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« Reply #11655 on: Feb 01, 2014, 08:18 AM »

As Argentine Peso Falters, President Keeps a Low Profile

JAN. 31, 2014
BUENOS AIRES — As Argentines stew over a currency crisis that has shaken markets around the world, many residents here are asking the same question: Where is the president?

President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner spoke in public just once in the six weeks before the currency plunge last week that set off global concerns about the fragility of developing economies. As her country’s currency began its slide, she spoke about a subsidy for schoolchildren instead.

Then, after the steepest drop in the Argentine peso since the country’s economy collapsed over a decade ago, Mrs. Kirchner steered clear of the turmoil yet again, flying to Cuba for a summit meeting. Once there, she avoided mentioning the simmering crisis almost entirely, opting to send Twitter messages about meeting Fidel Castro’s grandchildren. Only later did she post a few Twitter messages attributing Argentina’s market upheaval to “speculative pressures” by unnamed economic groups and banks.

“The president does not feel she owes any explanation to the citizenry as a whole,” said Federico Finchelstein, an Argentine historian at the New School for Social Research in New York.

The problems in Argentina have quickly turned it into a symbol of the economic pressures building on developing countries, stirring fears that the trouble could spread if global demand for commodities wanes and investors look for better bets in the United States.

The peso plunged 15 percent on Jan. 22 and 23, from around 6.9 pesos to the dollar to 8 pesos, according to Bloomberg News, and has since stablized. It closed on Friday at 8 pesos to the dollar. It weakened by a total of 19 percent in January.

Many economists say that the trouble here stems from the decisions Mrs. Kirchner and her government have championed for years.  She describes her politics as “national and popular,” referring to efforts to promote national interests and industry, and to put in place policies that reach out to the masses.

Generous social spending after the economic collapse, like freezing household electricity rates, has widened Argentina’s budget deficit, encouraged energy consumption and increased the country’s dependence on energy imports, eroding the central bank’s hard currency reserves. Inflation is so high that it has become a heated political issue, with economists saying it exceeded 28 percent in 2013 and officials insisting it was 10.9 percent.

Now Mrs. Kirchner’s recent absences from Argentina’s political scene have left her without much of a public defense and fueled a debate over whether a power vacuum is emerging — a striking contrast to her strong presence during the rest of her presidency. Until recently, Argentines have grown accustomed to her appearing extensively around the country, speaking regularly on television and expressing herself prolifically on Twitter about everything from the quality of Argentine beef to the importance of asserting influence in Antarctica.

“It’s at this time when a strong presence is needed, but presidential communication is in a stage of strategic retreat,” said Marcelo J. García, a political communications researcher at the Society for International Development here, which studies global development.

In a barrage of more than 20 Twitter messages early on Friday morning, Mrs. Kirchner again stayed away from the turmoil in Argentina’s currency markets, striking out instead at influential news organizations that have criticized the infrequency of her public appearances in recent weeks. Then on Friday night, she appeared in televised images greeting Prince Akishino of Japan in the presidential palace here.

Mrs. Kirchner, 60, whose office did not respond to several requests for comment, began to withdraw from the public eye last October when she underwent surgery here to drain a blood clot near her brain, the result of a head injury that was never fully explained by the president, her doctors or her advisers.

Later in October, voters dealt a blow to any ambitions that she might have had of running for a third consecutive term by giving new momentum to her opposition in midterm legislative elections. Her party, the Front for Victory, fell far short of the two-thirds majority it needed in Congress to amend the Constitution to allow her to run again.

Mrs. Kirchner seemed to recover well from her surgery, but Argentina’s economy came under greater stress. With inflation soaring, she overhauled her economic team in November, thrusting two young officials into prominent roles.

With Mrs. Kirchner largely avoiding the public eye and leaving explanations of the abrupt economic policy shifts to her aides, many Argentines are fuming.

“She puts the blame on everybody else, but she’s the one running the country,” said Iván Orozco, 53, a travel agent. “She sees a reality that doesn’t exist.”

Even before the currency tumult, polls showed support for Mrs. Kirchner falling sharply. Her approval rating plunged to 27 percent in January, from 42 percent in November, according to a nationwide survey by Management and Fit, a polling company that interviewed 1,600 people across Argentina shortly before the peso tumbled against the dollar.

“This is this government’s most important crisis,” said María Casullo, an expert on populist politics at the University of Buenos Aires.

Mrs. Kirchner took office in 2007 and still draws support from her base, including many poor voters who have benefited from social welfare programs that she and her husband, Néstor Kirchner, who preceded her in the presidency and died in 2010, put into effect after the financial collapse of 2001 and 2002. Her supporters, who point out that Argentina’s economy is still expected to grow modestly this year, have also assembled an array of pro-government news organizations in an attempt improve perceptions of her in a highly critical media landscape.

Cynthia García, a panelist on 678, a pro-government news debate program, rejected the notion that Mrs. Kirchner was avoiding discussing the currency crisis.

“If she doesn’t use the words that represent neoliberal interests, they say she’s silent,” Ms. García said, referring to the market-oriented economic policies that prevailed here in the 1990s. “But she is by no means a coward.”

The decline in economic growth from the boom years until 2011 is also exposing Mrs. Kirchner to greater criticism about her own wealth, which has skyrocketed since 2003, the year her husband came to power, according to sworn declarations presented to the federal anticorruption office.

The Kirchners were worth about $2.3 million a decade ago, largely the result of property dealings in Patagonia, their political bastion. In 2010, their fortune had grown to approximately $18 million, including debt, according to Mrs. Kirchner’s sworn declaration, during a period in which she was a senator before her election as president.

It is thought that Mrs. Kirchner inherited half of Mr. Kirchner’s estate, with the other half going to their two children. Subsequently, in 2011, her declared wealth dropped to about $9.4 million before growing again to about $10.5 million in 2012, according to her most recent submission of documents to the anti-corruption office.

She declared 25 percent and 50 percent ownership stakes in 26 properties in Buenos Aires and the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz, where Mr. Kirchner was governor for over a decade.

When a student asked her about the rise in her wealth after a televised speech at Harvard University in 2012, Mrs. Kirchner said that judicial investigations had not revealed any irregularities. “We had, and I have, a certain economic position, which is the product of the fact I have worked my whole life and I have been a very successful lawyer,” she said. “Now, I’m also a successful president.”

As many Argentines resort to buying dollars in the black market here, her expanding wealth and near silence as the currency tumult unfolds are opening Mrs. Kirchner to greater criticism.

“She used to speak every day and now it’s once every 45 days,” said José Fernández Montero, 65, a baker. “She’s looking out for her own interests, her own money. The country is going backward.”

Still, the crisis has not fazed her staunchest supporters. “She’s a capable lady, an honest lady,” said Jacinta Giménez, 68, a retired saleswoman. “I’d vote for her until the very end.”

Fabián Werner contributed reporting from Montevideo, Uruguay.

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« Reply #11656 on: Feb 01, 2014, 08:23 AM »

Canadian government calls Glenn Greenwald ‘a porn spy’ after reports of surveillance

By Techdirt
Friday, January 31, 2014 18:46 EST

We've seen various government officials act in all sorts of bizarre ways after revelations of illegal spying on their own people (and foreigners), but none may be quite as bizarre as the response from the Canadian government, following the release late last night from the CBC (with help from Glenn Greenwald) that they're spying on public WiFi connections. That report had plenty of detail, including an internal presentation from the Canadian electronic spying agency, CSEC. In the Canadian Parliament today, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's parliamentary secretary, Paul Calandra, decided to respond to all of this by by insisting it's all a lie and then flat out insulting both the CBC and Glenn Greenwald.
If you can't watch the video, here's what he says:

    Mr. Speaker, last night the CBC aired a misleading report on Canada's signals intelligence agency, Communications Security Establishment Canada. These documents were stolen by former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden and sold to the CBC by Glenn Greenwald. Canada's signals intelligence agency has been clear that the CBC story is incorrect, yet the CBC went ahead and published it anyway.

    Here are the facts: Before the story aired, CSEC made clear that nothing in the stolen documents showed that Canadians' communications were targeted, collected, or used, nor that travellers' movements were tracked.

    In addition, CSEC's activities are regularly reviewed by an independent watchdog who has consistently found it has followed the law.

    Why is furthering porn-spy Glenn Greenwald's agenda and lining his Brazilian bank account more important than maintaining the public broadcaster's journalistic integrity?

Okay. Where to start? First off, the whole idea that Greenwald "sold" the documents to the CBC is just ridiculous. Every so often we've seen others raise this kind if idiotic argument and it's just silly. Greenwald -- like any other freelance journalist -- gets paid to do journalism. No one is paying him for the documents. They're paying him to work as a journalist, which, you know, is what he does. The attempt to portray it as selling the documents is just a completely bogus smear.

Second, for all the CSEC's denials, note that Calandra makes no effort whatsoever to explain what's in the actual (fairly damning) document that the CBC published. Instead, he's playing games with words -- games that you should be quite used to if you've followed the infamous NSA dictionary. Note that he says that none of Canadians' "communications were targeted, collected, or used." There are a few problems with that. No one's talking about their communications here, but rather details of their locations and the kinds of devices they were using, which is exactly what's shown in the powerpoint presentation.

Next, the fact that the CSEC's activities are regularly reviewed is somewhat meaningless. Was this program reviewed? By whom? What did they find? As we've seen in the US, the claims of independent oversight of the NSA turned out to not mean very much once people looked at the details.

And then... there's that last paragraph. First of all, what is a "porn spy" anyway, and how is Glenn Greenwald one of them? The word makes no sense at all. When government officials are talking gibberish, it does not bode well for them. Maybe he's trying to repeat the smear from a former US government official who bizarrely called Snowden an espionage pornographer, which made no sense, but makes at least marginally more sense than a "porn spy." And, yes, Glenn Greenwald lives in Brazil. Saying "Brazilian bank account" makes it seem, again, as if there's something nefarious going on here, rather than a well-known, accomplished and celebrated freelance reporter who happens to live in Brazil, doing some work for the CBC.

If this is the Harper government's official "response" to these revelations, they're just asking for trouble. This is so over-the-top silly and defensive, without even remotely responding to the actual issues, that it suggests that Harper has no legitimate response, knows that more is probably on the way, and has resorted to throwing out nonsensical insults at reporters.

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« Reply #11657 on: Feb 01, 2014, 08:49 AM »

In the USA...United Surveillance America

Major companies tell Obama they won’t discriminate against the long-term unemployed

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, January 31, 2014 12:37 EST

President Barack Obama unveiled in an interview aired Friday an initiative designed to help the long-term unemployed as part of his drive to boost the sluggish US economy.

Obama said 300 major companies including so far Walmart, Apple and Ford had agreed with him to establish a code of best practices not to brush off jobseekers just because they have been out of work for some time.

The president said he would be meeting with representatives of some of the companies soon.

Obama unveiled the plan in an interview with CNN, his first since he delivered his State of the Union Address Tuesday night.

In that speech, he said he wanted to work with the deeply divided US Congress but will now not hesitate to use executive orders to try get things done. He said he would order, for instance, a rise in the minimum wage for people working for federal contractors.

The US jobless rate now stands at 6.7 percent, the lowest level since Oct. 2008. But many Americans face an uphill battle in the job market because of the stigma of having been out of work for an extended period during the recession and afterwards.

On the long-term unemployed, Obama told CNN that employers “are looking at that gap in the resume and they’re weeding them out before these chance get a chance for a interview”.

“We gathered together 300 companies just to start with, including some of the top companies in the country, to say ‘let’s establish best practices. Do not screen people out of the hiring process just because they’ve been out of work for a long time’,” Obama said.

