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« Reply #11700 on: Feb 03, 2014, 07:36 AM »

Colombian Negotiators Reach Cuba for Peace Talks with Rebels

by Naharnet Newsdesk
03 February 2014, 07:51

Negotiators for the government of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos arrived in communist Cuba Sunday to resume peace talks with their country's leftist rebels.

The team, led by former vice president Humberto de la Calle, is scheduled to sit down with representatives of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) for talks starting Monday following an 11-day recess.

De la Calle did not talk to reporters upon arrival.

Negotiators for the Colombian government and the guerrillas have been in talks since November 2012 on reaching an agreement that would end a half-century of armed conflict.

Two of the negotiators' six-point agenda have already been agreed upon. Currently both sides are discussing the issue of illegal drugs.

The FARC delegation, headed by lead negotiator Ivan Marquez, has remained in Cuba since the start of the talks.

Although president Santos has publicly said that he is optimistic about the outcome of the talks, a recent poll showed that 58 percent of Colombians are pessimistic about the outcome.


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« Reply #11701 on: Feb 03, 2014, 07:38 AM »


How Rio's residents are fighting inflation with fake currency

Fed up with spiralling prices, they have set up a Facebook page with tips on how to cut costs. And there's even a mock banknote – the $urreal, which features Salvador Dalí

Gavin McOwan and Stephen Moss   
Sunday 2 February 2014 18.31 GMT The Guardian     

The residents of Rio have had enough. Fed up with high inflation and rip-off prices ahead of this year's World Cup and the Olympics in 2016, they have set up a Facebook page called "Rio $urreal – Don't Pay" dedicated to "exposing and boycotting the extortionate prices being charged by bars, restaurants and shops". It has quickly gathered close on 150,000 supporters, and is growing fast.

The page uses the term $urreal because that's what locals think prices in Rio have become – £5 for a toasted sandwich, £10 for a green salad, £6 for a burger that "comes with a minuscule pickle, dried meat, a handful of chips, and a watery blue-cheese sauce", according to Leonardo Mazeron Tubino, who posts a photograph to prove his point. Inflation in property prices is a particular concern, with house prices having risen at 15-20% annually over the past two years. Cariocas (Rio denizens) reckon it is time to fight back, and Facebook is their chosen battleground.

The $urreal itself is a mock banknote – Brazil's currency is the real – emblazoned with the face of Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dalí. O Globo, Rio's biggest-selling daily newspaper, joked that the city needed its own currency, and some media-savvy Cariocas decided to create one, with Dalí's face on the front in place of the usual Brazilian national heroes. "We can't just act like typical Brazilians and agree something is wrong, make a joke, then swallow it," TV editor Andrea Cals told the Bloomberg news agency. "We have to stop this, because it's getting serious. It's no joke when I'm spending much more than I earn."

The Facebook page is full of tips on cutting costs: taking your own chair to the beach instead of hiring one; naming and shaming taxi drivers; refusing to frequent expensive bars. $urreal has also spawned the Isorporzinho (icebox) movement, which emerged after a group of friends took their own icebox to Leme beach – one of the most expensive in Rio – rather than buy food and drink on the beach or at a bar. Other "iceboxers" turned up and it was soon a flashmob, which, this being Rio in summer, quickly turned into a party with live music.

"I only hope that [what we're doing] is not just another summer fad," posts Anderson da Silva Almeida. "The issue of high prices is serious, and it has to be taken seriously until this disgraceful practice comes to an end. We can't let it fizzle out after carnival [in early March]. We must carry our iceboxes all year."

The movement has spread beyond Rio, with $urreal Facebook groups in São Paulo, Brasilia and even Belém in the Amazon. The Icebox revolution has begun.


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« Reply #11702 on: Feb 03, 2014, 07:59 AM »

In the USA...United Surveillance America

Battles Loom in Many States Over What to Do With Budget Surpluses

By RICK LYMAN
FEB. 2, 2014
NYT   

In a year when three dozen governors are up for election, unexpectedly robust revenues from taxes and other sources are filling most state coffers, creating surpluses not seen in years and prompting statehouse battles over what to do with the money.

After so many years of sluggish revenues, layoffs and draconian service cuts, governors and legislators are eager to use the newfound money to cut taxes, restore spending or, in some cases, pay down debts or replenish rainy-day funds for future recessions. But though revenues are improving, lawmakers are likely to find that there is not enough to pay for everything they want to do, experts say.

“The states are going to have what seems like extra money,” said Scott D. Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers. “Expectations will be high, but the money is not going to be enough to satisfy everyone’s expectations.”

While Republicans are tending to advocate more tax cuts and Democrats are more often pushing to restore spending on education and other programs, the differences between the two camps are not always so stark, with some governors outlining plans that appeal across party lines.

Joining Republican anti-tax stalwarts like Dave Heineman of Nebraska and Scott Walker of Wisconsin in calling for more tax cuts, for instance, is a Democrat, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York.

And while Democratic governors like Jay Nixon of Missouri and John W. Hickenlooper of Colorado are pushing for significantly more education spending, so are Republican governors in Kansas, Georgia and Idaho, among others.

In Kansas, Gov. Sam Brownback, among the most conservative, is calling for full-day kindergarten for all students. In her State of the State address, Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico, a Republican, talked about increasing teacher salaries.

“Next to their parents, the adults children see most in their life are their teachers,” Governor Martinez said. “We should support our teachers with additional pay.”

Still, Ms. Martinez’s view was not shared by her fellow Republicans in Missouri, where Republican legislators sharply criticized Governor Nixon’s proposal to increase education spending by $493 million. “It is really unfortunate that this governor’s only solution is to throw money at problems,” said Tim Jones, the speaker of the Missouri House.

In some states where one party controls both the governor’s seat and the legislature, intraparty battles are looming over how to use the surpluses.

One example is in California, where Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, called in his State of the State address for more money to go into a rainy-day fund rather than into renewed spending — over the loud objections of some Democratic legislators who want to restore more of what had been trimmed in recent years.

“For a decade, budget instability was the order of the day,” Mr. Brown said. “A lethal combination of national recessions, improvident tax cuts and too much spending created a financial sinkhole that defied every effort to climb out.”

Darrell Steinberg, the Senate president pro tem and a fellow Democrat, shot back, saying that while putting some money into the rainy-day fund was laudable, the governor’s plan shortchanged crucial needs. “We must invest in the people of California, especially those living in the economic margins,” he said. “I’ve proposed and remain committed to a balanced framework of ‘a third, a third, a third,’ where we divide the surplus into reserves, repayment and reinvestment.”

Jostling among Republicans over how to spend the surpluses is also underway in Michigan, where Gov. Rick Snyder, a conservative Republican, announced a $791 million budget surplus and called for additional spending on education and infrastructure, as well as tax cuts. In response, the Republican-dominated Senate Finance Committee approved a bill that put specific numbers on the governor’s proposal, cutting the state’s income tax from 4.25 percent to 3.9 percent by 2017.

States are seeing these surpluses because early projections by their budget officers are proving to have been too conservative. An overall strong year for the stock market and a general economic uptick are generating more income, property and sales tax revenues than expected. At the same time, a milestone is about to be reached: In the coming months, budget officials expect that state revenues will climb back to their pre-recession level, even accounting for inflation.

The result: Optimism about digging out of the recession is occurring at the same moment surpluses are landing. But many experts in state finances say governors and legislatures may be too eager to spend the new money rather than paying down debt, bolstering shaky pension systems or setting aside money for the next downturn.

States got a taste of improved revenues last year, when estimates of how many investors would sell holdings by the end of 2012 to avoid new tax regulations proved too low — leading to a sharp rise in state revenues, 5.7 percent nationwide.

Fearing that this had been an isolated bump, most states again were very conservative in their revenue estimates for the current fiscal year. Now that actual revenues are being collected, the projections are turning out to be low.

“It seems that the bump was not just a one-time bump,” said Eileen Norcross, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in Virginia, who specializes in state and local finances. “The rate of growth in 2014 for revenues was slower than in 2013, but still significant.”

With memories of recent deficit struggles still fresh in their minds, many governors are joining Mr. Brown in talking about putting at least some money into rainy-day funds, including governors in Michigan, Colorado and Hawaii, among others.

And while several governors, including Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, have called for more attention to state pension debt, few have yet to offer specifics. One exception was Gov. Sean Parnell of Alaska, a Republican, who wants to transfer $3 billion from state reserves for the state’s pension system.

There has also been ample talk in legislatures this month about infrastructure, much of it fairly vague but some aimed at specific projects. This is a sizable switch from recent years, when borrowing for large capital projects like bridges and highways had all but vanished amid budget shortfalls.

“With huge pressure to deal with some of these infrastructure issues, I think you will see that getting more attention in the coming months,” said Mr. Pattison of the budget officers association.

Still, state officials and analysts caution that trying to gauge the outcome of a legislative session by a governor’s opening address can be foolhardy. Political give-and-take, as usual, will shape the outcomes.

“I actually think most states, if they look pretty honestly at it, would have a hard time making a case for big new tax cuts or big new expenditures,” said Nicholas Johnson, vice president for state fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“Managing ongoing services and undoing some of the worst things done during the recession will account for all or more than all of the revenue growth out there,” he said. “We are going up, but we are not free and clear yet.”

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Decent Economic Growth Hides The Increasing Gap Between the Rich and Everyone Else

By: Rmuse
PoliticusUSA
Sunday, February, 2nd, 2014, 7:26 pm   

This past week a bit of good economic news was overshadowed by phony outrage by Republicans bemoaning President Obama’s use of executive orders as well as the preponderance of evidence that New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s criminality is tarnishing his image as Republican’s savior du jour. The government released a report that showed that consumers fueled solid economic growth in the final quarter of 2013 that may seem like wonderful news, but it also exposed exactly what real economists warned Republicans their love affair with deep austerity and devotion to widening the income gap between the rich and the rest of the population would produce. However, a better than expected economic report cannot be overlooked and it is curious why Republicans or Democrats failed to use the economic report for propaganda.

According to some financial experts, the outlook for the economy brightened after the government said growth reached a 3.2% rate during the final quarter of 2013 on the strength of the strongest consumer spending in three years. The chief economist at Mesirow Financial, Diane Swonk, said “The economy showed real signs of momentum at the end of 2013. We are better positioned for decent growth for 2014 than we were a year ago.” However, even with solid growth in the fourth quarter, throughout 2013 the economy grew a tepid 1.9 percent, weaker than the 2.8% increase in 2012. The Commerce Department blamed 2013′s slow growth on federal spending cuts that began to take a toll on economic growth early in 2013.

