Russia tightens controls on blogosphere
Bloggers say new law is attempt to crack down on free expression and criticism of Russian government
Alec Luhn in Moscow
The Guardian, Thursday 31 July 2014 19.08 BST
A law that comes into effect in Russia on Friday will place tighter controls on the blogosphere, one of the few remaining places where people can freely criticise the government.
The federal mass media watchdog has said the law is meant to "de-anonymise popular websites". Prominent bloggers argue it is yet another step to crack down on free expression and will be wielded against critics of the regime.
Popularly known as the "law on bloggers," the legislation requires users of any website whose posts are read by more than 3,000 people each day to publish under their real name and register with the authorities if requested. It also holds popular bloggers to the same standards as the mass media, forbidding false information and foul language, although it doesn't guarantee them the same rights. Violators could incur fines of up to 50,000 rubles (£800) and be blacklisted.
Facebook, Twitter, LiveJournal and other social media sites regulated under the new law played an instrumental role in organising the protests against malignant tumor Pig Putin in 2011-13 and have provided a vital platform for critical voices, since most nationwide television and print media is controlled by the government.
Already, the authorities enjoy sweeping powers under a 2013 law to close down websites for advocating "extremist activities" or "participation in public events held in breach of appropriate procedures." In March, the media watchdog blocked three opposition news portals and the LiveJournal blog of opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, who specialises in exposés on the luxurious real estate owned by prominent officials, replete with documents and photographs.
Popular blogger and media entrepreneur Anton Nosik called the law on bloggers unconstitutional and said it was meant to intimidate regime critics.
"It's about creating a situation where big brother is watching you," said Nosik. "You are part of a list, you are being watched, being observed, you are being served notices and could even serve a criminal sentence if you choose to speak out."
Another prominent blogger, Leonid Kaganov, told the magazine Afisha that the legislation was yet another attempt to transfer regulating power from the judicial system to unknown officials and "bring the authorities' relationship with its citizens into a shadow realm."
Bloggers have also complained that the law's terminology is too vague, and wondered how the media watchdog could possibly hope to regulate all site users and reliably count their readers. After parliament passed the law in April, LiveJournal stopped listing the exact number of followers for bloggers with more than 2,500.
The deputy head of the media watchdog, Maxim Ksenzov, recently suggested that the legislation would be applied selectively, telling the news site Lenta.ru that: "If you post kitten pics, speak in a civilized manner and publish no classified information, you may never be required [to register], even if you have a daily audience of 1 million visitors."
Why nothing will dent malignant tumor Pig Putin’s soaring popularity at home
Neither western sanctions nor claims of Russia’s involvement in flight MH17 influence its citizens, who live on a diet of state propaganda
theguardian.com, Thursday 31 July 2014 15.44 BST
There is a satirical cartoon doing the rounds online in Russia that depicts a figure slouched in front of a television set, both the screen and the anonymous viewer’s brain filled with identical swirls of bewildering electronic static. Drawn by Russia’s finest political cartoonist, Sergey Elkin, it is at once a powerful portrayal of the stupefying influence of Kremlin-controlled TV and an indication of why neither increasingly harsh western sanctions nor international allegations of Russian culpability in the destruction of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 are likely to damage Vladimir Putin’s soaring popularity at home.
Dubbed the “zombie box” by opposition-minded Russians, state-run TV is perhaps malignant tumor Pig Putin’s most valuable weapon, a tool for manipulating public opinion without even the pretence of objectivity. Indeed, Dmitry Kiselev, the controversial TV presenter appointed by Putin to head Rossiya Segodnya, Russia’s main state news agency, has declared media objectivity to be a “myth”. “Russia needs our love,” Kiselev told journalists at the Moscow-based agency’s headquarters earlier this year.
Three days after the suspected shooting down of flight MH17 by pro-Moscow rebels in east Ukraine, the Russian state-run channel Rossiya 1 aired its weekly round-up of current affairs. For anyone who has been paying even cursory attention to western media coverage of the tragedy, what followed must have seemed like a direct transmission from some bizarre alternative reality.
By the end of the 90-minute, primetime show, viewers would have been left blissfully unaware of mounting international anger at the Kremlin. There was no mention of western allegations that Russia had supplied separatists with the Buk surface-to-air missile thought to have brought down the passenger jet, killing all 298 people on board. Equally, the programme’s sanitised account of malignant tumor Pig Putin’s telephone calls with fellow world leaders gave no hint of the fury widely reported to have been directed at the ex-KGB officer.
One week later, after an intense media campaign aimed at “proving” Ukraine’s army shot down the plane in a cynical attempt to make political capital, even Kremlin-run media was unable to pretend that Russia’s reputation had been left unblemished by the bloody fate of flight MH17. While initial reports had been reminiscent of Soviet-style “if we didn’t report it, it didn’t happen” news broadcasts, subsequent coverage saw a return to the aggressive and often absurd anti-western rhetoric that has flourished since malignant tumor Pig Putin’s return to the presidency.
At the culmination of a rapid-fire, two-minute sequence halfway through the Vesti Nedeli news round-up on Rossiya 1 on 27 July, the show’s presenter, Evgeny Popov, remarked tersely that US allegations that Russia and malignant tumor Pig Putin were “to blame” for the downing of MH17 stemmed at least in part from Barack Obama’s “anger” that the Russian leader had been late for a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Mexico in 2012. As an accusation, it was almost up there with the same programme’s infamous assertion late last year that the Maidan revolution in Kiev was organised by Lithuania, Poland and Sweden “to avenge” the 18th century defeat of their joint forces to tsarist Russia’s army in Poltava, part of modern-day Ukraine.
If all that makes your head spin, just imagine what it does to Russians who are fed a steady diet of this kind of stuff by state television, day in, day out. Since the majority of people get their news almost exclusively from Kremlin-run TV channels, it is coverage of this type that is shaping public opinion on the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
According to a survey published this week by the respected independent pollster Levada Centre, 82% of Russians believe MH17 was brought down by either a Ukrainian army fighter plane or missile. Just 3% thought the insurgents were to blame. Given these kind of figures, the prospect of malignant tumor Pig Putin facing a backlash of public anger over suspected weapons supplies to separatist gunmen is virtually zero. Ironically, malignant tumor Pig Putin probably faces more danger from Russians disappointed by his failure to provide more assistance to the rebels. “Many people feel cheated by his refusal to use military force in east Ukraine,” Alexander Dugin, an ultranationalist thinker whose ideas are reported to have influenced recent Kremlin policy, told me recently.
Western officials may be hoping economic sanctions will force Russians to rethink their support for malignant tumor Pig Putin, but in reality such measures will achieve little more than an entrenchment of a growing fortress mentality. State media’s routine and increasingly vitriolic attacks on the west’s “decadent” morals mean Russians are likely to accept any economic and social hardships brought about by US and European sanctions. Tellingly, in another Levada Centre poll this week, 61% of Russians said they were unconcerned by the threat of sanctions, while 58% were similarly unfazed by the looming possibility of political isolation over the Kremlin’s stance on Ukraine.
These head-in-the-sand attitudes are bolstered by what the director of Levada Centre, Lev Gudkov, calls a “patriotic and chauvinistic euphoria” rooted in the almost bloodless annexation of Crimea in March, which was popular among Russians across the political spectrum. It’s also worth noting that many “ordinary” Russians are uninterested in politics and have only scant knowledge of the issues at hand.
For Russia’s beleaguered liberals, if there is hope that malignant tumor Pig Putin can be convinced to abandon his increasingly hardline policies, then – to paraphrase George Orwell – it lies with the political and business elite who make up his inner circle. “I have some small hope left that these people might be able to influence him,” a Muscovite businessman acquaintance confided this week. “They didn’t sign up for this nightmare.”
But it will take a brave – even foolhardy – tycoon or senior politician to break ranks with malignant tumor Pig Putin now. After all, the president has the zombie box on his side – and with that, he can sell Russia almost anything.
Bug spotting: Germans hold 'nature walks' to observe rare NSA spy
Weekly walks from Griesheim to nearby US Dagger Complex lead way in multi-generational protest against digital surveillance
Philip Oltermann in Griesheim
The Guardian, Thursday 31 July 2014 16.52 BST
One morning last July, the German intelligence service knocked on Daniel Bangert's door. They had been informed by the US military police that Bangert was planning to stage a protest outside the Dagger Complex, an American intelligence base outside Griesheim in the Hesse region. Why hadn't he registered the protest, and what were his political affiliations? they asked.
Bangert explained that he wasn't planning a protest and that he didn't have any links to political groups. All he had done was put a message on Facebook inviting friends to go on a "nature walk" to "explore the endangered habitat of NSA spies". Eventually, the agents left in frustration.
Twelve months later, Bangert's nature trail has not only become a weekly ritual in Griesheim, but also the frontrunner of a new multi-generational German protest movement against digital surveillance.
