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« Reply #4500 on: Feb 10, 2013, 08:32 am »


Violent tide of Salafism threatens the Arab spring

A series of repressive dictatorships have been brought down in north Africa, but the ensuing struggles for power have left a vacuum that has allowed the rise of an extremist movement that is gathering both force and supporters

Peter Beaumont, Patrick Kingsley and Angelique Chrisafis,
The Observer, Sunday 10 February 2013   

Late last year, largely unnoticed in the west, Tunisia's president, Moncef Marzouki, gave an interview to Chatham House's The World Today. Commenting on a recent attack by Salafists – ultra-conservative Sunnis – on the US embassy in Tunis, he remarked in an unguarded moment: "We didn't realise how dangerous and violent these Salafists could be … They are a tiny minority within a tiny minority. They don't represent society or the state. They cannot be a real danger to society or government, but they can be very harmful to the image of the government."

It appears that Marzouki was wrong. Following the assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaid last Wednesday – which plunged the country into its biggest crisis since the 2011 Jasmine Revolution – the destabilising threat of violent Islamist extremists has emerged as a pressing and dangerous issue.

Violent Salafists are one of two groups under suspicion for Belaid's murder. The other is the shadowy, so-called neighbourhood protection group known as the Leagues of the Protection of the Revolution, a small contingent that claims to be against remnants of the old regime, but which is accused of using thugs to stir clashes at opposition rallies and trade union gatherings.

The left accuses these groups of affiliation with the ruling moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, and say it has failed to root out the violence. The party denies any link or control to the groups. But it is the rise of Salafist-associated political violence that is causing the most concern in the region. Banned in Tunisia under the 23-year regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, which ruthlessly cracked down on all forms of Islamism, Salafists in Tunisia have become increasingly vocal since the 2011 revolution.

The Salafist component in Tunisia remains a small minority, but it has prompted rows and mistrust among secularists and moderate Islamists. The Salafists are spread between three broad groups: new small political movements that have formed in recent months; non-violent Salafis; and violent Salafists and jihadists who, though small in number, have had a major impact in terms of violent attacks, arson on historic shrines or mausoleums considered to be unorthodox, demonstrations against art events – such as the violence at last summer's Tunis Arts Spring show, which was seen to be profane – and isolated incidents of attacking premises that sell alcohol outside Tunis.

It is not only in Tunisia. In Egypt, Libya and Syria, concern is mounting about the emergence of violent fringe groups whose influence has already been felt out of all proportion to their size.

In Egypt last week, it was revealed that hardline cleric Mahmoud Shaaban had appeared on a religious television channel calling for the deaths of main opposition figures Mohammed ElBaradei – a Nobel peace prize laureate – and former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahy.

In Libya in recent months, Salafists and other groups have been implicated in a spate of attacks, including the assault on the US consulate in Benghazi in which two Tunisians were suspected.

Among the countries which succeeded in removing their authoritarian leaders in the Arab spring, Tunisia has faced the greatest challenges in its transition from Salafi-inspired jihadism. These groups – once ruthlessly suppressed by Ben Ali – have re-emerged with a vengeance over the past two years.

In May last year, armed Salafists attacked a police station and bars selling alcohol in the El Kef region. A month later, a trade union office was firebombed. In September, a Salafist mob stormed the US embassy in Tunis and an American school.

If it is difficult to describe what is happening, it is because of terminology.

Although many of those involved in violence and encouraging violence could accurately be called Salafis, they remain an absolute minority of a wider minority movement that has emerged as a small but potent political force across post-revolutionary North Africa.

Although the encouragement to violence from this minority has been most marked in Tunisia, it has not been absent in Egypt.

"We've already started to see real threats," said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Centre last week. "There are many instances in Egypt where Salafis have used the language of incitement against opponents."

Last year, one Egyptian Salafi cleric, Wagdi Ghoneim, called for a jihad on protesters against President Mohamed Morsi, a demand he repeated this month. Another – Yasser el-Burhamy – reportedly banned Muslim taxi-drivers from taking Christian priests to church.

Yasser el-Shimy, Egypt analyst for the Crisis Group said: "All it takes is for one guy to take it upon himself to carry out a fatwa. But the prospects of that happening in Egypt are less – or certainly not more – than they are in Tunisia. In Egypt, there was a deeper integration of Salafis into the political process as soon as the revolution had taken place."

Most tellingly, two leading Egyptian Salafis last week condemned the death threats against ElBaradei and Sabbahi.

A spokesman for al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya – which only last week called for the crucifixion of masked Egyptian protesters known as the Black Bloc – "rejected" assassinations as a political tool, while the leader of the Nour party, Egypt's largest Salafi group, went further, criticising "all forms of violence".

Nader Bakkar, a spokesman for the Nour party, said: "The Salafis in Tunisia are not organised well and they don't have the scholars who can teach them how to deal peacefully with things that they don't like in their country. It gives you a clear vision that we will not see in Egypt what we saw happen in Tunisia."

Bakkar also argued that Shaaban, the cleric who issued the fatwa against ElBaradei and Sabbahi, had little currency in Egyptian Salafism.

"He doesn't have many followers," said Bakkar, who claimed that Shabaan came from a school of Salafism that had preached obedience to former dictator Hosni Mubarak, and whose reputation had therefore been ruined in the post-revolution period.

The main Salafist political parties, which are represented in parliament, have far more of a stake in democratic transition than in Tunisia and Libya.

In Libya, Islamist violence, in some cases inspired by Salafism, has followed its own trajectory. After more than a year of violence that came as much from the competition between rival groups who fought former dictator Muammar Gaddafi for power and influence, recent incidents have had a more jidahi flavour even as Salafist groups have attacked Sufi shrines and demanded that women be covered.

If there are differences between the strands of Salafist extremism in North African countries, there are some striking similarities. Like Egypt – as Anne Wolf pointed out in January in a prescient essay on the emerging Salafist problem in Tunisia for West Point's Combating Terrorism Centre, "certain territories … have traditionally been more rebellious and religiously conservative than others. Tunisia's south and interior, in particular, have found it difficult to deal with the modernisation policies launched by the colonial and post-independence governments, whose leaders came from more privileged areas."

And while violence – and the threat of violence – by the "minority of the minority" of Salafis has the potential to disrupt the post-revolutionary governments of the Arab spring, for the new Islamist governments it also poses considerable political problems, which are perhaps as serious.

In Tunisia, the government estimates that 100 to 500 of the 5,000 mosques are controlled by radical clerics. Although the majority of Salafists are committed to non-violence, the movement has been coloured by the acts of those following a jihadi stream.

That has created problems for Ennahda, which secular opponents suspect of secretly planning with Salafis the "re-Islamisation" of Tunisia, not least because of the government's unwillingness or inability to move against the most extreme Salafi groups.

Indeed, when an al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb cell was broken up in Tunisia last year, all its members were also found to be active in another Salafist grouping – Ansar al-Sharia, founded by Abou Iyadh. He was jailed for 43 years under ex-dictator Ben Ali's regime after being extradited from Turkey, but was freed under an amnesty for political prisoners following the 2011 revolution that ousted the president.

The jihadist strand has recently been vocal in its condemnation of the intervention by France in its former colony of Mali, which has increased anti-French feeling. Algerian officials said 11 of the 32 Islamist gunmen who overran the In Amenas gas field last month were Tunisian. Tunisian jihadists are said to have left for Syria.

For Ennahda – as a number of analysts pointed out last year – confronting extremist Salafist violence has become a challenging balancing act. Fearful of radicalising the wider movement by cracking down too hard – as the former Ben Ali regime did – it has sought instead to have a dialogue with those renouncing violence by condemning the "rogue elements". This is a policy that has led to accusations that it has been too soft or has secretly tolerated violence against secular opponents such as the murdered Belaid.

As Erik Churchill and Aaron Zelin argued in an article for the Carnegie Endowment for Peace last April, "this position opens the door for secular groups to criticise … the ruling party's actions [as] evidence of a double discourse – conservative in private and moderate in public".

In particular, Tunisia's secular leftist parties were critical of the setting up of a religious affairs ministry under Noureddine al-Khademi, an iman affiliated to the Al-Fateh mosque in Tunis, known for its Salafist presence and protests.

Khademi's office vowed that several hundred mosques in Tunisia which had been taken over by Salafist preachers after the revolution would be brought back under moderate control. Last year, his office said that around 120 remained controlled by extremist preachers, of which 50 were a serious problem.

Even MPs in Ennahda have recently woken up to the problem. Zied Ladhari, an MP for Sousse in the Assembly said the Salafist issue was a concrete part of the heritage of the Ben Ali era and "must be handled in a concrete manner".

He said violent Salafism and jihadism "presents a danger for the stability of the country", while non-violent Salafism – "a way of life and literal reading of Islam" often "imported and foreign to our society"– was something that Ennahda distinguished itself from.

"The violent element must be fought very firmly by police and the law," said Ladhari. "Then there should be dialogue with the peaceful element, in the hope of evolution through dialogue. It's more of a sociological issue than a political one."

He said social-economic issues and fighting poverty and social exclusion were crucial. He said: "We have to deal with it seriously and with courage, a drift must not take hold."

Selma Mabrouk, a doctor and MP who recently quit the centre-left Ettakatol party in protest over the coalition's stance on the constitution and power-sharing, said: "The problem is the violent strain of Salafism, not the strain of thought, because we now have freedom of expression, everyone can have their views."

She warned against an "ambiguous" stance by Islamist party Nahda and the centre-left CPR in the coalition towards street violence, hate speech and attacks which she said were going unchecked. She was also highly critical of the fact that two Salafists arrested for the US embassy attack died in prison after a long hunger strike without a proper trial procedure coming into effect.

She said: "There is this ambivalent attitude from the government, a permissivity on street violence on one side and, on the other hand, indifference to prisoners and the hunger strike."

• This article was amended on 10 February 2013. In the original a paragraph by the writers was wrongly marked as a quote from Shadi Hamid. This has been corrected.
What is salafism?

■ An ultraconservative religious reform movement within Sunni Islam, which has received backing from Saudi Arabia, Salafism calls for a return to the moral practices of the first Muslims.

■ It has incorrectly become synonymous with jihadi ideology, however. Salafists – while extremely puritanical – reject suicide bombing and violence.

■ A minority movement in Islam, it is growing and has become increasingly politically important, not least in Egypt where Salafist parties came second in last year's parliamentary elections to Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.


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« Reply #4501 on: Feb 10, 2013, 08:35 am »

New Iraqi Christian leader accuses Arab Spring of ‘promoting bloodshed’

By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, February 9, 2013 18:30 EST

The newly appointed patriarch of Iraq’s largest Christian community said on Saturday that the Arab Spring had been hijacked by narrow interests and had promoted tension and bloodshed.

Asked about the impacts on Christians of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings across the Middle East that eventually led to the ouster of strongmen in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya and the conflict in Syria, the head of the Chaldean Church Louis Sako said the changes had initially signalled hope.

“But unfortunately, it went in a different direction, and was taken over by a narrow faction,” Sako told AFP in an interview.

“We are watching the situation in the Arab Spring countries. Where is the spring? There are fights, there is tension, and there is blood and corruption.”

Sako was selected as the new patriarch of the Iraq-based Chaldean Church on February 1, replacing Emmanuel III Delly who retired in December after reaching the upper age limit of 85.

The Chaldean church, which has 700,000 followers and uses Aramaic — the language that Jesus Christ would have spoken — belongs to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world.

But along with other Iraqi Christian communities, it suffered persecution, forced flight and killings in the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, many thousands fled after 44 worshippers and two priests were killed in an attack on a Syriac Catholic church in Baghdad on October 31, 2010, an atrocity claimed by Al-Qaeda.

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« Reply #4502 on: Feb 10, 2013, 08:37 am »


February 9, 2013

Mali War Shifts as Rebels Hide in High Sahara

By ADAM NOSSITER and PETER TINTI
IHT

DAKAR, Senegal — Just as Al Qaeda once sought refuge in the mountains of Tora Bora, the Islamist militants now on the run in Mali are hiding out in their own forbidding landscape, a rugged, rocky expanse in northeastern Mali that has become a symbol of the continued challenges facing the international effort to stabilize the Sahara.

Expelling the Islamist militants from Timbuktu and other northern Malian towns, as the French did swiftly last month, may have been the easy part of retaking Mali, say military officials, analysts and local fighters. Attention is now being focused on one of Africa’s harshest and least-known mountain ranges, the Adrar des Ifoghas.

The French military has carried out about 20 airstrikes in recent days in those mountains, including attacks on training camps and arms depots, officials said. On Thursday, a column of soldiers from Chad, versed in desert warfare, left Kidal, a diminutive, sand-blown regional capital, to penetrate deep into the Adrar, said a spokesman for the Tuareg fighters who accompanied them.

“These mountains are extremely difficult for foreign armies,” said the spokesman, Backay Ag Hamed Ahmed, of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, in a telephone interview from Kidal. “The Chadians, they don’t know the routes through them.”

These areas of grottoes and rocky hills, long a retreat for Tuareg nomads from the region and more recently for extremists from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, will be the scene of the critical next phase in the conflict. It will be the place where the Islamist militants are finally defeated or where they slip away to fight again, military analysts say.

French special forces are very likely already operating in the Adrar des Ifoghas, performing reconnaissance and perhaps preparing rescue operations for French hostages believed to be held in the area, said Gen. Jean-Claude Allard, a senior researcher at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris. But African forces are likely to be assigned the brunt of the combat operations, going “from well to well, from village to village,” General Allard said.

The few Westerners who have traveled in this inaccessible region bordering Algeria say it differs from Afghanistan in that the mountains are relatively modest in size. But its harsh conditions make it a vast natural fortress, with innumerable hide-outs.

“The terrain is vast and complicated,” said Col. Michel Goya of the French Military Academy’s Strategic Research Institute. “It will require troops to seal off the zone, and then troops for raids. This will take time.”

The number of militants who remain is in dispute, with estimates varying from a few hundred fighters to a few thousand. They are becoming more dispersed and are hiding themselves ever more effectively, Western military officials say.

The French military has been flying fewer sorties over the region in recent days, “from which I deduce a lack of targets,” said a Western military attaché in Bamako, Mali’s capital, who was not authorized to speak on the record. “They are just not finding the same targets. Clearly they are hiding better and dispersing more widely.”

A ranking Malian officer stationed in the northern town of Gao said: “We don’t know how many there are. They have learned to hide where the French can’t find them.”

The militants are versed in survival tactics in the hills, supplying themselves from the nomads who pass through and getting water from the numerous wells and ponds, said Pierre Boilley, an expert on the region from the Sorbonne. Still, the sources of water are an opportunity for the French and Chadian forces, as they can be monitored without too much difficulty, experts said.

“It’s a sort of observation tower on the whole of the Sahara,” General Allard said. The fighters have had years to build installations, modify caves, and stock food, weapons and fuel, he said, and the precise locations of their refuges remain a mystery.

Even if the bulk of the militants have retreated into the mountains, pockets remain around the liberated towns of Timbuktu and Gao, said a French military spokesman, Col. Thierry Burkhard. Last week, French forces patrolling the area around Gao engaged in firefights with militants, some of whom fired rockets, officials said.

“We’re encountering residual jihadist groups that are fighting,” said Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s defense minister.

On Friday, a suicide bomber blew himself up at a military checkpoint in Gao, wounding a soldier, an act that provided further evidence of the continued threat of the militants.

The attack, from an insurgent reported to have ties to the militants who carried out the recent hostage-taking on the internationally managed gas field in eastern Algeria, could signal the opening of a campaign against French and African forces, a senior United States intelligence official said Friday.

“This is what they’re going to do — I.E.D.’s and small attacks,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, referring to improvised explosive devices, the homemade bombs that were the hallmark of insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With France insisting that its presence in the country will be short-lived, more attention has been focused on the liabilities of the tattered Malian Army and troops deployed from neighboring countries.

On Friday, there were clashes between rival factions of the Malian Army in Bamako, with gunfire heard echoing from a barracks of paratroopers hostile to the element that supported a military coup in March.

About 2,000 troops from neighboring countries have arrived, eventually to replace French troops. A Western military official in Bamako said, “There is a difference between them operating in a theater under French control and one where the French have disengaged.”

Nor have the militants been completely flushed out of the towns that France has claimed to have liberated.

Amid concerns of violent score-settling, local officials in Gao have broadcast radio messages over the past 10 days asking for the citizens to report suspects to state authorities rather than take matters into their own hands. Community leaders, including local chiefs, youth groups and imams, have held meetings to discourage acts of vengeance.

In one episode on Jan. 26, a crowd encircled an already bloodied militant whose comrades had recently abandoned Gao, recalled Dani Sidi Touré, a resident who was one of those intent on revenge.

“He said, ‘Please, for Allah’s sake, do not kill me,’ ” Mr. Touré said. “And then I took my screwdriver and stabbed him in the neck.”