There was another Republican spending cut in government spending last quarter, but it was due to the Republican government shutdown during October the Congressional Budget Office said reduced 4th quarter growth by at least 0.3 of a percentage point. The CBO also said the sequester and austerity measures “shaved 1.5% points of total growth for 2013” and warned it would continue to depress growth over the next nine years the automatic spending cuts stay in place. The bipartisan budget deal reduced the sequester-mandated cuts for two years, but the deal only reduced the automatic cuts by one-third meaning Democrats were somewhat successful in persuading Republicans to accept slightly less destructive austerity. However, the consensus among mainstream economists is that the economy desperately needs the opposite of austerity in the form of much more fiscal stimulus.

Notably, the man who was Ronald Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers chief, Republican Martin Feldstein, called for more federal spending now to be offset in the future when the economy is stronger.  Feldstein epitomizes what it means to be a fiscal conservative and he wrote that the modest budget agreement will not produce long-term fiscal policy needed to achieve strong income and employment growth. He recommended that President Obama should propose, and Congress should enact, a five-year fiscal package that would move gross domestic product growth above 3% a year by focusing on direct government spending on infrastructure. Feldstein suggested a price tag to exceed $1 trillion over five years to boost the economic growth rate, but teabagger Republicans are stuck on severe austerity and as long as they control Washington, austerity will stay and Americans will slide deeper into poverty regardless a better than expected 4th quarter holiday shopping season that benefitted big business and not the American people.

It is true that stocks are near record highs that is great for the wealthy, and the inventory-stuffed picture of economic growth for the fourth quarter looks promising for 2014, but a study by the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED) shows that nearly half of all Americans are living in a state of “persistent economic insecurity” that makes it “difficult to look beyond immediate needs” or plan for anything other than more poverty. In simpler terms, too many Americans barely survive from paycheck to paycheck but that is not the end of the bleak picture.  The CFED calls economically insecure Americans the “liquid asset poor” and its report found that 44% of Americans are living with less than $5,887 in savings for a family of four.

A quick unscientific survey of 10 families yesterday revealed that none of them had any savings and their plight, like the CFED report found, is worse because the Bush-Republican recession ravaged many Americans’ credit scores to the point that 56% of Americans have subprime credit. What that means for more than half the population is that if an emergency like a car repair, hospital visit, or rent increase arises many Americans will be forced to resort to high-interest credit card debt or expensive payday loans that affects more than just lower-income Americans. According to the CFED report, a little over one-quarter of middle-class households fall into the category of “liquid asset poor” and their numbers are growing rapidly.

Geographically, most economically insecure people live in southern in states such as Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Alabama that have the highest percentage of financially insecure residents. They are also states burdened with the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) “right to work” for less laws that are strangling the economic life out of working families and increasing income inequality as corporations and big business reap the rewards of low wages. With Republicans in Congress disinclined to raise the minimum wage, extend unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed, and reject the President’s calls for job programs or funding infrastructure improvements to create jobs, the economic outlook for 2014 is not nearly as rosy as some economic experts contend.

What the “consumer driven” economic growth report did not explain was how many holiday shoppers increased gift purchases using credit cards, or why the employment report for December was less than incredible. With income declining among a large percentage of Americans, a preponderance of minimum wage jobs, and cuts to social safety nets like food stamps, housing and heating assistance, and millions of Americans losing their unemployment benefits, the fourth quarter economic report may be an aberration that will not carry over to 2014. President Obama is fighting an uphill battle to convince Republicans that income inequality, low wages, and tens-of-millions of Americans living in poverty is hampering real economic recovery where all Americans prosper because they could not care less about most Americans. As long as the wealthy continue benefitting from the President’s economic recovery, Republicans will stay the austerity course that continues retarding growth despite one 4th quarter report that GDP ticked up to 3 percent.

It is important to remember that the Commerce Department, Congressional Budget Office, and every economist not working for the Heritage Foundation predicted austerity would take a toll on economic growth that bore fruit in 2013, but it still predominates Republican economic policy and Americans will continue suffering until austerity is rejected. Of course, Republicans are well aware their austerity is crushing the economic life out of Americans and that their wealthy donors are reaping the benefits of austerity that protects them from tax reform to close loopholes that only the rich benefit from. Closing loopholes would help fund the more than $1 trillion infrastructure improvements called for by fiscal conservative and Republican economic expert Martin Feldstein. However, Republicans are not about to make any moves that help the economy, or millions of Americans struggling with economic insecurity because as long as promising economic reports benefit their wealthy donors exclusively, they will cling to austerity because it kills jobs, increases poverty, and protects the rich.

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GOP’s ACA Alternative Falls Apart As Eric Cantor Admits The Truth Behind the Lie

By: Jason Easley
PoliticusUSA
Sunday, February, 2nd, 2014, 2:17 pm   

The Republican alternative to the ACA is already falling apart as Majority Leader Eric Cantor admitted on Face The Nation that the plan is the same one that voters already rejected when John McCain and Mitt Romney both lost with it in 2008 and 2012.

Transcript via Face The Nation:

MAJOR GARRETT: Where is that going to come from and when are you going to draft it?

ERIC CANTOR: Well, that’s what we talked about today — this weekend — I mean this week at our retreat. I believe firmly that we will have a vote on an alternative for a healthcare system that works for people.

MAJOR GARRETT: When?

ERIC CANTOR: Well, I believe we will have it this year. We will have it this year. And you know what the reason is, Major, is Obamacare, I believe, is on borrowed time.

MAJOR GARRETT: So no more repeal votes, an alternative vote.

ERIC CANTOR: We will certainly — Obamacare, I think, again, is on borrowed time. It’s not working. And we want a healthcare system that works for all Americans. And in fact, we had a proposal, and the President continues to say that we didn’t have solutions, we put a solution forward in 2009 when Obamacare was passed. Many of the provisions in that proposal will be in our proposal going forward. You know, we’re going to deal…

MAJOR GARRETT: Who’s leading up that effort? And when will we see it?

ERIC CANTOR: Listen. Well first of all, let me talk about what’s in it. Because, you know, we are going to deal with those pre-existing conditions. We don’t want them to go without coverage. We just deal with it in a way, and provide high risk pools, so that we can limit the increase in costs for everybody else and do it in a much more effective manner. We say folks ought to have choice of their insurance companies. Let them purchase across state lines. Help bring down prices. And then we say, you know, we ought to have patient-centered care, not care dictated by Washington, which is why we want to promote health savings accounts. These are the kind of things that are in our proposal.

In the paragraph above, Cantor admitted the truth. Their ACA alternative is the same plan that both John McCain and Mitt Romney ran on and lost with in 2008 and 2012. Cantor claimed in the interview that Obamacare is living on borrowed time, but what he didn’t mention is that he voted in favor of funding the ACA this year.

Majority Leader Cantor and the rest of the Republican Party think that they can fool the American people into supporting the same lousy fake healthcare plan that voters have already rejected twice. While they are trying to sell this bogus alternative, Republicans are lying to their supporters with claims that Obamacare is living on borrowed time.

The whole GOP ACA alternative scheme is already falling apart. Their alternative would result in a 35% tax increase for the 150 million Americans who get their health insurance from their employer, and take away healthcare from 9.3 million Americans.

Republicans couldn’t sell this lie for very long. Eventually, somebody was going to ask a Republican leader, like Eric Cantor, what is in their plan. As soon as Cantor said buying insurance across state lines, it was clear that this the same pile of droppings that they have been trying to sell the American people for over a decade.

The truth is that the Republican plan is to get rid of the ACA, and go back to the way things used to be. Their 2014 candidates are going to run on the same healthcare “plan” that McCain and Romney already lost with.

Good luck with that.

*************

Paul Ryan Crumbles and Falls Apart When Asked About Impeaching President Obama

By: Jason Easley
PoliticusUSA
Sunday, February, 2nd, 2014, 12:01 pm      

When George Stephanopoulos pressed Paul Ryan on impeaching President Obama, the Wisconsin Republican crumbled, fell apart, and admitted that he only has a difference of opinion with the president.

Transcript:

George Stephanopoulos: Now you’ve had a pretty tough reaction to this. Suggesting the president is “circumventing the Constitution.” Do you really think his proposals are unconstitutional? You know, his rate of using executive orders is far behind President Reagan, President Bush, President Clinton.

Rep. Paul Ryan: It’s not the number of executive orders. It’s the scope of the executive orders. It’s the fact that he’s actually contradicting law, like in healthcare case, or proposing new laws without going through Congress, George, that’s the issue. So this is why concern we have an increasingly lawless presidency where he is actually doing the job of Congress writing new policies and laws without going through Congress.

Presidents don’t write laws. Congress does, and when he does things like he did in healthcare. Delaying mandates that the law said was supposed to occur when they were supposed to occur, that’s not his job. The job of Congress is to change laws if he doesn’t like them, not the presidency. So executive orders are one thing, executive orders that actually change the statute, that’s something totally different.

Stephanopoulos: Well, if you think he’s lawless, circumventing the Constitution, are you going to move to impeach?

Ryan: No, I’m look, we have a difference of opinion, clearly, and some of these are going to get fought out in court. You have some court challenges with respect to religious freedom going to the court this spring, but I am concerned about this trend, such as what he said at the State Of The Union, that if Congress doesn’t give me the law I want, I’m going to go do it myself. That’s effectively what he said. That is not the way our Constitution works, and by the way, when we get sworn in, whether it’s a president or a congressman, you swear to uphold the Constitution, and I think these executive orders are creating a dangerous trend, which is contrary to the Constitution.

George Stephanopoulos caused Paul Ryan to back peddle off of his lawless president rhetoric pretty quickly when he asked about impeachment. Circumventing the Constitution quickly became a difference of opinion between Ryan and the president.

Notice that when President Obama disagrees with the Republicans it is a symptom of a lawless presidency. The real reason why Republicans don’t want to hear the I-word is because they know that Obama isn’t violating the Constitution at all.

Ryan was lying about what President Obama said at the State Of The Union. The president never said if Congress doesn’t give me the law I want, I’m going to do it myself. What he did say was, “But what I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class. Some require Congressional action, and I’m eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still – and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Where he can constitutionally take steps to act unilaterally, that’s what he will do. He never said that he was going to make his own laws. That statement is a figment of Paul Ryan’s imagination, which is designed to reinforce the notion that President Obama is acting outside of the Constitution.

