'Deep Concern' over Apostasy Case in Islamist Sudan
by Naharnet Newsdesk
13 May 2014, 22:38
Western embassies in Sudan expressed "deep concern" on Tuesday over the case of a woman who activists say risks a death sentence for apostasy.
Meriam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag, who says she is Christian, was convicted last Sunday in the Khartoum-area district of Haj Yousef.
"We call upon the government of Sudan to respect the right to freedom of religion, including one's right to change one's faith or beliefs," the embassies of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands said in a joint statement.
That right is included in Sudan's 2005 interim constitution as well as in international human rights law, they said.
The court has given Ishag, who is pregnant, until Thursday to recant her faith, Amnesty International says.
A refusal would put her at risk of the death penalty, and she also faces up to 100 lashes for "adultery", the watchdog said in an "urgent action" notice about her case.
The "adultery" charge stems from her marriage to a Christian South Sudanese man, Amnesty said, adding that under Sudan's interpretation of Islamic sharia law a Muslim woman cannot marry a non-Muslim man and any such relationship is regarded as adulterous.
The embassies urged Sudanese legal authorities "to approach Ms. Meriam’s case with justice and compassion that is in keeping with the values of the Sudanese people".
Sudan's Islamist regime introduced sharia law in 1983 but extreme punishments other than flogging are rare.
Amnesty said Ishag, 27, was raised as an Orthodox Christian, her mother's religion, because her Muslim father was absent.
"It's not only Sudan. In Saudi Arabia, in all the Muslim countries, it is not allowed at all for a Muslim to change his religion," Information Minister Ahmed Bilal Osman told Agence France Presse.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a British-based group working for religious freedom, said Ishag's case is the latest among "a series of repressive acts" against religious minorities in Sudan.
It said deportations, the confiscation and destruction of church property, and other actions against Christians have increased since December 2012.
But Osman said there is no oppression of Christians.
"We are living together for centuries," he said.
Deportations have only occurred against activists trying to convert people, which is not allowed, the minister said, adding religious buildings constructed without permits will be knocked down.
"Even a mosque, you cannot build a mosque without a license... If you build it like that, it will be demolished."
13 People Burned Alive in C. Africa at the Weekend
by Naharnet Newsdesk
13 May 2014, 21:32
At least 13 people were burned alive in the Central African Republic at the weekend when they were rounded up by armed men and barricaded inside a home that was set alight, a police source said Tuesday.
The attack was carried out by men believed to be linked to former rebels of the mainly Muslim Seleka group and the Fulani ethnic group in the region of Kaga Bandoro in the country's center, a source with the local police force said.
"One resident who tried to escape through a window was riddled with bullets. All were burnt to death in the house fire," the source said, adding that "many other residents, who had managed to flee, arrived horrified at Kaga Bandoro, where they took refuge in St. Theresa cathedral."
An official from the former Seleka rebels told Agence France Presse that Seleka rebels for a long time had not visited the region, instead blaming the violence on members of the Fulani tribe, whose animals were stolen by anti-Balaka militias, and villagers conducting reprisals.
Deeply impoverished Central Africa has been gripped by crisis since the mainly Muslim rebels of the Seleka alliance seized power in a March 2013 coup led by Michael Djotodia.
Splinter groups of Seleka rebels went rogue, embarking on a campaign of killing, raping and looting.
The abuses prompted members of the Christian majority to form vigilante "anti-balaka" groups, unleashing a wave of tit-for-tat killings that has left thousands dead and close to a million displaced.
Djotodia, now in exile in Benin, was replaced as president by interim leader Samba Panza in January after failing to stop the bloodshed.
The center and north of the country have seen a wave of violence in recent weeks as tens of thousands of Muslims have fled attacks by Christian militias in the capital Bangui.
Some 5,000 troops in the African MISCA force along with 2,000 French soldiers under a U.N. mandate have been deployed for months to help restore order and security in the country.
A small European Union force has also been operational since the end of April, but it will number some 800 in June.
The commander of European forces in CAR said on Tuesday that the situation in the capital Bangui has improved over the past two months, but remains tense in certain areas.
"We see encouraging signs of stabilization. Living conditions are improved in Bangui," said General Philippe Ponties during a visit to the EU mission's operational headquarters in Larissa in central Greece.
A Resort in Galilee Rises Where Jesus May Have Taught
By ISABEL KERSHNER
MAY 13, 2014
MIGDAL, Israel — For the Rev. Juan M. Solana, it was the spiritual equivalent of striking oil.
When he set out to develop a resort for Christian pilgrims in Galilee, he unearthed a holy site: the presumed hometown of Mary Magdalene and an ancient synagogue where experts say Jesus may well have taught.
The project, which Father Solana, a Roman Catholic priest, describes as “providential,” will be blessed by Pope Francis during his visit to the Holy Land this month.
The story starts in 2004. Father Solana, who directs the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center, a century-old complex that provides accommodations and a serene gathering place for Christian pilgrims, thought of building a similar facility in the Galilee region of northern Israel, where the Bible says most of Jesus’ ministry and miracles took place.
After a search for suitable land, four privately owned plots were acquired on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee near the small Israeli town of Migdal and the destroyed Arab village of Al-Majdal. Both were named for the ancient town of Magdala, where the name of Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’s most faithful followers, suggests she was from.
Father Solana’s plan was to knock down the holiday cabins of the old Hawaii Beach resort, built there in the 1960s, and erect in their place a hotel for 300 guests, a restaurant and a lakeside spirituality center for prayer and contemplation. Architects were hired, and the building permits finally came through in 2009. All that remained before construction could begin in earnest was to carry out a salvage dig on the site, a routine requirement in Israel. The Roman Catholic Church and the archaeologists dispatched by the Israel Antiquities Authority did not expect to find anything significant, and intended to get the dig over with as quickly and cheaply as possible.
But their spades struck history only a little more than a foot below the surface: a stone bench that, it soon became evident, was part of the remains of a synagogue from the first century, one of only seven from the Second Temple period known to exist, and the first to be found in Galilee. A local coin found in a side room of the synagogue was dated from the year 29 — when Jesus is thought to have been alive.
Those involved in the project say it immediately brought to mind a biblical verse, Matthew 4:23: “Jesus went all through Galilee, teaching in its synagogues, preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God, and curing the sicknesses and the ailments of the people.” The site of the dig was only about five miles from Capernaum, a known center of Jesus’ activities.
Soon it was clear that the site was not just near Magdala; this was Magdala. The dig went on to uncover an ancient marketplace and a separate area of rooms with adjacent water pools, presumably used for producing the salty cured fish that Magdala was famous for; a large villa or public building with mosaics, frescoes and three ritual baths; a fishermen’s neighborhood, scattered with ancient hooks and other equipment; and a section of a first-century harbor. The ancient synagogue was discovered at the precise spot where the architects had planned to erect an ecumenical chapel, to the right of the hotel entrance.
The discovery of the ruins meant that the building plans had to be changed to accommodate them, and the restaurant and hotel are still under construction. But the new spirituality center is completed, with a boat-shaped altar that blends with a view of the harbor and the Sea of Galilee. “Jesus used to preach to the crowds from Peter’s boat, so we tried to reproduce that idea here,” said Father Solana, who belongs to the Legionaries of Christ, an order founded in Mexico. “Our plans, with a higher providence, merged very, very strongly.”
The pope is not scheduled to visit Magdala during his three-day trip to the region, which will include stops in Jerusalem, Jordan and Bethlehem. Instead, the tabernacle from the boat altar will be taken to the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem to receive his blessing. Afterward, on May 28, the site will be officially inaugurated as the Magdala archaeological park, and the adjacent spirituality center will be dedicated in the presence of Israeli government representatives and the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal.
A tract of land next to the site has belonged to another Catholic order, the Franciscans, for decades. Excavations there found some ancient ruins, but nothing of the significance of the first-century ruins of Magdala. The Franciscan property remains private, but Magdala has already been opened to the public.
Two Canadians, Roy Fu and Elsie Chew, toured the ruins on a recent rainy weekday.
“It’s not so deep,” Ms. Chew said. “It’s amazing to me that nobody found this before.”
The ancient synagogue had some unusual features, including an ornately engraved stone block that archaeologists say was probably used as a table for reading the Torah. It is carved with columns and arches, a seven-branched menorah with vessels for wine and oil to each side, a 12-leaf rosette and chariots of fire. The stone appears to be a miniature of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, which was destroyed in the year 70, adorned with symbols also meant to commemorate the First Temple.
“We do not fully understand the power of this stone yet,” said Arfan Najar, an archaeologist and co-manager of the Magdala dig, who first came to the site on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority and now works directly with the church. “Whoever did this saw the temple with his own eyes.”
Mr. Najar said that Magdala, a Jewish town believed to have been destroyed by the Romans around the same time as the temple, was an especially important discovery because it is not obscured or overlaid with later construction. Every stone that has been found there was from the first century, he said. “It is the window we were missing,” he said, “Jesus in the Galilee.”
Dina Gorni-Avshalom, the archaeologist who manages the dig on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said the synagogue and the reading table provided researchers with extraordinary insight into the nature of the link between the Jews of the north and the temple in Jerusalem, as well as the connection between Judaism and early Christianity. On top of that, she said, there was sufficient “circumstantial evidence” to assume that Jesus may have set foot there.
In all, the site of the Magdala Center, as Father Solana’s project is now called, occupies more than 20 acres of land, which cost some $16 million to acquire. Completing the project will bring its cost over $100 million, Father Solana said, and only about a third of the necessary funds have been raised so far. Donors are offered sponsorship of one square meter of archaeological digging ($150) or building construction ($1,000). Two Mexican universities — one secular and one affiliated with the Legionaries of Christ — have joined the dig, and nearly 1,000 volunteers from around the world have taken part.
The domed antechamber of the new spirituality center is dedicated to the women who followed Jesus. Mary Magdalene’s presence was prominent at two crucial points in the story of Jesus, the crucifixion and the resurrection; over the centuries, she has been conflated with other biblical women and has come to be associated with the figure of a repentant prostitute and a symbol of redemption.
Here, in a side chapel dedicated to her memory, she is depicted in a large mosaic as Jesus casts out seven demons from her body, with the ancient town of Magdala behind her, an artist’s portrayal based on how the place looks today.
Venezuelan Opposition Suspends Talks with Govt. over Arrests
by Naharnet Newsdesk 13 May 2014, 22:39
Venezuela's opposition said Tuesday it has suspended working group-level talks with the government because of mass arrests of student protesters last week.
