Shipwreck may contain near-mythical Viking navigation aid
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, March 5, 2013 20:09 EST
An oblong crystal found in the wreck of a 16th-century English warship is a sunstone, a near-mythical navigational aid said to have been used by Viking mariners, researchers said on Wednesday.
The stone is made of Iceland spar, a transparent, naturally-occurring calcite crystal that polarises light and can get a bearing on the Sun, they said.
It was found in the remains of a ship that had been dispatched to France in 1592 by Queen Elizabeth I as a precaution against a second Spanish Armada but foundered off the island of Alderney, in the Channel.
British and French scientists have long argued that the find is a sunstone — a device that fractures the light, enabling seafarers to locate the Sun even when it is behind clouds or has dipped below the horizon.
Sunstones, according to a theory first aired 45 years ago, helped the great Norse mariners to navigate their way to Iceland and even perhaps as far as North America during the Viking heyday of 900-1200 AD, way before the magnetic compass was introduced in Europe in the 13th century.
But there is only a sketchy reference in ancient Norse literature to a “solarsteinn,” which means the idea has remained frustratingly without solid proof.
In a study published in the British journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A, investigators carried out a chemical analysis on a tiny sample, using a device called a spectrometer, which confirmed that the stone was a calcite.
The stone is about the size of a small bar of soap whose edges have been trimmed at an angle. In technical terms, its shape is rhombohedral.
It is milky white in appearance, and not transparent, but the new experiments show that this is surface discolouration, caused by centuries of immersion in sea water and abrasion by sand, the study said.
Using a transparent crystal similar to the original, the scientists were able to follow the track of the setting Sun in poor light, with an accuracy of one degree. In a second experiment, they were able to locate the Sun for 40 minutes after sunset.
Other factors provide evidence that this is a sunstone, according to the investigation, led by Guy Ropars of the University of Rennes, in France’s western region of Brittany.
The crystal was found in the wreckage alongside a pair of navigation dividers. And tests that placed a magnetic compass next to one of the iron cannons excavated from the ship found that the needle swung wildly, by as much as 100 degrees.
Put together, these suggest the sunstone may have been kept as a backup to a magnetic compass.
“Although easy to use, the magnetic compass was not always reliable in the 16th century, as most of the magnetic phenomena were not understood,” says the study.
“As the magnetic compass on a ship can be perturbed for various reasons, the optical compass giving an absolute reference may be used when the Sun is hidden.”
The authors also note previous research that some species of migrating birds appear to have used polarised light from the sky as a navigational aid or to recalibrate their magnetic compass around sunrise and sunset.
How does the sunstone work?
If you put a dot on top of the crystal and look at it from below, two dots appear, because the light is “depolarised” and fractured along different axes.
You then rotate the crystal until the two points have exactly the same intensity or darkness.
“At that angle, the upward-facing surface of the crystal indicates the direction of the Sun,” Ropars told AFP in an interview in 2011, when preliminary research about the Alderney stone was published.
Scientists solve Darwin’s Falkland Islands wolf mystery
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, March 5, 2013 15:02 EST
PARIS — It was an animal that puzzled Charles Darwin, who wondered how on Earth a large mammal that looked a bit like a wolf and a bit like a fox had arrived on barren islands nearly 500 kilometres (300 miles) from the mainland.
Now, say biologists, the mystery of the now-extinct Falkland Islands wolf may have been resolved.
First spotted by Europeans in the 17th century, the wolf is — was — the Falklands’ only native terrestrial mammal, tucking in to penguins and other small prey for its food.
Since Darwin’s musings in 1834, theories have proliferated to explain how the brown-furred carnivore ended up in such a remote place. Was it brought there by Man? Had it floated over on an ice raft?
A team of scientists from Australia, Argentina and Chile have taken a crack at the riddle, the journal Nature Communications reported on Tuesday.
They teased ancient DNA out of museum specimens of Dusicyon australis and compared it with the genetic code of a similar-sized extinct mainland canine, the South American maned wolf (Dusicyon avus).
The two species have almost identical genomes, and the chronology indicates that they diverged only during the last Ice Age, which ended some 10,000-20,000 years ago, the scientists found.
At that time, global sea levels were far lower than today, and the coastline of what is now southern Argentina and the eastern tip of Chile stretched much farther into the ice-bound South Atlantic.
“The Falkland Islands wolf colonised via a narrow, shallow marine strait, potentially while it was frozen over,” the study suggests.
After becoming established, the wolf became isolated when the Ice Age ended and sea levels rose, turning this distant spur of land into an archipelago.
By the time Darwin saw it, the wolf was being ruthlessly hunted for its fur and to protect livestock.
Semi-tame, it would come trustingly to ranchers who would hold out a piece of meat in one hand and a knife in the other with which to stab it.
“Within a very few years after these islands shall have become regularly settled, in all probability this fox will be classed with the dodo, as an animal which has perished from the face of the Earth,” the great naturalist had written.
Within four decades, his prediction had become true. The species was wiped out in the wild in 1876, and two wolves that were shipped to London as curiosities died without offspring.
In the USA...
Stock markets surge as Dow closes at all-time high
By Phillip Inman, The Guardian
Tuesday, March 5, 2013 20:30 EST
Stock markets in New York and London climbed to new highs on Tuesday as the Dow Jones Industrial Average surged to its highest closing level and the London market surpassed a level last reached five years ago.
Better-than-expected news from the service sector on both sides of the Atlantic and a resurgence in retail sales in the eurozone bolstered a rise in share values that dates back to last summer when central banks rallied in the aftermath of the eurozone’s near break-up.
The Dow closed at 14,254, passing its previous high of 14,164 in October 2007 erasing the index’s losses during the financial crisis even as Washington’s fights over its debts and Main Street seem far from mended.
Cheered by a strengthening of housing market values hit by the sub-prime property crisis and higher consumer confidence, the US remains hugely indebted and blighted by political stalemate in the capital.
The FTSE closed at 6,432, its highest level since January 2008, with analysts according much of the rise to the hopes of an upswing in global growth and higher commodity prices. The FTSE 100 index is skewed to companies that benefit from the sale of oil, copper and chemicals.
The Dow has not touched such high levels since before Barack Obama’s first election victory. Global stock markets went into freefall shortly after, as the implosion of housing market and Europe’s woes dragged the world into the worst financial crisis in living memory.
Massive issues remain, however. Unemployment, especially among the young, remains high, and in Washington politicians are still at loggerhead over America’s $16tn debt. Last Friday, the government started making $85bn of cuts – known as the sequester – in a move Obama and others predicted would cause widespread chaos and financial hardship. In Europe, US firms including GM and Ford are being hit by the region’s continuing economic crisis.
But these are old debates now – and Wall Street doesn’t seem to be worried.
The latest figures from the Institute of Supply Management (ISM), released on Tuesday morning, showed positive growth in the service sector. The ISM index stood at 56 in February. Anything above 50 indicates growth, and the number was ahead of analysts’ forecasts. US markets were also buoyed by rallies in Europe and Asia. In London the FTSE closed up 86.32 points.
The Dow Jones index has now more than doubled since a low point in March 2009, stunning many market watchers and coming against a still lacklustre economic recovery. Corporate profits hit record highs last year, fuelled largely by cost cuts. Economists and market watchers said the Federal Reserve’s massive bond-buying programme has fuelled the market but that beneath that there were concrete signs of improvement.
Signs in the eurozone that its slump has halted and 17 member club could start to claw its way back to growth also buoyed investors. Higher retail sales, while mostly in the northern half of the continent, gave some analysts confidence the situation is beginning to improve, notwithstanding uncertainty following the Italian elections and the worsening situation in Greece and Cyprus.
A mixed bag of recent surveys in the UK showing the manufacturing and construction sectors contracting while the services sector continues a five month growth spurt gave little clue as to the voting intentions of interest rate setters at the Bank of England, who meet on Thursday. They are expected to inject a further £25bn in to the economy, taking a signal from a slump in bank lending, that the financial system needs a further boost in funds.
Analysts Capital Economics said the UK economy is still flirting with a triple dip recession despite the positive news from the service sector.
“Granted, unusually bad weather reportedly knocked the manufacturing and construction sectors, so the economy may end the quarter on a stronger note,” it said.
“But a material improvement soon remains unlikely, given that the inflation squeeze on consumers is intensifying, overseas demand for exports is fading and another round of austerity begins in April.”
Gus Faucher, a senior economist for PNC Financial Services Group, said the political situation in Washington still mattered and warned that if the sequester drags on, the Dow’s gains could be at risk. “That said, the fundamentals are better. Profits are at an all-time high, business balance sheets have improved, interest rates are low. The markets are expecting more growth through 2013.”
Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at BMO Bank, said investors fed up with low yields from the bond markets were looking for better returns in equities.
He warned that the Federal Reserve’s massive bond-buying policy could drive more people into equities. “If you want to see a swift end to monetary easing, another 10-20% hike in the Dow will probably do that,” he said.
Minutes of the Fed’s last meeting revealed a split in the central bank’s rate setting committee. While the Federal Open Markets Committee’s members were still worried about unemployment, “many participants also expressed some concerns about potential costs and risks arising from further asset purchases”, according to the minutes.
Friday may prove the next test for the markets, and the Fed, when the latest nonfarm payroll figures are released. The US added 157,000 new jobs in January. Average job creation for 2012 was around 181,000, a number just above the benchmark economists calculate is enough for the unemployment rate to stabilise, but not fall.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
March 5, 2013
Trying to Revive Talks, Obama Goes Around G.O.P. Leaders
By JACKIE CALMES and JONATHAN WEISMAN
WASHINGTON — With Republican leaders in Congress forswearing budget negotiations over new revenues, President Obama has begun reaching around them to Republican lawmakers with a history of willingness to cut bipartisan deals.
Mr. Obama has invited about a dozen Republican senators out to dinner on Wednesday night, after speaking with several of them by phone in recent days, according to people familiar with the invitation. And next week, according to those people and others who did not want to be identified, he will make a rare foray to Capitol Hill to meet separately with the Republican and Democratic caucuses in both the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House.
Since the weekend, the president has called at least a half-dozen Republican lawmakers, mostly senators, in a bid to revive talks toward a long-term deficit-reduction agreement and to press for action on other issues, including immigration, gun safety and climate measures. His calls began after indiscriminate government spending cuts — known as sequestration — took effect on Saturday because Republican leaders and Mr. Obama could not agree on alternative measures.
“Maybe because of sequestration and frustration with the public, the time is right to act, and what I see from the president is probably the most encouraging engagement on a big issue since the early days of his presidency,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who received a call from Mr. Obama on Tuesday.
Speaking of the deficit reduction impasse, Mr. Graham added, “He wants to do the big deal.”
Mr. Obama’s call to Mr. Graham followed other conversations with Senators Susan Collins of Maine, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Rob Portman of Ohio and Bob Corker of Tennessee, all Republicans. Mr. Corker called his conversation with the president “constructive.”
Mr. Portman, while reluctant to detail private talks, was also positive, saying: “I think there’s a window of opportunity between now and the end of the summer. This is the last best chance.”
Yet such expressions of hope are increasingly scarce in Washington. While Mr. Graham said he and Mr. Obama agreed that a comprehensive deal could be reached to both slow the growth of the entitlement programs like Medicare and raise revenues by curbing costly tax breaks, that optimism is not the prevailing sentiment. Proponents in both parties have all but given up on a grand bargain in view of the chasm between Mr. Obama, who insists that revenues be part of the equation, and Republican leaders, who are just as adamant against raising taxes further.
