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« Reply #6510 on: May 22, 2013, 06:50 AM »

Conservatives in Britain call for rejection of same-sex marriage bill

By Nicholas Watt, The Guardian
Tuesday, May 21, 2013 21:23 EDT

Conservative opponents of gay marriage have invited the House of Lords to reject the bill after 133 Tory MPs, including two cabinet ministers, defied David Cameron to vote against the measure.

As a Tory grassroots organisation warned of a “civil war in conservatism”, prompted in part by the legislation, more than half of the Conservative parliamentary party voted against the bill after one ministerial aide complained of a “sham consultation” process.

Owen Paterson, the environment secretary, David Jones, the Wales secretary, and the prime minister’s “envoy” to the right, John Hayes, led a group of ministers who formed a 133-strong bloc of Tory MPs who voted against the bill. A further two Tories acted as tellers for the opponents, whose numbers fell from the 135 no votes at the second reading in February. But the opponents were more numerous than the 126 Tory MPs who voted in favour of the bill, which was given a third reading by 366 to 161, a majority of 205.

The vote came after David Burrowes, the Conservative MP for Enfield Southgate, who is Paterson’s parliamentary private secretary, said that peers had every right to oppose the bill because it was not included in the coalition agreement and was not promoted clearly in any of the party election manifestos.

His comments came after Peter Bone, the Conservative MP for Wellingborough, said: “The unusual position we have is none of the political parties put this in their manifesto. Would [you] agree that [the House of Lords] has the complete legitimacy to reject this bill because there is no Salisbury Convention?” This says that peers cannot reject legislation pledged in a winning election manifesto.

Burrowes said: “I am grateful. Certainly the other place is looking in great detail at the way we have handled this bill.” He added: “We are in an extraordinary position on the third reading of a bill which redefines marriage, one that I never thought our government would have done, one where there was no clear manifesto commitment, no coalition agreement, no green paper – just a sham consultation.”

The MP said he feared for people who feel uncomfortable about the bill. “Intolerant reaction to our belief in marriage runs the risk of becoming fomented by the state orthodoxy in this bill about this new gender neutral meaning of marriage. Those who disagree risk vilification and discrimination and they won’t get the protection they deserve under the equality act.”

But other Tories spoke in favour of the bill. Charles Walker, the MP for Broxtowe, said: “I didn’t come into politics to be defined by what I am against. I want to be defined by what I am for. And tonight is a good night.”

The bill moved to a third reading after a final threat was removed when Labour withdrew its support for an amendment to allow humanist wedding ceremonies to be included in the bill’s provisions. The government had warned this could over-complicate the bill and threaten its parliamentary journey. It was a similar warning that prompted Labour on Monday to drop its support for an amendment that would have extended civil partnerships to heterosexual couples.

In her concluding remarks the equalities minister, Maria Miller, pleaded with MPs to support the bill. She said: “I accept that for some colleagues their beliefs mean that the principle of this issue is an insurmountable barrier to supporting this change. But to other colleagues I say, now is the time.

“Let us not be side-tracked nor distracted. Let us not expand the remit of this bill beyond its original intention. Let us make equal marriage possible because it is the right thing to do and then let us move on.”

But Tory divisions were highlighted as it emerged that the arch-Eurosceptic John Redwood is to be given a formal role in helping to formulate the prime minister’s economic policy. Downing Street has decided that a series of policy groups run by the backbench 1922 committee should report to the prime minister’s policy board. This means that Redwood, who chairs the 1922 economic committee and who unsuccessfully challenged John Major for the Tory leadership in 2005 over Europe, will have a formal input into the prime minister’s policy board on economics.

One rightwinger praised Downing Street for deciding to include the 1922 policy groups in its work. The MP said: “Credit where credit is due. Downing Street is trying hard to reach out. It really is time to end the Tory civil wars. We can’t stop gay marriage, we have got a referendum on the EU so we should just get on with it and support the prime minister.”

But the Conservative Grassroots organisation warned that Cameron would pay a high price for pressing ahead with gay marriage and for refusing to launch an investigation into the remarks by the Tory co-chairman, Lord Feldman, who was alleged to have called party activists “mad swivel-eyed loons”.

Feldman has strenuously denied making the remarks.

Miles Windsor, chairman of Conservative Grassroots, said: “This week has begun a civil war in conservatism, it may rumble on for years – but as things stand, Nigel Farage is winning it at a stride.”

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
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« Reply #6511 on: May 22, 2013, 06:57 AM »

May 21, 2013

Aide Charged With Abuse of Power in Georgia

By ELLEN BARRY
IHT

MOSCOW — The Georgian authorities charged one of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s top political partners with embezzlement and abuse of power on Tuesday, in the new government’s most decisive move yet against Mr. Saakashvili’s pro-Western team, which came to power in the 2003 Rose Revolution and dominated Georgian politics for nine years.

The official, Vano Merabishvili, is head of Mr. Saakashvili’s party, the United National Movement, and for years wielded great power as the head of Georgia’s police and security services and then as prime minister. But he saw his influence dwindle quickly when an opposition coalition, Georgian Dream, won parliamentary elections in 2012.

Among the campaign promises that swept Georgia’s new prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, into office was a pledge to prosecute Saakashvili officials for offenses including corruption and police brutality. Dozens of officials have been charged with crimes since Mr. Ivanishvili’s election, but Western diplomats have urged restraint, especially in cases that involved political rivals like Mr. Merabishvili.

If convicted on the abuse-of-power charges, Mr. Merabishvili could face a prison term of seven to 12 years, prosecutors said. His lawyer, Giorgi Chiviashvili, told Georgian television that he would plead not guilty.

Mr. Saakasvhili, whose presidential term will end this year, said Mr. Ivanishvili had chosen the repressive path of Ukraine’s president, Viktor F. Yanukovich, who after winning the presidency in 2011 jailed his political rival, Yulia V. Tymoshenko. The move, he said, would threaten Georgia’s longtime aspiration to enter NATO and the European Union.

“Even Ukraine, which is so much needed by America and Europe, managed to become internationally isolated because of the political arrest of its former prime minister,” he said Tuesday at a news conference.

Mr. Ivanishivili, who has pledged to maintain Georgia’s path toward European integration, said he was confident that Western governments would not view the arrest as politically motivated.

Prosecutors say Mr. Merabishvili misused a government employment program, using 5.2 million lari, or about $3 million, to pay 22,000 people to campaign for the United National Movement. He may also face additional charges, including excessive use of force against demonstrators at a rally in May 2011 and obstruction of justice in a 2006 homicide investigation. A second Saakashvili official, Zurab Chiaberashvili, the governor of the eastern region of Kakheti, was also detained on charges relating to the employment program.

The crowd-fueled euphoria of the Rose Revolution put Mr. Saakashvili and Mr. Merabishvili, then in their mid-30s, in control of a country plagued by corruption, crumbling infrastructure and electricity shortages. They pushed through risky reforms, overhauling the police force and imposing a zero-tolerance policy that all but obliterated everyday bribery.

But the United National Movement lost its luster in recent years. Unemployment was high, and the police were increasingly seen as heavy-handed. Just before the fall election, Mr. Saakashvili was badly damaged by the release of video clips showing brutal abuse in a Georgian prison. A poll released in April by the National Democratic Institute found that Mr. Saakashvili’s party had an approval rating of 10 percent, versus 60 percent for Mr. Ivanishvili’s coalition, Georgian Dream.

Mr. Merabishvili has had months to contemplate the possibility that he would be prosecuted, and in November said that he would stay in Georgia and run for office again, even if it meant serving a 15- or 20-year sentence.

“Georgian society, like any other society, thinks that pressure against the opposition is not democratic,” he said. “I am the main opponent of Ivanishvili, yes, because I was the candidate for prime minister. So they are arresting his main opponent.”

Olesya Vartanyan contributed reporting from Tbilisi, Georgia.
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« Reply #6512 on: May 22, 2013, 07:00 AM »


Iran election: Rafsanjani blocked from running for president

List of eight candidates allowed to run in race to succeed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad excludes two leading figures

Saeed Kamali Dehghan   
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 21 May 2013 20.00 BST   

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the leading opposition-backed candidate in Iran's presidential election, was disqualified on Tuesday from standing in a blow to those hoping for significant change when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad leaves office.

Iranian state-run television broadcast a statement by the interior ministry on Tuesday night announcing the final list of candidates. It did not include Rafsanjani or President Ahmadinejad's close ally, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.

Eight men were allowed to enter the race for the election on 14 June, including Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili; the mayor of Tehran, Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf; and former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati. Hassan Rouhani, a reformist who is seen as having little chance of victory, was also allowed to run. Jalili is widely seen as the favourite candidate of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

More than 680 people, among them some 40 prominent figures, registered as potential candidates this month in the hope of succeeding Ahmadinejad, but the six clergymen and six jurists of the Guardian Council allowed only a handful to stand.

The council's spokesman, Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, said on Tuesday the vetting process had ended and the final list of candidates had been sent to the interior ministry but did not name those qualified, the semi-official Isna news agency reported. The candidates were then announced on national TV.

Conservative websites and semi-official agencies had earlier reported that Rafsanjani, 78, who has won the support of the country's reformers, had been disqualified because he is seen as too feeble to govern the country. His supporters said the reports amounted to no more than rumours spread by rival camps.

"If an individual who wants to take up a high post can only perform a few hours of work each day, naturally that person cannot be confirmed," Kadkhodaei said earlierthis week, boosting speculation that Rafsanjani would be blocked. Two of the Guardian Council's 12 members are older than Rafsanjani.

The hardline Kayhan newspaper, whose director is appointed by Khamenei, ran an editorial on Tuesday calling on the Guardian Council to disqualify Rafsanjani, saying he had become the favourite candidate of the country's enemies and opposition.

"A divine and serious responsibility rests on the shoulders of the Guardian Council. It is to rescue Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani from a dangerous bait that has been set for him by foreign enemies and their domestic associates," wrote Kayhan's Hossein Shariatmadari. Rafsanjani's office fought back by issuing a statement saying his opponents had resorted to fabricating news in order to distort the old man's image.

Rafsanjani's disqualification would come as a surprise to many of his supporters, who thought it unlikely the Guardian Council would reject him, given his crucial role in founding the Islamic republic and his position as one of the country's great political survivors.

Ali Motahari, an influential MP who was appointed on Tuesday as head of a major campaign group supporting Rafsanjani, predicted that Khamenei might intervene to reinstate Rafsanjani.

"Rafsanjani played a significant role in founding the Islamic republic … His disqualification will call into question the very principles of our revolution and the principles of the ruling system of the Islamic republic," he told the semi-official Isna news agency. Rafsanjani is head of Iran's expediency council, which mediates between the parliament and the Guardian Council.

Mashaei, who is seen as a nationalist figure, was widely expected to be barred despite Ahmadinejad's unwavering support. Supporters of Khamenei have accused Mashaei of putting Iran ahead of Islam and not showing enough loyalty to the supreme leader.

The Iran News Network, a pro-Ahmadinejad website, reported on Monday that a group of activists and campaigners sympathetic to Mashaei had been arrested and some summoned for questioning. Access to at least four pro-Mashaei websites was blocked last week. Analysts fear that Ahmadinejad might go out with all guns firing following Mashaei's disqualification. The president was reported to have cancelled three of his provincial visits this week to stay in the capital, Tehran.

Meanwhile, the Fars news agency, which is affiliated to the elite Revolutionary Guards, published a series of interviews with some leading clerics who called on people to respect the Guardian Council's decision.

Rafsanjani was a close confidant of Khamenei for much of the 1980s and 1990s but the pair fell out when the former lost to Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential vote. The rift between the two widened when Rafsanjani voiced moderate support for Iran's Green movement in 2009 while Khamenei stood firm by Ahmadinejad and denied any allegations of vote rigging.