"These actions show that the government does not want dialogue, when it has been asked several times to stop this very aggressive position," said Juan Jose Medina, the coordinator of the opposition delegation.
"We're convinced that they are creating a climate that is not conducive to talks," he said.
Medina said the meetings of government-opposition working groups were suspended on Monday.
The opposition coalition, which goes by the acronym MUD, also was mulling whether to take part in higher level talks Thursday with the government under auspices of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) and the Vatican, he said.
More than 200 people were arrested in police raids last week on encampments of protesters in Caracas, a focus of the street demonstrations against the government of President Nicolas Maduro.
Most of those detained have since been freed but the NGO Penal Forum said eight more protesters were arrested Monday night in clashes with police.
Maduro's socialist government and the moderate wing of the Democratic Unity (MUD) opposition coalition established the committees to review the cases of detained opposition leaders and student, and to create a truth commission to investigate protest violence, among other tasks.
Maduro agreed to the face-to-face meetings with the opposition after Unasur offered to mediate.
At least 42 people have died and more than 800 have been injured since students and other opponents of the socialist government took to the streets in February to protest rampant crime, runaway inflation and shortages of basic goods.
Mexico kicks corrupt cops out and beefs up military presence in cartel-plagued border state
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, May 13, 2014 18:52 EDT
Mexico’s government decided Tuesday to increase military control over security in the northeastern border state of Tamaulipas and purge corrupt police to reverse a surge in drug cartel violence.
Clashes between cartel gunmen and troops as well as street gunfights among gang members have left more than 80 people dead in the state since April 5.
Authorities have blamed much of the recent violence on an internal power struggle within the Gulf cartel following the arrests of key leaders, but the gang has also been at war with the rival Zetas cartel in recent years.
After a national security meeting in Reynosa, which borders the US state of Texas, Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong announced a “new phase” to break up gangs, seal off drug trafficking routes and ensure residents can count on trustworthy police.
He said Tamaulipas will be divided into four security zones with a military officer in charge of each.
The authorities will widen the use of intelligence gathering to combat cartels and boost security at ports, airports, border crossings and roads.
Authorities will conduct reviews of the state and municipal police forces as well as the Tamaulipas prosecutor’s office to get rid of bad apples.
“We will not tolerate any public servant who has links with organized crime or who has committed acts of corruption,” Osorio Chong said.
Osorio Chong insisted that the administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto had made progress against organized crime, detaining eight of the 12 most wanted men in Tamaulipas.
The violence in the state “can be explained in large part by the breakdown within these groups caused by the strong actions of the Mexican state,” the minister said.
In the USA...United Surveillance America
Darrell Issa’s Benghazi Stunt Blows Up In His Face as Kerry Won’t Appear at Hearing
By: Jason Easley
Tuesday, May, 13th, 2014, 12:51 pm
Darrell Issa’s subpoena of Sec. of State John Kerry has completely backfired, as the State Department announced that Kerry would not be testifying at next week’s Benghazi hearing, and Issa put the subpoena on hold.
According to The Hill:
A subpoena for John Kerry to testify before Congress next week on Benghazi has been put on hold while the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the State Department negotiate when — or if — the secretary of state will appear.
Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, said Monday night that Kerry will be in Mexico May 21 on a previously scheduled trip, and that the department is working with the committee to “explore whether there are better means of addressing the Committee’s interests, including through a more appropriate witness.”
Frederick Hill, a spokesman for the House committee, told the Associated Press Monday that “The State Department has told the Committee that they are committed to finding an alternative date in the near future for Secretary Kerry to testify before the Oversight Committee. As such, Chairman Issa agreed to lift the subpoena obligation for May 21.”
This is the Lois Lerner story all over again. Remember when Issa went on Fox News Sunday and announced that Lois Lerner would be testifying at his IRS hearing only to have Lerner’s attorney say that he had no idea what Rep. Issa was talking about? Lerner did not testify. She took the Fifth. Issa ended up cutting off Rep. Elijah Cummings microphone, and storming out of the room.
Rep. Issa thinks that Sec. Kerry is going to testify, when it clear in the State Department response that it hasn’t been determined if Kerry will testify or not. Issa has been hyping Kerry’s testimony without deal in place for the Secretary of State to testify.
The whole point of this hearing was to get mainstream media attention by dragging Kerry in to testify. Issa is still trying to turn his Benghazi Pinocchio into a real news story. He can’t do that if he is unable to create a pretense of a coverup by the Obama administration. If Democrats don’t play along, this story goes nowhere.
It doesn’t matter to him that having John Kerry testify is silly and pointless, because Kerry wasn’t Secretary of State when the assault occurred. For Issa, this is all about the publicity that’s never going to come.
Benghazi is a non-scandal, and now Rep. Issa is going to holding a hearing next week that will get no media attention. The only thing that Darrell Issa accomplished with his Kerry subpoena is that he exposed his shoddy tactics and complete lack of credibility for the world to see.
John Boehner Gets Caught In a Lie and Busted While Fundraising Off Of Benghazi
By: Jason Easley and Sarah Jones
Tuesday, May, 13th, 2014, 2:58 pm
One day after John Boehner claimed that he had nothing to do with fundraising off of Benghazi, the NRCC sent out a letter signed by Boehner that is raising money off of Benghazi.
John Boehner claimed yesterday that he has nothing to do with fundraising off of Benghazi. Speaker Boehner said, “Listen, I’m involved in this investigation, I’m not involved in what goes on at the campaign committee…All I know is that we’re trying to get the truth here. And I’ve got to believe the Democrats are probably fundraising off of Benghazi just like we are. … I don’t know what the fundraising arm is doing. All I know is that it’s time to get to the truth.”
Sam Stein, Political Editor and White House Correspondent for the Huffington Post, busted Speaker John Boehner for claiming he has nothing to do with the what goes on at the National Republican Congressional Committee, after they fundraised off of the dead in Benghazi:
Day after Boehner says he's not involved in what goes on at NRCC, the NRCC sends out fundraising email in his name pic.twitter.com/4ygde8UjMh
— Sam Stein (@samsteinhp) May 13, 2014
Boehner claimed he had nothing to do with this, while the NRCC is sending out fundraising letters in his name. The idea that the Speaker of the House would have nothing to do with fundraising for House Republican candidates is even more absurd when one considers that Boehner has given the NRCC $22 million since 2005. Boehner gave the NRCC $10.5 million in 2012, and he has given them $5.3 million so far this year.
One of Rep. Boehner’s primary duties as the Republican leader of the House is to raise money. Boehner knew about the Benghazi fundraising emails, because for Republicans raising money off of a tragedy is business as usual. The years of Republican fundraising off of 9/11 during the Bush presidency are unforgettable.
John Boehner was flat out lying. This isn’t a matter of politics. Fundraising off of the dead is flat out wrong. It demonstrates a callous disregard for the loss of human life that undercuts their claims of wanting the truth for the deceased. The House Republicans brought all of this upon themselves.
The Benghazi special investigation has already turned into a political disaster for the Republican Party.
Rand Paul For Vote Suppression So Long As Republicans Don’t Get Blamed For It
By: Adalia Woodbury
Now that the courts are smacking down the ALEC inspired vote suppression laws, Republicans are test marketing various escape routes. Do they leave vote suppression efforts to the states while denying it is part of the GOP identity? Do they own it? Do they just change their talking points to accommodate the audience they are addressing at the moment?
Rand Paul is using the Mitt Romney approach of flip flopping. During a discussion with David Axelrod he admitted that rampant voter fraud doesn’t exist. On Friday, he pointed out that vote suppression tends to “offend people” especially those believe in popular elections. The comment created a short term impression that maybe Rand was breaking with the vote suppression element within the Republican Party. The Voter Integrity Project got so mad at Paul that it published a scolding to warn him against getting all liberal on voting rights.
By Monday, Rand pivoted back to his earlier position in support of vote suppression laws, just as long as it’s done by the states so the Republican Party doesn’t get blamed for it.
Sure, that’s the perfect solution. Since Republican controlled states have been passing these laws, Paul’s latest pivot amounts to advocating more of the same.
The Republican Party is the only party that has actively sought to suppress and otherwise manipulate the vote through various machinations. Republicans have passed laws to reduce or eliminate absentee and early voting. Republicans choose hard to access vote locations for districts that are predominantly comprised of racial minorities and the working poor. Republicans even tried denying voters access to bathrooms because hey, if you can’t hold it for several hours, maybe you shouldn’t be voting.
It was a Republican law maker who bragged that vote suppression would deliver his state to Mitt Romney. It was low level Republican official who said that if vote suppression laws just happen to hurt “lazy blacks” so what.
Given all these facts who in their right mind would associate vote suppression by Republicans at the state level with the Republican Party as a brand?
Scott Walker remains true to the cause of vote suppression. Walker considered ordering a special session to tweak the Wisconsin vote suppression bill before Judge Adelman’s ruling which frankly is solid on the law in Wisconsin, but can easily be applied to comparable vote suppression laws in other states. In fact, the DOJ amended its complaint in a challenge to the Texas vote suppression law to include it. But hey, even if that ruling spells the death knell of restrictive voter ID requirements, there’s always putting up intimidating billboards in predominantly minority neighborhoods. Unlike Rand Paul, Walker isn’t concerned about offending voters because hey, this is about stopping all that non-existent voter fraud.
Of the GOP’s possible 2016 candidates, Bush proved his vote suppression cred and his brotherly loyalty with his infamously flawed voter purge in 2000. It’s possible that rather than being linked to current vote suppression tactics, he’s hoping the Tea Party will remember that purge and that everyone else will forget.
Then there’s the Ted Cruz approach obviously designed to please those who believe that voting should be restricting to rich white men. No one could be more dedicated to suppressing the vote than Ted Cruz. He applauded the SCOTUS ruling that gutted the Voting Rights Act because federal laws protecting against discrimination just get in the way of a good vote suppression law at the state level.
He remains dedicated to scaring his devoted followers with the debunked talking point of voter fraud. Cruz, who just happens to be a dual citizen of Canada and the United States, tried to insert voter ID requirements in an immigration bill suggesting that he differs with Rand Paul’s view that vote suppression is a state’s right.
Regardless of Rand Paul’s desires, vote suppression is part of the Republican brand. The only difference is whether they own it or whether they use the sneaky approach of “leaving it to the states.”
