victims of terror and their families and sympathises with their profound agony and pain".
Israel has become alarmed about the impact of the case on diplomatic and trade relations with China. In the runup to a visit by Netanyahu to Beijing in May, the prime minister reportedly gave assurances under Chinese pressure that Israeli officials would not testify in the case.
The two nations have since discussed a bilateral free-trade agreement. The finance minister, Naftali Bennett, said on a visit to China in July that "such an agreement would considerably increase the amount" of trade, currently worth at least $8bn annually.
An article by a trio of prominent columnists in Yedioth Ahronoth described the move as "one of the gloomiest days in the annals of Israel's lengthy war on terrorism". It said a high-ranking delegation from China had visited Israel to meet Netanyahu two weeks ago.
"In the course of the visit, a deal was reached: Israel will refrain from aiding the bereaved families in their suit, and China will not realise its threat to close its doors to the Israeli economy," they wrote. "Israel bowed to the dictates of the Chinese government."
An Israeli lawyer representing the 22 families in the group action said she was "deeply concerned and disappointed" by the Israeli government's move. "Financial engagement" with China should not be "at the cost of abandoning those families who have had loved ones murdered by the Palestinian terror groups who we allege moved funds through the Bank of China," said Nitsana Darshan-Leitner.
Yekutiel Wultz, the father of the teenage boy killed in Tel Aviv, said he had been asked by the Israeli government to bring the case. He told Yedioth Ahronoth: "I'd always felt that I was a soldier the Israeli government had sent to fight for it against terrorism. The government of Israel promised to stand behind me, to give me aid and support.
"After five years I suddenly find that all the commanders have run away. They tell me: fight on your own. Even worse, they say: there's no need to fight, stop fighting."
Naftali Moses, whose son Avraham was killed in Jerusalem in 2008, told the Associated Press: "Netanyahu's office promised to fight terror and they are backing down … They have forgotten the victims of terror in favour of relations with the Chinese."
Mexico vows to stop expansion of civilian ‘self-defense’ groups
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, November 21, 2013 20:35 EST
Mexican authorities warned Thursday that they would not allow vigilante “self-defense” groups to take over more towns in a western state where civilians are arming themselves to combat drug gangs.
Vigilantes are now providing security in six Michoacan state towns after self-defense forces seized the municipality of Tancitaro last weekend following clashes that left three people dead.
Self-defense leaders say they next plan to take over another town, Los Reyes, with about 40,000 residents, as part of their drive to chase the Knights Templar drug cartel out of the region.
But Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam insisted that the self-defense groups “will not spread. I assure you.”
“The Mexican state will guarantee this,” he told reporters in Mexico City.
Michoacan Governor Fausto Vallejo told AFP on Wednesday that state and federal authorities would arrest the vigilantes if they try to seize more towns.
Several vigilante groups have emerged in Michoacan and the neighboring state of Guerrero this year, saying that local police are either unable or unwilling to stop the murders, kidnappings and extortion committed by gangs.
Officials have accused some Michoacan vigilantes of working for another gang, the Jalisco New Generation drug cartel, which is locked in turf wars with the Knights Templar.
The federal government deployed thousands of troops to Michoacan in May in a bid to stem the violence and ensure that businesses can operate safely again in a state that is a major producer of lime and avocado.
But violence has continued.
Murillo Karam said the number of bodies found in 16 clandestine graves recently at the border between the states of Jalisco and Michoacan had risen to 31.
The pits were found after authorities detained and interrogated 22 municipal police officers from Michoacan accused of handing over two federal police officers to the Jalisco cartel.
The federal agents were not found in the pits.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Antarctic ice lab sees sub-atomic particles in space
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, November 21, 2013 18:55 EST
Ghostly sub-atomic particles called neutrinos in outer space have been glimpsed from an icy observatory in Antarctica, offering a rare new view of the universe, scientists said Thursday.