Indeed, Mr. Obama’s calls reflect a sense of urgency within the White House to find a way to keep alive the prospects for a deal on revenues and entitlement spending — or, failing that, to at least appear to be doing so.
Administration officials take Speaker John A. Boehner and the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, at their word that they will not cut any revenue deals with Mr. Obama given the two men’s separate political pressures — Mr. Boehner would lose his leadership post, Republicans say, and Mr. McConnell could draw a conservative opponent in his re-election race next year.
With sequestration in place, the two sides now have agreed over two years to nearly $4 trillion in deficit reduction through 2023, with about 80 percent from spending cuts and the rest from higher taxes on the wealthy. Virtually no savings come from Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, the entitlement programs whose growth is driving projections of unsustainable debt as the population ages and medical costs increase. And revenues are insufficient to support the size of government.
As a consequence, the legacy-minded president is forcing himself to do something he has largely avoided or left to senior advisers — personally reaching out to rank-and-file members of Congress. The call to Mr. Graham, for example, was partly in response to his televised comment that he would be willing to raise $600 billion more in revenue over 10 years if Democrats agreed to reduce entitlement spending — just the offer Mr. Obama has been making.
Senior aides also opened a channel with Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri and a member of his party’s leadership. Senate aides familiar with the talks say Mr. Obama is telling senators that he wants to convene bipartisan discussions at the White House, a departure from the more typical meetings between him and party leaders.
“The president is engaging with lawmakers of both parties and will continue to do so,” said the White House press secretary, Jay Carney. Repeating a phrase the president first used recently, Mr. Carney said the outreach was the president’s way of “finding the members of the caucus of common sense and working with them to bring about a resolution to this challenge.”
Dissatisfaction with Mr. Obama’s attentions to Capitol Hill, however, has been longstanding and bipartisan. Democrats complain that the president has done little to use the trappings of office to woo opponents or reward friends. Republicans say they rarely hear even from the White House aides tasked to reach out to Congress.
One senior Democratic Congressional aide said the president seemed to view relations with lawmakers “as a chore, not an opportunity.”
But another expressed sympathy with the White House view that many Republicans see political risk in appearing too friendly with Mr. Obama, adding: “If he invited people up and nothing came of it, then he looks like a failure. He’s trying to find effective ways to reach out.”
Republican leaders optimistic about averting government shutdown
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, March 5, 2013 17:59 EST
Leaders from both sides of the bitterly divided US Congress said Tuesday they were optimistic about a funding bill that would avert a possible government shutdown at the end of the month.
President Barack Obama has been pushing for a deal in recent days by calling several Republican lawmakers, the White House said, as negotiators eye a March 27 deadline for a deal to see the government funded through fiscal year 2013.
Much remains to be done before enough lawmakers sign off on a bill that can pass Congress, but House Speaker John Boehner is due to hold a vote this week on legislation that is expected to form the basis of an agreement.
“Spending is the problem here in Washington and our goal is to cut spending, not to shut the government down,” Boehner told reporters.
The top Republican in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, said he had held “very constructive conversations” with his Democratic opposite number Harry Reid about a temporary funding measure, known as a continuing resolution.
“We are optimistic that we will be able to pass a CR both through the House and the Senate at the sequester level, and thereby not have a huge dispute over the continued operation of the government for the rest of the year,” he said.
Failure to pass funding legislation could trigger a partial shutdown of the government, a move that would spark concerns about US economic stability.
After bruising battles on last year’s “fiscal cliff” and the recent failure to prevent automatic budget cuts McConnell said there was “no interest on either side in having a kind of confrontational government shutdown scenario.”
Reid said the Senate would vote on funding legislation next week and, should the bills from the two chambers pass, members from both parties would go to conference to negotiate a compromise.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that we reach a solution before we leave here for the Easter recess,” Reid said.
Both sides suggested the deal would reflect the $1.043 trillion budget cap in discretionary spending that was agreed to in the Budget Control Act of 2011.
The Republicans’ House bill does not cancel the arbitrary spending cuts, but it takes the sting out of some of them, particularly in the military, by giving the Pentagon the ability to shift cuts to protect critical operations.
Democrats argue that similar flexibility should be given to some other departments, such as education, in order to avoid austerity cuts to key programs, and Reid hinted that he would push for such inclusions.
By Design Republican Policies Have Sent America Into Decline
Mar. 5th, 2013
Most people feel strong nationalistic pride for their homeland for various reasons, and their patriotism is not necessarily predicated on their country’s wealth and power, but on their perception their nation is exceptional. There are very poor countries whose citizens love their native land, and believe that under the right conditions their country would be exceptional amongst nations. Americans are no different and most believe the United States is extraordinarily special and better than any other nation on the planet, but this once great nation is degenerating into mediocrity that belies its status as the richest nation in the history of the world. America’s decline is the result of a thirty year campaign by conservatives to transfer the nation’s wealth to a privileged few, and as more wealth flows to the elite class, the people and the nation fall farther into poverty and disrepair; by design.
If one looks back at America’s ascendance as an exceptional nation, after FDR’s New Deal, it was a Republican president’s bold steps that elevated the entire population and built an infrastructure that was the envy of the civilized world; that was sixty years ago. Thirty years ago, a Republican president, Ronald Reagan, set in motion a movement that hastened America’s deterioration that another Republican president, George W. Bush, accelerated twelve years ago. Last month, another world organization confirmed that Republican efforts to relegate America to second-rate status among the world’s nations has succeeded beyond their wildest dreams as the United States officially ranks 25th, behind nations such as Oman and Barbados, with an infrastructure that compares unfavorably with that of most advanced countries and even some developing nations.
Americans can be thankful that if not for President Obama’s American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (stimulus), the country would surely rank lower than 25th, but Republicans will make sure the country continues to decline until most developing nations look down on America with derision. Republicans can be proud of their accomplishments that saw America rank second last year in the highest child poverty among all nations, and with their current sequester and never-ending cuts to anti-poverty programs, America should reach number one soon. Republicans say America is too broke to invest in feeding children or rebuilding its decrepit and crumbling infrastructure, but the problem is not a lack of wealth, it is where Republicans allocated it.
On Monday, it was revealed that the President’s economic recovery lifted corporate profits to new highs as companies refuse to raise wages, and Americans increased productivity allowing them to increase sales without adding workers. Add in one of the lowest corporate tax rates in the world, tax avoidance schemes robbing the nation of much-needed revenue, and Republican intransigence to hold the rich accountable for their fair share of investment in America, and it is little wonder America is in decline. American workers’ wages fell over the past decade, and it impacts revenue that could contribute to rebuilding infrastructure and feeding the hungry, but Republicans oppose investing in infrastructure and abhor revenue to give more to the rich and bolster corporate profits. According to a co-head of economics at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, “corporations have captured an unusually high share of the income gains, and until we get a full recovery in the labor market, this will persist.” Republicans guaranteed there will not be recovery in the labor market, or the economy, with their victory enacting sequester cuts that assures corporations will continue capturing “an unusually high share of income gains.”
Republicans oppose any means of full recovery in the labor market, and instead actively sought to kill jobs in their rampage to starve the government of revenue. They have not, however, starved corporations and the wealthy of a lion’s share of the wealth and they will continue protecting the rich when funding for the government runs out at the end of the month. Republicans categorically stated any attempt to raise taxes, or close loopholes affecting the wealthiest Americans, will fall on deaf ears and there is little doubt they will hold funding in March, and the debt limit in May, hostage for more austerity and no revenue with confidence the President will not shoot the hostage.
It is a monumental tragedy that in the richest nation on Earth, any American is hungry, without a job, or lives with infrastructure that ranks below developing countries. There is immeasurable wealth in America, but Republican policies over the past twelve years directed it all to the extremely wealthy and their corporations to hoard and avoid paying their share of taxes. Republicans had no misgivings spending trillions on two needless wars, a prescription plan benefitting pharmaceutical companies, tax cuts for the rich, and oil subsidies while refusing to invest in America and they have no incentive to change. The media is remiss to inform Americans their beloved and exceptional country ranks among developing countries in infrastructure like they failed to note only one country had a higher child poverty rate than the richest nation on Earth, and their omission contributes to Republican’s success.
America has been in decline for a decade, and there is no hope of improvement as ten years of sequester domestic cuts, a looming government funding fight, and debt limit hostage portend more austerity, more poverty, higher unemployment, and infrastructure that rivals lowly Barbados. It is beyond the pale that any American is proud of this nation, or the deleterious effects twelve years of Republican economic malfeasance has wrought, and yet Republicans have solid support among racists, the religious, and conservatives cheering America’s decline. For a country that has always risen to meet any challenge, America is becoming a second-rate nation with hardly a whimper and between starving children, crumbling infrastructure, and a nation of peasants, it is hardly exceptional.
Another Republican Lie Dies as America Becomes #1 in Oil Production and Gas Prices Soar
Mar. 5th, 2013
There is an old superstition that “bad news comes in threes,” and although Americans have had more than their share of bad news, Republicans have had a rash of good news over the past week. They successfully enacted sequestration cuts to wild celebration and self-congratulations, killed between 700,000 and a million jobs, and learned America’s infrastructure is 25th in the world behind Oman and Barbados. If all that good news wasn’t enough to please Republicans, a new report reveals that their favorite contributor, the oil industry, surpassed Saudi Arabia’s petroleum output in November 2012 to become the number one oil producer in the world.
Oil Party GOP
The good news does not stop there, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts that the US will be the world’s largest petroleum producer within the next few years that will guarantee the oil industry continues posting record profits for years to come. Naturally, increased oil production and record profits mean big oil will continue paying next to nothing in taxes, and combined with billions in oil subsidies courtesy of Republicans in Congress, they will be able to increase their political contributions to anti-environmental causes, invest in propaganda denying global climate change, and fund GOP candidates lying about the marvelous benefits of the Keystone XL pipeline.
Republicans are desperate for Presidential approval of TransCanada’s oil transport system across America to further increase oil company profits as the refined tar sand is already slated for export to Europe and South America. Approval of the pipeline will be extraordinarily good news for John Boehner who invested in seven Canadian tar sand companies in 2010 anticipating President Obama’s approval that certainly would increase his stock portfolio, and it prompted him to viciously lie about the pipeline’s permanent jobs (20), and its contribution to America’s oil independence. Besides John Boehner, the only beneficiaries of the pipeline is TransCanada and its investors, oil refineries in Texas, and European and South American nations importing Canada’s oil.
The increased oil production is not all good news for Americans though, because the glut of oil is keeping gas prices curiously high, and the processes for extracting gas and oil are decimating the environment that Republicans mean to perpetuate with cuts the Environmental Protection Agency and a steady campaign touting the safety and health benefits of chemical-laden hydraulic fracturing (fracking) techniques. However, there are Americans who believe that fracking-related earthquakes and poisoned water supplies are too high a price to pay for oil industry’s profits, especially when taxpayers give them billions in entitlements and oil giants like ExxonMobil paid nothing in federal income taxes in 2009 according to their filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Republicans claim America is broke and cannot afford to feed hungry children, seniors, or provide school lunches for low-income working families, but they never fail to find enough taxpayer dollars to give the oil industry in subsidies and special benefits (tax breaks) that Democrats and President Obama have sought to end in light of oil companies posting perpetual record profits, and attempts to “reduce the phony deficit.” Doubtless, Republicans will continue fighting to reduce corporate taxes for big oil because zero is a burdensome rate, and billions in oil subsidies will have to be augmented with more tax credits and corporate welfare funded by slashing anti-poverty programs, and Republicans claiming America is broke will reap greater campaign contributions for their due diligence.
