December 29, 2013
India’s Efforts to Aid Poor Worry Drug Makers
By GARDINER HARRIS
NEW DELHI — Alka Kudesia needs an expensive drug to treat her breast cancer, but refuses to tell her children for fear they will take out loans to buy the medicine and spend the rest of their lives in debt.
“We’re barely able to afford the treatment I’m already getting,” Ms. Kudesia, 48, said with quiet defiance. “My kids are just starting out in life. There is no way I’m going to be a burden to them.”
The drug, Herceptin, is one of the most effective treatments for an aggressive form of breast cancer. But in India, at a cost of at least $18,000 for one course of treatment, only a small fraction of the women who need it get it.
The Indian government last year threatened to allow production of less costly, generic versions of Herceptin. Its maker, Roche Holdings of Switzerland, initially resisted, but surrendered its patent rights this year in large measure because it concluded that it would lose a legal contest in Indian courts.
The skirmishing over Herceptin and other cancer medicines is part of a new and critical phase in a struggle to make drugs affordable to the world’s poorest people, one that began in earnest more than a decade ago when advocates campaigned successfully to make AIDS medicines accessible to millions of Africans.
“Cancer is the next H.I.V./AIDS issue, and the fight has only begun,” said Shamnad Basheer, a professor of law at West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences in Kolkata.
American trade officials have voiced concerns about India’s treatment of drug patents, including its reasons for sometimes overriding them. President Obama discussed the issue this year with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India in the Oval Office, administration officials said.
Executives in the international pharmaceutical industry, increasingly dependent on drug sales in emerging markets like India, China and Brazil, contend that India’s efforts to cancel patents threaten the global system for discovering cures while doing little to resolve the health challenges most patients here face.
“We are open to discussing what the best way is to bring innovative medicines to patients,” said Daniel Grotzky, a spokesman for Roche, which has a large portfolio of cancer medicines. “But a society that wants to develop new medicines and technology must reward innovation through a solid protection of intellectual property.”
Some health experts say investing in earlier diagnosis of breast cancer and improved testing, surgery and access to radiation therapy is more important than access to expensive drugs. “Chemotherapy is not the major issue for cancer control in India,” said Dr. Richard Sullivan, a professor of cancer policy and global health at King’s Health Partners’ Integrated Cancer Center in London.
But health advocates say similar arguments were made by the United States government and the pharmaceutical industry as they sought to protect patents on AIDS medicines through much of the 1990s, a stance that former President Bill Clinton has since said he regrets. It would be unfair to delay improving access to cancer drugs until India’s broken system for cancer care was fixed, they say. They note that more than twice as many people in India die of cancer than of AIDS.
As the world has made progress against malnutrition and infectious diseases, more people are living into old age and dying of chronic illnesses like heart disease and cancer, which now cause two-thirds of deaths globally. In 2012, there were 14.1 million new cancer cases across the world and 8.2 million cancer deaths, according to the World Health Organization. And the number of breast cancer cases is growing. About 6.3 million women were living with the disease last year.
The rise in the cancer caseload is already a heavy burden on India’s hobbled health system. Indian women, while less likely to get breast cancer than those in the United States, are far more likely to die of it. Breast cancer is diagnosed in about 115,000 women here every year, and in 2008 some 54,000 died from it, according to the World Health Organization.
At intersections in New Delhi, women carrying doctors’ notes beg for money for their prescribed treatments. India has just 27 dedicated public cancer centers for 1.2 billion people. The government has promised to add an additional 50 in the coming years, but medical experts say even that will be grossly inadequate.
India, which is one of the world’s leading producers of generic pharmaceuticals, has long viewed patent rights on medicines skeptically. It has already ruled invalid patents protecting exclusive sales of Novartis’s Gleevec, Pfizer’s Sutent and Roche’s Tarceva, all cancer medicines. In a landmark decision last year, the government agreed that the patent protecting Bayer’s Nexavar, also a cancer drug, was valid but overrode it anyway because a generic company promised to lower the price from $4,500 to about $140 per month of treatment.
The government is now considering canceling the exclusive sales rights on two other cancer medicines. Roche Holdings surrendered its patent on Herceptin this year in part because it viewed it as a losing battle. Each of these steps was greeted with acclaim in India and deep disapproval from business groups, legislators and drug makers in the United States.
An Indian government committee is soon expected to announce the start of a formal process to set aside patents on 15 more medicines, according to a committee member who agreed to speak about secret deliberations only if granted anonymity. Malini Aisola of the Public Health Foundation of India said the expanded list “will create ripples around the world.”
For drug companies, the most worrisome aspect of India’s efforts to lower drug prices is that other countries are beginning to follow its lead. Both Indonesia and the Philippines recently adopted patent laws modeled on India’s, and legislators in Brazil and Colombia have proposed following suit.
“One of the concerns of the industry is not just what India is doing in India, but we realize that the whole world is watching India,” said Amy Hariani of the U.S.-India Business Council, which is affiliated with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and is fighting India’s patent policies.
Even insured patients in the United States may wonder why they are making thousands of dollars in co-payments if these medicines cost far less in India. Treatment with Herceptin is even more expensive in the United States, so even Medicare patients must make thousands of dollars in co-pays.
“Why should we be giving away Herceptin in India and China when we have insured women in the United States who can’t even afford the co-pay?” asked Dr. Peter Bach, a drug price expert at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. “Nobody really asked that question about AIDS drugs in Africa. But with cancer medicines, people will ask, and that’s what scares the pharmaceutical industry.”
For the Obama administration, the fight over drug patents in the developing world is a minefield. The drug industry was a major contributor to Mr. Obama’s campaign and an early and crucial backer of his health care program. But Mr. Obama’s advisers hope to avoid the mistakes of the Clinton administration, which was harshly criticized by AIDS activists for its initial stand against providing generic antiretroviral drugs to Africa.
Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., during a July visit to India, discussed the importance of balancing patent rights and access to medicines with the prime minister, while Mr. Obama and Mr. Singh spoke about the issue in September, administration officials said.
A report released in May by the Office of the United States Trade Representative listed multiple concerns with India’s treatment of drug patents, including its high bar for obtaining patents. Trade officials also pointed to a 2012 blog post by Teresa Stanek Rea, then the deputy director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, that stated that “we encourage our trading partners to consider ways to address their public health challenges while maintaining intellectual property rights systems that promote investment, research, and innovation,” and that India “may undermine those goals.”
Roche’s decision to surrender its Herceptin patent has had a rapid impact on the market here in India. Last month, Biocon, an Indian drug maker, announced that it had won approval for a generic, less expensive version of the drug, which the company expects to begin selling early next year.
Manjeet Kaur, 51, of New Delhi, may benefit. Her husband, an account manager at a technology service company, spent his life savings on a full course of Herceptin for her. Every three weeks, the couple takes two vials of the medicine to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, a vast and chaotic warren of buildings widely considered the nation’s premier hospital.
She often waits many hours for the life-sustaining infusion. On a recent day, she sat cross-legged, wrapped in a saffron scarf, in a room with six other women. Outside, hundreds of people lined up hoping for care.
About 25,000 Indian women would benefit from Herceptin treatment every year, but at most only 1,500 get it, according to Kalyani Menon-Sen, a patient advocate in New Delhi who led a campaign for a generic version.
Ms. Kudesia, afraid to tell her children about Herceptin because of its cost, is already having trouble affording her cocktail of less expensive generic medicines.
She said she discovered something was wrong with her after a stray cow bruised her right breast with its horn while she was bowing to touch its hoof in a sign of respect for an animal sacred to Hindus. A doctor prescribed painkillers, but her discomfort only grew. Another doctor took an X-ray and said her shoulder was swollen. Then she got a mammogram, which showed cancer.
Her daughter borrowed $1,600 from a bank for her mastectomy. After begging relatives, Ms. Kudesia got the nearly $2,000 she needed for three rounds of chemotherapy. She needs more treatment, but has no idea where the money will come from. Her husband died in 2011 from a brain tumor, and his three-year treatment drained their savings.
To save money, she said, she must now move out of the three-room, $80-per-month apartment she shares with her mother-in-law and son and sell most of their possessions. Buying Herceptin is out of the question. She prays to Krishna, Rama and other Hindu gods for help.
“I want to spend the rest of the time I have left resolving our debts, not making them worse,” she said. “I cannot tell my children there is another drug that will help me.”
December 29, 2013
Political Clashes Grow in Bangladesh’s Capital
By JULFIKAR ALI MANIK and GARDINER HARRIS
DHAKA, Bangladesh — A growing sense of crisis gripped Bangladesh on Sunday as the government closed most forms of transportation into the capital, arrested hundreds and barred the main opposition alliance from holding a protest rally.
Police officers surrounded the home of the main opposition leader, Khaleda Zia, a former prime minister who leads the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and prevented her followers from rallying outside the party’s headquarters in Dhaka, the capital.
Mrs. Zia had called for a “March for Democracy” on Sunday to protest the government’s decision to hold national elections on Jan. 5. The opposition coalition has demanded that the government step aside in favor of a caretaker administration to oversee the elections. But Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, arrested by a previous caretaker government in 2007, has refused to step aside and has said that the elections will be held as scheduled.
The police parked at least five trucks filled with sand outside Mrs. Zia’s home and deployed water cannons alongside barricades. Mrs. Zia got into a white vehicle around 1:50 p.m. and tried to drive toward her party’s headquarters, but was stopped by a cordon of police officers. She sat in the vehicle for nearly an hour. She finally emerged holding the national flag and pleaded with police officers to allow her to proceed. They refused.
“The program to restore democracy will go on,” Mrs. Zia said to waiting reporters, according to local news media reports. “Either today or tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, the program will continue.”
Syed Ashraful Islam, the general secretary of the governing Awami League, mocked Mrs. Zia for “staging a drama” in her driveway.
The struggle between the two political coalitions has paralyzed Bangladesh, unnerved Western governments and wounded the country’s vital garment industry.
Mrs. Zia said the present government was “illegal and undemocratic.”
“They should step down immediately if they had any grace left,” she said.
At a news conference in Dhaka on Sunday, Muhammad Hafizuddin Ahmed, the vice chairman of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, vowed that the opposition’s protests would continue daily until Jan. 5. He said the government had shut down Dhaka to prevent the opposition’s rally and was “going to kill democracy by organizing a one-sided, voterless election on Jan. 5.”
The police arrested Mr. Ahmed as he was leaving the news conference, one of many opposition figures arrested in recent days.
“The problem for the ruling party is that the voters in Bangladesh do not believe that a credible election can be held with the ruling party at the helm,” wrote Muhammad Q. Islam, an associate professor of economics at St. Louis University, in an opinion article published Sunday by an online newspaper in Bangladesh. “Her arguments for holding elections have failed to convince even her coalition partners, some of whom now have abandoned her, multiplying her problems manifold.”
Monirul Islam, joint commissioner of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police, said in a telephone interview that the police had refused the opposition coalition’s request to hold a rally on Sunday “to ensure the security of the people.”
“Despite the rejection of their application to hold a rally, they announced they would hold it today anyway,” Mr. Islam said. “We did not allow that to happen.”
One protester was killed in Dhaka on Sunday; political violence has claimed the lives of more than 100 people in recent weeks. In an attempt to stop the drive-by attacks, the police recently barred motorcyclists from carrying passengers, an extraordinary measure in a country where motorcycles are a dominant form of transportation and entire families routinely ride together.
Kelly McCarthy, a spokeswoman for the United States Embassy in Dhaka, told local reporters on Sunday that in a democracy all parties and citizens “have the right to freely and peacefully express their views.”
“The government is responsible to provide space to all political parties for such activity; equally the opposition is responsible to use such space in a peaceful manner,” Ms. McCarthy added, according to local news reports.
Julfikar Ali Manik reported from Dhaka, and Gardiner Harris from Toulouse, France.
December 29, 2013
Rally Draws a Diverse Group of Protesters in Cambodia
By THOMAS FULLER
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Tens of thousands of antigovernment demonstrators marched through Phnom Penh on Sunday in one of the biggest acts of defiance against the nearly three decades of rule by Cambodia’s authoritarian prime minister, Hun Sen.
The procession, which was peaceful and stretched for several miles through a commercial district of Phnom Penh, the capital, brought together protesters with a diverse list of grievances: Buddhist monks, garment workers, farmers and supporters of the main opposition party.
They were united in their calls for Mr. Hun Sen to step down, their chants — “Hun Sen! Get out!” — echoing down the broad avenue where they marched.
In July, Mr. Hun Sen’s party claimed victory in disputed elections that the opposition and many independent monitoring organizations said were deeply flawed. Mr. Hun Sen formed a government despite the growing protests by the opposition, which has boycotted Parliament and is calling for new elections.
Cambodia’s political stalemate and protest movement have been somewhat overshadowed by the turmoil in nearby Thailand, where antigovernment demonstrators are rallying to block elections and install a “people’s council” to govern the country during what they describe as a hiatus from democracy.
But some analysts in Cambodia describe the past few months here as a watershed for Cambodian society, which for years has been dominated by the highly personalized rule of Mr. Hun Sen, whose party has tight control over major institutions in the country, including the army, the police, the judiciary and much of the news media.
Protesters blocking traffic and marching through downtown Phnom Penh remain a jarring sight after years during which the main message from the government has been that people should be grateful for the unity and development that Mr. Hun Sen brought to Cambodia after many years of war.
“It seems like a turning point in the history of civil society,” said Yeng Virak, the executive director of the Community Legal Education Center, a Cambodian human rights organization. “People feel more free to join protests and to identify themselves as part of the opposition.”
The continued vigor of the protest movement five months after the elections appears to be a reflection of the deep pool of resentment in the country toward Mr. Hun Sen.
One woman who took part in the march on Sunday, Meng Phang, 59, shouted to onlookers, including stone-faced police officers, that “Hun Sen and his family are getting richer, but everyone else is getting poorer.”
Ms. Meng Phang’s participation also represented another crucial factor of the protests: the sustained financing of the movement. Ms. Meng Phang said she had donated about $1,000 to the protest movement from money she had saved while working in a factory in Japan.
Kem Sokha, one of the protest leaders, singled out contributions “from our people abroad” in a speech to protesters on Sunday evening. There are large Cambodian populations in Australia, France and the United States, among other countries.
The grievances among protesters on Sunday were varied. Sok Heng, a middle-aged carpenter, lamented the lack of justice in the country and mentioned the case of his brother-in-law, who he said was killed by a thief. The police asked for a bribe before agreeing to arrest the suspect, he said.
Touch Vandeth, 24, was one of thousands of garment workers on strike who demanded a doubling of the minimum wage to $160 a month, a sharp increase that would put wages well above those of Cambodia’s regional economic competitors, including Bangladesh, Myanmar and Vietnam. Ms. Touch Vandeth, who assembles Adidas footwear at a factory on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, said she had been unable to save much money on her current salary, $80 plus overtime.
Chay Soheaktra, one of the many Buddhist monks taking part in the demonstration, said he was angry that Mr. Hun Sen’s government had given a forestry concession to a Vietnamese company. Anti-Vietnamese talk has been a mainstay of the protest leaders, who portray Mr. Hun Sen as a puppet of Vietnam. (Mr. Hun Sen is Cambodian but came to power with the aid of an invading Vietnamese Army that pushed the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979.)