Rafsanjani's last-minute entry in Iran's presidential race had revived hopes among the country's reformers for a change in the country's trajectory and infuriated hardliners who believed his candidacy would challenge Khamenei's authority.


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« Reply #6513 on: May 22, 2013, 07:02 AM »


Karachi's king over the water: Altaf Hussain of the MQM

From an unassuming office in Edgware, the Pakistani metropolis is ruled by a party Imran Khan accuses of murdering his Movement for Justice colleague Zhara Shahid Hussain

Luke Harding and Jon Boone in Islamabad
The Guardian, Tuesday 21 May 2013 19.15 BST   

Its neighbours are an Afghan restaurant, a cafe selling fried chicken and a boarded-up, Tudor-style pub. But it is from this first-floor office in north-west London that the Pakistani megacity of Karachi, 4,000 miles away, is remotely governed by a flamboyant and controversial British citizen.

The office is the headquarters-in-exile of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Karachi's most powerful political party. Its leader, Altaf Hussain, has lived in the UK since 1991. These days, he rarely visits his headquarters, but his portrait hangs on the wall next to coloured maps of Pakistan's provinces, a list of MQM candidates who recently took part in Pakistan's general election, and a silver statue of a fist.

On Saturday Imran Khan, the cricketer-turned-politician, accused the London-based MQM leader of being "directly responsible" for the murder of Zhara Shahid Hussain, a senior female member of Khan's Movement for Justice party (PTI). Hussain was shot dead outside her house in Karachi's upmarket Defence neighbourhood. Her driver, who witnessed her murder, is now under police protection.The sequence of events was this: after Hussain emerged from her car, a man sitting on a moped with an accomplice rushed towards her. Assuming she was being mugged, she threw down her handbag and mobile phone. The man pointed his gun at her forehead. She tried to defend herself, pushing the gun away, only for it to fire into her jaw. The man shot her again, in the back. Her handbag was taken but the wallet from inside it was discarded. "If this was a mugging incident, why did he [the assassin] leave the wallet?" Ahmed Chinoy, head of the Citizens Police Liaison Committee, asked.

A furious Khan also berated Britain. He suggested that Downing Street had failed to heed his claim that Altaf Hussain was responsible for numerous incidents of torture and murder in Pakistan.

In 2007, Khan presented a dossier to No 10, urging the government to have the MQM leader arrested and prosecuted using anti-terrorism laws.

On Saturday, Khan tweeted: "I also hold the British Govt responsible as I had warned them abt Br citizen Altaf Hussain after his open threats to kill PTI workers."

The dispute marks a new low in the already bitter rivalry between Khan's party and the MQM. The PTI accuses the MQM of preventing its supporters from voting during the elections, 10 days ago. (The poll was rerun last Saturday in 43 Karachi polling stations; the PTI cruised to victory after the MQM and others boycotted it.) More broadly, Khan alleges that Britain has ignored the MQM's violent record. The UK's liberal traditions have in this case enabled cold-blooded murder on Karachi's already febrile streets, he says.

Following Khan's complaints, the Metropolitan police is investigating a controversial speech made by Altaf Hussain from London last week. The investigation is in its early stages. The British Foreign Office said on Saturday that it "strongly condemned" all acts of violence in Karachi. It added: "We are deeply saddened by the recent violence in the city, including violence murderously directed against democratic political figures."

The MQM vehemently rejects Khan's allegations. It is suing him for defamation in Pakistan's high court, and says it will do the same this week in Britain. In a statement on the party's website, Hussain says he had nothing to do with Zhara Shahid Hussain's brutal death. Expressing his condolences to her family, he urged Pakistan's government to find the killers and administer "exemplary punishment".

Hussain has not given an interview for some years. His aides in London say he is "unwell". YouTube footage of his British press conferences show him as a larger-than-life figure prone to wild verbal performances characterised by finger-wagging and odd gestures.

His campaign speeches are broadcast from chilly, overcast London to the Karachi faithful, many of them women who hold portraits of their tubby, moustachioed leader.

Speaking from the MQM's office, in Edgware, Mohamad Anwar, one of Hussain's advisers, said the party was a legitimate democratic movement.

Hussain founded the MQM in the 1980s to defend the interests of the Muhajirs, the Urdu-speaking descendants of Muslims who moved from India to Pakistan during partition, in 1947. They arrived in a city then dominated by native Sindhis and Baloch. The MQM's political strongholds are urban Karachi and Hyderabad, in Sindh province; it is at odds with Pakistan's Punjabi-dominated elite, Anwar says.

But critics say that from its earliest days the party showed a readiness to use violence to fight for power.In the 1980s, when Hussain felt newspapers were giving him insufficient coverage, MQM supporters began burning all the city's papers before they could be distributed. "He forced all the media owners to come to the 90 [the party's headquarters] and beg his pardon," said Muhammad Ziauddin, managing editor of the Express Tribune. One paper protested by refusing to publish for one day.

Over the last five years, the MQM has proved to be an extremely troublesome coalition partner, temporarily walking out of the government several times and threatening to bring it down when it didn't get what it wanted. Critics say that when political blackmail fails, it turns to street violence.

"MQM has the ability to dial up and dial down violence when certain political objectives are threatened," said Shamila Chaudhary, a senior analyst at the Eurasia Group. "It's not new, but now they are feeling particularly threatened in their historic domain."

After successfully asserting its authority over Karachi in the 1980s and 1990s, when the military launched operations against the party, the MQM's power base is now under attack. One problem is profound demographic change: the city is filling up with Pashtuns fleeing Taliban violence in the north-west of the country. One informal estimate puts their numbers as high as 25%.

More of a surprise to the MQM is the rise of the PTI. Imran Khan's party had a disappointing result nationally, winning 28 seats, fewer than it had hoped. But in Karachi it managed to snatch nearly 20% of the vote.

Undoubtedly, however, Khan wrested votes from the MQM's core of middle-class supporters. Nusrat Javed, a prominent journalist, said: "The PTI is giving voice to the accumulated rage of middle-class, upwardly-mobile professionals who think the MQM got stuck in the 1980s."Hussain's followers dismiss claims of MQM wrongdoing. Of Khan's murder accusation, Anwar replied: "It's a madman's rant. Khan is a man who has utterly failed, having lost the elections."

Anwar said the MQM was itself a victim of political violence because of its secular beliefs and refusal to compromise with radical Islamists. The Pakistani Taliban frequently targeted and killed MQM party workers, he said. He denied claims that the party engages in extortion, land theft and other mafia-style activities, or that it has a shadowy armed wing.

Leaked diplomatic cables, meanwhile, show the US was impressed with the MQM's municipal record after it won control of Karachi city council in 2005. Its young mayor improved tax collection rates, built roads and devised water schemes in an overcrowded metropolis and port city of 16 million people. "The MQM based in Karachi appears to be transforming itself from a group of thugs to a service-based, grassroots political party," one diplomat wrote in 2008.

Hussain continues to fight for Karachi from self-imposed exile in Britain. Why doesn't he go back? "Look at what happened to Benazir Bhutto," Anwar said. "Would the Taliban spare him? They didn't spare Benazir."

He added: "Benazir lived in London for many years; Nawaz Sharif was in Saudi Arabia. Mr Hussain is no exception." Anwar predicted that Pakistan's ex-president Pervez Musharraf, who was in London and is now under house arrest in Pakistan, would soon be coming back.

The bookshelf at Hussain's London HQ contains some unexpected reading: Imran Khan's autobiography, as well as books on Churchill and India's constitution. According to Anwar, they are justified in their worries. Scotland Yard is so concerned the MQM's office, on Edgware High Street, could be the subject of an attack that a police sergeant calls round twice a day.

These concerns may not be exaggerated: in 2010, Hussain's senior London-based ally Dr Imran Farooq was stabbed to death outside his Edgware home.Why did the MQM have a copy of its arch-enemy's book, Pakistan: A Personal History? Anwar explained: "Of course we can read his autobiography. But Khan is an arrogant and immature man."


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« Reply #6514 on: May 22, 2013, 07:07 AM »


North Korea sends special envoy to patch up relations with China

Choe Ryong-hae, a close aide to Kim Jong-un, arrives in Beijing as tensions with South Korea appear to ebb

Tania Branigan in Beijing
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 22 May 2013 10.27 BST   

North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un, has dispatched a special envoy to China, its state media announced on Wednesday, as Pyongyang seeks to improve its strained relations with its main ally and lifeline.

Choe Ryong-hae, a senior Workers' party official and a vice-chairman of the top military body, arrived in Beijing with a political and military delegation. A close aide of the youthful leader, he is the first senior North Korean to visit China since last summer and the first special envoy since Kim took power in 2011.

China provides North Korea with the vast majority of its fuel and trade – reportedly accounting for almost nine-tenths of its imports and exports in 2011 – and its support has become even more important as Pyongyang's relations with Seoul have deteriorated.

But it has shown increasing signs of frustration with the regime over its weapons programmes and angry rhetoric.

"Since North Korea had the third nuclear test [in February], the relationship between China and North Korea has been pretty tense. To ease the relationship, the visit is very normal and necessary. It helps to stop the bilateral relationship deteriorating," said Cai Jian of the Centre for Korean Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. "This visit shows China is also willing to improve the relationship with North Korea."

China's state news agency, Xinhua, said Choe, 63, met Wang Jiarui, head of the international department of the Communist party. It gave no further details.

Analysts say Beijing rebuffed earlier proposals of high-level exchanges because it wanted to demonstrate its displeasure and was not guaranteed a meeting with Kim if it sent an envoy to Pyongyang.

Major Chinese banks recently suspended financial dealings with the Foreign Trade Bank of North Korea – Pyongyang's main conduit for international transactions.

Kim Jong-un has not visited Beijing since he took power following his father's death in late 2011, though his uncle Jang Song-thaek visited in August last year. Chinese politburo member Li Jianguo went to Pyongyang with a letter from Xi Jinping, who had just become the Communist party leader, in November.

John Delury of Yonsei University suggested that Chinese leaders might also be looking ahead to South Korean president Park Geun-hye's visit next month.

"China wants to have good relations with both Koreas … They don't want to go too far with a great splashy meeting [with the South] while things are still off-kilter in the North Korean relationship. For its part, North Korea may want to recalibrate; they wanted a bit of distance from Beijing, but they don't want to push it too far," he said.

The North Korean news agency story on Choe's trip also revealed that General Kim Kyok-sik has become military chief again – a post he held before 2009 – replacing Hyon Yong-chul.

General Kim was recently replaced as defence minister – a lower ranking position – by Jang Jong-nam.

North Korea tested short range missiles over the weekend, but tensions have ebbed on the peninsula and there are signs of diplomatic engagement again.

Last week the Japanese prime minister sent a close aide to Pyongyang to hold talks over abducted Japanese citizens – a move greeted with dismay by South Korea, which described the trip as unhelpful.

On Tuesday, a Chinese fishing boat owner said his vessel had been released, two weeks after it was taken captive by gunmen in North Korean military uniforms. He said the captain was beaten and fuel stolen.
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« Reply #6515 on: May 22, 2013, 07:11 AM »

May 21, 2013

Muslims Linked to Riots Given Prison Terms in Myanmar

By THOMAS FULLER
IHT

BANGKOK — A court in Myanmar sentenced seven Muslim men to prison on Tuesday on charges related to the spasms of religious violence two months ago that left more than 40 people dead and chased thousands of people from their homes in central Myanmar.

A prominent Muslim questioned why Muslims had been the first to be prosecuted when witnesses and human rights groups agree that most of the violence had been carried out by Buddhist mobs attacking Muslims.

In the only other convictions related to the violence, two Muslims who owned a gold shop and their employee were each sentenced in April to 14 years in prison for aggravated assault, robbery and attempts to cause injury and for aiding and abetting criminal activity. The religious rioting is believed to have been incited by a dispute with a customer in the shop.

