Peso collapse raises fears Argentina lurching towards decennial crisis
Fernández de Kirchner's government seems at a loss how to proceed, with observers blaming populist policies for woes
Uki Goni in Buenos Aires
The Guardian, Friday 24 January 2014 20.02 GMT
Following the sudden collapse in the peso this week, some Argentinians fear their country may be lurching into a new episode of the crises that seem to hit the country's economy almost every decade.
Scrambling to protect the country's perilously low central bank reserves, which dropped 30% last year and fell below $30bn (£18bn) this month, the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner seemed at a loss how to proceed.
It started the week introducing tight controls on the purchase of online goods from abroad, to prevent Argentinians from spending dollars in ever larger quantities – especially on Chinese products which, as a result of 30% inflation, can be cheaper delivered to their door from abroad than bought at local stores.
But on Friday the government seemed to do a U-turn, saying it would relax its grip on the dollar. From next week it will remove some of the controls it introduced two years ago which banned Argentinians from trading their pesos for dollars, a customary practice in a country with a long history of inflation.
The dollar freeze paralysed the property market, which operates in dollars, but failed to stem the rush away from the peso. Instead it created a black market where the dollar has risen from eight to 13 pesos in the last year while the central bank continued using – and losing – reserves trying to keep the dollar in check.
Its battle was ultimately lost this week in view of the peso's sudden collapse.
Seemingly oblivious to the country's economic plight, Fernández has referred to the last 10 years – since her husband assumed Argentina's presidency in 2003, and she took over in 2007 – as the "victorious decade".
But this week's forced devaluation of the official exchange rate may make it difficult to continue repeating a slogan habitually used in speeches by government officials, printed on billboards and even emblazoned on a recent series of commemorative stamps.
To 68-year-old Aida Ender, after 40 days without power in her eighth-floor apartment in the middle-class neighbourhood of Almagro in Buenos Aires, the slogan grates like a bad joke.
"There's no plan, the president is out of touch with reality, she's lost like Alice in Wonderland," says Ender, who has had to move out of her apartment, where she has had no water, no working lift and no refrigeration since 16 December. Her plight is shared by thousands of neighbours and even hospitals, in the middle of unusual summer highs of close to 40C.
Economic observers blame the government's populist policies – including keeping utility prices artificially low to disguise inflation – for the power crisis. They say this has made it impossible for firms to invest in maintaining power lines.
The government denies the charges and says that inflation is fuelled by anti-government businessmen.
Argentina has been here before. A bout of hyperinflation in 1989 – when monthly price increases peaked at 197%, accompanied by similar massive and prolonged power cuts – caused the collapse of Raul Alfonsín's government. Twelve years later, in 2001, a similar crisis forced the resignation of another president, Fernando de la Rua, and led to the largest ever foreign debt default.
Néstor Kirchner pulled Argentina out of the crisis that followed and the ensuing vigorous economic growth continued under his wife, Fernández.
Voters responded enthusiastically, granting the couple three successive presidencies and comfortable majorities in Congress.
But the glow is definitely gone now, obscured by runaway inflation, an alarming growth in crime and revelations of seemingly rampant corruption among the president's top officials.
Those problems, together with a large trade deficit, have sent the peso crashing. It fell 11% against the dollar on Thursday, as the government allowed it to drop without announcing an official devaluation – something Fernández pledged last year she would never permit. On Friday night it was down another 1%.
With Fernández practically absent from daily government since an operation to remove a blood clot from her brain last October, the government seems rudderless. Major announcements are left to her cabinet chief, Jorge Capitanich, another official who has been linked to alleged corruption, and economy minister Axel Kicillof, who is said to be behind the plan to let the peso lose value without officially announcing a devaluation.
"The government is at a stage of dangerous improvisation," tweeted former central bank president Martín Redrado, who was fired by Fernández in 2010. "These measures generate only more paralysis and uncertainty."
At least 11 people were killed and hundreds injured last month when a wave of supermarket looting spread across Argentina, fuelled by a combination of rising food prices and a police strike for higher wages.
Just before Christmas, Fernández celebrated the 10 years since her husband took office. It was one of her few appearances since her operation, and she danced with television stars in an exuberant ceremony in front of the presidential palace.
The scene prompted radio host Diego Poggi to say: "The truth is CFK (Cristina Fernández de Kirchner) looks divine. Pity the country doesn't."
Hormigón Armado street newspaper brings hope to Bolivia's shoeshine army
Bolivian publication inspired by Big Issue aims to improve street workers' lives by turning them into vendors and tour guides
Sara Shahriari in La Paz
The Guardian, Friday 24 January 2014 20.14 GMT
Walking the cobbled streets of Bolivia's capital with scuffed or dirty shoes attracts a lot of attention from the hundreds of shoeshiners who work along the city's streets and plazas.
Wearing balaclavas and carrying wooden boxes filled with polish and brushes, shoeshiners are reviled by many as drug addicts and criminals, but their story is more often one of poverty, child labour, violence and homelessness. It is also a story you can read in the newspaper sold by a small group of shoeshiners to supplement their income.
The newspaper is the brainchild of Jaime Villalobos, who saw homeless people selling The Big Issue while he was studying natural resource management in Newcastle.
Now in its eighth year, the result of Villalobos's efforts is a publication called Hormigón Armado, a play on words that means both reinforced concrete and armed ant, representing the resilience of Bolivia's street people.
"One time a well-dressed woman told me: 'You lazy shit, why don't you get a job?'" shoeshiner Juan José Poma, 33, says in an interview published in a recent issue. "What hurts most is when people ask me why I don't have a job when I'm shining shoes or selling candy."
Hormigón Armado focuses on the children, teenagers and parents of children who work on the streets, seeking to mitigate the harm, such as problems in school and vulnerability to violence, that can come from working alone from a young age.
Every two months, 5,000 newspapers funded by advertising are printed and given free to shoeshiners, who sell them to the public for four Bolivianos (about 35p). In return, the shoeshiners take part in weekly workshops on subjects ranging from human rights and education to first aid.
"If you grow up in an environment that loves and cares for you, you can work as a child and grow up to be a positive adult. But that's very hard for children who work on the street, because they are exposed to many dangers," Villalobos said. "We are trying to counter those effects so that they grow up to be positive adults and go into the formal workforce."
On a sunny Saturday morning, members of Hormigón Armado gather at their makeshift headquarters. Aged between nine and 40, some look healthy and wear clean clothes, others have gaunt faces and tattered garments.
Mauge, 24, left an abusive home when she was just nine years old. As one of very few young girls working as a shoeshiner, she disguised herself as a boy. Today, Mauge has left the street behind and is studying to become a beautician with a grant she got through Hormigón Armado. She is also part of the project's pilot tourism scheme, which gives tours of La Paz. Mauge makes £20–25 a month selling papers and giving the occasional tour. "The programme helps," she says. "It helps pay the rent and it helps with school."
Villalobos now hopes to open a vocational centre for young parents working on the streets and hire a social worker and staff to provide more support. "It's amazing to see someone finish high school or get off drugs," he said. "I admire how these kids struggle and fight."
NASA launches new satellite to boost growing communications network
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, January 24, 2014 10:01 EST
NASA on Thursday launched a new satellite to boost its growing communications network between Earth and the International Space Station, allowing for nearly uninterrupted video, voice link and data transmission.
The TDRS-L rocket blasted off at 9:33 pm (0233 GMT Friday) from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on its way to become the 11th member of the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System.
One hour and 46 minutes later, the 3.45 tonne satellite designed to work for 15 years separated from the second stage of the rocket, NASA tweeted.
It will now spend the next 11 days adjusting into its definitive geostationary orbit.
The fleet of satellites has “revolutionized communications” for NASA “by allowing nearly continuous transmission of information during a mission,” the agency said.
The first TDRS satellite was launched in 1983.
Before then, communications to space were spotty and based on a small number of ground stations worldwide, leaving many gaps.
“Astronauts and Earth-orbiting scientific spacecraft would relay messages only when they passed over or near one of the ground stations,” said NASA.
Now, the network of TDRS satellites combines to convey near-continuous signals, information and commands from ground controllers to the International Space Station as well the Hubble Space Telescope and a range of scientific satellites.
The satellite blasted off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, destined for an orbit 22,300 miles (35,900 kilometers) above the Earth.
In the USA...United Surveillance America
NSA domestic surveillance condemned in Republican party resolution
Republican National Committee members call for special panel to investigate extent of bulk data collection on Americans
Dan Roberts in Washington
theguardian.com, Friday 24 January 2014 20.45 GMT
Republican leaders have voted to denounce the “intrusion on basic human rights that threatens the very foundations of a democratic society” by the National Security Agency and backed efforts in Congress to outlaw all bulk collection of data on Americans.
A resolution on the NSA supported by a near-unanimous show of hands from members of the Republican National Committee, who were gathered in Washington on Friday for their winter conference, is not binding on GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill, but nonetheless reflects a growing mood of unease over NSA activities, according to party officials.
In its resolution, the RNC also called for a special committee to “investigate, report, and reveal to the public the extent of this domestic spying” and “hold accountable those public officials who are found to be responsible for this unconstitutional surveillance”. The resolution goes on to say that “the mass collection and retention of personal data is in itself contrary to the right of privacy protected by the fourth amendment of the United States constitution".
The language is far tougher than anything to have emerged from either party's establishment before. Still, one senior GOP official at the conference in Washington cautioned against reading too much into the “symbolic” vote, which he said may have little direct influence over the party leaders in the House of Representatives who have the power to decide whether reform legislation proceeds.
Nevertheless, others at the conference said the vote did reflect mainstream thinking in the party.
“I think that the committee's resolution this morning was about reflecting where it thinks sentiment lies,” the RNC deputy press secretary, Raffi Williams, told the Guardian.
“It wasn't done in an attempt to attract one part of the demographic but to reflect what the Republican party believes.”
Republican efforts to enact tougher reforms of the NSA than those proposed by President Barack Obama are led by congressman Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, whose bipartisan USA Freedom Act was echoed in the language of the RNC resolution.
“The Republican National Committee encourages Republican lawmakers to enact legislation to amend Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, the state secrets privilege, and the Fisa Amendments Act to make it clear that blanket surveillance of the internet activity, phone records and correspondence – electronic, physical, and otherwise – of any person residing in the US is prohibited by law and that violations can be reviewed in adversarial proceedings before a public court,” the resolution says.
It also “encourages Republican lawmakers to immediately take action to halt current unconstitutional surveillance programs and provide a full public accounting of the NSA’s data collection programs”.
John Kerry defends U.S. foreign policy as ‘more engaged than ever’
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, January 24, 2014 14:43 EST
Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday hit back at criticism that the United States was retreating from the Middle East and the rest of the world.
“Far from disengaging, America is proud to be more engaged than ever, and, I believe, is playing as critical a role as ever in the pursuit of global peace, prosperity, and stability,” he told a gathering of political and business leaders in Switzerland.
Kerry highlighted US efforts to kickstart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, a push to rid Syria of its chemical weapons and a landmark deal with Iran to rein in its nuclear program.
“Intensive, creative and strong diplomacy requires cooperation -? and that is exactly why the United States is so engaged in the Middle East and around the world, and why we will stay so,” the top US diplomat told the World Economic Forum meeting in the mountain town of Davos.
“As our friends and partners take courageous steps forward, they can be assured that President Obama and his administration will remain engaged for the long haul. But we will also confront these challenges with the urgency that they deserve. We dare not ?- and I can assure you we will not ?- miss this moment.”
Amid turbulence and upheaval across many Arab countries, including the war in Syria, the US administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East has been heavily criticised at home and by key Gulf allies for lacking focus.
Kerry keeping up pressure on Israeli-Palestinian peace process
Fresh from trying to push the Syrian opposition and the regime to start direct peace talks during a conference earlier this week, Kerry launched back into the faltering Middle East peace process.
He met Friday in Davos with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for almost two hours, during which they discussed ways to draw up a framework to guide the talks for the months ahead.