He added that it would be helpful if Congress acted and did something like raise the minimum wage nationwide, as opposed to his just acting on a much more limited basis through executive orders for federal contract workers.

“And that’s why I’m going to keep on reaching out for them,” he said of lawmakers. “But I’m not going to wait for them.”


With Republicans Screaming Impeachment, Obama Is Not Backing Down on Jobs

By: Sarah Jones
Saturday, February, 1st, 2014, 8:41 am   

Instead of backing down in the wake of Republicans cries for impeachment, President Obama is doubling down with increased pressure on them to finally take action for American workers. He is not giving up his demands for Congress to take action to remedy the outrageous disparity between the haves and the have nots.

The President already announced that he’d take to the Executive Order to do what he can, since Republicans clearly want no part in helping the average worker. But the executive branch can only do so much. To change laws, we need the legislative branch to do its job. When Obama announced that he was going to start using the power of his office to advance the cause of jobs for Americans, Republicans immediately commenced screeching about impeachment.

The only way to make Congress do their job is to use the advantage of it being an election year to drill them on why they refuse to pass anything related to jobs, the minimum wage, unemployment extension, etc.

And that is precisely what President Obama did today in his weekly address, which echoes his State of the Union address. Watch here:

The President said (my bold):

After four years of economic growth with eight million new private sector jobs, our unemployment rate is the lowest it’s been in more than five years. And with the economy speeding up, companies say they intend to hire more people this year.

But while those at the top are doing better than ever, average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Too many Americans are working harder and harder just to get by. And too many still aren’t working at all.

Our job is to reverse those trends. It’s time to restore opportunity for all people – the idea that no matter who you are, if you work hard and live up to your responsibilities, you can make it if you try.

President Obama then laid out his “opportunity agenda” and how it related to the workers he spoke with this week in various states:

Job one is more new jobs: jobs in construction and manufacturing, jobs in innovation and energy.

In Wisconsin, I talked with plant workers at GE about part two: training more Americans with the skills to fill those new jobs.

In Tennessee, I talked with students about part three: guaranteeing every child access to a world-class education, from early childhood, through college, and right into a career.

And with steelworkers in Pittsburgh, and retail workers in Maryland, I laid out part four: making sure hard work pays off for men and women, with wages you can live on, savings you can retire on, and health insurance that’s there for you when you need it.

The President, who already called Republicans on their impeachment bluff, noted that some of these ideas do require Congress to act, but that’s not going to stop him from doing what he can. He said, “But wherever I can take steps to expand opportunity for more families on my own, I will.” He’s going to go around Congress by taking his case right to business leaders, education leaders, and philanthropic leaders, asking them to partner in order to advance these goals.

And here’s POTUS’ parting shot for Republicans who have been wailing impeachment like the useless obstacles they are since Obama announced that he would do what he could to get something done without them since they refuse to legislate, “And every single day, I’m going to fight for these priorities – to shift the odds back in favor of more working and middle-class Americans, and to keep America a place where you can always make it if you try.”

In other words, he’s not backing down; he’s just getting warmed up.

Enjoy the 2014 pressure cooker, Republicans.


President Obama’s Message To House Republicans Talking Impeachment: Bring It On

By: Jason Easley
Friday, January, 31st, 2014, 2:49 pm      

During his CNN interview President Obama not only shrugged off Republican claims of an imperial presidency, but he appeared to challenge the Republicans who are talking lawsuits and impeachment to bring it on.


    TAPPER: And let’s talk about House Republicans, because – and – and Senate Republicans. There has been a large contingency of Republicans critical of your new approach. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who might run for president, calls this the imperial presidency. And in the House, there is this thing, as you know, called The Stop Act. They want to rein in what you’re trying to do.

    How do you respond to that?

    OBAMA: Well, I don’t think that’s very serious. I mean, the truth of the matter is, is that every president engages in executive actions. In fact, we’ve been very disciplined and sparing in terms of the executive actions that we have taken. We make sure that we’re doing it within the authority that we have under statute. But I am not going to make an apology for saying that if I can help middle class families and folks who are working hard to try to get in the middle class do a little bit better, then I’m going to do it.

    And, you know, I think it’s – it’s a tough argument for the other side to make that not only are they willing to do an – not do anything, but they also want me not to do anything in which case I think the American people who’s, right now, estimation of Congress is already pretty low might might have an even lower opinion.

    TAPPER: The Stop Act is not something you take seriously?

    OBAMA: I – I am not particularly worried about it.

Yesterday, Paul Ryan appeared to be laying the groundwork for impeachment by claiming that President Obama routinely violates the Constitution by exercising powers that he doesn’t have.

The president’s point was that House Republicans can pass their little legislation. They can cry about imperial powers all they want, but he is not going to apologize or back off because he is trying to help people who are working hard and getting the short end of the economic stick.

President Obama is calling the GOP’s bluff. He seems to be coming from a belief that that this is all just election year hot air from the GOP, but if they want to sue him, pass legislation to stop him for helping the American people, or talk impeachment, he isn’t afraid. This president isn’t going to fall for the Republican bully routine and back down.

Obama is treating the Republicans like they are irrelevant, because that is what they have earned through their obstructionist behavior. The president knows that they aren’t going to pass anything, or lift a finger to help the American people, so he is doing what he can by himself.

If Republicans don’t like it, they should do something about it. If they are too scared to do something about it, then they need to shut up and get out of the way.


In 120 Years Republicans Only Cry Tyranny When the Black President Uses Executive Orders

By: Rmuse
Friday, January, 31st, 2014, 10:00 am      

For five years  Republicans and their teabagger cohort have thrown around the word tyranny and dictator to ramp up opposition to President Obama for leading the Executive Branch of government while being Black. Leading up to the State of the Union address on Tuesday, there were indications by the White House that the President would announce his intent to use his authority to, among other measures, raise the minimum wage for government contractors to $10.10 per hour through the use of an executive order. Republicans are opposed to any American earning enough to stay out of poverty, and the paltry amount does little more than lift contractors from dire poverty to just poverty. Although President’s have been issuing executive orders for over 120 years, Republicans consider it the height of tyranny and dictatorial power because this President happens to be African American; a cardinal and impeachable sin in conservative circles.

The hypocritical outrage over an  African American President issuing executive orders was swift and absurd from Republicans within minutes of the President’s State of the Union, and there were accusations that the President is shredding the Constitution and circumventing Congress, but what Congress? Do Republicans mean the Congress that cannot do its Constitutional job and work for the general welfare of the people, or do they mean congressional Republicans shredding the Constitution by passing a preponderance of biblical laws targeting women for being women and gays for expecting protections guaranteed in the Constitution’s 14th Amendment?

If Republicans had done their jobs and followed the will of the people on a rash of topics important to Americans such as equal pay for women (90%), repeal oil industry subsidies (74%), raising the minimum wage (71%), not shutting down the government (80%), or passing legislation to put more Americans to work in the tech manufacturing sector (90%), President Obama would not have to issue executive orders that admittedly cannot take up the slack from an obstruction-minded and do-nothing Republican caucus. What the President revealed in his State of the Union address was that he is concentrating on what can be done, by himself, instead of what Congress should do if they were not motivated by obstructionism to thwart economic recovery and grind governance to a halt. His effort drew a plethora of accusations of “dictator” from Republicans and conservative pundits alike.

Perennial dunce Michele Bachmann threatened the President with a frivolous lawsuit and stated conservatives in the House might sue him because, “He may think he’s a king, he may declare himself king, but that’s not what he is under our Constitution.” Conservative loudmouth Glenn Beck professed that the president is “America’s first dictator,” and Mark Levin proposed that Republicans in Congress pass a resolution nullifying executive orders as if such a measure would pass the Senate or earn the President’s signature.

Teabagger Ted Cruz said, “Over and over again this president has disregarded the law, has disregarded the Constitution and has asserted presidential power that simply doesn’t exist and that ought to worry regardless of whether you agree with his policies or not.” Libertarian Rand Paul sent out a message on social media outlet Twitter saying, “Mr. President we are a nation of laws & we are supposed to follow our Constitution. You do not get to ‘act alone.’” Texas Republican Steve Stockman actually stood up and walked out of the State of the Union address and said, “I could not bear to watch as he continued to cross the clearly-defined boundaries of the Constitutional separation of powers.” To listen to Republicans and conservative pundits, Barack Obama is the first President in history to issue an executive order, but Republicans know that is hardly the case.

President Obama has only signed 168 executive orders thus far in comparison to George W. Bush, a white president, who signed more executive orders, 173, in his first four years than President Obama, a Black President signed in just over five years. However, Republicans complain that the President is overstepping his constitutional authority by issuing executive orders that are out of the bounds of his purview that has led them to intimate they may have grounds to file articles of impeachment, but it is something they never considered when George W.  Bush signed exactly the same orders.

For example, on December 23rd the President signed an order titled “Adjustments of Certain Rates of Pay” that mirrors an order Bush signed in December 2008 titled “Adjustments of Certain Rates of Pay.” On May 21, 2013 the President signed an order titled “Providing an Order of Succession within the Department of Agriculture” that Bush called “Amending the Order of Succession Within the Department of Agriculture” and signed it in January 2009 days before leaving office.  President Obama signed an order titled “Continuance of Certain Federal Advisory Committees” on September 20, 2013, and Bush signed the “Continuance of Certain Federal Advisory Committees” on September 28, 2007. On December 7, 2012 President Obama signed an order titled “Establishing the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force” that Bush signed on November 1, 2005 only titled “Creation of the Gulf Coast Recovery and Rebuilding Council.” The executive orders are nearly identical, but when a Black President signs them he is a dictator, oversteps his authority, and thinks he is a king.

Regarding presidential executive orders making adjustments to implementing established laws, Bush signed “Further Amendments to Executive Orders 12139 and 12949 in Light of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 Amendments Act of 2008,” “Waiver Under the Trade Act of 1974 with Respect to Turkmenistan,” and “Delegation of Certain Authorities and Assignment of Certain Functions Under the Trade Act of 2002” among many others. When the Black man in the Oval Office signs executive orders dealing with implementation of established laws, he is “circumventing the legislative process” and shredding the Constitution that the previous white president signed with Republicans’ blessings.

As far as President Obama’s intent to sign an executive order dealing with federal government contractor pay that has Republicans threatening legal action, Bush issued, and signed four executive orders including one titled “Preservation of Open Competition and Government Neutrality Towards Government Contractors’ Labor Relations on Federal and Federally Funded Construction Projects,” and “Revocation of Executive Order on Nondisplacement of Qualified Workers under Certain Contracts” plus at least two others. No Republican accused white president Bush of tyranny, dictatorial overreach, circumventing Congress, or overstepping his constitutional authority. Obviously in Republican circles, whiteness has its privilege the current crop of Republican racists and conservative bigots do not extend to the Black man sitting in the Oval Office issuing nearly identical executive orders as the previous white president.

If Republicans are so adamantly averse to a president issuing and signing executive orders, they had 291 opportunities to assail George W. Bush for being a dictator, threaten him with lawsuits, and accuse him of overstepping his constitutional authority. If congressional Republicans had spent one-tenth the time working for the American people that they spent investigating the Affordable Care Act, Benghazi, the I.R.S., Benghazi, or voting 40 times to repeal the ACA, the President would not have to issue executive orders doing the work Republicans fail to do. However, this is not about this President doing everything in his power to address the income inequality crushing the economic life out of Americans and everything to do with his race. From the minute President Obama took the oath of office up until today, Republicans have sought any reason to lambaste him as a tyrant and dictator they claim is shredding the Constitution that in their racist minds is the crime of leading the Executive Branch while Black and nothing more.