George Stephanopoulos did a great job connecting the dots, and asking the logical question. If you really believe that Obama is lawless, then why not impeach him? Paul Ryan finally went on a program where somebody wasn’t going to let him push the lawless dictator nonsense without being held accountable.

Ryan’s rhetoric is all empty hot air that’s designed to play to the Obama haters. Paul Ryan folded like he always does when he get held accountable for his statements. Ryan is a budget guru whose numbers don’t work, and a crusader against a lawless president who lacks the cajones to impeach.

Paul Ryan is the very definition of an empty suit, and he is the current leader for the Republican nomination in 2016.

*************

Top NJ Democrat Tears Apart Rudy Giuliani’s Claim That Christie Probe Is A ‘Pile On’

By: Justin Baragona
PoliticusUSA
Sunday, February, 2nd, 2014, 3:24 pm   

This Sunday on Face The Nation, host Major Garrett had on both former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Democratic New Jersey Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who is heading up the investigation into New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s involvement in Bridgegate. They were on for separate segments, with Giuliani appearing first.

During the interview with Giuliani, Garrett focused much of the time on Christie’s investigation and the recent revelation that former Port Authority official David Wildstein and his lawyer are willing to come forth with evidence implicating Christie. Below are excerpts from that interview:

    MAJOR GARRETT: Now, David Wildstein’s attorney says there is evidence that Governor Christie knew more than he has disclosed and knew earlier than he’s disclosed.  Not thinking about this politically, but thinking about it as your former role as a U.S. Attorney, does this strike you as legally significant?

    RUDY GIULIANI: Well, no, it isn’t.  I think the Times kind of acknowledged that when they kind of pulled back on the story.  I mean, they first played it as a big bombshell evidence.  Here’s what it is.  It’s an offer from a guy who says he has evidence, hasn’t given the evidence yet.  However, you have to take that into context.

    This is a lawyer who’s writing for a man who wants somebody else to pay his legal bills and he can’t get them paid unless the governor is responsible.  And he’s a guy that’s seeking immunity.  You factor all those things in– well, first of all it’s not evidence.  It’s the suggestion, the tantalizing suggestion, that there may be evidence.

    And then you’ve got at least two big credibility issues with it.  So my advice to everyone would be, instead of overplaying it as a bombshell which the Times did and then had to back off, I would say put this in context.  This is a long investigation.  It’s going to take a while.  There’s going to be stuff like this that just jumps out and everybody’s going to exaggerate.  They’re going to have to back off.

    The governor has denied it.  So far, there’s no evidence to suggest that he’s not telling the truth.  I think the governor knows the consequences.  If he’s lying, it’s a really bad situation.  If he’s not lying, then something very unfair is being done to him.  So let’s see what happens.

Later, after Giuliani stated that Christie should not resign his post as chair of the RGA and skirted around whether the governor should face impeachment, Giuliani stated that he felt the investigation was nothing more than a ‘pile on.’

    MAJOR GARRETT: What I hear you saying, Mr. Mayor, is that you believe this is something of a political opposition witch hunt against the governor.  Is that what you’re saying?

    RUDY GIULIANI: I believe two things, Major.  First of all, I think there’s a real incident that was unfortunate and bad and the governor apologized for that.  I don’t want the minimize that.  But what I’m saying is, you take that real incident and now you’ve got pile on.

    You have a Democratic legislature with a guy who’d like to be governor, who very, very oddly announces at the beginning he doesn’t believe the governor.  And no Democrat in the state sees that it’s odd that he should be running an investigation when he’s already announced that he knows the answer that none of us know the answer to.  He knows the answer the governor is lying.  He should not be running that investigation.

Immediately after Giuliani’s sit-down, Garrett brought on Wisniewski and asked him to react to Giuliani’s statements. Wisniewski wasted no time in tearing the former mayor to shreds.

    MAJOR GARRETT: React to Mayor Giuliani.  He says you have prejudged this investigation and are unfit and lack credibility.

    JOHN WISNIEWSKI : He’s prejudged everything that’s been said.  What I’ve said is I have skepticism about the governor’s statement.  I haven’t said that the governor has responsibility for this.  I haven’t said that the governor knew when this was happening.  That’s something Mr. Wildstein said.  We’ve I’ve said is the governor made a statement about when he knew, and I said that I have my doubts about that timeline.  He could’ve known at any time, but I have my doubts about what he said.

Also, later on in the interview, Wisniewski pointed out that any discussion of impeachment is premature. While his committee will be receiving more information on Monday, he needs to see everything first before making any definitive statements.

    MAJOR GARRETT: Impeachment, resignation– what do those words mean to you in the context of your investigation?

    JOHN WISNIEWSKI: One word, premature.  There’s a lot of talk about that.  People are asking the hypotheticals.  We don’t have enough facts to even get to that conversation.  We need to get all the facts on the table.  We need to make decisions about who knew what when.  And when that’s done, maybe it might be appropriate at that time to have that conversation.  But clearly we’re way ahead of that right now.

The most interesting part of the two interviews to me was the total contrast between Giuliani and Wisniewski. Giuliani came off like the typical GOP operative, making claims of a partisan witch hunt and overall blaming Democrats for all of Christie’s problems. On the other hand, Wisniewski came across as the adult in the room, relying on facts and calmly and easily dismissing Giuliani as the fool that he is.

The fact is, Chris Christie is in legitimately real trouble. Not only are his hopes of making a run at President going down the drain, but he may lose his job as New Jersey Governor. Many of his administration’s offices and personnel have to provide copies of all communications to the state’s attorney’s office this week, which is what Wisniewski was referring to in his interview. Combine that with the possible evidence against Christie that Wildstein is willing to release, and Christie is looking at the potential end of his political career. No amount of spin from guys like Giuliani is going to change that.


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« Reply #11703 on: Feb 03, 2014, 11:30 AM »

Why did American Media Ignore Edward Snowden Interview?

By Nicole Belle February 2, 2014 4:01 pm
CrooksAndLiars

While the rest of the world heard Snowden speak on the surveillance community, the American corporate media had a conspicuous blackout on the event.

Hey, corporations using our public airwaves, don't you think the American people have a right to know this?

    German Television network ARD recently conducted an interview with the world famous (some may say infamous) whistleblower, Edward Snowden, which has been intentionally blacked-out by all corporate media outlets in the U.S., and virtually ignored by other broadcast networks. The video has even been removed from YouTube almost immediately after each time it’s been uploaded. One might be able to reasonably assume it contains important information that authorities would prefer the general public didn’t know anything about.

    This appears to be a problem unique to the U.S., however. In Germany and across most of the rest of the world, this interview was treated as a major political event—both in print and in broadcast—that was in no way, shape, or form swept under the rug. To the contrary, it is almost as much a topic of discussion abroad as is Justin Bieber’s DUI here in the states; and when the general populous of a nation is better informed about some kid’s inebriated joy ride than they are about the policies which directly affect their very freedom and privacy, it’s time to re-evaluate what our values and priorities are as a culture.

Instead, the media is quick to dismiss Snowden as a traitor rather than focus on the content of what he's revealed. But Snowden had an answer for that too:

    In regards to accusations that he is a traitor or a foreign agent, he states, “ If I am traitor, who did I betray? I gave all my information to the American public, to American journalists who are reporting on American issues. If they see that as treason, I think people really need to consider who they think they’re working for. The public is supposed to be their boss, not their enemy. Beyond that as far as my personal safety, Ill never be fully safe until these systems have changed.”

    The attempt to bury this interview by the government/corporate symbiosis has extremely dark implications. Additionally, the fact that government officials have openly talked about assassinating Mr. Snowden cannot be taken lightly, and Mr. Snowden obviously takes these threats to his life very seriously. Sadly, the reality of the US government assassinating an American citizen is not beyond the realm of possibility in the age we live in.


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« Reply #11704 on: Feb 04, 2014, 07:03 AM »


Ukraine President 'Mulls Early Polls' to End Crisis

by Naharnet Newsdesk
04 February 2014, 10:34

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych could call early elections to end mass anti-government unrest, a top lawmaker said Tuesday, as protest leaders demanded curbs to presidential powers in a stormy parliamentary debate.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton meanwhile was set to arrive in Kiev to press for a resolution to the crisis, as Europe and the United States discussed a possible financial aid package to Ukraine in exchange for democratic reforms.

Ukraine's protests erupted in November after Yanukovych rejected a key EU pact in favour of closer ties with Moscow, and the turmoil has since evolved into an all-out movement to oust him.

The opposition pressed for concessions at a heated parliament session in which one protest leader, boxer-turned-politician Vitali Klitschko, called for an "end to the dictatorship".

Fellow opposition leader, nationalist Oleg Tyagnybok, called for the "de-Putinization" of Ukraine -- a reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin, adding: "The Kremlin is trying to break up Ukraine".

The crisis has sparked tensions between the West, which is considering sanctions against Ukrainian officials, and Russia, which has accused the EU and US of interference in Ukraine.

Opposition MPs chanted "Killers! Killers! Killers!" as the chief lawmaker of Yanukovych's ruling Regions Party, Oleksandr Yefremov, took the floor and blasted the protesters' "extremism".

But Yuriy Miroshnychenko, Yanukovych's personal representative in parliament, struck a conciliatory tone, telling Agence France Presse that Yanukovych was considering "two possible scenarios".

"The first is the release of occupied buildings and an amnesty and the second is early elections. The amnesty is not working out," he told AFP, referring to the release of detained protesters.

The opposition wants activists freed without conditions, while the Regions Party so far has said this can only happen if occupied government buildings are vacated in the next few days.

Klitschko also called for a return to Ukraine's previous constitution, which would mean a curb on the presidential powers that Yanukovych has built up and would give more clout to parliament.

"People have come out in the streets because they want to say 'enough' to lawlessness, to corruption and a country with no future," he said.

Klitschko has held negotiations with Yanukovych in the past but no new talks are planned and he has called for international mediation so that there are "no misunderstandings".

On Monday Yanukovych blasted the mass protests against his rule as "extremism, radicalism and incitement to hatred" in his first public comments since taking four days of sick leave.

He also appeared to link militants to Nazis, calling for "a community of wholesome people without the Nazism, racism and xenophobia that remind us of the terrible lessons of history".