Others joined in the attack. “When I tried to pull the screwdriver out, the handle came off but the metal stayed inside him,” he continued. “A man with a big knife came over and chopped him on his head. He fell to the ground, and others came with pieces of wood and big stones and started beating him.”

American officials monitoring the situation from afar said that the extremists who once controlled much of northern Mali would be difficult to eliminate from the region entirely.

“Realistically, probably the best you can get is containment and disruption so that Al Qaeda is no longer able to control territory,” Gen. Carter F. Ham, the head of the Pentagon’s Africa Command, said in a speech in Washington last month.

The authorities are investigating numerous other suspected militants as local citizens’ patrols circulate in search of the extremists and their allies, which at one time included the Tuaregs.

Adam Nossiter reported from Dakar, and Peter Tinti from Gao, Mali. Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington, and Scott Sayare and Steven Erlanger from Paris.


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« Reply #4503 on: Feb 10, 2013, 08:41 am »

February 9, 2013

Obama’s Plan to Visit Mideast Stirs Hopes, Slightly

By JODI RUDOREN
IHT

JERUSALEM — For more than two years, many Israeli and Palestinian leaders have placed blame for their stalemated peace process not only on one another but on a lack of engagement by the Obama administration. But now that President Obama and his new secretary of state have signaled plans to visit, both sides still remain skeptical that much will change.

At best, experts say, there may be movement on the margins. The United States is expected to soon release $200 million in aid to the financially ailing Palestinian Authority that it has withheld for months. There is talk of giving the Palestinians partial control over some areas of the West Bank where Israel currently rules. Israel may release some longstanding Palestinian prisoners as a gesture.

Also, some Israelis and Americans are pushing the idea of at least a partial freeze of Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank in exchange for a promise by the Palestinians to postpone plans to use their new upgraded status at the United Nations to pursue claims against Israel in the International Criminal Court.

“What’s possibly new is not to simply focus on getting to negotiations, because that’s too limited,” said Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former United States ambassador to Israel and Egypt who edited a recent book on the situation. “We have to be able to do four or five things relatively simultaneously, so that no one can say we’ve prejudiced this peace process against them. It’s like a smorgasbord. You find a little bit that’s of value to you, and there are some things you don’t like, but the whole table is something that’s accepted.”

Few expect Mr. Obama’s visit, scheduled for March 20, to yield a summit meeting between Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority. Even a return to the negotiating table feels far off, according to analysts and people inside each government.

“In the end, it’s a question of whether the two leaders are serious about actually achieving an agreement, or whether they want to maneuver to blame the other for lack of progress,” said Martin S. Indyk, another former ambassador to Israel and now the director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. “Is it a blame game, or a peace game?”

The White House has tried to lower expectations, saying the president will not come with a new peace initiative. The visit was supposed to be announced during the State of the Union address next Tuesday, but news leaked out last week as an advance team visited Jerusalem.

The president, who visited Israel as a candidate in 2008, plans to stay two days in Jerusalem. Besides meeting with Israeli leaders, he is expected to visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and the Mount Herzl cemetery, and to give a speech, either in Parliament or at a university.

Mr. Obama will most likely spend a few hours in the West Bank, sitting with Mr. Abbas and perhaps touring a development project with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

While officials in Jerusalem and Washington have been discussing details for weeks, one senior Palestinian official said the leadership in the West Bank learned about the president’s trip from news reports, which only deepened suspicions of the United States’ role.

“Coming is not enough,” said Mohammed Shtayyeh, a close adviser to Mr. Abbas. “We wait to see what he is carrying.”

The American visits come at a time of weakness and limbo for both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

After a poor showing in last month’s elections, Mr. Netanyahu is struggling to form a broad governing coalition, and how he reconciles the views of rival factions on the Palestinian conflict will help determine what is possible. Mr. Abbas, meanwhile, is hamstrung by a financial crisis, internal Palestinian political divisions and his own increasing isolation as a secular moderate in an Arab world where rising Islamist leaders are consumed by domestic concerns.

“There is next to zero chance that these two people are going to come to a final-status agreement,” said Nathan Thrall, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.

Some Israeli analysts and officials see a resumption of peace talks — even if they lead nowhere — as a tool to stem the rising tide of international criticism of Israel’s policies.

“We have to submit a proposal to the Palestinians, a decent proposal, a fair proposal,” said Amos Yadlin, a former chief of military intelligence who is now director of the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel. “If the Palestinians will accept it, it’s a win of peace. If they refuse — as we think they will — then at least we win the blame game and we can continue to shape our borders by ourselves without the need to wait for the Palestinians to agree.”

This is the nightmare situation for the Palestinians, who accuse Israel of using 20 years of negotiations as a means of managing the conflict.

“The process and the negotiations are not an end in themselves,” said Husam Zomlot, a senior official with Fatah, the party Mr. Abbas leads, who works on foreign relations. “The starting point is ‘How do we end the occupation?’ The ending point is ‘How do we end the occupation?’ In between is a process.”

If Mr. Obama’s visit, or a resumption of negotiations, derails the recent Palestinian strategy of leveraging the new United Nations status for international sanctions against Israel, Mr. Zomlot added, “it’s a disaster.”

Mr. Shtayyeh said a partial settlement freeze is a nonstarter. Still, it has been hinted at by Yair Lapid, the centrist leader whose party came in a strong second in Israel’s elections, and who was endorsed Thursday by Dan Meridor, a moderate minister from Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud Party who is leaving the government.

“All settlements in Palestine are illegal, illegitimate,” Mr. Shtayyeh said. “You pick and choose whatever suits you and ignore the rest of it — that’s not making peace; this is a joke. Our strength is that we will never say yes to something that will jeopardize our rights.”

Even as Washington appears to be resuming its historical leadership role, Europe is seeking greater influence. Leaders in Britain, France and Germany are drafting a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry outlining parameters for new peace talks, and there is much discussion of carrots and sticks that could push the parties.

Some in Europe are pressing for new sanctions against Israel, like requiring visas for travel or curtailing financing to research institutions. More likely are an expansion of labeling products that are produced in West Bank settlements, which some see as an encouragement to boycott, and more countries upgrading the Palestinians’ diplomatic status based on the new United Nations recognition, as Cyprus did on Friday.

But another challenge for moving forward is the continuing turmoil in the neighborhood.

“You’ve got an Arab Spring, you’ve got Middle Eastern governments mostly focused on their internal stability,” said Dore Gold, the president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, who is expected to soon become Mr. Netanyahu’s senior adviser. “You can’t just go up to the attic and blow the dust off a trunk and take out proposals that were put forward 15 years ago when the Middle East looked completely different.”


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« Reply #4504 on: Feb 10, 2013, 08:48 am »

February 9, 2013

Obama’s Turn in Bush’s Bind

By PETER BAKER
IHT

WASHINGTON — If President Obama tuned in to the past week’s bracing debate on Capitol Hill about terrorism, executive power, secrecy and due process, he might have recognized the arguments his critics were making: He once made some of them himself.

Four years into his tenure, the onetime critic of President George W. Bush finds himself cast as a present-day Mr. Bush, justifying the muscular application of force in the defense of the nation while detractors complain that he has sacrificed the country’s core values in the name of security.

The debate is not an exact parallel to those of the Bush era, and Mr. Obama can point to ways he has tried to exorcise what he sees as the excesses of the last administration. But in broad terms, the conversation generated by the confirmation hearing of John O. Brennan, his nominee for C.I.A. director, underscored the degree to which Mr. Obama has embraced some of Mr. Bush’s approach to counterterrorism, right down to a secret legal memo authorizing presidential action unfettered by outside forces.

At the same time, a separate hearing in Congress revealed how far Mr. Obama has gone to avoid what he sees as Mr. Bush’s central mistake. Testimony indicated that the president had overruled his secretaries of state and defense and his military commanders when they advised arming rebels in Syria.

With troops only recently home from Iraq, Mr. Obama made clear that he was so intent on staying out of another war against a Middle East tyrant that he did not want to be involved even by proxy, especially if the proxies might be questionable.

Critics on the left saw abuse of power, and critics on the right saw passivity.

The confluence of these debates suggests the ways Mr. Obama is willing to emulate Mr. Bush and the ways he is not. In effect, Mr. Obama relies on his predecessor’s aggressive approach in one area to avoid Mr. Bush’s even more aggressive approach in others. By emphasizing drone strikes, Mr. Obama need not bother with the tricky issues of detention and interrogation because terrorists tracked down on his watch are generally incinerated from the sky, not captured and questioned. By dispensing with concerns about due process, he avoids a more traditional war that he fears could lead to American boots on the ground.

“I’d argue the shift to more targeted action against A. Q. has been a hallmark of Obama’s approach against terrorism, whereas Iraq was Bush’s signature decision in his global war on terror,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to Mr. Obama, using the initials for Al Qaeda.

The Brennan hearing highlighted the convoluted politics of terrorism. Conservatives complained that if Mr. Bush had done what Mr. Obama has done, he would have been eviscerated by liberals and the news media. But perhaps more than ever before in Mr. Obama’s tenure, liberals voiced sustained grievance over the president’s choices.

“That memo coming out, I think, was a wake-up call,” said Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union. “These last few days, it was like being back in the Bush days.”

“It’s causing a lot of cognitive dissonance for a lot of people,” he added. “It’s not the President Obama they thought they knew.”

The dissonance is due in part to the fact that Mr. Obama ran in 2008 against Mr. Bush’s first-term policies but, after winning, inherited Mr. Bush’s second-term policies.

By the time Mr. Bush left office, he had shaved off some of the more controversial edges of his counterterrorism program, both because of pressure from Congress and the courts and because he wanted to leave behind policies that would endure. He had closed the secret C.I.A. prisons, obtained Congressional approval for warrantless surveillance and military commissions, and worked to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

So while Mr. Obama banned harsh interrogation techniques, he preserved much of what he inherited, with some additional safeguards; expanded Mr. Bush’s drone campaign; and kept on veterans of the antiterrorism wars like Mr. Brennan. Some efforts at change were thwarted, like his vow to close the Guantánamo prison and to try Sept. 11 plotters in civilian court.

“These are the same issues we’ve been grappling with for years that are uncomfortable given our legal structures and the nature of the threat, but the Obama team is addressing these issues the same way we did,” said Juan Carlos Zarate, who was Mr. Bush’s deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism.

Peter D. Feaver, a Duke University professor and former Bush national security aide, said Mr. Obama “believed the cartoon version of the Bush critique so that Bush wasn’t just trying to make tough calls how to protect America in conditions of uncertainty, Bush actually was trying to grab power for nefarious purposes.”

“So even though what I, Obama, am doing resembles what Bush did, I’m doing it for other purposes,” Mr. Feaver added.

Others said that oversimplified the situation and ignored modifications that Mr. Obama had enacted. “It is a vast overstatement to suggest that President Obama is channeling President Bush,” said Geoffrey R. Stone, a University of Chicago law professor who hired a young Mr. Obama to lecture there. “On almost every measure, Obama has been more careful, more restrained and more respectful of individual liberties than President Bush was.”

“On the other hand,” Mr. Stone added, “at least in his use of drones, President Obama has legitimately opened himself up to criticism for striking the wrong balance” between civil liberties and national security.

Particularly stark has been the secret memo authorizing the targeted killing of American citizens deemed terrorists under certain circumstances without judicial review, a memo that brought back memories of those in which John Yoo, a Justice Department official under Mr. Bush, declared harsh interrogation legal.

That broad assertion of power, even with limits described by administration officials, combined with the initial White House refusal to release even a sanitized summary of the memo touched off protests from left and right. Some called Mr. Obama a hypocrite. But Mr. Yoo himself saw it differently, arguing in The Wall Street Journal that the memo, whatever the surface similarities to his own, betrayed a flawed vision because it presented the issue in law enforcement terms rather than as an exercise of war powers.

Michael V. Hayden, the C.I.A. director under Mr. Bush, said that if Mr. Obama learned one thing from experience it should be that controversial programs require public support to be sustained. “Err on the side of being open, at least with Congress,” he said. “Otherwise you’re going to find yourself in a politically vulnerable position.”

For four years, Mr. Obama has benefited at least in part from the reluctance of Mr. Bush’s most virulent critics to criticize a Democratic president. Some liberals acknowledged in recent days that they were willing to accept policies they once would have deplored as long as they were in Mr. Obama’s hands, not Mr. Bush’s.

“We trust the president,” former Gov. Jennifer Granholm of Michigan said on Current TV. “And if this was Bush, I think that we would all be more up in arms because we wouldn’t trust that he would strike in a very targeted way and try to minimize damage rather than contain collateral damage.”

But some national security specialists said questions about the limits of executive power to conduct war should not depend on the person in the Oval Office.

“That’s not how we make policy,” said Douglas Ollivant, a former national security aide under Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama and now a fellow at the New America Foundation. “We make policy assuming that people in power might abuse it. To do otherwise is foolish.”


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« Reply #4505 on: Feb 10, 2013, 08:54 am »

February 9, 2013

Russian Protest Leader Put Under House Arrest

By ANDREW ROTH and ELLEN BARRY
IHT

MOSCOW — A Moscow district court ordered Sergei Udaltsov, a prominent opposition leader, to be placed under house arrest on Saturday, in one of the most assertive legal measures to date against a leader of the anti-Kremlin protests that began more than a year ago.

Mr. Udaltsov, the leader of the radical socialist Left Front movement, faces a charge of conspiracy to incite mass disorder under a statute that can bring a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. According to Saturday’s ruling, he may not leave his house, use the Internet, receive letters or communicate with anyone outside his family and legal team until April 6, the current date for the end of the investigation into his case.

The ruling seemed to signal a new stage in the government’s effort to punish well-known critics of President Vladimir V. Putin. Though most of the prominent protest leaders have served short sentences for administrative violations and several are the subject of criminal inquiries, none has yet been held or brought to trial on criminal charges.

The authorities may have held back from jailing protest leaders like Mr. Udaltsov for fear of inciting a backlash from opposition sympathizers. Mr. Udaltsov has a particular ability to mobilize young men and is one of the few opposition leaders to focus on economic issues relevant to Russians outside large cities. A passionate public speaker and the great-grandson of a prominent Bolshevik, Mr. Udaltsov stood out among the Moscow protesters, many of them middle-class Russians who distance themselves from calls for revolution.

Outside the courtroom, Mr. Udaltsov said that he had broken no laws and that the house arrest order had a “strictly political character.”

“They have gotten to the point of open fabrication and lies,” he said. “My civic activity just angers the authorities, angers law enforcement structures, and they are taking steps to isolate me from taking part in civic life.”

During Saturday’s hearing, prosecutors also claimed that Mr. Udaltsov had threatened to attack his wife, Anastasia, and that she at one point had fled to Ukraine with their children. A judge refused to allow Mr. Udaltsov’s wife to testify in court on Saturday, but she told the daily newspaper Novaya Gazeta that the accusation was “a total lie.”

Mr. Udaltsov has been accused of attacking the police and of rioting at an anti-Putin demonstration that ended in clashes between the riot police and protesters last May, and of attempting to organize antigovernment riots in cities across Russia.

Mr. Udaltsov has been under a travel ban since October, but prosecutors said that he had gone outside Moscow and continued to lead public rallies while under investigation.

A statement from investigators charged that Mr. Udaltsov “has not lived at his registered address for a long time, his mobile telephone is often switched off, making it difficult to summon the accused to investigators.” The statement also said Mr. Udaltsov “does not inform the investigation of his factual location.”

Saturday’s ruling came at the request of the powerful Investigative Committee, which has recently revived several stalled criminal investigations against Russian opposition leaders including Aleksei Navalny, a popular blogger and corruption whistle-blower.

Mr. Udaltsov, in his closing arguments, told the judge that if he was placed under house arrest, he would like the state to afford him a 13-room apartment, a cook and a maid — a reference to the house-arrest conditions reportedly granted to a Defense Ministry official facing corruption charges.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: February 9, 2013

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Sergei Udaltsov’s family ties. He is the great-grandson of a prominent Bolshevik, not the grandson.

********

February 9, 2013

Russia Detains 271 People During Security Raid in St. Petersburg

By ELLEN BARRY
IHT

MOSCOW — Russian police and security officials in St. Petersburg detained 271 people, mostly migrants from Central Asia and the North Caucasus region, during a raid on Friday on Muslim prayer rooms at a central market. They said the raid was carried out to check residency permits and to eliminate networks of religious extremists planning terrorist attacks.

A statement published Friday night by the regional investigative committee said the authorities were verifying the documents of the detainees, who include citizens of Azerbaijan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as well as an Egyptian and an Afghan.

The federal migration service began deportation procedures on Saturday for 10 of the detainees, and about 30 were found to be in violation of Russian migration laws, an official told the news agency RIA Novosti.