The Buddhist hierarchy is closely aligned with Mr. Hun Sen, but younger monks have joined the protests — sometimes in defiance of their elders — and are particularly angry at the theft this month of precious Buddhist relics from a Buddhist shrine. Monks question how a national treasure was so poorly guarded, especially when hundreds of security officers guard the residences of Mr. Hun Sen and other top officials.
Ou Virak, the president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, an independent advocacy organization in Phnom Penh, said the theft of the relics might be among the biggest problems for Mr. Hun Sen. In a country where superstition plays an important role, the theft could be taken as a supernatural sign.
Mr. Hun Sen is unpopular with a broad portion of the Cambodian electorate, Mr. Ou Virak said. But many people, especially business leaders, are not convinced that the opposition is ready to govern the country. He cited the opposition’s embrace of the doubling of the minimum wage, claiming that the country could lose tens of thousands of jobs to neighboring countries.
“The majority of the people want change,” Mr. Ou Virak said. “But they don’t know what that change would look like.”
Japan’s stock market posts best shares in four decades in year’s last trading day
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, December 30, 2013 7:29 EST
On the last trading day of the year, Japanese shares posted their best annual performance for more than four decades, leaving other major markets in the dust.
Foreign investors piled into the long-laggard market in 2013 as the government and central bank unveiled measures aimed at stoking the world’s third-largest economy that sent the yen plummeting against the dollar and cheered exporters.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — who rang a bell at the Tokyo Stock Exchange to mark the final trading day — has been widely praised for reviving confidence but analysts say more needs to be done.
Tokyo’s benchmark Nikkei 225 index finished Monday up 0.69 percent at 16,291.31, about 57 percent higher than its 2012 close of 10,395.18.
That marked the Nikkei’s best annual return since it nearly doubled in 1972, outpacing a booming Wall Street which has seen the Dow and S&P 500 power to record highs.
The broader Topix index of all first-section shares, up 0.95 percent on the day to 1,302.29, skyrocketed nearly 52 percent from a year ago.
“This has been a boom year — it’s been a long time since we’ve seen such a robust performance,” said Hikaru Sato, a senior technical analyst at Daiwa Securities.
The Japanese currency has lost about a fifth of its value against the greenback since the start of the year, giving Japanese exporters a much-needed boost.
The weaker unit makes firms more competitive overseas while making their overseas earnings worth more in yen terms when repatriated.
In afternoon Tokyo trade the dollar bought 105.35 yen, well up from the 87 yen level at the end of last year.
The unit’s decline helped push Sony shares to 1,826 yen, nearly double from a year ago, as the embattled electronics giant repaired its battered balance sheet, while Toyota stock soared 60 percent to 6,240 yen.
Japan’s biggest bank Mitsubishi UFJ rose 50.5 percent and shares of Uniqlo operator Fast Retailing almost doubled to 43,400 yen.
Shares in mobile carrier SoftBank, which took control of US-based Sprint Nextel in a headline-grabbing $21.6 billion deal this year, almost tripled to 9,200 yen.
Despite the huge gains, the Nikkei remains a shadow of its former self. The market peaked at almost 39,000 in the last days of 1989 before Japan’s asset bubble popped, dealing a huge blow to the economy and sending the Nikkei plunging over the next two decades.
And despite the upbeat mood in the market, fueled by a strong pick-up in the US economy and improvements domestically, traders have mixed feelings about what to expect in 2014.
While the most bullish say Abe’s big-spending policy blitz is a key confidence driver, some offer a word of caution.
“I expect the Nikkei to rise to the 20,000 level next year,” said Seiichi Suzuki, market analyst at Tokai Tokyo Securities.
“Abenomics has contributed a lot to the market in terms of risk sentiment.”
Major Japanese brokerage house Nomura Securities was more cautious, saying it expects the
Nikkei to see-saw through the year before ending at around 18,000.
“We keep our view that Japanese share prices will remain on an upward trend next year, on the back of an increase in companies’ profits and expectations for Abenomics,” it added.
But despite his much-lauded start since sweeping elections a year ago, analysts warn that his pro-growth program — a mix of big government spending and central bank monetary easing — is not enough without promised economic reforms.
Legislators have passed a bill that paves the way for an opening up of the electricity sector and Abe is pushing through an attempt to strip away protections for the agricultural sector. But it remains to be seen if deeper reforms are in the offing.
And with a sales tax rise planned for April, there are fears that consumer spending will take a dive and stall a budding recovery.
Tokyo has committed about $54 billion in extra spending to blunt the impact of the tax rise, while there is growing speculation the Bank of Japan will step in with another round of monetary easing to prop up growth.
The central bank launched an unprecedented easing campaign this year to help reverse years of deflation, and this in turn helped push down the yen.
But Credit Suisse research analyst Hiromichi Shirakawa said: “If the BoJ opts not to launch more easing… that could end the pattern of a cheaper yen and rising share prices.”
Chinese activists test limit with demands to end communist ‘dictatorship’
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, December 30, 2013 1:20 EST
Their banners have urged an end to China’s “dictatorship”, scorned the regime as “rogue” and dared leaders to disclose their assets as a step against graft — all dangerous calls under Communist Party rule.
The Southern Street Movement, a loose network of laymen-activists in Guangdong province, is testing China’s limits with overtly political demands and ambitions to inspire placard-waving protests nationwide.
The province has a tradition of defiance — a trade hub long exposed to the outside world, it was the birthplace of Sun Yat-sen, the revolutionary who ended millennia of imperial rule in China in 1911.
Yet the dissent-wary government has mounted a growing crackdown on activists this year and a smattering of participants have been detained.
Protesters must overcome their fear, says Xie Wenfei, a 37-year-old from central China whose business card declares him a “Southern Street Movement activist” and proclaims: “If you see injustice and remain silent, you have sided with evil”.
He raised a sign calling for an end to “one-party dictatorship” in the provincial capital Guangzhou in September, earning himself a month in detention.
“Lots of friends called me to say if you pull out this banner then for sure you’ll be arrested,” he said. “But I had to do the right thing. I told them someone has to do this.
“First I wanted to tell my like-minded friends to break through the fear.
“Second I wanted to tell the Communist Party that the way they are doing things cannot last. They have lost their legitimacy in the eyes of the people and the law.”
The movement started in 2011 with monthly protests at a park, said Wang Aizhong, a closely involved 37-year-old businessman, and they organised mini-rallies perhaps dozens of times this year.
Many have called for officials to reveal their assets, for detained activists to be released, and for an end to one-party rule.
“We see the Southern Street Movement as a resistance movement having no organisation, no leader and no formal programme,” Wang said, adding that they wanted to “inspire the rest of the country”.
“There is no one single or set demand, but a lot of the political demands are aimed at one goal, which is to end this dictatorship.”
The movement has mostly attracted the migrant workers who have flocked to Guangdong, a manufacturing powerhouse and China’s most prosperous province.
More people were drawn in following January protests supporting the liberal Guangzhou-based newspaper, Southern Weekly, after its new year editorial was censored.
Guangzhou has long been considered less strictly controlled than much of China.
It has had greater contact with the rest of the world as one of the first Chinese cities opened in recent centuries to foreigners — who knew it as Canton — and Guangdong neighbours the former British colony of Hong Kong.
“There is a perception that protest is just slightly more possible in the south,” said Eva Pils, an associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“More people in the south are willing to take that one further step and actually put up a banner that directly targets ‘one-party dictatorship’, that directly calls for constitutional government, freedom, human rights, democracy.”
But the consequences of activism in China can be severe. In neighbouring Jiangxi province three members of the similarly loose, decentralised New Citizens Movement face up to to five years’ jail for demanding officials disclose their assets.
Such grassroots groups are at the opposite end of the activist spectrum from internationally high-profile figures such as Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, artist Ai Weiwei or blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng.
They are among a number of Chinese looking to have their voices heard, including online. But the groups’ numbers remain tiny and it is impossible to judge their support in a heavily controlled society.
Southern Street member Jia Ping, 24, lost his factory job after posting political messages online, and was detained for 20 days after displaying signs at a train station including one proclaiming “the Communist party does not represent the people”.
“We will definitely keep going, as far as we can,” he said.
In August officials detained respected Guangzhou activist Yang Maodong, known by his pen name Guo Feixiong.
He finished a five-year sentence in 2011 and now faces public order charges carrying a similar maximum penalty.
Authorities see him as a ringleader, said his lawyer Sui Muqing, citing an editorial in the party-run Global Times criticising Guo and another activist, a rare reference to such figures.
“They pose a danger to the current social governance system and long-term social stability,” the paper warned. “Confronting the authorities has become their way of life.”
Migrant Xie said his parents want him to stop his activities.
“Of course they are afraid,” he said. “I just ask them to trust me. I’m over 30 years old and have never done anything wrong.”
Saudi Arabia gives Lebanon $3bn to bolster military
Wave of attacks have fuelled fears that Syria's neighbour could be slipping back towards full-blown sectarian conflict
Lizzy Davies in Rome and agencies in Beirut
The Guardian, Sunday 29 December 2013 18.35 GMT
Lebanon said on Sunday night that it had received its biggest ever infusion of military aid, as Saudi Arabia offered to contribute $3bn to bolster the country's beleaguered army in the face of spiralling violence and fallout from the conflict in neighbouring Syria.
The president, Michel Suleiman, said on national television that he would discuss the purchase of French weapons with his visiting French counterpart, François Hollande, as a result of the donation.
"The king of the brotherly kingdom of Saudi Arabia is offering this generous and appreciated aid of $3bn to the Lebanese army to strengthen its capabilities," Suleiman said in a televised address. "The Saudi grant will allow the Lebanese army to purchase weapons from France."
Lebanon is struggling to cope with the fallout from the civil war in Syria. That conflict has deeply divided Lebanon along sectarian lines, and paralysed the country's ramshackle political system to the point that it has been stuck with a weak and ineffectual caretaker government since April.
A wave of deadly bombings and shootings have fuelled fears that Lebanon, which suffered a brutal 15-year civil war of its own that ended only in 1990, could be slowly slipping back towards full-blown sectarian conflict. The latest violence took place on Friday, when a car bomb killed a senior Sunni politician who had been critical of Syria and its Lebanese ally, the Shia militant group Hezbollah.
Addressing those concerns, Suleiman said in his address that "Lebanon is threatened by sectarian conflict and extremism" and that strengthening the army was a popular demand.
The Syrian conflict is increasingly being seen as a proxy war between the Gulf Arab sponsors of forces opposed to President Bashar al-Assad and the Iran-backed Shia communities broadly aligned with the Damascus regime.
Assad has insisted that countries supporting rebel groups will have to desist in order for his regime to take part in next month's peace conference in Geneva. In a message to Pope Francis relayed by Sana, Syria's state-run news agency, he said a solution to the Syrian conflict would only be achieved without foreign intervention. "The message also highlighted that stopping terrorism requires having the countries which are involved in supporting the armed terrorist groups stop providing any sort of military, logistic or training support, noting that this support was provided by some of Syria's neighbours and other known countries in the Middle East and abroad," Sana reported.
Assad's message came as a delegation from Damascus visited the Vatican at the weekend, meeting the pope's two most senior diplomatic representatives.
The 77-year-old Argentinian pope has pleaded for peace in Syria repeatedly in recent months, most prominently in September, when he sent a letter to Vladimir Putin – in his capacity as host leader of the G20 summit in St Petersburg – implicitly expressing his strong opposition to the air strikes that were at that point being mooted by the Obama administration.
On Christmas Day, he reiterated his call for an end to a conflict which the United Nations estimates has caused the deaths of more than 100,000 people.
December 29, 2013
Funeral Turnout Shows Lebanon’s Ebbing Morale
By ANNE BARNARD
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Gravelly, windswept Martyr’s Square, a vast blank space carved from the heart of Beirut by civil war, teemed on March 14, 2005, with hundreds of thousands of Lebanese, galvanized by the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister, to build a mass movement that would help push the Syrian Army out of Lebanon.
Not so on Sunday, when barely 1,000 people appeared on the square under a metal-gray overcast sky for the funeral of Mohamad B. Chatah, who was killed on Friday the same way Mr. Hariri was, by a car bomb in downtown Beirut that many mourners said was the work of the Syrian government and its Lebanese allies. A former finance minister, Mr. Chatah was a prominent critic of the Syrian government.
Few traces could be seen on Sunday of the optimism of the March 14th movement, or of its broad, nonsectarian appeal. A forlorn handful of March 14th veterans were there; others, they said, stayed home because they were “depressed” and “resigned” after nearly nine years, dozens more unsolved assassinations in Lebanon and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria still in power after pulverizing many neighborhoods to fend off an uprising. The handful appeared to be far outnumbered by young followers of militant Sunni sheikhs, carrying the black flag flown by jihadists in Syria. Some had fought there, and others vowed to join what they saw as a coming sectarian war against the Shiite militia Hezbollah, which is backing Mr. Assad in his fight to retain power.
“Everyone here is afraid of the Shiites,” said Hosni Rahal, a bulky and unemployed young man from the northern city of Tripoli, standing with a group of friends beside a Christmas tree across the square from the towering Mohammad al-Amin mosque. The only reason he had not joined his friends who are fighting in Syria, Mr. Rahal said, was that “if I am going to die in jihad, I want to die fighting in my own country.”
It was a measure of the shrunken hopes of Lebanon’s democracy movement that the loudest expressions of outrage over the death of Mr. Chatah came not from liberals lamenting the murder of one of their most admired figures, but from Sunni clerics who framed the bombing primarily as an attack on their sect. “The Sunnis are being targeted,” one cleric said at the funeral of Mohammed Chaar, 16, one of six other people killed in the same bombing as Mr. Chatah.
More passion was evident at that funeral than in the square, from both democracy activists and from Sunni partisans — a sign of how disillusioned people are with traditional leaders, both March 14th figures and old-school Sunni notables.
At Mr. Chaar’s funeral, held at the Khashoggi mosque in the Qasqas district across town from the square, Lebanon’s grand mufti was harried by an angry crowd and had to be spirited away by security forces. The mufti is despised by some Sunnis, who call him a Hezbollah stooge for failing to condemn Mr. Assad’s crackdown. Another cleric then spoke, insulting Hezbollah as “Hezb al-Shaytan,” the party of the devil — discomfiting some mourners who wanted to keep politics out of the funeral.
After the funerals, Lebanon’s president, Michel Suleiman, announced that Saudi Arabia was donating $3 billion to the Lebanon Army, the largest grant ever to the institution to “fight terrorism.” That, too, played into divisions; the army is one of few national agencies with broad-based support, but is seen as growing closer to Hezbollah. Supporters of the move saw an effort to bolster a national institution; critics saw an act of sectarian patronage by Sunni-led Saudi Arabia, the regional rival of Shiite-led Iran, Hezbollah’s patron.
The protesters of 2005 tried to reach beyond Lebanon’s fractured sect- and clan-based politics to create a movement that teamed some traditional parties — including the Hariri family’s Sunni and pro-Saudi Future Movement — with independents who were eager to build a strong sense of Lebanese citizenship and identity. Popular frustration drew millions of Lebanese — perhaps half the population — into the streets to demand that Syria end its direct control of the country and allow real political freedom. Syria withdrew its troops, and Lebanon elected a March 14th government determined to curtail Hezbollah’s power.
