Syrian president Assad accuses Britain of bullying tactics
Bashar al-Assad accuses UK of being 'naive' in approach to Syria and warns of dire consequences if west arms rebels
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 3 March 2013 09.04 GMT
The Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, has accused the British government of being "naive, confused and unrealistic" in its approach to the conflict in his country and warned of dire consequences if the west armed its rebels.
In an interview with the Sunday Times, Assad said Britain was sacrificing peace talks to push for an end to an EU arms embargo, which would allow rebels to be armed.
Warning this would accelerate the road to war, he rejected the possibility of help from Britain to end the conflict, saying: "We do not expect an arsonist to be a firefighter."
"To be frank, Britain has played a famously unconstructive role in our region on different issues for decades, some say for centuries … The problem with this government is that their shallow and immature rhetoric only highlights this tradition of bullying and hegemony.
"How can we ask Britain to play a role while it is determined to militarise the problem? How can we expect them to make the violence less while they want to send military supply to the terrorists?"
But Assad also indicated he was ready to hold peace talks with Syrian rebels to bring to an end a conflict that has claimed an estimated 70,000 lives over the past two years.
He said: "We are ready to negotiate with anyone, including militants who surrender their arms. We are not going to deal with terrorists who are determined to carry weapons, to terrorise people, to kill civilians, to attack public places or private enterprise and to destroy the country."
He added: "We have opposition that are political entities and we have armed terrorists. We can engage in dialogue with the opposition, but we cannot engage in dialogue with terrorists. We fight terrorism."
On Thursday, the foreign secretary, William Hague, promised to increase support for the Syrian opposition, including equipment supplies and humanitarian assistance, as the US secretary of state, John Kerry, announced £39m in funding for rebel forces.
Assad said Hague was misguided in his offer of assistance to rebels, saying: "The British government wants to send military aid to moderate groups in Syria, knowing all too well that such moderate groups do not exist in Syria.
"We all know that we are now fighting al-Qaida, or Jabhat al-Nusra, an offshoot of al-Qaida, and other groups of people indoctrinated with extreme ideologies."
He told the Sunday Times the British government was also misreading the public feeling in its own country, saying: "A recent survey in the UK showed that a good proportion of the British people want to 'keep out of Syria' and they do not believe that the British government should send military supplies to the rebels.
"In spite of this, the British government continues to push the EU to lift its arms embargo on Syria and to start arming the militants with heavy weapons.
"That is what I call detached reality – when you're detached from your own public opinion."
Assad warned that if the west made moves that ended up with rebels being armed, there would be grave consequences.
"Syria lies at the faultline geographically, politically, socially and ideologically. So playing with this faultline will have serious repercussions all over the Middle East," he said.
"Any intervention will not make these things better. It will only make them worse. Europe and the United States and others are going to pay the price sooner or later with the instability in this region. They do not foresee it."
Syria's Assad is 'delusional' says William Hague
UK foreign secretary hits back at Bashar al-Assad after Syrian leader accuses Britain of resuming a 'bullying' colonial role
Julian Borger, diplomatic editor
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 3 March 2013 13.58 GMT
Britain's foreign secretary, William Hague, labelled President Bashar al-Assad "delusional" on Sunday after the Syrian leader attacked the British government for its "shallow and immature rhetoric", which he said highlighted a "tradition of bullying and hegemony".
In an interview with the Sunday Times, many of Assad's remarks were aimed at the British government, which has taken the lead in Europe in pushing for the easing of the ban on arming the rebels. Assad accused the UK of resuming a "bullying" colonial role.
Hague responded by telling the BBC's Andrew Marr Show: "This will go down as one of the most delusional interviews that any national leader has given in modern times."
In the interview, Assad qualified the offer of peace talks made last week in Moscow by his foreign minister, Walid Muallem, saying it was restricted to those opponents who laid down their weapons. He described all rebel forces in Syria as al-Qaida terrorists.
"We are ready to negotiate with anyone, including militants who surrender their arms. We are not going to deal with terrorists who are determined to carry weapons, to terrorise people, to kill civilians, to attack public places or private enterprise and to destroy the country," Assad said. "Opposition groups should be loyal and patriotic to Syria.
"The British government wants to send military aid to moderate groups in Syria, knowing all too well that such moderate groups do not exist in Syria; we all know that we are now fighting al-Qaida or Jabhat al-Nusra, which is an offshoot of al-Qaida, and other groups of people indoctrinated with extreme ideologies. This is beyond hypocritical," Assad said.
Link to video: Assad: UK is 'famously unconstructive' towards Syria
Following warnings from Hague last week that he would not rule out supplying arms to the opposition, Assad attacked the British government for its "shallow and immature rhetoric", which he said highlighted a "tradition of bullying and hegemony".
The idea of the UK helping broker a peace deal was like expecting "an arsonist to be a firefighter".
"I am being frank," the president said. "How can we expect to ask Britain to play a role while it is determined to militarise the problem? How can you ask them to play a role in making the situation better and more stable, how can we expect them to make the violence less while they want to send military supplies to the terrorists and don't try to ease the dialogue between the Syrians."
The interview followed a few weeks during which hopes rose that peace negotiations might be possible. The National Coalition leader, Moaz al-Khatib, said the rebels would be ready to enter talks with their earlier insistence that Assad step down first. But he said that more than 160,000 political prisoners should be released as a precondition.
Opposition leaders have since become more confident that the western embargo on arms deliveries to their forces is about to collapse, pushing the balance in a stalemated conflict in their favour. In his remarks on Sunday, Hague repeated his belief the weapons ban was not sustainable if the bloodshed continued.
"I don't rule out anything for the future. If this is going to go on for months, or years, and more tens of thousands of people are going to die, and countries like Iraq and Lebanon and Jordan are going to be destabilised, it is not something we can ignore," the foreign secretary said.
"If ever we get into that situation [of supplying weapons to the opposition] the risks of arms falling into the wrong hands is one of the great constraints. And it is one of the reasons we don't do it now. But these things are a balance of risk. You can reach consensus eventually when humanitarian need is so great and the loss of life is so great that you have to do something new to save lives. That's why I don't rule it out in the future.
March 2, 2013
Kerry Is Hoping to Nudge Egypt Toward Reforms
By MICHAEL R. GORDON and DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
CAIRO — Secretary of State John Kerry told Egypt’s political and business leaders on Saturday that it was urgent their country institute economic reforms and satisfy the conditions the International Monetary Fund has set for a $4.8 billion loan.
“It is paramount, essential, urgent that the Egyptian economy get stronger, that it gets back on its feet,” Mr. Kerry told a group of Egyptian and American business executives in Cairo. “It’s clear to us that the I.M.F. arrangement needs to be reached, that we need to give the market that confidence.”
Mr. Kerry’s visit — his first trip to an Arab capital as secretary of state — comes at a time of economic peril in Egypt. The country’s economy has teetered near collapse for months, with soaring unemployment, a gaping budget deficit, dwindling hard-currency reserves and steep declines in the currency’s value.
The fund’s loan is critical, economists say, because it would provide a seal of approval that Egypt’s economy is on a path toward self-sufficiency, allowing it to obtain enough other international loans to fill in its deficit. Both the United States and the European Union are prepared to provide substantial additional assistance if Egypt and the I.M.F. can come to terms.
But even as Mr. Kerry stressed the need for prompt economic steps — and the political peace needed to achieve those changes — some opponents of President Mohamed Morsi sought to put the spotlight on the nation’s uneasy political course.
Parliamentary elections are scheduled for April. The major opposition group, the National Salvation Front, has announced that it plans to boycott the vote to protest what it says is a push by Mr. Morsi and his Islamist allies to dominate politics.
The Obama administration has been criticized by some of Mr. Morsi’s rivals as being too supportive of the Egyptian president, as has Mr. Kerry, who was the first American senator to meet Mr. Morsi.
The delicacy of the issue was apparent when members of the political opposition were invited to a Saturday session with Mr. Kerry. Some members, including Hamdeen Sabahi, who came in third in the presidential election last year, decided not to attend. Mohamed ElBaradei, one of the leaders of the National Salvation Front, chose not to go, but to speak by phone with Mr. Kerry instead.
Those that attended, Mr. Kerry later said, engaged in a “very, very spirited” discussion.
Mohamed El Orabi, a former foreign minister and a leading member of the National Congress Party who went to the meeting, said that Mr. Kerry had talked about the importance of democracy while driving home his message on the economy.
Mr. Kerry also met separately with Amr Moussa, a former secretary general of the Arab League and the head of the National Congress Party.
The two years of tumult that began with the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak has sharply slowed foreign investment and tourism, and economists say the Egyptian government urgently needs a cash infusion of several billion dollars to fend off the risk of an economic calamity that could lead to more unrest and instability.
In September, the United States brought more than 100 business executives to Cairo to encourage trade and economic development. But continuing political protests, including when demonstrators scaled the walls of the American Embassy here on the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, discouraged many businessmen from following up, Mr. Kerry noted. (The protesters that day were angry over an amateurish American-made video denouncing Islam.)
The International Monetary Fund has held on-again, off-again negotiations with Egypt for more than a year about providing the $4.8 billion.
The fund has imposed two difficult conditions. It has required the Egyptian government to commit itself to undertaking painful reforms like raising taxes and reducing energy subsidies.
It has also required a demonstration of political support for the reforms and the loan, to ensure that the government will honor its commitments in the future. That requires a dependable political process, as well as a degree of consensus that Egypt’s political factions have been unable to sustain.
On Sunday, Mr. Kerry is scheduled to meet with Mr. Morsi. The secretary of state said he would discuss specific steps the United States could take to boost the Egyptian economy if Egypt worked out a loan package with the I.M.F. That will be Mr. Kerry’s final meeting in Egypt before departing for Saudi Arabia, the seventh stop on his nine-nation tour.
The protests and street violence that have destabilized Egypt’s transition continued Saturday. The Egyptian state media reported that a demonstrator in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura was killed when he was run over by an armored police vehicle.
Violence also flared again in the Suez Canal city of Port Said, where the state media reported that protesters had burned down a police station. The Port Said protests began Jan. 26 after 21 local soccer fans were sentenced to death for their role in a deadly riot at a match last year.
But over the past month, the demonstrations in Port Said have blurred together with sometimes-violent protests in several other cities along the Suez Canal or in the Nile Delta. Some protesters are angry at Mr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, accusing them of failing to deliver fast enough on the anticipated rewards of the revolution, including economic benefits.
Michael R. Gordon reported from Cairo, and David D. Kirkpatrick from Istanbul.
March 2, 2013
Israeli Premier Gets Extension to Form a Coalition but Faces Turmoil
By ISABEL KERSHNER
JERUSALEM — Israel’s president on Saturday granted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a two-week extension to form a governing coalition, a task complicated by mathematics and chemistry.
Mr. Netanyahu, Israeli analysts say, finds himself in a bind as he tries to solve the coalition puzzle. His options have been curtailed by an unexpected alliance between two rising stars bent on preventing his longstanding ultra-Orthodox allies from joining the next government.
Yair Lapid, a former television host, stunned the political establishment when his centrist party, Yesh Atid, placed second in the January elections. It won 19 seats in the 120-seat Parliament, positioning Mr. Lapid as a power broker. Adding to his bargaining power, Mr. Lapid has forged an unlikely negotiating alliance with Naftali Bennett’s right-wing Jewish Home, the winner of 12 seats.
Mr. Netanyahu, whose rightist Likud-Beiteinu faction has 31 seats, needs at least one of those two parties — plus some of his traditional partners — to be able to form a coalition with a majority of 61 or more, and he might need both. But he would also like to maintain his long partnership with the ultra-Orthodox.
So far, Mr. Lapid and Mr. Bennett have pledged to go into the coalition together or not at all. “I do not recall such a strong alliance between two such different parties,” said Gadi Wolfsfeld, a professor of political communication at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. “These two leaders seem to have chemistry, and the one thing they share is a desire for a government without the ultra-Orthodox. Wow!”
