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« Reply #10830 on: Dec 22, 2013, 08:32 AM »

December 21, 2013

Now Taking World Cup Bookings, Rio’s Slums

By SIMON ROMERO
IHT

RIO DE JANEIRO — Gun battles still boom through the streets. Drug dealers still ply their trade in the labyrinth of alleyways. Residents of the Rocinha neighborhood still fume over the brutal tactics of the police, who were recently charged with torturing and killing an impoverished bricklayer.

But with hotel rooms in perilously short supply and even modest hostels in Rio de Janeiro charging as much as $450 for a bed during the World Cup in Brazil next year, the residents of Rocinha and other favelas, or slums, are making the most of the city’s acute shortage of lodging for the event: They are renting out their homes to fans from around the globe.

Maria Clara dos Santos, 49, is preparing to take as many as 10 World Cup visitors into her three-bedroom home in Rocinha (pronounced ho-SEEN-ya), which commands a stunning view of Ipanema’s sun-kissed beaches in the distance. True, Ms. dos Santos notes, untreated sewage reeks on her street and steel bars on her windows are needed to deter break-ins, so she is offering guests a comparative bargain — about $50 a night to stay with her during the tournament.

“We can provide a level of human warmth and authenticity that places down below cannot,” she said, reflecting the growing popularity of favelas for their vibrant musical scenes, cheaper prices and absence of pretension compared with ritzier parts of town.

Housing tourists in Rio’s slums might well turn out to be one of the smoother aspects of preparing for the World Cup, an event that has been more a source of contention for Brazil than a crowning achievement in its push for global acclaim.

Huge cost overruns and chronic delays as well as accidents involving workers falling to their deaths or being crushed by towering cranes are bedeviling the lavish stadiums under construction.

The Brazilian football confederation remains tarnished by bribery scandals at its highest levels. And if the enormous street protests this year against government spending for the World Cup were not enough, anger is now building over the costly transportation projects intended to get soccer fans to the matches. Some will not even be completed before the last goal in the tournament is scored.

“There’s a real lack of robust governance structures here to deal with an event this size, so things start breaking and people start dying,” said Christopher Gaffney, a scholar at Brazil’s Federal Fluminense University who studies large sporting projects. “The absurd prices ahead of the World Cup are part of this phenomenon. People perceive the event as bringing only short-term benefits, so they’re seizing on the immediate opportunities around the event.”

Brazilian authorities expect the nation to receive as many as 600,000 foreign tourists around the month of the World Cup, which starts in June and will be held in 12 cities. Here in Rio, which will host the tournament’s final game, hotel operators are clearly salivating at the coming influx.

One reason: The city has only about 55,400 hotel beds for as many as 300,000 expected visitors, leading rates to surge to an average of about $460 a night, roughly double what they regularly cost, according to a report by Brazil’s state tourism agency.

Alfredo Lopes, the president of the Brazil Hotel Industry Association’s Rio chapter, said the price increases should be expected. “Rio’s image is being exalted around the world at this time,” he said. “It would be absurd to try to regulate hotel prices when there are people prepared to pay what the market determines is the correct price.”

Going further, Mr. Lopes compared Rio with certain coveted luxury brands. “Some people are prepared to pay triple the money for a Harley-Davidson than for another motorcycle, and there’s a reason for that,” he said. “The same goes for Rio,” he added.

Never mind that the state of Rio de Janeiro is grappling with a new crime wave, illustrated by a surge in homicides around the city, the shooting of a 25-year-old German tourist in Rocinha  and a string of muggings on beaches frequented by foreign tourists.

For those who cannot afford to stay in Rio’s more glamorous districts, or who are simply turned off by the city’s already high hotel rates, favela lodgings are emerging as an alluring option.

“I wanted to learn more about the heart of Brazil, rather than the facade,” said Isom Hightower, 30, an aviation consultant from San Francisco now paying around $11 a night for a bunk bed in a Rocinha guesthouse.

After quitting his job to travel in Brazil, Mr. Hightower found the lodging through Favela Experience, a start-up created by Elliot Rosenberg, a 23-year-old fellow Californian, that promises “affordable World Cup accommodations” in the city’s slums. During the tournament, the rate for the bunk bed in the same home may climb to about $50 a night.

Such guesthouses are proliferating, helped in part by the state’s sometimes polarizing campaign to take control of dozens of Rio’s slums by sending in army troops and police forces, a process commonly called “pacification.”

Big security challenges persist, like the abuses by the police recently revealed in Rocinha, but living standards have increased in some communities with Brazil’s stronger economy over the last decade. Basic services like public health clinics and cable-car transportation systems have been introduced and homicide rates have fallen sharply in some areas. The effort has also opened new parts of the city to tourism, and some favelas have taken on a chic allure, appearing as backdrops for fashion shoots and videos.

Bob Nadkarni, a 70-year-old British-born painter who moved here more than three decades ago, helped pioneer the concept of the favela guesthouse with The Maze, his aptly-named labyrinth in Tavares Bastos, a slum near the old presidential palace. Its private rooms during the World Cup go for about $220 a night.

A real estate frenzy has struck this year in another hillside slum, Vidigal, which overlooks the exclusive beach of Leblon. With investors snapping up properties, basic one-bedroom homes there can cost about $75,000 or more, reflecting bidding wars as hoteliers seek a favela foothold.

“I think it’s going to be almost like a Mediterranean village in 10 years,” said Cello Macedo, an investor from São Paulo. He bought a house in Vidigal and is transforming it into an upscale guesthouse, pinning his hopes on a party scene that already thrives in the slum, attracting bohemian travelers from Europe and the United States.

Vinicius Lummertz, a senior official in Brazil’s tourism ministry, said that lodgings in Rio’s favelas, whether guesthouses, chic hotels or merely rooms in the homes of families, would be welcome to bolster options for travelers. In fact, he painted a relatively rosy picture of Rio’s capacity to receive large numbers of visitors during the World Cup.

“Prices for places to stay may jump before the tournament, but they could also go down when people consider all the options,” Mr. Lummertz said. He said the ministry had compiled an estimate of about 150,000 available places to stay in Rio and nearby resort cities, including hostels, private residences and even short-stay love motels.

Indeed, these establishments, where clients can opt for trysts or overnight stays, will be competing with the guesthouses in the favelas. Of the 80 rooms at the Motel Villa Regia, a love motel near Rio’s port, 51 have already been converted into what appear to be regular hotel rooms, removing ceiling mirrors, Jacuzzis and illuminated glass cases selling condoms and snacks.

With themed rooms called Hollywood, High Tech, Japonesa and Versailles already converted to more conventional uses, not everyone is pleased with the tug of market forces in Rio’s hotel industry. “We have clients who have been coming here for 28 years,” said Lourdes Will, manager of the Villa Regia. “They feel abandoned.”

Nadia Sussman and Taylor Barnes contributed reporting.


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« Reply #10831 on: Dec 22, 2013, 08:35 AM »


The Christian Science Monitor

Asteroid-hunting telescope orbiting Earth sends first images, with clarity

By Pete Spotts, Staff writer / December 20, 2013 at 3:45 pm EST

NEOWISE, a repurposed infrared telescope orbiting Earth, has returned its first test images in preparation for its new task: hunting for and characterizing asteroids – especially those that could represent a hazard to Earth.

The images are a milestone for NASA's first mission dedicated to the hunt for near-Earth objects (NEOs) from space. In addition to discovering additional NEOs, the telescope will help refine estimates of the hazards presented by objects already discovered via optical telescopes.

Beyond its immediate objectives, the mission is serving as training wheels for a more ambitious mission, NEOCAM, that a team is preparing to propose to NASA.

On Thursday NASA released initial images from NEOWISE. The team, led by Amy Mainzer, is pleased with the results. "The image quality looks excellent," says Dr. Mainzer, who is also leading the NEOCAM effort. "It looks pretty much like we left it about 31 months ago."

That's when NASA put the craft to sleep when its initial mission ended.

NEOWISE launched in 2009 as NASA's Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). The exquisitely sensitive telescope spent about six months building an all-sky catalog of objects ranging from brown dwarfs to distant galaxies. NASA's James Web Space Telescope, currently slated for launch in 2018, and other observatories will use the catalog to pick targets for detailed observation.

By end of September 2010, however, the craft had exhausted the coolant that helped the infrared detectors reach the sensitivity needed to build the catalog. Within a month, NASA opted to extended the mission through February 2011 to see how the craft, with warmer detectors, worked as an NEO observatory.

During both phases of the craft's initial mission, it observed more than 158,000 asteroids. Of those, it discovered some 35,000 objects; 135 were NEOs. It picked up 155 comets, including 21 new ones.

Importantly, during the craft's warm phase, the team observed 6,500 asteroids in the main asteroid belt, between Mars and Jupiter, as well as 88 NEOs, according to a study the researchers published in November 2012 in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

NEOWISE's success prompted the agency to ask Mainzer and colleagues to propose a renewed search for NEOs. The agency approved the project in August and reawakened the craft in October.

NEOs are objects that make their closest approach to the sun at distances less than 1.3 astronomical units, or 1.3 times the distance between Earth and the sun. An important subgroup, near-Earth asteroids, can have have orbits that cross Earth's orbit, making them potential collision candidates.

Researchers have estimated that 94 percent of the NEOs they've identified come from the main asteroid belt, which lies between Mars and Jupiter.

On cosmic time scales, these interlopers are fleeting – tracing their near-Earth orbits only for a few million years, researchers say. They can get booted out of the solar system, or get drawn into the sun, or they can collide with something else, including Earth.

NEOWISE will help refine estimates of the hazard these objects can represent in several ways, all related to the telescope's use of infrared wavelengths instead of optical wavelengths, Mainzer explains.

For instance, size estimates for asteroids typically are based on the amount of visible light they reflect, which can vary between 2 percent for the darkest objects to 50 percent or so for the brightest, depending on the asteroid's composition.

But it's tough for optical telescopes to tell the difference between an intrinsically dark asteroid that's relatively close and a distant one that's intrinsically bright. Both could appear to have the same brightness, hence size, even though their actual sizes could be quite different. That confusion drops significantly when the objects are viewed at infrared wavelengths. For infrared observations with NEOWISE, the size might have an error of 10 to 25 percent. With optical observations, the sizes could be off by as much as 500 percent.

That becomes important in trying to understand the risks attributed to asteroids, because the bigger the object, the more devastating its effect if it strikes Earth. Infrared observations yield a better estimate of the range of NEO sizes and the number of objects in each size class.

Although NEOWISE has proved to be up to the task for asteroid detection, it wasn't designed to serve that purpose, Mainzer acknowledges.

That's where NEOCAM comes in. Her team has developed and successfully tested sensitive detectors that don't require tanks of liquid hydrogen to cool them to 8 degrees above absolute zero, as WISE's did. Instead, the detectors can be kept at their prime operating temperature – a still-chilly 35 to 40 degrees above absolute zero – merely by parking the NEOCAM craft in an orbit just inside the moon's orbit. The location, known as the Earth-moon L1 point, represents a gravitational sweet spot where the craft requires little or no fuel to keep to its orbital path.

The craft also would be designed to hunt for objects much closer to the sun than NEOWISE can.

"This would be something that would last a very long time and would just be out there always patrolling for asteroids," Mainzer says.

NASA already had funded the technology development needed to pull off the mission. If NASA accepts the team's mission proposal, it would take another four or five years to build and launch the craft, Mainzer suggests.

In the meantime, the NEOWISE team is close to finishing its procedures for readying the craft and the data-analysis system for the hunt. NEOWISE should be ready for prime time in a few months.

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« Reply #10832 on: Dec 22, 2013, 09:00 AM »

In the USA...United Surveillance America

National intelligence chief declassifies Bush-era documents on NSA programs

• James Clapper documents relate to bulk collection origins

• Disclosure comes in response to federal court order

• Obama concedes NSA bulk collection may be unnecessary

Associated Press in Washington
theguardian.com, Saturday 21 December 2013 18.55 GMT     

The director of national intelligence on Saturday declassified more documents that outline how the National Security Agency was first authorised to start collecting bulk phone and internet records in the hunt for al-Qaida terrorists and how a court eventually gained oversight of the program, after the justice department complied with a federal court order to release its previous legal arguments for keeping the programs secret.

James Clapper explained in a statement on Saturday that President George W Bush first authorised the spying in October 2001, as part of the Terrorist Surveillance Program, just after the 9/11 attacks. Bush disclosed the program in 2005.

The Terrorist Surveillance Program, which had to be extended every 30-60 days by presidential order, was eventually replaced by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a law that requires a secret court to authorise the bulk collection.

The US president, Barack Obama, hinted on Friday that he would consider some changes to the NSA's bulk collection of Americans' phone records to address the public's concerns about privacy. His comments came in a week in which a federal judge declared the NSA's collection program "unconstitutional," and a presidential advisory panel suggested 46 changes to NSA operations. Those recommendations included forcing the NSA to go to the court for every search of the phone records database and keeping that database in the hands of a third party, not the government.

The judge said there was little evidence any terror plot had been thwarted by the program, known as Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act.

The panel recommended continuing the program but seeking a court order for each NSA records search. Obama said he would announce his decisions in January.

"There has never been a comprehensive government release ... that wove the whole story together: the timeline of authorizing the programs and the gradual transition to (court) oversight," said Mark Rumold, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group suing the NSA to reveal more about the bulk records programs. "Everybody knew that happened, but this is the first time I've seen the government confirm those twin aspects."

That unexpected windfall of disclosures early on Saturday came with the release of documents outlining why issuing the information would damage national security. The US district court in the northern district of California in the fall had ordered the Obama administration to make public the documents, known as state secrets declarations.

The justice department issued the declarations late on Friday in two ongoing class action cases: Shubert v Bush, now known as Shubert v Obama, on behalf of Verizon customers; and Jewel v NSA, on behalf of AT&T customers.

