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« Reply #10920 on: Dec 28, 2013, 06:50 AM »

Freed Pussy Riot members say they still want to remove Vladimir Putin

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina tell journalists in Moscow they have become more passionate during prison term

Leonid Ragozin in Moscow, Friday 27 December 2013 22.20 GMT   

For two women who have spent almost two years in a notorious prison system, Russia's Pussy Riot activists appeared unabashed and defiant on Friday, as they vowed to persist with their attempts to oust Pig Putin and replace him with a more tolerant, open type of leadership.

Speaking publicly for the first time since their release this week after 21 months in jail, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina said they had emerged from prison even more passionate about politics, with a plan to bring about a "cultural revolution" in Russia's prisons and better conditions for those behind bars.

And in a nod of deference to another recently released Pig Putin foe, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, they added that the former tycoon would make a far better head of state than the incumbent. "We still want to get rid of him," said Tolokonnikova of Putin. "I would very much like to invite Mikhail Borisovich [Khodorkovsky] to play this role," she added.

Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina seemed somewhat subdued, and certainly quieter than the activists in balaclavas whose antics in a Moscow cathedral nearly two years ago briefly threatened to make a laughing stock of Pig Putin.

But equally they did not look like they had spent years in a prison system in which tuberculosis is rampant and violence a fact of life. Tolokonnikova's vivid letters from jail focused on the brutal treatment of Russia's prisoners, and she proudly told journalists that conditions had improved during her sentence.

"The 16-hour working day is now a thing of the past," she said. But both women appeared to be concerned about fellow prisoners who helped them collect information and testified to human rights observers about conditions in the prison. Alyokhina called on the authorities to release a female inmate she had befriended, who is dying from cirrhosis while being badly mistreated by prison officials. "It's only a question of whether she dies at home or in jail," Alyokhina said.

The women said they were setting up a human rights organisation that would help Russian prisoners. They had briefly considered using the Pussy Riot commercial brand to fund it, but decided against it. "It was a very rapid decision. We are not a part of the commercial world," Tolokonnikova said.

The women arrived in Moscow having been reunited in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, where Tolokonnikova served the final stretch of her jail term. Alyokhina was released earlier from Nizhny Novgorod prison, 250 miles outside Moscow. Friday's press conference – held at the offices of Dozhd TV, an independent channel not afraid of covering the opposition movement – was the pair's first official appearance since their release. To get there, they had to walk past Jesus Christ the Saviour cathedral, where they staged their daring anti-Putin performance in March 2012, whereupon they were arrested, prosecuted and sentenced to two years in jail. The women said that in the near future they would focus on human rights, but – as Alyokhina stressed – they would "use political methods" in their struggle.

"Our attitude to the Pig hasn't changed at all. The message of our action in the cathedral is still valid. By Pig Putin we mean the bureaucratic machine he has built," Tolokonnikova said. She described the president as a scared man, vulnerable to deception by his entourage, and believing in the mythical threat from the west. "He said wild things about Pussy Riot, but it was evident that he actually believes in what he says. I don't want to live in his nightmare," Tolokonnikova said.

They appeared to feel little gratitude to the Russian president for their release. "It was not an act of humanism. The authorities have simply backed off under pressure coming from inside Russia and from the west. It is not Pig Putin and his parliament we are grateful to, but people who supported us. It was like a miracle," Tolokonnikova said. "My prison guards were freaking out when letters started pouring in from everywhere – America, Turkey, Bulgaria, even China. I was carrying three huge sacks of letters when they transferred me to another prison."

It is the fear that political prisoners could undermine the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February that forced Putin to release them, Tolokonnikova said.

The Pussy Riot members were due to be freed in March 2014, but the Russian parliament granted them an amnesty three months earlier, along with a number of other political prisoners.

However, many more remained behind bars, including people who took part in a rally in Bolotnaya Square in Moscow in May 2012 that ended in clashes with riot police. Most of them are rank-and-file opposition activists or completely random people caught up in the political upheaval. They enjoy little attention from the media, although some of them have spent 18 months in prison awaiting trial. "I am really scared about what might happen to them, because their trials will take place after the Games", Tolokonnikova said.

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« Reply #10921 on: Dec 28, 2013, 06:57 AM »

Ex-Stasi staff still work at archives of East Germany's former secret police

German president Joachim Gauck blamed for giving former Stasi workers access to high-profile material

Philip Oltermann in Berlin, Friday 27 December 2013 14.57 GMT   

It was set up as a unique historical experiment: an agency that would open up the secret service's files to those it had spied upon. But now the commissioner in charge of the East Germany's secret police archive has admitted that his agency still counts 37 former Stasi employees among its staff.

The Federal Commission for the Stasi Archives was established by the German government in 1991 and tasked with protecting the Stasi archives from former agents eager to destroy records of their deeds, as well as allowing access to anyone with a reasonable suspicion that they may have been watched over by the state.

In 2007, a leaked German government report revealed that the archive had since its inception employed as many as 79 former Stasi members, some of them without the knowledge of parliament, fuelling suspicions that incriminating files could have been destroyed or been tempered with.

In his inaugural speech in March 2011, the current commissioner, Roland Jahn, a former dissident journalist, had described it as "intolerable" that Stasi victims seeking access to their files would have to deal with former employees of the secret police. "Every former Stasi collaborator who is still employed by the agency," he said, "is a slap in the victims' faces."

But on Friday it emerged that the archive still employs 37 workers who have previously worked for the Stasi among its 1,600 staff members. In an interview with Tagesspiegel newspaper, Jahn admitted that resolving the issue had proved harder than anticipated. Under German employment law, public servants can only be moved on to "comparable" posts in other agencies.

"There are still 37 of them here. Five [out of 48 he had to deal with originally] have been moved on, five have left for age reasons, and one of them has died. All other transfers are on the way. But many employees say: no way am I moving on. And so the whole affair is delayed."

By the time of its collapse, the Stasi is estimated to have had 91,000 full-time employees and between 110,000 and 190,000 informants. While it is likely many of those re-hired by the government agency were mere technicians or archival clerks, at least two were high-ranking officers.

The latest revelations also throw up uncomfortable questions for the German president, Joachim Gauck, who was the inaugural commissioner for the Stasi archives between 1990 and 2000. In his 1991 book The Stasi Files, Gauck had defended re-hiring old Stasi personnel: "We couldn't have done without their specialist knowledge of certain branches and the Stasi's archiving system." Originally hired on short-term contracts, Gauck had personally lobbied to make their jobs permanent in 1997.

Klaus Schroeder, a historian at Berlin's Free University who looked into the deployment of Stasi at the agency in 2007, told the Guardian: "Ultimately, the responsibility for giving these people uncontrolled access to high-profile files lies with Gauck."

Jahn, the current commissioner, also used his interview in Tagesspiegel to dismisses comparisons between the US National Security Agency and the Stasi: "I find it absurd to equate the NSA and the Stasi – it's a smokescreen. It doesn't help us in clearing up the current intelligence scandals, and it trivialises the work of the Stasi. They didn't just gather information but also lock up those who criticised the state. But the NSA debate has shown how important it is to raise your voice when basic human rights are being violated."

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« Reply #10922 on: Dec 28, 2013, 07:05 AM »

Turkey's military distances itself from political corruption investigation

Military releases statement after suggestion that scandal engulfing prime minister Erdoğan may be part of coup plot

Associated Press in Ankara, Friday 27 December 2013 13.48 GMT

Turkey's military has released a statement saying it will not be dragged into politics amid a deepening corruption scandal that has engulfed the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The leader has been forced to reshuffle his cabinet after the resignation of three ministers, whose sons were detained as part of an investigation.

The military's statement on Friday came after one of Erdoğan's advisers raised the possibility that the scandal may be a plot to trigger a coup, in a regular column published in the Star newspaper. The government has blamed the corruption investigation on a foreign-brewed "dirty plot" to bring down the government.

Turkey's military has staged three takeovers since the 1960s but has seen its powers curbed during Erdoğan's decade in power.

Critics have accused Erdoğan of political manoeuvring to prevent new arrests related to the investigation, including the removal of police and judicial officials.


Turkish corruption scandal: prosecutor accuses police of obstructing case

Prosecutor Muammer Akkas said he has been removed from case and suspect allowed to flee and tamper with evidence

Reuters in Istanbul, Thursday 26 December 2013 18.59 GMT   

A Turkish prosecutor accused police of obstructing his pursuit of a high-level graft case on Thursday as the prime minister Tayyip Erdogan's government weathered a storm of allegations of corruption and cronyism.

Three ministers have resigned after learning their sons were among dozens of people detained on 17 December amid an investigation into corrupt procurement practices, which has exposed Turkey's deep institutional divisions and left the premier facing a crisis that could prove the most formidable in his 11 years in power.

Erdogan responded to news of the resignations by replacing half his cabinet with loyalists on Wednesday. As investors took fright, the lira plummeted on Thursday to an all-time low.

Turkey's newly appointed interior minister, Efkan Ala, who will be in charge of the nation's domestic security, is thought to be particularly close to Erdogan. The Turkish leader has delivered a series of fiery speeches in which he has dismissed investigation as a foreign-orchestrated "dirty plot" designed to unsettle the country before critical elections in March, and sacked or reassigned some 70 of the police officers involved.

In a letter addressed to the Turkish media, prosecutor Muammer Akkas said he had also been removed from the case, which he described as compromised by police who had refused to comply with his orders to take more suspects into custody.

"By means of the police force, the judiciary was subjected to open pressure, and the execution of court orders was obstructed," Akkas said.

"A crime has been committed throughout the chain of command ... Suspects have been allowed to take precautions, flee and tamper with the evidence."

The statement did not name any of the accused.

Turkey's chief prosecutor Turhan Colakkadi said Akkas had been removed from the case because he leaked information to the media and failed to give his superiors timely updates about the investigation as required.

The government's actions have incensed Turks who see an authoritarian streak in Erdogan and took to the streets in mass protests in yestre.


December 27, 2013

Projects Under Scrutiny Displace Istanbul’s Poor


ISTANBUL — On the narrow streets that slope from one of Istanbul’s hills toward the shoreline of the Golden Horn waterway, old wooden houses where military officers of the Ottoman Empire lived are being painstakingly refurbished to their original design. Before the officers arrived, the area, which includes the city’s biggest mosque, was for centuries a center of Islamic scholarship.

But migrants from the countryside who inhabit decrepit buildings here now wonder where they will go, as the government pushes ahead with another controversial urban development project.

“We are just waiting to be kicked out,” said Ramazon, who works at a bread factory and gave only his first name. “Normal people won’t be able to live here. It will only be for rich people.”

Ramazon has operated his bread factory since 2001, just before the current government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist partners came to power and, like nearly all of their predecessors, set about reshaping the landscape of Turkey’s showcase city.

Mr. Erdogan has paid special attention to this area because of its history.

“This used to be the center of Istanbul,” said Seffet Imre Tonguc, a tour guide.

As the heart of the Ottoman Empire and the center of Muslim life, the neighborhood evoked a place in the world that Mr. Erdogan has sought to replicate for modern Turkey — to, in Mr. Tonguc’s words, “recreate the Ottoman soul.”

Mr. Erdogan has done so by fostering economic growth, making a diplomatic turn toward the Arab lands once ruled by Constantinople and, increasingly, carrying out vast real estate projects that have become a symbol of his power. Yet now, amid a widening corruption investigation that centers on these sorts of projects, they could be the seeds of his downfall.