The US-brokered peace talks that began in July, after a three-year hiatus in direct negotiations, have faltered over seemingly irreconcilable demands from both sides, failing to bring any glimpse of a final agreement that would end decades of conflict.
Kerry, who has made 11 trips to Israel and the West Bank in his first year in office, is trying to hammer out a framework deal to chart the talks going forward, which would set down guidelines on the toughest issues such as the contours of a future Palestinian state and the fate of Jerusalem for the months ahead.
The two sides have agreed to stay at the negotiating table for nine months, until some time in late April.
“We have put the full range of resources of the US government behind this effort,” Kerry told the Davos forum.
But with the deadline looming, there has been mounting criticism by both Israelis and Palestinians as Kerry has pushed them to accept tough compromises.
Netanyahu said the meeting with Kerry had been very good, but he told Israeli reporters that neither a final accord nor a framework agreement was currently being discussed.
“The Americans are talking about their proposal for a framework to conduct negotiations. This is not an agreement we’re talking about, rather a route to enable progress,” Israeli media reported.
And he reiterated again that he would not evacuate any settlements in the Jordan Valley.
Netanyahu has amplified calls for Palestinians to recognise Israel as a Jewish state, a demand Palestinian leaders reject, fearing this could preclude the right of return for Palestinian refugees who left or were driven into exile when the state of Israel was created in 1948.
Israeli President Shimon Peres on Friday reiterated comments by Netanyahu in a speech on Thursday, saying Israel was committed to Kerry’s peace drive.
“There are difficulties, but neither of us has an alternative in real terms,” Peres said at Davos, which he praised for having helped forge Israel’s peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt. “Israel offers in real terms a sincere peace,” he added.
January 24, 2014, 11:01 am
Economic Shifts in U.S. and China Batter Markets
By NATHANIEL POPPER
The New York Stock Exchange on Friday, where the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index ended its worst week since June 2012.Jason Decrow/Associated Press The New York Stock Exchange on Friday, where the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index ended its worst week since June 2012.
Updated, 9:20 p.m. | The ascent of developing countries over the last decade has been fueled by two global trends: the steady rise of China and the willingness of the Federal Reserve to stimulate the economy.
Now, with both trends starting to retreat, investors have been heading for the exits in markets as far removed as Buenos Aires, Istanbul and Beijing, with effects spilling over into the rest of the world.
A decline this week picked up speed and spread around the globe on Friday, leading to the first sustained drop in United States stock indexes in 2014. The Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index fell 2.1 percent on Friday, to end its worst week since June 2012.
But the damage is expected to be worse in places that have relied on demand for raw resources in China, whose economic advance is slowing. An index of Chinese manufacturing growth released on Thursday showed that the most important cog in the country’s economy, the world’s second-largest, was contracting for the first time in six months.
The Dow and emerging markets have dipped in the last 30 days.The Dow and emerging markets have dipped in the last 30 days.
The damage has been particularly severe in countries that are already suffering from political instability, like Turkey and Argentina. Turkey’s currency fell to a record low against the dollar on Friday, a drop that will hit the purchasing power of everyone in the country.
On a street corner in Istanbul, Yilmaz Gok, 51, said, “I’m a retiree making ends meet on a small pension and all I care about is a possible increase in prices.”
“I will need to cut further,” he said. “Maybe I should use my natural gas heater less.”
The concerns about developing economies are being heightened by the Fed’s recent decision to begin pulling back on the bond-buying stimulus programs that have helped keep interest rates low around the world. Now, many countries that had come to rely on those low rates could face a surge in borrowing costs and a period of painful readjustment. Many emerging countries could also be hurt if investors choose to pull their money to chase returns in the recovering economies in the United States and Europe.
“A lot of these currencies are getting trashed and people’s standards of living are going down,” said Michael Purves, the chief global strategist at Weeden & Company. “There is a potential for social unrest to accelerate.”
The slump this week was the first serious break in a long stock market rally that took the broad United States stock market up nearly 30 percent last year, fueled by signs of an economic recovery. The extent of the rise had led many sophisticated investors to expect some kind of pullback in American stocks.
“This is a convenient and healthy short-term pullback,” said David Lafferty, the chief market strategist for Natixis Global Asset Management. “The market really needs some time to digest last year’s gains.”
In the rest of the world, the damage so far is less severe than it was during similar turmoil in emerging markets last summer, when the Fed first talked about easing its bond-buying programs. Most markets ended up bouncing back from that episode. But there is a growing recognition that the developing world will not be the engine of growth that it has been for much of the last decade.
In China, the economy is still growing faster than almost anywhere else, but the pace is slowing and the government is intent on developing an economy that is less intent on exporting goods. This is weighing on everything from the soybean industry in Brazil to the nickel mines of Mozambique.
For some countries, though, the recent problems have been relatively independent of China.
In Argentina, the government’s efforts to fend off inflation and artificially support the local currency backfired. This week, the government acknowledged the problem when it allowed the value of the peso to drop and made it easier to buy dollars, but that only spurred a greater sense of crisis. The peso finished the week down 16 percent. Many analysts have said that the government still has to deal with the fundamental problem of rampant inflation.
Some of the most drastic moves have been in Turkey, one of the largest emerging economies. On Friday, the Turkish lira was trading at 2.314 a dollar, creeping above 2.3 for the first time, after the central bank failed in its effort to control the slide.
Turkey had been one of many places where business magnates had used the Fed’s low interest rates to pay for a building boom. It is now unclear whether Turkish businesses will be able to pay off those loans if interest rates rise.
The country has also been plunged into political turmoil, which is hurting business confidence. In late December, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan became entangled in a battle with the Gulen movement, a powerful pro-Islamic network and once a close ally of the government.
On Friday, Mr. Erdogan accused the country’s largest business group of treason after its chairman warned about a possible retreat of global investors if the government continued political moves that endangered the country’s democratic system. The business group had forecast that Turkey’s economy would grow 3.4 percent in 2014, as opposed to a government projection of 4 percent.
Because Turkey and many other emerging market economies rely on low interest rates, their fate will depend, in part, on the Fed’s future decisions about how to pull back on its bond-buying programs. In December, the Fed decided to cut back its monthly purchases for the first time, to $75 billion from $85 billion. Next week, the Fed is scheduled to meet and announce whether it will continue to reduce its bond purchases.
“Emerging markets can’t seem to escape the shadow of the Federal Reserve,” Andrew Wilkinson, the chief market analyst at Interactive Brokers, wrote to clients on Friday.
Economists are carefully watching the United States for any signs that it is vulnerable to the weakness overseas or that the economic recovery is slowing independently. The most recent monthly employment report showed a sharp slowdown in job creation for the first time in months and data this week showed that home sales came in slightly lower than expected.
But the main American indexes are still within a few percent of their record highs. The S.&P. 500 ended Friday down 2.1 percent, or 38.17 points, at 1,790.29, bringing it down 3.1 percent for the year. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 2 percent, or 318.24 points, to 15,879.11. The Nasdaq composite index fell 2.2 percent, or 90.70 points, to 4,128.88.
United States, German and British bonds have been benefiting as investors seek them out as a refuge from the turmoil in riskier assets. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 2.72 percent, from 2.78 percent on Thursday, after hovering near 3 percent earlier this month.
An array of United States economic data has continued to point to an economic recovery that is gaining strength and could actually benefit if investors are looking for somewhere to put money that was previously in developing countries.
“There’s a part of this that actually strengthens the U.S.,” Mr. Purves said. “You may have a flight to the best house on the block.”
Reporting was contributed by Keith Bradsher in Hong Kong, Sebnem Arsu in Istanbul and Jonathan Gilbert in Buenos Aires..
This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: January 24, 2014
An earlier version of this article misstated the day that the Standard and Poor's 500-stock index was down about 1.2 percent at one point. It was Friday morning, not Monday.
House G.O.P. Leaders Aim to Bridge Party’s Divisions to Avoid Debt Limit Face-Off
By JONATHAN WEISMAN
JAN. 24, 2014
WASHINGTON — Speaker John A. Boehner will seek to emerge from a three-day House Republican retreat next week with a diminished opposition inside his party to avoid a showdown in the 11 legislative days that remain before the federal government exhausts its borrowing authority.
House Republicans will begin their retreat on the Eastern Shore of Maryland on Wednesday, still divided over how to raise the federal debt limit, overhaul immigration laws, challenge President Obama’s health care law, and address privacy issues highlighted by National Security Agency surveillance.
But with the passage of a budget in December and a detailed spending bill this month, Mr. Boehner and other Republican leaders have the upper hand in the simmering disputes.
“We have to have party solidarity,” said Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York. “Certainly we are the conservative party. But once consensus is reached, at least we have to allow that consensus to come to the floor for a vote, so John can bargain with Democrats from a position of strength.”
That approach has yet to be embraced by House conservatives, many of whom have signaled that they are not ready to simply acquiesce. House Republican aides have been meeting with the staff of Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, to conceive of ways to block any immigration effort that offers a pathway to legal status. Divisions are also deep on a push by some Republicans to draw up a detailed alternative to the Affordable Care Act.
But first up is the government’s borrowing limit, which Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew says must be raised by late February to avoid a potentially catastrophic default.
Republican leaders “have got to do an awful lot to get us to vote to raise the debt ceiling,” said Representative Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah. The House will try to attach Republican priorities to a debt ceiling increase, but “it’s going to have to be impressive if we’re going to add another trillion dollars to our debt,” Mr. Chaffetz added.
The speaker’s goal, above all, will be to emerge from the Maryland retreat with a legislative path forward that will give Republicans a vision to run on in the midterm elections this year without the public clashes that have damaged the party since it took control of the House in 2011. The focus will be achievable outcomes, not talking points, allies of the speaker said.
But lawmakers will return to Washington on Monday buzzing over the speaker’s own words. On “The Tonight Show” on Thursday, Mr. Boehner joked about the lengths to which he had gone to control his own caucus.
“People think, all right, you’re the speaker, you’re the leader,” he said. “They don’t realize I’ve got a lot of other roles that I play. You know, some members, I have to be the big brother figure. Some, I have to be the father figure. Others, I have to be the dean of students or the principal. Some of them, I have to be the Gestapo.”
Republican leaders are setting aside visions of a repeal of the Affordable Care Act or an overhaul of Medicare or the tax code in favor of smaller policy changes they want attached to a debt ceiling increase.
Topping the list is the repeal of one provision in the health law in which the government would step in to pay insurance companies for some of the increased premium costs if insurers end up with too many sick or high-risk customers signed up through the health insurance exchanges. Republicans, led by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, have denounced that as a brewing bailout, although insurance companies say such “risk corridors” exist to save consumers from the premium spikes Republicans have warned about.
Republican sentiment has turned against the insurers.
“A lot of folks don’t realize there could be some massive insurance company bailouts in the near future with Obamacare that a lot of taxpayers probably didn’t know about that we don’t want to see happen,” Representative Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, said recently when asked about debt ceiling demands. “That’s one of the issues that’s in the realm of possibility.”
Other ideas include repealing a tax on medical devices that helps pay for the health care law, removing an excise tax on insurance companies, or demanding the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Those demands, billed by Republicans as modest, could still be recipes for another white-knuckled showdown. White House officials say they would most likely accept some policy attachments, but nothing that undermines the health care law or rushes a decision on the pipeline. Even some of the most ardent House conservatives say it is not worth the fight, since in the end, Republicans will be forced to give in. Representative Raúl Labrador, Republican of Idaho, said the speaker should simply put a debt ceiling increase to a vote without other demands and let it pass with Democratic support.
“It would be a travesty to get into a fight now when we have no leverage,” he said. “Don’t lie to the American people and say we’ll only raise the debt ceiling if we do ‘X,’ then we don’t do ‘X.’ You only disappoint people.”
Moderate House Republicans have already appealed to the speaker not to pass a debt ceiling bill that has no chance at quick passage in the Senate. At least two dozen conservative Republicans are unlikely ever to vote to raise the debt ceiling, regardless of the policies attached.