Yanukovych has scrapped draconian anti-protest laws and the prime minister and the entire cabinet have resigned under opposition pressure but other demands remain unanswered.

Thousands remain camped out on Kiev's Independence Square -- the Maidan -- and in occupied buildings in the capital and across Ukraine, refusing to leave until the president steps down.

At least two protesters and two policemen were killed in clashes last month and the opposition says there is still a "secret repression" under way in which activists are seized and beaten by pro-government vigilantes.

'No bidding competition' with Russia

The violence has increased pressure from the international community for a swift solution.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said there were talks on possible aid for Ukraine in return for reforms but they were still "at a very preliminary stage".

"We are consulting with the EU... and other partners about the support Ukraine may need after a new technical government is formed as the country gets back on the path to economic health through the IMF," she said.

Opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk has asked for a "Marshall Plan" -- a reference to massive U.S. aid for Europe after World War II to prevent the spread of Communism.

He said the minimum required was the $15 billion (11 billion euros) that Russia has promised Ukraine in a bailout that is now on hold.

But European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso on Monday said there would be "no bidding competition" with Russia over Ukraine.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier echoed Barroso's words, telling ARD public television: "We should not now enter into a competition of who pays more".

Ukraine's recession-hit economy is dependent on Russia, and Moscow has tightened the screws further by reminding Ukraine it owes $3.3 billion for energy supplies.

************

EU's Ashton Heads to Ukraine for Fresh Talks Tuesday

by Naharnet Newsdesk
03 February 2014, 21:49

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton returns to Ukraine on Tuesday in a fresh bid to help bring an end to the country's crisis, her office said.

Ashton is expected to begin talks with the opposition and authorities after arrival and continue meetings on Wednesday, said Ashton's spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic. She refused to give further details.

The visit follows a round of meetings with Ukrainian and global players in Munich this weekend, and reports that Europe and United States are mulling a financial aid plan once political reforms or a new government are in place.

Opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk has asked for a huge package of $20 billion (11 billion euro) on the lines of a bailout promised by Russia that is now on hold.

But EU diplomats played down the prospect of big funds.

Ashton has visited Kiev several times for talks with the opposition and President Viktor Yanukovych who ditched an EU association accord in November under Russian pressure.

His decision set off massive pro-EU protests that turned into a wave of anti-government demonstrations that eventually led to the government's resignation last week.


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« Reply #11705 on: Feb 04, 2014, 07:04 AM »

Sweden FM Says Iran Nuclear Deal Possible in Six Months

by Naharnet Newsdesk
04 February 2014, 14:23

Sweden's foreign minister, the latest high-level Western diplomat to visit Tehran, said Tuesday that a comprehensive international nuclear agreement with Iran is possible within six months, media reported.

"If there is a good will on both sides a deal is possible within a very ambitious time scale of six months," Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said during a joint press conference with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Iran clinched the interim deal in November with the P5+1 group -- Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany -- under which it agreed to curb its controversial nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief.

The six-month agreement, which took effect January 20, is intended to buy time to negotiate a comprehensive accord that would reassure Western powers that Iran's nuclear program is entirely peaceful, as Tehran has long maintained.

"It's not going to be easy and it requires a genuine will for compromises on both sides," Bildt said. "The benefits that are there for both sides are so obvious."

Zarif said Monday in Berlin that he too believed a final deal was possible within six months.

Negotiations are expected to resume in Vienna on February 18.

Both the diplomatic breakthrough, and the election of President Hassan Rouhani, a reputed moderate, earlier last year, have led to a diplomatic thaw, with an increasing number of Western envoys and businessmen travelling to Iran.

However, Iran and Western countries are still at odds over other issues, including Iran's support for Syrian President Bashar Assad and regional militant groups, as well as its own human rights record.

When asked about human rights, Bildt said the two countries have "different perspectives" but hoped to move forward through "dialogue."

Zarif said last year's presidential election, in which Rouhani handily defeated more conservative candidates, showed the country's respect for human rights.

"The president has made a number of commitments during his campaign and he intends to keep his promises," Zarif said.

Rouhani has pledged to expand political and cultural freedoms since his election in June, and in September authorities freed more than a dozen reformists, journalists and lawyers, including prominent human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh.

In November, a Canadian-drafted U.N. resolution welcomed Rouhani's pledges to promote greater freedoms at home, including gender equality and freedom of expression.

But it also cited abuses, including the widespread use of the death penalty as well as amputations and floggings for convicted criminals.


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« Reply #11706 on: Feb 04, 2014, 07:10 AM »

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
02/03/2014 04:02 PM

Overseas Role: Germany Must Back Words With Deeds

A Commentary by Christiane Hoffmann

German politicians have won applause abroad for promising a beefier role in international crisis management in the future. But does Chancellor Merkel support the new line? Berlin's behavior in Syria and Ukraine will prove how serious it is about the rethink.

When German politicians pledged a more active international role at the Munich Security Conference last weekend, the reaction they got was almost euphoric. President Joachim Gauck, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen appeared to be vying with each other to present their vision of a new Germany to the gathering of security experts and senior politicians.

At last Germany has grown up, said international officials and commentators. At last it's ready to accept a degree of responsibility commensurate with its weight. To be sure, the rhetoric is noteworthy because it marks progress from Germany's restraint and reluctance to shoulder responsibility. It was overdue. In recent years there's been an excessive discrepancy between Germany's economic clout and leading role in the euro crisis on the one hand and its reticence in international crisis regions on the other. But the general expressions of delight are surprising. After all, it's not uncommon for new ministers to make grand promises aimed at making them look different from their predecessors. The world will have to wait and see what Germany actually does in concrete terms to deliver on its pledge.

"Leading, I say respectfully, does not mean meeting in Munich for discussions, it means committing resources," US Secretary of State John Kerry told the conference.

Merkel Looks at Opinion Polls

After all, Germany's policy of military restraint wasn't only espoused by former Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. It was backed by Chancellor Angela Merkel herself. And there's nothing so far to suggest that she is departing from her guiding politicial principle: basing her policies on opinion polls. As long as a clear majority of Germans remain skeptical of or outright opposed to any German military involvement abroad, Angela Merkel is highly unlikely to commit troops to unpopular missions. The president and the ministers can hold as many grand speeches as they like -- if things get serious, they won't be the ones taking the decisions.

One should welcome Germany's readiness to become more involved at levels that don't go as far as committing troops -- such as its recent agreement to take part in the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons. But Germany's partners in Washington, London and Paris will measure Germany by the stance it takes when the international community next has to contend with a situation like Libya -- Germany abstained in the 2011 UN Security Council vote to impose a no-fly zone.

Future international missions won't be any easier, because the Americans are no longer prepared to automatically assume leadership. Germany will face the question not just whether and how it gets involved, but whether it's ready to seize the initiative. Following the planned withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan, every new substantial military deployment will be harder to justify. In the eyes of most Germans, the Afghanistan mission was a failure.

So far, Germany's new foreign policy position has been flanked by nothing more than a microscopic increase in its involvement in Africa, That's not a big leap forward. Meanwhile, the murdering goes on in Syria and the conflict in Ukraine is escalating. Germany will need to prove it is ready to back up its words with deeds.

************

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
02/03/2014 04:02 PM

Overseas Role: Germany Must Back Words With Deeds

A Commentary by Christiane Hoffmann

German politicians have won applause abroad for promising a beefier role in international crisis management in the future. But does Chancellor Merkel support the new line? Berlin's behavior in Syria and Ukraine will prove how serious it is about the rethink.

When German politicians pledged a more active international role at the Munich Security Conference last weekend, the reaction they got was almost euphoric. President Joachim Gauck, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen appeared to be vying with each other to present their vision of a new Germany to the gathering of security experts and senior politicians.

At last Germany has grown up, said international officials and commentators. At last it's ready to accept a degree of responsibility commensurate with its weight. To be sure, the rhetoric is noteworthy because it marks progress from Germany's restraint and reluctance to shoulder responsibility. It was overdue. In recent years there's been an excessive discrepancy between Germany's economic clout and leading role in the euro crisis on the one hand and its reticence in international crisis regions on the other. But the general expressions of delight are surprising. After all, it's not uncommon for new ministers to make grand promises aimed at making them look different from their predecessors. The world will have to wait and see what Germany actually does in concrete terms to deliver on its pledge.

"Leading, I say respectfully, does not mean meeting in Munich for discussions, it means committing resources," US Secretary of State John Kerry told the conference.

Merkel Looks at Opinion Polls

After all, Germany's policy of military restraint wasn't only espoused by former Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. It was backed by Chancellor Angela Merkel herself. And there's nothing so far to suggest that she is departing from her guiding politicial principle: basing her policies on opinion polls. As long as a clear majority of Germans remain skeptical of or outright opposed to any German military involvement abroad, Angela Merkel is highly unlikely to commit troops to unpopular missions. The president and the ministers can hold as many grand speeches as they like -- if things get serious, they won't be the ones taking the decisions.

One should welcome Germany's readiness to become more involved at levels that don't go as far as committing troops -- such as its recent agreement to take part in the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons. But Germany's partners in Washington, London and Paris will measure Germany by the stance it takes when the international community next has to contend with a situation like Libya -- Germany abstained in the 2011 UN Security Council vote to impose a no-fly zone.

Future international missions won't be any easier, because the Americans are no longer prepared to automatically assume leadership. Germany will face the question not just whether and how it gets involved, but whether it's ready to seize the initiative. Following the planned withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan, every new substantial military deployment will be harder to justify. In the eyes of most Germans, the Afghanistan mission was a failure.

So far, Germany's new foreign policy position has been flanked by nothing more than a microscopic increase in its involvement in Africa, That's not a big leap forward. Meanwhile, the murdering goes on in Syria and the conflict in Ukraine is escalating. Germany will need to prove it is ready to back up its words with deeds.


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« Reply #11707 on: Feb 04, 2014, 07:12 AM »


Rivers run dry as claims of illegality surround Romania's hydropower boom

Green tariffs are driving development in the Southern Carpathian mountains, but with ecological and legal consequences

Luke Dale-Harris in Curtea de Arges
theguardian.com, Tuesday 4 February 2014 12.00 GMT

Deep into the wilderness of Romania's Southern Carpathian mountains, Bogdan Binescu, an avid angler and environmental campaigner, stops by the white waters of a mountain stream. "This river used to be the only route back to civilisation," he says. "But now civilisation has caught up."