Calls to the justice department and the director of national intelligence's office were not answered.

"In September, the federal court in the northern district of California ... ordered the government to go back through all the secret ex parte declarations and declassify and release as much as they could, in light of the Snowden revelations and government confirmations," Rumold said. "So what was released late last night was in response to that court order."

In one such legal argument, former national intelligence director Dennis Blair told the court in 2009 that revealing information – including how information was collected, whether specific individuals were being spied upon and what the programs had revealed about al-Qaida – could damage the hunt for terrorists.

"To do so would obviously disclose to our adversaries that we know of their plans and how we may be obtaining information," Blair said. Much of his 27-page response is redacted.

***********

Obama concedes NSA bulk collection of phone data may be unnecessary

• President: 'There may be a better way of skinning the cat'

• 'Potential abuse' of collected data cited as concern

Dan Roberts, Paul Lewis and Spencer Ackerman in Washington
theguardian.com, Friday 20 December 2013 21.43 GMT   
  
President Barack Obama has conceded that mass collection of private data by the US government may be unnecessary and said there were different ways of “skinning the cat”, which could allow intelligence agencies to keep the country safe without compromising privacy.

In an apparent endorsement of a recommendation by a review panel to shift responsibility for the bulk collection of telephone records away from the National Security Agency and on to the phone companies, the president said change was necessary to restore public confidence.

“In light of the disclosures, it is clear that whatever benefits the configuration of this particular programme may have, may be outweighed by the concerns that people have on its potential abuse,” Obama told an end-of-year White House press conference. “If it that’s the case, there may be a better way of skinning the cat.”

Though insisting he will not make a final decision until January, this is the furthest the president has gone in backing calls to dismantle the programme to collect telephone data, a practice the NSA claims has legal foundation under section 215 of the Patriot Act. This week, a federal judge said the program “very likely” violates the US constitution.

“There are ways we can do this potentially that give people greater assurance that there are checks and balances, sufficient oversight and transparency,” Obama added. “Programmes like 215 could be redesigned in ways that give you the same information when you need it without creating these potentials for abuse. That’s exactly what we should be doing: to evaluate things in a very clear specific way and moving forward on changes. And that’s what I intend to do.”

He promised a meaningful response to a review panel that reported earlier this week, which urged more transparency in surveillance activities. “Just because we can do something it doesn’t mean we necessarily should,” he told reporters at the White House.

The president also went further than his review panel in suggesting the US needed to rein in its overseas surveillance activities. “We have got to provide more confidence to the international community. In a virtual world, some of these boundaries don’t matter any more,” he said. “The values that we have got as Americans are ones that we have to be willing to apply beyond our borders, perhaps more systematically than we have done in the past.”

Obama pointedly declined to be drawn into a debate about possible amnesty for Edward Snowden, the whistleblower whose revelations about the NSA have sparked intense internal deliberation about changing US surveillance activities. The president distinguished between Snowden’s leaks and the debate those leaks prompted, which he said was “an important conversation we needed to have”, but left open the question of whether Snowden should still be prosecuted.

“The way in which these disclosures happened has been damaging to the United States and damaging to our intelligence capabilities,” Obama said. “I think that there was a way for us to have this conversation without that damage. As important and as necessary as this debate has been, it’s important to keep in mind this has done unnecessary damage.”

Ben Wizner, Snowden's attorney, told the Guardian: “The president said that we could have had this important debate without Snowden, but no one seriously believes we would have. And now that a federal court and the president’s own review panel have agreed that the NSA’s activities are illegal and unwise, we should be thanking Snowden, not prosecuting him.”

The president would not comment on a suggestion last weekend by Richard Ledgett, the NSA official investigating the Snowden leaks, that an amnesty might be appropriate in exchange for the return of the data Snowden took from the agency.

Obama said he could not comment specifically because Snowden was “under indictment”, something not previously disclosed. While the Justice Department filed a criminal complaint against Snowden on espionage-related charges in June, there has been no public subsequent indictment, although it is possible one exists under gag order.

The Justice Department referred comment on a Snowden indictment to the White House. Caitlin Hayden, the chief spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, clarified that Obama was referring to the criminal complaint against Snowden. It remains unclear if there is an indictment under seal.

Conspicuously, Obama declined to rebut one assessment from his surveillance review group – that the bulk collection of US call data was not essential to stopping a terrorist attack.

Instead, he contended that there had been “no abuse” of the bulk phone data collection. But in 2009, a judge on the secret surveillance court prevented the NSA from searching through its databases of US phone information after discovering “daily violations” resulting from NSA searches of Americans’ phone records without reasonable suspicion of connections to terrorism.

That data was inaccessible to the NSA for almost all of 2009, before the Fisa court was convinced the NSA had sufficient safeguards in place for preventing similar violations.

In another indication of the shifting landscape on surveillance, the telecoms giant AT&T announced on Friday that it will begin publishing a semi-annual report about its complicity with government surveillance requests. AT&T followed its competitor Verizon, which announced a similar move on Thursday.

“We believe clear legal frameworks with accountability and oversight are required to strike the right balance between protecting individual privacy and civil liberties, and protecting the national and personal security, a balance we all desire. We take our responsibility to protect our customers' information and privacy very seriously and pledge to continue to do so to the fullest extent possible,” said AT&T vice-president Wayne Watts.

The first such report is expected for early 2014, Watts said. While technology firms like Yahoo and Google have pushed for greater transparency about providing their customer data to the government, the telecommunications firms – which have cooperated with the NSA since the agency’s 1952 inception – did not join them before the events of the past week.

****************

$10m NSA contract with security firm RSA led to encryption 'back door'

• Flawed formula enabled agency to crack into products

• RSC and NSA decline to comment

Reuters in San Francisco
theguardian.com, Friday 20 December 2013 22.22 GMT       

As a key part of a campaign to embed encryption software that it could crack into widely used computer products, the National Security Agency arranged a secret $10m contract with RSA, one of the most influential firms in the computer security industry, Reuters has learned.

Documents leaked by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden show that the NSA created and promulgated a flawed formula for generating random numbers, to create a "back door" in encryption products, the New York Times reported in September. Reuters later reported that RSA became the most important distributor of that formula by rolling it into a software tool called Bsafe that is used to enhance security in personal computers and many other products.

Undisclosed until now was that RSA received $10m in a deal that set the NSA formula as the preferred, or default, method for number generation in the BSafe software, according to two sources familiar with the contract. Although that sum might seem paltry, it represented more than a third of the revenue that the relevant division at RSA had taken in during the entire previous year, securities filings show.

The earlier disclosures of RSA's entanglement with the NSA already had shocked some in the close-knit world of computer security experts. The company had a long history of championing privacy and security, and it played a leading role in blocking a 1990s effort by the NSA to require a special chip to enable spying on a wide range of computer and communications products. RSA, which is now a subsidiary of the computer storage giant EMC Corp , urged customers to stop using the NSA formula after the Snowden disclosures revealed its weakness.

RSA and EMC declined to answer questions for this story, but RSA said in a statement: "RSA always acts in the best interest of its customers and under no circumstances does RSA design or enable any back doors in our products. Decisions about the features and functionality of RSA products are our own."

The NSA declined to comment.

The RSA deal shows one way the NSA carried out what Snowden's documents describe as a key strategy for enhancing surveillance: the systematic erosion of security tools. NSA documents released in recent months called for using "commercial relationships" to advance that goal, but did not name any security companies as collaborators.

The NSA came under attack this week in a landmark report from a White House panel appointed to review US surveillance policy. The panel noted that "encryption is an essential basis for trust on the Internet", and called for a halt to any NSA efforts to undermine it.

Most of the dozen current and former RSA employees interviewed said that the company erred in agreeing to such a contract, and many cited RSA's corporate evolution away from pure cryptography products as one of the reasons it occurred. But several said that RSA also was misled by government officials, who portrayed the formula as a secure technological advance.

"They did not show their true hand," one person briefed on the deal said of the NSA, asserting that government officials did not let on that they knew how to break the encryption.
A storied history

Started by MIT professors in the 1970s and led for years by an ex-marine, Jim Bidzos, RSA and its core algorithm were named for the last initials of the three founders, who revolutionized cryptography. Little known to the public, RSA's encryption tools have been licensed by most large technology companies, which in turn use them to protect computers used by hundreds of millions of people.

At the core of RSA's products was a technology known as public key cryptography. Instead of using the same key for encoding and then decoding a message, there are two keys related to each other mathematically. The first, publicly available key is used to encode a message for someone, who then uses a second, private key to reveal it.

From RSA's earliest days, the US intelligence establishment worried it would not be able to crack well-engineered public key cryptography. Martin Hellman, a former Stanford researcher who led the team that invented the technique, said NSA experts tried to talk him and others into believing that the keys did not have to be as large as they planned.

The stakes rose when more technology companies adopted RSA's methods and internet use began to soar. The Clinton administration embraced the Clipper Chip, envisioned as a mandatory component in phones and computers to enable officials to overcome encryption with a warrant. RSA led a fierce public campaign against the effort, distributing posters with a foundering sailing ship and the words "Sink Clipper!"

A key argument against the chip was that overseas buyers would shun US technology products if they were ready-made for spying. Some companies say that is just what has happened in the wake of the Snowden disclosures.

The White House abandoned the Clipper Chip and instead relied on export controls to prevent the best cryptography from crossing US borders. RSA once again rallied the industry, and it set up an Australian division that could ship what it wanted.

"We became the tip of the spear, so to speak, in this fight against government efforts," Bidzos recalled in an oral history.

RSA and others claimed victory when export restrictions relaxed. But the NSA was determined to read what it wanted, and the quest gained urgency after the 11 September 2001 attacks.

RSA, meanwhile, was changing. Bidzos stepped down as chief executive in 1999 to concentrate on VeriSign, a security certificate company that had been spun out of RSA. The elite lab Bidzos had founded in Silicon Valley moved east to Massachusetts, and many top engineers left the company, several former employees said. And the BSafe toolkit was becoming a much smaller part of the company. By 2005, BSafe and other tools for developers brought in just $27.5m of RSA's revenue, less than 9% of the $310m total.

"When I joined there were 10 people in the labs, and we were fighting the NSA," said Victor Chan, who rose to lead engineering and the Australian operation before he left in 2005. "It became a very different company later on."

By the first half of 2006, RSA was among the many technology companies seeing the US government as a partner against overseas hackers. New RSA chief executive Art Coviello and his team still wanted to be seen as part of the technological vanguard, former employees say, and the NSA had just the right pitch. Coviello declined an interview request.

An algorithm called Dual Elliptic Curve, developed inside the agency, was on the road to approval by the National Institutes of Standards and Technology as one of four acceptable methods for generating random numbers. NIST's blessing is required for many products sold to the government and often sets a broader de facto standard. RSA adopted the algorithm even before NIST approved it. The NSA then cited the early use of Dual Elliptic Curve inside the government to argue successfully for NIST approval, according to an official familiar with the proceedings.

RSA's contract made Dual Elliptic Curve the default option for producing random numbers in the RSA toolkit. No alarms were raised, former employees said, because the deal was handled by business leaders rather than pure technologists.

"The labs group had played a very intricate role at BSafe, and they were basically gone," said labs veteran Michael Wenocur, who left in 1999.

Within a year, major questions were raised about Dual Elliptic Curve. Cryptography authority Bruce Schneier wrote that the weaknesses in the formula "can only be described as a back door".

After reports of the back door in September, RSA urged its customers to stop using the Dual Elliptic Curve number generator. But unlike the Clipper Chip fight two decades ago, the company is saying little in public, and it declined to discuss how the NSA entanglements have affected its relationships with customers.

The White House, meanwhile, says it will consider this week's panel recommendation that any efforts to subvert cryptography be abandoned.

****************

December 21, 2013

White House Tries to Prevent Judge From Ruling on Surveillance Efforts

By CHARLIE SAVAGE and DAVID E. SANGER
NYT

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration moved late Friday to prevent a federal judge in California from ruling on the constitutionality of warrantless surveillance programs authorized during the Bush administration, telling a court that recent disclosures about National Security Agency spying were not enough to undermine its claim that litigating the case would jeopardize state secrets.

In a set of filings in the two long-running cases in the Northern District of California, the government acknowledged for the first time that the N.S.A. started systematically collecting data about Americans’ emails and phone calls in 2001, alongside its program of wiretapping certain calls without warrants. The government had long argued that disclosure of these and other secrets would put the country at risk if they came out in court.

But the government said that despite recent leaks by Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor, that made public a fuller scope of the surveillance and data collection programs put in place after the Sept. 11 attacks, sensitive secrets remained at risk in any courtroom discussion of their details — like whether the plaintiffs were targets of intelligence collection or whether particular telecommunications providers like AT&T and Verizon had helped the agency.

“Disclosure of this still-classified information regarding the scope and operational details of N.S.A. intelligence activities implicated by plaintiffs’ allegations could be expected to cause extremely grave damage to the national security of the United States,” wrote the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr.

So, he said, he was continuing to assert the state secrets privilege, which allows the government to seek to block information from being used in court even if that means the case must be dismissed. The Justice Department wants the judge to dismiss the matter without ruling on whether the programs violated the First or Fourth Amendment.

The filings also included similar declarations from earlier stages of the California litigation, which were classified at the time and shown only to the court but were declassified on Friday. The judge, Jeffrey S. White of the Northern District of California, had ordered the government to evaluate how the disclosures since Mr. Snowden’s leaks had affected its earlier invocations of the state secrets privilege.

The plaintiffs have until late January to file a response. Cindy Cohn, the legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is leading one of the cases, called the government’s assertion “very troubling.” She said that despite the Snowden revelations, it was still essentially saying, “We can’t say whether the American people have been spied on by their government.”

Mr. Clapper’s unclassified affidavit to the court — he also filed a classified version, the documents state — contrasts sharply with the findings of President Obama’s advisory committee on signals intelligence, which said in a report made public on Wednesday that the collection of bulk telephone data was of little proven value.

