December 23, 2013
Despite Protesters’ Blockade, Thai Parties Register for Election
By THOMAS FULLER
BANGKOK — Representatives of Thailand’s governing party slipped past a cordon of protesters Monday to register for the coming election, infuriating the party’s detractors, who have vowed to suspend democracy until “reforms” are carried out.
In a signal that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra will most likely return as prime minister if the party wins another majority in the Feb. 2 elections, the governing party put her at the top of its electoral list. Ms. Yingluck has faced a month of debilitating street protests in Bangkok, and she and her brother, the billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, are the main targets of the protesters’ ire. Her selection as the party’s leading candidate is likely to inflame antigovernment sentiment.
The scene around the party registration site in Bangkok on Monday seemed a microcosm of the country’s political standoff. Ms. Yingluck’s party and other, smaller parties are eager to contest the election and put a monthlong political crisis behind them. But protesters and their allies in the Democrat Party, the main opposition party, say the country must undergo reforms, largely unspecified, before any elections are held.
Although tampering with the electoral process is a criminal offense in Thailand, the protesters have largely acted with impunity. The government has said it will not use force against protesters for fear of aggravating an already tense situation.
By early Monday, the registration site, a sports facility in Bangkok, was ringed by protesters who said they would block party representatives and would-be candidates for Parliament. One demonstrator held a sign that said, “If you really want to be an MP, you’ll have to climb over our heads.”
But representatives from a number of parties had slipped into the facility in the hours before dawn.
By late afternoon, the country’s Election Commission announced that 35 political parties had filed to take part in the elections; nine parties successfully submitted applications at the registration site, and 26 other parties, blocked by the protesters, gave notice of their intent at a nearby police station. Protesters cut the police station’s water and electricity supplies.
It appeared that all parties currently represented in Parliament were prepared to contest the elections except the Democrats.
Although the protesters are a diverse group that includes many affluent and middle-class Bangkok residents, the protest leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, is from southern Thailand, as are many of his most devoted followers who sleep on the streets and have taken over government buildings in recent weeks.
The country’s regional polarization — the north and the northeast overwhelmingly support Ms. Yingluck’s government, and the south fiercely opposes it — has been a key undercurrent of the protests. Protesters from southern Thailand feel they have been neglected by the government; they have been offended by statements from government officials that the south will not receive government projects and largess until they swing to the governing party’s side.
“If you have five children, you have to love and treat all of them equally,” said Soy Panthong, 55, a construction worker from a southern province, Nakhon Si Thammarat.
A successful boycott of the elections in the southern provinces could prevent Parliament from reaching minimal requirements for attendance and block the formation of another government.
“I don’t think there will be any elections in the southern provinces,” said a protester, Anand Toewbutr, 43, who owns a palm oil plantation in southern Thailand. “If the election does take place, we will close all the voting booths.”
Officials from the Election Commission and members of the governing party said they were pressing ahead with elections.
“We have to manage this conflict in the Parliament,” Charupong Ruangsuwan, the leader of the governing party, Pheu Thai, said on television Monday. “Let the people decide who will run the country.”
Mr. Charupong, confident of victory, announced that his party planned “to reform the country for one year” and then call fresh elections.
Mr. Suthep, the protest leader, has proposed a plan in which an unelected “people’s council” would carry out reforms before any election is held.
“We want to reform the country before the election,” he told his supporters Sunday night, “because we don’t want this election under current conditions and current electoral laws.” Holding an election now, he said, would produce “the same old government, same old corruption.”
In a sign of the heated tensions — and the troubling prospect that protests could devolve into violence, as they did in the capital in 2010 — Mr. Suthep said protesters would continue to target Ms. Yingluck.
“We will continue driving her out until she is dead or she leaves,” he said.
China's 2014 official holiday schedule misses out Lunar New Year's Eve
Outcry on Sina Weibo as schedule leaves out key day on traditional calendar for ancestor worship and family reunion dinners
Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing
theguardian.com, Monday 23 December 2013 11.58 GMT
Imagine finalising plans for a long-awaited new year family reunion – calling the parents, booking flights – when suddenly, the government posts a simple document online that renders it all in vain.
That's what has happened to many Chinese people, after the general office of the state council released its 2014 official holiday schedule. Many were shocked that it did not grant vacation time on Lunar New Year's Eve – an evening of ancestor worship and family reunion dinners, one of the most important nights of the traditional Chinese calendar. It has been an official holiday since 2007.
"It's like a Thanksgiving dinner," said Apple Dai, a 29-year-old employee at the Beijing office of a European conglomerate. "You're supposed to spend the day with your family – it's a cultural thing. And now because of China's development, it feels like we're losing our culture."
Next year's calendar will give workers 11 days off, including week-long vacations during the lunar new year – also known as the spring festival – and the anniversary of the October 1949 founding of the People's Republic of China. The official spring festival holiday will run from Friday 31 January until Thursday 6 February. Employees will be required to work on the weekends before and after to make up for lost time.
State media outlets said the new schedule "reflects public opinion". Shi Peihua, a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University, told the state news agency Xinhua that the arrangement eliminates "very long consecutive work days in weeks before or after holidays". Dong Keyong, a professor at Beijing's Renmin University, said it avoids "the interruption of people's regular work and life".
Yet more than 80% of nearly 180,000 respondents to a poll on Sina Weibo, the country's most popular microblog, said they were unsatisfied with the new arrangement. Many users proposed visiting government offices on Lunar New Year's Eve, to ascertain whether officials are working as hard as everyone else.
"The spring festival holiday without Lunar New Year's Eve is like making love without foreplay," said one well-forwarded post. "Mum, if I can't make it home on time for new year's eve, please don't take me to court," said another user, referring to legislation passed this year that allows parents to sue their children for lack of filial piety.
"I'm really worried about the migrant workers who live far away from home," wrote a third user. "For some, the vacation period will end while they're only halfway there."
Because China's 1.3 billion people must abide by the same holiday schedule, the crush of hundreds of millions of travellers returning home to their families sends the country into overdrive. Flight costs rise; lines at train ticket offices take up entire city blocks. During the 2013 spring festival, Chinese people logged 3.42bn trips on public transport, according to Xinhua.
Dai said she plans to take leave on Lunar New Year's Eve anyway – she wants to get back to her home province, Anhui, in time for dinner. She doubts her company will be inhumane enough to keep her working. "You just tell your boss you want to go home early or something like that," she said. "And sometimes they'll just let you go."
South Sudan: the state that fell apart in a week
Eyewitness reports from Juba where there has been a brutal and sudden descent into civil war
Daniel Howden in Juba
The Guardian, Monday 23 December 2013 20.00 GMT
A week ago, Simon K, a 20-year-old student living in the capital of South Sudan, was arrested by men in military uniforms. He was asked a question that has taken on deadly importance in the world's newest country in the past seven days: incholdi – "What is your name?" in Dinka, the language of the country's president and its largest ethnic group.
Those who, like Simon, were unable to answer, risked being identified as Nuer, the ethnic group of the former vice-president now leading the armed opposition and facing the brunt of what insiders are describing as the world's newest civil war.
Simon K was taken to a police station in the Gudele market district of Juba, where he was marched past several dead bodies and locked in a room with other young men, all Nuer. "We counted ourselves and found we were 252," he told the Guardian. "Then they put guns in through the windows and started to shoot us."
The massacre continued for two days with soldiers returning at intervals to shoot again if they saw any sign of life. Simon was one of 12 men to survive the assault by covering themselves in the bodies of the dead and dying.
Simon spoke from inside the UN compound that has become an emergency sanctuary to the remaining Nuer in the capital. Sitting on a filthy mattress by the side of a dirt road, with bandages covering bullet wounds in his stomach and legs, he recalled: "It was horrible, because to survive I had to cover myself with the bodies of dead people, and during the two days, the bodies started to smell really bad."
In the space of seven desperate days, the UN base has been transformed from a logistics hub for an aid operation into a squalid sanctuary for more than 10,000 people. Amid the confusion of bodies and belongings, a handmade sign hangs from the rolls of razor wire. "The lord is our best defender," it reads.
But there is no sign here of the lord's defence, as the country that gained independence in 2011 with huge international fanfare and support has come apart in the space of a week.
The latest violence began after a fight between Dinka and Nuer soldiers in the presidential guard on 15 December, igniting a simmering political power struggle in South Sudan's ruling party and sparking widespread ethnic killings.
Juba resident Gatluak Kual, who has bullet wounds in both arms and a prosthetic foot from the 20-year battle that split Sudan and created an independent south two years ago under President Salva Kiir, says the country is once more at war.
"Everyone here has lost someone [in the last week]," he said, gesturing out over the multitude with the finger he broke five days ago disarming a Dinka militiaman who was trying to kill him. "We have seen our daughters, our brothers, our mothers killed simply because they are Nuer. To me this is already a civil war."
The reverberations of the wave of targeted killings that began in the fledgling capital are being felt throughout the country, where they have sparked revenge attacks and copycat atrocities. Generals who have mutinied have seized the capital of South Sudan's largest state, Jonglei, and its main oil-producing area, Unity State. Former vice-president Riek Machar threw his support behind the armed opposition and is now its de facto leader. On Sunday a full-scale tank battle was being fought between opposing factions in the South's army in the far western reaches of oil-rich, swampy Upper Nile.
"It would have been difficult one week ago to imagine that things would unravel to this extent," said the UN's head of humanitarian affairs in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer.
The fighting has already claimed thousands, if not tens of thousands, of civilian lives. Hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese have fled into the bush or returned to home villages, according to the UN. The official death toll of 500, which corresponds with the number of dead in a single Juba hospital six days ago, is being dismissed by experts. A veteran aid worker, who has been assessing the scale and nature of the killings from sources nationwide, said the real figure was "in the tens of thousands".
On Monday, Machar claimed his forces had gained control of all the major oil fields in Unity and Upper Nile states. The information minister, Michael Makuei, told Reuters this was "wishful thinking".
In Juba, Gatwech T remembers how, last Tuesday, he ran for his life when soldiers attacked his home area of Hai Referendum. Some of the men outran the younger ones, who were caught by men in uniform. "They caught the boys and I stopped to watch. They counted them and there were 21 boys, as young as him," he said, pointing at a 15-year-old. "They tied their hands behind their backs and killed them."
Yien K, 28, was at home last Monday evening at around 10pm in the Jabarona area on the outskirts of the capital when he heard shooting. As it came closer he decided to hide at his brother's home. There were five of them inside the simple structure: his brother, his brother's wife, one-year-old niece and another six-year-old girl, a cousin. Yien recalls the moment just after midnight when the tracks of a tank ripped through the walls and crushed the one-year-old. "The tanks came and ran over the house," he said. "The men escaped but the woman and girls were killed."
Unlike some of Juba's neighbourhoods, which have divided along ethnic lines, Jabarona is a mixed area and Yien believes the tank operators had guides showing them where Nuer people were living.
In neighbourhoods such as Mangaten, Hai Referendum, Area 107 and Eden City, it is now easy to tell where the Nuer community lived. Halfway down the main market street of Mangaten, a dust-blown complex of tin-shack shops and rickety stalls, the bustle and activity stops. Most businesses have been ransacked, their rough shelves stripped of everything; stalls have been burned to the ground. Crossing into Hai Referendum, one of the highest density settlements in Juba, is now a ghost town of abandoned houses.
On Saturday, a few laid-back looters could be seen loading a meagre haul of plastic chairs, pots and foam mattresses on to three-wheelers. In some houses nearby plates of food were left behind, clothes have been scattered where people fled. Only broken plastic chairs, empty tubs of milk powder and smashed fans lie in the dirt.