The pair’s argument for not including the ultra-Orthodox parties hinges on their promises to end exemptions from compulsory military or civilian national service for ultra-Orthodox young men engaged in Torah studies. The demand for a more equal sharing of the burden was popular among the middle-class voters championed by Mr. Lapid and in Mr. Bennett’s camp. But Likud members say that Mr. Lapid’s opposition to including the ultra-Orthodox goes beyond that.
After talks with Yesh Atid and Jewish Home on Thursday and Friday, David Shimron, a lawyer representing Likud-Beiteinu, told reporters that Mr. Netanyahu wanted to form as broad a coalition as possible but that Mr. Lapid would rule out the ultra-Orthodox as coalition partners even if the ultra-Orthodox “were drafted at the age of 14.”
“A whole public is being boycotted,” Mr. Shimron added. “We don’t accept boycotts, and we’ll have to see how we move forward to form the government under these circumstances.”
Shas, the largest ultra-Orthodox party, representing Sephardic Jews, has been a mainstay of many governments led by the right and the left since it was founded in 1984. It was last excluded, from Ariel Sharon’s government in 2003, on the insistence of the staunchly antireligious Shinui Party, which was led by Mr. Lapid’s father, Yosef.
A brief honeymoon period between Mr. Netanyahu and Yair Lapid after the elections quickly soured after Mr. Lapid spoke about his intention to replace Mr. Netanyahu as prime minister, possibly within 18 months.
So far, Mr. Netanyahu has found only one new coalition partner: the small Hatnua Party, led by Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister and a longtime critic of Mr. Netanyahu’s handling of the Palestinian conflict. She has been promised the post of justice minister and a leading role in any talks with the Palestinians.
But a government without Shas will leave Mr. Netanyahu more vulnerable; his conservative Likud Party emerged weakened from the elections, with Yesh Atid and Jewish Home each holding the power to make or break any potential coalition.
Mr. Netanyahu’s decision to run on a joint ticket with the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu Party of his former foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, “deterred voters on all fronts — centrists, Sephardim, national religious,” said Abraham Diskin, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Interdisciplinary Center. “These are the results. Mr. Netanyahu would be much stronger with Shas in the coalition. His maneuvering capability has definitely been limited.”
But political experts also note that coalition deals in Israel are rarely written in stone. Shas, despite its objections, could join Mr. Netanyahu’s next coalition later, after new legislation on the military obligations of the ultra-Orthodox has been resolved.
Most Shas voters already serve in the army, said Asher Cohen of Bar Ilan University, adding: “Shas will always want to be in the coalition. There is no historical basis to believe that it won’t.”
With an extension, Mr. Netanyahu will have until mid-March to forge a new government. If he fails, President Shimon Peres could ask another party leader to take on the task.
“Netanyahu needs to form a coalition and get through the vote of confidence in Parliament,” said Gideon Rahat of Hebrew University. “After that, he can always change the makeup of the coalition. The day after the vote of confidence, Lapid could leave and Shas could join. I’m not getting excited.”
As a politician, Mr. Rahat said, Mr. Netanyahu “is no magician.”
“But the state of politics in Israel is so bad,” he added, “that even someone who is not especially successful can succeed.”
March 2, 2013
Seized Chinese Weapons Raise Concerns on Iran
By ROBERT F. WORTH and C. J. CHIVERS
An Iranian dhow seized off the Yemeni coast was carrying sophisticated Chinese antiaircraft missiles, a development that could signal an escalation of Iran’s support to its Middle Eastern proxies, alarming other countries in the region and renewing a diplomatic challenge to the United States.
Among the items aboard the dhow, according to a review of factory markings on weapons and their packing crates, were 10 Chinese heat-seeking antiaircraft missiles, most of them manufactured in 2005.
The missiles were labeled QW-1M and bore stencils suggesting that they had been assembled at a factory represented by the state-owned China National Precision Machinery Import and Export Corporation, sanctioned by the United States for transfers of missile technology to Pakistan and Iran.
The Chinese missiles were part of a larger shipment interdicted by American and Yemeni forces in January, which American and Yemeni officials say was intended for the Houthi rebels in northwestern Yemen. But the presence of the missiles in the seized contraband complicates an already politically delicate case.
The shipment, which officials portray as an attempt to introduce sophisticated new antiaircraft systems into the Arabian Peninsula, has raised concerns in Saudi Arabia, Oman and Yemen, as the weapons would have posed escalated risks to civilian and military aircraft alike.
And it has presented the Obama administration with a fresh example of Iran’s apparent transfer of modern missiles from China to insurgents in the larger regional contest between Sunni-led and Shiite-led states, in which the American military has often been entwined.
The United States has previously accused Iran, a Shiite-led theocracy, of sending weapons to the Houthis, who follow an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Saudi Arabia, an American ally, is considered the leading Sunni power in the region. Both sides have aided and equipped groups or governments they deem aligned with their interests, helping to fuel violence in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Sudan and elsewhere.
Iran has rejected the allegations as “baseless and absurd.” Neither the Iranian government nor the Chinese firm that markets QW missiles answered written requests for comment.
The government of Yemen has asked the United Nations to investigate the shipment and report the findings to the Security Council. Yemeni news media reported that United Nations experts were in Yemen last week.
The analysis of the weapons’ markings and origins was based on photographs taken when Yemeni officials briefly displayed the weapons to journalists.
Concerns over sophisticated Chinese missiles reaching Iran’s proxies have considerable regional history. They are part of both the larger worries over antiaircraft weapons set loose by conflicts across the Middle East in the past decade and the lingering frustration in Washington over China’s military aid to Iran.
In 2008, late in the Bush administration, the United States complained to China about two similar antiaircraft missiles that were recovered from Shiite militants in Iraq, according a diplomatic cable made public by WikiLeaks.
“We have demarched China repeatedly on its conventional arms transfers to Iran, urging Beijing to stop,” the cable noted.
The cable said the QW-1 missiles recovered in Iraq had been manufactured in China in 2003.
Like the American-made Stinger, China’s QW series is part of a class of weapons known as man-portable air-defense systems, or manpads. The cable instructed American diplomats to warn China of the “unacceptably high risk that any military equipment sold to Iran, especially weapons like manpads, that are highly sought-after by terrorists, will be diverted to nonstate actors who threaten U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as civilians across the region.”
The latest discovery of Chinese manpads came after the United States Navy detected the dhow, the Jeehan 1, as it took on cargo in an Iranian military-controlled port. The vessel then embarked on a high-seas smuggling run, according to accounts by Yemeni and American officials.
The vessel tied off on a pier in the harbor on Lesser Tunb Island, a tiny spit of land just west of the Strait of Hormuz that is claimed by both Iran and the United Arab Emirates, officials familiar with its voyage said. The island is occupied by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
After passing eastward through the strait and heading south along the Arabian Peninsula, the dhow was stopped on Jan. 23 by the American destroyer Farragut and a Yemeni boarding team off the coast of Al Ghaydah.
The dhow’s Iranian crew initially insisted the vessel was Panamanian-flagged and carried only fuel, an American official said. The military cargo, which included many ammunition crates that had been painted over with white or black paint, was found in hidden compartments, American officials said.
That cargo also included 316,000 cartridges for Kalashnikov rifles, nearly 63,000 cartridges for PK machine guns or the Dragunov series of sniper rifles, more than 12,000 cartridges for 12.7-millimeter DShK machine guns and 95 RPG-7 launchers.
The rifle cartridges were packaged in crates strongly resembling packaging used by Iran’s Defense Industries Organization, another firm under American sanction, according to James Bevan, director of Conflict Armament Research, a private arms-tracking firm that has documented the spread of Iranian ammunition in East and West Africa.
The vessel also carried 10 SA-7 shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles with two gripstocks for firing them, nearly 17,000 blocks of Iranian-made C-4 plastic explosives, 48 Russian PN-14K night vision goggles, and 10 LH80A laser range finders made, according to their placards, by the state-run Iran Electronics Industries, also under American sanction.
The original provenance of the SA-7s was not clear, though the crates they were in had stenciling in Bulgarian.
The captain and crew of the Jeehan 1 remain in Yemeni detention, and the dhow has been impounded under Yemeni custody, a Yememi official said.
An American official called the shipment “deeply disturbing” and said it “clearly appeared to violate” Security Council resolutions prohibiting Iran from exporting arms.
Two independent arms-trafficking researchers who have reviewed photographs and written a summary of the markings on the missiles and crates said the weapons appeared to be of Chinese origin.
Matthew Schroeder, an analyst for the Federation of American Scientists in Washington and the Small Arms Survey in Geneva, said that this was the first time to his knowledge that the QW-1M had left state control.
“If so, and these missiles were indeed bound for insurgents, this shipment is extremely worrisome, both from a regional security and a global counterterrorism perspective,” he said.
Unlike many older shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles seen in insurgent hands around the world, the QW-1M is believed by analysts to have a seeker head more resistant to countermeasures intended to deceive it.
March 2, 2013
Riots to Protest Death Sentence Enter 3rd Day in Bangladesh
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — Demonstrators protesting the death penalty given to an Islamic political party leader clashed with Bangladeshi security forces for a third straight day on Saturday, killing two people and injuring about a dozen, the police said.
Delawar Hossain Sayedee, one of the top leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islamic party, was sentenced to death on Thursday by a war crimes tribunal for atrocities committed during Bangladesh’s 1971 war of separation from Pakistan. The sentence set off rioting across the country, killing at least 46 people, including the two in the latest fighting, the authorities said.
Mr. Sayedee, 73, is the third defendant to be convicted by the tribunal, which was set up in 2010 by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government. He was accused of involvement in looting and burning villages, raping women and forcing people to convert to Islam.
An additional seven top leaders of Jamaat, including its chief, Matiur Rahman Nizami, are on trial facing war crimes charges.
Jamaat campaigned against Bangladesh’s nine-month war of independence and formed some auxiliary forces to help the Pakistani troops, but it has denied committing atrocities.
Bangladesh says that during the war, three million people were killed, 200,000 women were raped and millions of others were forced to flee the country.
On Saturday, security forces used tear gas to stop Jamaat supporters from smashing vehicles and blocking roads in Chittagong district, the police said. The area is 135 miles southeast of Dhaka, the capital.
Two men were killed and about a dozen were injured in the fighting, a local police official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media.
Dhaka’s private television stations, Ekattor TV and Somoy TV, reported that Jamaat supporters had erected roadblocks and attacked the homes of government supporters in some areas.
Jamaat is an ally of Bangladesh’s main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which is led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, and was a partner in Ms. Zia’s government from 2001 to 2006.
Ms. Zia says the war crimes trials are politically motivated to prosecute the opposition, an allegation the government rejects.
Jamaat and Ms. Zia’s party have called for a three-day nationwide general strike starting on Sunday.
Three sisters raped and murdered: the tragedy that engulfed an Indian village
As the nation still struggles to come to terms with the attack on a Delhi student, another disturbing sex abuse case has shaken a rural community. It has raised awkward questions about police efficiency, disputed evidence and local gossip
Gethin Chamberlain in Murmadi, India
The Observer, Sunday 3 March 2013
Priya was the vivacious one, a bright five- year-old who loved music and wanted to be a teacher. Prachi was quiet, nine years old and painfully shy; Tanuja more headstrong, an independent 11-year-old.
The three sisters were Madhuri Borkar's only children. On 14 February they left home for schools in the village of Murmadi as usual. When they failed to return on time the family went to the police to report the girls missing.
"Go away," the police told them. "Come back tomorrow if they don't turn up." No one knows if the girls were still alive at that point. But it was two more days before a farmer found their bodies floating in the dark water at the bottom of a deep well in a corner of a paddyfield one mile from their home.
Even then, police initially treated the deaths as an accident. It was not until villagers started blocking the highway in protest that they started to pay attention. Two days later, the results of the postmortem examination came through and the story exploded. The girls had been raped and murdered, the report said. In the febrile atmosphere that has gripped India since the gang rape of a 23-year-old Delhi medical student last December, the case was taken up as another indictment of the plight of India's females.
