Robert Mugabe's lavish 90th birthday plans decried as Zimbabwe struggles
Costly celebration, criticised as cultism and hero worship, comes at a time of heavy job losses and slowing economic growth
David Smith, Africa correspondent
theguardian.com, Wednesday 19 February 2014 17.55 GMT
Plans for a lavish $1m (£600,000) celebration of Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe's 90th birthday have been condemned as the country lurches towards another financial crisis.
The tribute to Africa's oldest head of state – and second oldest in the world after Israel's Shimon Peres – is expected to surpass last year's party, when special gold coins were minted and Mugabe was presented with a cake said to weigh 89kg.
But the costly event will come amid heavy job losses, slowing economic growth and what the central bank describes as a "severe and persistent liquidity crunch", reviving memories of the disastrous meltdown five years ago.
Mugabe, who continues to defy the march of time and constant health speculation, travelled to Singapore this week for cataract surgery on his left eye, according to his spokesman.
But he is expected back in time for the birthday celebration with thousands of supporters at the Rudhaka stadium in the town of Marondera on Sunday, two days after he turns 90.
Absalom Sikhosana, secretary for youth affairs in Mugabe's Zanu-PF party, told reporters recently: "This is a very special celebration. Turning 90 is no mean feat. You cannot turn 90 years when you are a womaniser, a drunkard or a chain smoker. We will be celebrating the life of a very special person on a very special occasion."
It is a milestone in the history of the country, which has known no other leader since gaining independence from Britain in 1980, but activists and opposition politicians described the event as an extravagant waste of money when many citizens are going hungry.
"It would be inappropriate for a country's head of state to have such a lavish and costly celebration at a time when the country is faced with the disaster of flooding and a crumbling economy," said Dewa Mavhinga, a Zimbabwe researcher at Human Rights Watch. "It's about cultism, hero worship, institutionalising Mugabe, with sycophants around him trying to oil the wheels of patronage. There's an entire system behind this corruption."
Reflecting on Mugabe's 34 years in power, Mavhinga added: "His human rights record is one that no one can honestly admire. There is nothing to celebrate about his birthday or his legacy – and there are concerns that, if something should happen to him, the country might be plunged into chaos if there is no clear mechanism for transition."
Officially, funds for the birthday bash are being raised by the Zanu-PF youth league and not from the public purse. But Tendai Biti, who was finance minister until his party lost heavily to Zanu-PF in disputed elections last year, said: "When I was finance minister we never contributed a cent, but I've absolutely no doubt that they will get money from the treasury this time."
As the economy stumbles back into trouble, long queues are returning to bank branches and companies are laying off aroundabout 300 people a week, according to trade unions.
Biti said: "The economy is going down and we need to do something about it. The government is clueless and has no idea how to manage it. Things are getting worse every day."
David Coltart, the former education minister, noted that the economy was in far worse shape during the hyperinflation of 2008 but Mugabe's supporters organised birthday celebrations even then. "Some people will be appalled by it but they don't seem bothered," he said.
The president regularly travels to Singapore for medical check-ups and, some believe, a mysterious treatment involving blood transfusions. A US diplomatic cable from 2008, leaked three years later by WikiLeaks, quoted Mugabe's close ally and former central bank chief Gideon Gono as telling former US ambassador Christopher Dell that Mugabe had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.
The far east became the destination of choice for Mugabe's medical care after the European Union imposed sanctions on him in 2002. On Monday the EU said it had lifted a visa ban and assets freeze against members of Zimbabwe's ruling elite with the exception of Mugabe and his wife, Grace.
If he serves his full term, Mugabe will be 94 when the next elections are due. At the funeral of his sister Bridget last month, he spoke for more than an hour and mused: "I do not know how I have lived this long. It is all in God's hands."
"I do respect that he's reached 90 years," Coltart said. "I was constantly amazed in cabinet by his vigour; he was not a doddery, senile man. Against that, the country remains in crisis and the economy is in turmoil. That needs an energetic pair of hands to deal with."
Protests Swell in Venezuela as Places to Rally Disappear
By WILLIAM NEUMAN
FEB. 20, 2014
CARACAS, Venezuela — The only television station that regularly broadcast voices critical of the government was sold last year, and the new owners have softened its news coverage. Last week, President Nicolás Maduro banned a foreign cable news channel after it showed images of a young protester shot to death here.
Opposition legislators have been barred from debates and stripped of committee posts in the National Assembly. And when an opposition leader called for a protest this week, Mr. Maduro scheduled his own march to start at the same spot and dispatched the National Guard to try to block protesters from rallying elsewhere.
Venezuela is being convulsed by the biggest protests since the country’s longtime president, the charismatic Hugo Chávez, died nearly a year ago.
And while the demonstrators condemn a wide range of perennial problems, including rampant crime, high inflation and shortages of basic goods like sugar and toilet paper, the intensity of the protests has been fueled by something more subtle and perhaps stronger — a sense that the spaces to voice disagreement with the government are shrinking and disappearing.
“You have a government that increasingly, since the time of Chávez but even more with Maduro, has practically closed the channels of communication,” said Margarita López Maya, a historian who studies protest movements. “If you have a society that has no institutional channels to raise its complaints, make demands, form policy, the tradition in Venezuela and in Latin America and I think throughout the world is to take to the streets.”
Of the opposition she said, “They feel choked, penned in.”
Since last week, four people have been shot to death in protests, dozens have been wounded and scores have been arrested. A local newspaper said some of the shots fired in one killing appeared to have come from a group that included uniformed security officers and men accompanying them in civilian clothes.
In the most recent death, a beauty queen, Génesis Carmona, 22, a student who was crowned Miss Tourism 2013 for the state of Carabobo, died Wednesday, a day after being shot in the head during a march in Valencia, the country’s third-largest city. Protesters said attackers on motorcycles had fired on the march.
But the government has been quick to blame protesters for the worst violence, and on Thursday the interior minister, Miguel Rodríguez Torres, said that one of her fellow demonstrators fired the shot that killed Ms. Carmona. “This girl died from a bullet that came from her own ranks,” he said.
Many protesters are calling for Mr. Maduro to resign, but beyond that, the rallies seem to be general expressions of outrage, often with few specific demands. Even some opposition activists admit to being bewildered about how to direct the anger into concrete political objectives.
So far, Mr. Maduro’s response has been to crack down, but that has only fanned the flames. This week, he expelled three American diplomats, accusing them of recruiting students to take part in violent demonstrations. Then he arrested an opposition politician, Leopoldo López, saying that he had trained gangs of youths to sow violence in the country as part of a coup to overthrow the government.
Thousands of people turned out in Caracas on Tuesday to accompany Mr. López as he surrendered to the authorities. And on Wednesday night, as demonstrators in several cities clashed with the riot police, Mr. Maduro threatened to declare a form of martial law known as a “state of exception” in the western state of Táchira, on the border with Colombia, a traditional opposition stronghold where protests have been particularly intense.
“If I have to declare a state of exception in Táchira, I’m ready to declare it and send in the tanks, the troops, planes, all of the military force of the country,” the president said. He also threatened to jail other opposition politicians and protest leaders.
Parts of the capital, Caracas, and some other cities have become battlegrounds. National guard soldiers on motorcycles patrol Caracas at night, using tear gas and rubber bullets to drive off protesters who block streets with barricades of burning trash.
On one night, a group of soldiers fired rubber bullets at apartment buildings where people were banging pots to protest the crackdown. During a melee after a rally in downtown Caracas on Feb. 12, the police, enraged that some of their vehicles were set on fire, beat and kicked protesters, news photographers and cameramen.
Mr. Maduro belittles the protesters and has largely ignored their complaints, trying to focus attention on smaller groups involved in violent clashes. “These aren’t students. They’re fascist vandals,” he said on Thursday.
The United States has voiced concern.
“In Venezuela, rather than trying to distract from its own failings by making up false accusations against diplomats from the United States, the government ought to focus on addressing the legitimate grievances of the Venezuelan people,” President Obama said on Wednesday during a meeting in Mexico. He called for Mr. Maduro’s government to release jailed protesters and engage in dialogue.
The current round of protests began this month when students in Táchira and other cities demonstrated against violent crime. Several students were arrested and a march was called in Caracas to demand their release. After that march ended peacefully, a few hundred youths rioted, throwing rocks at the police and breaking windows in a government building. A protester and a government supporter were shot to death, and another protester was gunned down that night.
Venezuela became a bitterly divided country during the 14 years of Mr. Chávez’s presidency, which ended with his death in March. He fostered a cult of personality and dominated all aspects of political life, pushing the country, which has the world’s largest oil reserves, toward his vision of socialist revolution.
Mr. Chávez reviled and insulted the opposition, but since his death, there is a sense that there is even less room for criticism — despite Mr. Maduro’s promises that he is open to dialogue.
In a psychological blow to many in the opposition, a stridently antigovernment television station, Globovision, was sold last year to investors believed to be close to the government. Since then, the station has toned down its programming and ceased to be a counterweight to the relentlessly pro-government tone of several government-run television stations.
Last week Mr. Maduro ordered a Colombian news channel, NTN24, removed from cable because of its coverage of the demonstrations.
Now, there has been little live news coverage of the wave of protests, while government television has relentlessly vilified the demonstrators.
“There are very few outlets where the opposition can make itself heard,” said Cedomir Mimia, 27, a lawyer at a recent protest, who said his top concern was “the information blackout.”
Many protesters say they are simply fed up with the country’s bitter divide. “I’m here because I’m tired of the crime, of the shortages, tired of having to stand on line to buy anything,” said María Luchón, 21, at a recent rally. “I’m tired of the politicians of both sides.”
Mexico City legislators move to relax marijuana laws
By Jo Tuckman, The Guardian
Friday, February 21, 2014 6:07 EST
If approved, changes to laws on possession and sale in capital could pave way for regulated marijuana dispensaries
Deep in the heart of the Tepito – the traditional home of Mexico City’s black market – Juan’s two mobile phones buzz constantly as he gets closes his deal. He takes the calls with precise and efficient directions, but a certain twitchiness breaks through his clean cut and calm exterior.
“Sure, you make money in this business,” says the marijuana dealer who started out a year ago selling grams on street corners but is now buying kilos direct from suppliers. “But it is a very stressful job.”
That job might be heading for a big transformation after leftwing legislators tabled measures to relax regulations on marijuana possession and sale in the capital, as well as proposals for federal reforms that could increase permitted quantities and encourage other states to follow suit.