Crossing the boundary into Eden City, the atmosphere changed. Plainclothes soldiers, one of them with a plastic-handled kitchen knife in the pocket of his shorts and a machete visible under his football shirt stopped and questioned any outsiders. Only 20 metres away was the charred corpse of a man lying with his legs splayed outside the looted Eden Sports bar.
Nearby, a nervous family had returned to their mud hut home, known as a tukul, to visit Moses' aged mother who is too ill to make the journey to the UN base less than a mile away. He was determined to leave before nightfall, when a dusk-to-dawn curfew imposed by the government begins. "The army is coming at night," he said. "You hear the guns going tuk-tuk-tuk."
Rose, who emerged from the tukul where Moses' mother is bed-ridden, said: "Everybody has been running because of war. We're also running."
South Sudan's government, which has received billions of dollars in foreign aid and is home to the largest UN peacekeeping operation in the world outside the Democratic Republic of Congo, continues to insist that massacres in Juba have not happened. The president, whose guards sparked the first fighting on 15 December, has assured the South Sudanese that his forces will protect civilians.
Philip Aguer, a spokesman for the Sudan People's Liberation Army, the civil war guerrilla force that is now the national army, denied any orchestrated attacks had taken place. He said he was unaware of the slaughter at Mangaten police station and blamed any deaths on "criminal elements" who had exploited the chance to loot and kill afforded by the crisis. "Even though some of these criminals are wearing army uniforms does not necessarily mean they are part of the army," he said. He denied any national army soldiers were involved: "No SPLA soldiers are involved in this criminal activity."
With regard to those carrying out the atrocities, he added: "We are ready to arrest them and take them to court."
But this description of rogue elements does not tally with the account of Riek W, who was until Saturday a serving member of the presidential guard, known to Jubans as the "Tigers".
A three-year veteran of the multi-ethnic unit that was meant to bind the diverse communities of what had been southern Sudan, he was not openly known as a Nuer to many of his colleagues and does not bear the traditional "Gaar" scarring that many Nuer men have on their faces.
Now in hiding in the UN base, he described how fighting between Dinka and Nuer members of the Tigers last Sunday night had spilled over into attacks on civilian Nuers all over the city.
"They took people who were not soldiers and tied their hands and shot them. I saw this with my own eyes, I was there wearing the same uniform as them."
Young men from the Dinka community, many of them with no military training, were given uniforms and guns from various armouries around the capital, including one located at President Kiir's own compound, known as J1, he says.
"It is soldiers who are doing this and militia from Dinka boys who have been given guns from the Tigers," he said.
Riek W said that his Dinka colleagues could not act without the authority of their commander and that they were "the same soldiers that are killing people at night".
Riek W, who decided to abandon his post in the president's compound at the weekend as he feared for his life and was horrified at the murder of civilians, said that the scale of the killings was being covered up. " They… are using the curfew to remove the bodies," he said.
He described how he had seen "large trucks" full of bodies, some of which were taken to grave sites dug with bulldozers, while others had been dumped in the river Nile at two points: one near the Bilpam barracks and one at Juba bridge. These reports have been corroborated by fishermen who have seen the bodies up on the river bank. "The numbers they are saying are completely wrong, people have been killed everywhere," Riek W said.
The Nuer who have survived in Juba, numbering 20,000, are now crammed into the city's two UN bases. Their fate is matched by another 14,000 civilians from other ethnic groups sheltering with the UN in South Sudan's other main towns.
Many of the Nuer crowded into the main UN mission base in Juba said they were sure the peacekeepers would protect them despite the evacuation over the weekend of all non-critical UN staff.
Not everyone feels safe, though. Wearing a dusty pinstriped suit jacket and apologising for not having showered in six days, 51-year-old Peter Bey was unsure. He has watched in recent days as one evacuation flight after another has taken foreign nationals to safety from the airport on the other side of the fence. "We see from history that the UN has left people behind before in Rwanda," he said. "They put their own people on helicopters and left the people who died."
U.N. warns South Sudan over alleged crimes against humanity
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, December 23, 2013 21:50 EST
United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon has warned warring factions in South Sudan that reports of crimes against humanity will be investigated, as eyewitnesses spoke of a wave of brutal ethnic killings.
The secretary general asked the Security Council to nearly double the size of the UN mission in the country, which has been hit by more than a week of escalating battles between troops loyal to President Salva Kiir and those backing his rival Riek Machar, a former vice president who was sacked in July.
UN bases in the capital Juba and across the country have been flooded with tens of thousands of civilians, many of whom have recounted an orchestrated campaign of mass killings and rape by government forces.
The official toll is 500 dead, although the real figure is believed to be far higher, aid workers say. Hundreds of thousands of others have fled to the countryside, prompting warnings of an imminent humanitarian disaster.
Rebel fighters are also reported to have committed atrocities in areas they control, as the oil-rich but impoverished nation, which won independence from Sudan to much fanfare just two years ago, appeared to be slipping deeper into civil war.
“Let me be absolutely clear. The world is watching all sides in South Sudan,” Ban told reporters ahead of emergency Security Council talks on the crisis.
“The United Nations will investigate reports of grave human rights violations and crimes against humanity. Those responsible at the senior level will be held personally accountable and face the consequences — even if they claim they had no knowledge of the attacks.”
Ban recommended the Security Council send 5,500 more soldiers to reinforce the UN’s current 7,000-troop mission in the country, a move diplomats said was likely to be approved in a vote on Tuesday.
President Kiir has accused Machar of starting the fighting by attempting a coup, while Machar says the president has exploited tensions within the army to carry out a purge. Rebels loyal to Machar have since seized control of several areas north of Juba.
The unrest has also taken on an ethnic dimension, pitting Kiir’s Dinka tribe against the Nuer tribe, to which Machar belongs.
Speaking from the relative safety of a UN base in Juba, two ethnic Nuer men alleged they were arrested by government soldiers along with an estimated 250 other men, herded into a police station in the capital Juba and then fired on.
“It was horrible, because to survive you had to cover yourself with the bodies of dead people, and… the bodies started to smell really bad. I don’t want to talk much about it,” said one of the men, named Simon, who would only give his first name for fear of reprisals.
“We remained only 12 people. The rest were killed off,” said Gatwech, another survivor and witness to the alleged massacre, who was also nursing several wounds and recounted similar details.
The government denied it is behind any ethnic violence.
“This is not a tribal problem,” South Sudan’s army spokesman Phillip Aguer told AFP, denying any soldiers in uniform were committing atrocities.
“That is not true. There are criminals in Juba that have been killing people and they were there before,” he said.
The testimonies cannot be independently verified because the movements of the few journalists and aid workers in the city have been severely restricted.
AFP tried to visit the scene of the alleged massacre, but was turned away by men in uniform and plainclothes forces. But the stench of death in the area was overpowering, with flies swarming around. The walls of the building were also riddled with holes.
Accounts from several other witnesses paint a picture of a brutal pattern of ethnically motivated violence.
Another ethnic Nuer man said he fled his position in South Sudan’s presidential guard on Sunday after witnessing a week of killings and rapes and fearing his comrades would eventually turn on him.
He said violent house-to-house checks were being carried out, and that anyone not answering the question “In choli” — meaning “What is your name?” in the Dinka language — would be dragged outside their home and shot.
There have also been reports of similar violence in areas north of Juba now held by rebels opposed to the president, including an attack last week on a UN base by ethnic Nuer youths at Akobo in Jonglei state that left two Indian peacekeepers dead and the civilians sheltering there feared murdered.
The UN has warned that its current force is ill-equipped to protect civilians sheltering in its bases, and the European Union’s aid chief, Kristalina Georgieva, said the country was “at the brink of a humanitarian tragedy”.
Machar’s forces have since seized the town of Bor, capital of the powder-keg eastern Jonglei state and located just 200 kilometres (125 miles) north of Juba, as well as the town of Bentiu, capital of crucial oil-producing Unity state.
But Kiir vowed his army was “now ready to move to Bor”, despite days of shuttle diplomacy by African nations and calls from Western powers for the fighting to stop.
However, US special envoy Donald Booth met with Kiir on Monday, saying the president was open to talks with Machar without preconditions.
Booth also said he met with a group of 11 senior figures in the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement “who remain detained in Juba” following their arrest after the alleged coup attempt, adding they were “secure and well taken care of”.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
‘A chilling message’: U.S. denounces Egypt’s crackdown on free speech
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, December 23, 2013 20:30 EST
The United States Monday denounced Egypt’s “worsening climate” for peaceful protests, the day after three activists were jailed for organizing an unauthorized march.
“The United States is deeply concerned about the worsening climate for freedom of assembly and peaceful expression in Egypt,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
The activists, Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma and Mohamed Adel, were demonstrating against a new law banning all but police-sanctioned protests, calling it an attempt to stifle freedom of expression.
“The implementation of Egypt’s restrictive demonstrations law has led to an increase in arrests, detentions, and charges against opposition figures, human rights activists and peaceful demonstrators,” Psaki said.
In late November, the State Department had already criticized the new law, saying it didn’t conform to international norms.
On Monday, it accused Cairo of sending “a chilling message to civil society at large.”
The three activists, who spearheaded the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak, were on Sunday sentenced to three years in jail.
It was the first such verdict against non-Islamist protesters since the overthrow of president Mohamed Morsi on July 3 and was seen by rights groups as part of a widening crackdown on demonstrations by military-installed authorities.
These convictions “should be reviewed,” Psaki said, because they “do not contribute to an open electoral environment or a transition process that protects the universal rights of all Egyptian citizens.”
Washington is has for months urged Egypt to make progress toward restoring democracy, in particular with the referendum on the new constitution scheduled for January 14-15, 2014.
The United States has also regularly over the past six months condemned the authorities’ security crackdown and increasing repression of Morsi supporters, and, in October, suspended a large part of its $1.5 billion in annual aid to Egypt.
But Americans have never called Morsi’s ouster a “coup d’etat,” and Secretary of State John Kerry even said in August that the army’s overthrow was “restoring democracy.” He also accused the Muslim Brotherhood of having “stolen” the 2011 revolution.
For more than three decades, the United States has considered Egypt as one of its closest allies in the Arab world.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Israeli prime minister lashes out at ‘unacceptable’ U.S. spying
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, December 23, 2013 15:41 EST
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday hit out at the United States for what he described as “unacceptable” wiretapping of his predecessor Ehud Olmert, as reported in the media.
“Given the close relations between the United States and Israel, there are things we cannot do, and that is unacceptable for us,” Netanyahu said at a meeting of his Likud party.
Netanyahu said he had asked for the reports to be verified.
The New York Times reported last week that in monitoring more than 1,000 targets in upwards of 60 countries between 2008 to 2011, US and British intelligence agencies tapped the communications of then premier Olmert, among other foreign leaders, according to secret documents revealed by intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.
“We do not spy on the president of the United States or the White House. The rules have been made clear. We have made certain commitments on the matter and we honour them,” Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said on Sunday.
Israel and its close strategic ally had agreed not to spy on each other following the 1985 arrest in Washington of former US Navy analyst Jonathan Pollard, who gave Israel thousands of secret documents about US espionage in the Arab world.
A US court sentenced Pollard to life imprisonment, and reports that the Americans also spied on its friends brought fresh calls for his release.
On Monday Netanyahu met the wife of Pollard and told her of his government’s efforts to secure the release of her husband, who obtained Israeli citizenship in 1995.
A day earlier the Israeli leader told his cabinet the efforts to obtain Pollard’s release were “neither conditional on, nor related to, the latest events, even though we have given our opinion on these developments,” without elaborating.