The other main challenge will be to emerge from the retreat with a consensus on the immigration issues. Republican leaders are leaning toward separate bills on border security, the enforcement of existing laws against the hiring of illegal immigrants, an expanded guest worker program and a path to legal status for at least some of the 11 million immigrants in the country illegally.
The Republican goals will reject the Senate’s path to citizenship for illegal immigrants other than those who came to the United States as children. But Republicans are likely to embrace legal status for undocumented workers with family ties to citizens or with employer sponsors, according to several House lawmakers.
“The principles aren’t written yet, but in my personal belief, I think it’ll go with legal status that will allow you to work and pay taxes,” Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the third-ranking House Republican, told a local television station this week.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Republicans doomed to poverty because they’re ‘born into’ ignorance
By Scott Kaufman
Friday, January 24, 2014 11:39 EST
Astrophysicist and celebrity science advocate Neil deGrasse Tyson recently, and at great length, discussed the importance of scientific literacy with Bill Moyers.
Moyers began by reminding viewers of a recent Gallup poll in which 46 percent of Americans espoused the belief that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.” Moreover, a Pew Research poll showed that two-thirds of evangelical Protestants, “the bedrock of the Republican Party, reject altogether the idea that humans have evolved.”
Belief in the theory of evolution rose among Democrats to 67 percent.
Neil deGrasse Tyson attempted to explain this partisan divide in scientific literacy by discussing the role of the democratic process in science education. Because what’s taught in classrooms is handled at the state level, many Americans are “born into” ignorance.
He says this is a “self-correcting” phenomenon, because “nobody wants to die. We all care about health. Republicans, especially, don’t want to die poor. So educated Republicans know the value of innovations in science and technology for the thriving of an economy and business industry.”
So, he believes, eventually even they won’t want to see something “that is not science in a science classroom,” because that “undermines the entire enterprise that was responsible for creating the wealth that we have come to take for granted in this country.”
There is only so long, he says, that Republicans will allow the United States to “fad[e] economically.”
“Some Republican is going to wake up and say, ‘Look guys, we got to split these two, we have to, otherwise we’ll doom ourselves to poverty.”
It’s “just a matter,” he says, “of electing into office people who know…how money gets generated.”
He went on to discuss the many ways in which American students lag behind their counterparts in the rest of the world when it comes to scientific literacy, blaming the “culture of testing” for teaching students how to take tests instead of imparting basic knowledge about scientific principles.
Three years before the vote, fundraising machine gears up for Hillary Clinton
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, January 24, 2014 16:15 EST
With the news that America’s largest liberal fundraising group is to back a Hillary Clinton presidential bid in 2016, a growing sense of inevitability is building around her prospective candidacy.
The former secretary of state who once occupied the White House as first lady and narrowly lost the Democratic nomination in 2008, has been coy about whether she plans to run again.
But she has said that she will decide this year and, with a full 24 months before even the first party primaries, the “draft Clinton” movement is not waiting for its heroine to formally announce.
She swamps other potential Democratic contenders in the polls, including Vice President Joe Biden, another 2008 Democratic challenger defeated by Barack Obama’s victorious campaign.
Meanwhile, the man once seen as her most dangerous Republican challenger, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, is battling a murky political dirty tricks scandal in his home state.
Clinton is scheduled to give three speeches in April before business groups in reliably Democratic California, further fueling speculation that the 66-year-old veteran is nurturing a candidacy.
Priorities USA Action, a non-profit political group which brought in $78 million for Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012, confirmed Thursday it plans to raise money for Clinton from rich Democrats.
The group named 2012 Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, a veteran political operator with deep ties to wealthy donors, as its co-chair, essentially ensuring the most high-profile Democratic push of the coming election cycle.
He is joined at the helm by former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, an energetic Clinton backer and head of a grassroots political action committee, “Ready For Hillary.”
Political analyst Tobe Berkovitz told AFP the moves are early efforts at “bigfooting potential challengers on the Democratic side and also freezing the big donors from going anywhere else.”
Is it too early?
Part of the plan appears to be for the Clinton camp to burnish the inevitability of her candidacy, showing she is hungry to make history as the United States’ first woman president.
But is it happening too early?
Berkovitz said news of the powerful groups aligning with Clinton was good for her but warned it may have been better to appear inevitable a year from now when voters are closer to making their decisions.
And yet the enormous early enthusiasm for Clinton is a “tremendous asset,” argued Mitch Stewart, Obama’s battleground states director in 2012, who now advises Ready For Hillary.
“I think you’re seeing people coalesce around that excitement because it’s very rare, if ever, to see something like that especially three years before the actual election,” he told AFP.
“For us not to take advantage of both the enthusiasm that we’re seeing across the country but also the time that we have, again I think it would be gross malpractice.”
As if the world needed reminding that Clinton’s gravitational pull was increasing, this week’s New York Times Magazine cover features a much-debated “Planet Hillary,” an orb bearing Clinton’s face.
The image also contains a nod to potential threats to her campaign from the aura of scandal that still cloud memories of her husband’s presidency, featuring as it does a “Friends of Bill” black hole.
If Clinton runs she will need to juggle operating in today’s data-driven political climate of micro-targeting and rapid response, while also buttering up the old-school politicos who have been the power couple’s inner circle for decades.
Sensing a juggernaut, Republicans have not waited for Clinton to declare before trying to set-up roadblocks.
Even before Clinton left office as secretary of state, conservative lawmakers seized on the militant attack on an under-protected US mission in Benghazi, Libya that killed the US ambassador in 2012 as evidence that Clinton is not White House material.
They have also turned to a recent memoir by former defense secretary Robert Gates, a Republican in Obama’s first-term cabinet, who wrote that Clinton only opposed the 2007 troop surge in Iraq for political reasons because she was facing Obama in the primaries.
But when Gates was asked whether he felt Clinton would be a good president, he let down Clinton’s critics in his own party.
“Actually, I think she would,” Gates said.
Bridge scandal: Governor's office declines to release personal emails of top aides
on January 24, 2014 at 2:53 PM
TRENTON — Gov. Chris Christie's office has declined to release emails from the personal accounts of two top aides to the governor involved in the George Washington Bridge scandal, according to a liberal super PAC based in Washington.
American Bridge, a pro-Democratic group that conducts opposition research on Republicans, said today that it filed a request under New Jersey's Open Public Records Act for the emails. Christie's office denied it in a letter dated Thursday, the group said.
The super PAC focused on two of Christie's top aides: chief spokesman Michael Drewniak and former deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly.
American Bridge sought emails between them and Christie, or his top deputies in Trenton and the Port Authority, going back to April 2013.
According to documents submitted to the state Assembly under subpoena, Kelly used her private email account to tell a Christie associate at the Port Authority, David Wildstein, that it was "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."
Drewniak used his Gmail account while working on a statement with Wildstein when he resigned his job at the port in December, the subpoenaed documents show.
Andrew McNally, an assistant counsel in the governor's office, wrote back to American Bridge saying, "the subject matter of your request is the focus of numerous investigations from other entities, including state and federal authorities."
Christie's office has received many similar requests, he added, and can't fulfill all of them. "We are unable to make records available at this time, but we continue to work diligently and will provide a further response to your request as soon as possible," McNally wrote.
American Bridge lashed out at the response, claiming Christie was shielding himself with executive privilege. Spokesmen for the governor did not respond to requests for comment today.
Ukrainian president offers surprise concessions as protests turn violent
Viktor Yanukovych says he will make opposition leader prime minister and offer amnesty, but protesters demand more
Shaun Walker and Oksana Grytsenko in Kiev
The Observer, Saturday 25 January 2014 23.08 GMT
Ukraine's embattled president, Viktor Yanukovych, on Saturday night made a surprising and wide-ranging compromise offer to the protesters who have occupied his capital, promising to make an opposition leader prime minister, give amnesty to those involved in clashes with police and institute major constitutional reforms. The trio of politicians who have become the de facto leaders of the protests rejected the offer but said they were willing to negotiate.
After several hours of discussions on Saturday, it was announced that Yanukovych had offered the prime minister's job to Arseny Yatsenyuk, of jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko's Fatherland party. He also offered a deputy prime minister post to Vitali Klitschko, a former heavyweight boxer, and promised public debates with him.
"The president is confident that joint work with the opposition will help Ukraine unite and conduct reforms necessary for the state and the society," said a statement on Yanukovych's website, which also demanded that the street protests end.
Klitschko, however, said protesters would not leave Independence Square and the surrounding barricades. Yatsenyuk wrote on Twitter: "No deal Yanukovych, we're finishing what we started. The people decide our leaders, not you."
But when Yatsenyuk addressed the crowds in Independence Square he did not rule out taking the post and said that an emergency parliamentary session called for Tuesday would be key. Klitschko said he would only agree on a deal when Yanukovych agreed to call presidential elections.
The negotiations were the culmination of a week when everything changed in Kiev. Protests that were previously peaceful turned violent, with demonstrators throwing molotov cocktails and firing projectiles from hastily assembled catapults, while opposition leaders who had demanded negotiations began to speak about taking a "bullet in the forehead" in the struggle for the country's future. What for two months has been an edgy but largely bloodless standoff in Kiev's icy streets suddenly became red hot, with violence on both sides, at least three deaths and hundreds of injuries.
Earlier in the day, the interior minister said that force could be used to disperse the protests. "The events of the last days in the capital have shown that our attempts to solve the conflict peacefully, without recourse to a confrontation of force, remain futile," said Vitali Zakharchenko. "Our calls have not been heeded and a truce is being violated."
Over the past week, there has been a complete breakdown of understanding between protesters and police in Kiev, with the violence aggravating an already tense situation. Andrei Kiselev, a Russian videojournalist, recounts a chilling tale of being abducted, one of many similar stories. He was filming a group of activists who were travelling by bus – searching for a group of fellow protesters who said they had been kidnapped by police – when the bus was forced off the road by a police bus and the activists seized. He said the group were all beaten with truncheons, and Kiselev was not spared despite screaming that he was a journalist and offering to show his press pass.
He suffered a broken nose, black eye and large swellings all over his body. He also lost £3,000 of camera equipment, but worse was to come. He and the activists were loaded into the police bus and told to lie on the floor, he recounted from the Kiev apartment where he is recuperating. "They put their legs on our heads and if anyone tried to move they beat us. We had no idea where we were going, and many people were in extreme pain, as we had bad injuries. Eventually they made us get out of the bus, after we had been driven for half an hour, and we were forced to kneel in the snow for an hour, while they searched us."
Eventually, they were loaded back on to the bus, and told they would be "thrown under the ice" and killed, but instead were taken to a police station. By this point, worried colleagues in Moscow and Kiev had raised the alarm online, and the police sheepishly freed Kiselev, although none of his equipment was returned, nor his wallet. He says he does not know what happened to the protesters who were detained with him.
Others have even more harrowing tales. Igor Lutsenko, a journalist and activist, says he was kidnapped from Oleksandrivska hospital with another activist, Yuri Verbytsky, on Tuesday.
Lutsenko had taken Verbytsky to hospital for treatment to an injury suffered in clashes with police, when a group of men in civilian clothes dragged them into a minivan and drove them to a forest outside town, where they interrogated and tortured, Lutsenko told the Observer by telephone from his hospital bed. He is convinced the men who abducted them were working for the authorities.
"They behaved during the interrogation like people who have been doing this for many years," he said. "I don't think they were targeting me specifically. I think it was an act of intimidation, to let people know that this kind of thing could happen to anyone."
After a severe beating, Lutsenko was able to crawl out of the forest and make it to hospital. Verbytsky was not so lucky. He was found dead in Boryspil forest, just outside Kiev, on Wednesday. His body was found with his hands tied behind his back and a bag on his head. Police say he died of hypothermia. There appears considerable evidence to suggest that it is not only shadowy plainclothes thugs engaged in the violence.