Maybe it is good news America is a leading producer and net exporter of oil, but Americans pay a heavy price in lost tax revenue, toxic environment, and curiously high fuel prices for a few oil corporations’ profits Republicans are increasing with subsidies and special breaks. All the while, they claim America is broke and cannot take care of its least fortunate citizens or invest in green and renewable energy sources the rest of the world is taking advantage of reducing their dependence on fossil fuels, but America is different than the rest of the world. Under Republican rule, America opposes investing in green and renewable energy sources, or its crumbling infrastructure, or fighting child poverty, but this country invests heavily in the private oil industry helping them become heavy Republican campaign donors, the largest petroleum producer in the world, and arguably one of the biggest federal welfare recipients.
Gun control debate fueling ‘explosive’ rise in far-right extremist groups: report
By Karen McVeigh, The Guardian
Tuesday, March 5, 2013 20:28 EST
The number of anti-government, far-right extremist groups has soared to record levels since 2008 and they are becoming increasingly militant, according to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
It says the number of groups in the “Patriot” movement stood at 1,360 in 2012, up from 149 in 2008 when Barack Obama was first elected president, an increase of 813%. The report said the rise was driven by opposition to Obama and the “spluttering rage” over federal attempts at gun control.
Those who were identified as “militia” groups or the paramilitary wing of the Patriot movement, numbered 321, up from 42 in 2008, the SPLC said in its report.
Concern over a “truly explosive growth” of groups on the radical right, along with a rise in domestic terrorist plots, has prompted the SPLC to write to US attorney general Eric Holder and Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano, warning of the potential for domestic terrorism and urging them create a new, inter-agency task force to assess whether it has adequate resources to deal with it.
The report says that the numbers far exceed the “high-water mark” of 820 groups in 1990s when the rise in militias was fuelled by the Waco siege, the Brady Bill and the 1994 assault weapons ban.
Richard Cohen, the SPLC president and a member of the Department of Homeland Security’s group to counter violent extremism, wrote in the letter: “On October 25, 1994, six months before the Oklahoma City bombing, we wrote attorney general Janet Reno about the growing threat of domestic extremism. Today we write to express similar concerns.
“As in the period before the Oklahoma City bombing, we now are seeing ominous threats from those who believe that the government is poised to take their guns.”
Timothy McVeigh drove a truck full of explosives into a federal building in Oklahoma City in April 1995, killing 168 people, 19 of them children under six, and injured hundreds more.
“We are seeing a real and rising threat of domestic terrorism as the number of far-right anti-government groups continues to grow at an astounding pace,” said Mark Potok, SPLC senior fellow and author of the report. “It is critically important that the country take this threat seriously. The potential for deadly violence is real, and clearly rising.”
Potok said that the demographic factors driving the rise in such groups began before Obama became president – the census bureau predicts that whites will become a minority group in the US by 2043 – but have been fuelled by the changes in America he represents. The growth in extremism has been helped by the “successful exploitation over illegal immigration” and by anger over the gun control debate, he said.
Law enforcement officials have uncovered numerous terrorism conspiracies born in the militia subculture, including plots to spread poisonous ricin powder, to attack federal installations, and to murder federal judges and other government officials, the report says.
Potok cited a study by the Combating Terrorism Center at the West Point military academy, which found that right-wing violence in 2000-2011 surpassed that of the 1990s by a factor of four. He expected extremism to rise, as anger over gun control had become a “grassroots rebellion”. He said that 20 states are considering laws that would aim to nullify federal gun control measures and 500 sheriffs mainly in western US, who say they will not enforce any such measures.
Daryl Johnson, a former Department of Homeland Security official, said in a press call that SPLC’s numbers were likely to be a “on the conservative end” because they did not include clandestine and underground groups which did not have a presence on the internet.
Johnson, who was a member of the now-disbanded non-Islamic terrorism unit at the Department of Homeland Security, authored a report in 2009 warning about the increasing dangers of right-wing extremism which created a political firestorm, and was later withdrawn. He said it was “quite unsettling” that nothing had changed at the DHS in the last four years despite the rise in extremism.
Although only a small pool of individuals associated with such groups were potentially violent, and radicalisation was difficult to analyse, Johnson said: “This pool of potentially violent extremists should raise a red flag of concern.”
He urged FBI and local law enforcement officials to assess the threat, and said more analysis was needed.
The SPLC’s report on hate and extremism, contained in its quarterly intelligence report, also found that hate groups remained at a near-record level of 1,007 groups in 2012, a slight drop from the 1,018 groups documented in 2011.
SLPC defined “Patriot” groups as those who believe that the federal government is engaged in a conspiracy, is prepared to engage in martial law, would take away guns and would force the US into some kind of so-called “One World Nation”.
The hate groups listed in this report include neo-Nazis, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, racist skinheads, Klansmen and black separatists. Other hate groups on the list target gay people, Muslims or immigrants, and some specialise in producing racist music or propaganda denying the Holocaust.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
John Boehner Connected Super PAC Accused of Taking $2.5 Million in Illegal Donations
By: Jason Easley
Mar. 5th, 2013
An FEC complaint was filed today against the John Boehner connected super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund for taking $2.5 million in illegal campaign contributions.
The FEC complaint filed by Public Citizen, Friends of the Earth-US, Greenpeace and Oil Change International accuses Chevron of making, and the Boehner affiliated super PAC of accepting $2.5 million in illegal campaign contributions.
According to Public Citizen,
In October, Chevron gave $2.5 million to the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC reportedly tied to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the congressional campaign committee of the Republican Party. Government contractors such as Chevron are strictly prohibited by federal law from making “any … contribution to any political party, committee or candidate for public office or to any person for any political purpose or use.
The ban, also known as the “pay-to-play” prohibition, was passed by Congress in 1940 to curb corruption and the appearance of corruption due to the unique circumstances of private businesses bidding for lucrative government contracts. Such laws have been repeatedly upheld by the courts, starting with the 1995 Blount v. Securities and Exchange Commission decision and more recently in the Green Party of Connecticut v. Garfield decision in 2010 and the Wagner v. FEC decision last year.
Boehner’s has never been afraid to make it publicly known who owns him. In 1996, Bob Herbert wrote about Boehner dishing out checks from the tobacco industry to his fellow Republicans on the House floor, “One day last summer Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, chairman of the House Republican Conference, decided to play Santa Claus. Perhaps he was bored. Debates were being conducted on such issues as funding for foreign operations and a proposal to amend the Constitution to outlaw desecration of the flag. In any event, Mr. Boehner took it upon himself to begin handing out money from tobacco lobbyists to certain of his colleagues on the House floor.”
Last year, Boehner invested in oil companies that would benefit from Keystone XL. He then used his position as Speaker of the House to push for passage of the pipeline. Boehner has long sold his votes to the highest corporate bidder, but violating the law by taking contributions from a federal contractor is a new low even for him. John Boehner isn’t just a poor leader. He is quite possibly a criminally corrupt leader who is abusing his power.
The Chevron donations mattered because they accounted for 22% of the entire total raised by the Congressional Leadership Fund in 2012. Of the $11.3 million the super PAC raised, $9.4 million was spent attacking 14 House Democratic candidates. It is not a stretch to say that Boehner might be leading a smaller House majority today if not for Chevron’s $2.5 million contribution during the last month of the 2012 campaign.
Boehner’s behavior is another reminder that no matter what laws are passed, only the public funding of elections will eliminate the corruption of our electoral process by special interest dollars.
Until then, it’s time for John Boehner to go.
North Korea threatens pre-emptive nuclear strike against US
Threatening rhetoric comes before vote by UN on whether to level new sanctions against Pyongyang for its recent nuclear test
Associated Press in Seoul
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 7 March 2013 10.32 GMT
North Korea has vowed to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the United States, amplifying its threatening rhetoric hours before a vote by UN security council on whether to level new sanctions against Pyongyang for its recent nuclear test.
An unidentified spokesman for Pyongyang's foreign ministry said the North will exercise its right for "pre-emptive nuclear strikes on the headquarters of the aggressors" because Washington is pushing to start a nuclear war against it.
Although North Korea boasts of nuclear bombs and pre-emptive strikes, it is not thought to have mastered the ability to produce a warhead small enough to put on a missile capable of reaching the US. It is believed to have enough nuclear fuel, however, for a handful of cruder devices.
Such inflammatory rhetoric is common from North Korea, but it has been coming regularly in recent days. The Pyongyang regime is angry over the possible sanctions and over upcoming US-South Korean military drills.
The UN security council is set to impose a fourth round of sanctions against North Korea in a fresh attempt to rein in its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.
Russia's UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, the current security council president, said the council will vote on the draft sanctions resolution on Thursday morning.
The resolution was drafted by the US and China, North Korea's closest ally. The council's agreement to put the resolution to a vote just 48 hours later signalled that it would almost certainly have the support of all 15 council members.
The statement by North Korea's foreign ministry spokesman was carried by the country's official Korean Central News Agency.
It accused the US of leading efforts to slap sanctions on North Korea. The statement said the new sanctions would only advance the timing for North Korea to fulfil previous vows of taking "powerful second and third countermeasures" against its enemies. Those measures haven't been specifically elaborated on.
"We gravely warn that at a time when we cannot avoid a second Korean war, the UN security council, which served as the US puppet in 1950 and made Korean people harbour eternal grudges against it, must not commit the same crime again," it said.
North Korea in the statement demanded the security council immediately dismantle the American-led UN command that is based in Seoul and move to end the state of war that exists on the Korean peninsula, which continues six decades after fighting stopped because an armistice, not a peace treaty, ended the war.
Originally published Wednesday, March 6, 2013 at 4:30 AM
A look at what NKorea vow to scrap armistice means
By FOSTER KLUG, HYUNG-JIN KIM and SAM KIM
SEOUL, South Korea —
The armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953 is, at best, a fragile thing: The countries overseeing it have formally accused each other of more than 1.2 million violations.
But North Korea's threat to scrap the cease-fire next Monday still matters because the armistice is the key document blocking hostilities on the Korean Peninsula, which technically has remained in a state of war for six decades.
If North Korea follows through on its threat to nullify the document that set up the heavily armed buffer zone between the Koreas, it could drive badly frayed relations even lower. The threat comes as diplomats at the U.N. negotiate sanctions aimed at punishing Pyongyang for its recent nuclear test and as allies Washington and Seoul plan massive war games set to start Monday.
Here's a look at what the North's threat could mean for the Korean Peninsula's fragile peace:
ON THE GROUND:
The armistice signed on July 27, 1953, set up an apparatus meant to govern a cease-fire ending the war. It can be seen most clearly at the Demilitarized Zone between North and South.
The armistice called for the creation of a military demarcation line and the DMZ around it - a 4-kilometer (2.5-mile) -wide "buffer zone," with one side controlled by the American-led U.N. Command and the other side by North Korea.
The armistice prohibited "hostile acts" within or across the zone. As a hotline between the sides, it set up a military truce commission at the Panmunjom village that straddles the DMZ.
By scrapping the armistice, North Korea would be effectively refusing to recognize the DMZ, which is a violent place even with the rules of the armistice in place: Hundreds of troops serving under the U.N. command have died in the buffer zone over the years.
"North Korea wants to show it can attack South Korea at any time," said analyst Cheong Seong-jang at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea. "The chance for limited war ... has increased."