On Saturday, around 130 "spy spotters" from across the country joined Bangert and his "Society for the Protection of NSA Spies" for the first anniversary of his ramble from Griesheim's town square to the Dagger Complex.
The 29-year-old heating engineer, who is currently retraining as an IT worker, first became interested in the US intelligence service after the publication of Edward Snowden's revelations in June 2013. When the NSA advertised a job for a security expert in the area, it seemed to confirm his suspicions about the fenced-off site in his home town.
"There had always been rumours that the Dagger Complex was full of US spies when I grew up", he said. "The incredible thing is that those rumours have now turned out to be true."
According to reports in the German media, the Dagger Complex is the central base for US surveillance operations in Europe, containing the NSA's military branch as well as the "European Cryptologic Centre" in which several hundred NSA employees collect and analyse data with the help of tools such as the notorious Xkeyscore programme.
Usually, Bangert's spotters carry at least a pair of binoculars and a couple of surveillance cameras made of cardboard. Registration numbers of cars parked at the facility are logged, but actual sightings of NSA employees are rare: "Spies are shy creatures," Bangert said.
On Snowden's birthday, the walkers brought along cake in order to "lure the spies out of their hiding holes". When the owners of the Dagger Complex complained to police about the rubbish left behind by the protesters, they brought rakes and brushes and offered to clean up inside the complex.
For the anniversary, the organisers built a "bed for Snowden", as a symbolic reminder of their ongoing campaign for Germany to offer asylum to the US whistleblower.
So far, Bangert's only interaction with those working in the Dagger Complex is the time a departing employee wound down his car window and called him a "dumbass motherfucker".
"My aim is to get on the NSA's nerves whenever I can," Bangert told the Guardian. "And I think they are pretty irritated at the moment."
The protesters include students in their late teens as well as pensioners. Nadine, a 20-year-old from Lower Saxony, has been joining the protest once a month since last autumn. "Most people prefer to complain from the comfort of their sofa," she said, "but here people are actually doing something to voice their complaints."
Frieder Haug, a 67-year-old retired priest who is also a member of the activist network Attac, said he joined the walks because he felt the protests against digital surveillance had managed to bring together different people in the way the peace movement had in the 1980s.
"Originally, I didn't want to join Attac because it was only full of people my age. Now there is finally a new generation of young people who are not only politicised, but also stubborn in getting their point across."
Bangert said he planned to continue the nature walks indefinitely. "Over the last 12 months, in spite of all the politicians expressing their outrage, absolutely nothing has changed. So of course we have to keep on going".
Azerbaijan 'Suffers Losses' in Major Clashes with Armenia
by Naharnet Newsdesk 01 August 2014, 12:41
Azerbaijan said Friday it suffered losses in an overnight battle with arch-foe Armenia near the disputed Nagorny Karabakh region in a dramatic spike in tensions in the long-simmering territorial conflict.
The defense ministry did not say how many troops were killed. But a high-ranking defense ministry official in Armenia, speaking to Agence France Presse, claimed that Azerbaijan had lost 14 troops.
Separately, the APA news agency, one of Azerbaijan's leading media outlets known for close contacts with the government, said the country had lost eight troops in the overnight skirmishes.
Azerbaijan's defense ministry neither confirmed nor denied the APA report, saying only that "reconnaissance and sabotage groups" of Armenian troops had attempted to break into the territory of Azerbaijan overnight.
"As a result of an intense shootout, the Armenian side retreated with losses. At the same time, there are also losses among Azerbaijani troops," the defense ministry said in a statement.
Speaking to AFP, the Armenian official, who requested anonymity, said Azerbaijani "sabotage groups" had attempted to break into the territory of the disputed Nagorny Karabakh region and Armenia.
"Azerbaijani subversive groups were ambushed," the official told AFP. "As a result, they have 14 dead and lots of wounded. There are no casualties or wounded on the Armenian side."
The unusual spike in tensions comes after two Azerbaijani troops were killed on the Azerbaijan-Armenia border in separate clashes on Thursday.
One Azerbaijani soldier was killed by a "sniper from the Armenian side," while the other soldier was killed as a result of Armenia "violating a ceasefire regime," authorities in Baku said.
The disputed Nagorny Karabakh region for its part said on Thursday that two Armenian troops died "at the line of contact" when Azerbaijani counterparts attempted an attack.
Armenian-backed separatists seized Nagorny Karabakh from Azerbaijan in a 1990s war that killed 30,000 people. Despite years of negotiations since a 1994 ceasefire, the two sides have yet to sign a peace deal.
Azerbaijan has threatened to take back the disputed region by force if negotiations do not yield results, while Armenia has vowed to retaliate against any military action.
Iraqis living under Isis rule in Mosul begin to show resistance
Despite its military triumphs, Isis is losing the hearts, minds and obedience of residents who say they have had enough
Fazel Hawramy in Sulaymaniyah and Mohammad Moslawi in Mosul
theguardian.com, Friday 1 August 2014 12.18 BST
Iraqis living under Isis rule in Iraq, where non-Sunni residents have been forced from their homes and tens of mosques have been deemed idolatrous and marked for destruction, have started to push back against the extreme interpretation of Islam being imposed on them.
Isis has won tremendous territorial victories and declared an Islamic caliphate in swathes of land it has seized, from Al Bab in Syria to Falluja in Iraq. The US recently ceded Isis was worse than al-Qaeda and that it has a "full blown army".
The US has increased its reconnaissance flights over Mosul from one flight a month just two months ago to 50 flights a day. Isis fighters have fought and wrested territory from the Syrian army, the Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga, but have revealed their fragility in governance - particularly, a brutal disregard for local religious and cultural values.
In the Iraqi city of Mosul, despite its military triumphs, Isis is losing the hearts, minds and obedience of residents who say they have had enough.
When its fighters destroyed the Nabi Jonah mosque (Jonah's tomb) in Mosul last Thursday, they failed to removed copies of the Qur'an and other religious texts. Residents treading through the ruins of the building found torn and burnt pages of the holy books scattered across the rubble. It was an insult to Islam that has been captured on video and unified the city in outrage.
"[Isis] claims that having graves inside mosques is heretical but what about the Qur'an, why did not they remove the Qur'an from the mosque before destroying it?" one resident, who asked not to be named, asked the Guardian?
The fighters – who adhere to an extreme interpretation of Sunni Islam that requires the destruction of shrines and graves as idolatory – have reportedly drawn up a list of around 50 more mosques to be destroyed.
Isis has a unit called Katayib Taswiya – the Demolition Battalion – tasked with the identification of heretical mosques that should be destroyed. The battalion razes to the ground any mosques built on tombs. If a graveyard has been built after the mosque's construction, then they will destroy the graves and any section of the mosque building. Around 50 mosques have been tipped for total or partial destruction in Mosul so far.
Among them was a shrine to the prophet Seth – considered in Islam, Judaism and Christianity to be Adam and Eve's third son – and the 14th-century Prophet Jirjis mosque and shrine, which was bombed and largely destroyed on Friday. Prominent Iraqi architect Ihsan Fethi described the destruction of the heritage site in Nineveh as "cultural suicide".
Speaking to the Guardian from Mosul, Bashar, a 38 year-old musician, said that local people had tried to occupy the mosques Isis has threatened in an effort to prevent fighters from bombing them.
When the Demolition Battalion made its move on the Jirjis mosque in the Souq al-Sharin neigbourhood, some residents decided to take a stand. On Friday and Saturday evening, locals slept inside the mosque in the hope that their presence would dissuade the militants from their demolition attempts. The fighters came back on Sunday and carried out their planned destruction of the graveyard. Most of the mosque is still standing.
Isis defended its destruction of the sites in a post on one of its main websites on Tuesday: "The demolition of structures erected above graves is a matter of great religious clarity. Our pious predecessors have done so ... There is no debate on the legitimacy of demolishing or removing those graves and shrines."
But on Sunday, Mosul continued its defiance. Residents named Monday as the first day of Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. On Sunday evening, militants paraded through the city, ordering citizens through loudspeakers mounted on vehicles to continue their fast on Monday or face punishment. These warnings were ignored. On Monday, the arrival of Eid was announced from Mosul's mosques. In the face of public rebellion, Isis changed their minds and several hours later also announced the end of Ramadan.
Mosul with at least 8,000 years of continuous habitation, is a city considered an archeological treasure with many heritage sites belonging to all religions and sects. Dubbed "small Iraq", people from a range of religions and ethnicities have lived side by side here peacefully for centuries.
This solidarity was displayed last week when several thousand Christian residents were given a deadline of midday on Saturday to convert to Islam, pay a special tax or 'face the sword'. Fleeing Christians told the Guardian that when they were preparing to leave, fearful of the militants threats, their Muslim neighbours told them to stay put and promised to defend them should Isis come after them. Most of the Christian population fled regardless to areas under control of the Kurdistan regional government.