One of the defining images of the week came in a video that received millions of hits on YouTube, of activist Mikhailo Gavrilyak stripped naked and being forced to walk in the freezing snow by a group of riot police, who are seen slapping the back of his head and taking photographs. Gavrilyak, who was later released, said he was subjected to repeated beatings and had his hair cut off with a knife. He said protesters would exact a "terrible revenge" for his ordeal.
Vitali Klitschko, an opposition leader, released a statement calling on officials and police to disobey orders: "Do not carry out criminal orders, do not approve unjust and illegal decisions, do not participate in repression against the citizens of Ukraine, our own people. Protect them today!"
But while there have been reports of some police defecting in the west of the country – which has never supported Yanukovych – in Kiev there is said to be anger and a desire for revenge among riot police, who have spent countless days standing in freezing temperatures, sheltering from attack, and in some cases watching their colleagues being hit by molotov cocktails. The video of Gavrilyak's humiliation was not posted by a conscience-stricken whistleblower, but was discovered on the social network page of a riot police officer, with the caption: "We're going to fuck you up."
The stories of police brutality have only intensified feelings on the barricades. A truce called on Thursday has broken down, and activists continued to burn tyres and shoot projectiles at police. The storming of administration buildings in the west of the country continued, with activists occupying buildings in 10 cities as the situation continues to slip further out of Yanukovych's control.
The opposition leaders said Yanukovych seemed "completely changed" on Saturday as compared with negotiations in the week, and appeared worried by the situation in the west. His offer to give top posts to the opposition as well as make constitutional changes is much further than he has gone before, but with tensions so high it remains unclear whether anything other than Yanukovych's resignation will be enough to end the standoff on the streets.
At midnight, hundreds of protesters smashed their way into a building housing interior ministry troops, wielding clubs and throwing molotov cocktails. The protesters demanded the troops leave the building, which they eventually did after a tense standoff lasting four hours. The retreat was negotiated by Klitschko and the troops left the building as the violence subsided.
Himmler hoard of letters and diaries discovered in Israel
Cache of Nazi leader's documents, authenticated by German federal archive, to be published over eight weeks in Welt am Sonntag
Philip Oltermann in Berlin
theguardian.com, Sunday 26 January 2014 12.07 GMT
Lost letters, photographs and diaries by Heinrich Himmler have been discovered in Israel, shedding new light on one of the men most directly responsible for the Holocaust.
The stash of documents from the Nazi era is currently held in a bank vault in Tel Aviv, but has been authenticated by the German federal archive, considered the world's leading authority on material from the period. Its contents are to be published over eight weeks in the newspaper Welt am Sonntag, starting on Sunday with Himmler's letters to his wife Margarete.
The letters portray a man whose cheerful mood is often at odds with the historical crime he helped to orchestrate. "I am travelling to Auschwitz. Kisses, your Heini," he wrote to his wife before setting off to inspect the concentration camp where he directed the killing of some 1.5 million people, mostly Jews.
Himmler and his wife shared antisemitic feelings, as well as a joint dislike of Weimar-era Berlin. "Poor sweetie, has to tussle with those wretched Jews over money," the SS leader wrote to his spouse on 16 April 1928.
In November 1938, after the Reichskristallnacht pogroms that her husband had directed, Margarete Himmler wrote in her diary: "All this Jew business, when will this pack leave us so that we can enjoy our lives?"
"I hate and will always hate the Berlin system, which will never latch on to you, you virtuous and pure woman," Himmler wrote in December 1927. "Berlin is contaminated. Everyone only speaks of money," "Marga" wrote a year later.
Himmler, who killed himself in British custody in Lüneberg on 23 May 1945, styled himself as a Landsknecht or servant to his country, "toughened up through 10 years of battle" in a letter of 2 January 1928. Margarete describes her husband as "an evil man with a tough and rough heart", but also writes: "I am so lucky to have such an evil good man, who loves his evil wife as much as she loves him."
Heinrich and Margarete Himmler had a daughter, Gudrun, in 1929. From late 1938, Himmler had an affair with his long-term secretary Hedwig Potthast, with whom he had two children.
The newly discovered collection of documents is thought to have been found by US army officers in May 1945 in one of the Himmler family homes in Gmund, near the Tegernsee lake in the Bavarian Alps.
Some of the documents seized by soldiers were confiscated soon after by the US intelligence service, which was collecting material to be used in the Nuremberg trials. But the cache of letters, photos and diaries is likely to have stayed in private hands.
The archive resurfaced in Israel in the early 1980s but failed to gain public attention, partly thanks to the controversy around the forged "Hitler diaries" published by the news magazine Stern and the Sunday Times in 1983.
They were then sold to the father of the Israeli film-maker Vanessa Lapa, whose documentary about Himmler, Der Anständige (The Decent One), will premiere at the Berlin film festival next month.
Welt am Sonntag claims that the Himmler letters tally with those passed into public hands in 1945 and have been authenticated by a number of experts. "There is no reason to doubt the authenticity of the documents in Tel Aviv," the former federal archivist Josef Henke told the newspaper.
Bavarian town council revokes Adolf Hitler's honorary citizenship
Councillors nullify honours bestowed on Adolf Hitler and the president who appointed him, Paul von Hindenburg, in 1933
theguardian.com, Wednesday 18 December 2013 14.40 GMT
A Bavarian town council has voted unanimously to strip Adolf Hitler of honorary citizenship bestowed 80 years ago, after an outcry prompted by its decision last week not to adopt a resolution denouncing the 1933 decision.
The issue came up after an archivist discovered documents showing that Hitler and the president who appointed him, Paul von Hindenburg, had been given honorary citizenship of Dietramszell.
The council deadlocked in an 8-8 vote last week on the resolution, with councillors voting against, saying it was not up to them to rewrite history.
But the town administrator, Thomas Gerg, said on Wednesday the full council had voted 21-0 on Tuesday to adopt the resolution and nullify the honour bestowed on both men after hearing impassioned testimony from a woman who lost members of her family in the Holocaust.
After a day of chaos, Hollande says his 'shared life' with Trierweiler is finished
Following the revelation of an affair, the French president puts an end to speculation and says relationship with his partner is over
The Observer, Sunday 26 January 2014
The statement was terse: François Hollande, speaking as a man and not the president, was "putting an end" to his "shared life" with Valérie Trierweiler.
The would-he-wouldn't-he soap opera that had played out for two weeks had finally come to what many saw as an inevitable conclusion. It was over. As the president flew back from an official visit to the Vatican, where he was frostily received, Valérie Trierweiler, his now ex-partner and now ex-first lady, was packing her bags for a two-day trip to India. She will not be unpacking them at the Elysée Palace when she returns on Tuesday.
With Hollande's declaration, her visit on behalf of Action Contre La Faim ("Action against hunger") had been transformed from a long-standing official engagement by the president's companion to a visit conducted by what officials described as an "ordinary citizen".
The statement came late in a day that had seen claim and counter-claim over the future of France's first couple. Le Parisien newspaper reported on Saturday that the Elysée was about to announce the split: "François Hollande et Valérie Trierweiler, c'est fini" ["it's finished"] read its headline. The Elysée flatly denied it planned to make any statement.
The confusion left Hollande, who had promised to "clarify the situation" between him and Trierweiler before flying to Washington on 11 February to meet Barack Obama, looking worryingly indecisive, an image he had hoped to have thrown off with his much heralded economic U-turn 10 days ago. It also threatened to cancel out positive opinion poll results showing his alleged affair with French actress Julie Gayet, 41, had not damaged his standing with the public.
At just before 7pm, Hollande issued his statement: "I am making it known that I have ended my shared life with Valérie Trierweiler."
According to Frédéric Gerschel of Le Parisien, the first couple thrashed out the details of their separation over lunch on Thursday. A long-time friend of Trierweiler, 48, Gerschel said: "The relationship is finished, and they have reached an amiable agreement. She is not going to India as first lady and when she comes back she will not go back to the Elysée."
Trierweiler, who had plunged into "deep despair" and spent a week in hospital after learning of Hollande's secret soirées with Gayet, was said by her lawyer, Frédérique Giffard – reportedly fired after speaking to the press last week – to be seeking a dignified exit.
Giffard told Le Figaro: "It's difficult for Valérie Trierweiler to remain serene in the face of such media and political pressure. But she's aware a clarification is necessary. She really hopes that this matter can be resolved in order to come out of it with as much dignity as possible."
Trierweiler has spent the last week "resting" at La Lanterne, an official state residence at Versailles, but will return to the rented apartment in the 15th arrondissement of Paris that she shared with Hollande, 59, before his election in May 2012, Gerschel added.
"She knows the decision is irreversible. Of course she is sad and this is painful for her but she is trying to look forward. She has plans for the future and is hoping to return to work as a journalist," he said.
Trierweiler met Hollande while he was still with Ségolène Royal, his former partner and mother of his four children. Their relationship became public shortly after Royal lost her 2007 bid to become France's first female president when she was defeated by centre-right candidate Nicolas Sarkozy.
In 2010, Hollande, who did not marry either partner, told glossy celebrity magazine Gala that Trierweiler was the "woman of his life", but the Paris Match journalist was known to be deeply possessive. Shortly after his election, she caused a storm by supporting on Twitter Royal's rival in the legislative elections. Many Socialist supporters found it hard to forgive her for Royal's subsequent defeat. Since then, Hollande's popularity has continued to plummet.
The couple's split seemed inevitable after Hollande was reported to have been secretly seeing Gayet for two years after meeting her through Royal shortly before he was named the Socialist party's presidential candidate. Their affair came to light a fortnight ago after Closer magazine published photographs of the president on the back of a scooter visiting Gayet's apartment. It claimed he had been sneaking out for trysts and showed his bodyguard apparently delivering croissants to the pair.
Escaped Marxist guerrilla Christodoulos Xiros alarms Greece with pledge to return to arms
A video threat by a member of the disbanded 17 November terror group creates a new crisis for a weakened state
Helena Smith in Athens
The Observer, Sunday 26 January 2014
Up close, Christodoulos Xiros does not come across as a menacing man – in many ways he still resembles the soft-spoken craftsman he once was. But this weekend, barely three weeks after absconding from the high-security Korydallos prison in Athens, the dark-eyed 56-year-old, a key member of the defunct 17 November terror group, has struck fear into the hearts of many across crisis-hit Greece.
In the space of five days, panic-stricken authorities have launched the biggest manhunt in modern times, placed a €4m bounty on his head – dead or alive – and thrown a security cordon around the capital not seen since the 2004 Olympics.
On Friday, as European justice ministers gathered in the country that currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, there were sharpshooters on the roofs, sniffer dogs roaming the streets and more than 2,000 riot police outside government offices and hotels.
"I am worried that soon there will be an attack," said former foreign minister Dora Bakoyannis, giving voice to the fears stalking Greece after Xiros failed to report to authorities while visiting his family during a nine-day leave from prison earlier this month.
It was 15 days before the self-described "free member of 17 November" re-emerged, with a video message vowing a return to armed action. "It's time for battle," Xiros said against a background of images depicting resistance fighters and a second world war communist hero. "I have decided to thunder the guerrilla shotgun against those who stole our lives and sold our dreams for profit."
The event has been a huge embarrassment even for a government already dealing with a society at boiling point and an economy still ravaged by recession and debt almost four years after first being bailed out.
Bakoyannis – whose first husband, a conservative MP, was gunned down by the 17 November organisation in 1989 – was convinced, along with most Greek officials, that the scourge of terrorism had been eradicated with the disbandment of the guerrilla gang in 2002.
Xiros, who was serving six life sentences for a string of deadly attacks and bombings, was among the 15 convicted members of 17 November whose incarceration was meant to have ended the activities of an organisation that, long before the appearance of al-Qaida, was at the top of America's most wanted list.
Over a period of 27 years, the seemingly impregnable Marxist-Leninist group killed 23 people, including CIA station chief Richard Welch, its first victim, and British defence attache Brigadier Stephen Saunders, assassinated as he drove to work in June 2000.