The initiatives, proposed by the leftwing Party of the Democratic Revolution – which governs in the capital and represents the third force in the federal congress – are the latest example of a region-wide rethink of the prohibition approach to the war on drugs. In December, Uruguay’s parliament approved a bill to legalise and regulate the sale and production of marijuana, while in the US Washington and Colorado states recently legalised the sale of cannabis under licence.
While comparatively cautious on paper, the Mexican version brings the debate to a country battered by extreme violence unleashed by the government’s attempts to take the war to the drug cartels.
“Seventy thousand dead, 26,000 disappeared, and an incalculable number of internally displaced are more than sufficient reason to look for an alternative model,” federal congressman Fernando Belaunzarán told reporters this week.
Current federal legislation allows people to carry up to 5g of marijuana (about four joints) without legal consequences. In practice those caught with even these amounts are only released after being booked by police, which carries with it a serious risk of criminalisation and extortion by corrupt officers.
If approved, the new rules in the capital would drastically reduce the police’s role and, most significantly, pave the way for regulated and supervised marijuana dispensaries. The capital’s reputation for being relatively progressive, having already legalised abortion and gay marriage, suggests the local legislation has a good chance of getting on the books. The initiative before the federal congress proposes raising the limit to 30g, opens the possibility for defining marijuana as medicinal, and gives states more freedom on how to apply these rules.
“These are concrete, well defined, moderate and plausible proposals to start the kind of serious discussion that has been absent during all these years of war mongering,” says Alejandro Madrazo, an academic who helped draw up the initiatives. “If we are able to move consumers into tolerated spaces then we can expect to start draining the black market.”
He plays down claims others make about the bills’ potential to curb violence by stressing that the capital has been relatively free of the kind of horrors common elsewhere. Even so, the local drug market has been blamed for some horrific crimes, including the abduction of 13 young people in May last year from an after-hours bar in one of the main business districts, a few blocks from police headquarters. The authorities say the abduction was carried out in revenge for the murder of a local dealer.
“I think making marijuana legal is a good idea,” says tourism student Rodrigo Martínez, who adds he would prefer to buy the marijuana he smokes at parties from a regulated dealer rather than on the streets of his own crime-filled neighbourhood in the far south. “Sometimes you feel pretty vulnerable when you buy, and if you get caught by the police you have to pay a bribe.”
With the debate still in its early stages, a poll of Mexico City residents published in the newspaper El Universal suggests such support is rare. Only 16% approved of raising the amount of permitted possession to 30g, though more than half liked the idea of regulated dispensaries.
The capital’s archdiocese has voiced the most vehement opposition to the initiatives so far with an editorial titled “Stoned City” in its weekly publication From the Faith. “Drugs should not be combatted with drugs,” the text stated. “They are promoting an addicted and sick society.”
Back in Tepito, Juan runs through the range of products he buys – from hydroponic marijuana from the northern state of Sinaloa at about 1,000 pounds a kilo to rough and ready weed from the southern mountains at less than 50 pounds. He sells them all, he says, at a considerable profit.
“I would like a permit, but I don’t think I would qualify,” he muses, before his phone buzzes again and he rushes off the clinch the deal.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2014
In the USA..United Surveillance America
Republican VW Union Busting Victory Turns Into a Major Defeat For The GOP
Thursday, February, 20th, 2014, 11:05 am
When Republicans campaigned for the 2010 midterm elections, their rallying cry was focusing on jobs, jobs, jobs, and after winning control of the House began the 112th Congress on a job-killing spree that has not abated one iota. In fact, when told the Republican House’s first round of austerity cuts would kill about a million jobs, new Speaker John Boehner said, “So be it;” decimating jobs has been their sole priority and achievement over the past three years. Boehner and Republicans claim that their job-creation strategy is “getting government out of the way” that they assure Americans is what businesses want to begin a hiring spree unlike any seen in decades, but they belied their own strategy over the past few weeks and killed more good-paying manufacturing jobs because they “got in the way” of a business planning to expand.
Last week workers at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga Tennessee voted against union representation after a Republican Senator, Republican governor, Grover Norquist, and Republicans in the state legislature as well as an anti-worker organization used fear and threats targeting Volkswagen to affect the outcome of the vote. Republicans celebrated their handiwork that Matt Patterson of the Center for Worker Freedom, an anti-labor group, compared to the Confederate army beating back an “invading union force from the North.” However, what they accomplished was raising the ire of Volkswagen’s Wolfsburg-based (Germany) works council that reacted negatively to the Republicans’ interference and said the 20-member works council will block further investments by the German carmaker in the southern United States if its workers there are not unionized.
The Germans were undeterred by last Friday’s vote and said Volkswagen’s works council will press on with efforts to set up labor representation at the Chattanooga plant that builds the Passat sedan. The head of Volkswagen’s works council and powerful supervisory board, Bernd Osterloh, was blunt when he said, “If co-determination isn’t guaranteed in the first place, we as workers will hardly be able to vote in favor of potentially building another plant in the U.S. south. I can imagine fairly well another VW factory in the United States, but it does not necessarily have to be assigned to the south again.”
German workers enjoy considerable influence over company decisions under the legally enshrined “co-determination” principle which is anathema to Republicans who view organized labor as an existential threat to profits and job growth; their interference and threats jeopardized good paying job growth in Tennessee and the former Confederacy. Osterloh asserted that “The conservatives stirred up massive, anti-union sentiments, and it’s possible that the conclusion will be drawn that this interference amounted to unfair labor praxis (practices).” Volkswagen’s works council called for neutrality before the vote and requested that there was not an effort to discourage unionization. Volkswagen CEO Frank Fischer promised that Volkswagen would leave the decision up to the workforce and pledged the company “is committed to neutrality and called upon all third parties to honor the principle of neutrality.”
There was never a fight between workers attempting to unionize and the company, it was a fight between workers attempting to unionize and Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), Republican Governor Haslam, anti-government crusader Grover Norquist, the Center for Worker Freedom, and Tennessee State Republicans. Governor Haslam and the Republican legislature threatened Volkswagen that if employees embraced unionization, the Republican-controlled legislature would vote against approving future incentives to help the auto-maker expand in Tennessee. State Republican senator Bo Watson said, “The members of the Tennessee Senate will not view unionization as in the best interest of Tennessee,” and levied a threat that “if the Volkswagen employees vote for union representation it will be exponentially more challenging for the legislature to approve any future incentives for expansion.” Republican U.S. Senator Bob Corker, a staunch opponent of unionization, waded in to assist state Republicans and lied last Wednesday after the first day of voting and said that “VW would award the factory another model if the UAW was rejected.” Maybe Corker fails to understand how business works, at least European business, because the Volkswagen works council determines if Volkswagen awards the factory another model and any such award to build another Volkswagen model will not be at the Tennessee plant or anyplace in the South thanks to Republican interference and threats to thwart any future expansion. Thanks to Republicans, expansion is an issue Tennessee Volkswagen workers will never have to look forward to now. Interestingly, President Obama attempted to help workers and future expansion by intervening and accusing Republicans of trying to block the Chattanooga workforce’s efforts. Republicans should have heeded the President’s wise council because in blocking the workforce’s efforts at creating a works council at the Chattanooga plant, they blocked expansion for Tennessee and the entire southern United States.
Republicans Watson, Corker, Haslam, and anti-American fascist Norquist will not have to worry about following through on their threats because according to Volkswagen’s German works council, they have no intention of expanding in Tennessee, or any other southern state. Even if the Chattanooga plant does vote for a European-style works council, it appears the company is unlikely to forget the Republican threats to block expansion plans and will instead go to a state friendly to business and manufacturing. The South is notorious for “right to work” for less laws that make it next to impossible for workers to embrace union representation. Republican anti-unionization efforts may work well for American companies, but Volkswagen is not an American company and they place a high value on their unionized workforce to the point they give them a powerful determining voice in the direction of the company; a direction that will be not be in the South.
Republicans boast their advocacy for non-governmental intervention in business and champion free enterprise, but the hypocrites take a different position if union representation is in question. Their fear and loathing of a unionized works council drove them to use scare tactics, blatant lies, and threats to prevent “employees” in the former Confederacy from voting for union representation, and in doing so they helped Volkswagen decide that expanding in Tennessee or the southern United States was not an option. Republicans have been killing existing and prospective jobs for over three years to great effect, and by interfering with a worker vote and threatening Volkswagen they continued their job-killing frenzy; at least in the South. Although Republicans participated in another defeat for the Confederacy, they ensured a victory for a manufacturing-friendly state that will certainly be well north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Chris Christie Makes Things Worse By Staging A Rigged Town Hall
By: Justin Baragona
Thursday, February, 20th, 2014, 4:47 pm
On Thursday, embattled Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie held his first town hall meeting with the state’s citizens since the whole Bridgegate scandal broke open. Christie spoke to the residents of Middletown. Middletown is a city that was hit hard during Superstorm Sandy and has had a tough time rebuilding. So it would make sense that many of the questions to the Governor would be regarding Sandy aid and the rebuilding of Jersey communities.
However, one odd thing happened at the event. Christie had absolutely no questions asked of him by the attendees about Bridgegate. Not a one. Despite the fact that the scandal has been all over the state’s local news, not to mention national news, the Governor was able to avoid having to answer one question surrounding the closure of the George Washington Bridge back in September. Even though there was a protest going on RIGHT OUTSIDE the town hall event, somehow, Christie was able to field 90 minutes worth of questions with nary a one dealing with the ongoing scandal.
If you were to ask me, it would appear that Christie’s staff vetted all the questions before the event and only had the Governor answer non-Bridgegate related questions. Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo thought the same thing and called Christie’s camp up. Of course, he was told that none of the questions were vetted and it just so happened that not a single person thought to ask Christie a question about the biggest story, by far, surrounding him and his administration.
You know how Christie is going to play this. He is going to insist that all of the questions asked were completely legitimate and that there were no shenanigans going on. Simply, that nobody at a town hall, with supposedly open access to Christie, wanted to ask the Governor his thoughts about the scandal surrounding him. Christie will then insist that the scandal is nothing more than a media concoction, proven by the fact that the salt of the earth residents of Jersey don’t care about it all.
The town hall seemed like a way for Christie to come off as loved by his constituents. Oddly, despite his falling poll numbers both statewide and nationally, the event was more or less a Christie love-fest. He was able to blame certain Sandy-related problems on the federal government and FEMA, instead of taking any real responsibility himself. He got cheap and easy applause by simply pointing the finger at the federal government and saying they are the problem. That they are making it difficult for him to help them like he wants.