Rebel Conservatives Lead Way in G.O.P. Fund-Raising

FEB. 1, 2014

Insurgent conservative organizations raised more money last year than the leading Republican establishment outside groups, whose bulging bank accounts and ties to major donors have been their most potent advantage in the struggle over the G.O.P.'s future, according to interviews with officials and new campaign filings.

The shift in fortunes could have an enormous impact in 2014, as warring Republican factions prepare to square off in a series of Senate and House primaries around the country and Republican leaders seek to rein in activists who they believe have fractured and endangered the party with policies that alienate independent-leaning voters.

Emboldened by activists’ fury over compromises Republican leaders have struck with Democrats on federal spending, the conservative groups are preparing to muster political spending — in formidable amounts — to augment their grass-roots muscle in a challenge to Republicans aligned with party regulars.

The boom in conservative fund-raising is already playing out in the broader struggle for control of the Senate. Americans for Prosperity, the free-market advocacy group founded by the libertarian billionaire David Koch, has become by far the biggest single spender on early-campaign issue advertisements against Democratic incumbents: Since October, it has spent more than $23 million, chiefly on attacks on Democrats for supporting President Obama’s health care law.

That spree underscores the shifting balance in power within the party. During the 2012 campaign, Republican leaders counted on Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, the political nonprofit set up by the G.O.P. strategist Karl Rove, to soften Democratic candidates with issue ads during the early campaign season. Now that job is falling largely to Americans for Prosperity, which has often been critical of Republican leaders’ strategy on issues like the debt ceiling, and which has worked aggressively to reshape the party.

“The model that we have been building for the past eight years — a state-based organization with a supportive home office but a permanent infrastructure on the ground, with real troops, and with real support behind it — is one that our supporters believe in,” said Levi Russell, a spokesman for Americans for Prosperity.

Four Republican-leaning groups with close ties to the party’s leadership in Congress — Crossroads and its “super PAC” affiliate, the Congressional Leadership Fund, and Young Guns Action — raised a combined $7.7 million in 2013. By contrast, four conservative organizations that have battled Republican candidates deemed too moderate or too yielding on spending issues — FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth Action Fund, the Senate Conservatives Fund, and the Tea Party Patriots — raised a total of $20 million in 2013, according to Federal Election Commission reports filed on Friday.

“This is by far the biggest nonelection year we’ve ever had,” said Matt Hoskins, the executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund. “It shows how committed people are to electing true conservatives and to advancing conservative principles.”

The Senate Conservatives Fund has feuded bitterly with party organizations, including the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and has financed challenges to incumbent senators who it does not believe adhere sufficiently to conservative orthodoxy.

In Kentucky, the fund is backing Matt Bevin, a businessman, in his bid to unseat Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s Republican leader.

“If Mitch McConnell wins, the party will continue to drift away from its conservative principles and become increasingly hostile to the grass-roots,” the Senate Conservatives Fund states on its website. “But if Matt Bevin wins, the establishment’s stranglehold over the party will be broken and power will be restored to the people who elect these politicians.”

Because some of the biggest groups are not required to report their fund-raising to the Federal Election Commission and declined to volunteer the information, the figures do not include some major spenders on both sides, including Americans for Prosperity, and the American Action Network, which focused on House races and is affiliated with the Congressional Leadership Fund.

And the party-oriented organizations, which were organized and remain oriented toward helping Republicans win general elections, typically raise most of their revenue later in the election cycle.

“Our pledges are on track with previous cycles and we are increasingly enthusiastic about prospects for winning a majority in the Senate and holding the majority in the House,” said Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for Crossroads.

Moreover, major trade associations with ties to the Republican establishment have signaled they will spend heavily in this year’s election cycle, in part to help elevate candidates who can perform strongly in matchups against Democrats. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, traditionally one of the biggest players in campaigns, is forecasting that it will spend about $50 million on a mix of general election and primary races.

Yet there are signs that some of the establishment-oriented groups are being particularly careful with their cash. American Crossroads, the American Action Network and the YG Network announced a joint $1.2 million advertising campaign in the special election for a congressional seat in Florida, suggesting that the groups were taking care to pool their spending to achieve greater impact.

Some of the decline in fund-raising by major Republican groups is also being driven by the fragmentation of the party’s outside spending infrastructure. Mr. Rove’s battles with rebellious conservatives have drawn enough controversy that some candidates do not want to be openly associated with Crossroads. Instead, they are being backed by smaller groups, often founded by the candidates’ donors and former aides, that focus on a single race.

Such groups, in states like Texas, Louisiana, Alaska and North Carolina, have raised several million dollars between them, easing some of the gap with conservative groups.

“We still see ourselves as the serious underdogs,” Mr. Hoskins said.


GOP House Candidate Calls Hillary Clinton the Anti-Christ and Passes out Bullets at Event

By: Keith Brekhus
Friday, January, 31st, 2014, 7:14 pm      

Montana Republican Ryan Zinke campaigned at a small town event in Big Fork Montana on Monday. Though the event only drew about thirty people, Zinke’s comments should give pause to the state of Montana as they contemplate who to elect to Congress in 2014. Zinke referred to Hillary Clinton as the anti-Christ and described her as the “real enemy”. The ex-Navy SEAL also engaged in some thinly veiled insurrectionist rhetoric by stating:

    Who trusts the U.S. government? No one in this room. I’ve served in 25 nations. I’ve seen where people don’t trust their government. We’re there. In the military, the last option is to send in the SEALs.

While these views should be relegated to the political fringe, Zinke leads the six Montana GOP House candidates in fundraising. His rhetoric seems to unite the “End of Times” evangelical religious right with the conspiracy oriented gun enthusiasts into a coherent narrative that regards Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and other Democrats as an enemy to be eliminated.

As if to emphasize his latent desire for “second amendment solutions”, Zinke was joined by author Scott McEwen, who wrote the book American Sniper. After completing his speech to about thirty GOP partisans, Zinke handed out 50-calibre bullets to each of the four men who sponsored the event.

In 2012, Zinke launched the Special Operations For America Political Action Committee, with the goal of defeating Barack Obama in the 2012 election. His current rhetoric however seems to be drifting deeper into a more apocalyptic world view where the Democrats are demonic figures. In this dangerous fantasy land armed insurrection may eventually become necessary as a last resort to save the Republic.

While it would be easy to dismiss such far-fetched paranoia, Zinke’s successful fundraising suggests that his conspiratorial world view is shared by many Republican primary voters. The current Tea Party-flavored Congress is already populated with a number of right-wing extremists. Adding Ryan Zinke to Congress would only further drive a wedge between reasonable lawmakers and the extremists who seek to destabilize the country through violent rhetoric and malicious hyperbole.


Conservatives boycott Girl Scout cookies over perceived support for empowered women

By Travis Gettys
Friday, January 31, 2014 11:34 EST

Conservatives are calling for a boycott of Girl Scout cookies because the group linked to an article endorsing Texas lawmaker Wendy Davis as a candidate for woman of the year.

The Girl Scouts shared the link Dec. 18 to a Huffington Post article titled, “These Are The Women Who Dominated 2013,” on its official Twitter account.

“The ladies in contention ran the gamut from Beyonce to Wendy Davis to the millions of intelligent women airing their views on Twitter, but one name that continued to pop up was the woman many said deserved to be named Time Magazine’s person of the year — youth activist Malala Yousafzai,” the article said.

Davis, a Democratic state senator, became a target for Republican ire after she led a 13-hour filibuster of a Texas anti-abortion bill and then launched a campaign for governor.

The Girl Scouts then posted a link Dec. 30 to a Washington Post article, “Seven Women Who Made a Difference in 2013,” that included U.S. Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Those offenses against political correctness were just too much for John Pisciotta, head of Pro-Life Waco.

Breitbart News helped the anti-abortion activist publicize his call for a boycott of the Girl Scouts’ major annual fundraising drive.

“The Girl Scouts were once a truly amazing organization, but it has been taken over by ideologues of the left, and regular folks just will not stand for it,” Pisciotta said.

Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly hosted a panel to discuss the boycott, as well.

This year’s boycott is just the latest effort by conservatives to marginalize the Girl Scouts for its support of perceived liberal causes, including its policy on transgender members and its promotion of feminist role models.

The Girl Scouts responded to the call for boycott by apologizing Wednesday on its blog, saying “to be clear, Girl Scouts has not endorsed any person or organization.”


Republicans blitz four states with five creationism bills so far this year

By Travis Gettys
Friday, January 31, 2014 15:19 EST

Republican legislators in four states have introduced five bills so far this year that would allow teachers to teach creationism alongside the theory of evolution.

South Dakota Republicans introduced a Senate bill on Wednesday that would that would forbid school boards or administrators from acting to prohibit teachers from “providing instruction on intelligent design or other related topics.”

The broadly worded statute clearly violates federal law, according to the head of a science education advocacy group.

“A federal court already ruled in 2005 that teaching ‘intelligent design’ in the public schools is unconstitutional, so (Senate Bill) 112 is a recipe for disaster,” said Ann Reid, executive director of the National Center for Science Education. “If enacted, school districts are going to find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place — and they’ll wind up in court.”

The bill is the fifth such measure introduced this month alone that would allow creationism to be taught, the group said.

Lawmakers in Oklahoma and Virginia are considering similar measures, while Missouri has two separate bills under consideration.

Virginia’s broadly written measure encourages teachers to present scientific controversies and analyze the strengths and weaknesses of a scientific theory without interference from school officials.

Similar measures in Oklahoma and Missouri would encourage teachers with “idiosyncratic opinions to teach anything they pleased,” the NCSE said.

A House bill in Missouri would mandate equal class time for “intelligent design” alongside science instruction in public schools, including introductory courses at colleges and universities.


‘New’ Republican Healthcare Plan Sticks It To Everyone Except Insurance Companies

By: Adalia Woodbury
Friday, January, 31st, 2014, 11:38 am   

Republicans loved the Affordable Care Act, when it was proposed by the Heritage Foundation and when it was known as Romneycare.  That all changed when Barack Obama proposed it. Suddenly, the healthcare plan Republicans proposed as an alternate to Bill Clinton’s attempt at healthcare reform became “socialized medicine” and a host of other terms that Republicans clearly don’t understand.  For example, it isn’t “government run health care” when the insurers, hospitals, pharmacies and clinics are privately owned and healthcare providers are not government employees.  Naturally, calling it government run healthcare scares people.  That always matters more to Republicans than niceties like facts and integrity.

Back in 2012, failed presidential candidate Mitt Romney promised to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act.  Since then, Congressional Republicans voted to repeal the ACA 40 times and tried to blackmail the President into repealing it by shutting down the government.  The Republican propaganda machine continues to manufacture hairy scary myths about the law, despite the fact that most of the people they keep claiming to represent want the bill fixed, but not repealed.

After 3+ years of obstruction, failed stunts and propaganda, Republicans finally came out with the “replace” part of Romney’s “replace and repeal.”  Actually, it’s amazing that it took them 3 years to propose something even worse than what we had before the ACA became law.

It goes without saying that the “new” Republican proposal will take health insurance away from the millions of Americans who have insurance for the first time under the ACA.  Naturally, the Republican plan doesn’t include any consumer protections such as free annual physicals or requiring coverage for mammograms and AIDS testing.