Kentucky Argues Gay Marriage Ban Is Needed To Ensure Existence Of Human Race
By: Keith Brekhus
Tuesday, May, 13th, 2014, 6:58 pm
Lawyers arguing on behalf of the state of Kentucky, attempting to preserve the state’s ban on same-sex marriages, have crafted a bizarre argument that focuses on the necessity of procreation for species survival. The forces of bigotry have apparently run out of compelling reasons to ban gay marriages. However, instead of admitting that they have no rational legal argument to oppose same-sex marriages, attorneys for the state of Kentucky have decided to play the human extinction card. The argument as outlined by the state of Kentucky’s legal team states that:
Encouraging, promoting, and supporting the formation of relationships that have the natural ability to procreate furthers the Commonwealth‘s basic and fundamental interest in ensuring the existence of the human race. This alone should be sufficient to satisfy any standard of review.
Although the attorneys say that alone should be sufficient to satisfy any standard of review, they apparently have to convince themselves of that, since they further the argument by contending:
The Commonwealth, however, has an additional interest in promoting procreation supporting long-term economic stability through stable birth rates.
The state of Kentucky is arguing that gay marriage should be banned if couples are not reproducing it will lower birth rates, damage the economy, and possibly result in the end of the human race. The argument is comically absurd, and it is difficult to imagine that a serious legal team thinks it has any merit to it. In addition, one wonders why if our existence is so imperiled, why the state of Kentucky does not go a step further and require all people to get married and procreate, and why not ban marriages for elderly and infertile couples as well. If human survival is at stake, surely half-hearted measures like just banning gay marriages is not enough.
Of course, no serious thinker would argue that same-sex marriages will be detrimental to birth rates in the state of Kentucky. Nor would any serious thinker argue that Kentucky’s current birth rates must be maintained at current levels to ensure human existence. Besides, if the demographic apocalypse is going to occur, we should see warning signs in other states that allow gay marriage. Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriages in 2004, and yet Boston has not been depopulated yet by a dramatic plunge in live births brought on by gay marriages.
The state of Kentucky’s argument for banning same-sex marriages is absurd. Marriage is not designed solely for the purpose of making babies, nor does gay marriage do anything to prevent heterosexual couples or unmarried partners from procreating. The argument is indefensible and ridiculous.
Poor Kentucky has no stomach for Obama, even if he backs programs they depend on
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, May 14, 2014 6:12 EDT
Jim Feltner’s days are empty. He is a poor man in the poorest county in the United States and lives off government aid.
But the Kentucky resident has nothing but scorn for the head of that government, President Barack Obama, who has made the fight against economic inequality one of his battle cries.
Feltner sits in a plastic chair outside his ramshackle mobile home, surrounded by rusty cars and car parts. He has no television.
People around here, he says, are “just surviving, barely. I know, because I’m one of them.”
A victim of two heart attacks, he lives off disability checks, and $105 a month in government food stamps.
Feltner voted for a previous Democratic president, Bill Clinton, but now says: “I will vote for anybody against Obama.
“I don’t care who runs against him, I’ll vote for him. I don’t care if it’s a Democrat, a Republican, an Indian, a Pakistani — even a Frenchman!”
The first reason is coal. He accuses Obama of dooming this mining region of the Appalachian mountains with environmental regulations.
Since 2011, 30 percent of the mining jobs — around 4,000 — in the region have vanished. Competition from natural gas is another factor in the decline.
“Here’s what he said about the coal business: ‘Go ahead, build your coal-fired energy plants, we will shut them down,’” Feltner alleged.
“Is that something for a president to say?,” he added. “He’s got a problem with the poor people.”
Eastern Kentucky, a region that has long depended on the welfare state, is the epicenter of the war on poverty launched right here in 1964 by Democratic President Lyndon Johnson.
But 50 years later, Obama, another Democrat, is held in contempt in these parts.
Nationwide, 63 percent of low-salary workers, those making under $30,000 a year, voted for his re-election in 2012.
But here in Wolfe County, 60 percent of voters backed Republican Mitt Romney. In neighboring countries Romney’s score surpassed 80 percent.
Wolfe County has the lowest average income of all the 3,146 counties in America — $31,000 dollars per household annually.
A massive 41 percent of its inhabitants live below the poverty line — defined at $11,670 per person per year — and 35 percent receive food stamps.
The same aversion to Obama is heard in Jackson, 13 miles down the road.
Eric Miller, 28, with bad teeth and an accent as thick as his tattooed arms, says he does not care about politics. He voted once, but can’t remember for whom. But one thing is clear: He does not like Obama.
“I guess Democrats just worry about money in their pocket, what they and their friends are doing. They’re not worried about us small people,” Miller said.
“The Republicans, they are the ones that know … raised up like we have, you know. Know what it’s like, what we need, what shouldn’t been taken away,” Miller added.
“If there weren’t government programs, it would be a ghost town,” Miller said. He gets $380 on the sixth of every month, and with that he has to support himself and his girlfriend.
The money is loaded onto credit cards that are accepted at certain stores, just for food, although there is a black market in which goods thus bought can be exchanged for cigarettes and painkillers.
“It’s unfortunate, when the checks come out, there’s a festival atmosphere in Jackson,” said Mike Bryant, chairman of the Breathitt County chapter of the Republican Party.
“If someone dared say, maybe we need to rethink this food stamp program, they’re going to hang you from the nearest tree,” he said.
So why is Barack Obama, who supports food stamps and whose Democratic allies in Congress tried and failed to stop a Republican-backed cut in the program, so deeply unpopular?
Racism is a taboo subject that simmers just under the surface of many a conversation here.
Jackson is 98 percent white, and the region has checkered past. In late 2011 a church further to the east triggered an uproar by barring mixed race couples.
But Bryant says voters’ main motivation when they go to the polls are coal and social issues: abortion, guns, and same-sex marriage, which he labels “the three biggies.” This is conservative Christian country.
Political scientist Stephen Voss of the University of Kentucky says the only thing that sets local voters apart from conservatives in the rest of the country is that people here are not anti-government.
Otherwise, their values are in line with those of the Republican Party.
“Abortion, coal, the issue of energy policy, they’re certainly issues that, depending on the county, push those voters toward the Republican party. Not food stamps,” he said.
“We’re talking relative conservatism,” Voss added.
Talks on Ukraine Crisis Open in Kiev Without Representation for Separatists
By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN
MAY 14, 2014
KIEV, Ukraine — Senior Ukrainian officials and leading public figures opened talks here on Wednesday that they portrayed as an effort to end the country’s six-month-old political crisis, but the provisional Ukrainian government offered little compromise and there was no one present directly representing the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Officials said the negotiating effort would continue with a session on Saturday in the embattled eastern city of Donetsk.
Pro-Russian leaders in the east reacted dismissively, saying they were not invited to participate in the so-called round-table talks, while officials connected to the region who did attend urged the government to develop concrete proposals that could be presented at the next meeting.
Oleksandr Yefremov, a member of Parliament from Luhansk, urged the provisional government to put forward solid initiatives. “I really would like to see all the officials who are now represented by the acting president and prime minister come to the round table, come with some proposals and not just slogans,” Mr. Yefremov said. “We have to give answers.”
While some officials from the east, like Mr. Yefremov, attended the talks, the provisional government in Kiev had vowed not to negotiate with the leaders of the masked gunmen, whom they refer to as “terrorists” and “killers.” As a result there were no representatives of the separatist factions, who are crucial to reaching an accord that might resolve the crisis.
Mr. Yefremov, in his opening remarks, said he expected more of a presence from his region, and he complained that the talks had opened with sharp words by a leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Filaret, blaming Russia for the crisis.
“I am surprised that nobody is here from Luhansk,” he said, “and I also don’t understand why we start our dialogue with morality.” He added, “We have people who think differently, who have different culture, and we have a responsibility to create a state that corresponds to the needs of our people.”
Sergei A. Taruta, the billionaire governor of Donetsk, another embattled eastern region, also attended the talks, which were held in the Parliament building and featured two former presidents of Ukraine as well as religious leaders. While the negotiations were billed as round-table talks, the table itself was oblong in shape.
Mr. Taruta warned that there was genuine opposition in the east, known collectively as Donbass. “The majority of Donbass population is for Ukraine’s unity, but at the same time against the current authorities in Kiev,” he said.
The acting prime minister, Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, was among the first to speak on Wednesday, and he reiterated a promise to fight graft and urged unity. But he made no particular outreach to the besieged eastern regions where separatist leaders on Sunday held referendums that they said showed broad public support for seceding from Ukraine.
“To fight corruption and provide people with jobs is our main task,” Mr. Yatsenyuk said. “And that will unite our country.”
The overwhelming number of officials in attendance at Wednesday’s meeting were strongly aligned with the central government in Kiev. They included the former prime minister and now presidential candidate, Yulia V. Tymoshenko, as well as the ambassadors to Ukraine of the United States and the European Union.
The Kiev government has been working to develop a decentralization plan that would empower local officials by giving them additional budget authority. It is an effort to answer demands in the east, supported by Russia, for a new federalization program that would substantially weaken the central government in favor of stronger regional governors.
Volodymyr Groysman, the deputy prime minister leading the decentralization effort, said: “I suggest to form an agenda. Let’s take some questions that need clear answers.”
“I see smiles on some faces,” Mr. Groysman added. “And I really hope that these smiles on your faces express readiness to meet the challenges we have today. Because nobody will give us a second chance. We will either win back the trust of the people in the east and west, or we will suffer a bad fate.”
One official who does hold credibility in the east, the mayor of Donetsk, Aleksandr A. Lukyanchenko, urged officials at the talks to pay attention to the results of Sunday’s referendum.
While he acknowledged that the referendum might not be regarded as legitimate, he said it nonetheless demonstrated a genuine lack of faith in the Kiev government.
Sergey Tigipko, another presidential candidate and a former economics minister, urged that future talks be held in eastern Ukraine so that officials could get a better understanding of demands in the region. “Today, we don’t understand what the east wants,” Mr. Tigipko said. “In order to understand them, we need to talk about it there.”
As the talks unfolded in Kiev on Wednesday, the president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, said two other former Soviet republics, Georgia and Moldova, would sign agreements with the European Union on June 27, tightening political and economic ties.
The refusal by Ukraine’s former president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, to sign similar agreements last fall — after long promising that he would do so — set off the protests in Kiev that cascaded into months of unrest and ultimately led to Mr. Yanukovych’s ouster.