Christie’s camp might say that the questions weren’t pre-screened and that the audience wasn’t hand picked. However, at this point, can we even believe anything from this man or his administration? It seems like we get a new revelation of him lying, covering something up or using his position for retribution or currying favors every single day now. Can we take the statement that this was a legitimate town hall where everyone was invited and all questions were on the table at face value? I have a hard time doing that.
Update: According to Blue Jersey, the audience was pre-screened for the town hall. So, yes, Chris Christie held a rigged town hall today.
Wendy Davis Blasts Republicans For Embracing Admitted Sexual Predator Ted Nugent
By: Jason Easley
Thursday, February, 20th, 2014, 5:44 pm
The Wendy Davis campaign has seized on the Texas Republican Party’s Ted Nugent problem and turned up the heat on her opponent, Greg Abbott and the rest of the Republicans that are silently standing behind Nugent’s remarks.
In a statement, Davis Campaign Manager Karin Johnason said, “It has now been two days since likely Republican gubernatorial nominee Greg Abbott appeared with an admitted sexual predator. Not a single Republican leader has condemned Greg Abbott’s embrace of and showcasing of Ted Nugent, who has boasted of having sexual relations with underage women. It’s time for every Texan Republican to end their silence and stop trying to gloss over the fact that their likely next standard bearer has campaigned with someone whose vile actions are repugnant to every value that Texas men, women, fathers and mothers embrace.”
Abbott isn’t the first Republican to embrace the rock and roll racist. Mitt Romney also buddied up to Nugent, and refused to disassociate himself, even after the Secret Service paid Nugent a visit after he threatened President Obama.
The Davis campaign is not playing games. They went right for the jugular, by calling out Nugent for being a self admitted sexual predator. Calling him a predator is putting nicely. Nugent has admitted to enjoying seducing underage girls.
This is the kind of person that Republicans like Greg Abbott have taken to embracing. Ted Nugent’s values do not match up with most Americans, and if Republicans are willing to associate themselves with low life characters like Nugent, they should be prepared to be called out on it.
Ted Nugent is the ideal Republican hero. He talks tough when he can hide behind supporters, but he is a coward in the truest sense. Nugent dodged serving his country in Vietnam. He was a predator of underage girls during his music days, and he abruptly canceled an interview with CNN after Wolf Blitzer called him out on the Nazi origins of his recent labeling of President Obama a mongrel.
Republicans like Greg Abbott think it is good politics to be associating with Ted Nugent, but when he embraced Ted, Abbott was also embracing a sexual predator. His hug of the washed up rocker should send a powerful message to every parent in Texas that Republicans don’t practice what they preach when it comes to family values.
Wendy Davis is afraid of no one, and her campaign has shown more guts in coming after Abbott and Nugent than both of these Republican men could ever dream of possessing.
Ukraine’s Leader Flees Palace as Protesters Widen Control
By ANDREW HIGGINS and ANDREW E. KRAMER
FEB. 22, 2014
KIEV, Ukraine — An opposition unit took control of the presidential palace outside Kiev on Saturday, as leaders in Parliament said Ukraine’s president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, had fled the capital a day after a deal was reached aimed at ending the country’s spiral of violence.
Members of an opposition group from Lviv called the 31st Hundred — carrying clubs and some of them wearing masks — were in control of the entryways to the palace Saturday morning. And Vitali Klitschko, one of three opposition leaders who signed the deal to end the violence, said that Mr. Yanukovych had “left the capital” but his whereabouts were unknown, with members of the opposition speculating that he had gone to Kharkiv, in the northeast part of Ukraine.
Protesters claimed to have established control over Kiev. By Saturday morning they had secured key intersections of the city and the government district of the capital, which police officers had fled, leaving behind burned military trucks, mattresses and heaps of garbage at the positions they had occupied for months.
In Parliament members of the opposition began laying the groundwork for a change in leadership, electing Oleksander Turchynov, an ally of the imprisoned opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, as speaker. And Mr. Klitschko called for new elections to replace Mr. Yanukovych by May 25. “Millions of Ukrainians see only one choice — early presidential and parliamentary elections,” he tweeted.
But underscoring the volatility of the situation and the potential power vacuum, Oleg Tyagnibok, the leader of the nationalist Svobda party, asked the country’s interior minister and “forces on the side of the people” to patrol the capital to prevent looting.
Russia, which joined France, Germany and Poland in mediating the settlement, introduced a further element of uncertainty by declining to sign the accord, which reduces the power of Mr. Yanukovych, an ally of Moscow. This stirred fears that Moscow might now work to undo the deal through economic and other pressures, as it did last year to subvert a proposed trade deal between Ukraine and the European Union. But American officials said Pig Putin told Mr. Obama in a telephone call on Friday that he would work toward resolving the crisis.
In the Ukrainian capital, triage centers have sprung up around Independence Square, where dozens of people have died in the fighting.
The developments cast a shadow over a hard-fought accord that mandates early presidential elections by December, a swift return to a 2004 Constitution that sharply limited the president’s powers and the establishment within 10 days of a “government of national trust.”
In a series of votes that followed the accord and reflected Parliament’s determination to make the settlement work, lawmakers moved to free Mr. Yanukovych’s imprisoned rival, former Prime Minister Yulia V. Tymoshenko; grant blanket amnesty to all antigovernment protesters; and provide financial aid to the hundreds of wounded and families of the dead.
Except for a series of loud explosions on Friday night and angry chants in the protest encampment, Kiev was generally quiet with the streets largely calm on Saturday. And the authorities, although previously divided about how to handle the crisis, seemed eager to avoid more confrontations.
In Independence Square, the focal point of the protest movement, however, the mood was one of deep anger and determination, not triumph. “Get out criminal! Death to the criminal!” the crowd chanted, reaffirming what, after a week of bloody violence, has become a nonnegotiable demand for many protesters: the immediate departure of Mr. Yanukovych.
When Vitali Klitschko, one of the three opposition leaders who signed the deal, spoke in its defense, people screamed “shame!” A coffin was then hauled on a stage in the square to remind Mr. Klitschko of the more than 70 people who died during violence on Thursday, the most lethal day of political mayhem in Ukraine since independence from the Soviet Union more than 22 years ago.
The violence escalated the urgency of the crisis, which began with protests in late November after a decision by Mr. Yanukovych to spurn a trade and political deal with the European Union and tilt his nation toward Russia instead.
It was difficult to know how much of the fury voiced on Friday night in Independence Square was fiery bravado, a final cry of anger before the three-month-long protest movement winds down or the harbinger of yet more and possibly worse violence to come.
Vividly clear, however, was the wide gulf that had opened up between the opposition’s political leadership and a street movement that has radicalized and slipped far from the already tenuous control of politicians.
Mr. Klitschko was interrupted by an angry radical who did not give his name but said he was the leader of a group of fighters, known as a hundred.
“We gave chances to politicians to become future ministers, presidents, but they don’t want to fulfill one condition — that the criminal go away!” he said, vowing to lead an armed attack if Mr. Yanukovych did not announce his resignation by 10 a.m. on Saturday. The crowd shouted: “Yes! Yes!”
Dmytro Yarosh, the leader of Right Sector, a coalition of hard-line nationalist groups, reacted defiantly to news of the settlement, drawing more cheers from the crowd.
“The agreements that were reached do not correspond to our aspirations,” he said. “Right Sector will not lay down arms. Right Sector will not lift the blockade of a single administrative building until our main demand is met — the resignation of Yanukovych.”
He added that he and his supporters were “ready to take responsibility for the further development of the revolution.” The crowd shouted: “Good! Good!”
Ukraine deal: Barack Obama and Pig Putin agree on need for speed
US and Russian leaders speak by phone after deal between Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych and opposition leaders
Reuters in Washington
theguardian.com, Saturday 22 February 2014 03.47 GMT
US president Barack Obama and Russian president Pig V. Putin agreed on Friday that a deal aimed at halting bloody clashes between government forces and protesters in Ukraine needed to be implemented quickly so that the country stabilised, a US official said.
The two leaders spoke by phone after Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and opposition leaders signed a European Union-mediated peace deal.
“They agreed that the agreement reached today needed to be implemented quickly, that it was very important to encourage all sides to refrain from violence, that there was a real opportunity here for a peaceful outcome,” a senior US State Department official told reporters on a conference call.
The White House said details of the agreement were consistent with what the United States had been urging, such as a de-escalation of the violence, constitutional change, a coalition government and early elections.
But the State Department official warned that the deal remained “very, very fragile,” and said international support would be needed to help stabilise the country.
“This has been a very tough sell and will continue to be a tough sell for the opposition to make to those on the streets. This is not least because of the horrible, horrible violence of the last two days,” the official said.
The deputy national security adviser, Tony Blinken, said in a CNN interview that the Obama administration had made clear to Ukraine there would be consequences if the violence continued.
“And I think that had an important impact in getting people to move,” Blinken said. “We’ve already issued some visa restrictions on those who were responsible for the violence and repression.
“We also told them that other steps could be forthcoming and I think that had a real impact on their thinking. Not just folks in the government, but some of the strong oligarchs who support the government,” he said.
US deputy secretary of state William Burns will go to Kiev early next week and the assistant secretary of state for Europe, Victoria Nuland, are likely to visit early next month as part of international support for the implementation process.
Senior US officials had been preparing new sanctions to impose on Ukraine’s government after dozens of people were killed in Kiev during mass demonstrations this week.
The White House reiterated that those responsible for the violence must be held accountable.
“We are not ruling out sanctions to hold those responsible for the violence accountable, especially should there be further violence or violation of the agreement,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
Carney said efforts of the French, Polish and German foreign ministers as well as US leaders helped bring about the deal. He added that “Russia witnessed the agreement and ... played an important role in that respect”.
“It is in Russia’s interest that Ukraine not be engulfed in violence – Kiev or other places – and that it return to stability, and that progress be made toward a future in Ukraine that reflects the will of the Ukrainian people,” Carney told a news briefing.
“So it’s very important to view this not as a tug-of-war between east and west or the United States and Russia,” he said.
Militants Threaten to Shatter Fragile Ukraine Truce
by Naharnet Newsdesk
22 February 2014, 08:26
Militant anti-government activists in Ukraine on Saturday threatened to storm the president's palace and shatter a fragile peace deal to end the ex-Soviet country's bloodiest crisis since independence.