But in the years that followed, dozens of Lebanese politicians and officials were assassinated, almost all of them from what became known as the March 14th coalition, and Hezbollah fought a war with Israel, emerging stronger than ever both politically and militarily. By 2008, Hezbollah controlled the government, and the March 14th coalition had fragmented into competing, largely sectarian fiefdoms.
When mass protest movements swept other Arab countries in 2011, Lebanon was mostly quiet. Many people here said the failure of the March 14th coalition to achieve any systemic change, and the bullying strength of its opponents, were to blame for the apathy. “We’re depressed,” said Fida Hajjeh, who came from Tripoli for Mr. Chatah’s funeral along with the sister-in-law of Wissam al-Hassan, a senior security official who was killed in a bombing last year. Most of Beirut’s intellectuals stayed home on Sunday, she said, because they believed that turning out in protest at the killing “will do nothing.”
A knot of those who did turn out stood in the square near the Christmas tree. Kamal Yazigi, a philosopher and political independent who belongs to the March 14 the coalition’s secretariat, said that while “the idea” of their movement survived, “It is a plane without a pilot.”
The nominal head of the movement is Saad Hariri, Rafik Hariri’s son, but he lives in Paris and rarely visits Lebanon, fearing assassination. The void is filled partly by the militant Sunni clerics that the would-be fighter, Mr. Rahal, said he preferred to Mr. Hariri.
Antoine Courban, professor of American studies at St. Joseph University in Beirut, crossed himself as Mr. Chatah’s coffin emerged. “Sunnis who have been humiliated so many times may be tempted by radical leaders,” he said. “They don’t think of themselves primarily as a religious community. When they start to feel that way, it will be the end of the idea of a pluralistic, secular Lebanon.”
A short distance away, Mr. Rahal’s friends chanted insults about the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah; one unfurled a black flag with religious slogans. Other mourners shushed them, and the jihadist flag was discretely sheathed again.
Thanassis Cambanis contributed reporting.
Government forces ‘regain control’ of DR Congo capital
Latest update : 2013-12-30
Government troops have regained control of several buildings, including the airport and state TV headquarters, in the DR Congo capital Kinshasa after an assault by gunmen Monday, officials said.
"We have total control of the situation,” government spokesman Lambert Mende told Reuters, adding that 40 attackers had been killed by security forces.
In the latest wave of violence to hit the troubled African nation, armed men had earlier taken over the country’s state broadcaster RTNC, reportedly taking several reporters hostage.
Police spokesman Colonel Mwana Mputu said youths had used guns and machetes to attack the broadcaster’s offices.
“They have taken reporters hostage. An operation is under way to dislodge them," he told the AFP news agency.
Witnesses earlier reported heavy gunfire coming from the station’s offices. Shortly after, state radio and television channels went off the air, said Reuters.
Before the station’s television feed was cut, two gunmen appeared on camera to deliver what appeared to be a political message against President Joseph Kabila on behalf of Paul Joseph Mukungubila, a religious leader who ran unsuccessfully for the presidency in 2006.
“Gideon Mukungubila has come to free you from the slavery of the Rwandan,” said the message, according to a Reuters reporter who saw a tape of the transmission. Gideon is the nickname used for Mukungubila by his followers.
'Panic in the city’
Mukungubila, who calls himself ‘The prophet of the Eternal’, has been an outspoken critic of a peace deal signed this month with the Tutsi-led M23 rebel group in eastern Congo, accusing Kabila’s government of bowing to Tutsi interests and pressure from neighbouring Rwanda.
“The attackers presented themselves as supporters of Mukungubila. We are checking because this could be an attempt to fool us,” DR Congo Information Minister Lambert Mende told Reuters.
A local resident told AFP he had seen police and military officers deploy around the RTNC building and the nearby Congolese parliament building.
"There's panic in the city, people are asking what is happening," he said.
Heavy gunfire also broke out at Kinshasa’s international airport at around the same time, a customs official told Reuters.
"Shooting has started here," the official said. "They are shooting everywhere. We are all hiding."
Witnesses also reported shooting at the Tshatshi military camp in the city, close to the Defence Ministry.
Despite the peace-deal with the M23 rebel group which ended an 18-month insurgency, DR Congo’s government is struggling to maintain security with a number of rebel groups still operating in the country.
Last week, at least 40 civilians were killed in a rebel attack on an eastern village by the ADF-NALU rebel group -- a Ugandan opposition group driven out of the country in the mid-2000s but still active in DR Congo.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)
Egypt arrests al-Jazeera journalists
Three journalists detained as government crackdown intensifies following move against Muslim Brotherhood
Louisa Loveluck in Cairo
theguardian.com, Monday 30 December 2013 10.38 GMT
Egypt's security forces have detained a team of journalists working for al-Jazeera English, arresting three men in a dusk raid on an office and apprehending a fourth from his home, on charges of "spreading false news" and holding meetings with the Muslim Brotherhood.
The arrests signal an escalation of the crackdown against voices critical of Egypt's military-backed government, in a week in which the Muslim Brotherhood was formally designated as a terrorist organisation and hundreds of its supporters arrested.
Police arrived at al-Jazeera's temporary work suites in Cairo's Marriott hotel on Sunday night, arresting bureau chief Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and veteran correspondent Peter Greste. A freelance producer was also detained.
Greste, an Australian citizen, previously worked with the BBC, CNN and Reuters and won a Peabody Award in 2011 for his work in Somalia. Fahmy is known for his coverage of Egypt's restive Sinai peninsula, the focal point of a military operation against jihadist groups.
A third employee, Mohamed Fawzy, was arrested at his home at about the same time, a colleague confirmed to the Guardian. The interior ministry has accused the journalists of broadcasting "false news" that "damaged national security'", and holding illegal meetings with the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood was designated as a terrorist organisation on Christmas Day after an attack on a security headquarters left 16 people dead and more than 100 injured. The government has been unable to provide evidence linking the Brotherhood to the attack. Responsibility has instead been claimed by Ansar Bayt el-Maqdis, a North Sinai-based jihadist group responsible for a number of high-profile attacks on security installations near the Palestinian border, as well as on the Egyptian mainland.
The Qatari-owned al-Jazeera network has faced mounting pressure from the Egyptian authorities since former president Mohamed Morsi was deposed in a military takeover on 3 July. Its Egyptian outlet, al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr, is one of the few remaining channels perceived as sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Qatar was a strong ally of the movement and is home to a number of its senior figures who left Egypt in order to escape the military-led authorities' dragnet of arrests.
Although employees of al-Jazeera English, a prominent international broadcaster, had thus far escaped arrest, a number of the network's other employees have been detained, including 25-year-old al-Jazeera Arabic correspondent Abdullah al-Shamy. Family members say the young man has been held in squalid conditions, a fate now faced by thousands of other detainees, mostly Morsi supporters, who have entered Egypt's overcrowded prisons since July.
In 2013, Egypt was among the most prolific jailers of journalists in the world, according to a recent survey by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Although press freedom temporarily increased following the ousting of President Mubarak in 2011, it grew increasingly tenuous during Morsi's year in office.
According to Shaimaa Abulkhair, CPJ's Egypt consultant, press freedom has become even more limited under the country's new rulers.
"Today's arrests have big implications for the country's press freedom," she said. "The authorities are willing to move against any channel that is not seen as supportive of the current government."
On Sunday, the US defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, expressed concern about recent developments in Egypt, using a telephone call to army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to discuss the "balance between security and freedom".
Latin America has a homophobic killings problem
Monday, December 30, 2013 1:43 EST
LIMA, Peru — By all accounts, Joel Molero, an openly gay young man, was enjoying his life to the fullest in Chachapoyas, a sleepy provincial capital in northern Peru.
The 19-year-old high school graduate had a lively social life, sang in a cumbia band — dance music more popular in much of Latin America than salsa — and was making plans to study in Ecuador. He was also gay.
“He was a very warm person. He had lots of friends, most of them young women,” his friend Manuel Quispe, of local gay activist group Chacha Viva, said in an interview. “He was not isolated at all and was happy. He wanted to travel and see the world.”
All that came to a shocking halt on Nov. 22, at the end of a raucous but innocent evening in a karaoke bar.
The details remain murky but Molero’s unrecognizable corpse was discovered in a ditch the following morning, after apparently being targeted because of his sexuality.
His throat had been cut, his fingers, toes and genitals sliced off, and his remains stuffed into a straw mattress and set on fire. Police were only able to identify him by his bracelet.
Although there’s a dearth of comprehensive statistics, Molero appears to have been yet another victim of an epidemic of homophobic violence sweeping Latin America.
The human rights arm of the Washington-based Organization of American States recently launched a database about the trend, with killings in the region often running at several a day.
Yet like most other sources, it may only include a fraction of the real toll. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activists warn that most homophobic murders in Latin America are never officially registered by local police or courts as such.
One example is Brazil. Rio de Janeiro might be famous for its drag queens and “travestis,” gender-bending sex workers, but growing up gay in much of the South American giant is no picnic, says Maria Guilhermina Cunha Salasario, the vice president of the Brazilian Association of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transvestites and Transsexuals.
Her country registers between 300 and 350 homophobic killings a year, she says. Yet Cunha Salasario believes there are likely an additional 500 slayings a year in which the victim’s sexuality is, erroneously, never reported as being a motive for their murder.
The underreporting is often due to disinterest — and even outright hostility — among the police. Sometimes, though, bereaved relatives also choose to avoid reporting a murder as homophobic out of shame.
“In the interior [of Brazil], there is a very entrenched homophobia, which can easily turn violent,” Cunha Salasari says.
Many of the victims are transsexuals, often sex workers. Lesbian murder victims, she adds, tend to be killed by their own families, ashamed of their sexual orientation.
More from GlobalPost: Gay in Belize? Against the law. Still.
According to one report, The Night is Another Country, by LGBT and AIDS campaigners, some 80 percent of transgender activists in Latin America say they’ve been physically attacked.
The violence largely goes unpunished. Sixty transgender murders took place in Colombia between 2005 and 2012 but no perpetrator was brought to justice, the report says. In Guatemala over the same period, just one of 35 similar slayings resulted in a conviction.
Meanwhile, in Peru, a report by Promsex, a group that campaigns on issues of sex and sexuality, details a litany of horrific attacks against the gay community — and police indifference to the violence.
In one typical incident, in Lima, a transsexual who was distributing condoms to sex workers on behalf of Peru’s Health Ministry was attacked with a broken bottle.
She managed to escape and seek help at a local police post — only to be denied protection. Her attackers caught up with her again, cutting her face and body.
Yet the Promsex report also highlights the inadequacy of official statistics on homophobic murder.
It documents just seven such killings in Peru in 2012. But Gio Infante, who heads MHOL, a Lima-based gay rights group demanding justice for Molero, believes the real figure in the Andean nation runs at around 50 per year.
Whatever the precise body count, the epidemic may actually be a backlash against progress made by the gay community in the region, says Graeme Reid, Human Rights Watch’s LGBT director.
He cites the recent advent of gay marriage in Argentina, Uruguay and Mexico City. And in the last two years, Ecuadorean authorities closed down 15 “clinics” that supposedly cured homosexuality, their patients often admitted by their families against their will.
Chile earlier this year also passed an anti-discrimination law, which includes harsher jail terms for hate crimes, after a horrific murder in a Santiago park.
The body of Daniel Zamudio, a shop assistant who wanted to study theater, was found with cigarette burns, a broken leg and swastikas carved into his chest, prompting the swift passing of the bill that had previously been stalled in Chile’s congress for seven years.
And Brazil co-sponsored a groundbreaking 2012 United Nations Human Rights Council resolution that calls for an end to worldwide discrimination on the grounds of sexuality.
“The paradox is that as the LGBT community makes these advances in Latin America, there appears to be higher levels of violence against them,” says Reid.
“It seems to be a backlash and may be due to the greater visibility of LGBT communities. In a sense, the violence is a symptom of the achievements made by the movement.”
Yet overt homophobia remains not just widespread but mainstream in much of the region. Political leaders from both the left and the right still take part in the kind of public gay bashing that’s now unthinkable in the United States.
During Venezuela's presidential elections earlier this year, Nicolas Maduro, the Hugo Chavez disciple who went on to win, taunted his singleton opponent by calling him a “little princess” and stating: “I like women.”
But in Peru, Molero’s brutal killing has left many stunned. Although homophobia is common across Peru — gays were barred entry from most Chachapoyas bars until 2010 — it rarely turned violent in the town.
Yet the shock has not been enough to get Peru’s congress to reverse its decision earlier this year to exclude sexual orientation as a motive in a recent hate crimes law.
Despite many advances, Latin America’s LGBT citizens may still have a long struggle ahead before they are no longer the target of savage violence for simply being themselves.
El Salvador mother and daughter meet 29 years after civil war abduction
Emotional reunion is 389th case of 'disappearance' resolved by tiny charity as wartime abuses remain live political issue
Nina Lakhani in San Salvador
theguardian.com, Sunday 29 December 2013 19.04 GMT
The two women looked at each other for a moment before drawing together in an embrace of joy and sorrow. Around them, a room full of relatives let out a collective gasp, astounded at the resemblance between mother and child, reunited after 29 years.
In 1984, Josefina Flores Osorio had been forced to hand over her two-year-old daughter, Xiomara, for adoption at the height of El Salvador's brutal civil war. Now, she seemed oblivious to the commotion around her as she wept in her daughter's arms. "I feel I've been born again," said Osorio, 52. "I always believed she was alive and I am so grateful to have found her. I've dreamed about this moment for so long."
The emotional reunion marked the 389th case of a "disappeared" child to be successfully resolved by the tiny charity Pro Búsqueda Association for Missing Children since the dirty war ended 21 years ago. Pro Búsqueda was founded by a Spanish Jesuit priest in 1993 to investigate the enforced disappearances of children, stepping in where the state refused. It has located missing children in the US, Spain, Italy, Netherlands, France, Guatemala and Honduras using dogged investigators and, more recently, a DNA database developed with the help of volunteer forensic scientists based at the California department of justice.
The database holds the genetic profiles of 550 families searching for more than 900 disappeared children. Another 103 people abducted as children are looking for their families. Between 10 and 20 new cases come forward each year.
Margarita Zamora, a Pro Búsqueda investigator, said many investigations were still hampered by the military. "The army holds important details – dates, names and places – which would help us solve many more cases as families are often too traumatised to remember. We have been asking them for years to release their files, they always say yes, but these are just words."
The complexity of the searches is illustrated by the story of the Osorio family. Josefina and her three children, aged between two and six in 1984, were handed over to the police by soldiers who found them hiding in a hole during a military offensive in their village. Her husband was killed in the operation. For two weeks a police sergeant threatened to kill them all, until she finally agreed to let him take Xiomara.
The policeman's wife, however, did not want Xiomara and within months, the little girl was given to another couple, who named her Carolina. She grew up, got married, had three children and always assumed the policeman she remembered was her biological father.
In 1997 Josefina Osirio reported Xiomara as missing to Pro Búsqueda. There were few leads over the years as there was no birth certificate and Osorio could not remember the dates of the military operation nor the sergeant's name.
Xiomara, who was living less than 50 miles away from her biological family, had never stopped longing to find out more about her history, but did not hear of Pro Búsqueda until November 2012, when a friend happened upon a promotion event and told staff about a young woman called Carolina looking for her family.