This weekend, reports leaked from the city that Isis had ordered the closure of women's salons and placed specific restrictions on the styling of men's facial hair. Drug supplies, particularly for those with kidney disease, are running short.
In what could be an indicative violent eruption of resentment and anger from the local population, two Isis fighters were reportedly gunned down in broad daylight in the Qayara neighbourhood of south Mosul on Sunday. A witness told the Guardian he saw three assailants fleeing the scene through the city's narrow alleyways. The initial joy with which Isis was received in Mosul, as liberators for the Sunni population after years of sectarian corruption and restriction at the hands of the Iraqi army, may already have ebbed dry.
Kerry Challenges India's Modi over WTO Stance
by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 August 2014, 09:41
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told Narendra Modi that India's stance on a key WTO trade deal sent the wrong message, as he met the country's new prime minister for the first time on Friday.
Kerry has expressed optimism about expanding cooperation between the world's two largest democracies during a first visit aimed at reviving a relationship clouded by mistrust.
But a raft of disputes has cast a shadow over hopes for a warmer relationship, with India on Thursday blocking a major World Trade Organization pact on customs procedures.
During the meeting -- aimed at breaking the ice with a leader once shunned by Washington -- Kerry told Modi India's stance on the deal was at odds with his desire to open up the country's economy.
"We note that the prime minister is very focused on his signal of open to business and creating opportunities and therefore the failure of implementing TFA (Trade Facilitation Agreement) sends a confusing signal and undermines that very message that he is seeking to send about India," a US official quoted Kerry as saying.
"While we understand India's food security concerns, the trade facilitation agreement is one that will bring tremendous benefit, particularly to the world's poor. India's actions therefore are not in keeping with the prime minister's vision."
Kerry urged India to work with the United States to move the WTO process forward, the official said.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official also said Modi told Kerry that while areas of difference would always exist, "what is critical is what we do to enhance and build on our trust".
Earlier, Kerry said the United States wanted "try to really take the relationship to a new place", following a series of diplomatic spats with India.
Washington has little relationship with Modi, a Hindu nationalist who was refused a US visa in 2005 over allegations that he turned a blind eye to anti-Muslim riots as leader of the western state of Gujarat.
The United States caught up with other Western nations during the election campaign, sending its ambassador to meet Modi who since taking office has shown no visible signs of holding a grudge over his past treatment.
But U.S. officials, who value frank and free-wheeling relationships with foreign leaders, are unsure what to expect from Modi who is known for his austere, solitary lifestyle and is not believed to be at ease in English.
Modi, who as a young man wandered the Himalayas, is seen as a very different character than his predecessor Manmohan Singh, a bookish Oxford-educated economist with whom President Barack Obama had found a kinship.
Kerry, the polyglot son of a diplomat, has nurtured personal relationships as he pursues key goals including seeking peace in the Middle East.
The top U.S. diplomat went ahead with the trip to India despite working around the clock to end the bloodshed in the Gaza Strip. Just hours before his scheduled meeting, Kerry called a news conference at 3:00 am (2130 GMT) to announce a 72-hour ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.
The United States has sought to put relations with India on firmer ground after the Modi visa row and a crisis in December when U.S. authorities arrested an Indian diplomat for allegedly mistreating her servant, infuriating New Delhi.
But new disputes have kept arising.
On Thursday, the WTO said that the 160-member body had failed to approve a landmark pact that would streamline global customs procedures.
India had stalled the pact as it pushed for the WTO to give the green light on the developing power's stockpiling of subsidized food. India says the policy is vital to help the poor, but rich nations charge that the practice distorts global trade.
The United States voiced "disappointment" and "regret" over India's stance, while India said it protested to Kerry over reports from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that U.S. intelligence had snooped on Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party while it was in opposition.
US officials, however, have signaled that they do not want to create a new rift by renewing past concerns about Modi's track record on minority rights.
Kerry trode lightly on the issue on Thursday, saying that the two democracies shared the belief that "every citizen, no matter their background, no matter their beliefs, can make their full contribution".
"From women's rights to minority rights, there is room to go further for both of us," Kerry said.
India Raps 'Unacceptable' U.S. Surveillance
by Naharnet Newsdesk
31 July 2014, 20:57
India's foreign minister told her visiting counterpart John Kerry Thursday that U.S. surveillance of an ally was "unacceptable" after recent allegations that Washington's National Security Agency targeted the ruling party.
"I raised this issue and even told them that when the news came out in the Indian media, people were angry," Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj said at a joint press conference with Kerry in New Delhi.
"I also told them that if we consider each other friendly countries, it is unacceptable that a friendly country spies on other friendly nations."
A classified document made public by the Washington Post a month ago showed that India's newly-elected Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was among authorized targets for the NSA in 2010 while it was in opposition.
The revelations prompted India to summon the top diplomat from the American embassy to register a protest.
The previous Congress government also complained to the U.S. twice last year over other surveillance revelations, including the disclosure that its U.N. mission in New York and its Washington embassy were snooped on.
Kerry told reporters that he could not comment about specific allegations but he insisted that U.S. President Barack Obama had made "unprecedented" efforts to ensure better oversight of intelligence.
"We have a policy in the United States with respect to intelligence matters, we do not discuss intelligence matters in public," he said.
"But let me just say very clearly: we value our relationship with India... and we also value the sharing of information between each other regarding counter-terrorism and other threats to both of our countries.
"We've had conversations, as the minister as stated, with government officials about these reports, and usually we try to have our intelligence communities work to resolve any questions or differences that may exist."
Army to Dominate New Thai National Assembly
by Naharnet Newsdesk
31 July 2014, 20:56
More than half of Thailand's new national assembly, appointed by the junta, will comprise of active or retired military officers, according to an official document published late Thursday.
Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej approved the appointment of just over 100 army officers and around a dozen police officers -- serving or retired -- to the 200-seat body which will meet for the first time next week, said the royal gazette.
"His majesty has endorsed a decree to convene the national assembly on 7 August," said the document published online.
The assembly will be charged with picking a new interim prime minister, assisted by a 250-strong reform council which will be hand-picked by the junta.
The Thai military seized power after nearly seven months of protests saw 28 people killed and paralyzed the government of former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Earlier this month the junta, formally known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), said it would remain in place alongside an interim government to maintain control of national security.
Army chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha has ruled out holding elections in Thailand until around October 2015, despite appeals from the United States and the European Union for a return to democracy.
The coup was the latest chapter in a long-running political crisis broadly pitting Yingluck's brother, ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, and his supporters against a royalist establishment backed by parts of the military and judiciary.
Thai Musician Jailed for 15 Years for Insulting Royals
by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 August 2014, 10:13
A Thai musician has been sentenced to 15 years in prison for royal defamation, a court official said Friday, in the latest conviction under a controversial lese majeste law.
The 28-year-old was found guilty of posting insulting messages about the monarchy on Facebook between 2010 and 2011, said a court official from the northeastern province of Ubon Ratchathani, without giving further details.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 86, is revered by many Thais and protected by tough royal defamation laws.
Under the strict lese majeste rules anyone convicted of insulting the king, queen, heir or regent faces up to 15 years in prison on each count.
The court sentenced the musician to three years each for nine counts of lese majeste and four months each for 12 counts of violating the computer crime act.
But after admitting to all charges his sentence was reduced to 15 years in jail.
"The suspect had repeatedly committed wrongdoings and in this case the judge has sentenced him with minimum penalties for both charges," said the court official.
Since seizing power in Thailand in May, the army has clamped down on any opposition to its takeover, with a crackdown on perceived slurs against the royals at the heart of its stepped-up online surveillance operations.
Under the rules, anybody can make a complaint about a perceived royal insult and police are duty-bound to investigate.
Before the coup, calls for reform of the lese majeste laws had grown following several high-profile convictions.
But academics urging greater debate are among hundreds of people who were summoned by the junta and temporarily detained in secret locations.
Myanmar Frees 91 Child Soldiers from Armed Forces
by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 August 2014, 13:48
Myanmar's army has freed 91 children and young people from its armed forces, the United Nations said on Friday, in the country's latest move towards ending the use of child soldiers.
The reformist government of the formerly junta-run nation committed to ending the recruitment and use of children in its "tatmadaw" army in a June 2012 pact with the U.N.
A total of 364 children and young people have been released since then as the military has slowed -- but not yet completely halted -- its use of children.
The release was "an important step in ending the recruitment and use of children in the Myanmar Armed Forces", the U.N. said in a statement.
But Shalini Bahuguna, representative for the U.N. children's agency UNICEF in the country, said "such discharges must be accelerated" to fully eradicate the practice.
There are no verifiable figures on how many children are currently serving in Myanmar's huge military, which has faced a slew of accusations over rights abuses, including the forced recruitment of children and other civilians to work as porters or even human mine detectors.
In January the army freed 96 children and young people from its armed forces -- the largest single release of child recruits since the 2012 pact.
All of those freed were recruited as children, but some have since become adults.