Then, just as suddenly, the rest of the country seemed to lose interest. "Do rape cases make national news only if they take place in metros [metropolitan areas]?" the CNN-IBN TV network asked plaintively. The answer appeared to be yes. There has been a series of cases since the Delhi student's death. Only last week a seven-year-old girl was raped and murdered after vanishing from a wedding outside the city of Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh. It attracted little attention nationally, while the rape of a seven-year-old girl in Delhi provoked violent protests and made international headlines.
National figures released last week show rape cases rising year on year in India (although activists say the 24,206 cases recorded in 2011 are the tip of the iceberg and that police routinely fail to take complaints seriously). At the same time, conviction rates are falling, down from 44.3% in 1973 to 26.4% in 2011.
Even against this difficult background, what has become known as the Bhandara rape case has proved particularly challenging. The only indisputable facts are that three young girls are dead and that the police did not take their disappearance seriously. Even the question of rape has been muddied by disputes over postmortem and forensic findings.
Such was the initial official indifference to the disappearance of the Borkar sisters that, more than two weeks after they vanished, no one is even sure how they died. It was not until Friday that India's home minister, Sushilkumar Shinde, felt compelled to address parliament on the case, expressing revulsion at "the ghastly rape and murder".
Initial suspicion fell on people from outside the village. But with no arrests and no obvious external suspects, the girls' family have found themselves the subject of local gossip, newspaper speculation and background briefings intended to place them firmly in the frame. Madhuri Borkar is said to be HIV positive: the death of her husband, Jaipal Raibhan Borkar, in 2008 was attributed to Aids. Suspicions have been voiced about the involvement of Borkar's in-laws and the girls' cousins and about possible winners and losers in the family's financial affairs. There have been questions asked about the behaviour of Tanuja, said to have been seen carrying money and wearing new clothes not provided by her family. Neither has Borkar herself escaped scrutiny, with questions raised about her character.
Her father-in-law, Raibhan Ganpat Borkar, 65, says the family are not listening to "gossip". But when Borkar herself claimed that her mother-in-law, Sataya Shela, had previously tried to poison the girls and had been torturing her since the death of her husband, it only served to strengthen the conviction of many in the area that the Bhandara rape was not an outside job.
Only a court can ultimately decide. But Borkar, 29, will make a convincing witness. She sits in a brown plastic chair in the blue-painted front room of the home she shares with the family of her late husband, dabbing at her tears with the end of her blue-and-grey floral sari.
"Priya loved music and playing with her toys," she says. "She was in the first grade. She was clever and grasped things quickly and understood things. She wanted to be a teacher. Even when we used to quarrel, she was so understanding that she never minded my cross words. She used to hold my cheeks and convince me not to be angry with her."
The single-storey family home sits on a narrow lane a few hundred yards from the younger girls' school. The front door is open; outside, a line of police carrying riot helmets files past.
Borkar recalls the last time she saw her daughters. "I had prepared some leftover rice and fried it and gave it to them for their lunch. But Priya said she didn't want to go to school without a proper lunch, so I made her some chapatis and brinjal and she ate it and left the house happy because I had prepared separate food for her."
Prachi was a quieter child, she says. "She loved to eat fruit and to ride her bicycle. She didn't talk very much, she used to be quite silent. She was not very good at studies. I think she was a bit timid. She used to get frightened about even small things."
Tanuja was the opposite, she says. "She used to look after herself, comb her own hair, travel to school alone. She was very independent, though she used to take care of her little sisters and they used to play together. I think they used to love me very much, more than anyone else.
"They used to ask me to stand in the corner of the room and they would dance and they would ask me to judge which one was the best and to give them a prize. I couldn't choose one though, so I used to give them all prizes, money to buy some chocolate."
The first indication that something was amiss was when the girls' friends dropped off their schoolbags at the house, but Borkar says she assumed they would soon return. "I thought they might be playing somewhere so I didn't think to worry, but about 6pm I started thinking that something was strange. I searched at the houses of their friends but they were not there." So the children's grandfather went with neighbours to the local police station to report the girls missing. But instead of starting a search, the police sent them away.
"I didn't have a husband and I don't think they took me seriously," Borkar says quietly.
The delay in starting the investigation left police so little to work with that they have resorted to offering 100,000 rupees (£1,211) – a large sum in a rural area – in an attempt to flush out witnesses.
It seemed that Tanuja had gone to her sisters' school on the afternoon of 14 February and asked them to leave with her. The belief is that someone persuaded the older girl to take her sisters to the field by the well with the promise of treats and that the children were then attacked.
The village of Murmadi lies in the Bhandara district of Maharashtra state, about 578 miles north-east of the state capital, Mumbai. The well where the bodies was found is about 200 yards off the highway, just visible from the road. The well is deep, with only a low lip, and the water is a long way down.
But the crime scene has offered few clues. There were empty alcohol bottles near the well and chocolate wrappers. But it rained on 15 February and any footprints or vehicle tracks were washed away.
Even the conclusions of the postmortem have come under scrutiny, with a subsequent forensic report challenging the original rape claims. But Dr Dinesh Kuthe, one of the doctors involved, insists there is no doubt that the girls had been sexually assaulted. "There were injuries to the genitals and there was bleeding," he said.
The cause of death remained a mystery though, he said, and there was no water in the lungs to indicate drowning. "We think that some people killed them before throwing them into the well," he said. "If there were signs of what happened, they vanished in the water."
Borkar has given the Observer written permission to name the girls and to carry their photograph as a reminder of what is in danger of being lost amid the claims and counterclaims over this rural tragedy; that three beloved little girls are gone.
Russians march in support of ban on adoptions in US
Thousands join rally supporting ban on Russian children being adopted by Americans after death of boy in Texas
Staff and agencies
guardian.co.uk, Saturday 2 March 2013 16.28 GMT
Thousands of people have marched through Moscow to support a ban on adoptions of Russian children by Americans.
Carrying signs with slogans including "Children are our future" and "America – hands off our children", activists mixed bitter criticism of the United States with calls for improvements in Russia's own care system.
"These children are ours. We shouldn't give them away," said Natalya Bakhinova, 56, walking in one of two columns led by marching bands that converged in Moscow's Pushkin Square on Saturday.
Police said 12,000 people joined the rally, which was inspired by the government's announcement of an adoption ban. Organisers denied that marchers were coerced or paid to attend.
The death of the Russian-born three-year-old Max Shatto – who died in January in Texas, where his adoptive parents live – was the impetus for the ban, although courts ruled his death was an accident.
US and Russian relations have been strained by uprisings in Libya and Syria and Vladimir Putin's charges of US meddling and his treatment of opponents since he returned to Russia's presidency last May.
Activists on Saturday called for Max Shatto's younger brother Kris to be taken from the family and returned to Russia.
A few held photos of Max Shatto, bearing his Russian name Maxim Kuzmin, and of other Russian-born children who have died in the care of their adoptive American parents.
"We gave away something that is ours, and we need to take it back," said one demonstrator, Alexei Dobrenkov, 40.
Some Russian officials have suggested Max Shatto died as a result of abuse and lawmakers appealed to US Congress last month to help return Kris, born Kirill Kuzmin, to Russia.
Texas authorities ruled the death an accident on Friday, saying he died from a torn abdominal artery and had bruises consistent with injuring himself.
The US authorities said investigations into allegations of child abuse and neglect would continue and the priority was to ensure the safety of Kris Shatto, who remained in the adoptive family's home in Gardendale, Texas.
A Russian foreign ministry statement on Saturday expressed "concern" about the Texas authorities' findings and said it assumed they were only preliminary.
Demonstrators in Moscow echoed the official sentiment. "That's nonsense – there is no way he could have killed himself," said Sergei, 57, who would not give his last name. "Too many of our children have died in America."
Russian officials say there have been at least 20 such deaths in two decades and that US authorities have been too lenient on the parents.
There are more than 650,000 orphans in Russia, and 110,000 of them lived in state institutions in 2011. There were about 7,400 adoptions by Russian families in 2011, and 3,400 adoptions by families abroad.
Americans have adopted more than 60,000 Russian children since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, but now only a few dozen children whose adoptions were approved before 1 January will be able to go.
Russia added the adoption ban on to legislation it passed in December in response to the US Magnitsky Act, which bars Russians linked to the 2009 death of an anti-corruption lawyer and other alleged rights abuses from entering the United States.
In January, tens of thousands of Russians, some labelling Putin a "child-killer", protested against the adoption ban at a rally in Moscow in January billed as a "march against scoundrels".
Putin, who has stepped up efforts to instil patriotism during his new six-year term, has suggested the ban is justified because Russia should take care of its own children, and has ordered improvements to care for orphans.
Critics say the Russian system is plagued by neglect and instances of abuse, and accuse the Kremlin and lawmakers of using particularly vulnerable children as political pawns.
Church backs Vladimir Putin's ban on Americans adopting Russian children
Russian Orthodox church criticised for supporting Kremlin again
The Observer, Sunday 30 December 2012 00.06 GMT
The Russian Orthodox church has been attacked for supporting a new law banning Americans from adopting Russian children, at the end of a year that saw it plagued by scandal and accusations of collusion with an increasingly authoritarian Kremlin.
Father Vsevolod Chaplin, a high-ranking priest and a spokesman for the church, said the law was "a search for a social answer to an elementary question: why should we give, and even sell, our children abroad?"
Speaking to Interfax, a state news agency, last week, Chaplin said the path to heaven would be closed to children adopted by foreigners. "They won't get a truly Christian upbringing and that means falling away from the church and from the path to eternal life, in God's kingdom," he said.
Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, signed the controversial ban into law on Friday, in retaliation for a new US law that bans Russian officials accused of human rights abuses from travelling to or having bank accounts in the United States.
The ban, which effectively targets the hundreds of thousands of children condemned to Russia's decrepit orphanage system, has been widely criticised by many Russians, including some of Putin's most loyal ministers. Chaplin later said the law should include exceptions for ill children who required medical treatment abroad.
Critics say the church's support for the law is the latest example of its submission to the Kremlin, in which it acts more like a government ministry than an independent spiritual body.
"Everything is repeating – it's like the 19th century, when the church lay completely under the state," said Valery Otstavnykh, a theologist and Kremlin critic. "Everything was calm and fine until churches started getting blown up in 1917 and they all asked, 'Why?' "
The arrest of Pussy Riot thrust the church into the spotlight this year. When members of the feminist punk band performed a song inside Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in February, begging the Virgin Mary to "drive Putin out", their goal was to highlight the church's explicit politicisation. Patriarch Kirill, the church's leader, repeatedly praised Putin during his contentious presidential campaign, once calling the era of his rule a "miracle of God".
Maria Alyokhina, a Pussy Riot member serving a two-year jail sentence after being found guilty of charges of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred", said during the trial: "I thought the church loved all its children, but it seems the church loves only those children who believe in Putin."
The case opened the floodgates on church scandals, with particular attention on its alleged corruption. The church has grown rich under Putin, and has been given vast tracts of valuable land and property. It also runs several businesses, including a bank. The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour maintains several firms on the site, including a car wash and a business centre it rents out for conferences.
In early April, Patriarch Kirill was involved in a dispute over a property he owned in the House on the Embankment, once home to the Soviet elite. A renovation by his neighbour, a former health minister, prompted a lawsuit in which Kirill won 20 million roubles (£400,000) – which he later said he would donate to charity. The lawsuit revealed that a woman – identified as a "keeper" named Lidia Leonova – was living in his flat, prompting widespread speculation.
On the heels of that scandal, came another. The church apologised for publishing on its website a photograph of Patriarch Kirill in which an expensive watch had been airbrushed from his wrist. The $30,000 Breguet still appeared in a reflection in the photograph.
In August, a priest crashed a BMW with diplomatic plates in central Moscow. In October, another priest assaulted two women pensioners in a fit of road rage in St Petersburg. Later that month, Russia's opposition cried foul after the church decreed that priests could run for political office. Two weeks later, the state news agency RIA-Novosti cited an anonymous source as saying that a bordello was uncovered in a Moscow monastery.
"The church has also done a lot of good," said Otstavnykh. "But the church as an organisation must change."