Embattled President Viktor Yanukovych signed a deal Friday with the opposition paving the way for early elections and forming a unity government while granting amnesty for protesters detained during three days of unrest that claimed nearly 100 lives.
But the agreement was met with scepticism by many of the Ukrainians who have occupied Kiev's central Independence Square since November, when Yanukovych sparked outrage by ditching a deal for closer EU integration in favor of stronger ties with old master Russia.
"Elections in December are not enough -- he has to leave now," said 34-year-old Oleh Bukoyenko as he joined 40,000 protesters to hear the peace pact's details announced on the square late Friday.
Up to 10,000 people remained on the charred square on Saturday morning despite the agreement, demanding that the president step down after a week of bloodshed saw riot police use live rounds against anti-government protesters.
The crisis in Kiev has evolved into a Cold War-style standoff between Moscow and the West over the future of the strategic nation sandwiched between them.
Russia -- which has promised a $15-billion bailout to its economically struggling former satellite following Yanukovych's decision to drop the EU deal -- has also expressed reservations about Friday's agreement.
- Klitschko apologizes for deal -
Parliament followed Friday's agreement by quickly adopting a flurry of opposition-backed laws that still need the president's signature before entering into force.
One of the main measures amends a law that could see fiery opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko released from a seven-year jail sentence for "abuse of power" she controversially received after Yanukovych took office in 2010.
The new unity government would also have the authority to reverse Yanukovych's November decision to ditch closer ties with the EU in favour of Russia.
But many protesters said the deal represented too little and did nothing to repair days of carnage in which police used snipers and armored vehicles in fighting that turned Kiev's historic city center into a war zone.
One ultranationalist speaker grabbed the stage on Independence Square late Friday to call on protesters to storm the president's office at 10:00 am (0800 GMT) Saturday should Yanukovych fail to relinquish power overnight.
The call was met with cheers and rounds of applause. Several top opposition leaders meanwhile were booed for signing the compromise agreement allowing Yanukovych to keep his post until snap elections are called by the December deadline.
"I received no pleasure from signing this deal," charismatic boxer-turned-lawmaker Vitali Klitschko told the restless Independence Square crowd during a candle vigil ceremony for the scores killed in the unrest.
"If I offended any of you, I apologize," said Klitschko.
- Russia refuses to sign -
The two sides have accused each other of exacerbating problems in a nation whose population remains bitterly divided between a more pro-European west and traditionally more Russified east.
Friday's peace pact was worked out after two days of intense mediation by the foreign ministers of European powers France and Germany along with Ukraine's cultural ally Poland and a representative from Russia. Officials said US Vice President Joe Biden also placed repeated calls to both Ukrainian negotiating sides.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's representative pointedly skipped the signing of the deal. Envoy Vladimir Lukin explained on his return to Moscow that it was "because several questions remain unanswered".
"The consultations will continue," Lukin said in comments that suggested Moscow still held out hope of somehow revising the agreement.
- 'Constructive' Obama-Putin call -
A senior US official said President Barack Obama held "a constructive" phone call with Putin as he pressed for the swift implementation of a deal he called "very, very fragile."
But the Kremlin said in a Saturday statement that Putin stressed the importance of putting pressure on "the radical opposition, which has taken the standoff in Ukraine to a very dangerous threshold."
Meanwhile the whereabouts of Yanukovych following the signing were unknown, with rumours that he had either flown to Sochi for a meeting with Putin or left for his eastern political stronghold of Kharkiv.
The Ukrainian president's office issued no statement on Yanukovych's whereabouts.
At stake in Ukraine's drama is the future of Pig Putin, Russia and Europe
Ukraine may yet show us that the default model of revolution has changed to one of negotiated transition
Timothy Garton Ash
The Guardian, Friday 21 February 2014 20.00 GMT
As Ukrainians protest against a corrupt regime, the challenge for the EU is whether it will stand up for basic European values on its front doorstep, says Timothy Garton Ash. Photograph: Efrem Lukatsky/AP
Beyond the burning barricades and the corpses in the streets, here are five big things that are at stake in Ukraine's insurrectionary drama. They mean that what happens in Ukraine will affect not just the Ukrainians, but also Russia, Europe and our sense of what makes a revolution.
1. The future of Ukraine as an independent state-nation
Intense violence inside a state, still falling short of civil war, can go two sharply different ways. It can tear the state apart, as in Syria and former Yugoslavia, or, if people join hands to retreat from the brink, it can weld a state-nation together – as in South Africa. (A state-nation is one in which a shared civic national identity is created by the state, rather than a single ethnic national identity being embodied in it.)
One reason that recent months in Ukraine have been so chaotic is that Ukraine, despite being an independent country for more than two decades, is neither a properly functioning state nor a fully formed nation. President Viktor Yanukovych is a thug, but he is also an ineffective thug. Effective, disciplined security forces would not be shooting demonstrators dead almost at random one minute, but abandoning the same streets to them the next. Similarly, Ukraine's administration, parliament and economy are nothing like those of a normal European state. They are infiltrated and manipulated to an extraordinary degree by oligarchs, camarillas and the president's family, aka the Family.
This is what many Ukrainians are so angry about, and what some have now given their lives to change. But if yesterday's proposed deal – for a coalition government, constitutional reform to give parliament back more powers, and a presidential election before the end of the year – can be made to stick, then these bloody days could yet go down in history as a decisive chapter on the path to independent state-nationhood. If not, further disintegration looms.
2. The future of Russia as a state-nation – or an empire
With Ukraine, Russia is still an empire; without Ukraine, Russia itself has a chance to become a state-nation. The future of Ukraine is more central to Russia's national identity than that of Scotland is to England's. Centuries ago, people who lived in the territory that is now Ukraine were the original Russians. In this century, the people who call themselves Ukrainians will shape the future of what is now Russia.
3. The future of Pig Putin
An independent Russian journalist has observed that the most important event in Russian politics during the last decade happened not in Russia but in Ukraine. It was the Orange Revolution of 2004. So, with considerable skill, the Pig's "political technologists" developed techniques to counter such developments. When the Kremlin trumped the EU's rule-rich but cash-poor association offer to Ukraine with a cool $15bn, one well-known Russian political technologist, Marat Gelman, tweeted: 'Maidan installation sold for 15 billion – most expensive art object ever.' (The Maidan is Kiev's Independence Square.)
But it didn't quite go according to plan. So last Monday Russia released another tranche of the $15bn, and on Tuesday Yanukovych's militia started using live ammunition against increasingly desperate and sometimes violent protesters. The fact that Pig Putin was prepared to risk international blowback during his treasured Sochi Olympics shows how vital Ukraine is to him. Now he has retreated tactically, faced with the facts on the ground – but have no illusions that he will stop intervening.
4. The future of Europe as a strategic power
Just as Ukraine is not simply split between east and west, so the geopolitical issue here is not whether Ukraine joins Europe or Russia. It is whether Ukraine becomes increasingly integrated into the political and economic community of Europe, as well as having a very close relationship with Russia. It is also whether the EU will stand up for basic European values on its own front doorstep, as it failed to do in Bosnia.
The EU miscalculated by delivering an "us or them" ultimatum last autumn, without offering Ukraine desperately needed ready cash or a clear perspective of EU membership. As the Ukraine expert Andrew Wilson notes, the EU took a baguette to a knife fight. In recent weeks, it has done better. Friday's proposed compromise is a tribute to the personal engagement of the German, Polish and French foreign ministers. But does a Europe weakened by the eurozone crisis have the resolve and strategic imagination for the long term?
5. The future of revolution
I have argued that, in our time, 1989 has supplanted 1789 as the default model of revolution: rather than progressive radicalisation, violence and the guillotine, we look for peaceful mass protest followed by negotiated transition. That model has taken a battering of late, not only in Ukraine but also in the violent fall that followed the Arab spring. If this fragile deal holds, however, and the fury on the streets can be contained, Europe might again show that we can occasionally learn from history.
'I am alive!' - medic injured in Kiev tweets after surviving bullet wound
Ukrainian volunteer medic Olesya Zhukovskaya, 21, had tweeted ‘I’m dying’ after being shot in the neck during the protests in Ukraine’s capital
theguardian.com, Friday 21 February 2014 16.25 GMT
A young woman who tweeted “I’m dying” after she was shot in the neck in Kiev has posted a message on Twitter announcing she is alive.
Olesya Zhukovskaya, 21, became an unexpected symbol of the protests in Ukraine after a grim photo of the volunteer medic circulated on social media on Thursday, coupled with a tweet from her account which read: “I’m dying”. Early reports suggested Zhukovskaya had succumbed to her injuries, but it later transpired she had survived and was in hospital in Kiev.
On Friday morning, Zhukovskaya tweeted: “I am alive! Thank you to everyone who supported and prayed for me. I am in a hospital, my condition is stable so far!”
Я жива! Дякую всім,хто підтримує та молиться за мене! / Я в лікарні.стан поки що стабільний!
— Olesya Zhukovskaya (@OlesyaZhukovska) February 21, 2014
In subsequent tweets, she apologised for being unable to answer calls, saying “It is very painful to talk.” She added: “This is the beginning of hard work in treatment and rehabilitation.”
Her message was received with an outpouring of sympathy from well-wishers from all over the world. “Stay strong and live a long life Olesya! Ukranian, Turkish,Venezuelan, Brazilian, we’re all together in this! Love and hugs,” wrote one of her supporters.
The Hungarian Red Cross also made a show of support for the young medic, tweeting a picture of 200 volunteers who had gathered to spell out her name.
200 volunteers of the Hungarian Red Cross express their solidarity. Get well soon, @OlesyaZhukovska ! pic.twitter.com/RIfhUUTyWn
— Hungarian Red Cross (@MVoroskereszt) February 21, 2014
Ukrainian legislator Iryna Herashchenko visited the 21-year-old in hospital on Thursday. She told NBC News that they feared Zhukovskaya was dead before they got her to the hospital.
“Thankfully they were able to operate on her and she made it through,” she said. “She was in intensive care but now she has been moved to another ward where she is now with her family.”
A picture showing Olesya Zhukovskaya wounded after being shot in Kiev. A picture showing Olesya Zhukovskaya wounded after being shot in Kiev.
According to Zhukovskaya’s social media profiles, written in Ukrainian, she arrived in Kiev this week and was shot the day after her very first visit to Independence Square, which has been the scene of clashes between protestors and police since November. All-night talks led to a breakthrough on Friday afternoon, with the German Foreign Office confirming the protest council has signed a deal with the president.