Although the talks in Kiev were clearly not headed to a quick settlement, Russian officials continued to lend support to the idea of a negotiated compromise.
“I am deeply convinced that even though the crisis in Ukraine has gone very far and the escalation of the conflict continues, there are still reserves and resources to stop the crisis in order to decrease the escalation of the conflict,” Sergei Naryshkin, the speaker of the Duma, the lower house of the Russian Parliament, said in an interview on Rossiya 24 television. “The road to that lies through a dialogue only, through a dialogue of all political powers inside Ukraine.”
10 Days before Key Vote, Ukraine Faces 'Uphill Struggle' to End Crisis
by Naharnet Newsdesk
15 May 2014, 13:28
Just 10 days before a key presidential election, Ukraine's interim leaders were battling Thursday to keep the country together despite a European peace push, facing a bloody insurrection in the east and a tense standoff with Russia.
Kiev on Wednesday hosted the first round of so-called national unity talks under an OSCE initiative to try to resolve the deepening crisis on Europe's eastern flank and allow the May 25 vote to go ahead.
But crucially, the pro-Moscow rebels fighting against Kiev's rule in the industrial east of the country were not at the negotiating table, despite Western calls for the talks to be inclusive.
Ukraine's interim President Oleksandr Turchynov said his administration was ready to talk to pro-Russians in the east but that the separatists must first lay down their arms.
"We will not yield to blackmail," he said at Wednesday's talks. "We are ready to listen to the people of the east but they must not shoot, loot or occupy government buildings."
Western leaders see the May 25 vote as crucial to finding a way out of the crisis and preventing the country from tearing apart further after Russia's much criticized annexation of Crimea in March.
But in a stark assessment on Wednesday, Russia said Ukraine, part of the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991, was already on the brink of civil war.
And analysts say the election is still threatened by the uprising in the southeast, where dozens of people have been killed since mid-April as government troops battle the rebels now occupying over a dozen towns and cities.
The specter of partition looms large after rebels declared independence in the eastern industrial regions of Donetsk and Lugansk following weekend referendums branded illegitimate by Kiev and the West.
"The situation is explosive in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions," Turchynov said.
The International Crisis Group think-tank said the provisional government, set up in February after months of pro-EU protests triggered the ouster of the Kremlin-backed administration, faced an "uphill struggle" to make it to the election.
It said the "weak" interim leadership -- often depicted as fascists by Moscow -- appeared incapable of keeping order in the southeast and called on it to urgently reach out to the people there to listen to their demands for minority rights and self-government.
"The US and EU should continue tough sanctions to show Russia it will pay an increasing cost for destabilizing or dismembering its neighbor while pursuing parallel vigorous diplomacy," it added.
Despite the talks in Kiev, the east of Ukraine remains on edge, with fighting flaring almost every night around rebel flashpoints.
Seven Ukrainian soldiers were killed in a rebel ambush Tuesday, the biggest single loss of life for the military since the uprising erupted.
Kiev says almost 50 people have been killed in the east since mid-April, including 18 members of the security forces as well as civilians and separatists.
Another 42 perished in clashes and a building inferno in the southern port city of Odessa in early May.
"When Ukrainians kill Ukrainians I believe this is as close to a civil war as you can get," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday.
"In east and south of Ukraine there is a war, a real war," he said, also voicing "strong suspicions" Western mercenaries were operating on Ukrainian soil.
But he said Moscow had no intention of sending in troops as it did while annexing Crimea, a move that exacerbated the worst crisis between Moscow and the West since the Cold War.
Pig squealed last week that Russia had withdrawn its estimated 40,000 troops from the border, but the West -- fearing a possible invasion of Ukraine -- says it has seen no sign of a major pullback.
The roadmap drawn up by Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe calls for "restraint from violence, disarmament, national dialogue, and elections".
In the absence of the rebels, Wednesday's so-called national dialogue made no breakthrough although Kiev said further talks were planned in the "regions".
OSCE-appointed mediator Wolfgang Ischinger said the talks should contribute to an "electoral process that is inclusive, honest and transparent".
In Vienna on Thursday, the head of the OSCE's monitoring mission to Ukraine is due to give an update on the situation, while NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen meets leaders of Ukraine and other eastern members of the military alliance in Bratislava.
While voicing support for the OSCE plan, the Kremlin insists Kiev first halt so-called "reprisal raids" and hold negotiations over regional rights.
Moscow has however rolled back its vehement opposition to the election, with the speaker of the lower house State Duma, Sergei Naryshkin, describing it as "the lesser of two evils".
Ukraine is also grappling with deep economic woes despite a massive IMF aid package.
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development -- which was founded to help ex-Soviet bloc countries make the transition to free-market economies -- forecast its economy would shrink a massive seven percent this year while Russian growth would be stagnant.
Europe is also worried about the vital supply of Russian gas, much of which flows through Ukraine, after Moscow threatened to turn off the taps if Kiev does not pay a bill by June 3.
Ukraine civil war fears mount as volunteer units take up arms
As Kiev struggles to wrest back control of east from pro-Russia fighters, irregular units of 'Ukrainian patriots' are stepping in
Shaun Walker in Mariupol and Howard Amos in Kiev
theguardian.com, Thursday 15 May 2014 12.16 BST
The men, dressed in irregular fatigues and with balaclavas pulled over their heads, fingered their Kalashnikovs nervously and jumped at every unusual sound. Eager to aid their country's military struggle, the so-called Donbas Volunteer Battalion was ready to fight, but appeared to be short on training.
The battalion commander, Semyon Semenchenko, a 40-year-old from Donetsk with a degree in film-making, insisted that he and all his men had combat experience, from the Ukrainian or Soviet armies. They are all volunteers, receiving zero salary from either the state or oligarchs, he said, claiming they live off their own savings and donations from patriotic Ukrainians, who transfer them money after reading about them on social media.
"Our state needs defending, and we decided that if the army could not do it, we should do it ourselves," said Semenchenko, during a meeting with the Guardian outside the town of Mariupol, where his men were based and offering support to regular units of the Ukrainian army in their fight against armed separatists in the region.
With military operations inside Ukraine's borders an unappealing prospect for many of the country's professional soldiers, irregular units are springing up as Kiev struggles to wrest back control of Donetsk and Luhansk regions from the grip of pro-Russia fighters. They have been given semi-legitimacy by the Ukrainian authorities, grateful for any help they can get in their fight in the east.
"It is hard to trust the army and the national guard," said Semenchenko. "There are cases when they have just given up their weapons and fled. I don't understand it at all, how can you give an oath to a country and then not stick to it?"
Volunteers are recruited from western Ukraine and Kiev, and more quietly, within the east itself. A self-published newspaper in Donetsk gives the phone number where "Ukrainian patriots" can sign up for the volunteer battalions; its editor has gone into hiding to avoid being kidnapped by the separatist fighters. Volunteers undergo training in neighbouring Dnepropetrovsk region, and their battalions can be brought under the command of the interior ministry, allowing them to operate legally. Nevertheless, the training period can be as little as 50 hours, before the volunteers are put into real combat situations.
Arming troops with almost no real training, and sending them into extremely sensitive situations where they may be shot at with weapons from within crowds, largely made up of angry but unarmed civilians sounds like a recipe for disaster.
Indeed, it has resulted in bloodshed on a number of occasions so far, most notably in Mariupol last Friday, when at least eight people died when the national guard entered the city to clear the police station of separatist fighters. On their retreat, troops fired at civilians, almost all of whom were unarmed.
These incidents, already awful enough, are often amplified and distorted by Russian media, leading to even more anger among the crowds in what is becoming a downward spiral of hatred and violence.
Kiev's "anti-terrorism operation" in the east of the country involves units of the army, the police, special forces and the national guard, which is partly made up of volunteers drawn from those who participated in the Maidan protests in Kiev.
Andriy Parubiy, head of Ukraine's national security and defence council, told the Guardian that these are all coordinated from a single anti-terrorism command centre, but numerous sources on the ground attest to the fact that coordination is poor, and there are major concerns over how ready the volunteer brigades are for combat.
In addition to the difficulties of coordinating such a diverse range of paramilitary groups, there has also been concern at the extreme nationalist element among those fighting. The frequent Russian claim that the Ukrainian government itself is fascist is untrue, but there are certainly far-right elements involved in the fight in the east.
Parubiy himself has an extremely dubious past, having set up the neo-fascist Social National Party of Ukraine together with the current leader of far-right Svoboda, Oleh Tyahnybok, in the early 1990s. While there has been little evidence that the militias have been motivated by any kind of far-right ideology when fighting in east Ukraine, there is no doubt that radicals have been the people most willing to fight, and this has led to a number of situations which appear to be well beyond the bounds of normal military behaviour.
In one incident, the radical politician Oleh Liashko was shown in footage that emerged last week humiliating captured insurgent and self-proclaimed defence minister of the "Donetsk People's Republic", Igor Kakidzyanov.
A video of the interrogation, where Kakidzyanov is shown in his underwear with his hands bound, circulated widely on social media and was promoted by Liashko himself.
"This whole situation is completely out of control," said Anna Neistat, an associate director at Human Rights Watch, who is currently in eastern Ukraine.
Five days after the incident, Parubiy told the Guardian that he had not even watched the footage, which also appears to show Liashko ordering around armed men, and there has been no formal condemnation from the government.
Posters promoting Liashko's presidential campaign read: "Death to the Occupiers!" and are widely displayed all over cities across western Ukraine.
Speaking to the Guardian by telephone, Liashko said he conducted the interrogation because he wanted to find out what the motivations and ideas of Kakizdyanov were. He said he did not think it inappropriate that he was allowed to carry out the interrogation, nor that the questioning took place with Kakidzyanov stripped to his underwear.
"I had before me a terrorist and I wanted to understand how he thinks; what his goals, motivations and ideals were," said Liashko. "It turned out he was in close contact with Russian intelligence; it just proves that the people we are dealing with are Russian agents."
Liashko is currently in the process of setting up his own volunteer battalion, which he hopes will become another addition to the motley selection of forces currently fighting for Kiev in the east.
"For 23 years nobody has paid any attention to our army, and now when we need to fight for the borders of our country today, we can't," he said.
"We need a people's war, like in the second world war when people rose up to fight fascism, that's what we need to do now."