These high-energy particles are everywhere, and billions pass though our bodies every second, according to Kara Hoffman, a physics professor at the University of Maryland, a co-author of the study in the journal Science.
But neutrinos glimpsed in the outer reaches of our galaxy, or even beyond, are rare.
Experts say these nearly massless high-energy cosmic rays may originate from extreme events in space, like supernovas, black holes, pulsars, and more.
What makes this latest discovery exciting is it marks only the second time that the particles have been detected from space since 1987, and this time they are a million times stronger.
“This is the first indication of very high-energy neutrinos coming from outside our solar system,” said Francis Halzen, principal investigator of IceCube and professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin.
“This is the dawn of a new age of astronomy.”
In 1987 the particles were observed in connection with a supernova seen in the Large Magellanic Cloud, he said.
Just what kind of event caused the neutrinos to be detected from Earth this time is unclear.
The 28 high-energy neutrinos were found in data collected by IceCube, a 12-country collaboration to make a particle detector in the Antarctic ice, from May 2010 to May 2012.
This unique astrophysical telescope scans the universe for neutrinos coming through the Earth from the north and south.
“We are now working hard on improving the significance of our observation, and on understanding what this signal means and where it comes from,” said IceCube spokeswoman Olga Botner of Uppsala University.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Venus orbits the Sun inside huge ‘zodiacal cloud’ of space dust
By Alok Jha, The Guardian
Thursday, November 21, 2013 15:04 EST
Scientists have discovered that Venus circles the sun embedded within a huge band of dust that is 10-15 million kilometres high and stretches all the way around its orbit. The finding will help astronomers better understand the dust clouds within planetary systems so that they can be taken into account when examining planets outside our solar system.
The inner solar system is filled with dust between the planets, called the zodiacal cloud, which starts out at the asteroid belt and slowly drifts towards the sun. “This cloud is a prominent feature when you look from one of these space cameras, you can see this cloud very clearly, but it looks like a very smooth cloud, we don’t see very much structure in it,” said Mark Jones, of the Open University. “What we’ve found is this ring near Venus which results from an interaction of that dust with the planets.”
The dust in the cloud normally takes around 100,000 years to travel from the asteroid belt to the sun, said Jones, but if any of it gets near Venus the particles can get trapped, by the gravity of the planet, inside its dust ring for a very long time. “It makes this sort of structure in the dust cloud, this ring that goes all the way around the sun,” Jones said. His findings are published on Thursday in the journal Science.
The dust in the ring is only fractionally – around 10% – more dense than the rest of the zodiacal cloud. The orbit of Venus around the sun is 220 million kilometres in diameter and the dust cloud resembles a huge wedding band around the star. “It’s too faint to see it from the surface of the Earth but if you could see it, it would stretch 45 degrees either side of the sun, it would fill half of the daytime sky,” Jones said.
Studying the dust ring will allow scientists to improve their ability to detect planets outside our solar system. To get the best resolution optical images of planets around other stars, astronomers need to take account of how the dust in those systems behaves. Any dust rings in other systems might give a signal that scientists might erroneously think is a planet. There are theoretical models of how to potentially take account of the dust but these need to be tested with experiments.
“You need to understand what these rings are doing in order to understand what these future exoplanet observations are like,” said Jones. “What this Venus ring will allow you to do is test some of those detailed models.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
Aldous Huxley: Prophet of our brave new digital dystopia
By John Naughton, The Observer
Friday, November 22, 2013 2:17 EST
CS Lewis may be getting a plaque. But Huxley, for his foretelling of a society that loves servitude, is the true visionary
On 22 November 1963 the world was too preoccupied with the Kennedy assassination to pay much attention to the passing of two writers from the other side of the Atlantic: CS Lewis and Aldous Huxley. Fifty years on, Lewis is being honored with a plaque in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey, to be unveiled in a ceremony on Friday. The fanfare for Huxley has been more muted.