In the name of making healthcare cheaper for corporations, the Orwellian titled Patient CARE Act places a cap on the federal tax exclusion for employees’ healthcare.  This is a double whammy because it means a tax hike for 150 million Americans who have employer based health insurance, and as a consequence it means more people will be stuck with junk insurance because that’s all they will be able to afford with this huge tax hike.  Between that and the reduced subsidies, more Americans will pay higher premiums for inferior coverage.  Fewer Americans will be able to afford any insurance at all. It will be back to the emergency rooms, which will also increase healthcare costs under the Republicans “new” plan because people will not have preventative care, and will postpone getting medical intention until an ailment gets more serious (and costly.)

While discussing the Republicans “new” proposal with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), didn’t dispute the fact that the Republicans idea of making healthcare more affordable is to make it less affordable for seniors most likely to have age related health issues.

Partial Transcript via Think Progress:

    CHUCK TODD: One of the assumed benefits in your new plan would allow for cheaper policies for young folks. At the same time, you would allow insurers to sell insurance at varying rates. So if you allow for a cheaper policy for younger, healthier people, right, this has been among the issues, the translation is you’re going to see — how do you prevent a spike for older Americans who, maybe just by default of genetics, are starting with a lot of health care problems, and because of that, end up getting charged more? How do you prevent that spike in rates for them?

    ORRIN HATCH: Well, we have a formula in there that it can’t go beyond a certain position. But the fact of the matter is, somebody has to pay for these things. And the Obamacare bill doesn’t pay for things, they pushed them into — into Medicaid, which is non-functioning and not doing what it should do right now.

Aside from throwing grandma and grandpa under the bus, the Republicans “new” plan resurrects blackballing people with pre-existing conditions, because having a pre-existing condition, (like being a woman) is your fault and someone has to pay for “these things.”

They want to resurrect the gender penalty, by charging women higher premiums for maternity care because in Republican land everyone knows that women get pregnant all by themselves and “someone has to pay for these things.”  That’s in addition to other gender based penalties like having the IRS investigate  IF a rape victim was “legitimately” raped and in some states, requiring women to buy rape insurance.

I guess when Republicans said they are waging a war “for” women, this is some of what they were talking about.

All in all, the Republicans’ “new” plan is really more of the same social Darwinism they always chant.  Corporate sick care insurers benefit as they push more junk policies on Americans who will pay a lot more to get a lot less. Americans with employer based insurance will see a tax hike, because while the rich are too poor to pay their share of taxes, the poor are way too rich. They’re throwing Granny and Grampy under the bus with higher premiums.  If you have a pre-existing condition, you’ll be priced out of the market if you’re allowed to be insured at all.  Women will pay more for basic coverage, and rape insurance. Of course, the state will regulate our uteruses and make our reproductive healthcare decisions for us, also driving up costs, both human and financial.

Since fewer people will be insured and that insurance will cover next to nothing, it means people who are insured will see their premiums go up, just like they did before the ACA.  But the Republican plan is all about Patient CARE because the name of their bill says so.


Alison Lundergan Grimes Mocks Mitch McConnell’s Poor Job Creation Record with New Tumblr

By: Sarah Jones
Friday, January, 31st, 2014, 12:23 pm   

It’s almost like Republican Mitch McConnell agrees that Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes is the better person for the job in the Kentucky Senate race. He’s making this so easy. The Grimes campaign launched a tumblr mocking Mitch McConnell for not coming up with a jobs plan in over 30 years. This means that Grimes is going to force McConnell to discuss his dismal record on jobs; she is going to make this a central issue of the campaign, and that is bad news for Mitch.

McConnell hasn’t proposed a jobs bill for 30 years. Yes, you read the correctly. He also voted against raising the minimum wage and pay equity for women. Of voters polled in Kentucky, 57% want the minimum wage raised and 42% percent don’t want to vote for Mitch McConnell if he voted against raising the minimum wage.

If only someone would tell them… How to force that discussion?

Grimes already launched her first jobs missile at McConnell. But she’s far from done. Another way Grimes is going to force this discussion is by launching the tumblr website she launched this week, called On the tumblr, her campaign points out that McConnell hasn’t proposed a jobs plan for 30 years, accompanied by the image of a blank word document and a waiting cursor- underneath, it says, “30 years is a long time to have writer’s block.”

Gosh, it sure is a long time. Seems kinda ridiculous that Mitch McConnell hasn’t been able to come up with a plan for Kentucky in 30 years. The Grimes campaign points out, “Kentucky’s unemployment rate remains higher than the national average and far too many Kentuckians are still looking for work. The Commonwealth’s middle-class families can no longer afford to pay the price for McConnell’s failed leadership.”

The fact that the state took a big hit in the coal industry is not McConnell’s fault, but he has failed to come up with new solutions. He has failed to even grasp the importance of jobs. He seems to think he’s above minimum wage workers, in that he obviously isn’t in DC to represent them or anyone else who isn’t a top 2%er. McConnell’s kind of out of touch entitlement is getting old.

The tumblr invites readers to “Share on Facebook, Tweet at Mitch, Email to Friends, and Sign the Petition.” In other words, if you want to be represented by someone who has a jobs plan, do the above things in order to force McConnell to have this discussion. Finally. After 30 years.

Maybe he just needed a push? Good thing Ms. Grimes came along to wake Mitch up from his 30 year jobless slumber. They are, after all, in a statistical dead heat per the latest poll, which the Grimes campaign pointed out marked “the ninth recent poll showing Alison Lundergan Grimes tied or ahead of Mitch McConnell.”

If I were Mitch, I’d be nervous, because a determined southern woman who is standing up for her family/constituents is a force to be reckoned with. I’m not sure McConnell is up to the task.

Alison Grimes has a jobs plan. She actually has a plan for the people of Kentucky, and it involves more than just vague complaints about how deregulating coal would trickle down (that’s Mitch McConnell’s “job plan”). So like the Steel Magnolia she is, Alison Grimes is going to have this jobs discussion no matter how quickly McConnell ducks and dodges.

Game on, Mitch. “Where are the jobs?”



Christie Linked to Knowledge of Shut Lanes

JAN. 31, 2014

The former Port Authority official who personally oversaw the lane closings at the George Washington Bridge, central to the scandal now swirling around Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, said on Friday that “evidence exists” that the governor knew about the closings when they were happening.

A lawyer for the former official, David Wildstein, wrote a letter describing the move to shut the lanes as “the Christie administration’s order” and said “evidence exists as well tying Mr. Christie to having knowledge of the lane closures, during the period when the lanes were closed, contrary to what the governor stated publicly in a two-hour press conference” three weeks ago.

During his news conference, Mr. Christie specifically said he had no knowledge that traffic lanes leading to the bridge had been closed until after they were reopened. “I had no knowledge of this — of the planning, the execution or anything about it — and that I first found out about it after it was over,” he said. “And even then, what I was told was that it was a traffic study.”

Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey knew about the lane closings as they were happening, a letter released on Friday by the lawyer of David Wildstein said.

The letter, which was sent as part of a dispute over Mr. Wildstein’s legal fees, does not specify what the evidence is. Nonetheless, it marks a striking break with a previous ally. Mr. Wildstein was a high school classmate of Mr. Christie’s who was hired with the governor’s blessing at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which controls the bridge.

Mr. Christie’s office responded late in the day with a statement that backed away somewhat from the governor’s previous assertions that he had not known about the closings in September, which appeared to have been carried out as political retaliation against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, until they were reported in the news media. Instead, it focused on what the letter did not suggest — that Mr. Christie knew of the closings before they occurred.

“Mr. Wildstein’s lawyer confirms what the governor has said all along: He had absolutely no prior knowledge of the lane closures before they happened and whatever Mr. Wildstein’s motivations were for closing them to begin with,” the statement said. “As the governor said in a December 13th press conference, he only first learned lanes were closed when it was reported by the press and, as he said in his January 9th press conference, had no indication that this was anything other than a traffic study until he read otherwise the morning of January 8th.

“The governor denies Mr. Wildstein’s lawyer’s other assertions.”

Mr. Christie, a Republican in his second term, made a brief appearance on Friday night at Howard Stern’s 60th birthday party in Manhattan and introduced Jon Bon Jovi; the governor did not respond to reporters who shouted questions as he left. He has repeatedly said that he did not know about the lane closings until they were first reported by The Record, a North Jersey newspaper, on Sept. 13, the day a senior Port Authority official ordered the lanes reopened.

The letter was sent from Mr. Wildstein’s lawyer, Alan L. Zegas, to the Port Authority’s general counsel. It contested the agency’s decision not to pay Mr. Wildstein’s legal fees related to investigations into the lane closings by the United States attorney’s office and the State Legislature. The allegations about Mr. Christie make up just one long paragraph in a two-page letter that otherwise focuses on Mr. Wildstein’s demand that his legal fees be paid and that he be indemnified from any lawsuits.

But Mr. Wildstein, a former political strategist and onetime author of a popular but anonymous political blog, seemed to be making an aggressive move against the governor at what should have been a celebratory moment for Mr. Christie, who had anticipated the playing of the Super Bowl in New Jersey this weekend.

The Legislature has sent subpoenas to Mr. Wildstein and 17 other people as well as the governor’s campaign and administration seeking information about the lane closings. That information is due back on Monday.

The scandal broke on Jan. 8, when documents turned over by Mr. Wildstein in response to a previous subpoena from the Legislature revealed that a deputy chief of staff to the governor, Bridget Anne Kelly, had sent an email to Mr. Wildstein in August saying, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” the town at the New Jersey end of the bridge and where Mr. Christie’s aides had pursued but failed to receive an endorsement from the mayor.

“Got it,” Mr. Wildstein replied.

He then communicated the order to bridge operators. The closings caused extensive gridlock in Fort Lee. Mr. Christie fired Ms. Kelly the day after those emails were revealed, and his administration has tried to portray the closings as the actions of a rogue staff member.

But the documents from Mr. Wildstein were heavily redacted, leaving clues but no answers as to who else might have been involved. The documents included, for example, texts between Mr. Wildstein and Ms. Kelly trying to set up a meeting with the governor around the time the plan for the lane closings was hatched. It is unclear, however, what the meeting was about.

Mr. Wildstein’s lawyer has promised to turn over full versions of those emails to the committee investigating the matter, but as of Friday evening, a spokesman for the committee said they had not been received.

Mr. Zegas did not respond to requests to discuss the letter.

Mr. Wildstein resigned from his position as the director of interstate capital projects at the agency in early December, saying the scandal over the lane closings had become “a distraction.”

In his two-hour news conference, Mr. Christie said his friendship with Mr. Wildstein had been overstated; that while the governor had been class president and an athlete, he did not recall Mr. Wildstein well from that period and that he had rarely seen him in recent months. The Wall Street Journal has since published photos showing the two men laughing together at a Sept. 11 anniversary event — which happened during the four days the lanes were closed. A high school baseball coach also recalled them being on the same team.

His lawyer’s letter suggests that Mr. Wildstein was irritated, if not provoked, by Mr. Christie’s dismissiveness.

“Mr. Wildstein contests the accuracy of various statements that the governor made about him, and he can prove the inaccuracy of some,” the letter added.

Also on Friday, the lawyer for another aide to Mr. Christie sent a 19-page letter to Reid J. Schar, the special counsel leading the legislative committee’s investigation into the lane closures, asking him to withdraw a subpoena seeking a wide range of documents and other materials from the aide, saying it violated his Fifth Amendment rights.

The aide, Bill Stepien, the governor’s two-time campaign manager and former deputy chief of staff, was among those who lost their jobs or resigned when emails about the closings were made public last month. He had just been retained as a consultant to the Republican Governors Association and was poised to head the state’s Republican Party.

“Bill Stepien has not broken any laws,” the lawyer, Kevin H. Marino, wrote, arguing that the subpoena violates his client’s rights against self-incrimination and unreasonable search and seizure. “He is one of the most well-respected political consultants in America.”