Ukraine: back from the edge
There is now hope that Ukraine's crisis can be defused, but lack of trust on all sides could still prove explosive
Guardian G logo
The Guardian, Friday 21 February 2014 20.13 GMT
European mediation has secured a patchy and still ambiguous agreement between the antagonists in Ukraine. Given the hostility and even hatred that divide them, this is a considerable achievement. It needs to be nailed down, point by point, by the Ukrainians themselves, in such a way as to prevent the parties wriggling out of their obligations or, worse, reverting to the violence that turned the centre of Kiev into a bloody battleground this week.
But the hope that a crisis that would be equally disastrous for Europe, Russia and America can be defused and, in time, resolved, has, mercifully, emerged from the frantic overnight negotiations in the Ukrainian capital. Defused is the right word, for Ukraine today is like an unexploded bomb. Its priming mechanism must be skilfully disengaged, stage by stage, if an explosion is to be avoided, a process that will take time and a great deal of a commodity of which there is little in Kiev, namely trust. Loss of trust is axiomatic in situations like this one, but it is particularly pronounced in Ukraine, and it is multiple. The Ukrainian actors distrust each other, and so do the outside actors. They all also mistrust the different parties in Ukraine, thus creating a complex and criss-crossing series of obstacles in the way of a lasting settlement.
Take the EU-mediated agreement itself: the fact that the Russians were left on the sidelines is immediately a problem. Whether they were excluded from the negotiations or whether they excluded themselves is not clear, but what is clear is that they will as a result have no particular investment in an outcome they see as brokered by the EU, with the EU's interests in mind. The Russians do not trust the formal Ukrainian opposition, and are venomous about the protesters in the streets. Yet neither do they trust President Viktor Yanukovych, a man who has repeatedly let them down and whose gaming of Europe and Russia against each other they regard as the basic reason for the mess in which Ukraine finds itself.
Not trusting Mr Yanukovych is about the only thing all sides have in common. He is an uncommonly slippery and devious man, frequently guilty of going back on his word, and it is highly unlikely that he has given up hope of manoeuvring himself out of the corner into which he appears to have been backed. Ukraine's opposition parties, and still less the street opposition, have no reason to suppose he has changed. Another kind of mistrust runs between the formal opposition and the street movement. Some on the street regard the formal opposition as almost as bad as Mr Yanukovych; some deem it irrelevant. Nearly all reject the idea that the parliamentary people have any right to tell them what to do. The opposition did not lead the street protests. It tried to ride on them, or was dragged along. Finally, the street itself is divided between liberal middle-class elements and the extreme nationalist and antisemitic types who provided much of the muscle in clashes with the police.
Bridging these multiple divides will not be easy. The EU wants a closer relationship with Ukraine, but has no real desire to have it come into the union, and so has played games about which it has never been entirely serious. The Americans, who have often ignored Ukraine, nevertheless seem to want to deny it to Russia. The Russians, or at least President Pig V. Putin, cannot give up the idea that Ukraine and Russia should be in one state again, or as close as makes no difference, a notion both unrealistic and arrogant. The common-sense idea that Ukraine should have strong relationships with both west and east gets lost in this big power polarisation. The agreements that could put Ukraine back together, starting from the basic compact between people and government which has to be reforged, will, if they are achieved, only be secure if they sit within a broader east-west understanding.
Matteo Renzi Formally Accepts Italy PM Post
by Naharnet Newsdesk
21 February 2014, 20:17
Matteo Renzi formally accepted the role of Italian prime minister Friday, kicking off hopes for a revival in the eurozone's third-largest economy and a fresh approach to the country's ills.
"I am aware of the responsibility, delicacy and extraordinary honor which comes from creating a government capable of bringing hope," the former mayor of Florence told journalists after nearly three hours of talks with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.
"I will do everything possible to deserve the trust of deputies, senators and millions of Italians who are waiting for this government to provide concrete answers," he said.
The 39-year-old has became Italy's youngest-ever prime minister at the head of a coalition government, after helping engineering the downfall of his predecessor Enrico Letta, blamed for failing to carry out promised reforms.
Renzi unveiled his new 16-strong cabinet, which will be sworn in on Saturday, before the government goes to a vote in parliament next week.
Half of the new ministers are women, and -- with an average age of 47.8 years -- it is the youngest government in Italy's history, according to the Corriere della Sera daily.
The key post of finance minister has gone to Pier Carlo Padoan, the chief economist at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
The interior ministry remains in the hands of Angelino Alfano, the head of the New Center Right (NCR) party -- Renzi's coalition partner -- while the post of foreign minister has gone to Federica Mogherini, a specialist on European relations.
The announcement came after a day tense with last-minute haggling over key posts, with the new prime minister reluctant to keep a team that worked with Letta.
"Renzi's imprint emerges clearly from the many new names called to take on the role of minister for the first time," Napolitano said.
He called on the new government "to enact the institutional and economic reforms quickly," and bring relief to a country lumbered with a public debt equivalent to 130 percent of total economic output, and where hundreds of thousands of enterprises have been forced to fold.
Renzi has vowed to overhaul the job market, education and the tax system in his first few months in power.
His plan, outlined after a round of political negotiations on Wednesday, includes cutting the cost of politics, implementing constitutional and institutional reforms, and tackling the country's bloated justice system.
"All this will allow us -- by July, and our appointment with the EU presidency -- to be able to say what Italy asks of Europe, and not just what Europe asks of Italy," said Renzi, who has vowed his government will be able to last until the next scheduled elections in 2018.
The first test of political prowess for the fresh-faced former Boy Scout will be surviving a confidence vote in parliament next week.
Many Italians have appeared skeptical that the young Renzi can revolutionize the leadership and his popularity was dented by his daring power grab, which came just two months after he ruled out unseating Letta.
But in a country thirsting for change, analysts say his lack of experience in national government or parliament mean he is untainted by political corruption scandals, which may prove a winning quality.
With his catchy slogans and savvy use of social media, the informal Renzi has also proved particularly popular among younger voters turned off by old-school politicians -- and has called for his stellar rise to power to inspire the downtrodden and unemployed.
"If an under 40-year-old like me can become prime minister, this is a sign for the many youngsters who say that nothing is possible in Italy. It is not true," he said.
Renzi is little known internationally but sees himself in the mold of former British prime minister Tony Blair and the "New Labor" program, and his new government will be closely-watched by center-left parties in Europe.
02/21/2014 03:52 PM
War Crimes Investigations: 'We Don't Pursue Nazis, We Pursue Murderers'
By Benjamin Schulz
German prosecutors are currently looking in to pressing charges against several men believed to have been accomplices to murder at Auschwitz. Some in Germany are asking if justice can still be served almost 70 years after the war.
It might provide some with a sense of satisfaction, but it will likely be small and it comes very late. Decades after the end of World War II, public prosecutors in Stuttgart, Frankfurt and Dortmund have opened investigations into nine elderly men alleged to have been accomplices to murder at Auschwitz.
The legal proceedings are still in the early stages and the men haven't been formally charged yet. Given the advanced age of the men and the potential charges, it is at the very least striking that judges ordered the arrest of three suspects in Baden-Württemberg, who are now being detained in prison hospitals. In these cases, the danger of their committing additional crimes can be ruled out. Furthermore, they hardly represent a flight risk and aren't likely to suppress evidence.
The precise details of their cases vary, but investigators' intentions remain the same: They want to pursue charges and try the men for crimes they purportedly committed as young men.
Some critics of the proceedings are saying enough is enough. The war ended 70 years ago, these men are frail and in some cases even suffer from dementia. They have a few years left to live at best. These voices argue they should be left alone and that public prosecutors should be dealing with more current problems.
"I can understand in some cases that people don't think these procedures are fair," said Kurt Schrimm, head of the special prosecutors' office in Ludwigsburg that focuses on German war crimes committed during World War II. Many, he says, "consider our work to be anachronistic." But, he adds, he has been getting many messages of support.
From a legal perspective, there are two arguments to counter the skeptics. Under German criminal law, there is no maximum age limit for trying people. In addition, murder is not a crime that is subject to the statute of limitations. Public prosecutors are required to pursue such suspicions and have no allowance for discretion.
The moral argument is formulated by Andreas Brendel, who has headed the central Nazi war crimes investigation unit in Dortmund since 1995. He has managed dozens of cases like these, including a few pertaining to the extermination camps. He is also responsible for one of the current cases. "We have an obligation to the families of the victims and the victims themselves to pursue this," he said. "That's indisputable. It doesn't matter to me whether the accused is 25 or 92. Do people honestly think we shouldn't pursue people who may have been part of the Nazi machinery?"
Schrimm also addresses the skeptics. "Are we supposed to abstain from prosecution now just because we weren't able to pursue them in the past?" he asked. He cites an example from one case in which the lists of transports to Auschwitz were the decisive pieces of evidence. "They included six-month old infants as well as elderly people," Schrimm said. "The perpetrators at the time had absolutely no compassion, and it is fair to ask whether they themselves deserve any pity today."
Must Individual Guilt Be Proven?
In cases where these investigations turn into charges and go to trial, it isn't uncommon for prosecutors to lose. In some cases, the trial is suspended and the charges dropped, as in the case of former SS member Siert B., who was acquitted by a court in Hagen in January. Prosecutors believe he murdered a Dutch resistance fighter in 1944, but the judges acquitted him citing a lack of evidence. In others, the defendant dies before a verdict can be handed down, as happened in the case of John Demjanjuk. He died in March 2012, before Germany's Federal Court of Justice could make a final ruling in his appeal against aconviction on charges of being an accessory to murder in 28,000 deaths.
The Demjanjuk case is noteworthy nevertheless because it marked a turning point. Although prosecutors could not prove direct involvement, a Munich regional court convicted Demjanjuk because it concluded that every guard at the Sobibór extermination camp performed duties that made them accessories to murder.
Previously, individual guilt had been seen as a necessity for any conviction. That, at least was the perception of the legal community following a 1969 ruling by the Federal Court of Justice in which the conviction of SS concentration camp dentist Willi Schatz was overturned. But the Federal Court of Justice has also reached other verdicts that open the door to holding guards culpable. Thousands of cases may have gone unpursued because of the conservative legal approach of the special prosecutor's office.