The panel’s experts concluded that “there has been no instance in which N.S.A. could say with confidence that the outcome would have been different” in a terror investigation without the collection of the telephone data. “Moreover, now that the existence of the program has been disclosed publicly, we suspect that it is likely to be less useful still.”

Mr. Clapper, however, suggested that the program was one of many that needed to continue, and he discussed a litany of threats, mostly emanating from Al Qaeda and its affiliates, that he said made the program vital. He argued that revealing additional details, including whom it targets or how companies like AT&T and Verizon have given the N.S.A. access to its equipment and data, would be harmful.

“Disclosing or confirming further details about these activities could seriously undermine an important tool — metadata collection and analysis — for tracking possible terrorist plots,” he wrote, and could reveal methodology, thus “helping foreign adversaries evade detection.”

Still, Mr. Clapper’s description of the program as “an important tool” for tracking possible plots was a downgrade in rhetorical urgency. In earlier, now-declassified court filings, he and other officials had portrayed it as “an essential tool.”

Mr. Obama, in a news conference on Friday, strongly suggested that he was looking for a way to split the difference between these two views. He stopped short of endorsing the advisory group’s recommendation that the data should be held by telecommunications companies or a private consortium that has yet to be created.

“Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we necessarily should,” he said, repeating a line he has used often.

The newly declassified affidavits discuss a now-familiar list of threats to the United States coming from Al Qaeda and groups that share some of its ideology, including a plot in 2006 to blow up airliners over the Atlantic Ocean and the attempted car bombing in Times Square in 2010. But one of the documents makes reference to a renewed effort by Al Qaeda to obtain a nuclear weapon after 2005. It did not cite evidence.

The California litigation over warrantless surveillance represents the remnants of a wave of lawsuits filed in 2006 after The New York Times revealed that the Bush administration had authorized a program of wiretapping without warrants. Most of the initial suits were filed against telecommunications companies and were dismissed after Congress passed a law retroactively immunizing them for participating in the programs.

One of the lawsuits had also named the N.S.A. as a defendant, and in 2008 the Electronic Frontier Foundation refiled a case against the N.S.A. and a series of government officials, challenging the range of domestic surveillance and data collection activities. Several of the claims in those cases have been dismissed, but the First and Fourth Amendment ones remain.

The new filings came five days after another judge, Richard J. Leon of Federal District Court in the District of Columbia, ruled — in a case filed shortly after Mr. Snowden’s first reported disclosures — that the call-logging program in its current form probably violated the Fourth Amendment and called it “almost Orwellian.” The government is expected to appeal that decision.

****************

Deft Diplomacy: How a Little-Known Document May Have Just Prevented an African Genocide

By: Trevor LaFauci
PoliticusUSA
Saturday, December, 21st, 2013, 9:57 am      

As multiple media outlets this week have bashed President Barack Obama for having a difficult year, he very well may have just had one of the greatest triumphs of his presidency.

And, not surprisingly, nobody in the media is talking about it.

The background on this story involves the escalating conflict in the Central African Republic between secretariat Christian and Muslim groups for the preceding eight months.  In early December, nearly 400 people were killed in clashes in the capital city of Bangui.  Thousands of refugees fled the city and it appeared that there was nothing that could be done to prevent the additional violence and murders.  The world appeared to be watching the events of a modern-day Rwanda unfold in front of its eyes and seemed perfectly content to let it happen.

Enter Barack Obama and a little-known 2011 document called Presidential Directive Study 10, or PSD-10.

PSD-10 stated that ”preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.”  This is the first official document in our nation’s history in which genocide prevention is specifically designated as an area of American security.  PSD-10 allowed for the creation of an Atrocities Prevention Board, a panel which drew upon eleven agencies such as the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the CIA.  It addition to long-term planning, it also established an emergency response to emerging crises and it outlined specific steps that should be followed should potential genocide situations arise.  With the situation in the Central African Republic precariously close to all-out war, the board went swiftly into action.

On December 9th, President Barack Obama met with with security advisers on the board.  A plan was implemented in which he would give a nationally broadcasted speech to the people of the Central African Republic, urging peace and tranquility.  The speech was actually recorded in Senegal while Obama was on a layover on his way to South Africa for Nelson Mandela’s funeral.  Obama’s speech, available on whitehouse.gov, reads as follows:

    Mbi bala ala kouè.  This is President Barack Obama, and today I want to speak directly to you—the people of the Central African Republic.

    I know that in your lives you have faced great hardship.  But I also know that you’ve lived together in peace—as diverse and vibrant communities, Christian and Muslim.  Together, you celebrate a proud history and a land of extraordinary beauty.  Together, you emerged from colonialism and achieved independence.  Together, you realize that we are all children of God and that—whatever our faith—we all deserve to live in peace and dignity.

    But the awful violence of recent days threatens the country you love.  Innocent men, women and children have been killed.  Families have fled their homes.  And we know from the bitter experience of other countries what happens when societies descend into violence and retribution.  Today, my message to you is simple: it doesn’t have to be this way.  You—the proud citizens of the Central African Republic—have the power to choose a different path.

    Respected leaders in your communities—Muslim and Christian—are calling for calm and peace.  I call on the transitional government to join these voices and to arrest those who are committing crimes.   Individuals who are engaging in violence must be held accountable—in accordance with the law.  Meanwhile, as forces from other African countries and France work to restore security, the United States will support their efforts to protect civilians.

    Most of all, every citizen of the Central African Republic can show the courage that’s needed right now.  You can show your love for your country by rejecting the violence that would tear it apart.  You can choose peace.  You can choose to live up to the rule that is at the heart of all great faiths— that we treat other people the way we want to be treated ourselves.

    That is how we honor our faiths.  That is how reconciliation occurs.  That’s how the Central African Republic can move forward—and return to a better path, toward a future where you and your fellow citizens can seek the security and dignity and peace you deserve.

    Singuila.

In addition to the speech, on December 11th the United States donated $60 million worth of aid to the Central African Republic in an effort to re-establish peace in the region.  They then donated an additional $15 million on December 19th for further relief efforts, including the airlifting in of supplies.  According to an in-depth piece by ThinkProgress, it was almost like a “switch had been thrown” in the region due to both President Obama’s call for unity as well as the aid and supplies provided by the United States.  The violence had temporarily subsided and refugees were being given the essential supplies they needed in order to survive.

What’s remarkable about this story is the fact that it was done entirely without the gridlock of a partisan Washington, D.C.  PSD-10 is brilliant in that it gives its advisory board complete authority to act in the best interest of the United States in preventing genocide.  It takes the lessons learned from Rwanda in 1994 and replaces them with a quick and efficient way to act at once to avert a crisis.  Whereas the United States had a politically volatile debate regarding whether or not to act in Syria last year, PSD-10 clearly outlines the need to immediately act on behalf of our country’s national security.

It also helps establish the United States as a force for good in the world.  Whereas the previous administration had arbitrary reasons for intervening in foreign lands, PSD-10 specifically states that the United States’ ”security is affected when masses of civilians are slaughtered, refugees flow across borders, and murderers wreak havoc on regional stability and livelihoods. America’s reputation suffers, and our ability to bring about change is constrained, when we are perceived as idle in the face of mass atrocities and genocide.”  Those lines right there are a loud and clear message that the United States will not stand down and allow a repeat of Rwanda to happen on its watch.

While the American media last week chose to ridicule our President for taking a picture with other world leaders, he very well may have helped to prevent an African genocide a mere hours beforehand.  All this was accomplished with no political gamesmanship, no flashy press releases or conferences, and no public acknowledgement of what he and his administration had just done.  He just did it, simply because it was the right thing to do to ensure peace among the Central African people.

Somewhere up there, Nelson Mandela is smiling on a job well done.

****************

December 21, 2013

Mixed Messages Add Anxiety as Deadline Nears in Health Act

By ROBERT PEAR
NYT

WASHINGTON — For most Americans, Monday is the deadline to sign up for health insurance that takes effect on Jan. 1. It was supposed to be a turning point in the troubled history of the new health care law, the moment when the spotlight would shift from the federal government’s online marketplace to the insurance companies providing coverage to hundreds of thousands and eventually millions of people.

But as the date approaches, a series of decisions by the Obama administration to delay some of the law’s most important provisions and to extend some deadlines has caused uncertainty among insurers and confusion among consumers.

Already the enrollment of young adults appears to be lagging behind the expectations of federal officials and insurers. And insurers, struggling with problems caused by the chaotic debut of the federal insurance exchange in October, have criticized the administration’s last-minute changes, saying they could cause instability in the market.

The sudden shifts have sent a mixed message to consumers about the significance of the Monday deadline. They reduce the sense of urgency but not the need for coverage. Accordingly, federal and state officials said they were prepared for an increase in activity on their websites and at telephone call centers as uninsured consumers rushed to beat the deadline.

“The Dec. 23 deadline is a huge milestone on the way to coverage that will provide relief and hope to a lot of people,” said Andrea J. Routh, the executive director of the Missouri Health Advocacy Alliance, a consumer group. “For many, this will be the best Christmas gift they’ve had in a long time.”

Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said the agency was adding staff, training and outreach efforts across the country. “People tend to have questions and act when they come up against deadlines,” she said.

President Obama said Friday that “more than one million Americans have selected new health insurance plans through the federal and state marketplaces” since they opened on Oct. 1. The administration had hoped that 3.3 million would be signed up by the end of this month, according to a memo prepared by the Health and Human Services Department in early September.

States running their own exchanges, like California, Connecticut, Kentucky and New York, said they had seen a surge in demand in the last few weeks.

“Momentum is growing,” said Peter V. Lee, the executive director of the California insurance exchange. “Friends are telling friends. Families are telling families.”

Kevin J. Counihan, the chief executive of the Connecticut exchange, said calls to its telephone call center had tripled in the last three weeks, to 6,000 a day. “We are really bracing for Monday,” Mr. Counihan said. The Connecticut exchange is increasing its call center staff to 114 from 63.

The White House and health policy experts have repeatedly said the new insurance plans need to sign up large numbers of younger, healthier people to balance the financial risks of covering older Americans who require more medical care.

Federal officials have not disclosed demographic data on people buying insurance through the federal exchange, but early data from states suggest that people ages 55 to 64 are overrepresented while those younger than 35 are underrepresented.

In Colorado, 43 percent of people signing up for private plans in the first couple of months were in the 55-to-64 age bracket. In Connecticut, Rhode Island and Washington, the share was 40 percent. And in California and Kentucky, the proportion was 35 percent. Nationally, about 12 percent of the population is 55 to 64.

Larry Levitt, a senior vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, said that people enrolling early included some with the greatest needs: people who had been locked out of the individual insurance market because of serious illnesses and those coming from federal and state programs for people with pre-existing conditions. Most of those programs, known as high-risk pools, are scheduled to end next year.

Many people who bought insurance on their own have received notices saying their policies were being canceled or discontinued because the policies did not comply with coverage requirements of the new health care law. Those expecting high medical bills had the strongest motivation to overcome the obstacles to buying insurance on the federal exchange.

“The mix of enrollment is much more important than the total number,” Mr. Levitt said. “Those figures are not unrelated. If you assume that sicker individuals are likely to come in first, then a smaller pool is likely to be a sicker pool. The best guarantee of a diverse pool is a big pool, because that means you are probably reaching younger and healthier people.”

The enrollment period for people seeking individual insurance continues through March 31. To be sure of coverage in January, people are supposed to pick plans by Monday and pay the first month’s premium by Dec. 31.

The White House has encouraged insurers to relax those deadlines and provide coverage retroactive to Jan. 1 for people who sign up or pay later in the month. America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s largest trade group, said its members would give consumers more time, to Jan. 10, to pay the first month’s premium, provided they choose plans by Monday night.

“Our biggest concern is whether people will have the coverage they need next month,” said Sandy Praeger, the insurance commissioner of Kansas. The concern, she said, is acute for people in the middle of a course of treatment, like cancer therapy, and those coming into the exchange from high-risk pools.

Jessica F. Waltman, a senior vice president of the National Association of Health Underwriters, which represents 100,000 agents and brokers, said that people trying to sign up should be aware that rates and benefits for some plans had been displayed inaccurately on the federal website, while some plans in some counties were not showing up at all.

Daniel J. Schwartzer, the deputy insurance commissioner in Wisconsin, said that such errors and omissions could affect thousands of people in his state, leading them to believe incorrectly that they would not be responsible for co-payments for doctors’ services or prescription drugs.

“These glitches are creating consumer protection nightmares,” Mr. Schwartzer said. “If companies display wrong information, we make them pay for it, we make the consumer whole. I don’t know how we make the consumer whole when the problem is the fault of the federal government.”

Gary M. Cohen, an Obama administration official supervising the federal exchange, said that such errors “should not happen” and added, “We want to fix things that are not working right.”

The deadlines, which once seemed firm, are now somewhat flexible. Some state exchanges have enrollment and payment deadlines that differ by a few days from those of the federal exchange. Some insurers will provide retroactive coverage; others will not.

For a patient who receives hospital care early next month, before paying the January premium, those differences could have a big impact. An insurer who made coverage retroactive to Jan. 1 could pay most of the hospital bill, while patients in another health plan might have to pay it all themselves.

*************

Republicans Are Making Sure That the Economic Recovery Only Benefits the Rich

By: Rmuse
PoliticusUSA
Saturday, December, 21st, 2013, 3:32 pm   

There is an English idiom, “don’t judge a book by its cover” that is a metaphorical phrase which means “you shouldn’t prejudge the worth or value of something by its outward appearance alone.” There has been good news about America’s economy over the past couple of months, and according to the third and final estimate of third quarter GDP by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), it appears the economy is finally starting to find solid footing to make some serious progress. However, Americans should not celebrate just yet because although the third quarter numbers are certainly encouraging, there is plenty of reason to skeptical, and concerned, that the apparent good news on the economy may be an aberration; at least for the majority of Americans.