Palestinian prisoner released from Israel under terms of hunger strike deal
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, December 23, 2013 17:01 EST
A Palestinian prisoner held in Israel since July 2012 who staged a life-threatening hunger strike was released from prison on Monday, an AFP journalist said.
Samer Issawi, whom authorities had accused of “terrorist” activities, ended his strike in April after he was taken to hospital in critical condition, in return for a promise he would be freed.
Under the terms of that deal, Issawi was due to be freed eight months from the end of his hunger strike and allowed to return to his home in Issawiya in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.
Thousands of Palestinians came out to celebrate his return to Issawiya, honking car horns and waving flags of different Palestinian groups, witnesses said.
Issawi was arrested in 2002 and sentenced to 26 years in prison for “terrorist activities.” He was freed in 2011 as part of a prisoner swap of around 1,000 Palestinians in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, captured by militants from the Gaza Strip.
But authorities re-arrested Issawi in July 2012, accusing him of travelling to the West Bank to set up “terrorist cells” and demanding that he finish his sentence.
Issawi said he had gone to the West Bank to have his car fixed, and refused offers to release him on condition he go to the Gaza Strip and then a European Union country.
The detention of Issawi, a member of the far-left Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, made him an iconic figure for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
Israel holds more than 5,000 Palestinians in its prisons, most of them on security grounds. Around 150 of these are held under administrative detention, without charge or trial, and another 150 are minors.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
December 23, 2013
Archbishop and Imam Are United Across Battle Lines in Central African Republic
By CARLOTTA GALL
BANGUI, Central African Republic — When the killing began, Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga did what many would have expected of him: He opened his church to hundreds of Christian families fleeing the Muslim militias hunting them.
But he also provided refuge to an unusual friend and partner: the most senior Muslim cleric here, Imam Oumar Kobine Layama, who was under threat himself from vengeful Christians.
For months, the two religious leaders, along with the leading Protestant cleric, tried to head off the brewing sectarian tensions, traveling across the country to instill the message, “We are brothers.”
But instead of reconciliation, Central African Republic is now awash in fear and distrust. In a country that has suffered from decades of coups and internal conflict since its independence in 1960, the violence has taken a religious turn, with Christians and Muslims killing one another and whole communities taking up arms.
Hundreds have died this month alone. Tens of thousands more have fled their homes. The nation is so precariously divided that diplomats the world over have warned of mass atrocities, even genocide, and sent thousands of international troops to the streets in the hope of preventing them.
“We have to leave this cycle of hate, or the state will fail,” Archbishop Nzapalainga said.
The conflict ripping the country apart revolves around the oldest of motives: a struggle for power. Mostly Muslim rebel forces known as Seleka, or Alliance, overthrew the government in March, ousting President François Bozizé and putting in power the country’s first Muslim president, Michel Djotodia. Since then, Christian militias backed by Mr. Bozizé have tried to overthrow the Muslim alliance.
But the crisis had been building for years, and the religious leaders said the mutual animosity leading Christians and Muslims to attack one another was, at its roots, a manufactured one, deliberately stoked for political ends. Now, they fear it has taken on a life of its own.
“We saw this danger” being created, Imam Layama said. “It was all put in place for a Christian and Muslim conflict.”
As Mr. Bozizé felt his power threatened by the rebels, the religious leaders said, he tried to rally the majority Christian population against them by any means.
“Bozizé started to turn the people against Muslims,” the imam said. “He said the Seleka were Arabs, that they would come to enforce Islam and change your schools into Quranic schools. He told the people, ‘Take up your knives and axes and machetes,’ and he identified Muslim neighborhoods by name. So the spirit was created.”
Archbishop Nzapalainga agreed: “The problem was the politicians who used religion.”
The Christian majority would have accepted a Muslim leader who governed justly, the archbishop said. Many, in fact, welcomed the overthrow of Mr. Bozizé. “It is a question of competence,” he said. “People will accept a leader who is competent.”
But the actions of the Seleka ruined any hope of that. The undisciplined troops who seized the country this year carried out such lawless killing and pillaging during their nine months in power that the suspicions conjured by the previous government were reinforced, both religious leaders said.
“They did much harm,” Imam Layama said of the Muslim rebels. “The former government has profited from the misbehavior of the Seleka. They have been able to use that, since the people suffered so much under the Seleka.”
Spillover from conflicts farther north has added fuel to the fire. Arabic-speaking Muslim fighters from Chad and Sudan who joined the Seleka rebels were particularly ruthless and beyond the control of the government, worsening the religious divisions, the imam said.
The violence has started to look like the broader sectarian conflict that he and the archbishop feared. When Christian fighters tried to seize control of the capital, Bangui, on Dec. 5, the Seleka fighters in the city repulsed them and then unleashed a wave of killings of Christians whom they accused of being collaborators. Christian mobs retaliated, lynching Muslim civilians and attacking several mosques.
Tens of thousands of Christians have fled their homes and say they dare not return — not only for fear of the militias, but also for fear of their Muslim neighbors, who they say are all armed.
Likewise, people living in Muslim neighborhoods, who are a minority in the capital and in the country as a whole, fear being overrun by the Christian militias and slaughtered in revenge for the atrocities committed by the Seleka.
“It is the balance of fear: Each side fears the other,” said a Western security consultant working in Bangui, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
Central African Republic straddles the cultural divide between the northern part of the continent, which is mainly Muslim and Arab, and sub-Saharan Africa, which is largely Christian. Christians and those with indigenous beliefs, mostly subsistence farmers, make up a majority of the population. Muslims — traditionally traders and herders who migrated south — make up 15 percent. They live mostly in the northern part of the country and maintain connections with their northern neighbors, Chad and Sudan.
Muslims in Central African Republic complain of prejudice in their own land. The north is the most neglected part of the country, with few roads and schools and little development, and the former government ignored their demands for assistance.
Branded as foreigners, Muslims have long had difficulty applying for identity cards and have been excluded from jobs and education, said Abakar Saboune, a former rebel leader and current presidential adviser. Even the new president adopted a Christian name, Michel, to avoid discrimination, Mr. Saboune said.
Both sides, Christian and Muslim, have used their own communities for information and recruits, Archbishop Nzapalainga said, drawing the civilian population into the conflict, often at gunpoint. “The people are between the hammer and anvil,” he said.
When Christian militias began to form in self-defense against the Seleka, the archbishop demanded to know where the Muslim families they had forced out were, and forbade them to claim they were fighting in the name of Christianity. “No Christian leader gave you that mandate,” he told them.
There are still some beacons of good will. In Kilometer 5, a predominantly Muslim neighborhood of the capital, mosques and a Quranic school stand beside the Catholic church and priests’ residence of the Parish of St. Matthias.
When the massacres began on Dec. 5 and news spread of Christian reprisals against mosques, a Muslim student, Shaiban Mohammad, gathered followers to guard the neighborhood. They stationed men on every street corner to watch for trouble and helped fleeing Christian families to the priests’ house for safety.
“We secured the whole neighborhood,” Mr. Mohammad, 23, said in an interview. “The church was also protected. It is also a house of God.”
On the second day, a Muslim mob arrived, intent on attacking the church.
“They were young men who had lost relatives,” Mr. Mohammad said. “We held the crowd back. It was very heated; it was difficult to stop them.”
Eventually, as one of the imams recited the Quran, the crowd drew back.
Mr. Mohammad said, his face breaking into a smile, that he was studying to be a hafiz, one who can recite the Quran by heart.
“We hope for peace and stability,” he said. “We have been with these people since childhood, and we live very well together.”
The next morning, Christian militias attacked the neighborhood with a barrage of rockets and gunfire. Dozens of Muslims were wounded as they helped their families flee. Mr. Mohammad and one other person, witnesses said, were killed.
“That is why people retreat into their community identity,” Archbishop Nzapalainga said. “We Christians are with our own. The Muslims are with their own.”
“There is such hatred,” he added. “To heal that memory is going to take a long time.”
Bolivia’s president — an ex-child worker — will not support ban on child labor
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, December 23, 2013 18:45 EST
President Evo Morales said Monday he opposed any outright ban on child labor or setting a minimum age for workers in Bolivia — as a former child worker, himself.
“It should not be banned,” the socialist president, 54, said, drawing on his own experience to explain his opposition to legislation under consideration that would set a minimum age of 14 for child workers.
Morales, the country’s first elected indigenous leader, worked as a helper in a bakery and making bricks when he was young.
Child labor as such “should not be banned. But (children) should not be exploited either,” he said.
And “the State should be in charge of making sure that children are taken care of and protected,” he added.
However, the president did not say the government could or would provide benefits generous enough to prevent all those under 14 from needing income from work.
Morales met in his office with members of young people’s groups opposed to the legislation, which would bring Bolivia in line with International Labor Organization norms.
The ILO does not state that all work is bad for children, but it does set out the age 14 minimum for developing countries.
“Some of the kids complained about the ILO document, which does not acknowledge the huge efforts children make for many different reasons, family circumstances, having lost one or both parents, which make them have to work,” the president explained.
“I happened to agree with these children this morning,” said Morales who, in addition to his childhood jobs, went to Argentina with his father on sugar harvests at around age five, and, later, as a teen played the trumpet on the street busking for cash.
“When you start working as a child, you grow up with more of a social conscience,” Morales said.
Bolivian lawmakers will continue work on the issue in coming months.
The Andean nation of 10.5 million is South America’s poorest.
Some 850,000 Bolivian children are at work and not in school, official data show.
Despite recent declines in the worldwide incidence of child labor, much more must be done to tackle the issue, the Third International Conference on Child Labor heard in Brazil in October.
At that conference, International Labor Organization (ILO) Director-General Guy Ryder urged redoubled efforts, decrying that a target to eliminate the worst instances of child labor by 2016 will not be met.
Latest ILO global estimates show the total number of child laborers has dropped by one-third to 168 million since the last conference in The Hague in 2010.
The ILO also aims to highlight the plight of children working in difficult-to-monitor sectors of the economy, such as agriculture and illegal or hidden economic activities. These are where most child workers in Bolivia toil.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Dramatic decline in industrial agriculture could herald ‘peak food’
By Nafeez Ahmed, The Guardian
Saturday, December 21, 2013 9:19 EST
Most conventional yield projection models are oblivious to the real world say US researchers
Industrial agriculture could be hitting fundamental limits in its capacity to produce sufficient crops to feed an expanding global population according to new research published in Nature Communications.
The study by scientists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln argues that there have been abrupt declines or plateaus in the rate of production of major crops which undermine optimistic projections of constantly increasing crop yields. As much as “31% of total global rice, wheat and maize production” has experienced “yield plateaus or abrupt decreases in yield gain, including rice in eastern Asia and wheat in northwest Europe.”
The declines and plateaus in production have become prevalent despite increasing investment in agriculture, which could mean that maximum potential yields under the industrial model of agribusiness have already occurred. Crop yields in “major cereal-producing regions have not increased for long periods of time following an earlier period of steady linear increase.”
The paper makes for ominous reading. Production levels have already flattened out with “no case of a return to the previous rising yield trend” for key regions amounting to “33% of global rice and 27% of global wheat production.” The US researchers concluded that these yield plateaus could be explained by the inference that “average farm yields approach a biophysical yield ceiling for the crop in question, which is determined by its yield potential in the regions where the crop is produced.” They wrote:
“… we found widespread deceleration in the relative rate of increase of average yields of the major cereal crops during the 1990–2010 period in countries with greatest production of these crops, and strong evidence of yield plateaus or an abrupt drop in rate of yield gain in 44% of the cases, which, together, account for 31% of total global rice, wheat and maize production.”
