New year, new laws: world will wake up to raft of changes in 2014
Countries around the world are ringing in the new year with a host of new regulations, appointments and legislation, Here's some of the most important and most intriguing
The Guardian, Tuesday 31 December 2013 13.44 GMT
Link to video: London new year fireworkshttp://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/video/2014/jan/01/london-new-year-fireworks-video
If it feels like you're waking up to a slightly different world on Wednesday, then it's because you will be. 1 January is habitually a watershed for new rules, appointments and bylaws; 2014 is no exception.
So what is changing? Well, if you are driving in Oregon with children in your car, do not light up. It'll be illegal. And if you're driving in Switzerland, turn your headlights on. Even if it's the middle of the day.
While we're on the subject of lighting, if you live in Canada please remove those last incandescent lightbulbs – they won't be allowed any more.
Other things that are no being banned: owning unregistered assault weapons in Connecticut; harassing celebrities and their children with long-lens cameras in California; hunting elephants in Botswana and injudicious calls to the London Fire Brigade (if you're a business you'll be fined for false alarms). Oh, and if you're an architect practising in Texas, you will have to get yourself fingerprinted. Don't ask why.
On the other hand, there are moments of great liberalisation to salute. Colorado on Wednesday will become the first state in the US to allow the sale of marijuana for recreational purposes. Also in America, for the first time it will be OK to be a gay Boy Scout, while for their British counterparts, it's OK to be an atheist. For Germans, liberalisation comes in more subtle ways, such as the new dispensation for universities and libraries, which will henceforth be allowed to upload "orphaned" works of art on to the internet without permission.
If you're Bulgarian or Romanian, welcome. Work restrictions across the EU for citizens of two of the poorest EU countries are lifted. But despite the dire warnings from the right (er, people who are supposed to believe in free markets no less) the indications are that there will be no sudden influx of Balkan builders.
In a less-observed border relaxation, it will become much easier for Chinese tourists to visit Taiwan as the Chinese authorities make a concerted effort to improve cross-strait ties.
And in the unlikely event that you are off to do some shopping in Latvia, leave your lats at home and take euros instead: the Baltic republic becomes the 18th country to join the single currency zone.
Indeed, institutional changes are a 1 January perennial. Russia will run the G8 for a year while Greece gets its turn to lead the EU. Democrat Bill de Blasio takes over as New York mayor. And Barack Obama's system of healthcare coverage, known as Obamacare, is formally launched with hundreds of thousands of newly insured Americans presenting a formidable test to a system that has endured a difficult birth.
Bill de Blasio Bill de Blasio will become New York mayor from 1 January. Photograph: Seth Wenig/AP
Then there are more obscure new laws that take some explaining. If you live in France, you can demand your home be checked for electromagnetic waves. If you are arrested, make sure the police address you as "vous" and not "tu", as they are required to do from 1 January.
If you die in Hungary, fear not: from Wednesday the state will reportedly provide a free grave, coffin or urn – and even a free shovel for gravedigging – to poorer sections of society.
The other thing that 1 January signifies is the start of a year dedicated to an issue or theme. So prepare yourself, and make any necessary adjustments to your schedule, to accommodate the International Year of Family Farming, the International Year of Crystallography and the International Year of Small Island Developing States.
Happy new year.
• Work restrictions across the EU are lifted for migrants from Romania and Bulgaria.
• Greece takes over EU presidency.
• Latvia joins the eurozone.
• The European fiscal compact, which forces countries across the eurozone to deliver a balanced budget, becomes operational.
• The amount of time migrants have to wait before claiming benefits is lengthened to three months.
• London Fire Brigade becomes the first service in the country to introduce a charging scheme for callouts to false alarms at buildings such as hospitals, airports and student accommodation.
• Regulation of undercover police – new rules come into force requiring higher level of authorisation
• Average season ticket prices are due to rise by 4.1%
• Scout Association introduces pledge that removes the promise by Scouts to do their duty to God.
• The Defamation Act 2013 is set to change libel laws. Claimants will need to show they have suffered "serious harm" before suing.
• Individuals allowed to import 10 (200 cigarette) boxes of cigarettes.
• Minimum hourly wage rises by 10 cents an hour to €9.53 (£8).
• "Red Bull" tax comes into effect on energy drinks – €1 a litre.
• Minimum hours to be considered "part-time" worker – 24 hours a week• Anyone can demand their home be checked for electromagnetic waves. Same applies to public spaces.
• New code of conduct for police insisting they use the more respectful and formal "vous" when addressing the public and suspects and have a number on their uniform so they can be identified.
• The validity period for a French identity card rises from 10 to 15 years
• The points system for driving licences will be simplified. Minor offences are punished with fewer points, but Germans will only need eight instead of 18 points to lose their driving licence.
• The tax for bars of silver will jump from roughly €1 to €2 an ounce.
• From 1 January Germans will make less money from subletting their flats. Previously, citizens were able to offset the average local rent for a 60 sq metre flat against tax, in the future they will be able to claim back no more than €1,000 a month.
• Universities and libraries will be allowed to upload "orphaned" works of art – artworks, photographs or books whose creator can no longer be identified – on to the internet without getting permission.Previously, they were only able to do so with the explicit permission of a copyright holder.
• Competition for a new national anthem starts.
• Using car headlights in daylight hours becomes mandatory.
• Takes helm of the G8.
• Minimum wage rises in 14 states.
• Oregon: no smoking in a car with children.
• Colorado becomes the first state in the US to allow the sale of marijuana for recreational purposes.
• Affordable Care Act – individual mandate takes effect, requiring most Americans to buy health insurance.
• Guns that are considered assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines that have not been registered with Connecticut authorities will be considered illegal contraband.
• Photographers who harass celebrities and their children face tougher penalties under a law in California backed by actors Halle Berry and Jennifer Garner.
• Bill de Blasio becomes New York mayor.
• Texas requires all architects to be fingerprinted.
• The Boy Scouts of America lifts a ban on openly gay members after the organisation's national council voted against the rule in late May.
• The visa process for mainland Chinese visitors to Taiwan will be streamlined in an effort to bolster cross-strait ties
• Botswana, home to a third of the global elephant population, bans commercial hunting amid growing concerns about the decline in wildlife species.
• Deadline for the controversial "indigenisation" of businesses in Zimbabwe. The Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment Act obliges foreign-owned companies operating in the country to cede at least a 51% controlling stake to black Zimbabweans. Those who refuse face possible arrest.
• Travel for Kenyans, Rwandans and Ugandans to each other's countries will become easier with the use of national identity cards as travel documents and an east African tourist visa
Reporting team: Dan Roberts in Washington, Kim Willsher in Paris, Alex Hern, Dan Milmo, Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing, Philip Oltermann in Berlin, and Dan Nolan in Budapest
Pig Putin vows total destruction of terrorists after suicide bombings in Volgograd
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, December 31, 2013 11:08 EST
Russian President Pig V. Putin on Tuesday threatened “terrorists” with total destruction after twin suicide strikes claimed 34 lives and raised alarm over security at the Sochi Winter Olympic Games.
A bombing at the main railway station of the southern city of Volgograd killed 18 people on Sunday while a second strike that hit a trolleybus on Monday claimed 16 lives.
The blasts are Russia’s deadliest since a suicide raid on Moscow’s Domodedovo airport that was claimed by Islamic insurgents from the North Caucasus killed 37 people in January 2011.
The latest violence has laid bare the unchecked threat posed by insurgents, who have vowed to target civilians in a bid to undermine the Pig's preparations ahead of the Games’ opening ceremony on February 7.
“Dear friends, we bow our heads in front of the victims of the terrible acts of terror. I am sure we will toughly and consistently continue to fight against terrorists until their total destruction”, Pig Putin said in his first public comments on the attacks.
Two New Year addresses
The Pig made the statement in a traditional midnight New Year’s address he recorded during an unannounced visit to Russia’s Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk that is seven hours ahead of Moscow.
An earlier prerecorded address that had been broadcast to the inhabitants of Russia’s furthest flung time zones of Magadan and Kamchatka did not mention the Volgograd attacks.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed that Pig Putin had broken with a longstanding traditional by departing from the traditional New Year’s message that is normally taped in advance at the Kremlin.
He told Moscow Echo radio that a “technical glitch” led to Russians receiving two New Year’s addresses from the president — one that mentioned the Volgograd attacks and one that did not.
The Pig had issued a string of directives on Monday ordering security stepped up at public transit points across the nation and extra police deployed on the streets of Volgograd.
More than 5,000 members of the security forces checked traffic and inspect public transport on Tuesday in Volgograd, which is 690 kilometres (425 miles) northeast of Sochi.
Russia’s Channel 1 television station led its news with images of helmeted paratroopers with automatic rifles bursting into a Volgograd cafe and checking documents of men said to have been from from the mostly-Muslim North Caucasus.
A local security agency spokesman told the station that officers had arrested 87 people “who resisted police or did not have (their identity) documents”.
Russia is already preparing to impose a “limited access” security cordon around Sochi from January 7 that will check all traffic and ban all non-residents’ cars from a wide area around the city.
Investigators have opened a criminal probe into a suspected act of terror as well as the illegal carrying of weapons.