US ambassador tries to calm row over Texas death of adopted Russian boy
Michael McFaul pleads for end to 'sensational exploitations' of as-yet unexplained death of 3-year-old Max Shatto
Matt Williams in New York
guardian.co.uk, Friday 22 February 2013 20.05 GMT
The US embassy in Moscow has responded to the furore over the death of a toddler adopted by American parents, calling on Russian lawmakers and media to end their "sensational exploitations of human tragedy".
Ambassador Michael McFaul said he was troubled by how the Russian press was portraying the US, its justice system and citizens amid an angry response to the case of three-year-old Max Shatto, who died in Texas last month. The boy – who was born Maxim Kuzmin – has become a focal point of protest in Russia, with some officials openly accusing his adoptive mother of killing him. A US investigation has not yet stated cause of death.
Authorities in Texas are still trying to piece together the events leading up to the child's demise. He was last seen alive on 21 January, in the small town of Gardendale. His adoptive mother, Laura Shatto, says she found Max unresponsive in the backyard, where he had been playing. The three-year-old was taken to hospital but could not be revived. The medical examiner in West Texas has yet to pronounce cause of death, but has said there were signs of bruising on Max's abdominal area.
The Russian children's rights ombudsman, Pavel Astakhov, described the death as the "killing" of a toddler by his adoptive American parents; the state Duma has drafted a strongly-worded petition to Congress. Having led nightly news broadcasts on state TV on consecutive days, the boy's death has also sparked anti-American protest rallies in Moscow.
On Friday, in a blogpost, McFaul wrote: "It is time for sensational exploitations of human tragedy to end and for professional work between our two countries to grow, on this issue and many others. Just as it troubles me to see unfair stereotypes of Russians and Russia in the American press, it pains me to read these inaccurate portrayals of Americans and our values by some in your media."
After the ambassador's intervention, Russian president Vladimir Putin's spokesman said Moscow should "temper emotions" over the case. Dmitry Peskov said harsh statements by Russian officials and lawmakers were driven by the "zero tolerance" of Russians to the deaths of children adopted by Americans. But he acknowledged that it was too early to know the cause of Shatto's death.
Russian officials have sought to use incidents of abuse in the US to back the country's controversial ban on adoption to American parents. That restriction, which was signed into law by Putin in December, has been attacked by the US government as "politically motivated". The White House has framed it as tit-for-tat retaliation to restrictions placed on officials implicated in the case of Sergei Magnitsky – a lawyer who was found dead in a Russian prison in 2009, after being arrested by the same officers he had been investigating over a $230m fraud.
McFaul wrote that "more than 60,000 other children adopted from Russia have had the opportunity to enjoy loving parents, new families, and countless opportunities in America". In Moscow, more attention has been paid to the 20 children who have died in US care.
December's act banning the adoption of Russian children by US parents was named after Dima Yakovlev, a 21-month-old boy who died in a sweltering car in Virginia. His adoptive father was later acquitted of involuntary manslaughter, prompting strong media criticism in Russia.
Locked in a fateful embrace: Turkey's PM and his Kurdish prisoner
Catastrophes within Turkey and across its borders are pushing Erdogan and Öcalan towards peace. Will they grab it?
Ian Traynor and Constanze Letsch Istanbul
guardian.co.uk, Friday 1 March 2013 15.32 GMT
A couple of hours south of the marinas of Istanbul in the middle of the Sea of Marmara sits Imrali island, a no-go area sealed off by the Turkish state. The island is Turkey's most high-security prison – its the equivalent of Alcatraz or Robben Island in South Africa – adapted to incarcerate one man, Abdullah Öcalan, the founder of the Kurdistan Workers' party (PKK) – an armed group of Kurdish fighters engaged in an insurrection against the Turkish state for 30 years.
Public enemy No 1 to the Turks, lionised by the Kurds, Öcalan has been demonised by Ankara for most of the 14 years he has been in solitary confinement on the island. The prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, even said recently he would have liked to have seen Öcalan executed.
In recent weeks that has changed, raising hopes of a breakthrough in the quest to settle one of the world's longest-running and most debilitating ethnic conflicts, which has cost up to 40,000 lives over 30 years.
Turkey's intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan, has been visiting the island to cultivate Öcalan.
"Fidan and Öcalan have managed to understand each other," said Ayla Akat, a Kurdish MP who is one of the few politicians to have visited the prisoner.
The inmate's brother Mehmed has become a visitor. Erdogan announced the provision of a TV for the guerrilla leader. The government is keen to reveal how many books Öcalan has read and the fact he plays football and basketball on the island where he has been joined by five prisoners.
In short, Turkish demonisation of Öcalan has given way to a process of humanisation paving the way for peace talks that some, including Turks and Kurds, liken to the UK-Irish negotiations that led to the Good Friday accords.
"The novelty is not that the state is talking to Öcalan – that's happened before – but that they are admitting it," said Cengiz Çandar, an analyst of the conflict. "There are new unprecedented elements that have raised expectations of a breakthrough. That can also be very dangerous."
Of the estimated 30 million Kurds in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, around half are in Turkey, concentrated in the south-east but also dispersed to the big cities in the west of the country, not least Istanbul, home to about 3 million.
The momentum towards the "Imrali process" – as the incipient peace talks are being dubbed – has been provided by a series of tragedies and catastrophes both regional and within Turkey, apparently bringing both sides to conclude they have fought themselves to a stalemate.
"There has to be a political solution. The armed struggle has run its course. But the PKK will continue to fight if there is no political solution. Both sides know that's the case," said Akat.
The past 18 months have been one of the most vicious periods of the 30-year insurgency, leaving 900 dead, the heaviest casualty rate since Öcalan was captured in Kenya in 1999, the International Crisis Group said.
In the same period, the Turkish authorities jailed thousands of Kurdish activists, sparking a hunger strike last autumn involving up to 600 inmates. Just when it became critical in October, Öcalan ordered the strike to end and everyone complied.
It was a persuasive demonstration of the leader's power after 14 years in jail, making it plain that if Erdogan wanted to sue for peace, he would need, indirectly, to talk to Öcalan.
"The war can go on without Öcalan but there can be no peace without Öcalan. Everyone understands that," said Mazlum Dinç, one of the Kurdish leader's lawyers.
"Öcalan is the one person who can bless a compromise agreement. He remains the paramount figure," said Hugh Pope, the crisis group's analyst in Istanbul.
If the bloodshed, jailings, and stalemate are pushing the parties to the negotiating table, the other big factor is regional, where the dynamic favours the Kurds over the Turks, supplying a further reason for Erdogan to soften.
As a result of the Iraq war, the Kurds of northern Iraq in effect enjoy home rule. An estimated 3,000 PKK fighters are holed up in the Qandil mountains of Iraq, with a similar number inside Turkey. But the most recent game-changer has been the civil war in Syria on Turkey's south-eastern border. The PKK's Syrian cousins now control tracts of north-east Syria and also might expect to win regional autonomy in a postwar settlement.
The Turkish and Syrian Kurds have gained control of about 435 miles of the border.
"It's Bashar Assad's revenge against Erdogan," said a senior European diplomat. "He has ceded north-east Syria to the Kurds to cause trouble for Ankara."
Others say the Kurdish control of the region is simply a result of the war. "Turkey's Middle East policy has crashed, exposing it to the Kurds. It needs a deal with the PKK to be stronger in the region against Baghdad and Tehran," said Pope.
The rush of boat trips to the prison shifted up a gear at the weekend when three members of the Kurds' Peace and Democracy party (BDP) – to the PKK what Sinn Féin was to the IRA – were allowed to visit Öcalan for a tightly monitored eight hours to obtain his thoughts on peace talks and returned with a long letter from the leader.
The talk in Ankara and Istanbul is of the PKK calling a ceasefire next month during the Kurdish new year celebrations, of a possible release of Turkish hostages held by the PKK, and of the fighters retreating into the Iraqi mountains while laying down their arms from August.
According to leaks in the Turkish press on Thursday, Öcalan told his visitors the peace process had to succeed, since the alternative was "war and chaos", warning that a force of 50,000 Kurdish insurgents would escalate their fight against the Turkish state. It was not clear who leaked the transcript and why but the incident only thickened the air of conspiracy and manipulation surrounding the process.
If Öcalan still rules the roost with the Kurds, the same is true of the other side where decision-taking stops and starts with Erdogan, unassailable in Turkish politics as he approaches 10 years in office. He aims to emulate Russia's Vladimir Putin next year by swapping the premiership for an executive presidency under a new constitution.
This week Erdogan has been loudly anticipating the prospect of PKK disarmament and making disparaging remarks about the Kurds, hardly the behaviour of someone seeking to build trust across the communal divide. The latest example of Erdogan raising hackles came on Friday when the US secretary of state, John Kerry, visiting Turkey, took the prime minister to task for remarks calling Zionism a crime against humanity.
Erdogan is famously inscrutable. He is refusing to say what is in a peace process for the Kurds or what may have been promised to Öcalan by his messenger Fidan.
This lack of candour is feeding suspicion and recrimination on the Kurdish side, and complaints from the main Turkish opposition party, which broadly supports the peace moves.
"There's a new generation of Kurds that has known nothing but war," said Hayri Ates, a Kurdish politician. "Their villages were destroyed, all the unsolved murders and disappearances. They're destitute. And they blame all their grievances on Turks. It's an angry generation. Now the country is polarised and Erdogan's party is hegemonic. But it is going to have to talk to the Kurds on equal terms."
The scepticism about Erdogan's good faith is reinforced by statements from the government side.
"You have to take into account the sensitivities of non-Kurdish citizens," the deputy prime minister, Hüseyin Çelik, said. "We have to manage public opinion. Öcalan is a political prisoner who still has influence over his organisation. But Öcalan and the PKK can't get anywhere by killing people. You cannot shake hands with a fist."
Western diplomats in Ankara doubt the seriousness of the parties, saying while both sides have fought to a stalemate, they are not weary enough to abandon hopes of prevailing by force.
There are strong suspicions that Erdogan is being driven less by a strategic vision but by tactical scheming aimed at concentrating his political power through the new constitution.
Nonetheless, the public choreography of the peace process is different from anything that has gone before, also encouraging a wary optimism even on the Kurdish side.
"There have been many attempts at peace talks since 1993," said Mesut Yegen, a Kurdish sociologist in Istanbul and a historian of the conflict. "This time is different. For the first time Erdogan is a partner you can trust. And Turkey has to act while Öcalan is still able to deliver."
Nihat Ali Özcan, a Turkish counter-terrorism expert in Ankara, thinks time and the political dynamics in the region are on the Kurds' side. "Öcalan has a lot of time on the island, while Erdogan has a very expensive watch," he said.
But he says decades of brutality on both sides have engendered an unforgiving climate which will be hard to change. "We can tolerate 500 deaths a year. It's considered normal."
While it is unclear what Erdogan is offering, if anything, the Kurdish demands amount to a straightforward package of civil rights denied to them since the modern republic was founded 90 years ago: education in their own language; recognition in the proposed new constitution that Turkey is not a republic of "Turks" but also of Kurds and the other 40 ethnic minorities in the country; election laws that lower the threshold for entering parliament currently designed to minimise Kurdish representation; greater decentralisation and regional government. The Kurds will also demand that Öcalan be allowed to swap his island isolation for a form of mainland house arrest.
"Turkey has had an indefensible policy towards the Kurds since 1925 and it has blown so many chances," said Pope. "This is simply about equal rights and justice."
He added the potential for a breakthrough had seldom been better. "I've never seen the situation so pregnant with possibility, he said."
Erdogan and Öcalan appear to be deadly enemies locked in a fateful embrace, with Turkey's future hinging on whether they are bold enough to take a risk for peace.
The price of failure will be high, the likelihood of a return to even worse bloodshed in a conflict calculated to have cost Turkey up to $450bn (£300bn), according to government figures.
The prize of a settlement could seal Erdogan's place in history as the greatest national figure since Kemal Atatürk, the republic's founder, and see him awarded the Nobel peace prize.
"It's not the last chance and it's not the best chance," said Çandar. "But it's a good chance."