Liashko said that he would be the "commissar" of the battalion but that it would take military orders from the army or the interior ministry. So far, he said, over 3,000 people had applied to join, of which around 400 had been selected. The criteria were that they should be physically fit, have combat experience, and undergo a background check to ensure they are not working for foreign intelligence agencies.
"We are fighting against terrorists and we will work according to the principle: if they don't surrender, they should be destroyed," said Liashko. "Russian mercenaries are trying to turn Donbas into a second Chechnya, and we cannot allow it."
Russian media reported earlier in the week that Liashko had been captured by rebels, but he later emerged unscathed, announcing his security by posting a photograph of himself, his mother and a large white cat on his blog. He told the Guardian that four pro-Russia separatists had been killed and three captured during the attempt to take him hostage, but gave no further details.
With the new militias often fighting in unmarked uniforms, it has sometimes been difficult even to identify who they are. In one incident during Sunday's unrecognised referendums on independence, a group of militiamen arrived in the town of Krasnoarmeisk, supposedly to stop people from voting.
They said they were from the "Dnepr" volunteer battalion, a similar outfit to the Donbas battalion, made up of volunteers and trained in neighbouring Dnepropetrovsk region, funded by the local governor-oligarch, Ihor Kolomoysky.
There was shouting and aggression from the crowd about the men who had disrupted the voting. At one point, several people lunged towards them, unarmed, and the men shot into the air. The volley of bullets did nothing to placate the crowd, and the men kept shooting, a look of panic on their faces. The incident ended with two civilians dead, and later the Dnepr battalion claimed its forces had never been there.
Exactly who the men were remains unclear, and the Ukrainian government has said it will investigate. Photographs from the event appear to show one of the deputy leaders of Right Sector involved in the incident.
The Right Sector is a loose grouping of ultra-radical elements that led confrontations with riot police in Kiev, throwing molotov cocktails and wielding baseball bats. The group's influence has been consistently distorted by the its own boasts and Russian state media exaggerations, but it is clear that some of its members are fighting in the east, presumably within volunteer battalions.
It is Right Sector that is most often mentioned as the fascist component of the new government. Although its leader has met with the Israeli ambassador to Ukraine and insisted that the group does not adhere to racial ideology, it is clear that it contains some extremely far-right elements.
One 18-year old Right Sector member, who gave his nickname as "White," claimed that he was involved in fighting in the east and had been wounded outside the insurgent-controlled town of Slavyansk.
"People are terrified of Right Sector and think that we will kill children, but we don't make a big show of it [in the east] and we wear different uniforms without recognisable insignia," he said while patrolling in central Kiev with a gas mask and a rubber truncheon.
In addition to the huge number of different groups fighting on the Ukrainian side, there is also a ragtag assortment of people fighting for the separatists – a mixture of Cossack militias and others arrived from Russia who may have links with Russian intelligence, people representing local business and criminal interests, and ideologically motivated locals who genuinely believe in the cause.
Insiders say there are already extreme tensions between the various armed groups that make up the forces of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, and there have been exchanges of fire between different pro-separatist groups on more than one occasion.
"I hope it does not progress further, but there is a tendency of moving towards the scenario we saw in the Yugoslav wars," says Ihor Todorov, a professor at Donetsk National University. "We can end up with different field commanders, who are fighting against everyone; not for a particular side but just for their own ends."
For now, all-out infighting between groups ostensibly on the same side has been prevented by a stronger hatred for the enemy, as both the pro-Kiev and pro-separation forces have cultivated a hatred for their opponents.
On the pro-Russia side, the gunmen regularly speak of the Ukrainian army as "fascists". Rumours that Ukrainians are forced to go through psychological training that allows them to kill unarmed women and children with no remorse are widespread.
On the Ukrainian side, too, there is little sympathy for the views or goals of those they are fighting against.
Semenchenko, of the Donbas volunteer battalion, was uncompromising about civilian casualties, claiming that many of the unarmed people in the crowds were paid to be there as cover for armed attackers, and referred to them as "pigs". It is the "terrorists" who were responsible for genuinely unarmed protesters who were inadvertently shot by pro-Kiev forces, such as in Mariupol, he said.
It is the sort of language that precedes civil wars, and talking of Russian anger that the bloodshed in Mariupol had come on Victory Day, Semenchenko said that he did not believe that the pro-Russians had anything to celebrate.
"My grandfather also fought in world war two. I think these people are the grandchildren of traitors, secret policemen and collaborators, as real heroes could not produce such grandchildren."
The Squealing Pig's 'New Russia' Takes Shape In Eastern Ukraine
Donetsk (Ukraine) (AFP) 5/15/2014 6:15:02 AM
Fielding questions during a live phone-in last month, President Pig V. Putin described regions of eastern and southern Ukraine as a "New Russia" that could one day return to Moscow's control.
Now that vision is taking shape.
Russia's widely condemned annexation of Crimea in March and Putin's increasing rhetoric about protecting Russian-speakers abroad had raised fears the Kremlin was gearing up to seize new territory.
Those worries were allayed when Russian troops failed to pour over the border after separatists in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk said weekend referendums had overwhelmingly backed breaking away from Ukraine.
The Pig's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted Wednesday that Moscow had "no intention" of sending in troops to eastern Ukraine.
While denying Russian troops were in the restive regions, Pig recalled that after its conquest in tsarist times the territory from Donetsk to Odessa was known as Novorossiya -- New Russia.
Won by Russia in famous battles led by Catherine the Great and her favourite Grigory Potemkin, eastern and southern Ukraine only ended up as part of the country after the territory was transferred by the Bolsheviks in the 1920s, Putin said.
"Why they did this, God only knows," he squealed.
After the weekend votes in the east, the rebels moved quickly to stake their claim to joining Russia, with Donetsk separatist chief Denis Pushilin declaring they were seeking to "restore historic justice" -- echoing a term Pig used to describe Russia's annexation of Crimea in March.
The separatists have promised to hold referendums on joining Russia.
"It is for all the population of the 'People's Republic of Lugansk' to make their voices heard on questions of such importance," news agency RIA Novosti quoted the head of local rebel forces, Vasily Nikitin, as saying.
But votes on joining Russia are unlikely to have any more international weight than the independence referendums, which were dismissed as a "farce" by authorities in Kiev and declared illegal by the West.
- 'New means of pressure' -
The "New Russia" idea has taken hold in the regions however, with the self-styled governor of Donetsk, Pavlo Gubarev, using the term this week.
He told the Russia-24 news channel the newly declared "People's Republic of Donetsk" was "only the first step towards the great New Russia in the 'ex-east of Ukraine'."
Even if they claim to control large parts of Donetsk and Lugansk, the separatists are a long way from realising their dream.
Ukrainian forces remain in control of the region's military bases and border posts and, despite intense fighting, the rebels could not withstand a full assault without Moscow's help.
Analysts said that, for now, Pig may be content with putting his "New Russia" dream on hold and using instability in eastern Ukraine against Kiev.
As long as Kiev remains unable to claim full control of Ukrainian territory, Moscow can undermine the legitimacy of a pro-Western government it despises for overthrowing Kremlin-backed authorities earlier this year.
"The Kremlin doesn't need the Donetsk and Lugansk regions right now -- it already has to deal with Crimea," said Konstantin Kalachev, head of the Moscow-based Political Expert Group.
"Now it has a new means of pressure on everyone."
Georgia to Sign EU Association Agreement on June 27
by Naharnet Newsdesk
14 May 2014, 15:45
Georgia will sign a key association agreement with the EU on June 27, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said Wednesday, as Brussels moves quickly to cement the deal amid the Ukraine crisis.
"We will sign the agreement in Brussels on the 27th of June together with all the EU heads of state or government," Van Rompuy told a news conference in Tbilisi.
"Georgia is a free, democratic country that should make its own choices. No external pressure must change this," he said in a clear reference to Moscow, which fiercely opposes its Soviet-era satellites building closer ties with the West.
"Georgia is steadily following its course of European integration," Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said. "This is our people's choice which is based on our shared values."
Tbilisi hopes that the EU Association Agreement will bring the small Caucasus country closer to its main foreign policy objective -- full membership in the 28-nation bloc.
In a cautious endorsement of Georgia’s EU membership bid, Van Rompuy said the agreement "is not a final goal in our cooperation."
Georgia and Moldova initialed the agreements on political association and free trade with the EU in November, but fellow ex-Soviet republic Ukraine backed away from signing a similar accord under pressure from Moscow.
The sudden move sparked mass protests in Kiev leading to the ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych and a bitter standoff with Russia that saw Crimea annexed by Moscow.
Van Rompuy said the EU -- which along with the United States has imposed limited economic sanctions against Russia over Ukraine -- was ready to further punish Moscow unless it takes steps to reduce tensions.
"The European Union remains committed to further increasing the cost for Russia should it take more steps to destabilize the situation" in Ukraine, Van Rompuy said.
The Ukraine crisis has alarmed Georgia and Moldova with Tbilisi and Chisinau saying they feel increasingly exposed to Russian pressure ahead of the signature of the agreements.
The EU has moved to speed up the signatures, which were initially planned for the end of 2014.
Eurozone setback after 'dismal' growth figures dent talk of recovery
Calls grow for further ECB stimulus as GDP data shows France and Italy flatlining and Netherlands suffering shock contraction
theguardian.com, Thursday 15 May 2014 11.34 BST
The eurozone's fragile economic recovery suffered a setback in the first quarter after slower-than-expected growth.
The combined currency bloc scraped together growth of 0.2% between January and March, in line with growth in the previous quarter but disappointing expectations of 0.4% growth. The weak performance will heap further pressure on the European Central Bank to take action to boost the flagging region, after months of speculation.
Peter Vanden Houte, economist at ING, described the official data as "dismal".
There was a huge divergence in fortunes, with Germany growing at the fastest rate of all 18 countries, with gross domestic product increasing by 0.8%. It followed 0.4% growth in Europe's largest economy in the previous quarter.
The pace of recovery also accelerated in Spain, with growth of 0.4% outpacing a 0.2% increase in GDP in the previous three months.
At the bottom of the pile was the Netherlands, which suffered a shock 1.4% contraction in GDP, reversing 1% growth in the previous quarter. Portugal's economy shrank by 0.7%, following growth of 0.5% in the final three months of last year.
The French and Italian economies were also dealt a blow, with zero growth in France and a 0.1% contraction in Italy in the first quarter. It followed 0.2% growth and 0.1% growth in the fourth quarter of 2013.