The South Korean military says North Korea has violated the armistice by deploying machine guns inside the DMZ, triggering exchanges of gunfire along the border and digging infiltration tunnels.
North Korea has accused the U.S. and South Korea of deploying heavy weapons and combat personnel inside the DMZ, conducting war maneuvers targeting the North and firing at North Korean fishing boats near the western sea boundary.
North Korea said this week that its Korean People's Army Supreme Command will stop all activities at the "Panmunjom mission of the KPA, which was tentatively established and operated by it as a negotiating body for establishing a peace-keeping mechanism on the Korean Peninsula."
The North also vowed to cut off a phone line linking North Korea and the United States at Panmunjom.
FEAR IN SEOUL, TALKS IN WASHINGTON?
American and South Korean analysts see the threat as an attempt to win direct aid-for-disarmament talks with Washington by raising fears of war on the peninsula. North Korea wants such negotiations in part to secure much-needed aid and to force the removal of 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in the South.
"By disavowing the armistice, North Korea is sending a reminder about just how flimsy the peace regime on the Korean Peninsula is," said John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. "In Pyongyang's mind anyhow, this serves to reinforce their argument that formal peace talks and a new security architecture is a prerequisite to full denuclearization."
But it also stirs fear among South Koreans.
People in Seoul are famously unimpressed with North Korean bluster, but the DMZ is only an hour's drive from the bustling capital.
"The North Korean threat is a blade that cuts at both the United States and at South Koreans," said Lee Ho-chul, a North Korea analyst at Incheon National University in South Korea. "For South Koreans, it's a threat that North Korean forces will now ignore the military demarcation line. That can cause worries among ordinary South Koreans."
Actually tearing up the cease-fire could remove an important psychological shield for South Koreans as they pursue building one of Asia's premier economies.
"I'm worried North Korea may be trying to provoke a war," restaurant worker Lee Hui-sook said in Seoul when asked about the threat. "I feel much more insecure than in the past about whether my country can handle North Korea."
BLUFF OR PROMISE?
Since the 1990s, North Korea has frequently threatened to scrap the armistice. In 1996 it followed such a threat by sending hundreds of armed troops into Panmunjom. South Korea boosted its surveillance to its highest level in 15 years, and the troops later withdrew.
The context of the latest threat, however, is important.
This one follows five years of abysmal ties between the Koreas, during which Seoul's hardline president was met by North Korean nuclear and rocket tests. Attacks blamed on Pyongyang in 2010 killed 50 South Koreans.
New President Park Geun-hye is settling into office in Seoul after making promises to re-engage the North, but with a vague policy about how to get that done.
The North's latest statement is unusually specific, warning of "lighter and smaller nukes" and "surgical strikes," and is seen as noteworthy by Seoul because a senior military official from the Korean People's Army Supreme Command issued the threats on state TV.
But North Korea has made surprisingly specific threats in the past, including vowing to destroy the headquarters of major South Korean newspapers last year, and then later backed away.
"They make such statements a few times in the average year," Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, said. "Perhaps it makes them feel good. But practical impact? Zero."
MILITARY REACTION IN SEOUL
South Korea's military is taking the North's threats seriously.
Army Maj. Gen. Kim Yong-hyun, an official with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in nationally televised remarks Wednesday that North Korea was told that the drills starting Monday, which involve 10,000 South Korean and 3,500 U.S. forces, are defensive.
He also indicated that North Korea and its military leadership will suffer if there are any attacks.
"If North Korea goes ahead with provocations and threatens the lives and safety of South Koreans, our military will strongly and sternly retaliate against the command and its supporting forces," he said.
March 7, 2013
Malaysian Troops Kill 31 Filipinos and Reject Talks
By FLOYD WHALEY
MANILA — Malaysian security forces killed 31 Filipino gunmen on the island of Borneo, officials said Thursday, and the government rejected calls by the United Nations for an end to the fighting.
At least 60 people, including eight Malaysian police officers, have been killed in the nearly month-long conflict over an attempt by followers of a Philippine-based sultan to assert a historic claim over parts of Borneo Island.
“The secretary-general is closely following the situation in Sabah, Malaysia,” said a statement from the United Nations released on Wednesday. “He urges an end to the violence and encourages dialogue among all the parties for a peaceful resolution of the situation.”
A spokesman for the Jamalul Kiram III, the leader of the group fighting in the Malaysian state of Sabah, said the sultanate was declaring a unilateral cease-fire in reaction to the call by the United Nations. He said an order was given for the group to take a “defensive position” and not to engage Malaysian troops.
“Malaysia, reciprocate the call for the cease-fire,” the spokesman, Abraham Idjirani, appealed at a Thursday afternoon news briefing.
The Malaysian defense minister, Ahmad Zahid, rejected the calls by the United Nations and the sultanate.
“A unilateral cease-fire is not accepted by Malaysia unless the militants surrender unconditionally,” he said in a statement, adding later: “Don’t believe the cease-fire offer by Jamalul Kiram. In the interest of Sabahans and all Malaysians, wipe out all the militants first.”
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak told reporters on Thursday afternoon that Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III had telephoned him after the United Nations statement to get his reaction.
“I informed President Aquino that they need to surrender unconditionally and their weapons have to be handed over to us,” he said during a visit to Lahad Datu, the area where much of the fighting has taken place.
Malaysian officials have called for the extradition to Malaysia of the group’s leader in Manila.
Mr. Aquino said Thursday that criminal charges are being prepared against the sultan by the country’s National Bureau of Investigation and he rejected calls for an immediate extradition. The Philippines and Malaysia do not have an extradition treaty but they have a mutual legal assistance agreement that facilitates the capture and repatriation of fugitives.
“Let our citizens here in the country face the charges that we will be proffering,” Mr. Aquino said. “Then we will talk about other developments after they have satisfied the requirements of our laws.”
The situation began in mid-February when about 200 people from the southern Philippines arrived in a remote coastal area of eastern Malaysia and announced that they were members of a royal army in service of the Sultanate of Sulu, which ruled the southern Philppines and parts of the Malaysian state of Sabah for centuries.
The group was initially received peacefully but after multiple requests that they return to the Philippines violence soon broke out. The Malaysian authorities launched several assaults against the group, using fighter jets, mortars and several battalions of ground troops.
Militant leaders in the Philippines have said that fighters from the restive southern part of the country would try to make their way to Sabah to act as reinforcements for the outnumbered Filipino fighters. Malaysian and Philippine navy ships are patrolling the waters between the two countries to stop further incursions.
March 6, 2013
Japan’s New Leader Takes On Old Order to Jolt Economy
By MARTIN FACKLER
TAHARA, Japan — Just two months into office, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is showing an increasing willingness to take on some pillars of Japan’s establishment — the central bank and the country’s politically influential farmers — in an aggressive attempt to finally breathe some new life into Japan’s listless economy.
Mr. Abe has already forced the departure of the cautious head of the central Bank of Japan and nominated a replacement who vowed Monday to do “whatever it takes” to fight crippling deflation that has eroded profits and wages and stifled spending. Mr. Abe is also expected to announce soon that his nation will join negotiations on an American-led Pacific free-trade pact that the Obama administration hopes will offset China’s growing economic and political might, but that could also force Japan to make painful, market-opening changes it has resisted for nearly two decades.
Joining the pact risks alienating farmers, longtime staunch supporters of Mr. Abe’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party, who would face more intense competition from cheaper imports.
But the broader public appears more willing to embrace drastic economic measures at a time when Japan, the region’s waning economic superpower, feels threatened by China, helping push Mr. Abe’s approval ratings to around 70 percent in recent polls. That is a vast improvement from his disastrous first term in office six years ago, and from concerns that his hawkish views might alienate him once again from voters.
“The future of Japan’s economic growth depends on us having the willpower and the courage to sail without hesitation onto the rough seas of global competition,“ Mr. Abe declared in a speech to Parliament last Thursday.
Critics warn that his stimulus measures, including a new wave of public works projects, could increase Japan’s already crushing public debt, or set off a currency war as the prospect of drastic easing by the central bank has caused the yen’s value to plummet.
They also worry that Mr. Abe’s effort to combat deflation could include radical steps that they warn could disturb global financial markets by unleashing a flood of Japanese money into developing economies, causing dangerous, speculative bubbles.
The many economists who support Mr. Abe’s plans, however, have a different warning: that any economic benefits could prove short-lived unless they are accompanied by a longer-term growth strategy.
The trade pact, they say, will be a good litmus test of Mr. Abe’s willingness to force such deeper structural changes in Japan. It could also force the country to face a long-debated and difficult decision: whether it is willing to trade some of the egalitarianism it takes such pride in to embrace a freer form of capitalism that could break the grip of vested interests and reverse a long decline.
“The T.P.P. is a battle over what kind of country we want Japan to be,“ said Hisaharu Ito, a top official in Aichi Prefecture’s Union of Agricultural Cooperatives, referring to the trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. His organization represents some 10,000 full-time farmers who fiercely oppose the trade group.
He added, “Do we want to turn into a harsh society of winners and losers, or remain a gentler society where benefits are shared?”
Japan’s joining the trade group could have an added advantage for the United States, possibly opening some of Japan’s still impenetrable markets to American products.
Here in Tahara, a city in central Aichi, where rice paddies and cabbage fields run up against a Lexus plant, Shigeaki Okamoto is the rare voice in the farming community pushing for change. He says Japanese farmers could compete without the tariffs they have been sheltered behind if they were allowed to become entrepreneurial.
Mr. Okamoto tried to export rice to China, only to be told that a company controlled by a farm co-op has a monopoly on sales to that country. He says such restrictions are typical of government bureaucrats and farming co-op officials who have tried to block him every step of the way with arbitrary regulations and even attempts to ostracize him from others farmers.
“Japan is wrapped in an invisible web that prevents you from showing any sort of initiative,” said Mr. Okamoto, 51.
Mr. Abe’s promises of economic revival have already created a budding optimism in urban areas like Tokyo, where the stock market has rallied and restaurants seem more crowded than they were during years in which many people resigned themselves to Japan’s fading prospects. The new, if fragile, hopefulness has been boosted by rising corporate profits, as a weakening yen has brought desperately needed relief to badly shaken electronics corporations and other exporters struggling to compete with Chinese and Korean rivals.
The yen has dropped 20 percent in recent months, on the strength of Mr. Abe’s promises to rethink Japan’s priorities.
While the new prime minister is off to a strong start, political analysts said it was too early to tell if he will be the rare decisive Japanese leader who can make a real impact, like his mentor, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, whose liberalizing policies Mr. Abe is apparently seeking to continue.
Economists say the jury is still out on whether Mr. Abe’s measures, popularly called Abenomics, will be drastic enough to restore growth to a $5.9 trillion economy that in yen has shrunken back to the same size it was in the early 1990s and caused the country to slip behind China on the list of the world’s largest economies. (The current ranking is the United States first, followed by China and Japan.)
Mr. Abe started his push for changes at the Bank of Japan less than a month after taking office in December, pressing its leaders to set a target of causing rising prices, or inflation, at a rate of 2 percent per year. When the bank failed to follow quickly with bold measures to accomplish that goal, Mr. Abe’s Liberal Democrats threatened to rewrite the law to make the bank more obedient.
That was enough to drive the incumbent central bank governor, Masaaki Shirakawa, who has long been criticized for inaction, to announce that he would step down three weeks earlier than planned. On Thursday, Mr. Abe nominated his replacement, Haruhiko Kuroda, an Oxford-trained former Finance Ministry official.