A quasi-civilian regime led by former general Thein Sein has won praise and steered Myanmar out of decades of isolation.
But ending rights violations is a key demand of the international community, which has embraced reforms in the once pariah state since the end of outright junta rule in 2011.
Japan Gives Vietnam Six Ships to Boost Maritime Patrols
by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 August 2014, 12:28
Japan said Friday it would give Vietnam six vessels to boost the communist country's capacity to patrol its territorial waters, amid a bitter maritime dispute with Beijing in the South China Sea.
The deal for the six used vessels, worth 500 million yen ($5 million), was announced in Hanoi during a two-day visit by Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida aimed at deepening bilateral ties.
"We hope this will help strengthen the maritime law enforcement capability of Vietnam," Kishida said at a press briefing with his Vietnamese counterpart Pham Binh Minh.
Relations between Vietnam and neighbouring China plummeted to their worst point in decades in early May after Beijing moved a deep-water oil drilling rig into waters in the South China Sea claimed by Vietnam.
China withdrew the rig mid-July, a month earlier than initially expected, claiming it had successfully completed the drilling mission.
While the rig was in place, there were repeated skirmishes between dozens of Chinese and Vietnamese vessels around the rig.
Hanoi accused Beijing of ramming and sinking one of its wooden fishing vessels. Beijing denied the allegation, blaming intrusions by Hanoi's fishing fleet for the incident.
The rig's deployment also triggered a wave of violent anti-China demonstrations and riots in Vietnam, which saw some foreign-invested factories vandalised and set on fire.
Japan and China are also locked in a bitter dispute over small, uninhabited islands in the East China Sea called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese.
Tokyo took control of the islands in January 1895, when it says they were unoccupied. Beijing counters they have always been its "inherent" territory.
"Both Vietnam and Japan agree on maintaining peace and stability in the East China Sea and East Sea," Fumio said.
East Sea is the Vietnamese name for the South China Sea.
He said disputes must be settled "in accordance with international law (and) by peaceful means".
Report: China Confirms New Generation Long Range Missiles
by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 August 2014, 07:35
China has acknowledged the existence of a new intercontinental ballistic missile said to be capable of carrying multiple nuclear warheads as far as the United States, state-run media reported Friday.
A government environmental monitoring center in Shaanxi said on its website that a military facility in the province was developing Dongfeng-41 (DF-41) missiles, the Global Times reported.
The DF-41 is designed to have a range of 12,000 kilometers (7,500 miles), according to a report by Jane's Strategic Weapon Systems, putting it among the world's longest-range missiles.
It is "possibly capable of carrying multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles", the U.S. Defense Department said in a report in June, referring to a payload of several nuclear warheads.
China's military is highly secretive, and the Global Times said it had not previously acknowledged the existence of the DF-41.
The original government web post appeared to have been deleted on Friday, but the newspaper posted a screengrab.
It also quoted a Chinese military analyst as saying: "As the U.S. continues to strengthen its missile defense system, developing third generation nuclear weapons capable of carrying multiple warheads is the trend."
China's defense ministry in January responded to reports that it had tested a hypersonic missile delivery vehicle by saying that any military experiments were "not targeted at any country and at any specific goals".
It made the same response last December when asked about reports that it had tested the DF-41.
Tensions between Washington and Beijing have risen in recent months over territorial disputes with U.S. allies in the East and South China Seas, and cyber-hacking.
Beijing has boosted its military spending by double digit amounts for several years as it seeks to modernize its armed forces, and now has the world's second biggest military outlays after the U.S.
Chinese President Xi Jinping said last month that any confrontation between the two powers "will surely spell disaster for both countries and for the world".
China's previous longest range missile was the DF-5A, which can carry a single warhead as far as 12,000 km, according to Jane's.
The DF-5A had its first test flight in 1971, and has to be fueled for around two hours prior to firing, limiting its effectiveness as a weapon, according to analysts.
Philippines Govt., Rebels Meet as Muslim Self-Rule Bill Delayed
by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 August 2014, 10:33
Philippine government and rebel negotiators began a new round of meetings Friday to draft a Muslim self-rule law after falling behind a timetable laid out in a peace treaty, officials said.
A peace pact signed in March committed President Benigno Aquino and the largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), to pass a law creating an autonomous Muslim region by mid-2016, when his six-year presidency ends.
In return, the 12,000-member MILF would disarm and help the national government to improve the lot of Filipino Muslims, who are among the poorest and most marginalized in the mainly Catholic nation of 100 million.
However, Aquino failed to submit the bill to Congress on Monday, with the MILF suggesting the government was seeking to renege on its peace treaty commitments by diluting the wording of the proposed law.
"(The) government intends to see through the full implementation of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro," Teresita Deles, Aquino's adviser on the peace process, said in a statement as the two sides met in the southern city of Davao.
Chief government negotiator Miriam Ferrer said the two sides were expected to meet over the next 10 days, by which time they would have produced a version of the bill that was acceptable to both sides.
Muslim rebels have been battling for independence or autonomy in the southern islands since the 1970s, with the conflict claiming tens of thousands of lives.
A commission made up of MILF and government representatives drafted a version of the planned bill and submitted it to Aquino for review in April, but the president said in June that its language needed further refinement.
An MILF statement last month alleged that Aquino's version of the bill "dilutes" the law and would have "departed from the letter and spirit" of the peace pact.
A fresh statement released by the organization on its website on Friday struck a more conciliatory tone, saying the delay was "no reason to give up".
"The road ahead still offers some promises.... All (that) is needed is a little more time, and more importantly both sides must be truthful and faithful to the framework agreement on the Bangsamoro," it said.
"It is better for the government and the MILF to continue the path of peace... rather than go back to where they started, which is not only practical but also laden with dangers and uncertainties," it added.
Land clearing laws may be unpopular with farmers, but Australia needs them
Some suggest the death of an environmental officer is a reason to change the law, but that’s nonsense
theguardian.com, Friday 1 August 2014 10.45 BST
Surely no one would put forward the argument that the case to change a law is strengthened if someone becomes so enraged by it that they have allegedly murdered the government official charged with its enforcement. Surely not.
Actually, someone has. Commenting on the alleged shooting of environmental officer Glendon Turner by farmer Ian Turnbull, NSW Nationals MP Andrew Fraser reportedly said: “It’s a tragic event that I think has been brought about by bad legislation.”
No Andrew, it’s is a tragic event brought about by someone firing a gun.
Fraser’s comments were reported in the Daily Telegraph, which on Friday carried a front page story quoting Turnbull’s family saying that they “hoped the tragedy would help prompt change to the Native Vegetation Act to give farmers more say in the clearing of their land”, alongside a “key points” box outlining the “red tape nightmare” farmers face as a result of the laws.
It is true that farmers have long complained about the land clearing laws. They don’t like to be told what they can do on their properties. The debate has raged for almost 10 years in the political arena.
And in recent years those opposed to the laws in NSW have been gaining ground – with several changes to regulations that loosen requirements on farmers and a major review to report by the end of the year expected to weaken them much further.
But it is also true that the laws were put in place for very good and nationally important reasons – reasons often overlooked by those arguing the case of the frustrated farmer.
Radio host Alan Jones was cleared of a charge of inciting his listeners to violence in 2010 when he took up the case of a farmer fighting the land clearing laws.
But the Australian Communications and Media Authority did find Jones guilty of breaching the broadcasting code by ignoring alternative views.
Those would be the kind of views that led to the implementation of the NSW Native Vegetation Act in the first place – including the very pressing need to protect wildlife habitats, soil quality and water catchments and to limit greenhouse emissions that cause climate change.
That pressing need to reduce land clearing has been widely accepted for a very long time.
In 1996 the Howard government was elected on a policy to have no net loss of vegetation across Australia by 2000 - a pledge which would effectively require the end of large scale land clearing.
In 1997 Howard signed bilateral agreements with all of the states to implement national heritage trust laws, including the requirement to reduce the rate of land-clearing to stop biodiversity loss and land and water degradation.
And in 2000 he signed a National Plan for Water Quality and Salinity at COAG which, among other things, required states to “institute controls on land clearing by 2002” to stop land and water degradation.
Reduced land clearing, especially in Queensland, during this time also allowed Australia to meet its target under the Kyoto protocol without doing very much else at all - and a resumption of land clearing as several states move to weaken land clearing restrictions will obviously make meeting Australia’s subsequent 2020 emissions reduction target far more difficult.
By 2003 the Carr Labor government in NSW passed the Native Vegetation Act with the support of conservationists, farmers and scientists and it came into effect in 2005.
And it succeeded in dramatically reducing the rate of land clearing. According to a WWF report there has been an 88-fold reduction in areas approved for clearing from 80,000 hectares per year (from 1998 to 2005) to 911 hectares per year (from 2005 to 2013).
Exactly how it is implemented, and what requirements are placed on farmers, is a matter to be argued out in the review and through the NSW parliament.