The police said one man from southern Russia, Murat Sarbashev, was suspected of distributing extremist literature and video clips showing terrorist acts in 2010 and 2011.

Video broadcast on Russian television showed heavily armed riot police officers pulling men out of the market and pushing them into waiting buses.

Security officials in St. Petersburg say an extremist group is operating in the city and has been planning terrorist attacks. The raid was intended to uncover “extremist literature, weapons, objects and documents relevant to criminal cases, and people who have carried out such crimes,” the statement said. The authorities have opened a case and are searching for evidence pointing to the incitement of terrorism and hatred; a conviction on that charge carries a maximum sentence of seven years in prison.



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« Reply #4506 on: Feb 10, 2013, 08:56 am »

Bulgarian Roma face division between Christians and Muslims

By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, February 9, 2013 18:00 EST

Nothing illustrates better the arrival of a new wave of Islam among Roma in Bulgaria’s southern town of Pazardzhik, whose imam Ahmed Mussa is on trial for spreading radical ideology, than the appearance of women in niqabs.

“I’ve covered like this for the past two, three years to keep myself for my husband only and make sure I go to heaven,” says Habibe, 35, her dark eyes glittering under the black full-face veil.

A former Christian, she converted to Islam and changed her name from Milka.

Her blue-eyed friend, Lyudmila, now Melek, says Islam opened “an ocean of knowledge” to her, compensating for being taken out of school at the age of 14 to prevent her from “being stolen and forced into an early marriage.”

Habibe and Melek bought their black made-in-Turkey niqabs from the local store of their “sister” in religion, Shasine, the wife of imam Ahmed Mussa.

“Only the most fervent believers wear the niqab,” Shasine, who is also a converted Christian, says, adding that most women from Bulgaria’s indigenous 13-percent Muslim minority wear only a headscarf.

But her husband Mussa can no longer travel to Turkey to supply their small store.

He was put on trial last year along with 12 other imams, mufti Islamic scholars and teachers for alleged “dissemination of an anti-democratic ideology by propagating the preachings of the Salafite branch of Islam that seeks to impose a caliphate state”.

All the accused pleaded not guilty to the charges but 38-year-old Mussa is particularly apprehensive about the trial.

He is the only one in the group who has already received a suspended sentence for spreading radical Islamist ideas in 2003.

He meets AFP surrounded by a bunch of other men, who all wear long black beards. Like the women’s niqabs, long beards are not customary among the rest of Bulgaria’s Muslims.

Himself an ex-Christian called Angel, Mussa says he discovered Islam in 2000 while working in construction in Vienna.

A Muslim community there sheltered him and other workers and even paid for their medical examinations. He came back to Bulgaria and studied Islam in a mosque school in the southern village of Sarnitsa.

His tutor there, imam Said Mutlu, has studied in Saudi Arabia and is the key accused in the trial.

The unprecedented court case, which brought Mussa’s small community into the spotlight, is bogged down after most of the key witnesses refused to confirm their initial testimony against the defendants in court.

One of them had quoted Mussa as saying they should “bow to those who cut heads in the name of their faith, blew themselves up or set bombs.” Mussa rejected the accusations.

He said political parties were against Muslim religious leaders who did not encourage voting: “Religion does not say we should vote. We do not bow our heads to anyone but Allah.”

He hints he might have been targeted out of jealousy by the Christian evangelist priests competing for followers among the 14,000 souls in his Roma neighbourhood.

“Before, I believed that God was Mohammed,” says Yanka, 50, the wife of the local evangelist priest Sasho Yankov.

The Roma couple converted from Islam to Christianity after the “miraculous” healing from cancer of Sasho’s mother, “saved” by the prayers of her Christian friends.

A former Muslim herself, Yanka however turns hostile when word comes to her niqab-clad neighbours: “They scare people off. Let them go to Iran, Syria. This is a Christian country.”

Muslims, Christians or non-believers, the Roma in Pazardzhik all agree on one point: thefts, pimping and prostitution were reduced thanks to the new Islam and evangelist preachers.

“While the state disappeared from the Roma ghettos and traditional religions did not do anything, the evangelists started to play a social role in the 1990s,” says minority researcher Alexey Pamporov, who did a project here in 2011.

“The Protestant preachers convinced the outcasts to stop drinking and dress neatly. They found jobs, lived better and believed that God worked a miracle with them,” he adds.

As to the niqabs and the beards, Pamporov shrugs: “Their appearance is shocking and has the air of some kind of demonstration because of the trial.”

Other minority experts share his view.

“In Bulgaria, Islam is democratic and well adapted to the Christian surroundings,” he explains.

The court’s next hearing on the imams trial is on February 18.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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« Reply #4507 on: Feb 10, 2013, 09:00 am »

Chavez’s continuing disappearance leaves Venezuela in suspense

By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, February 9, 2013 17:30 EST

Hugo Chavez vanished from public view two months ago Sunday, with Venezuela still in suspense over its political future despite assurances its cancer-stricken president is getting better and back in charge.

The latest information on Chavez’s condition came Friday from Vice President Nicolas Maduro, who read a message from the ailing leader after visiting him in the Cuban capital Havana where he has been convalescing from a fourth round of cancer surgery.

“I am in a process of slow recovery, but I am in the battle,” Maduro read.

In Chavez’s absence, and ostensibly with his approval, his government has begun to move on some pressing issues, announcing a steep devaluation of the national currency on Friday.

The bolivar’s markdown from 4.3 to 6.3 to the dollar had been widely expected because of pressures created by soaring deficits and a scarcity of dollars, which in turn has led to shortages of imported staples.

“Shortages are on the rise along with inflation and government spending has decelerated,” said a report by consulting firm Ecoanalitica, which said “Chavez’s absence has made the economy take a back seat.”

Senior government officials, who have been shuttling between Caracas and Havana, insist Chavez is becoming more and more engaged and will return to the Venezuelan capital “sooner rather than later,” as Maduro put it.

But they don’t say when he will return, or whether he will be able to govern, while the opposition has stepped up its demands that the president appear in public.

“It does not help the government in terms of public opinion to continue prolonging this circumstance,” political analyst John Magdaleno told AFP.

“On the one hand, it is said that the president is in full exercise of his faculties as head of state, but on the other there have been no appearances in public or even a note on Twitter,” he said.

Sunday also will mark a month since Chavez, who was re-elected in October, was supposed to have been sworn in to a new six-year term.

Too sick to return for his inauguration, Chavez has been allowed to delay his swearing in indefinitely. In the meantime, his old administration has been extended in office until he is fit to take the oath of office.

But the longer the uncertainty continues, the more it puts in question a controversial Supreme Court decision to uphold the extension with no time limits, Magadaleno said.

Maduro, who Chavez named as his choice to succeed him if he became incapacitated, has meanwhile become the government’s most visible face.

He is seconded by National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello, a former military officer who took part in a failed coup led by Chavez in 1992.

They have coupled announcements of government decisions signed by Chavez in Havana with a virulent offensive against the opposition, calling for the arrest of two opposition lawmakers.

The lawmakers are from the Justice First party led by Henrique Capriles, an opposition leader who lost to Chavez in October presidential elections but went on to win reelection in December as governor of the populous state of Miranda.

“This tells you that people in the government could be preparing for an election and for this reason are using brute force against a key party like (Justice First),” said Jose Vicente Carrasquero, a political science professor at the Universidad Simon Bolivar.

Since his operation in Havana December 11, Chavez has not been seen in public or even in photographs, a vanishing act all the more striking because he had been an omnipresent, flamboyant figure before he fell ill in June 2011.

The disclosure that he suffered a serious lung infection after the latest round of surgery set off of wave of rumors inside and outside the country, with some claiming he was dead or in a coma.

Outside of the vague government updates on his health, little is known about his condition. There have been no independent assessments.

None of the Latin American presidents who visited Havana since his operation have said they saw him.

Argentine President Cristina Kirchner, as she left Havana January 12, sent an enigmatic tweet: “In minutes we depart from Havana. Hasta Siempre.”

The phrase, which translates as “Until Forever,” evoked the song “Hasta siempre, comandante,” dedicated to Ernesto “Che” Guevara on his departure from Cuba to lead a guerrilla uprising in Bolivia where he was captured and killed in 1967.

Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, a former guerrilla, told Chavez supporters at a huge rally in Caracas January 10: “There is a man who is fighting for his life, who is in all your hearts, which makes sense. But if tomorrow he is not here, unity, peace and work.”

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

********

February 9, 2013

Venezuela, Despite Troubles, Proudly Seizes On a Hat

By WILLIAM NEUMAN
IHT

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela seems to lurch from one crisis to another. President Hugo Chávez has virtually disappeared since going to Cuba for cancer surgery more than eight weeks ago. Last month, 58 people were killed in a prison when inmates clashed with soldiers. Inflation is spiking, the government just announced a currency devaluation and lurid murders are the stuff of daily headlines.

But high on the list of government priorities last week was an unexpected item: baseball caps.

Even in a country where political theater of the absurd is commonplace, the great cap kerfuffle took many Venezuelans by surprise.

It all started over the summer, when a young state governor, Henrique Capriles, ran for president against Mr. Chávez. Mr. Capriles started wearing a baseball cap decorated with the national colors — yellow, blue and red — and the stars of the Venezuelan flag.

In response, the electoral council, dominated by Chávez loyalists, threatened to sanction Mr. Capriles for violating a rule against using national symbols in the campaign. The move struck many people as patently partisan because Mr. Chávez regularly wore clothes made up of the national colors and patterned on the flag and used vast amounts of government resources to promote his re-election.

Suddenly, the tricolor cap became a symbol of Mr. Capriles’s underdog campaign, and soon it could be seen everywhere, on the noggins of his supporters.

But Mr. Capriles lost the election in October, and the cap was mostly forgotten. Until now.

At a rally on Monday to celebrate the anniversary of a failed 1992 coup led by Mr. Chávez, a host of government officials unexpectedly pulled out caps like the one Mr. Capriles had made famous and put them on.

Had Mr. Chávez’s top cadre switched sides? Nothing of the sort.

“It is the cap of the revolution,” Vice President Nicolás Maduro said from the stage. “They can’t steal it like they’re accustomed to stealing it.”

He held up the hat, which had a small emblem commemorating the coup’s anniversary, and shouted, “Cap in hand! Tricolor in hand, everyone!”

A day later, at a session of the National Assembly, legislators on both sides of the aisle showed up wearing caps. The chamber looked like the stands at a baseball game.

All of this has given rise to plenty of jokes.

“The cap — expropriate it!” said one wag on Twitter, referring to a famous episode when Mr. Chávez, a socialist, in what seemed like a spontaneous act, ordered the nationalization of several buildings in the center of Caracas.

Then came a new twist on Thursday night, when the government interrupted regular television and radio programming with a special broadcast. Anxious Venezuelans worried about Mr. Chávez’s long absence might have wondered if they were about to get an update on the president’s health.

Nope. The two-minute broadcast consisted of images of Mr. Chávez, at various points of his 14-year presidency, wearing the tricolor cap.


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« Reply #4508 on: Feb 10, 2013, 09:15 am »


British sugar giant caught in global tax scandal

Associated British Foods accused of Zambia tax avoidance after sending massive profits abroad

Daniel Boffey, policy editor
The Observer, Saturday 9 February 2013 22.00 GMT   

Link to video: Sugar manufacturer Associated British Foods avoids paying corporate tax in Zambia

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KF-sqSU1lxU

One of Britain's biggest multinationals, whose brands include Silver Spoon sugar, Twinings Tea and Kingsmill bread, is avoiding paying millions of pounds of tax in an African state blighted by malnutrition, a year-long investigation revealed on Sunday.

The Zambian sugar-producing subsidiary of Associated British Foods, a FTSE100 company, contributed virtually no corporation tax to the state's exchequer between 2007 and 2012, and none at all for two of those years.

The firm, Zambia Sugar, has recently posted record pre-tax profits and its huge plantation is increasing its capacity to produce more sugar for markets in Europe and Africa. Yet it paid less than 0.5% of its $123m pre-tax profits in corporation tax between 2007 and 2012.

The company benefits from generous capital allowance and tax-relief schemes in Zambia, but the investigation also found that it funnels around a third of its pre-tax profits to sister companies in tax havens, including Ireland, Mauritius and the Netherlands. Tax treaties between Zambia and some of those countries mean the state's revenue authorities are unable to charge their normal tax on money leaving their shores.

The revelations are contained in a report published by ActionAid, which exposes how Zambia Sugar has kept its contribution to the state's exchequer so low, although the company says that globally it actually pays a higher rate of tax on its profits than it otherwise would due to its corporate structure.

It is estimated that the tax haven transactions of this one British headquartered multinational deprived Zambia of a sum 14 times larger than the UK aid provided to the country to combat hunger and food insecurity.

ActionAid's findings will heap more pressure on the chancellor, George Osborne, to make progress in closing gaps in international tax standards and tackling avoidance at the G20 meeting of world leaders this week and the G8 in June.

The total loss to tax avoidance by multinationals in the developing world is estimated to be around £70bn a year, enough to save the lives of 85,000 children under the age of five in the world's poorest countries every 12 months, campaigners say.

The deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, who will visit Africa this week, said on Thursday that tackling those "gaming the system, seeking to play us all for fools" will be a priority for the UK government when it chairs the G8.

Link to video: ActionAid explain how they exposed tax avoidance by a British company in Zambia

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CkHqbnOYXRs

But Ivan Lewis MP, the shadow international development secretary, said rhetoric needed to be matched by action. "ActionAid's report underlines the urgent need for David Cameron and George Osborne to match their tough talk on tax avoidance with meaningful action."

Sir Malcolm Bruce, chair of the cross-party Commons select committee on international development, said: "I would like to think Associated British Foods' board will now say, 'Are we really being fair to the Zambians?'"

Lord Oakeshott, the Liberal Democrat peer and a former economist for the Kenyan ministry of finance, said: "We must start by changing the law here, so big businesses like ABF must show the tax they actually pay in each country where they operate, and explain fully in each case why it is so far below the headline corporation or profits tax rate."

Zambia Sugar admits it has paid "virtually nothing in corporation tax" in recent years due to capital allowances and reliefs granted to it by the Zambian tax authorities to finance its expansion, including one obtained by taking the Zambian government to court.

ActionAid's report reveals, however, the existence of an additional array of transactions that reduce Zambia Sugar's taxable profits in the African state, while the structure of others avoids Zambian taxes that are ordinarily levied on foreign payments.

The report focuses, in particular, on annual $2.6m payments to an Irish sister company whose accounts have repeatedly stated that it has no employees. Associated British Foods says this is an accounting error, but even the latest accounts filed on the 28 January, after the firm was presented with ActionAid's findings, repeat the allegedly erroneous statement.

Chris Jordan, a tax specialist at ActionAid and co-author of the report, said: "This is a really shocking case where the Associated British Foods group has gone to great lengths to ensure it pays virtually no corporation tax in a very poor country. Tax avoidance is not victimless financial engineering. In Zambia 45% of children are malnourished and two-thirds of the population live on less than $2 a day."

A spokesman for ABF's subsidiary company, Illovo, the immediate owner of Zambia Sugar, said: "We deny emphatically that Illovo is engaged in anything illegal, immoral or in any way designed to reduce the tax rightly payable to the Zambian government. We are proud of Zambia Sugar and the major contribution it makes to the Zambian economy.

"Since 2008 Illovo has invested £150m to double the production capacity in Zambia and so create the largest sugar mill in Africa. This mill and related activities provide employment for more than 5,000 people. Capital allowances on this investment have resulted in no corporate tax being payable since the investment was made.

"The availability of these allowances, used by governments all over the world, has nothing to do with tax avoidance. African governments should be as free as any other to attract investors.

"Payments made by Zambia Sugar for the services of third-party contractors, expatriate personnel in Zambia and export services provided by Illovo, are made at cost … there's no artificial reduction in profit in Zambia Sugar.

"These payments are made to overseas companies, largely for historical reasons, and are not driven by tax considerations. ActionAid could not be more mistaken."

***********

As Zambians demand fair tax rates, a British sugar giant grows fat

In a country where malnutrition and poverty are still rife, multinationals remove $2bn a year from the economy through tax avoidance. It's legal – but is it moral? And should the government and UK companies take a stand?

Daniel Boffey, policy editor
The Observer, Saturday 9 February 2013 23.22 GMT   

On the main road to the home of Zambia Sugar Plc, a large sign advises visitors: "Welcome to Mazabuka – 4km to the sweetest town in Zambia."

Lying around 100km south-west of Zambia's capital, Lusaka, the town has been described by the chief executive of Zambia Sugar's parent company as an island of "relative prosperity" in a country where malnutrition and poverty are still rife.

George Weston, 48, who earns £918,000 a year plus an annual bonus of £864,000 leading Associated British Foods, is right. Jobs created by Zambia Sugar in and around its Nakambala Sugar plantation in the Mazabuka district are vital to local livelihoods.