Pro Búsqueda got in touch with Xiomara, took a DNA sample and quickly got a "code hit" with the Osorio family. It took a year of DNA analysis, probing family interviews and a burn scar on Xiomara's foot, to confirm the match.
After meeting her mother, she said. "I have never felt anything like this in my life, it's a mountain of mixed emotions, but finally I can know my family."
Her brother Santos Flores Osorio , who was five when Xiomara disappeared, said: "I thank God for bringing my sister back to us today, but I pray there will one day be justice. Her disappearance left a huge hole in our family for 29 years."
Xiomara was one of hundreds, probably thousands, of rural children snatched from families during military operations against alleged leftwing guerrilla sympathisers. Many were illegally given to wealthy or military families in El Salvador, some grew up on military bases or in orphanages while others were adopted abroad who took them overseas.
But, thanks to an amnesty law passed in 1993, no one has been prosecuted over the abductions – or for the deaths of 80,000 people, the disappearance of 8,000 others and the forced displacement of a million more during the fighting.
The impunity awarded to the country's human rights abusers means that 21 years after the conflict came to an end, El Salvador's civil war remains an open wound – and a live political issue.
Signed into law by the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena), which is closely allied to the military, the amnesty law has endured for two decades even though the Inter-American court of human rights has repeatedly ruled it illegal, and similar laws elsewhere in Latin America have been repealed.
In September, civil war victims still seeking justice were given hope after the supreme court accepted a case challenging the constitutionality of the amnesty law. Two weeks later the archbishop of San Salvador, José Luis Escobar Alas – who has spoken in support of the amnesty law – closed the archdiocese's human rights and legal centre (Tutela Legal), which was founded in 1980 by the then archbishop Oscar Romero and holds about 80% of documented human rights abuses from the war.
The closure prompted national and international condemnation, but there is evidence that those suspected of wartime abuses are prepared to take action to prevent even the possibility of prosecution.
In November three armed men broke into the Pro Búsqueda offices, stole several computers and attempted to burn paper files containing meticulously gathered evidence of hundreds of enforced disappearances.
Cristián Orrego Benavente, director of the forensic programme at the Human Rights Centre at the University of California, Berkeley, who has worked with Pro Búsqueda since 2003, said: "El Salvador is moving into a significant new phase after a long history of total impunity. This provoked the odious and dangerous attempt to destroy them, but its carefully gathered evidence will be presented in Salvadoran courts when the new era of justice begins."
In the USA...United Surveillance America
A Close Look at the Subculture of Snooping. It’s a Lot Worse Than You Think!
By: Dennis S
Sunday, December, 29th, 2013, 8:42 pm
This submission is for those who appreciate the type of computer esoterica that gyrates the synapses of the true brainiacs who bury themselves in computer algorithms, anonymous or hidden networks, random number generators, hash functions, encryption and dozens of other terms that are basically foreign to the general public.
It all started innocently enough. My intention was, and to a degree, still is, to enhance the National Security Agency (NSA) snooping story by adding myriad examples of same by people, government, law enforcement agencies, businesses and an endless stream of furtive and readily accessible intrusions into your life on virtually every level. Gentlemen, start your Politicus engines.
Just go through a traffic light? Smile; you’re on Red Light camera, or speed camera, or license camera or maybe a combo camera. Fleeing? Speeding? Running that red light? They’ll get you! Street video cameras are everywhere. Sometimes you see them, most of the time you’re unaware of their presence. Retail stores are loaded with ‘em. Law enforcement on every level snoops all the time. They’ll affix a tracking device under your car so they know where said vehicle (with you in it) is located at all times.
Law enforcement will park discretely down the street eyeballing your house. They’ll wiretap your phone. They’ll get warrants to search your house. Snitches, known in the trade as CI’s (confidential informants), will wear a wire while mutually quaffing a beer at the corner tavern. A suddenly-scruffy cop will pretend to be a potential killer in case you decide to solicit a hit on the old man. And Officer “hit man” Krupke will also be wearing a wire. You’ll soon end up wearing prison garb.
There’s nothing that hasn’t been “bugged.” Houses, offices, restaurants, social clubs, hotel rooms, cars; wherever humans gather. If you’re under suspicion for something or you might be a big shot, be assured that electronic cockroaches are sure to follow. As for the millions of Americans endangered by NSA access, throw away your computer. Somewhere in its innards resides your name, birthplace and date of birth, spouse and kid’s names, current and former residences, college attendance, employment history, all manner of financial information, SS number, drivers license number, criminal records if applicable, any conversations on social media, mentions in any media for that matter, ancestors, your political leanings and comments (oops), all the bad stuff, some of the good stuff and if you forward emails, you might want to highlight and delete the forwarding history. There’s also the matter of your PlayStation BluRay movies being constantly monitored for pirating, accidental or otherwise.
A conversation with my highly computer literate adult son brings me to the last half of this effort. He’s made important and definitive contributions to its content and sources. Electronic, print and Internet media should dig very deeply into the misconception that encryption means protection of your information. It doesn’t. Retailer Target ring a bill? Let’s start with a disturbing development on the NSA front that is a fairly old story just gaining traction.
A Reuters report claims that NSA made a secret $10 million payment to vendor, RSA to persuade the company to intentionally incorporate a flawed random number generator into widely used security software. Breaking the random number generator would make it all the easier to compromise encryption protections to the benefit of NSA’s surveillance programs. Yikes!
The Reuters piece was a folo of September articles by ProPublica, The Guardian and the NY Times that were worded essentially the same based on revelations from whistle-blower, Edward Snowden. RSA has predictably responded with, “No way!” But wait; all were late to the party. This whole harangue goes back to the late 90′s when NSA requested the power from Congress to backdoor (have access to) all encryptions. The agency was turned down, so they sought their own devices to accomplish essentially the same goal.
If anyone could qualify as an expert in this encryption business, it would arguably be America’s foremost cryptographer and author on the subject, Bruce Schneier. Writing for Wired magazine back in November of ’07, Schneier accused NSA of creating its own ‘backdoor’ to allow for ease of snooping where the snoopee thought that he/she was protected.
Here’s the simple version. In 2007, the government created a new official standard for random number generators. There were four different techniques approved. Three were just dandy for the job at hand, HOWEVER, according to Schneier, the fourth technique was a sneaky attempt by NSA to approve a piece of crap based on elliptic curves that had but one purpose. In the article, Schneier posits that NSA’s strong favorite, “Dual EC DRBG, was little more than a pathway to easy backdoor access.
In 2006, NSA knew that DRBG had been beset with a series of vexing little problems, rendering it open to the access just described. In the Wired article, Schneier was endorsing the conclusions of a couple of A-list cryptographers who demonstrated at the August 2007 CRYPTO conference that these problems could represent a weakness that they described as backdoor. For progressive political comfort, all this came to the fore during the George W. Bush administration. That’s why you haven’t heard much about it.
The Schneier overarching concern was that a cyber-hooligan would solve just one instance of the elliptic-curve problem, publish the results and render application of the random-number generator “completely insecure.”
The snooping flap is an extraordinarily complex subject that reaches far beyond just protecting the country from global and domestic terrorists. Illustrative of this point is the tale of the Silk Road website. Simply put, it was an Internet front for the purchase of illegal drugs, paid for in the global unregulated ‘bitcoin’ virtual currency.
As reported by USA Today, Silk Raod used what was then an underground computer network, “The Onion Router”, more commonly known as “Tor.” Deep Web Tor now becomes available to the average Joe and Jill. Tor is considered one of the gold standards for protecting sites. Onion gained inclusion in the title because Tor is like peeling off layers of an onion where nobody can see beyond their own peeled layer. But the FBI outsmarted the power behind Silk Road’s massive operation, a bright young guy named Ross Ulbricht. Silk Road was the enabler for a $1.2 billion (at the time) worldwide drug enterprise (Ross’ cut was $80 million; it would be more today). He was arrested October 1st. in San Francisco. Agents cracked the case mostly through seizure of the website’s servers.
The case against Ulbricht, who went by the moniker, “Dread Pirate Roberts”, promises high melodrama. According to Forbes, Ulbricht denies he’s Roberts, but wants the estimated 30 plus million dollars (173,000 Bitcoins) recovered by the FBI, returned to him. He claims as virtual currency, Bitcoins are “not subject to seizure” under federal forfeiture laws.
I’ll let my true brainiac son sort this all out.
Snowden’s biggest revelation: We don’t know what power is anymore, nor do we care
By Mark Ames
On December 29, 2013
friend-like-the-nsaIt’s been a busy end of 2013 for the Snowden/NSA story: a pair of conflicting judicial rulings on the legality or illegality of the NSA’s phone surveillance program; an Obama-appointed panel recommending mild NSA reforms, including scaling back the NSA’s phone metadata vacuuming program; a rare and remarkably unrevealing interview with Snowden in the Washington Post, in which Snowden declared “Mission Accomplished”; followed up by a rather sad “Snowden Xmas Message” aired on Britain’s Channel 4; and more sensational revelations about the NSA spying on our closest allies, published last Friday in the New York Times, Guardian and Der Spiegel.
That the US and Britain spy on our allies (and on each other) is not in and of itself a shocking revelation, but this is more important than mere novelty. What matters most about the Snowden leaks is what will come of them, and what we’ll do with them, if anything. There is no guarantee that leaks lead to positive change, nothing inherently transformative about leaking, not without a larger political movement – what Joe Costello would call “a politics” — pushing it. And right now, the only thing close to a politics around leaking is libertarianism, the worst of all political worlds.
Even with a politics, there’s no guarantee leaks end up making things better without a long fight. The last time frightening NSA spying programs (SHAMROCK, MINARET) were leaked in the 1970s, the political reforms that followed turned out to be far worse than what we had before: namely the secret FISA courts. The FISA courts were supposed to provide judicial check on the NSA, but instead turned into a nightmarish secret court that not only rubber stamps nearly every surveillance warrant the NSA asks for, but worse, has been used to restrict Americans’ constitutional rights.
For now, the question is: How can revelations about the out-of-control NSA (and GCHQ) spying program lead to something better? How do we make sense of it given all the bewildering technologies, and how can it be transformed into a politics? How, in other words, can the Snowden files avoid simply adding to the sense of “diffuse malaise” that Adam Curtis recently wrote about?
Looking back at some previous examples where US intelligence was caught spying on our allies and meddling in their politics may offer some insight. Not very encouraging insight — of the four most sensational examples from the past 50 years or so, only once did the revelations lead to real political reform — but insight nonetheless.
One of the first spying-on-our-allies scandals occurred in 1960, when two young NSA analysts around Edward Snowden’s age defected to the Soviet Union. For the rest of the Cold War, these two NSA defectors were considered very important. “The two most important defectors in American history,” is how “Body of Secrets” author James Bamford described them.
Bamford’s first book on the NSA, “Puzzle Palace,” details the story of how the two analysts — William Martin, 29, and Bernon Mitchell, 31 — grew disillusioned and defected to America’s Cold War enemy at the height of the Eisenhower paranoia. Both were socially awkward math whizzes and sanctimonious agnostics who despised church goers. Although they would be falsely smeared as homosexuals in the press, reflecting the military-industrial complex’s obsession with rooting out homosexuals, Martin and Mitchell were heterosexual. Bamford writes that during his security clearance examination, Mitchell disclosed that when he was between 13 and 19 he had engaged in “sexual experimentation” with dogs and chickens. Apparently to the homophobes running the NSA, chickenfuckers were a-ok — the security threat came from gays.
Both Mitchell and Martin joined the NSA in 1958, at a particularly hot moment in the Cold War, when the US routinely flew electronics-loaded aircraft along the edges of Soviet airspace to test Soviet defenses, leading to scores of shoot-downs and dogfights. Dozens of Americans were killed in these “tests,” and some, like Martin and Mitchell, worried that they could be used as a pretext to launch World War Three.
In late 1958, the US launched an even more aggressive program called ELINT sending electronics-loaded US planes deep into Soviet airspace. Two US military planes were shot down over Soviet Armenia. One of the downed planes, whose crew of 17 either were killed or went missing, included electronics specialists monitoring Soviet radar stations. The Soviets publicly accused the US of violating their airspace, which we had, but lied claiming they hadn’t fired on the US plane, fearing if they admitted they had, it could spark American retaliation. The US counter-claimed with its own truth-and-lie: We claimed that the US plane had mistakenly flown into Soviet airspace with no hostile intent, and that the Soviets aggressively targeted and shot down a peaceful plane. And to prove we were right, the US selectively released a recording of the MiG pilots taken by the NSA proving that the MiG pilots targeted and shot down the US plane over Armenia.
The US used that selective recording to “prove” that the Soviets were liars, and the US were poor innocents. It was this lie that eventually prompted the two disillusioned middle-class NSA analysts to defect to the Soviet Union.
In 1959, the two friends, William and Bernon (who insisted on pronouncing his name with a Frenchified “Ber-NON”), were so bothered by the secret and dangerous ELINT spying program that they decided to blow the whistle on it, secretly visiting the Congressional office of Democrat Wayne Hays. But Hays was notoriously thick and mean, and so after promising to follow up on their revelations about ELINT, Hays decided that the two were actually part of a CIA test of Hays’ patriotism, to test if he could keep a secret or not. Rep. Hays kept his secret like a good American patriot. And so Mitchell and Martin’s attempt to blow the whistle on ELINT failed, and their disillusionment became total. They figured the whole country was rotten and crazy and full of god-fearing warmongers, a plausible critique, if only their solution to that problem — the Soviet Union — wasn’t itself so totally corrupt and deluded.
In the summer of 1960, the analysts took a vacation together, traveled to Mexico City, boarded a flight to Havana, and reappeared a couple of months later in Moscow, holding a press conference denouncing the dangerous NSA spying programs and exposing the NSA’s surveillance on America’s closest allies. The Russians granted the two defector-leakers citizenship, and ensured them big public platforms to explain the NSA spying programs and their reasons for leaking.
In their statement, Martin and Mitchell largely focused on calling out America’s hypocrisy:
Since going to work for the National Security Agency in the summer of 1957, we have learned that the United States Government knowingly makes false and deceptive statements both in defending its own actions and in condemning the actions of other nations.
These activities indicate to us that the United States government is as unscrupulous as it has accused the Soviet Government of being.
Martin and Mitchell also revealed for the first time the NSA’s tight relationship with British GCHQ.
When asked by a reporter to name which other friendly countries the NSA regularly spied on, Martin answered,
Italy, Turkey, France, Yugoslavia, the United Arab Republic, Indonesia, Uruguay — that’s enough to give a general picture, I guess.
Bamford writes that Martin and Mitchell stole enough secrets from the NSA’s vaults between their first unreported trip to Cuba in 1959, and their defection to Soviet Russia in 1960, that they all but handed the Soviets the skeleton key to the NSA’s operations. And it led to nothing good for anyone, least of all Martin and Mitchell.