Even Mr. Abe’s own economic advisers say it is unclear what Mr. Kuroda will do, and point out that he is more cautious than other people whose names were floated as possible replacements for Mr. Shirakawa. Still, at parliamentary hearings on his nomination on Monday, Mr. Kuroda pledged to do “whatever it takes to escape from deflation,” without giving specifics.
Mr. Abe’s advisers say they expect Mr. Kuroda to at least catch up with the more aggressive increase of the money supply adopted by the United States’ Federal Reserve chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, since the 2008 financial crisis.
One adviser, Nobuyuki Nakahara, a former member of the Japanese bank’s governing Policy Board, said Mr. Kuroda’s most likely first steps would be to sharply increase purchases of corporate bonds and real-estate-linked securities.
Mr. Nakahara and others call it ironic that the Bank of Japan has fallen behind the Fed, given that the Japanese central bank a decade ago pioneered Mr. Bernanke’s current strategy of flooding the economy with money, known as quantitative easing.
There have been calls for the Japanese bank to once again break new ground by taking more unprecedented steps, like buying foreign bonds or unlimited numbers of newly issued Japanese treasuries, which would essentially hand a blank check to the Japanese government.
Many Japanese voters seem to agree that bolder steps are needed as anxiety grows over Japan’s geopolitical standing versus China’s.
“People here realize that economic revival is tied to Japan’s security,” said Robert Feldman, an economist in Tokyo at Morgan Stanley MUFG Securities.
March 6, 2013
Ex-Premier’s Ally Expelled From Ukraine Parliament
By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN
MOSCOW — The lead defender of Ukraine’s jailed former prime minister, Yulia V. Tymoshenko, was stripped of his seat in the Ukrainian Parliament on Wednesday by the country’s top administrative court, despite stern warnings by Western officials who said the case was a matter of political retribution.
The lawmaker, Sergey Vlasenko, is a close associate of Ms. Tymoshenko and has played a major role in her legal defense since she was first brought up on charges by the government of her political rival, President Viktor F. Yanukovich.
Ms. Tymoshenko has been jailed since October 2011, when she was convicted of abusing her position in connection with a contract to buy natural gas from Russia. The authorities have also filed several additional cases, most recently charges of murder in connection with the 1996 assassination of a lawmaker. She has denied all of the charges and appealed to the European Court of Human Rights.
The chairman of Ukraine’s Parliament, Volodimir Rybak, who is a member of Mr. Yanukovich’s Party of Regions, had asked the court to strip Mr. Vlasenko of his seat, saying he was improperly combining work as a legislator and a lawyer.
Mr. Vlasenko has said that he represented Ms. Tymoshenko free of charge and did not have other legal clients. He has also said that his removal from Parliament, which deprives him of immunity from prosecution, was a prelude to an attempt by officials to have him jailed to prevent any further work on Ms. Tymoshenko’s behalf.
The continued jailing of Ms. Tymoshenko has strained relations between Ukraine and the West.
Ukraine’s topless feminists go international
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, March 7, 2013 7:12 EST
Ukrainian feminist group Femen are taking their topless protests around the world, having already stripped off in Western Europe to highlight a range of issues from democratic violations to sexual exploitation, in what some call a new brand of feminist activism.
While enjoying little support at home, Femen’s protesters have become a symbol of Ukraine abroad having taken their tops off in Moscow, Paris, Zurich, Brussels, and even in St Peter’s Square in Vatican City.
And now they plan to go even further afield.
“This year we hope to cover North Africa and South America,” one of Femen’s leaders, Anna Gutsol, told AFP.
The group, which was founded in 2008, came up with the idea of its topless protests almost by accident.
During a demonstration in 2009, Femen activists decorated their backs with slogans and bared them at photographers. The pictures were a hit, leading the women to come up with an even more outrageous way to get their views across.
Since they turned to face the cameras, the international media – always keen on eye-catching stunts – has given them lavish coverage.
Femen’s first moment of glory came in 2010 on the day of Ukraine’s tense presidential elections. Four young women boldly undressed in a polling station just before the arrival of presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych.
Recently the group has shifted its activism to Western European countries.
Last September it launched its “first training centre” in Paris to propagate its brand of “new feminism”. Another activist has moved to Berlin to run a German branch of Femen.
The Paris office is run by Inna Shevchenko, who claimed asylum in France in 2012, fearing persecution after she sawed down a large wooden cross that stood in the centre of Kiev.
The stunt was intended to support Russia’s Pussy Riot, whose members were jailed last year for their “punk prayer” protest against President Vladimir Putin’s close relations with the Russian Orthodox Church.
Some academics see the group as successors to 19th-century suffragettes and the women’s rights movement of the 1970s.
Rejane Senac of the Paris-based National Centre for Scientific Research, said that Femen represents a “third wave of feminism.”
This new front “is focused on sharing power” between men and women and “manifests itself through forms of activism that sometimes resemble performances,” she told AFP.
French historian Christine Bard said that Femen highlighted the connections “between the politicisation of sexual matters and the defence of democracy.”
But in Ukraine people have became increasingly irritated by Femen’s protests, which at one point were staged on an almost weekly basis, seemingly without a clear agenda.
Some Ukrainian critics slam the movement as overly commercial, although Femen members strongly reject this, saying they live modestly on income that comes only from donations and an online store where they sell Femen t-shirts and mugs.
“In France, we feel moral and material support.(The French) do not say ‘Aah, those whores again’ as (some do) in Ukraine,” said Gutsol.
Femen members blame a lack of political culture and the weakness of feminist traditions for their failure to win over Ukrainians, but some accuse them of seeking publicity at all costs.
“This is a simulation of feminism… (with) no serious political or social meaning,” said political strategist Sergiy Gaiday.
“They use their bodies just to attract attention.”
Mariana Yevsyukova, a senior staff member at Ukraine’s branch of La Strada international women rights group, said that she believed Femen’s members “damage both Ukraine’s image and the true feminist movement”.
“They protest against everything, but not a single problem has been resolved thanks to them,” she said.
Femen is defying such criticisms by blazing a new trail as the first Ukrainian group to break out of national politics into international activism.
“We still do not know well what their objectives are,” said Bard.
“But what is quite new is that the group is acting at an international level.”
March 6, 2013
Pakistan, Under Cultural Siege, Is Buoyed by Book Festivals
By DECLAN WALSH
LAHORE, Pakistan — Assailed by jihadist attacks and the moral cudgels of religious conservatives, Lahore’s celebrated cultural vitality has waned somewhat in recent years. A famous kite-flying festival is no more; a performing arts festival vanished after being attacked; and music concerts take place in restricted circumstances.
But last month, the city welcomed spring with a raucous new party — a celebration of books.
Thousands of people crammed into a towering red brick building for the inaugural Lahore Literary Festival, flitting between sessions to hear, and meet, their heroes from Pakistan’s swelling firmament of novelists. It seemed as much a rock concert as a scholarly venue, and scuffles erupted as people pushed to gain entry.
One star attraction was Mohsin Hamid, a Princeton-educated native of Lahore, whose new novel, “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia,” has been published to critical acclaim. Wearing jeans and sneakers, he received a giddy welcome from a home crowd. There was swooning. One man stood up to say that he had come to Lahore specifically to emulate the sex and drug scenes in Mr. Hamid’s novels.
Mr. Hamid was not the only draw: even more esoteric discussions of poetry and writing, or academics cogitating over the country’s troubled trajectory, drew packed houses that surprised even veteran authors.
“It was very exciting — the first time I’ve seen Beatlemania among literary groupies,” said William Dalrymple, a British historian who participated in several sessions. “Nobody was throwing knickers, but it was a higher degree of hysteria than I’ve ever seen. I felt we were being treated as rock stars.”
The festival came on the heels of a similarly well-attended literary event in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. Put together they tapped into a well of pent-up enthusiasm for cultural and political debate among young Pakistanis, and offered a glowing counterpoint to Pakistan’s more usual image of a country troubled by the forces of extremism.
“It was a vibrant and intellectual space,” said Faraz Ahmed, a 19-year-old finance student and aspiring author. “I’ve never been to anything like it.”
Literary festivals are surging in popularity across South Asia. Since the first major event in Jaipur, India, in 2005, 30 other festivals have sprung up across India, with a handful more in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal. Many test the boundaries of free expression.
Early this month in Myanmar, where the shackles of military rule are loosening, people flocked to hear Daw Aung San Suu Kyi at a new festival there. Last year controversy erupted at Jaipur after Muslim clerics prevented the author Salman Rushdie from speaking. This year, Jaipur organizers estimated at least 140,000 people attended over five days.
In Pakistan, the festivals are about more than books — they seek to become part of a national conversation about the direction of the country. Usually, public debate takes place on raucous television chat shows, which critics accuse of framing issues in a confrontational and divisive manner.
The events at Karachi and Lahore offered a more considered take of the debate, mingling chat about nuclear weapons and the Afghan war with the intricacies of Urdu poetry. Some authors spanned the range: in one session Mohammed Hanif, author of the popular novel “A Case of Exploding Mangos,” discussed extrajudicial executions in western Baluchistan Province; in another he had the audience howling with laughter at his account of describing the imagined anal examination of a former military dictator, Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq.
With its grand Mughal architecture and elegant colonial-era roads, Lahore is considered the cultural capital of Pakistan, with a thriving Sufi music, art and literary scene. Yet in recent years that vibrancy has been muted, to some degree, by violence.
A major performing arts festival was bombed by extremists in 2009, and has not taken place since. Basant, the great spring festival in which children fly kites in the streets while adults party on the rooftops, has ostensibly been banned over safety concerns, although some believe that pressure from conservatives also played a part.
“The excuse of the string was used to appease the conservative religious constituency,” said Najam Sethi, a veteran political commentator.
The worrisome bout of sectarian bloodshed that has swept Pakistan this year lingered over both festivals. In Lahore, several speakers spoke movingly about the assassination of a Shiite doctor and his son in the city a week earlier. In Karachi, the buoyant mood was tempered by a devastating bomb attack that occurred mid-festival in the western city of Quetta, killing at least 84 Hazara Shiites — a terrible sectarian attack emulated last Sunday in Karachi itself, where a bombing claimed 45 lives in a Shiite neighborhood.
For all that, the festivals were also a reminder of Pakistan’s considerable success in international literature.
Intizar Hussain, an 89-year-old Urdu language writer, has been shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize — and for some in the audience, it offered something rare: a chance to celebrate the condition of being Pakistani.
“You are a source of pride to Pakistan,” one elderly man told Mr. Hamid, the author, to loud applause. “You are sending the message that we are normal people, not terrorists.”
The festivals faced criticism, too. Critics said the festivals focus too much on English-language literature that is little understood by many of Pakistan’s 190 million people, who largely speak Urdu, Punjabi and other languages. In Lahore, in particular, the crowds largely came from the city’s small upper crust.
Against that, the sizable crowds — up to 60,000 people between both festivals, according to the organizers — were testament to the growing penetration of English-medium education. While just one percent of Pakistanis were privately schooled in 1975, said Mosharraf Zaidi, head of the education-rights campaign Alif Ailaan, today at least one-third attend nongovernment schools.
At the lower end of the scale, though, education is in crisis — some 25 million Pakistanis between the ages of 5 and 16 are out of school, Mr. Zaidi added.
Attention will shift from prose to politics in the coming months, with elections expected in early May, and few believe that a few literary festivals can beat back the Taliban.
Other forms of culture have taken a battering in recent years — several landmark movie theaters were torched during riots against an American-made film that denigrated the Prophet Muhammad last fall. In a country of mass illiteracy, high literature remains a minority concern.