The development projects may have enriched those around him, including construction tycoons who have provided crucial financial support to his party, and, as many now suspect, himself, given the news reports that his son is a target of the investigation. But Mr. Erdogan has also stirred deep resentment in the crooked alleyways of this ancient city and here in the historic district of Fatih, a conservative area where, despite significant support for the prime minister, many say their lives have been upended by the development.

“It was a beautiful place when we first came here,” said Ramazon, who added that the municipality, in trying to push residents to abandon properties because they cannot afford to renovate them as the government has mandated, has cut power lines and stopped picking up trash. “There were lots of people in the streets,” he said. “Now there’s no money to be made because there’s no place to deliver bread. All the houses are empty.”

The mayor of Fatih and several of his municipal workers have been implicated in the escalating corruption investigation, suspected of accepting bribes to ignore zoning regulations.

One area of the district, Sulukule, was gentrified in recent years and is now a place for luxury villas owned by members of Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, known by the initials of its name in Turkish, A.K.P.

The specifics of many of the allegations have yet to become clear, but one case in this neighborhood that is said to be part of the investigation involves a hotel project in which local officials were accused of taking kickbacks to allow construction on a strip of land over the newly opened Marmaray railway line. Japanese engineers expressed concern that such a project would jeopardize the safety of the railway, an ambitious project that crosses under the Bosporus waterway and connects Europe to Asia.

The area where the hotel was supposed to be built is an empty concrete block, surrounded by fencing. A lone watchman on Friday said all work had stopped.

As Turks come to grips with the graft inquiry, and wonder whether they are watching their government collapse, a spotlight is shining on real estate projects across Istanbul, the money they generated and the lives they uprooted. And now many residents of this city are weighing the merits of development against the steady news of who profited from it and how.

“I’m 29 years old,” said Mehmet, who works at a tea shop near the hotel site and gave only his first name because, he said, in the current climate he was scared to speak to a reporter. “I’ve seen many other governments before, and they didn’t work.”

The A.K.P., he said, “is hard-working.”

“It’s very complicated,” he said. “Everyone is telling lies, and you don’t know who to believe.”

He said he was willing to withhold judgment on Mr. Erdogan, and pointed to the tidy cobblestone street in front of his tea shop. “Until last year, you wouldn’t have been able to walk here,” he said. “It was all mud.”

In a cafe around the corner from Ramazon’s bread factory, several men said that many of their friends had left the neighborhood. Some headed to new housing projects near the airport, where many of the urban poor pushed from their neighborhoods have gone, and others went back to the rural areas where they were born. “They are trying to get rid of people here so they can sell properties to the rich people,” said Ali Koc, 34, who said he earned a living doing odd jobs.

He said the men, some of whom live with a dozen or more men in so-called bachelor houses, were trying to eke out a living while sending some money back home. “We don’t want luxury villas,” he said. “We want a place to work.”

Still, many Turks are willing to overlook the corruption allegations, for now, because their own lives have gotten better in recent years. They point to Turkey’s economic prosperity under Mr. Erdogan’s leadership, and improvements in government services and the quality of life.

“Everyone in power in Turkey has stolen,” said Erkan, 37, who works as a chauffeur and asked that his last name not be published. “What’s important is the services. We used to wait for hours in hospitals for an examination. Now it’s very fast, and they give you the medicines you need immediately.”

Erkan said he had voted for Mr. Erdogan and would do so again. He said he believed the prime minister when he blamed an international conspiracy for instigating the graft investigation.

But his friend Tayyar Aydemir, who is 45 and unemployed, disagreed. “All the world knows this is not a conspiracy,” he said. “His own members of his party said there is corruption. How can this be a conspiracy?”

For Turks, the allegations of corruption at the highest levels of the government are far less shocking than the fact that the scandal has unfolded so publicly, with details emerging daily and political rivals who once kept their disagreements hidden now sparring so openly.

“When I watch this news, I just want this party to go away,” Mr. Aydemir said.

Ceylan Yeginsu and Mahmut Kaya contributed reporting.


Turkey: up from the depths

The unseemly battle between the Hizmet movement and the AKP party paints a depressing picture of modern Turkish democracy

Guardian G logo
The Guardian, Friday 27 December 2013 20.43 GMT          

The "deep state" burst up from the depths in Turkey this week, threatening not only Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's hold on power but the country's hard-won reputation as a modern society. The idea that, behind the facade of apparently normal institutions, shadowy forces are at work, contesting one another and undermining the proper process of government, is part of politics in many places. But this is especially so in Turkey where, since Ottoman times, conspiracies and secret or semi-secret networks, real or imagined, have played an important role.

The Turks themselves coined the phrase that describes this politics that lies beneath. The deep state can be the government itself, disposing of its opponents by illicit or unfair means, packing ministries with its placemen, interfering in military promotions or using criminal investigations to tarnish its critics, to give just a few examples. It can also be used to describe the government's critics and enemies as they try to infiltrate key institutions, such as schools and universities, state industries or military staffs, or to smear ministers and exploit or manufacture scandals.

The deep state originally meant the military, police and intelligence networks which assigned themselves the task of defending the secular Kemalist regime against both Islamists and leftists and often used clandestine means to do so. That particular deep state was literally on trial in Turkey until April this year, when harsh verdicts were handed down on military officers, journalists and others accused of being members of the Ergenekon movement.

Opinions differ as to whether the Ergenekon plot really existed, at least in the fully fledged form claimed by the government. If it did, then the military deep state was dealt a damaging and perhaps terminal blow. If it did not, then the government's own deep state exploited its control of the judiciary and the police to achieve a sharp reduction in the army's once prominent political position in Turkey.

But no sooner had one deep state been disposed of than another hove into view, in the shape of the Hizmet movement, previously a close if covert ally of Mr Erdogan's Justice and Development, or AKP, party. The origins of the falling-out of the former friends are not clear. But the quarrel came into the open when the government moved, earlier this year, to close down private schools on the grounds that they gave the well-off unfair advantage. Hizmet, which runs a quarter of these establishments, took the proposed law, though since softened, as a declaration of war. In swift succession came moves and countermoves that revealed Hizmet and the AKP at each other's throats. First, the police, which is supposedly infiltrated by Hizmet, pursued a corruption investigation to the point of arresting the relatives of some cabinet ministers and businessmen close to the government. Then the government replaced a number of senior police officers. Then came the resignation of three cabinet ministers, one of them alleging as he went that Mr Erdogan himself should step down, followed by a reshuffle of half the cabinet. The best guess is that there really is something to investigate and that it may involve the prime minister or his relatives themselves, but that it is a vengeful Hizmet which has helped push the affair into the open.

This is a sorry tale. Hizmet, which has relatively moderate Islamist views, also has some of the characteristics of a cult or of an Islamic Opus Dei. The AKP, as the handling of the Gezi Park demonstrations in the summer showed, is less democratic and more underhand than it claims to be. That these two forces should be fighting over the body politic in this way should force re-examination, both inside and outside the country, not just of the truth about the deep state or states in Turkey, but of the true condition of Turkish democracy.

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« Reply #10923 on: Dec 28, 2013, 07:07 AM »

December 27, 2013

Holocaust History, as Told by a Survivor


EMSDETTEN, Germany — LASZLO SCHWARTZ never had a proper adolescence. The Nazis made sure of that.

He was 14 when he and his family disembarked from a cold boxcar onto the selection ramp at Auschwitz, and he says he still remembers the feel of Josef Mengele’s wide leather gloves pinching his scrawny biceps.

As the sadistic concentration camp physician known as the “Angel of Death” sized up the teenage Laszlo, ordering him to line up with the other children, a sinister flame rose in the distance, he said.

“I knew what they were doing, but I didn’t want to believe it,” Mr. Schwartz recently told a class of 50 high school students in this small town in western Germany. “My turn came for Mengele, and he asked me to make a muscle. He asked how old I am. I said 17. It didn’t help.”

At 83, Mr. Schwartz splits his time between Germany and New York City, where he emigrated in 1946. Since July 2010, he has spoken at more than 80 schools around Germany about the kidnappings, starvation and torture he endured during the war and how the last time he ever saw his mother and sister was the day he met Mengele.

Talking about his travails has not always been easy for Mr. Schwartz, whose right cheek still droops slightly where, he says, a member of the Hitler Youth once shot him through the jaw. He says he used to choke up at the thought of losing his mother, but now he is stoic, his articulation slow but deliberate.

For Mr. Schwartz, speaking openly about secrets he kept for decades is cathartic, but for Germany he also plays an invaluable role in bolstering Holocaust education at a time when the number of living witnesses is shrinking by the year.

Germany is not alone in fretting over how to teach the Holocaust once the survivor generation is gone, but its role as perpetrator heightens a sense of urgency.

Survivors’ stories, like the ones Mr. Schwartz recently told at the Martinum Gymnasium in Emsdetten, are especially important for younger generations who feel increasingly detached from the crimes of their forebears, educators say. Firsthand accounts provide an emotional link to the atrocities that other forms of memorialization simply cannot duplicate.

“To hear it from someone who was there is different than reading dry books,” said Fransiska Hollekamp, 17, one of the 50 students here listening to Mr. Schwartz. “It’s so much more real.”

Mr. Schwartz grew up roughly 155 miles east of Budapest in a woody Hungarian hamlet called Baktaloranthaza, where he worked for his father, a cosmetician known for his lavender perfumes and lotions. The local pastor used to let young Laszlo ring the church bells. They were so heavy, Mr. Schwartz remembers, that his tiny body was hoisted off the ground whenever he failed to let go of the rope in time.

All changed when Nazi Germany occupied Hungary in March 1944. For the next month, before Mr. Schwartz and his family were taken to the Kisvarda ghetto near the Ukrainian border and then later to Auschwitz, the sound of the bells was met with bellicose, anti-Semitic chants.

Mr. Schwartz said that after his encounter with Mengele at Auschwitz, he was assigned to the children’s barracks, but 11 days later he managed to smuggle himself onto a train carrying forced laborers to Dachau and its subcamps in southern Germany.

He spent the next year hauling sacks of cement for railroads and airplane bunkers — and today speaks almost fondly of the move, seeing in it his salvation.

BUT as the Nazis’ prospects for the Endsieg, or final victory, faded, Mr. Schwartz was swept up in one of the last-ditch attempts by the SS to kill large numbers of prisoners. For three days, Mr. Schwartz and about 3,600 other passengers languished without food or water on board a “death train,” before it halted unexpectedly in rural Bavaria.

“Suddenly I see one of the SS removing his uniform, putting on civilian clothes, and he waved to us,” Mr. Schwartz said. “ ‘Ihr seid frei!’ he said. ‘You’re free!’ ”

Mr. Schwartz dashed toward a nearby farmhouse, but he said his escape was thwarted when a bullet penetrated his upper neck and exited his right cheek, leaving a gaping hole in the side of his face. He had no option, he said, but to follow the gunman, a teenager from the Hitler Youth, back to the train.

False radio reports of encroaching Allied soldiers had jarred the SS, Mr. Schwartz said. Realizing their mistake, the guards began violently rounding up the prisoners, killing 54 of them and wounding 200, including Mr. Schwartz.

Making matters worse, American fighter planes, mistaking the prisoners’ train for a military transport, strafed the cars twice, Mr. Schwartz said. He and the other prisoners hid under corpses to shield themselves.