Past trends over the last five decades of perpetually increasing crop yields were “driven by rapid adoption of green revolution technologies that were largely one-time innovations” which cannot be repeated. These include major industrial innovations such as “the development of semi-dwarf wheat and rice varieties, first widespread use of commercial fertilizers and pesticides, and large investments to expand irrigation infrastructure.”
Although agricultural investment in China increased threefold from 1981 to 2000, rates of increase for wheat yields have remained constant, decreased by 64% for maize and are negligible in rice. Similarly, the rate of maize yield has remained largely flat despite a 58% investment increased over the same period. The study warns:
“A concern is that despite the increase in investment in agricultural R&D and education during this period, the relative rate of yield gain for the major food crops has decreased over time together with evidence of upper yield plateaus in some of the most productive domains.”
The study criticises most other yield projection models which predict compound or exponential production increases over coming years and decades, even though these “do not occur in the real world.” It notes that “such growth rates are not feasible over the long term because average farm yields eventually approach a yield potential ceiling determined by biophysical limits on crop growth rates and yield.”
Factors contributing to the declines or plateaus in food production rates include land and soil degradation, climate change and cyclical weather patterns, use of fertilisers and pesticides, and inadequate or inappropriate investment.
The new research raises critical questions about the capacity of traditional industrial agricultural methods to sustain global food production for a growing world population. Food production will need to increase by about 60% by 2050 to meet demand.
A report out this month from the Dutch bank Rabobank recommends cutting food waste by 10%, as over 1 billion tonnes – half of which is related to agriculture – ends up being wasted. More efficient use of water is necessary, the report says, such as micro-irrigation, to address a potential water supply deficit of 40% by 2030. Currently, agriculture accounts for 70% of global water demand. The report also calls for a reduction in dependence on fertilisers using ‘input optimisation’ methods designed to reduce the amount of energy and water required. As 53% of fertiliser nutrients remain in the ground post-harvest, fertilisers contribute to soil degradation over time due to groundwater contamination, leaching, erosion and global warming.
The Rabobank obsession with focusing on improvement of existing industrial methods – without quite grasping the scale of the problems facing industrial agriculture – is, however, a serious deficiency. Two years ago, a landmark report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food demonstrated that agroecology based on sustainable, small-scale, organic methods could potentially double food production in entire regions facing persistent hunger, over five to 10 years.
Dr Nafeez Ahmed is executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development and author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilisation: And How to Save It among other books. Follow him on Twitter @nafeezahmed
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
In the USA..United Surveillance America
Expiration of unemployment benefits threatens US recovery, adviser warns
• Congress fails to extend programme for long-term jobless
• Economists concerned over persistently high unemployment
Dan Roberts in Washington
theguardian.com, Monday 23 December 2013 17.30 GMT
The expiration of benefits for 1.3 million jobless Americans this weekend will exacerbate the worst period of chronic unemployment in post-war history, the chairman of the White House council of economic advisers warns.
The expiring programme, which provides emergency help for the long-term unemployed, was introduced after the banking crash in 2008 to cushion the impact of the recession but is due to end on Saturday. Congress had an opportunity to continue it, but failed to agree on an extension before breaking for Christmas.
Although recent improvements in the economy have boosted overall job growth, economists are concerned that long-term unemployment rates remain higher than at any time between 1948 and the recent financial crisis.
Republican critics claim that ending the programme will force recipients to find work, but new research suggests it will have the opposite effect, and will encourage them to drop out of the labour market entirely, according to Jason Furman, chairman council of economic advisers.
“You can’t get unemployment insurance if you’re not looking for a job,” Furman told the Guardian during a briefing for White House reporters. “When the economy is where it is today, it’s great if somebody stays there, keeps trying, keeps working hard trying to find that job. And the unemployment insurance extension encourages people to stay in the labor force, to continue looking for jobs.”
Similar studies by the congressional budget office and JP Morgan have suggested that ending the programme will knock between 0.2 and 0.4 percentage points off the US economy’s growth rate and that the country will lose out on 240,000 jobs due to lower demand in 2014.
Democrats are planning a fresh push this week to highlight the issue. On a media conference call, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi argued for the extension of the benefits. “Unemployment insurance is part of the safety net of our country; not just for individuals but for the economy,” said Pelosi in the call on Monday. “It is one of the biggest stimuli for the economy. Every dollar creates about $1.70 in demand.”
But Pelosi’s fellow Democrat, Senate majority leader Harry Reid, conceded more than a week ago that it was too late for Congress to act on the extension this year after it was left out of a hard-fought budget compromise between the parties.
Instead, Republicans and Democrats are expected to return to the issue early in the New Year with a vote on a three-month extension and the resumption of talks about longer-term benefits.
House speaker John Boehner, a Republican, has indicated that he is willing to consider extending the emergency unemployment insurance, which was begun during the administration of former president George W Bush, but others in his party are preparing for a showdown over an extension to the US debt limit, which may hamper attempts to reach a compromise over the jobs issue.
Until now, the issue of long-term unemployment has received relatively little attention on Capitol Hill, which has also hit poorer Americans this year with cuts to the food stamps programme. But Democrats increasingly sense it could prove a potential weapon against Republicans, who they accuse of breaking with historic precedent by refusing to extend the programme while unemployment levels remain as high as they are.
“Unemployment has come down for all types of workers, but it’s still unacceptably high,” Furman said during the briefing. “And the reason it’s unacceptably high is not the short-term unemployed, which is back to the same average it was before the crisis; it’s the long-term unemployed, which at 2.6% is higher than any long-term unemployment rate we've reported from 1948 through the financial crisis.”
He added: “That's a reminder of why extending unemployment insurance benefits is so important. They’ve never been allowed to lapse with an unemployment rate at this level.”
Swing District Voters Tell Their Reps Extend Unemployment Benefits if You Want to Keep Your Job
By: Keith Brekhus
Monday, December, 23rd, 2013, 7:14 pm
A Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey released December 23rd, shows voters in competitive House districts overwhelmingly support extending unemployment benefits for Americans who are out of work. The survey polled voters in four critical Republican-held swing districts and in a fifth less competitive GOP district held by House speaker John Boehner. In addition to polling Boehner’s District (OH-8), PPP also surveyed voters in the districts held by Gary Miller (CA-31), Mike Coffman (CO-06), Rodney Davis (IL-13), and Dan Benishek (MI-01).
In all five districts voters favored extending unemployment benefits by about a 2 to 1 margin. In each district, even Republican voters expressed support for extending unemployment benefits. In Michigan’s first district, Republican support for extending long term unemployment benefits polled at 60 percent with only 36 percent of GOP voters approving of cutting off those benefits. The poll demonstrates how out of touch House Republicans are not only with the American people, but even with rank and file Republicans.
GOP Congressmen who continue to play scrooge this holiday season may end up paying a price at the polls next November. All of the Republican congressmen surveyed have negative approval ratings already, and those numbers could plummet even further if the congressmen choose to cut off benefits for the unemployed. Voters in each district stated unequivocally that they would be less likely to vote for their congressional representative if he did not support extending unemployment benefits for those who need them.
Gary Miller, Mike Coffman, Rodney Davis, Dan Benishek, and even John Boehner had better take note. If they choose not to extend relief for America’s jobless this legislative session they may soon find themselves searching for a new job along with so many of their constituents.
Democrats Need To Rally Around the Issue of Income Inequality in America
By: Becky Sarwate
Monday, December, 23rd, 2013, 2:58 pm
In late 2011, when the promising Occupy Wall Street protests began to fizzle out – a combination of government/police intervention and an internal lack of organized leadership, my heart sank. The movement, which began in Zuccotti Park, ground zero of New York City’s Wall Street financial district, deserved much more than a historical footnote, the status of a fleeting trend.
Most of us outside the one percent sphere of privilege don’t need data to reinforce the certainty that things have gone downhill for the middle class, beginning long before the 2008 onset of the Great Recession. We are being squeezed every possible way: mass unemployment, stagnant wages for those lucky enough to have jobs, depreciated home values, skyrocketing household debt and college tuition prices, rising property taxes. You name it and it hurts. Meanwhile we’ve been forced to sit on our hands and watch as no one responsible for the loss of our 401ks and property is prosecuted and even worse, Wall Street salaries remain 5.2 times higher than that of the average New Yorker. I won’t even get into wages outside the Big Apple or executive pay. It’s too depressing.
Inequality and the divisions between the have and have nots is not a new conversation. Every relevant civilization throughout history has struggled with these tensions. I beganto be of the opinion that in order to have any real traction, the dialogue had to mature. Rather than a simple “us vs. them” discourse, I felt like Democratic leadership ought to challenge itself a bit more. Because frankly, it’s not only the GOP that has lurched to the right. In an effort to begin winning elections again after the drubbings of the 1980s, the left made a great “moderate” leap to the center, bringing some economically disastrous policies with them.
This is one of the themes of New York Times columnist Bill Keller’s December 22 Op-Ed, “Inequality for Dummies.” In it, he writes: “Inequality is in. The president, you have probably heard, has declared income inequality to be ‘the defining challenge of our time…’ Liberals of a more centrist bent — notably the former Clintonites at the Third Way think tank — have refused to join the chorus and been lashed by fellow Democrats for their blasphemy.”
As sick as we might all be of partisan infighting, this is a battle we need to have. This isn’t a pointless test of ideological purity to source a base pleasing candidate. As much fun as it’s been to watch the Republican Party look for its way with all the grace and finesse of a blind rhinoceros, it can’t be that we got into our current situation because of the wretched ideas and decision making of one party alone. 11 months before the 2014 midterm elections, and nearly three years before the 2016 Presidential contest, seems like a fine time for the Democratic Party to ask itself a few critical questions. Do we want to continue letting the GOP set the agenda (and anyone who thinks the most recent budget compromise wasn’t a near-complete victory for the conservative platform, just isn’t paying attention), or do we want to be a little bit more proactive about restoring the American Dream?
Keller goes on to write, “The alarming thing is not inequality per se, but immobility. It’s not just that we have too many poor people, but that they are stranded in poverty with long odds against getting out. The rich (and their children) stay rich, the poor (and their children) stay poor…
A stratified society in which the bottom and top are mostly locked in place is not just morally offensive; it is unstable. Recessions are more frequent in such countries.”
Is it any coincidence that every year since Bill Clinton left office, including the Bush terms, rife with deregulation, outsourcing and bursting bubbles of several varieties (which liberals, let’s be entirely honest, were causes championed by the Clinton administration as well), has felt like one continuous recession?
I caution my fellow lefties: Let’s not be afraid to take a good look at ourselves, our history. We can and should do better to create policies that might begin to redress these spiraling socioeconomic ills. After all this is the season of reflection and we have been, at minimum, G.O.P enablers. Accessory to the destruction of the middle class is still a crime.
Walmart Gets Busted Forcing Employees to Make Political Contributions to Republicans
By: Jason Easley
Monday, December, 23rd, 2013, 5:01 pm
If underpaying their employees wasn’t bad enough, Walmart has now been caught forcing employees to make political contributions in exchange for their matching contributions to the employee hardship fund.
According to Bloomberg,
U.S. companies, forbidden to give money directly to political action committees, are taking advantage of controversial federal rules allowing them to ask employees to do it for them in exchange for matching charitable donations.
It’s legal and gives businesses from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to Coca-Cola (KO) Co. to Hewlett-Packard Co. a way to fund their PACs, which direct money to political candidates. The matching contributions provide an incentive for employees, most of them managers, to contribute to the PAC.