And it is a growing business, an important part of the Kingsmill bread, Primark clothing, Silver Spoon sugar, Twinings Tea and Ryvita crackers empire. The plantation and factory made record profits in 2012 and is expected to exceed 400,000 tonnes of sugar production this year for its Europe and Africa markets.

But as ActionAid's report into Zambia Sugar's tax arrangements notes: "Even amidst Mazabuka's lush green cane fields, the availability of overstretched public services is sometimes literally a matter of life and death. Such public services rely, of course, on everyone paying their due taxes."

Mazabuka's Nakambala Urban health centre say two malnourished children die every month with it. At the school, 1,200 children fit into 12 classrooms in shifts taught by 20 teachers.

The local public services need cash from the government, and the state is reliant on almost 20% of its income from corporation tax and taxes on money leaving the country. Yet between 2007 and 2012 Zambia Sugar paid less than 0.5% of its pretax profits in corporation tax. Between 2008 and 2010, it paid no corporation tax at all.

The company says "as a direct result of our investment in Zambia since 2008, the availability of substantial capital allowances has led to virtually no corporate tax being payable". It also benefits from other tax reliefs, including one for farmers which it won after taking the government to court in 2007.

But ActionAid's year-long investigation into the complex corporate structure around Zambia Sugar suggests there is a more troubling story behind the numbers. A third of the company's pre-tax profits – more than $13.8m a year – are paid out of Zambia via tax haven sister companies located in countries where taxes have been, currently are, or are likely to be, lower than in the African state.

Before the Zambian taxman gets to it, the company pays large "purchasing and management" fees to an Irish sister company which does not employ a single member of staff, according to its company accounts. Money can flow freely from Zambia to Ireland untroubled by the taxman due to a bilateral treaty.

Associated British Foods says it has repeatedly made accounting errors and it actually has 20 people in Ireland doing "real work". Yet they were peculiarly absent when ActionAid phoned and visited the offices in Dublin to find that neither the telephone operator nor receptionist had heard of the company.

The firm also pays $3m a year to a sister company in Mauritius for access to "trade contacts with customers in the European sugar market, transportation of sugar to Europe, foreign currency management and the availability of cost effective credit terms". Yet when an ActionAid investigator, posing as someone taking a survey of staff, called the director of the Mauritius holding company and asked how many employees they had, he was told: "One … it's me."

The company says that the fees to Mauritius and Ireland are rolled up into their tax liability in South Africa, where they are taxed at 28%. Yet accounts show that in 2011/12 the entire tax liability in South Africa was $308,000 – the equivalent of just 4% of the $7m fees paid by Zambia Sugar to Ireland and Mauritius.

The company says this is because the fees do not provide a taxable profit. It adds that its corporate structure means profits are actually hit with a higher tax rate globally than they would be if left in Zambia. Either way, whatever the motive, or the tax paid elsewhere, that cash is not benefiting Zambians, says ActionAid.

And the complexity of the financial engineering does not end there. To fund its expansion last year, Zambia Sugar borrowed $70m from two commercial banks. The loan is in the Zambian currency kwacha and secured on Zambia Sugar's estate and assets in Mazabuka, and it is repaid via a Lusaka branch of Citibank Zambia.

Yet, on paper, the loan is actually to the Irish subsidiary. Why? ABF told ActionAid: "Interest on loans to Zambia Sugar from such banks would have been subject to [Zambian] withholding tax. The banks would therefore have increased their interest charge to compensate for this."

Finally there is the issue of distributing Zambia Sugar's profits back to its parent company. If the company's immediate owner was in Ireland, dividends leaving that country would be subject to tax.

So Zambia Sugar's immediate owner is a Dutch co-operative. The owners of Dutch "cooperatiefs", in this case companies in Mauritius and Jersey, are classed as members rather than shareholders so the income they receive is not classified as taxable dividends. And under this structure Zambia can only apply a 5% tax on the cash leaving its shores, a smaller rate than normal because of a tax treaty between the Netherlands and Zambia.

ABF told ActionAid that "dividends paid from the Netherlands to Mauritius is taxed at 3%. Had they been paid directly to South Africa there would have been no tax to pay, further demonstrating that this structure was not created to avoid tax".

ActionAid in response notes that dividends paid directly from Zambia to South Africa are taxed in Zambia at 15%, a tax which this structure avoids. "We are not arguing that this structure was entirely created to avoid tax but that it has this effect," ActionAid adds.

None of this, says Sir Malcolm Bruce MP, chair of the Commons select committee for international development, means Associated British Foods is one of the "bad guys". It employs 1,848 permanent and 3,530 seasonal employees, who pay taxes on their wages.

The company is involved in constructing a block for a local girls' school, a road, a radio station and sponsors schools athletics and football clubs, among other initiatives.

But Zambia should not have to rely on charity, Bruce adds. He says: "It is about applying moral pressure and there is evidence that respectable corporations are susceptible to moral pressure.

"I would like to think their board will say: 'Are we really being fair to the Zambians? Should we be paying a bit more tax in Zambia?' The issue it raises with me is that there is a global need for greater transparency and the principle that tax laws and tax treaties recognise that the economic value of what is being taxed is geographically anchored. It is not to say you can't have global headquarters and administration offshored but the profits from the economic activity are taxed in the country.

"It is very difficult, and we will probably never get a system that is any way like perfect, but there are clearly situations at the moment where countries are losing out badly."

Until the Starbucks and Amazon scandals in the UK, tax avoidance simply had not been top of the UK government's list of priorities, let alone that of the rich western states as a whole.

ActionAid says that if multinationals, many of which are respectable in other ways, such as ABF, paid the full tax on their economic activity in developing countries, then countries such as Zambia could truly be in control of their own destinies.

The charity says that rich states, and in particular those that will be represented at the G20 meeting of world leaders in Moscow this week, need to look past handouts, welcome as they are. They need to tackle avoidance of tax, which is "the most important, sustainable and predictable sources of public finance for almost all countries".

Next June the UK will chair the G8, and tax avoidance in developed and developing countries is now top of the agenda.

The challenge has been set – and the signs are that, this time, it may be met.

Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, is visiting Ethiopia and Mozambique next week to discuss what is needed and to gather support for Britain's plans for greater transparency and more effective tax regimes. And transparency is not the vacuous concept some may claim it to be, according to Zambia's vice-president, Guy Scott.

Scott, talking to the Observer on Friday, said the key was to know how much was being earned in Zambia and then to find a reasonable estimate for the actual costs of offshore administration and management for firms so that his government could hold the multinationals to account.

Tax avoidance has been a hot political potato in the country with the government estimating it loses around $2bn a year from it, and with the country's mining companies being the biggest culprits. Scott hopes the furore surrounding the issue will prompt some solutions. He said: "It's difficult, but it's a Zambian government priority. The issue is how do you compute all this stuff and expose this. All we can do is what we are doing is tightening up on the auditing of the quantities.

"These things [management fees] do have a price but the question is how much other stuff is going out. So the ministry of finance has announced that he is going to make sure that he captures what is going out. We used to have two very nasty Englishmen working in the tax department here who used to spend their whole time chasing the miners up and down. And catching them out on all sorts of things. That was a long time ago but that is what you need – nasty people. Zambia's problem is that we are too nice."

Saviour Mwamba, a director at the non-governmental Centre for Trade Policy and Development, who has set up the Zambia Tax Platform in Lusaka to push the government for greater scrutiny and efficacy, is more critical of his government.

"What is important to recognise the limited capacity for individual governments, especially Zambian governments to deal with this problem", he said. "So we are trying to push governments to be more committed to work together. One of the things we are pushing for is a review of tax treaties and bilateral investment treaties, but that needs international co-operation.

"The G8 needs to go beyond the usual minimalist changes and look for far-reaching changes that deal with these problems in a meaningful way and move beyond the rhetoric."

ActionAid agrees. It wants ABF and others to make Mazabuka a sweeter place.

To read ActionAid's full report and ABF's full response, go to actionaid.org.uk/taxjustice



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« Reply #4509 on: Feb 10, 2013, 09:20 am »

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02/08/2013 03:17 PM

Shifting Constellations: Europe Eyes China in Space Race

By Kevin Holden Platt in Beijing

As America has reduced its space funding and capabilities, the European Space Agency has turned to the new rising power in space: China. Though obstacles remain, collaboration could one day take a European-Chinese crew to the moon.

A contingent of astronauts and instructors from the Paris-headquartered European Space Agency (ESA) recently found themselves attempting to navigate an alien frontier: the Beijing training base for taikonauts, China's new space explorers.

Joining the week-long visit in January to the Astronaut Center of China were representatives of ESA's Human Spaceflight Directorate, along with a young European astronaut who is studying Chinese. Just weeks earlier, a group of Chinese taikonauts had visited the European Astronaut Center in Cologne.

Some ESA higher-ups have been pushing for strengthened spaceflight ties with China, which launched its first manned capsule into orbit a decade ago. The January gathering in Beijing was just the latest in a whirlwind of high-level exchanges aimed at mulling and perhaps shaping a new European-Chinese space alliance.

Last spring, after viewing the liftoff of an Ariane rocket bound for the International Space Station (ISS), one director of the Chinese space agency urged speeding up joint space endeavors. But the heads of its ever-expanding program have yet to issue a formal invitation for a European astronaut to join the crew on a mission using China's Shenzhou spacecraft.

In Europe, Thomas Reiter, the former space station astronaut who now leads ESA's Human Spaceflight Directorate, is spearheading the drive to forge closer ties with China. In early 2012, Reiter told SPIEGEL: "Our goal is that, within the current decade, a Chinese spaceship will dock at the International Space Station or a European spaceship will dock at the Chinese space station."

Obstacles to Cooperation

But several obstacles stand in the way of Reiter's goals of European-Chinese space collaboration.

    First, any new space pact covering joint operations with Chinese astronauts will require approval by ESA's 20 member states.

    Second, proposals to transform Europe's space freighter, the Automated Transfer Vehicle, into a capsule capable of transporting astronauts are still awaiting ESA approval. But Pål Hvistendahl, the ESA's head of media relations, says there are currently "no plans ESA-side on our own crew capsule."
    Third, there is substantial resistance in the United States Congress to allowing China to become an ISS partner. "Due to Chinese espionage in the aerospace industry, this remains a hot-button issue on Capitol Hill," says Clay Moltz, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, in Monterey, California, and author of the 2011 book "Asia's Space Race."

The US has also been bombarded with a barrage of cyberattacks from China. With military-like precision, hackers have hit an array of American targets, including the email accounts of members of the US House of Representatives, Google's central servers, NASA's high-security database and major newspapers, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Chinese membership in the space station, says Moltz, "would require US consent, and it seems very unlikely to be forthcoming before at least 2020."

But even in the face of American opposition, at least technically, any ISS partner could use its allocation of astronaut slots to invite a single Chinese taikonaut, rather than an entire Shenzhou spacecraft, to visit the station. Russia might do this, Moltz predicts, "in order to make a political statement."

Efforts to get the Chinese to the globe-orbiting station could echo 1975's Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, when Cold War combatants Washington and Moscow crafted their first link-up in space. The event heralded the end of a nearly two-decade long space race between the two superpowers and ultimately paved the way for their joint construction of the ISS.

Reliance on Russia and China

Meanwhile, in its 2011 report, NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) warned that "there is a greater-than-30-percent chance that the ISS could sustain a (loss of mission) sometime during its projected operating life." Since August 2011, when the US mothballed its aging Space Shuttle fleet, NASA has relied solely on Roscosmos, its Russian counterpart, to transport American astronauts to the ISS. But a series of failures over the past two years has raised doubts about the reliability of the Russian launchers.

In December 2012, Scott Pace, the director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, cited the report when speaking before Congress on NASA's strategic direction. Pace testified that ASAP "believes that continued reliance on a single, foreign (launch) system could result in the temporary or permanent abandonment of ISS prior to its end-of-life, resulting in an unplanned, potentially uncontrolled deorbit significantly earlier than the 2020s."

In other words, following a worst-case chain reaction of missteps -- including, for example, a life-threatening accident, emergency evacuation and then failure to be able to rocket a rescue team up in time to save the station -- the ISS could plunge back to Earth like a giant missile.

To prevent such a catastrophe, scientists at the Paris-based International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) are urging ISS partners to approve contingency plans guaranteeing that there are at least two alternative launch systems available for getting humans to the ISS. Since Russia and China are now the only powers in a position to get astronauts into space, the group recommends that Beijing's Shenzhou spacecraft be retrofitted with American or European docking equipment for future ISS missions.

In its 2010 report entitled "Future Human Spaceflight: The Need for International Cooperation," the academy also called on Europe to develop a spacecraft capable of taking humans into orbit and beyond, and recommended "reciprocal access to the ISS and Chinese space stations for international cooperation."

Internally, "ESA has been discussing ... with its partners whether and how the ATV could become human-rated," and its possible role in averting an accidental destruction of the ISS, says IAA member and Italian rocket designer Claudio Bruno.

But Pace, who co-edited the report, cautioned that proposed Shenzhou missions to the ISS, jointly piloted by Chinese and American astronauts, would depend on improved political ties between the rival superpowers.

A Change in Space Leadership

While the heads of China's space program are screening elite cadets to deploy on a new mission to the Sky Palace-1 orbital spacelab in June, they are also finalizing plans to land a robotic explorer on the moon as well as to test a new Long March 5 rocket designed to transport the first taikonauts to the lunar surface.

"China is on track to become the world's leading space-faring nation," says Michael Griffin, who headed NASA between 2005 and 2009. "They have some ground to make up, but today are in the No. 2 position, behind Russia, in the only metric that really counts: the capacity to conduct an independent human spaceflight program."

China's steady advances in sophisticated rocketry and human spaceflight have coincided with a series of retreats by NASA over the past four years.

Griffin, a physicist and aerospace engineer by training, is widely regarded within the American space community as one of the agency's greatest leaders. This is primarily attributed to his former role as the chief architect of blueprints to create a human settlement on the moon starting in the 2020s.

These ambitious plans envisioned a powerful Ares V rocket, Orion capsule and Altair lunar lander to get Americans back on the moon, where they could establish a permanent human outpost. But the White House terminated the so-called Constellation program in 2010, roughly a year after Griffin had left NASA, citing budgetary reasons. Although Congress rallied to save the Orion spacecraft and to order the development of an alternative booster, America's entire human spaceflight program is severely underfunded and lacks an overarching vision.

As a result, says Griffin, the US hasn't just lost its ability to launch astronauts into space for the time being. It has also ceded its long-standing position as the world's leader in manned spaceflight to Russia and China.

With Beijing's space advances and NASA's retrenchments, Griffin adds that, if it wanted to, "China could take the lead in developing a lunar base in the 2020s."

Within NASA, Griffin was also an early backer of proposals to send human explorers to Mars, which could even be inhabitable. But NASA's current disarray is making the prospect of seeing American astronauts land on the red planet seem ever more remote.

Europe Forges Closer Ties with China

In contrast, two years ago, ESA joined forces with the Astronaut Center of China and Russia's Federal Space Agency to launch Mars500, a simulated mission that lasted 520 days and included a 30-day sortie on a virtual Martian surface.

The simulation tested the ability of a crew of six -- three Russian cosmonauts, two European astronauts and one Chinese taikonaut -- to withstand a long-duration flight with only sporadic radio contact with Earth and together complete a joint mission.

The Mars500 experiment "will for sure help us in defining the best conditions for a successful human mission to Mars," says Jennifer Ngo-Anh, who headed the project and is based at the European Space Research and Technology Center in the coastal Dutch town of Noordwijk.

Ngo-Anh says that selecting a Mars500 crewmember from the Astronaut Center of China signaled that the ESA "is very keen on collaborating with our Chinese colleagues."

This collaboration and desire for more raises one question: If Washington continues to resist spaceflight cooperation with Beijing, could Europe, Russia and China instead agree on their own joint mission to Mars with a mixed crew such as the one used in the Mars500 simulation?

"Without question, Russia, China and ESA could … begin work on a joint program to mount the first expedition to Mars," says Griffin, who now sits on the board of Stratolaunch Systems, an Alabama-based start-up launched by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen that aims to revolutionize space transportation.

"It will take awhile to develop and execute such a mission no matter who does it, but the overall technical capability of these societies, especially Europe, is such that they can easily do it if they want to," Griffin says. "The question is one of societal will and commitment, not one of basic technical feasibility."


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« Reply #4510 on: Feb 10, 2013, 09:23 am »

February 8, 2013

Azerbaijan Is Rich. Now It Wants to Be Famous.