American soldiers liberated the convoy two days later, but it would be weeks before Mr. Schwartz underwent surgery for his wound, which had become infected with typhoid. Maggots — “big, fat ones,” he said — chomped away at his flesh.

For over a year, the scraggly, scar-faced teenager wandered the bombed-out streets of southern Germany wearing part of a discarded Nazi uniform he said he found in a ditch. He stitched his red prisoner’s triangle onto the left lapel as a statement, he said, to show everyone that the Nazis were not able to kill him.

In 1946, Mr. Schwartz received a letter at the displaced persons camp where he lived. It was from his uncle who had emigrated to Los Angeles before the war. “We have a photograph of you as a baby,” the letter read. Excited to learn he had relatives in the United States, Mr. Schwartz presented the letter to the camp’s administrators and was granted passage aboard the American cargo ship Marine Perch.

He began returning infrequently to Germany in 1972, but for six and a half decades, Mr. Schwartz barely spoke a word about his travails as a teenager. All his family knew was that he had been shot.

THAT changed in July 2010 when a prominent Holocaust survivor named Max Mannheimer, whom Mr. Schwartz knew from Dachau, encouraged him to share his story in German schools. A young audience would listen, Mr. Mannheimer told him. Plus, unlike older generations, they would not try to make excuses for their silence during the war.

For Mr. Schwartz, who said he was never “a happy camper” after the war, the experience has proved a relief.

Last July, just a half-hour’s drive from where he was interned in Dachau, Germany recognized Mr. Schwartz’s work in the schools by awarding him the Bundesverdienstkreuz, or Order of Merit, the highest civilian honor, at a ceremony in Munich.

In the school in Emsdetten, Mr. Schwartz proudly showed off the red, white, silver and gold medal to the students.

“Here is this 14-year-old kid who was treated pretty shabbily and now he’s getting all the recognition,” he said. “I am almost like a performer, looking for the next applause.”

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« Reply #10924 on: Dec 28, 2013, 07:08 AM »

France seeks to ban anti-Semitic comedian who popularized ‘reverse Nazi-salute’

By Scott Kaufman
Friday, December 27, 2013 22:53 EST

French authorities are debating whether they can ban performances by a comedian who regularly insults Holocaust victims on grounds that he threatens the public peace.

On Friday, Interior Minister Manuel Valls said he is seeking a legal means of banning performances by Dieudonne M’bala M’bala, a comedian repeatedly fined for hate speech who has run for the European Parliament at the head of an “Anti-Zionist List.”

“Dieudonne M’bala M’bala doesn’t seem to recognize any limits any more,” Valls said.

The move comes after numerous complaints to his Ministry about about Dieudonne’s trademark arm gesture, which Valls claims is a “Nazi salute in reverse.”

Unlike the Nazi salute, in which the left arm remained at one’s side and the stiff right arm was elevated at a 45 degree angle up from the shoulder, Dieudonne’s involves bringing the left arm to the right shoulder and rigidly pointing a stiff left arm at 45 degree angle down from the shoulder.

The gesture, which Dieudonne calls “la quenelle” — the French term for a minced fish dumpling — is considered by many young French people as merely a symbol of disdain for the current French government.

French Jewish organizations are unconvinced. Roger Cukierman, who heads a consortium of such groups, told French President Fancois Hollande that

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« Reply #10925 on: Dec 28, 2013, 07:10 AM »

Greeks turn to comedy to make light of their economic tragedies

Athens witnesses surge in number of comedy sketch shows and musicals as Greeks seek solace from their economic turmoil

Helena Smith in Athens, Friday 27 December 2013 20.24 GMT   

Five nights a week, every week, the worn velvet seats of the Bretania theatre heave to the sound of thunderous applause.

The man provoking the clapping and peels of laughter is Lakis Lazopoulos, a stocky figure who spends the best part of three hours prancing across the stage in flamboyant costumes and wigs.

Greece's most famous comedian, Lazopoulos is said to be the funniest man in the country, a modern reincarnation of the ancient satirist Aristophanes.

There is nothing that the comic will not lampoon. In this, his latest show, corrupt politicians, treasured customs – from evading the taxman to pocketing "ta mavra" [black money] – Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and the Greeks themselves are all in the line of fire. Audiences can't get enough.

"Greeks need to unburden their fears," says the comic, the scent of cologne permeating his dressing room after he has danced, sung and quipped his way through another rendition of "Sorry … I'm Greek". "Laughter is the flip side of fear. And what I have seen is that every day it gets a little louder."

The show is among a host of comedies and musicals that have taken Athens by storm as the austerity-whipped nation braces for its hardest winter yet.

Lazopoulos, who likens himself to a thermometer gauging the public temperature, believes that Greeks are at boiling point and readily accepts that he belongs to "the vast majority" who are anything but optimistic.

"In every home now, there are stories of desperation. And what is certain is that the situation will get a lot worse if we don't change course," he says, lambasting the fiscal policies enforced on the debt-stricken state in return for rescue funds from the EU and IMF.

"We're living a catastrophe. Greeks are being destroyed. It's my role, if I can, to make them laugh."

Comedy may be an antidote to the drudgery and misery of everyday life in a nation enduring record levels of poverty and unemployment. But Greece's economic crisis – its worst in living memory – is also the inspiration for much of the mirth.

"There are developments all the time. It's given us a lot of copy," concedes Lazopoulos, who has ensured that with tickets at €20 (£17) or less, cash-strapped Greeks can afford the show.

From the crisis has come a whole new generation of self-taught, stand-up comics often hooked to YouTube to learn the tools of the trade.

One of them is Lambros Fisfis, a bespectacled former marketing employee whose most popular skits include a sketch mocking the extremes to which qualified young Greeks resort in the hope of finding a job: promising to work ludicrously long hours, forfeiting benefits and holidays, and even giving away their home to secure the post.

"More than ever Greeks are desperate for a laugh," says the 30-year-old, who works the bars and cafés of Athens, where comedy nights have taken off. "They need the release, they need to forget their problems and stand-up is low budget, it's very adjustable. All you need is a mic."

Diaspora Greeks have also helped. The Greek Canadian comic Angelo Tsarouchas, who was in Athens recently, says he was left stunned by the response when he held a workshop for aspiring comedians. "I expected 15 to turn up at most and 125 came instead," he said, pearls of sweat trickling down his face after giving a particularly well received one-night show.

"They were all so keen, so thirsty to get into comedy and listen to comedy. Oh, and they were funny. The girls in particular were fearless."

Known as the funniest Greek abroad, Tsarouchas, 49, derives much of his humour from the frequently hilarious stories of growing up in a traditional Greek immigrant family in Montreal. It was with some trepidation, he says, that he moved outside his comfort zone and came to Athens for a single performance in November.

The show kicked off with one of the comic's all-time favourites: the acute embarrassment his name can cause when pronounced wrongly. "I'm flying between LA and New York, there's a change in my ticket, and this how they call my name: 'Paging passenger Angelo Tsar-touch-ass. Tsar-touch-ass. I didn't touch anyone's ass!" he screams as the audience erupts with laughter.

"I was nervous doing this show," he said afterwards, noting the thin line between humour and pain. "But as they say, comedy is tragedy plus time. Most comics are comfortable being uncomfortable."

The rebirth of comedy has been matched by an upsurge of musicals, with producers taking the unprecedented step of putting on productions of all-time classics such as Fame, Chicago and Cabaret in the four years since the outbreak of the crisis.

"Precisely because of what is going on in Greece, people need to express themselves," said Tsarouchas. "This is the best time to make Greeks laugh."

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« Reply #10926 on: Dec 28, 2013, 07:16 AM »

Six Iraqis killed during arrest of Sunni protest leader

Soldiers in fatal shootout with bodyguards of Ahmad al-Alwani, accused of inciting violence against Shia-led government

Staff and agencies, Saturday 28 December 2013 10.09 GMT   

Iraqi soldiers have killed six men during the arrest of a prominent leader of Sunni Muslim protests against the government.

Ahmed al-Alwani was wanted for inciting violence against the Shia-led government which came to power after the 2003 invasion that ended Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime.

According to officials, when forces arrived at his home in the western city of Ramadi at dawn, Awlani's guards and tribesmen opened fire, prompting a shootout that lasted nearly an hour. Awlani's brother and five guards were killed, and 12 guards and four soldiers were wounded in the shooting. Six other guards were arrested.

Since last December, Iraq's Sunni minority has been staging protests against what they claim is second-class treatment at the hands of the Shia majority. The protests have mostly focused around the western Anbar province and other Sunni areas to the north.

Awlani's arrest comes a year after several bodyguards of the finance minister, Rafia al-Issawi, a Sunni, were arrested on terrorism charges, and two years after authorities issued an arrest warrant against Sunni vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi, also on terrorism charges. Hashemi, who is now living in exile in neighbouring Turkey, has been given several death sentences after Iraqi courts found him guilty in absentia. He has denied the charges and said they are politically motivated.

The Sunni protests have been coupled with a rising wave of insurgent attacks across Iraq, and the government and some pro-government officials and tribal elders in Anbar have accused the protest camps of sheltering members of the local al-Qaida branch believed to be responsible for the attacks.

Security forces launched a military operation this month to hunt down al-Qaida fighters in Anbar's desert. Al-Qaida is believed to have made use of the war in Syria, which borders Anbar, to rebuild its organisation in Iraq and to shuttle its fighters between the two countries.

The Anbar operation, which started last Saturday, followed the killing of a senior military commander, a colonel and five soldiers in an ambush there. Since it began, the government has been releasing footage with aerial shots of air strikes against tents or moving trucks, as well as videos of troops on the ground, dead bodies said to be militants killed in battle, and weapons and trucks allegedly used by the militants.

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« Reply #10927 on: Dec 28, 2013, 07:20 AM »

Rare portrayal of Muhammad’s youth in upcoming Iranian film

Majid Majidi's extravagant new film is viewed with deep cynicism by a motion picture industry starved for funds

Tehran Bureau correspondent, Friday 27 December 2013 11.04 GMT   

In October 2011, under a complete media blackout, the most ambitious and expensive cinematic project in Iranian history was launched. There had been no leaks regarding the production. The first news came the following month with two announcements: Famed director Majid Majidi declared that he was shooting a film that would “bring pride to Iran and Iranians.” And minister of culture and Islamic guidance Mohammad Hosseini casually mentioned that a movie was being made about what might be the most controversial artistic topic in the world: the Prophet Muhammad.

The movie, Hosseini said, would be produced by the Foundation of the Oppressed (Bonyad-e Mostazafan) – a government-controlled charitable corporation with billions of dollars in holdings. The primary location, an enormous replica of sixth-century Mecca, would be constructed outside the holy city of Qom, about two hours’ drive south of Tehran. The total budget was not made public, but sources close to the production said that it was $35 million (US dollars) – nearly 20 times greater than the next largest Iranian production to date.

After a year of little more than rumors, in November 2012 the first reports appeared on officially sanctioned websites about the film, to be titled Muhammad’s Childhood. Mohammad Mehdi Heidarian, a regime insider and former vice minister of culture and Islamic guidance, was announced as producer. A heretofore unknown organization called Shining Light (Nour-e Taabaan), was named as the project’s financial backer. No information was released about its structure or directors, and the entire production seemed to be proceeding under special security measures. There was no further mention of the Foundation of the Oppressed, whose purported mission of serving the destitute was hard to reconcile with the film’s staggering budget.