Given the extreme difficulty of proving individual guilt decades later, many proceedings were dropped. But if the legal arguments made by the Munich regional court in the Demjanjuk conviction were to be applied to the other cases, there might be new prospects for obtaining convictions.
'Our Work Is Not Political'
Currently, files are being reviewed in a number of investigations into suspected Nazi criminals that were closed by prosecutors because they felt there was little chance of a conviction.
In some instances, investigators were unaware of potentially incriminating material. "I didn't even know there were still perpetrator lists before the central Nazi war crimes investigation unit turned material over to me," said Brendel. "The same applies to other public prosecutors. One can certainly debate whether or not someone should have taken a closer look at these lists 25 or 30 years ago."
Investigations into Nazi crimes, to be sure, got off to a slow start in postwar Germany. Until 1950, the occupying Allies took prosecution of Nazi crimes in their own hands. After that, "there was an assumption that the matter would be settled within a matter of years," he said, because the statute of limitations for murder at the time was 20 years, meaning the Nazi crimes would have had to be tried by 1965. Later, the statute of limitations was extended to 30 years before being eliminated altogether.
There are also cases that only came to light decades later. In 1997, Schrimm became involved in a Nazi crimes investigation as a public prosecutor. The tip-off came in the form of a postcard that included information about "a crime that no one knows about yet." The perpetrator was ultimately prosecuted more than 50 years after the end of the war.
Schrimm dismisses the oft repeated assertion that the German justice system closed its eyes to suspicions, consciously delayed proceedings or even ignored cases. "It's nonsense to say the political will was lacking," he said. The German Justice Ministry states that there have been 106,000 legal proceedings into suspected Nazi crimes. Some estimates even go as high as 170,000. "You really can't say that the justice system was sleeping on the job," said Schrimm. He also defends against the insinuation that the proceedings have been motivated by any set agenda. "Our work is not political," he said. "I wouldn't like it if I were described as the top Nazi hunter. We don't pursue Nazis, we pursue murderers."
In contrast to the 1950s, today we know there will soon be an end to the proceedings against suspected Nazi war criminals; the last living perpetrators will soon die of old age. When asked if, at that point, public prosecutors will be exposed to accusations that they allowed Nazis to get away with war crimes unscathed, he offers a circumspect answer. "Objectively speaking, mistakes were made over the course of decades starting in 1950," Schrimm said. "The judiciary can't really give itself a pat on the back."
Translated from the German by Daryl Lindsey
‘Slavery’ spotters to be posted at British airports to fight human trafficking
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, February 21, 2014 13:02 EST
Anti-slavery teams are to be deployed at British airports in a bid to identify potential victims of human trafficking, the government announced Friday.
Border Force units will be tasked with spotting potential victims of so-called modern slavery, collecting intelligence on trafficking victims and disrupting organised crime gangs.
The first specialist team will start working on April 1 at London Heathrow, the world’s busiest airport for international passengers.
Teams will also start operating at Britain’s second and third air hubs — London Gatwick and Manchester — later this year, with further airports to follow.
The measures were announced by Karen Bradley, the new modern slavery and organised crime minister at the Home Office.
“Our frontline Border Force officers are aware that they could be the first authority figure in the UK to have contact with a potential victim of modern slavery,” she said.
“Their role is vital in identifying and protecting victims and ensuring there is no easy route into the UK for traffickers.”
She said they would be supported by the National Crime Agency, Britain’s equivalent of the FBI, “which will bring its child protection expertise to bear in cases involving children”.
Juvenile victims of trafficking would be given specialist support.
Modern-day slavery includes slavery itself, plus slavery-like practices — such as debt bondage, forced marriage and the sale or exploitation of children — human trafficking and forced labour.
The government hopes to get the draft Modern Slavery Bill into law before the general election in May 2015. It would introduce tougher sentences for human traffickers.
The inaugural Global Slavery Index, published in October by the Walk Free Foundation estimated there were 4,200 to 4,600 people in modern slavery in Britain.
Swiss court rules calling someone a ‘foreign pig’ is not racist
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, February 21, 2014 13:04 EST
Calling someone a “foreign pig” or “dirty asylum-seeker” is insulting but is not against Switzerland’s anti-racism law, the country’s top court said in a ruling released Friday.
The Federal Tribunal found in favour of a police officer who had used the slurs when he arrested an Algerian suspected thief.
The incident took place at a trade fair in the northern city of Basel in April 2007, where the Algerian was detained for allegedly snatching a Russian man’s bag.
After checking the suspect’s identity papers, the policeman discovered that he was an asylum-seeker and proceed to insult him.
A court sentenced the officer to a suspended fine for breaking the country’s anti-racism laws.
After the penalty was overturned on appeal, the case worked its way up to the top of the Swiss justice system.
The Federal Tribunal said that while such terms were clearly insulting, they were too broad to fall foul of anti-racism rules because they did not target a particular ethnic group, race or religion.
It also said calling someone “dirty” — even if the individual’s nationality was mentioned — was not against the anti-racism law.
The court ruling was published as the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) issued its findings from a review of Switzerland’s record, a regular procedure for signatory states.
CERD member Anastasia Crickley, who was in charge of the review, said of the court ruling: “It sounds to me like a very good case for the recommendation that we have made, that what’s needed in Switzerland is a clear definition of direct and indirect racial discrimination and legislation.”
She said the CERD was also concerned about referendums in Switzerland on toughening immigration and asylum rules and banning the construction of Muslim minarets.
On February 9, Swiss voters narrowly approved scrapping rules that gave European Union citizens free access to their labour market, after campaigners argued the neutral country was being “swamped”.
“Migration laws are needed, but we’re concerned at the increasingly protectionist way in which these are being encapsulated and presented, and the xenophobic tone overall that tends to be associated with them,” Crickley said.
Basque Group ETA Starts Decommissioning Arms
by Naharnet Newsdesk
21 February 2014, 17:10
Basque group ETA has begun giving up its weapons, international monitors said Friday, a step towards a historic disarmament by western Europe's last major violent separatist movement.
An expert commission monitoring a ceasefire in ETA's decades-long armed campaign released a video of black-masked members of the group presenting guns, bullets and explosives to monitors.
"The commission has verified that ETA has sealed and put beyond operational use a specified quantity of arms, munitions and explosives," the body's spokesman, Ram Manikkalingam, told reporters in the Spanish Basque city of Bilbao.
"The commission is confident that this step is significant and credible. We believe that it will lead to the putting beyond operational use of all ETA's arms, munitions and explosives," the Sri Lankan spokesman said.
Spain's conservative government shrugged off the move by ETA, which is classed as a terrorist group by the United States and European Union.
Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz reiterated the government's demand for ETA's "unconditional disbandment" and its "total and definitive defeat" by Spain's security forces.
"With all respect, we do not need these international verifiers," he told a news conference minutes before Friday's announcement. "The civil guard and police are enough for us."
But ETA's move sparked rare optimism in the Spanish Basque country.
"It is a small step, it is not sufficient, but it is a first and necessary step towards complete disarmament," the regional president Inigo Urkullu, a conservative nationalist, told a news conference after the announcement.
"This is a step on a journey with no return that should have on its horizon the complete and total disarmament of ETA," he added.
ETA is blamed for the deaths of 829 people in a four-decade campaign of shootings and bombings for an independent Basque homeland in northern Spain and southwestern France.
The commission's video, broadcast by BBC television and posted online by Spanish media, showed two ETA members presenting a table laden with weapons and explosives to Manikkalingam and Ronnie Kasrils, a South African former minister.
It said the arms in the video, which was dated to January 2014, were sealed, inventoried and put out of use.
The Spanish and French governments refuse to negotiate with ETA and Spain does not recognize Manikkalingam and his International Verification Commission.
ETA has been weakened over recent years by the arrests of its senior leaders in Spain and France. Only about 30 of its active members are thought to be still at large.
In October 2011 it announced a "definitive end to armed activity" but refused to formally disarm and disband.
Meanwhile, non-violent leftist Basque nationalist parties have gained political influence and increasing power through regional elections.
Over recent months ETA members have tried to gain concessions from the Spanish government over prison conditions, outraging victims' families.
Spain and France have ignored ETA's request to negotiate its disbandment on conditions such as transferring prisoners to jails closer to home.
Hopes of progress were raised however on January 11 when rival Basque political parties joined together in a demonstration supporting that demand.
ETA was formed in 1959 during the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco by a group of Basque nationalist students.
It carried out its last known deadly attack in 2009, when it killed two police officers by a bomb under their car.
In October the European Court of Human Rights prompted the release of dozens of jailed ETA members by overturning a Spanish law that extended their prison terms.
Spain Press Dismisses ETA Disarmament 'Farce'
by Naharnet Newsdesk 22 February 2014, 11:45
Spanish newspapers Saturday dismissed moves by Basque separatist group ETA to start handing over weapons as insignificant, with leading conservative dailies branding it a "farce" and demanding the movement disband.
International monitors on Friday said that a video of ETA members presenting a cache of guns and explosives was a step towards the full disarmament of western Europe's last major violent separatist movement.
The photograph of the two black-masked ETA members behind their table-full of weapons made the front page of most of Spain's main daily newspapers on Saturday.
But the papers said surrendering the cache -- including just four guns and 16 kilograms (35 pounds) of explosives, according to an inventory released by monitors -- was a ludicrously small gesture by a group blamed for killing more than 800 people.
"It would be simply laughable if it were not pathetic as well as an insult to the victims and to common sense," said right-leaning daily El Mundo in an editorial.
"It was ridiculous of these pacifying experts to lend themselves to a farce through which ETA means to award itself a medal."
Centre-left El Pais, Spain's biggest-selling daily, said the giving up of the weapons cache had little meaning since ETA had already said it was definitively giving up using arms in October 2011.
"Handing over weapons or putting them out of use does not bring anything new to the guarantees that they will not be used again," it wrote.
"On the other hand it does cause confusion ... about what really matters now: the definitive, unconditional disbandment of the group."
Conservative daily ABC titled its front page "The farce of disarmament" and in an editorial branded the gesture "an act of ETA propaganda".
The Basque newspaper Gara, which ETA has often used to publish its declarations, called the group's gesture "a significant step that strengthens the process for a solution" in the Basque Country.
The conservative government of Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy shrugged off the move by ETA, which is classed as a terrorist group by the United States and European Union.
Gara called the government's rejection of the international monitors' announcement "an act of political childishness".
ETA is blamed for the deaths of 829 people in a four-decade campaign of shootings and bombings for an independent Basque homeland in northern Spain and southwestern France.