Their rebellion was hurried and removed from politics; and ultimately their disillusionment was a kind of chronic middle-class disillusionment which eventually led them a few years later to try to re-defect back to the USA, without success. Their KGB handlers, being smart and cynical Russian spooks, correctly anticipated that their NSA defectors would quickly become disillusioned with Soviet life, so they scared them out of thoughts of returning to the US by convincing them that the US Supreme Court had sentenced both in abstentia, in a secret ruling, to 20 years hard labor. To prove it, they produced fake copies of a fake judgment. They also planted fake stories in the Soviet press claiming that US spies carrying vials of poison were hunting for the two defectors.
By the 1970s, Martin stopped believing the scare stories and tried several times to return to the US, applying for a new passport, citizenship, a visa, but failed. He moved to Mexico, and died in a Tijuana hospital in 1987. His friend Mitchell died in 2001 in St. Petersburg, reportedly bloated from years on the bottle.
The US NatSec State learned even less. Congress took 13 months to issue its big report on how two NSA analysts were able to defect with so many secrets. The brilliant conclusion: it was all homosexuality’s fault. That sparked an internal NSA gay hunt resulting in dozens of firings of suspected homosexuals. Chickenfuckers, though, were spared.
As for the US allies who were spied on, if they were unhappy about what they’d learned, they didn’t make much noise about it.
The most sensational scandal involving US intelligence spying on and manipulating our allies’ political leaders — and enriching US private contractors — was the “Lockheed Bribery Scandal.” In the 1970s, it was considered the Watergate of Corporate America. And the whole thing was blown open by Senator Frank Church’s other big investigative committee that he ran in the 1970s, the subcommittee on multinational corporations. (Most people have forgotten about that Church Committee on multinational corporate malfeasance, probably because these days we’re only interested in government baddies, not corporate baddies.)
It emerged that Lockheed representatives worked hand-in-hand with the CIA to funnel millions of bribery dollars to manipulate our Western allies’ democracies, ensuring pro-American politicians won, and that Lockheed was granted lucrative contracts. Often this meant empowering the very worst, anti-democratic forces in our allied nations’ politics, particularly in Japan, where CIA-Lockheed bribes were funneled through a fascist war criminal turned Yakuza don, Yoshio Kodama. When the Lockheed-CIA bribe scandal broke, it brought down governments in West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Japan, where the prime minister and several others were arrested and frog-marched, and what remained of Japan’s democratic system nearly collapsed for good.
The scandal really stretched back to 1947, when Yoshio Kodama was in a US military prison, branded a “Class A” war criminal and awaiting his sentence. That’s when the CIA swooped in, freed him, and made Kodama their top intelligence asset in post-war Japan. During the war years, Kodama had run Imperial Japan’s underworld operations in occupied China, and that meant intelligence knowledge and connections that the CIA needed, especially as China fell to Mao’s communists. Over the next few decades, under CIA protection, Yoshio Kodama became Japan’s most powerful Yakuza don, and corporate Japan’s most effective union buster.
Publicly, Kodama portrayed himself as the embodiment of the fiercely anti-American ultranationalist looking to restore Imperial Japan’s glory. Privately, behind the scenes, Kodama was the most powerful broker running the pro-American Liberal Democratic Party, using his money (and the CIA’s and Lockheed’s) to ensure that the ruling LDP was always dominated by pro-American conservatives with a hard-on for Lockheed jets.
In the late 1950s, this now-familiar alliance of interests — American intelligence, and for-profit US military contractors — made sure that Japan elected a pro-American prime minister, Nobusuke Kushio (another ex-war criminal), who in turn made sure that Japan bought 230 of the worst fighter jets in the postwar era: the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, nicknamed by the West Germans “The Widowmaker” for its appalling crash rate.
If that wasn’t shocking enough, the Japanese general who pushed hardest for the F-104 purchase, General Genda, was previously responsible for having planned Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor which killed thousands of Americans. In 1959, the pro-American Gen. Genda was back as Japan’s chief of air staff. Lockheed and the US Air Force top brass invited Gen. Genda for a junket trip to Hawaii, where he test flew the F-104 Starfighters and immediately ordered 230 of them, a quarter of which crashed during routine flights.
Sen. Church’s subcommittee on multinational corporate malfeasance revealed that this power nexus — US intelligence and military contractor profiteers — continued operating through the mid-1970s. Slushed CIA and Lockheed funds were wired through what was then the world’s largest global foreign currency exchange network, Deak-Perera, headed by a former OSS spook, Nicholas Deak— “the James Bond of the world of money” as Time Magazine called him. Back then, due to strict capital controls, it wasn’t so easy to move money around the world as it is today. These days, the NSA tracks financial flows through its surveillance programs and partnerships with banks and online outfits like PayPal.
Back in the early 1970s, when financial flows were heavily restricted, money movements were often less hi-tech, as the Lockheed Bribery Scandal showed. The CIA would deposit half a million in cash into Deak-Perera’s Los Angeles office, a Spanish-born priest with a Japanese passport would withdraw the cash, converted into yen, from Deak-Perera’s Hong Kong office, and stuff it under a basket of oranges that he’d carry aboard a puddle hopper to Tokyo. In Tokyo, the Spanish-born priest would hand the basket of oranges with the cash to a Lockheed rep, who then passed it to Yakuza don/Liberal Democratic Party powerbroker Yoshio Kodama, who used the cash payments to control the ruling party’s politics and ensure pro-American, pro-Lockheed politicians dominated the key ministries. (According to the Church Committee hearings, some of that cash sloshing around made its way back into Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President [CREEP] campaign coffers.)
Perhaps because this operation was so low-tech and so much simpler to grasp, this sort of intelligence-contractor operation against our allies led to one of the rare major political reforms of our time, the 1977 the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the first law in the world criminalizing corporate bribes to foreign officials.
Just as this scandal involving American intelligence, private contractors, technology and spying on our allies was dying out, a newer, far more hi-tech scandal emerged, one that’s never quite been resolved: the infamous INSLAW Affair. It’s a convoluted story that’s been a favorite of conspiracy theorists, so I’ll spare you most of the details. But just to get a sense of how serious the INSLAW Affair was, Watergate hero Elliot Richardson wrote an op-ed in the New York Times calling it “A Hi-Tech Watergate” and Richardson was quoted in the Village Voice describing the INSLAW Affair as “far worse than Watergate.”
The basic facts are these: A former NSA analyst and CIA contractor named Bill Hamilton went private in the 1970s, setting up a small database software firm called INSLAW, which contracted with the Department of Justice to develop a new hi-tech database collection-and-tracking software for law enforcement agencies. The database software program INSLAW developed was called PROMIS, and it turned out to be incredibly effective, and highly adaptable for other uses, namely, intelligence. So good, according to lawsuits and at least one federal judge, that the Reagan Administration essentially stole PROMIS from INSLAW, bankrupted the firm, and hawked its own versions of PROMIS to intelligence and law enforcement agencies both in the US and abroad to allied countries.
Within America, PROMIS was used by the NSA and CIA to track financial transactions to the Soviet bloc, terrorist organizations, and likely for other uses. Abroad, the hawked PROMIS software was reportedly outfitted with a backdoor to allow secret NSA and CIA access, and installed in many of our allies’ intelligence and law enforcement agencies’ systems, so that the NSA could spy on its allies by tapping into their databases. Proceeds from the sales were used to fund off-book operations, or to enrich cronies like the Meese family.
As Elliot Richardson wrote,
The reported sales allegedly had two aims. One was to generate revenue for covert operations not authorized by Congress. The second was to supply foreign intelligence agencies with a software system that would make it easier for U.S. eavesdroppers to read intercepted signals.
As late as 2000, Canada investigated reports that its intelligence had also been breached by the rigged PROMIS program. As the Toronto Star reported.
[T]he probe revolves around stunning claims that computer software used by the Mounties and Canada’s spy service to co-ordinate secret investigations was rigged with a ‘trap door’ to allow American and Israeli agents to eavesdrop.
If this proves true, it would be the biggest ever breach of Canada’s national security.
While Canada already shares a wealth of intelligence information with the U.S. and Israel, there are many elements of Canadian intelligence gathering that the government wouldn’t be anxious to share with allies.
That could include economic intelligence on trading partners, detailed information on the whereabouts of terrorism suspects in Canada or strategic information on the positions Canada intends to take in international relations.
…sources close to the investigation say it revolves around Promis, a software program first developed to assist prosecutors in the United States Department of Justice. The case management software also has application for intelligence agencies keeping track of surveillance and investigation files.”
But unlike with Watergate or the Lockheed Bribery Scandal, the INSLAW Affair would be relegated to the weird margins of the conspiracy theory world. The very nature of hi-tech software, database tracking systems, “back doors” and keystroke programs made the scandal harder to grasp, harder to convert into political reform, or any sort of intelligible narrative. And then there was the fact that the INSLAW Affair broke big in the late 1980s/early 90s, at the end of the Reagan era, when politics had all but died, giving way to markets and screaming on radio or cable news shows. It led to nothing. No reforms, no politics, no change. It survives in the conspiracy fringes as a kind of final humiliation on an authentically disturbing story.
One of the things that complicates the INSLAW story is that it grows out of a transformative period in politics and technology. INSLAW went from a nonprofit outfit serving the Dept of Justice on government grants in the 1970s, to a private contracting software firm serving the Reagan Administration in the early 1980s. INSLAW’s transformation took place as the US military-intelligence complex began its decades-long privatization drive. As journalist Tim Shorrock discovered, 70 percent of today’s intelligence budget flows to private contractors.
Privatization and public-private contracting, did more than funnel taxpayer billions into private hands. It also blurred legal accountability. It’s one of the main problems we’re still dealing with today, and it’s why the current monomaniacal fixation on NSA evils, without a proportionate focus on private sector surveillance, is another dead-end.
The last major spying-on-allies NSA scandal — ECHELON — broke in 2000, the same year that the PROMIS spy scandal broke in Canada. ECHELON, was exposed in Europe as a vast secret surveillance program involving an alliance between the NSA, GCHQ, and their counterparts in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Together these countries wiretapped Western European allies in order to gain commercial advantages for Anglo-American business interests.
But before the ECHELON revelations led to any sort of major political fights, Al Qaeda saved the NSA on 9/11 and ended any talk of accountability. Instead, the NSA and other spy agencies saw tens of billions more pouring into newer, and worse versions of ECHELON and PROMIS, stuffing the coffers of well-connected private contractors like Booz Allen, SAIC and thousands of other profiteers.
And so now here we are, after four decades of change from the reform politics of the Watergate era to the anti-politics of markets, cable news propaganda, and rigged up Twitter fights.
The Snowden leaks are overwhelming us in their complexity and in their scope. So far, though, there is little sign of a new politics coming together as there is a high-pitched Twitter spat over personalities and hero-worshipping.
The Snowden leaks, which began by exposing the vast interlocking private-public Leviathan, has devolved into a pulp sci-fi story about government Big Brother versus heroic martyrs, the Death Star versus Luke Skywalker. And the more this NSA story is simplified into a mid-20tb Century Orwell tale — rather than a complex narrative about the power of technology sweeping over everything from democracy to culture to business to media, a power that makes no distinction between the public and private — the more paralyzed we’ll be.
Meanwhile, the really important power-politics are taking place right in front of us, but we don’t seem to give a damn. For example, what the hell were those tech heads from Apple, Google, Facebook and other tech giants doing in the White House the day before Obama’s NSA report was released?
No one seemed to think anything was weird about that picture, the picture of corporate power nakedly dictating to a democratically-elected president on the eve of a report that directly concerns those tech titans’ bottom lines. We were too busy cheering on Twitter when Mark Pincus — the social gaming guy who once admitted “I did every horrible thing in the book just to get revenues” — ineffectually sass-mouthed the President over pardoning Edward Snowden.
Such a naked power-play at such a sensitive time recalls Obama’s shameful 2009 meeting with the heads of the big banks, just as he was about to unveil the rigged “stress tests” that saved the financial industry’s power and their bailout trillions. Or the famous meeting Boris Yeltsin held with Russia’s seven bankers in 1997, just before they tanked the entire economy and ran off with the loot.
This is supposed to be a republic. The contract says power resides in the people. But if the Snowden leaks are teaching us one thing, it’s that we don’t even know what power is anymore nor do we care.
Republicans Go Mad As Pope Francis and President Obama Deliver The Same Economic Message
Sunday, December, 29th, 2013, 4:54 pm
Charity, as found in Christian theology, was described by Thomas Aquinas as “that which unites us to god” and he considered it “the most excellent of the virtues” explaining “the habit of charity extends not only to the love of God, but also to the love of our neighbor.” The concept of charity including love of neighbor is anathema to evangelical Christians, and merely mentioning it has created enmity between conservative Christians and Christ’s representative on Earth Pope Francis. Over the past couple of months there is not much the new Pope has said that has not rankled conservatives, evangelical Christians, and even Republican politicians who are self-avowed Catholics. Maybe it is because Americanized Christians have drifted so far-afield from their religion’s namesake and his teachings, or maybe it is hatred for humanity endemic to evangelical Christians, but every utterance from the new Pontiff has elicited varying degrees of condemnation and indignation.
The Pope’s outreach to atheists predictably drove evangelicals mad, and Catholic clergy were shocked he stressed they should devote their time and energy to helping the poor instead of fixating on gays and torturing women for being women. However, what elicited the greatest response from Republicans was his criticism of their religious devotion to “trickle down” economics that, for thirty years, has sent the lion’s share of the nation’s wealth to the richest one-percent of income earners and left the rest of the population struggling to stay out of poverty or wondering where their families’ next meal will come from.
The Republicans’ spokesman, Rush Limbaugh, immediately labeled the Pope a Marxist and all but condemned him to Hell for having the audacity to question America’s economic system that is so tilted toward satisfying the greed of the rich and their corporations. Attention whore Sarah Palin expressed concern that the Pope’s remarks about America’s deification of wealth and greed “sounded kinda’ liberal,” but then again the likes of Palin would assail Jesus Christ for sounding liberal if he returned and preached to help the poor. However, after digesting the Pope’s remarks decrying an economic system that took from the poor to enrich the already wealthy, Republican legislators, especially Catholic Republicans, felt they had to weigh in and give their assessment of a Pope who dared utter an unkind word about their Holy Grail; trickle-down economics.
Catholic Republican lawmakers appear worried that the Pope’s condemnation of their economic agenda upsets their relationship with the church and its support for the party. What is interesting about Republicans’ comments on the Pope’s advocacy for the poor and condemning income inequality is their phony praise for the Pope while asserting he cannot comprehend trickle down’s blessings that helped the poor. The consensus among conservatives is that the Pope’s criticism of unrestrained free market capitalism and “trickle-down” economics are borne of naïveté and unsupported by the facts that are in-and-of-themselves laughable.
The Republican Party’s face of compassion, advocate for selfishness and greed, and a Catholic, Paul Ryan, said the Pope just does not understand free market capitalism and trickle-down economics enough to “fully appreciate its benefits” for America’s poor. Ryan said, “The guy is from Argentina, they haven’t had real capitalism in Argentina, they have crony capitalism in Argentina. They don’t have a true free enterprise system.” Ryan also said he liked the Pope’s comments and welcomes the debate about the thirty year experiment of giving the nation’s riches to the wealthy and watching the poor and middle class wait for the “trickle-down” effect to begin. He said, “What I love about the pope is he is triggering the exact kind of dialogue we ought to be having.” However, Americans have been having this exact kind of dialogue for three decades and the results are the same today as they were thirty years ago. As the Pope said, trickle-down’s “promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefitting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger nothing ever comes out for the poor.”