Yet, for two weeks in two cities, Pakistan’s book lovers delved into a world of words that, for all its turmoil, offered the chance of a different story.
Bulgaria: Dying for political change
6 March 2013
A day of mourning has been called for March 6 in memory of Plamen Goranov, a young man who set himself on fire in Varna to demand the resignation of the city's mayor. Coming in the midst of a full-blown national political crisis, this gesture should lead to an awakening of consciousness, writes an influential political columnist.
Plamen Goranov died on March 3, 11 days after setting himself ablaze in front of the City Hall of Varna [in the east of Bulgaria]. He had called for "the resignation of Kiro [Kiril Yordanov, the city's mayor] and all the councillors before 5 pm, on February 20, 2013." This is what was written on the placard he had taken with him that morning, according to the prosecutor's office. A sign that had, moreover, a strange fate: after mysteriously disappearing from the scene of the tragedy, it later reappeared in the possession of an employee of the municipality. But never mind that.
No one has yet watched the surveillance camera tapes that will have surely captured the scene. One thing we know for certain is that Plamen, 36, is no more.
I see no sense in arguing today whether his destiny can be compared to that of Jan Palach, the young man who set himself on fire on January 16, 1969, in Prague and became the symbol of protest against the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. The truth is simple: for many people, Plamen has already become Bulgaria's Jan Palach.
The Czech student had left a letter explaining why he was killing himself. And he was not alone, but part of a group: a month later another young man did the same thing in the same place in Prague [at Wenceslas Square]. Plamen Goranov left no letter; at least, as of today, we do not know of one. Jan Palach doused himself with petrol and set himself on fire in front of many passers-by. In Varna, though, nobody knows exactly what happened with Plamen. Were there witnesses? We don't know yet. All that we know is that two containers of flammable liquid were found at his side, and one was half empty.
The impossibility of knowing more shows all by itself the degree of rot that has set in – with our help – in Bulgaria. Because if it is not known whether he set himself on fire deliberately, or if someone "helped" him, if he really wanted to burn himself alive or to do something else... The real change, called for by each one of the thousands of demonstrators, can start with this demand: that the whole truth about the death of Plamen be made known.
He was a man with opinions, he regularly took part in demonstrations, and he never stopped criticising Kiril Yordanov's governing of the city. A video on the Internet has surfaced showing him seizing the microphone at a rally to call on the crowd to chant "Down with TIM!" [A powerful company with a scandal-ridden reputation, accused by protesters of influencing the weather in Varna]. And even if it's not known exactly what happened to Plamen, we do know exactly what he was railing against: the contemptuous and murky behaviour of City Hall, the looting of public resources, the crushing of dissidents, the dictatorship of a handful of elected officials intoxicated by power...
Continue the push for transparity
This was the case in Varna; it's the case in many other cities; it's the case throughout Bulgaria. Varna has just become the symbol of this reality, and it wasn't born yesterday. The resignation of the mayor [announced on March 6] means nothing by now. What matters is that the people continue to demand more transparency and the supremacy of the rule of law. The residents of Varna have understood that. And this is what makes their revolt very different from those in Sofia, where protesters brandish exotic and, sometimes, contradictory demands.
The rule of law for which the people of this struggling coastal town are struggling includes, however, a thorough and independent investigation into the death of Plamen Goranov. We owe him that much.
Opinion: Mourning what?
"Today [March 6] is a day of national mourning called in memory of Plamen Goranov," writes journalist Ana Zarkova in the daily Trud. But what exactly is being mourned?, she continues –
It is likely that the bereaved are mourning different things in their own way. Ministers – their jobs; the unemployed – their jobs. The poor – that they haven't the money to pay their heating bills and electricity. The rich – that they can be killed or kidnapped. The protesters – because they have lost their unity. Even in mourning we are divided. And I pity the politicians who are trying to come closer to the people and their pain. And if they tried to repent?
Romania: ‘Halt Ion! Verboten Simeon! Nein!’
7 March 2013
Jurnalul Naţional, 7 March 2013
The European Council for Justice and Home Affairs (JHA), which is to meet on March 7, will not decide on the applications of Romania and Bulgaria to join the Schengen Area.
Decisions affecting the border-free area have to be unanimous. And Germany and Finland have already announced that they would veto the accession of the two countries, which they insist continue to be marked by a high level of corruption.
Finnish Interior Minister, Päivi Räsänen, even went as far as to declare that Bulgaria and Romania were too easily allowed into the the EU.
New data shows Eurozone sinking deeper into recession
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, March 6, 2013 7:30 EST
The 17-nation eurozone sank further into recession in the last three months of 2012 as the debt crisis continued to exact a heavy price, official data showed Wednesday.
The eurozone economy shrank 0.6 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012 compared with the third quarter when it contracted 0.1 percent, the Eurostat data agency said, confirming initial estimates given in February.
For the full 27-member European Union, the economy was 0.5 percent smaller in the fourth quarter after a marginal gain of 0.1 percent in the third, Eurostat said.
A recession is counted as two consecutive quarterly economic contractions.
Compared with fourth quarter 2011, the eurozone economy was down 0.9 percent and the EU 27 off 0.6 percent.
Among the major economies, European powerhouse Germany shrank 0.6 percent in the fourth quarter after a gain of 0.2 percent in the third and France slipped 0.3 percent after growth of 0.1 percent.
Non-euro Britain lost 0.3 percent after sharp growth of 1.0 percent in the third quarter, boosted by the London Olympics.
Among the fourth quarter best performers were Estonia, which grew 0.9 percent and Lithuania, up 0.7 percent, while bailed-out Portugal was the weakest, with its economy shrinking 1.8 percent.
Eurostat said that for 2012 as a whole, the eurozone economy contracted 0.6 percent and the EU 0.3 percent.
Data so far for 2013 suggests the European economy is stabilising after a very bad 2012 but the outlook remains weak and uncertain.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Silvio Berlusconi convicted over publication of wiretapped conversations
Former Italian prime minister is sentenced to one year in jail by Milan court
Associated Press in Milan
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 7 March 2013 11.54 GMT
A court in Milan has convicted Silvio Berlusconi for the illegal publication of transcripts of wiretapped conversations in a newspaper owned by his media empire.
The court on Thursday sentenced the former Italian prime minister to one year in jail, although he is unlikely to be put behind bars during a possible appeal.
The verdict has no effect on Berlusconi's eligibility to participate in a new government. His centre-right coalition finished third in parliamentary elections that saw no clear winner. Talks on forming a new government are expected to begin on 20 March.
The charge relates to the 2005 publication of a wiretapped call that was part of an investigation into a failed bid to take over a bank.
03/06/2013 04:23 PM
Ouch: EU Slaps Microsoft with 561 Million Euro Fine
The European Union on Wednesday fined Microsoft over half a billion euros for failing to comply with a 2009 agreement relating to the company's Internet Explorer browser. It's the first time the EU has penalized a company for such a violation.
The compromise reached between Microsoft and the European Commission in 2009 was not particularly complicated. In settling its legal battle with the European Union relating to the company's practice of automatically installing Internet Explorer as the browser for Windows customers, Microsoft agreed to pay an €860 million ($1.12 billion) fine and offer a choice of browsers in the future.
Which it did. For a time. But on Wednesday, the Commission slapped a fine of €561 million ($731 million) on Microsoft for violating the agreement from May 2011 to July 2012. The breach affected some 15 million installations of Windows 7 during that period.
"A failure to comply is a very serious infringement that must be sanctioned accordingly," Europe's Competition Commissioner Joaquín Almunia said in a statement to the press.
It marks the first time the EU has fined a company for non-compliance with a previous agreement. The sanction falls well short of the maximum penalty of €5.6 billion -- 10 percent of the company's turnover the previous year -- that the Commission could have imposed. Almunia indicated that the fine was limited because the company, based in the city of Redmond just outside of Seattle, had cooperated during the investigation.
The company had initially complied with the 2009 agreement, which called for users to be presented with a window offering them a choice of browsers they could install instead of having Microsoft Explorer as the default setting. But a 2011 update resulted in the window's disappearance. Microsoft has claimed that a technical error, and not willful disregard for the agreement, was to blame.
Almunia underlined his disinclination to accept that explanation on Wednesday. "They must do what they committed to do or face the consequences," he told reporters. "It goes without saying that this type of settled outcome of an anti-trust investigation can only work if the commitments are then scrupulously complied with."
The Commission's decision to fine Microsoft was no doubt informed by the EU's past experience with the company. Wednesday's fine brought the total of monetary penalties levied by Europe against the software giant to €2.2 billion, higher than for any other company in the world. Among other conflicts, EU anti-trust authorities penalized Microsoft in 2008 for tying Windows Media Player to its popular software package.
But Internet Explorer has generated the most attention from anti-trust officials in both the EU and the US since it was launched in 1995. Immediately after bringing the browser to market, Microsoft began an aggressive, and ultimately successful, campaign to dominate its then-rival Netscape. These predatory practices, however, almost resulted in the company being broken up by US anti-trust authorities. The 2009 deal was born out of EU concern that Microsoft might pursue a similar strategy to get a leg up on the Google Chrome browser, which was first released in 2008.
Still, despite the history of legal troubles, Microsoft does not hold the record for the largest anti-trust fine ever handed down by Brussels. That dubious honor goes to chipmaker Intel, which was penalized €1.06 billion in May 2009.
03/07/2013 12:36 PM
Real Estate Locusts: Developers Cash in on Europe's Poorest
By Özlem Gezer and Andreas Wassermann
International financial investors have spent billions to gobble up cheap real estate in Berlin. But a look at Scharnweberstrasse 111 shows how they and their ruthless middlemen are exploiting immigrants from Southeastern Europe to make profits.
Their offices are in places where a lot of money is turned into even more money: in Luxembourg, the City of London and on Lake Geneva. They deal in shares of companies in Asia and Africa, and in real estate in Europe. They own more than 6,000 apartments in Berlin. Narghita lives in one of them.
Narghita, 27, is from Romania, a member of the Roma ethnic group. She has never met the owners of her apartment. There is no heat, and she has covered the mold on the walls with mint-green paint. The toilet hasn't been working for weeks, and her three children urinate in the bathtub. She found her furniture in the garbage and poisoned the rats in the apartment she occupies on the ground floor of Scharnweberstrasse 111 in Reinickendorf, a northwestern district of Berlin.
For a long time, Narghita believed that Marcus Harstel owned her apartment. He is the chairman of an association called "Anker e.V. - Berlin in 2010." According to its bylaws, the association doesn't aim to make money. "We make people strong," reads Anker's motto -- strong, so that they'll have better opportunities.
Anker brokers run-down property owned by international investors to the poor: ex-convicts, the homeless and immigrants. The association, founded in Berlin in 2010, devotes special attention to the Roma and Sinti ethnic groups, which as Anker officials say, "were living in public parks under completely grim hygienic conditions." According to the bylaws, Harstel and his colleagues aim to "improve" living conditions for these people and place them into "adequate" living spaces.
These are nice words and noble objectives. In reality, however, they are nothing but an inhumane form of cynicism. Anker, the association that is supposedly devoted to the well-being of the weak, was actually providing real estate speculators with undemanding tenants until recently -- and, in the process, its chairman was apparently funneling hefty sums into his own pockets. This ruthless business model is widespread in Berlin, one of many cities in Europe where poor immigrants go.