It has been much weakened over recent years by the arrests of its senior leaders.
Court Convicts 8 in 2012 Protest Against Pig Putin
By STEVEN LEE MYERS
FEB. 21, 2014
MOSCOW — Eight people were convicted on Friday of taking part in a violent protest before the inauguration of President Pig V. Putin in 2012, after a prolonged trial that became a symbol of the Kremlin’s renewed stifling of political dissent.
Even before the judge read the verdicts, the police began detaining dozens of people who had gathered outside the courthouse in central Moscow, mindful that the convictions could provoke new outrage and protests against the Pig's tenure.
The verdicts came amid the political upheaval in Ukraine, which Mr. Pig Putin’s critics here have watched with a mixture of surprise and envy, even as Russian officials have denounced it as an attempted coup by radicals.
After announcing the verdicts, the judge, Natalya Nikishina, suspended the rest of the hearing, postponing the sentencing until at least Monday. That means the sentences will be read after the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, which officials here have gone to great lengths to portray as a symbol of a new, modern Russia.
By the end of the day, at least 213 people had been detained by the police and loaded into buses, according to OVD-Info, a website that documents cases against political prisoners. A police spokesman told the news agency Interfax that those detained had violated the public order, but other protesters said the police had seemed to single out mostly young men for arrest. Most were detained for several hours and then released.
The arrests and the suspension of the hearing appeared to be an effort to head off a mass protest that had been planned for Friday night in the square abutting the Kremlin — one that could, as in Ukraine, overshadow the remaining days of the Olympics. Although the Pig and his aides maintain that they exert no control over the judiciary, it is widely believed here that prosecutions are manipulated for political ends.
“I really hope that the sentence that is to be read will be a sentence for these defendants and not for the Maidan,” said Sergei Panchenko, a lawyer for one of those convicted, Stepan Zimin, referring to Independence Square in Kiev, which has been the center of the protests in Ukraine.
“I really hope that the people — or the person, who we all know, the one person who makes decisions for us — will have sense to issue a punishment having not been guided by his conceptions about what’s happening in a different country,” Mr. Panchenko added.
The eight convicted on Friday, seven men and one woman, went on trial last June and were charged with massing riot or assaulting police officers during a protest on May 6, 2012, the night before Mr. Pig Putin’s return to the presidency for a third term after four years as prime minister. Hundreds were arrested, but a group of 29 faced the most serious charges for throwing rocks or chunks of asphalt, though lawyers and human rights advocates argued that the evidence remained murky.
Another of those convicted, Yaroslav G. Belousov, was shown in a video throwing a lemon, but it was not clear if it struck anyone.
The prosecution became known as the Bolotnaya case, after the name of the square across the Moscow River from the Kremlin where the protest took place. Along with the prosecution of members of the punk protest group Pussy Riot and of Aleksei A. Navalny, an anticorruption blogger who was convicted last year and given a suspended sentence, the Bolotnaya case reflected a hardening of the Pig's policies since returning to the presidency.
Some of the original 29 await trial, and some received amnesty in December as part of what many saw as an effort by the Kremlin to deflect criticism before the Olympics.
To the dismay of the Pig's critics, the Kremlin’s tactics, alternating between crackdown and selective leniency, have largely muted the groundswell of popular unrest that followed parliamentary elections in December 2011 and Mr. Putin’s re-election in March 2012.
“The Bolotnaya case is a stark example of political manipulation of justice in Russia,” Tanya Lokshina, the program director in Russia for Human Rights Watch, said on Friday in a statement that criticized the prosecution, the trial and the verdicts. “This disproportionate prosecution appears to be aimed at discouraging people from participating in public protests.”
Even so, several hundred people gathered outside the courthouse on Friday to await the verdict. They included opposition party leaders, Mr. Navalny and two members of Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina. The two were released in December after spending two years in prison on hooliganism charges for performing a protest song in a Moscow cathedral, and they have since continued a campaign against the Pig's tenure.
Those gathered outside held or hung banners calling for the release of the eight defendants. Their chants of “freedom” and “shame” when the police moved to make arrests could be heard inside the courthouse as the verdicts were read. Ekaterina Barabanova, whose husband, Andrei Barabanov, was one of the defendants, was detained by the police but was released minutes later after a lawyer for her husband intervened.
“I wanted him to be home — that all of the guys would be home,” she said after the verdicts were announced. She lamented the delay in the sentencing, saying it appeared that the entire case had been dragged out. “But after today, it’s become ever less comprehensible.”
Turkey Removes 1,000 Police Since Graft Probe is 'Routine'
by Naharnet Newsdesk
22 February 2014, 11:30
Turkey's interior ministry said 1,000 police officers have been removed in the wake of a major corruption probe against key government allies but said these were only "routine" re-assignments.
The government has embarked on a mass purge of police and prosecutors in the wake of the probe launched on December 17 targeting several members of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's inner circle.
"While 15,000 police were subjected to such a shakeup last year, this number has only reached 5,000 this year. Only 1,000 of them are related to December 17," Efkan Ala said in an interview with Kanal 7 television.
Ala added that the police officers affected by the shakeups were not "sacked", but "reassigned" as part of a "routine procedure".
But Professor Halil Ibrahim Bahar, a security expert at Ankara Strategy Institute, said the reassignments in the police department normally take place in the summer and therefore the shakeups after mid-December were far from being "routine".
"Politicians are not telling us the truth. It does not matter how many police have been removed or reassigned. Discussing the numbers takes the attention away from the 'corruption' itself," he told Agence France Presse.
"They have started to purge officials who are fighting the corruption. It is crystal clear that the purges are aimed at covering up the wrongdoing. They haven't taken public interest into account."
The corruption scandal poses one of the most serious challenges to Erdogan in his 11 years in power, ahead of key local polls in March.
Erdogan accuses supporters of exiled Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen in the police and judiciary of acting as a "state within a state" and instigating the graft probe to try to topple the government.
He is accused of desperately trying to protect his cronies. The appointment of Selami Altinok, a little-known governor with no police career, as Istanbul's new police chief in December was seen as another attempt to shut down the investigation.
The purges, coupled with legislation tightening state control over the Internet and judiciary, have generated widespread criticism at home and abroad about the state of democracy in the EU-hopeful country.
On Saturday, the parliament started to debate another controversial bill that would give the country's spy agency sweeping new powers, including unlimited access to all private information.
Turkey Abolishes Special Military Tribunals
by Naharnet Newsdesk
21 February 2014, 17:45
Turkey's parliament passed a law Friday abolishing specially appointed courts that have convicted hundreds of military officers for coup plotting.
The conciliatory move toward the military, proposed by the Islamic-rooted ruling party, comes as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is grappling with a high-level corruption scandal that has implicated his entourage and dragged down some of his ministers.
The bill, which President Abdullah Gul is expected to sign, would abolish the specially appointed courts that in 2012 convicted more than 300 active and retired military officers in the so-called "Sledgehammer" trial, and pass their case files to Turkey's regular criminal courts.
The measure could clear the way for convicted military officers to be retried, an option Erdogan said last month he would not oppose.
The original trials in the special courts were criticized for the defendants' long detention periods, and the military top brass complained some of the evidence was fabricated.
Turkey's army, which considers itself the self-appointed guardian of the secular regime, has staged three coups since 1960, and forced out an Islamist government in 1997.
The bill appears to be an attempt by Erdogan to reach out to the country's once-mighty generals, after spending his 11 years in power clipping their wings.
Erdogan's government has been ensnared in a corruption scandal he blames on a former ally, U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen. The strongman premier has responded by sacking or reassigning thousands of police and prosecutors to cut Gulen's influence.
The scandal has grown into a major crisis for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) ahead of March local elections.
China denounces Barack Obama's meeting with Dalai Lama
Beijing says White House meeting is 'gross interference in Chinese politics' and will damage China-US relations
Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing and agencies
The Guardian, Friday 21 February 2014 17.52 GMT
Barack Obama met the Dalai Lama at the White House on Friday, despite objections from China, which has warned that the meeting would inflict grave damage on Sino-American relations.
The Tibetan spiritual leader is in the US on a speaking tour. The White House did not announce the meeting until late on Thursday, prompting a gruff complaint from Beijing, in what has become something of a diplomatic ritual whenever Obama meets the exiled Buddhist monk.
The two Nobel laureates spent an hour in the White House's Map Room, a step down in prestige from the Oval Office, where the president traditionally meets foreign heads of state. The meeting was closed to reporters.
China accused Obama of letting the Dalai Lama use the White House as a podium to promote anti-Chinese activities. Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China's foreign ministry, said before the meeting that it was "a gross interference in China's domestic politics" and "a severe violation of the principles of international relations. It will inflict grave damages upon the China-US relationship".
China, which routinely responds to foreign leaders' meetings with the Dalai Lama with diplomatic snubs and sanctions, said it had relayed its concerns formally to the US and urged Washington to treat its concerns seriously. China bitterly opposes the Dalai Lama's quest for greater Tibetan autonomy and is wary of Obama's efforts to increase US influence in the region.
China responded with equal vitriol to Obama's meetings with him, in 2010 and 2011, though it did not follow up with concrete measures that would damage ties.
In contrast, Beijing cut off high-level diplomatic ties with the UK for about a year after David Cameron met the Dalai Lama in 2012. Relations only resumed after the British prime minister said he did not plan to meet the spiritual leader again in the near future.
The US had no immediate response to the latest rebuke from China. But in announcing the meeting, the White House said Obama was meeting the Dalai Lama in the latter's capacity as a cultural and religious leader. As if to indicate that a reaction was expected, officials reiterated that the US recognised Tibet as part of China and did not support Tibetan independence.
"The United States supports the Dalai Lama's 'middle way' approach of neither assimilation nor independence for Tibetans in China," said Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the White House's national security council. She said presidents from both parties had met the Dalai Lama over the decades.
Officials said they were concerned about tensions and deteriorating human rights in China's Tibetan areas, urging Beijing to resume talks with the Dalai Lama or his followers without preconditions.
At least 120 people in Tibet and Tibetan areas of neighbouring Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu provinces have set themselves on fire since 2009 in protest against Chinese rule. Beijing has responded by tightening its grip over the region, deploying hordes of securities forces and implementing elaborate surveillance programmes.
The Dalai Lama has called the self-immolations an ineffectual form of protest, but has also said they are "understandable" and refuses to condemn them.