Fifty million Americans are living in dire poverty, the middle class is vanishing into near poverty, and income inequality destroying this nation has sent over 95% of economic recovery gains to the richest 1% of income earners. The debate is over, and so are conservatives’ contentions that the Pope’s comprehension of “unrestrained free market capitalism and trickle-down economics are borne of naïveté and unsupported by the facts.” Still, it did not stop Republicans from condemning the Pope’s criticism of unrestrained free market capitalism at the same time they welcomed his concern for the poor.
Senator John McCain said, “His economic perspective I’m not particularly enamored with, but his advocacy for the poor, his lifestyle example, his more modern outlook on social issues — I’ve been very impressed.” Republican Peter King, a Catholic said he found the Pope’s reference to trickle-down economics demeaning and off-putting. “I genuinely believe … supply-side economics does more to help people come out of poverty, move up in the world. The guidance I’d take from this is, when I support conservative economics, I should do it in a way that helps the most people.” Republican Senator Pat Toomey suggested the Pope’s new admirers drew the wrong conclusions from his remarks about Republicans’ economic agenda; “He’s entitled to his opinion, but I think we should look carefully at what he’s saying. It’s easy to draw I think what could be mistaken, superficial conclusions from some of the things that he said. I think he’s a wonderful leader for the church.”
What the Pope said cannot be misinterpreted. Any American who is not filthy rich, or a Republican promoting “trickle-down” economics, understands that Republicans tried their superficial economic scam and after thirty years they understand that regardless the wealth flowing up to the richest 1%, nothing has, or will, ever trickle down to the rest of the population. It does not take the Pope, or President Obama for that matter, to tell 98% of the population that Republicans’ economic agenda did not create a nation devastated by income inequality solely because trickle-down economics favors the richest Americans. The people have witnessed Republicans’ regard for the population in the past two months that cut food stamps, sent 1.3 million Americans into poverty by not extending unemployment benefits, and kept 99.6% of their precious sequester cuts in place for nine more years to save the richest Americans from tax loophole reforms to keep the wealth flowing to the top.
The only reason the entire Republican Party has refrained from openly criticizing the Pope as a Marxist, waging class war on the rich, or inciting the “politics of division” like they have President Obama is because his message rings true with the masses and his popularity is off the charts. Make no mistake, if the Pope’s message was not so popular, or did not resonate with the majority of Americans, Republicans would treat him with the same disdain and hatred they reserve for President Obama. What is really curious is that both men are preaching the same economic message and it leads one to wonder; if the Pope was Black would he be given the tepid deference Republicans have afforded him thus far?
Right-wing biblical illiterates would be shocked by Jesus’ teachings …if they ever picked up a Bible
By CJ Werleman, Alternet
Sunday, December 29, 2013 13:02 EST
Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly defended the Republican Party’s spending cuts for SNAP by effectively declaring Jesus would not support food stamps for the poor because most them are drug addicts. If his insensitive remark is inconsistent with Scripture, which it is, then the question becomes why do talking heads on the right get away with proclaiming what Jesus would or wouldn’t support?
The answer is simple: Conservatives have not read the Bible.
The Right has successfully rebranded the brown-skinned liberal Jew, who gave away free healthcare and was pro-redistributing wealth, into a white-skinned, trickledown, union-busting conservative, for the very fact that an overwhelming number of Americans are astonishingly illiterate when it comes to understanding the Bible. On hot-button social issues, from same-sex marriage to abortion, biblical passages are invoked without any real understanding of the context or true meaning. It’s surprising how little Christians know of what is still the most popular book to ever grace the American continent.
More than 95 percent of U.S. households own at least one copy of the Bible. So how much do Americans know of the book that one-third of the country believes to be literally true? Apparently, very little, according to data from the Barna Research group. Surveys show that 60 percent can’t name more than five of the Ten Commandments; 12 percent of adults think Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife; and nearly 50 percent of high school seniors think Sodom and Gomorrah were a married couple. A Gallup poll shows 50 percent of Americans can’t name the first book of the Bible, while roughly 82 percent believe “God helps those who help themselves” is a biblical verse.
So, if Americans get an F in the basic fundamentals of the Bible, what hope do they have in knowing what Jesus would say about labor unions, taxes on the rich, universal healthcare, and food stamps? It becomes easy to spread a lie when no one knows what the truth is.
The truth, whether Republicans like it or not, is not only that Jesus a meek and mild liberal Jew who spoke softly in parables and metaphors, but conservatives were the ones who had him killed. American conservatives, however, have morphed Jesus into a muscular masculine warrior, in much the same way the Nazis did, as a means of combating what they see as the modernization of society.
Author Thom Hartmann writes, “A significant impetus behind the assault on women and modernity was the feeling that women had encroached upon traditional male spheres like the workplace and colleges. Furthermore, women’s leadership in the churches had harmed Christianity by creating an effeminate clergy and a weak sense of self. All of this was associated with liberalism, feminism, women, and modernity.”
It’s almost absurd to speculate what Jesus’ positions would be on any single issue, given we know so little about who Jesus was. Knowing the New Testament is not simply a matter of reading the Bible cover to cover, or memorizing a handful of verses. Knowing the Bible requires a scholarly contextual understanding of authorship, history and interpretation.
For instance, when Republicans were justifying their cuts to the food stamp program, they quoted 2 Thessalonians: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” One poll showed that more than 90 percent of Christians believe this New Testament quote is attributed to Jesus. It’s not. This was taken from a letter written by Paul to his church in Thessalonica. Paul wrote to this specific congregation to remind them that if they didn’t help build the church in Thessalonica, they wouldn’t be paid. The letter also happens to be a fraud. Surprise! Biblical scholars agree it’s a forgery written by someone pretending to be Paul.
What often comes as a surprise to your average Sunday wine-and-cracker Christian is the New Testament did not fall from the sky the day Jesus’ ghost is said to have ascended to Heaven. The New Testament is a collection of writings, 27 in total, of which 12 are credited to the authorship of Paul, five to the Gospels (whomever wrote Luke also wrote Acts), and the balance remain open for debate i.e. authorship unknown. Jesus himself wrote not a single word of the New Testament. Not a single poem, much less an op-ed article on why, upon reflection, killing your daughter for backchat is probably not sound parenting.
The best argument against a historical Jesus is the fact that none of his disciples left us with a single record or document regarding Jesus or his teachings. So, who were the gospel writers? The short answer is we don’t know. What we do know is that not only had none of them met Jesus, but also they never met the people who had allegedly met Jesus. All we have is a bunch of campfire stories from people who were born generations after Jesus’ supposed crucifixion. In other words, numerous unidentified authors, each with his own theological and ideological motives for writing what they wrote. Thus we have not a single independently verifiable eyewitness account of Jesus—but this doesn’t stop Republicans from speaking on his behalf.
What we do know about Jesus, at least according to the respective gospels, is that Jesus’ sentiments closely echoed the social and economic policies of the political left. The Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount read like the mission statement of the ACLU: “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is kingdom of heaven,” “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” and “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Jesus also said, “Judge not he who shall not be judged,” and “Sell what you have and give it to the poor.”
So, when Republicans accuse Obama of being a brown-skinned socialist who wants to redistribute the wealth, they’re thinking of Jesus. Stephen Colbert joked, “Jesus was always flapping his gums about the poor but never once did he call for a tax cut for the wealthiest 2 percent of Romans.”
Biblical illiteracy is what has allowed the Republican Party to get away with shaping Jesus into their image. That’s why politicians on the right can get away with saying the Lord commands that our healthcare, prisons, schools, retirement, transport, and all the rest should be run by corporations for profit. Ironically, the Republican Jesus was actually a devout atheist—Ayn Rand—who called the Christian religion “monstrous.” Rand advocated selfishness over charity, and she divided the world into makers versus takers. She also stated that followers of her philosophy had to chose between Jesus and her teachings. When the Christian Right believes it’s channeling Jesus when they say it’s immoral for government to tax billionaires to help pay for healthcare, education and the poor, they’re actually channeling Ayn Rand. When Bill O’Reilly claims the poor are immoral and lazy, that’s not Jesus, it’s Ayn Rand.
The price this country has paid for biblical illiteracy is measured by how far we’ve moved toward Ayn Rand’s utopia. In the past three decades, we’ve slashed taxes on corporations and the wealthy, destroyed labor unions, deregulated financial markets, eroded public safety nets, and committed to one globalist corporate free-trade agreement after another. Rand would be smiling down from the heaven she didn’t believe in.
With the far-right, Republican-appointed majority on the Supreme Court ruling in favor of the Koch brothers’ Citizens United, the flow of billions of dollars from anonymous donors to the most reliable voting bloc of the Republican Party—the Christian Right—will continue to perpetuate the biblically incompatible, anti-government, pro-deregulation-of-business, anti-healthcare-for-all, Tea Party American version of Christianity.
NBC Celebrates Christmas With Some Gay-Bashing by Evangelist Franklin Graham
By Heather December 29, 2013 9:40 pm
NBC must be worried about losing viewers to Huckabee's audience over at Fox.
Nothing brings in the holidays like allowing the homophobic bigots some air time to attack the new pope right after Christmas -- but that's exactly what the viewers were treated to on this Sunday's Meet the Press.
It seems evangelist Franklin Graham is none too happy that Pope Francis decided to make nice with the gay community during his Christmas Eve midnight Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, and was more than willing to let NBC's Harry Smith know about it when asked.
SMITH: Graham's call to serve the less fortunate is something he shares with Pope Francis. and he applauds the mew pope, but to a point. He was asked about gays in the church and he said, “Who am i to judge?” Would there ever be a shift for you on that issue?
GRAHAM: Well, god would have to shift, and god doesn't. God's word is the same yesterday, today and a million years from now, and it's a sin. But to wink at sin, and tell somebody it's okay, when I know the consequences of what will happen one day when they have to stand before god. So I want to warn people, and I think the pope is right when he says he is not the judge. He is not the judge. God is the judge.
As John Aravosis at Americablog pointed out, that's not exactly true when it comes to the teachings of the Southern Baptist Church:
American evangelist Billy Graham’s son Franklin is hopping mad about the homos this holiday season.
You see, Franklin is upset that the Pope might be giving the-gay too much of a pass, so Graham decided Christmas was the time to remind people that hate is a family value, at least in evangelical-land. [...]
Graham added that he’s upset with society, and the Pope, changing their views on the-gay. “God would have to shift — and God doesn’t,” Graham said. “God’s word is the same, yesterday and today and a million years from now.”
What a bunch of utter lies. God’s word is the same, always? Actually, God was for slavery up until the 1950s. Now he’s not. How does Graham reconcile that one away? Did God change his mind on whether blacks should be slaves, or was God simply wrong on the slavery thing from the beginning? And did NBC’s Meet the Press bother even asking Franklin Graham about this obvious contradiction? No.
↓ Story continues below ↓
Let’s continue on this track about God never changing his mind. Franklin’s dad, Billy, is a Southern Baptist minister. Let me remind you that it was only 1995 that the Southern Baptist church renounced slavery – 1995. In other words, Franky’s dad’s God changed his mind on slavery in 1995.
But putting aside the Baptists’ late-found embrace of desegregation, that means – if we’re being charitable here – that once upon a time Franklin Graham’s buddies in the Southern Baptist Convention spoke for God and got it wrong.
In other words, God’s words were not “the same , yesterday and today and a million years from now.” Either God changed his mind, or Franklin Graham’s buddies got it wrong.
Either way, there’s no reason to pay any heed to anything Franklin Graham has to say, lest the Southern Baptists change their mind yet again on the inviolable word of God.
It's too bad NBC "news" didn't get that same memo.
12/30/2013 03:21 PM
Interview With Pussy Riot Member: 'I Want Justice'
Interview Conducted By Matthias Schepp
Pussy Riot activist Nadezhda Tolokonnikova talks about her plans following her release from prison, what she has in common with former tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and her five-year-old daughter's drawings.
Despite the short nights since her release, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova seemed rested and combative when she sat down for a first lengthy interview with SPIEGEL last Friday. The conversation took place in a car, on the trip from Vnukovo International Airport into downtown Moscow. Her husband, Pyotr Verzilov, was sitting next to her. Tolokonnikova, 24, her fingernails painted a bright red, was in good spirits. Before long, she began talking about the "poor conditions in our prisons and our country as a whole."
She said that she bears no hatred against Russian President Pig Putin, but that she is determined to change the system he has created. Then the Pussy Riot activist began singing a few lines from a song she had written while in prison, in which she pokes fun at Putin's tendency to appear in photos that highlight the macho side of his personality.
"You're catching a fish, but I want rebellion," she sang. Before attending a press conference at the studio of opposition TV broadcaster Dozhd, she went to see her five-year-old daughter Gera, who had been living with Tolokonnikova's in-laws since her arrest.
SPIEGEL: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, how do you feel after your return from prison in Siberia?
Tolokonnikova: It isn't easy to return to reality after being disconnected from it for two years. And to be honest, I feel a burden of responsibility to those who are still in prison, as well as those who have supported Pussy Riot and me in this difficult situation. Since I was released from prison on Monday of last week, I've only been able to sleep two or three hours a night. Now is the time to given something back to those who believed in me. Perhaps I'll make mistakes in the process. I think I'll need help along this path from people who think in political terms and aren't indifferent to everything.
SPIEGEL: What was everyday life like when you were in prison?
Tolokonnikova: I spent most of the time at a penal colony in Mordovia. This is what my day was like there: Wake up at 5:45 a.m., 12 minutes of early-morning exercise, followed by breakfast and forced labor as a seamstress. Being allowed to go to the bathroom or smoke a cigarette depended on the guards' mood. Lunch was greasy and of poor quality. The workday ended at 7 p.m., when there was roll call in the prison yard. After that, we were sometimes required to shovel snow or do other cleanup work. Then we waited in line to wash up a little, and finally we went to bed.
SPIEGEL: Were you able to read books?
Tolokonnikova: There was almost no time for that. My intellectual exercises took place at the sewing machine.
SPIEGEL: Were you treated decently while in custody?
Tolokonnikova: No. It was terrible. They tried everything to break me and silence me. The collective punishments were the worst, almost unbearable. Because of a small gesture, or when I asked the camp management to observe the law, 100 people were assigned to a punishment unit, where beatings were customary. I was treated better than others, simply because there was so much public attention. In my case, they did adhere to the eight-hour workday required by law. The other women were often forced to slave away for up to 16 hours a day.
SPIEGEL: How could the Russian penal system be reformed?
Tolokonnikova: I'm not claiming that everything I say here is the ultimate truth. But this is what would be needed: more exercise, a broader selection of work activities to reflect the talents and propensities of prisoners, and decent pay, so that prisoners can occasionally buy something without outside support. I was paid all of 25 rubles a month for sewing uniforms day in and day out. In euros, that's the equivalent of 60 cents ($0.82). I would have been in bad shape if I hadn't received food packages. It would also be very important to prevent prisoners from harassing their fellow prisoners. And I also think educational activities are important. For example, why shouldn't prisons feature the occasional guest performance by a theater group?
SPIEGEL: Because the Russian penal system is geared toward punishment and revenge, rather than correction.