“I feel it is a one-sided trial against the Islamic community here,” said U Thein Myint, a leading member of the All Myanmar Islamic Scholars Organization, a group of Muslim religious teachers based in Yangon, the country’s largest city.

“The very first two trials regarding the Meiktila violence are all about Muslims,” he said, referring to a city in central Myanmar where the three days of rioting in March were centered.

In the court on Tuesday, U Myat Ko Ko, a motorcycle taxi driver in Meiktila, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the murder of a Buddhist monk. He was given an additional four-year sentence for inciting unrest and “insulting religious beliefs.”

The six other Muslim men who were sentenced Tuesday were given prison terms ranging from 2 to 28 years.

The lawyer for the seven men, U Thein Than Oo, said they all denied any involvement in the monk’s killing and would appeal their sentences.

The Myanmar authorities say that more than 60 Buddhists have been detained for their role in the violence and that trials are expected soon. “The police already sent 35 cases related to the Meiktila unrest to the Justice Department,” said U Kyi Shein, an officer at the Myanmar police force crimes division. “The Justice Department has to deal with those files.”

But Mr. Thein Than Oo said the way that the Buddhists were being treated was in marked contrast with the trial of the Muslims, which “was concluded urgently.”

“It seems that the authorities are worried about public anger,” he said, referring to widespread feeling among Buddhists, who are a majority in Myanmar, toward Muslims. “On the other hand, there has been silence about the murder of 28 children at a madrasa in Meiktila.”

Physicians for Human Rights, an organization based in the United States that brings attention to and researches abuses, published a report on Monday detailing what it called “organized attacks against Muslims” in Meiktila. The report, based on interviews with eyewitnesses, said that at least 20 children and four teachers from the madrasa, or Islamic school, had been killed and that the authorities had “stood by” and were “complicit” in the violence.

About 9 out of 10 people in Myanmar are Buddhist, and as Myanmar emerges from decades of military rule, there have been signs of growing intolerance toward minorities in the country, particularly Muslims. The United States State Department said in a report released on Monday that the government “limited freedom of religion” and “actively promoted Theravada Buddhism over other religions, particularly among certain ethnic minority populations.”

Two outbursts of rioting by Buddhists toward Muslims in western Myanmar over the past year forced more than 100,000 Muslims from their homes.

The rioting in Meiktila in March spread to other towns and villages in the country’s heartland. The death of the Buddhist monk appears to have been one of the events that incited the riots.

Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, who met President Obama on Monday in Washington, emphasized religious tolerance in a speech and called for a “more inclusive national identity.”

“Myanmar people of all ethnic backgrounds and all faiths — Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Hindu and others — must feel part of this new national identity,” he said. “We must end all forms of discrimination. And we must ensure not only that intercommunal violence is brought to a halt, but that all perpetrators are brought to justice.”

Mr. Obama said violence directed toward minorities “needs to stop.”

Wai Moe contributed reporting from Yangon, Myanmar.


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« Reply #6516 on: May 22, 2013, 07:15 AM »


US identifies terrorists who attacked its Benghazi consulate in 2012

Administration weighing its options as intercepts reveal identity and whereabouts of suspects in attack that left four dead

Staff and agencies
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 22 May 2013 09.12 BST   

Officials in the US say they have identified five men who might be responsible for the attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012 and there is enough evidence to justify seizing them by military force as suspected terrorists or killing them with a drone strike. However, there is not enough proof to try them in a US civilian court as the Obama administration prefers.

The men remain at large while the FBI gathers evidence. The investigation has been slowed by the reduced US intelligence presence in the region since the 11 September 2012 attacks and the limited ability to assist by Libya's post-revolutionary law enforcement and intelligence agencies, which are still in their infancy since the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime.

The decision not to seize the men militarily underscores Washington's desire to move away from hunting terrorists as enemy combatants and holding them at the military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The preference is towards a process in which most are apprehended and tried by the countries where they are living or arrested by the US with the host country's co-operation, and tried in the US criminal justice system.

A senior Obama administration official, speaking to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said the FBI had identified a number of individuals it believed could have information or may have been involved and was considering options to apprehend them. But taking action in remote eastern Libya would be difficult and America's relationship with Libya had to be considered.

The Libyan embassy did not respond to multiple requests for comment, the AP said.

The FBI and other US intelligence agencies identified the men through contacts in Libya and by monitoring their communications, officials said. They are thought to be members of Ansar al-Shariah, the Libyan militia group whose fighters were seen near the US diplomatic facility prior to the attack.

US officials say FBI surveillance has gathered proof that the five men were either at the scene of the first attack or somehow involved. In intercepts at least one of them bragged about taking part. Some of the men had also been in contact with a network of well-known regional jihadists, including al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the officials said.

The attack on the US diplomatic mission killed the ambassador, Chris Stevens, and three other Americans weeks before president Barack Obama's re-election. Since then, Republicans in congress have condemned the administration's handling of the situation, criticising the level of embassy security, questioning the talking points provided to UN ambassador Susan Rice for her public appearances to explain the attack and suggesting the White House tried to play down the incident to minimise its effect on the president's campaign.

The FBI released photos of three of the five suspects earlier this month. The images were captured by security cameras at the US diplomatic post during the attack, but it took weeks for the FBI to see and study them. It took the agency three weeks to get to Libya because of security problems.


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« Reply #6517 on: May 22, 2013, 07:19 AM »


Syria crisis: Iranian troops join battle for Qusair

• US says Iranians fighting alongside Syria and Hezbollah
• Friends of Syria set to discuss arming rebels
• Kidnapped Egyptian police freed in Sinai   

Matthew Weaver   
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 22 May 2013 08.57 BST   

Summary

Welcome to Middle East Live.

We have changed the format of this blog. It is now primarily a forum for readers to share links and offer commentary on developments. Please post your comments below on any of the day's stories from the Middle East.

Here's a roundup of the main developments:

Syria

• A senior US official, citing "multiple" rebel commanders, said Iranians were fighting alongside Hezbollah and Syrian government troops in the continuing battle for the border town of Qusair. In a briefing to reporters the official said: "It is the most visible effort we have seen of Hezbollah to engage directly in the fighting in Syria as a foreign force. We understand there are also Iranians up there. That is what the Free Syrian Army commanders are telling us. I think this is an important thing to note, the direct implication of foreigners fighting on Syrian soil now for the regime." The latest footage from activists in Qusair showed residents picking through the rubble looking for survivors after another air strike on the town.

The US official also suggested that Wednesday's Friends of Syria meeting in Jordan would discuss arming the rebels. The official said: "It is important to change Bashar al-Assad’s calculations in order to get to a political settlement and that the balance on the ground – the military balance on the ground is a huge factor in those calculations, and we understand that. And so one of the things we’ll be talking about here in Amman tomorrow is what else needs to be done with respect to the military balance on the ground."

• The opposition and the Assad government appear to be preparing to take part in an international peace conference against a background of some of the worst fighting this year. The United Nations-Arab League mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, said the UN was working to organise the peace talks. "The Syrian people are building great hopes on the conference, as the opposition prepares itself to take part and likewise the Syrian regime prepares to take part in this conference," he told reporters at the Arab League in Cairo.

• A cross-border exchange of fire in the Golan Heights between the Israeli and Syrian armies early on Tuesday triggered a claim by the Damascus regime that a jeep manned by Israeli troops had entered Syrian territory and was destroyed. The Israeli Defence Forces denied the claim, saying shots were deliberately fired at a patrol inside the Israeli-controlled the Golan Heights, causing minor damage and no injuries. "In response, IDF forces returned precise fire at the source and reported a direct hit," it said.

• One month after two Orthodox Christian bishops were kidnapped by gunmen in Syria, officials say they still have no idea what has happened to the missing prelates. The clerics, the most senior church officials to be targeted since civil war engulfed the country, have not been heard of since their abduction at gunpoint in the northern city of Aleppo on 22 April. "We are deeply worried for the lives of archbishop Mor Gregorius Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church and bishop Boulos Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Church," said Katrina Lantos Swett, who chairs the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Lebanon

• The northern city of Tripoli witnessed the worst night of clashes since fighting between supporters and opponents of Assad in the city erupted over the weekend, amid fears the Lebanese Army might withdraw from the area, Lebanon's Daily Star reports. In a one-hour period during the night, at least 47 mortar bombs rained on Lebanon’s second-largest city, forcing many residents to huddle in corners of their homes they felt could offer shelter.
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« Reply #6518 on: May 22, 2013, 07:22 AM »

May 21, 2013

Iran and Hezbollah Support for Syria Complicates Peace-Talk Strategy

By MICHAEL R. GORDON and STEVEN LEE MYERS
IHT

MUSCAT, Oman — As evidence grows of increased Iranian support for the Syrian government, the Obama administration’s strategy to bring the bitter fighting there to a close faces more challenges than ever.

With White House support, Secretary of State John Kerry has pushed for an international conference in Geneva in June that would bring representatives of the Syria government together with the opposition.

The aim would be to negotiate a transitional government that would take over if President Bashar al-Assad vacates his post and to put an end to the civil war that has killed more than 80,000.

But the stepped-up support Mr. Assad has received from Iran and Hezbollah in recent months appears to have fortified his belief that he can hang on to power and prevail militarily — or at least control a strategically significant swath of the country.

The limited assistance the United States and its partners have so far been willing to provide the rebels seems unlikely to prompt Mr. Assad to look for a political way out, critics maintain.

And persistent divisions within the ranks of the Syrian opposition, which is again seeking to select a new political leadership, can only be a source of comfort to the Syrian president.

In an interview on Tuesday, Gen. Salim Idris, the head of the opposition’s military command, suggested that he was too preoccupied with the brutal fighting in the city of Qusayr even to worry about attending the Geneva meeting.

“Let the regime, Iran and Lavrov go to Geneva,” he said, referring to Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, who played a major role with Mr. Kerry in organizing the session.

The big issue is whether negotiations can succeed if the United States, its allies and the Syrian opposition do not have more leverage over a seemingly implacable Assad government.

“We have long said — and the secretary has said — that it is important to change Bashar al-Assad’s calculations in order to get to a political settlement,” a senior State Department official told reporters Tuesday in a conference call.

Mr. Kerry planned to meet Wednesday with members of the Syrian opposition and fellow foreign ministers in Amman, Jordan, to review the Syrian situation.

“One of the things we’ll be talking about here in Amman tomorrow is what else needs to be done with respect to the military balance on the ground,” the official added.

As the Geneva meeting approaches, however, it is Mr. Assad’s backers who appear to be pulling out all of the stops.

“Iran’s role and Hezbollah’s role has grown substantially over the last couple of months,” the State Department official said.

The number of Iranian weapons shipments to Syria declined after Mr. Kerry pressed Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq during a March visit to Baghdad to order more inspections of Iranian flights that crossed Iraqi airspace.

But after a lull, the flights have started up again. In early May, Israel carried out an airstrike against a warehouse full of Fateh-110 surface-to-surface missiles at Damascus International Airport that were flown from Iran on three cargo planes and that the Israelis feared would be transferred to Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that is supported and equipped by Iran.

That led to a short break in the flights, but by May 11, the Iranian flights had resumed, according to American officials familiar with intelligence reports.

Syrian opposition officials have also told the United States that Iranians have joined Hezbollah in the fighting in Qusayr, a development American officials said they could not independently verify but that they suggested was plausible.

According to American intelligence reports, there are some 200 Iranian paramilitary Quds Force personnel in Syria. Qassim Suleimani, the Quds Force commander, recently ordered Iranian artillery and armor officials to help Mr. Assad’s regime, American officials say.