According to the BEA, third quarter Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew at an annualized rate of 4.1% in the third quarter that is significantly better than the 3.6% growth economists predicted in the second estimate published earlier this month. The promising numbers are the fastest growth pace in two years, and some economists believe that it is a sign the recovery is starting to build going into the new year. One of the drivers of the good report was consumer spending that grew at a higher rate (2%) than previously estimated (1.4%) this summer. The data seemed to suggest that Americans were shopping and buying despite Washington’s budget dysfunction, but the increased spending was partially fueled by higher-income Americans spending more on recreational pursuits. The bulk of the increase in consumer spending was for health care before the Affordable Care Act went into effect in October and gasoline; necessities that deprive middle income households of discretionary income to spend on other goods and services. In states that embraced the ACA, healthcare costs declined significantly and that will certainly give them more disposable income during the 4th quarter, but that is not the case in Republican states. The high gas prices are solely attributable to the oil industry selling America’s glut of fuel on the export market that contributed to higher GDP and profits for the oil industry while high fuel prices prevented consumers from spending on durable goods and services.

The lion’s share of positive growth was from companies spending to build up third-quarter inventories which accounted for about 40% of overall third-quarter growth. Companies stockpiled $115.7 billion worth of goods on warehouse shelves, but economists warned GDP will likely fall sharply in the final months of 2013 if companies are unable to sell all the goods they stockpiled. MaketWatch surveyed economists who forecast GDP will drop to 2.1% in the fourth quarter that is directly in line with predictions based on food stamp cuts, the Republican shutdown, and the sequester cuts. Real damage will hit the economy in 2014 because Congress left for their winter break without funding food stamps or extending unemployment benefits that will drive 1.3 million Americans into poverty and restrict their spending ability.

What economists are wondering is whether or not the economy is genuinely taking off, or is the momentum bound to evaporate as it has repeatedly throughout the recovery. The chief economist at Regions Financial Corp, Richard Moody, said “every time we have thought we were finally starting to take off, we get dragged back down,” but he hopes this time might be different. However, most economists say any future gains in consumer spending will hinge on whether Americans’ incomes rise more quickly and, like a panel of three dozen economic experts last week, complained that income growth has been stagnant or declining throughout the recovery. The Sterne Agee Chief Economist, Lindsey Piegza said, “We are just not seeing the momentum behind incomes and that’s really what we need to see driving the consumer sector. We are not seeing quality, high-wage jobs being created.”

It is likely economists, and the American people, are not going to see many high-wage jobs being created, or minimum wage workers getting a raise anytime soon; if ever. Republicans left Washington without extending unemployment benefits for 1.3 million Americans who will struggle to buy food or pay rent let alone have income to buy durable goods, and the encouraging economic news will be the impetus for Republicans to reject calls to extend benefits in the new year; particularly since they convinced Democrats to pass a budget without addressing the issue when they had the opportunity. President Obama called for raising the minimum wage a year ago during the State of the Union, and despite an overwhelming majority of Americans supporting hiking the wage $3 per hour, Republicans have rejected the idea as unnecessary on earlier promising economic news.

The question economists have not asked, and are unlikely to answer, is who profited from the good economic news. It certainly has not been the majority of the population who were not in the income class the report cited were able to afford increased spending on recreation. At the beginning of the year, 47.7 million Americans were living below the poverty line and the latest estimates are that it ballooned to 50 million. More Americans require food, healthcare, and housing assistance, and although there has been a steady monthly increase in the number of jobs created, the majority have been minimum wage jobs that prevent a family from affording adequate housing or sufficient food. The sequester is predicted to kill an estimated one million jobs over the course of 2014, and yet it will stay in place for nine more years with only 4 tenths of one-percent reduction for two years as negotiated in the Ryan-Murray budget agreement.

One hopes the third quarter economic report is a sign that the economy is on a solid trajectory for sustained growth to benefit all Americans, but there is little reason to think that is the case. Republicans have no inclination, or incentive, to create jobs, raise the minimum wage, extend benefits for the unemployed, or fund infrastructure improvements that are crucial to a sustained recovery. The only thing Americans can be certain of is that Republicans will use the good economic report as a reason to reject the Presidents’ calls to address the ever-widening income gap and obstruct  Democrats’ attempts to do anything that might help struggling Americans or prevent the total and complete demise of the middle class.  If Americans have learned only one thing about the economic recovery, it is that Republicans will make sure the only beneficiaries of good economic reports are Wall Street and corporations and this time will be no different.  


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« Reply #10833 on: Dec 23, 2013, 06:43 AM »

Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina released from Russian jail

Alyokhina released early under amnesty from two-year sentence for protest against Vladimir Putin

Reuters in Nizhny Novgorod
theguardian.com, Monday 23 December 2013 08.05 GMT   
  

Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina leaves prison: video

http://www.theguardian.com/music/video/2013/dec/23/pussy-riot-maria-alyokhina-released-jail-video

A member of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot, Maria Alyokhina, walked free from jail on Monday under an amnesty allowing her early release from a two-year sentence for a protest in a church against president Pig Putin.

"They've just released her," Pyotr Verzilov, the husband of fellow band member Nadia Tolokonnikova, who is also due to be released under the amnesty, told Reuters.

Alyokhina, 25, and Tolokonnikova, 24, were convicted of hooliganism for performing a "punk prayer" in a cathedral against Putin's ties to the Russian Orthodox church.

The two women had been due for release in March, but qualified for the amnesty proposed by Pig Putin, in part because both are mothers of small children. A third band member had her sentence suspended earlier this year.

Lawyers say the amnesty will also enable 30 people arrested in a Greenpeace protest against Arctic oil drilling to avoid trial – removing an irritant in ties with the West before Russia hosts the Winter Olympics in February.

Pig Putin has said the amnesty, passed to mark the 20th anniversary of Russia's post-Soviet constitution, was not drafted with the Greenpeace activists or Pussy Riot in mind.

Tolokonnikova's father Andrei told Reuters on Thursday that the planned release of the band members was clearly a public-relations move ahead of the Olympics.

"It is an absolutely cynical game of the central authorities," he said while awaiting her release from jail in the Siberian region of Krasnoyarsk.

*************

Pussy Riot's Nadezhda Tolokonnikova freed from Russian prison

Her release follows that of fellow Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina, who has dismissed the amnesty as a PR stunt

Anna Nemtsova in Moscow and agencies
theguardian.com, Monday 23 December 2013 11.17 GMT     

Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova has been freed from prison under an amnesty that allowed for her early release from a two-year sentence for a protest in a church against President Vladimir Putin.

Tolokonnikova shouted "Russia without Pig Putin" after she was freed from a prison in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk on Monday.

Hours earlier, bandmate Maria Alyokhina was released from a different jail and dismissed the amnesty as a propaganda stunt.

The two women were granted amnesty last week, in what was largely viewed as the Kremlin's attempt to head off criticism of Russia's human rights record ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February.

Three band members were jailed after being found guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred and sentenced to two years in prison for a performance at Moscow's main cathedral in March 2012.

One, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was released on a suspended sentence in October 2012.

Alyokhina was released early on Monday morning by prison officials who drove her from the prison colony outside Nizhny Novgorod, and left her outside the city's railway station, still dressed in a prison overcoat with her name written on her chest.

She told the Guardian she was not allowed to pack her belongings or even say goodbye to fellow inmates.

"This is typical behaviour in our penitentiary system, which is as closed and conservative as jail itself – [prison officials'] methods are all about secrecy, no information and zero transparency," she said.

Alyokhina told the Dozhd TV channel that she was "too shocked" when she was released from the prison colony to grasp what was going on.

She also said she would have stayed behind bars to serve her term if she had been free to choose.

"If I had a chance to turn it down, I would have done it, no doubt about that," she told Dozhd. "This is not an amnesty. This is a hoax and a PR move."

The Russian parliament passed an amnesty bill last week, allowing the release of thousands of inmates. Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova qualified for amnesty because they have small children.

Alyokhina's release came days after the Russian president, Pig Putin, pardoned Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil tycoon and once Russia's richest man, who spent a decade in prison after challenging the Pig's power. Khodorkovsky flew to Germany after his release and ruled out entering Russian politics. He pledged, however, to fight for the release of political prisoners in Russia.

Speaking to the Guardian, Alyokhina said her release from jail felt more like "a secret special operation than an act of humanism".

Alyokhina described her prison sentence as a time of "endless humiliations", including undergoing forced gynaecological examinations almost every day for three weeks.

She said she and Tolokonnikova planned to become human rights activists: "We will be creating very special, colourful and powerful programmes to defend other innocent women in Russian prisons, who are being turned into slaves right now."

*************

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
12/23/2013 12:10 PM

Khodorkovsky in Berlin: 'The Power Struggle Is Not for Me'

By Veit Medick

One minute he's in a Siberian prison camp, the next he's being swarmed by reporters at a hectic press conference in Berlin. On Sunday, former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky opened up about his future plans and his decade behind bars.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky didn't want to do much more than say thank you -- to his friends, his family, to Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the 86-year-old former foreign minister who helped secure his freedom, to Chancellor Angela Merkel. The list is long, the Kremlin opponent said during his appearance in Berlin, and he wants "to use all channels" to thank them.

A short pause followed. All channels? "For me, many of these sources of information -- Facebook, Twitter -- are new," he said, speaking in Russian. "When I went to prison, all of this did not yet exist." Laughter rippled through the audience.

It was a remarkable appearance in every respect on Sunday afternoon at the Berlin Wall Museum near Checkpoint Charlie, once the German capital's central crossing point between East and West Germany and now its primary symbolic site of East-West confrontation and the Cold War. It was a historical event, no doubt, but a moving one, as well.

For Khodorkovsky himself, the events of the past weekend must all seem somewhat puzzling. It's as if he's traveled via time machine. For 10 years the former oligarch languished in Russian prison camps, cut off from the public. Then, since Friday, when he was officially pardoned by Russian President Pig Putin and allowed to walk free, it has all moved very quickly. A flight on a private jet, Berlin, freedom and then suddenly the world, this very changed world, wants to know everything. What was it like in prison? What does he think of Putin? What does he plan to do with the rest of his life?

Chaos at Checkpoint Charlie

One could say that this press conference at the Berlin Wall Museum was not the easiest way to go about it. It was all a bit excessive. Hundreds of journalists gathered to hear Khodorkovsky speak. Some kneeled in front of him; others wore brightly colored Christmas hats to grab his attention more easily. Those who didn't manage to get close to the stage used their cameras or cell phones to film the screen where the appearance was being simultaneously broadcast. Welcome to the Communications Age.

The hall was bursting at the seams. A constant stream of people pressed at the entrance to get in, but there was simply no more space. Security personnel leaned against the door. "What kind of man are you?" protested one of the late arrivals. At the front of the room, the museum director briefly lost her patience. "If you do not make more space in here, I will kick you all out!" Alexandra Hildebrandt exclaimed into the microphone. It took a bit of time for her threat to have any effect.

In the face of all this pandemonium, Khodorkovsky remained remarkably composed. He patiently answered the questions posed to him -- at least those he was able and inclined to answer. He said he didn't want to get too political, but he didn't have to: His current whereabouts already speak volumes. He said he wasn't particularly enthused by the idea of a Sochi boycott, because the Olympic Games are a "celebration of sport."

He also said he is hopeful that former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko will soon be released, adding that at least in this one respect, he hopes Viktor Yanukovych, the Ukrainian president, will take his Russian counterpart as a model. About Vladimir Putin himself, however, Khodorkovsky said very little. Asked how Western governments should behave in relation to the Russian president, he gave no comment.

"It would be presumptuous for me to advise experienced governments on how to deal with such a difficult person," was all he would offer. It sounded almost humble.

Not a Freedom Fighter

Khodorkovsky said his future plans are still vague. But he knows he wants to stay out of the business world. "I've achieved everything I wanted to achieve," he asserted. Politics, as well, hold no appeal for him -- he expressed as much to Putin in a recent letter. "The power struggle is not for me," he said.

There are likely multiple reasons for Khodorkovsky to speak now with such caution, but one probably has something to do with the fact that he doesn't want to overestimate his own importance. He doesn't have the illustrious credentials of a freedom fighter like Nelson Mandela, so this is likely a wise move. His story is remarkable, but the flamboyant businessman hasn't won over everyone in the West. There are people who say that it wasn't until he was in prison that Khodorkovsky realized what advantages democracy could bring.

The 50-year-old also doesn't want to be perceived as a pioneer of democratic change. "There are many people in Russia who are still in a difficult situation, there are many other political prisoners," he said. He now hopes to devote himself and his resources to helping them and improving the situation in Russia.

How does he think he'll accomplish this? "Please give me a little more time," he said at the end of the press conference. It was his favorite phrase of the day.


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« Reply #10834 on: Dec 23, 2013, 06:52 AM »


Elf lobby blocks Iceland road project

Supreme court to rule on case brought by Friends of Lava, who cite environmental impact of highway and effect on elf culture

Associated Press in Rekjavik
theguardian.com, Sunday 22 December 2013 10.56 GMT   

Elf advocates in Iceland have joined forces with environmentalists to urge authorities to abandon a highway project that they claim will disturb elf habitat, including an elf church.

The project has been halted until the supreme court of Iceland rules on a case brought by a group known as Friends of Lava, who cite both the environmental impact and the detrimental effect on elf culture of the road project.

The group has regularly mobilised hundreds of people to block bulldozers building a direct route from the tip of the Álftanes peninsula, where the president has a property, to the Reykjavik suburb of Gardabaer.

Issues about Huldufolk (Icelandic for "hidden folk") have affected planning decisions before, and the road and coastal administration has come up with a stock media response for elf inquiries, which states in part that "issues have been settled by delaying the construction project at a certain point while the elves living there have supposedly moved on".