But across the nation, such laws obviously remain necessary, given that Australia’s 2011 “state of the environment” report states “the rate of land clearing, one of the most significant pressures affecting the land environment, is slowing, but still averaged around one million hectares each year over the decade to 2010.”
“The condition of much native vegetation is deteriorating, particularly that remaining as fragmented remnants in intensive and settled land use zones, and that subjected to persistent pressures such as inappropriate grazing or fire regimes,” the report to the federal government said.
Lots of people get annoyed, pressured and ground down by lots of different laws. They are still required to obey them.
Opponents of a law can make the case for changing it on policy grounds, but even suggesting that these tragic circumstances might strengthen the case for changing that law sets a breathtakingly irresponsible and dangerous precedent.
• Andrew Fraser’s office was contacted for comment
Gaza ceasefire collapses as fighting breaks out after two hours
Israeli tank fire in Rafah reported to have killed at least 40 Palestinians, while Hamas says an Israeli soldier has been taken prisoner
Jason Burke in Gaza and Julian Borger
The Guardian, Friday 1 August 2014 12.50 BST
The humanitarian truce in Gaza has collapsed after two hours with fierce fighting in the south of the enclave, the capture by Hamas of an Israeli soldier and a formal Israeli announcement that it would resume its military operation.
Israeli tank fire on the southern town of Rafah was reported to have killed at least 40 Palestinians on Friday, turning what was intended to be the first day of calm into one of the deadliest days in Gaza so far. Hamas launched rockets towards Israel, while fierce small-arms fire and artillery shelling erupted at Beit Hanoun and Gaza’s northern end.
The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) later said it feared one of its soldiers may have been abducted in an early morning attack by Palestinian militants at a tunnel near Gaza. Israel Radio named him as Second Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, 23, from Kfar Saba. A senior Hamas member, Musa Abu Marzouk, said the soldier was an officer taken prisoner near Rafah before the ceasefire came into effect.
Palestinian fishermen who had ventured tentatively out into the Mediterranean earlier in the morning rushed to get back to port, while air raid sirens could be heard along the neighbouring Israeli coast.
Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Israel’s military coordinator in the Palestinian territories told the UN envoy, Robert Serry, that as far as Israel was concerned the ceasefire – announced on Thursday night after lengthy behind-the-scenes negotiations – was over. Israel claimed that the truce was first broken by an ambush by Palestinian militants on Israeli forces near Rafah.
The ferocious outbreak of hostilities crushed hopes of an enduring truce even as US negotiators were on the way to Cairo for Egypt-brokered talks that were supposed to turn the ceasefire into a broader peace agreement. A Palestinian delegation named by the president, Mahmoud Abbas, but including Hamas members, was supposed to travel there on Friday, with Israeli negotiators flying after the Sabbath on Saturday night. It was not clear whether either side would still make the journey in the hope of salvaging something from the diplomatic effort of the past two weeks involving the US, Turkey and Qatar.
Both Israel and Hamas had earlier confirmed their agreement to the truce. In a brief statement issued about an hour before the ceasefire was due to begin, the Israeli government said: “In accordance with the authority granted by the security cabinet to the prime minister and the minister of defence, Israel has accepted the UN/US proposal for a 72-hour humanitarian ceasefire beginning 8am Friday.”
A Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, said the group would abide by the ceasefire, Reuters reported. “Acknowledging a call by the United Nations and in consideration of the situation of our people, resistance factions agreed to a 72-hour humanitarian and mutual calm that begins at 8am on Friday as long as the other side abides by it,” he said. “All the Palestinian factions are united behind the issue in this regard.”
The ceasefire broke down after fishermen in Gaza City had spent only a few minutes at sea for the first time since the war began. City inhabitants had tentatively left their homes, some for the first time for days, and queues formed for taxis. Most of those on the streets were hoping to return to homes they had not seen for weeks or to salvage belongings. Grocery shops rapidly opened, selling basic foodstuffs.
But as the shells began to fall again, the fishermen returned and children raced off the beach.
In the two hours the ceasefire lasted, while the majority of Gaza residents had allowed themselves some faint hopes for the future, others had remained defiant.
Samira Attar, 27, sitting in a donkey cart with her husband, five children and three mattresses, said she was heading back to her house in Atatra, in the north of the strip. “I am going back to my house for the first time for 17 days. I hope this ceasefire will hold for the whole 72 hours and longer, God willing. We don’t need more bloodshed, or more devastation. I’d like to see Israel to be defeated and broken but the circumstances were very difficult,” Attar said.
Smoke rises following what witnesses said were Israeli air strikes in Rafah. Smoke rises following what witnesses said were Israeli air strikes in Rafah. Photograph: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters
Harth Nassr, 34, a restaurant worker from Beit Hanoun, a heavily hit village in the north-east of the Gaza Strip, said he too was optimistic.
“I think it will hold this time. Everybody is tired of this war,” Nassr said.
Nassr’s home was destroyed after he evacuated following a warning from Israeli forces to leave the area. “I left my house 10 days ago. I went there only once in the last 10 days and found the whole building, all three storeys, destroyed. I’m going back today to see if I can get any of my belongings,” Nassr said.
Fighting had continued until the last moment before the ceasefire began on Friday morning. Gaza came under heavy shelling and artillery fire overnight, and sirens warning of rocket attacks sounded in southern Israel. Palestinian sources said 17 people, including 10 members of one family, had been killed in Khan Younis in the early hours of Friday. The Palestinian death toll on Friday morning stood at more than 1,400, most of them civilians.
The IDF said five of its soldiers were killed in a mortar attack on the Gaza border, bringing the total number of military casualties to 61. Three civilians were also killed by rocket fire in Israel.
Some had doubted that the war was over. Isham Abu Ramadan, 42, a construction worker who said his house was destroyed in an air strike earlier this month, said he was not optimistic.
“We have long experience of Israel. They break the ceasefire all the time. They want to hit us more. They want more massacres. Israel doesn’t want to end the war and they don’t want a peace settlement. I don’t want a ceasefire. I want the resistance to fire until the end when Israel is defeated and asks for a truce,” Ramadan said.
Meanwhile, Israeli security forces were on high alert in East Jerusalem and the West Bank after Palestinian leaders called for a “day of rage” on Friday. Several protest marches were expected to begin after noon prayers.
Access to the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem’s old city was restricted to men over 50, women and children.
Last Friday, seven Palestinians had been killed in clashes with security forces during protests over the war, raising concerns over the use of live fire by the IDF.
In a joint statement on Thursday evening the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, and the US secretary of state, John Kerry, had said the ceasefire would give “innocent civilians a much-needed reprieve from violence”. The pause would allow Gaza’s civilians to “bury the dead, care for the injured, and restock food supplies”, they had said. Repairs would also be made to water and power infrastructure damaged in the 24 days of conflict, which has killed 1,400 Palestinians, mostly civilians.
However, “forces on the ground will remain in place”, meaning Israel had succeeded in its insistence that its troops continue to search for and destroy Hamas tunnels during any humanitarian pause.
“We urge all parties to act with restraint until this humanitarian ceasefire begins, and to fully abide by their commitments during the ceasefire,” the two top diplomats had said.
“This ceasefire is critical to giving innocent civilians a much-needed reprieve from violence,” the statement had continued. “During this period, civilians in Gaza will receive urgently needed humanitarian relief, and the opportunity to carry out vital functions, including burying the dead, taking care of the injured, and restocking food supplies. Overdue repairs on essential water and energy infrastructure could also continue during this period.”
Ban and Kerry, who have been at the forefront of efforts to seek an end to the conflict, said the UN’s representative in Jerusalem, special coordinator Robert Serry, had received “assurances that all parties have agreed to an unconditional humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza”.
The US-UN statement had added: “Israeli and Palestinian delegations will immediately be going to Cairo for negotiations with the government of Egypt, at the invitation of Egypt, aimed at reaching a durable ceasefire. The parties will be able to raise all issues of concern in these negotiations.”
The ceasefire had been first announced in New Delhi during a diplomatic visit by Kerry. It followed mounting international outrage over the shelling earlier this week by Israeli forces of a UN school sheltering thousands of Palestinian families who had fled their homes after being warned by Israel to evacuate ahead of bombing. At least 15 people, including sleeping children, were killed, and hundreds injured.
Ban condemned the attack as “outrageous and unjustifiable” and President Barack Obama’s press secretary, delivering an unusually forthright response, called the attack “totally unacceptable” and “totally indefensible”.
Previous unilateral ceasefires had been short-lived, with each side blaming the other for violations. This was the first time that both parties had agreed to a pause during which further negotiations would begin.
The Egyptian government made a similar proposal more than two weeks ago, which Israel agreed to, but Hamas rejected.
The composition of the delegations to attend talks in Cairo was worked on into the night. Diplomatic sources indicated that Abbas would help decide the team representing the Palestinian side, but was not expected to attend the negotiations.