Recipients included Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, Democratic Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina and Democratic Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas. Wal-Mart has been vocal on issues including the minimum wage.
The problem is that since 2000, 69% of Walmart PAC’s and the Walton family’s political donations have gone to anti-gay, anti-environment, pro-gun, pro-business conservatives like Cruz and Boehner.
In response, the group Our Walmart released a statement from Walmart employee Barbara Gertz,”What Walmart workers really want is for the company to publicly commit to pay better wages and provide steady hours that let us support our families. Many of us can’t pay for groceries or afford rent. Today’s news is further proof that Walmart is determined to spend millions to support politicians who vote to cut food stamps and who oppose increasing the minimum wage, instead of focusing on creating good jobs in our communities. It’s upsetting to hear that Walmart not only exploited the associates in critical need fund to push a political agenda that hurts ordinary Americans, but it also may have done so in violation of federal election laws. This is just the latest example of Walmart acting as though it’s above the law.”
FEC commissioners are deadlocked on whether the practice is illegal or not, but Walmart’s practice of offering 2 to 1 charity donations in exchange for employee donations has caused current and former FEC commissioners to call the practice illegal and over the line.
Walmart is essentially forcing employees to make a political contribution in order to get hardship assistance for their fellow workers who are destitute because of the company’s practice of paying starvation wages. These employees aren’t just making political contributions, but most of the donations are being given to candidates who are opposed to policies like increasing the minimum wage, unionization, and better working conditions.
This is a reminder that if you shop at Walmart, not only are you supporting paying employees wages that they can’t survive on, but nearly 70% of your money is going to support Republicans.
Walmart’s creativity when it comes to harming their employees is virtually limitless. Each low price Walmart offers is subsidizing the destruction of the American worker.
Obamacare deadline arrives in major test for flagship health programme
• Deadline for Americans to ensure coverage starting January 1
• Democrats already braced for electoral backlash in 2014
Dan Roberts in Washington
theguardian.com, Monday 23 December 2013 19.39 GMT
President Obama's healthcare reforms were due to pass a significant deadline on Monday night when Americans must sign up for insurance if they want their coverage to begin on 1 January.
After a flurry of last-minute extensions following problems with the online enrolment exchange, the administration announced yet another: a 24-hour grace period to take into account timezone differences and any last minute glitches.
Nervous Democrats are already bracing themselves for an electoral backlash in the 2014 midterm elections if the number of new enrollees is not sufficient to drive down overall prices charged by insurers.
Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from the Republican-leaning state of West Virginia, warned that the law could still collapse “under its own weight” during an interview on Sunday and repeated his calls for a transitionary year to make sure insurance pricing is affordable.
“If it’s so much more expensive than what we anticipated and if the coverage is not as good as what we had, you’ve got a complete meltdown at that time,” Manchin told CNN. “This transitional year gives you a chance to adjust the product for the market.”
Confirming the latest extension, federal officials urged buyers not to procrastinate. "You should not wait until tomorrow. If you are aiming to get coverage January 1, you should try to sign up today," said Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the federal agency overseeing the overhaul.
Bataille said the grace period was being offered to accommodate people from different time zones and to deal with any technical problems that might result from a last-minute rush of applicants.
The White House has said it will not reveal official sign-up data for this critical phase until the middle of next month, but Obama boasted during his end-of-year press conference on Friday that half a million Americans had signed up in the first three weeks of December across state and federal exchanges.
“The basic structure of that law is working despite all the problems – despite the website problems, despite the messaging problems. Despite all that, it’s working,” he said. “We’ve got a couple million people who are going to have health insurance just in the first three months, despite the fact that probably the first month and a half was lost because of problems with the website and about as bad a bunch of publicity as you could imagine.”
The president also denied that repeated tweaks to the law – such as repealing penalties on Thursday for those who had lost their insurance due to the reforms – were confusing people.
“If there are adjustments that can be made to smooth out the transition, we should make them,” he added. “But they don’t go to the core of the law.”
Yet insurers have expressed concern that such exemptions could make it harder to attract enough new customers into the system to make the economics work and were weakening the principle of the 'individual mandate' requiring everyone to participate in some form of insurance.
Karen Ignagni, president and chief executive officer of America's Health Insurance Plans, said Thursday's action "was of particular concern because we were worried about the message with respect to individuals having a path around the mandate; that was the first time that the administration had said anything like that".
"All the issues we're talking about today were the issues we flagged three years ago," she added in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.
Writer Round Table: Who was the Biggest Loser in the House in 2013?
By: Politicus USA
Monday, December, 23rd, 2013, 12:37 pm
As 2013 comes to a close, we at PoliticusUSA thought we’d take a look at some of the year’s biggest winners and losers. For this particular column, we asked several writers to give us their pick for the biggest loser in the House of Representatives in 2013. Here are the responses that we received. Enjoy!
Sarah Jones: Managing Editor/Columnist
The biggest loser in the House was without a doubt the impotent John Boehner – the Weeping Speaker that Couldn’t. Without Pelosi to do everything for him, Boehner would be nothing and as it is, he is only a little bit something, though he did set historical records for doing nothing and working less time than any other Congress. But ultimately, the biggest loser was the People, thanks to Boehner’s historic incompetence.
Justin Baragona: Senior Editor
While John Boehner seems like the logical choice, I am going to go with someone who can make anyone else look like a winner: Michelle Bachmann. While every year she’s been in Congress has been marked by her special sort of crazy and weirdness, 2013 marked the year when everything caught up with her. After narrowly holding onto her seat in November 2012, the writing was on the wall that she may not survive another election campaign. That was made even clearer when she became the target of numerous investigations into her use of campaign finance funds. On May 29th, 2013, she announced she would retire from Congress at the end of her current term and not run for reelection in 2014.
Hrafnkell Haraldsson: Editor/Columnist
The biggest loser in the House I think must be the Speaker of the House, John Boehner. He has not only proven himself completely unable to lead House Republicans but he has done all in his power to prevent President Obama from leading our country. It is ironic that while he has been busily obstructing our president, his caucus has been doing all it can to obstruct him. If ever there was an example of nihilism, it is found in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. It is important to remember that it is upon the leader that the mantle of responsibility rests. While President Obama embraces this responsibility, Boehner has done nothing but dodge it: Excuse-making and responsibility-shirking have become endemic and his lies have become so convoluted that, as Harry Reid says, nobody knows what he is talking about. I’m sure that includes the histrionic John Boehner. I won’t even get into Boehner’s highly unethical involvement in the Keystone XL Pipeline. As Alan Grayson says, Boehner has got to go.
Keith Brekhus: Contributing Writer
The biggest House loser in 2013, was Florida GOP Representative Trey Radel who got busted for cocaine possession.
Dennis Shreefer: Contributing Writer
Let’s see, how many Republicans, in wasting the nation’s time and votes, can “Dance on the head of a pin?” That would be the collective body of 232 House Republicans. So, the biggest loser is the Republican Party. Dancing around their unanimous or near unanimous votes for hugely destructive legislation has trivialized the House to the point of hyper-partisan irrelevance. There have been 40 or so votes to either defund the Affordable Care Act altogether or change it in such profound ways as to make the original legislation meaningless. Other votes cast in service to their corporate dance partners include drill baby drill, destruction of environmental regulations, starving the poor, refusal to provide funds to reduce the backlog of veterans’ disability claims, rejecting a Democratic motion to prevent Republicans from voucherizing Medicare, privatizing Social Security and reducing benefits and, of course, the Republican support of any bill that negatively affects women. I could write a thousand paragraphs on this subject.
Adalia Woodbury: Contributing Writer
With so many Republicans crammed in the Tea Party clown car, there are many contenders. Paul Ryan stands out as the biggest loser. He even managed to make co-losing the presidential election in 2012 pale in comparison. Ryan chanted about a “path to prosperity” for the already prosperous with a third world standard of living for everyone else – complete with starving children and people freezing in the streets.
Ryan once tried to denounce his Ayn Rand roots by claiming his devotion to Catholicism as real basis of his heartless policies. But he lost his religious fig leaf when Pope Francis denounced obscene levels of economic inequality and outright disdain for the poor that Ryan personifies. Things got worse when he made a budget deal with Democratic Senator Patty Murray. Even though more people will freeze to death and go hungry, the budget “compromise” can’t match what sequester would achieve. By working with Senator Murray, Ryan also committed a second deadly sin in the Tea Party bible. Thou shalt not get things done in Washington.
And there you have it, folks. These are PoliticusUSA’s picks for the House’s loser of the year. Feel free to comment at the bottom and provide us with your thoughts. We will be posting more of these columns over the rest of the holiday season as we say goodbye to 2013.
A tale of two rushes: There’s gold in them there wells
Dec 21st 2013 |
WILLISTON, NORTH DAKOTA
WHEN his neighbour discovered gold in a Californian river in 1848, Sam Brannan could have kept quiet about it. Instead, he filled a jar with gold dust and rushed around the streets of San Francisco shouting “Gold! Gold! Gold!” He had good reason to incite a gold rush: he owned a shop nearby. He became California’s first millionaire by selling picks, shovels, beans and bacon to the horde of prospectors who heeded his call.
Gold fever spread fast. The lure of buried treasure “sucked nearly every free hand and available arm to the gold mines”, observes H.W. Brands in “The Age of Gold”, a brilliant history of the period. “They tore themselves from warm hearths and good homes, promising to return; they fled from cold hearts and bad debts, vowing never to return.” The Alta California, a local paper, reported that “The whole country…resounds to the sordid cry of gold! GOLD!! GOLD!!!” It added that this would be the last issue for a while, since all its staff were heading for the gold fields.
America’s current shale-energy boom has plenty in common with the gold rush, and might prove as momentous. It has created a gusher of wealth in remote places. It has lured young men to wild frontier towns, such as Williston, North Dakota. Jim Cramer, a television host, sounded just like Brannan when he reported from North Dakota in 2011. “This new black gold rush is just getting started!” he bellowed, against a backdrop of nodding donkeys. “Listen, people in this country who need a job, get up here!”
Unlike the Alta California, not all of The Economist’s writers have headed for the frontier. But one correspondent, intrigued by the parallels between the two booms, put on stout boots, packed a copy of “The Age of Gold” and set off for Williston.
For the ’49ers—as the men who hurried west in that year became known—the trek to California was arduous. “Mules old enough to travel well were unavailable at any price,” writes Brands. Prospectors who made their way overland went “at the pace of the slowest oxen [pulling their wagons], no more than two miles [3.2km] per hour”. Many succumbed to cholera, thirst or Indian arrows. One group, on escaping from the most godforsaken tract of the Mojave desert, doffed their hats, turned back and said: “Goodbye, Death Valley!” “The name stuck,” notes Brands.
The journey to North Dakota today is more straightforward. Still, when your correspondent tried to reserve a rental car at Bismarck airport, they were sold out. He eventually found a pickup truck. Driving it through the Badlands was hairy: hundreds of huge oil lorries kept thundering in the opposite direction along narrow country roads. The pickup went much faster than an ox wagon, except in the traffic jam outside Williston, which looked like a long, motionless steel snake festooned with lights. A sign offered a cheerful welcome to “Boomtown, USA”.
Men behaving badly
The communities formed by the two groups of migrants have some striking similarities. For gold miners in California, life was almost as rough as the journey west had been. San Francisco in the summer of 1849 looked like “the bivouac of an army on the move”, writes Brands; most of the buildings “were actually tents”. The miners smelled awful. No one “could be bothered to wash dirty underwear, only to wash gold”.