Tolokonnikova: To change that, my fellow activist Maria Alyokhina and I are in the process of founding a human rights organization for prisoners. We call it "Zone of Law," because in Russia penal colonies are commonly referred to as zones, and because we want laws and human rights to be observed there. The bureaucrats who are responsible for our penal system should be guided by humanism and not the principle of the lash. I was so engaged with all of this that I even saw these new, humane prisons in my dreams. I also dreamt about finally meeting the leftist Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. He is a great role model for me.
SPIEGEL: Do you already have concrete plans, or have you thought about new campaigns?
Tolokonnikova: There was certainly enough time for that in prison. We will soon focus our performances on the rights of prisoners and reforming the penal camp system.
SPIEGEL: How did you keep yourself going during your imprisonment?
Tolokonnikova: By sticking to my principles, and with support from the outside and my faith.
SPIEGEL: Is it true that you asked your father to bring you an icon when you were in prison, and that he did so, as a pro-Kremlin tabloid newspaper wrote?
Tolokonnikova: Yes, an image of the Virgin Mary. However, the frame had to remain outside, because it was made of glass, and it was felt that I could have tried to commit suicide or attack others with broken glass. My grandmother gave me the frame after I was released, and on Thursday, before my flight to Moscow, I put the image back into the frame.
SPIEGEL: So you found comfort in an icon during your imprisonment?
Tolokonnikova: It was important to me, because my father and I have always maintained a strong tradition in our family. Whenever we went to church together, we bought an icon that we particularly liked. Over time, we accumulated quite a collection of icons at home. That's where my intellectual roots lie, if you will.
SPIEGEL: And you, of all people, initiated an act of political protest in the country's most important church. Would you do it again today?
Tolokonnikova: No, but that doesn't mean that I wish to distance myself from the performance. At the time, I was determined to do something against the alliance between the Kremlin and the church, and in our opinion the Cathedral of Christ the Savior seemed to be the best place for that.
SPIEGEL: Can you understand that Orthodox Christians felt insulted when you berated Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Orthodox Church, as a "bitch?"
Tolokonnikova: Of course I understand that. But don't forget the role of government propaganda in this whole thing. There was never any mention of the political core of our performance in the Kremlin media. Our performance was simply portrayed as an act against the religion. But it wasn't.
SPIEGEL: Do you believe in God?
Tolokonnikova: I believe in fate. And in the depths of my soul, I am an Orthodox Christian. I think the New Testament is especially important. What Jesus and his disciples preached and did was a great thing.
SPIEGEL: As a result of your sentence to two years in a penal colony, you became a global icon of freedom and the struggle against the authoritarian Putin system, but you also became a sex symbol. It's a role that you probably don't like, as the leader of a feminist punk band.
Tolokonnikova: Well, if I am a sex symbol, it's certainly not in the classic sense. I'm opposed to the traditional image of a woman's role. But if someone finds our Spartan and combative performances sexy, like the one in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, that's just the way it is. No one can claim that our protest in the church coincides with the classic image of women.
SPIEGEL: You make a point of looking good. Even in the Plexiglas cage in the courtroom, you were always wearing makeup.
Tolokonnikova: So? Men should also pay attention to their appearance and occasionally use cosmetics. I support equality. Everyone should feel free to live out the parts of their personality that correspond to the classic male or female image.
SPIEGEL: How do you feel about the Femen groups, which express their political protest by going topless?
Tolokonnikova: I admire these women for the tenacity and regularity with which they conduct their protests. But performing half-naked wouldn't be my thing.
SPIEGEL: Is the former oil tycoon and oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky right when he says that, after Pig Putin released him and granted an amnesty for Pussy Riot, the government has become "a little more human?"
Tolokonnikova: There is no thaw. That's the expression we always used in the Soviet Union to describe a liberalization policy initiated from above. The government was simply forced to react to pressure from below, and to pressure from society. This is the result of the colossal and daily efforts of those who campaign for civil and human rights in Russia. However, I'm afraid that there will be new acts of repression after the Winter Olympics in Sochi. The Games are incredibly important to Putin, and he was trying to ease tensions a little. If foreign leaders now travel to Sochi, they will be legitimizing Putin's policies. They should boycott his games.
SPIEGEL: Khodorkovsky wrote an open letter in which he somewhat condescendingly addressed you as girls. How you feel about him and his plans to go to Switzerland?
Tolokonnikova: Our paths in life are very different. We have only one thing in common: our experience in the camps. I hope that, in my case and that of my fellow Pussy Riot activists, it results in our devoting all of our energy to campaigning for the release of innocent people, the improvement of prison conditions and a more democratic political system in Russia. If Khodorkovsky wants to support our projects, he should do so. But we will certainly not ask him or others for financial assistance. Of course, he was imprisoned for a longer time and under more severe conditions than I was. Perhaps Mikhail Khodorkovsky wouldn't be the worst president for our country.
SPIEGEL: Are you grateful to the Pig for granting an amnesty for Pussy Riot?
Tolokonnikova: I'm grateful to those who supported us month after month, in Russia and abroad. I owe my release to the people, and not to our political leadership. That's why we must continue to apply pressure.
SPIEGEL: But the overwhelming majority of the Russian people rejected your performance in the church and approved of your punishment.
Tolokonnikova: Yes, under the influence of government propaganda. I was allowed once to travel from the camp to the provincial capital, Saransk, because I had to submit my petition for early release there. I was able to watch television briefly for the first time. And what did I see on the news? A minute and a half on the civil war in Syria and the many victims there, and then 20 minutes about Putin in Siberia and how he caught a big pike. That's just crazy.
SPIEGEL: It seems to us, though, that notwithstanding government propaganda against Pussy Riot, you aren't particularly popular.
Tolokonnikova: I was dealing with precisely that majority of the population in the camp. But when I explained our acts of protest to the women there, they were quickly on our side. People in Russia can distinguish between truth and lies. Besides, modern art has always evoked negative reactions. After all, we're not a $100 bill that everyone likes. On the contrary, the task of the modern artist is to provoke and divide society.
SPIEGEL: Letters that you received in prison from your fellow activist Maria Alyokhina, who was released, suggest that Pussy Riot would have no objection to the commercial use of your brand. Do you want to turn your fame into cash?
Tolokonnikova: No. We once thought about making money to help non-governmental organizations that, for example, want to promote feminism and environmental protection in Russia. We were in pretrial detention with a number of female entrepreneurs, and they urged us to do it. But we quickly turned our backs on such ideas.
SPIEGEL: Will you make appearances abroad?
Tolokonnikova: Of course. Not in concerts, but in the form of lectures on the Russian penal system.
SPIEGEL: What's the first thing you'll do on this Friday evening, when you see your five-year-old daughter Gera?
Tolokonnikova: Quietly draw cats and rabbits together.
SPIEGEL: How did you stay in touch with your daughter while in prison?
Tolokonnikova: We were allowed to talk to each other on the phone once a week, and sometimes twice. And Gera was able to visit me once every three months. She would bring me drawings during those visits. Once, she even drew a plan to help me escape from the camp. An escape plan.
SPIEGEL: How did you explain to your daughter the fact that you were in prison?
Tolokonnikova: She knew early on about what I do. She saw our music clips, of course, only the ones without foul language. I explained to her early on what elections are, and she knew exactly who Pig V. Putin is. I once jokingly told her that the Pig would definitely come to our house on March 4, the date of the 2012 presidential election. It's also Gera's birthday. She was so scared that she crawled under the table.
SPIEGEL: Do you feel guilty that you and your husband have neglected your daughter, because of your political protests?
Tolokonnikova: A man would never be asked that sort of question.
SPIEGEL: For instance, you took Gera along to demonstrations, as a protective shield, so to speak. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung even compared you to members of the Red Army Faction, a German terrorist organization, who neglected their children.
Tolokonnikova: Those kinds of comments stem from a deeply paternalistic viewpoint. Society is still trying to reduce women to the confines of their private lives, to husband and children, home and hearth. Every woman with a career has to make sacrifices when it comes to her children. It's no different with me, as a political activist, than with businesswomen, of which there are thankfully more and more in Russia. Or a female cabinet minister. And besides, we are fighting for changes so that our children will live in a better Russia one day.
SPIEGEL: In letters to your fellow activist Maria Alyokhina, you express the suspicion that the third Pussy Riot activist, Yekaterina Samutsevich, cooperated with the government so that they would release her on probation. Will you meet with Yekaterina now, or are you hopelessly estranged?
Tolokonnikova: We will see each other soon. And I now believe that she was released because there was too much pressure on the Kremlin.
SPIEGEL: What do you hope to achieve, now that you are free?
Tolokonnikova: Justice, truth and beauty.
SPIEGEL: Would you say that life in the camp changed you?
Tolokonnikova: I understand Russia much better now, simply because when I was there I was interacting with women from social groups that I would never have encountered before. That's very important for a political activist like me. Besides, I gained an inner peace, the serenity of a prisoner, so to speak.
SPIEGEL: Ms. Tolokonnikova, thank you for this interview.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
PIG PUTIN'S RUSSIA ...
The Pig orders security lockdown in Volgograd after second suicide bomb
Russian city under tight security after suicide bombing on trolleybus leaves 15 dead, one day after 18 people were killed at train station
Leonid Ragozin in Moscow
The Guardian, Tuesday 31 December 2013
A second suicide bombing in as many days in the Russian city of Volgograd has killed at least 15 people, injured dozens more and shredded Kremlin claims to have security under control in a region that will host the winter Olympics in less than six weeks.
President Pig Putin ordered a security clampdown in Volgograd and across the country after the bombing of a crowded trolleybus, which came less than 24 hours after 18 people were killed in a suicide attack at the city's main railway station.
The latest blast ripped the rush-hour trolleybus apart, leaving behind a grotesque tangle of metal and glass. At least 40 people were injured, including a one-year-old child who was in critical condition. The explosion occurred as the trolleybus approached a stop near the hospital where many casualties from the railway station attack were taken on Sunday.
Vladimir Markin, the spokesman for Russia's main investigative agency, said Monday's explosion involved a bomb similar to the one used in Sunday's attack at the city's main railway station.
"That confirms the investigators' version that the two terror attacks were linked," Markin said in a statement. "They could have been prepared in one place."
For the Russian authorities, the attacks represent the nightmare scenario of an orchestrated campaign of terror across a region too big to effectively secure before the biggest international event on Russian soil since the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The Chechen jihadist leader Doku Umarov warned in a video posted in July that his group would use "maximum force" to stop the Games. Sporadic attacks have hit home since, but nothing on the scale of this latest assault. The head of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, wrote to Putin to express condolences and "our confidence in the Russian authorities to deliver safe and secure Games in Sochi".
"I am certain that everything will be done to ensure the security of the athletes and all the participants of the Olympic Games," he wrote. "The Olympic Games are about bringing people from all backgrounds and beliefs together to overcome our differences in a peaceful way. The many declarations of support and solidarity from the international community make me confident that this message of tolerance will also be delivered by the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi."
The White House sharply condemned the attacks and offered security assistance to the Kremlin as it considers whether to take additional steps to safeguard the Games.
"The US government has offered our full support to the Russian government in security preparations for the Sochi Olympic Games, and we would welcome the opportunity for closer co-operation for the safety of the athletes, spectators and other participants," Caitlin Hayden, the chief spokeswoman for the US national security council, said.
At the Pentagon, Army Colonel Steve Warren said he was "not aware of any requests for assistance from either the Russians or the Olympic Committee." He said the US military has "a long history of working with national organizing committees to assist with Olympic security whenever it's requested," though such a collaboration appears highly unlikely given current mutual mistrust.
Police believe Sunday's attack was perpetrated by a male suicide bomber, possibly with the aid of an accomplice. Russian media reported that a doctor, Pavel Pechenkin, was a prime suspect; his father told reporters that he had been subjected to DNA tests to check whether it was his son's remains that were recovered from the Volgograd station.
Pechenkin reportedly hails from the Mari republic on the Volga river, 500 miles east of Moscow. He reportedly converted to Islam a few years ago and went to Dagestan to join local militants. His parents went there to search for him, but in vain.
Local news sites reported that people in Volgograd, a city of more than 1 million inhabitants, were avoiding public transport and walking to work. A small protest against the government's inability to prevent attacks appeared on Monday afternoon, but was quickly dispersed.
"For the second day, we are dying – it's a nightmare," a woman near the scene told Reuters, her voice trembling as she choked back tears. "What are we supposed to do – just walk now?"
Shockwaves from the attacks have rippled outward, as they did after Russia's other wretched terrorism incidents in Moscow (1999, 2002 and 2010), Budyonnovsk (1995) and Beslan (2004).
Popular writer Sergey Minayev said on Twitter that the atmosphere reminded him of 1999, when a series of bombings at apartment blocks shook Moscow. "It's like someone has declared a war on us," he wrote.
Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad, is also of great symbolic importance for Russians as the site of the bloodiest battle of the second world war – something that north Caucausian jihadist websites were quick to emphasise after the train station blast.
The city of Volgograd – formerly Stalingrad – was the scene of the bloodiest battle of the second world war. For Russians, it is synonymous with Soviet military glory and self-sacrifice. In August 1942, German armies unleashed a bombardment of the city, reducing most of it to rubble. There was furious fighting. By early November the Wehrmacht controlled 90% of it. Its defenders were trapped in two tiny pockets.
The Soviet troops clung on. The Red Army then launched a spectacular counter-attack, encircling Hitler's Sixth Army, and in January 1943 forcing the surrender of its exhausted commander, Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus, and his starved forces. (The Führer expected Paulus to kill himself. He declined, and was instead taken prisoner.)
Numerous films and books have immortalised this heroic victory, achieved through the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of Soviet lives. The battle of Stalingrad inspired some brilliant war reporting, by writers such as Vasily Grossman who witnessed the slaughter from the frontline, and described it vividly in his diary. There have been recent attempts to revive the city's wartime name, not least during the 70th anniversary commemorations of Volgograd/Stalingrad's finest hour in February. North Caucasian jihadist websites were quick to point out that Volgograd may have been chosen for Sunday and Monday's attacks because of its obvious symbolic value.
U.S. offers to help Russia with Olympic security following deadly suicide bombings
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, December 30, 2013 14:48 EST
The United States on Monday called for closer security cooperation with Russia ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympics, after two deadly bombings in the city of Volgograd.
“The US government has offered our full support to the Russian government in security preparations for the Sochi Olympic Games, and we would welcome the opportunity for closer cooperation for the safety of the athletes, spectators, and other participants,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement.
At least 14 people were killed Monday when a suicide bomber blew himself up on a packed trolleybus in the city during the morning rush hour. On Sunday, another similar attack claimed 17 lives.
Hayden said that the United States “condemns the terrorist attacks that struck the Russian city of Volgograd and sends deepest condolences to the families of the victims with hopes for the rapid healing of those wounded.”
“The United States stands in solidarity with the Russian people against terrorism,” she said.
The attacks raised alarm about whether the ongoing anti-Kremlin insurgency in the Northern Caucasus could affect the Sochi Winter Games, which open on February 7.
Volgograd suicide attacks are Pig Putin's worst nightmare
Bombings have created a climate of fear prior to the Sochi Winter Olympics as the ghosts of Russia's North Caucasus stir
theguardian.com, Monday 30 December 2013 16.31 GMT
The twin suicide attacks in the city of Volgograd are a calculated challenge to PIg Putin on the eve of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. They are also a further depressing sign that the Kremlin's decade-long strategy for pacifying the North Caucasus has failed.