Egypt was expected to take a central role in facilitating the talks, which were to begin as soon as the parties arrived in Cairo.
The US was also sending a small delegation, including Bill Burns, deputy secretary of state, and Frank Lowenstein, Kerry’s special envoy for Middle East.
There were no immediate plans for Kerry, whose recent attempt to forge a ceasefire collapsed amid acrimony last weekend, to attend the talks, although a western diplomat said his attendance remained a possibility.
“This is a lull of opportunity,” Kerry had told reporters in New Delhi, according to Reuters. “It is imperative people make the best effort to try to find common ground.”
UN rights chief slams Israel’s ‘defiance’ of international law
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, July 31, 2014 11:15 EDT
UN human rights chief Navi Pillay on Thursday slammed what she said was Israel’s “deliberate defiance” of international law during the Gaza conflict.
Pillay lambasted the country’s attacks on homes, schools, hospitals and United Nations facilities which are sheltering 250,000 civilians in Gaza.
“There appears to be deliberate defiance of obligations that international law imposes on Israel,” the South African told reporters.
Pillay said that repeated calls to respect the laws of war had gone unheeded during the latest crisis and previous spikes in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“The same pattern of attacks is occurring now on homes, schools, hospitals, UN premises. None of this appears to me to be accidental,” she said.
She spoke a day after Israeli shells slammed into a UN school in Jabalia refugee camp which was sheltering some 3,300 homeless Gazans, killing 16 people.
Israel has accused Palestinian Islamists Hamas and other militants of hiding out among the civilian population and using UN facilities and other sites to store weapons and launch rocket attacks.
Pillay said that under international law, civilian facilities should not be attacked, but can lose their protected status if used for military purposes.
Even then, she said, due warning must be given before an attack, in order to allow civilians to be evacuated.
“It is completely unconscionable that the proportionality and precaution that international law requires is being ignored,” said Pillay.
She also criticised Israel’s strikes on Gaza’s power plant, as well as water and sewerage systems.
Last week, the UN Human Rights Council voted to open an inquiry into the Gaza offensive, despite fierce opposition from Israel and the United States.
“We cannot allow impunity. We cannot allow this lack of accountability to go on,” Pillay said on Thursday, calling into question domestic investigations by Israel into abuses.
“I join the world in condemning the aggression that is taking place in Gaza, and particularly the killing of civilians. This is wrong and it will always be wrong,” she added.
As of Wednesday, the 24th day of the Gaza conflict, 1,364 Palestinians had been killed — three-quarters of them civilians, Pillay said.
Fifty-six Israeli soldiers have also died, while cross-border rocket fire has killed two Israeli civilians and a Thai migrant worker.
The UN human rights chief has repeatedly condemned the actions not only of Israel but also the indiscriminate Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli communities.
Tensions Escalate Between Israel and a Second Party in Gaza: The United Nations
By SOMINI SENGUPTA
JULY 31, 2014
UNITED NATIONS — In the midst of Israel’s battle with militants in Gaza over the past three weeks, skirmishes opened on a second front in recent days: Its strikes on United Nations facilities and the steep civilian casualties brought a barrage of rebukes and warnings from senior United Nations officials around the world, reaching a fever pitch just before the announcement of a cease-fire late Thursday.
Behind the scenes, diplomats here were on the phone incessantly with Israelis, Palestinians and representatives of countries in the region that have influence over Israel’s principal nemesis, Hamas. The efforts led to a 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire announced late Thursday by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s spokesman and by Secretary of State John Kerry, who was traveling in New Delhi.
In public, the war of words intensified this week, with the United Nations blaming Israel for an attack that killed at least 19 people who were taking refuge at a United Nations school early Wednesday and Israel, in turn, accusing the world body of helping Hamas.
The United Nations has been dragged into the conflict: Eight of its staff members have been killed in the past 24 days, and more than 100 of its facilities have come under fire, including the school. United Nations officials said they had repeatedly told Israel of its exact location.
The deputy secretary general, Jan Eliasson, a former Swedish diplomat, was visibly riled on Wednesday when he publicly reminded Israel of the Geneva Conventions, which established international law governing warfare. In Geneva, the United Nations’ top human rights official, Navi Pillay, raised the prospect of war crimes.
Christopher Gunness, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency spokesman in Gaza, broke down at the end of an interview with Al Jazeera, which promptly went viral. And Pierre Krähenbühl, the commissioner general of Unrwa, the agency responsible for aiding Palestinians, told the Security Council on Thursday that military operations had been “waged with excessive — and at times disproportionate — force in densely populated urban settings.”
Israel has rarely regarded the United Nations as a reliable ally. But the tensions are so acute now that the two are divided even over who has died. The United Nations maintains that 75 to 80 percent of the dead are civilians. Israel angrily rebuts that assertion. Its ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, said as recently as last week that his government had established that about half the dead were combatants.
He mocked United Nations officials who rue the Israeli blockade of Gaza, pointing out that Hamas was using concrete to build “terror tunnels” with construction materials. He has repeatedly taken United Nations officials to task for the discovery of rockets at its schools. On Thursday, speaking to reporters after a Security Council briefing, Mr. Prosor chided the body’s humanitarian relief coordinator, Valerie Amos, for acknowledging that Israel had faced rocket fire, but declining to blame Hamas for it.
“I had problems hearing ‘Hamas,’ ” he said. “I had problems hearing ‘Hamas’ in any briefings from the secretary general downward.” He said the “international community” had been one-sided — in favor of Israel’s enemies. “I feel the international community should be very vocal in standing with Israel fighting terrorism today, because if not you will see it on your doorstep tomorrow,” Mr. Prosor said.
(Ms. Amos did mention Hamas in her briefing to the Council, saying, “Under international humanitarian law, the government of Israel, Hamas and other militant groups must distinguish between military objectives and civilian objects and between combatants and civilians.”)
On the issue of rockets, United Nations officials have taken pains to say that they had been found in buildings they had abandoned for safety, and that it was their staff who had found the weapons and condemned those who stashed them on United Nations premises, which is illegal under international law.
As for the death toll, the United Nations said it collected figures from the Gaza health ministry along with its own staff. Mr. Krähenbühl, who before taking over Unrwa had spent 12 years with the International Committee of the Red Cross, said his own visits to Gaza hospitals this week had convinced him that the vast majority of the dead were civilians: More than 250 of the estimated 1,400 Palestinian dead have been children. He invited skeptics to tour Gaza’s hospitals with him.
Unrwa provides food to about 800,000 Palestinians in Gaza, a sharp increase, it says, since the 2007 blockade, in addition to running schools and clinics. More than 240,000 Gazans are seeking shelter in its buildings.
“We are not an agency with a cause,” Mr. Krähenbühl said. “We are an agency within the U.N. system.”
In addition to his eight colleagues killed in Gaza in the past three weeks, Mr. Krähenbühl said the agency had also lost 12 colleagues in Syria in that country’s three-year war.
In such a polarized part of the world, he said, it was difficult to be “seen as evenhanded.”
It did not start out this way.
When Israel’s military incursion in Gaza began, Mr. Ban made statements condemning Hamas rockets, urging Israel to halt its bombings, and calling on both sides to address what he repeatedly called the “root causes” of their enmity. Even after the bombing of a United Nations school last week, while Mr. Ban was in the region, the United Nations refrained from casting blame. And even now, its officials are careful to call on Israel and Hamas to comply with international laws and, as Mr. Krähenbühl put it Thursday, “to respect the sanctity of U.N. premises.”
Regardless of the verbal volleys, there is little that United Nations officials can do without instructions from the Security Council. The Council met Thursday for more than three hours behind closed doors, but failed to reach consensus on a proposed statement that would have condemned attacks on United Nations installations. Diplomats said they were stuck on language that would have also condemned the use of its facilities to store rockets.
In the past, the United Nations has been useful in supporting political deals and keeping warring parties at bay in the Middle East: One of its first peacekeeping missions was in the Golan Heights. The tensions now may make it far more difficult for the United Nations to play that role.
As the Security Council met behind closed doors, the Palestinian envoy, Riyad Mansour, shoulders hunched, rued that it had not taken any legally binding steps to end the fighting. “There’s a big test for the 15 members in the chamber as they are deliberating right now — I think tests to their hearts, tests to their conscience, tests to their brains — whether they’ll condemn these crimes,” Mr. Mansour said.
Like his Israeli counterpart, he was not too bullish on the international community. He said the people of Gaza “feel the international community is failing them.”
Syrian city of Homs shows signs of life amid moonscape of devastation
Special report: Ian Black finds whispers of normality, stability and a few returning residents in ex-rebel bastion laid siege by Assad forces for two years
Thursday 31 July 2014 17.34 BST
Adnan Azzam has his work cut out. Every room in his second-floor apartment in the old city of Homs bears the scars of war: there’s a shell hole in the corner of the children’s bedroom and drawers are missing from the glass-fronted cabinets in the ornate salon. They were chopped up for firewood by the rebels who occupied the flat, did their cooking on the stairwell and left scorch marks on the whitewashed wall.