And Mr. Suleimani has also requested that several hundreds fighters from Asaib al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah, two Iraqi Shiite militias that have been trained by the Iranians, join the war effort in Syria, according to officials familiar with the intelligence assessments. Iran is heavily involved in training thousands of members of Mr. Assad’s militia, the Jaish al-Sha’bi, including in Iran.

Iran’s somewhat shadowy role burst into the open in February when Brig. Gen. Hassan Shateri, a Quds Force officer, was killed when he ran into a rebel checkpoint after visiting Aleppo.

In the maneuvering before the Geneva meeting, Mr. Lavrov said recently that he had told Mr. Kerry that Iran should attend the session given its “influence” on the situation in Syria. But the senior State Department official, who described Iran’s role as “pernicious,” asserted that its participation was not needed.

Russia recently delivered sophisticated antiship cruise missiles to Syria, a step that Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said might embolden Mr. Assad to hold fast.

While Hezbollah and Iran have thrown their support behind Mr. Assad, the United States and its allies have been more deliberate.

At a conference on Syria in Istanbul in late April, Mr. Kerry pledged to increase the nonlethal aid to the armed Syria opposition beyond the food rations and medical kits that the United States has been providing. But a month later, the Obama administration has yet to notify Congress what additional assistance is to be sent or to deliver the new aid.

“We will certainly be looking at doing things that will help build the Supreme Military Command’s logistical capabilities,” the State Department official said, referring to the military wing of the opposition. “So we’ll get that notification up to Congress shortly, I hope.”

In Washington, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of which Mr. Kerry was chairman before becoming secretary of state, voted on Tuesday to approve legislation that would authorize expanded assistance to the rebels in Syria, including weapons.

“I think all of us understand the risks that come with this type of legislation,” said Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee. “But we also know that if we don’t shift the balance there and the moderate groups don’t have the opportunity to be successful the day after Assad, then I think all of us are going to regret we did not play a role in helping make that happen.”

Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, declined to comment on the proposed legislation but said the White House’s policy was clear.

“We are working urgently to end the conflict in Syria and hasten a transition from Bashar al-Assad to a democratic Syria that is inclusive of all Syrians,” she said.

Michael R. Gordon reported from Muscat, Oman, and Steven Lee Myers from Washington. Anne Barnard and Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon.


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« Reply #6519 on: May 22, 2013, 07:25 AM »


Rapid drop in Lake Malawi's water levels drives down fish stocks

1.5m people depend on lake for food – including popular Chambo fish – and Malawians are alarmed at decline in stocks

Mabvuto Banda for IPS, part of the Guardian development network   
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 22 May 2013 12.43 BST   

Lloyd Phiri, a fisherman from Senga Bay on Lake Malawi's shores in Malawi's central region, knows that the lake's water levels are dropping. He can see it in his catch, which has shrunk by more than 80%.

Years ago, it was the norm to catch about 5,000 fish a day, Phiri says. But now, if he is lucky, he brings in one-fifth of that. And if he is not, he catches a mere 300 fish a day. "My fish catch has gone down in recent years and this has affected my earnings. I now have problems paying school fees for my children," Phiri tells IPS.

The rapid drop in Lake Malawi's water levels, driven by population growth, climate change and deforestation, is threatening its floral and fauna species with extinction, says Malawi's ministry of environment and climate change management. And included among the wildlife threatened are the fish that Phiri depends on for a livelihood.

"Over the last three decades some water balance models have been done on the lake and have shown that the water levels have dropped from 477 metres above sea level in the 1980s to around 474.88m," says Yanira Mtupanyama, principal secretary in the ministry, of the 29,600 sq km lake that straddles the borders of Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania.

"It's a big deal because studies are showing that the water levels in the lake will keep on dropping in coming years because there are signs that show [there will be] less rainfall and increased evaporation," she says.

An estimated 1,000 fish species rely on the fresh waters of Africa's third-largest lake for their survival, which also provides 60% of this southern African nation's protein requirement. The mbuna cichlids species and the famous tilapia fish, locally known as chambo, are facing extinction. Chambo is Malawi's most popular fish.

The country's department of fisheries says fish stocks in the lake have dwindled by 90% over the past 20 years. It is a huge concern as, according to authorities, about 1.5 million Malawians depend on the lake for food, transportation and other needs.

Of even greater concern are Malawian government reports that the water mass may hold oil and gas reserves. Environmentalist Raphael Mwenenguwe fears that, if oil and gas mining starts on the lake, it could lead to further biodiversity losses.

"The fish stocks have declined in the last two decades from about 30,000 metric tonnes per year to 2,000 per year because of a drop in water levels, overfishing and rapid population growth. But this may get worse if oil is discovered on the lake," Mwenenguwe tells IPS.

Williman Chadza, executive director of the Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy, a local NGO that promotes activism on environmental issues, shares Mwenenguwe's fears. "Oil is a resource of paramount importance to a country like Malawi, which is seeking revenue alternatives for its socio-economic development. But its discovery may deepen the country's biodiversity loss and impact badly on water sources," says Chadza.

Mining also poses a threat. A uranium mine in Karonga, a town near Lake Malawi in the north of the country, is one example. The mine, owned and operated by Australian mining giant Paladin (Africa) for the past four years, is regarded as a pollution threat.

"Uranium is a highly radioactive material and therefore there are still threats of polluting the freshwater in Lake Malawi," says Udule Mwakasungura, a human rights activist.

The need to arrest the loss of biodiversity is particularly important in Malawi, where people depend on biological resources to a greater extent than they do in other parts of the world. The 18,000 families of Nguwo fishing village in Senga Bay are an example of this dependency.

"We know that the fish stock has depleted because of unsustainable fishing practices and non-compliance with fishing regulations … we also know that cutting trees unsustainably is ultimately affecting the quality of the water we drink," says village headman Radson Mdalamkwanda.

Mdalamkwanda says fishermen in the village have been working with local authorities to address the threats and challenges facing the conservation of Lake Malawi. He says anyone not following the rules or bylaws is banned from fishing on the lake during October and November, when the fish spawn.

For the past five years, the village development committee has been going to local gatherings to educate residents about the bylaws and the need to protect the lake. "Apart from protecting the fish, we also want to safeguard the water so that it's safe for drinking. We do that by creating awareness at gatherings like weddings and funerals," says Ibrahim Kachinga, the chair of the village committee.

Their efforts complement the Malawi government's attempts to address the challenges to conserving the lake's flora and fauna. "There has been a ban for the last few years on the use of high-yield fishing gear in Lake Malawi between October and November, when the fish are spawning," Mtupanyama says.

Mtupanyama adds that in 2003 the government launched a 10-year strategic plan, which largely seeks to restore the lake's fish stocks. "For the last 10 years we have been restocking the lake with fish by breeding juveniles outside the lake and then reintroducing them. We haven't done badly," she says.

Mtupanyama could not say if this had significantly increased the lake's fish stock, however.

Regardless of what may come of this restocking project, the Nguwo village committee understands that the future of the lake is important. They are educating those who can do something about it – future generations. Kachinga says: "With the help of government, we are also encouraging teachers in nursery and primary schools to teach our children about how to protect the lake."


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« Reply #6520 on: May 22, 2013, 07:27 AM »

Early humans responded to changes in climate with cultural and industrial innovation

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, May 21, 2013 13:49 EDT

Early humans living in South Africa made cultural and industrial leaps in periods of wetter weather, said a study Tuesday that compared the archaeological record of Man’s evolution with that of climate change.

Anatomically modern humans, Homo sapiens, first made their appearance in Africa during the Middle Stone Age which lasted from about 280,000 to 30,000 years ago.

Some of the earliest examples of human culture and technology are found in South Africa — with fossil evidence of innovative spurts whose cause has left scientists puzzled.

The record reveals that a notable period of human advancement occurred about 71,500 years ago, and another between 64,000 and 59,000 years ago.

Examples of such innovation include the use of symbols, linked to the development of complex language, in engravings, the manufacture and use of stone tools and personal adornment with shell jewellery.

“We show for the first time that the timing of… these periods of innovation coincided with abrupt climate change,” study co-author Martin Ziegler of the Cardiff University School of Earth and Ocean Sciences told AFP of the study in the journal Nature Communications.

“We found that South Africa experienced wetter conditions during these periods of cultural advance.

“At the same time, large parts of sub-Saharan Africa experienced drier conditions, so that South Africa potentially acted as a refugium for early humans.”

Ziegler and a team reconstructed the South African climate over the past 100,000 years using a sediment core drilled out from the country’s east coast.

The core shows changes in river discharge and rainfall.

“It offers for the first time the possibility to compare the archaeological record with a record of climate change over the same period and thus helps us to understand the origins of modern humans,” Ziegler said by email.

Co-author Chris Stringer of London’s Natural History Museum said the findings supported the view that population growth fuelled cultural advancement through increased human interactions.

“Such climate-driven pulses in southern Africa and more widely were probably fundamental to the origin of key elements of modern human behaviour in Africa and to the subsequent dispersal of Homo sapiens from its ancestral homeland,” concluded the study.

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« Reply #6521 on: May 22, 2013, 07:32 AM »

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
05/21/2013 06:32 PM

Miracle in the Sahara: Oasis Sediments Archive Dramatic History

By Johann Grolle

A marvel of nature, the lakes of Ounianga in the Sahara Desert have lasted thousands of years and withstood dramatic climate change. Now, a German geologist has analyzed lakebed sediments to shed light on a spectacular chapter in human history.

"Water," says Stefan Kröpelin, "water as far as the eye can see." He is pointing to the south, where there is only one thing stretching to the horizon: sand, sand and more sand.

Kröpelin describes the reeds billowing along the shore, the gazelles and giraffes drinking from the lake and the hippos and crocodiles lounging in its waters. But the desert before him is so inhospitable that it could hardly be home to more than a few darkling beetles.

Kröpelin is no fabulist. In fact, he knows what he's talking about. A fertile, wet savannah once covered this region, where not a single blade of grass grows today.

The evidence lies at Kröpelin's feet. He has just dislodged a few white chunks from the underlying bedrock with his geologist's hammer. Using his hand, he picks dozens of small shells from the limestone. "Freshwater snails," he says with satisfaction.

The geologist records the GPS coordinates in his blue field notebook. Then he places the three pieces of rock into plastic bags and labels them with a site number: "W 76." Back home, at the Africa Research Center at the University of Cologne, he will determine the age of the rocks. "About 10,000 years old," he estimates. At least that was the age of the samples he took home after his last visit to this region of northern Chad.

The view to the north offers an idea of the lost paradise Kröpelin is talking about. There, in a basin about 40 meters (131 feet) lower than the surrounding area, is a lake lined with green vegetation. The massive sand dunes that reach into the water like giant fingers will eventually bury the entire oasis, but now there are still date palms growing there.

The lakes of Ounianga are a miracle of nature. These unusual green islands in a sea of sand have lasted thousands of years. There are no other comparable stretches of open water within a radius of more than 800 kilometers (500 miles).

And why should there be? The scorching sun over the Sahara evaporates a water column of more than six meters a year, while the sky yields less than five millimeters of annual precipitation. Under these conditions, even an ocean would soon disappear. But in Ounianga a vast reservoir of fossil ground water beneath the surface constantly replenishes the water lost to evaporation.

The Earth's Archive

Kröpelin first set up camp there more than 14 years ago. His goal was to recover sediments from the floor of the largest of the lakes, Lac Yoa, deposits that have formed in the lake's roughly 11,000-year history.

These sediments are a unique archive of the history of the earth. They contain evidence of what is probably the most impressive and dramatic change in the climate occurring on the planet since the end of the last ice age. The mud on the lake floor tells the story of the greening of the biggest desert on earth, which then dried up a few millennia later.

Doing this kind of research in the middle of the Sahara is an adventure that requires stamina. Kröpelin has experienced it all -- passport theft, a life-threatening schistosomiasis infection, sandstorms lasting for weeks -- and yet the scientist remains undeterred. Even when local inhabitants turned up at his camp and threatened him, because they believed that his drilling activities were disturbing the virgin of the lake, he managed to appease them.