The chief spokesman for the Investigative Committee — Russia’s equivalent to the US FBI — said the signature of the two bombings suggest that they were plotted by the same group.
The identical makeup of the explosives “confirms the theory that the two attacks are linked. It is possible that they were prepared in the same place,” Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin said.
The railway station bombing has been provisionally blamed on a young woman from the restive North Caucasus region of Dagestan. The trolleybus strike has been pinned on a male assailant.
No one has claimed responsiblity for either attack in Volgograd — a hugely symbolic city in Russia known as Stalingrad in the Soviet era and the scene of a key World War II battle.
But North Caucasus guerrilla chief Doku Umarov vowed in July that his fighters would use “any means possible” to keep Putin from staging the Sochi Games.
The head of the International Olympic Committee said he was confident that security would be all-encompassing in Sochi and gave no indication that the Games’ staging was in doubt.
“The Olympic Games are about bringing people from all backgrounds and beliefs together to overcome our differences in a peaceful way,” Thomas Bach said.
The United States meanwhile offered to assist policing Sochi and called for closer security cooperation that had been recently lacking as relations between powers plumbed post-Cold War lows.
Greece assumes EU presidency as anger towards Brussels grows
Foreign Minister Evangelos Venizelos hopes EU stewardship will show Greece is on the mend and boost its eurozone credentials
Helena Smith in Athens
theguardian.com, Tuesday 31 December 2013 13.55 GMT
After years of allowing Athens's central plaza to bear the marks of riot and wrath, the Greek authorities have been tarting up Syntagma square as Greece prepares to take over the rotating presidency of the EU on New Year's Day.
Greece's assumption of the role – which comes with the ability to regulate policy in the 28-nation bloc – marks a major milestone for a state whose continued EU membership appeared far from assured a year ago.
Even now, four years after triggering the debt drama that would become Europe's worst crisis since the second world war, there is scepticism over whether Athens will last the course.
Monday's pre-dawn drive-by shooting attack at the home of Germany's ambassador to Greece underlined the volatile mood. The bullet casings found at the scene embodied the sentiments of a nation that blames Berlin for years of grinding austerity – the price of receiving more than €240bn (£200bn) in emergency loans from the EU and IMF. The fear of social unrest is never far away.
None of this is lost on Greece's deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Evangelos Venizelos, who was quick to describe the shooting as an "attempt to tarnish Greece's image" before the EU presidency.
Greek antipathy towards Germany is one aspect of the crisis but so too is mounting hostility towards the EU.
"It's cost us a great deal," said Venizelos, rolling off a list of the sacrifices Greeks have made to stay in the bloc. "Greece stands alone in making a unique fiscal adjustment … in 3.5 years we have taken measures [worth] €70bn. That is the equivalent of 35% of GDP, " he added in an interview with the Guardian.
For Venizelos, the perceived irony of Greece "presiding over Germany" is further proof that member states remained far from equal. "The irony is to be found in the fact that the principle of institutional equality … is collapsing," he said. "Some countries decide and some countries execute [those decisions]."
But prime minister Antonis Samaras's conservative-led coalition also views the six-month post as an opportunity to ram home the message that Greece is both on the mend and taking its European credentials seriously.
"It's a chance for Europe, for the European Union, to show that a country that is in an adjustment programme is a normal country," said Venizelos. "And it's a chance for Greece to prove that it is a normal European country."
Athens will prioritise economic growth, immigration policy and youth unemployment, from which it suffers more than any other EU state. Privately, officials also hope that in allowing Greece to focus on European affairs, EU stewardship will give the government an unofficial grace period: a period of detente, free of the pressures to implement unpopular reforms that have not only polarised Greeks but steadily reduced the coalition's control of parliament to a majority of three.
With crucial elections for the European parliament in May – polls expected to bring anti-European sentiment to the fore – Venizelos said Greece is resolved to contribute to what is likely to be "a big debate" about Europe's future.
"Now that we are going to have the big debate … about Europe and the new narrative [of Europe], it is good that Greece, which has lived the experience of the crisis, is president. It is the laboratory of the crisis," he said.
Such goals may prove illusory. Despite achieving a primary budget surplus, Athens may miss new fiscal targets. On the street, passions are at boiling point following legislation that allows banks to repossess homes.
Amid speculation about a new bailout – vehemently denied by Samaras, who insisted on Monday that Greece will soon exit its rescue programme – fears abound that far from uniting Europe, the presidency will be overshadowed by Athens's often strained relations with the organisations that have kept it afloat. With EU members providing 80% of the rescue funds to date that will almost certainly reinforce the north-south divide.
"Our relations with the troika were always difficult," said Venizelos, referring to the recent inability of both sides to bridge their differences. "The troika is not behaving well in light of … our huge [financial] success," he added, insisting that Greece's rescue deals could have had a "more flexible and more clever approach".
In sharp contrast to other EU countries, Greece has kept pre-presidency refurbishments to a minimum. Apart from replacing the shattered marble in Syntagma square almost nothing has been done to adorn Athens. For many it is a sign of the times.
Uighur men held for 12 years leave Guantánamo Bay for Slovakia
• Federal judge ordered that three be freed in 2008
• Pentagon praises 'humanitarian gesture' by Slovakia
Spencer Ackerman in Washington
theguardian.com, Tuesday 31 December 2013 15.41 GMT
Twelve years of detention without trial have ended for three Uighur men who have left Guantánamo Bay for Slovakia, the US Department of Defense announced on Tuesday, ending a clear mistake of the 9/11 era.
The three men – Yusef Abbas, Hajiakbar Abdulghuper and Saidullah Khalik – did not pose any terrorist threat to the US, a recognition the Defense Department came to during the Bush administration. A federal judge ordered them freed in 2008, and a 2009 panel appointed by President Barack Obama concurred. Their continuing detention was the result of a snarled political, bureaucratic and diplomatic process that underscored the continuing difficulty of closing the notorious detention center.
The diplomatic breakthrough came when Slovakia agreed to allow the last of Guantánamo’s Uighur population to “voluntarily resettle”, according to a statement from Rear Admiral John Kirby, the new Pentagon press secretary, who added that the US thanked Slovakia for its “humanitarian gesture”. There are now 155 detainees at Guantánamo, most of whom have not been charged with any offense.
With 19 other Uighur men, Abbas, Abdulghuper and Kalik were mistakenly captured in eastern Afghanistan, not far from a crucial 2001 battle at Tora Bora. An ethnic Turkic minority in China, the Uighur detainees said they had come to Afghanistan to escape persecution. They were given to the US for detention at a time when US forces were heavily reliant on Afghan proxies who had their own agendas and who accepted bounties for captives.
During the early days of their detention, the US interrogated the Uighur men brutally. In September 2002, Chinese officials were allowed to visit Guantánamo. According to 2009 testimony to a US House subcommittee, the Uighur detainees were subject to sleep deprivation, frigid temperatures and isolation. One detainee, Ablikim Turahun, wrote to a House foreign affairs subcommittee that the US troops supervising his detention followed instructions from the Chinese officials to take his picture without his consent.
“They called for American soldiers and ordered them to hold me, so that my picture could be taken. The soldiers grabbed me, pulling my beard, pressing on my throat, twisting my hands behind my back, and as a result my picture was taken by force,” Turahan wrote.
While the US eventually came to the conclusion that the Uighur detainees were not a security threat, the State Department just as quickly concluded that it could not remedy the initial detention error by sending the Uighurs back to China, since they were likely to face torture, abuse or additional rights violations by the Chinese government.
The Uighur detainees came to live in a Guantánamo facility separate from the rest of the detention population. While their treatment was less severe, they were not free men.
That left the option of finding new national homes for the Uighurs. In 2007, Albania accepted five. The following year, Judge Ricardo Urbina ordered the remaining prisoners freed to the US, on the grounds that the US could not hold men without cause. At least one ethnic Uighur community in the US, in the Virginia suburbs of Washington DC, enthusiastically volunteered to take in the detained men.
Urbina’s decision was reversed by other judges, who found that he had overstepped his judicial bounds. It was further stymied by bipartisan Congressional efforts, from the dawn of the Obama administration and which persist, to prevent any Guantánamo detainees from transfer to the US, even for continued detention.
In 2009, when reports of the Uighurs' release circulated, Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, portrayed the Uighurs as a threat abetted by the Obama administration.
“There’s a reason US law prohibits the entry of anyone trained in a terrorist camp. Why that law would be ignored to bring terrorist-trained detainees into American cities has not been answered by this administration,” McConnell said in a statement that signalled an early, sustained and thus-far successful fight to prevent the closure of Guantánamo Bay.
In 2009 Nury Turkel, a former president of the Uighur American Association, told ABC News Americans had nothing to fear from his countrymen.
“Americans should not be afraid of the Uighur prisoners in Gitmo because they have no beef with Americans or hostility towards the US. Actually, they're grateful to the US government for the freedom and opportunity that it has given to Uighurs in here," Turkel said.
This year, Judge Urbina told the Miami Herald: “There was not a shred of evidence that [the Uighur prisoners] were disliked by anyone – anyone but the Chinese government.”
Subsequent efforts to resettle the Uighur detainees sent them to places as far flung as El Salvador, Bermuda and Palau. None of the released men has been linked to an act of terrorism.