Dutch statistics officials said the sharp fall in GDP was largely driven by lower household gas consumption due to the very mild winter.
Evidence that the eurozone's sluggish recovery was losing momentum prompted further speculation that the ECB would be forced to imminently announce stimulative measures to breathe some life back into the region's economy.
Vanden Houte said he expected a 0.1 percentage point cut in both eurozone interest rates and the rate of interest paid on bank deposits at the ECB's June policy meeting, amid a weaker growth outlook and the persistent threat of deflation in the region.
He said: "If anything, Thursday's dismal [GDP] figure should increase the pressure on the ECB to act next month. To keep growth on track and fight deflationary pressures, a renewed euro appreciation has to be avoided at all cost.
"We believe GDP growth is unlikely to be stronger in the second quarter than in the first quarter. This 'recovery' remains far too weak to halt deflationary pressures."
The main eurozone interest rate is currently 0.25%, with the deposit rate at zero, meaning any cut in the latter would take it into negative territory.
Annual eurozone inflation was 0.7% in April.
05/13/2014 04:43 PM
NSA Probe: Can Snowden Be Questioned in Germany?
Interview Conducted By Hubert Gude and Jörg Schindler
The head of a parliamentary committee investigating the NSA spying scandal, Patrick Sensburg, is critical of proposals to bring Edward Snowden into the country -- but he's exploring his options. He spoke to SPIEGEL about what that means.
A special investigative committee in Germany's federal parliament, the Bundestag, is currently probing allegations first published in SPIEGEL that the United States' National Security Agency intelligence apparatus spied on Chancellor Angela Merkel's cell phone and also on the communications data of millions of German citizens. The allegations have become the source of significant tensions between Germany and the United States.
One of the central questions facing the committee is whether and how it will question former NSA employee and whistleblower Edward Snowden, whose archive has been the source of numerous investigative reports about the intelligence agency's activities.
The German government under Chancellor Angela Merkel is adamantly opposed to having Snowden testify in Germany. In a classified position paper provided to the committee -- that was leaked to the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper and other media in late April -- the government argued that if Snowden testified in Germany, it would endanger the "welfare of the state." It added that his questioning in Germany would "run contrary to important political interests of the Federal Republic," and that if the former intelligence worker were allowed to travel to Germany, the US secret services "would at least temporarily" limit cooperation with their German counterparts. Indeed, according to SPIEGEL reporting, Merkel pledged to US President Barack Obama the NSA whistleblower would not be brought to Germany.
Political views in Germany are mixed over whether Snowden should be brought to Berlin for questioning in the affair, but members of the investigative committee are already exploring alternative ways of talking to the man who brought the scandal to light.
Patrick Sensburg, 42, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, is the chairman of the NSA investigative committee. In an interview with SPIEGEL, he discussed the parliament's plans for questioning Snowden.
SPIEGEL: Are you already in contact with your witness, former NSA employee Edward Snowden?
Sensburg: Not directly. The NSA investigative committee in parliament has unanimously agreed to question him, possibly as early as July 3. We will now discuss with his German lawyer where and under which circumstances this can take place.
SPIEGEL: Snowden -- who can count on having political asylum in Moscow until the end of July -- has said he wants to come to Germany and make himself available to members of parliament. What's wrong with that?
Sensburg: This isn't just a question of what he wants, but also about what is feasible. We're going to discuss the different possible scenarios. Why does Snowden have reservations about being questioned in Moscow either directly or via video conference? How can we dispel his concerns? Are his concerns justified or do they simply represent what he sees as the best possible alternative in another proceeding over his future residence status? For us, this is not about fulfilling a wish. If we come to the conclusion in our discussions with his attorney Wolfgang Kaleck that there is a feasible plan of action, then we will come out in favor of it, even if it isn't Snowden's preferred path.
SPIEGEL: There is apprehension that Snowden wouldn't really be free in his answers if he were questioned in Russia.
Sensburg: I don't see it that way. His attorney has made it clear to the investigative committee that Snowden hasn't answered certain questions so far because they were not posed by the European Parliament. And he now wants to answer more concrete questions from the French Senate. And he wants to do this from Moscow, so there is no reason not to question him there.
SPIEGEL: Where could the Snowden questioning take place?
Sensburg: If Snowden wants to testify without being under the scrutiny of Russian leader Vladimir Putin and his FSB secret service, he could undergo questioning in the Moscow embassy of a third country. Switzerland, for example, has excellent security technologies at its disposal. It would surely be possible to establish a bug-proof video conference call to Germany. It would also be possible to arrange a meeting between members of the NSA investigative committee and Snowden in the Swiss Embassy, provided the Swiss agree. In any case, we are also reliant on the cooperation of the Russian government.
SPIEGEL: Why not request that he visit Germany's diplomatic mission?
Sensburg: I consider that to be problematic. What would happen if he were to say he didn't feel safe there either? What if he said he wanted to go to Germany and wouldn't testify until he arrived there. What then? The issue of political asylum within the context of an embassy is a tricky legal issue. We also have to look closely at whether we can guarantee Snowden's safety in our Moscow mission. Could he be kidnapped there by the Americans? What would happen if he were to leave the building and get pulled into a bus by American agents? That would be highly embarrassing.
SPIEGEL: A kidnapping by the Americans, right in the center of Moscow? Doesn't that sound a little absurd?
Sensburg: I don't want to rule out any possibility in this case. That's why I advocate that the questioning take place inside the diplomatic mission of a third country. It could also be a South American embassy.
SPIEGEL: It's possible Snowden would then get trapped in a situation similar to that of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London for almost two years now. Wouldn't it be a more humane act to bring Snowden to Germany?
Sensburg: A questioning in Germany remains an option. But I doubt very much that he would accept that because there is an extradition request from the United States based on the serious accusation that he committed acts of treason. There is no basis whatsoever for granting him political asylum in Germany. In its expert opinion, the German federal government made it clear that Snowden would have to expect extradition proceedings the moment he stepped off a plane here. But perhaps that wouldn't be a bad solution, after all.
SPIEGEL: What do you mean by that?
Sensburg: I can't imagine that a life under the wings of the FSB would be comfortable. I also consider the alternative promoted by the German opposition -- of placing him in a German witness protection program and thus putting him into hiding for years -- to be very unappealing. If he were to turn himself in for extradition proceedings in Germany, he might be able to negotiate the conditions of this return to the US from here. I would prefer a prison sentence of four or five years in the United States to a life on the run.
SPIEGEL: Other members of your party, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), are critical of the fact that the committee is even considering questioning Snowden as a witness. They argue there is little he can do as a former NSA technician to clarify (the NSA spying scandal).
Sensburg: Witness testimony is fundamentally the weakest evidence but it serves, among other things, to substantiate evidence. That's why we submitted a motion for Snowden to provide the committee with access to his data or for those who have access to the NSA documents to hand them over to the committee. Absurdly, representatives of the opposition voted against this motion. In my view, written documents are preferable. I nevertheless think it would be useful to question Snowden.
05/14/2014 05:33 PM
Files Uncovered: Nazi Veterans Created Illegal Army
By Klaus Wiegrefe
Newly discovered documents show that in the years after World War II, former members of the Nazi Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS formed a secret army to protect the country from the Soviets. The illegal project could have sparked a major scandal at the time.
For nearly six decades, the 321-page file lay unnoticed in the archives of the BND, Germany's foreign intelligence agency -- but now its contents have revealed a new chapter of German postwar history that is as spectacular as it is mysterious.
The previously secret documents reveal the existence of a coalition of approximately 2,000 former officers -- veterans of the Nazi-era Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS -- who decided to put together an army in postwar Germany in 1949. They made their preparations without a mandate from the German government, without the knowledge of the parliament and, the documents show, by circumventing Allied occupation forces.
The goal of the retired officers: to defend nascent West Germany against Eastern aggression in the early stages of the Cold War and, on the domestic front, deploy against the Communists in the event of a civil war. It collected information about left-wing politicians like Social Democrat (SPD) Fritz Erler, a key player in reforming the party after World War II, and spied on students like Joachim Peckert, who later became a senior official at the West German Embassy in Moscow during the 1970s.
The new discovery was brought about by a coincidence. Historian Agilolf Kesselring found the documents -- which belonged to the Gehlen Organization, the predecessor to the current foreign intelligence agency -- while working for an Independent Historical Commission hired by the BND to investigate its early history. Similar commissions have been hired by a number of German authorties in recent years, including the Finance and Foreign Ministries to create an accurate record of once hushed-up legacies.
Kesselring uncovered the documents, which were given the strange title of "Insurances," while trying to determine the number of workers employed by the BND.
Instead of insurance papers, Kesselring stumbled upon what can now be considered the most significant discovery of the Independent Historical Commission. The study he wrote based on the discovery was released this week.
An Ease in Undermining Democracy
The file is incomplete and thus needs to be considered with some restraint. Even so, its contents testify to the ease with which democratic and constitutional standards could be undermined in the early years of West Germany's existence.
According to the papers, German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer didn't find out about the existence of the paramilitary group until 1951, at which point he evidently did not decide to break it up.
In the event of a war, the documents claimed, the secret army would include 40,000 fighters. The involvement of leading figures in Germany's future armed forces, the Bundeswehr, are an indication of just how serious the undertaking was likely to have been.
Among its most important actors was Albert Schnez. Schnez was born in 1911 and served as a colonel in World War II before ascending the ranks of the Bundeswehr, which was founded in 1955. By the end of the 1950s he was part of the entourage of then Defense Minister Franz Josef Strauss (CDU) and later served the German army chief under Chancellor Willy Brandt and Defense Minister Helmut Schmidt (both of the SPD).
Statements by Schnez quoted in the documents suggest that the project to build a clandestine army was also supported by Hans Speidel -- who would become the NATO Supreme Commander of the Allied Army in Central Europe in 1957 -- and Adolf Heusinger, the first inspector general of the Bundeswehr.
Kesselring, the historian, has a special connection to military history: His grandfather Albert was a general field marshal and southern supreme commander in the Third Reich, with Schnez as his subordinate "general of transportation" in Italy. Both men tried to prevent Germany's partial surrender in Italy.
In his study, Kesselring lets Schnez off easily: He doesn't mention his ties to the right-wing milieu, and he describes his spying on supposed left-wingers as "security checks." When asked about it, the historian explains that he will deal with these aspects of the file in a comprehensive study in the coming year. But the BND has recently released the "Insurances" files, making it possible to paint an independent picture.