By now, there was widespread discussion of the project’s ever-rising cost – new estimate: $50 million – and the involvement of celebrated movie-industry figures from abroad. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, a three-time Academy Award winner for Apocalypse Now, Reds, and The Last Emperor, arrived in Iran with a 30-man crew. Another Oscar winner, Scott E. Anderson, visual effects supervisor for films such as Adventures of Tintin, Superman Returns, and Starship Troopers, was employed as well. The names of many other international award winners have been associated with the project, though without official verification.

While it appears that many lead creative positions have been entrusted to foreign filmmakers, a major exception is the director himself. Internationally known for Children of Heaven (1997), the first Iranian film to be nominated for an Academy Award, Majidi maintains a special place within the Iranian power elite.

He first came to notice at Arts Unite (Howzah Honari), a government entity established soon after the overthrow of the shah in 1979 as a stronghold of revolutionary art. Majidi, then 20 years old, would stand guard in front of the Arts Unite headquarters at night – an expression of his readiness to defend the new regime. Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who would also go on to renown as a film director, stood guard duty as well.

Majidi began his cinematic career as an actor and director of short films, all centering on religious and revolutionary themes. Methodically, he became a regime darling, which helped bring considerable financial support to his projects. Focusing on simple tales, employing the top Iranian acting talent, and relying on an unadventurous directorial style and a gently mystical depiction of Islamic faith, his ability to spend lavishly (by local industry standards) allowed him to produce a string of films, including The Color of God (1999), Baran (2001), and The Songs of Sparrows (2008), that have brought him international recognition.

He was apparently also a personal favorite of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s, responsible for organizing numerous meetings between the supreme leader and members of the Iranian film industry. He became notorious among the country’s mostly secular cinematic community for the high-profile religious ceremonies he regularly hosted at his own residence.

This rosy period came to an end during the 2009 presidential campaign, during which Majidi publicly supported reformist Mir Hossein Mousavi and produced a publicity film for him. In the violent aftermath of the vote, in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection was widely believed to have been rigged, Majidi quietly severed all relations with Mousavi and the opposition Green Movement. As Ahmadinejad subsequently maneuvered for increased autonomy, Majidi allied himself with Khamenei and his coterie as they resisted the president’s power grab.

Successfully working his way back into the leader’s confidence, Majidi advanced his extravagant vision for Muhammad’s Childhood in media silence so the Ahmadinejad camp could not use his Green dalliance against the project. Khamenei took such a personal interest that, in October 2012, he visited the movie’s sprawling Mecca location. Though the visit was unprecedented – the supreme leader had never previously toured a film set – it received no press coverage at the time.

Another factor driving the unusual level of secrecy was the budget. Iran was descending into an economic crisis exacerbated by international sanctions and the Ahmadinejad administration’s incompetence. Official acknowledgment that Hollywood-level sums were being spent on a motion picture would surely have offended many Iranians.

But perhaps the most sensitive issue is the very making of a movie about the Prophet in the cradle of the Shia faith, which places special emphasis on Muhammad’s immediate family. At a time of conflict with the Saudis and the Persian Gulf sheikdoms, adherents of Sunni Islam, an international uproar against the film was feared; indeed, concerns were explicitly raised by religious authorities in Cairo. The real challenge, however, came from Qatar, which in December 2012 announced that it would produce its own movie about the Prophet’s life. The declared budget: one billion dollars. Barrie M. Osborne, who oversaw the Lord of the Rings series, was named as producer. The project’s Qatari production company, ironically, is named Alnoor – roughly, “shining light.”

According to Majidi, he and a research team comprising dozens of historians and archeologists have consulted with Shia and Sunni scholars from Morocco to Lebanon to Iraq in order to ensure an accurate portrayal of Muhammad’s early years. Even though Shia culture is much less sensitive than Sunni to the depiction of holy figures, it was decided that no image of the Prophet’s face would be shown to reduce the potential for controversy. This cautious approach foreshadows the many challenges that will confront the promised two sequels, which will deal with Muhammad’s adult life.

In contrast to that later period, the Prophet’s youth is a fairly uncontentious topic between the major Islamic denominations. According to sources familiar with Majidi’s script, it depicts Muhammad’s adventures through the age of 12. The saga concludes with his journey to Syria and encounter with Bahira, a Christian monk who, according to legend, foretold the advent of the new Prophet. In the course of the narrative, the young Muhammad escapes a bevy of perils, including a Jewish assassination plot.

Now in the final stages of post-production, Muhammad’s Childhood is viewed with deep cynicism by many in the Iranian motion picture field. The money devoted to it could have breathed life into dozens of projects in a film industry that perennially suffers from lack of funding and relies on the public sector for survival. Resentment has been amplified by the announcement of plans for a Tehran-wide celebration of the film’s forthcoming release, involving screenings at non-conventional venues and the consequent dispersal of even more precious funds.

An experienced film producer and screenwriter, speaking on condition of anonymity, says that the project raises some serious questions. “Isn’t the long list of global film luminaries [involved] just a show of power at a time of economic crisis?” he asks. “The creative sector is on its last legs, about to expire between the censor’s blade and the slab it lies on. It’s famished for money. Why should the country shoulder the production of the most flat, least plausible religious film about Islam’s Prophet?”

Others, however, see new opportunities in the project.

“This film raises the bar in many ways,” says one young director. “The government will have to start spending more on other parts of the film industry, and the technical knowledge being imported will raise expectations for other commercial Iranian productions.”

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« Reply #10928 on: Dec 28, 2013, 07:26 AM »

India shocked and disgusted again after 20-year-old woman gang-raped on Christmas Eve

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, December 27, 2013 11:04 EST

A 20-year-old woman was allegedly gang-raped on Christmas Eve in south India, media reports said on Friday, the latest in a string of sexual attacks reported in the country.

The reports of the latest assault came two days before India was due to mark the first anniversary of the death of a student who was gangraped on a bus in an attack that shocked the nation.

The woman who was assaulted on Christmas Eve told police she was abducted by three men while sightseeing with friends in Karaikal, a port city in Puducherry, the Times of India newspaper and TV networks reported.

One of the men raped her at a secluded spot before freeing her, the Times said.

She called for help but then another group of seven men attacked her as she was being escorted to a safe place, the paper said.

Six of the men raped her, it added.

“One case has been reported. There are 15 accused (persons) and one victim,” senior police officer Monika Bhardwaj told reporters.

Bhardwaj said three of the accused “are absconding” while the rest have been caught.

The Times of India said police had registered preliminary cases of abduction, gang-rape and criminal intimidation against the accused.

The woman has been admitted to hospital where police will record her statement, the CNN-IBN TV network reported.

The issue of sex crimes in India has received widespread attention since last year’s gang rape of the 23-year-old student in New Delhi.

The physiotherapy student died on December 29, nearly two weeks after being attacked by a gang of six men on a moving bus as she returned home from the cinema with a male companion.

The brutality of the attack and her subsequent death shook the country and shone a global spotlight on India’s widespread mistreatment of women.

The attack also prompted the Indian parliament to pass tougher laws against rapists and other sex-crime offenders.

But a string of other sex attacks, including against foreign tourists and a photojournalist in Mumbai this year, has highlighted the continuing dangers facing women in India.


Indian man jailed for life for raping Spanish student at knifepoint

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, December 27, 2013 11:31 EST

A rapist who attacked a young Spanish woman at knifepoint after breaking into her apartment in Mumbai was jailed for life in India on Friday.

Mohammed Badshah Ansari was handed the sentence after a trial heard how the 28-year-old broke into the flat through a window in November last year and then raped the victim twice while threatening her with a knife.

The victim — who had travelled to India to learn classical music — left for Germany after the attack but testified about her ordeal via video link. She cannot be named for legal reasons.

“The court has to keep in mind the interest of the society at large and the case does not have any ground for leniency,” Judge Shalini Phansalkar Joshi said as he announced the sentence in Mumbai.

Ansari, who has a long criminal record, was found guilty earlier this month of rape, robbery, criminal intimidation and trespass after his trial in the Mumbai sessions court.

He had pleaded for leniency as he has a family who is dependent on him.

The sentencing comes as India prepares to mark the first anniversary of the death of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student who had been gang-raped on a moving bus in the capital New Delhi.

The attack on the bus triggered massive protests over the levels of violence against women in a country where there have been several high-profile sex attacks against foreigners in recent months.

A judge last week sentenced three Nepalese men to 20 years in jail for the gang-rape of a US tourist in June in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh.

Six men were sentenced to life in prison in July for the gang-rape and robbery of a 39-year-old Swiss woman cyclist holidaying in the central state of Madhya Pradesh four months earlier.


December 28, 2013

Delhi’s Crusading New Leader Is Sworn In


NEW DELHI — Standing before a crowd estimated in the tens of thousands, Delhi’s unlikely new leader, swept into office on an anticorruption campaign, was sworn in Saturday and vowed to arrest anyone in his government, from police officer to bureaucrat, who demanded a bribe.

“Within two days, I will announce a phone number, and if anybody asks for a bribe, please complain by that phone number and that person will be arrested red-handed,” Arvind Kejriwal said shortly after taking the oath of office to become, at 45, Delhi’s youngest-ever chief minister.

Amid growing public anger over India’s widespread corruption, Mr. Kejriwal formed a new party last year, the Aam Aadmi or Common Man party, which shocked India’s two largest and most well-established parties this month by winning 28 of the 70 seats in Delhi’s state assembly. He became the state’s leader after the Indian National Congress party, which won just eight seats, agreed to support him.

Mr. Kejriwal, a former tax commissioner, traveled to Saturday’s ceremony by subway, eschewing the vast motorcades of his predecessors. He has vowed to do away with Delhi’s culture of privileges for the powerful, which have been in place since the Mughal kings ruled India.

In contrast with past chief ministers’ swearing-in ceremonies, which were held at the state assembly among small, select audiences of the powerful, Mr. Kerjiwal took the oath of office in an open area known as Ram Lila Maidan, where he had participated in mass anticorruption protests several years before. A spokesman for his party said the police had estimated the crowd at 100,000. Patriotic songs were played over loudspeakers, and many of those present carried signs reading “Today C.M. Tomorrow P.M.,” suggesting that Mr. Kejriwal would soon lead all of India.

Mr. Kejriwal announced this week that he would not travel in one of the cars with flashing lights that allow high-ranking officials to zip through Delhi’s oppressive traffic. He also said he would not accept a security detail or live in one of the sumptuous houses at New Delhi’s core that India’s elite have occupied since the British abandoned them in 1947.

Mr. Kejriwal was sworn in along with six of his ministers. All of them wore simple, white Gandhian caps bearing slogans such as “I Am the Common Man” and “I Need Self-Rule.”

“We are here to serve the people and we should not forget that,” Mr. Kejriwal said in his remarks.

During his election campaign, Mr. Kejriwal promised to provide residents with 700 liters of free water per day and to cut the price of electricity in half. Critics have said that both promises will be almost impossible to fulfill. Nearly a third of Delhi’s population lives in slums without regular access to clean water or electricity.

But Mr. Kejriwal reiterated those promises Saturday and said he would fulfill them.

“We do fear the rising expectations of the people of Delhi,” Mr. Kejriwal said. “I pray to God that we should not make any mistake.”


December 27, 2013

India Finds New Methods to Punish U.S. Diplomats


NEW DELHI — India’s diplomatic corps, still seething over the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York, continued its tit-for-tat campaign against American diplomats this week, revoking privileges, beginning tax investigations and issuing new consular identity cards that say the card holder can be arrested for serious offenses.