In the commotion that followed Xiros's escape, Alexandros Giotopoulos, the French-born academic believed to have founded the gang, and Dimitris Koufondinas, its chief hitman, have declared, in letters written from prison, that "17 November is dead". But while security officials agree – pointing out that Greeks' tolerance for its crusade against capitalist culture and its crude anti-Americanism has long since evaporated – fears abound that the country's austerity-ravaged society and fragile political climate provide fertile ground for a resurgence of political violence.
Anger in Washington has added to the pressure on prime minister Antonis Samaras's shaky government to capture Xiros. The US State Department still regards 17 November as a terrorist organisation.
Western diplomats worry that Xiros will try to forge a leading role among a new generation of guerrillas linked to a criminal underworld that is thought to be well-armed and careless about who gets killed. During his 11-year stint in prison he is known to have fraternised with members of the militant group Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire, best-known for the parcel bombs it dispatched to the offices of EU leaders, including that of the German chancellor Angela Merkel, at the onset of the Greek crisis.
In his video message, Xiros issued a rallying cry for anarchists and leftists to unite in revolt against the "scum" who had brought Greece to the brink of ruin. "What is dangerous about him is that he has a hyper-acute sense of justice and a pathological sense of responsibility," said the former US diplomat Brady Kiesling, who has been studying Greek far-left violence for a forthcoming book. "And that is what makes a terrorist."
In the aftermath of his disappearance, speculation was rife that Xiros, the son of a fundamentalist Orthodox priest, had decided to abscond because he had fallen in love with a woman he met on a previous release from prison. But as police swooped on homes in Athens, rounding up and arresting figures on the anti-establishment left, rumour was also rife that a terrorist attack was imminent.
"Although we do not know the circumstances under which it was made, for a large part of the revolutionary community he disgraced himself by signing a police confession that he belonged to 17 November," said Kiesling. "I think he is now desperately trying to place himself in a noble position for a handful of people he cares about."
Xiros's ability to elude the authorities has inevitably also focused attention on a Greek state apparatus that has all but collapsed. Anti-terrorist units, like the judiciary, police, prison officers and politicians, have been sapped of morale by the country's ongoing crisis.
He is the second convicted terrorist to go underground: Nikos Maziotis – the leader of another disbanded guerilla group, Revolutionary Struggle – absconded on a similar leave of absence from prison last year. Maziotis was believed to be behind a shooting attack on the official residence of the German ambassador to Athens in December. The Greek justice minister announced on Friday that the authorities would re-examine the release rights of those serving time for terrorism offences. "They should never have been given such permits," the minister said.
Until now prisoners, including most of 17 November, have been granted temporary release after serving eight years of their sentences. Xiros, to the dismay of authorities in Washington, has secured several such exits since 2011.
"Last year, he was the guest of honour when he came to baptise the kid of the guy who now rents his workspace," Ilias Leriadis, the deputy mayor on the island of Ikaria, Xiros's ancestral home, told the Observer. "This is a traditionally leftist island, and although we don't support his call for arms, and leftwing parties have strongly opposed it, he has a lot of support among friends and family here."
Hungarian far-right leader Gabor Vona vows to address rally in London
Anti-fascist protesters to attend speech of Vona whose Jobbik party is accused of fuelling hatred against Roma and Jews
Mark Townsend and Daniel Boffey
The Observer, Saturday 25 January 2014 20.02 GMT
The leader of an extreme Hungarian nationalist party has declared that the furore over his controversial visit to London on Sunday has made him even more determined to speak in Britain.
Gábor Vona, 35, whose party has been accused of strong antisemitic views, and of fuelling hatred against the Jewish and Roma communities, posted a diatribe on Facebook in which he said: "I wish to be there more than ever."
Vona's plans to speak at a rally at Holborn tube station, in central London, a day before Holocaust Memorial Day, have drawn condemnation and calls for him to be banned from entering the UK.
Fears are growing that his rally, allegedly organised to allow him to speak to Britain's 50,000 Hungarian expats before this year's election, could be a violent flashpoint, with members of Unite against Fascism expected to attend in protest.
Scotland Yard has made contact with Vona through his party's Facebook page to ask him about this motives and plans, according to the far-right politician, who added on the social media site: "Polish groups living in England declared that if anyone tries to attack Hungarians, they will be there and they will step up."
Vona has advocated segregation for Hungary's 800,000 Roma. His foreign policy spokesman Marton Gyongyosi has called for a register of Jewish people who allegedly pose a "national security risk". He subsequently apologised.
The party's paramilitary wing, Hungarian Guard, likened to the Nazi brownshirts for the habit of wearing traditional dress, with black boots and trousers, was banned in 2009.
Last week, a petition of 14,000 signatures was presented, at the Home Office asking Theresa May, the home secretary, to ban Vona from the UK. But sources close to the government said Vona had been careful not to make comments that could permit such a ban on the grounds of inciting racial hatred.
Last Saturday, Vona, whose party, Jobbik, is Hungary's third-largest, winning 17% of the vote and nearly 50 seats in parliament, said in a speech that his party now shunned racism.
While endorsing capital punishment and chemical castration for some criminals, he told a party meeting: "We've had enough of racism! There won't be a law in Hungary that would allow for a differentiation to be made on ethnic or religious basis between a human and another one.
"We want equality. Even the honest Gypsy will do better if Jobbik gets to govern. Not because he is Gypsy, but because he is honest."
But the London assembly member for Barnet and Camden, Andrew Dinsmore, whose constituency includes Holborn, said Vona should be banned on the basis of his party's previous rhetoric and record. "The parallels with Hitler are frightening We produced our petition in 24 hours and there has been silence from the Home Office. From what I understand, this lot are even worse than Golden Dawn in Greece."
Baroness Hussein-Ece, the Liberal Democrat spokesman for gender and equality in the Lords, also said she supported those campaigning against Vona's visit. She said: "We have a responsibility for community relations and someone like this is going to add anything to the fabric of our society. He is anti-semitic, Islamophobic and racist and there is a coaltion of views saying we do not want him in this country".
Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, said: "The visit to the UK of a man who has become the face of far-right and antisemitic sentiment in Hungary on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day is deplorable.
"Jobbik, the party which Vona leads, have expressed explicitly antisemitic views, including calling for a list of Jews in Hungary to be drawn up due to their 'national security risk'. How can such views be welcome in this country, on this day of all days?"
The Holocaust Memorial Day commemorations will be launched in the UK at King's Cross station on Monday, less than a mile from where the rally is expected to take place. On the grounds of the Auschwitz concentration camp, more than 60 members of the Israeli parliament, including the speaker in the Knesset, will gather to remember those who suffered there.
False Claims in Afghan Accusations on U.S. Raid Add to Doubts on Karzai
By MATTHEW ROSENBERG
JAN. 25, 2014
KABUL, Afghanistan — It was the kind of dossier that the Taliban often publish, purporting to show the carnage inflicted during a raid by American forces: photographs of shattered houses and bloodied, broken bodies, and video images of anguish at a village funeral, all with gut-churning impact and no proof of authenticity.
But this time, it was the government of President Hamid Karzai that was handing out the inflammatory dossier, the product of a commission’s investigation into airstrikes on Jan. 15 on a remote village and the supposed American cover-up that followed.
In an apparent effort to demonize their American backers, a coterie of Afghan officials appears to have crossed a line that deeply troubles Western officials here: They falsely represented at least some of the evidence in the dossier, and distributed other material whose provenance, at best, could not be determined.
An examination of the dossier by The New York Times also revealed that much of the same material was posted on a Taliban website last week, a rare instance of the militant group’s political speech matching that of the government it is fighting to topple.
Mr. Karzai’s growing antipathy toward the United States is no secret, and civilian casualties have proved to be one of the most corrosive issues between the allies. Yet the photographs and the video, handed out by Mr. Karzai’s office last week, have injected a new level of vitriol into the relationship and shown how the Karzai government’s political speech has been increasingly mirroring that of the Taliban — including the insurgents’ habit of twisting facts, or simply making them up when necessary.
The purpose of the dossier, according to other Afghan officials, was to justify Mr. Karzai’s stalling on signing a long-term security agreement with the United States and to improve the chances for peace talks with the Taliban by showing that he is no American stooge, as the insurgents have often derided him.
For American and European officials, the episode has reinforced a growing sense that for all the talk of securing an enduring partnership, Mr. Karzai may have no intention of ever signing the security agreement. Without an agreement, the Obama administration has said, it will pull American forces from Afghanistan when the NATO combat mission here ends this year.
“There is no overall partnership,” a European diplomat said. “We have some Afghan partners, and we have a lot of Afghans in the government who want us to leave. I think we’re all beginning to realize that.”
The troubled relationship with Mr. Karzai has worsened to a point where the Afghan leader, in his public statements, seems to blame the United States for the war with the Taliban. He often portrays American intransigence as the main obstacle to peace, not the Taliban’s unwillingness. The sentiment underpinned a statement Mr. Karzai made on Jan. 18 after the insurgents attacked a restaurant in Kabul popular with Western civilians, killing 21 people. He drew equivalence between the restaurant attack and the latest airstrikes, using the opportunity as a chance to castigate the United States along with the Taliban.
Speaking to reporters on Saturday, Mr. Karzai implied that Americans wanted the security deal to keep the war here going. He could not agree to any deal, he said, if Americans “expect Afghanistan to continue as a semi-war zone for many years to come.”
He cited the dossier to drive home his point. “Did you see the video?” he said. “Did you see the woman whose face was missing? She was a member of this nation.”
Mr. Karzai’s remarks seemed in line with what Afghan officials close to the president say is his current habit of seeking out negative information about the Americans, and often disregarding more neutral or positive reports. One official said he has told advisers that the United States is ultimately responsible for all Afghan deaths, even though the vast majority of civilian casualties come in Taliban attacks, according to the United Nations.
Western officials and some Afghan have begun to push back. On Jan. 17, after the lead Afghan investigator looking into the airstrikes said at least 14 civilians had been killed, Abdul Basir Salangi, the governor of Parwan Province, where the strikes took place, offered a blunt retort. He said the death toll was in the single digits and those claiming higher deaths tolls were “supporters of the Taliban.”
No one disputes that civilians died in the airstrikes, which hit Wazghar, a remote village in a valley thick with Taliban fighters. But more than a week after the raid, the death tolls offered by the American-led coalition and the Afghan government differ starkly, as do their accounts of how the civilians died.
The operation was planned and led by the Afghan Army, American officials have repeatedly emphasized. They said the airstrikes were necessary to save dozens of Afghan commandos and a handful of American advisers who were pinned down by heavy Taliban fire; an American and an Afghan had already been killed in the action.
The airstrikes destroyed the two compounds producing the heaviest Taliban fire, and two children were killed in one of the houses, they said.
By contrast, the Afghan commission appointed by Mr. Karzai to investigate the raid described the action as primarily American, with roughly eight hours of indiscriminate and unprovoked bombing followed by a house-to-house rampage by American soldiers. The commission has said that it can prove that 12 civilians were killed, and that there were indications of two to five additional civilian deaths.
“Villagers on the streets and even inside their houses were shot,” said Abdul Satar Khawasi, a member of Parliament from the area who led the investigation. “Ten houses were destroyed.”
He said the bulk of the evidence came from two sources: accounts given by villagers, and the photographs and video that were distributed last Sunday by Mr. Karzai’s office.
No commission members appear to have actually visited Wazghar. Instead, Mr. Khawasi sent his driver and a bodyguard to conduct the interviews and take photographs and video, according to Mr. Salangi, the provincial governor.
But at least two of the images distributed in the dossier could not have shown casualties from the Wazghar strikes, because the photos are more than three years old.
One was taken at the funeral of victims of a NATO airstrike in northern Afghanistan in 2009, which killed at least 70 civilians. It was distributed by Agence France-Presse and Getty Images and published in The Times on Sept. 5, 2009, along with an article about the airstrike.