The panel, the New Jersey Legislative Select Committee on Investigation, released a statement about the letters from the lawyers representing Mr. Marino and Mr. Wildstein.

“We have read the letter from Mr. Wildstein’s attorney and will consider it as our investigation moves forward,” the statement said. “We just received Mr. Marino’s letter this afternoon. We are reviewing it and considering our legal options with respect to enforcing the subpoena.”


Republican 2016 Hopes Evaporate as David Wildstein Says Christie Knew About Bridgegate

By: Sarah Jones
Friday, January, 31st, 2014, 4:22 pm   

The house of cards is crashing down around Chris Christie and taking the Republicans best hope for 2016 with them, as David Wildstein is spilling the beans and admitting the governor knew about Bridgegate.

Kate Zernike at the New York Times reported:

In a letter released by his lawyer, the official, David Wildstein, a high school friend of Mr. Christie’s who was appointed with the governor’s blessing at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which controls the bridge, described the order to close the lanes as “the Christie administration’s order” and said “evidence exists as well tying Mr. Christie to having knowledge of the lane closures, during the period when the lanes were closed, contrary to what the governor stated publicly in a two-hour press conference” three weeks ago.

“Mr. Wildstein contests the accuracy of various statements that the governor made about him and he can prove the inaccuracy of some,” the letter added.

The letter marked the first signal that Mr. Christie may have been aware of the closings, something he repeatedly denied during the news conference.

This is the dynamite that Christie invited when he held a presser in which he denied all knowledge of bridgegate and threw his staffers under the Christie bus. As Jason Easley so accurately pointed out then, Christie’s remarks meant that reporters would keep digging and if he wasn’t telling the truth, it would be game over:

    Reporters and media will likely keep digging. If/when they find evidence that Christie knew about this, the governor of New Jersey’s political future will be toast. Christie flatly stated that he had no knowledge of this issue. It’s planning, or its execution. The governor took a big risk, and if he is not being totally honest, he will be caught.

If it’s true that Chris Christie knew about bridgegate and Mr. Wildstein can prove it as he claims he can, then Christie not only abused his power but lied about it. And you know what they say about the coverup.

While Republicans spent years trying to turn Benghazi into something to harm Hillary Clinton in 2016, it looks like Chris Christie was busy destroying his own 2016 dreams. Americans might have forgiven the abuse of power, but they won’t forgive the lie, and they won’t forgive the way Christie tossed old friends under the bus to save himself.

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Ukraine Opposition Leader's Daughter Urges EU, U.S. Hardline

by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 February 2014, 20:01

The daughter of jailed Ukrainian opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko on Saturday said attempts to negotiate with the authorities were doomed to failure, as she pressed for the West to take a harder line.

Yevgeniya Tymoshenko spoke to Agence France Presse in Kiev in a phone interview from the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference in Germany where she met with EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele and Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino.

"We are calling for more radical action on the part of leaders of the democratic world," she said.

"Negotiations with (President Viktor) Yanukovych cannot be successful. We are still calling for Yanukovych's resignation and early elections."

Tymoshenko said she had explained to Western officials that protesters were not "extremists or provocateurs" and "democratic countries should defend our struggle".

"We need to speak to the authorities from a position of power instead of trying to seek a compromise that Yanukovych will never accept," she said, in an apparent criticism of other opposition leaders who have conducted negotiations with Yanukovych.

"I will continue to fight for my mother because she is the main political prisoner of this regime.... She is now considered a more dangerous enemy than ever."

Tymoshenko was one of the leaders of the pro-democracy "Orange Revolution" in 2004 and then served as prime minister. She is in prison for abuse of power but she has dismissed this as political revenge by Yanukovych.


Tymoshenko Party: Ukraine Preparing State of Emergency

by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 February 2014, 15:26

The party of jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko said on Saturday that the Ukrainian authorities were considering the introduction of a state of emergency in a bid to break up the protest movement against the government.

On Friday, Ukraine's SBU security service announced a criminal investigation into what it said was an opposition attempt to seize power.

"An announcement by the SBU is an element of a use-of-force scenario, planning the possible introduction of a state of emergency," a senior official with the Batkivshchyna party, Grygoriy Nemyria, told Agence France Presse.

The opposition has over the past two months been locked in a confrontation with the government of President Viktor Yanukovych.

Ukraine's most severe crisis since gaining independence in 1991 was sparked by Yanukovych's decision to scrap a pact with the European Union in November.

Over the past few weeks the protests have radicalized and turned into an all-out drive to unseat the 63-year-old leader.

The outbreak of violence in which several protesters and policemen were killed is unprecedented in a country which saw the pro-democracy Orange Revolution in 2004 peacefully overturn a rigged election.

Weighing in for the first time since the start of the protests, the military on Friday urged the president to take "urgent steps" to ease the turmoil.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk, leader of the Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party, told top European dignitaries on Friday that the use of the army against the protesters was "very likely."

"This is one more element of planning the possible introduction of the state of emergency," Nemyria said on Saturday.

"The involvement of the army, this has not happened during the Orange Revolution. This is unacceptable," he added.


U.S. and EU Slug It Out with Russia over Ukraine

by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 February 2014, 12:50

The United States and EU traded unusually sharp barbs with Russia Saturday over Ukraine's future amid concerns that Kiev could resort to possible military intervention to end anti-government protests.

Neither side pulled any punches, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry saying what happens in Ukraine is crucial for Europe's future while his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov blasted willful and two-faced Western interference.

"Nowhere is the fight for a democratic, European future more important today than in Ukraine," Kerry told political, diplomatic and military leaders at the Munich Security Conference.

"The United States and EU stand with the people of Ukraine in that fight," said Kerry who later Saturday met Ukrainian opposition leaders including former world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko in Munich.

Kerry, speaking on a panel with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel alongside, said the "vast majority of Ukrainians want to live freely in a safe, prosperous country".

"They are fighting for the right to associate with partners who will help them realize their aspirations -- and they have decided that means their futures do not have to lie with one country alone, and certainly not coerced."

Earlier Saturday, the party of opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk said he had warned European officials it was "very likely" Kiev would "resort to a use of force scenario, including with the involvement of the Ukrainian army".

The Ukrainian defense ministry has warned that protesters' seizure of government buildings was unacceptable and that "further escalation of the confrontation threatens the country's territorial integrity".

Ukraine's SBU security service meanwhile announced a criminal investigation into what it said was an opposition attempt to seize power.

Yatsenyuk's party, which has jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko as its head, told Agence France Presse that "an announcement by the SBU is an element of a use-of-force scenario, planning the possible introduction of a state of emergency".

For his part, Klitschko warned of "a spiral of escalation" and told journalists that in Ukraine "we must avoid the start of a civil war".

He also said that "I would support sanctions" against the government of President Victor Yanukovych because "it is the only language understood by today's dictators of Ukraine".

European Council President Herman Van Rompuy told another panel that the EU wanted good relations with Russia, but that the Ukrainian people had to have the right to choose their own future, a future with Europe.

The West and Russia have been at loggerheads over Ukraine since Yanukovych ditched an EU association accord in November under pressure from a Moscow trying to bring its former Soviet satellite back into the fold.

His decision sparked off massive anti-government protests, which turned increasingly violent last month after he rushed through a series of curbs on protests.

Kerry's meeting with the Ukraine opposition may have explained the unequivocally harsh remarks by Lavrov who accused the West of stoking the violence in Kiev in a clear example of double standards.

"Why are many prominent EU politicians actually encouraging such actions although back home they are quick to severely punish any violations of the law?" Lavrov told the conference.

"What does incitement of increasingly violent street protests have to do with promoting democracy?," he said, speaking at the same panel as Van Rompuy.

"Why don't we hear condemnation of those who seize and hold government buildings, attack the police, torture police, use racist and anti-Semitic and Nazi slogans?" Lavrov said.

EU foreign affairs head Catherine Ashton is due to visit Kiev again next week, having previously met the government and opposition figures several times there to call for peaceful dialogue.

Other prominent EU, U.S. and international figures have also been frequent visitors to Kiev, drawing a strong government and Russian response although Lavrov's remarks Saturday were unusually blunt in comparison.

Describing the situation in Ukraine as raising "fundamental questions" about EU-Russia relations, he said that in this case "a choice is being imposed."

Europe's future should "not be about new spheres of influence... it should be about how all countries" cooperate in the interest of all, he said.

For his part, Kerry said "Russia and other countries should not view the European integration of their neighbors as a zero-sum game".

"The lesson of the last half-century is that we can accomplish much more when the United States, Russia and Europe work together," he added.


Ukraine Accuses Protesters of 'Torturing' Policeman

by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 February 2014, 16:59

Ukrainian authorities on Saturday accused opposition protesters of "torturing" a police officer in the basement of an occupied public building in Kiev as an opposition politician looked on.

The interior ministry said protesters in the capital Kiev on Friday night captured a policeman who wore plain clothes while on duty.

He was beaten and taken to the Kiev mayor's office building, which is being occupied by demonstrators. Once there, he was "tortured", the ministry said.

"There they took away the policeman's ID and personal belongings and continued to hit him multiple times," the ministry said in a statement.

The policeman was hospitalized with a head injury and concussion, said the ministry, adding that a member of the Svoboda (Freedom) nationalist party, Yuriy Levchenko, was present during the beating but did not intervene.

Svoboda dismissed the accusations as "propaganda".

Yuriy Syrotyuk, the party's deputy leader, said: "This is a further escalation in propaganda on the part of the interior ministry. There are kidnappings of (government) opponents and not one word from those in power. Instead of searching for people, the police begin to invent stories of policemen abducted from Maidan (the square where protesters have congregated)," he told Agence France Presse.

"There has not even been an incident with a police officer, this is all false," he added.

The opposition has over the past two months been locked in a confrontation with the government of President Viktor Yanukovych.

Several people including protesters and police were shot dead during a recent outbreak of violence in the Ukrainian capital, parts of which have been turned into a battle zone.

The opposition fears the government may use the army to crush the protest movement which was sparked by Yanukovych's decision to scrap a pact with the European Union in November.

The interior ministry said last week the protesters captured three policemen wounding one of them with a knife. The opposition has cast doubt on that claim.

A prominent opposition activist, who reappeared Thursday night after going missing more than a week ago, said he was tortured by unidentified assailants.

Dmytro Bulatov said his captors had cut off an ear and driven nails through his hands before dumping him in a forest.


Ukraine Protester's Injuries Just 'a Scratch'

by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 February 2014, 21:51

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara on Saturday dismissed the injuries sustained by a protester found caked in blood as "a scratch", as the man recovered in hospital in intensive care.

"Physically this man is in a good condition. The only thing he has is a scratch on one of his cheeks," Kozhara told Al-Jazeera television on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.

"It looks like the alleged story that he was kidnapped and tortured is not absolutely true," he said, adding: "The investigation is going on."

Dmytro Bulatov, 35, said he was kidnapped by unidentified captors with Russian accents on January 22 during clashes in Kiev and released in a forest on January 30 after being tortured.

He said his kidnappers cut off his ear and drove nails through his hands. In television images he was covered in blood and appeared to have been badly beaten.

Bulatov's case has been raised by European and U.S. officials at the Munich Security Conference.

Bulatov's lawyer, Ruslan Radetskiy, told Agence France Presse that his client was operated on on Friday.

"He had an operation to sew up the wounds on his body. The operation was carried out yesterday. He is still in intensive care," Radetskiy said.

The interior ministry has accused Bulatov of organizing mass unrest and has ordered him to be put under house arrest once he is out of hospital.

The ministry also said it was possible that Bulatov had "staged" his kidnapping and torture "to provoke a negative reaction in society".