The army project began in the postwar period in Swabia, the region surrounding Stuttgart, where then 40-year-old Schnez traded in wood, textiles and household items and, on the side, organized social evenings for the veterans of the 25th Infantry Division, in which he had served. They helped one another out, supported the widows and orphans of colleagues and spoke about times old and new.
Fears of Attack from the East
But their debates always returned to the same question: What should be done if the Russians or their Eastern European allies invade? West Germany was still without an army at the time, and the Americans had removed many of their GIs from Europe in 1945.
At first, Schnez' group considered allowing themselves to be defeated and then leading partisan warfare from behind the lines, before relocating somewhere outside of Germany. In the event of a sudden attack from the East, an employee with the Gehlen Organization would later write, Schnez wanted to withdraw his troops and bring them to safety outside of Germany. They would then wage the battle to free Germany from abroad.
To prepare a response to the potential threat, Schnez, the son of a Swabian government official, sought to found an army. Even though it violated Allied law -- military or "military-like" organizations were banned, and those who contravened the rules risked life in prison -- it quickly became very popular.
The army began to take shape starting at the latest in 1950. Schnez recruited donations from businesspeople and like-minded former officers, contacted veterans groups of other divisions, asked transport companies which vehicles they could provide in the worst-case scenario and worked on an emergency plan.
Anton Grasser, a former infantry general who was then employed by Schnez' company, took care of the weapons. In 1950, he began his career at the Federal Interior Ministry in Bonn, where he became inspector general and oversaw the coordination of German Police Tactical Units in the German states for the event of war. He wanted to use their assets to equip the troop in case of an emergency. There is no sign that then Interior Minister Robert Lehr had been informed of these plans.
Schnez wanted to found an organization of units composed of former officers, ideally entire staffs of elite divisions of the Wehrmacht, which could be rapidly deployed in case of an attack. According to the lists contained in the documents, the men were all employed: They included businesspeople, sales representatives, a coal merchant, a criminal lawyer, an attorney, a technical instructor and even a mayor. Presumably they were all anti-Communists and, in some cases, motivated by a desire for adventure. For example, the documents state that retired Lieutenant General Hermann Hölter "didn't feel happy just working in an office."
Most of the members of the secret reserve lived in southern Germany. An overview in the documents shows that Rudolf von Bünau, a retired infantry general, led a "group staff" out of Stuttgart. There were further sub-units in Ulm (led by retired Lieutenant General Hans Wagner), Heilbronn (retired Lieutenant General Alfred Reinhardt), Karlsruhe (retired Major General Werner Kampfhenkel), Freiburg (retired Major General Wilhelm Nagel) and many other cities as well.
Records Have Disappeared
Schnez's list wasn't passed on, but the documents state he claimed it included 10,000 names, enough to constitute the core staff of three divisions. For reasons of secrecy, he inducted only 2,000 officers. Still, Schnez had no doubts that the rest would join them. There didn't seem to be any dearth of candidates for the units: After all, there was no lack of German men with war experience.
It remained to be determined where they could relocate to in case of emergency. Schnez negotiated with Swiss locations, but their reactions were "very restrained," the documents state he later planned a possible move to Spain to use as a base from which to fight on the side of the Americans.
Contemporaries described Schnez as an energetic organizer, but also self-confident and aloof. He maintained contacts with the League of German Youth and its specialized organization, the Technischer Dienst (Technical Service), which were preparing themselves for a partisan war against the Soviets. The two groups, secretly funded by the United States, included former Nazi officers as members, and were both banned by the West German federal government in 1953 as extreme-right organizations. Schnez, it seems, had no qualms whatsoever associating himself with former Nazis.
Schnez also maintained a self-described intelligence apparatus that evaluated candidates for the "Insurance Company," as he referred to the project, and determined if they had suspicious qualities. A criminal named K. was described as "intelligent, young and half-Jewish."
US documents viewed by SPIEGEL indicate that Schnez negotiated with former SS Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny. The SS officer became a Nazi hero during World War II after he carried out a successful mission to free deposed Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who had been arrested by the Italian king. The former SS man had pursued plans similar to those of Schnez. In February 1951, the two agreed to "cooperate immediately in the Swabia region." It is still unknown today what precisely became of that deal.
In his search for financing for a full-time operation, Schnez requested help from the West German secret service during the summer of 1951. During a July 24, 1951 meeting, Schnez offered the services of his shadow army to Gehlen, the head of the intelligence service, for "military use" or "simply as a potential force," be it for a German exile government or the Western allies.
A notation in papers from the Gehlen Organization states that there had "long been relations of a friendly nature" between Schnez and Reinhard Gehlen. The documents also indicate that the secret service first became aware of the clandestine force during the spring of 1951. The Gehlen Organization classified Schnez as a "special connection" with the unattractive code name "Schnepfe," German for "snipe".
Did Adenauer Shy Away?
It's likely that Gehlens' enthusiasm for Schnez's offer would have been greater if had it come one year earlier, when the Korean War was breaking out. At the time, the West German capital city of Bonn and Washington had considered the idea of "gathering members of former German elite divisions in the event of a catastrophe, arming and then assigning them to Allied defense troops."
Within a year, the situation had defused somewhat, and Adenauer had retreated from this idea. Instead, he pushed for West Germany to integrate more deeply with the West and for the establishment of the Bundeswehr. Schnez's illegal group had the potential to threaten that policy -- if its existence had become public knowledge, it could have spiraled into an international scandal.
Still, Adenauer decided not to take action against Schnez's organization -- which raises several questions: Was he shying away from a conflict with veterans of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS?
There were misgivings within the Gehlen Organization, particularly surrounding Skorzeny. According to another BND document seen by SPIEGEL, a division head raised the question of whether it was possible for the organization to take an aggressive stance against Skorzeny. The Gehlen Organization man suggested consulting "the SS", adding, the SS "is a factor and we should sound out opinions in detail there before making a decision." Apparently networks of old and former Nazis still exercised considerable influence during the 1950s.
It also became clear in 1951 that years would pass before the Bundeswehr could be established. From Adenauer's perspective, this meant that, for the time being, the loyalty of Schnez and his comrades should be secured for the event of a worst-case scenario. That's probably why Gehlen was assigned by the Chancellery "to look after and to monitor the group."
It appears Konrad Adenauer informed both his American allies as well as the political opposition of the plan at the time. The papers seem to indicate that Carlo Schmid, at the time a member of the SPD's national executive committee, was "in the loop."
Little Known about Disbanding of Army
From that point on, Gehlen's staff had frequent contact with Shnez. Gehlen and Schnez also reached an agreement to share intelligence derived from spying efforts. Schnez boasted of having a "particularly well-organized" intelligence apparatus.
From that point on, the Gehlen Organization became the recipient of alert lists including the names of former German soldiers who had allegedly behaved in an "undignified" manner as Soviet prisoners of war, the insinuation being that the men had defected to support the Soviet Union. In other instances, they reported "people suspected of being communists in the Stuttgart area."
But Schnez never got showered with the money he had hoped for. Gehlen only allowed him to receive small sums, which dried up during the autumn of 1953. Two years later, the Bundeswehr swore in its first 101 volunteers. With the rearmament of West Germany, Schnez's force became redundant.
It is currently unknown exactly when the secret army disbanded, as no fuss was made at the time. Schnez died in 2007 without ever stating anything publicly about these events. His records on the "Insurance Company" have disappeared. What is known stems largely from documents relating to the Gehlen Organization that made their way into the classified archive of its successor, the BND.
It appears they were deliberately filed there under the misleading title "insurances" in the hope that no one would ever find any reason to take interest in them.
Activists petition Greece over coastline
Greek government signals it will rethink bill that would have allowed unchecked construction along Mediterranean coast
Helena Smith in Athens
The Guardian, Wednesday 14 May 2014 18.48 BST
Environmental groups are fighting a rearguard action to stop the destruction of one of Europe's most pristine coastlines after the Greek government signalled it would rethink draft legislation to develop the shoreline, but not scrap it altogether.
Amid mounting international outrage over the proposed law, Athens's ruling coalition was forced to freeze plans that would have allowed unchecked construction and commercial activity along the country's extensive Mediterranean coast.
On Wednesday the Ministry of Environment was presented with a petition signed by more than 110,000 people demanding that the bill be annulled.
Theodota Nantsou, head of environmental policy at WWF Greece, told the Guardian: "Everything about this draft law is very, very dangerous for this country's coastline. Existing legislation is neither clear nor sufficient but it offers some basic protection and this would roll back even that."
In sharp contrast to other major tourist destinations, Greece has not been afflicted by the runaway development of its shoreline. Policies that have wreaked havoc on countries such as Italy and Spain have been avoided, in part because of a bureaucratic machine that has succeeded in deterring even the most hardened of investors.
But environmentalists say Greece will go the way of those countries if the legislation is ever adopted.
In its current form the draft law would allow unrestricted exploitation of what is widely regarded as one of the most unspoilt coastlines on the continent of Europe: simplifying building permits for beachside hotels; allowing businesses to pay fines to legalise buildings deemed illicit, and permitting vendors to litter shorelines with umbrellas and sunbeds. Free access to public beaches, a right enshrined in the Greek constitution, would also be severely limited according to associations of lawyers and judges who have joined the burgeoning ranks of opponents to the bill.
Announcing the legislation last month, the conservative-dominated coalition vehemently denied it would have disastrous effects for Greece's unique natural beauty. The ministry of finance, which drafted the law, insisted that with the debt-crippled country emerging from its worst recession in living memory after narrowly escaping economic collapse, the proposed bill would enable entrepreneurs to tap a source rich in unexploited potential.
The ministry said: "The economic importance of the coastal zone is huge and the huge possibilities for economic development it provides must be unlocked."
But clearly taken aback by the scale of the outcry barely two weeks before European elections, a close aide to prime minister Antonis Samaras unexpectedly declared that the government would reconsider the bill and take "a final position" after the poll.
By late Tuesday, hours before the announcement, thousands of beach-loving Greeks had either signed online petitions or inundated official government sites in a massive display of disapproval for the legislation.
After years of being ground down by biting austerity – the price of €240bn in international rescue funds from the EU and IMF – many feared the measures would not only cut off access to one of the few free assets the nation can enjoy but result in the degradation of its greatest tourist attraction: its natural beauty.