The origins of the second misrepresented photograph are murkier. It shows the bodies of two boys wrapped in burial shrouds, and has been used for years on websites assailing civilian deaths in American drone strikes in Pakistan.
Now both the Afghan government and the Taliban are using it: It was posted on the Taliban’s website two days before the government began handing out a CD-ROM with images said to be from Wazghar.
Aimal Faizi, a spokesman for Mr. Karzai, said the commission assembled the dossier and a reporter’s query was “the first time I am hearing” that some of the material was misrepresented.
American officials would say only that they thought the doubts about the dossier spoke for themselves.
The CD-ROM contains nine other photographs, all of which appear to be frames from a video clip on the disk. The video purports to show the funeral of villagers who were killed in the airstrikes and houses that were destroyed. The graphic images include some of a woman whose face is gone.
The Times’ examination found no physical clues in the video that would help determine where or when it was shot. The file’s creation date is Dec. 18, nearly a month before the raid, though it may not be accurate; digital time stamps on the accompanying photos say they were created in April 2014, and the video’s embedded data could be similarly unreliable.
Even if the video is actually of a funeral in Wazghar, some Afghan and Western officials said there was no way to tell from it whether an airstrike or some other gunfire or explosion had killed the people seen being buried, or who was responsible.
“There wasn’t an investigation,” said one commission member, who requested anonymity to avoid being seen to publicly challenge Mr. Karzai.
The commissioner said some officials complained to Mr. Karzai about the inquiry’s conduct and conclusions, but he dismissed their objections in favor of Mr. Khawasi’s account. “The president himself knows who is biased,” the commissioner said.
He was referring to Mr. Khawasi’s well-documented anti-American sentiments. In a video recorded two years ago, for instance, Mr. Khawasi is heard urging a crowd of angry Afghans to wage a holy war against Americans, saying, “Anyone who sits silent is a traitor.”
Briefing reporters last week about his investigation, Mr. Khawasi called the airstrikes “cowardly bombardment.” Americans, he said, “are heartless people.”
The Taliban have since posted the purported funeral video on their website. The civilians were “killed mercilessly,” the narrator says, and the images of the bodies show “actions that have documented American savagery.”
Village 'justice' in West Bengal: 'This is our way. We don't go to the police'
In Subalpur poverty, illiteracy and mistrust of outsiders form the background to the gang-rape of a 20-year-old by her neighbours
Jason Burke, Subalpur
theguardian.com, Friday 24 January 2014 17.42 GMT
If there are clues to explain what happened, they lie behind the open door of the third hut on the left at the entrance to the poor, remote village of Subalpur.
It was here that a 20-year-old single woman was found in the company of a married man from another village on Monday afternoon. Dragged out by her neighbours and tied to a tree while the village council deliberated, she was then raped by up to 15 men as punishment for the illicit liaison.
The mud-walled home, a single room under a rusted tin roof, is empty now. The woman is in hospital and under police protection. Her family are in hiding. Her alleged lover, an older mason, has run away. No one in his village, six miles away across the dry wheat and oil seed fields that spread a parched patchwork across this corner of north-east India, has seen him for days.
On the wall of the home the woman shared with her mother are posters of stars of local Bengali-language films, a shelf supporting a small shrine, a mirror above a pot of moisturising cream and a rack of a dozen gold and red bangles.
All the neighbouring houses have a shrine; none has bangles or branded toiletries.
Some villagers in Subalpur angrily denounced the woman, named simply as W in accordance with strict anonymity laws protecting rape victims, as a "woman of bad character" who "spoiled the atmosphere of the village" by going against local customs. Some alleged she had worked as a prostitute – a charge denied by her family.
But interviews with relatives, officials and neighbours reveal a different story: of a young woman who was unable to accept the stifling claustrophobia and crushing poverty of a rural hamlet in a country where, despite massive economic growth over recent decades, opportunities for the most marginalised remain rare.
Reverberations of the incident have swept across India, which is struggling to deal with a wave of sexual violence. A 51-year-old tourist was gang-raped in Delhi earlier this month, the latest in a string of attacks on foreigners.
The gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old Indian woman in Delhi in December 2012 prompted grief and outrage across the country, with thousands taking to the streets demanding tougher laws, better policing and a shift in cultural attitudes. But any reforms have had little effect in villages like Subalpur.
Soham, the woman's 23-year-old brother, remembered how W had grown up rebellious.
"From her earliest childhood, she did not give heed to the elders. She followed her own whims," he said.
But like her peers, W also missed most of her education in the rudimentary government school two miles from Subalpur to play and work in the fields with the other children. No adults in the village can read or write; few of the teenagers can either.
Four years ago, against her parent's will, W contacted a local agent who arranged a job in Delhi, more than 1,000 miles away. Though the capital acts as a magnet for young people from poor, rural backgrounds from all over India, none from Subalpur had ever gone further than the local town, Suri, 22 miles away. Many of the women had never even been there.
"I've never been to a town. Our men are labourers in the fields. We are with the children. Why would any of us go to a town except to do something that was no good?" said Manika Tudu, 22, a neighbour.
W got a job as a cook on a salary of £40 per month, a fortune in a village where labourers earn nothing for much of the year. A government scheme guaranteeing 100 days of labour each year provides a week or so of employment at best. In Subalpur, though none starve, few eat their fill.
"We don't go without for days on end but it never feels like there is enough," said Padmuni Tudu, 37, who could not remember when she last ate meat. Though all the villagers qualify for government rations of nearly free basic foodstuffs and fuel, they only ever receive the latter.
Five months ago, homesick for the village despite the hardship, W returned from Delhi. She had some trouble adapting. In Subalpur, people defecate in the fields. She had got used to a toilet.
But the biggest problem was social. "She was shunned," her brother said.
Living alone with her mother – her father died some years ago – left W vulnerable too. Her liaison with the mason was soon common knowledge, and far from popular. Any relationship with another community is forbidden, local officials said, and involvement with a Muslim, as in this case, particularly shocking.
"We found them together. The women took her and the men took the boy and we tied them to a tree while the village council took their decision," said Manika Tudu, the neighbour.
The people of Subalpur are from India's tribal communities, sometimes called Adivasi and among the most marginalised and exploited people in the country. Around 8% of the total population, their communities are run by unelected councils, which settle disputes. Similar institutions dispense rough justice across much of India's countryside, where people shun a police force and judiciary seen as corrupt, slow and distant.
"This is our way. We don't go to the police. If there is a problem, we settle it among ourselves," said Fulmoni Tudu, 40, whose husband is among the 13 men currently detained for the alleged gang-rape. Even W's brother backed the system, though he said a "beating" would have been a fair punishment.
All witnesses agree that the council, led by the headman, decided to impose a fine of 27,000 rupees (£280) on W and her alleged lover. The man's relatives sold their jewellery and paid. But the enormous sum was well beyond the means of W's family.
There are different versions of what happened next. In the detailed account given to the police by W and her mother, recounted to the Guardian, the woman describes how the headman told the men that, as she could not pay the fine, they were free to "enjoy her". She was then led to a rough bamboo and palm leaf hut only yards from the headman's house and repeatedly raped. Subsequently, she has said, villagers confined her to her home and threatened her with further violence if she informed authorities. However, nearly 48 hours later, her mother and two brothers managed to smuggle her to a local clinic. When she was then transferred to the district hospital suffering severe blood loss, police were alerted.
Villagers say this account is all lies.
"How could our husbands do this? We were with them all through the night. And if she has been raped by so many men how can she talk? She has made up this story to escape paying the fine and to cover up her bad behaviour," said Manika Tudu.
But senior police officials say evidence so far gathered indicates W's story is genuine. Medical examinations show she was raped by between "five and fifteen", one said. Thirteen men have now been detained.
West Bengal is a particular blackspot for sexual violence. In October a woman died of burn injuries after being raped twice by the same group of men, once as she returned from a police station where she had recorded a statement about the first attack.
The state is governed by the Trinamool Congress party (TMC), led by Mamata Banerjee, a firebrand political outsider and one of the most powerful women in India. Political rivals have quickly seized on the opportunity to score points.
Robi ul Islam, a local official of the Congress Party, said the TMC ruled through "hoodlums" and so were responsible for rising violence while Sathi Pal, a women's officer with a local communist faction, blamed Banerjee's "capitalist ideology".
Groups representing India's tribal people said they were afraid the incident would be exploited by "powerful people". Tens of millions of tribal people have been forced off the land in recent decades on flimsy pretexts.
"The description of 'kangaroo courts' will legitimise further attacks on our culture and more attempts to force us into further poverty," said Sunil Soren, a local tribal rights activist.
For the victim's family, there are more immediate problems. The fine imposed by the village council still has to be paid. They will now have to borrow the vast sum outstanding and face decades of crushing debt if they want to avoid expulsion from the village.
"We have no choice. We have nowhere else to go," Soham, the brother, said.
Thirteen men in court over public gang-rape in Indian village
Attack appears to have been ordered by village council as punishment for 'unauthorised' relationship and failure to pay fine
Jason Burke in Kolkata
theguardian.com, Thursday 23 January 2014 18.01 GMT
Thirteen men detained for the public gang-rape of a 20-year-old woman in a village in eastern India have appeared before a local court, as news of the crime prompted outrage across the country.
The attack in Birbhum district, about 120 miles from Kolkata, appears to have been a punishment ordered by an unelected traditional village council for an "unauthorised" relationship with a married man from another community and the woman's subsequent failure to pay a 27,000 rupee (£260) fine.
A complaint filed by the victim's family described how the council chief told villagers that because the woman could not pay the fine they were free to "enjoy the girl and have fun".
The woman described the protracted attack, which took place on Monday night in front of dozens of onlookers, to local reporters. She said she lost count of the number of assailants, who she said included several of her neighbours.
Officials said medical investigations had backed the woman's claim of repeated rape by between five and 15 men.
"Prima facie the woman was gang-raped by a group of villagers following a kangaroo court where she and her fiance were fined for their so-called extramarital relationship. A complaint was lodged with Labhpur police station against 13 persons. All the accused have been arrested," said the local police superintendent, Birbhum Sudhakar.
Witnesses in the village described how the woman was first raped on a bamboo platform in the centre of the small cluster of mud-walled huts surrounded by fields before being locked in a hut during the night where she was assaulted again.
"She lost a lot of blood and remains in a critical condition. She only survived because she is very tough," said a senior medical official at the hospital where the victim is being treated.
The wife of the married mason with whom the victim had a relationship sold jewellery to pay his fine. The victim's family had no savings.
India has been hit by a wave of sexual violence – particularly gang-rapes – in recent years. Last week a 51-year-old tourist in Delhi was raped by at least five men who attacked while she was walking back to her hotel. There have been several other similar attacks on foreigners.
The gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old Indian woman in Delhi in December 2012 prompted grief and outrage across the country, with thousands taking to the streets in protests demanding tougher laws, better policing and a shift in cultural attitudes.
The United Nations asked India, the world's second most populous country, to ensure security for women. But although prison terms for rape have been stiffened, stalking made a criminal offence and gender sensitivity programmes introduced for some police officers, little appears to have changed on the ground.
Birbhum is in West Bengal state, which appears to be a particular blackspot. Last month a worker at a gym was abducted and raped by five men in a truck.
In October a woman was raped twice by the same group of men, once as she returned from a police station where she had recorded a statement about the first attack, and was then set on fire. She died of her injuries.
West Bengal is governed by the Trinamool Congress party (TMC), which has been under fire for failing to halt the rising sexual violence. Its chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, is a firebrand political outsider and one of the most powerful women in India.
Derek O'Brien, a TMC parliamentarian, promised "swift action … zero tolerance", in a message on Twitter on Thursday. Opposition politicians in West Bengal called the incident barbaric.
The attack has focused attention on the informal village councils and courts run by local male elders, which are common across much of rural India.