On the street outside, a poster warns returning residents to beware if they come across any of the many kinds of munitions and weapons – mortar bombs, rockets, grenades – that were used in the vicious battle for Syria’s third-largest city and the “capital” of the revolution that tried – and has failed – to topple President Bashar al-Assad. “Keep away, do not touch and inform others if you see any of these,” it urges.
Azzam is one of a few dozen people who have come back to the Christian quarter since a deal brokered by Iran allowed anti-Assad fighters to leave, along with a handful of non-combatants who survived the two-year siege. The May agreement was a microcosm of how the Syrian conflict is being managed in its fourth year. Nine hundred rebels were allowed out, with their guns, to fight another day. Elsewhere, though, the war goes on.
“My apartment is in better condition than many others,” says the retired engineer, who fled to a nearby village in early 2012. “The fighters usually lived on the ground floor in case they were bombed. This used to be a nice neighbourhood. Both sides are to blame. Now people are coming to clean up their homes and clear out the rubbish. But the government can’t afford to pay for all the damage. Maybe they are waiting for international aid? And I can’t bring my family back yet.”
Azzam’s downstairs neighbour, Abdullah Sabbagh, has secured his front door with a hefty padlock to deter thieves. Anas, who lives round the corner, complains that he needs a new kitchen and bathroom but has yet to receive any official compensation – a process that involves getting a police report and taking it to the municipality. Water has been restored but electricity supplies are sporadic.
Still, milestones of recovery are being marked. This month the first wedding since what Assad loyalists call the liberation was celebrated in the quarter’s first-century Syriac Orthodox church, Umm al-Zennar. And Bayt al-Agha, the nearby Ottoman-era restaurant, its distinctive alternating black and white stone structure now half-destroyed, was open for business during the football World Cup in Brazil. But after dark, the alleyways are eerily deserted, ghostly figures emerging from security checkpoints as vehicles approach. It will be many years before it is picturesque again.
By day the scale of the destruction in Homs is shocking. Buildings are battered and pockmarked or floors pancaked on top of each other. There are only dark, charred spaces where windows used to be. Slogans scrawled on walls tell fragments of the story: “Welcome the people of Jihad,” reads one. Others advertise al-Farouq – one of the first brigades of the Free Syrian Army, the mainstream rebel alliance. In the moonscape of the Bab Hud neighbourhood, on the frontline by the Homs Citadel, a commander signed himself Issam Abu al-Mout – a nom de guerre that is a chilling reference to a man boasting of facing death.
Images of victory have been plastered everywhere. On a blackened, skeletal structure opposite the Khalid ibn al-Walid mosque a long banner of Assad, in sober suit rather than his favoured camouflage commando chic, flutters in the hot wind. “Together we will rebuild,” it declares. Bulldozers have started to clear gaps in the rubble. Cheerful street paintings – part of a “Homs in my heart” campaign – brighten up the dusty, dun-coloured view.
In Damascus the ministry of information, which controls visas and access for foreign media, is keen to approve trips to Homs, where developments broadly fit the official grand narrative of a return to normality, stability and the start of reconstruction – and of course the victory claimed by Assad.
Syrian government control is not in doubt. The drive from the capital to Homs is a little longer than in prewar days because of a detour required to avoid the risk of encountering snipers on the main road, and there are maddeningly frequent checkpoints where bored soldiers demand IDs and search vehicles. To the north, towards Aleppo and areas held by Isis (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), the rumble of artillery fire can be heard.
The city is not entirely safe. In Wadi Dahab, a densely populated Alawite area of Homs, fresh rubble marks the sites of recent car bombings – one of them claimed by Jabhat al-Nusra, the homegrown Syrian jihadi group which has pledged allegiance to al-Qaida. Shopkeepers have placed oil drums on the pavement to try to put some distance between themselves and any blast.
Baba Amr, the rebel-held suburb where the journalists Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik were killed by government rocket fire in February 2012, is devastated and looks eerily deserted. A militia roadblock bars access. Other parts of the city are in surprisingly good shape. In Inshaat, where rows of gleaming white UN vehicles clog the car park of a state-run five-star hotel, the streets are clean and orderly, restaurants bustling for the Ramadan Iftar meal.
No one knows exactly how many Homsis have fled abroad, or how many are displaced inside Syria. But last month the UNHCR still counted more than 352,000 people from the city registered as refugees, the majority in neighbouring Lebanon – a quarter to a fifth of the prewar population. Rumours abound of abandoned property in pro-opposition areas being taken over by Alawite loyalists and looting by the widely disliked, Iranian-trained National Defence Army. Statistics are not available.
Opposition activists now living elsewhere reject the government’s upbeat narrative. “Homs is a city of horror,” said Razan, whose Sunni family was involved in the mass protests of April 2011 and suffered in the subsequent army offensive and repression. “If there had been a real solution people would be able to go back, but hundreds are still in prison. The government is removing some checkpoints and trying to show that everything is fine. But it’s crazy how they’ve managed to cover it all up and brainwash people just by saying, ‘Let’s move on.’”
At al-Waer, a couple of miles to the west, a war of sorts continues. Like other rebel-held areas across Syria, this part of Homs is still under siege. The top flats of several tower blocks are burned out – hit by government artillery taking out snipers. But it is a mostly static and curiously intimate sort of conflict. Residents, including state employees, commute in and out of the suburb every day to work or study, going past army and rebel roadblocks that are just a couple of hundred yards apart. Skinny boys scamper to and fro earning a few pounds carrying shopping across the space between them. Negotiations on the terms of access, and perhaps an eventual old city-type evacuation deal, are continuing sporadically.
“It’s hard, especially for the children, and the main worry is their psychological welfare,” says Afra, a law student, glancing warily at the uniformed security officer loitering nearby as she describes the situation inside. “As an adult you can cope, but the little ones don’t understand what’s happening. They are afraid of sudden noises and if a door slams they jump.”
Omar, a middle-aged shop owner, says the fighters in al-Waer are Syrians, many of them locals – not the foreigners who are vilified in state media – and mostly keep themselves to themselves. “Two days ago they started shooting at each other. When that happens it’s scary and we want the army to go in. We are tired. I bought a new house and it’s lost its value. We want to get this over with.” That sense of weariness is widely shared – in Homs and beyond.
“I used to go to work every day and hear the sound of snipers’ bullets,” says Samar, an Alawite official in the Homs regional education department. In 2012 she and her family relocated to a flat further away from the old city but still not out of range of rebel mortars. “The worst thing was the fear of kidnapping,” she says. “Sometimes we didn’t take out the garbage for days for fear of being in the street. But things are much better now.” Anas, her daughter, describes being forced to wear the hijab as anti-regime protests swelled in the heyday of Syria’s bloody Arab spring.
Yet there is also a determination to look ahead and to try to accentuate the positive. “At one point this did become a sectarian conflict,” says Nazem Kanawati, another Christian who has moved back home to old Homs and is doing his bit for the cleanup campaign. “But, look, the mosque is closer to my home than the church. It is part of my heritage too. Remember: Europe was completely destroyed after the second world war and it was able to recover. I feel there is a bright future ahead. The wounds of war can be healed.”
State of emergency declared in Liberia and Sierra Leone after Ebola outbreak
Schools closed and villages quarantined as epidemic claims more than 700 lives across three west African nations
Monica Mark, West Africa correspondent
The Guardian, Friday 1 August 2014
Liberia and Sierra Leone have declared states of emergency, ordering the closure of schools and markets and the quarantining of affected communities, in an attempt to halt the Ebola epidemic that has claimed more than 700 lives across three west African nations.
The leaders of both countries have cancelled planned trips to Washington for a US-Africa summit next week so they can meet on Friday in Conakry, the capital of Guinea, to discuss the crisis.
They will be joined by the leader of the Ivory Coast, which has porous frontiers with Liberia. Remote border officials say they've recently begun turning away people fleeing from affected communities. The World Health Organisation has also launched a $100m special fund to tackle the outbreak.
In Nigeria, where a Liberian civil servant died of Ebola after flying to the commercial hub of Lagos, airport authorities began screening passengers for high temperatures who were arriving from places at risk.
Liberia's president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, announced the emergency measures after a closed-door meeting earlier this week in which medical officials painted a stark picture, according to an aide present at the meeting.
Internal ministry of health reports obtained by the Guardian show health workers saw 606 people suspected of having the extremely contagious virus in a single day this week.
In Bomi county, one of the areas recommended for quarantine, the report noted "both probable and negative cases are being held in the same room with no attention". Health officials there were requesting training, it added.
"It's a dire situation. The spread is overwhelming health workers and facilities. We need all the help and support we can get from the international community," said Lewis Brown, Liberia's information minister. He said communities hit hardest would be quarantined for as long as necessary by security forces. "It's an emergency, so we hope people will understand."