One reason the model works is that Romania's accession to the European Union in 2007 has almost tripled the number of Romanians in Germany, bringing it to 205,000 today. The poverty-stricken immigrants among new EU citizens work for €3 ($4) an hour, have no health insurance and usually don't speak German. And since German municipalities are overwhelmed by the onslaught and usually have no political plans for countering this migration of tens of thousands of people, immigrants like Narghita fall in the clutches of people like Marcus Harstel and of real estate companies headquartered in tax havens.
Exploiting the Helpless
Narghita arrived in Berlin in the fall of 2011. She lived with relatives for the first few weeks, and then she began looking for her own apartment. But she isn't registered, has no proof of income and no credit history -- all the things that are normally required by a housing agency in Germany. Harstel, the head of Anker, doesn't need these things. All he cares about is that Narghita pays her rent: €705 ($915) for a one-room, 33-square-meter (355-square-foot) apartment, heat excluded.
Harstel collects the rent at the door. Like the other Roma families living in the building in a back courtyard at Scharnweberstrasse 111, Narghita pays her rent in cash. And when someone is unable to pay, say Narghita and her neighbors, Harstel threatens them with his "dogs" -- broad-shouldered Turkish and Arab thugs.
Those who still don't pay after an encounter with these men are evicted. Harstel then removes the belongings from the apartment and places them in one of his basement storage rooms, as one of the tenants who helped Harstel empty out an apartment recalls. Harstel is essentially hoarding toasters and washing machines, and even empty deposit bottles, from the apartments of insolvent tenants.
On his current Xing profile on the Internet, Harstel, a former scrap car dealer, described himself as a "manager" who works "on a voluntary basis." But the employment agency in Berlin's Mitte district takes a different view. It suspects Harstel, a recipient of Hartz IV welfare benefits for the long-term unemployed, of social security benefit fraud.
For most tenants at Scharnweberstrasse 111, Harstel is a familiar sight in his Adidas jacket and athletic shoes, and with a heavy key ring hanging from his jeans. His association has rented 73 Berlin apartments from Helvetica, the financial investors' property management firm, to sublet them to other tenants. They are apartments that their owners have been unable to rent in the regular rental market.
But they are good enough for the Roma, at least according to the way Harstel thinks and acts, because Roma from Romania are patient tenants. They wait, sometimes for months, when their toilets are broken, their windows aren't properly sealed or they have no hot water. They rarely complain about having to live in apartments without heat in the winter. Harstel, the man who is supposedly helping them, provides them with electric heaters. As a result, some families run up electricity bills of up to €3,000.
The conditions on some of the floors at Scharnweberstrasse 111 are like those in a refugee camp, with multiple parties sharing the few intact bathrooms. When they move in, Harstel promises them a different apartment, renovations and help with their moves. But when the Roma ask him about his promises, he puts them off. The women have hung heads of garlic on their doors, a custom intended to protect against evil eyes. They paint their walls pink and glue together bits of wallpaper to make leopard-skin patterns, hoping to improve their squalid surroundings with cosmetic repairs. But the Roma families are not angry with Harstel. In fact, they are grateful.
They invite him into their apartments, pour him glasses of vodka at birthday parties, show him family videos and cook Romanian specialties for him. They want their patron to be happy, which is important in the archaic social structures they are used to at home.
But what choice do they have? A number of the Roma living at Scharnweberstrasse 111 get their money from the government employment office, or they earn it through begging and prostitution. Roma families stand almost no chance at all in Berlin's regular apartment market. The alternative would be a tiny garden house on the outskirts of the city for €500, or subletting rooms from Hartz-IV recipients, both of which are common practices in dealing with poor immigrants.
An Empire on the Cheap
Helvetica's offices are in an austere postwar building in the middle-class district of Charlottenburg, in western Berlin. The sign at the entrance listing the hours, the plastic chairs in the waiting room and the potted yucca palms combine to convey the suitably dull image one would expect from a German property-management company.
The conventional appearance is deceiving. Helvetica is part of a conglomerate of international financial investors with addresses in Singapore, the Caribbean and European tax havens, such as the Isle of Man. Some of Helvetica's partners are accomplished players in the world of casino capitalism, such as Paul Macdonald, a short, compact, round-faced man.
The 60-year-old Scot is a financial broker with activities in Japan, the Emirate of Qatar and resource-rich Africa. One could call Macdonald a "locust," or corporate raider, although he describes his work as "wealth management," which he sees as the art of making very rich private individuals even richer -- and making a handsome profit for himself in the process. He made a new discovery in 2005: the Berlin real estate market.
Real estate in the German capital was cheaper than in any other major Western European city. There was ample supply, partly because the deeply indebted city-state was placing entire apartment buildings on the market.
Macdonald joined forces with Leonard O'Brien, another financial manager with global operations. O'Brien founded Epicure Berlin Property, a small, low-profile company, on the Isle of Man. Although it was only listed at an address on Athol Street in Douglas, the island's capital, Epicure had €125 million in capital.
Macdonald and O'Brien had drummed up the money from private investors, mostly in Persian Gulf countries and in the City of London financial district. Banks also contributed about €300 million in loans. With their well-filled coffers, Macdonald and O'Brien went on a shopping spree in Berlin. Within a year, they had bought up a small real estate empire for their investors: 240 apartment buildings, which included opulent addresses in booming districts, such as Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, but also junk properties and run-down tenements in poorer neighborhoods, including Neukölln, Wedding and Moabit.
Turning a Blind Eye
To keep track of their empire of low-rent and high-rent real estate, Macdonald and O'Brien would combine 10 to 15 buildings into individual companies. In doing so, they created more than 20 companies, all with the letters VV in their names.
One of them is called Beragon VV, which owns Scharnweberstrasse 111.
In March 2006, O'Brien bought the 26-unit Berlin building for Beragon from a Swabian real estate company for €897,112 -- according to the sales contract. The apartments had coal-burning stoves, and the pipes and wiring were at postwar levels. According to the seller, the estimated annual rent revenue was €92,698.
But Macdonald and O'Brien soon discovered that it was difficult to bring in this much revenue. The property management company, Helvetica, was having trouble renting the empty apartments on Scharnweberstrasse.
Harstel and his Anker association supplied a solution to the problem, winning over Helvetica's management with his "social worker's principle." In return for the completion of "cosmetic repairs," Helvetica waived the rents on nine apartments for Anker, although the tenants were expected to do the renovations themselves.
Although Harstel was only too pleased to accept the rent reduction, he still charged the tenants the full rents, and then some. For instance, he rents Narghita's apartment from Helvetica for €182, but collects €705 from her.
Helvetica still believes that it acted fairly and in a socially responsible manner. The property-management firm argues that tenants who have renovated their own apartments are likely to take better care of it. What's more, Helvetica believes that the work provides residents with meaningful activities and gives them a sense of achievement. After all, says Helvetica, Anker had agreed to recruit volunteer craftsmen to help the tenants renovate the apartments.
For a long time, it didn't occur to Helvetica that it ought to check up on its business partner and see how the renovations were coming along. Helvetica was happy to have signed open-ended leases with Anker for its junk properties -- and to be making money. Helvetica was to receive about a quarter of a million euros a year for the 73 apartments Anker had rented.
Courts and Courting
No one at Helvetica seemed troubled by the fact that Anker e.V. had only existed for a few months, and that its chairman and treasurer both collected Hartz IV benefits. Helvetica was also unperturbed when it received a written request for assistance from the Mitte Job Center, voicing its suspicion that Harstel was engaged in social security benefit fraud. Helvetica's management claims that it didn't know about the letter because it supposedly never reached them.
This happened at a time when business with Anker had been going smoothly for months. But Harstel became greedier over the course of 2011. He was now charging the Roma €100 to provide them with a document they needed to file an application with the job center. And as soon as an apartment became available, he would ask his tenants: "Don't you have some more Romanians?"
Soon Helvetica was owed substantial portions of the agreed rents, at least according to the property-management company. Anker's treasurer says this is a lie. Harstel had not commented on the allegations by last Friday.
In January 2012, Helvetica cancelled all leases with Anker. This didn't stop Harstel from allowing the Roma to continue living at Scharnweberstrasse, and from collecting their rents every month.
The families were only now getting to know their real landlord, Helvetica, which was sending them informational letters in six languages. But they didn't respond. After all, they thought, Harstel was their patron and the man they paid their rent to.
In March, Helvetica's management filed a criminal complaint against Anker, but prosecutors dropped the investigation soon thereafter. Helvetica wrote urgent letters to the head of the district council in Reinickendorf, to Berlin's senator for health and social affairs, Mario Czaja, and to Federal Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Ursula von der Leyen. But it was all to no avail. According to the residents of Scharnweberstrasse 111, Harstel continued appearing at their doors to collect the rent until November 2012.
Helvetica representatives were shocked when they paid a visit to the building in August 2012. The apartments couldn't be renovated as long as they were occupied. But the tenants refused to move out, seeking help from advocacy groups for Southern European immigrants, and some Roma families even hired lawyers.
In the cases that are now in Berlin courts, the wealth managers of international investors face off against poor immigrants from Romania. Paul Macdonald wants to keep his investors happy, while Narghita, who is about to have another child, doesn't want to live on the street.
There isn't much more left of Anker e.V. than an entry in the register at the local court. However, its business model seems to have survived, popping up elsewhere in Berlin under different names.
Macdonald is also making his way through Berlin, with international investors in tow. He recently chartered a bus, and Helvetica employees served snacks and beverages.
They posed at the Brandenburg Gate during their sightseeing tour. But the guests spent most of their time visiting the investments they had only seen on paper until then. They were thrilled.
There was one building they didn't visit. It's at Scharnweberstrasse 111.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
The Christian Science Monitor
For next pope, cardinals want youngish, polyglot MBA-type
Issues of governance at the Vatican are weighing on the men who will pick the next leader of the Catholic Church.
By Nick Squires, Correspondent / March 6, 2013 at 12:06 pm EST
They troop each day into a hall just a few minutes’ walk from St. Peter’s Square, passing through a doorway flanked by Swiss Guards in black berets and their distinctive red, yellow, and blue striped uniforms.
Around 150 cardinals from around the world are engaged in intensive talks this week about who they will elect as the successor to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who resigned last week and is now living out his retirement in a 16th-century castle on a hill outside Rome.
The cardinals, wearing red sashes and black cassocks, are sworn to secrecy about the details of their discussions, most notably about who they consider papabile or the most likely papal contenders.
At their first session on Monday, each of them placed his hands on the Bible and pledged “rigorous secrecy” over the proceedings – on pain of excommunication. But in the past few days they have been at liberty to discuss the broader problems facing the Roman Catholic Church, and the sort of man who will be needed to steer it out of the troubled waters of the last few years.
For a start, many cardinals would like to see a relatively young man appointed pope – Benedict was the ripe old age of 78 when he was chosen as the successor to John Paul II in 2005.
Eight years later, he said he no longer had the mental or physical strength to continue, becoming the first pontiff in nearly 600 years to abdicate.
Cardinal George Pell, 71, the Archbishop of Sydney, said age would be a “significant factor” when cardinals gather, probably next week, in the Sistine Chapel for the conclave – the secret process by which the new pope will be elected.
“I think it’s unlikely that we will choose somebody who’s 77 or 78. I think it’s also unlikely that we will choose somebody who is too young, however you define that, because I think there’s virtue in the papacy changing every 10, 15, or 20 years,” he told La Stampa newspaper this week.
Also wanted: polyglot administrator
The new pontiff would need to be an accomplished linguist and strategist with a proven capacity to administer.