Every day, he and his team took a boat out to the raft they had anchored in the middle of Lac Yoa. Earlier, they had lowered a steel cylinder to the lake floor, at a depth of 25 meters. Now, using nothing but muscle strength, they rammed it deeper into the subsurface, millimeter by millimeter.

There was no canopy to provide protection from the fierce sun. One of the men would give the cylinder 30 to 40 blows with a 30-kilogram (66-pound) hammer before, dripping with sweat, handing it to the next man. Of course, they could only work when the wind, which sweeps across the flat desert from Libya, wasn't constantly blowing fine sand into their eyes.

They drove the pipe 16 meters into the sediment before reaching the ice-age desert floor. The geologists had penetrated all the way to the original bottom of the lake.

After cutting it into one-meter segments and protecting it from impact and drying with a Plexiglas sleeve, the scientists took their prize out of the country. They traveled in a Toyota Land Cruiser across 1,200 kilometers of desert tracks to the capital N'Djamena. Then the drilling cores were sent to Cologne by airfreight.

There the experts were able to examine the clay-like deposits one layer at a time. The layers of mud were deposited on top of each other, not unlike tree rings, at an average rate of about a millimeter a year. Even in the desert, there are sufficient differences between the seasons to be clearly recognizable in the sediment.

History by the Layer

Three employees were entrusted with the exhausting task of counting, eventually arriving at 10,940 layers, each representing one year. Not even radiocarbon dating is this precise. The method was off by about 50 years.

More importantly, the geologists began analyzing the individual layers. Using a mass spectrometer, X-rays, laser beams and a scanning electron microscope, they tried to wrest the secrets from the drilling core. They measured particle sizes, the material's chemical composition and magnetic susceptibility, and placed thin sections of their samples, only 25 micrometers thick (less than one-thousandth of an inch), under a polarizing microscope.

But the most precious source of information is the pollen trapped in the sediment, because it reflects changes in the climate more faithfully than anything else. For instance, when primarily grass pollen was deposited on the lake floor, it means that there must have been steppes extending along the shore. Fern spores indicate that rivers emptied into the lake, presumably from the nearby Tibesti Mountains. Pollen from sagebrush or the toothbrush tree, on the other hand, is a sign that the area was dominated by desert at the time.

Kröpelin can also identify individual events in his stony climate archive. Earthquakes, wildfires and especially violent dust storms leave behind telltale traces in the lake sediments.

Kröpelin is still assembling the final details of his work. When he is finished, he and his colleagues plan to publish the fruits of their backbreaking work in the journal Nature. Climate modelers from around the world are already waiting for the results. "Stefan's drilling core will enable us to precisely tracks how the African monsoon system has shifted," says Martin Claußen of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, one of the leading experts on simulation of the Sahara climate.

Kröpelin is already thinking about his next step. For him, the drilling core from Lac Yoa is much more than a chronicle of climate in the region. He is convinced that analyzing the sediments will also offer a glimpse into an entire chapter of human history. In a place now covered by the largest desert on earth, human settlers once ruled the savannah.

Until the end of the ice age, about 11,000 years ago, Kröpelin explains, the Sahara constituted the northern border of the areas settled by Homo sapiens. The wasteland was too inhospitable for humans to traverse it.

But when the glaciers melted in Europe, the monsoon system shifted in North Africa, and rain clouds were driven inland from the Gulf of Guinea. As the East African savannah continued to expand northward, a path was opened up to Homo sapiens to travel to more distant lands.

Various traces of settlements show that man took advantage of this opportunity. The Sahara became a center of cultural development, where ceramics were created at a very early stage, nomads domesticated cattle and goats, and humans documented their daily lives in spectacular scenes painted on cliff walls.

Only when the life-bringing monsoon slowly diminished about 5,000 years ago did the desert gradually return. The grass withered, the rivers ran dry and the animal herds disappeared, making it difficult for humans to survive. A portion of the Sahara population moved south to the more fertile Sahel zone, while the rest settled along the Nile River. This migration away from the desert, says Kröpelin, probably paved the way for the advanced civilization of ancient Egypt.

The 'Man of the Desert'
Kröpelin is a wiry, hands-on man with seemingly inexhaustible energy, whoseems youthful despite his 61 years. In an article titled "Man of the Desert," the journal Nature describes him as "one of the most devoted Sahara explorers of our time." Some see him as part of a tradition established by predecessors like Heinrich Barth and Gustav Nachtigal.

Kröpelin, like these great scholars of the 19th century, is a universalist. He is equally at home with such diverse subjects as stone-age settlements, the ecological importance of solitary wasps and the angles of sickle-shaped migrating dunes.

In Sudan, Kröpelin explored Wadi Howar, a dry valley that was once filled with a large desert tributary of the Nile. He has retraced the trading routes of caravans from the days of the pharaohs, and he has documented climate change on the basis of tentatively sprouting camel grass in the desert.

Most of all, Kröpelin is a gifted storyteller. "I was just in the shower, when…" he begins, and before long he is in the middle of a gripping story. Shortly before his departure, he says, he received a call on his satellite phone from a French colleague. The Frenchman and his camel expedition were lost in the canyons of the Erdi-Ma, a barren region in northeastern Chad into which hardly any humans had ever set foot. To help the lost Frenchman, Kröpelin used old GPS notes to direct him to one of the rare watering holes. "He must be out there somewhere," says Kröpelin, pointing to the rocky landscape north of the Ounianga lakes. "I hope he makes it."

"The desert attracts a special sort of person," says Kröpelin, as he seamlessly launches into his next story. This one is about a pedantic botanist, whose Jeep overturned while he was maneuvering his way around the cracked surface of a dry lakebed. But the botanist did not crawl out of the vehicle until he had painstakingly documented the accident in his field book. And then he talks about the time Sudanese soldiers pursued him through the desert for days, until they caught up with him and demanded some of his diesel fuel.

He launches into a discussion of politics. The rumors about Islamist terrorists, the horrific stories from Darfur and now the war in Mali -- all of this, he says, doesn't make working in the region any easier. But the dangers are exaggerated, says Kröpelin, noting that walking through some neighborhoods of New York in the evening is riskier than spending a week in the desert. Nevertheless, fear has driven away some of his fellow geologists. The French, once so numerous, aren't coming anymore, he says. It's also become difficult to find doctoral students in Germany willing to put up with the hardships of working in the Sahara.

Into Ounianga

But this time the 21st century has found its way into Kröpelin's realm. Before departing from Marseille, the desert explorer excitedly took a picture of the departure board at the airport. He could hardly believe his eyes: The board listed a 3 a.m. departure for a charter flight bound for Faya-Largeau.

Point-Afrique, an adventure travel company, had managed to make use of an old French military airport in the small oasis city in northern Chad for tourism purposes. Now it offers charter flights in the winter season, taking travelers on board a Boeing 737 to one of the most remote spots on the planet. "Unbelievable," says Kröpelin. Making the round trip from his home to his research site within a week is something he has never experienced throughout his entire academic career, he says.

From Faya, it's only a one-day trip in an off-road vehicle to the Ounianga lakes. The journey passes through a wasteland that stretches to the horizon, with one of the giant sickle dunes occasionally blocking the way. Slowly and inexorably, the dunes move across the plain in a southwesterly direction, traveling about one kilometer a century.

Dust-covered tire tracks are the only evidence of a road here, along the main artery between Libya and Chad, as well as the truck tires, scattered at regular intervals, that former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi had his troops leave behind during his expedition into Chad. Like Hansel and Gretel in the forest, Gadhafi wanted to mark the route for the trip home.

Until recently, hopelessly overloaded trucks crawled along this path too, bringing goods from Libya to Chad and Sudan. But trade has come to a standstill since Gadhafi was overthrown, and now weeks go by without a single vehicle passing through the region.

Kröpelin's expedition, traveling in three off-road vehicles, also doesn't encounter a single person along the way. A few runaway camels turn up shortly before their destination, where scattered acacia trees indicate that there must be water deep underground there. Then, quite suddenly, the spectacular view of the Ounianga basin appears.

On his first visit to this idyllic green spot in one of the driest places on earth, Kröpelin was so fascinated that he has since fought to place this natural treasure under protection. He achieved his goal last year, when UNESCO declared the lakes a World Heritage site. Kröpelin proudly pulls out a UNESCO map. While there are many sites in Europe, there is only one dot in the vast open spaces of Chad: Ounianga.

But Kröpelin is too restless and enterprising to be satisfied. He has already set his sights on his next goal: to convince UNESCO to add the Ennedi Plateau, more than 200 kilometers farther to the south, to its list. For Kröpelin, the plateau's uniqueness is beyond question. "Monument Valley is nothing by comparison," he says. The region is also culturally significant, he adds. "You won't find stone-age cliff drawings like the ones in the Ennedi anywhere else in the world."

Dreams of a Green Sahara

Kröpelin is fascinated by the relationships among the histories of the climate, the earth and mankind. He is interested in how people responded to change in the Sahara. Here in the inhospitable dryness of the desert, blades and arrowheads made of quartzite or ring-shaped traces of settlements are evidence that Homo sapiens were once omnipresent in the Sahara.

"A Stone-Age burial mound," Kröpelin says, pointing to one of the piles of stones rising from the plain. "What's so fascinating about it is that everything is preserved in just the way it was left thousands of years ago."

During an expedition into the no-man's land east of the Ounianga lakes, Kröpelin even believes he found traces of an ancient Egyptian caravan. He discovered a stone statue of a man, visible from far away on a high plateau, similar to the statues uses on mountains today as guideposts for hikers. Kröpelin suspects that what he had found was a landmark for desert travelers from the days of the pharaohs.

There is evidence that the expeditions from ancient Egypt extended to at least the current Egyptian-Libyan border, says the geologist. A few years ago, hieroglyphics were found there, at Uwaynat Mountain. Kröpelin thinks it is conceivable that traders stopped there to replenish their water supplies before continuing their travels toward Ounianga.

To reinforce his theory, he points to the eroded cliffs that shape the landscape along the shores of the Ounianga lakes. Over the millennia, the constant wind has carved them into step pyramids.

Kröpelin believes that the similarity between this shape and that of structures along the Nile is more than coincidental. He theorizes that gradual desertification drove the Egyptian people out of their original habitat, which is now the Sahara Desert. He points out that silhouettes of the tombs of the pharaohs, visible from a great distance, are characteristic of precisely the region that was once home to the Egyptians.

Will a return ever be possible? Will the Sahara turn green again one day?

Even Kröpelin knows that by answering these questions he is delving into the realm of speculation. Nevertheless, he is gathering evidence.

A rare rainfall over the otherwise dry Sudan in 1988 awakened his suspicions for the first time. If everyone was talking about climate change, why shouldn't the monsoon in Africa be changing, too? Perhaps global warming could drive it back to the state it was in once before, after the ice age.

Since that rainstorm in Sudan, Kröpelin has been recording all signs of climate change during his trips, looking for answers to questions like: Where is camel grass growing more abundantly than in previous years? How productive are the few watering holes? And what are the camel herders and date farmers saying?

Of course, all of this is merely anecdotal evidence that doesn't stand up to scientific scrutiny. Nevertheless, Kröpelin is convinced that the evidence is growing. In fact, he says, he even believes that there is now real evidence of change, and that the desert is getting greener.

The geologist feels validated by recent news from the Faya oasis. Last summer, residents told him, they were surprised by a sudden downpour. Huts were washed away and people drowned. This had never happened before, they said.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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« Reply #6522 on: May 22, 2013, 07:59 AM »

In the USA....