Sierra Leone's president, Ernest Bai Koroma, said the state of emergency would last between 60 and 90 days. House-to-house searches to trace victims will be conducted and new at-risk neighbourhoods will be placed under quarantine if necessary.
A nationwide hunt was sparked in the capital, Freetown, when a patient was forcibly removed from hospital last week. She was reported to have died while being returned to the facility in an ambulance two days later.
The latest action comes as senior western officials, including from the US and UK, held meetings to assess the risk of Ebola reaching their shores. The US has recalled its Peace Corps volunteers from the region.
The measures taken are similar to those that rapidly ended a 1997 Ebola breakout in Uganda, which has sent in a medical team to help.
Many rural communities view Ebola with much the same fear and misunderstanding as westerners did when the Aids epidemic began, and have sometimes attacked overstretched health officials struggling to contain the epidemic. Those on the frontlines have been among the hardest hit by the disease, which has claimed the lives of Liberia and Sierra Leone's most experienced Ebola doctors.
There are signs that some public awareness campaigns are yielding results. Doctors were forced to turn patients away at one of Liberia's main Ebola isolation wards in a sign many were belatedly coming forward. Some residents in the capital, Monrovia, initially protested against a new ward being set up, fearing it would endanger them.
Sylvia Johnson, a Monrovia resident, pulled her grandson out of summer school at the beginning of the week after seeing a government poster of graphic corpses of Ebola victims. "He cried, but no child will control me. It will be better for him to live and attend many more vacation schools than get sick from Ebola," she said.
Spread by contact with bodily fluids of infected patients, bush meat or surfaces, this Ebola outbreak has killed 729 people since it originated in Guinea, where health officials took several weeks to pinpoint the source to a remote village in the country's forest hinterlands. By then, it had spread to Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Nigerian authorities have mobilised unusually swiftly, underlying concern about an outbreak in the continent's most populous nation and major commerce hub. Officials began printing information leaflets, including in widely-spoken pidgin English.
Akintayo Ugwani, a businessman, said: "It's terrifying. I have to get on a flight every couple of days and each time now I'm just wondering, am I entering a flying coffin?"
The country's main airline, Arik Air, has suspended flights between Nigeria, Liberia and Sierra Leone, while international airports and seaports have been placed on red alert, with passengers being monitored. Ghana also began screening passengers.
Philip Hammond, the British foreign secretary, chaired an emergency Cobra meeting amid warnings that the virus could be a threat to Britain, although health experts said the country was well prepared to deal with any potential cases.
Hammond said no British national had been affected by the outbreak and there had been no cases in the UK.
The UK announced a £2m package of assistance to the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) and Médecins sans Frontières, which are tackling Ebola in Sierra Leone and Liberia. The European commission said it would allocate an additional €2m (£1.6m) – on top of €1.9m – to help contain the spread of the epidemic.
"The level of contamination on the ground is extremely worrying and we need to scale up our action before many more lives are lost," said Kristalina Georgieva, EU commissioner for humanitarian aid.
Ebola rages in Africa as west agonises over ethics of vaccine and drug testing
If there are to be vaccines and drugs against Ebola, trials in outbreaks will have to be done
Sarah Boseley, health editor
The Guardian, Thursday 31 July 2014 20.16 BST
In 2002, scientists writing in a leading American medical journal discussed the possibility that the Ebola virus could be used in a biochemical weapon. It would be technically difficult and unlikely to cause mass destruction because those infected quickly die and the virus is not as transmissible as many assume. But, the scientists warned, if it could be done, there would be no protection. No vaccine or drug treatment exists.
They were writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association in the wake of 9/11 and the subsequent anthrax attacks in New York. Since then, fear of viruses raining out of US skies has diminished – and so has any sense of urgency over the development of vaccines or treatment for a disease that manifests itself in unpredictable outbreaks and kills relatively small numbers of people in remote parts of Africa.
Neglected tropical diseases, of which Ebola is one, become visible in the west only when they appear to threaten it. Ebola has had more attention than many, probably because of the dramatic nature of the disease and the need for full body suits and face masks for those caring for its victims. The names of other such diseases – the parasitic leishmaniasis and lymphatic filariasis, for example – hardly trip off the tongue in London or San Francisco.
Yet Ebola is not a priority for the not-for-profit Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative, which works with the World Health Organisation and others to incentivise and encourage pharmaceutical companies to research and develop treatments. It affects far fewer people than parasitic diseases, and the outbreaks, although appalling, are sporadic.
But in a few research institutes and biotech companies in north America, there is work going on, some of it funded by the American military. The US department of defence Joint Project Manager Medical Countermeasure Systems has put $140m (£80m) into the early development of a potential drug by the Tekmira Pharmaceuticals Corporation, which dosed its first human subject in January this year. The phase 1 trial is designed only to ensure the drug has no ill effects in healthy people who have been nowhere near the Ebola virus, but last week, it was put on hold while the regulator, the food and drug administration, asked for more information to ensure the safety of the volunteers.
There were protests over the FDA's intervention and calls for the drug to be fast-tracked, since more than 600 people in west Africa had already died. But even if the FDA felt it was a good idea to test the drug on patients in Africa, trials in humans take so long to set up that the current outbreak will probably be over by the time anybody is ready.
There are some vaccines in development which look promising. "Many of them have just been tested in mice and guinea pigs, but a few have been tested in non-human primates and worked, protecting them from challenge with the virus," said Professor Diane Griffin from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.
But however great the need, rushing the vaccine to an outbreak of Ebola in west Africa is not on the cards. "I think people are really anxious just because the vaccines haven't been tested in humans for safety as far as I know," said Griffin, of the department of molecular microbiology and immunology at the school's centre for global health.
Running a trial in the middle of a disease outbreak is really difficult too, because of the careful explanation that must be given to all those who are vaccinated – and those who are not – who are in a distressing situation. Potential side-effects must be talked through and informed consent given.
Pfizer's attempt to trial an oral antibiotic during a meningitis B outbreak in Kano, Nigeria, in 1996 ended in disaster for the company, which was sued by families who blamed the drug for deaths. It paid millions in compensation.
But if there are to be vaccines and drugs against Ebola, trials in outbreaks will have to be done. "It would be unethical not to acknowledge that potential new treatments could both save lives and reduce transmission in this and future outbreaks," says Professor Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust. "Is it time to fast track those with clear safety data in humans for use in this epidemic?"
He believes it is essential for those with promising drugs or vaccines to be ready to go. They must have done all the preparatory work, the early testing and safety checks, have got the approval of ethical and regulatory bodies and have local and national governments as well as NGOs in the field such as Medecines Sans Frontieres on board.
"It is a complex situation, requiring very careful consideration," Farrar says. But ultimately, the only way to find out if drugs and vaccines against Ebola work is to try them out in an epidemic.
Uganda Constitutional Court Annuls New Anti-Gay Law
by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 August 2014, 13:49
Uganda's constitutional court on Friday overturned tough new anti-gay laws that had been branded draconian by rights groups, saying they had been wrongly passed by parliament.
The law is "null and void," the presiding judge told the court, saying the process had contravened the constitution, as it has been passed in parliament in December without the necessary quorum of lawmakers.
"Justice prevailed, we won," said lawyer Nicholas Opiyo, who led the challenge in the constitutional court.
The law's supporters said they would appeal the ruling at the Supreme Court.
"The retrogressive anti-homosexuality act of Uganda has been struck down by the constitutional court -- it's now dead as a door nail," said Andrew Mwenda, one of 10 petitioners.
The law, signed by Uganda's veteran President Yoweri Museveni in February, said that homosexuals should be jailed for life, outlawed the promotion of homosexuality and obliged Ugandans to denounce gays to the authorities.
But homosexuality remains illegal and punishable by jail sentences under previous legislation, which is expected to be returned after the court's decision.
Lawmakers could also seek to reintroduce a bill back into parliament, a potentially lengthy process, with the last such bill taking four years from introduction to the final vote.
But gay rights activists were celebrating on Friday.
"I am no longer criminal, today we have made history for generations to come," said Kasha Jacqueline, another petitioner and a prominent gay rights activist.
Outspoken anti-gay preacher Pastor Martin Ssempa led prayers before the hearing inside the tightly packed courtroom calling for the judges to uphold the law.
Ssempa had already warned he feared the "judicial abortion of our bill" due to international pressure, and said immediately he would appeal the ruling.
"We are determined to appeal this case at the Supreme Court," he said.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has likened the law to anti-Semitic legislation in Nazi Germany.
Critics have said Museveni signed the law to win domestic support ahead of a presidential election scheduled for 2016, which will be his 30th year in power.
But Western nations made a raft of aid cuts to Uganda's government in protest since the law was passed.
Rights groups say the law triggered a sharp increase in arrests and assaults of members of the country's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.