Obama recommitted himself to shuttering Guantánamo Bay’s detention center in 2012, shortly after winning re-election. He appointed new envoys for the task at the State and Defense Departments, and won a modicum of congressional support in a defense authorization bill he signed last week that removed a restriction on transfers from Guantánamo to overseas destinations.
“As the president made clear in his 23 May speech at the National Defense University, the Guantánamo Bay detention facility drains our resources and harms our standing in the world,” said army Lieutenant Colonel Todd Breasseale, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman on detention issues.
“The US government has worked diligently to generate resettlement opportunities for these three individuals and has engaged a number of different governments to seek their resettlement.”
Germany’s new government: A guide to future chancellors?
A surprise appointment by Angela Merkel hints at who may succeed her one day
Dec 21st 2013 | BERLIN |
TWELVE weeks after its election, followed by the longest coalition negotiations in its history, Germany has a new government at last. And although there was never any doubt that Angela Merkel would continue leading it as chancellor, the cabinet she chose contained a surprise: Germany’s new defence minister will be Ursula von der Leyen, the first woman in that job. Mrs von der Leyen (centre, above), who at 55 is four years younger than Mrs Merkel, is now the most obvious member of Mrs Merkel’s party, the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), to run for chancellor when Mrs Merkel, who is now starting her third term, steps down.
Mrs von der Leyen’s most likely opponent would be Sigmar Gabriel (left, above), leader of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD). Since the SPD’s poor showing in the election (it got only 25.7% of votes, against 41.5% for Mrs Merkel’s camp), he has skilfully manoeuvred his party into another “grand coalition” with Mrs Merkel, wrangling concessions out of her in the process and winning a referendum of party members to approve the pact by the huge margin of 75% to 25%. Now he is vice-chancellor and minister with a newly combined portfolio of energy and the economy. This puts him in charge of Germany’s biggest domestic challenge, the transition from nuclear and coal to solar and wind.
As defence minister, a challenging portfolio that includes managing a continuing reform of the army, Mrs von der Leyen could build up her stature for a future run against Mr Gabriel. She will have few rivals, because the most senior cabinet posts are staying in the hands of veterans from the preceding generation. The CDU’s Wolfgang Schäuble, 71, remains as finance minister (suggesting that little change can be expected in Germany’s management of the euro crisis). The SPD’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier becomes foreign minister again, the same job he held in Mrs Merkel’s first term, from 2005 to 2009. Thomas de Maizière, whom Mrs von der Leyen replaces and who will now become interior minister, a job he has had before, is still damaged by a procurement scandal from his time as defence minister.
Petite and sprightly, Mrs von der Leyen has been close to politics her whole life, as the daughter of Ernst Albrecht, a former premier of Lower Saxony. But she personally entered politics only at 42, after living in Belgium, Britain and America, learning fluent English and French, studying and then practising gynaecology and having seven children. Since Mrs Merkel became chancellor in 2005, Mrs von der Leyen has had stints as minister of families and women, then of labour and welfare.
During these years, she has proved herself unfailingly loyal to Mrs Merkel, even after a personal disappointment in 2010, when the chancellor did not nominate her for federal president as she had hoped. She also cultivated an image as the social conscience of her party. With rare bravura, she demonstrated personally how to combine work and family but also pushed policies that would help other women do the same. These views have made her popular with voters but at times less appreciated by conservatives in the CDU. To become a plausible candidate to succeed Mrs Merkel, she will first have to shore up her support within the party’s base.
Women are gaining a higher profile in Mrs Merkel’s government more generally. Four of the SPD’s cabinet positions have gone to women, with some of the portfolios dearest to party members: labour, women and integration of foreigners. In another surprise, Jörg Asmussen, a Social Democrat who has the German seat on the board of the European Central Bank (ECB), will return to Berlin. Mr Asmussen will be missed in Frankfurt, having acted as a bridge between the bank and the German government and voters in the euro crisis. The candidate to replace him at the ECB is another woman, Sabine Lautenschläger-Peiter, the number two at the German Bundesbank. She belongs to no party, but is an expert on bank regulation who often talks out against bankers with big bonuses.
Mrs Merkel has given no hints about her own career plans beyond denying some speculation that she might step down in mid-term, around the time of her tenth anniversary as chancellor. The previous CDU chancellor, Helmut Kohl, served four terms but then lost the 1998 election. Thinking of him and Konrad Adenauer, Germany’s first post-war chancellor, Mrs von der Leyen has in the past evaded questions about her ambitions by saying that in the CDU “each generation has its chancellor,” and hers already has Angela Merkel. If Mrs von der Leyen does her new job well, she may reconsider.
Turkish corruption scandal is mini coup attempt, says deputy PM
Ali Babacan echoes suggestions by PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan of a foreign interest in the crisis
Reuters in Istanbul
theguardian.com, Tuesday 31 December 2013 17.38 GMT
Turkey's government has said it is fending off a "mini coup attempt" by elements in the police and judiciary who served the interests of foreign and domestic forces bent on humbling the country.
Ali Babacan, the deputy prime minister, said the ruling AK party had in the past survived military coup plots and attempts in the courts to outlaw the party. It would not now yield to a corruption investigation that he said targeted the government but was already damaging the national economy.
"These latest formations in the judiciary and the police, we can't call it a coup, but a mini coup attempt. This is what interests foreign investors," he told the broadcaster CNBC-e, echoing suggestions by the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, of a foreign interest in the crisis.
"Maybe the clearest indicator of this was the fall in share prices," added Babacan, who is in charge of the economy.
The market value of Turkish listed companies had fallen $49bn (£30bn) by Monday's market close, he said. The main share index was down 1% on Tuesday.
Erdogan has, without naming it, accused a movement led by the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen of creating a "state within a state", using influence in the police and judiciary in a campaign to discredit the government.
The Hizmet (Service) movement controls a global network of schools and businesses. Tensions have grown between the two former allies over elements of foreign and domestic policy and moves to close Gulen's private schools in Turkey.
The graft inquiry became public on 17 December with a series of raids and detentions of senior businessmen close to Erdogan, and of the sons of three ministers. Since then, media hostile to Erdogan have brimmed with tales of police raiding offices or homes and seizing caches of dollar bills.
The president, Abdullah Gul, who has largely stayed out of the furore, made an appeal for unity in a new year's message, stressing the importance of a clear separation of powers.
"It is the duty of all of us to avoid attitudes that damage the fact and perception of an independent and impartial judiciary," he said in the message on the presidency website.
Erdogan's supporters argue that the graft accusations have so far lacked any substance and were driven by political ambitions.
Iran’s chief negotiator says ‘good progress’ in nuclear talks
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, December 31, 2013 11:27 EST
Iran’s chief negotiator said Tuesday talks in Geneva with world powers through the night on implementing a landmark nuclear deal had made “good progress,” according to media.
Negotiations continued throughout the night until early on Tuesday morning in Geneva “and the two sides have made good progress on different issues,” lead negotiator Abbas Araqchi said in comments carried by official news agency IRNA.
They are “going to submit their conclusions to the vice-ministers and political heads because there are still questions to be resolved on the political level,” he said, stressing that “the experts had done their work”.
He added that there would probably be “a meeting next week with Olga Schmitt,” the deputy to European Union foreign policy head Catherine Ashton, who has been representing the P5+1 group in Tehran.
Experts from Iran and the so-called P5+1 — the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China plus Germany — have been holding technical talks on implementing an agreement reached November 24 on Iran’s controversial nuclear programme.
The interim deal requires that Iran freeze or curb its nuclear activities for six months in exchange for some sanctions relief while the two sides try to reach a comprehensive agreement.
Hamid Baeedinejad, who heads the Iranian delegation of experts, said the Geneva agreement should be implemented in late January, the ISNA news agency reported.
“According to the conclusions of talks held with technical experts from the P5+1 group, it has been agreed to start the application of he Geneva agreement in the last 10 days of January,” he said.
Baeedinejad said that “political officials” from the two parties had yet to endorse an application date.
Western nations and Israel have long suspected Iran is covertly pursuing a nuclear weapons capability alongside its civilian programme, charges denied by Tehran, which insists its uranium enrichment is for purely peaceful purposes.
December 31, 2013
Afghans’ Plan to Release Prisoners Angers U.S.
By MATTHEW ROSENBERG
KABUL, Afghanistan — Just months after American officials ceded control over all detention operations in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai’s government has quietly planned dozens of prisoner releases that American and Afghan officials said on Tuesday would include committed insurgents who had attacked Americans.
The pending wave of releases has revived one of the most caustic — and seemingly resolved — issues between the allies just as relations have hit a new low over Mr. Karzai’s refusal to sign a long-term security agreement with American officials. Officials from both countries who support the security deal say they are worried that the mass release of militants with American blood on their hands could scuttle talks altogether and lead to a complete Western withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014.
It was out of concern that dangerous militants might be too easily returned to the battlefield that American military commanders initially resisted Mr. Karzai’s demands in the spring to hand over all detention operations. As the Americans relented, they said they had received his personal assurances that security would be maintained.
Suddenly, it is a major issue again, though the releases have not been made final.