March 2, 2013
As Marines Exit Afghan Province, a Feeling That a Campaign Was Worth It
By JAMES DAO
CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan — On a whirlwind Christmas tour of Helmand Province in 2010, Gen. James F. Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, visited 11 bases in a single day. At one, thousands of Marines showed up for prime rib, dust-covered and grim-faced after weeks of dodging and delivering gunfire, seeing comrades killed, and sleeping on dirt. Helmand had become Marineistan.
Against the judgment of some Pentagon officials, the corps had made the province the defining battleground of its Afghan campaign, concentrating forces here and launching aggressive assaults into Taliban-controlled districts. Along the way, the Marines took some of the heaviest casualties of the war: about 360 killed in action and more than 4,700 wounded, many grievously.
Today, the Marine force in Helmand has shrunk to fewer than 7,000, from a peak of 21,000. Of 240 NATO bases that once dotted the province, just 44 remain. Daily firefights have been replaced by occasional skirmishes, and casualties are rare — one Marine killed in action this year. At sprawling Camp Leatherneck, their headquarters, lots once packed with armored vehicles are as desolate as frontier ghost towns.
As if to put an exclamation point on the exodus, General Amos used a trip last month to visit not just infantrymen but also a logistics company that has been assiduously shipping matériel home, trying to beat the Army to the exit.
“Two years from now, this place is going to be empty,” General Amos told the company. “What you’re doing here will have paid off.”
But as the Marines shift from Helmand to assignments in the Middle East, Africa and the Pacific, a question looms: Was it all worth it?
General Amos says he has little doubt that it was. The number of violent events, from gunshots to roadside bombs, has dropped in almost every district since 2010, Marine commanders say, though the figures are still being finalized. Roads have been paved and markets secured, allowing commerce to grow in places like Marja, Nad Ali and Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital. Civilian casualties are down by 20 percent.
As Marine and British forces have drawn down, the Afghan National Army has grown, to almost four brigades with more than 16,000 soldiers. Those forces now patrol much of southern Helmand independently, the Marines say. In a few months, they will be responsible for securing the rest of the province with much less, and more distant, NATO support.
“I think history has proved it was the right thing to do,” General Amos said of the decision to increase the Marine presence in Helmand. “It doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous. It doesn’t mean it couldn’t turn overnight. But I don’t think it’s going to turn.”
Others are not so sure, and they see a Taliban resurgence as soon as the Marines depart. Helmand’s poppy harvest, which provides 40 percent of the world’s opium supply, remains a coveted prize. In several northern districts, violence has gone up in the past year. And government corruption is so rampant — the local police are routinely accused of shaking down and sexually abusing residents — that loyalty to the government remains shaky at best.
“You will never get people to take a risk on behalf of a government that is hurting them,” said Sarah Chayes, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who has worked in Afghanistan for most of the past decade, including as a senior adviser to the United States military.
In their internal briefings, the Marines acknowledge widespread lawlessness stemming from conflicts among corrupt officials, tribal leaders and drug gangs. “This is Chicago in the 1930s,” Maj. Gen. Charles M. Gurganus, the departing commander of NATO forces in Helmand, said in one briefing.
And while the Marines see progress by the Afghan Army, they concede that it is lacking basic abilities, including surveillance technology, systems to train and equip troops, helicopters to evacuate casualties, and medical professionals to treat them.
Though NATO is helping build a hospital in Lashkar Gah, American officials do not know whether the Afghan government can staff it.
Yet the Marines express few doubts that they will leave Helmand better off than when they arrived. “We created a security bubble that has allowed governance to shoot up,” General Gurganus said. “I won’t tell you it’s blossomed. But there are leaves.”
Their focus now is on packing — trying to get their equipment through the limited transportation pipeline quickly enough to beat the rush when the Army pullout begins in earnest, but not so fast as to leave units without vital equipment.
At Camp Leatherneck, entire warehouses are filled with Marines inventorying and packaging equipment. Mine-resistant trucks sit in lots awaiting transport to Middle Eastern ports, where they will be loaded onto ships and sailed to the United States, as well as to Okinawa and elsewhere in the Pacific.
During the troop increase, a quarter of all the Marine Corps’ equipment was in Helmand, General Amos estimated. Worried that it would take years to move it all out, the Marines created a special unit under the tutelage of specialists who had worked in Iraq. Since last summer, the unit has moved two-thirds of the Marines’ matériel out of Afghanistan.
Soon, the Marines may shrink Camp Leatherneck itself, wrapping what remains into Camp Bastion, the British base and airfield next door.
There are still combat troops in Helmand, of course, and memories of the fierce fighting are evident along walls of the command center at Camp Leatherneck, where photographs pay homage to every NATO service member killed in Helmand. Two years ago, those memorials fit on one wall; today they hang along three separate corridors.
Yet as General Amos toured outposts in two districts, the war felt all but over.
At Forward Operating Base Jackson in Sangin district, once home to the Third Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment, which lost 25 Marines in seven months between 2010 and 2011, only a few platoons remain.
“Now, Afghans are fighting Afghans,” said Lt. Col. Donald Tomich, the commander of the battalion currently there.
During the height of the troop increase, some Marine battalions were expected to rotate through Helmand more than once. With that history in mind, Lt. Col. Carl Cooper, the battalion commander at Forward Operating Base Geronimo in Nawa district, completed a briefing by declaring, “We’ll be back.”
General Amos corrected him. “You’ll be going somewhere,” he said. “But it won’t be to this part of the world.”
Lech Walesa accused of hate speech after gay rights criticism
Poland's first democratic-era president said he believed gay people had no right to sit on front benches in parliament
Associated Press in Warsaw
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 3 March 2013 12.25 GMT
A national committee devoted to fighting hate speech and other crimes in Poland has filed a complaint with prosecutors in Gdansk accusing Lech Walesa of promoting a "propaganda of hate against a sexual minority", after the Nobel peace prize-winner said gay people had no right to a prominent role in politics.
Walesa said in a television interview on Friday that he believed gay people had no right to sit on the front benches in parliament and, if there at all, should sit in the back "or even behind a wall".
"They have to know that they are a minority and adjust to smaller things, and not rise to the greatest heights," he told the private broadcaster TVN during a discussion of gay rights. "A minority should not impose itself on the majority."
Walesa, Poland's first democratic-era president, is a deeply conservative Roman Catholic and a father of eight who has never advocated progressive social views. The democracy he helped create in 1989 from the turmoil of strikes and other protests has, however, been undergoing a profound social transformation in recent years.
A key symbol of the change is a new willingness to tackle gay rights, long a taboo subject. In 2011, voters elected Poland's first openly gay and first transsexual members of parliament.
Walesa is no longer active in Polish political life, though he is often interviewed and asked his opinion on current affairs, as on Friday when he was asked about his views on civil partnerships and a new public gay rights campaign. Much of his time is spent giving lectures internationally on his role in fighting communism and on issues of peace and democracy.
Jerzy Wenderlich, a deputy speaker of parliament with the Democratic Left Alliance, said: "From a human point of view his language was appalling. It was the statement of a troglodyte. Now nobody in their right mind will invite Lech Walesa as a moral authority, knowing what he said."
Some said they were not surprised by Walesa's words. "I am surprised that only now we are noticing that Walesa is not in control of what he says and that he has views that are far from being politically correct," said Adam Bielan, a conservative Polish member of the European parliament.
March 2, 2013
Hungary Tries a Dash of Taxes to Promote Healthier Eating Habits
By SUZANNE DALEY
BUDAPEST — Gizella Beres Devenyi, who works behind the cash register at the delicatessen Zena in a working-class neighborhood here, says it is easy to see Hungary’s new salt tax at work.
“You see the kids come in after school and pick up the bags of potato chips, and then when we tell them the price, they put them right back,” Mrs. Devenyi said. “We are selling about 10 percent less of certain brands.”
While Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has raised tobacco taxes and tried to ban 32-ounce sodas in New York City, neither he nor the rest of the United States has embraced taxes as a way to promote healthier diets. Europe, on the other hand, has become something of a petri dish for a variety of food tax strategies, with a handful of countries slapping taxes on items like sugary sodas, fatty cheeses and salty chips, and others considering it.
France, Finland, Denmark, Britain, Ireland and Romania have all either instituted food taxes or have been talking about it.
But perhaps no country is trying harder than Hungary, which has, in the past 18 months, imposed taxes on salt, sugar and the ingredients in energy drinks, hoping both to raise revenues and force those who are eating unhealthy foods to pay a little more toward the country’s underfinanced health system.
Visit the market halls of Budapest and it is not hard to see why. Sure, there are some vegetables. But they are far outnumbered by sweet pastries, fatty sausages and thick slabs of lard, eaten for breakfast with onions. Nearly two-thirds of Hungarians are overweight or obese, and the country has the highest per capita salt consumption in the European Union.
As a result, Hungary has one of the lowest life expectancy rates at birth in the European Union: in 2011 it was just 71.2 years for men and 78.7 for women. In 2009, the most recent statistics available for all 27 members of the bloc, life expectancy in the group averaged at 76.6 years for men and 82.6 years for women.
“We have a public health crisis,” said Miklos Szocska, the health minister, explaining the logic behind the new taxes, which raised about $77.8 million last year. “We are leading the charts in many kinds of diseases. So, those who follow a certain lifestyle should pay for it in a small way.”
Many nutrition experts say that taxation is a powerful tool that has been effective in campaigns to reduce smoking and alcohol consumption. But many questions remain about how to make it work when it comes to changing eating habits.
Should taxation be combined with subsidies making fruits, vegetables and lean meat especially cheap? Will it actually improve diet or simply change it? And who will be affected? The truly overweight? Or the poor?
“What you have is a search out there for the best mix of ways to alter behavior,” said Dr. João Breda, the program manager for nutrition, physical activity and obesity at the World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe, which will issue a report on the subject soon. “And you have it coming from governments of all kinds, governments from left to right to center.”
But critics point out that the new interest in food taxes just happens to coincide with tough economic times in Europe. Some say the taxes are as much about raising revenues in a politically acceptable manner as they are about promoting healthy habits. And they worry that the taxes do, in fact, hit the poor the hardest.
One effort to raise taxes on saturated fat has already failed spectacularly. In October 2011, Denmark became the first country to institute such a tax, raising the price of meat, dairy, edible oils and fats, margarine and other blended spreads, among other items. Fans of the effort thought Denmark was perfectly positioned to make such a tax work, because it already had rigorous labeling requirements, an efficient administration and companies used to making these kinds of adjustments.
But barely a year later, Denmark gave up on the tax. In the end, experts say, the effort was undermined by political battles, pressure from the food industry and a population that quickly learned to go over the border to Germany to buy the products it wanted.
Yet many health officials say that even the failed attempts are a step forward in developing taxation strategies that will alter eating patterns on a continent that has had a rise in obesity rates in recent years, though they still run far below those in the United States.
In the United States, much of the push for healthier diets has come through awareness campaigns. The first lady, Michelle Obama, has taken up the cause of healthy eating, and in recent years, helped along by some federal incentives, many schools have taken a hard look at the lunches they serve.
But probably the most controversial champion of good eating has been Mr. Bloomberg, whose efforts in New York City have made him kind of a celebrity in Europe. He has banned trans fats, forced soda from school vending machines, demanded that restaurant chains post calorie counts and more recently tried to limit the size of sugary sodas sold at the city’s restaurants, street carts and movie theaters. That effort is currently facing a challenge in the courts from the American beverage industry.
Europe is much more accepting of government intervention. Before the new taxes were imposed in Hungary, some polls showed that Hungarians were in favor of using taxes to press for healthier eating habits. But many appear to have soured on the idea, seeing it as yet another hardship in difficult times.
The move to institute food taxes in Hungary began ambitiously. It was first nicknamed the “hamburger tax” and included the idea of a tax on fast food. But the effort was later renamed a “chips tax,” skirting the issue of fat altogether, a change that many people attribute to lobbying by multinational corporations. And in the end, the taxes were applied only to packaged foods, making it easier to carry out. The rates vary depending on the food group: adding, for instance, about 13 cents to the cost of a 100-gram, or nearly 4-ounce, chocolate bar, or about 20 cents to a small bag of potato chips.