By PETER SAVODNIK
IHT

In March 2010, Ibrahim Ibrahimov was on the three-hour Azerbaijan Airlines flight from Dubai to Baku when he had a vision. “I wanted to build a city, but I didn’t know how,” Ibrahimov recalled. “I closed my eyes, and I began to imagine this project.” Ibrahimov, one of the richest men in Azerbaijan, is 54 and has a round, leathery face with millions of tiny creases kneaded in his brow and the spaces beneath his eyes. He walks the way generals walk when they arrive in countries that they have recently occupied. In the middle of his reverie, Ibrahimov summoned the flight attendant. “I asked for some paper, but there wasn’t any. So I grabbed this shirt in my bag that I hadn’t tried on. I took the tissue paper out, and in 20 minutes I drew the whole thing.”

Once he arrived in Baku, Ibrahimov went straight to his architects and said, “Draw this exactly the way I did.” Avesta Concern, the company that governs his various business interests, subsequently commissioned the blueprints for Ibrahimov’s vision. The result will be a sprawling, lobster-shaped development called Khazar Islands — an archipelago of 55 artificial islands in the Caspian Sea with thousands of apartments, at least eight hotels, a Formula One racetrack, a yacht club, an airport and the tallest building on earth, Azerbaijan Tower, which will rise 3,445 feet.

When the whole project is complete, according to Avesta, 800,000 people will live at Khazar Islands, and there will be hotel rooms for another 200,000, totaling nearly half the population of Baku. It will cost about $100 billion, which is more than the gross domestic product of most countries, including Azerbaijan. “It will cost $3 billion just to build Azerbaijan Tower,” Ibrahimov said. “Some people may object. I don’t care. I will build it alone. I work with my feelings.”

It’s not surprising that Ibrahimov, who plans to live in the penthouse of Azerbaijan Tower, had his epiphany on a flight from Dubai. The vision behind Khazar Islands, after all, is not a vision so much as a simulacrum of a vision. The fake islands, the thousands of palm trees and the glass and steel towers — many of which resemble Dubai’s sail-shaped Burj Al Arab hotel — are all emblems of the modern Persian Gulf petro-dictatorship. And two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union — its final custodian during 23 centuries of near-constant occupation — Azerbaijan could be accused of having similar ambitions. The country, which is about the size of South Carolina, has 9.2 million people and is cut off from any oceans. It builds nothing that the rest of the world wants and has no internationally recognized universities. It does, however, have oil.

In 2006, Azerbaijan started pumping crude from its oil field under the Caspian Sea through the new Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. Now, with the help of BP and other foreign energy companies, one million barrels of oil course through the pipeline daily, ending at a Turkish port on the northeastern corner of the Mediterranean Sea. This makes Azerbaijan a legitimate energy power (the world’s leading oil producer, Saudi Arabia, produces 11 million barrels every day) with a great deal of potential. If the proposed Nabucco pipeline, running from Turkey to Austria, is built, Azerbaijan would become a conduit for gas reserves, linking Central Asia to Europe. This could strip Russia, which sells the European Union more than a third of the gas it consumes, of one of its most potent foreign-policy levers. It could also generate billions of dollars every year for Azerbaijan, which between 2006 and 2008 had the world’s fastest-growing economy, at an average pace of 28 percent annually.

Sitting on a couch in the temporary headquarters at the construction site of his future city, Ibrahimov mulled the possibilities. The headquarters, which looks like a very modern log cabin, features a big conference table, flat-screen televisions, a bar, pretty assistants and a dining table that is always set. There is a gargantuan portrait of the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, hanging from a wall, next to the bar. Spread out on the conference table were blueprints for Khazar Islands, which looked like battle plans. Men in leather jackets picked from crystal bowls filled with nuts and dried fruit and caramels in shiny wrappers.

Ibrahimov had slept five hours, he said, but was not tired. He started the day with an hourlong run, followed by a dip in the Caspian Sea, followed by a burst of phone calls over breakfast, followed by meetings with some people from the foreign ministry, then the Turks, then his engineers and architects. Now, while sipping tea, Ibrahimov’s attention was back on Khazar Islands, which he insisted was not modeled after Dubai. “Dubai is a desert,” he said. “The Arabs built an illusion of a country. The Palm” — a faux-island development in Dubai — “is not right. The water smells. Also, they built very deep in the sea. That’s dangerous. The Palm is beautiful to look at, but it’s not good to live in.”

Ibrahimov paused and took a sip of tea. The tiny creases of his face bunched up under his eyes, which looked off into the distance, out the tiny window of the faux log cabin, toward the construction site. He said that he was put off by the inorganic feel of Dubai, the sense that it was so . . . ephemeral. “Everything,” he said dismissively, “is artificial.”

Few countries have come as far in mastering the art of geopolitics as Azerbaijan. After being occupied by Cyrus the Great, Alexander the Great, the Seljuks, the Mongols, the Persians, the Russians, the Ottomans and, finally, the Soviets, Azerbaijan, which achieved its independence in 1991, has cultivated relationships with the United States and many European countries and deepened relations with Russia and key Central Asian “stans.” These days, Azerbaijan, which is overwhelmingly Muslim, buys advanced weapons systems from Israel in return for oil. A new member of the United Nations Security Council, the country sided with the United States against Russia last year on a resolution condemning Syria. “This is a very small country on a very significant piece of real estate,” says Matthew Bryza, the former U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan. “Azerbaijan pursues a very realpolitik policy.”

In the old days, they came for geography (Azerbaijan is perched on the Caspian). About a century ago, they started coming for oil. Then, after the Soviet Union collapsed, the energy sector became a source of enormous wealth. Now Azerbaijan is trying to take advantage of that wealth. As such, Avesta’s sales and marketing team recently produced a gleaming 101-page coffee-table book in a gilded box promoting Khazar Islands. It features photographs of men in Italian suits and women with pouty faces; everyone drinks wine and is on a cigarette boat or in a Mercedes convertible. There’s also a video that shows computer renderings of Khazar Islands in the not-too-distant future. The video lasts 5 minutes 6 seconds and includes an image of a make-believe skyline at night and another of Ibrahimov on a cellphone in front of a private jet, even though, he conceded, he doesn’t own one.

Two things about the video are striking. First, there isn’t any information about asking prices, square footage, move-in dates or why anyone would want to live in Baku. And then there’s the soundtrack, which is a synthesized blast of violins, harps, horns and snare drums that makes you feel as if you’re riding a stallion in the desert in the 1980s.

The day before my three-hour flight from Moscow to Baku last spring, Avesta’s sales and marketing director at the time, Kenan Guluzade, flew to the Russian capital to hand-deliver the book and DVD to me at a Starbucks. Guluzade said he had to be in Russia anyway, but he was also worried that, as a journalist, I might not get into Azerbaijan. Guluzade came with his assistant and his father, who sported an elegant, silk scarf and a tailored jacket. Guluzade spoke quickly, in English. “It’s really nice to feel attention to our construction project,” he said, and then he handed me a fancy shopping bag with the DVD and the book. His father sipped a latte. “The new Baku is stunning,” his father said. Then Guluzade said: “This is true. It’s amazing what is happening.”

When I arrived in Baku, the first of the Khazar Islands had already been plunked down, and the first few apartment buildings were going up. The entrance featured a menacing, falconlike archway. Boulevards and traffic circles had been paved, and there were long strips of palm trees — “Mr. Ibrahimov loves palm trees,” Nigar Huseynli, Ibrahimov’s assistant, said — and everywhere there seemed to be mounds of earth and retaining walls and the concrete outlines of future cineplexes and shopping malls. Amrahov Hasrat, who was the chief engineer at Khazar Islands, told me that 200 trucks brought in rocks every day from a bluff eight miles away. “We are destroying the mountain,” Hasrat said, pointing off into the distance in the direction of a hill, “and taking the rocks back to the sea to build the artificial islands.”

In some ways, though, reality is already taking shape. When Guluzade met me in Starbucks, 96 apartments had been sold. Two days later, that figure inched up to 102. Now, it’s 136. The asking prices run from about $280 to $460 per square foot, meaning a typical 1,076-sqare-foot apartment at Khazar Islands starts around $300,000. Ibrahimov expects geometric growth after 2015, when they’re scheduled to break ground on Azerbaijan Tower.

Western financial analysts and real estate developers are understandably skeptical. For one thing, there’s President Ilham Aliyev’s regime, which opposes political competition and other reforms that would diversify its economy and spur the long-term growth needed for this kind of mega-project. There’s the fact that no one has ever tried anything this ambitious in Azerbaijan. Finally, this is a rough neighborhood. The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, an autonomous region within the country, raged between Azerbaijan and Armenia from 1988 to 1994 and has never really been resolved. Russia could invade Georgia, as it did in 2008. There’s the chance of an American or Israeli strike on Iran, Azerbaijan’s southern neighbor. Last month, riots raged for two days in Azerbaijan as people protested local corruption in Ismayilli.

Yet Ibrahimov, sitting behind the blueprints in his log cabin, remained extremely optimistic. Azerbaijan, with its new money and undeveloped coastline, offers “biznessmen” from the former Soviet Union — a group that might be defined as importers, exporters, government officials who dabble in the private sector, people who aspire to be Ibrahim Ibrahimov — an affordable nearby playground. As of late 2011, according to WealthInsight, a market research provider, there were nearly 160,000 so-called high-net-worth individuals in Russia alone, with a combined worth of nearly $1 trillion. Even Turkmenistan, the North Korea of the former Soviet Union, is building a luxury development, Avaza, which also has fake islands and reportedly will cost $5 billion and sit on the Caspian’s eastern flank.

It was crucial, Ibrahimov told me, to visualize what everything will look like in 2022, when Khazar Islands is supposed to be finished. He pointed outside the small window, to the sea. “That is where it will be,” he said, referring to Azerbaijan Tower. “In the water. Can you see it?”

Some in Baku already can. Indeed, the most crucial factor underpinning the project is that President Aliyev’s regime seems to want Khazar Islands built. Ilgar Mammadov, chairman of the pro-democracy Republicanist Alternative Movement, characterized Khazar Islands as an inexorable beast. The country’s international strategic monetary reserves are now more than $46 billion, Mammadov said, and in 10 years, as oil and gas revenue rise, they could be near $150 billion. “Azerbaijan has the capacity to build the tallest building,” Mammadov said, a hint of lamentation in his voice. “That’s not in doubt. We will create this big building, and then it will, by itself, by the very mere fact of its existence, bring cash. How will that work? Nobody knows.”

Ibrahimov was sitting in the back seat of a black Rolls-Royce as it tore across island No. 1 of his soon-to-be built archipelago. Nigar Huseynli, his 23-year-old assistant, was sitting up front in a black and white floral-print skirt, black tights and rectangular black sunglasses. She seemed to be vaguely worried, always. She wore a great deal of perfume that, she said, came from Italy. “When he’s in Azerbaijan,” Huseynli said, “Mr. Ibrahimov always drives in his black Rolls-Royce. In Dubai, he has a red one.”

Before I arrived in Baku, Huseynli tried to convey just how much power Ibrahimov wields in his country. But it wasn’t obvious until I landed at Heydar Aliyev International Airport and showed the passport-control officers a letter from Huseynli stating that I would be meeting with Ibrahimov. The letter included Ibrahimov’s name and signature at the bottom, and it seemed to frighten, shock and amaze all at once. A crowd of guards and customs agents gathered around and stared in silence.

Ibrahimov seems to be vaguely aware of the numinous glow that envelopes him. He is supremely concrete, focused on things like buildings, cars, hand-held devices, jeans or which country he’d like to be in right now, but in a manner that suggests he can have whichever of those things he desires most. As the Rolls sped past large knots of men in hard hats and jumpsuits, he sent text messages and juggled cellphones. His son called. Then the Qatari ambassador. Then someone who annoyed him. A television screen positioned three feet in front of the seat that Ibrahimov always sits in blared music videos, and some girl group was singing a two-minute riff called “Take Me Away.”

Ibrahimov, who sported blue Stefano Ricci crocodile-skin shoes that matched his blue Stefano Ricci jeans, blue Zilli jacket and blue Zilli button-down shirt, tapped his foot arrhythmically. Every time I started to ask a question or he started to answer, there was a call or an incoming message. Occasionally Ibrahimov said something random that could be mistaken for something profound: “I live very simply,” or “My favorite places are France and Turkey.”

When Ibrahimov talks about himself, he hews to platitudes about, say, family (“it is important”) or how to get ahead in ex-communist countries (“instinct”). They are lessons he seems to have internalized. Ibrahimov was born in a village in the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic, a sliver of Azerbaijan wedged between Armenia and Iran. He has four brothers and two sisters. He called his father a “good Soviet” and a major influence in his life, but some suspect that Heydar Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s previous president, played a more important role.

Aliyev, a former Politburo member, also came from Nakhichevan. In 1991, he became de facto leader of the autonomous republic, just as the Soviet Union was falling apart and Ibrahimov was starting his first business, a limited-liability corporation called Ilkan. It’s unclear what Ilkan made or sold — Ibrahimov said only that he made his first million, in 1992, in the furniture business — but in the early ’90s, according to Avesta company literature, Ibrahimov built a three-story headquarters for Ilkan in Nakhichevan, which would probably have been very hard without support from someone powerful. Then, in 1993, Aliyev became president of Azerbaijan, and in 1996, Ibrahimov began Avesta. “Mr. Ibrahimov has always had very good relations with the government,” Guluzade, Khazar Islands’ former marketing director, told me.

Today Avesta oversees Ibrahimov’s many smaller companies. Some of these companies do things that seem to actually support Ibrahimov’s larger, development-related projects (building things, hauling equipment, clearing debris). Others, like the Azerbaijan-Iran Gunel Joint Enterprise, suggest more political interests. Opposition figures say that Ibrahimov owes much of what he has to the Aliyev family, but when I asked Ibrahimov about this, he shrugged. He said Avesta is not only a corporation but also a philanthropy, building water pipelines and mosques for poor villagers. He called Heydar Aliyev, who died in 2003, his inspiration, and he made a point of saying, more than once, that he likes Aliyev’s son, the current president, very much and thinks that he is guiding his country toward a more glorious and profitable future.

As Ibrahimov spoke, the Rolls trundled over an unpaved road. He maintained, always, the outlines of a barely discernible grin, and every few seconds he would point at something that wasn’t there but he could already see perfectly, that had been part of his vision. The Azerbaijan Tower, he proclaimed, would definitely be in Guinness World Records, and if the Saudis or Emiratis or anyone anywhere tried to build a bigger building, then he would build an even bigger one.

I asked him if there was anything Freudian about all these skyscrapers. He didn’t reply. Then suddenly, Ibrahimov blurted a series of unprompted factoids in his faux-profound style. First, “One hundred and fifty bridges are planned for Khazar Islands.” Then, in what seemed like a reference to his love of yachts: “Today the Caspian is only used for oil, but it’s not right.” Huseynli pointed at a cluster of recently planted palm trees. This seemed to cheer him up.

On some level, there is an economic logic behind building the tallest, biggest, brashest building anywhere. The rise of superdevelopments in cities like Doha, Riyadh, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai — and, of course, Abu Dhabi and Dubai — sent signals to investors that the state supported growth. Usually, these sorts of developments attract the attention, first, of regional investors who know the local topography, which Khazar Islands has already done. “They’re coming from Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, the Arabic countries and especially from Israel,” Guluzade told me. Next are the more skeptical international investors that Ibrahimov is hoping to impress. Hence the Azerbaijan Tower. “The investor is faced with this battery of choices,” explained Brian Connelly, a strategic-management professor at Auburn University’s College of Business. “But there are things they can’t see, so they’re looking for a signal that tells them this is good for them. If I can see that there’s the tallest building in the world, I know the host-country institutions are behind them.”

Riding around in the Rolls, I couldn’t tell whether Ibrahimov was indeed a brilliant strategist or someone who just had the capital to create a vision on a piece of tissue paper and turn it into a construction project. Or perhaps both. As we neared the site of what will be the ritziest restaurant at Khazar Islands, he became very excited. The concrete and aluminum skeleton of the restaurant resembles a Viking helmet, and when it’s done, it will include a microbrewery, which Ibrahimov mentioned two or three times. “We have a guy from Austria,” he said. Nearby, there were more men in hard hats and jumpsuits, and trucks carting rocks. “In my head,” he said, “this project is already done.”

Ibrahimov is not the only developer in Baku, and Khazar Islands is not the only major development. Flame Towers, which features three flamelike towers, includes a five-star hotel and, at night, will be lighted in red. The Heydar Aliyev Center, designed by Zaha Hadid, includes a museum and looks a little like the starship Enterprise. Baku White City will encompass 500-plus acres of new apartments and parking lots and is supposed to be the opposite of Black City, where the oil barons built their refineries a century ago. Finally, there’s Crystal Hall, a 23,000-seat arena overlooking the Caspian.