There are various reasons for this: The Chronicles of Narnia propelled their author into the Tolkien league; Shadowlands, the film about his life starring Anthony Hopkins, moved millions; and his writings on religious topics made him a global figure in more spiritual circles. There is a CS Lewis Society of California, for example; plus a CS Lewis Review and a Centre for the Study of CS Lewis & Friends at a university in Indiana.
Aldous Huxley never attracted that kind of attention. And yet there are good reasons for regarding him as the more visionary of the two. For one of the ironies of history is that visions of our networked future can be bracketed by the imaginative nightmares of Huxley and his fellow Etonian George Orwell. Orwell feared that we would be destroyed by the things we fear – the state surveillance apparatus so vividly evoked in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Huxley’s nightmare, set out in Brave New World, his great dystopian novel, was that we would be undone by the things that delight us.
Huxley was a child of England’s intellectual aristocracy. His grandfather was Thomas Henry Huxley, the Victorian biologist who was the most effective evangelist for Darwin’s theory of evolution. (He was colloquially known as “Darwin’s Bulldog”.) His mother was Matthew Arnold‘s niece. His brother, Julian and half-brother Andrew both became distinguished biologists. In the circumstances it’s not surprising that Aldous turned out to be a writer who ranged far beyond the usual preoccupations of literary folk – into history, philosophy, science, politics, mysticism and psychic exploration. His biographer wrote: “He offered as his personal motto the legend hung around the neck of a ragged scarecrow of a man in a painting by Goya: Aún aprendo. I am still learning.” He was, in that sense, a modern Voltaire.
Brave New World was published in 1932. The title comes from Miranda’s speech in Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “Oh, wonder! / How many goodly creatures are there here! / How beauteous mankind is! Oh brave new world, / That has such people in’t.”
It is set in the London of the distant future – AD 2540 – and describes a fictional society inspired by two things: Huxley’s imaginative extrapolation of scientific and social trends; and his first visit to the US, in which he was struck by how a population could apparently be rendered docile by advertising and retail therapy. As an intellectual who was fascinated by science, he guessed (correctly, as it turned out) that scientific advances would eventually give humans powers that had hitherto been regarded as the exclusive preserve of the gods. And his encounters with industrialists like Alfred Mond led him to think that societies would eventually be run on lines inspired by the managerial rationalism of mass production (“Fordism”) – which is why the year 2540 AD in the novel is “the Year of Our Ford 632″.
In the novel Huxley describes the mass production of children by what we would now call in vitro fertilisation; interference in the development process of infants to produce a number of “castes” with carefully modulated levels of capacities to enable them to fit without complaining into the various societal and industrial roles assigned to them; and Pavlovian conditioning of children from birth.
In this world nobody falls ill, everyone has the same lifespan, there is no warfare, and institutions and marriage and sexual fidelity are dispensed with. Huxley’s dystopia is a totalitarian society, ruled by a supposedly benevolent dictatorship whose subjects have been programmed to enjoy their subjugation through conditioning and the use of a narcotic drug – soma – that is less damaging and more pleasurable than any narcotic known to us. The rulers of Brave New World have solved the problem of making people love their servitude.
Which brings us back to the two Etonian bookends of our future. On the Orwellian front, we are doing rather well – as the revelations of Edward Snowden have recently underlined. We have constructed an architecture of state surveillance that would make Orwell gasp. And indeed for a long time, for those of us who worry about such things, it was the internet’s capability to facilitate such comprehensive surveillance that attracted most attention.
In the process, however, we forgot about Huxley’s intuition. We failed to notice that our runaway infatuation with the sleek toys produced by the likes of Apple and Samsung – allied to our apparently insatiable appetite for Facebook, Google and other companies that provide us with “free” services in exchange for the intimate details of our daily lives – might well turn out to be as powerful a narcotic as soma was for the inhabitants of Brave New World. So even as we remember CS Lewis, let us spare a thought for the writer who perceived the future in which we would come to love our digital servitude.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013