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said on Saturday after talks with Kozhara in Munich that Germany was ready to host Bulatov to receive further medical care if he wanted.

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« Reply #11659 on: Feb 02, 2014, 06:44 AM »

Bulgarian President Calls for Opening of Communist Files

by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 February 2014, 18:17

Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev called Saturday for all the communist-era secret services' files to be opened immediately, still a controversial issue a quarter of the century after the collapse of the former regime.

"After 25 years, the time for keeping secrets has passed....All citizens, school pupils and students have the right to learn, with no intermediary, the truth about totalitarian power," he said in a national address.

The conservative president said the "worst vice of the transition" that followed the fall of the communist regime on November 10, 1989, was the lack of self-analysis on the preceding four decades of totalitarianism.

Since 2007, a commission has been tasked with opening the old secret service files of ministers, diplomats, political candidates and other key public figures.

Former agents and collaborators face no legal consequences, though the government did recall dozens of ambassadors in 2011 after the contents of their files were revealed.

Under current law, the full secret service archives will eventually be published online, though socialist lawmakers are trying to overturn that provision.

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« Reply #11660 on: Feb 02, 2014, 06:45 AM »

Britain's Labor Leader further Reduces Union Ties

by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 February 2014, 16:12

The leader of Britain's opposition Labor party, Ed Miliband, revealed plans on Saturday to further reduce the influence of trade unions on the party.

He wants to change the way Labor leaders are elected by ending block voting by the unions -- a system that secured his own narrow victory over his brother in 2010.

The current electoral college system gives a third of the votes each to the unions, party members, and elected members of the British and European parliaments.

Miliband proposes to scrap this and give every member of the center-left party a direct vote for a new leader.

The reforms build on his plans announced last year to change the party's financial ties with the trade unions, which helped found Labor in 1900.

Miliband wants to end the process by which union members are automatically affiliated to Labor unless they opt out, saying it makes no sense in the 21st century.

However, it risks having a major impact on the finances of the party, which depends on union donations.

When the move was announced last July, media reports suggested Labor nets £8 million (nine million euros, $12 million) a year from almost three million union workers -- the majority of the party's funds.

In an interview with the Guardian newspaper on Saturday, Miliband said the changes were aimed at "letting people back into our politics, and getting them back into politics".

"These are the biggest changes to who can become involved in the Labor party since probably its formation," he said.

The changes are being sent to members of the party's ruling national executive -- of which about a third represent unions -- before a decision is taken at a special meeting in London on March 1.

The reforms were sparked by a row last year over efforts by Britain's biggest union, United, to get its favored candidate chosen to contest a parliamentary by-election in Falkirk, in Scotland.

Miliband is particularly sensitive to criticism about union influence after their support helped him beat his older brother, ex-foreign minister David Miliband, to the Labor leadership in 2010.

Under the reforms, the unions would retain their collective voice on policies decided at Labor's annual conference, where they have 50 percent of the vote, although Miliband said this may also be reviewed.

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« Reply #11661 on: Feb 02, 2014, 06:51 AM »

Russian anti-gay gang violence seen for the first time on camera

Forthcoming C4 documentary reveals disturbing methods used by homophobic groups as Olympics near

Paul Gallagher and Vanessa Thorpe   
The Observer, Saturday 1 February 2014 20.31 GMT   

Shocking footage of the violent groups that target gay men and lesbian women in Russia will reveal the dangerous levels of homophobia in the country in the runup to the Sochi Winter Olympics this week.

A Channel 4 documentary, Hunted, to be broadcast in the Dispatches strand on Wednesday at 10pm, will include the first television reporting of the concerted intimidation and humiliation carried out by the anti-gay groups Parents of Russia and Occupy Paedophilia.

"We filmed these groups with their knowledge, and what I found shocking afterwards was that only a few asked to have their faces disguised. They all believe they are doing the right thing," said Liz Mackean, the investigative journalist who travelled to Russia to make the film for C4.

"Occupy Paedophilia has groups in more than 30 cities. They operate with impunity and under the cover of the remarks Pig V. Putin has made suggesting that children are at risk from homosexuals," Mackean added. The film shows the gangs using the internet to lure potential victims to meetings, before threatening violence to force confessions or humiliating acts. One victim is persuaded to dance and is filmed for the internet.

"Occupy Paedophilia deliberately blurs the lines between paedophilia and homosexuality," said Tom Porter, commissioning editor of the documentary. "During one of the filmed incidents of humiliation, the group asked our cameraman and director, Ben Steele, to stop filming, but he continued partly because he was concerned that if he stopped there would be violence."

In another sequence, Timur Isav, a self-styled crusading member of Parents of Russia, is shown attending a lesbian and gay event and handing out bags containing a length of rope, with the intention of suggesting they commit suicide.

C4 is also broadcasting the Paralympic Winter Games in March. "It just shows the way a broad channel like Channel 4 can exist," said Porter. "We are doing our investigation, while over in sport they are doing the Winter Games."

Mackean said the gay Russians she interviewed were against a boycott of the Games, because they feared it would lead to increased reprisals.

International human rights groups plan to step up their protests against Russia's anti-gay laws during the event in a bid to reverse legislation that they say is responsible for a dramatic rise in homophobic attacks.

Athlete Ally, an organisation focused on ending homophobia and transphobia in sports, is among the organisations that have called for worldwide peaceful action on Wednesday as part of a "Global Speak Out" event in support of Russian LGBT people. Wesley Adams, chief operating officer at US-based campaign group All Out, who is co-ordinating the Speak Out protests, called for everyone to wear red clothing at the events – a colourful move echoing the German national team's decision to wear rainbow-coloured kit for the Games. Adams said he wants protests to take place not just at embassies but anywhere "that refers to Russia in a positive way".

Referring to the Principle Six campaign – named after the clause in the Olympic charter that supposedly guarantees non-discrimination – he said: "We also encourage people to use Principle Six messaging as a positive way to push Olympians, Olympic sponsors and the IOC to speak up.

"Principle Six of the Olympic Charter forbids discrimination of any kind, including based on sexual orientation. The Principle Six campaign uses the language of the charter to give athletes and fans a way to speak out against discrimination before and during the Sochi Olympics without breaking Russian anti-gay laws or violating the Olympic ban on political speech."

Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, who will be attending the London protest at Downing Street on Wednesday evening, condemned "cowardly" Games sponsors, such as McDonald's, Coca-Cola and Visa, for not speaking out.

He said: "None of the corporate sponsors have explicitly condemned the Russian anti-gay law or homophobic violence in Russia. They've made only general, vague equality statements. This isn't good enough. They seem more interested in safeguarding their Russian sales than in standing up for human rights.

"I would have expected them to make a simple statement such as: 'We are deeply concerned about new Russian legislation that discriminates against the LGBT community. We deplore the homophobic violence that is taking place in Russia.' It is shameful and cowardly that they feel unable to say this."

Tatchell compared the Sochi Games with the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. "The 1936 Olympics took place in an atmosphere of antisemitic hatred incited by the Nazi government. The 2014 Sochi Olympics echo that hatred, only this time the victims of demonisation are LGBT people. There are no Nuremberg laws or concentration camps, but the hateful anti-gay propaganda is similar to the antisemitism stirred by the Nazis in the early 1930s. How can there be normal sporting relations with an abnormal regime like Putin's Russia?"

Human Rights Watch will continue to lobby officials behind the scenes this week. Hugh Williamson, director of the NGO's Europe and Central Asia division, said staff will be present at the Games getting information "on the ground" and commenting on developments.

He said: "We will continue to publish research, and lobby the IOC and Russian Olympic committee, as well as working with other LGBT groups all the way up to the Games."

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« Reply #11662 on: Feb 02, 2014, 06:53 AM »

Thousands of pro-abortion protesters gather in Spain

Anger mounts in Madrid at bill that will end woman's right to termination except in cases of rape or medical need

Ashifa Kassam   
The Observer, Saturday 1 February 2014 21.41 GMT   

Tens of thousands of Spaniards have taken to the streets of Madrid in a show of force against government plans to roll back access to abortion in the country.

Waving homemade signs with messages such as "My ovaries: not those of priests, nor of politicians", the crowd chanted and whistled as it snaked its way through central Madrid on Saturday. Police said more than 15,000 had turned out.

"We are here to protest against a government that wants to take us back to the times of Franco," said one demonstrator, Manuel Navarro. "We are stepping backwards with this law."

In late December the governing People's party approved legislation that would severely curtail access to abortion in the country. Since 2010, women in Spain have had the right to an abortion until the 14th week of pregnancy. In cases where the mother's health is at risk or when the foetus shows serious deformities, Spanish women can terminate the pregnancy until the 22nd week. Under the new measures put forward by the government, abortions in Spain would only be allowed in the case of rape or when there is a risk to the physical or mental health of the mother. Women wanting abortions will need the approval of two medical professionals to prove these circumstances.

Carmen Veiga was almost in tears as she surveyed the large crowd. During the holidays, she and a few other women in the northern Spanish city of Gijón had come up with the idea of travelling to Madrid to deliver a letter to the government demanding that it abandon the legislation. Seats on their "freedom train" were filled within days, prompting other towns and cities across the country to do the same.

The result, said Veiga, was a coming together of protest movements from across the country and the strongest show of force seen since the government announced the measures just over a month ago. "It is incredible to see all these people come together to defend women's rights," she said. "And it's necessary – what they're trying to do is a brutal reversal of women's rights."

More than 300 groups worked to organise the protest, and it showed in the variety of the attendees, who ranged from toddlers to senior citizens. Women's groups pointed out that thousands of men had joined the protest.

"This law affects us just as much – we're parents too," said Rodrigo Martínez Barrios, 20. "To me, this sounds like a return to the Middle Ages." He was also suspicious of the timing of the bill. "Politicians are using this issue to distract us from the bigger issues – the corruption, the crisis, the economy of this country."

One woman said she had woken up at 5am to make the 280-mile journey from Santander to Madrid. Carmen, who did not want to give her last name, looked around nervously before leaning in to explain why it was so important that she be here today.

"This is my fight," she said, her voice shaking. Thirty years earlier, she had travelled to London for an abortion. "I didn't speak a word of English. But I didn't know what else to do." A condom had broken and they knew they could not afford to raise a third child.

"It was heartbreaking. And it was even worse that I had to leave my country to do it or risk going to jail." She and her husband scraped together whatever money they could, draining their life savings to send her to London alone. "I am here today because I never want my grandchildren to go through that," said the 63-year-old.

Her voice rose as she added: "It can't be that after 30 years we're back in the same situation. That means we're not advancing as a country."

The proposed measures come as statistics show that the number of abortions in Spain is on the decline. Nonetheless, the changes are being championed by the Roman Catholic church – a powerful force in a country where 70% of the population say they are Catholic. "The church wants to return to a time when they controlled us, when they suffocated us. They want to take us backwards," said protester Mercedes López.

The People's party has said repeatedly that the scaling back of abortion laws was an election promise that it must now fulfil. As polls show that between 70% and 80% of Spaniards are against the changes, the party's stance has put it at odds with its electorate.

Recent weeks have seen prime minister Mariano Rajoy soften his stance on the bill. "The constitution and different opinions will be taken into account," he told parliament last week. The Spanish congress, in which the People's party holds a strong majority, is expected to pass the bill in late spring.

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« Reply #11663 on: Feb 02, 2014, 07:08 AM »

Iran Gets First Instalment of Frozen Assets

by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 February 2014, 20:59

Iran has received the first installment of $4.2 billion in frozen assets as part of a nuclear deal with world powers, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi told ISNA news agency Saturday.