Scandinavian folklore is full of elves, trolls and other mythological characters. Most people in Norway, Denmark and Sweden haven't taken them seriously since the 19th century, but elves are no joke to many in Iceland.
Iceland_Elves_WEB The proposed roads from the Alftanes peninsula.

A survey conducted by the University of Iceland in 2007 found that 62% of the 1,000 respondents thought it was at least possible that elves exist.

Ragnhildur Jonsdottir, a self-proclaimed "seer", believes she can communicate with the creatures through telepathy.

"It will be a terrible loss and damaging both for the elf world and for us humans," said Jonsdottir of the road project.

Though many of the Friends of Lava are motivated primarily by environmental concerns, they see the elf issue as part of a wider concern for the history and culture of the very unique landscape.

Andri Snaer Magnason, a well-known environmentalist, said his major concern was that the road would cut the lava field in two and destroy nesting sites.

"Some feel that the elf thing is a bit annoying," said Magnason, adding that he was not sure they existed. However, he said: "I got married in a church with a god just as invisible as the elves, so what might seem irrational is actually quite common [with Icelanders]."

Terry Gunnell, a folklore professor at the University of Iceland, said he was not surprised by the wide acceptance of the possibility of elves.

"This is a land where your house can be destroyed by something you can't see (earthquakes), where the wind can knock you off your feet, where the smell of sulphur from your taps tells you there is invisible fire not far below your feet, where the northern lights make the sky the biggest television screen in the world, and where hot springs and glaciers 'talk'," Gunnell said.

"In short, everyone is aware that the land is alive, and one can say that the stories of hidden people and the need to work carefully with them reflects an understanding that the land demands respect."

Gunnell said similar beliefs are found in western Ireland, but they thrive in Iceland because people remain in close contact with the land. Parents still let their children play out in the wilderness – often late into the night. Vast pristine areas remain, even near the capital, Reykjavik.

"If you ask an Icelander about elves, they might say they don't believe," said Jonsdottir. "But we always have stories of them, if not from ourselves then from someone close like a family member. Of course, not everyone believes in the stories, but the stories and the elves are still there and being told."


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« Reply #10835 on: Dec 23, 2013, 06:54 AM »


Helmut Schmidt: 'Britain's empire has gone, though you think it still exists'

Germany's former chancellor believes a lack of leadership has added to the crisis at the European institutions he helped forge

Larry Elliott, Economics editor
The Guardian, Sunday 22 December 2013 14.06 GMT   
       
Helmut Schmidt takes a last, long drag on his cigarette and stubs it out. Within a minute, the man who piloted what was then West Germany through the last global economic crisis leans forward to pluck another smoke from the box he keeps on his desk on the sixth floor of Die Zeit's offices, where he is a publisher, in Hamburg.

Rumour has it that Schmidt has 30,000 menthol fags stashed away in readiness for a possible EU-wide ban. As one butt follows another into his ashtray, the former chancellor bemoans the leadership vacuum that is hobbling Europe, discusses the respective merits of British prime ministers, and questions whether it would be a good thing for the UK to join the euro.

But first, he wants to talk about how his first interview in the Guardian was carried 81 years ago, when the 14-year-old Schmidt came over in the last days of the Weimar Republic on a pupil exchange visit to Manchester. The piece was headlined "Too Many Kisses" after Schmidt complained that the mother of the boy he was staying with was a little too keen to show her German visitor some Mancunian affection.

Born in the year the first world war ended, Schmidt was a young soldier at the siege of Leningrad, was awarded the Iron Cross, rose to prominence as a politician who got things done during Germany's postwar economic miracle and became chancellor when Willy Brandt resigned as a result of a spy scandal in 1974, just as the first oil shock brought the long boom to an abrupt end.

To this day, he remains dubious about the value of the security services. With anger in Germany at the alleged US surveillance of Angela Merkel's mobile phone calls, Schmidt says he never had any confidence in the spooks. "I was in government for 13 years and in that time only once met the head of the German security services, and that was because he was an old friend. Otherwise, I carefully avoided having anything to do with these people. They are unavoidable but not really necessary."

From the start of his eight years as chancellor, he knew that the times were changing: "I was quite aware of that. It was a sea change. It was an ebb tide after a flood tide.

"During the Yom Kippur war the Saudis decided to squeeze the west by limiting their exports of oil, thereby allowing the price to rise fourfold within a year. There was another increase at the end of the 1970s, by which time oil prices were 10 or 20 times higher than they had been in the 1960s. This situation created a worldwide recession. In my view, it only needed one more step to lead to a worldwide depression."

Schmidt is now hard of hearing and walks with the help of a frame, yet is in remarkably good health for a man of 95 who has chain-smoked all his adult life. Out of office for more than three decades, he has strong views about the state of the European Union that he helped to forge out of the tough economic conditions of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

"The state of Europe is problematic. European institutions are not really functioning any more. Why? Because of a lack of leadership."

Schmidt, a Social Democrat, is speaking as talks continue between his party and Merkel's Christian Democrats over the formation of a coalition government. The expectation in Europe is that Merkel will be more willing to show leadership on issues such as banking and fiscal union now that the German elections are out of the way. Schmidt has his doubts.

"Despite the economic strength of modern-day Germany, she must not appear as the leader. It is an enormous piece of art to be a leader but not to appear a leader. It needs feeling in the tips of the fingers."

Merkel's approach is conditioned by her background, he says. "She grew up in the DDR [East Germany]. She was in favour of liberty but not Europe. Only after 1990 [when Germany was reunited] did she understand that liberty and Europe were amalgamated."

Schmidt says he is concerned about the "enormous, outlandish" debts of Greece, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus and Ireland and about the lack of jobs for the young.

"We need a better co-ordination of fiscal policies. We need more solidarity in order to cope with these debts.

"The most immediate danger is youth unemployment, which in some countries is above 50%. This is a timebomb. I remember the youth movement in 1968. It started on American university campuses as a protest against the Vietnam war, then came to Paris, Frankfurt and Berlin. Within a year you had an uprising of youth against their elders. The same could happen as a result of youth unemployment in Greece or Spain. It must not happen but it is a possibility."

Schmidt says it would help the rest of the eurozone if Germany ran down its current account surplus, now 6.5% of national output. "It is a ridiculous, enormous sum. It is larger than the current account surplus of China. It is bigger than that of Japan, Saudi Arabia and the other oil-producing countries. If you have a surplus of this size you either have to revalue your currency or, if you can't do that because of the euro, you have to find other ways of reducing it."

The crisis of the 1970s led to greater European co-operation, including the creation of the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), under which countries agreed to peg their currencies to a virtual currency, the European currency unit. Schmidt thinks the euro will probably survive the current crisis. "The probability of a collapse is not zero but it is close to zero. The likelihood of it being a success is not 100% but it is close to 100%."

Schmidt tried to persuade his good friend Jim Callaghan, then prime minister, to take Britain into the ERM in the late 1970s but was rebuffed. "Britain joined late and destroyed it," Schmidt says, referring to sterling's two-year membership of the ERM, which ended on Black Wednesday in September 1992.

His experience of dealing with the UK's often fraught relationship with the European Union makes Schmidt dubious about whether British membership of the euro would be a good thing.

"I had been very disappointed by Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher. I had thought it was absolutely necessary to include Britain into the European Community. It happened in the end under Ted Heath. He was the only British leader who believed in Europe. The others only paid lip service. Neither Harold Wilson nor Margaret Thatcher wanted the EC to be a success; they only wanted a thumb in the pie." Wilson he describes as "a tactician"; Thatcher as a "British nationalist".

Asked whether Britain will ever join the single currency, Schmidt says: "I don't know. I don't know whether I would like Britain to join. The British are very stubborn. The Queen, the Commonwealth and the special relationship with the US is much more important than Europe. Britain still believes in the old values and it has every right to do so. Britain is less European-minded than Greece.

"Winston Churchill was a great European but he was quite clear that Britain was not joining because it had the empire. But it's gone, even though you think it still exists."

He adds: "Britain has a problem which that will make itself felt in the next 15-20 years. In the 19th century it was the most advanced engineering nation in the world. Now it has more or less given up on engineering and replaced it with finance. That means you can be hurt."

And does he actually have 30,000 cigarettes stockpiled? "Don't believe everything you read in the papers," he says with a smile.


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« Reply #10836 on: Dec 23, 2013, 06:57 AM »


Euro needs ground-up reform before any United States of Europe

Failure to take action means Europe's admirers and aspirants – even those in Ukraine – will eventually look elsewhere

Hans-Werner Sinn   
theguardian.com, Monday 23 December 2013 10.56 GMT      

The European Union has earned its place as an instrument for peace in Europe. Free trade has brought prosperity to its peoples, and the freedom to choose a place of residence guards against the resurgence of totalitarian regimes. The Acquis Communautaire protects all member states' citizens under the rule of law. Anyone who doubts the existence of these benefits need only look to Kiev's Euromaidan, where hundreds of thousands of people have been gathered for weeks to demonstrate their support for closer ties with Europe, rather than an alliance with Vladimir Putin's Russia.

The paradox is that the same enthusiasm and benefits do not apply when it comes to Europe's common currency. On the contrary, the euro has plunged southern Europe and France into a deep economic crisis that is fraying the nerves of all involved. I have never seen so many swastikas and hateful slogans directed at Germany. The ex-head of the Eurogroup, Luxembourg's long-time prime minister, Jean-Claude Juncker, has said that 2013 makes him think of 1913, when no one could imagine what would happen a year later. That may be stretching things a bit, but a statement like this by such a distinguished politician is chilling.

Unfortunately, the crisis is far from over. While the insurance that the European Central Bank has offered, free of charge, to buyers of EU members' government bonds has temporarily calmed financial markets, ordinary workers fretting about their jobs look to the future with trepidation. In Greece and Spain, half of all young people not studying are unemployed, as is a quarter of the adult workforce. Particularly worrying is the continuing rise in unemployment in France and Italy, where industrial production has been shrinking and price competitiveness continues to deteriorate.

The euro itself is responsible for this debacle. During the first several years after the EU's Madrid Summit in 1995 officially launched the move toward a common currency, too much capital was steered into southern Europe, creating an inflationary credit bubble there. An inordinately lax regulatory environment proved lethal, encouraging northern European banks to pad their balance sheets with southern European government and bank bonds. When the bubble burst, it left in its wake woefully expensive economies that had lost their competitiveness.

Europe should now use the calm between the storm fronts to rethink the European currency union from the ground up. The effort to create a European equivalent of the dollar and impose a fiscal union on top of it, despite the absence of a common European state, is bound to fail. It will turn member countries into debtors and creditors to each other, stoking even more animosity.

The fundamental requirement for functioning monetary and fiscal unions in Europe is the establishment of a United States of Europe, with a real parliament that gives all citizens equal representation, together with a common legal system. Above all, the success of the European peace project requires a common army and a common foreign policy – that is, a genuine, long-lasting mutual-insurance union based on reciprocity in ensuring security and stability. Those who try to anticipate such a common state with a fiscal union will never achieve their goal.

Because France is not yet willing to accept a common European state, we need an intermediate stage to preserve and stabilise the eurozone. This requires sorting out the current mess and introducing a flexible membership system based on hard budget constraints. Four measures are needed to achieve this.

First, a debt conference is needed, with creditors of the southern European governments and banks forgiving part of the debt. The creditors relinquishing part of their claims must include public entities, first and foremost the ECB, that have now largely replaced private lenders.

Second, eurozone members whose path to regaining competitiveness through price and wage reductions is too long and gruelling, and whose societies risk being rent asunder by the necessary imposition of austerity, must temporarily exit the monetary union. The pain of exiting should be cushioned with communal financial help, which would not be necessary for long, because a devaluation of the new currency would quickly restore competitiveness. In fact, a "breathing eurozone" that permits – and regulates – exit and re-accession should be clearly stipulated. Europe needs a system that is halfway between the dollar and a fixed-exchange-rate system like Bretton Woods.

Third, this breathing currency union must include hard budget constraints on its members' national central banks. Specifically, a ceiling must be set on local money creation by establishing the obligation to settle balance-of-payments imbalances with gold or other comparably safe means of payment.

Finally, bankruptcy regulation for countries is essential in order to make it clear to investors from the outset that they are taking on risk. This is the only way to avoid the destabilising credit flows that drove southern Europe to ruin.

If we are serious about deepening European integration, we must recognise that there is no credible alternative to reforming the euro from the ground up. Otherwise, Europe's admirers and aspirants, like those in Ukraine, will eventually look elsewhere.


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« Reply #10837 on: Dec 23, 2013, 06:59 AM »

December 22, 2013

Strategy Remains Elusive for Ukraine Opposition

By ALISON SMALE
IHT

KIEV, Ukraine — One of the most effective, and affecting, sights on Maidan, the independence square that antigovernment protesters have made theirs for the past month, is a simple wall of wooden blocks. There are hundreds, in jagged formation, each with the name of a village, town or city etched in black.

The contrast with the neighboring glass and metal sheath of a mall, boasting global brand names, is powerful. The wooden blocks relay, simply, and in keeping with an impoverished country still tied to the land, the geographic scope of the protest, and the participants’ wish for what they say they need: a just society.

“Ukrainian people know what justice feels like,” said Oleksandr V. Turchinov, a lawmaker for the opposition. “It is a very important element for people seeking to live like Europeans.”

The mall and its global brands feel more like a misfit in this country of 46 million, where a schoolteacher might earn $200 a month. While there is a nascent middle class, wealth in Ukraine is rare, usually vast, and associated with corruption.

Just as clear as the gulf between wall and mall is the gap between the exuberance of the protests, and translating that dedication into action that will get the opposition to President Victor F. Yanukovich the political change it seeks. The past month has been full of stirring solidarity, but a strategy remains elusive.