New light shed on US government's extraordinary rendition programme

Online project uncovers details of way in which CIA carried out kidnaps and secret detentions following September 11 attacks

• The Rendition Project interactive
• CIA rendition flights explained

Ian Cobain and James Ball   
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 22 May 2013 12.01 BST   

A groundbreaking research project has mapped the US government's global kidnap and secret detention programme, shedding unprecedented light on one of the most controversial secret operations of recent years.

The interactive online project – by two British universities and a legal charity – has uncovered new details of the way in which the so-called extraordinary rendition programme operated for years in the wake of the September 11 attacks, and the techniques used by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to avoid detection in the face of growing public concern.

The Rendition Project website is intended to serve as a research tool that not only collates all the publicly available data about the programme, but can continue to be updated as further information comes to light.

Data already collated shows the full extent of the UK's logistical support for the programme: aircraft associated with rendition operations landed at British airports more than 1,600 times.

Although no detainees are known to have been aboard the aircraft while they were landing in the UK, the CIA was able to refuel during operations that involved some of the most notorious renditions of the post-September 11 years, including one in which two men were kidnapped in Sweden and flown to Egypt, where they suffered years of torture, and others that involved detainees being flown to and from a secret prison in Romania.

The database also tracks rendition flights into and out of Diego Garcia, in the Chagos Islands, and suggests that flight crews enjoyed rest-and-recreation stopovers on the Turks and Caicos Islands. Both are British overseas territories.

The Rendition Project is the result of three years of work, funded by the UK taxpayer through the Economic and Social Research Council, by Ruth Blakeley, a senior lecturer at the University of Kent, and Sam Raphael, a senior lecturer at Kingston University, working with Crofton Black, an investigator with the legal charity Reprieve.

"By bringing together a vast collection of documents and data, the Rendition Project publishes the most detailed picture to date of the scale, operation and evolution of the global system of rendition and secret detention in the so-called war on terror," said Blakeley.

Raphael said: "The database makes a major contribution to efforts to track CIA rendition flights, and provides the clearest picture so far of what was going on. It also serves as an important tool for investigators, journalists and lawyers to delve into in more detail."

Black added: "The Rendition Project lays bare the inner workings of the logistics network underlying the US government's secret prison programme. It's the most accurate and comprehensive resource so far published."

The data includes details on 11,006 flights by aeroplanes linked to the CIA's rendition programme since 2002. Of those, 1,556 flights are classed as confirmed or suspected rendition flights, or flagged as "suspicious", depending on the strength of the supporting evidence surrounding each.

The researchers have also confirmed 20 "dummy" flights within the data: flight paths logged with air traffic controllers, but never taken. Instead, the planes took a different route to different airports along the way, to pick up or drop off a detainee. About a dozen more flight paths are marked as possible dummy flights.

The website also weaves together first-hand testimony of detainees of their mistreatment within the secret prisons; the layout and conditions of the facilities; the movements of detainees across the globe; and documents that detail outsourcing to corporations that offered logistical support, from flights to catering and hotel reservations. In some cases, it is unclear whether the airline companies would have been aware of the purpose of the flights.

The project also brings to light new set to launchinformation on the methods used to avoid detection of rendition flights, particularly as journalists became aware of the programme. The project highlights "tarmac transfers" – occasions on which two planes involved in rendition met on remote airfields. The researchers believe these occasions were used to transfer detainees from one plane to another, making their rendition route far more difficult to track.

Among the prisoners who appear to have been switched from one aircraft to another in this way is Abu Faraj al-Libi, who is currently being held at the Guantánamo detention camp in Cuba. After being captured in Pakistan in May 2005, he appears to have been flown to Afghanistan, where he was switched to another aircraft and taken to Bucharest.

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Subcommittee to Examine Offshore Profit Shifting and Tax Avoidance by Apple Inc.

Monday,
May 20, 2013

WASHINGTON – Apple Inc. has used a complex web of offshore entities – including three foreign subsidiaries the company claims are not tax resident in any nation – to avoid paying billions of dollars in U.S. income taxes, a bipartisan investigation by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has found.

The subcommittee will spotlight Apple’s extensive tax-avoidance strategies at a Tuesday hearing. Witnesses will include Apple CEO Tim Cook, other Apple executives, Treasury Department officials and outside experts. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., subcommittee chairman and ranking member, respectively, will also issue a 40-page memorandum with findings and recommendations.

The subcommittee, which previously explored tax avoidance by other multinational corporations using offshore subsidiaries, found similar practices at Apple. In addition, the subcommittee review discovered an unusual tax scheme:  Apple’s claim that two key offshore companies are not tax residents of Ireland, where they are incorporated, or of the United States, where Apple executives manage and control the companies.  One of those Irish subsidiaries has paid no income taxes to any national tax authority for the past five years.

"Apple wasn’t satisfied with shifting its profits to a low-tax offshore tax haven," said Sen. Levin. "Apple sought the Holy Grail of tax avoidance. It has created offshore entities holding tens of billions of dollars, while claiming to be tax resident nowhere. We intend to highlight that gimmick and other Apple offshore tax avoidance tactics so that American working families who pay their share of taxes understand how offshore tax loopholes raise their tax burden, add to the federal deficit and ought to be closed."

 "Apple claims to be the largest U.S. corporate taxpayer, but by sheer size and scale, it is also among America's largest tax avoiders,” said Sen. McCain. "A company that found remarkable success by harnessing American ingenuity and the opportunities afforded by the U.S. economy should not be shifting its profits overseas to avoid the payment of U.S. tax, purposefully depriving the American people of revenue. It is important to understand Apple’s byzantine tax structure so that we can effectively close the loopholes utilized by many U.S. multinational companies, particularly in this era of sequestration.”

Sen. McCain added:  "I have long advocated for modernizing our broken and uncompetitive tax code, but that cannot and must not be an excuse for turning a blind eye to the highly questionable tax strategies that corporations like Apple use to avoid paying taxes in America. The proper place for the bulk of Apple’s creative energy ought to go into its innovative products and services, not in its tax department."

Tuesday’s hearing is the subcommittee’s second examining the tax-avoidance strategies of multinationals. A September 2012 hearing explored how Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard used dubious strategies to avoid billions in U.S. taxes. Similar practices at Apple include:

    Using a so-called cost sharing agreement to transfer valuable intellectual property assets offshore and shift the resulting profits to a tax haven jurisdiction.

    Taking advantage of weaknesses and loopholes in tax law and regulations to “disregard” offshore subsidiaries for tax purposes, shielding billions of dollars in income that could otherwise be taxable in the United States.

    Negotiating a tax rate of less than 2 percent with the government of Ireland – significantly lower than that nation’s 12% statutory rate – and using Ireland as the base for its extensive network of offshore subsidiaries.

In addition to those standard multinational tactics, Apple established at the apex of its offshore network an offshore holding company that it says is not tax resident in any nation. That subsidiary, Apple Operations International, has no employees and no physical presence, but keeps its bank accounts and records in the United States and holds its board meetings in California. It was incorporated in Ireland in 1980, and is owned and controlled by the U.S. parent company, Apple Inc.  Ireland asserts tax jurisdiction only over companies that are managed and controlled in Ireland, but the United States bases tax residency on where a company is incorporated. Exploiting the gap between the two nations’ tax laws, Apple Operations International has not filed an income tax return in either country, or any other country, for the past five years.  From 2009 to 2012, it reported income totaling $30 billion.

A second Irish subsidiary claiming not to be a tax resident anywhere is Apple Sales International which, from 2009 to 2012, had sales revenue totaling $74 billion.  The company appears to have paid taxes on only a tiny fraction of that income, resulting, for example, in an effective 2011 tax rate of only five hundreds of one percent.  In addition to creating non-tax resident affiliates, Apple Inc. has utilized U.S. tax loopholes to avoid U.S. taxes on $44 billion in otherwise taxable offshore income over the past four years, or about $10 billion in tax avoidance per year. A third subsidiary, Apple Operations Europe, also has no tax residency, according to Apple.

The Levin-McCain memorandum offers recommendations to close those offshore corporate tax loopholes. They include strengthening U.S. transfer pricing rules, and reforming the so-called “check-the-box” and “look-through” loopholes that enable multinationals to shield offshore income from U.S. taxes.

Tuesday’s hearing will take testimony from three witness panels:

    Harvard Professor Stephen Shay and Villanova Professor J. Richard Harvey;
    Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook, Chief Financial Officer Peter Oppenheimer, and Tax Operations Head Phillip Bullock; and
    Mark Mazur, Treasury Assistant Secretary for Tax Policy, and Samuel Maruca, IRS Director of Transfer Pricing Operations.

**********

Rand Paul demands Congress ‘apologize’ to Apple for tax avoidance hearing

By David Edwards
RawStory
Tuesday, May 21, 2013 14:35 EDT

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) on Tuesday lashed out at fellow members of Congress for looking into how technology giant Apple is able to avoid paying billions of dollars in taxes.

The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a report on Monday detailing how Apple had used a network of offshore shell companies in recent year to avoid paying taxes.

At a committee hearing on Tuesday, Paul was livid that Apple CEO Tim Cook was asked to testify.

“I’m offended by a $4 trillion government bullying, berating and badgering one America’s greatest success stories,” the Kentucky Republican told the committee. “Tell me what Apple has done that is illegal?”

Paul added that he was also “offended” that that the IRS would “bully” tea party groups.

“If anyone should be on trial here, it should be Congress,” he insisted. “I frankly think the committee should apologize to Apple. I think that the Congress should be on trial here for creating a bizarre and Byzantine tax code that runs into the tens of thousands of pages, for creating a tax code that simple doesn’t compete with the rest of the world.”

Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) pointed out that Paul was free to apologize, but “this subcommittee is about investigating a tax code that is not working for the American people, is not working for businesses in this country, which some business decide how many taxes they’re going to pay, how many they won’t, what they’re going to leave offshore in terms of profit, cooking up all kinds of arrangements to avoid paying taxes.”

“Apple is a great company, but no company — no company should be able to determine how much it’s going to pay in taxes, how many profits they’re going to keep offshore, how they’re going to bring them back home, using all kinds of gimmicks to avoid paying the taxes that should be paid to this country,” the chairman insisted.

For its part, Apple has released a statement defending itself as “likely the largest corporate income tax payer in the US, having paid nearly $6 billion in taxes to the US Treasury in FY2012.”

Paul will be in Apple’s home state of California next week for fundraising and a speech at the Reagan Presidential Library.

**********

Apple chief calls on US government to slash US corporate tax

Tim Cook warns Congress that he would refuse to repatriate $100bn stashed offshore unless US severely reduced its 35% tax rate

Dan Roberts and Dominic Rushe   
The Guardian, Tuesday 21 May 2013 20.20 BST   

Apple has called for US corporate tax rates to be slashed after it admitted sheltering at least $30bn (£20bn) of international profits in Irish subsidiaries that pay no tax at all.

In a dramatic display of how threats from multinational corporations are driving down taxes across the world, chief executive Tim Cook warned Congress that he would refuse to repatriate a total of $100bn stashed offshore unless it acted to slash the 35% US rate.

Cook said the tax rate for repatriated money should be set "in single digits" to persuade companies to bring it back. Standard tax for US profits should be, he said, in the "mid 20s".

He also revealed that Apple had struck a secret deal with the Irish government in 1980 to limit its domestic taxes there to 2%.

Three subsidiaries based in Ireland are also used to shelter profits made in the rest of Europe and Asia but are not classed as resident in any country for tax purposes – a tactic dubbed the "iCompany" by critics.

Cook's testimony to a Senate sub-committee investigating multinational tax practices largely confirmed its findings that Apple had taken tax avoidance to a new extreme by structuring these companies so they did not incur tax liabilities anywhere.

Phillip Bullock, the California company's head of tax, estimated that just one of these subsidiaries – Apple Operations International – had channelled $30bn in global profits over the last five years without filing a single income tax return.