Relations between the US and China are already on edge because of Beijing's increasingly aggressive steps to assert itself in the region, including in territorial disputes with its smaller neighbours. China's emergence as a leading global economic and military power has strained ties with Washington, and the two have also clashed over cybertheft and human rights.
This week, a Chinese official wrote in a lengthy editorial that Beijing should ignore western criticisms of Tibet and China's human rights record. Beijing had "time on its side" to win over western opinion, Zhu Weiqun, chairman of the ethnic and religious affairs committee of the main advisory body to China's parliament, wrote on the state-run website Tibet.cn.
"We can only push the west to change its way of thinking if we let them understand that China's power cannot be avoided … and that the west's interests lie in development and maintaining ties with China, not the opposite," he wrote.
China Summons U.S. Ambassador as Obama Throws Support behind Dalai Lama, Tibet Rights
by Naharnet Newsdesk
21 February 2014, 22:11
U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday offered his "strong support" for the protection of Tibetans' human rights in China as he defied protests from Beijing to meet the Dalai Lama.
With China warning that the meeting would derail ties between the world's two largest economies, Obama took care to avoid any trappings of an official visit, receiving the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader in the Map Room of the White House residence and not the Oval Office where he usually talks to dignitaries.
The Dalai Lama, usually chatty and playful with foreign audiences, was nowhere to be seen at the White House, which did not allow in reporters.
The administration instead released an official photograph of the robed Buddhist monk gesticulating with one hand and clutching prayer beads in the other as he spoke to a studious-looking Obama over glasses of water.
In Beijing, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui summoned the U.S. charge d'affaires, Daniel Kritenbrink, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
"China expresses strong indignation and firm opposition," Zhang was quoted as saying.
The White House in a statement said that Obama expressed "his strong support for the preservation of Tibet's unique religious, cultural, and linguistic traditions and the protection of human rights for Tibetans in the People's Republic of China."
The statement said that Obama backed the Dalai Lama, who fled his homeland for India in 1959, in his "Middle Way" path of peacefully advocating greater autonomy for Tibetans.
Obama called for China to resume talks with the Dalai Lama's envoys, which broke down in 2010 after making no headway.
The statement rejected Beijing's charges that the Dalai Lama, a self-described pacifist, had a separatist agenda and that his meeting was part of a plot to split China.
China calls the Dalai Lama a "wolf in sheep's clothing."
"We urge the U.S. side to treat China's concern in a serious way and immediately cancel the planned meeting," Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement ahead of the talks.
Hua called the Dalai Lama a "political exile who has long been engaged in anti-China separatist activities under the cloak of religion."
"The U.S. leader's meeting with the Dalai is a gross interference in China's internal affairs, a severe violation of codes of international relations and will seriously impair China-U.S. relations," she said.
Lobsang Sangay, the Tibetan prime minister-in-exile, dismissed Beijing's criticism, saying that the Dalai Lama has clearly stated he does not have an "anti-China" agenda and is not seeking independence.
Sangay hailed Obama for holding his third meeting as president with the Dalai Lama. The two Nobel peace laureates last met in 2011.
"It sends a very powerful message to Tibetans inside Tibet because it gives them a sense of hope that their voices are heard, even by the most powerful person in the world," Sangay told Agence France Presse.
"The respect shown to His Holiness by President Obama means a lot to Tibetans all over the world, particularly inside Tibet," he said.
China has for decades voiced anger at foreign dignitaries' meetings with the Dalai Lama, who has developed a global following and addresses standing-room-only crowds across the Western world and India. He flew out later Friday to San Francisco to deliver lectures.
Human rights groups have voiced growing concern since China launched a crackdown on Tibetan demonstrations in 2008. After the unrest, more than 120 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in suicide protests against what they see as political oppression, controls on their religion and discrimination by China's Han majority.
"The Dalai Lama is essentially a political fugitive whose group instigates separatist activities including self-immolations," Xinhua said in a commentary.
The visit comes on the heels of a trip to Beijing by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, but well ahead of an Asia-Pacific summit there in November that Obama is expected to attend -- meaning that China could not retaliate by canceling a high-profile visit.
Obama is due in Asia in April, but has no stop in China planned -- though the visit will be dominated by questions over Beijing's tense relations with its neighbors.
Obama came under domestic criticism in 2009 when he did not see the Dalai Lama during a visit to Washington, as the new president looked to start on the right foot with China.
But the optimism of the early days of the Obama presidency has dimmed, with the United States pressing China on a range of concerns including its territorial disputes with US allies Japan and the Philippines and Beijing's alleged cyber espionage campaign.
In an interview with Time magazine before his meeting, the Dalai Lama praised Chinese President Xi Jinping for "fearlessly" fighting corruption.
But he condemned censorship and said that China's judicial system needed to be improved to international standards.
With friends likes these … Shinzo Abe's tactless colleagues cause consternation
Prime minister must wonder whether it's 2007 all over again after slew of remarks angers Washington and sports fans in Japan
Justin McCurry in Tokyo
theguardian.com, Friday 21 February 2014 14.26 GMT
Imprudent remarks by ministers cost Shinzo Abe his job just 12 months into his first term as prime minister. Seven years later, a new cast of gaffe-prone colleagues is again making life uncomfortable for Japan's leader.
In recent weeks, Abe's advisers have angered Japan's closest ally, the US, while his appointee as head of Tokyo's organising committee for the 2020 Olympics took a public sideswipe at one of Japan's best-loved sports stars.
Abe's problems began last month when Katsuto Momii, the head of Japan's public broadcaster, NHK, caused irritation in Washington by complaining that Japan was being unfairly singled out for criticism over its use of up to 200,000 women as sex slaves before and during the second world war.
Momii, who was chosen to head NHK by a board that includes Abe appointees, also suggested that the broadcaster would toe the government line on key political and diplomatic issues, such as Japan's dispute with China over ownership of the Senkaku islands.
Having initially voiced regret for the remarks, Momii now appears unrepentant. "What is wrong with what I said?" he told fellow NHK board members this month, according to Japanese media.
The broadcaster was sucked deeper into the mire when Naoki Hyakuta, a conservative novelist who serves on its board, said the Tokyo tribunals – in which several Japanese leaders were convicted of war crimes – were used to deflect attention from the "genocidal" US fire-bombings of Tokyo and its nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
NHK has since been rebuffed in its attempts to secure an interview with the US ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy.
Abe's visit to a war shrine in Tokyo at the end of last year has provided the richest seam of material for his indiscreet colleagues. His December pilgrimage to Yasukuni shrine, where several war criminals are honoured among Japan's 2.5 million war dead, prompted a rare rebuke from the US, which said it was disappointed that he had risked adding to tensions with China and South Korea.
Abe's special adviser and close friend, Seiichi Eto, took to YouTube to hit back at the criticism, saying it was Japan, not the US, that should feel disappointed with its ally.
This week the chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, instructed Eto to remove the video, in which he appeared in front of giant posters of Abe along with his slogan "Take back Japan".
Suga was again forced on to the defensive after Abe's economic adviser, Etsuro Honda, defended the prime minister's Yasukuni visit in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, adding that Japan needed to build up its military to defend itself against China.
Honda, the paper said, dreamed of a Japan "that isn't beholden to the US as a patron, and doesn't feel restrained by the sensitivities of its neighbours". He claimed his remarks had been distorted. The Wall Street Journal stands by its story.
Even Japanese athletes competing in the Winter Olympics in Sochi were not immune to the tide of tactless comments. Yoshiro Mori, a former prime minister who was chosen by Abe to oversee Tokyo's preparations for the 2020 Games, offered a morale-sapping critique of Japan's popular figure skater Mao Asada after she failed to execute a difficult triple axel in her short programme this week.
"That girl, she's always falling at a critical moments," he said of Asada, who pulled off a stunning performance in the free skate a day later to end the competition a respectable sixth.
Mori will not have endeared himself to Chris and Cathy Reed, who were born in the US but represented Japan in the ice dance competition. "They live in America," he said. "Although they're not good enough for the US Olympic team, we include these naturalised citizens on our team."
Mori's dedication to sport was behind arguably the biggest scandal of his calamitous year in office. On being informed that a Japanese fishing vessel crewed by high school students and teachers had been accidentally hit – and sunk – by a US submarine off Hawaii in 2001, Mori elected to continue playing a round of golf. Nine people, including four students, died in the accident.
For Abe, the recent slew of gaffes has disturbing echoes of his previous term as leader when, for example, his health minister described women as "baby-making machines", just as his administration was trying to encourage couples to have more children.
This time, though, Abe has the electoral calendar on his side; he does not have to face voters again until 2016.
North Korea rejects UN report on crimes against humanity as 'lies'
Foreign ministry says report accusing it of crimes as bad as the Nazis was ‘deliberately cooked up by hostile forces’
Reuters in Seoul
theguardian.com, Saturday 22 February 2014 01.30 GMT
North Korea has rejected the findings of a United Nations panel that accused the state of crimes against humanity evoking Nazi-era atrocities, saying they were based on “lies and fabrications deliberately cooked up by hostile forces and riff-raffs”.
North Korean security chiefs and even the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, should face international prosecution for ordering systematic torture, starvation and killings of its people, UN investigators said in a report on Monday.
The North’s foreign ministry said on Saturday it categorically rejected the report by the UN commission of inquiry, led by the retired Australian judge Michael Kirby, which it said was “set up the US and its satellite forces out of inveterate repugnance towards the DPRK [North Korea]”.
The comments were carried by the official KCNA news agency.
The UN report was “peppered with sheer lies and fabrications deliberately cooked up by hostile forces and riff-raffs such as some ‘elements with ambiguous identities who defected from the north’, criminals who escaped from it after committing crimes against the country to earn money”, it said.
The UN human rights chief has urged world powers to refer the state to the international criminal court (ICC).
The North’s foreign ministry said such a move would be “an extremely dangerous politically motivated provocation aimed to tarnish the image of the dignified DPRK and ramp up pressure on it in a bid to bring down its social system”.
Referral to the ICC is seen as unlikely given China’s probable veto of any such move in the UN security council, diplomats have said.
The UN investigators said China, which is the North’s main ally, might also be “aiding and abetting crimes against humanity” by repatriating defectors back to the country to face torture or execution, a charge that Beijing dismisses.
The UN report documented crimes including murder, torture, rape, abductions, starvation and executions perpetrated by the North’s security officials, who ultimately reported to Kim.
North Korea’s extermination of political prisoners over the past five decades might amount to genocide, the report said.