The Afghan commission charged with reviewing detainee cases at the main military prison near Bagram Air Base, a coalition hub north of Kabul, is planning to release more than 85 prisoners who the coalition and Afghan defense officials say should face trial. The plans were detailed by American and Afghan officials alarmed by the move, and have been confirmed by commission members.
“These are guys that are tied directly to killing and trying to kill our forces and Afghan forces,” an American military official said. “This is an issue of deep concern. It is serious.”
The commission disagrees. Abdul Shakor Dadras, a member of the three-man panel, said there was no real evidence against any of the men, who are among the 650 prisoners the panel has ordered freed since Mr. Karzai created it after the transfer of the prison in March.
In an interview on Tuesday, Mr. Dadras said that Mr. Karzai tentatively approved the releases at a cabinet meeting last week. The president, he said, ordered the commission to give the international military coalition and the main Afghan intelligence agency until Friday to produce evidence against the detainees. If none is produced, the men will be released, Mr. Dadras said.
But American and Afghan security officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of tensions between the countries, said they had already given the commission enough evidence to send all the detainees in question to trial, or at least to hold them pending further investigation. The officials say that they have evidence linking the detainees to the killings of 117 American, European and Afghan service members and civilians, and that they are ready to continue investigating in cases where more evidence is needed to try the men.
One of the detainees was caught planting a hidden bomb and was linked by biometric evidence to other bomb attacks that killed two Afghan soldiers, the officials said. Another is alleged to have trained and deployed teenage boys for suicide attacks. A third placed a hidden bomb outside a school, killing a student, the officials said.
Both the Afghan defense officials and the Americans argued that under the deal that transferred control of the prison, the commission did not have the authority to order the releases over the objection of the coalition and the intelligence service, which is supposed to make a recommendation on each case.
The commission “has exceeded its mandate and ordered the release of a number of dangerous individuals who are legitimate threats and for whom there is strong evidence supporting prosecution or further investigation,” said Col. David Lapan, a spokesman for American forces in Afghanistan.
An Afghan defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of crossing Mr. Karzai, was blunter: “We are not happy at all. They turn into war heroes once they go back to their villages and join the fight against Afghans. Releasing the prisoners is harming us.”
One of the men due to be released, Salman Khan, was detained in May by coalition forces, who said they had caught him hiding a bomb in Zhare district, the American military official said.
Villagers in the district confirmed the American account of the raid, though they said his name was Sallam Khan. They insisted that Mr. Khan should be released. Hajji Lala, an elder from Zhare, said that Mr. Khan had been duped by the Taliban into planting the bomb and that he would stay away from the insurgents if he returned.
American and Afghan defense officials say there is ample evidence of freed insurgents returning to the battlefield. One case cited by Afghan officials was that of Mullah Ghulam Mohammad, who was detained by coalition forces in northern Badghis Province. He was freed last year after pressure from some Afghan officials and has since returned to Badghis, where he now commands an estimated 500 fighters, said Qazi Abdul Rahim Raheen, a member of Parliament from the region, citing a briefing by Afghan intelligence officials.
The conflict is a new blow to the ebbing trust between Mr. Karzai and American officials, who had already expressed anger with his growing list of demands since he refused in November to complete the security deal he had initially approved.
“It does raise concerns — if they are not willing to adhere to agreements we made, then there is a real trust issue,” the American military official said. “It raises questions about any deal we would enter into.”
The Americans were not the only ones striking pessimistic notes on Tuesday. Pro-Western Afghan officials who only days earlier had expressed confidence that Mr. Karzai would come around on the security deal, especially as its approval is a prerequisite for the flow of billions of dollars in promised Western aid to Afghanistan, were now saying they were no longer sure what would happen. “Only he knows what is in his head,” said one senior Afghan security official.
Two Afghan defense officials said that was precisely the aim of those pushing for the prisoner releases. They linked Mr. Dadras to Mr. Karzai’s powerful chief of staff, Abdul Karim Khurram, who is widely seen as pushing the Afghan leader away from the United States. That the releases could help scuttle the troop deal was the point, the officials said.
“One of the main reasons that the president is releasing these prisoners is to pressure the foreigners,” said Gul Padshah Majidi, a lawmaker from Paktia Province, an eastern area that is thick with Taliban fighters. “The problem with this strategy is that it will reach a point that things will get out of control.”
American-Style Start-Ups Take Root in India
By SEI CHONG
Rahoul Mehra and his wife, Glennis Matthews Mehra, started Saf Labs, a biotechnology trading company in Mumbai.Atul Loke for The New York Times Rahoul Mehra and his wife, Glennis Matthews Mehra, started Saf Labs, a biotechnology trading company in Mumbai.
MUMBAI, India — India has built a reputation as a notoriously tough place to do business, one that has stymied even giants like Walmart. And unlike Silicon Valley, where a decent idea can attract funding, investors in India are much more reluctant to risk their money on start-ups.
Despite such challenges, some American technology entrepreneurs are seeking to pursue the country’s untapped opportunities, even without the clout of a multinational corporation backing them.
Peter Frykman, 30, of Palos Verdes, Calif., found his network of support at Stanford University, where he was a doctoral student in mechanical engineering. With the help of an angel investor in the United States, he created a pilot study in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu in 2008 for his agricultural start-up, Driptech, which makes affordable, efficient irrigation systems for small-plot farmers.
The idea for Driptech had its origins in Ethiopia, where Mr. Frykman traveled with a team in 2008 as part of the Extreme Affordability program at Stanford, in which students tackle real-world problems. But he found that for all its flaws as an investment destination, India had much less political risk than African nations and had better infrastructure. The nation also had more subsistence farmers than all of Africa.
In 2011 Mr. Frykman moved to Pune, India, after Driptech closed a funding round led by Khosla Impact, founded by the venture capitalist Vinod Khosla. “It’s kind of unusual to start a company and then realize that the biggest opportunity is in India,” Mr. Frykman said. “We sort of did it backwards.”
India may be home to many of the largest outsourcing consulting firms, and tech-oriented cities like Bangalore have attracted global technology giants like Microsoft. But attracting American-style entrepreneurism here has happened in fits and starts.
American-based venture capital firms and the Indian units of American venture capital firms, like Sequoia Capital India, invested $172 million this year through mid-December, excluding joint ventures. That fell from $250 million in 2006, according to Venture Intelligence, a research service based in Chennai that is focused on private equity. In the latest World Bank rankings on the ease of doing business, India slipped three spots, to 134th out of 189 countries.
Some 42 venture capital firms based in the United States, however, have either opened offices in India or opened Indian units since 2006, according to Venture Intelligence.
Despite the challenges, the sheer potential in a country of 1.2 billion people with a stable middle class is enough to tempt entrepreneurs and multinationals alike to explore opportunities.
“In the earlier years after I moved to India, around 2008-10, there was astounding growth in the mobile market, with 20 million new subscribers being added to the telecom network every month,” said Valerie R. Wagoner of Modesto, Calif., 30, chief executive of the mobile marketing firm ZipDial in Bangalore. That monthly growth was nearly equivalent to the population of Australia.
Ms. Wagoner was working for eBay when she decided it was time to shift her focus to her passion: emerging markets and technology. She did extensive networking in India with executives at mobile payment providers and joined mChek in Bangalore in 2008 as head of strategic initiatives. In 2010, she founded ZipDial, whose investors include 500 Startups, a Silicon Valley seed fund; Jungle Ventures of Singapore; and the Indian firms Blume Ventures and Unilazer Ventures.
The frustrations of doing business in India include bureaucratic hurdles in licensing and making other filings, and pressure for bribes, which Americans cannot legally give. Many start-ups avoid these hurdles by catering to private clients and by making products that do not need governmental approval.
Sam White, center, a co-founder of Promethean Power, first worked on making a cost-effective milk chiller for rural areas.Atul Loke for The New York Times Sam White, center, a co-founder of Promethean Power, first worked on making a cost-effective milk chiller for rural areas.
Entrepreneurs have also had to adjust business plans quickly to get around complications. Sam White and Sorin Grama, co-founders of Promethean Power, won second place and $10,000 in a business plan contest at M.I.T. in 2007 with the idea of using solar technology for rural electrification in India.
“India was the last country on my list to even visit — never had any interest,” Mr. White said.
Mr. Grama, 44, a Romanian-born American citizen, and Mr. White, of Boston, both eventually moved to Mumbai in 2012. They ran into problems from the start in trying to make a cost-effective solar milk chiller for villages where milk was collected for dairies.
In 2010, they spent six months building a prototype, only to have the managing director of Hatsun, India’s largest private dairy, point out that the 2,000-liter thermal battery that was used to store cold thermal energy was too big for any shed found in the villages.
Finally, they let go of the idea of being a solar company. Instead, they developed a thermal battery that is able to take advantage of the intermittent power on the grid. The battery releases a cold fluid that chills milk quickly.
Now the company has Hatsun as a client and has attracted funding from clean technology investors like the Quercus Trust, angel investors and grants by the National Science Foundation and the United States-India Science and Technology Endowment Fund, which was founded by the two nations’ governments.
“Eighty percent was our own mistakes — we would have faced them in any country,” Mr. White said. “But we always learned from those mistakes.”