“Ukraine is not for sale; that is why people are standing here,” Mr. Turchinov, a former head of security services who is now in Parliament for the Fatherland opposition party, said a day after Mr. Yanukovich returned from Moscow with what he and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia hailed as an economic lifeline of $15 billion and a steep reduction in the price of natural gas.

The terms remain unclear, but the Russian move took the wind out of the sails of protest, with the opposition leaders not conveying their next step and the crowds dwindling rapidly, even if the determination of those defending its barricades, or camping out in tents, remained palpable. On Sunday, though the turnout was again large, the tenor was one of acknowledgment that the movement was ebbing, with speakers encouraging people to keep coming through Christmas and the New Year.

The established opposition leaders, several of whom have been in and out of government for years and know the president well as a tough political animal, admit to being surprised by the popular protest after Mr. Yanukovich walked away from a deal for closer political and trade ties with the European Union.

A month on, the opposition leaders have kept pledges to appear almost nightly for the crowds and demanded amnesty for a few dozen who were arrested, but lack much of a plan.

What they seemed to rally around this week was the idea of building a political movement out of the hundreds of thousands who have passed through EuroMaidan, as the current protests are known. Presidential elections are set for March 2015. The aim seems to be to make it impossible for Mr. Yanukovich to rig his way to a second term, perhaps by forcing him to make a mistake so blatant that Ukrainians again take to the streets in protest, but this time also armed with an exact, agreed program of change.

No one here said so, but this might have echoes of Serbia under Slobodan Milosevic. He negotiated his way out of huge street protests in 1991. In 1996-97, after three months of nightly protests in Serbia that received little support in the West, he cracked down violently. By 2000, after a lost war against NATO over Kosovo, neither the Serbs nor Mr. Milosevic’s security apparatus would sustain him, and he was forced out after rigged elections.

That Maidan now did not achieve its immediate goal of ousting the current government does not mean that it was not a success, said Yuri V. Lutsenko, a former interior minister and now an opposition leader.

Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, also of the Fatherland party and a seasoned politician, said it was even a virtue “that there is no one Messiah on this Maidan,” unlike in 2004, when hundreds of thousands rallied in the so-called Orange Revolution behind Viktor A. Yushchenko and Yulia V. Tymoshenko, who later squabbled and squandered their terms in power.

Mr. Lutsenko agreed. “Everybody thought we won the Orange Revolution at the time, but it turned out we lost,” he said. “Everybody today thinks we lost, but we won. EuroMaidan won. We planted the seeds to form a pro-European majority in Ukraine.”

Mr. Yanukovich, who made a 100-minute live TV appearance on Thursday, did not convince everyone he was firmly back in charge. Like many others from eastern Ukraine, which is closer to Russia, he labors to speak good Ukrainian. In the last 20 minutes of his questioning by sometimes bold, though handpicked, journalists, he lapsed into Russian. When asked if he would seek a second term, he cited only a Russian saying to the effect that “every fruit has its season.”

But Mr. Yatsenyuk, who said he had been watching the president for 12 years, emphasized there was no doubt Mr. Yanukovich would run again. To that end, he said, the president “made a decision — it’s not even to go to Russia, but to join Russian values, instead of European values.”

“I won’t say we lost,” Mr. Lutsenko said. “Yes, some people wanted more. They wanted Yanukovich’s head, but we have no law on impeachment, so that was never possible. We showed the Orange Revolution was not a one-time fairy tale, but a feature of Ukraine. Civil society exists.”

Evgenia Tymoshenko, whose mother, the former prime minister, was jailed more than two years ago under Mr. Yanukovich after being convicted of abusing power, also embraced what she called “people power.”

“I think that people started now not only believing in themselves,” she said, and “organizing themselves even without needing politicians to do that for them but also realizing that they have power to at least win these little victories.”

Many of the people on the square said they were standing there for a better future for their children, or even grandchildren. For others, it was more a personal matter of no turning back.

Volodomyr Fedishin, 34, a construction contractor from Lviv, was working the entrance to one of the barricades on Maidan on Wednesday evening, with a walkie-talkie in his pocket. “I’ll stay,” he said. “I have no choice. I fought the police. If I go home now, I will go to prison.”

Oksana Lyachynska and Andrew E. Kramer contributed reporting.


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« Reply #10838 on: Dec 23, 2013, 07:02 AM »


Whips, cloaks and parchment: the festive presents of ancient Rome

Matthew Nicholls, who is working on a huge digital recreation of ancient Rome, reveals the gifts given on Saturnalia

Maev Kennedy   
theguardian.com, Monday 23 December 2013 08.00 GMT   
       
This was the day when the ancient Romans woke with joyful anticipation, or a lurch of dread: December 23, Sigillaria, the gift-giving day of the festival of Saturnalia.

What would the day bring to the naughty and nice? A handful of walnuts and a nice jar of fermented fish sauce? A hideous but warm sweater? Or – the inspired suggestion of the witty poet Marcus Valerius Martial – a useful whip for a spot of post-Saturnia self flagellation?

Many must have yearned for the first century Kindle instead of a scroll of papyrus – a codex, a book made of sewn-in parchment pages, almost indestructible and with so much data storage space. A single book, Martial noted in wonder, could hold the whole of Livy's monumental history of Rome. "The voluminous Livy, of whom my bookcase would once scarcely have contained the whole, is now comprised in this small parchment volume."

Martial helpfully pointed out where you could buy these marvels: "So that you are not ignorant of where I am on sale, and don't wander aimlessly through the whole city, I will be your guide and you will be certain: look for Secundus, the freedman of learned Lucensis, behind the threshold of the Temple of Peace and the Forum of Pallas."

That shop is gone, but modern readers will at least be able to find its site, in a gigantic digital recreation of ancient Rome, due to be published in full next year, which Matthew Nicholls, senior lecturer in classics at Reading university, has been working on for years - while poring over Roman Christmas present lists.

"The whip points out how in some ways they were very like us – there are gifts which people are bound to get this year, like pencil cases, slippers and perfume - and in some ways very different, so you have to beware of attempting to draw direct parallels.

"There were jolly types who felt it was all an excuse for a laugh and joined in with enthusiasm, and then you get the superior Scrooge types, like Seneca and Pliny, who clearly feel they're above all that."

Seneca, stoic philosopher and dramatist – whose gloomy disposition was entirely justified by his end, when he was forced into suicide – wrote: "It is now the month of December, when the greatest part of the city is in a bustle. Loose reins are given to public dissipation; everywhere you may hear the sound of great preparations."

In contrast the jolly Martial wrote a whole book of little couplets, designed to be given with gifts, arranged as poor gifts and rich gifts - rich gifts, he pointed out, might do no favours, compelling the recipient to respond in kind.

Martial's equivalent of an atrocious reindeer Christmas sweater was an ugly but warm cloak: "the stout workmanship of a Gallic weaver, which, though of a barbarous country, has a Lacedaemonian name; a thing uncouth, but not to be despised in cold December ...Clad in this gift; you will laugh at winds and showers."

By late on Wednesday afternoon, many with aching heads may sympathise with Pliny the Elder - who later died in the eruption of Vesuvius which would destroy Pompeii – and envy him the escape route at his country villa, into a sunny private room.

"When I betake myself into this sitting-room, I seem to be quite away even from my villa, and I find it delightful to sit there, especially during the Saturnalia, when all the rest of the house rings with the merry riot and shouts of the festival-makers; for then I do not interfere with their amusements." If Nicholls had to choose from Martial's suggestions, "an inlaid citron wood table, and a silver statue of Minerva, goddess of learning, would look good in my study". And, he adds, reminded by an insistent voice at his knee, a rattle for 14-month-old Sophia.


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« Reply #10839 on: Dec 23, 2013, 07:08 AM »


Why is the European court of human rights hated by the UK right?

Court designed to protect the vulnerable is respected in Europe but despised by many Tories and UK newspapers

Jon Henley in Strasbourg
The Guardian, Sunday 22 December 2013 22.00 GMT          

Amiran Natsvlishvili is not complaining about the kidnapping. Nor about the brutal beatings, or the huge ransom his family had to pay for his release. The former managing director of a state car plant in Georgia is not bitter, either, about the accusations of embezzlement and misuse of public funds.

No, as his young lawyer argues in a bright, high-ceiling courtroom in Strasbourg, what Natsvlishvili really objects to is that the state lied to him.

Locked up for more than four months in the same vile cell as the man who kidnapped and beat him as well as a convicted murderer, when the state finally offered him a deal – cop a plea, pay a fine and you're free – Natsvlishvili was so desperate that he jumped at it. And then he was told he could not appeal.

That is why we are here, says the lawyer to the judges behind the bench at the European court of human rights: this man has plainly been denied the right to a fair trial. Georgia of course denies it, but it is in breach of article 6, paragraph 1 of the European convention on human rights.

Along with the European commission in Brussels, the Strasbourg-based ECHR could reasonably lay claim to being one of the most maligned institutions in Britain. ("Hardly surprising, I suppose," quips a senior British court official. "Our name contains the words 'European' and 'human rights'. Not exactly a winning combination.")

Conservative MPs have said it is high time for Britain to "quit the jurisdiction" of a "supranational quango". The justice secretary, Chris Grayling, is "reviewing Britain's relationship" with an institution he says has "reached the point where it has lost democratic acceptability".

Grayling said last week the ECHR did not "make this country a better place". David Cameron has said the court risks becoming a glorified "small claims court" buried under a mountain of "trivial" claims , and suggested Britain could withdraw from the convention to "keep our country safe". The home secretary, Theresa May, has pledged the party's next manifesto will promise to scrap the Human Rights Act, which makes the convention enforceable in Britain.

Former lord chief justice Lord Judge and three other senior British judges have recently backed this stance in high-profile lectures, arguing that by treating the convention as a "living instrument" the ECHR is "undermining democracy". Its judges, rather than parliament, are now making British law, they allege, and parliamentary sovereignty should not be ceded to "a foreign court". But another leading supreme court judge, Lord Mance, last week forcefully defended the ECHR's contribution to British law.

Parts of the press have been more outspoken, railing against "meddling, unelected European judges" who are "wrecking British law" and demanding the government "draw a line in the sand to defend British sovereignty" by "defying Europe … and ignoring the rulings of this foreign court".

That's not how they see things in Strasbourg. In the 60 years of its existence, the ECHR has reached well over 10,000 judgments in cases such as that brought by Natsvlishvili, prompting changes to national laws and procedures in nearly 50 countries that have now signed the convention.

In the past decade, the court has required Bulgaria to care properly for people with mental and physical disabilities, and Austria to allow same-sex couples to adopt each other's children. It has forced Cyprus to take action against sex trafficking and Moldova to halt state censorship of TV. Its judgments have compelled improvements in Russian prisons, and more effective punishment of domestic violence in Turkey.

In France, laws have been passed to protect domestic servants from forced labour, while illegitimate children now have equal rights to inheritance.

Britain has been obliged to take greater care of vulnerable prisoners, regulate the monitoring of employees' communications, protect the anonymity of journalists' sources, bring the age of consent for gay people in line with that for heterosexuals and force local councils to observe proper safeguards in evictions.

"It isn't just about the human rights of individuals," says Paul Mahoney, the court's veteran British judge, "it's about the functioning of the rule of law – of democratic institutions – in countries not all of which have, like the UK, enjoyed 300-odd years of democracy and freedom.

At the end of the day, it's possible for somebody from a tiny village to come here, take their government to court and get the law changed. That really is a small miracle."

Deputy registrar Michael O'Boyle is equally forthright. "For six decades," he says, "this institution has radiated a highly impressive body of case law out to the legal systems of a large number of countries – 47 today. It's an advance in civilisation."

Pending applications

So: a "small miracle", an "advance in civilisation", or a meddling foreign body undermining national sovereignty. What is the ECHR?

The convention over which the court watches was drafted in the late 1940s, to protect Europeans from abuses piled on them over preceding decades. Britons were prominent in the drafting: without the likes of Ernest Bevin, Winston Churchill and David Maxwell Fyfe, the ECHR would not exist in its current form.

It secures, first and foremost, the right to life, a fair trial, freedom of expression, thought, conscience and religion, but also respect for private and family life and the protection of property. It prohibits torture, degrading treatment, forced labour, unlawful detention and discrimination "in the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms" it guarantees.

It has evolved over the years, interpreting those rights in situations its postwar drafters could scarcely have imagined: the day after Natsvlishvili v Georgia came Hamalainen v Finland, the case of a male-to-female transsexual unhappy that because same-sex marriage is forbidden in her country, her new gender could not be fully officially recognised unless she divorced or turned her religious marriage into a civil partnership.

The court – not the same as the Luxembourg-based European court of justice, which rules on the application of transsexual law – sits in the eastern French (and, historically, occasionally German) city of Strasbourg, in a striking building by the British architect Richard Rogers.

It is open to a startling 800 million people, from Portugal to Siberia, all of whom can apply here if they feel their rights have been violated; equally startlingly, about 70,000 a year do.

So it is not, as one senior judge observes, your average court: "Other courts deal with demands in justice – guilty or not guilty. This one deals with demands for justice. Its job is to signal a dysfunction in the rule of law."

Down in the mail room, Nigar Shukurova points to an array of teetering piles. Each day, she says, the ECHR receives about 1,600 items of post, from scrappy handwritten letters addressed to the "Office Council Court of Europe" to foot-high dossiers "An den Kanzler des Europäischen Gerichtshof für Menschenrechte".

Perhaps 5% of cases fall at this hurdle: forms are not filled in, or the documentation never arrives. Most go on to be examined by judges, who sit singly to decide if a case is admissible and in committees – including, for the most complex, the 17-judge grand chamber – to examine its merits.

Only 30-odd cases a year get a public hearing; the overwhelming majority, maybe 90%, never get anywhere near that far, thrown out because they do not concern a convention right, or because the applicant has not personally been disadvantaged or exhausted every possible legal avenue at national level.