Unblocking the funds under the landmark deal in which Iran agreed to roll back parts of its nuclear program and halt further advances is expected to breathe new life into its crippled economy.

"The first tranche of $500 million was deposited in a Swiss bank account, and everything was done in accordance with the agreement," Araqchi said.

Iran clinched the interim deal in November with the P5+1 group -- Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany -- and began implementing the agreement on January 20.

Under the agreement, which is to last six months, Iran committed to limit its uranium enrichment to five percent, halting production of 20 percent-enriched uranium.

In return, the European Union and the United States have eased crippling economic sanctions on Iran.

A senior U.S. administration official told Agence France Presse last month that the first $550-million (400-million-euro) installment of $4.2 billion in frozen assets would be released from February.

"The installment schedule starts on February 1 and the payments are evenly distributed" across 180 days, the U.S. official said.

Iran and the P5+1 will also hold a new round of talks in Vienna on February 18 in a bid to discuss a comprehensive solution to Tehran's contested nuclear program.

Major world powers and Israel fear that Iran is trying to develop an atomic bomb, but Tehran insists its nuclear program is peaceful.

Also on Saturday, the official IRNA news agency quoted the head of the civil aviation authority, Alireza Jahanguirian, as saying that Iran will soon receive spare parts for its ailing civilian fleet.

Jahanguirian said the parts would arrive within two weeks as part of the sanctions relief agreed in Geneva in November.

But the November deal foresees an easing on sanctions imposed on several sectors, including Iran's car industry and petrochemical exports, as well as allowing civil aviation access to long-denied spares.

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« Reply #11664 on: Feb 02, 2014, 07:09 AM »

Taliban Committee for Government Talks iIcludes Imran Khan

by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 February 2014, 21:48

The Pakistani Taliban on Saturday said that cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan would be one of five members of a committee set up to hold talks with the government.

The announcement came days after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif named a similar team to facilitate dialogue with the extremists, who have waged a deadly insurgency since 2007.

"The committee members will hold talks with their interlocutors in the government's team on our behalf and put forth our point of view," Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesman Shahidullah Shahid told Agence France Presse.

Khan is joined by the chief cleric of Islamabad's Red Mosque, Maulana Abdul Aziz, and three senior religious party leaders: Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, Mufti Kifayatullah and Professor Ibrahim Khan.

Khan, leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party, has been a vocal supporter of negotiating with insurgents.

His spokesperson, Shireen Mazari, said: "Our position is very clear. We have full confidence in the committee formed by the government."

Aziz, told AFP the committee was a "noble cause".

"I will continue to be part of the committee if the government shows sincerity in looking into (Taliban) demands -- and of course the major demand is enforcement of Sharia law in the country," he said.

Sharif came to power last year pledging to reach out to the Taliban and engage in talks to end their seven-year insurgency.

But he has been criticized for failing to set a strategy to respond to a surge in militant violence which has resulted in 114 deaths since the start of the year, according to an AFP tally.

On Wednesday, he named a four-man committee under his special assistant Irfan Siddiqui to assist in dialogue efforts with the Taliban.

In his address to parliament Sharif called on militants to stop attacks, "because terrorism and talks cannot go side by side".

The Taliban have said they are ready for meaningful negotiations provided the government is serious.

They have also been demanding the release of prisoners, the Pakistan army's withdrawal from the restive tribal areas and an end to U.S. drone strikes.

Experts expressed doubt Saturday that much would come from the establishment of the two committees, suggesting the Taliban were biding their time and not committed to talks.

"The TTP's strategy is to avoid a military action until end of 2014 when the international troops withdraw from Afghanistan," security analyst Hasan Askari told AFP.

"This will help them join hands with Afghan Taliban and focus full attention on securing control of the tribal regions."

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« Reply #11665 on: Feb 02, 2014, 07:12 AM »

Rights, Democracy 'under Threat' in Sri Lanka

by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 February 2014, 17:21

Democracy is under threat in Sri Lanka and its rights record has deteriorated in the five years since the end of a bloody ethnic war, a top U.S. envoy said Saturday.

Nisha Biswal, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, said Colombo had failed to ensure reconciliation, justice and accountability, and pressure was building for a foreign probe.

"Lack of progress in Sri Lanka has led to a great deal of frustration and skepticism in my government and in the international community," Biswal told reporters at the end of a two-day visit to Sri Lanka.

She said the U.S. favored a "domestic process" to investigate allegations of war crimes, including charges that thousands of civilians were killed by government forces in the final months of fighting in 2009, but there was no progress.

"The international community's patience is wearing thin," she said, adding mounting calls for an external investigation are the result of Colombo's failure to show progress.

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron warned during a Commonwealth summit in Colombo in November he would use London's U.N. position to press for an independent international investigation unless Colombo showed results by March.

Biswal said the U.S. was moving another resolution against Sri Lanka at next month's U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva to nudge Sri Lanka to do more to ensure "reconciliation, justice, and accountability".

"Respect for human rights and a promotion of transparent and democratic governance are essential. Unfortunately, continued deterioration in these areas is already beginning to take its toll on democracy in Sri Lanka," she said.

Biswal, who arrived in Colombo on Friday, is the second U.S. envoy to travel to Sri Lanka in recent weeks after war crimes investigator Stephen Rapp stirred controversy by visiting a former Sri Lankan battleground last month.

She met with Foreign Minister G. L. Peiris, opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, and traveled to the island's former war zone of Jaffna in the north, where she met with the newly-elected Tamil politicians in the region.

Sri Lanka's government made no formal reaction to Biswal's hard-hitting remarks at the end of her visit, but official sources said Colombo had said it wants more time to deliver on reconciliation and accountability.

However, Biswal widened her criticism of the government of President Mahinda Rajapakse to include corruption, an area the international community has skirted until she focused on it Saturday.

"We are concerned about the worsening situation with respect to human rights... as well as the weakening of the rule of law and an increase in the levels of corruption and impunity.

"All of these factors lead to undermine the proud tradition of democracy in Sri Lanka," she said.

She said the U.S. was also concerned about continued attacks against religious minorities in the mainly Buddhist Sri Lanka, where Christian and Muslim groups had faced physical violence in many places while police looked on.

"Respect for human rights and a promotion of transparent and democratic governance are essential," she said.

"Unfortunately, continued deterioration in these areas is already beginning to take its toll on democracy in Sri Lanka."

Sri Lanka has consistently denied what the U.N. calls credible allegations that up to 40,000 civilians were killed by Sri Lankan troops in the final months of the war that ended in 2009.

Government forces declared victory after wiping out the leadership of Tamil Tiger rebels in a no-holds-barred offensive that brought to an end to 37 years of ethnic bloodshed which, according to the U.N., had claimed at least 100,000 lives.

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« Reply #11666 on: Feb 02, 2014, 07:14 AM »

Thailand: hundreds of polling stations closed, but voting begins peacefully

Relatively little violence in early stages of anxiously-awaited election day as PM's supporters insist on right to vote

Associated Press in Bangkok, Sunday 2 February 2014 07.23 GMT      

Protesters trying to derail Thailand's national elections forced the closure of hundreds of polling stations in a highly contentious vote that has become the latest flashpoint in the country's deepening political crisis.

Around the country, the vast majority of voting stations were open and polling proceeded relatively peacefully, but the risk of violence remained high a day after gun battles in Bangkok left seven people wounded.

The national focus was riveted to the capital, where 488 of the capital's 6,600 polling stations were shut and several skirmishes broke out between protesters intent on disrupting the vote and frustrated would-be voters.

In some cases, protesters formed blockades to prevent voters from entering polling stations. Elsewhere, protesters blocked the delivery of ballots and other election materials, preventing voting stations from opening. The Election Commission said hundreds of polling stations in the south, an opposition stronghold, faced similar problems.

Whatever happens in Sunday's vote, the outcome will almost certainly be inconclusive. Because protesters blocked candidate registration in some districts, parliament will not have enough members to convene.

That means the beleaguered prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, will be unable to form a government or even pass a budget, and Thailand will be stuck in political limbo for months as byelections are run in constituencies that were unable to vote.

Fears of violence were high after an hour-long gun fight erupted on Saturday at a busy Bangkok intersection between government supporters and protesters trying to block delivery of ballots. Among the injured was a reporter for the local Daily News newspaper and an American photojournalist, James Nachtwey, who was grazed by a bullet in the leg.

Under heavy police security, Yingluck cast her vote at a polling station in north-eastern Bangkok, cheered on by supporters.

"Today is an important day," Yingluck told reporters. "I would like to invite Thai people to come out and vote to uphold democracy."

Voting was not as easy in other parts of Bangkok. At one of the more volatile districts of the capital, voters in Din Daeng scuffled with protesters and hurled bottles at each other under heavy police security. An Associated Press reporter saw a protester fire a gunshot after angry voters tried to push their way past a blockade. No injuries were reported.

Dozens of voters demanding their right to vote broke into the Din Daeng district office, which was unable to distribute ballots to the neighbourhood's voting stations.

"We want an election. We are Thais," said Narong Meephol, a 63-year-old Bangkok resident, waving his identification card. "We are here to exercise our rights."

Elsewhere, one of Thailand's more colourful politicians, Chuwit Kamolvisit, an independent candidate, got into a punching, knock-down brawl with a group of protesters.

"They tried to attack me while I was trying to go vote," said Chuwit, a tycoon who made a fortune operating massage parlours before turning to politics as an anti-corruption campaigner.

The conflict pits demonstrators who say they want to suspend the country's fragile democracy to institute anti-corruption reforms, against Yingluck's supporters.

The protesters are demanding the government be replaced by an unelected council that would rewrite political and electoral laws to combat what they say are deep-seated problems of corruption and money politics. Yingluck has refused to step down, arguing she is open to reform and that such a council would be unconstitutional.

Since protests began three months ago, at least 10 people have been killed and nearly 600 wounded.

The political standoff meant the campaign, at least in the capital, was done without the usual billboards, posters and sound trucks, with the pre-election buzz focused on violence instead of policies.

"How did we get to this point?" asked Chanida Pakdeebanchasak, a 28-year-old Bangkok resident who was determined to cast her ballot on Sunday.

Police said they would deploy 100,000 officers nationwide, while the army was putting 5,000 soldiers into Bangkok to boost security. More than 48 million people are registered to vote.

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« Reply #11667 on: Feb 02, 2014, 07:17 AM »

Killings Rattle Afghan Voters as Election Campaign Starts

by Naharnet Newsdesk
02 February 2014, 11:58

Afghanistan's presidential candidates held major rallies in Kabul on Sunday marking the start of an election campaign to appoint Hamid Karzai's successor, as the killing of a frontrunner's aides highlighted the security threat surrounding the poll.

Gunmen shot dead two aides of Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, in the western city of Herat on Saturday, officials said.

The attack comes as the country prepares for its first democratic transfer of power, with the April 5 election viewed as a key test of the effectiveness of the 350,000-strong Afghan security force as foreign troops prepare to exit the country.

A dispute between Kabul and Washington over whether a small force of U.S. soldiers stays behind beyond 2014 is likely to dominate the campaign.

In the capital on Sunday, thousands of people, mostly men, gathered in giant wedding halls where candidates delivered speeches and called on war-weary Afghans to vote for them.

Ashraf Ghani, a 64-year-old academic and internationally known intellectual, told one packed hall: "Reforms will begin with us: myself, Mr Dostum and Mr Danish."

He was referring to his running mates, the former Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum and ethnic Hazara tribal chieftain Sarwar Danish.

Security was tight at the rallies, which were guarded by the Afghan national army.

But despite the army's presence, the killing of Abdullah's aides weighed heavily on some people's minds.