But many Hungarians just do not think the taxes are working and see the effort primarily as a revenue-raising instrument, instituted after the conservative government introduced a flat-rate income tax, which created a large hole in the budget.
The teenagers in Mrs. Devenyi’s shop may have given up on the expensive potato chips, but they have not been asking for apples either. For the most part, they are choosing similar snacks that are cheaper, either because they have less salt or because they were made with even cheaper ingredients.
“The food tax,” Mrs. Devenyi said, “is a joke.”
Sales of salty and sugary foods have dropped in the last year, officials said. But it is hard to tell if the taxes had much to do with it. Hungarians, struggling with high unemployment and a dismal economy, bought less of all kinds of foods last year.
Masek Lajor, who has a stand in the market hall of Rakoczi Square, said most of his customers were not particularly aware of the special taxes on products like powdered soup mixes, jams and chocolate, because the government had raised sales taxes at roughly the same time, making many purchases more expensive. Mr. Lajor used to sell only chicken. But he said he had to expand his inventory because Hungarians just could not afford as much chicken these days. He has loaded up on items that are near their expiration date and, at reduced prices, sell briskly.
“Everyone is just looking for bargains,” he said.
The government hoped to collect 20 billion forints, about $88 million, from the food taxes last year and fell 3 billion forints, or about $13 million, short. One reason was that energy drink makers quickly changed their products to duck the tax. In a kind of cat and mouse game, the government has reformulated its tax to catch up with them and hopes to collect more money next year.
But experts say reformulation is one of the goals of the food tax. If a manufacturer lowers salt content to dodge taxes, for example, much has been achieved. It is yet another way in which food taxation is different from taxes on tobacco and alcohol.
Hungary’s food industry, however, does not believe the government is interested in reformulation because they were given little time to adjust to the taxes.
“The industry was shocked,” said Reka Szollosi, the secretary of Hungary’s Association of Food Producers. “There was practically no consultation before they decided on these taxes. And taking salt out of a product can have serious technical consequences. In many cases, it serves as a preservative.”
Ms. Szollosi says that much of the salt that Hungarians consume is not actually from prepackaged foods but from salt added to food cooked at home. She said the taxes actually sent the wrong signal, suggesting to people they could significantly affect salt intake by simply avoiding the taxed items.
“People are not aware,” she said. “So, now they are saying to themselves, ‘O.K., I don’t eat chips, I’m O.K.,’ and that just isn’t true.”
Michael M. Grynbaum contributed reporting from New York, and Gabriella Horn from Budapest.
We need a surreal fantasist like Beppe Grillo to rescue Italy, says Nobel-winning playwright Dario Fo
The author tells Tom Kington in Rome that the comedian, who finds himself kingmaker of the Italian government, is taking his cues from medieval comics who bedevilled the powerful
The Observer, Saturday 2 March 2013 12.37 GMT
What makes Beppe Grillo tick? After a quarter of Italians voted for his brand of populist insurgency in last week's general election, it is a question preoccupying the country's political class and much of the eurozone. According to Italy's most distinguished playwright and prominent Grillo supporter, the answer is simple.
"Grillo is like a character in one of my plays," says Dario Fo, whose satires on medieval and modern life have seen him handed a Nobel prize and hounded off Italian stages in a career that has covered 50 years. "He is from that school of medieval minstrels who played with paradox and the absurd," adds Fo.
Fo, 86, is best known for his play Accidental Death of an Anarchist, inspired by the death of a man in police custody in 1969, and has long been a leftwing hero in Italy. He publicly backed Grillo this year, co-writing a book on the comedian's fledgling political movement and giving him a ringing endorsement at a packed rally in Milan's Piazza Duomo days before the election.
In return, Grillo, 64, suggested that Fo be nominated as the next president of Italy, an offer that the playwright turned down.
The high-profile backing contributed to a campaign that achieved an astonishing momentum. As a result of the 8.7 million votes Grillo received, his movement is now the biggest single party in the chamber of deputies, which makes him a kingmaker in a hung parliament.
After building a cult following through his blog, which denounced the austerity drive of the former prime minister, Mario Monti, and dubbed ex-president Silvio Berlusconi "a saliva salesman" and "the psycho-dwarf", Grillo's breakthrough before the election came when middle-class professionals started to see him as the best way to express their alienation from Italy's self-perpetuating political class.
Experts and analysts have been drumming up ideas about new political paradigms in Italy ever since. Journalists mobbed Grillo all last week for clues as to what comes next. His only response so far has been to refuse an offer from Italy's centre-left Democratic party to work together in parliament, using characteristically earthy language to describe the party's leader Pier Luigi Bersani as an "arse face". On Saturday he said he would accept a centre-left alliance with Berlusconi, only to add "they will never do it."
For Fo, the key to understanding Grillo is not in 21st-century Italy but in the 13th century, when storytellers – giullari – roamed Italy, entertaining crowds in piazzas with lewd and ancient tales interwoven with satirical attacks on local potentates.
"In English the equivalent word is 'juggler', but in Italy they juggled with words, irony and sarcasm," says Fo, who has attended Grillo's shows for years.
Grillo rose to fame mixing comedy routines with references to political scandals in the towns he was playing in, a straight lift from his medieval peers.
"He is from the tradition of the wise storyteller, one who knows how to use surreal fantasy, who can turn situations around, who has the right word for the right moment, who can transfix people when he speaks, even in the rain and the snow," explains Fo.
At one rain-soaked pre-election rally in Viterbo, in Lazio, central Italy, Grillo yelled: "Put down your umbrellas, I want to look you in the face." The crowd duly obeyed the comedian's demand.
Even the internet-based forums where Grillo's followers argue over policy have their roots in the Middle Ages, argues Fo. He says: "We had extremely democratic town councils in medieval Italy which knew the value of working together and every now and then, down the centuries, this spirit returns."
Grillo's focus on the web followed his ejection from Italian state TV in the 1980s after he made fun of corrupt Italian Socialist politicians, a few years before many of them were rounded up during Italy's Clean Hands probe.
His TV ban was part of a proud tradition, says Fo. "Nothing has changed since the Emperor Frederick II issued a decree in the 13th century against giullari who criticised power."
Fo himself was thrown off state TV in 1951 after he adapted biblical tales as political satire, the start of a series of run-ins with Italy's fascists, communists and the Vatican as his radical theatre group challenged taboos.
By 2004, Fo was being sued by an associate of Berlusconi after he staged a satire that poked fun at Berlusconi's small stature. "Every time you touch those who have power over the media, they seek to stop you," he says.
As a young man in Milan during the second world war, Fo helped his father – a resistance fighter – smuggle escaped British prisoners of war into Switzerland and his memories flooded back when he was invited on stage by Grillo at the Milan rally.
"The end of the war was the last time I saw that piazza filled with the same joy, with people changing their way of thinking about politics," he says.
Fo draws a parallel between Grillo's Five Star Movement's attack on Italy's privileged political class and the activists he worked with in the late 1960s. "Back then, people were also realising the importance of culture, of schools, and a generation of Italian singer-songwriters were giving voice to that."
The difference is that those artists never held the balance of power in Italy as Grillo does, with 162 deputies and senators under his movement's control in parliament. Now, after his election triumph, Grillo faces the challenges of real politics.
The first came last week when thousands of supporters urged him to form a functioning government with the centre-left leader, Bersani, who needs his backing in the senate to reach a majority.
"It is not easy, the Democratic party treated Grillo with disrespect, called him a fascist, a buffoon, but now they are offering their hand," says Fo, who is actively encouraging Grillo to negotiate, meaning that a playwright and a comic were making Italy's political headlines at the end of the week.
In Sicily, where the Democratic party runs the regional council but Grillo's movement is the biggest party, the two have formed a cagey alliance. "This is the model, it is working," explains Fo.
The real trap for Grillo, warns Fo, is being beguiled by flattery. Turning again to history, he cites Cola Di Rienzo, the charismatic son of a tavern owner in the 14th century who wooed Romans with his oratory and became the city's leader, setting his sights high and ousting corrupt noble families, only to see his support slip away before he was murdered by a mob as he sought to flee in disguise.
"I have seen the glowing press for Grillo and he must be careful not to fall for the adulation, it's a honey-like trap."
After Italy's new parliament assembles on 15 March, President Giorgio Napolitano is likely to ask the centre-left leader, Pier Luigi Bersani, right – who has a majority only in the lower house – to form a government that can win a confidence vote. Everything has to be wrapped up by 15 April when parliament must elect a new president.
The most likely scenarios are:
■ Bersani gets Grillo to back a centre-left government with a strictly limited programme, including an anti-corruption law. But at the moment Grillo is refusing to back Bersani in a confidence vote.
■The centre-left forms an alliance with Berlusconi – unlikely since the centre-left has already ruled it out.
■ A new technical government is appointed that will reform Italy's messy electoral law, attend to urgent business and prepare for June elections
M5S says it will not help form Italian government
Gianroberto Casaleggio hints Five Star Movement could offer limited support to minority government made up of other parties
John Hooper in Milan
guardian.co.uk, Friday 1 March 2013 13.17 GMT
The joint founder of the Five Star Movement (M5S), which holds the balance of power in Italy after its astonishing performance in this week's elections, has said it will not play any role in the formation of the country's next government.
But in his first interview since the results became known, Gianroberto Casaleggio, the digital mastermind behind the M5S's vertiginous ascent, signalled that the movement could provide limited support for a minority government, such as that proposed on Friday by the centre-left leader, Pier Luigi Bersani.
Italy and the eurozone plunged into crisis this week after no one party or alliance emerged from the election with the necessary outright majority in both houses of parliament.
Speaking exclusively to the Guardian, Casaleggio said: "If a government is put together, formed by other parties, the Five Star Movement will vote for everything that forms an integral part of its programme."
But, he added: "The president of the republic will decide whom to give a mandate to [to try to form a government]. He will decide if the conditions exist for forming a government, and whether that government has won the confidence of the chamber [of deputies] and the senate. We do not want to enter into that process."
His comments represented an even harder line than that taken earlier this week by his co-founder, Beppe Grillo, who said he would represent the movement in the talks with President Giorgio Napolitano, which are aimed at resolving the deadlock. Grillo, however, slammed the door on a parliamentary pact with the centre-left and, in an interview with the Italian daily La Repubblica, Bersani closed off another exit when he dismissed proposals for a "grand coalition" with the right under Silvio Berlusconi.
"The idea of a grand coalition does not exist and will never exist," Bersani said. Instead, he proposed a minority centre-left government and said he had a seven- or eight-point plan to put to the president next week.
Casaleggio said his long-term aim was to bring the M5S to power on its own. Until then, it would not make agreements with any other political group.
He said observers had been wrong to see the huge vote for the M5S purely as a reaction to the economic crisis or the austerity policies favoured by Germany. Though the crisis had accelerated the movement's progress, it was essentially a product of the internet, he said, as it enabled the direct democracy that the movement espoused and practised.
"What is happening in Italy is just the beginning of a much more radical change," he said. "It's a change that is going to touch all democracies."
The headquarters of the team that has spread panic through the rest of the EU could scarcely be in a less revolutionary location. The offices of Casaleggio's internet consultancy are in the most fashionable, and expensive, part of Milan – a stone's throw from La Scala opera house.
Opposite the entrance is a shop window full of mink coats. In the cafe around the corner, an espresso and cake will set you back €10 (£8.50).
The M5S won more votes than any other party in the ballot for the chamber, the lower house. But because of Italy's electoral law, which favours alliances, the centre-left's coalition won bonus seats, which gave it an absolute majority.
In the senate, however, M5S's success meant neither the centre-left nor the right, led by Berlusconi, gained control. Since the two chambers have equal powers, a government must secure outright majorities in both for its legislation.
Italy's mainstream politicians have so far rejected fresh elections, fearing they could bring the M5S even more votes. Casaleggio, while insisting that "we have no suggestions to make", spoke approvingly of a fourth option – a technocratic government supported by the main parties, like the one headed by Mario Monti since November 2011.