"We have to be a bit brutal," says one senior court official. "We can't afford to be sentimental."

This makes for a lot of disappointed people. Across the road from the courthouse, small but determined camps of Kurds and Chechens protest; on the morning of every public hearing, an outraged Romanian pensioner parades up and down with a placard.
violation judgments

"You are not a human rights institution," he bellows. "You are corrupt, rotten. From Satan! I want my pension, nothing else. Why have you thrown out my dossier? You have no souls."

It's a reminder, says Karen Reid, head of the filtering section – set up in 2011 to speed up the processing of cases – that however ill-founded the case, there is a person behind it.

"We've been called a lot of things," Reid says. "The European committee for the prevention of human rights, scum of the earth … But we've also been asked to legalise cannabis. And declare an independent kingdom of Sussex."

The filtering department is steadily helping the institution reduce a backlog – more than 160,000 cases at its peak, in November 2011 – caused by the avalanche that arrived with the collapse of the former eastern bloc.

The new system seems to be working: in the first nine months of 2013, the court decided 9% more cases than in the same period last year and cut the backlog by 13%; another two or three years and they hope to have got rid of it altogether."We're getting there," says Erik Fribergh, the registrar, who is in charge of a €67m (£56m) budget and a 650-strong team of lawyers and administrators serving the court's 47 elected judges (one from each country). "We can always do better. But we're making solid, quantifiable progress."

Once admitted, cases are prioritised, with those involving people at immediate risk or identifying potential systemic problems at the top of the pile.

Many others resemble each other and raise similar points of law: they are considered together, or tackled through pilot cases. Others, known as WECLs, concern well-established case law and can be dispatched by small committees of judges.

By streamlining its work like this, the court's judges delivered nearly 1,100 judgments last year; decisions on admissibility were made on a further 88,000 applications.

Some rights, it seems, are more often abused than others. In 2012, nearly a third of violations concerned the right to a fair trial – either because the trial concerned was plainly not fair or, often, because proceedings took too long. A further fifth involved allegations of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment. About 5% concerned the right to life.

And some countries' names recur more frequently than others. More than half the cases sent to judges involve just four: Russia, Turkey, Italy and Ukraine. The same countries – minus Italy, but plus Romania, Poland and Bulgaria – accounted for almost half the violation judgments delivered last year.

The court's caseload, in fact, reflects the diverse failings of Europe's various national judicial systems: the vast bulk of the 14,500 cases pending against Italy, for example, concern the inordinate length of Italian judicial proceedings, which can drag on for decades. The same applies to Greece.

"This is by far the biggest group of Greek cases," says the court's Greek judge, Linos-Alexandre Sicilianos.

"But the most important group concerns the detention of asylum seekers in special centres, often in degrading conditions. That's how the issue of immigration comes before the court and it's a major problem for Greece."

Applications from Serbia, which account for 10% of the total, stem mostly from the dissolution of former Yugoslavia: payment of army reservists, access to savings in present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina, pensions in Kosovo.

In many former Soviet bloc countries, such as Ukraine, nonenforcement of domestic court decisions is one of the biggest problems: a local court says X must get their pension, and X never does.

With more than 20,000 cases pending, Russia is a case apart. "It's a big country," says Olga Chernishova, who heads the Russian case-processing division, "with big issues."

Often, perhaps surprisingly, the law itself is not at fault: it's about the facts: "If someone spends a year in pre-trial detention, in a cell with 15 people, with no running water, no fresh air and no exercise – that's a violation."

But like officials from most other countries represented here – with the notable exception of Britain – Chernishova acknowledges a "general consensus" in her country, in both the media and among the legal profession, on the value of the court's judgments.

Concrete changes in Russian law show the ECHR is making a difference, she says: a compensation system has been introduced for those affected by the non-execution of domestic judgments, a problem that has hurt "perhaps hundreds of thousands of people" in Russia.

There are new laws on prison overcrowding, and the removal of ubiquitous, daylight-obscuring shutters from prison cell windows. Russian courts are working quantifiably faster than they did 10 years ago; and the supreme court has explained to lower courts the difference between fact and opinion, so fewer journalists get banged up for libel.

Most tellingly, Chernishova says, Russian constitutional court rulings now routinely make reference to ECHR judgments: "And you really cannot underestimate the importance, the message sent to ordinary people when justice is finally done in cases – police brutality, for example – that domestic courts have delayed, or failed even to consider."

Inevitably, there are rulings Russia and other countries find somewhat more difficult to accept. As another judge puts it: "Our judgments tend to fall into two categories. It's either: we don't question your norms, but your system has malfunctioned. Or it's: sorry, we can't accept your norms. States generally accept the first quite readily. They don't much like the second."

In the past three years, Russia has accounted for half the ECHR's right-to-life violations. The vast majority relate to the pre-2006 "active anti-terrorist phase" of the conflict in Chechnya: disappearances, torture, extrajudicial detention, excessive use of force.

Politically, these judgments are hard for the Kremlin to swallow, and it has sometimes simply refused to co-operate. But even here there has been progress: two months ago, Russia finally accepted it used disproportionate force during a three-day artillery assault on a Chechen village that left 18 of the applicant's relatives dead, and failed to investigate.

"Now they will sometimes accept even these kind of judgments," Chernishova says. While democracy in Russia clearly has its challenges, she says people there "are telling us all the time that things could be much worse – much worse – without this court".

Which, of course, makes the attitude to the ECHR of the British government, and parts of the British press, all the more puzzling. "Actually, it's frankly quite dangerous," says Ineta Ziemele, the court's Latvian judge. "Coming from one of the court's founding members, it can make other governments, especially perhaps those in countries that may be rather less democratic, less concerned with human rights than the UK – it can comfort them. They can say: 'Britain doesn't accept your judgments; why should we?'"

Part of Britain's attitude can be explained simply by a different conception of the law. In continental Europe, judges – guardians of written constitutions – routinely overrule politicians. In the UK, parliament rules: primary legislation cannot be questioned by judges.

Result of judgment

Partly too, it stems from a few high-profile recent cases that have not gone the government's way: the court's initial refusal, for example, to allow the deportation to Jordan of Abu Qatada, and its insistence that it is wrong to deny all prisoners, in every circumstance, a right to vote.

Mainly, though, Britain's current attitude seems to be informed most strongly by the wider problems of its relationship with Europe, and the belief among many Conservatives that loudly defending "British sovereignty" and attacking all things European will not lose them any votes. Essentially, in other words, it is political.

But whatever is driving it, Britain's stance is viewed in Strasbourg with alarm. Other countries have objected, sometimes forcefully, to individual judgments: Spain erupted last month when the ECHR ruled Madrid was wrong – as many legal experts had warned it – to apply retroactively a new law requiring prisoners serving long sentences to do the maximum 30 years.

That judgment prompted the release of, among others, a Basque separatist bomber – and howls of outrage from the press and some politicians.

But unlike David Cameron, Spain's prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, conceded that while he found the ruling "unjust and wrong", he had no choice but to comply.

Only Britain objects so strongly to a small number of ECHR rulings that it is contemplating pulling out of the convention altogether – and engaging at the same time in what many in Strasbourg, including senior British officials, see as a deliberate and often dishonest campaign against the court.

Last month, for the first time, the ECHR publicly expressed its concern about "frequent misrepresentation" and "seriously misleading" British press reports of its activities. Clare Ovey, head of the UK case-processing division, points out that of the 2,082 complaints against the UK dealt with last year, the court rejected 2,047 as inadmissible. It found no violation in 23, and upheld 12 – just 0.6% of the total.

Of the 2,500-odd potentially admissible cases pending against the UK, she adds, nearly 2,300 concern prisoners' voting rights (the remainder mainly involve the undue retention of DNA samples and criminal records data, expulsion cases, notably to Iraq, and complaints about indeterminate sentences).

True, a relatively high proportion of UK applications are by people convicted of a crime, but that's "mainly because Britain is an advanced democracy, where fundamental rights are largely respected. Other countries are not so lucky; there, this court plays a huge role in simply ensuring the rule of law is applied."

And whatever impression British newspapers may create, UK cases are not confined to criminals and terrorists: former Formula One boss Max Mosley saw his privacy complaint rejected; BA employee Nadia Eweida, who wanted to wear her crucifix at work, went home happy.

"This court has made so many positive UK judgments," says Ovey. "On press freedom, surveillance, deaths in police custody, admission of evidence, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, corporal punishment in schools, protection of children … It is worrying, when you see that it is so misrepresented."

The court's determinedly anglophile president, Luxembourg judge Dean Spielmann, is diplomatic but plainly concerned. Far from exporting European values to Britain, he points out, the court has helped import British values to Europe.

"The right to be assisted by a lawyer at the first police interview, for example," he says. "That's a well-established principle in UK law, now widely accepted." Talk of withdrawing from the convention undermines "those who seek to improve human rights elsewhere in the world" and could pose real problems in British courts that today make "extensive and absolutely exemplary" use of ECHR case law in their own findings.

Official after official stresses that the European court of human rights does not "dictate" how governments should implement decisions. Rather, judgments invite states to find solutions to situations collectively deemed unacceptable.

"We are," says Spielmann, "really extremely sensitive. We realise every country is different. We don't say what states must do; we accept they each need the widest possible margin of appreciation to implement judgments."

What the court does say, though, is – for example – that a blanket voting ban on every single prisoner is not consistent with the convention by which Britain is bound (a view a parliamentary joint committee emphatically endorsed last week, saying the government had failed to advance a "plausible case" for maintaining the ban and the arguments for lifting it were "on any rational assessment, persuasive".)

But other countries mostly take the rough with the smooth: there is a wider good. So he regrets Britain's current "exceptional" position.

"It flies in the face of our shared responsibility," he says, "this joint effort to set – and to uphold – certain minimum standards for human rights, across a continent."


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« Reply #10840 on: Dec 23, 2013, 07:14 AM »


Spain's 'El Gordo' lottery offers brief respite to some in crisis-ridden country

Big winners of world's biggest lottery, which splits €2.5bn jackpot among thousands of ticketholders, based in working-class towns

Agencies in Madrid
theguardian.com, Sunday 22 December 2013 16.20 GMT   

Winners of Spain's cherished 200 year-old Christmas lottery were celebrating across the country on Sunday – a rare moment of joy and relief at the close of another year of brutal financial crisis.

Known affectionately as "El Gordo" (the fat one), Spain's yuletide jackpot is the world's biggest. Millions were glued to their televisions on Sunday, watching €2.5bn (£2.09bn) in prize money being distributed during a four-hour live show.

Unlike lotteries that offer one large cashprize, Spain's yuletide drawing sprinkles a variety of winnings on thousands of ticketholders. The top prize draw delivered lucky winners 400,000 euros (£334,600) on Sunday.

The big winners were concentratred in two working-class towns – one suburb outside Madrid and another in the Basque region hit hard by a round of layoffs. The towns' combined winnings came in at 540m euros (£450m).

Mondragon, the site of Spain's biggest consumer appliance company Fagor, recently had to lay off more than 2,000 people as part of insolvency proceedings.

"We've been in the press for so many unpleasant reasons, and for something which brings such joy to happen here is a real support for the people," Jose Maria Garai, one of the officially designated ticket sellers in Mondragon, told Spanish television.

Only, this year for the first time, the tax man will claim 20% of winnings above 2,500 euros (£2,100), as the Spanish government strives to right an economy saddled with a sky-high unemployment rate of 26%.

El Gordo winner Raul Clavero, 27, a mechanic living in the Madrid suburb of Leganes, said he had been watching the drawing in bed when he realised he had won. "We jumped out of bed and ran out," he said, adding that he would "pay the mortgage, that's the first thing, and then just enjoy the rest." Clavero said he was one of five members of his family who had bought the same number ticket.


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« Reply #10841 on: Dec 23, 2013, 07:19 AM »

December 22, 2013

Bulgaria, Unready, Is Poor Host to Syrians

By ANDREW HIGGINS
IHT

SOFIA, Bulgaria — During a recent visit to a bleak refugee center hastily set up in an abandoned military camp at Harmanli in southern Bulgaria, Iliana Savova, with the Bulgaria Helsinki Committee, a human rights group, shook her head in dismay as she surveyed a muddy, garbage-strewn field dotted with tents, small cabins and clusters of freezing Syrians.

“I am ashamed, and that is a very weak word for what I feel,” said Ms. Savova, who directs the refugee migrant unit for the rights group. “We were a closed country for nearly 50 years and have no culture of receiving immigrants,” she added, referring to Bulgaria’s position as a Soviet satellite state from the end of World War II until 1989.

As the poorest member of the 28-nation European Union, Bulgaria has struggled to provide even rudimentary shelter to Syrian refugees, who began surging into the country from Turkey last summer after neighboring Greece, previously a popular entry point to Europe, built a fence along its border and beefed up controls.

The number of Syrian refugees reaching Bulgaria is still tiny — around 6,500 so far this year — compared with more than two million who have sought shelter in Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt and Jordan. But even that number has severely strained the resources and also volatile politics of a country that received only 1,700 refugees in all of 2012. In just October of this year, the country recorded an influx of 3,626 refugees, nearly 60 percent of them from Syria.

The camp in Harmanli is just one of the places the refugees are housed.

Under scathing criticism for its handling of the refugees from foreign and local organizations, Bulgaria’s Socialist-led government fired the head of the State Agency for Refugees in October and replaced him with a former soldier, Nikolai Tchirpanliev. He has promised to improve conditions, but also says the refugees have complained too much, angering some Bulgarians.

In an interview, he said the flapping tents at Harmanli, where temperatures drop well below freezing at night, would soon all be gone. Emergency financing from the European Union, he said, will help Bulgaria buy the equipment it needs to process refugees so they can move on. The bloc’s rules require that refugees be registered and fingerprinted in the country where they first enter Europe.