A common complaint among the entrepreneurs was the difficulty in finding and keeping good employees. Even by Silicon Valley standards, Indian tech employees are restless. “The job market is so hot it’s not uncommon for a young person to think they can build a career by quitting within three months to get a pay raise somewhere else,” said Ms. Wagoner of ZipDial.
The tech companies have to offer salaries at the market rate or higher to attract job seekers, who prefer the stability of a conglomerate over opportunities for personal growth. In fact, Mr. Frykman said the “lack of coolness” associated with a start-up was one of the biggest surprises he encountered. For this reason, Indians are less eager for stock options than their counterparts in the United States.
To increase Indian employees’ exposure to such incentives, Ms. Wagoner has made stock ownership plans part of ZipDial’s compensation package and will give additional grants to people without their asking if she thinks they deserve them. “I believe it is very important that people who are taking a risk in building a company see the benefits of that,” she said.
Entrepreneurs, for their part, have embraced another Silicon Valley trait and learned to try again after failure. Rahoul Mehra, 42, founded Saf Labs, a biotechnology trading company in Mumbai, with his wife, Glennis Matthews Mehra, a 39-year-old neuroscientist. They originally wanted to run all operations out of New York, where they lived. “In doing business with India, we never intended for us to move to India,” he said.
But in 2008, two years into the business, which they had financed on their own, Mr. Mehra realized that deals would not be properly managed unless he was in Mumbai. Dr. Mehra reluctantly followed with their daughter, then 2.
The business managed to turn a profit and attract a private European investor so the company could expand into biotech services. But in 2012, after the Indian government delayed biotech funding for its new five-year plan, Saf Labs’ business was drying up. The Mehras realized they had to move away from the Indian market and focus more on international opportunities.
Now they are negotiating a sale of the company and using their experiences to market advisory services for Indian companies that want to expand overseas or foreign companies looking to enter India.
Other entrepreneurs, too, have begun exploring expansion to other emerging markets: ZipDial has already entered Southeast Asia. Driptech has sold its products in Africa, and Promethean Power is moving into Pakistan, Africa and Latin America.
“I don’t know who said it, but there’s a saying that what you’re going to find in India are little islands of excellence: people — despite the country, despite India — who are succeeding,” Mr. Mehra said. “If you can connect those dots, you can make a real go of it here.”
Bangladesh issues arrest warrants over fatal garment factory fire
Two factory owners and four employees sought on homicide charges for deaths of 112 workers in November 2012 blaze
Associated Press in Dhaka
theguardian.com, Tuesday 31 December 2013 18.48 GMT
A Bangladesh court has issued arrest warrants for two garment factory owners and four of their employees on homicide charges for the deaths of 112 workers in a November 2012 fire.
It is the first time Bangladesh has sought to prosecute factory owners in the lucrative garment industry, which is the world's second largest after China.
A series of disasters – including the 2012 fire and a factory collapse in April that killed more than 1,100 workers – has exposed how harsh and unsafe working conditions are in the industry that employs 4 million Bangladeshis and provides clothing to western retailers.
Police filed homicide charges on 22 December against 13 people. The arrest warrants were issued against six people who have fled including the owner, Delwar Hossain, and his wife, Mahmuda Akter. If the six are not found by 25 February, when the court sits, they could be tried in absentia for the charges connected with the fire that destroyed the Tazreen Fashions factory, outside the capital city, Dhaka.
Prosecutor Anwarul Kabir Babul said the accused faced a possible life sentence if convicted of failing to ensure safety at the sprawling factory, which produced clothing for global brands including Wal-Mart. It had no emergency fire exits and its location in a narrow alley meant firefighters were unable to reach the flames, Babul said. Investigators said that managers and security guards told the workers that the blaze was part of a regular fire drill.
Bangladesh earns more than $20bn (£12bn) a year from garment exports, mainly to the US and Europe.
North Korea: Kim Jong-un condemns uncle as 'filth' in new year address
Ruler makes first public reference to execution of Jang Song Thaek, saying ruling party has been strengthened as a result
Reuters in Seoul
theguardian.com, Wednesday 1 January 2014 06.02 GMT
Kim Jong-un has made his first reference to the execution of his powerful uncle, saying in a new year's addres that North Korea's ruling party had become stronger after it was purged of "factional filth".
Kim called for better relations with South Korea, warning that another war on the Korean peninsula would cause a massive nuclear disaster that would hit the United States.
Kim, the third generation of his family to rule North Korea, did not refer by name to his uncle Jang Song Thaek, whose execution in December in a rare public purge for alleged crimes against the ruling Workers' Party and the national interest.
"Our party took a firm measure to get rid of factional filth that permeated the party," Kim said in a broadcast on state television that appeared to be pre-recorded and did not show if he was speaking to an audience.
"Our unity strengthened hundredfold and party and revolutionary lines became more solid by purging the anti-party and anti-revolutionary faction."
After the sudden death of Kim's father in December 2011 Jang acted as regent to his young nephew as Kim established himself in power. With the purge Kim appared to target the only man who may have posed him any real threat.
Kim's call for improved ties with the South followed a threat from Pyongyang in December that it could strike Seoul without notice. "It is time to end abuse and slander that is only good for doing harm ... We will try hard to improve North-South ties," Kim said, adding that "dark clouds of nuclear war constantly hovered over the Korean peninsula".
"If there ever is once again war on this land it will bring about an enormous nuclear disaster and the United States will not be spared from it," he said.
Robert Carlin, a contributor to 38 North, a project of John Hopkins University's US-Korea Institute, noted that so far Pyongyang's treatment of South Koran President Park Geun-hye had avoided the relentless personal attacks on her predecessor. "Many times over the past 30 or 40 years the two sides have started dialogue by agreeing to stop slander of the other," Carlin said.
"It's a relatively easy and verifiable first step. By raising it Kim would appear to be signalling that he's prepared to start off with something concrete, if modest, in order to open the door."
State media reported on Tuesday that Kim rode on a ski lift at the Masik ski resort, a widely publicised public project where the North expects up to 5,000 skiers a day when it opens this year.
Kim has been pushing for massive projects throughout the country that go beyond the ski resort, pleasure parks and apartment blocks reported by state media, largely with the financial aid of its sole main ally China.
On Wednesday he emphasised his eagerness to pursue more construction projects. "This year we should open up a new period of prosperity in construction. Construction is an important frontline to set grounds for the strong nation and people's happiness," he said.
Supreme leader Kim Jong-un hands skiers of North Korea a huge lift
Young master takes test ride at country's gleaming new ski resort and orders that opening ceremony be held forthwith
theguardian.com, Tuesday 31 December 2013 19.58 GMT
It may not have the fir-lined pistes and abundant glühwein of the Swiss resorts of Linden or Wichtracht, close to where Kim Jong-un was educated, but the North Korean leader's new ski resort at least has a ski lift.
In pictures released by the Korean Central News Agency on Tuesday, Kim can be seen riding the chair lift and admiring the empty pistes.
In August, Switzerland refused to supply machinery to North Korea in a £4.5m deal, describing it as a "propaganda" project, but North Korea has managed to acquire two ski lifts.
Kim took a test ride on one at the Masik Pass ski resort, which he said was "at the centre of the world's attention".
He noted "with great satisfaction" that everything was "impeccable" and ordered the authorities to serve the people well so that visitors may "keenly feel the loving care of the party". He also commanded that the opening ceremony should be held at the earliest possible date.
The resort was described by the news agency as a "great monumental structure in the era of Songun," referring to the nation's "military first" policy.
Thousands of soldiers and workers, so called "shock brigades", built the slopes, hotels and amenities. Earlier this year reporters witnessed workers pounding at the stone with hammers, young women marching with shovels over their shoulders and minivans equipped with loudspeakers blasting patriotic music into the mountain air.
Kim was educated in Berne, Switzerland, where mountains were the backdrop to his studies. Some have speculated that he must have skied during his time there as well as indulging in his often-reported love of basketball.
At the resort, Kim was accompanied by military leaders and Pak Myong-chol, a sports official known to have been associated with Kim's late uncle who was executed this month.
Jang Song-thaek, Kim's mentor, was put to death on charges including corruption and plotting to overthrow the state.
The execution was the biggest upheaval since Kim inherited power after the death of his father Kim Jong-il, in December 2011.
Kim visited the resort in June and commanded that work be finished by the end of the year. In the new photographs, he can be seen visiting a hotel room, a spa and a ski shop.
The 30-year-old likes to be associated with expensive, high-profile leisure projects as well as the more frequent party congresses and military inspections. Projects associated with him include a new water park, an amusement park and a horse riding club.
The Munsu water park in Pyongyang opened in October and Kim was photographed in a cinema in the newly-renovated Rungna people's amusement park. State media also showed footage of Kim on a rollercoaster in the same park.
North Korea is one of the poorest countries in the world with an estimated per capita GDP of under £1,100. Government attempts to increase economic growth are often frustrated by the fear of opening the country to foreign influence.
South Korea is due to host the 2018 Winter Olympics but the South Koreans have so far rejected any suggestion that Masik Pass could also be a venue.
While few North Koreans could afford a trip to Masik Pass, the resort appears to be an element of North Korea's economic programme.