Although top Indian politicians are no longer denouncing the United States daily for the arrest and strip search of the diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, 39, foreign service officials are not letting the matter drop. The continued hard feelings suggest that the dispute could have a long-term impact on a relationship both sides say is crucial.

“We are in touch with you,” Syed Akbaruddin, the spokesman for the Ministry of External Affairs, said in a lengthy interview Thursday, addressing his remarks to his American counterparts. “You pick up the phone all the time. You clearly knew this arrest was coming.

“After all, we have a strategic partnership and cooperate on a range of issues, yet you can’t tell us a thing while doing all this stuff behind our backs?”

Ms. Khobragade, the deputy consul general in New York, was arrested on Dec. 12 on charges that she fraudulently obtained a work visa for her housekeeper, forced her to work longer hours than agreed to and paid her far less than the minimum wage. Anger among Indians intensified after they learned that the United States had flown the maid’s husband and children out of India on visas meant for use in cases of human trafficking two days before Ms. Khobragade’s arrest, saying the family had been threatened.

The human-trafficking designation deeply offended Indian officials, who termed the threats exaggerated and said the Americans should have discussed the matter with them, particularly since they had informed their American counterparts repeatedly about their concerns after the maid, Sangeeta Richard, left Ms. Khobragade’s employment in June.

A spokesman for the United States Embassy in New Delhi refused to comment on Thursday.

Outrage in India’s tiny diplomatic corps is particularly acute because those who deal with the United States often feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of communications. India has just three senior diplomats on its North America desk, who deal with scores of counterparts from the United States and Canada. And the issue of the treatment of domestic help does not resonate in India as it does in the United States; nearly all officials in New Delhi have maids working dawn to dusk six or seven days a week, and generally earning even less than Ms. Richard did.

India has undertaken punitive measures that it believes puts American diplomats in India on par with Indian diplomats in the United States. It withdrew passes that allow American diplomats to meet important guests, like members of Congress, at airport gates, and canceled the diplomatic identity cards given to consular officials and their families, reissuing cards only to officials. The cards instruct police officers that the holder may be arrested for serious offenses.

In addition, India is investigating whether spouses and employees of American officials are paying taxes on earnings made in India, particularly at the American schools in New Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai. India has canceled the United States Embassy’s import privileges for food and alcohol. And security barriers that surrounded the embassy in New Delhi have been permanently removed. Indian officials say the barriers were unnecessary and in some cases impeded traffic.

“We would not do anything to adversely affect the security of the U.S. Embassy,” Mr. Akbaruddin said. “To suggest otherwise is unfair.”

There are 14 other Indian maids working for Indian diplomats in the United States, and India is negotiating over their status with the State Department. To India, these maids should be considered Indian government employees whose employment does not fall under American wage and hour laws.

A little-noticed aspect of the uproar has been India’s unhappiness with American officials of Indian descent. The federal prosecutor on the case, Preet Bharara, is of Indian descent, as are many officials on the South Asia desk of the United States State Department.

India has a fraught relationship with members of its own diaspora. Commercials and Bollywood films often treat such people with mild contempt, and in the Khobragade case, Indian officials have said they believe that their counterparts in the United States treated India poorly in an excessive show of loyalty to the United States.

American officials quietly say they bent over backward to heal bruised feelings. On Dec. 19, Secretary of State John Kerry tried to get in touch with the Indian foreign secretary, Salman Khurshid, but Mr. Khurshid did not take his call for reasons he has not explained. So Mr. Kerry called Shivshankar Menon, the Indian national security adviser, to express his “regret” over the matter.

Top Indian politicians instead demanded an official apology and a dismissal of all charges against Ms. Khobragade. On Dec. 20, Mr. Khurshid continued to express outrage over the affair and said he expected to hear from Mr. Kerry soon. But by then, American eagerness to resolve the impasse had evaporated. That same day, a deputy State Department spokeswoman said Mr. Kerry had not spoken to Mr. Khurshid and had no plans to do so.

India is seeking permission from the State Department to transfer Ms. Khobragade from the Indian Consulate, where she gets limited diplomatic immunity, to its United Nations mission, where her protection against prosecution would be far stronger. Indeed, Indian officials say Ms. Khobragade was consulting with her United Nations counterparts as early as last summer, which they say should give her immunity for the entire period.

But American officials so far insist that whatever immunity Ms. Khobragade earns from the switch will not be retroactive.

“Receiving diplomatic immunity does not nullify any previously existing criminal charges,” said Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman. “Those remain on the books.”
Ms. Khobragade could leave the United States for India, never return and never face another day in court, but that seems unlikely because her husband, a professor of philosophy, was raised in the United States and has family there.

« Last Edit: Dec 28, 2013, 07:42 AM by Rad » Logged
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« Reply #10929 on: Dec 28, 2013, 07:40 AM »

December 27, 2013

Markets on Edge as China Moves to Curb Risky Lending


HONG KONG — China’s financial system is in danger of becoming too big to bail out.

Official bank lending has more than doubled since the global financial crisis, growing nearly twice as fast as the overall economy. The even bigger problem, however, appears to come from the rise of a shadow banking system that has allowed a number of companies and individuals, often with political connections, to borrow from state-controlled banks at low interest rates and relend the money at much higher rates to private businesses desperate for credit at almost any price.

Now, in an effort to wean the banks and the economy off their addiction to such risky practices, Beijing has pledged to deliver what amounts to the country’s most sweeping financial overhaul in decades. Markets will play the “decisive” role in directing the economy, policy makers promised last month after a key plenum meeting of the Communist Party leadership. Interest rates are to be liberalized, cross-border investment will be welcomed and regional and bureaucratic protectionism will be curtailed, they declared.

But already, even relatively modest government moves are producing turbulence in money markets; just this week China’s central bank was forced to back off, at least temporarily, to avoid putting too much stress on the banking system and potentially drawing an angry reaction from powerful vested interests in China accustomed to paying very little for their loans.

“It’s been pretty clear since June, and especially clear since the plenum, that the new crowd is interested in tightening monetary policy and letting interest rates rise,” said Arthur R. Kroeber, the Beijing-based managing director of GK Dragonomics, an economic research firm. “The purpose is to reduce the rate at which credit is expanding, which has been a bit of a problem over the last couple of years.”

China has experimented twice this year with much higher, market-driven interest rates. As with a similar experiment in June, the central bank allowed rates late last week and early this week to soar to unsustainable levels. Instead of regularly scheduled open-market operations, the bank tried unconventional methods of guiding money markets.

That approach involved the central bank’s turning to posts on China’s Twitter-like social messaging service, Sina Weibo, to chasten banks to “make rational adjustments to the structure of their assets and liabilities, and improve their liquidity management using a scientific and long-term approach.”

But as in June, the experiment did not last long. On Tuesday, China’s central bank, the People’s Bank of China, provided a direct injection of fresh money after the market pushed seven-day interest rates to nearly 10 percent, double their earlier level. The central bank’s action eased pressure on the financial system and quelled fears of an immediate credit crisis. But rates remain elevated, and the bank may have only postponed the moment of reckoning for a few months.

“The key message from the current central bank-induced tightness is deleveraging,” said Stephen Green, the head of research for greater China at Standard Chartered. “We’ll see what happens when we see greater levels of corporate distress in 2014, whether Beijing buckles or not.”

A complex and loosely regulated network of financial go-betweens has sprung up to profit from repackaging and reselling China’s new mountains of debt, turning loans into investment products. Such products have become popular among ordinary investors in China because they pay much higher interest rates than deposits in savings accounts, where rates are capped by the government to protect the state-owned banking system from competition.

But loosely regulated financial businesses can make a dicey business model, as Wall Street learned in 2008. And they pose a particular threat in an economy where growth is slowing, as it has been in China for the last three years.

“The final users of the money will not be able to earn returns high enough to repay the money and promised interest,” said Yu Yongding, a senior fellow at the Institute of World Economics and Politics of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and a former member of the monetary policy committee at China’s central bank. “The chains of lending and borrowing can be long, just like the securitized subprime mortgages. The result can be devastating.”

Indeed, the real-life stress tests the central bank has been experimenting with are not without casualties. As markets became jittery in the run-up to the June credit crunch, two branches of the state-owned China Everbright Bank technically defaulted on 6.5 billion renminbi, or $1.1 billion, worth of short-term payments.

In a regulatory disclosure that was part of its $3 billion Hong Kong share offering earlier this month, the Everbright Bank explained that while it had sufficient financing and liquidity at the corporate level, “the branches did not manage to fulfill their obligations to repay short-term interbank loans.” Instead, the payments were settled a day late.

The bank said that in response to the episode and to the greater volatility in China’s bank-to-bank lending market, it had increased reserve levels and “emphasized among our departments the overriding importance of sound liquidity.”

The big risk for China’s cosseted banks is not necessarily bank runs of the sort seen in the early 1930s in the United States, with depositors lining up to withdraw money before a bank can fail. The Chinese authorities have made clear that they will not tolerate disorderly closures of banks, and over the years have reportedly rushed cash to banks that faced sudden withdrawals.

Instead, the greater worry has been what some experts describe as “a walk on the banks” — depositors steadily removing their savings from banks after losing enthusiasm for deposit rates that have long been set by regulation at levels often below the inflation rate and only occasionally slightly above it. That slow drain could imperil the banks’ ability to continue pumping ever-larger loans to state-owned enterprises and politically connected individuals, even when many of those loans appear to be for helping borrowers repay previous loans.

Banks in China have been able to stay profitable while lending at low rates only because the government has required all of them to pay even lower rates for deposits. Savers have had few alternatives to banks until very recently: Real estate prices are already stratospheric relative to incomes, the weakly regulated and highly speculative domestic stock markets are widely distrusted and shadow banking businesses are periodically reined in by the government.

Total credit in China, although growing fast, remains slightly smaller relative to economic output than in the West. The worry is that the eventual proportion of nonperforming loans may prove even higher than other countries have had to manage, while China’s less developed financial system may make it hard to bail out less regulated entities, even as the central bank retains tighter links to the four main state-owned banks.

While policy makers say they are worried about upsetting the delicate mechanisms of the current banking system, public criticism continues to grow, even within China’s elite. That suggests further market-oriented experiments could be coming soon.

“Banking in China has become like a highway toll system,” Yao Jingyuan, the former chief economist at the state statistics agency, said late last week during a speech at Nanjing University, according to numerous Chinese news reports. “Banks charge every time money goes through them.”

“With this kind of operational model,” Mr. Yao added, “banks will continue making money even if all the bank presidents go home to sleep and you replaced them by putting a small dog in their seats.”


Here's the truth about Shanghai schools: they're terrible

Shanghai tops the Pisa rankings thanks to their focus on test-taking. Their model would be a nightmare for US schools

Saga Ringmar, Saturday 28 December 2013 12.00 GMT          

The western world watches China's rise as a formidable world-power with a mixture of awe and apprehension. Sci-fi films depict a futuristic world where is the new Google and Mcdonalds has been replaced by Grandma Wang's Dumpling Emporium. And yet again Shanghai is number one on the Programme for International Student Assessment's (Pisa) 2012 ranking list of international education, and the US is once again at a low rank, this time 36th place. The US is desperate, and naturally the Chinese educational system seems like an answer. But let me tell you – this is not the case. I know; for two years I attended a local Shanghainese high school and this is the truth: they are terrible.