He said: "The Monti government has had a majority that has allowed it to pass many laws and decree-laws." A return to non-party government would nevertheless be highly distasteful to other political leaders: it would lump them together in the eyes of the electorate, and bolster Grillo's argument that the M5S is the only true alternative.
Grillo's rejection of a deal with the centre-left – announced on his blog – elicited mixed comments, including angry reproaches from critics describing themselves as members of the movement. Casaleggio dismissed their criticism.
"The members of the Five Star Movement are not the only ones who comment. There are others," he said. "So the fact that a few people comment on the blog doesn't meant that people in M5S don't share the line of the movement."
The issue is sensitive. Most of the movement's activists lean leftwards. Casaleggio himself ventured that the M5S's programme could be like that of the Swedish Social Democrats. Yet the line he and Grillo are pursuing could bring Berlusconi back into government.
Casaleggio referred to a code of conduct signed by the movement's new lawmakers before they stood in the election. It stipulates that M5S's parliamentary groups in the senate and chamber of deputies "must not join with other parties or coalitions, other than for votes on shared points".
"They knew from the beginning," he said.
Italian newspapers have reported that Casaleggio has been in behind-the-scenes talks with political leaders, including the former centre-left prime minister Romano Prodi. But he laughed at the suggestion, insisting his only contact with Prodi had been at a lunch organised by the World Economic Forum four months ago.
"Prodi recognised me and greeted me," he said. Asked if other political leaders had telephoned since the election, Casaleggio said: "No one has called."
On the longer-term prospects for the M5S – founded just over three years ago – Casaleggio said they would "depend on how consistent we are". If the movement stuck to its principles and achieved changes, "we shall certainly grow".
Did he expect that one day the M5S would govern Italy? "I hope so."
Italy election: Welcome to Italy, where nobody knows what will happen next
Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement has triumphed. But now comes the big debate
Maria Laura Rodotá
The Observer, Saturday 2 March 2013 21.25 GMT
Last Monday, for the first time in my memory, nobody celebrated after a general election. No celebration from the Democrats, who were the projected winners but came out sore losers. Nor from the seven million voters (down from 13 million in 2008) who still chose Silvio Berlusconi and then became invisible – almost no one admits to having voted for the disgraced former prime minister.
There was not even any celebration from the real winners, the militants and voters of the Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Stars? How did Italy end up with a populist party whose name sounds like a luxury hotel chain?). Without securing a parliamentary majority, it is now the leading party in the Camera dei Deputati, and the second in the senate.
But, contrary to national tradition, the movement's supporters did not meet in piazzas, they did not take to the streets honking their car horns, they did not gather outside the party's headquarters opening bottles of sparkling wine. Beppe Grillo's movement voters are recession-stricken and don't find a great deal to celebrate. Also, nobody knows, or much cares, where the party headquarters are actually based.
Out of a sort of desperation, a few militants and many more reporters stood outside the former comedian's villa on the outskirts of Genoa, while at the Bar del Fico, in central Rome, about 100 Grillini ate pizza and drank house wine. In truth, many supporters, as well as shell-shocked citizens, remained online, posting comments on Grillo's blog, on Facebook, or on Twitter.
In short, the quasi-winners did not seem too enthusiastic or hopeful; the losers were puzzled; and the path to a new government remains an enigma. Many Grillo voters already disagree with him and want him to support a minority cabinet with a short-term reform agenda led by a leader from the Democrats. Many former Grillo-haters show sudden admiration for his stamina and his success. However, our economy is not getting any better; but, along with a post-election Grillo hangover, we are at least now having an interesting – if scary – national conversation. No, we're not Greece. We're much bigger, and weirder.
In Rome, we are without a prime minister (and pope); and with a president (the very worried Giorgio Napolitano) and a mayor (the much-criticized Gianni Alemanno) in the last weeks of their mandate. There are scarce hopes of political stability in the near future. Everybody saw the Grillo tsunami coming; everybody knew about people of all sorts – mostly impoverished, out of work, underemployed; but also over-educated, experienced and close to the ruling class – who were coming out in support for him. But many kept believing in the pollsters who erroneously predicted a clear if narrow victory of the centre-left coalition.
Grillo has been attacked for his right-leaning outpourings about immigrants, women and trade unions. But among the 162 newly-elected 5 Stelle MPs there are 62 women; and the Grillini are, for the most part, young former left-wingers, environmentalists and local activists who had been ignored by the self-important and self-deceiving Democratic party leadership.
Democrats are traumatised, but it looks like they are once more failing to learn their lesson. They're openly fighting each other. Some support a suicidal coalition with Berlusconi's Popolo delle Libertà. Some are desperately trying to start a dialogue with the 5 Stelle, which means exclusively with Grillo and his advisor-consultant-guru Gianroberto Casaleggio, who keeps humiliating them. Some want President Napolitano to appoint Grillo as prime minister. And some keep commuting around Rome in chauffeur-driven luxury cars, fuelling the resentment against the Casta, the often corrupt and always overpaid political caste. The other caste – CEOs, industrialists, wealthy professionals, and pundits who abhorred Grillo until the end of last week, are now praising him. He has been declared "a Shakespearean fool, the only one who can say what others can't" and "an antidote to the proliferation of neo-Nazi movements which took hold of Hungary and Greece". Leonardo Del Vecchio, the founder of Luxottica, a global eyewear company, even backed a Grillo cabinet: "I don't think he's more stupid than the prime ministers we had in the past." Some endorsement!
As the novelist and playwright Ennio Flaiano used to say: "Italians tend to rush to help the winner." Some have decided to bet on him after suffering several other political delusions. Others have just decided to go with the pro-Grillo flow. Others are perplexed when they hear the new Grillini MPs telling reporters that they have no idea how the president is elected and they don't know where the senate is located. Nobody can predict how long all this will last, and what will happen next. Some real Grillo voters appear even less convinced than Del Vecchio. More than 100,000 of them signed an online petition launched by Viola Tesi, a PhD student, waitress and 5 Stelle supporter from Florence, to ask Grillo to negotiate with the Democrats. And many more agree. Others, the holier-than-thou Grillini, insist on fighting online, abusing dissenters. Italian-speakers might enjoy Libernazione.it, a website that has an automatic generator of Grillini insults, mostly about banks, subservient media, freemasons and corrupt politicians.
The newly elected Grillini will be trained by a former MP who is under investigation – the picturesque Francesco Barbato. Grillo likes him and has called him "a warrior". Barbato's apprentices are expected to share apartments, give back most of their parliamentary salary, and follow the rules posted on Grillo's blog, apparently written by someone fond of 1984's Orwellian Newspeak: "The members of Parliament are obliged to conform to the Statute, which will be named the Non-Statute."
Alongside the Non-Statute, most Italians are expecting a Non-Government: a phase of turmoil that will end up, not with a revolution but – in a best-case scenario – with some resignations, a few reforms and new elections. The average Grillo voter is as pessimistic as any other depressed European. She generally says: "I'm not a big Grillo fan. I voted for him because I support some of his proposals, but mostly because I wanted to send home our bankrupt political class."
As I write, the only resignation has come from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. On Thursday, he took off from St Peter's Square in a helicopter, "flying over a crazy Rome", wrote Francesco Merlo on the daily newspaper La Repubblica. It will probably get even crazier soon, and somewhat less stylish.
Maria Laura Rodotà is a columnist with Corriere della Sera
Europe's protest parties on the march
From Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement in Italy to Ukip in Britain, minor parties are shaking up the political establishment
Ian Traynor, Europe editor
guardian.co.uk, Friday 1 March 2013 16.25 GMT
Holland's iconoclastic populist and Islam-baiter Geert Wilders is plotting a new campaign to rile the political establishment – a "resistance tour" of the Netherlands.
It is not difficult to discern where Wilders, who combines far-right anti-immigrant positions with leftist welfarism, is getting his inspiration from: Rome.
The barnstorming and highly effective campaign by Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement in Italy, combining the latest in social media and internet savvy with old-fashioned piazza-pounding up and down the country, has transformed Italian politics. It may yet amplify its effect across a Europe uncommonly volatile and vulnerable to a Grillo-style insurrection.
Wilders promised to take to the bike paths, squares and shopping malls of small-town Holland later this year to mobilise resistance to Europe, immigration and bailing out Greece with Dutch taxpayers' money.
That's an agenda that fits squarely with Nigel Farage's, following Ukip's triumph coming second and beating the Tories in Eastleigh, leaving the party leader relishing next year's elections for the European parliament.
Next door to Holland in the Belgian region of Flanders, the national political establishment is running scared of, while closing ranks to try to stop, the new mayor of Antwerp, Bart De Wever, who hopes to "confederalise" Belgium en route to killing the country off altogether.
De Wever, leading his New Flemish Alliance, is regarded as the most popular politician in Belgium.
Separatism, in Antwerp or Barcelona, is one grassroots response to the financial and economic crisis that now appears to be raising much more fundamental questions about political legitimacy across Europe.
But the backlash against tight fiscal one-shape-fits-all orthodoxy, spearheaded by Germany and orchestrated by Brussels, takes various forms across Europe. In Greece it is the hard-left Syriza movement that has prospered, along with the neo-fascist Golden Dawn, which has added violence to the list of instruments deployed in the backlash of the new politics.
To the north in Denmark, the reaction has been the more common one of Ukip-style protest politics, with opinion polls this week showing that the nationalist, anti-immigrant, rightwing Danish People's party has overtaken the governing social democrats in support.
The suddenness with which Grillo has emerged and taken one in four of Italian votes may have shocked the traditional governing elite across the EU, but it shows little sign of knowing how to respond or adjusting to the message being sent by voters who have sent incumbents tumbling one after the other from Greece to Finland over the past three years.
Where voters have not "kicked out the bums", the big EU rulers have acted instead, with Berlin, Paris, Brussels, and the European Central Bank in Frankfurt conspiring to bring down elected prime ministers Silvio Berlusconi in Italy and George Papandreou in Greece.
The message to the Italians from the German government this week was "you may have kicked out our politicians, but you must not kick out their policies". That was echoed by the European commission in Brussels, while the German opposition social democrat leader, Peer Steinbrück, ventured to suggest that the Italians had voted for "clowns" .
On Thursday the outgoing Italian prime minister, Mario Monti, comprehensively trounced in the election, attended a European commission conference in Brussels where he enjoyed a standing ovation almost as if he had been the victor. The mismatch between the popular and elite verdicts was striking.
Monti said that in his 15 months in office he deliberately never told Italians that his programme of austerity, structural reforms, and tax rises was being implemented because of EU orders. Then he added: "Although of course it was true that the European Union was asking for them."
Given his failure, there may now be a slight shift to soften the edges of German-prescribed austerity while EU leaders also harp on, but do nothing, about repairing the vast gap opening up between the more integrationist policies they are pursuing and democratic accountability and legitimacy to underpin them.
Asked this week about this discrepancy and whether growth could be generated by austerity, a former European prime minister who also served as a senior EU official told the Guardian: "there is no growth, there won't be any growth".
"Voters now associate structural reforms with slump, rising unemployment and social stress," said Charles Grant and Simon Tilford of the Centre for European Reform in a paper published on Friday. "The Berlin-Brussels-Frankfurt consensus on austerity that Monti's government [pursued] has discredited the very reforms that are needed to boost the Italian economy."
As Chávez fights cancer, Venezuela prepares for life after the president
While a gravely ill president undergoes a new, tougher course of chemotherapy, both his supporters and opponents are unsure of what the future holds for their country
Stephen Gibbs in Caracas
The Observer, Saturday 2 March 2013 19.16 GMT
Gustavo Patraín has been a loyal supporter of President Chávez for the past 14 years. "He's the man, the leader, the ultimate," he says, as he looks up from underneath the bonnet of the burgundy 1976 Dodge Coronet he is attempting to repair.
And, according to the government, the mechanic is currently also a close neighbour of the ailing president. The windowless two-room brick home he shares with his wife, and three of his five children, is overlooked by the Carlos Arvelo military hospital.