Nearly three years after Ibrahimov’s initial vision on the Azerbaijan Airlines flight, Khazar Islands has grown to 4 fake islands, 1 bridge and 13 apartment buildings. All this development can feel a bit weird, or at least incongruous. As the Rolls careered through the outskirts of Baku, Ibrahimov became quiet. Unlike the United Arab Emirates, which was, until recently, a desert, Baku has a rich architectural history, with centuries-old mansions, mosques, palaces, squares and esplanades. (Some sites date to at least the seventh century.) Baku has a grace and cosmopolitanism; it feels like an amalgam of Paris and Istanbul, albeit dustier. It also feels like a gateway to the East, distant places, mythologies and many other things that the new Azerbaijan doesn’t have much appetite for. I interpreted Ibrahimov’s silence as a sign of melancholy, but in the front seat, Huseynli, who was fielding calls on two or possibly three cellphones, each with its own hip-hop ring tone, turned around excitedly. Glancing at the beige facades, the narrow streets, the old women selling apricots and nuts and pirated DVDs, she said: “All of this soon will be gone. Then we will have a new city. I like the old, of course, the historic. . . . But this will be gone, and then it will be a different country.”

When we pulled up to the Avesta Concern Tower, in central Baku, several men in tweed jackets were assembled on the curb and ready to escort us inside. After lunch in Ibrahimov’s private dining room, we decamped to the office and sat on a red silk divan with miniature Sphinx armrests. Ibrahimov pointed out his artifacts: his desk, which, he said, is Spanish and the same kind used by Vladimir Putin; a chess set from Italy; a sculpture of his father.

Ibrahimov segued back to Ilham Aliyev, the Boss of All Bosses, whom he called a great supporter, an ally, the son of the savior of the people of Azerbaijan. I asked him about other features of his regime: the lack of transparency, the lack of civil liberties, the detention of opposition activists. Ibrahimov said what oligarchs have been saying since Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian industrialist, was exiled to Siberia in 2003: “I don’t know anything about politics.” But “biznessmen” are much more intimately woven into the political fabric of Russia or Azerbaijan than C.E.O.’s in the West. They may wear crocodile-skin shoes, but they rely on the state for pipelines and extraction rights.

Ibrahimov, like other successful men in this part of the world, knows his place, and he knows it is best to be philosophical about these things. “Don’t ask me about politics,” he said. “I’m afraid I’ll make a mistake. This is not what I’m good at. This is not what I do.” Then his semismile semiwidened, and he started talking about his next big idea, which features more stratospheric buildings and superlong canals and eight-star hotel-palaces and heliports and yacht clubs. He was sure all these things could be done. He knew it. There were important people — “political people,” he said — who support him.

Peter Savodnik is the author of “The Interloper,” a book about Lee Harvey Oswald in the Soviet Union, to be published in October.

Editor: Jon Kelly


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« Reply #4511 on: Feb 10, 2013, 09:25 am »

‘Shackleton’ expedition stranded by wild weather

By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, February 9, 2013 10:01 EST

Two adventurers attempting to recreate an epic 1916 Antarctic expedition by Ernest Shackleton were Saturday stranded on a plateau above a glacier after wild weather hit the final leg of their journey.

British-Australian expedition leader Tim Jarvis and mountaineer Barry Gray were stuck at Shackleton’s Gap, but had assured their team that they were doing well, although cold and wet, and would continue when the weather clears.

Four other members of the expedition and film crew recreating Shackleton’s journey over a mountain in South Georgia to an old whaling station at Stromness have already been evacuated due to the extreme conditions.

“They are both experienced mountaineers and they’ve said they will continue with the expedition unsupported when there is a break in the weather,” crew member Paul Larsen said.

The team is aiming to recreate one of the greatest ever survival tales and has already completed Shackleton’s crossing of the Southern Ocean in a lifeboat from Elephant Island off the Antarctic Peninsula to rugged South Georgia.

The final leg is a two-day climb to 900 metres (2,950 feet) over the mountainous, crevassed interior of South Georgia to reach the whaling station where Shackleton and his men raised the alarm about the sinking of their ship, the Endurance.

For the journey the men have worn only the traditional gear of early last century while during the boat trip they used only the equipment, navigational instruments and food available to Shackleton.

Their team said Saturday that Jarvis and Gray had spent 12 hours “hunkered down” in a tent to ride out the storm, which has seen wind gusts of 45 knots along with driving rain, sleet and snow, freezing temperatures and zero visibility.

Two fellow crewmen had braved the conditions to restock the pair with food and other provisions, but did so wearing modern climbing gear. Those provisions would last them until Monday.

Along with Norway’s Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole in 1911, Australian explorer Douglas Mawson and Briton Robert Falcon Scott, Shackleton was among the great Antarctic explorers.

When he set off on his third trip to the region in 1914 with the ship Endurance, he planned to cross Antarctica via the South Pole.

But the vessel became trapped in 1915, and sank 10 months later as it was crushed by the advancing ice. Shackleton and his crew lived on the floating ice until April 1916, when they set off in three small boats for Elephant Island.

From there, Shackleton and five crew made the treacherous voyage to South Georgia, reaching their destination 16 days later to face the mountainous trek.

All members of the Endurance mission were eventually rescued with no fatalities.

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« Reply #4512 on: Feb 10, 2013, 09:27 am »

NASA rover Curiosity collects its first Mars bedrock sample

By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, February 9, 2013 16:30 EST

In a first, the Mars rover Curiosity has penetrated a rock on the Red Planet and collected a sample from its interior, the US space agency announced Saturday.

Using a drill at the end of its robotic arm, Curiosity bore a hole 0.6 inches (1.6 centimeters) wide and 2.5 inches (6.4 centimeters) deep into the rock, generating powder for evaluation, NASA said in a statement.

“The most advanced planetary robot ever designed now is a fully operating analytical laboratory on Mars,” said agency official John Grunsfeld.

“This is the biggest milestone accomplishment for the Curiosity team since the sky-crane landing last August, another proud day for America.”

The rock Curiosity targeted — described as flat and veiny — is believed to hold evidence about “long-gone wet environments,” NASA said, adding it is named “John Klein” in memory of a Mars Science Laboratory deputy project manager who died in 2011.

Over the coming days ground controllers will command the rover’s arm to carry out steps to process the sample.

Beforehand, however, some of the powder will be checked for contamination that may have made it onto the hardware while Curiosity was still on Earth.

Creating a tool that could handle “unpredictable” Martian rocks was no easy task, according to NASA.

“To get to the point of making this hole in a rock on Mars, we made eight drills and bored more than 1,200 holes in 20 types of rock on Earth,” said engineer Louise Jandura.

The $2.5 billion mission, set to last at least two years, aims to study the Martian environment to prepare for a possible future manned mission.

US President Barack Obama has set a goal of sending humans to the planet by 2030.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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« Reply #4513 on: Feb 10, 2013, 09:55 am »

In the USA...

Arkansas law jails tenants who don’t pay their rent

By David Ferguson
RawStory
Saturday, February 9, 2013 13:05 EST

Under a state law in Arkansas, renters can be imprisoned for failing to pay their rent. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, titled “Pay the Rent or Face Arrest: Abusive Impacts of Arkansas’s Criminal Evictions Law,” hundreds of tenants each year are taken to court, fined and jailed under the state’s “failure to vacate” law.

“The failure-to-vacate law was used to bring charges against more than 1,200 Arkansas tenants in 2012 alone,” read the report. “This figure greatly understates the total number of people impacted by the law. The vast majority of tenants scramble to move out when faced with a 10-day notice to vacate rather than face trial — and with good reason.”

The report continued, “Making matters considerably worse, the law strongly discourages accused tenants from pleading not guilty. Those who do are required to deposit the total amount of rent they allegedly owe with the court, which they forfeit if they are found guilty. Tenants who are unable to deposit the rent amount but plead not guilty anyway face substantially harsher fines and up to 90 days in jail. Tenants who plead guilty face none of this.”

Landlords and corrupt public officials have frequently abused the law, which is unlike landlord-tenant law in any other state in the union. HRW reported, “Several of the tenants interviewed for this report were confronted at home or at work by police officers who had warrants for their arrest. One woman was berated in open court by a district judge, who compared her to a bank robber.”

Another woman was repeatedly charged under the law based on false reports from the man she bought her house from, even though she had paid for it in full. In another situation, “Human Rights Watch interviewed one tenant whose landlord got an arrest warrant issued against her just three days after ordering her to move out.”

According to the Arkansas Times, a state commission recommended changes to the law in January. Calling Arkansas landlord-tenant law “significantly out of balance,” the non-legislative study group urged 15 major reforms “intended to even the playing field between landlords and tenants.”

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February 09, 2013 02:00 PM

Religious Fanatics on Texas State Board of Education Rewrite Teaching,Textbook Standards

By Diane Sweet
RawStory

From PBS, "The Revisionaries" is an important look at how a few right wing religious fanatics duped a state into teaching kids in public schools that evolution and creationism in science class, and that students need to be taught about the importance of the "Heritage Foundation" in history textbooks.

Once every decade, the highly politicized Texas State Board of Education rewrites the teaching and textbook standards for its nearly five million schoolchildren. When an unabashed creationist seeks re-election as chairman, the theory of evolution and U.S. history are caught in the crosshairs, which could impact the classroom curricula not only of Texas, but also of the nation as a whole.

This is a must see in order to keep it from happening in other states.

    In Austin, Texas, 15 people influence what is taught to the next generation of American children. Once every decade, the highly politicized Texas State Board of Education rewrites the teaching and textbook standards for its nearly five million schoolchildren. And when it comes to textbooks, what happens in Texas affects the nation as a whole. Texas is one of the nation's largest textbook markets because it is one of the few where the state decides what books schools can buy rather than leaving it up to local districts, which means publishers that get their books approved can count on millions of dollars in sales. Further, publishers craft their standard textbooks based on the requirements of the biggest buyers. As a result, the Texas board has the power to shape the textbooks that children around the country read for years to come.

    Don McLeroy, a dentist, Sunday school teacher, and avowed young-earth creationist, leads the Religious Right charge. After briefly serving on his local school board, McLeroy was elected to the Texas State Board of Education and later appointed chairman. During his time on the board, McLeroy has overseen the adoption of new science and history curriculum standards, drawing national attention and placing Texas on the front line of the so-called “culture wars.”

    In his last term, McLeroy, aided by Cynthia Dunbar, an attorney from Houston and professor of Law at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, finds himself not only fighting to change what Americans are taught, but also fighting to retain his seat on the board. Challenged by Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, and Ron Wetherington, an anthropology professor from Southern Methodist University in Texas, McLeroy faces his toughest term yet.

    The Revisionaries shines a spotlight on the key players effecting U.S. high school textbooks, with characters representing a wide array of personalities and desires. Some see the board as a stepping-stone to future political success. Others see it as their ordained quest to preserve the teachings of the Bible. Still others see it as their duty to ensure that their children, who are in the public schools, have access to the best possible education that will prepare them to compete for jobs in the global marketplace. In all of this, one thing is assured, these board members are in the right place at the right time. They have the opportunity to affect a generation of Americans.

    Filmed for over three years, filmmaker Scott Thurman has captured all of the intense debates, vote trading, and compromises amongst the board members. He shows the back room discussions between the board members and the experts, and is with them as they make their decisions. But, first and foremost, The Revisionaries is about people, those few passionate citizens who are fighting to shape the course of American education, and the future of America with it.

The Revisionaries is 55 minutes long, and you can watch it here or here at PBS's website.

http://video.pbs.org/video/2325563509

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February 9, 2013

Holding States and Schools Accountable

By MOTOKO RICH
NYT

As Congress contemplates rewriting No Child Left Behind, President George W. Bush’s signature education law, legislators will tussle over a vision of how the federal government should hold states and schools accountable for students’ academic progress.

At a Senate education committee hearing on Thursday to discuss waivers to states on some provisions of the law, Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, forcefully urged the federal government to get out of the way.

“We only give you 10 percent of your money,” said Mr. Alexander, pressing John B. King Jr., the education commissioner for New York State. “Why do I have to come from the mountains of Tennessee to tell New York that’s good for you?”

Dr. King argued that the federal government needed to set “a few clear, bright-line parameters” to protect students, especially vulnerable groups among the poor, minorities and the disabled.

“It’s important to set the right floor around accountability,” Dr. King said.

Despite repeated efforts over the last five years, Congress has failed to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Act, the law that governs all public schools that receive federal financing. The No Child version, passed in 2001, provoked controversy by holding schools responsible for student performance on standardized tests, dubbing schools that do not meet targets failures and requiring strict interventions like the replacement of a school’s entire teaching staff.

Since early last year, the Obama administration has granted waivers to 34 states and the District of Columbia, relieving them from what many argued was the law’s most unrealistic goal: making all students proficient in math and reading by 2014. In exchange, the administration has demanded that the states raise curriculum standards and develop rigorous teacher evaluations tied in part to student performance on standardized tests.

Critics have argued that the Obama administration has been too prescriptive in these waiver requirements, and that a new education law should leave most decisions about schooling up to states and districts.

Dictating education policy from Washington can engender unintended consequences. At the Senate hearing, Education Secretary Arne Duncan noted that 19 states had “dummied down standards” under the No Child Left Behind law. Critics also say the law has compelled educators to teach to the tests and set off a spate of cheating scandals.

In addition, huge gaps remain between the performance of poor and minority children and more affluent and white children. And while some states have raised scores on reading and math tests, others have shown little progress.

“Even with the rigor of No Child Left Behind, the difference in improvement by the states is vast,” said John E. Chubb, the interim chief executive of Education Sectors, a nonpartisan policy group. “The federal government has not found the right tools as yet.”

In one respect, the Obama administration’s waivers have actually loosened federal pressure by allowing schools to show that students are improving over time rather than requiring that they all hit an absolute benchmark.

In testimony before the Senate committee, Mr. Duncan said the waivers encouraged states to experiment and use other measures of progress, like graduation rates.

“The federal government does not serve as a national school board,” Mr. Duncan said. “It never has, and it never should.”

Still, spurred by efforts to qualify for the waivers and the administration’s Race to the Top grant program, 31 states now require that teacher evaluations be based in part on growth in student achievement on standardized tests, according to the Education Commission of the States.

Critics have complained that the policies have exacerbated the reliance on test results.

“We’ve tried testing again and again, and it hasn’t worked,” said Jesse Hagopian, a teacher at Garfield High School in Seattle and a leader of a group of teachers who are boycotting a test typically given in January. “It doesn’t cultivate the type of thinking we need, and it doesn’t bring in the resources that we need to make students successful.”

Senator Alexander, who as governor of Tennessee helped push through an early version of performance-based pay for teachers partly linked to student test scores, said the current federal push threatened to create more opposition to testing.

“Many superintendents and schools think that they are being forced to bite off more than they can chew,” Mr. Alexander said in an interview on Friday. “There’s this view that somehow you become smarter and more compassionate about children and education if you buy an airplane ticket to Washington.”

The Senate education committee passed a bill in the fall of 2011, but it has not come up for a vote in the full Senate. The committee chairman, Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, helped shepherd a bipartisan version that did not require schools to evaluate teachers based on test scores.

In an interview on Friday, Mr. Harkin said he would support requiring such evaluations, as long as other measures, like principal observations or student surveys, were included. “We need some standards out there that are national in scope,” he said.

Mr. Harkin’s home state has so far failed to secure a federal waiver because it does not impose teacher evaluations on districts. Jason Glass, the director of the Iowa Education Department, said the Legislature was considering a bill that would permit such mandates. But, he said, “the criticisms that the federal government may be overreaching here in imposing this on states is a legitimate question.”

Some education officials say it is only fair that the federal government hold them accountable.

“We take taxpayer money and convert most of it into salaries and benefits,” said John E. Deasy, the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District. “The quid pro quo for that sacred trust is that we guarantee that we will graduate students college and career-force ready.”


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75-year-old soybean farmer sees Monsanto lawsuit reach U.S. Supreme Court

By Paul Harris, The Guardian
Saturday, February 9, 2013 11:59 EST

Who controls the rights to the seeds planted in the ground? A 75-year-old farmer takes the agricultural giant to court to find out

As David versus Goliath battles go it is hard to imagine a more uneven fight than the one about to play out in front of the US supreme court between Vernon Hugh Bowman and Monsanto.

On the one side is Bowman, a single 75-year-old Indiana soybean farmer who is still tending the same acres of land as his father before him in rural south-western Indiana. On the other is a gigantic multibillion dollar agricultural business famed for its zealous protection of its commercial rights.

Not that Bowman sees it that way. “I really don’t consider it as David and Goliath. I don’t think of it in those terms. I think of it in terms of right and wrong,” Bowman told The Guardian in an interview.

Either way, in the next few weeks Bowman and Monsanto’s opposing legal teams will face off in front of America’s most powerful legal body, weighing in on a case that deals with one of the most fundamental questions of modern industrial farming: who controls the rights to the seeds planted in the ground.