A few kilometres on, his meaning becomes clear. Where beech trees had previously risen from the banks of the River Capra, a grey concrete building sits on muddied earth, housing the turbines of a small hydropower plant. Beyond, the river has all but disappeared, its bed of shattered rock and compacted earth now exposed. Between 80 and 90% of the river now flows through a thick metal pipe, carried here from a dam five kilometres upstream.

This is one of more than 500 "micro" hydropower plants operating or in various stages of construction and planning in the largely protected mountains. Together, they will produce less than 4% of the country's energy.

Often subsidised by European funds and with profits boosted by up to 500% from green tariffs – a subsidy drawn from a tax on energy consumers – micro hydropower has quickly become a favoured form of investment.

As profits are highest where the rivers run fast, investors are drawn deep into the mountains, in many cases to state-owned nature parks, protected under EU and domestic law. Binescu says: "Many of these projects are illegal on so many levels that only the powerful and well-connected have access to them." It is this, as much as the ecological impact of the power plants, which has drawn public protests throughout the Carpathians over the last year, in Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria.

Here in the Southern Carpathians, the power plant to which Binescu has taken us is one of 10 recently constructed by the retail company Imob Expert Consulting, owned by the self-declared "two top businessmen" in the county, one of whom, Gheorghe Badea, recently ran in the local elections. In partnership with them is the fiancée of the daughter of the Romanian president, Radu Pricop, a lawyer and local MP whose private law firm carried out all the legal operations involved in the investment.

Funded with €2m of European rural development funds, the investment will see a return of €1.2m a year. Of this, €1m will come directly from government-issued green tariffs, guaranteed annually for at least the next 13 years.

Without the political connections of the investors, opponents say, the project would be impossible. Spread across three rivers, the power plants all lie within an European protected Natura 2000 site and on state-owned land. Environmental regulations deem the project unlawful on three counts, it is claimed, while to rent the land from the state would cost, at rates set by the National Forestry Department, around €1m a year.

Yet the company engineered a straight land swap with the state, exchanging the 24,000 square feet of mountain land necessary for the power plants for a similar-sized area of arable land it owned. It drew up its own environmental impact assessments, critics say. When construction began, video footage allegedly recorded violations of environmental law on multiple counts.

At first, the Romanian government agency, the National Guard for the Environment, urged action, declaring the project and environmental forms "absolutely illegal". Two days later, officials had changed their minds and refused to "talk any more about it." The European commission, however, is set to visit the site next month to assess its legality.

Badea told the Guardiant: "The projects have been made with all the necessary approvals, authorisations and they function like all the other projects for micro hydropower plants in Europe. But there are some sick people who don't have anything to do, so they invent things about these projects."

Over the last few months the opposition to micro hydropower in the region has grown. Backed by a petition signed by 20,000 Romanians, WWF Romania and the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River have drawn up a protocol to create areas protected from hydropower development.

However, government support for the industry is strong and Diana Popa, a policy officer with WWF who worked on the protocol, sees a tough fight ahead. A state report has identified 4,000 locations to be potentially exploited for hydropower. Meanwhile, president Traian Băsescu recently blocked a well-supported government proposal to reduce green tariffs for micro hydropower by 24%.

"The political connections in this industry are everywhere," says Popa. "Because of the green tariff scheme, many politicians have big interests in hydropower. They think they can get away with what they want as it comes under the 'green category'."

Attila Andras Nagy, a freshwater marine biologist with the Romanian wildlife protection organisation Milvus, explains. "We are talking about the loss of thousands of kilometres of river. Tens of thousands across the whole mountains range. The habitat fragmentation this creates severely affects the populations of countless fish species, many of them protected. Then consider the animals that feed from the water – the otters, European dipper birds and more. The impact is cumulative and ends far from the rivers."

• Bogdan Binescu's name has been changed at his request.


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« Reply #11708 on: Feb 04, 2014, 07:14 AM »


Rwanda genocide trial opens in France

Trial of Pascal Simbikangwa is first case in France linked to the slaughter of 500,000 people after 20-year wait

Associated Press in Paris
theguardian.com, Tuesday 4 February 2014 11.21 GMT   

The first trial in France over Rwanda's genocide has opened two decades after a killing spree that left at least a half a million people dead.

Pascal Simbikangwa, a 54-year-old former intelligence chief, faces charges of complicity in genocide and complicity in war crimes. He could face a life sentence if convicted after the seven-week trial in Paris.

The defendant, who uses a wheelchair after an accident, was brought into the courtroom then transferred by gendarmes into a glassed-in area.

He identified himself to the court as "Pascal Safari", a combination of his real name and his alias, Senyamuhara Safari, according to court documents.

The case has highlighted criticism of France's reaction to the genocide, and the slow progress of justice after the slaughter of at least 500,000 people over 100 days.

"Today's trial in Paris … will be an important moment in the global fight against impunity," Leslie Haskell, the international justice counsel for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. He noted the creation of a special war crimes unit in the French justice system in 2012.

"France now has the tools it needs to ensure [that] perpetrators of the world's most serious crimes don't escape justice or find a safe haven in the country," Haskell said.

France had close ties to the government of Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana, an ethnic Hutu who was killed when his plane was shot down in 1994. Thousands of ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in reprisals in what has been called the 20th century's fastest genocide.

Civil parties to the case allege that Simbikangwa, who came from the same town as Habyarimana and was allegedly a relative, incited the army to identify and slaughter Tutsis.

Critics say that France was slow to act out of a combination of self-delusion and unwillingness to face up to bad decisions. Before the killings, French troops armed and trained the Rwandan army. During the genocide, they allegedly helped radical Hutus flee. Later, France took in a number of exiles who were allowed to live freely.

A French trait for "ill-founded self-certainties" that engulfed "the administration, the army and the diplomatic corps" was to blame, according to French former foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, who made repeated trips to Rwanda during the genocide as a humanitarian aid activist.

Simbikangwa's defence lawyers planned to argue for an acquittal, but have expressed concern the hearing will be lopsided in part because of the difficulty in finding witnesses who will speak out in their client's defence.

More than 50 witnesses including journalists, historians, farmers, security guards and intelligence officials are expected to be called to testify, nearly all by the prosecution. During the proceedings, several films are to be shown, including a 2004 documentary on the genocide called Kill Them All.

The trial could be the first of many. Another 27 cases linked to Rwanda's genocide have been lined up by the Paris court's war crimes unit, including one focusing on Hayarimana's widow.

The UN tribunal on the Rwanda genocide and several western countries including Belgium – a former colonial overseer of the African country – have brought scores of Rwandans to justice. The United Nations international criminal tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania, will close later this year, and is now only hearing appeals, officials say.

Documents from the Tanzania tribunal show France over the years handed over only three suspects – a fraction of the number of cases waiting in French courts.


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« Reply #11709 on: Feb 04, 2014, 07:18 AM »


Spain's jobless women become the boss to beat the recession

Record 800,000 businesses set up by female entrepreneurs in the past five years to counter unemployment crisis

Ashifa Kassam in Madrid
theguardian.com, Monday 3 February 2014 18.39 GMT 

When it comes to finding a job in Europe, not all citizens are born equal. If you are Spanish you have a one in four chance of being unemployed, rising to one in two if you are young. And if you are a young woman in Spain? The odds of finding yourself among the ranks of the unemployed are even higher, at 54.7%. Now however, young Spanish women are finding their own solutions to the crisis, discovering an entrepreneurial streak that has resulted in a record 800,000 businesses being set up by women in the past five years.

Take Almudena Velasco. She lost her job on a Monday morning. Despite her 16 years of experience in advertising, the economic crisis meant her chances of finding another job in the industry were slim. So on the Wednesday Velasco, 41, ploughed her life savings into starting her own ad agency.

Or Izanami Martínez. After she came up with the idea for NonaBox, a monthly box of goodies tailored to pregnant women and new mums, Martínez, 29, found investors, quit her job and launched her business all in one week. What started as a venture in her living room has grown into a 22-person company that spans five countries.

"In a startup if you have a good idea you can see it happen in two or three days," Martínez said. "In a big company, you have to go to a committee and then another meeting, it takes a very long time. It's kind of frustrating."

Twenty years ago Martínez watched her mother go from bank to bank, looking for a loan to finance her dream of building a private school. Now it's much easier for entrepreneurs, she said.

"Even since we started three years ago, I see so many changes. There are a lot more startups, more venture capitalists every month and there's a system that's really starting to work," she said. "It's not like Berlin, of course, but there's starting to be some events."

"The crisis allowed women to seriously consider becoming entrepreneurs, something many had never thought of before," said Joan Torrent Sellens, head of the Open University of Catalonia's business school. In the past decades Spanish women have made headway in government and the public sector, but lag behind in entrepreneurship, creating less than 20% of businesses. When analysing the same figures during the crisis, Torrent Sellens stumbled across a surprising result: the number of businesses created by women had nearly doubled during the crisis, to just under 40%.

The statistic, said Torrent Sellens, is a silver lining to Spain's years of economic turmoil. As the crisis hit the country's business community, destroying millions of jobs and reversing years of economic growth, it forced a rethink of priorities. Social media networking, product innovation and marketing became key values – all strengths that many Spanish women had developed on the margins as they sought to move forward in the hierarchical, male-dominated world of Spanish business.

At the same time, he said, technological advances put multinational corporations on the same footing as small, socially networked businesses.

"These days you can act like a big business without having a lot of employees," said Torrent Sellens. "The crisis allowed women to ask: 'Why do I have to be a director at a multinational, earning a third of what my male counterparts are earning when I can create my own business and lead my own project?'" he said. " The crisis gave them an alternative, their own way of breaking through the glass ceiling."Beatriz Sigüenza said the main impediment to starting a business in Spain was "your own family and friends". As she sought out an entrepreneurial niche, her friends urged her to look for a "real job". Today she describes her business, Kibo, as the Ikea of creative consulting, selling tools to help businesses stimulate creativity in the workplace. "You have so many friends waiting for you to fail, waiting to say: 'I told you so.'," she said.

Her parents still hoped she would go back to being an employee, she said, laughing. "I'll tell them about a presentation to a big company that went really well and my mother will say, 'Great, tell them to hire you.'"

Inundated with stories of female entrepreneurs struggling to create businesses with little support from their friends and family, Mercedes Wullich founded The Women Station, a co-working space that caters exclusively to female-led companies, in 2012. "It was absolutely necessary to have a space only for women because women entrepreneurs, in the past few years, have had to overcome major societal barriers – whether they be cultural or educational."