It is here, on the eighth floor, that Chávez is apparently being treated. A huge, garish poster of the former paratrooper, in robust health, has been fixed to one side of the building. Pictures of the leader hugging an elderly woman, with the words "Chávez: live, and smile" adorn the broken pavements outside.
But Gustavo is not convinced. "Is he really there? We need to know," he says. "They should let one of us, the people, go and see him. So far it has only been the government."
No images at all have been released of Chávez in Venezuela following his pre-dawn return from his latest treatment in Cuba. Instead the government has issued vague, but increasingly pessimistic, reports on his condition. On Thursday the vice-president, Nicolás Maduro, seemed to hint that the end was near. The president, he said, is "battling for his health and his life … and we are accompanying him." He went on to say that Chávez "gave his life to those that don't have anything". And on Friday, at a special mass for the president held at the hospital, he said that the president was undergoing chemotherapy, quoting Chávez as saying he was entering "a new phase" of "more intense and tough" treatments and wanted to be in Caracas for them.
Outside the hospital, a handful of soldiers from the presidential guard, easily distinguished by their bright red berets, give the impression that the man who has led this oil-rich nation since 1999 is inside. Occasionally they stop a car or a motorbike at the entrance and make a cursory inspection. State media have reported that it is on Chávez's personal instructions that the hospital, which prior to his rule was only for the military's use, should continue to operate normally as a public hospital, despite his presence.
Belinda, 39, has spent the last month living inside the building. She was there before the president's arrival was announced, caring for her mother, who suffered a stroke in January. She says that the day she heard the president had returned to Venezuela, three upper floors of the hospital were sealed off and the entire building was cleaned. "But last weekend everything went back to normal," she adds. "I think he is there. But I am not sure he is alive."
Caracas is awash with such rumours. On Friday, officials, including the vice-president, responded. They lashed out at what they described as the "fascist" international media for spreading lies in an attempt to destabilise the country. They singled out the Spanish newspaper ABC, which has published unsourced claims that Chávez has decided to spend his dying days at the presidential retreat of La Orchilla in the Caribbean, surrounded by his family. Jorge Arreaza, Venezuela's science minister, who is married to the president's eldest daughter, dismissed the report as "bizarre and unfounded".
But the speculation is fuelled by the government's own secrecy about the nature and severity of the president's cancer. In June 2011 he revealed that a baseball-size tumour had been discovered, and removed, from his pelvic area. On two occasions Chávez has declared he was free of cancer, most recently while campaigning for re-election in October, an election he won by a comfortable margin. But last December the president revealed that the cancer had returned, and that he required a fourth operation.
Before he left for Cuba that final time, Chávez appeared on national television. Seemingly aware of the gravity of his illness, he said that, if the treatment he was about to undergo left him incapacitated "in any way", new presidential elections should be held and the people should vote for Vice-President Maduro. Clutching a copy of the constitution, he emphasised that this was his "absolute, irrevocable" belief. He then kissed his crucifix.
Maduro, a bus driver turned union leader, who has become the president's closest aide and friend, sat alongside him. He looked uncomfortable. Diosdado Cabello, the former soldier who now serves as head of the National Assembly and is seen as a possible rival to Maduro, remained impassive.
But despite Chávez's clear, and prescient, command, his juniors seem to have ignored it, or at least decided the moment has not yet arrived when they should follow his instructions.
On 10 January, when Chávez should have been inaugurated to start his fourth presidential term, the date simply came and went. A celebration party was held in his absence. The loyalist supreme court meanwhile decreed that Chávez was entitled to delay this process just as long as he chooses.
Maduro now appears to be running the country, but he firmly rejects the title "acting president" and insists that Chávez remains well enough to give instructions. Last week it was announced that the president participated – presumably from his hospital bed – in a five-hour series of meetings, covering a range of issues from national security to the economy.
At a late-night press conference afterwards, Maduro conceded that Chávez is unable to speak because of a tracheal tube to assist his breathing, but has been able to contribute to the meetings via what the vice-president described as "a variety of means of writing". Venezuelan diplomats have meanwhile delivered several letters, purportedly from the leftist leader, including one to Cuba's Raúl Castro, congratulating him on his re-election as president.
"The process of beatification has begun," says Carlos Calderón, a Caracas-based lawyer. "Hugo Chávez is becoming a figure of the unconscious, in the background, whose 'wishes' are being fulfilled by his ministers."
Chávez's matchless talent at speaking to the poor in Venezuela – together with the billions of petrodollars which have been spent on social programmes – have earned him a quasi-religious reverence from his followers. But he remains a singularly divisive figure and the country is split almost evenly when it comes to evaluating his charms – he is loved by his supporters just as he is loathed by his opponents.
"He's the sort of president who only comes around perhaps every two centuries," says Francisco Morón, speaking from his new three-bedroom home, which he was given by the government last year after 25 years of homelessness.
The government has encouraged Venezuelans to attend church services and pray for their sick leader.
On Friday, a new chapel was opened in the grounds of the Carlos Arvelo hospital and a mass was held, attended by senior members of the government.
Meanwhile, Venezuela's opposition is slowly preparing for the possibility of new elections. The diverse, sometimes fractious, parties have yet to choose a single candidate, but are widely assumed, once again, to select the youthful governor of Miranda state, Enrique Capriles. Capriles lost against Chávez last October, but secured nearly 45% of the national vote, by far the best electoral showing for the opposition in years.
Despite widely perceived failings of the Chávez government – including soaring crime, the highest inflation in Latin America, five devaluations of the currency and chronic infrastructure decay – the opposition has so far failed to attract sufficient numbers of disgruntled Chavista voters to its cause.
But its leaders do see a possible opportunity in the current crisis, particularly if those around the ailing president are shown to have misled his supporters. "I don't believe we should spend every day asking where Chávez is," says opposition legislator Ismael García. "He is clearly in a bad way, and one day they need to end this lie."
Across Caracas, huge billboards, put up before October's elections, proclaim "we all are Chávez". The message is that Chávez's political movement, Chavismo, is more than one man, and presumably can survive him
But Gustavo's admiration for Chávez is almost matched by his distrust of the men whose task may be to keep the president's legacy alive.
"Whoever Maduro is," he says, "he's not Chávez."
Chavez’s foreign minister asks country to let him get chemo in peace
By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, March 2, 2013 17:00 EST
Venezuela’s foreign minister demanded Saturday that President Hugo Chavez be allowed to recover in peace after the government revealed for the first time that the cancer-stricken leader was in chemotherapy.
Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said Chavez, 58, was in a “battle” to recover as the socialist leader rests in a Caracas military hospital, where he checked in on February 18 after two months of treatment in Cuba.
“We want to see Chavez recover and healthy, and we want him to be in peace, doing the treatment that needs to be done,” Jaua said on state-run television as he visited a school in Caracas.
“Those who don’t want Chavez to recover are those who use blackmail, criminal pressure, miserable pressure that we will not cede to,” he said, referring to the opposition, which accuses the government of lying about the president’s health.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro disclosed for the first time late Friday that Chavez began a new cycle of chemotherapy in January and decided to return to Caracas last month to continue a “more intense” phase of treatment.
Chavez was in “good spirits” but fighting for his life, Maduro said after a mass in a new chapel of “hope” within the military hospital grounds, as he rejected growing rumors about the president’s health.
One of Chavez’s daughters, Maria Gabriela, responded Saturday to a picture of her looking sad at the mass.
“Sadness? I can’t be happy when my dad is sick! But I continue to cling to my God,” she wrote on Twitter.
“At the next mass I will have to dance and laugh! I always thought that a mass was something something serious! People are very crazy,” she wrote.
Chavez underwent on December 11 the fourth round of surgery since he was first diagnosed with cancer in the pelvic region June 2011. The government has never disclosed the exact nature, location and severity of the cancer.
The once omnipresent leader has not come out in public in almost three months. Only four pictures were released, on February 15, showing him in his Havana hospital bed, smiling with his two daughters.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Amazon rainforest tribe at centre of new cultural storm
New book by outspoken US anthropologist inflames arguments over Yanomami Indians
Paul Harris, New York
The Observer, Saturday 2 March 2013 11.52 GMT
It became one of the fiercest scientific arguments in recent times: are the Yanomami Indians of the Amazon rainforest a symbol of how to live in peace and harmony with nature or remnants of humanity's brutal early history?
Now a debate that has divided anthropologists, journalists, human rights campaigners and even governments has been given a fresh burst of life by the publication of a lengthy memoir by outspoken US anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon.
Chagnon has spent decades studying and living with the Yanomami (also known as the Yanomamö) and wrote the best-selling – and hugely controversial – Yanomamö: The Fierce People. In that book, which came out in 1968, he portrayed the 20,000-strong tribe, who live in isolated jungle homelands in Venezuela and Brazil, as a warlike group whose members fought and battled each other in near-constant duels and raids. He described Yanomami communities as prone to violence, with warriors who killed rivals far more likely to win wives and produce children.
His analysis was criticised as a reductive presentation of human behaviour, seen as primarily driven by a desire to mate and eliminate rivals. Opponents of that view believed the Yanomami were still pursuing a lifestyle dating from mankind's early past, when people lived mostly peacefully in smaller communities, free from modern sources of stress and far more in equilibrium with their surroundings.
Chagnon's new 500-page book, Noble Savages, is set to reignite the argument. In it he launches an impassioned defence both of his work and life among the Yanomami and an equally spirited attack on his critics and fellow scientists. The book's subtitle perhaps sums up his attitude to both groups: "My life among two dangerous tribes – the Yanomamö and the anthropologists."
Chagnon describes life in the rainforest spent constructing villages, hunting for food, and, as shamans take powerful hallucinogens, bloody raids on rival groups. "The most inexplicable thing to me in all of this was that they were fighting over women... I anticipated scepticism when I reported this after I returned to my university," he wrote. He was not wrong. His research created a huge storm and accusations that it allowed Amazonian tribes to be depicted by governments and outside interests as bloodthirsty savages who deserved to lose their land to the developers.
Chagnon defends himself from that charge, using much of the book to attack fellow scientists' conclusions and saying that too many anthropologists are ignoring the pursuit of pure research in favour of becoming activists for the civil rights of their subjects.
"In the past 20 or so years the field of cultural anthropology in the United States has come precipitously close to abandoning the very notion of science," he writes.
But Noble Savages has prompted a fresh wave of attacks on Chagnon. Last week a group of prominent anthropologists who have worked with the Yanomami issued a joint statement.
"We absolutely disagree with Napoleon Chagnon's public characterisation of the Yanomamö as a fierce, violent and archaic people," they said. "We also deplore how Chagnon's work has been used throughout the years – and could still be used – by governments to deny the Yanomamö their land and cultural rights."
One of the signatories, Professor Gale Goodwin Gomez of Rhode Island College, who has also spent several decades studying the tribe, told the Observer she was dismayed that Chagnon had published a new book. "This is just another attempt to grab attention. I have lived in Yanomamö villages and have never needed a weapon," she said.
Human rights organisation Survival International, which campaigns on behalf of indigenous peoples, has also attacked Chagnon. "Chagnon's work is frequently used by writers... who want to portray tribal peoples as 'brutal savages' far more violent than 'us'," said Survival's director, Stephen Corry.
The group also published a statement from Davi Kopenawa, spokesman for a Yanomami group in Brazil, that was critical of Chagnon's core conclusions. "For us, we Yanomamö who live in the forest, the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon is not our friend. He does not say good things, he doesn't transmit good words. He talks about the Yanomamö but his words are only hostile," he said.
But Chagnon, who declined to be interviewed by the Observer, has stood by his lifetime of work and study. In an emailed conversation with the Inside Higher Ed website, he repeated his beliefs that anthropology had abandoned science in favour of political activism but said that the situation would one day reverse itself.
"Those departments of anthropology whose members adhere to the scientific method will endure and again come to be the 'standard approach' to the study of Homo sapiens, while those that are non-scientific will become less and less numerous or eventually be absorbed into disciplines that are non-anthropological, like comparative literature, gender studies, philosophy and others," he wrote.