Workers in Williston today generally have it easier—though newcomers sometimes sleep in their cars, which is not advisable in the winter, when temperatures often drop below minus 20°C. Places to stay are scarce and expensive. Many oil workers live in “man camps”, which look like college dormitories that have been built in a hurry. The companies that run them, such as Target Logistics of Texas, prefer the term “crew camps” to man camps; it sounds less burly and tattooed. But who are they kidding? When The Economist visited Tioga Lodge, one of Target’s camps, 99% of the 930 residents were male.
It is a bare-bones place for men who work long, sweaty hours to sleep and eat. Happily the food is free and unlimited. The kitchens chop up vast quantities of meat into portions just small enough to fit on a plate. “They eat a lot,” says the chief cook, Jeff Ball, who used to cater for troops in Afghanistan. Some workers heap their trays with meat and potatoes in the dining room, then walk over to the cafeteria to load up with burgers, hot dogs and pizza. Your correspondent, at the salad bar, felt lonely.
Mr Ball gives the oilmen whatever they want. If they crave blackened catfish and prawn gumbo like mom used to make in Louisiana, they can have it. Likewise if a crew from Mexico wants tamales. The only thing they can’t have—in the man camp, at least—is alcohol. Oil firms prefer that dangerous machinery be handled by men with clear heads.
Too drunk to frack
Life in the gold fields was often violent. Miners drank and gambled and fought. Thieves and ruffians preyed on the weak and unwary. Justice was rough. Brannan, the shop-owner, led a committee of vigilantes. In June 1851 his men caught a gangster stealing a safe. After a two-hour “trial”, they hanged him from a beam in a public square.
Life in the gold fields was often violent. Miners drank and gambled and fought
Williston, too, has developed a bareknuckle reputation. “The theft up here is unbelievable,” says a private detective hired by an insurer to investigate the disappearance of 15 truckloads of oil. “A lot of people here are trying to get a piece of the action without working.” And, with so few women in the neighbourhood, many men are frustrated.
“You put a bunch of guys together, working 12 hours a day, and they’re going to get into fights,” shrugs Josh Wipf, a mechanic from Montana who moved to Williston last year. Mr Wipf, who says the ratio of men to women in Williston “sucks”, admits to having been in a bar fight himself. “It was about a girl, I think. I don’t really remember. I was, you know…” he trails off.
“They get rowdy when they get drunk,” says Alice Trottier, a student at Williston State College. “I would never go out jogging alone at night now,” she laments. Like many young females in Williston, she finds it annoying to be stared at all the time. On the plus side, scarcity gives women power. Men “treat you like a princess. They pay for everything,” says Ms Trottier. On a good night waiting tables at a pizza joint she can make $200.
In California during the gold rush, many men could only find female company if they paid for it. Life for boomtown prostitutes was rough and risky; some Chinese women, speaking no English, were in effect slaves to their pimps. But others made a lot of money. “At a time when a Paris streetwalker might make the equivalent of $2 a night, some of the Frenchwomen in San Francisco made $400,” writes Brands. Belle Cora’s brothel on Dupont Street was renowned for fine wine and music as well as sex. “Men with lust in their hearts…and gold in their pockets beat a path through the muddy streets to her door, where she made sure they wiped their feet before entering.”
The same trade exists today in Williston, but with fewer chandeliers and violins. Most paid hookups are probably arranged online: the oil workers all have smartphones. Some practise the oldest profession the old-fashioned way, but this can annoy bystanders. One of the staff at Bubba’s Bubbles, a laundry shop, says she “had to kick out” a woman with a pink wig who was accosting male customers in the parking lot.
Striking it lucky
The California gold rush was a low-tech affair. “No capital is required to obtain this gold, as the labouring man wants nothing but his pick, shovel and tin pan,” wrote William Sherman, later a civil-war general, in a missive to President James Polk in 1848. It seemed to offer ordinary people a chance to get rich quick: one man, sifting through the dirt at the bottom of a stream, might conceivably find enough gold to retire on. Not a good chance, mind: only a lucky few prospectors struck the mother lode. The rest typically struggled to find enough ore to cover their expenses; some died poor and sorry, or quit panning to find a steadier job.
Fracking, by contrast, requires capital and expertise. Oil giants such as Statoil and Schlumberger are flocking to North Dakota. They bring pricey, high-tech equipment, from microseismic sensors to drilling rigs that walk, like something out of “Star Wars”. From little frack pads in the middle of vast wheat fields, they can drill four miles down, more than a mile to the side, and, thanks to satellite technology, hit a target three feet across. Then they shoot thousands of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into the shale formation, creating hairline fractures in the rock—hence the procedure’s proper name, “hydraulic fracturing”. The sand stops those fractures from closing up when the pressure is turned off.
The lure is not a slender chance of becoming rich, but the near-certainty of finding a blue-collar job that pays middle-class wages
But North Dakota rewards ordinary folk, too. The lure is not a slender chance of becoming rich, but the near-certainty of finding a blue-collar job that pays middle-class wages. A roughneck or truck driver can easily make $100,000 a year. (Why did Mr Wipf make the trek from Montana? “Good money.”) Anyone who can pass a drug test can find work.
And just as the gold rush made shopkeepers and shovelmakers rich, so the spoils of gas are widely spread. A whole economy has sprung up to support the frackers. Someone has to build man camps, roads and schools. North Dakota Developments, a property developer, is trucking ready-made six-room housing units over from Minnesota and erecting them in what used to be a cornfield. Rob Gavin, the boss, says demand is so strong that he expects to recoup the development costs in a single year.
The place is growing so fast that, even at boomtown wages, finding workers can be hard. Paul Coppinger, a boss at Weir-SPM, a firm that makes oil and gas pumps, says that only a couple of his 63 staff in Williston are native North Dakotans. The Walmart in town is the messiest your correspondent has ever seen; there are too few hands to tidy the shelves. Workers quit and take better jobs faster than you can say “frack”.
Theron Amos, the manager of the local Pizza Hut, says he has lost a fifth of his staff—in the past week. “I have 20. I need 30,” he sighs, as he wrestles with the cash register and passes the shrieking phone to a colleague. “Oh, man, I’ve got more grey hairs than when I started this job.” Would Mr Amos turn any applicant away? “Well, one woman came in and ordered a pitcher of beer before the job interview. I didn’t hire her.”
Sitting on a gold mine
The locals in 19th-century California were not consulted about the gold rush. Many Native Americans, who in previous decades had reached accommodations with Spanish and Mexican settlers, were murdered or infected with unfamiliar diseases. Scorched-earth offensives starved them off their land: since hunting them down was too time-consuming, one white soldier wrote, “It was therefore decided that the best policy was to destroy their huts and stores, with a view of starving them out.” Their descendants live in reservations. Williston’s natives are faring rather better.
Because they can drill sideways, frackers can suck out the oil and gas under a huge farm while disturbing only a tiny part of it. So the farmer carries on rearing cows as before. The fracking takes place so far underground that he never notices it. But he notices the royalties that the energy firms pay.
“Most farms round here have mineral income,” says Tom Rolfstad of the Williston Economic Development office. A farmer with two square miles of land will get a signing bonus of $2.5m and nearly 20% of the gross value of the oil and gas pumped from it, he estimates. A good well can keep producing for 30 years and yield 500,000 barrels of oil. At $100 a barrel, that’s $10m for the farmer. Even small landowners benefit. Mr Rolfstad gets regular little cheques for the oil and gas extracted below his modest home.
Many of the ancestors of today’s North Dakotans arrived at Ellis Island in the 19th century. “If you were Norwegian, they’d send you to North Dakota. If you didn’t speak English, they’d give you a card round your neck asking people to help you find the right train,” explains Mr Rolfstad. Under the Homestead Act of 1862, if the immigrants staked out 160 acres and farmed it for five years, they owned it—and their descendants own the mineral rights. In Europe, where such rights typically belong to the state, people resent the disruption fracking might cause. Americans, by contrast, tend to be delighted if a firm wants to frack under their land.
And for landowners, the fracking itself is not the only money-spinner. A farmer with land near Williston will have no trouble renting it out. The town is desperate for more offices, homes, shops and hotels. In one small field your correspondent counted 50 mobile homes.
One occupant, Cindy Martin, says the farmer charges her $1,000 a month to park there, with no electricity or water. “It’s a terrible price,” she complains. But the boom means labour is scarce and wages are high; Ms Martin makes twice as much as she would elsewhere, working at Bubba’s Bubbles. She and her husband drove up 2,000 miles from Arizona. She seems content: “We came here to work. We refuse to lay back and let the government take care of us. We’re too American for that.”
For all their good fortune, some locals fret about the crowding, pollution and change that accompany the new wealth. “It was a quiet, small town,” laments Gary Daniel, a middle-aged Willistonian, as he eats fried chicken at Gramma Sharon’s family restaurant. He has seen oil booms before, “but not like this one.” People used to know each other in Williston, he recalls: “Now everyone’s in a hurry to go nowhere.” Prices have soared. Mr Daniel knows of old people whose rent quadrupled so they had to leave their homes. “It’s flat-out greed,” he spits. The schools are packed; their walls are “just bulging out”. The traffic is “insane”. Overall, “whether it’s good or bad, I haven’t made my mind up.”
Mr Rolfstad has fewer doubts. Growth is being carefully planned, he says. “We decided to double the size of the town. Then we decided to quadruple it.”
After the flood
The gold rush of 1848-55 not only transformed the lives of those who found fortunes in the dirt (and those who failed to); it also changed America. It rapidly populated the new territory of California, which America had just seized from Mexico, and hastened the day that the Golden State became a state. It led to the construction of railroads to bind the settled eastern states to the Wild West. Its legacy includes San Francisco and America’s thriving Chinese population (which exploded during the gold rush, as boatloads of Chinese prospectors arrived).
Brands, the historian, goes further, arguing that gold transformed the American dream. Whereas the Puritans dreamed of accumulating modest fortunes “a little at a time, year by year”, through “sobriety, thrift and steady toil”, the ‘49ers dreamed of “instant wealth, won in a twinkling by audacity and good luck”. Among the early settlers, failure “connoted weakness of will or defect of soul”. In the gold fields, by contrast, “a person was expected to gamble, and to fail, and to gamble again”. And “where failure was so common, it lost its stigma.” This idea—that failure is a socially acceptable stepping stone to success—is one reason why American capitalism is so dynamic.
The fracking boom could be every bit as important as the gold rush. It is about to turn America into the world’s largest oil and gas producer, outstripping Russia and Saudi Arabia. It could add almost $700 billion to the economy by 2020 (about 4% of GDP), predicts McKinsey, a consultancy. By then it will have created up to 1.7m jobs—far more than the car industry provides. The sudden abundance of natural gas has drastically reduced American energy bills while curbing greenhouse-gas emissions, since gas is cleaner than coal.
The longer term effects of a boom are unpredictable. For instance, the gold rush arguably led to the creation of Silicon Valley. It spurred the laying of the railroads, making Leland Stanford rich. He founded Stanford University, which trained the engineers who started the tech firms, from Hewlett-Packard to Google, which made the Valley the envy of the world.
In North Dakota fracking has poured money into schools. Some of those Norwegian immigrants used to set aside a portion of their farmland income to support the village school. That rule lives on, in places, and the land now generates mineral royalties. No one expects to see a great university emerge in the Great Plains just yet. But you never know. Who in 1849 could have predicted that the empty hills around San Francisco would one day sprout an Apple?
Freed Pussy Riot punks reunite in Siberia, urging Sochi Olympics boycott
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, December 24, 2013 9:18 EST
two freed members of anti-Kremlin punk band Pussy Riot on Tuesday met in Siberia for the first time since their release, discussing plans to set up a new rights group to help Russian prisoners.