“Some factors are rudimentary: a man of faith and prayer, a good track record, a man with languages. I think we need somebody who is a strategist, a decision-maker, a planner, somebody who has got strong pastoral capacities already demonstrated so that he can take a grip of the situation and take the church forward,” Cardinal Pell said.
Among the issues the new pope will have to tackle head on would be the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and the demographic decline and spreading secularism in the West, Cardinal Pell said.
The new pontiff will also have to try to reform the intrigue-ridden Curia, the powerful governing body of the Holy See.
The theft and leaking of documents from Benedict’s private offices last year revealed a disconcerting picture of nepotism, cronyism, and alleged corruption within the Curia.
The documents were stolen and passed to the Italian media by Benedict’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, in what has been dubbed the “Vatileaks” affair. He was imprisoned for a few weeks in the Vatican but received a pardon from the pope just before Christmas.
Curiosity about Curia report
The pope personally appointed three elderly cardinals, including a prominent member of Opus Dei, to delve into the scandal, and they presented their 300-page, two-volume secret report to him in December.
There has been intense speculation that the report was a factor in Benedict’s decision to resign the papacy.
Cardinals said this week that they were keen to know more about the report and what it discovered about malpractice, jealousy, and turf battles within the Curia.
"I would imagine that as we move along there will be questioning of cardinals involved in the governing of the Curia to see what they think has to be changed, and in that context anything can come up," said an American cardinal, Francis George, the archbishop of Chicago.
"I think the Curia in general, beyond whatever emerges from Vatileaks, needs to be revolutionized. And as well as the word reform, there must be a second: transparency. The Curia must begin to open up, and not fear transparency," German Cardinal Walter Kasper said in an interview with La Repubblica, an Italian daily newspaper.
The broader scandal
The new pontiff will also be expected to be more proactive in dealing with the hugely damaging pedophile priest scandals that have rocked the Church over the last decade.
"He obviously has to accept the universal code of the Church which is zero tolerance for anyone who has ever abused a child,” said Cardinal George. "There's a deep-seated conviction, certainly on the part of anyone who has been a pastor, that this has to be continually addressed."
But associations representing sex abuse victims say they have heard these bland assurances before, and that a new pope will have to be much more active in taking to task predatory priests and the bishops who protect them.
“The PR mantra from the Catholic Church in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas has been – ‘We didn’t know, we have learnt from our mistakes, we are reforming, we are sorry,’” says David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests or SNAP. “Despite all the pay-outs to victims and the law suits, there’s virtually no church official who has been demoted or disciplined or defrocked. That needs to change.”
Many cardinals do not have the moral legitimacy to take part in this week’s discussions – known as General Congregations – nor in the conclave, SNAP argues.
“It might sound extreme but we suspect most of the cardinals to be complicit in covering up predator priests. Crises have erupted in country after country and the pattern is always the same,” says Mr. Clohessy.
“Their presence in Rome rubs salt into the wounds of betrayed Catholics and suffering victims. It sends precisely the wrong message – that you can engage in wrongdoing but you won’t face any consequences. They should voluntarily go home.”
The group also released a "dirty dozen" list of 12 papabile cardinals whom they consider to be "the worst choices in terms of protecting kids, healing victims, and exposing corruption."
Cardinal Oscar Maradiaga of Honduras insisted Benedict had made progress in cracking down on sexually abusive priests but said those “clean-up initiatives” must continue under his successor. "We must present a church with a transparent face," he said.
Cardinal Jean Luis Cipriani Thorne, the archbishop of Lima, said the priest sex abuse scandals remained “a grave wound” to the body of the church. “The new pope will need to confront them straightaway,” he said.
The cardinals are expected to announce in the next day or two the start date for the conclave. The Sistine Chapel was closed to tourists on Tuesday, to make way for carpenters, electricians, and other technicians to prepare it for the conclave.
The new pope will be chosen by 115 elector cardinals who qualify to vote because they are under the age of 80.
March 6, 2013
Secrecy Vow and Leaks Complicate Interaction of Cardinals and News Media
By RACHEL DONADIO and LAURIE GOODSTEIN
VATICAN CITY — Journalists from around the world packed the daily briefings, relishing the rare opportunity to pose questions to the cardinals who will vote in the conclave to elect the next pope. The sessions, led by American cardinals, were a far cry from the elliptical approach favored by the Vatican.
On Wednesday, however, under pressure from their fellow cardinals, the Americans canceled their news briefing and shut down all communication with the news media to address a different problem: rampant leaks to the Italian news media in the delicate period of meetings ahead of the conclave, expected to begin next week.
But the tensions over how to address the news media — with American-style forthrightness or the ancient and more indirect ways of Italy — reflected a deeper culture clash between the Vatican as a global church, whose faithful often expect direct answers, and an Italian institution where secrecy is the rule but leaks often the norm.
That tension is certain to be on the minds of the cardinals as they gather to select the future leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
The cardinals swore an oath of secrecy before the meetings, prohibiting them from discussing their contents. But some cardinals have nevertheless spoken to news outlets from their home countries, including Brazil, Germany and France, sometimes sending what could be interpreted as direct messages to fellow cardinals.
Although the Americans had been the soul of discretion, careful not to violate their vows of secrecy while trying to explain their thoughts on the selection process, their strategy of taking direct questions — including about the sex abuse crisis — seemed to some Vatican observers to veer over the line into a subtle campaign for the papacy.
In the weeks since Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation and retirement, the Vatican has repeatedly said that cardinals selecting the next pope should not be swayed by statements in the news media. The Vatican Secretariat of State even compared news reports to the pressures exerted by foreign crowns to influence conclaves in past centuries.
In a terse statement on Wednesday, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, the spokeswoman for the American bishops, said, “The U.S. cardinals are committed to transparency and have been pleased to share a process-related overview of their work with members of the media and with the public.” They did so, she said, while still ensuring the confidentiality of the General Congregations, in which cardinals assess one another and discuss what they believe the church needs.
“Due to concerns over accounts being reported in the Italian press, which breached confidentiality, the College of Cardinals has agreed not to give interviews,” she added.
Those accounts in the Italian news media included tales of disagreement over the slow pace of the proceedings, and the potential advantage of non-Italian candidates for pope. Some also reported that individual cardinals advanced proposals to make it easier for branches of the Vatican to communicate better.
The leaks revealed a uniquely Italian combination of hierarchy and anarchy, in which cardinals sworn to secrecy — or perhaps their aides — leak juicy gossip and convey messages through their favorite local reporters. Vatican watchers say that approach helped lead to the scandal of leaked documents that contributed to Benedict’s decision to resign, leaving the job to someone younger and stronger.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Wednesday that it was not up to the Vatican to tell the cardinals how to handle the news media, adding that the tradition of the conclave “is also a tradition of reserve to protect the liberty” of each cardinal so he can make his decision freely.
At his daily Vatican briefings, Father Lombardi, an amiable Jesuit with a nervous cough, often combines painstaking attention to liturgical detail with general evasion of thornier questions. Journalists have also been shown silent and surreal video images of the silver, wok-shaped urns in which cardinals will cast their ballots for pope. In the video, a mysterious hand opens the urn, a move more reminsicent of the Home Shopping Network than C-Span.
By contrast, the American briefings, at a seminary, were organized by the communications staff of the American bishops’ conference, who had traveled from Washington to set up the same kind of orderly access to cardinals that is a regular feature at the semiannual meetings of the conference.
On Tuesday, Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley of Boston and Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston spoke discreetly, while trying to respond forthrightly to questions about why the cardinals have delayed setting the date of the conclave, and whether they would learn the contents of a confidential dossier on the leaks scandal that was said to have been given to Benedict before he resigned.
“I feel confident the cardinals will share information with one another,” Cardinal O’Malley said.
A reporter asked why the Americans — and not cardinals from other countries — were holding news conferences. Cardinal DiNardo acknowledged, “This is perhaps more normal in the United States than it might be in other places.”
Although the briefings might seem routine for Americans — especially with more than 5,000 journalists in Rome for the conclave and hungry for news — some at the Vatican worried that the Americans looked as if they were campaigning for pope. Others indicated that it put cardinals from other countries under more pressure to do the same.
“We know that there are lots of American media who came in force with lots of people,” Father Lombardi said at a news briefing at the Vatican on Wednesday, “so I am not surprised that the American cardinals paid attention.”
But he said they were the exception. “Other bishops’ conferences don’t do it because they’re not so numerous or well organized and they didn’t think to do it,” Father Lombardi said. “There’s no briefing of German cardinals, there’s no briefing of Italian cardinals.”
Daniel J. Wakin contributed reporting.
Sex abuse victims tell Catholic Church: Stop pretending the worst is over
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, March 6, 2013 17:50 EST
Clergy sex abuse victims listed a “dirty dozen” potential papal candidates Wednesday and urged the Roman Catholic Church to “get serious” about protecting children, helping victims and exposing corruption.
“We want to urge Catholic prelates to stop pretending that the worst is over regarding the clergy sex abuse and cover up crisis,” said David Clohessy, director of the US-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.
“Tragically, the worst is almost certainly ahead,” he said, adding that the truth of “widespread, longstanding and deeply-rooted” abuse and coverups has “yet to surface in most nations.”
The organization cited a dozen cardinals from the United States, Mexico, Honduras, Italy, Australia, Czech Republic, Canada, Argentina and Ghana accused of protecting pedophile priests and making offensive public statements.
They are all considered to be contenders to succeed Pope Benedict XVI, who was criticized for his handling of the sex abuse scandals that have rocked the church in the United States and Europe.
SNAP also opposes electing any member of the Roman Curia, the administrative branch of the Holy See.
“We feel no current Vatican ‘insider’ has the will to truly ‘clean house’ in the Vatican and elsewhere,’” Clohessy said in a statement.
“Promoting a Curia member would discourage victims, witnesses, whistleblowers and advocates from reporting wrongdoing.”
Public denunciations of the media for attacking the church and assertions that claims of widespread abuse were overstated were often cited among reasons to blacklist a papal candidate.
Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana made the list for claiming there were few child molesting clerics in Africa because they didn’t tolerate gay people there.
Cardinal Dominik Duka of Czech Republic was cited for claiming that only 10 percent of accusations against priests are proven.
Efforts to maintain secrecy rather than report abuse to law enforcement also led to condemnation.
Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera of Mexico made the list for claiming there are no “documented” cases of abuse against minors in Mexico and allegedly concealing multiple child sex abuse allegations.
Cardinal Tarsicio Bertone of Italy was cited for saying “if a priest cannot confide in his bishop for fear of being denounced it would mean there is no more liberty of conscience” and blaming the child sex abuse epidemic on the “homosexual infiltration” of the clergy.
Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras was blacklisted for opposing the reporting of clerical sexual abuse to civil authorities and for saying the US media was bent on “persecution of the church.”
Three US bishops made the list for failing to protect parishioners from known abusers and undermining reform efforts: Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington and Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston.
Cardinal Leonardo Sandri of Argentina was dismissed as a “consummate Vatican insider” who publicly supported a notorious Mexican abuser, Father Marcial Maciel.
Cardinal Angelo Scola of Italy was blacklisted for minimizing church wrongdoings and calling coverage of Benedict’s role in the crisis an “iniquitous humiliation.”
Cardinal George Pell of Australia was cited for claiming the church was a victim of “smears,” insisting that there are no cover ups and for trying to seal a potentially damming court file.
Cardinal Marc Ouellet, of Quebec, Canada was cited for refusing to meet with sex abuse victims and brokering a deal which SNAP said let “wrongdoers determine their own punishment.”