The biggest problem with Chinese education? It's medieval. Shanghainese education is just like the stories my grandmother tells about high school in the 1940's. Footage of military parades in Fascist Italy share an unnerving resemblance to the morning assemblies from my school in Shanghai. Chinese education would be a poison for America, not a remedy.

The problem is that there are too many Chinese students. Shanghainese classrooms have about 40 students and in the countryside classes have over 60. The most efficient way to organize all these children is by testing, categorizing and grading them – Chinese education is essentially elitist. Students that excel in school are rewarded with prizes and encouragement, but struggling students are abandoned. I once served as a translator for the principal of my school when seven Swedish principals came to visit Shanghai. The Swedes asked what the school did for students with "special needs" and the principal answered:

    The special students who are doing well in class? We make sure to put a lot of focus on them.

This Chinese principal didn't understand the concept of special needs, and neither does the Chinese educational system.

A major reason why certain students do poorly in China is that their skills are ignored. Creativity and critical thinking are seen as objects of western frivolousness. Although Chinese students analyze literature, they never write essays and instead they simply memorize the texts. I have never memorized so much in my life as I did in Shanghai. The ideal Shanghainese student is like a sea sponge blindly absorbing any and all information and spewing it all out during the tests. The system in the US is not ideal – nobody can call the SAT a platform for creativity – but the American system does at least encourage questions and tries to make students into critical thinkers. If there are Chinese students with a critical mind, they are almost always self-taught.

The Chinese educational system produces millions of test-taking experts. The culmination of this test-taking mania is the Gaokao, the national university entrance exam. Much like the SAT, these exams give you a certain amount of points and these points correspond to the university you may attend. In 2006, a record high 9.5 million students took these tests. All three years of high school are devoted to the exams, and teachers refer to them continually.

In the last year the entire senior grade is usually sent off to another campus to make sure that they are not distracted from their study by social life. Many of my friends agree that the test is useless – the calculus problems and memorized literature will not be of any use in the future – but they have no choice. This is the way the system works, and to succeed in life they have to follow it.

So obviously when the Shanghainese students have a Pisa test placed in front of them, they complete it without having to think twice. Chinese children have been taking tests since the arrival of their milk teeth. The system breeds Pisa champions, but it also ruins young lives.

Should America follow China? Absolutely not, so stop the rumors. American education isn't perfect, but while following Shanghai might mean higher Pisa scores, it would be disastrous for the nation's children and its future.

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« Reply #10930 on: Dec 28, 2013, 07:46 AM »

South Sudan government agrees to ceasefire as 120,000 flee fighting

African leaders welcome commitment by president and call on rival Riek Machar to do the same amid growing refugee crisis

Mark Tran and agencies
The Guardian, Friday 27 December 2013 15.37 GMT   

Link to video: African leaders broker South Sudan government ceasefire

African powers trying to broker a peace deal in the world's newest country, South Sudan, have said its government has committed to a ceasefire after two weeks of clashes that have caused more than 120,000 people to flee.

The president, Salva Kiir, agreed to an "immediate cessation of hostilities", according to east African leaders mediating in the crisis. But they added that his rival, Riek Machar, whom Kiir accuses of trying to mount a coup two weeks ago, had not made the same commitment.

The mediators "welcome the commitment by the government of Republic of South Sudan to an immediate cessation of hostilities and call upon Dr Riek Machar and other parties to make similar commitments", they said in a statement.

At least 121,600 people have fled their homes in South Sudan but the total number is likely to be much higher, according to the UN, which has urgently requested $166m (£100m) from donors to deal with the humanitarian crisis.

The number of internally displaced people in the capital, Juba, has reached an estimated 25,000 since the power struggle erupted in mid-December. About 63,000 people have sought refuge at UN peacekeeping bases, mainly in Juba, Bor, Malakal, Bentiu and Pariang.

Toby Lanzer, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator in South Sudan, said: "This is an extremely difficult time for the people of this new nation, and it is crucial that aid agencies have the resources they need to save lives in the coming months.

"There are at least 90,000 people who have been displaced in the past 10 days."

Lanzer has estimated that the death toll has already surpassed 1,000.

UN officials are particularly worried about those in and around the town of Bor, in Jonglei state, where fighting has been especially intense. Some UN officials have returned to Bor after all aid workers were evacuated on 23 December to assess conditions for the 15,000 people who fled to the UN base.

Fighting has persisted for four days in the oil-producing northerly region of South Sudan. Government forces said they had finally defeated Machar's rebels in Malakal, capital of Upper Nile State. The claim could not be independently verified.

Outside UN bases, there are large groups of displaced people in Jonglei, Lakes, Warrap and Unity states. An estimated 45,000 people are in Awerial county in Lakes state, but aid agencies have been unable to reach this large group because of security fears.

Agencies have requested the $166m from now until March 2014 to help meet the immediate needs of people affected by the crisis. This includes emergency programmes for some 200,000 refugees from Sudan.

"In Bor and Bentiu this week, I have seen just how badly the communities caught in violence need our help," Lanzer said. "Our priorities are to stay, protect, and deliver. I hope that donors and compassionate people around the world act swiftly to give aid agencies the required resources to help the people of South Sudan at this critical juncture."

The $166m represents the most urgently required resources from the overall $1.1bn programme set out by the aid community for 2014 in South Sudan.

The head of the UN mission in South Sudan, Hilde Johnson, has said that well over 1,000 people have been killed since the start of the violence on 15 December and that the casualty figures are likely to rise.
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« Reply #10931 on: Dec 28, 2013, 07:49 AM »

December 27, 2013

Muslim Brotherhood Supporters Defy Egyptian Crackdown


CAIRO — Defying the widening crackdown against them, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood marched in cities across Egypt on Friday, protesting the government’s decision to declare the group a terrorist organization and clashing with security forces in several places.

At least three people were killed in Cairo, Damietta and Minya on Friday, as officers fired tear gas and birdshot at protesters who threw rocks, burned tires and set fire to police vehicles.

The Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, said it had arrested 265 people across the country, illustrating the government’s resolve to move forcefully against the Brotherhood, the government’s principal political opponent.

Most of the group’s leadership and thousands of its members are already in prison, having been rounded up during a sustained assault on the movement after the military ousted President Mohamed Morsi, a Brotherhood leader, in July. The state’s security services have killed hundreds of Mr. Morsi’s supporters at protests.

But the terrorist designation, which the government announced on Wednesday, outlawed the more than 80-year-old Islamist movement, imposing prison terms for belonging to or promoting the Brotherhood, and potentially imposing the death penalty for those convicted of being leaders in the movement.

The decision reflected the ascendance of hard-liners in the military-backed government who favored eradicating the Brotherhood after the ouster of Mr. Morsi. On Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry called Egypt’s foreign minister to express concern about the designation and the recent arrests, the State Department said.

There were indications that the government had taken on more than it could handle by outlawing the Brotherhood and anyone associated with it, including a network of social service organizations and charities that provide services to millions of Egyptians.

On Thursday, officials partly reversed a decision to freeze the assets of more than 1,000 of the nongovernmental groups, saying they could continue operating. Questions remained, though, about how the government would disburse the frozen assets.

Friday’s protests appeared to show that the Brotherhood, though crippled, remained unbowed, for now. There were pitched battles on Friday at Al-Azhar University, where student supporters of Mr. Morsi have held repeated demonstrations in recent weeks as part of a wave of university protests across the country that have vexed the authorities. In designating the Brotherhood a terrorist group, the government gave the police broader authority to clamp down on the campus protests.

Government officials have cast the latest crackdown as part of a wider war against terrorism, blaming the Brotherhood for attacks against the security services, including the bombing of a police station north of Cairo on Tuesday that killed 16 people. Officials have failed to produce any evidence of a connection between the Brotherhood and the attacks, which have resulted in the deaths of more than 170 police officers since August. A militant group called Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has taken responsibility for some of the most brazen violence and emerged as the face of a spreading insurgency that the government has struggled to contain.

The moves against the Brotherhood also appeared to be part of an effort to impose calm before a planned constitutional referendum in January. The government, which was installed by the military after Mr. Morsi’s ouster, views the vote as a critical milestone in a transitional plan and a measure of its own legitimacy. It has moved forcefully against its opponents in the weeks leading up to the referendum, including the Brotherhood and non-Islamist critics.

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« Reply #10932 on: Dec 28, 2013, 07:51 AM »

December 27, 2013

Mission Schools Opened World to Africans, but Left an Ambiguous Legacy


Of the hundreds of pages in Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” barely a dozen recount his college education at the University of Fort Hare, established by white Christian missionaries. He spent less than two of his 95 years there. Most obituaries made only a brief mention of that period.Mandela left Fort Hare partway through his studies during a conflict with its leader, a Scottish evangelist named Alexander Kerr, about a student boycott of college elections. “At that moment, I saw Dr. Kerr less as a benefactor than as a not-altogether-benign dictator,” Mandela wrote in his memoirs. As for himself, a 22-year-old at that point in late 1940, “I was in an unpleasant state of limbo.”

The mixed emotions that Mandela expressed were far from his alone. The entire enterprise of mission schools in Africa stood at an ambiguous, contested crossroads. It was part of colonialism, yet it educated students who opposed colonialism. It avoided political involvement, yet inspired the quest for racial equality through its religious ideals.

In the aftermath of Mandela’s death, in the fullness of time, mission education has earned a more positive re-evaluation. Mandela himself did ultimately receive his bachelor’s degree from Fort Hare by taking courses off site, and in 2006 was photographed beaming as he wore his college blazer.

Whatever flaws they had — condescension, timidity, elitism — schools like Fort Hare produced not only Mandela but an array of Southern Africa’s black leaders. Fort Hare educated Oliver Tambo of the African National Congress, Chris Hani of the nation’s Communist Party, Mangosuthu Buthelezi of the Inkatha Freedom Party and Robert Sobukwe of the Pan Africanist Congress. (A less celebrated alumnus is Robert Mugabe, the dictatorial president of Zimbabwe.)

Lovedale, another missionary school, taught Thabo Mbeki, who would become post-apartheid South Africa’s second president. Steve Biko, later the leader of the Black Consciousness movement, went to a Catholic boarding school, St. Francis. Albert J. Luthuli, the Nobel laureate, both studied and taught at Adams College, which had been founded by American missionaries.

The accomplishments of mission schools were both intentional and not. Their founders and faculties clearly parted ways with colonial leaders by believing in the educability of black Africans and their capacity to be saved through Christ. Yet those beliefs were a long way from liberation theology.

“I’m not making missionaries heroes,” said Richard H. Elphick, a historian at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and the author of “The Equality of Believers,” a book about Protestant missionaries in South Africa. “Missionaries and other white Christians were alarmed by the idea that the equality of all people before God means they should be equal in public life. But the equality of believers is an idea they dropped into South Africa. And it was constantly reinforced in the schools. And that made it a dangerous idea.”

Olufemi Taiwo offered a similarly nuanced endorsement, and he did so from two perspectives: as the product of a mission education in his native Nigeria and as a Cornell University professor with expertise in African studies.

“Under colonialism, there’s a tension between the missions and the colonial authorities,” said Dr. Taiwo, author of the 2010 book “How Colonialism Preempted Modernity in Africa.” “There was a missionary idea that black people could be modern. And most churches cannot come out and say some people are not human. So you might have a patronizing attitude, but if you don’t think Africans can benefit from education, why would you set up schools?”