Maria Alyokhina, who had been serving her sentence at a prison colony in the central city of Nizhny Novgorod, flew into the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk to meet up with bandmate Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, who was released from a prison hospital.
Alyokhina, 25, and Tolokonnikova, 24, were released two months early under a Kremlin-backed amnesty after serving most of their two-year sentences for staging a protest performance against Putin in an Orthodox cathedral in Moscow in February 2012.
Tolokonnikova’s husband Pyotr Verzilov told AFP the two women had discussed plans to create “a fully-fledged organisation to help inmates.”
The two punk rockers remained defiant after their release, denouncing their amnesty as a “PR stunt” and vowing to fight injustice in Russian prisons.
“In my last penal colony I had friends who told rights activists about their conditions and I will do everything in my power so that they do not come under pressure,” the curly-haired Alyokhina said in televised remarks in Krasnoyarsk.
The young women, both of whom have small children, earlier Tuesday embraced at Krasnoyarsk airport surrounded by a crowd of journalists.
‘Boycott the Olympics’
Showing she had lost none of her fighting spirit, Tolokonnikova said the chief of prison service in Mordovia, where she had served most of her sentence, should be removed from his post over what she said were numerous violations.
“Mordovia will receive its just deserts. Get ready,” she said on Twitter.
The two women are expected to hold a news conference in Moscow on Friday.
Tolokonnikova on her release Monday showed she had no fear about wading into the most politicised of issues, calling on countries to boycott the Winter Olympic Games Russia is hosting in Sochi.
“I appeal for a boycott, I appeal for honesty,” she said.
Tolokonnikova also did not rule out staging new performances in the future but said the pair had matured over the past two years and therefore are likely to express themselves in new ways.
“I am not going to stop my political activity because I feel responsible for this country in which I live and I am not going to leave it, either,” she said in a radio interview on Monday.
She went on hunger strike after releasing a letter complaining that women at her Penal Colony Number 14 in Mordovia were treated like “slaves” and worked 17-hour days in a sewing workshop.
Tolokonnikova was then moved to a new prison in Siberia’s Krasnoyarsk region, where she was kept at a hospital for convicts rather than the prison itself.
She said she had played punk rock in the prison hospital.
“There in the Krasnoyarsk prison hospital was a punk rock band. It was magical. I will miss it,” she said on Twitter.
Alyokhina also frequently complained about conditions in Corrective Labour Colony No 28 in the Perm region of the Urals and was then moved to the region of Nizhny Novgorod after proving “inconvenient” for prison authorities, her lawyer has said.
Their jailing turned them from little-known feminist punks who staged a handful of guerrilla performances in Moscow to the stars of a global cause celebre symbolising the repression of civil dissent under Putin.
They received support from luminaries ranging from Madonna to Yoko Ono to Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.
******************Pussy Riot singers reunited after almost two years – video
Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhinare are reunited at an airport in Siberia for the first time since they were jailed almost two years ago. Both women smiled and hugged as they met at Krasnoyarsk's airport, surrounded by journalists. They talk again about their plans to set up a human rights organisation, and say they want to address the way women are treated in jail.
Click to watch the video: http://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2013/dec/24/pussy-riot-reunite-two-years-siberia-video
Does Mars' interior hold huge reservoirs of water? Martian meteorites say yes. (+video)
Some parts of Mars' interior are as wet as that of Earth, a new study finds.
The interior of Mars holds vast reservoirs of water, with some spots apparently as wet as Earth's innards, scientists say.
This 11-minute animation depicts key events of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, which will launch in late 2011 and land a rover, Curiosity, on Mars in August 2012.
The finding upends previous studies, which had estimated that the Red Planet's internal water stores were scanty at best — something of a surprise, given that liquid water apparently flowed on the Martian surface long ago.
"It’s been puzzling why previous estimates for the planet’s interior have been so dry," co-author Erik Hauri, of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, said in a statement. "This new research makes sense and suggests that volcanoes may have been the primary vehicle for getting water to the surface."
The scientists examined two Martian meteorites that formed in the planet's mantle, the layer under the crust. These rocks landed on Earth about 2.5 million years ago, after being blasted off the Red Planet by a violent impact.
Using a technique called secondary ion mass spectrometry, the team determined that the mantle from which the meteorites derived contained between 70 and 300 parts per million (ppm) of water. Earth's mantle, for comparison, holds roughly 50-300 ppm water, researchers said.
"The results suggest that water was incorporated during the formation of Mars and that the planet was able to store water in its interior during the planet’s differentiation," Hauri said.
Some of this water apparently made its made to the surface in the ancient past. NASA's Spirit and Opportunity rovers, which landed on the Red Planet in 2004, have found plenty of evidence that Mars was far warmer and wetter billions of years ago than it is today.
The two golf-cart-size robots have even spotted signs of ancient hydrothermal systems, suggesting that some places on the Red Planet once had both water and an energy source — two key ingredients for the existence of life as we know it.
While the new results should help scientists better understand Mars and its history, they could also shed light on the evolution of large, rocky bodies in a more general sense, researchers said.
"Not only does this study explain how Mars got its water, it provides a mechanism for hydrogen storage in all the terrestrial planets at the time of their formation," lead author Francis McCubbin, of the University of New Mexico, said in a statement.
The study was published in the journal Geology on June 15.
Click to watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4boyXQuUIw
In the USA...United Surveillance AmericaThe Gospel according to Fox News — and their cries of holiday persecution — make them look even more foolish
By Becky Garrison, The Guardian
Tuesday, December 24, 2013 9:46 EST
The annual “war on Christmas” took an unexpected twist this holiday season, when the UK-based website the Freethinker published the ironic headline “First known casualty in America’s 2013 ‘War on Xmas’ turns out to be a Salvation Army member“. A woman attacked a bell ringer in Phoenix, Arizona because she was angry at being wished a “Happy Holidays” instead of honoring Jesus’ birth by saying “Merry Christmas”. In another act of Christmas violence, unidentified arsonists tried to torch one of the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s billboards that proclaimed “Keep Saturn in Saturnalia” – a reference to an ancient celebration of the Roman god of agriculture.
The Gospel According to Fox News preaches a tale of Christian persecution running rampant through America. While others around the world face imprisonment or even execution for their religious beliefs, Christians in the states suffer the indignity of facing a holiday season sans baby Jesus Christ’s omnipresence in the public square. Instead of sharing parables of the Beatitudes in practice, Fox’s Meghan Kelly’s chose to push forth the blatantly racist proposition that Jesus and Santa are white; the line between Fox News and the Daily Show’s parodies have now become almost indistinguishable.
Kelly added to her extensive mythmaking repertoire by claiming that the American Humanist Association (AHA) is denying toys to poor children. Roy Speckhardt, executive director of AHA, recounts his televised appearance with Kelly where he tried to discuss how Samaritan Purse’s Operation Christmas Child tries to use public schools as a workforce for their presents for conversions program. He noted:
It’s hard to take seriously a program that expects poor kids to convert just because they receive a Christmas present and a pamphlet about Jesus. If only it were so easy to convert, and de-convert, kids would be getting presents from all sorts of groups.
Fred Edwords, the national director of United Coalition of Reason offered this perspective on the history of the war between evangelical Christians and atheists:
The religious right started this whole “war on Christmas” myth when a few years back they launched their organized attack against calling the trees erected at the capitol and White House “Holiday Trees”. They also boycotted major businesses that said “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”. As a result, their pressure effected some change, and they gloated on their success. But then humanist and atheist groups decided to launch awareness campaigns during the winter holiday season, reaching out to those who may have felt excluded by all of this nonsense. And the religious right went ballistic. After awhile, however, these campaigns got predictable and became less effective. So fewer of them were launched. But the religious right was still there – never having needed atheists to prompt them in the first place. And this year is making that reality abundantly clear.
Crossing the front lines to the atheist base, one finds a spirit of fun and playfulness seems to have replaced the angry atheist persona of yesteryear. For example, instead of protesting the presence of a nativity scene in the Florida State capitol, an atheist chose to erect a Festivus Pole made from beer cans. This pole was designed to commemorate the infamous holiday popularised by the television show Seinfeld joins other displays in the rotunda including a nativity scene, posters from atheists, and a crudely-made Flying Spaghetti Monster. (A petition to include a similar satanic display was denied.)
According to David Silverman, president, American Atheists, this shift from activism to pluralistic accommodation “sends the clear message that the season is not owned by one religion, but rather everyone, and reinforces the idea that Christianity is one religion of many. While this is correct, ethical, and American, it’s a clear defeat for those who prefer the old days of inequality.”
A recent survey by the Public Religion Research Group points to a shifting toward such pluralism, with close to half of Americans (49%) surveyed agreeing that stores and businesses should greet their customers with “happy holidays” or “season’s greetings” instead of “merry Christmas”, out of respect for people of different faiths. This number is up from 44% when they conducted this survey in 2010.
Michael Dorian, co-director of the documentary Refusing My Religion notes, “many now understand that most people – whether believers or nonbelievers – can appreciate the holidays and just want to celebrate the season by socializing with friends and family, and that can be easily achieved with or without the trappings of religion”.
As the number of Americans who understand what it means to live in an increasing pluralistic country continues to grow, those faithful to the Fox News brand of Christianity – and its need to be ever dominant and combative around the holidays – will continue to look ever more foolish and out of touch.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
*****************Keep the Saturn in Saturnalia
By Amanda Marcotte
Monday, December 23, 2013 10:23 EST
The “war on Christmas” once again proves to not exist, but continues to be an imaginary war being used to justify actual abuse of non-Christians and anyone who might believe that Christians should not be upheld as superior to everyone else. The latest example happened in South Jersey. Freedom From Religion decided to respond to a big banner that’s flown over the street in Pitman, NJ every year that reads “Keep the Christ in Christmas” with a billboard on the highway that says “Keep the Saturn in Saturnalia”. Local residents are not handling the cheeky reminder that the Winter Solstice was once a pagan holiday that Christians stole because they knew they could never stop people from celebrating it.
Several protesters descended on the billboard over the weekend. A man dressed in a full red Santa suit stood sentry in the cold for hours, holding a placard that referenced “Obamass.” On Sunday, a family of four attempted to shroud the sign with picture of Jesus before they were shooed away by police.
Town officials followed the weekend protests on Facebook. But the attempt to burn down the sign ratcheted up their concerns….
An off-duty police officer witnessed the latest assault on the sign Tuesday about 11:45 p.m., said Chief Robert Zimmerman. Two white men pulled up in a silver and blue Ford 150 pickup truck with a ladder rack. They poured gas around the supports, set it ablaze and quickly fled.
“They were not successful,” Zimmerman said. “The posts are steel and didn’t ignite at all.”
I would love to talk to the people who are trying to deface it by asking them what they are so afraid of. Are they afraid by mentioning the ancient god Saturn, they will invoke him and he will wreak havoc in revenge for being cast aside in favor of these shiny new gods like Jesus? Are they worried that the reminder that Christmas used to be Saturnalia means we have to stop celebrating Christmas because the pagans had it first? Or are they worried that the billboard will provoke a forbidden thought: If there were other gods that no one believes in anymore, could it be that your own god is just as much a myth? But since that thought is forbidden, even admitting you worry about thinking it is a form of thinking it, so I imagine they wouldn’t admit that. So, I’m guessing the answers will be a bunch of incoherent rage that non-Christians aren’t bowing and scraping before Christians.