With its open layout and big windows, the space is meant to be welcoming, a contrast to the sometimes cold world of business. "For many of these women, starting a business isn't a choice but an obligation," she said.

As Spain's government struggled to rein in spending, it slashed jobs in the public sector, once the country's largest employer of women. Companies have also been shedding jobs, pushing Spain's unemployment rate to 26.3% for men and 27.1% for women. "The market isn't offering these women the jobs they need, but they still have to earn a living," said Wullich.

From the days of Spain's civil war, when women fought alongside men and were granted certain property rights, to the rule of General Francisco Franco, who banned divorce and frowned on the idea of women working, Spanish women have seen their rights ebb and flow during the past 100 years. Franco's death in 1975 ushered in the transition to democracy as well as a push to put women's rights in Spainon par with western European counterparts. Recently proposed legislation to limit abortion rights has many in the country worried about a rollback of women's rights.

Some attitudes persist, says Almudena Velasco. When she started her advertising business in 2010 she would often attend meetings accompanied by her sole employee, who was male. "The clients would only speak to him directly for the entire meeting, as if he was the one taking decisions," she said. She learned to stand up for herself. "These days they know better," she said.

Her experience echoes that of Monica Ceño Elie-Joseph. Thirteen years ago she opened The Lab Room, a spa in Madrid. "People would walk in, take one look at me and say: 'OK, where's the owner?' When I introduced myself they would ask: 'But who started this business – your father? Your husband?'"

That's not to say the new crop of Spanish entrepreneurs will have it easy. Spain still falls in the bottom half of the World Bank ranking on the ease of starting a business. It is 142nd out of 189 countries. Typically, it takes 10 procedures, 23 working days and costs about €1,100 (£910) to start a business in Spain. "Bureaucracy is a nightmare. You have to go to so many places for so many papers," said Ceño Elie-Joseph.

Relief may be on its way. In May the federal government approved a bill aimed at facilitating the creation and financing of businesses and fostering entrepreneurial spirit. Proposals include millions of euros in funding, a scaling back of red tape and tax breaks for entrepreneurs.

When Ceño Elie-Joseph speaks to women across Spain, she is often asked if it's worth it. "For me it's about creating a project I love and living in a city with lots of sunshine," she said. "But my best friend owns a hairdressing salon in New York. And he always says to me: 'Monica, if you were living in New York you would be a millionaire by now.'"


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« Reply #11710 on: Feb 04, 2014, 07:20 AM »


Three Anglo Irish executives blamed for Irish banking crisis go on trial

Trial of Sean FitzPatrick, Pat Whelan and William McAteer will be one of most complex in history of European financial crime

Henry McDonald in Dublin
The Guardian, Monday 3 February 2014 15.00 GMT   

The trial of senior executives at the bank that almost bankrupted Ireland begins this week with tight security around the Dublin courthouse where the men blamed for the Irish banking crisis are to be tried.

It will be one of the most complex and controversial trials in the history of European financial crime, with hundreds of witnesses, millions of documents and a trio regarded as national hate figures in Ireland. The case also marks a rare criminal intervention against senior figures involved in the credit crunch, with Iceland making the only notable attempt to prosecute bank executives for their role in institutional failures.

Three leading figures in the defunct and disgraced Anglo Irish Bank – Sean FitzPatrick, Pat Whelan and William McAteer – will each face 16 charges of unlawfully providing financial assistance to individuals for the purpose of buying shares in Anglo Irish Bank in 2008.

All of the charges relate to transactions with 16 individuals who allegedly received financial assistance from the accused trio between 10 July and 17 July 2008. The three former bankers deny all the charges against them.

Among the star witnesses expected to give evidence will be Ireland's one-time richest man, Sean Quinn, who borrowed billions from the bank to fund a global property portfolio during the Celtic Tiger boom years. When property prices collapsed across the world, Quinn owed billions and had to file for bankruptcy.

A jury of eight men and seven women have been sworn in at the Dublin circuit criminal court, where the trial begins on Wednesday morning. It will be the first time in Irish criminal history that an extended jury of 15 has been selected to hear a major case.

About 350 people volunteered to serve on the jury, giving an indication of the interest in the upcoming trial, which is expected to last for three to six months.

Judge Martin Nolan told the assembled panel that any past or present Anglo Irish Bank employees should not serve on the jury and said anyone who has expressed "strong public views" on Anglo Irish – including on Facebook and other social media networks, or who owns shares in any bank, was prohibited from serving.

Among the persons alleged to have been given financial assistance from the three Anglo Irish Bank bosses are Sean Quinn Junior and his mother Patricia.

The 16 people named in the charges are: Patricia Quinn; Sean Quinn Junior; Collete Marie Quinn; Aoife Quinn; Brenda Quinn; Ciara Quinn; Paddy McKillen; Séamus Ross; Brian O'Farrell; John McCabe; Gerard Maguire; Patrick Kearney; Gerard Conlon; Gerard Gannon; Seán Reilly and Joseph O'Reilly. The charges relating to Patricia Quinn are alleged to have occurred between 10 July and 18 July 2008.

Forty two officers in the Garda Siochana are expected to give evidence along with former employees at the Anglo Irish Bank and staff from Ireland's central bank. Overall, up to 24m documents and 800 witness statements will have to be examined during the complex financial trial. The Irish court service has opened an extra courtroom for the public to watch the unfolding trial on video link next door such is the public interest in the trial.

There is expected to be heavy security present around the courthouse in case of demonstrations against the bankers on trial.

There have been previous protests outside the home of Sean FitzPatrick in Co Wicklow and in addition back in 2010 a general threat from dissident republicans in a communiqué to the Guardian that they were monitoring the actions of "banks and bankers" in Ireland.

Nearly €30bn (£25bn) of taxpayers money had to be pumped into the bank in 2008 to rescue it and the entire Irish banking sector from total collapse. The bank has since been nationalised and renamed as the Irish Banking Resolution Corporation.

The multibillion-euro rescue of the debt ridden bank came back into public focus last year when tape recordings emerged of Anglo Irish executives discussing the bailout they had sought from the Irish government.

One of the tapes – first revealed by the Irish Independent – contains audio recording of one Anglo Irish Bank executive, John Bowe, who is heard laughing and joking about the rescue with one of his colleagues, Peter Fitzgerald.

The two men are heard discussing how the government and the taxpayer agreed to pump billions into the bank. Bowe is asked by Fitzgerald how they can came up with an original figure of €7bn to rescue the bank from complete collapse.

On the tape Bowe is heard replying: "Just as Drummer (the then Anglo Irish CEO David Drumm) would say, 'picked it out of my arse'."

In fact the Anglo Irish Bank bailout was to cost the Irish taxpayer more than quadruple Bowe's original estimate.

The Anglo Irish executives are also heard on tape making jokes about the money the German and other European taxpayers are handing over to the Irish government in a bid to shore up the Republic's banking system. The tapes, which were played across Irish airwaves and online, caused national outrage, inciting comment from Angela Merkel, who said the scandal "damages democracy". However, none of the three defendants in the trial that begins on Wednesday were recorded on tape.


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« Reply #11711 on: Feb 04, 2014, 07:25 AM »

Erdogan Urges More German Support for EU Bid

by Naharnet Newsdesk 04 February 2014, 14:08

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged Germany Tuesday to step up support for Turkey's European Union entry bid but acknowledged his country must also press on with reforms.

Erdogan told a Berlin think tank on a visit to Europe's top economy that the EU could also benefit from Turkey's presence at the bloc's table such as in regional conflict resolution.

"We expect and would like also to receive the support from Germany for the path into the EU and the EU admission process," Erdogan told the German Council on Foreign Relations.

"We would like for Germany to campaign (for it) more strongly than up until now," he added through an interpreter.

Erdogan was later to meet Chancellor Angela Merkel whose conservatives favor forging a "privileged partnership" between the EU and Turkey rather than full entry.

Erdogan's visit to Germany, home to around three million people with Turkish roots and Turkey's biggest trading partner, comes as he is facing his toughest political crisis in 11 years in power at home.

It also follows a recent trip to EU headquarters in Brussels aimed at reinvigorating Turkey's longstanding bid to join the bloc but dominated by his controversial response to a massive graft scandal.

"It goes without saying that also it's up to Turkey, in the (EU) admission process, to pursue its reforms and to continually further carry these out," Erdogan said.

Turkey began formal EU membership talks in 2005 which then hit several stumbling blocks but negotiations resumed late last year following a three-year freeze.

************

Report: Arch Rival Sues Turkish PM for Libel

by Naharnet Newsdesk 04 February 2014, 12:37

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ally-turned-rival Fethullah Gulen is suing him in the wake of a deeply damaging corruption scandal, a newspaper close to Gulen's movement reported Tuesday.

Gulen, an Islamic preacher living in self-imposed exile in the United States, is claiming 100,000 lira (32,700 euros, $44,200) in damages from Erdogan for allegedly denigrating and insulting remarks, the Zaman daily said.

Erdogan, 59, Turkey's strongman premier since 2003, has blamed a "parallel" state of Gulen's associates within the judiciary and police for a major graft probe that opened in December implicating members of Erdogan's inner circle and their families.

Erdogan has sacked or reassigned hundreds of police and prosecutors, portraying the allegations of shady dealings as part of a plot to weaken his government ahead of local elections on March 30 and a presidential poll in August.

The purges, coupled with a heavy-handed police crackdown on protests last June, moves to exert more control on the judiciary and mooted Internet legislation have raised deep concern at home and abroad about mainly Muslim Turkey.

Gulen's Hizmet movement does indeed wield considerable influence in the judiciary and police but he has denied being behind the corruption probe.

His organisation issued a statement last month saying the government "seems to be poisoned with power".

The Journalists and Writers Foundation, a group linked to Gulen, listed on Tuesday a string of recent "deeply worrying developments" that risk making Turkey "lose its character as a state governed by the rule of law".

These included limits on the freedom of expression, unlawful wiretaps, "purging" civil servants, pressure on the media, the use of "hate-centered language", accusations of "treason" and efforts to place the judiciary under government control, it said.