"All of Wonsan [the city close to Masik] will be turned into a tourist area," Ri Ki Song, an economist for the Institute of Economy at North Korea's Academy of Social Science, said earlier this year.
"It will have a big impact on the economy. We are now trying to build a lot of tourism sites, and skiing is the kind of sport that developed countries enjoy. It will also be a place for our own people to use."
Power and patriotism: Reaching for the Moon
Xi Jinping has consolidated power quickly. Now he is showing it off
Dec 31st 2013 | BEIJING |
IT WAS, as a Chinese newspaper put it, “a new beginning for the Chinese dream”. On December 15th the imprint left by Neil Armstrong’s boot on the moon in 1969 found its near-equivalent in the minds of China’s media commentators: the “Chinese footprint” gouged in the lunar dust by Yutu, a Chinese rover, after its mother ship made the first soft landing on the moon by a spacecraft since 1976. President Xi Jinping, watching from ground control, clapped as the image appeared on the screen. For the promoter-in-chief of the Chinese dream it was a moment to cherish.
Mr Xi launched the “Chinese dream” slogan within days of taking power in November 2012. It has since swept the nation, appearing everywhere on billboards and propaganda posters. It featured twice in a resolution adopted by the Communist Party’s Central Committee at a plenum last month that marked the tightening of Mr Xi’s grip. He has said the Chinese dream includes a “dream of a strong nation” and a “dream of a strong army” and, especially since the plenum, he has been playing up the strongman image.
Some Chinese actions in the region have appeared more assertive, too. On December 5th a Chinese naval ship had a tense encounter with an American cruiser in the South China Sea. Both sides kept quiet about it until more than a week later when American officials revealed that their vessel, USS Cowpens, had been forced to manoeuvre to avoid hitting the Chinese ship, which had passed in front.
The incident occurred while the American cruiser was watching China’s new and only aircraft-carrier, the Liaoning, as it made its first foray into the area, which is riven with competing maritime claims. (The Liaoning features in a special issue of four “Chinese dream” postage stamps issued in September; two others show Chinese spacecraft and one a deep-sea submersible.) America lodged protests with China about the near-miss in international waters. A Chinese newspaper, however, accused the Cowpens of posing a threat to “China’s national security”. The encounter is likely to add to American concerns that China is trying to claim the sea, a vital trading route, as its backyard.
The maritime near-miss came after the announcement on November 23rd of an “Air-Defence Identification Zone” in the East China Sea that would require all aircraft flying through it to report to the Chinese authorities. This enraged Japan, which controls islands within the zone, and was criticised by other countries, including America and South Korea. On December 16th during a visit to Hanoi, America’s secretary of state, John Kerry, said the zone had increased the risk of a “dangerous miscalculation or an accident”. China’s enforcement of it seems to have been scant, but nationalists at home have hailed the move. On the same day as Mr Kerry spoke, China’s defence minister, Chang Wanquan, was in Jakarta, where he said that critics of the zone were causing “a hundred harms and no benefits”.
“Chinese dream” rhetoric has suffused China’s coverage of the moon landing by the Chang’e-3 spaceship, and the Yutu (Jade Rabbit) rover’s successful deployment from it, sporting the Chinese flag on its side. In a televised call to three Chinese astronauts orbiting Earth in June, Mr Xi had said: “The space dream is an important part of the dream of a strong nation.” Despite some mutterings on Chinese microblogs about the pointlessness of replicating feats performed so long ago by the Soviet Union and America, Mr Xi appears as fixated on the moon as his predecessors were. The army’s main mouthpiece, the People’s Liberation Army Daily, said it was hard to say exactly when a Chinese person would land on the moon, but that Chinese spacemen were “heading towards this goal with unprecedented speed”.
The urge to purge
In Beijing rumours have continued to swirl that Mr Xi has been flexing his political muscles by putting a retired member of the Politburo’s Standing Committee, Zhou Yongkang, under house arrest on suspicion of corruption and other crimes. The New York Times reported on December 15th that Mr Zhou had become the first person of such rank to be placed under formal investigation for corruption since the Communist Party came to power in 1949. The newspaper quoted unnamed sources as saying Mr Xi and other leaders decided to take this action in early December. Mr Zhou enjoyed enormous power as head of the internal security apparatus before stepping down at the same time as Mr Xi took office. He was also widely thought to be the patron of Bo Xilai, a Politburo member who was sentenced to life in prison in September for corruption and abuse of power.
But although Mr Xi usually appears confident, a recent propaganda campaign has betrayed a sense of insecurity that still permeates the party elite. In early December official newspapers began praising an anonymous internet posting that urges Chinese to draw lessons from the chaotic collapse of authoritarian regimes elsewhere. “We support Chairman Xi Jinping because we don’t want to become a second Libya,” says the article, titled “You are nothing without your motherland”. Some microbloggers have mocked it, but employees of some state enterprises have been corralled into studying it. Mr Xi’s glorious dreams of the future, it appears, alternate with nightmarish visions.
Syria conflict pits Shia against Sunni as Hezbollah says this is 'war we must win'
Commander of militant Lebanese group claims that it has been forced to intervene in self-defence after sectarian attacks
Martin Chulov in Bekaa valley
The Guardian, Wednesday 1 January 2014
In a grand manor house in northern Lebanon, eight men, all of them well-to-do professionals, had gathered to hear an important visitor talk about the war.
Their guest was late; the going had been heavy across the mountain from Beirut, north up the Bekaa valley and finally west along the flat, spotless, Iranian-made highway that leads to Hermel. Arriving from the bitter chill of a winter evening, he eased into a warm living room where the expectant men edged forward, addressing the new arrival by a nom de guerre widely known throughout Hezbollah, the powerful militant group he had joined more than 20 years ago.
"This is a war not just against us, but against humanity," he said. "And it is one that we will win."
He was referring to the war to the east in Syria, a conflict in which Hezbollah has admitted playing a significant role, rallying to the cause of the Syrian army in its protracted battle against the opposition forces and Sunni Islamist groupings ranged against it.
Speaking carefully and deliberately, the commander, whom the Guardian agreed not to name, initially stuck to the official script that characterises Hezbollah as reluctant saviours of a beleaguered nation hemmed in by extremist Sunni militants on one side and by Israel on the other. In nearly three years of insurrection and war in Syria, it has been difficult to hear anything else from a Hezbollah official.
But over two increasingly unguarded hours, the commander strayed on to themes rarely covered: the regional impact of the group's role in Syria, the intensity of the fighting and the performance of the Syrian Army, which not long ago had been fighting a losing battle to retain control of the country. Those foregathered listened intently. All broadly supported the fight against the Syrian opposition, even if they differed on the virtues of Syria's leader, Bashar al-Assad.
"They fight well. It is not fair to them to say that they are not taking the lead," he said of the battle-worn military regime. "They are there and they are fighting. They have lost 30,000 men. That is not an army that isn't fighting. We are there giving advice and in some cases tactical leadership. We do not take a lead role."
Fifteen kilometres north-east, the ruins of the Syrian border town of Qusayr tell a different story. In May, Hezbollah stormed the town from the south, achieving in three weeks what the army it supports had been unable to do in two years. Syrian tanks and troops took blocking positions to the north and east. The attack is believed to be the biggest co-ordinated engagement ever fought by the Iranian-backed, exclusively Shia Islamic militia, which is well-attuned to guerrilla warfare, but less so to a full frontal assault on a fortified urban centre.
The Qusayr battle cost Hezbollah 112 men. It was, however, defining for a different reason: it marked the first time that the group's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, had been prepared to reveal that his members were indeed fighting in Syria. The acknowledgment was perceived by many Sunni Arab leaders as an act of belligerence that poured fuel on the sectarian fire. In the eyes of Saudi Arabia and many of the Gulf states, the troika of Iran, Hezbollah and the Alawite-led Assad regime are no longer shy about taking the fight to Sunni Muslims in the name of regional hegemony.
"It is not like that at all," the commander said. "They are the majority and they think they are the victims. Aren't minorities supposed to be the vulnerable ones? We are defending our lands. We are defending our interests. If the takfiris [fundamentalist Sunni Islamists] had not started attacking the border Shia villages, we would not have been forced to act."
Throughout the discussion, the commander labelled all members of the opposition as takfiris. Pressed on whether he believed any opposition fighters remained committed to the uprising's original goals of reorienting power within Syria's current borders, he said: "If there were any mainstream revolutionaries back then, there are very few now.
"In [Sunni] history Ibn Tarmeyah spoke out three times against us. We have known what we have been up against for a long time."
The pertinence of ancient teachings to a here-and-now battle is a common theme on both sides of a now bitter and protracted divide which is steadily becoming the most serious schism between the two Islamic sects since a seminal dispute over who should succeed the prophet Muhammad nearly 1,400 years ago.
Increasing numbers on both sides – the almost exclusively Sunni opposition and the largely Shia-aligned interests of the regime – frame the war as a prelude to an apocalyptic showdown with a preordained foe. To the Hezbollah leader, the role of the group is underwritten by Islamic teachings, just as much as it is dictated by modern strategic realities.
"The battle is intense. The takfiris are committed. They want to destroy Syria and we will not let them."