Although technically illegal, they are frequently responsible for inflicting cruel, sometimes lethal, punishments for supposed social transgressions such as marrying without prior consent. Such courts also frequently oblige relatives to take violent action to restore the "honour" of a community.
In one incident four years ago in Birbhum , village elders ordered tribal women to strip and walk naked in front of large crowds as a punishment for "unauthorised" relationships.
Manish Tewari, India's information minister, said in Delhi: "In a democratic country, based upon the rule of law, no vigilantism can be permitted."
In the latest case, those arrested and the victim are from an adivasi or tribal community, who are among the poorest and most marginalised in India. West Bengal has social indicators that are worse than many parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
The council appears to have acted after finding the woman sitting with her lover under a tree. Following the attack, villagers threatened the badly injured victim and her family. Nearly 48 hours later, relatives managed to take her to a clinic from where she was transferred to a hospital. Only then were law enforcement agencies alerted.
The causes of the wave of sexual violence, and its extent, are hotly debated. Many commentators say it is a consequence of the efforts of a growing number of women, even in remote rural areas, to claim basic freedoms denied for centuries. Others point to India's acute gender imbalance, tenacious caste system, apathetic police, inefficient judiciary and entrenched patriarchal culture. Conservatives have blamed "western influences", women's clothing and even fast food.
Activists say that in India as few as one in 100 attacks are reported and counted in official records. Fear of social ostracism and of brutal, unsympathetic police limit the number of victims prepared to complain.
The 13 suspects in Birbhum were remanded in custody. Many villagers blamed the victim. "We will never allow her or her family back here," said Panmuni Tudu, a housewife.
India Dismisses Charges Against Soldiers in Killings
By GARDINER HARRIS
JAN. 25, 2014
NEW DELHI — The Indian Army last week dismissed charges against five soldiers in a long-running, infamous case in which soldiers were accused of rounding up five Kashmiri men, dressing them in fatigues, then shooting and burning them. The soldiers said the men were Pakistani militants, but locals have insisted for years that they were innocent civilians — a claim lent support by an Indian government investigation.
The army’s decision late Thursday in what is widely known as the Pathribal case led to expressions of outrage by Kashmiri politicians and rights groups. They say it underscores the army’s implacable opposition to efforts to account for the tens of thousands of people who have disappeared during the long conflict in the region with Pakistan and Kashmiri separatists.
“A matter as serious as Pathribal can’t be closed or wished away like this,” said Kashmir’s chief minister, Omar Abdullah. Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, a leader of Kashmir’s opposition party, said the army’s decision was a huge setback for reconciliation efforts between the Indian government and those seeking Kashmiri independence.
Indian law gives soldiers blanket immunity from prosecution in civilian courts for crimes, including rape, committed in the part of Kashmir the country controls. So unless the army disciplines its own, which is extremely rare, soldiers cannot be held accountable.
This case, which dates to an episode in 2000, is infamous in part because the efforts to conceal the men’s identities were so amateurish and the facts so well established by India’s own civilian investigators.
On March 25 of that year, army officials announced that in a “surgical operation” one of its units had encountered and killed five mercenaries from a Pakistani militant group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, who the army said were responsible for a massacre of 36 Sikhs five days earlier.
But villagers insisted almost immediately that the five were not Pakistanis but locals snatched from their homes. Protests against the army grew until panicked police officers fired on a peaceful march, killing nine and injuring 35. Activist groups have long said the army has not only sometimes mistaken civilians for militants, but also sometimes killed locals, claiming they were militants in order to receive promotions and financial rewards.
Facing growing outrage, officials promised an inquiry, and the bodies of the five alleged militants were exhumed. Because the bodies were only partly burned, investigators discovered that the men’s civilian clothes were hidden under fatigues.
A forensic team sent DNA samples to a Hyderabad lab, but the lab reported to the police that someone had switched the samples, a report the police kept secret for a year. The tests were eventually redone, establishing beyond doubt, according to lab scientists, that the men “were not foreign terrorists, as claimed by the forces who led the operations, but they were innocent civilians.”
In 2003, the Central Bureau of Investigation, India’s F.B.I., accused the soldiers in court of abduction, murder, conspiracy and destruction of evidence. The army appealed, arguing that Indian law protected soldiers from prosecution. In 2012, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that the army could choose between court-martialing the soldiers or allowing them to be prosecuted in civilian courts.
The army chose court-martial but announced Thursday night that it had dismissed the charges for lack of evidence, despite the exhaustive inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation.
“The army does not want justice,” Parveena Ahanger, chairwoman of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, said in a phone interview. “The Kashmiri people have nothing but despair.”
India and Pakistan have fought three wars over Kashmir. The once considerable affinity for Pakistan in Indian-controlled Kashmir, where Muslims predominate, has receded in recent years along with Pakistan’s declining international and economic status, but many Kashmiris there still yearn for independence.
China Sentences Legal Activist to 4 Years for Role in Protests
By ANDREW JACOBS and CHRIS BUCKLEY
JAN. 25, 2014
BEIJING — A Chinese court sentenced a prominent legal activist to four years in prison Sunday in a case widely seen as a demonstration of the Communist Party leadership’s determination to quell any challenges to its hold on power.
The activist, Xu Zhiyong, was convicted of “gathering a crowd to disturb public order,” a charge that stemmed from his role organizing a grass-roots New Citizens Movement, which sought to give voice to public discontent over official corruption and social injustice.
After a judge of the No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court in Beijing announced the guilty verdict and sentence, Mr. Xu denounced the trial as he was led away by guards, said one of Mr. Xu’s lawyers, Zhang Qingfang.
“He said, ‘The court today has completely destroyed what remained of respect for rule of law in China,’ and then he was taken away,” said Mr. Zhang. His account of the verdict and Mr. Xu’s comment was confirmed by the other defense lawyer, Yang Jinzhu.
Ilham Tohti, an advocate for China’s Uighurs, could face a long prison term.
China Accuses Uighur Intellectual of Separatism for His Advocacy Work JAN. 25, 2014
“He can still appeal, but this outcome was decided by the senior leaders, and there’s no hope of changing the verdict,” Mr. Zhang said. He said the court could have imposed a maximum sentence of five years.
The judgment, coming unusually swiftly after a trial Wednesday, will silence Mr. Xu for now. But the sentence could also enhance Mr. Xu’s prominence as an advocate for political liberalization. Mr. Xu and his two lawyers remained silent in protest for most of the proceedings, but Mr. Xu used his concluding statement to deliver part of an impassioned manifesto for democratic change, free speech and rule of law. The full text has circulated on the Internet.
For the verdict hearing, the police stood guard for blocks around the courthouse, keeping away journalists, diplomats and ordinary citizens concerned about the case. Journalists who tried to approach the court were told to leave.
As the first prosecution of a high-profile activist under Xi Jinping, the Communist Party secretary who took power in November 2012, the case was seen as a barometer of how China’s new leadership — the first in a decade — would respond to organized calls for reform. Some liberal intellectuals and rights advocates initially hoped that Mr. Xi would be more tolerant than his predecessor, Hu Jintao, of mild campaigns for change.
In 2012, Mr. Xu helped promote the New Citizens Movement, an organization that drew up to 5,000 members dedicated to fighting government graft and education policies restricting the children of rural migrants from attending big city schools.
While many of the group’s activities involved informal discussions at restaurants across the country, some of its members took part in small street rallies in 2012 and early 2013 that unnerved the Communist Party leadership.
Prosecutors claimed Mr. Xu was the “ringleader” of several protests in Beijing during which participants held aloft banners denouncing corruption or demanding an end to the nation’s discriminatory education policies.
Other participants in the New Citizens Movement and similar protests also face prosecution, including two who stood trial in the two days after Mr. Xu’s trial. Four others face trial Monday in Beijing, according to Human Rights in China.
Legal experts and human rights advocates described the prosecution of Mr. Xu as deeply flawed. His lawyers were not allowed to cross-examine prosecution witnesses, whose testimony was submitted in writing only so they did not appear in court. Nor were the defense lawyers permitted to call in witnesses of their own.
Mr. Xu’s lawyers unsuccessfully challenged the legality of holding separate trials for the New Citizens Movement defendants in Beijing, a move they said prevented them from benefiting from testimony that could help in their defense. Mr. Zhang, one of his lawyers, called the trial last Wednesday “a piece of theater.”
Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong, said Mr. Xu’s slapdash prosecution and the sentence were designed to deter others seeking to agitate against the Communist Party’s monopoly on power.
“It sends out the message that the law is essentially a tool for the party to rule the citizenry, not for the citizenry to curtail the power of the state,” he said.
Horror in Philippine online child sex abuse village
26 Jan 2014
Ibabao (Philippines) (AFP)
In a remote Philippine village, toddlers played oblivious at a nursery as the house next door became part of a horrifying child pornography ring, with live footage of children performing sex acts being streamed online to paedophiles around the world.
The depraved scenes in the bungalow were being repeated in many homes throughout Ibabao, a secluded community on Cebu island where Internet child pornography had for some of its 5,000 residents become more lucrative than fishing or factory work.
"In the beginning I was shocked, I could not believe this was happening in my town," mayor Adelino Sitoy told AFP last week, shortly after police announced they had cracked a global live-streaming paedophile ring in which Ibabao was a key source of the child pornography.
But while the village is currently in the spotlight, authorities and child rights advocates say the fast-growing global industry is infecting many parts of the mostly poor Philippines, with thousands of children having been abused.
At first look the coastal community of Ibabao, 550 kilometres (340 miles) south of Manila, is a typical close-knit rural Philippine village, where many of the long-time residents are relatives or enjoy close and longstanding ties.
In scenes echoed across the devoutly Catholic Philippines, its residents regularly attend masses held in quaint chapels along narrow footpaths and dirt roads.
But police and authorities said that behind the closed doors of the tiny wooden and brick homes, many parents directed their children for sex videos in front of webcams connected via the Internet to paying paedophiles overseas.
Other children were lured into the homes of neighbours and forced to perform sex acts in front of webcams, they said.
Sitoy said the trade thrived because children were locked secretly inside homes, as well as Ibabao's remote location and the fact some elected village leaders with relatives involved ignored the crimes.
But some of the videos eventually found their way into the computer files of a known British paedophile two years ago, triggering a global manhunt to track down the perpetrators.
The British man was convicted in March last year and sentenced to eight years in prison.
Shortly afterwards police in the Philippines began carrying out raids in Ibabao and nearby areas with the help of British, Australian and US authorities.
One of the raids saw dozens of Filipino police and social workers break into the bungalow next to the day care centre in September last year, arresting a couple and rescuing their three children, aged three, nine and 11.
Two days later, 13 other children who were being abused in other Ibabao homes were rescued, according to Philippine police.
Residents are generally wary of outsiders but some allowed AFP to interview them on condition of anonymity.
They said "cybersex dens" remained in operation, but security fears and the Filipino tradition of not interfering with a neighbour's affairs helped to ensure that people did not pry further or try to stop it.
Housewife Jennifer Canete, 38, was willing to talk openly about the crimes, confirming many people in the community were involved and that she feared her four young children could become victims.
Canete said one of her children attended the nursery located next to the house where the three children were being abused.
"We were angry that this could happen just near the day care," she said.
"I was also afraid, we didn't know what could happen to our children if they went to school because there were many here who were doing that."
Authorities say they do not know exactly when the trade arrived in Ibabao.
But, according to local social workers, a Filipina woman from outside the community believed to belong to an organised crime group relocated to the village several years ago and introduced locals to the get-rich-quick scheme.
That woman taught residents how to scout for clients in pornographic chat rooms and receive payments through international money transfers, according to the social workers, who did not want to be named for security reasons.
Some operators lured friends of their children into their homes and abused them, threatening to harm their parents if they told anyone, the social workers said.
One parent told AFP a neighbour who had tried to recruit her said clients paid as much as 100 dollars a session, a fortune in a region where the minimum daily wage is the equivalent of about seven dollars.
She said the neighbour justified the trade by saying that no actual physical contact took place.