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« Reply #11712 on: Feb 04, 2014, 07:28 AM »


Afghan village built on a Soviet dream collapsing into deadly power vacuum

Ambitious project to build country's largest hydroelectric plant which led to the creation of Shahrak promised a new way of life

Emma Graham-Harrison in Shahrak
theguardian.com, Monday 3 February 2014 17.31 GMT   
   
When Darwish looked out of his new living room window 40 years ago, he felt as if he'd left Afghanistan. Then, as now, it was one of the world's poorest countries, but in Shahrak paved roads curved between lawns and flowerbeds past an Olympic-standard swimming pool towards two cinemas, a clinic and low-rise apartment blocks.

It was a dream conjured up in the offices of Soviet bureaucrats who had dispatched engineers to build the country's largest hydroelectric plant nearby. In a social engineering project as ambitious as the 100-metre (328ft) dam, they also created a model village for its Soviet and Afghan workers.

"When we came here it felt like a foreign country, with the grass and the beautiful flowers," said Darwish, 72, a mechanic who started at the plant even before its giant turbines began spinning out electricity in 1967.

Today Shahrak is on the fringes of Taliban territory. Women rarely go out without burqas, the cinema is makeshift housing and the wrecked remains of diving boards are the only suggestion that the pool was once anything more than a rubbish pit browsed by muddy goats.

The vision of a new type of Afghan life, embraced by the Afghan engineers who came to live there then watched powerless as the village was torn apart by years of war, was abandoned long ago.

"I used to walk to the cinema every week with my family," said Darwish. "If it opened now, suicide bombers would probably blow it up in a couple of days."

The collapse of Shahrak from Soviet paradigm to modern-day parable raises the question: could the same thing happen again as the US pullout accelerates through 2014?

Campaigning kicked off this week for a presidential election that will bring the country its first new ruler in more than a decade, and determine the future of both American aid spending in Afghanistan and the projects it has supported. Incumbent Hamid Karzai, whose relationship with Washington soured years ago and recently accused the US and Nato of "badly undermin[ing] the growth of the Afghan government", is barred from standing again.

When American soldiers and civilians poured into Afghanistan after the Taliban's fall they were undaunted by Soviet failures or setbacks in their early efforts to develop southern Afghanistan that left fields barren and speckled with salt. Instead, they too lavished money on the country, apparently convinced they could buy a path into modernity for a place battered by war,hobbled by poverty and illiteracy and where only one in five women could read or write her name and barely half of the country's men. The US has spent more than $90bn (£55bn) on reconstruction and relief in Afghanistan since then, which, adjusted for inflation, is still far more than any country received under the Marshall plan to rebuild Europe after the second world war, according to the American government's special inspector general for Afghanistan.

That money has bought dramatic achievements, including a leap of millions in the number of children enrolled for school (though it is less clear how many actually attend), and a significant fall in the number of women who die in childbirth and in children who die easily preventable deaths, along with a steady growth in the country's economy, albeit from a tiny base.

But it is unclear if the changes are any more durable than many Soviet efforts undone by civil war. The Soviets too spent heavily on Afghanistan and at the peak of their influence in the 1980s, Soviet projects produced well over half the country's power, three-quarters of its factory output and almost all the government's tax income, according to Aiding Afghanistan, a history of spending by the west's old enemy as it struggled to transform the country.

After Moscow stopped funding the security forces in 1992, the collapse of the Afghan government and bitter fighting followed soon after.

Shahrak was dismantled so thoroughly by bombs and fighters that the settlement is now almost indistinguishable from any other Afghan village, with clusters of traditional adobe homes dotted with the concrete blocks of more prosperous neighbours.

The villagers fled their homes at the peak of fighting, forced to pack into grubby corners of the sprawling dam. "We lived in a tunnel for three months," Darwish said, of the peak of the bombardment during the civil war of the early 1990s.

He has watched several governments come and go but reserves his most bitter words for the mujahideen fighters who battled each other for control of the area and looted methodically and ruthlessly.

"They dug up the plumbing system, tied it to the back of cars and pulled it out. They didn't leave any metal, even the toilet taps from the wall went," said Darwish.

As Nato troops head home this year, many Afghans in their bleaker moments fear that what happened to Shahrak might befall other parts of the country again. Violence has risen, with the number of civilians seeking treatment for weapon wounds up more than half in the first 10 months of 2013 and deaths 14% up on a year earlier.

"You see a lot of insecurity, even just a few kilometres from Kabul," said one former mujahideen commander who fought near the dam in east Afghanistan two decades ago. "Before we had seasonal fighting, with the men in winter going to Pakistan. Now they have fixed bases and even though the weather gets cold we are still dealing with suicide bombers and IEDs [roadside bombs]," added the commander, who asked not to be named as his home is now Taliban-dominated.

As fighting spreads, the government's reach appears to be shrinking, taking expensive and hard-won gains in fundamental quality of life with it at an alarming pace.

"The number of people without access to health services has increased from 3.3 million to 5.4 million, indicating a decline in the government's basic service delivery," the United Nations said in a humanitarian newsletter for Afghanistan published this month that also noted more than half a million people have fled their homes because of the conflict. With Afghanistan now the most dangerous place in the world to be an aid worker, the outlook is bleak.

"The most likely scenario for 2014 is a steady deterioration in the current situation leading to a continued increase in humanitarian need as well as shrinking humanitarian space," the newsletter warned.

The government soldiers holding off a descent into full-blown civil war are being paid, as they were more than two decades ago, by a rich superpower. Washington has promised years more funding and training, but these were expected to be accompanied by another decade of military bases on Afghan soil, allowing drones and commandos to chase international militants along the lawless border with Pakistan.

Karzai is now at odds with the US over the deal, however, demanding more concessions and apparently gambling that Washington needs bases more than he needs support.

US diplomats and pundits warn they could pull out entirely as they did in Iraq, and even those unhappy at years of heavy-handed American interference in their country are nervous about what a total departure could mean. In Shahrak, where children pelt foreign visitors with pine cones and small stones, the Bilateral Security Agreement is on everyone's lips. "Karzai must sign the BSA," said Naveed Granagha, a teenager sporting the thin, wispy start of a beard, volunteering his thoughts unprompted.

Despite the damage to Shahrak, the Naghlu dam it was built to support is still standing, and remains the country's biggest power station. It helps light up Kabul, but also illuminates what critics say is one of the biggest failures of the international effort to rebuild Afghanistan since 2001 – little progress on basic infrastructure, from roads to electricity.

Despite Afghanistan's many steep valleys and fierce rivers, the biggest power station built since 2001 has been a set of diesel-powered generators in southern Kandahar which are so expensive to run that officials warn they will only stay on while the US pays for the fuel.

And a focus on soft progress, winning hearts and minds and educating the population, meant a string of small projects were built that were easily abandoned or repurposed. Badly built roads fell apart within months. Funds went into advanced hospitals with operating costs far beyond government budgets; schools in Taliban-dominated areas sit empty, shuttered by insurgents. "A hospital without doctors or an operating budget is just an empty building," said Ashraf Ghani, a candidate in this year's presidential election and outspoken critic of wasted western aid efforts.

By contrast Naghlu and two other dams strung along the river that thunders down to the Pakistan border have been valued by every commander controlling the area, even when they shelled villages to pieces and restaffed ministries.

"Everyone needs electricity," said Sahib Gul Afridi, who runs all three power stations and has worked for the national electricity company through several changes of government. "It was not as if I had to quit my job because I was a Talib. I was an Afghan who studied engineering, and anywhere, any regime that takes over will need engineers."

Russian engineers are back to help repair and replace ageing equipment and install a computer control system. Even with Taliban influence in the area rising, Afridi is confident his men and his turbines will be left in peace.

"Because of our work, I know I have a place among the people as well as in their heart. If I didn't have a place there, I would be scared of my shadow, but I am never afraid."


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« Reply #11713 on: Feb 04, 2014, 07:36 AM »


Afghan village built on a Soviet dream collapsing into deadly power vacuum

Ambitious project to build country's largest hydroelectric plant which led to the creation of Shahrak promised a new way of life

Emma Graham-Harrison in Shahrak
theguardian.com, Monday 3 February 2014 17.31 GMT   
   
When Darwish looked out of his new living room window 40 years ago, he felt as if he'd left Afghanistan. Then, as now, it was one of the world's poorest countries, but in Shahrak paved roads curved between lawns and flowerbeds past an Olympic-standard swimming pool towards two cinemas, a clinic and low-rise apartment blocks.

It was a dream conjured up in the offices of Soviet bureaucrats who had dispatched engineers to build the country's largest hydroelectric plant nearby. In a social engineering project as ambitious as the 100-metre (328ft) dam, they also created a model village for its Soviet and Afghan workers.

"When we came here it felt like a foreign country, with the grass and the beautiful flowers," said Darwish, 72, a mechanic who started at the plant even before its giant turbines began spinning out electricity in 1967.

Today Shahrak is on the fringes of Taliban territory. Women rarely go out without burqas, the cinema is makeshift housing and the wrecked remains of diving boards are the only suggestion that the pool was once anything more than a rubbish pit browsed by muddy goats.

The vision of a new type of Afghan life, embraced by the Afghan engineers who came to live there then watched powerless as the village was torn apart by years of war, was abandoned long ago.

"I used to walk to the cinema every week with my family," said Darwish. "If it opened now, suicide bombers would probably blow it up in a couple of days."

The collapse of Shahrak from Soviet paradigm to modern-day parable raises the question: could the same thing happen again as the US pullout accelerates through 2014?

Campaigning kicked off this week for a presidential election that will bring the country its first new ruler in more than a decade, and determine the future of both American aid spending in Afghanistan and the projects it has supported. Incumbent Hamid Karzai, whose relationship with Washington soured years ago and recently accused the US and Nato of "badly undermin[ing] the growth of the Afghan government", is barred from standing again.

When American soldiers and civilians poured into Afghanistan after the Taliban's fall they were undaunted by Soviet failures or setbacks in their early efforts to develop southern Afghanistan that left fields barren and speckled with salt. Instead, they too lavished money on the country, apparently convinced they could buy a path into modernity for a place battered by war,hobbled by poverty and illiteracy and where only one in five women could read or write her name and barely half of the country's men. The US has spent more than $90bn (£55bn) on reconstruction and relief in Afghanistan since then, which, adjusted for inflation, is still far more than any country received under the Marshall plan to rebuild Europe after the second world war, according to the American government's special inspector general for Afghanistan.

That money has bought dramatic achievements, including a leap of millions in the number of children enrolled for school (though it is less clear how many actually attend), and a significant fall in the number of women who die in childbirth and in children who die easily preventable deaths, along with a steady growth in the country's economy, albeit from a tiny base.