But beyond that really is a fear that if non-Christians are allowed an equal space in society, then people, especially young people, might start to realize that you don’t have to be a Christian. And, let’s be blunt: A huge chunk of people, upon finding out they don’t have to be Christians, are going to say, “Well fuck that then, I’m sleeping in on Sundays.” That’s a huge fear underlying this.
Of course, we all know what the true meaning of Christmas is: Trying to scratch out a little privacy for yourself in midst of all the overwhelming familial chaos.
**************Black Santa shot by pellet gun during D.C. toy giveaway while cameras rolled
By David Edwards
Tuesday, December 24, 2013 13:13 EST
Black Santa Claus shot in D.C. (WJLA)
An African-America Santa Claus was shot in the back with a pellet gun during a toy giveaway in Washington, D.C. on Christmas Eve — and the whole thing was caught on video by a local news crew.
A WJLA photographer was interviewing the Santa Claus as he was waving to children on a Washington, D.C. street. The Santa then began screaming in pain.
“Somebody just shot me!” Santa says. “Something in my back. Ahh! Ahh! My back! Oh!”
According to WJLA, the pellet was still lodged in Santa’s shoulder when he was taken to a nearby hospital. A “Grinch” character filled in to finish the toy giveaway.
Fox News host Megyn Kelly recently told children that the only real Santa Claus was white.
Watch the video below from WJLA, broadcast Dec. 24, 2013.
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Pig Putin ready for post-Soviet economic union with Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, December 24, 2013 14:48 EST
Russian President Pig Putin said on Tuesday the final pieces were in place for the 2015 launch of an economic union with Belarus and Kazakhstan that Moscow hopes can also be joined by Ukraine.
Pig Putin promised following talks with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko that the so-called Eurasian Economic Union would turn into a new source of growth for all involved.
The alliance would replace a much looser Eurasian Customs Union that Russia formed with the two ex-Soviet nations in an effort to build up a free trade rival to the 28-nation EU bloc.
“Government representatives of the troika (Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus) … have developed the draft of the institutional part of the Eurasian Economic Union agreement,” Putin said in televised remarks.
“This document determines the international legal status, organisational frameworks, the objectives and mechanisms of how the union will operate starting on January 1, 2015,” the Pig said.
Pig Putin has made the creation of a post-Soviet economic union that could one day even be joined by nations such as Turkey and India the keystone project of his third Kremlin term.
Russia has put immense pressure on Ukraine to join the alliance and threatened economic sanctions against Kiev when it was on the verge of signing a landmark trade and political association deal with Brussels last month.
Kiev’s decision to spurn the EU pact sparked the biggest protests since the 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution and exposed the deep cultural rifts running between the nationalist west of Ukraine and its more Russified eastern parts.
But the size of those rallies began to ebb when Ukraine agreed a $15-billion bailout package with Russia that also included a one-third cut in the price Moscow charges its neighbour for natural gas.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said during talks in Moscow with his counterpart Dmitry Medvedev that Kiev had just received the first $3.0-billion tranche of the Russian rescue plan.
“This is a stabilising factor for us,” the Ukrainian government website quoted Azarov as saying before he joined the Pig at the Eurasian meeting.
“Thanks to the reached agreements, our ratings went up. We came out of the zone that we were in,” Azarov said.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara added that Kiev and Moscow intended to continue to “coordinate (their) foreign policies.”
“I am especially asking my Russian colleague Sergei Lavrov to support Ukraine’s efforts to become a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council,” ITAR-TASS quoted Ukraine’s top diplomat as saying.
Russia’s rescue — announced following talks in Moscow between Pig Putin and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych — involves the purchase of new eurobonds Kiev began to issue on the Irish stock exchange.
The package helped to tamp down the soaring yield on Ukrainian government obligations and made it easier for Kiev to issue new debt to cover its yawning fiscal black hole.
The three nations on Tuesday also agreed on a “road map” paving the way for the membership in their union of Armenia — a tiny ex-Soviet Caucasus nation that had also been expected to sign an initial agreement with Brussels last month.
Pig Putin rewarded Armenia’s reversal by slashing the price of its natural gas imports from Russia to $189 from $270 per 1,000 cubic metres.
Russia’s First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov said it should take “about half a year” for Armenia to formally join the existing Moscow-led customs pact.
The Pig added that the impoverished Central Asian state of Kyrgyzstan was also conducting initial membership talks.
Kyrgyzstan’s participation has been held up by Russia’s worries over its inability to plug its porous border with China.
Op-Ed: Pig Putin's Eurasian Union
By Raluca Besliu
Oct 18, 2012 in Politics
In early October 2011, then Prime Minister Pig Putin revealed Russia’s intention to create Eurasian Union, a new inter-governmental economic and political organization, based on the European Union (EU) integration model.
The Eurasian Union, which is to be established in 2015, would comprise many of the former Soviet member states, including Belarus, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan and Moldova. While the project may start with this particular set of countries, Russia does not intend to place any geographical restrictions on membership.
The Pig's Union would be an expansion of some of the already existing Eurasian integration projects, such as the Customs Union between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, consisting of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
The Eurasian Union could arguably bring some economic benefits to its members. If most of the Soviet countries were to join the Union, the newly created market would stretch from the Pacific to Eastern Europe and could increase trade among the member states. At the same time, the lowering of barriers to movements of goods and people will make it easier for workers to move back and forth among the Union’s countries.
Another advantage of Pig Putin’s project could come from the resource abundance possessed by certain potential member states, such as Kazakhstan and Ukraine. However, these potential benefits could be surpassed by the economic distress that some of the likely candidate states currently have. Moldova is, at present, the poorest country in Europe, while some Eurasian countries, such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, are also facing significant economic and political problems, which might prove a challenge to Russia when leading the Eurasian Union.
So, why would Russia risk going through all this trouble to establish the Eurasian Union?
To begin with, the Eurasian Union would likely represent a way for Russia to prevent the EU’s influence over and expansion in the countries that Russia considers to be in its sphere of influence. The EU has been intensely courting two countries, in particular, namely Moldova and Ukraine which are both situated on the EU border. Russia, on the other hand, wishes to maintain a strong influence over both these countries. Both states are partners in the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) and have signed Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (PCAs), which they are striving to replace with Association Agreements, aimed at strengthening political linkages and economic integration between the two countries and the EU.
In August 2012, German Chancellor Merkel visited Moldova and reassured its leadership of the EU’s support for the country’s integration. Russia was certainly irked by the EU’s bold proposals to Moldova and strengthened its efforts to encourage the country to join the Eurasian Union, by offering it tempting incentives. On September 12th, 2012 during Moldovan Prime Minister, Vlad Filat’s two-day visit to Moscow, Russia not only invited Moldova to become part of the Eurasian Union, but offered it low-priced gas and debt relief in exchange for denouncing the protocol on entering the EU Energy Community Agreement.
Of course, the bigger stake for Russia is Ukraine, which it is also trying to bring into the Eurasian Union. Just like Moldova, Ukraine has shown an increasingly strong interest in joining the EU. In December 2011, the EU and Ukraine announced that they had finalized negotiations on the Association Agreement, which would bring the latter a step closer to EU integration. Ukraine is in many ways important for Russia, not only because it is one of the European and global leaders in natural resources and is crossed by the very important transit pipeline to Europe, but also because it carries a strong cultural significance for Russia, as it is considered the cradle of Russian culture. Ukraine has thus far refused to consider Putin’s Union, but Russia is not likely to give up.
There are other reasons why Russia wishes to create the Union. The intergovernmental body would help Russia regain some of its former Soviet might. The Eurasian Union would enable Russia to have more leverage over the former Soviet Republics’ internal and external policies, which Russia is currently trying to influence via more indirect measures, consisting mainly of soft power strategies. At the international level, the Eurasian Union would strengthen Russia’s power in institutions such as the United Nations (UN), but more importantly it would increase its authority in relation to other international players, particularly the U.S. and the EU.
While Russia might be particularly excited about the Union, it may come up against resistance from some former Soviet members, who are likely to be less than enthused by the Russian project. For one thing, some of these states have only just begun to enjoy the benefits of sovereignty. The Eurasian Union might also deprive these states of the possibility of establishing direct partnerships and relations with various international actors, as most alliances might be directed by the common Union leadership. Finally, as Moldova’s current leaders have expressed it when mentioning their disinterest in Putin’s organization, the Eurasian Union is merely a project, which may ultimately fall through. Indeed, given the economic and population disparity between Russia and the other projected members of the Eurasian Union, this could be the case. It just depends on how much Russia is prepared to invest in making the Eurasian Union a reality.
Ukrainian journalist brutally beaten after alleging ministerial corruption
Hundreds protest outside interior ministry at the attack on Tetyana Chernovil, who wrote about minister's luxury house
Associated Press in Kiev
theguardian.com, Thursday 26 December 2013 00.27 GMT
A prominent Ukrainian civic activist and journalist was brutally beaten outside Kiev on Wednesday, the latest in a string of attacks on activists and opposition members amid weeks of protests calling for the removal of president Viktor Yanukovych and his cabinet.
Hundreds of journalists and opposition activists gathered outside the interior ministry headquarters in Kiev on Wednesday, demanding the resignation of the minister, Vitali Zakharchenko, after the attack on Tetyana Chernovil.
Some held pictures of Chernovil, who has been one of the leaders of mass demonstrations that have rocked the Ukrainian capital for more than a month since Yanukovych decided to scrap a deal with the EU in favour of forging stronger ties with Russia.
Chernovil has written for Ukrainska Pravda and other pro-opposition media.
"Shame! Shame!" yelled the demonstrators, some of whom held pictures of Chernovil's battered, bruised and swollen face.
Chernovil, 34, was attacked as she was driving home. Her car was cornered by a four-wheel-drive. When she tried to flee, she was beaten by several men. Chernovil sustained a concussion, as well as fractures to her nose and face, said her husband Mykola Berezovy.
The attack took place hours after an article by Chernovil was published alleging a posh suburban residence was being built for Zakharchenko.
The protesters have been demanding Zakharchenko's resignation after a violent crackdown on a small rally last month left dozens injured. They have also accused Zakharchenko and other members of Yanukovych's inner circle of profiting while other Ukrainians suffer.
Yanukovych is accused of illegally appropriating a giant estate outside Kiev and building a palatial complex. He denies owning the estate and says he only occupies a small house on its territory.
Chernovil unsuccessfully ran for parliament on the opposition ticket last year.
In the run-up to the election last summer, she broke into Yanukovych's heavily guarded palatial residence in an attempt to expose corruption there.
Yanukovych condemned the attack on Wednesday and ordered a thorough investigation.
The US embassy said in a statement: "We express our concern at a strikingly similar series of events over the last few weeks, targeting individuals, property, and political activity."
The opposition leader and world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko accused the authorities of trying to intimidate opposition activists and called for a nationwide boycott of the government.
"They want to paralyse people with fear. This is not going to happen," Klitschko said.
The attack on Chernovil is the latest in a series against activists.
On Tuesday Dmytro Pylypets, an organiser of opposition protests in the eastern city of Kharkiv, was beaten and stabbed by unknown assailants.
Members of the watchdog group Road Control, which has accused Ukraine's traffic police of corruption, also say they have been subjected to more attacks since they started helping protesters in the sprawling protest encampments in Kiev.
In recent weeks, two of their activists were arrested, one was beaten and another one was shot after he refused to disclose information on the group.
Oleksandra Matveichuk, head of the Centre for Civic Freedoms, said the harassment of activists went to the heart of the anti-government protests.
"Here we are witnessing clear politically motivated persecution in various ways," Matveichuk said.
"If people who defend human rights are attacked ... it means we can no longer speak of any democracy. The line has been crossed."