The legal saga revolves around Monsanto’s aggressive protection of its soybean known as Roundup Ready, which have been genetically engineered to be resistant to its Roundup herbicide or its generic equivalents. When Bowman – or thousands of other farmers just like him – plant Monsanto’s seeds in the ground they are obliged to only harvest the resulting crop, not keep any of it back for planting the next year. So each season, the farmer has to buy new Monsanto seeds to plant.

However, farmers are able to buy excess soybeans from local grain elevators, many of which are likely to be Roundup Ready due to the huge dominance Monsanto has in the market. Indeed in Indiana it is believed more than 90% of soybeans for sale as “commodity seeds” could be such beans, each containing the genes Monsanto developed.

Bowman, who has farmed the same stretch of land for most of the past four decades and grew up on a farm, ended up on Monsanto’s radar for using such seeds – bought from a local grain elevator, rather than Monsanto – for year after year and replanting part of each crop. He did not do so for his main crop of soybeans, but rather for a smaller “second late season planting” usually planted on a field that had just been harvested for wheat. “We have always had the right to go to an elevator, buy some ‘junk grain’ and use it for seed if you desire,” Bowman said.

To put it mildly, Monsanto disagrees. The firm insists that it maintains patent rights on its genetically modified seeds even if sold by a third party with no restrictions put on its use – even if the seeds are actually only descendants of the original Monsanto seeds. To that end it sued Bowman, eventually winning a legal settlement of some $84,456 (£53,500) against him for infringing the firm’s patent rights. Monsanto says that if it allowed Bowman to keep replanting his seeds it would undermine its business model, endangering the expensive research that it uses to produce advanced agricultural products.

On a website the firm set up to highlight its arguments in the case, Monsanto insists a Bowman victory at the supreme court could “jeopardize some of the most innovative biotechnology research in the country” in industries that range from farming to medicine. It says protecting patent rights fully is vital to preserve a commercial incentive to develop and refine new products.

But Bowman has numerous supporters who believe his case could help reform aspects of commercial farming – that is now dominated by huge corporations rather than small or family-run business – to vital reforms. Bowman’s legal team intends to argue that the case could open the industry to greater anti-trust scrutiny, arguing that large corporation’s vice-like grip on farming and control of seeds needs to be loosened. “It opens up these transactions (buying seeds) to greater anti-trust scrutiny by the Department of Justice. Right now they are sheltered by patent trust protection,” said Bowman’s lawyer Mark Walters.

Campaign groups are also eager to back the case. This coming Tuesday, farming campaign groups the Center for Food Safety and Save Our Seeds will release a joint report examining the modern seeds industry. The organizations are enthusiastic backers of Bowman’s cause. Debbie Barker, a program director for SOS, said a Bowman victory at the supreme court could nudge the industry towards opening up and treating seeds as a common resource, not a fiercely fought-over commercial battleground. “It would help with wider reforms,” Barker said. SOS believes Monsanto and other major firms are less concerned with protecting interests in research than in their lucrative business model. After all, just three firms now control more than 50% of the global seed market.

Yet, despite the vast sums of money involved in modern farming, it is ironically Bowman’s own lack of cash that has seen the case end up at the supreme court. Monsanto has a long record of reaching settlements with commercially pressured farmers it targets for patent infringements. But when the firm sued Bowman, he was already bankrupt after an unrelated land deal went wrong. Thus, he had little to lose. “I made up my mind to fight it until I could not fight it anymore,” he said. “I thought: I am not going to play dead.”

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013

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February 9, 2013

Florida Republicans Brace for a Fraud Trial, and an Airing of Old Grudges

By LIZETTE ALVAREZ
NYT

ORLANDO, Fla. — The surroundings are far from opulent and the cocktails will have to wait, but as political events go, this one is expected to draw a who’s who of present and past Florida political notables: a former governor, a former State House speaker and a former State Senate president are all expected to drop by, and the current State House speaker, too.

But none of the name-brand politicians, including former Gov. Charlie Crist, are actually eager to attend the gathering, which will require swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth, and answering hostile questions, all from a chair inside an Orlando courthouse.

This Monday begins the long-awaited trial of Jim Greer, 50, a flamboyant former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. Mr. Greer, who was chosen for the job by Mr. Crist, was indicted in 2010 on charges of fraud, money laundering and theft. Prosecutors accuse him of steering $125,000 of party money to a personal account in 2009 through a shell fund-raising company, Victory Strategies, of which he was a secret co-owner.

But Mr. Greer maintains that politics, not criminal wrongdoing, is to blame for his downfall. His ouster, he has said, was engineered by a cabal of Republican conservatives who despised Mr. Crist and resented Mr. Greer’s steadfast support of the governor during his unsuccessful 2010 run for the Senate — first as a Republican, and then as an independent — against Marco Rubio.

Damon Chase, Mr. Greer’s lawyer, said that Mr. Greer’s fund-raising actions were legal and aboveboard, and that Victory Strategies was no secret. Florida Republican officials were aware of its existence, he said. Those officials are now being called to testify for both the defense and the prosecution.

“This case is outrageous,” Mr. Chase said. “It would have never been brought had it not been just a political vendetta against Greer for supporting Crist over Rubio.”

The trial is expected to rummage through the messy — some say unethical — inner workings of the party from 2007 to 2010, back when Mr. Crist still called himself a Republican (he is a Democrat now) and when Mr. Rubio was an underdog candidate.

The prosecution’s main witness in the case is Delmar Johnson, who was Mr. Greer’s top aide in the Republican Party. Prosecutors say Mr. Johnson set up Victory Strategies with Mr. Greer and also benefited from it. He will receive immunity for his testimony against Mr. Greer.

“This trial won’t be good for anybody,” Mr. Greer warned in an interview with The Miami New Times last month. “People need to know what goes on behind the curtain in the Republican Party, and before the Republicans tried to destroy me, they should have thought about what the consequences were going to be.”

Among the people who Mr. Greer said knew of the Victory Strategies contract was Mr. Crist, his onetime stalwart ally.

“Three of Crist’s closest friends have given sworn testimony that Crist not only knew about it but authorized and approved of it,” said Mr. Chase, Mr. Greer’s lawyer.

Mr. Crist, who is on the witness list and is said to be considering another run for governor, has said he did not know anything about Victory Strategies or that Mr. Greer was taking a cut of the money for personal use.

“Mr. Crist says this is not true; he has been pretty clear about it from the very beginning,” John Morgan, Mr. Crist’s lawyer, said of Mr. Greer’s accusations. “Charlie doesn’t have anything to worry about.”

The trial is bad news for most politicians on the witness list — some of whom suffered from hazy memories during depositions — mostly because it dredges up a deeply painful period for the Republican Party.

“This has been the ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ for the Republican Party,” said Jason Steele, who as the party’s executive chairman in Brevard County in 2009 was highly critical of Mr. Greer. “We knew something was wrong, that something was earth-shatteringly wrong with the way the Republican Party was being run. The chairman would show up in limousines to every event, traveling in the highest style. It became a laughingstock. And the rank-and-file Republicans across the state got very, very angry.”

Yet what most galled Mr. Steele and many others in the Republican Party about Mr. Greer — in addition to his spendthrift ways — was his open support of Mr. Crist during the 2010 Senate race against Mr. Rubio. In Florida, conservatives dominate the party and were pushing hard for Mr. Rubio, a former State House speaker and Tea Party favorite.

“We had a chairman who was absolutely in bed with the governor of the state of Florida, and they were helping each other,” Mr. Steele said.

But the trial is bad news for Republicans in general because it is expected to allow Mr. Greer to shine a spotlight on the free-spending ways of Republican leaders at the time. As chairman, Mr. Greer charged nearly $2,000 for a two-day car rental in California and nearly $3,000 for one dinner at the Capital Grille in Orlando, just two examples of his credit card charges. He chartered planes. He spent party money to travel to Las Vegas to attend a Wayne Newton concert and to help pay for his son’s birthday party in Florida.

But Mr. Greer, who was ousted as chairman over his spending practices, said he was not alone in racking up expenses.

“That’s how political parties do business,” said his lawyer, Mr. Chase, adding that as chairman, Mr. Greer raised record amounts for the party in 2008. “They spend money to woo big donors, and as a result, they raise a lot of money. The money is not public money or tax money. It’s private money being spent by a private organization.”

Mr. Greer’s dubious spending tainted top lawmakers, whose credit card expenses also suddenly became suspect. Among them was Mr. Rubio, who was investigated during his campaign for using a Republican Party charge card for personal expenses from 2005 to 2008, including for groceries and flowers. Mr. Rubio has said that the use of the card was accidental and that he paid those charges.

The trial is also expected to delve into an unpleasant dust-up over Mr. Greer’s severance pay. Mr. Greer said three top state Republican lawmakers drew up a secret agreement to pay him $130,000 if he resigned. The agreement made mention of fund-raising contracts, which meant that the lawmakers knew about Victory, Mr. Chase said. The payments, though, never arrived and Mr. Greer sued the party.

Party leaders initially denied the existence of the contract. Mike Haridopolos, the incoming State Senate president at the time, later acknowledged under oath that he had signed the pact and had not told the truth.

The Republican leaders say they knew nothing about Victory Strategies or Mr. Greer’s role in it. “I would use the old adage for this,” said Mr. Morgan, Mr. Crist’s lawyer, referring to Mr. Greer’s claims. “Desperate men do desperate things in desperate times.”

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February 9, 2013

In Address, President Will Focus on the Middle Class

By MICHAEL D. SHEAR and JACKIE CALMES
IHT

WASHINGTON — President Obama on Tuesday will seek to move beyond the politics of the moment to define a second-term agenda built around restoring economic prosperity to the middle class, using his State of the Union address to unveil initiatives in education, infrastructure, clean energy and manufacturing.

Having secured four more years in the White House by arguing that the nation’s economy is tilted against ordinary Americans, Mr. Obama will vow to use the power of his office to recapture robust job growth and economic expansion, according to White House officials who have seen the speech. Both eluded him during his first term.

Mr. Obama will insist that only “a thriving middle class” can stimulate long-term growth and that Americans must be given the tools to succeed, according to the officials, who discussed the speech on the condition of anonymity. His call for new government investments — many of which Republicans successfully blocked in his first term — is an effort to shift the emphasis away from simply reducing the deficit and will serve in part as an answer to Republican criticism that he has not focused enough on jobs.

“I think you will hear him talk about some new proposals that build on his earlier efforts to help middle-class Americans,” said Nancy-Ann DeParle, who until recently was Mr. Obama’s deputy chief of staff. “I think his message will be — as he is — very positive and optimistic: ‘We’re strong, and we’re moving in the right direction. The economy is improving, but we have more work to do to ensure that all Americans can take advantage of a stronger economy.’ ”

White House aides declined to describe the initiatives in the four subject areas, and said there would be other proposals in the address as well. But the officials familiar with the speech said that any proposed spending would be offset by new savings or revenues to avoid adding to annual budget deficits.

The president is structuring his fifth annual address to a joint session of Congress around three main economic points: making the nation a “magnet for jobs and manufacturing”; providing Americans the “skills they need” for those jobs; and ensuring that “hard work leads to a decent living,” officials said.

Mr. Obama will try to summon the nation’s support for two major initiatives that are already consuming the first weeks of his second term: the passage of stricter gun laws in the wake of the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., and an overhaul of immigration policy that would allow 11 million illegal immigrants to eventually become citizens.

He will also confront his looming clash with Congress over taxes and spending next month with a blunt warning to his Republican adversaries — that continued fiscal brinkmanship could cause an economic slump that would be devastating to millions of Americans. He will renew his call for a “big deal” that would lower the deficit by cutting spending, revamping the tax code and making long-term changes to slow the growth in spending for Medicare and to stabilize Social Security.

But the main focus of the address, the officials said, will be on finding a new balance in the economy by expanding opportunities for average Americans without saddling the next generation with enormous debt.

“Our economy succeeds and our economy grows when everybody is getting a fair shot and everybody is getting a fair shake and everybody is playing by the same rules,” Mr. Obama told House Democrats at a legislative retreat last week, offering a peek at the themes he will discuss on Tuesday night.

Mr. Obama’s agenda faces certain skepticism and opposition from a Republican Party that has fought for years against what it views as runaway spending, big government and overreaching regulation. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida will deliver the Republican response.

Mr. Obama will not soon get a similar opportunity to shape the trajectory of his presidency. Millions of people are likely to tune in for what has become an annual ritual in which presidents set expectations for Congress, for the public and for themselves.

The address, in the House chamber, has evolved into a mix of politics, policy and pageantry, and Mr. Obama will heed modern tradition by hosting a group of Americans whose presence is intended to send a message about his priorities.

The president’s speech opening his second term comes amid economic recovery, in contrast with the financial crisis that was the backdrop for his address in 2009. While housing and most other economic indicators point toward slow and steady growth, unemployment remains near 8 percent and is projected to decrease only fitfully.

Throughout his presidency, Mr. Obama has struggled to claim credit for economic successes without seeming out of touch with the millions of Americans who remain jobless and frustrated about the pace of improvement in their lives.

“One of the hardest things to get right is that one line where you describe, ‘The state of our union is — blank,’ and how you fill in that blank,” said Donald A. Baer, the chief executive of the global public relations firm Burson-Marsteller and a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton.

Last month, in his second Inaugural Address, Mr. Obama made an aggressive case for a liberal agenda that included having greater tolerance toward immigrants, advancing gay rights, preserving the social safety system and confronting climate change. The White House officials said the president viewed Tuesday’s speech as a second act in the same play.

For Mr. Obama, the State of the Union address is an oversize opportunity to confront and challenge Republicans directly on issues like immigration, stricter background checks for gun buyers, marriage equality and further tax increases on the wealthy — all issues where the public is on his side, according to polls.

On guns, Mr. Obama will renew his call for a broad package of legislation focused on reducing violence by restricting some access to firearms. He will urge Congress to ban the manufacture and sale of assault weapons, put limits on high-capacity ammunition magazines, improve background checks and prevent sales of firearms to people with mental illness.

In remarks in recent weeks, the president has made it clear that he views universal background checks for gun purchases as the most likely measure to pass in a divided Congress, though aides have said that he would not back away from his support for a new assault weapons ban if it can pass.

On immigration, the president will say he intends to make good on his promise to revamp the nation’s immigration system and eventually provide a pathway to citizenship for the millions of immigrants in the country illegally.

Buoyed by big support among Hispanics and Asians in his re-election, Mr. Obama is betting that Republicans are ready to join him in that effort. But as in the fight over guns, success may hinge on reaching the kinds of compromises that have proved exceedingly difficult during the past four years.

As in previous years, Mr. Obama will not spend much time in the speech focusing on foreign policy, though his administration faces numerous challenges around a complicated world: instability in the Middle East, nagging questions about Afghanistan’s ability to maintain security after American troops leave, growing scrutiny of a continuing drone campaign against terrorists, threats from Iran and North Korea, and increasing global competition from China.

A year ago, as he headed into his re-election campaign, Mr. Obama opened his State of the Union address by heralding the death of Osama bin Laden and the shrinking American troop presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With the election behind him, Mr. Obama could return to some of the promises he made in his first term, including a vow to reduce the world’s nuclear stockpiles and a pledge to work on peace between Israel and the Palestinians.




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« Reply #4514 on: Feb 10, 2013, 10:14 am »

From Al Jazerra
Last Modified: 10 Feb 2013 14:07       
Rebecca Solnit

A rape a minute, a thousand corpses a year

Violence doesn't have a race, a class, a religion, or a nationality, but it does have a gender, writes Solnit.

The lives of half of humanity are still dogged by, drained by and sometimes ended by pervasive type of violence [AFP]

Here in the United States, where there is a reported rape every 6.2 minutes, and one in five women will be raped in her lifetime, the rape and gruesome murder of a young woman on a bus in New Delhi on December 16, 2012, was treated as an exceptional incident. The story of the alleged rape of an unconscious teenager by members of the Steubenville High School football team was still unfolding, and gang rapes aren't that unusual here either.

Take your pick: some of the 20 men who gang-raped an 11-year-old in Cleveland, Texas, were sentenced in November, while the instigator of the gang rape of a 16-year-old in Richmond, California, was sentenced in October, and four men who gang-raped a 15-year-old near New Orleans were sentenced in April, though the six men who gang-raped a 14-year-old in Chicago last fall are still at large.

Not that I actually went out looking for incidents: they're everywhere in the news, though no one adds them up and indicates that there might actually be a pattern.

There is, however, a pattern of violence against women that's broad and deep and horrific and incessantly overlooked. Occasionally, a case involving a celebrity or lurid details in a particular case get a lot of attention in the media, but such cases are treated as anomalies, while the abundance of incidental news items about violence against women in this country, in other countries, on every continent, including Antarctica, constitute a kind of background wallpaper for the news.

If you'd rather talk about bus rapes than gang rapes, there's the rape of a developmentally disabled woman on a Los Angeles bus in November and the kidnapping of an autistic 16-year-old on the regional transit train system in Oakland, California - she was raped repeatedly by her abductor over two days this winter - and there was a gang rape of multiple women on a bus in Mexico City recently, too.