Despite murmurings of unease in parts of Lebanon's Shia heartland, he said Hezbollah and its supporters resolutely supported the group's involvement in the war. "It is an extension of the ongoing war [with Israel]," he said. "The enemy wears a new cloth. They may not be doing all of this themselves, but their interests are being served."
Asked why it had taken more than two years for Nasrallah to acknowledge the group's intervention, he said: "There was a process needed. People are absolutely committed to the reality now because they know it is one and the same hand.
"We started around the Sayeda Zainab mosque [a revered Shia shrine near Damascus], then moved to the border villages, then Qusayr. There are members fighting throughout the country, but not in huge numbers."
Over the past three weeks, some Hezbollah members have been stationed on the outskirts of Aleppo, along with members of the Iranian military and a large contingent of a Shia militia, Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas, drawn mainly from Iraqi volunteers. Hezbollah is also playing a lead role in the Qalamoun mountains north-west of Damascus – a battle that if won would allow the victor access from the capital to Syria's third city, Homs.
On the other side are a mix of Syrians fighting to oust Assad and replace him with another leader, and jihadists who see the insurrection as means of re-establishing a caliphate in the area and a fundamentalist Islamic society that reflects the seventh-century life of the prophet Muhammad.
Fighting in both areas has been intense over the past week, with more than 420 people reported to have been killed in eastern Aleppo. Helicopters dropping improvised explosives are responsible for much of the carnage and medics in Aleppo report that large numbers of civilians are among the casualties. In Qalamoun, the battle is being fought in mountains and valleys, the type of terrain in which Hezbollah has trained for more than three decades.
The conversation broadens. These men are at home here. The founding parade that formed the organisation was held not far from this spot in 1982. Street posts throughout Hermel are festooned with fading posters of men who have died in Hezbollah's short, bloody history. All are revered as martyrs in the organisation's heartland. Many had died in battles past, fought against a traditional foe, Israel. But new vivid photos of young fresh-faced men and boys jut from among them. They instead perished in Syria, fighting other Muslims. And the Hezbollah leader had commanded many of them.
A maid made coffee runs from a spotless kitchen to the right of the group and a portrait of a smiling Bashar al-Assad, his late father Hafez, and Hassan Nasrallah overlooked them from a facing wall. The conversation turned to the role of the US in the region and its rapproachment with Iran. "They seem to be framing their foreign policy [in the Middle East] solely through the view of protecting Israel," he said. "There are, of course oil and gas interests, especially with Iran and Pakistan. But the discussions with Iran are welcomed. It is a step forward."
As for the old foe, Israel, he said: "None of their borders are safe now and this is not a good thing for them. They cannot be happy with the momentum anywhere in the region, especially Syria. Egypt is perhaps the only border that gives them comfort. The rest are outside of their control."
Solar-powered lamps provided by Iran light the pristine road back to the Bekaa Valley, where potholes and darkness replace the stretch of bitumen. Here, only 15km from one of Hezbollah's main strongholds, the world view also changes suddenly.
At the first Lebanese army checkpoint heading south, several soldiers stopped our car and asked if we had a place for one of them. "I'm deserting," a 19-year-old Sunni Muslim conscript said. "I've had enough of this. Another rocket [from Syria] just landed. I want to go there and fight."
Echoing the words of the Hezbollah leader, he said: "This is a war that we cannot lose. We will win, whatever the cost."
Syria misses deadline to remove chemical weapons
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, December 31, 2013 11:12 EST
A December 31 deadline to remove part of the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons arsenal from the country for destruction has been missed, with ships due to receive the materials returning to Cyprus.
In Syria, meanwhile, a newspaper quoted government officials as saying invitations to a peace meeting in Switzerland next month had not been issued, blaming the delay on disarray among the country’s opposition groups.
And in northern Aleppo, at least 10 people were killed when a regime tank shell slammed into a bus in Aleppo city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
A Norwegian frigate and a Danish warship had been near the Syrian coast waiting to dock at the port in Latakia to escort chemical materials to Italy, ahead of their destruction at sea on a US ship.
But the vessels returned to port in Cyprus on Monday night as it became clear that the removal mission would not go ahead as scheduled.
Lars Hovtun, a spokesman for the Norwegian ship HNoMS Helge Ingstad gave no new date for the mission to escort the dangerous cargo out of Syria.
“We are still on high alert to go into Syria,” he said. “We still don’t know exactly when the orders will come.”
The international disarmament mission in Syria had acknowledged on Saturday it was “unlikely” the weapons could be transported to Latakia in time for the December 31 deadline set for the removal of key weapons components.
But the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons remained positive on Tuesday, saying the overall plan to rid Syria of its chemical arsenal was on track.
“An enormous amount of work has been accomplished in three months,” OPCW spokesman Christian Chartier told AFP.
“Syria’s chemical arsenal has been completely neutralised, the chemical agents and chemical products are under international control, have been sealed… the effective dismantling of the production and filling plants is on course.”
“All unfilled munitions have been destroyed, so even if the Syrians tried to get their hands on certain chemical products they wouldn’t have the weapons to use them,” Chartier said.
“Their capacity to produce and use chemical weapons has been reduced to zero.”
Chartier said the operation was still on track to meet a deadline to rid Syria of its chemical arsenal by mid-2014.
“The most important deadline in our eyes is June 30, and nothing leads us to believe that it won’t be met,” he said.
The failure to meet the December 31 deadline underlines the complexity of the task of disarming Syria of its chemical weapons in the middle of a bloody civil war.
On Saturday, the UN and OPCW said the war, logistical problems, and bad weather had held up the transport of chemical agents to Latakia for pick-up.
Syria agreed to join the Chemical Weapons Convention and turn over its arsenal for destruction in the wake of a devastating chemical weapons attack that prompted the United States to threaten military action against Damascus.
The August 21 chemical attack, which the opposition and the United States blamed on the Syrian regime, is believed to have killed hundreds of people on the outskirts of Damascus.
Syria’s Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi, addressing the parliament on Tuesday, said the government was complying with its obligations.
“We were able to accomplish what was agreed upon, destroying the chemical production and mixing sites,” he said.
“Now we have started collecting these materials so they can be transferred to the Syrian ports and taken to other places and destroyed within a timeframe that Syria has committed to.”
On the diplomatic front, Syria’s Al-Watan newspaper quoted a foreign ministry source as saying invitations to the a peace conference scheduled for January 22 in the Swiss town of Montreux.
The source said invites were to have been sent by December 28, and the delay was “the result of the floundering efforts to form a delegation representing the ‘opposition’.”
The key opposition National Coalition has yet to officially announce it is attending the conference, and there are questions about whether staunch regime ally Iran will be invited.
In Aleppo city meanwhile, the Observatory said 10 people, including two children, were killed when a regime tank shell hit a bus.
The monitoring group said the toll could rise as many of those injured were in critical condition.
South Sudan rebels seize regional capital ahead of peace talks
Troops loyal to vice-president Riek Machar take control of Bor as west presses both sides to end violence
Reuters in Juba
theguardian.com, Wednesday 1 January 2014 08.58 GMT
South Sudanese rebels loyal to former vice-president Riek Machar have seized control of Bor, the capital of restive Jonglei state, according to the town's mayor.
Nhial Majak Nhial told Reuters that government troops loyal to President Salva Kiir had made a "tactical withdrawal" on Tuesday to Malual Chaat army barracks, two miles (3km) south of the town, after fighting that started at dawn.
"Yes they [rebels] have taken Bor," Nhial said from the national capital Juba, 118 miles (190km) south of Bor.
Western and regional powers have pushed both sides to end the fighting that has killed at least 1,000 people, cut South Sudan's oil output and raised fears of an ethnic-based civil war in the heart of a fragile region.
The information minister, Michael Makuei, said on Monday Machar wanted to seize Bor so he could "talk from a position of strength" at peace talks, which were expected to start in neighbouring Ethiopia on Wednesday.
Government officials said their troops had been battling the ethnic nuer "White Army" militia and forces loyal to Peter Gadet, a former army commander who also rebelled against President Kiir when the fighting broke out in the capital, Juba, on 15 December.
The clashes quickly spread, dividing the country along the ethnic lines of Machar's nuer group and Kiir's dinkas.
Humanitarian organisations say tens of thousands of Bor civilians have crossed the White Nile river to escape the fighting and fled to the swamps.
December 31, 2013
Old Rivalries Reignited a Fuse in South Sudan
By NICHOLAS KULISH
JUBA, South Sudan — Few moments conjure as much fear in South Sudan as the massacre of Bor.
Long before South Sudan became a nation, while it was still in the throes of one of Africa’s longest civil wars, fighters tied to a leader named Riek Machar stormed through the city of Bor in 1991, killing 2,000 fellow southerners in an attack that would lay bare the deep divisions in this impoverished land.
Since then, the people of South Sudan have had periods of peace, compromise and even shared jubilation at the birth of their nation in 2011. Mr. Machar himself became vice president, apologizing for the massacre.
But there was never a real and lasting reconciliation between the factions threatening to pull this new nation apart, and on Tuesday fighters allied with Mr. Machar charged into Bor once again.