But it is unclear if the changes are any more durable than many Soviet efforts undone by civil war. The Soviets too spent heavily on Afghanistan and at the peak of their influence in the 1980s, Soviet projects produced well over half the country's power, three-quarters of its factory output and almost all the government's tax income, according to Aiding Afghanistan, a history of spending by the west's old enemy as it struggled to transform the country.

After Moscow stopped funding the security forces in 1992, the collapse of the Afghan government and bitter fighting followed soon after.

Shahrak was dismantled so thoroughly by bombs and fighters that the settlement is now almost indistinguishable from any other Afghan village, with clusters of traditional adobe homes dotted with the concrete blocks of more prosperous neighbours.

The villagers fled their homes at the peak of fighting, forced to pack into grubby corners of the sprawling dam. "We lived in a tunnel for three months," Darwish said, of the peak of the bombardment during the civil war of the early 1990s.

He has watched several governments come and go but reserves his most bitter words for the mujahideen fighters who battled each other for control of the area and looted methodically and ruthlessly.

"They dug up the plumbing system, tied it to the back of cars and pulled it out. They didn't leave any metal, even the toilet taps from the wall went," said Darwish.

As Nato troops head home this year, many Afghans in their bleaker moments fear that what happened to Shahrak might befall other parts of the country again. Violence has risen, with the number of civilians seeking treatment for weapon wounds up more than half in the first 10 months of 2013 and deaths 14% up on a year earlier.

"You see a lot of insecurity, even just a few kilometres from Kabul," said one former mujahideen commander who fought near the dam in east Afghanistan two decades ago. "Before we had seasonal fighting, with the men in winter going to Pakistan. Now they have fixed bases and even though the weather gets cold we are still dealing with suicide bombers and IEDs [roadside bombs]," added the commander, who asked not to be named as his home is now Taliban-dominated.

As fighting spreads, the government's reach appears to be shrinking, taking expensive and hard-won gains in fundamental quality of life with it at an alarming pace.

"The number of people without access to health services has increased from 3.3 million to 5.4 million, indicating a decline in the government's basic service delivery," the United Nations said in a humanitarian newsletter for Afghanistan published this month that also noted more than half a million people have fled their homes because of the conflict. With Afghanistan now the most dangerous place in the world to be an aid worker, the outlook is bleak.

"The most likely scenario for 2014 is a steady deterioration in the current situation leading to a continued increase in humanitarian need as well as shrinking humanitarian space," the newsletter warned.

The government soldiers holding off a descent into full-blown civil war are being paid, as they were more than two decades ago, by a rich superpower. Washington has promised years more funding and training, but these were expected to be accompanied by another decade of military bases on Afghan soil, allowing drones and commandos to chase international militants along the lawless border with Pakistan.

Karzai is now at odds with the US over the deal, however, demanding more concessions and apparently gambling that Washington needs bases more than he needs support.

US diplomats and pundits warn they could pull out entirely as they did in Iraq, and even those unhappy at years of heavy-handed American interference in their country are nervous about what a total departure could mean. In Shahrak, where children pelt foreign visitors with pine cones and small stones, the Bilateral Security Agreement is on everyone's lips. "Karzai must sign the BSA," said Naveed Granagha, a teenager sporting the thin, wispy start of a beard, volunteering his thoughts unprompted.

Despite the damage to Shahrak, the Naghlu dam it was built to support is still standing, and remains the country's biggest power station. It helps light up Kabul, but also illuminates what critics say is one of the biggest failures of the international effort to rebuild Afghanistan since 2001 – little progress on basic infrastructure, from roads to electricity.

Despite Afghanistan's many steep valleys and fierce rivers, the biggest power station built since 2001 has been a set of diesel-powered generators in southern Kandahar which are so expensive to run that officials warn they will only stay on while the US pays for the fuel.

And a focus on soft progress, winning hearts and minds and educating the population, meant a string of small projects were built that were easily abandoned or repurposed. Badly built roads fell apart within months. Funds went into advanced hospitals with operating costs far beyond government budgets; schools in Taliban-dominated areas sit empty, shuttered by insurgents. "A hospital without doctors or an operating budget is just an empty building," said Ashraf Ghani, a candidate in this year's presidential election and outspoken critic of wasted western aid efforts.

By contrast Naghlu and two other dams strung along the river that thunders down to the Pakistan border have been valued by every commander controlling the area, even when they shelled villages to pieces and restaffed ministries.

"Everyone needs electricity," said Sahib Gul Afridi, who runs all three power stations and has worked for the national electricity company through several changes of government. "It was not as if I had to quit my job because I was a Talib. I was an Afghan who studied engineering, and anywhere, any regime that takes over will need engineers."

Russian engineers are back to help repair and replace ageing equipment and install a computer control system. Even with Taliban influence in the area rising, Afridi is confident his men and his turbines will be left in peace.

"Because of our work, I know I have a place among the people as well as in their heart. If I didn't have a place there, I would be scared of my shadow, but I am never afraid."

*************

Hamid Karzai 'has been talking to Taliban for months'

Clandestine contacts could explain worsening relationship with US but do not seem to have yielded any results

Emma Graham-Harrison   
theguardian.com, Tuesday 4 February 2014 12.13 GMT 

Afghan president Hamid Karzai has been talking to the Taliban for several months in an attempt to broker a last-minute peace deal before his term expires, the New York Times reports, citing Afghan and western officials.

If confirmed, the clandestine contacts could explain his hardening stance towards Washington in recent weeks, which has further soured an already difficult relationship.

The talks began with a Taliban outreach last November, just as Washington believed a difficult deal for a long-term US military presence in Afghanistan was about to be signed.

Instead, after a national gathering convened to discuss the bilateral strategic agreement endorsed it, Karzai surprised allies and much of his own cabinet by rolling out a new list of conditions.

The deal is still unsigned, and billions of dollars in military and civilian aid linked to it are also in limbo.

Since then, relations have deteriorated further with the revelation that the president suspects the US is behind many insurgent-style attacks, including a recent suicide assault on a Kabul restaurant that killed prominent members of the international community and two US citizens.

He has also ordered the release of dozens of prisoners considered by the US to be dangerous Taliban fighters, but his palace insists are innocent men locked up by the US under false pretences.

Afghanistan will vote for a new president in April but the two-round system and delays getting ballot papers from across the country could mean that Karzai will remain in post for several months after.

The contacts with the Taliban do not appear to have yielded any concrete results, the New York Times reported, with neither actual talks nor firm plans for any on the table.

A presidential spokesman confirmed the talks, which he described as among the most serious of the last decade.

"These parties were encouraged by the president's stance on the bilateral security agreement and his speeches afterwards," Aimal Faizi told the paper. "The last two months have been very positive."

He was not available for comment on Tuesday.

There were meetings with influential leaders in Dubai and Riyadh, the report said, but contacts had "fizzled out" and the group had no plans of negotiating with the Afghan government, if they ever did.

The Taliban have long said getting rid of foreign troops is one of their main objectives, and if their links with Karzai contributed to slow progress on the long-term partnership deal with the US, it could potentially be part of a military strategy.

Although the Taliban maintained unofficial contacts with some senior Afghans over the decade since they were toppled, efforts to broker peace talks to end the conflict through negotiations have been tortuous and so far yielded little more than set-backs and dead ends.


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« Reply #11714 on: Feb 04, 2014, 07:38 AM »

Pakistan-Taliban Peace Talks Falter

by Naharnet Newsdesk
04 February 2014, 14:04

Negotiators for the Pakistani Taliban said Tuesday that government representatives had refused to show up for planned peace talks, citing confusion over the militants' team.

The two sides had been due to gather in Islamabad at 2:00 pm (0900 GMT) to chart a "roadmap" for talks, amid a surge in militant violence and skepticism about the chances of reaching a negotiated peace.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif caused surprise last week by announcing a team to begin dialogue with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which has been waging a violent insurgency since 2007.

Many observers had been anticipating a military offensive against TTP strongholds in Pakistan's tribal areas, following a bloody start to the year. More than 110 people were killed in militant attacks in January, many of them military personnel.

The head of the TTP's talks committee, hardline cleric Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, said he was disappointed the government team had failed to show up as agreed.

"I received a phone call from Irfan Siddiqui who said confusion still persisted because the composition of the Taliban committee has changed from five to three," Haq said. Siddiqui is leading the government negotiators.

"Citing this reason, he said the government committee could not come."

Agence France Presse were unable to reach the government for an immediate comment.

Bleak hopes

Washington has long pressured Pakistan to take action against militants using tribal areas as a base to attack NATO troops across the border in Afghanistan.

Talk of a full offensive in North Waziristan rose last month when the air force bombarded suspected Taliban hideouts following two major attacks on military targets.

But no operation was launched and critics accused Sharif's government of dithering in response to the resurgent violence.

Even before Tuesday's abortive start, media held out scant hope for the talks.

The TTP has said in the past that it opposes democracy and wants Islamic sharia law imposed throughout Pakistan, while the government has stressed the country's constitution must remain paramount.

English-language daily The Nation predicted the "peace talks balloon will burst soon enough".

"The ambiguity and confusion still exists because the political leadership has been extremely hesitant towards taking a clear stand and calling a spade a spade for a change," it said in an editorial on Tuesday.

The News predicted the process would be "long and excruciating... since neither committee contains anyone with the authority to make decisions".

The government team consists of senior journalists Siddiqui and Rahimullah Yusufzai, former diplomat Rustam Shah Mohmand and retired major Mohammad Aamir, formerly of the Inter Services Intelligence agency.

The Taliban initially named five negotiators: Haq, Maulana Abdul Aziz, who is the chief cleric of Islamabad's Red Mosque, Professor Ibrahim Khan of religious party Jamaat-e-Islami, Mufti Kifayatullah of the JUI-F religious party and cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan.

But Imran Khan declined the offer and Kifayatullah's party withdrew Kifayatullah on Monday, complaining they had not been properly consulted over the talks.

Haq urged the government to come to the negotiating table.

"We once again invite the government committee to come and talk to us. We will not make anything a point of prestige," he told reporters.

"We believe that the pressure is now growing on the Prime Minister. He makes sincere offers but later comes under US pressure."

Haq told AFP on Monday that the TTP had so far made no formal demands for the talks.

In the past the militants have called for their prisoners to be released and for Pakistani troops to be pulled out of the seven tribal areas along the Afghan border.


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