While I was writing this, I read that another female bus-rider was kidnapped in India and gang-raped all night by the bus driver and five of his friends who must have thought what happened in New Delhi was awesome.

We have an abundance of rape and violence against women in this country and on this earth, though it's almost never treated as a civil rights or human rights issue, or a crisis, or even a pattern. Violence doesn't have a race, a class, a religion, or a nationality, but it does have a gender.

Here I want to say one thing: though virtually all the perpetrators of such crimes are men it doesn't mean all men are violent. Most are not. In addition, men obviously also suffer violence, largely at the hands of other men, and every violent death, every assault is terrible. But the subject here is the pandemic of violence by men against women, both intimate violence and stranger violence. 

What we don't talk about when we don't talk about gender

There's so much of it. We could talk about the assault and rape of a 73-year-old in Manhattan's Central Park last September, or the recent rape of a four-year-old and an 83-year-old in Louisiana, or the New York City policeman who was arrested in October for what appeared to be serious plans to kidnap, rape, cook and eat a woman, any woman, because the hate wasn't personal (though maybe it was for the San Diego man who actually killed and cooked his wife in November and the man from New Orleans who killed, dismembered and cooked his girlfriend in 2005).

click to watch: http://bcove.me/qllcudhm

Those are all exceptional crimes, but we could also talk about quotidian assaults, because though a rape is reported only every 6.2 minutes in this country, the estimated total is perhaps five times as high, which means that there may be very nearly a rape a minute in the US. It all adds up to tens of millions of rape victims.

We could talk about high school- and college-athlete rapes, or campus rapes, to which university authorities have been appallingly uninterested in responding in many cases, including that high school in Steubenville, Notre Dame University, Amherst College and many others.

We could talk about the escalating pandemic of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment in the US military, where Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta estimated that there were 19,000 sexual assaults on fellow soldiers in 2010 alone and that the great majority of assailants got away with it, though four-star general Jeffrey Sinclair was indicted in September for "a slew of sex crimes against women".

Never mind workplace violence, let's go home. So many men murder their partners and former partners that we have well over 1,000 homicides of that kind a year - meaning that every three years the death toll tops 9/11's casualties, though no one declares a war on this particular terror (another way to put it: the more than 11,766 corpses from domestic-violence homicides since 9/11 exceed the number of deaths of victims on that day and all American soldiers killed in the "war on terror").

If we talked about crimes like these and why they are so common, we'd have to talk about what kinds of profound change this society, or this nation, or nearly every nation needs. If we talked about it, we'd be talking about masculinity, or male roles, or maybe patriarchy, and we don't talk much about that.

Instead, we hear that American men commit murder-suicides - at the rate of about 12 a week - because the economy is bad, though they also do it when the economy is good; or that those men in India murdered the bus-rider because the poor resent the rich, while other rapes in India are explained by how the rich exploit the poor; and then there are those ever-popular explanations: mental problems and intoxicants - and for jocks, head injuries.

The latest spin is that lead exposure was responsible for a lot of our violence, except that both genders are exposed and one commits most of the violence. The pandemic of violence always gets explained as anything but gender, anything but what would seem to be the broadest explanatory pattern of all.

Someone wrote a piece about how white men seem to be the ones who commit mass murders in the US and the (mostly hostile) commenters only seemed to notice the white part. It's rare that anyone says what this medical study does, even if in the driest way possible: "Being male has been identified as a risk factor for violent criminal behaviour in several studies, as have exposure to tobacco smoke before birth, having anti-social parents and belonging to a poor family."

Still, the pattern is plain as day. We could talk about this as a global problem, looking at the epidemic of assault, harassment and rape of women in Cairo's Tahrir Square that has taken away the freedom they celebrated during the Arab Spring - and led some men there to form defence teams to help counter it - or the persecution of women in public and private in India from "eve-teasing" to bride-burning, or "honour killings" in South Asia and the Middle East.

Or the way that South Africa has become a global rape capital, with an estimated 600,000 rapes last year, or how rape has been used as a tactic and "weapon" of war in Mali, Sudan and the Congo, as it was in the former Yugoslavia, or the pervasiveness of rape and harassment in Mexico and the femicide in Juarez, or the denial of basic rights for women in Saudi Arabia and the myriad sexual assaults on immigrant domestic workers there.

Or the way that the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case in the United States revealed what impunity he and others had in France, and it's only for lack of space I'm leaving out Britain and Canada and Italy (with its ex-prime minister known for his orgies with the underaged), Argentina and Australia and so many other countries.

Who has the right to kill you?

But maybe you're tired of statistics, so let's just talk about a single incident that happened in my city a couple of weeks ago, one of many local incidents in which men assaulted women that made the local papers this month:

    A woman was stabbed after she rebuffed a man's sexual advances while she walked in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighbourhood late Monday night, a police spokesman said today. The 33-year-old victim was walking down the street when a stranger approached her and propositioned her, police spokesman Officer Albie Esparza said. When she rejected him, the man became very upset and slashed the victim in the face and stabbed her in the arm, Esparza said.

The man, in other words, framed the situation as one in which his chosen victim had no rights and liberties, while he had the right to control and punish her. This should remind us that violence is first of all authoritarian. It begins with this premise: I have the right to control you.

Murder is the extreme version of that authoritarianism, where the murderer asserts he has the right to decide whether you live or die, the ultimate means of controlling someone. This may be true even if you are "obedient", because the desire to control comes out of a rage that obedience can't assuage. Whatever fears, whatever sense of vulnerability may underlie such behaviour, it also comes out of entitlement, the entitlement to inflict suffering and even death on other people. It breeds misery in the perpetrator and the victims.   

 Anti-rape protests spread across India

As for that incident in my city, similar things happen all the time. Many versions of it happened to me when I was younger, sometimes involving death threats and often involving torrents of obscenities: a man approaches a woman with both desire and the furious expectation that the desire will likely be rebuffed. The fury and desire come in a package, all twisted together into something that always threatens to turn eros into thanatos, love into death, sometimes literally.

click to watch: http://bcove.me/9chn8q9a

It's a system of control. It's why so many intimate-partner murders are of women who dared to break up with those partners. As a result, it imprisons a lot of women, and though you could say that the attacker on January 7, or a brutal would-be-rapist near my own neighbourhood on January 5, or another rapist here on January 12, or the San Franciscan who on January 6 set his girlfriend on fire for refusing to do his laundry, or the guy who was just sentenced to 370 years for some particularly violent rapes in San Francisco in late 2011, were marginal characters, rich, famous, and privileged guys do it, too.

The Japanese vice-consul in San Francisco was charged with 12 felony counts of spousal abuse and assault with a deadly weapon last September, the same month that, in the same town, the ex-girlfriend of Mason Mayer (brother of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer) testified in court:

    He ripped out my earrings, tore my eyelashes off, while spitting in my face and telling me how unlovable I am... I was on the ground in the foetal position, and when I tried to move, he squeezed both knees tighter into my sides to restrain me and slapped me.

According to the newspaper, she also testified that:

    Mayer slammed her head onto the floor repeatedly and pulled out clumps of her hair, telling her that the only way she was leaving the apartment alive was if he drove her to the Golden Gate Bridge "where you can jump off or I will push you off".

Mason Mayer got probation.   

This summer, an estranged husband violated his wife's restraining order against him, shooting her - and six other women - at her spa job in suburban Milwaukee, but since there were only four corpses the crime was largely overlooked in the media in a year with so many more spectacular mass murders in this country (and we still haven't really talked about the fact that, of 62 mass shootings in the US in three decades, only one was by a woman, because when you say lone gunman, everyone talks about loners and guns but not about men - and by the way, nearly two thirds of all women killed by guns are killed by their partner or ex-partner).

What's love got to do with it? asked Tina Turner, whose ex-husband Ike once said, "Yeah I hit her, but I didn't hit her more than the average guy beats his wife." A woman is beaten every nine seconds in this country. Just to be clear: not nine minutes, but nine seconds. It's the number-one cause of injury to American women; of the two million injured annually, more than half a million of those injuries require medical attention while about 145,000 require overnight hospitalisations, according to the Centre for Disease Control, and you don't want to know about the dentistry needed afterwards. Spouses are also the leading cause of death for pregnant women in the US.

"Women worldwide ages 15 through 44 are more likely to die or be maimed because of male violence than because of cancer, malaria, war and traffic accidents combined," writes Nicholas D Kristof, one of the few prominent figures to address the issue regularly. 

The chasm between our worlds

Rape and other acts of violence, up to and including murder, as well as threats of violence, constitute the barrage some men lay down as they attempt to control some women, and fear of that violence limits most women in ways they've gotten so used to they hardly notice - and we hardly address.

There are exceptions: last summer, someone wrote to me to describe a college class in which the students were asked what they do to stay safe from rape. The young women described the intricate ways they stayed alert, limited their access to the world, took precautions and essentially thought about rape all the time (while the young men in the class, he added, gaped in astonishment). The chasm between their worlds had briefly and suddenly become visible.

Mostly, however, we don't talk about it - though a graphic has been circulating on the internet called Ten Top Tips to End Rape, the kind of thing young women get often enough, but this one had a subversive twist. It offered advice like this: "Carry a whistle! If you are worried you might assault someone 'by accident' you can hand it to the person you are with, so they can call for help."

While funny, the piece points out something terrible: the usual guidelines in such situations put the full burden of prevention on potential victims, treating the violence as a given. You explain to me why colleges spend more time telling women how to survive predators than telling the other half of their students not to be predators.

Threats of sexual assault now seem to take place online regularly. In late 2011, British columnist Laurie Penny wrote:

    An opinion, it seems, is the short skirt of the internet. Having one and flaunting it is somehow asking an amorphous mass of almost-entirely male keyboard-bashers to tell you how they'd like to rape, kill and urinate on you. This week, after a particularly ugly slew of threats, I decided to make just a few of those messages public on Twitter and the response I received was overwhelming. Many could not believe the hate I received and many more began to share their own stories of harassment, intimidation and abuse.

Women in the online gaming community have been harassed, threatened and driven out. Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist media critic who documented such incidents, received support for her work, but also, in the words of a journalist, "another wave of really aggressive, you know, violent personal threats, her accounts attempted to be hacked. And one man in Ontario took the step of making an online video game where you could punch Anita's image on the screen. And if you punched it multiple times, bruises and cuts would appear on her image."

The difference between these online gamers and the Taliban men who, last October, tried to murder 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai for speaking out about the right of Pakistani women to education is one of degree. Both are trying to silence and punish women for claiming voice, power and the right to participate. Welcome to Manistan.

click to watch: http://bcove.me/g73sy355

The party for the protection of the rights of rapists

It's not just public, or private, or online either. It's also embedded in our political system and our legal system, which before feminists fought for us didn't recognise most domestic violence, or sexual harassment and stalking, or date rape, or acquaintance rape, or marital rape, and in cases of rape still often tries the victim rather than the rapist, as though only perfect maidens could be assaulted - or believed.

As we learned in the 2012 election campaign, it's also embedded in the minds and mouths of our politicians. Remember that spate of crazy pro-rape things Republican men said last summer and fall, starting with Todd Akin's notorious claim that a woman has ways of preventing pregnancy in cases of rape, a statement he made in order to deny women control over their own bodies.

After that, of course, Senate candidate Richard Mourdock claimed that rape pregnancies were "a gift from God", and just this month, another Republican politician piped up to defend Akin's comment.

Happily, the five publicly pro-rape Republicans in the 2012 campaign all lost their election bids (Stephen Colbert tried to warn them that women had gotten the vote in 1920). But it's not just a matter of the garbage they say (and the price they now pay). 

Earlier this month, congressional Republicans refused to reauthorise the Violence Against Women Act, because they objected to the protection it gave immigrants, transgendered women and Native American women (speaking of epidemics, one of three Native American women will be raped, and on the reservations 88 percent of those rapes are by non-Native men who know tribal governments can't prosecute them).

And they're out to gut reproductive rights - birth control as well as abortion, as they've pretty effectively done in many states over the last dozen years. What's meant by "reproductive rights", of course, is the right of women to control their own bodies. Didn't I mention earlier that violence against women is a control issue?

And though rapes are often investigated lackadaisically - there is a backlog of about 400,000 untested rape kits in this country - rapists who impregnate their victims have parental rights in 31 states. Oh, and former vice presidential candidate and current congressman Paul Ryan (R-Manistan) is reintroducing a bill that would give states the right to ban abortions and might even conceivably allow a rapist to sue his victim for having one. 

All the things that aren't to blame

Of course, women are capable of all sorts of major unpleasantness and there are violent crimes by women, but the so-called war of the sexes is extraordinarily lopsided when it comes to actual violence.

Unlike the last (male) head of the International Monetary Fund, the current (female) head is not going to assault an employee at a luxury hotel; top-ranking female officers in the US military, unlike their male counterparts, are not accused of any sexual assaults; and young female athletes, unlike those male football players in Steubenville, aren't likely to urinate on unconscious boys, let alone violate them and boast about it in YouTube videos and Twitter feeds. 

No female bus riders in India have ganged up to sexually assault a man so badly he dies of his injuries, nor are marauding packs of women terrorising men in Cairo's Tahrir Square, and there's just no maternal equivalent to the 11 percent of rapes that are by fathers or stepfathers. Of the people in prison in the US, 93.5 percent are not women, and though quite a lot of them should not be there in the first place, maybe some of them should because of violence, until we think of a better way to deal with it, and them.

No major female pop star has blown the head off a young man she took home with her, as did Phil Spector (he is now part of that 93.5 percent for the shotgun slaying of Lana Clarkson, apparently for refusing his advances). No female action-movie star has been charged with domestic violence, because Angelina Jolie just isn't doing what Mel Gibson and Steve McQueen did, and there aren't any celebrated female movie directors who gave a 13-year-old drugs before sexually assaulting that child, while she kept saying "no", as did Roman Polanski.

In memory of Jyoti Singh Pandey

What's the matter with manhood? There's something about how masculinity is imagined, about what's praised and encouraged, about the way violence is passed on to boys that needs to be addressed. There are lovely and wonderful men out there, and one of the things that's encouraging in this round of the war against women is how many men I've seen who get it, who think it's their issue too, who stand up for us and with us in everyday life, online and in the marches from New Delhi to San Francisco this winter.

Increasingly men are becoming good allies - and there always have been some. Kindness and gentleness never had a gender, and neither did empathy. Domestic violence statistics are down significantly from earlier decades (even though they're still shockingly high), and a lot of men are at work crafting new ideas and ideals about masculinity and power.

Gay men have been good allies of mine for almost four decades (apparently same-sex marriage horrifies conservatives because it's marriage between equals with no inevitable roles). Women's liberation has often been portrayed as a movement intent on encroaching upon or taking power and privilege away from men, as though in some dismal zero-sum game, only one gender at a time could be free and powerful. But we are free together or slaves together.

There are other things I'd rather write about, but this affects everything else. The lives of half of humanity are still dogged by, drained by and sometimes ended by this pervasive variety of violence. Think of how much more time and energy we would have to focus on other things that matter if we weren't so busy surviving. Look at it this way: one of the best journalists I know is afraid to walk home at night in our neighbourhood. Should she stop working late? How many women have had to stop doing their work, or been stopped from doing it, for similar reasons?

One of the most exciting new political movements on earth is the Native Canadian indigenous rights movement, with feminist and environmental overtones, called Idle No More. On December 27, shortly after the movement took off, a Native woman was kidnapped, raped, beaten and left for dead in Thunder Bay, Ontario, by men whose remarks framed the crime as retaliation against Idle No More. Afterward, she walked four hours through the bitter cold and survived to tell her tale. Her assailants, who have threatened to do it again, are still at large.

The New Delhi rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey, the 23-year-old who was studying physiotherapy so that she could better herself while helping others, and the assault on her male companion (who survived) seem to have triggered the reaction that we have needed for 100, or 1,000, or 5,000 years. May she be to women - and men - worldwide what Emmett Till, murdered by white supremacists in 1955, was to African-Americans and the then-nascent US civil rights movement.

We have far more than 87,000 rapes in this country every year, but each of them is invariably portrayed as an isolated incident. We have dots so close they're splatters melting into a stain, but hardly anyone connects them, or names that stain. In India they did. They said that this is a civil rights issue, it's a human rights issue, it's everyone's problem, it's not isolated, and it's never going to be acceptable again. It has to change. It's your job to change it, and mine, and ours.

Rebecca Solnit has written a version of this essay three times so far, once in the 1980s for the punk magazine Maximum Rock'n'Roll, once as the chapter on women and walking in her 2000 book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, and here. She would love the topic to become out of date and irrelevant and never to have write it again.

A version of this article first appeared on TomDispatch.com.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.


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