With the country braced to accept a record 18.5 million foreign visitors this year alone – and aiming to raise that number to 24 million by 2021 following the loss of more than a quarter of its economic worth to the crisis – environmentalists agree that a compromise has to be found. But they are also digging in their heels.
"We have to start discussing how we can avoid the mistakes of Italy and Spain," Nantsou said WWF's Theodota Nantsou, warning that the nation's economic crisis is being brazenly used to enforce measures that previously few would have dared propose. "We are not saying 'no'. All we are saying is that whatever is passed has to be in harmony with the natural environment and that has to start with the withdrawal of this law."
Picasso Museum director sacked amid staff rebellion and brutality claims
Government dismissal of Anne Baldassari, driving force behind museum's refit, causes rift with artist's son Claude Picasso
Kim Willsher in Paris
theguardian.com, Wednesday 14 May 2014 19.45 BST
Weaving her way through hard-hatted workmen labouring to finish the €52m (£42m) transformation of the Picasso museum in Paris, Anne Baldassari seemed more excited than anxious.
Yes, the museum director admitted, the project had overrun by a spectacular three years and the budget had exploded by €22m. Standing in the cour d'honneur of the magnificent 17th-century Hôtel Salé, Baldassari, 58, peered from under a white plastic helmet through small round glasses and smiled. She seemed neither dismayed nor deterred.
The result would be worth the wait and "do justice to the extraordinary collection" of Picasso masterpieces, she told the cameras. To others, she was more direct. "I have given my life to this museum. I will open it. Full stop. End of story."
That was just over two months ago. Today, anticipation has turned to anger; art and high-minded cultural ideals apparently sullied by back-stabbing and squabbling.
After 23 years at the museum – nine of them in charge, Baldassari has gone, summarily sacked by Aurélie Filippetti, France's culture minister, after a staff rebellion and complaints of brutal management and a regime of fear.
The move has caused a damaging rift between the government and Claude Picasso, the Spanish-born painter's only living son, who supports the dismissed director and has now threatened to withhold donations, including one of his father's drawing books, to the museum.
Picasso, who is on the museum's board, described the sacking as scandalous and laid into the culture ministry for creating a "grotesque and insane situation".
"[Baldassari] is the scientific authority who has been responsible for the growth of the museum since many years, she has put on exhibitions with the collections abroad to raise €31m of the €52m needed for the [renovation] work, she has conceived the new spaces to rehang the collection better … I have already said and I say it again, I will be very wary and will consider as an impostor any curator who thinks they can take her place," he told Le Figaro.
Picasso also accused Filippetti of delaying the reopening of the museum once again. The planned July opening has been put back until September, even though the architects insist the building is ready and only needs a "good dusting".
Picasso said: "The truth is there is no positive desire to open the museum. I'm being messed about. I have the impression that France doesn't care about my father's work or me.
"If the minister is annoyed with Madame Baldassari, I'm annoyed with the minister!"
The Picasso museum, in the heart of Paris's historic Marais quarter, opened in 1985. Most of the exhibits were bequeathed to the French state by Picasso's heirs, according to the painter's wishes, on his death in 1973. His widow, Jacqueline, later gave a substantial number of works while friends offered legacies and donations.
Since 1985 more than 1,000 exhibits have been bought by the museum, which has a collection of 5,000 paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs, ceramics, notes and archive documents. The museum also holds masterpieces from the artist's personal collection, including works by Matisse, Renoir and Cézanne.
Baldassari is renowned as a Picasso expert and has been the driving force behind the upgrading of the museum and its collections. But even friends suggest she overreached herself. The renovations, prompted by a need to improve access for the disabled and modernise the buildings, turned into something considerably more extensive – and expensive – than anyone imagined when the museum closed in 2009.
The building work finally began two years later, but Baldassari says renovations were held up by the listing of the Hôtel Salé as a historic building, and by strict health and safety regulations, including a long-forgotten and overlooked notice of non-conformation to fire regulations dating back decades.
The more kindly suggest that the director acted with passion, but was unable to delegate and that she presided over an atmosphere of general confusion, prompting the departure of four successive director generals.
Her critics were pitiless. The former director general Hervé Cassagnabère reportedly described Baldassari as paranoid and irrational with a "tenuous relationship with the truth" in a report to the culture ministry. Then, last weekend, after a report from workplace inspectors suggesting there was an unhealthy atmosphere "putting workers at risk", more than half the museum's 40 staff signed an email, published in Libération, accusing Baldassari of authoritarianism, partiality and managerial methods that had led the Picasso museum into an impasse. They insisted she had to go.
Filippetti promised a "rapid decision", and it fell like a guillotine 48-hours later. Baldassari barely had time to refute the accusations when she was summoned by Filippetti and fired.
The minister said she had suggested Baldassari carried out the hanging of the collection for the reopening, an offer that was refused.
A senior civil servant has been given the temporary job of running of the museum. The culture ministry said a new director would be appointed within 15 days, but added: "Apart from that we have nothing more to say."
Among those favourite to take over are Laurent Le Bon, director of the Centre Pompidou-Metz, Didier Ottinger, deputy at the National Museum of Modern Art, and Eric de Chassey, director of the Villa Médicis, in Rome.
Such dramatic departures of high-ranking "fonctionnaire" civil servants are rare in France with its strict procedures for removing anyone from their job, and lawyers will have been briefed long before the announcement was made official on Tuesday.
"This was done with great brutality and seems to have been executed even before the president was aware," Baldassari's lawyer, Henri Leclerc, said. "She was appointed by the president and only the president can put an end to her appointment."
Whether, in Madame Baldassari's words, this is "full stop. End of story", remains to be seen.
Britain Expands Power to Strip Citizenship From Terrorism Suspects
By KATRIN BENNHOLD
MAY 14, 2014
LONDON — Britain has passed legislation that allows the government to strip terrorism suspects of their citizenship even if it renders them stateless, taking the country’s already sweeping powers to revoke nationality a step further.
After four months of wrangling, the House of Lords, the Parliament’s upper chamber, approved on Monday a clause in a new immigration bill that removes a previous restriction on leaving individuals without citizenship. The bill became law on Wednesday, after receiving royal assent.
Britain has been one of the few Western countries that can revoke citizenship and its associated rights from dual citizens, even native-born Britons, if they are suspected or convicted of acts of terrorism or disloyalty. The government has stepped up its use of this tactic in recent years. In two cases, suspects have subsequently been killed in American drone strikes.
The new rules will broaden these so-called deprivation powers to include Britons who have no second nationality, provided that they were naturalized as adults. If the home secretary deems that their citizenship is “seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the United Kingdom,” it can be taken away, effective immediately, without a public hearing. A suspect whose citizenship rights have been stripped has 28 days to appeal to a special immigration court.
Earlier this year, lawmakers in the upper house rejected a version of the provision, questioning its effectiveness in improving national security and voicing concerns about the moral implications of leaving people without the basic rights associated with citizenship. But after a number of concessions by the government, the clause was approved by 286 votes to 193.
Home Secretary Theresa May has agreed that the new power should be reviewed every three years by a government-appointed expert and said she would use the provision only if she had “reasonable grounds for believing” a suspect is able to obtain the citizenship of another country.
Some lawmakers questioned whether the provision would work in practice. “Would another country seriously consider giving nationality, even to someone who might have the ability to apply for nationality of that country, if it knew that British citizenship had been removed on the grounds that the person was believed to be in some way linked to, or to condone, international terrorism?” asked Helena Kennedy, a member of the House of Lords for the opposition Labour Party.
Under previous legislation, 42 people since 2006 have been stripped of their British citizenship, 20 of them last year, according to a freedom of information request filed by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a research organization at City University London that first drew attention to the practice in December 2012.
The new legislation appears to be inspired in part by a specific case in which the government did not get its way. A spokesman for the Home Office, John Taylor, said this week that the case of Hilal al-Jedda, an Iraqi-born naturalized Briton who lost his British nationality in 2007 after being detained in Iraq on suspicion of smuggling explosives, had highlighted a “loophole” in the law.
Out of 15 appeals, the case of Mr. Jedda is the only one to have succeeded. Britain’s Supreme Court ruled in October that Mr. Jedda could not be deprived of his British nationality because it would make him stateless: Iraq bans dual citizenship and canceled Mr. Jedda’s passport in 2000 when he was naturalized in Britain. The British government was forced to reinstate his citizenship on Oct. 9, 2013.
But on Nov. 1, Mr. Jedda was stripped of his nationality a second time, and in January the Home Office rushed before Parliament the amendment allowing deprivation even if it results in statelessness.
'Intensive and Useful' Iran Nuclear Talks Resume
by Naharnet Newsdesk
15 May 2014, 12:59
Negotiators from Iran and six world powers hunkered down Thursday to a second day of talks aimed towards what could be a historic deal on Tehran's controversial nuclear program.
Indications of how the talks were progressing in a rainy Vienna were thin on the ground, however. Both sides warned on arrival on Tuesday that the negotiations would be hard.
A spokesman for Catherine Ashton, EU foreign policy chief and the powers' lead negotiator, said only that the first day's discussions were "intensive and useful" and that the "hard work" would continue Thursday.
A U.S. State Department official said that "coordination and experts meetings will resume and continue throughout the day" at a hotel in the Austrian capital.
After three earlier rounds, this time Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany aim to start drafting the actual text of what could be a landmark agreement.
Success could help Tehran and Washington normalize relations 35 years after the Islamic revolution toppled the autocratic U.S.-backed Shah but failure could spark conflict and a regional nuclear arms race.
The parties want to get a deal by July 20, when a November interim deal under which Iran froze certain activities in return for some sanctions relief expires.
This could be extended but time is of the essence with hardliners on both sides -- members of the U.S. Congress and arch-conservatives in Iran -- skeptical of the process and impatient for progress.
The United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany want Iran to radically scale back its nuclear activities in order to make any dash for the bomb virtually impossible and easily detectable.
In return the Islamic republic, which denies wanting atomic weapons, wants the lifting of all U.N. and Western sanctions, which have caused its economy major problems.
Even though there have been indications of some narrowing of positions, for example on the Arak reactor, both sides are sticking to the mantra that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.
"Quite frankly, this is very, very, difficult. I would caution people that just because we will be drafting it certainly doesn't mean an agreement is imminent or that we are certain to eventually get to a resolution of these issues," a senior U.S. official said Tuesday.
The talks are tentatively scheduled to last until Friday, with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif telling national media on Tuesday that he expected three more rounds before July 20.