"I was angry. We were always taught to protect and love our children," the woman said.
"We are not rich, but we are also not poor and desperate. It was an evil thing to do."
Nevertheless, she said that staying silent and steering clear of those involved in the trade was the best thing to do, to avoid any trouble.
In announcing the dismantling of the paedophile network, Britain's National Crime Agency said in mid-January that 11 people had been arrested in the Philippines and 18 elsewhere around the world.
Another 733 suspects were being investigated, the agency added.
Andrey Sawchenko, Philippine head of the Washington-based International Justice Mission (IJM) who helped in the arrests, said 39 children had been rescued in Ibabao and elsewhere in the Philippines.
But this is widely believed to be just the tip of the iceberg, with the British crime agency describing online child sex abuse as a "significant and emerging threat".
"Extreme poverty, the increasing availability of high speed Internet and the existence of a vast and comparatively wealthy overseas customer base has led to organised crime groups exploiting children for financial gain," it said.
Dutch advocate group Terre des Hommes estimates that "tens of thousands" of children are being abused through the cybersex industry just in the Philippines.
Last year, the group created a virtual 10-year-old Filipina girl that was deployed in Internet chat rooms to lure paedophiles.
Over 10 weeks, 20,000 people from 71 countries approached the fake girl asking for sexual performances, according to Terre des Hommes, which passed the details of the paedophiles onto police.
Egypt: protesters killed on anniversary of anti-Mubarak revolt
At least 54 reported dead in clashes across the country as thousands also rally in support of army-led authorities
Patrick Kingsley in Cairo and agencies
theguardian.com, Saturday 25 January 2014 15.58 GMT
At least 54 people have been reported dead in clashes with anti-government protesters in Egypt on the third anniversary of the uprising that culminated in the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak as president.
Thousands of Egyptians also rallied in support of the army-led authorities, underlining the country's deep political divisions.
The majority of the deaths were in Cairo, according to the health ministry. Security forces lobbed teargas and fired in the air to try to prevent anti-government demonstrators from reaching Tahrir Square, the symbolic heart of the 2011 uprising, where government supporters called for the head of the military, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, to run for the presidency.
Armoured personnel carriers were deployed to try to keep order and anyone entering Tahrir had to pass through a metal detector.
Elsewhere in Cairo, supporters of the man Sisi toppled last July, the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi, marched in over 30 neighbourhoods to protest against Morsi's overthrow. There were smaller gatherings of pro-democracy activists who are opposed to the authoritarianism of both men.
The protesters defied threats of violence from an al-Qaida-inspired group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which claimed responsibility for a series of bomb blasts in Cairo on Friday that targeted police and killed at least eight people.
In the southern town of Minya, two people were killed in clashes between Morsi supporters and security forces, said Brigadier General Hisham Nasr, the director of criminal investigations in the regional police department.
A woman was killed in Egypt's second city, Alexandria, during clashes between supporters of Morsi and security forces.
The scene inside Tahrir was a stark contrast to that three years ago when anti-government protesters clashed with police. Those in control of the square on Saturday were supporters of the police and Egypt's security establishment, with several men seen kissing policemen and soldiers as they entered the square.
"The police are our brothers, our people, our sons," said Khaled Nasredeen, a 45-year-old trader, who carried a banner calling for Sisi to run for the presidency. "The problems between the people and the police – it was a trick played on us by the Muslim Brotherhood."
Other pro-government demonstrators said a security state, led by a military strongman such as Sisi, was the only solution to the political and economic chaos since the 2011 uprising.
"We pray for stability. We've never seen such a bad situation in Egypt, not even during the 1973 war," said Atef Hayal, who travelled hundreds of miles to attend the rally. "Sisi is the only guy who can protect Egypt."
A few miles west, at Mostafa Mahmoud square, pro-democracy activists expressing the opposite viewpoint were prevented from gathering for a march by police. "As soon as I got to Mostafa Mahmoud, two cops came up to me, kept kicking me and telling me to get the fuck out or else they'll jail me," tweeted a leftwing activist, Tarek Shalaby.
Police later attacked another leftist rally near Tahrir Square, continuing a crackdown on all forms of dissent that has seen thousands of Islamists and dozens of secular activists arrested since July.
"This is not the Egypt that we are looking for," said a spokesman for the 6 April group, the youth movement that organised many of the first protests against Mubarak in 2011.
Qatar World Cup: 185 Nepalese died in 2013 – official records
Death toll in 2013 likely to rise as new cases revealed, sparking fresh wave of concern over treatment of migrant workers
Owen Gibson and Pete Pattisson in Kathmandu
The Guardian, Friday 24 January 2014 17.00 GMT
The extent of the risks faced by migrant construction workers building the infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar has been laid bare by official documents revealing that 185 Nepalese men died last year alone.
The 2013 death toll, which is expected to rise as new cases come to light, is likely to spark fresh concern over the treatment of migrant workers in Qatar and increase the pressure on Fifa to force meaningful change. According to the documents the total number of verified deaths among workers from Nepal – just one of several countries that supply hundreds of thousands of migrant workers to the gas-rich state – is now at least 382 in two years alone. At least 36 of those deaths were registered in the weeks following the global outcry after the Guardian's original revelations in September.
The revelations forced Fifa's president, Sepp Blatter, to promise that football would not turn a blind eye to the issue following a stormy executive committee meeting. Qatar's ministry of labour hired law firm DLA Piper to conduct an urgent review and Hassan al-Thawadi, chief executive of the World Cup organising committee, said the findings would be treated with the utmost seriousness, vowing that the tournament would not be built "on the blood of innocents". The DLA Piper report is expected to be published in the coming weeks.
The Nepalese make up about a sixth of Qatar's 2 million-strong population of migrant workers. Verified figures for the 2013 death rates among those from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and elsewhere have yet to emerge.
The Nepalese organisation working with the families of dead workers to repatriate their bodies and campaign for adequate compensation from the companies that employed them under the kafala sponsorship system said on Friday that Fifa should do more.
The Pravasi Nepali Co-ordination Committee (PNCC), which has cross-checked the figures from official sources in Doha against death certificates and passports, is still receiving new cases on a regular basis. The Guardian has seen evidence of at least a further eight cases, which would take the 2013 total to 193.
The PNCC called on Fifa's sponsors to reconsider their relationship with world football's governing body, which awarded the World Cup to Qatar in December 2010.
"Fifa and the government of Qatar promised the world that they would take action to ensure the safety of workers building the stadiums and infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup. This horrendous roll call of the dead gives the lie to those reassurances," said the PNCC. "These were young or otherwise able-bodied men, with their futures in front of them, families at home and everything to live for. Many have been literally worked to death. Some have met with even more sinister ends. All have been betrayed by Fifa."
The Guardian investigation last year revealed that at least 44 Nepalese workers had died in Qatar between 4 June and 8 August, more than half of them of heart attacks, heart failure or workplace accidents. But the full list of deaths recorded during the year, collated by the Nepalese NGO from official sources and documents in Doha and seen by the Guardian, shows that the actual figure is much higher.
In June, July and August alone 65 deaths were recorded by the PNCC during summer months when temperatures can regularly top 40C. The causes included traffic accidents, blunt injuries and fractures ascribed to falls and suicide. But more than 65 of the deaths in 2013 are ascribed to "sudden cardiac arrests" and more than half to some kind of heart failure. Campaigners believe the cause of death is often officially listed as a cardiac arrest because it covers a "multitude of sins".
Asked last year by the Guardian why so many young Nepalese men died of heart attacks, the Qatari labour ministry said: "This question would be better suited for the relevant health authorities or the government of Nepal."
As long ago as 2011, Fifa said it would work with the International Trade Union Confederation to address labour issues with the Qatari authorities. "We have a responsibility that goes beyond the development of football and the organisation of our competition," Fifa secretary general Jérôme Valcke said in November 2011.
But the ITUC has remained a strident critic of the lack of progress made by Qatari authorities on the issue, while groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have continued to highlight the appalling conditions suffered by some of the workers in a £137bn construction boom.
In November, Amnesty warned in a damning report that workers were enduring 12-hour days in sweltering conditions and living in squalid, overcrowded accommodation. The ITUC has warned that up to 4,000 workers may die before a ball is kicked in 2022 without meaningful reform of the kafala system and stringent control of the myriad construction companies and sub-contractors involved.
After the global outcry that followed the Guardian's coverage, Blatter travelled to meet the Emir of Qatar and declared it was "on the right track" in dealing with the issue. But following a meeting with the ITUC in Zurich a month later, Fifa said that "fair working conditions with a lasting effect must be introduced quickly".
The PNCC, which has painstakingly cross-checked death certificates and other documentation with official records in Doha, said Fifa and the Qatari government needed to move faster: "Fifa president Sepp Blatter said in October there was 'plenty of time' to address this issue. For the labourers dying every week in Qatar to build the infrastructure to host Mr Blatter's World Cup, there is no time left."
Attention is also turning to the role of Fifa's sponsors, with the PNCC joining calls for them to review their relationship with it. Visa and Adidas recently signed new deals until 2022. "Qatar's failure to disclose or explain these deaths, and Fifa's failure to monitor them, are alarming in the extreme. We call upon the World Cup's corporate sponsors – Coca-Cola, Adidas, Visa, Hyundai and Budweiser – urgently to review their arrangements with Fifa," a spokesman said.
Last month the London mayor, Boris Johnson, travelled to Doha to drum up trade for British business. Foreign Office minister Hugh Robertson held talks with the Qataris aimed at boosting trade and said the UK would "offer support" in delivering the 2022 World Cup.
A spokesman for the Foreign Office insisted the issue of migrant workers was also raised. "Mr Robertson discussed the issue of migrant workers with the Qatari authorities during his recent visit," he said."
But the PNCC said that the flow of coffins returning to Kathmandu airport, which continued throughout December, even on Christmas Day, told its own story. "Thanks to the work of the Guardian and other media, this abuse is finally being exposed," said the PNCC spokesman.
"We call upon civilised governments as a matter of the greatest urgency to demand that Qatar takes meaningful action to protect foreign workers on its soil – including reform of the kafala system of labour, which encourages employers to treat their workers as property rather than human beings."
The full list of deaths recorded between January and September 2012, also seen by the Guardian, shows that at least 127 Nepalese nationals died during that period and there are believed to have been at least another 70 fatalities during the final three months of that year.
Qatar is spending huge sums at home and abroad in an attempt to position itself as the diplomatic and business hub of the Middle East and secure its position politically and financially for the years ahead.
Qatari officials insist moves are being made to hold construction companies, and their myriad sub-contractors, to existing labour laws, which they argue are among the strongest in the region.
Qatar's under-secretary to the ministry of labour, Hussain al-Mulla, has said that at least 99% of businesses are complying with the law. The ministry of labour says it is "committed to ensuring that all workers are treated in a fair and just manner".
The Qatar 2022 supreme committee, which is responsible for staging the World Cup and recently began work on its first stadium, pointed to its own workers' charter and said it was "committed to the wellbeing, health, safety, security and dignity of every worker".
"We anticipate 2014 being a big year for the supreme committee in terms of delivery, with up to five stadiums in various stages of construction. With this in mind, and as an evolution of the charter, we have worked hard to develop detailed workers' standards which will be enforced across all Qatar 2022 projects," a Qatar 2022 statement said.
"It has been our commitment and our belief from the first day of our bid to host the Fifa World Cup that we can utilise the power of football to accelerate positive social and human development across our country and our region."
In a statement Fifa said: "Fifa is working towards an urgent solution and as such is continuing to actively engage the dialogue between Qatar and various human rights and labour organisations to ensure that the initiated changes to improve the welfare of migrants workers are progressing with the necessary pace.
"The application of international norms of behaviour is a principle and part of all our activities and expected from any host of our events.
"Fifa firmly believes in the positive power that the Fifa World Cup can have in Qatar as a platform for positive social change, including an improvement of labour rights and conditions for migrant workers."