Arefa Alizada, an 18-year-old Abdullah supporter who attended one of the rallies, said: "I am concerned about security of the election, especially after I heard that two campaigners were killed yesterday. If it worsens, me and many other people won't be able to vote."

Afghanistan has been gripped by a deadly insurgency for the past 12 years. Most U.S. and NATO troops are set to leave at the end of this year, leaving Afghans in charge of their own security.

A dispute between Kabul and Washington over whether a small force of U.S. soldiers stays behind beyond 2014 is likely to dominate the campaign.

Karzai was expected to sign a bilateral security agreement (BSA) late last year, which would allow about 10,000 U.S. troops to be deployed in the country after NATO withdraws by December.

But he has stalled and said his successor might now complete negotiations -- plunging relations with the U.S., Afghanistan's key donor, to a fresh low.

Karzai has ruled the country since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, surviving assassination attempts and the treacherous currents of Afghan political life as billions of dollars of military and development aid poured into the country.

He is barred from seeking a third term, leaving an open field to compete in the April 5 vote, which is likely to trigger a second-round run-off in late May between the two strongest candidates.

Abdullah, the suave opposition leader who came second to Karzai in the chaotic and fraud-riddled 2009 election, is tipped to go through to the next round.

Former finance minister Ghani, Karzai loyalist Zalmai Rassoul and the president's low-profile elder brother Qayum Karzai are also considered heavyweights.

In comments likely to cause further friction with his NATO allies, Karzai criticised their conduct during the 12-year conflict in an interview with Britain's Sunday Times in which he described the Taliban as "brothers" and the U.S. as "rivals".

Karzai told the newspaper that "the U.S.-led Nato mission in terms of bringing security has not been successful, particularly in Helmand", a southern stronghold of Taliban militants.

"We have immense respect for the life of Nato soldiers lost in Afghanistan and strong disagreement for the way U.S. conducted itself in Afghanistan," he said.

Western and Afghan officials say all 11 candidates support the BSA but, except for Abdullah, they have declined to say so publicly for fear of clashing with Karzai.

Taliban insurgents have threatened to target the campaign, and the Afghan police and army face a major challenge with little support from the dwindling number of NATO troops.

Disputes over millions of fraudulent ballots led to a major crisis after voting in 2009, before Abdullah pulled out of the run-off, leaving Karzai to take power.

Election organizers are again expected to be busy with complaints of fake votes, ballot-box stuffing and polling booths unable to open due to voter intimidation.

"Holding elections is not an easy job in the current situation in Afghanistan," Yousuf Nuristani, chairman of the Independent Election Commission, told candidates recently.

"We hope you carry out your election campaigns in accordance with the law and in a good environment."

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« Reply #11668 on: Feb 02, 2014, 07:18 AM »

Japan Coastguard: Chinese Ships Sail through Disputed Waters

by Naharnet Newsdesk
02 February 2014, 07:31

Chinese ships sailed through disputed waters off Tokyo-controlled islands on Sunday as diplomatic tension between Tokyo and Beijing intensifies.

Three Chinese coastguard vessels entered the 12-nautical-mile territorial waters off one of the Senkakus, which China claims and calls the Diaoyus, at about 10:00 am (0100 GMT), Japan's coastguard said.

It came days after a diplomatic battle over Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to a contested war shrine reached the U.N. Security Council, with China and Japan accusing each other of threatening stability.

China's U.N. ambassador, Liu Jieyi, seized upon a debate on the lessons of conflict to slam Abe for going to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors war criminals among the country's war dead.

Last week also saw a report in Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper that Chinese air force officials had drafted proposals for a new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea.

The United States has warned China that any move to declare a new air zone including disputed islands would be seen "as a provocative and unilateral act that would raise tensions and call into serious question China's commitment to diplomatically manage territorial disputes," State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters.

She stressed, however, that the reports were "unconfirmed" at this time.

Beijing claims the South China Sea almost in its entirety, even areas far from its shoreline.

In November China abruptly declared an ADIZ over the East China Sea, including the disputed islands at the heart of the sovereignty row with Tokyo, sparking international criticism.

Chinese state-owned ships and aircraft have regularly approached the Senkakus to demonstrate Beijing's territorial claims, particularly after Japan nationalized some of the islands in September 2012.

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« Reply #11669 on: Feb 02, 2014, 07:23 AM »

In China, ‘Once the Villages Are Gone, the Culture Is Gone’

FEB. 1, 2014
BEIJING — Once or twice a week, a dozen amateur musicians meet under a highway overpass on the outskirts of Beijing, carting with them drums, cymbals and the collective memory of their destroyed village. They set up quickly, then play music that is almost never heard anymore, not even here, where the steady drone of cars muffles the lyrics of love and betrayal, heroic deeds and kingdoms lost.

The musicians used to live in Lei Family Bridge, a village of about 300 households near the overpass. In 2009, the village was torn down to build a golf course and residents were scattered among several housing projects, some a dozen miles away.

Now, the musicians meet once a week under the bridge. But the distances mean the number of participants is dwindling. Young people, especially, do not have the time.

“I want to keep this going,” said Lei Peng, 27, who inherited leadership of the group from his grandfather. “When we play our music, I think of my grandfather. When we play, he lives.”

Across China, cultural traditions like the Lei family’s music are under threat. Rapid urbanization means village life, the bedrock of Chinese culture, is rapidly disappearing, and with it, traditions and history.

Leaving the Land   

“Chinese culture has traditionally been rural-based,” says Feng Jicai, a well-known author and scholar. “Once the villages are gone, the culture is gone.”

That is happening at a stunning rate. In 2000, China had 3.7 million villages, according to research by Tianjin University. By 2010, that figure had dropped to 2.6 million, a loss of about 300 villages a day.

For decades, leaving the land was voluntary, as people moved to the cities for jobs. In the past few years, the shift has accelerated as governments have pushed urbanization, often leaving villagers with no choice but to move.

China’s top leadership has equated urbanization with modernization and economic growth. Local governments are also promoting it, seeing the sale of rural land rights as a way to compensate for a weak tax base. Evicting residents and selling long-term leases to developers has become a favored method for local governments to balance budgets and local officials to line their pockets. Numerous local officials are under investigation for corruption linked to rural land sales.

Destroying villages and their culture also reveals deeper biases. A common insult in China is to call someone a farmer, a word equated with backwardness and ignorance, while the most valued cultural traditions are elite practices like landscape painting, calligraphy and court music.

But in recent years, Chinese scholars have begun to recognize the countryside’s vast cultural heritage. A mammoth government project has cataloged roughly 9,700 examples nationwide of “intangible cultural heritage,” fragile traditions like songs, dances, rituals, martial arts, cuisines and theater. About 80 percent of them are rural.

In the past few years, for example, Mr. Feng has documented the destruction of 36 villages in Nanxian, a county on Tianjin’s outskirts, home to a famous center of woodblock printing.

“You don’t know if it will survive or not because when they’re in their new homes they’re scattered,” he said. “The knowledge isn’t concentrated anymore and isn’t transmitted to a new generation.”

That is the problem facing the musicians in Lei Family Bridge. The village lies on what used to be a great pilgrimage route from Beijing north to Mount Yaji and west to Mount Miaofeng, holy mountains that dominated religious life in the capital. Each year, temples on those mountains would have great feast days spread over two weeks. The faithful from Beijing would walk to the mountains, stopping at Lei Family Bridge for food, drink and entertainment.

Groups like Mr. Lei’s, known as pilgrimage societies, performed free for the pilgrims. Their music is based on stories about court and religious life from roughly 800 years ago and features a call-and-response style, with Mr. Lei singing key plotlines of the story and the other performers, decked out in colorful costumes, chanting back. The music is found in other villages, too, but each one has its own repertoire and local variations that musicologists have only begun to examine.

When the Communists took over in 1949, these pilgrimages were mostly banned, but were revived starting in the 1980s when the leadership relaxed control over society. The temples, mostly destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, were rebuilt.

The performers, however, are declining in numbers and increasingly old. The universal allures of modern life — computers, movies, television — have siphoned young people away from traditional pursuits. But the physical fabric of the performers’ lives has also been destroyed.

One recent afternoon, Mr. Lei walked through the village, now reduced to rubble and overgrown with wild grass and bushes. He started singing with his grandfather when he was 2. He now has an office job in the city’s public transportation company and spends all his vacation time working on the troupe.

“This was our house,” he said, gesturing to a small rise of rubble and overgrown weeds. “They all lived in the streets around here. We performed at the temple.”

The temple is one of the few buildings still standing. (The Communist Party headquarters is another.) Built in the 18th century, the temple is made of wooden beams and tiled roofs, surrounded by a seven-foot wall. Its brightly painted colors have faded. The weather-beaten wood is cracking in the dry, windy Beijing air. Part of the roof has caved in, and the wall is crumbling.

“It used to be on a list of historic preservation,” Mr. Lei said. “The government says it will be rebuilt, but no one seems to know anything.”

Government urban-planning officials could not be reached for comment on the village.

Evenings after work, the musicians would meet in the temple to practice. As recently as Mr. Lei’s grandfather’s generation, the performers could fill a day with songs without repeating themselves. Today, they can sing only a handful. Some middle-aged people have joined the troupe, so on paper they have a respectable 45 members. But meetings are so hard to arrange that the newcomers never learn much, he said, and performing under a highway overpass is unattractive.

“I guess for a lot of us it’s a hobby,” said Li Lan, 55, a cymbalist and singer. “It’s just so inconvenient now to come out here and practice.”

Over the past two years, the Ford Foundation underwrote music and performance classes for 23 children from migrant families from other parts of China. Mr. Lei taught them to sing, and to apply the bright makeup used during performances. Last May, they performed at the Mount Miaofeng temple fair, earning stares of admiration from other pilgrimage societies also facing aging and declining membership.

But the project’s funding ended over the summer, and the children drifted away.

“I think it’s pointless because you have to be from our village to understand how important this is,” Mr. Lei said. “Anyway, those children will move somewhere else and won’t learn long enough to become real members. It was nice but didn’t fix the problem.”

One of the oddities of the troupe’s struggles is that some traditional artisans now get government support. The government lists them on a national register, organizes performances and offers modest subsidies to some.

Last month, Mr. Lei’s group was featured on local television and invited to perform at Chinese New Year activities. Such performances raise about $200 and provide some recognition that what the group does matters.

Du Yang, director of the district office of intangible cultural heritage protection, said the group’s music was among 69 protected practices in her district.

“The goal is to make sure these cultural heritages don’t get lost,” she said. “It would be a great pity if they are lost just as our country is on the road to prosperity.”

Mr. Lei said that keeping their village life intact would have helped most.

“It was really comfortable in the old village,” he said back in his new home, a small two-bedroom apartment high up in an apartment block a half-hour drive away. “We had a thousand square meters and rented out rooms to migrants from other provinces. Lots of buses stopped nearby, and we could get into the city easily.”

Like all rural residents, the Leis and their neighbors never owned their land; all land in China belongs to the state. So when the plans were announced to build the golf course, they had little choice but to move. “No one protested,” he said. “We knew we didn’t have a choice. You have to just go with the flow.”

Everyone got free apartments and $50,000 to $100,000 in compensation.

Strangely, however, the golf course has never been built, and the village still lies in ruins. No one here can figure out if this is because the development was illegal, or perhaps part of a corrupt land deal that is under investigation. Such information is not public, so villagers can only speculate. Mostly, they try to forget.

“I try not to think about these things too much,” Mr. Lei said. “Instead, I try to focus on the music and keeping it alive.”

Mia Li contributed research from Beijing.

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