Can the Russian authorities guarantee security at the Games? The answer is no. Sunday and Monday's bombings – 32 dead and more than 100 injured so far – tell their own grim story.
These latest attacks could have been foreseen. Over the summer Russia's chief insurgent leader, Doku Umarov, gave a chilling warning. Umarov had declared an 18-month moratorium on targets in European Russia, which coincided with the rise of mass street protests against the Pig's rule. In a four-minute video clip released in July, however, Umarov announced a new, violent campaign against Russian "unbelievers". More specifically, he threatened to blow up Sochi.
Since 2007, Umarov and his followers have been fighting for an Islamic emirate across Russia's North Caucasus. For the jihadists, Sochi is a place of mournful ghosts: the Black Sea region was once home to the Muslim Circassians, who were driven out, murdered and deported to Turkey by the Russian army back in 1864. Some of the victims are buried in graves near the site of the key Olympic mountain-sports complex, in Krasnaya Polyana. In his video address, shot in a forest, Umarov accused Moscow of holding the Games "on the bones of many, many Muslims killed". The event was "satanic", he added.
Some analysts had doubted that Umarov's band of jihadist rebels had the capacity or numbers to carry out high-profile attacks. The two Volgograd bombings – one at the railway station, the other on a crowded commuter trolley bus – show the insurgents are indeed capable of striking outside their usual theatre of operations.
Russian media, meanwhile, reported that the bomber who blew up himself and the bus on Monday morning was an ethnic Russian and 32-year-old convert to Islam called Pavel Pechenkin. This is the Kremlin's worst nightmare: Slavic jihadists wreaking havoc.
According to Andrei Soldatov, an expert on Russia's security services, the bombings were designed to divert attention and police resources away from Sochi. The blasts could be a diversion before a further possible attack on the Olympics itself or Moscow, he said. Either way, the attacks have created a mood of panic. In the capital, the fearful atmosphere is reminiscent of March 2010, after two female suicide bombers blew themselves up on the Moscow metro, killing 40 people.
Cerwyn Moore, a senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham, who writes on terrorism and insurgency in the North Caucasus, said: "This certainly appears to be the work of Umarov's Caucasian Emirate. It's an interesting shift in tactics, moving towards soft targets outside the secure zone within the Olympic park itself."
This looked like the beginning of a sustained terror campaign, he said. He added: "I wouldn't be surprised if more attacks follow."
The authorities have taken extraordinary measures to safeguard the Sochi Games. Over the past four of five months, security forces have conducted numerous sweeps of mountain areas used by the rebels in Dagestan and other simmering republics. They have targeted known bomb-makers and facilitators. In December Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya's thuggish pro-Moscow leader, announced that Umarov was dead. The Russian military has even flown drones over suspected rebel hideouts.
The resort of Sochi, meanwhile, is under military lockdown, with all visitors checked, transport restricted, roadblocks in place, security sweeps carried out and political protests banned. The Federal Security Service – the main KGB successor agency – is conducting mass electronic surveillance. It will gather metadata from all Olympic participants, including spectators, judges, and athletes.
But will all this be enough? The Sochi Olympic zone may be impregnable. But if previous jihadist tactics are a guide, the rebels will seek out other soft targets.
More broadly, the attacks demonstrate the ineffectiveness of the Kremlin's counter-terrorism strategy. Over the past two decades, the insurgency in the North Caucasus has changed from a largely secular and nationalist uprising centred on Chechnya to an explicitly Islamist struggle encompassing all of Russia's southern Muslim republics. This war is characterised by daily gun battles between rebels and Russian security forces, local and federal. Mostly, it is confined to the North Caucasus itself. But as Volgograd, shows no part of Russia is entirely safe.
Brutal counter-insurgency operations have alienated local populations and fuelled militancy among the disaffected young. Poverty, joblessness, and corruption are further elements in a combustible mix.
Writing on Monday, the novelist and opposition figurehead Boris Akunin said the authorities needed to think about "horizontal" as well as "vertical" solutions to the deep-rooted problems of the North Caucasus. He called for dialogue and the "consolidation of society".
With just six weeks to go until the opening Olympic ceremony, time for fresh thinking is rapidly running out.
December 30, 2013
Russia’s Oligarchy, Alive and Well
By ANDREW S. WEISS
WASHINGTON — The czarist trappings of President Pig V. Putin’s surprise move to free Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, announced at a marathon news conference on Dec. 19, were hard to miss. Mr. Putin’s offhand, backstage comment that 10 years of imprisonment had been punishment enough for Mr. Khodorkovsky, his onetime nemesis (and once Russia’s richest man), conveyed just the right mix of omnipotence, benevolence and piety.
Inside the hall, the atmosphere had been far less dignified than what Mr. Pig Putin’s role model, Czar Alexander II, might have tolerated. Fawning reporters had waved stuffed animals to get Mr. Putin’s attention, and one reporter read a poem beseeching him to renationalize the energy industry so that the Russian people would repay the favor by asking him “to rule for the rest of your life.”
At first glance, this turn of events seems to illustrate just how much Russia has changed since October 2003, when Mr. Khodorkovsky’s jet was stormed on the tarmac of a Siberian airport by masked agents of Russia’s Federal Security Service. The familiar narrative holds that Mr. Putin enjoys nearly limitless power, having brought the oligarchs to heel, recentralized political authority, dismantled fledgling democratic institutions and put most of the economy back under state control. By confounding expectations that Mr. Khodorkovsky would rot in prison forever, Mr. Putin left little doubt about his near-total domination of the Russian political scene.
Yet Russia’s oligarchy (that is, the control of the state and economy by a small group of well-placed, extremely wealthy insiders) is alive and well. The supposedly all-powerful Mr. Pig Putin actually devotes much of his time to refereeing bitter disputes between oligarchs like Igor I. Sechin, the head of the state oil company Rosneft, and Gennady N. Timchenko, a co-owner of Russia’s largest oil trading company and an independent natural gas producer. These latter-day oligarchs, many of whom have built vast business empires on the back of longstanding connections to Mr Pig Putin, are part of a political tradition that dates back to the rapid expansion of the Grand Duchy of Muscovy in the 1400s.
The most authoritative description of Russia’s peculiar style of rule can be found in an unusual place: a little-known academic essay by the Harvard medieval historian Edward L. Keenan, originally prepared for the State Department in the mid-1970s. Professor Keenan’s vivid account of the conspiracies, secrecy and power politics of the Muscovite czarist court will be readily recognizable to viewers of “Game of Thrones.” Most important, Professor Keenan punctures the myth of an all-powerful czar. He explains how a system dominated by elite groups of boyars (the top rung of the aristocracy and the forebears of today’s oligarchs) and bureaucrats, who imposed constraints on the country’s ruler, became so entrenched in the political culture.
After a devastating civil war in the 1400s, these groups decided that it was in their interest to carve out a role for a leader capable of mediating disputes and distributing power and property among them. They deliberately shrouded the system in secrecy and exaggerated the role of the czar to maintain their freedom to maneuver and keep outsiders at bay.
This approach was combined with an inefficient yet extremely centralized system that has clear parallels to contemporary Russia, specifically the need to maintain control over an unpredictable population and a vast, underpopulated territory. (To cite one of Professor Keenan’s most vivid examples, “In the later 16th century, when the round trip to the capital could occupy the better part of a year, even simple real estate transactions conducted in tiny villages on the Arctic Circle were registered and approved in Moscow.”)
Unfortunately, our understanding of Mr. Pig Putin’s regime and its most important players remains heavily distorted by our disappointment that Russia has failed to develop along Western lines. By fixating on Pig Putin’s authoritarian streak, hostility to outside influences and resistance to Western-style reforms, we generally overlook that his value to the system, like that of the czars who preceded him, is based on maintaining the balance among competing vested interests. Just as it was five centuries ago, the main battles inside the Kremlin among these groups are about power, money and access to special privileges, not ideology.
Eventually, the day will come when the Pig is no longer in power. Yet it seems highly unlikely that his informal style of rule will be replaced by a rule of law system based on strong institutions and checks and balances. Rather, the West must brace itself for the possibility that the oligarchic system itself, with its deep roots in Russian political culture, will outlive its current master.
Andrew S. Weiss is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Greece will leave bailout scheme in 2014, says prime minister
Antonis Samaras told long-suffering Greeks that the end of the country's financial assistance plan was in sight
The Guardian, Monday 30 December 2013 18.57 GMT
EC president Jose Manuel Barroso (R) welcoming Greek prime minister Antonis Samaras (L)
European commission president José Manuel Barroso (r) with the Greek PM Antonis Samaras. Greece will assume the rotating EU presidency in January. Photograph: Getty Images
Greece will leave its bailout programme next year without needing a third aid package, the country's prime minister, Antonis Samaras, announced on Monday, as he insisted that citizens could look to 2014 with confidence.
Samaras told long-suffering Greeks that the end of the country's financial assistance plan was in sight after almost four years of painful austerity, and that the new year would bring the prospect of normality.
"In 2014 we will make the big step of exiting the loan agreement," Samaras said in a nationally televised address. "In 2014, Greece will venture out to the markets again [and] start becoming a normal country… There will be no need for new loans and new bailout agreements"
Ireland left its bailout programme earlier this month, but a Greek exit would be a major milestone in the financial crisis that began to grip the eurozone in the spring of 2010. Greece has already received two aid packages, with around €130bn (£109bn) wiped off its debt in 2012.
Greece is expected to finally leave recession in 2014, and investor confidence in the country has grown through the last year. The yield, or interest rate, on its 10-year bonds has fallen to around 8% – compared with 30% at the peak of the crisis – as traders regained faith that the debt would be repaid. Greek government bonds were one of the best-performing assets in 2013, returning 47%.
Analysts, however, are sceptical of the claim that Greece will not need further aid next year. It has still not reached agreement with its international lenders over the size of its fiscal shortfall in next year's budget, with troika officials pushing Athens to make further painful cutbacks.
Samaras was elected 18 months ago, and much of his time in office has been dominated by public anger created by the unpopular austerity measures demanded in return for the country's loans. Political instability has been a constant threat, with his majority now whittled down to 153 of the 300 seats in parliament.
Record unemployment and pay cuts have pushed prices down across the country, and this punishing "internal devaluation" may continue in next year.
"In Greece, marked deflation has been evident since March and is likely to continue for some time to come," predicted Howard Archer of IHS Global Insight.
Samaras was speaking just two days before Greece assumes the rotating presidency of the EU. There has been concern that Athens' six-month stint could be overshadowed by further bailout negotiations.
Zsolt Darvas, an economist and senior fellow at the Bruegel Institute in Brussels, has predicted that the Greek presidency could be a rough ride: "It will be very difficult for Greece due to its [internal] problems, its public administration inefficiency and the time pressure imposed by the European parliament elections," Darvas told AFP.
Latvia joins eurozone at midnight despite little public enthusiasm
Single currency union marks 15th anniversary by expanding – just 18 months after crisis in Greece threatened breakup
theguardian.com, Tuesday 31 December 2013 13.21 GMT
The eurozone will gain an extra member at midnight as Latvia becomes the 18th country to join the single currency union, despite little obvious public enthusiasm for the move.
Latvia's arrival gives eurocrats in Brussels an extra reason to toast in the new year. Eighteen months after the threat of Greece quitting the euro gripped the financial markets, the eurozone is marking its 15th anniversary by expanding, not fracturing.
With final preparations completed, outgoing prime minister Valdis Dombrovskis will ceremonially withdraw the first euro note from an ATM shortly after midnight.
European commission president José Manuel Barroso offered his "sincere congratulations" to Latvia on Tuesday as households and businesses prepared to wave goodbye to their currency, the lat.
"This is a major event, not only for Latvia, but for the euro area itself, which remains stable, attractive and open to new members," Barroso said. "For Latvia, it is the result of impressive efforts and the unwavering determination of the authorities and the Latvian people. Thanks to these efforts, undertaken in the aftermath of a deep economic crisis, Latvia will enter the euro area stronger than ever, sending an encouraging message to other countries undergoing a difficult economic adjustment."
City analysts, though, are rather less effusive. ING points out that the eurozone is still trying hard to repair the constructional mistakes of the past, and that the former Soviet state could bring its own problems.
"While some look forward to welcome another stability-oriented government, others fear that Latvia could become the next Cyprus," ING added.
Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, has also predicted that funds could flow westward into Latvian banks.
"Immediately after Latvia joins the eurozone, I imagine we're going to see an actual spike in dubious money flowing in," Galeotti, who researches organized crime in the former Soviet Union, told AP.
Within Latvia itself, the eurozone crisis has left some people edgy about the move. Recent opinion polls have shown that a majority of Latvians oppose the move, with just a fifth strongly in favour.
Andris Liepins, 51, a shop owner in the capital Riga, told Bloomberg he was "convinced" prices will rise under the new currency, and also fears paying for future eurozone bailouts.
"Why does a country have to pay other countries' debts?" Liepins added.
And in a village north-east of Riga, Leonara Timofejeva, who tends graves to earn the minimum wage of 200 lats (€284) per month, also predicts inflation. "Everyone expects prices will go up in January," she told AFP.
Raoul Ruparel, head of economic research at Open Europe, says Latvia will be an "interesting test case" as to whether a small country can join the euro region and thrive. He says Brussels will be monitoring Latvia closely for signs of instability, as "they don't want a repeat of what happened before".
Latvia has already had a taste of eurozone-style austerity. Wages were slashed and unemployment soared after the 2008 financial crisis struck. After a long credit-fuelled boom, Latvia slumped into a deep recession.
The economy is now growing again – more rapidly than any fellow EU state.
"While Latvia's switch to the euro comes just five years after an international rescue package, which saw its economy shrink by more than a fifth in 2008-2009, it appears to be on the fast track to recovery as their economy is growing at the fastest pace in the European Union this year," said analysts at City firm Clear Currency.
The Latvian finance minister, Andris Vilks, has argued that Ukraine's recent tug-of-war between the EU and Russia shows the wisdom of making closer ties with Europe.
Vilks said: "Russia isn't going to change. We know our neighbour. There were before, and there will be, a lot of unpredictable conditions. It is very important for the countries to stick together, and with the EU."
Latvia's own political future is unclear at present. Dombrovskis resigned after 54 people were killed in a supermarket collapse in Riga last month, the country's worst disaster since winning independence in 1991. A new prime minister has not yet been appointed.
Eurozone faces more challenges in 2014
Although the threat of eurozone breakup has receded, many experts warn that next year will be challenging. Open Europe's Ruparel says the European Central Bank's asset quality review – stress-testing the regions banks – will dominate 2014. It will put the spotlight on banks in France and Italy in particularly, he predicts.
Europe's economy remains weak, having struggled out of recession this summer, and the jobless rates are at record levels.
Kit Juckes of Société Générale said: "The nagging, never-ending fear is that policymakers like to tell us the crisis is over, but we still have falling bank lending, and we still have levels of unemployment, especially youth unemployment, that would in most countries and at most points in history, have caused a massive political backlash."
In Latvia, the youth unemployment rate is almost 25%, slightly higher than the eurozone average. In Spain and Greece, the figure is over 50%.