Hikmat Kran, 31, a photographer from the war-ravaged Syrian city of Aleppo, is among the 1,450 refugees in the closed camp at Harmanli. He, his wife and their 1-year-old child recently moved into a small container that they share with another Syrian family, so they no longer have to sleep outside. Still, he said he had trouble sleeping because of the deepening winter cold and was often hungry because the only food came from irregular supplies donated by ordinary Bulgarians who want to help.

All the same, he said, he has no regrets about leaving Aleppo, which has been fought over for months by government and rebel forces. According to a report last week by the aid organization Doctors Without Borders, the city’s hospitals have been overwhelmed with casualties after a wave of government airstrikes.

“Here we at least have peace,” Mr. Kran said.


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« Reply #10842 on: Dec 23, 2013, 07:30 AM »


Aam Aadmi 'Common Man' party to form government in Delhi

Party that won 28 of Delhi's 70 assembly seats on pledge to uproot corruption said it would form government with Congress party

Jason Burke in Delhi
theguardian.com, Monday 23 December 2013 12.15 GMT   

A former tax inspector who leads a new populist political party dedicated to improving the lot of the "Common Man" is to take over the government of India's sprawling and troubled capital city, Delhi.

The Aam Admi (Common Man) party stunned political analysts and established parties when it won 28 out of 70 seats in local assembly elections in Delhi this month. Later this week, its convener, Arvind Kejriwal, will be sworn in as chief minister of the city of 15 million people.

Kejriwal, 45, beat the former chief minister of the city, a veteran of the ruling Congress party who had dismissed the AAP's challenge as "not even on our radar" when it was founded a year ago. Congress was wiped out in the poll, reduced to eight seats.

Almost all of the candidates of the AAP were political novices, including a rickshaw driver, a lawyer and a TV actor. Their key pledge was to clean up politics and the endemic graft that has crippled the provision of public service for the many millions who cannot afford to pay for private healthcare, schooling or basics such as water.

The party's message and symbol – a broom – proved popular with urban voters also struggling with runaway inflation, chronic youth underemployment and slowing economic growth.

Kerjiwal, who called the party's victory a "historic win", said initially he would not form a minority government. But after lengthy negotiations in recent days, the Congress party decided to support the AAP in the Delhi local assembly. "It's a great day, a very exciting time," said Aathishi Marlena, a senior AAP activist and policy adviser.

Marlena said the challenges were daunting but that the party would meet them. "Tackling the rampant corruption, the lack of transparency and accountability, the problems faced by the common people is a matter of political will and that's what we bring to this," Marlena said.

The main opposition Bharatiya Janata (BJP) party won 32 seats but no other political group was willing to offer it support.

Sachin Pilot, a Congress minister, described the emergence of the AAP in Delhi as "absolutely astonishing". He said: "For my party of course it has been a setback but generally speaking the fact that individuals can come together in a very difficult space and find themselves relevant and meaningful has been a new phenomenon. In the past three or four decades it hasn't happened at all. That's something one has to recognise reconcile and then deal with."

Senior Congress officials said the party's support for the AAP would not be unconditional and would depend on its performance.

Though India's population remains largely rural, the proportion of seats in the national assembly determined by urban voters has steadily risen in recent years. Some analysts see the new middle classes in cities and, particularly, tens of thousands of small towns as determining what is likely to be a tough battle between the Congress party and the BJP in national polls next spring. Also likely to crucial are between 120 million and 150 million first-time voters.

The AAP has said it now wants to focus efforts on expanding into the huge northern state of Uttar Pradesh, which has a population of 180 million, and Bihar, another poor northern state. It hopes eventually to become a national party.

Kejriwal's announcement ended two weeks of speculation and fears of a hung assembly in Delhi, a city that has become richer in recent years but has huge problems of crime, sanitation, housing and pollution.

Though the outgoing Congress government in Delhi had been praised for successfully building a metro system and holding the Commonwealth Games in the Indian capital in 2010, it had also been hit by graft charges and suffered from the general unpopularity of the Congress-led coalition government at a national level.

The new government will be sworn in on Thursday. The BJP called the AAP's decision a betrayal. "The AAP accused the Congress of being the most corrupt. Today they have compromised on their principles. This is gross betrayal," said Harsh Vardhan, the BJP's chief ministerial candidate.

**************

December 20, 2013

Having a Servant Is Not a Right

By ANANYA BHATTACHARYYA
IHT

AT the heart of the fracas surrounding the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York who promised to pay her housekeeper $9.75 per hour, in compliance with United States labor rules, but instead paid her $3.31 per hour, is India’s dirty secret: One segment of the Indian population routinely exploits another, and the country’s labor laws allow gross mistreatment of domestic workers.

India is furious that the diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, was strip-searched and kept in a cell in New York with criminals. Retaliation from the newly assertive but otherwise bureaucracy-ridden nation was swift. American diplomats were stripped of identity cards granting them diplomatic benefits, and security barriers surrounding the American Embassy in New Delhi were hauled away. A former finance minister suggested that India respond by arresting same-sex partners of American diplomats, since the Indian Supreme Court recently upheld a section of a Colonial-era law that criminalizes homosexuality.

Notwithstanding legitimate Indian concerns about whether American marshals used correct protocol in the way they treated a diplomat, the truth is that India is party to an exploitative system that needs to be scrutinized.

I grew up in a middle-class household in India in the ’80s; my parents were schoolteachers, and our lifestyle was not lavish by any means. I received new clothes once a year; I don’t recall ever going to a restaurant; our family couldn’t afford a car, so we used a scooter. But we always had a live-in housekeeper who cooked and washed our clothes, while a man came by every other day to sweep and mop the floors.

This sort of arrangement is typical of middle-class life in India. (The wealthy have multiple servants: drivers, security guards, babysitters for their kids, cooks, and household maids who wash dishes and sweep floors.) My parents were not unkind people, and my mother paid our housekeeper above the market rate, but our family, too, was part of the unfair system that pays servants a fraction of living wages. Even liberal Indians who voice concern about human rights in other contexts often don’t see this exploitation for what it really is. I have no doubt that if I hadn’t come to the United States in my 20s, I, too, would have hired a maid whom I would have paid standard Indian wages, which by any objective standards are ridiculously low.

Perhaps it’s impossible for mind-sets to change without a long drawn-out series of events. In my case, moving to a country where labor laws exist and are enforced, combined with the perception that detachment facilitates, allowed me to recalibrate my attitude.

In urban India, revolution of any kind in favor of the rights of the underclass has been largely absent. The feudal mind-set of otherwise educated people and their lack of qualms about underpaying the poor and disadvantaged are alive and well.

It is often said that class has become the new caste in India, and this view is borne out in this case. If caste still ruled, Ms. Khobragade, the diplomat, would not have been considered fit to shake hands with her upper-caste colleagues, for she is from a dalit (traditionally considered untouchable) family. However, according to Indian public opinion now, her status as a middle-class person seems to afford her the right to pay her housekeeper wages that are below legal and living wage levels in America.

I can only hope that the Khobragade case will make Indians look inward and see that, feelings of patriotic fervor aside, India has a serious problem.

While the country took a step in the right direction and included domestic workers in a new law prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace in 2013, India’s national minimum-wage law does not cover domestic workers. On average, servants in cities earn only about $64 to $161 per month, which forces them to live hand-to-mouth, in illegally built shantytowns, often without electricity and running water.

Last week, I watched with bewilderment as India’s most vociferous talk show host, Arnab Goswami, repeatedly asked his guests if they expected an Indian diplomat who is paid $4,180 a month to pay her domestic servant $4,500 a month. Meanwhile an American guest, Lisa Curtis, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, tried to make a point: “If somebody cannot afford to have domestic help, then they don’t have domestic help.” Had the other guests not been seething with anger and shouting simultaneously, they would have perhaps heard a simple message: Having a servant you cannot pay a decent wage cannot be a birthright.

Ananya Bhattacharyya is a writer and editor in Washington.


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« Reply #10843 on: Dec 23, 2013, 07:32 AM »


Sinosphere - Dispatches From China
December 20, 2013, 7:06 am

China Targets Lavish Funerals in Crackdown on Official Corruption

By AMY QIN

After taking on lavish banquets and expensive gifts, the crackdown on official extravagance led by President Xi Jinping has a new target in its sights: opulent funerals. According to an announcement, posted online on Thursday, Communist Party members have been instructed to “set an example in holding simple and civilized funerals.”

“In the last few years, some bad funeral customs have made a resurgence,” it read, citing as examples a decrease in cremations, long encouraged to conserve farm land, and an increase in opulent mausoleums and expensive funerals.

The increase in lavish funerals has “damaged the image of the party and the government,” the statement went on to say, and requires “immediate repair.”

While funerals have traditionally been an occasion for family members to demonstrate filial piety, they are also increasingly being seen as a platform from which to broadcast wealth and social status. From burial sites to coffin preparation, funerals can be elaborate, multiday affairs with hundreds of mourners. A “benchmark for competition among the living,” the lavishness of a funeral is often correlated with the “achievements” of the dead, according to Xinhua, the state news agency.

In one particularly egregious example from 2011, the China Daily newspaper reported, 10,000 people attended a funeral that was estimated to have cost 6 million renminbi, or nearly $1 million. Planned by the children of the deceased, each person attending the funeral received cash and two packs of expensive cigarettes as a gift.

The party’s move comes at the end of what has been a year of  increasing scrutiny of Chinese officials. The frugality drive, which has been a cornerstone of Mr. Xi’s domestic agenda, is largely seen as an effort by top leaders to address public frustration with wasteful and corrupt habits by officials.


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« Reply #10844 on: Dec 23, 2013, 07:35 AM »

US citizens evacuated from South Sudan

Civilians were evacuated on UN and US civilian helicopters, the State Department said, as fears grew of an all-out ethnic civil war

Reuters in Washington
theguardian.com, Sunday 22 December 2013 20.18 GMT   
  
US citizens were safely evacuated on Sunday from Bor, South Sudan, to Juba, the State Department said as fears grew of an all-out ethnic civil war in the landlocked African country.

"This morning, the United States – in coordination with the United Nations and in consultation with the South Sudanese government – safely evacuated American citizens from Bor, South Sudan. US citizens and citizens from our partner nations were flown from Bor to Juba on UN and US civilian helicopters," the statement said.

The department did not specify how many Americans were taken to Juba on Sunday, a day after three US aircraft came under fire from unidentified forces while attempting an evacuation.

But overall about 380 US officials and private citizens have been moved out of South Sudan, the State Department said. It said it also flew about 300 citizens of other countries to Nairobi and other locations outside South Sudan on four chartered flights and five military aircraft.

"The US government is doing everything possible to ensure the safety and security of United States citizens in South Sudan," said the statement by Jen Psaki, the department's spokesperson.

It said the United States and the United Nations had taken steps to ensure fighting factions were aware that the evacuation flights were on a humanitarian mission.

The US military said four of its members were wounded in the attacks on Saturday when the US aircraft came under fire while trying to evacuate Americans from the conflict.

The United Nations says hundreds of people have been killed in the conflict.

**************

South Sudan rebels seize key town as violence grows

UK foreign secretary William Hague advises Britons to depart African state as clashes threatens to draw country into civil war

Agencies
theguardian.com, Sunday 22 December 2013 17.13 GMT   

South Sudan's government has lost control of the capital of a key oil-producing state as an international operation to evacuate expatriates took on new urgency.

The UK foreign secretary, William Hague, advised Britons to leave the increasingly "dangerous" African state.

He said he remained "very concerned" about the growing violence in the country and on Sunday talked to his South Sudanese counterpart, Barnaba Marial Benjamin, to push for a political solution. World leaders have looked on with growing anxiety as violent clashes between rebel forces loyal to former vice-president Riek Machar and the government army threatens to draw the world's newest country into civil war.

Colonel Philip Aguer, the South Sudanese military spokesman, announced on Sunday that Bentiu, the capital of oil-rich Unity state, had fallen to rebel forces. "Bentiu is in the hands of a commander who has declared support for Machar," he said. "Bentiu is not in our hands."

British military transport planes have been used to bring home two groups of British nationals and officials in recent days. A final plane is being sent to the capital city of Juba on Monday and officials have warned the government would struggle to help anyone who chose to stay behind.

Hague said: "I remain very concerned at the situation in South Sudan. Increased political polarisation and inter-communal tensions are fuelling a dangerous situation. It is vital that all leaders urge restraint on their supporters and commit to a political resolution of their differences.South Sudan has a legitimate, democratically elected government. Resorting to military means to further political rivalries is a betrayal of the hopes on which the new state of South Sudan was founded.

"I have underlined my concerns with the South Sudanese foreign minister today and urged his government to work for political reconciliation on the basis of the proposals put forward by regional foreign ministers during their visit to Juba on 20-21 December. He has reassured me of the government's openness to dialogue without preconditions.

"I thanked minister Marial Benjamin for the assistance that the South Sudanese authorities and he personally have given to ensure the smooth turnaround of our evacuation flights this week. I encourage any remaining British nationals to take advantage of the third flight that we are making available on 23 December."

On Saturday, three US military aircraft attempting to airlift American citizens from Bor, the capital of the state of Jonglei, came under fire, injuring four American service personnel and forcing the US military to abort the mission. Elsewhere in the same state, which has suffered the brunt of the week-long violence, a UN helicopter was shot down.

Fighting has spread through the newly formed East African state, which gained its independence in 2011, following a reported coup attempt in the capital last weekend. The United Nations has estimated that up to 500 people have been killed in the ensuing violence.

The archbishop of canterbury, Justin Welby, and the Vatican called for the nation's weak and poor to be "spared the trauma of conflict".

IAny Britons in South Sudan wanting to leave on the flight on Monday should contact the FCO as soon as possible on +44 207 008 1500 or by email at crisisfco.gsi.gov.uk.


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