The only taxes paid were on the interest earned by the cash pile and small sums in local markets. Senate investigators allege a total of $70bn has been sheltered this way in four years.

Despite heated exchanges with committee chairman Carl Levin, Apple largely shrugged off criticism of the practice, insisting it was acting "in the letter and the spirit of the law".

An independent tax professor, Richard Harvey, testified that its tax avoidance was "probably legal" and could have been much more aggressive.

The Apple chief used his appearance to renew lobbying for Congress to cut a deal with multinationals to encourage them to bring back, or repatriate, the billions of dollars kept offshore to avoid tax.

Cook said he had no plan to bring back the $102bn built up by Apple at current tax rates, and recently opted to return money to shareholders by borrowing money instead. "I have no current plan to do so at the current tax rates.

"Unlike some technology companies, I am not proposing a zero rate," he said. "My proposal is that we have a reasonable tax for bringing back money from overseas.

"A permanent change is materially better than a short term tax holiday."

Cook said he "personally doesn't understand the difference between a tax presence and a tax residence".

He was even defended by some members of the committee who accused Levin and Republican John McCain of "bullying" Apple. "I am offended by the tone and tenor of this hearing," said fellow Republican and presidential hopeful Rand Paul.

The hearing was seen as a watershed in the increasing tense clashes between governments and multinationals, particularly technology groups such as Apple, Amazon and Google.

Edward Kleinbard, professor of law at USC Gould School of Law, said: "Apple is not an outlier in its efforts to produce 'stateless income' – income that is taxed neither in the United States nor in the countries where its foreign customers are located – but it is an outlier in the baldness of its strategies. Apple shifted tens of billions of dollars of income without even breaking into a sweat.

"The hearing will forcefully remind policymakers that international tax reform will require the implementation of really thoughtful anti-abuse rules, ideally developed in conjunction with other OECD member states.

Every country is the worse off when they facilitate multinationals aggressively pursuing stateless income strategies, just as every country is worse off when they all engage in trade wars."

Corporate tax expert Jennifer Blouin at University of Pennsylvania's Wharton business school said the Apple revelations were "extraordinary but not surprising".

"We have seen versions of this with Microsoft and with Google," she said. "I hope it gooses the notion that we need to fix the worldwide system."

She said Apple was working within the law but that the law was written before huge profits could be made by companies that trade not in goods and manufacturing but in ideas.

"I have worked in this area for years and it's been largely an obscurity. But it's at the forefront now, and it needs to get fixed."

*************

I.R.S. Official Will Decline to Testify Before House Panel

By JONATHAN WEISMAN
NYT
Published: May 21, 2013    

WASHINGTON — The Internal Revenue Service official who tried to temper efforts to target conservative groups and then made the issue public will plead her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and decline to testify at a House hearing on Wednesday.
Related

    Document: Inspector General’s Report on I.R.S. Audits

    For Tea Party Groups, Shades of 2010 (May 22, 2013)
    White House Memo: A Sleeper Scandal Awakens for Obama, Post-Election (May 22, 2013)


J. Russell George, a Treasury inspector general, said he would look into how the I.R.S. enforced a law on tax-exempt groups.

The official, Lois Lerner, who heads the I.R.S.’s division on tax-exempt organizations, is scheduled to appear before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, whose leaders have accused her of lying to them.

The committee’s chairman is Representative Darrell Issa, the California Republican who helped start the investigation of I.R.S. efforts to single out for special scrutiny Tea Party and other conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.

“The committee has been contacted by Ms. Lerner’s lawyer, who stated that his client intended to invoke her Fifth Amendment right and refuse to answer questions,” the committee’s spokesman, Ali Ahmad, said Tuesday. He said that Ms. Lerner remained under subpoena to appear at the hearing, and that Mr. Issa “remains hopeful that she will ultimately decide to testify tomorrow about her knowledge of outrageous I.R.S. targeting of Americans for their political beliefs.”

In a letter to the committee, her lawyer, William W. Taylor III, wrote that Ms. Lerner had committed no crime or made any misrepresentations, but “under the circumstances she has no choice but to take this course.”

On May 10, when Ms. Lerner first apologized for the targeting, she told reporters that she had learned of the improprieties from news reports in early 2012. But a Treasury inspector general’s audit indicated that she knew far earlier than that and tried to broaden the scope of the targeting efforts to include liberal as well as conservative groups.

Her decision on testifying, first disclosed by The Los Angeles Times, came on the same day that two of her superiors at the I.R.S. appeared before the Senate Finance Committee and said they never discussed the targeting issue with Obama administration officials outside the agency during the campaign year of 2012.

Steven T. Miller, the departing I.R.S. chief, joined the commissioner who ran the agency during the targeting of the conservative groups in saying that he never told Obama administration officials about the added scrutiny, either those at the Treasury Department or at the White House.

The hearing, the first in the Senate on the matter, underscored how the targeting was disclosed. Mr. Miller took responsibility for planting a question May 10 at a closed-door meeting with tax lawyers that prompted the revelation about the targeting, an awkward step that led to the inquiries now moving ahead on Capitol Hill.

The hearing shed little new light on the origins of the targeting efforts or on whether the matter was known outside the independent I.R.S. Democrats on the committee pressed their case that Congress needed to step in with clearer rules that prevent tax-exempt “social welfare” organizations from primarily engaging in electoral politics.

Republicans on the committee repeatedly pressed Mr. Miller and Douglas H. Shulman, who led the service from 2008 to 2012, on what they had shared with Treasury and White House officials. Each time, the men said they had shared nothing.

But J. Russell George, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration, made it clear that the issue and the underlying question about tax-exempt organizations would not go away soon. Mr. George told lawmakers that he would soon open a new inquiry into how the I.R.S. enforces the law that designates 501(c)(4) tax exemptions for social welfare organizations.

If another look at political targeting is warranted, he said, he will do that too.

“Suffice it to say this matter is not over, as far as we are concerned,” Mr. George said.

For the first time in the case, the House hearing will include an administration official outside the I.R.S., Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal S. Wolin. Mr. Wolin learned of the inspector general’s audit into the targeting effort in the summer of 2012, and Republicans want him to say what he did with that information.

But the House inquiry will probably focus more on the I.R.S.’s investigation into the issue in the spring of 2012, which brought detailed accounts of the misconduct to the top echelon of the I.R.S. that May. House Republicans want to refocus the questioning around events during the election year, when, they contend, the matter was kept under wraps to avoid the political fallout and hamper Republican groups.

In March 2012, Mr. Miller, then the I.R.S.’s deputy commissioner for enforcement, dispatched an adviser, Nancy J. Marks, to the Cincinnati field office to investigate possible improprieties. Holly Paz, an I.R.S. official whom the House committee is seeking to interview, assisted with the inquiry.

Ms. Marks presented findings to Mr. Miller on May 3, 2012, that found “a substantial bias against conservative groups,” according to the committee staff, a conclusion the inspector general would not reach for another year. Mr. Shulman indicated Tuesday that he had been aware of those findings. Republicans are not satisfied that those conclusions could have been kept from the broader Obama administration for nearly a year.

The new details that emerged Tuesday revolved around who knew what over the last few weeks, a less politically charged time frame than 2012. Mr. Miller told the Senate Finance Committee that top I.R.S. officials knew that an inspector general’s audit was pending that would accuse the agency of misconduct. The agency wanted to pre-empt those findings, he said.

“We thought we’d get out an apology,” Mr. Miller said. “Obviously, the entire thing was an incredibly bad idea.”

**********

Republicans Claimed an IRS Cover Up, But It Turns Out Darrell Issa Knew in 2012

By: Sarah Jones
May. 21st, 2013
PoliticusUSA

Another GOP conspiracy dies as it comes to light during a hearing that the Treasury Department was investigating the IRS and told Darrell Issa this in 2012.

During a hearing on Tuesday, it came out that the Treasury Department informed Darrell Issa of its investigation into the IRS in 2012. The IRS is a bureau of the Treasury Department. They have letters and everything.

TPM reported:

    At a hearing Tuesday, Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration J. Russell George told the Senate Finance Committee that the Treasury Department informed Rep. Darrell Issa’s (R-CA) office of its investigation into the IRS in 2012, and has had communications with this staff since then.

Part of Republicans outrage over the now dissolving narrative that conservatives had been targeted by the IRS for political reasons (instead of the fact that they were violating the law, were incompetent regarding setting up their “social welfare” organizations, or were trying to pass off PACs as social welfare organizations, or that the IRS is disorganized, under-funded thanks to Republicans, and has never been clear about the rules on this issue) was over their charge that the IRS knew and did nothing. The IRS knew last year and never told Congress! It’s an outrage, worse than Nixon, I tell you.

Only, it turns out that Obama-scandal-manufacturer Darrell Issa (R-CA) knew last year.

I pointed out on May 14th that the narrative about when higher up officials knew and allegedly didn’t inform Congressional Republicans was yet another story planted by “Republican Congressional aides”:

    Who told the press that the Bush appointee knew in May? It turns out that is the interpretation of Republican congressional aides, who were not named in the Washington Post (my bold):
    “Moreover, details of the IRS’s efforts to target conservative groups reached the highest levels of the agency in May 2012, far earlier than has been disclosed, according to Republican congressional aides briefed by the IRS and the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration ¬(TIGTA) on the details of their reviews.

    Then-Commissioner Douglas Shulman, a George W. Bush appointee who stepped down in November, received a briefing from the TIGTA about what was happening in the Cincinnati office in May 2012, the aides said. His deputy and the agency’s current acting commissioner, Steven T. Miller, also learned about the matter that month, the aides said.”

When did they know and why didn’t they tell anyone? Oh my! NIXON!

Here’s the bit about how officials didn’t tell Congressional Republicans, leading Republicans to accuse the IRS of being “deliberately dishonest” with Congress (aka, a cover up):

    The officials did not share details with Republican lawmakers who had been demanding to know whether the IRS was targeting conservative groups, Republicans said.

    “Knowing what we know now,” he (Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-UT)) added, “the IRS was at best being far from forth coming, or at worst, being deliberately dishonest with Congress.”

Orrin Hatch was but one of many hysterical Republicans claiming a yet another cover up. This narrative didn’t require editing a Benghazi email — it was just a matter of feeding the press a few choice quotes and leaving out a lot of information.

It’s also worth pointing out, just so you can appreciate the thoroughness and coordination that goes into building a false narrative (someone should investigate!), that the Washington Post used a quote from True the Vote (aka, King Street Patriots) to buttress the Republican aides’ narrative that conservatives were being targeted. However, True the Vote was found by a judge to have violated their status as a nonprofit, and to be operating like a PAC, after they illegally aided Republicans.

It has yet to be established that conservatives were being targeted by the IRS for political reasons, any more than liberals were, since a liberal group actually had its nonprofit status revoked by the IRS. All groups seeking tax exempt status whilst involving themselves in politics were no doubt looked at with suspicion, especially post Citizens United.

So dies another Republican talking point your “free press” crafted a narrative around. It turns out that Darrell Issa knew about this last year. Maybe if Orrin Hatch wants to know why he wasn’t told, and who was being “deliberately dishonest”, he ought to take it up with Issa. Maybe Issa will try to claim that his office staff is incompetent; trickle down fail.

You might think Republicans would be embarrassed about this, or their deliberately edited Benghazi emails, but lucky for them, they seem incapable of shame. If Darrell Issa knew last year, then obviously Republicans couldn’t have actually ever believed there was a cover up going on, since the Treasury, of which the IRS is a bureau, was actually investigating the matter last year. Double der.

**********

Conservative Nonprofits That Received Tax Exempt Status Outspent Liberals by 34-to-1

By: Sarah Jones
May. 22nd, 2013
PoliticusUSA

The real scandal about the IRS is that they’ve been overwhelmed with dark money groups claiming nonprofit status since the passing of Citizens United, and conservative groups have outspent liberal groups on political spending by 34-1, according to a Center for Responsive Politics analysis of the IRS and FEC records.