“This was a fire waiting to be ignited,” said John Prendergast of the Enough Project, a nonprofit antigenocide organization. “It was just when and not if.”
When leaders from around the world pressed South Sudan into existence — seeing its creation as the best way to end decades of war with its neighbor to the north, Sudan — they were well aware that the bitter internal rivalries in the south had never been fully resolved.
To help this fledgling nation’s chances, international donors like the United Nations and the United States have pumped in billions of dollars of aid, hoping to create a viable country from one of the poorest places on earth. But what has long been missing, analysts say, is any reliable structure for settling conflicts in a way that would keep the new nation from spinning into a civil war of its own.
“If those issues weren’t resolved beforehand, when there was still leverage to keep people at the table, then you were really sowing the seeds for the deterioration of any agreement that was going to be reached,” said Charles Stith, an American ambassador to Tanzania during the Clinton administration.
The fighting now tearing at the seams of this nation broke out in a military barracks here in Juba, the capital, on Dec. 15. President Salva Kiir accused Mr. Machar of staging a coup attempt. Mr. Machar denied it but fled to the bush, demanding that Mr. Kiir resign. Fighting between forces loyal to each side quickly spread to at least 20 cities, displacing 180,000 people and killing at least 1,000, probably more, many of them civilians.
But the makings of a crisis existed well before then, in the tenuous marriage of convenience that placed the hopes of this country in the hands of political rivals who often shared long and tortured pasts.
“We didn’t suggest who should be No. 1, 2 or 3 in the government; that was their own” choice, said a senior American official, speaking on the condition of anonymity about the negotiations years before independence. “They accepted Riek Machar back into the government.”
Instead of governing through strong institutions, many power brokers and generals in this nation still essentially command their own forces, their loyalties to the government often determined by their cut of national oil revenues.
“It is an extortion racket with bargaining ongoing on a regular basis, with either violence or the threat of violence” as a form of negotiation, said Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.
When things break down, the situation quickly plunges into violence. Rebel forces attacked Bor on Tuesday, engaging in fierce fighting with government troops over the city, a strategic location seen as a gateway to Juba. Col. Philip Aguer, a South Sudanese military spokesman, said the fighting was “very intense,” while a spokesman for the United Nations said the rebels had captured an airstrip and a major crossroads leading to the capital.
Jacob Achiek Jok, 29, fled Bor on Tuesday morning when the fighters were about to enter town. Many other terrified residents tried to flee as well, he said, either by road or across the White Nile. Some did not make it.
“Many people drowned,” Mr. Jok said. “They are normal citizens, not soldiers.”
International mediators are rushing to bring the parties to the negotiating table before the cycle of violence escalates any further. Both sides agreed on Tuesday to send negotiators to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, but the fighting continued and some news agencies reported that Mr. Machar said he would march on the capital next.
“The current information we have is that both sides are coming” to the negotiations, said Dina Mufti, a spokesman for the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry. “We are expecting the arrival of both delegations, perhaps today.”
Though most South Sudanese were not yet born at the time of the massacre in Bor — the median age here is less than 17 years — its legacy helps explain the deep-seated distrust and dissension that continue to plague this young nation.
During the long war for independence from Sudan, Mr. Machar, a British-educated leader of the Nuer ethnic group, split from the main southern liberation movement. It was during that period that his supporters slaughtered members of Mr. Kiir’s ethnic group, the Dinka, in Bor in 1991.
In the current dispute, a power struggle between rivals in the same political party — Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar — has once again deteriorated into a wave of ethnic killings, bringing this country to the brink of civil war. And as it was during the struggle for independence, each side in the current conflict, Dinka and Nuer, has been accused of killing civilians in recent weeks.
Gadet Koang Deng, one of the roughly 75,000 people taking shelter at United Nations bases across the country, said South Sudan was not fully prepared for the independence it achieved in 2011.
“We should be under United Nations supervision for at least 10 years to teach our police to be proportionate, our army to behave,” Mr. Deng, 31, said.
Rebellions in the countryside and violence by undisciplined security services — many of them former militia members absorbed into the armed forces for the sake of expedience — offered early signs that South Sudan would continue to wrestle with its divisions. Members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army were not happy to see rebels they regarded as traitors given higher ranks and salaries than others who had fought loyally for the cause.
“You had all these armed militias that had to be bribed back in by the government, and the placing of their leaders in high ranks above S.P.L.A. forces,” said Jok Madut Jok, a founder of the Sudd Institute, a research group in Juba.
Mr. Machar’s position as vice president was “part of the price that the country has to pay in order to get some kind of stability,” Mr. Jok said, adding that many people were “ringing the alarm bells” about political volatility well before the fighting started on Dec. 15.
The tensions made the difficult task of governing an impoverished country with few roads, poor health care and not enough schools even more challenging.
“There doesn’t seem to be a game plan,” said Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College in Massachusetts who has researched both Sudans extensively.
After Mr. Machar said he would challenge the president in the 2015 elections, Mr. Kiir fired him and dismissed the rest of his cabinet in July, effectively ending the uneasy power-sharing agreement holding the government together.
Then on Dec. 6, Mr. Machar and more than a dozen supporters held a news conference in which they accused Mr. Kiir of “driving our beloved Republic of South Sudan into chaos and disorder” through efforts to consolidate power that were “likely to plunge the party and the country into the abyss.”
Soon afterward, Mr. Machar’s allies were arrested and witnesses described his fellow Nuer residents being rounded up and killed in the capital, quickly leading to reprisal attacks against Mr. Kiir’s ethnic group in other parts of the country.
“The two men will eventually sit down, resolve their issues, laugh for the cameras, and the thousands of civilians who have died will not be accounted for,” said Mr. Jok of the Sudd Institute. “No one will be responsible for their deaths.”
Isma’il Kushkush contributed reporting from Khartoum, Sudan.
Israeli ministers back Jordan Valley annexation ahead of John Kerry visit
Palestinian leaders condemn support for bill as US secretary of state heads to region for latest attempt to unblock peace talks
Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem
theguardian.com, Tuesday 31 December 2013 13.55 GMT
Rightwing Israeli government ministers have stepped up their opposition to a peace deal with the Palestinians before US secretary of state John Kerry's visit to the region this week by backing a parliamentary bill to annex a strategically significant swath of the West Bank.
The proposal to extend Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley – a de facto annexation – was passed by a ministerial committee with the support of eight members of the government. Although the bill is unlikely to become law, it is symbolic of the deep opposition at the heart of the Israeli government to any peace agreement resulting in a Palestinian state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.
Kerry is due to arrive on Thursday for meetings with the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, in his 10th visit to the region since March. The US secretary of state is expected to present a framework for further negotiations in an attempt to unblock the talks, in which little progress has been made over the past five months.
The framework is expected to cover broad principles on the issues of borders, security, refugees, Jerusalem as the capital of both states, and recognition by the Palestinians of the state of Israel. The deadline for completion of the talks is April, but there is widespread scepticism that a deal will be reached.
The impending arrival of the US secretary of state was marked with Hebrew graffiti in a Palestinian village saying "Regards to John Kerry" and "Blood will be spilled in Judea and Samaria" (the biblical names for what is now the West Bank). Police said they suspected extremist Jewish settlers were responsible for the graffiti as well as the torching of villagers' cars.
Settlers also plan an inauguration ceremony, to be attended by the minister of the interior, Gideon Sa'ar, to mark the construction of new homes in a Jordan Valley settlement on the day of Kerry's arrival. The aim is to stress "the integral Israeli connection to the Jordan Valley, which is considered as a mainstream red line in any future negotiations", they said. All settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are illegal under international law.
The Jordan Valley has been pushed by Israel as a key factor in any agreement. The area, which is close to the border with Jordan, is home to dozens of Jewish settlements and huge Israeli agribusinesses, which export much of their produce.
Israel wants to maintain a military presence in the valley indefinitely to act as a buffer against hostile Arab states or non-state militant organisations. According to Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the UN, the area is "the frontline of Israel's defence".
On Sunday Israeli ministers voted eight to three for annexation. The bill's sponsor, Miri Regev, said the committee's approval was "a clear statement by the government that the towns in the Jordan Valley are a strategic and security asset of the state of Israel that must stay in our hands".
Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat told the Voice of Palestine radio the move "finishes all that is called the peace process". In a statement, he warned that Palestinian officials were reconsidering their commitment to refrain from joining international bodies such as the international criminal court while talks continued.
"Denying Palestine its only international border with Jordan is a clear step towards a permanent apartheid regime consisting of one state with two segregated systems," the statement said.
Kerry's visit follows Israel's release of 26 long-term Palestinian prisoners in the early hours of Tuesday as part of a pre-talks agreement to free 104 men in four stages during the course of the talks. The third tranche of releases saw 18 prisoners freed to the West Bank, three to Gaza and five to East Jerusalem. They had served between 19 and 28 years in jail, mostly for murder.
In Ramallah, Abbas greeted the freed men with the promise that "there will be no final agreement without the release of all prisoners".
The Israeli human rights organisation B'Tselem said in its end of year review that 36 Palestinians had been killed by Israeli security forces in 2013. Twenty-seven were killed in the West Bank, a five-year high, and nine in Gaza. Three Israeli civilians were killed by Palestinians in 2013, it said.