Certainly, the model of mission education was not unique to Africa. White American missionaries played a similarly complicated role as emblems of both modernity and noblesse oblige in China before the Communist revolution. Many mission colleges in South Africa modeled their practical courses in industry and agriculture — a curriculum known as differentiated education or adapted education — on those of black schools in the United States such as Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute.

In whatever form it took, mission education was virtually the only formal sort available to black Africans for much of the colonial era. The first mission school in Nigeria opened in 1859, 50 years before the first government school, according to Dr. Taiwo. In the mid-1920s, mission schools in South Africa were educating far more Africans (about 215,000 compared with about 7,000) than were state schools, by Dr. Elphick’s calculations.

“For young black South Africans like myself,” Mandela wrote about Fort Hare in his autobiography, “it was Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and Yale, all rolled into one.” Before his rancorous departure, he studied Latin and physics, joined the drama society, ran cross country and lived in a hostel for Methodists like himself.

Just as important for the person Mandela would become, Fort Hare put him in a multiracial community, said Daniel Massey, author of “Under Protest,” a history of political activism at the college. Mandela’s classmates included Indian and “colored” students, and even some white children of faculty members. The black students were drawn from across tribal and linguistic lines.

For all those reasons — academic, religious, cultural — mission schools like Fort Hare were anathema to Afrikaner nationalists. Speaking in 1938, the political leader Daniel Malan warned about the growing number of “civilized and educated nonwhites who wish to share our way of life and to strive in every respect for equality with us.”

In the dozen years after winning a majority in South Africa’s 1948 elections, Afrikaner nationalists exerted state control over mission schools, imposing apartheid’s segregation by racial category and tribal identity and pushing for education in African languages rather than in English. Fort Hare, over the protests of its students, was subsumed under the government policy of “Bantu education.”

Like so much else in South Africa, that changed with Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the transition to majority rule. In October 1991, Mandela’s political ally, law partner and college classmate Oliver Tambo was named chancellor of Fort Hare. In his installation speech, even as he acknowledged the strife during his student years, Tambo intoned the college motto: “In your light, let us see light.”

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« Reply #10933 on: Dec 28, 2013, 07:53 AM »

Argentina court rules 14-year-old rape victim can have abortion

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, December 27, 2013 16:13 EST

A court in Argentina ruled Friday that a 14-year old rape victim could have an abortion, overturning a lower court decision barring the girl from seeking the procedure which had triggered outrage.

The teenage girl discovered early last month that she was pregnant after being raped by her mother’s partner.

The teen and her mother, who live in the city of Salta, one of the most conservative in Argentina, sought an abortion at an area hospital.

But a family court judge in a December 17 ruling denied her petition to terminate her pregnancy, instead ordering the girl to give birth and surrender the baby for adoption.

The lower court decision had provoked an outcry by women’s groups which maintained that the judge had exceeded his authority.

Judge Victor Soria ruled that the right to life of the unborn child trumped the rights of the teen — but Salta’s Supreme Court on Friday overturned that decision.

Abortion for the most part is illegal in Argentina. But there are exceptions, including in the case of rape, or when the life of the mother is at risk.

A federal Supreme Court last year issued a ruling that rape victims could not be punished for terminating a pregnancy, and no longer would need a court’s permission to get an abortion.

The court ruled that a woman’s sworn statement at the doctor’s office that she had been impregnated following a sexual assault would be sufficient.

But the high court ruling has not always been observed, with some conservative localities — like Salta, located some 1500 km (932 miles) from Buenos Aires — still requiring that rape victims seek court permission for an abortion, and in some cases refusing to grant it.

Abortion rights groups have been outraged by the girl’s case.

“When it comes to a woman’s body and her authority over her own body, what we have is a male-dominated, patriarchal majority in society and the Catholic Church,” said Mabel Gabarra, with the national campaign for free and legal abortion.

Though Argentina has its first woman elected president, Cristina Kirchner — and has been progressive in social policies such as legal same-sex marriage and transgender rights recognition — abortion is still a social taboo.

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« Reply #10934 on: Dec 28, 2013, 07:58 AM »

The first to fly: The true story of two eccentric 18th century inventors

Adam Pix Book Jacket 2 By Adam L. Penenberg
On December 26, 2013

The story of the first humans to fly involves two eccentric French brothers, lots of taffeta, a race against the French Academy of Science, King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Benjamin Franklin, a scheming scientist, a nobleman, a rooster, duck, and a sheep.

On June 4, 1783, at the marketplace in Annonay, France, six years before the onset of the French Revolution, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier, sons of a wealthy paper manufacturer, invited nobles and peasants alike to the main square of their hometown to gather around their giant globe-shaped balloon. Stitched from four humongous sections of sackcloth with three layers of thin paper forming an inner chamber and held together with eighteen hundred buttons, the balloon was 66 feet in diameter, engorged with 28,000 cubic feet of hot, smoky air, and weighed 500 pounds.

The twelfth of sixteen children, Joseph, born in 1740, had always been the maverick of the family. After running away from school as a teenager, he picked mulberry leaves before going into business for himself selling chemical products. Slovenly in dress and manner, he spent his meager wages on mathematics and physics textbooks. While his father eventually convinced him to enter the family business he devoted most of his time to daydreaming. In contrast, the younger Jacques-Etienne, born in 1745, was diligent, sociable and smart — his nickname was the “calculating machine” — the public face of the family who was good with business and comfortable mixing with the elite and hoi polloi alike. He studied architecture in Paris, where he hobnobbed with great scientists of his time like Benjamin Franklin.

It was Joseph, however, who first conceived of balloon travel six years earlier. Depending on which version of his story you believe (he was an unreliable narrator) the epiphany struck him when he watched his wife’s chemise lift off when placed before a fire to dry, or maybe it was his own shirt, although it didn’t lift off, he simply noticed it was billowing, with pockets of air pushing it up. Then again, it could have been a loaf wrapping his wife tossed on the flames, which, when it began to burn, rose into the air; or perhaps it was after Joseph read up on British scientist Dr. Joseph Priestly’s experiments with different types of air.

Joseph didn’t get around to conducting any experiments of his own until November 1792. One day, as he watched flames lick the air, his mind, as it was want to do, wandered, and he thought about the best way to attack a well-protected fortress like Gibraltar, which was considered impregnable by both land and sea. He wondered, what if soldiers could be transported into the air by the same force that lifted the embers in a fire?

He decided that within the heated air, there must be a gas — he dubbed it “Montgolfier Gas” — that was visible as smoke and possessed special properties he attributed to “levity.” Of course, he was completely wrong about that: Hot air rises because the air expands when it’s heated so that its density is reduced as volume increases. On the basis of who knows what, he concluded the best gas would come from burning a mix of chopped wool and damp straw. Later, he and his brother would throw old boots and rotting meat into the fires, believing they raised the fuel’s octane.

To test his theories, Joseph constructed an envelope out of taffeta (a crisp, smooth woven fabric made from silk) ribbed with an internal frame of very light wood and designed with an open neck at the bottom. He wadded up then lit some paper, which filled the envelope with hot air and smoke, watching in awe as his creation rose to the ceiling.

Joseph immediately wrote Jacques-Etienne: “Prepare supplies of taffeta and rope and you will see one of the most astounding things in the world!” Outside he repeated the experiment for his brother and the balloon soared 60 feet into the air. Those British soldiers protecting Gibraltar from French and Spanish troops wouldn’t stand a chance.

The two erstwhile inventors pooled their resources for a development program to build and test successfully larger balloons. In December 1782, they constructed what they called an aerostat three times bigger and twenty-seven times larger in air volume than the prototype Joseph tried out in his room. On its maiden voyage it took off so fast they lost control and the balloon soared more than a mile from where it took off.

Eventually it was destroyed through the “indiscretion” of passersby, no doubt alarmed by the strange object that had fallen from the sky. The following April they tested a balloon 30 feet in diameter, which achieved an altitude of 600 feet and floated with the wind for more than half a mile.

To stake claim to their invention, the brothers invited the town to witness their next flight. In front of an audience of hundreds, the Montgolfiers had their helpers inflate their latest and greatest vessel, which at 28,000 cubic feet was more than twice the size of the one they tested two months earlier.

When released, the balloon climbed to more than 3,000 feet and covered a mile and a half in the 10 minutes it remained aloft, coming down gradually as the air inside cooled.

Finally, Man had defied gravity and created a machine that could fly.

Word quickly spread to Paris.

A rooster, a duck, and a sheep

The French Academy of Sciences was miffed that two ignorant non-scientists had created the first flying ship. That would not do, hence the Academy supported the quest of one of its members, a young physicist named Jacques-Alexandre-Cesar Charles, who immediately attempted to reproduce the Montgolfier’s experiments. Along the way he noted that the volume of a gas is directly proportional to its temperature, a phenomenon he called Charles Law, which persists to this day.

Professor Charles suggested a hydrogen-filled balloon made from a silk envelope and coated with a rubber solution to make it leak-proof, which scientific research indicated should fly higher and faster than any hot air balloon. It took him a little more than two months to construct the balloon, and four days to mix the hydrogen, which required him to douse one thousand pounds of iron filings with five hundred pounds of sulfuric acid. It was, at the time, the largest quantity of hydrogen ever produced.

On a late August rainy day Charles waited for a cannon shot before untethering the twelve-foot tall aerostat from Champ de Mars in Paris, where, it was said, half the population came to watch, but only those with tickets allowed anywhere near. It shot three thousand feet into the atmosphere in just minutes and when it disappeared from sight another cannon shot was fired to bid it adieu.

Three-quarters of an hour later it alighted 18 miles away in a field in the village of Gonesse, where peasants thought it might be a giant bird or invaders from the moon and tore it to bits with pitchforks and scythes. For good measure they strapped the fabric to a horse’s tail and sent him galloping through the field, until hardly a trace of Charles’ balloon survived.

Meanwhile, Jacques Montgolfier was also in Paris to arrange a public demonstration, securing the support of King Louis XVI and funding from the government, as well as finessing a joint venture with wallpaper manufacturer, Jean-Baptiste Réveillon, which provided the paper for the brothers’ next balloon. It was their biggest yet: 66 feet tall, 40-plus feet wide, fueled with 50 pounds of damp straw and wool, and the exterior decorated in 18th century sky blue wallpaper with accents of gold, signs of the zodiac and suns. Things went as planned until a sudden storm broke, the wallpaper dissolved and the vessel flopped to the ground a sodden mess.

Undeterred the Montgolfiers got to work on a replacement composed of taffeta coated with aluminum varnish that had fire-prevention properties, and decided to include the first air passengers. Not a person, since no one knew what effect high altitudes would have on humans, but animals. After mulling a horse or an ox, they opted for a duck, a rooster, and a sheep they named Montauciel (“Climb-to-the-sky”). They figured winged animals should have little problem with altitude while conventional wisdom of their day held that sheep most closely approximated the physiology of humans.

King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette attended the next launch of a montgolfier, which commenced from the front courtyard of Chateau de la Muette the king’s estate near the house of Réveillon. A wicker basket containing the caged livestock was affixed to the bottom and, adding to the poundage of straw and wool fuel were some old boots and rotting meat, which the brothers believed would increase the autostat’s lift.

At 1 pm, after lunch with the monarch, the brothers released the balloon from a special fire platform to the cheers of the crowd. One intrigued onlooker was fellow scientist and envoy to France from the United States, Benjamin Franklin. When asked of what use the balloon would be, he famously retorted, “What use, sir, is a newborn baby?”

Toting its animal carriage, the balloon traveled two miles, landing gently enough in the Vaucresson Forest. The first on the scene, arriving on horseback, was a 30-year-old scientist named Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, head of the king’s natural history collection. He rooted around for the livestock, which were buried under the balloon’s deflated skin. When he opened the cage he discovered the duck and sheep, while dazed, unscathed, but the rooster had injured one of its wings, which could have happened any time during the flight and for any number of reasons.

Back at the royal estate, King Louis was delighted, and ordered the animals cooked for his dinner.

Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier

Next passenger: a human. Make that two.

Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier and Rozier informed his majesty, well known for his indecisiveness, that their next balloon would carry a man.

Absolutely not, Louis replied. He might have pointed out that theologians were dead set against the idea. God would not approve of ballooning and any man who went up in a one would be approaching the gates of Heaven before his proper time. Or perhaps it was the king’s mood.

Nevertheless, Montgolfier and Rozier persisted.

Very well, his highness said, provided the flying men were condemned criminals, who he would pardon if they survived, which he thought unlikely.

Rozier protested, arguing that the glory of the first flight should not be given to criminals. He enlisted the aid of François Laurent, who was the Marquis d’Arlandes and a cousin of the king, who, in turn, petitioned Maria Antoinette to convince Louis to change his royal mind, which he did. Unfortunately for de Rozier, this assistance cost him the chance to fly solo when Arlandes insisted on joining him on their maiden voyage.

As autumn merged with winter, Rozier and the Montgolfier brothers’ worked on a larger, more durable vessel in the shape of a giant lemon, equipped with a circular wicker compartment that looked like a giant bracelet and hung near the bottom with a separate iron fire basket. The balloon’s skin was painted blue and gold and ornamented with gold fleurs-de-lis, the monogram of Louis XVI.

No one thought it prudent to dispatch two men into the atmosphere without first conducting tests. The group settled on ropes to hold the balloon in place while Rozier climbed aboard and was slowly raised to a height of 80 feet, where he maintained his position by fine-tuning the fire’s intensity. Four days later Rozier rose to 250 feet, the vessel was pulled down, Marquis Arlandes joined him onboard, and the two floated up to 350 feet.

On the appointed hour and day, November 21, 1783, at Chateau de la Muette, the sky was partly cloudy and the wind puffed in from the northwest. The first attempt went awry, however, when a hard gust blew the balloon into one of the garden walks. The ropes rubbed against the fabric, causing several tears, the longest stretching six feet.

Two hours later at 1:54 p.m., after repairs were affected, the world’s first aeronauts set off. There was a hush as the balloon cut a majestic figure as it rose over the palace.

“No one could help feeling a mingled sentiment of fear and admiration,” attested an octet of observers that included Benjamin Franklin in a signed affidavit later that day.

Bickering in the balloon

Adrift in the wind 270 feet up, the balloon passed a hedge and did a half turn. Onboard, Arlandes was astonished by the crowd’s unexpected quiescence. Perhaps they are frightened, he reasoned. He waved but there was no discernible response, so he shook his handkerchief and “immediately perceived a great movement in the garden,” he wrote in a letter dated a week later. “It seemed as if the spectators all formed one mass, which rushed, by an involuntary motion, towards the wall, which it seemed to consider as the only obstacle between us.”

His partner in flight interrupted his reverie, one nobleman to another: “You are doing nothing,” Rozier said, “and the balloon is scarcely rising a fathom.”

Arlandes begged his pardon, stirred the fire then tossed in a brick of straw. Ascending quickly, he was having trouble getting a fix on their position. They were so high he could not make out individual buildings, not even the Chateau de la Muette from whence they began their journey. Following the serpentine path of the Seine until he could identify the bends in the river. Recognizing the Visitation de Chaillot, a mammoth double-winged palace on the bank of the river, he ticked off each neighborhood. “Passy, St. Germain, St. Denis, Sevres!”

“If you look at the river in that fashion you will be likely to bathe in it soon,” Roziers cried. “Some fire, my dear friend. Some fire.”

Left to the whims of the wind, their craft appeared reluctant to cross the river, and instead hovered over the water and headed upstream. Neither welcomed this turn of events; they would prefer to hover over terra firma in case they needed to land. Some minutes later, Arlandes said, “Here is a river which is very difficult to cross.”

“So it seems,” Rozier replied, “but you are doing nothing. I suppose it is because you are braver than I, and don’t fear a tumble.”

Arlandes poked the fire and seized a truss of straw with his fork, which being pressed too tightly, wouldn’t light. He shook it over the flames and a tremendous heat seized his armpits. “We are rising now,” he called.

Suddenly Arlandes heard a loud noise originate from the top of the balloon, so loud and forceful he thought it might have popped. When he looked, however, he saw nothing out of sorts. Rozier climbed above to investigate. Without warning they were jolted straight up. “What are you doing up there — dancing?” Arlandes asked.

“I am not stirring,” Rozier said.

“So much the better,” Arlandes said. “This must be a new current, which will, I hope, take us off the river.”

It did. They drifted over the city to surrounding countryside.

Arlandes heard a new noise, and discovered a plethora of flaming holes, some quite large, breaking out on the south side of the balloon. “We must get down!” Arlandes shouted.

“Why?” Rozier asked.

“Look!” Arlandes grabbed a sponge to extinguish the flames closest to him. “We must descend!”

Rozier surveyed the landscape and pointed out they were over Paris.

Arlandes tested the cords connecting the fire iron to the balloon. Two had snapped but the rest seemed sound. He suggested they cross the city to locate a suitable landing place to land. Passengers on an out-of-control coach over rough roads, they were soon speeding toward a patch of roofs. If they ran into them, they would either die from the impact or from the inevitable flames that would consume them.

They reignited the fire by throwing more bricks of straw and wool into the embers, and their craft responded by arcing over the top. As they sped downhill the wind shifted and pushed them south toward the heavily wooded Luxembourg Gardens.

Rozier fine-tuned their final descent by feeding small portions of straw and wool to the fire to slow their descent. They sped over a major boulevard — the last major obstacle before open plains beckoned — and Rozier snuffed out the fire.

The balloon got smaller and smaller as they headed lower and lower. Finally, 25 minutes after they departed, near a mill in Butte-aux-Cailles, a neighborhood located on hills in the southeast corner of the city, they hit the ground with a jolt.

Balloon fabric plopped down on Arlandes’ head. He pushed it off, leaped out and turned to face the ballon, which was perfectly empty, flattened like a fallen soufflé.

Roziers crept out from under the sea of canvas in shirtsleeves because he had used his coat to tamp down the many fires that had plagued their flight.

The two aero-voyagers set out for the nearest house to seek warmth, national heroes of France.

More balloon records and an untimely death

Two weeks later, on December 1, 1783, 400,000 people gathered in the vicinity of Jardin des Tuileries in Paris to watch the young physicist from the French Academy of Science, Jacques Charles, man a hydrogen balloon with Nicholas-Louis Robert. Rising to 1,800 feet, they sailed 20 miles in two hours and five minutes, coming down in Nesles-la-Vallée as the sun was setting. Robert got out and Charles flew solo, climbing rapidly to nine thousand feet where he became the first man to greet both a sunset and sunrise in a balloon. After experiencing crushing pain in his ears, however, he promptly descended and never flew again.

A month and a half later, in Lyon, on January 19, 1784, 100,000 spectators congregated for the dispatch of another montgolfier, their biggest yet, which was sponsored by the governor of Lyon. This time six men were onboard, including Rozier and its inventor Joseph Montgolfier.

In true madcap style there was a scuffle as the balloon was launched when a seventh man, Claudius Fontaine, jumped into the basket. He had assisted Joseph with the initial experiments and often begged to be the first to fly, an honor that had been bestowed on Rozier and the nobleman. To make up for this slight, Joseph promised he could come with him.

On the blessed day, however, Prince Charles-Joseph Lamoral de Ligne informed Fontaine there was no room. The balloon was at a considerable height before anyone other than Joseph noticed the stowaway. The Prince of Ligne was angry, but Fontaine cut him off, saying “Princes may consider themselves our superiors on earth, but in the aerial regions we are now exploring, we are all equal, and on the same level.”

The trip was truncated when at three thousand feet a large section of fabric ripped. The balloon hurtled to earth, landing roughly and leaving the men shaken but otherwise unharmed.

This would be the Montgolfiers’ final balloon. After King Louis XVI elevated their father to the nobility and honored their family with the symbol SIC ITURE AD ASTRA — “Thus we go to the stars” — Joseph and Jacques-Etienne returned to papermaking, their inheritance largely spent. The balloon, Etienne wrote in a letter later that year, “is a beautiful fruit, but it is not ripe. We will be dead before the sun of practice and experience will ripen it. It is a tree we have planted for our nephews.”

While he and his brother were the first to send men into the sky, it was the hydrogen balloon that became all the rage in eighteenth century Europe, validating Charles’ vision. These early flights were a sensation, drawing millions of people across Europe to bear witness to history. Coins were minted and engravings etched to commemorate them. Shopkeepers sold enamel and gilt-bronze replicas, crockery and clocks with balloon-shaped dials, jewelry, lanterns in the shape of montgolfiers, paintings, and balloon-back chairs.

As for Rozier, he requested 40,000 francs from the crown the following year to build a balloon to bring glory to France as first to cross the English Channel. It was, he argued, a matter of national pride. Thin as a French coin and fearless, Rozier designed his balloon to be a cross between a montgolfiere and Charles’ hydrogen version: The lower part was pumped with hot air while the upper section was a huge hydrogen bubble.

Rozier reasoned that “when I wish to descend I shall simply cool the hot air in the montgolfier instead of letting out the gas. Then, to rise again it would only be necessary to rekindle the fire. This also renders ballast unnecessary.”

Professor Charles called it for what it was: “like lighting a fire under a barrel of gunpowder.”

Rozier transported his balloon to the coastal city of Boulogne and waited, the wind cold, unforgiving, and, worst of all, blowing from England to France. At the same time an Englishman, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, and John Jeffries, an American actor, were in Dover preparing to cross from the other side.

Each day Rozier waited for the wind to change and retired to his inn, disappointed. He sent up trial balloons in the hopes they might rise into a crosscurrent, but they all returned to France.

On January 7, 1785, Blanchard and Jeffries took off from southern England. Partway across, the balloon lost gas and they started sinking toward the gray, choppy waters of the Channel. Frantically they threw overboard everything they could think of — all their ballast and most of their clothing — and somehow managed to remain aloft. The only cargo they kept was the first international airmail, which they delivered upon landing in Felmore Forest, France. They completed their 28-mile journey in about two and a half hours.

A true gentleman, Rozier was one of the first to congratulate his rivals. He might have been satisfied to seek other challenges, but the King’s men reminded him that he could still fly across the Channel the other way; that way France could still have its glory. At any rate it would not look good if Rozier wasted 40,000 francs. He returned to his balloon, which by this point was weather-beaten, the taffeta chewed up by packs of rats.

At 7 a.m. on June 15th, Rozier and his friend, a doctor named Pierre Romain, reluctantly set sail for England.

They floated out over the surf until the wind urged them back to France. For the next half hour their hybrid fire and gas balloon seemed stuck in time and space, a thousand feet above the shore.

Suddenly Rozier made what witnesses described as a gesture of alarm as a blue flame leaped from the bottom of the balloon. There was an explosion and the two men hurtled to their deaths.

That made Rozier not only the first man to fly in a balloon, he was the first killed in one, too.

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