Open Secrets reported, “Conservative nonprofits that received tax-exempt status since the beginning of 2010 and also filed election spending reports with the Federal Election Commission overwhelmed liberal groups in terms of money spent on politics, an analysis of Internal Revenue Service and FEC records shows.”

Furthermore, their analysis showed, “Of the 21 organizations that received rulings from the IRS after January 1, 2010, and filed FEC reports in 2010 or 2012, 13 were conservative. They outspent the liberal groups in that category by a factor of nearly 34-to-1.”

American Action Network spent $30.6 million in 2010 and 2012 comprises 94% of the conservative total. But Open Secrets notes, “(E)ven without American Action Network, spending by conservative groups approved after 2010 was nearly quadruple that of liberal groups receiving exempt status in the same period.”

Karl Rove’s Crossroads is the biggest spender, reporting spending more than $87.9 million since 2010, but it’s still waiting to be officially approved as tax exempt. Gee, do you think the IRS will be able to be objective when it comes to Crossroads’ overtly political purpose, or will they feel pressured to rubber stamp Karl so as not to cause offense?

Bear in mind that all of these numbers only represent the amount disclosed.

That’s why you were inundated with political ads over the last two elections. According to data released by the Television Bureau of Advertising, local television stations raked in nearly $3 billion in dark money from political ads in 2012. The sources behind that money are rarely revealed to the viewer, sort of like the anonymous trolls of TV.

Making matters worse, the Federal Communications Commission isn’t pushing for dislosure or transparency like they should be, according to a January 2013 report by Government Accountability Office for Congressional requesters. The FCC is responsible for “ensuring that the public when and by whom its being persuaded.”

    For content considered political or that discusses a controversial issue,
    broadcasters must follow all requirements for commercial content and additional requirements, such as identifying officials associated with the entity paying for an advertisement. In addition, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) enforces federal election law that requires all political communications for a federal election, including television and radio advertisements,
    to include a disclaimer statement. FEC also oversees requirements to report campaign funding and expenditures, including funding for political advertising.

It just may be that with all of this overspending, 34-1, conservative groups might have drawn attention to their activities all by themselves. It didn’t help that they are using True the Vote as their IRS Persecution Cause of the Week, when a judge ruled that True the Vote was not a nonprofit, but was actually operating as a PAC, and had illegally aided the GOP.

***************

The GOP: They’re Sneaky, Greedy and They Represent a Handful of People

By: Dennis S
May. 21st, 2013
PoliticusUSA

Hey average dudes and dudettes, you’re being chewed up and spit out daily and don’t even know it. The poor and middle-class are carrying 100% of the burden of perpetuating the status of the privileged few squeezed into the top 1 or 2% of the U.S. population. Mr. and Mrs. Mainstream make virtually all the financial and service sacrifices at the altar of the political derangement that is today’s Republican Party.

The headline examples are obvious. Huge tax breaks for the hugely wealthy. Every multinational corporate incentive perk imaginable, relentless Republican attempts to destroy Obamacare under the aegis of insurance interests and pharmas, low wages getting lower for the have-nots and the use of God, Guns and Gays (and now fairy tale scandals) to keep red state voters in line. But there’s a lot more in the cynical and self-serving hopper of privilege embracing the sweet life of fancy cars, enormous homes and oceans of cash until death do ye part.

Let’s go for a ride on the scamola train. We’ll make a few stops at the more egregious of sneaky ways to pick your pocket without you being aware that you’re a major contributor to a huge multinational or the victim of unhinged politics. I recently attended an Upstate South Carolina meeting that featured speakers from the publicly owed, Commission of Pubic Works (CPW), a local city water and sewer system entity that also serves the county. CPW arbitrarily decided to change the formula for paying the city a “dividend” each year out of monies collected for water and sewer services. That dust-up blew the cover off of information that, while supposedly public, was sometimes hidden deep in the small print.

CPW has raised rates for the past 5 years. Their latest proposal is a 13.9% increase for in-city residential customers or about $35 annually. City commercial rates would be 14.7% higher and $188 per annum. For county customers those number rise to 14.2% for residents ($61.00) and 14.9% commercial or $328. In-city industrial customers get socked for a $64,053 increase, while the county industries, including some giant multinationals kick in $112,029. As for the latter, ROTFLMAO!!!

I asked the speaker the obvious question. In getting the giants to grace your small, right to work, anti-union, desperate for jobs county, don’t you and your butt-kissing economic development partners, make water negotiations a major part of your incentive packages? Well, ‘er, yes, we do sometimes negotiate rates. I further asked how long some of these contracts are? “Well, ‘er, 30 years!” So, for the highly misleading suggestion that the multinationals are going to have their rates raised by some loathsome percentage, file that under pure bulls**t. Their much lower rates are contracted for decades.

You, the little guy and gal, are going to pick up a substantial portion of multinational rate slack. A percentage of your increase will absorb the percentage that is negotiated away by the hulking behemoth of brick and mortar, located in 50 countries, paying minimal (if any) taxes, often getting its land for nothing and infrastructure compliments of the city.

Something else built into your rate structure is absorbing a $500,000 health insurance increase for employees of CPW. For some, that represents hundreds a month in premiums. This is going on in every corner of our fine land. Before the state health exchanges bring in some competition to the state marketplace in 2014, the major insurance companies are slamming businesses and local governments with increases in the 14-15% range. And the problem in many states is that as few as 1 or 2 such companies serve some states. Blue Cross and Blue Shield have about a 50% South Carolina stake. THAT is why powerful insurance companies have their hugely unethical and greedy (cushy lobbying jobs on retirement?) legislators attacking Obamacare.

Another local impact, essentially a consequence of Nikki Haley’s Social Services policies, involves a local boys home that could close by the end of the year. Reduced reimbursement rates are partially at fault. It’s a 42-year-old facility for boys, 8 to 18years.

Speaking of the state budget, 84% of those in the county with mental issues cannot get help from the county mental health system, largely due to lack of resources. A lack of state funding closed a detoxification center that served 11,000 people in its 15-year history. Are you satisfied Republicans? A friend of mine’s son recently died with issues that mental health support could have addressed. Another non-profit center providing services on a sliding pay scale locked its doors for the same reason.

For religious Republicans, serving the mentally challenged, the sick and poor and young boys in need, or serving giant multibillion-dollar corporations is no contest. Go Boeing!

The sequester, was born of Republican legislative blackmail to keep the government up and running, includes 9 years of ruinous cuts. The Huffington Post lists a few: they included cuts in food safety, scientific research (I can hear the goobers cheering now), cuts in HIV tests and meds (more goober cheering), care for those with mental health needs, cuts in head start, help for the homeless and unemployment benefits could go down by as much as 9%. That’s how heartless Republicans are. That’s $1.2 trillion less over 9 years; $85 billion this year.

On the hypocritical side, mandated furloughs for Air Traffic Controllers were removed when members of Congress realized they were impacted. Another enormously ill-conceived cut was the slashing of emergency response funds. In light of the horrible Moore tragedy, what an incredibly short-sighted move. My heart goes out to the families of Moore and the surrounding area.

It’s not that there isn’t huge money out there. Risking a reprising of the obscene and economically deadly dot-com bubble of 2000, we’re starting to get questionable big money investments tossed around. For 3 years from 1997 to 2000, pimply-face adolescents could get their garage Internet businesses purchased or IPO’d and invested in at ridiculous prices while having zero revenue.

A 26-year-old recently unloaded his popular blogging forum, Tumblr, with tens of millions of daily posters. Certainly cool and neat and the back-story of the whiz-kid owner is cute, but worth $1.1 billion to Yahoo? Tumblr is a great favorite of the teen to early 20s set. Is there a more fickle demographic?

For his part, Mark Zuckerberg parted with $1 billion of Facebook’s billions for Instagram, a popular photo-sharing mobile app with no profits. A Forbes writer postulated that among 10 reasons Facebook bought Instagram was “Because it Could” and Facebook is having a “midlife crisis.” Pretty sophisticated stuff.

Both these deals might work out just fine, but remember those reckless dot-com days where NASDAQ closed at it’s highest at $5,048. Some 13 years later, it’s hovering around the $3,500 level. The estimated loss to investors; $5 trillion. Thinking dot-coms are once again easy money is a small-investor trap.

A final warning that things could get worse. Mergers and acquisitions in the health care field. Generic drug maker Actavis, just used an all-stock deal to put together the third largest specialty Pharmaceutical in the country. Few companies, less competition, higher prices.

So, while the top tier money-changers are on a financial high, the Bush recession has cost the middle-class Gen Xers almost half of their wealth between 2007-2010. Their current age range is 36-47.

Seems an appropriate time to vote for damn near every Democrat who runs for office.

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Bachmann: God will ‘answer our prayers’ and repeal Obamacare with a ‘miracle’

By David Edwards
RawStory
Tuesday, May 21, 2013 13:13 EDT

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) is telling her constituents that God will “answer our prayers” and create a “miracle before our eyes” to repeal President Barack Obama’s health care reform law.

In a Tuesday interview with evangelical radio host James Dobson, Bachmann noted that the House of Representatives had recently voted for the 37th time to repeal the Affordable Care Act and that she was hopeful that the Democratically-controlled Senate would do the same.

“I think the President will ultimately be forced to repudiate his own signature piece of legislation because the American people will demand it,” she explained. “And I think before his second term is over, we’re going to see a miracle before our eyes, I believe God is going to answer our prayers and we’ll be freed from the yoke of Obamacare.”

“I believe that’s going to happen and we saw step one last week with the repeal of Obamacare in the House. We have two more steps. We serve a mighty God and I believe it can happen.”

At a tea party rally last week, Bachmann had falsely warned that Obamacare would allow the Internal Revenue Service to deny health care to patients.

“Many people said this issue was dead, many people have said that Obamacare is here to stay,” she told the crowd. “We are here as the people’s representatives, as real people across the United States to say, this issue is now revived! It’s is back on the table!”

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May 21, 2013 08:51 PM

Bernie Sanders Goes After Wall Street Oil Speculators

By Diane Sweet
RawStory

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) called on Tuesday for an investigation into oil price manipulation. He also proposed a 30-day deadline for federal regulators to use emergency powers to curb excessive speculation in crude oil markets.

“We must do everything that we can to make sure that oil and gasoline prices are transparent and free from fraud, manipulation, abuse and excessive speculation,” said Sanders, a member of the Senate energy committee.

Over the past five months, the national average price for a gallon of gasoline has gone up by more than 41 cents. The price hikes come at a time when U.S. oil inventories reached a three-decade high while demand for gasoline is lower than four years ago when prices averaged less than $2.30 a gallon.

Sanders spoke about rapidly rising gas prices during a Senate floor speech on two amendments he proposed to the farm bill.

“The skyrocketing cost of gasoline and oil is causing tremendous hardship to the American consumer, small businesses, truckers, airlines and fuel dealers. In fact, as we struggle to claw our way out of this terrible recession, high oil and gas prices are enormously detrimental to the entire economic recovery process,” Sanders said.

One Sanders amendment to the farm bill would make the commission that regulates commodities and the Justice Department’s Oil and Gas Price Fraud Working Group conduct a six-month investigation to determine whether any company or individual in the United States has manipulated the price of gasoline, crude oil, heating oil, diesel fuel or jet fuel.

The investigation would be similar to one already underway in Europe, where the European Commission on May 13th announced that it was investigating the possibility that BP, Shell, Statoil and others “may have colluded in reporting distorted prices to a Price Reporting Agency to manipulate the published prices for a number of oil and biofuel products.”

A second Sanders amendment would give the commission 30 days to use all of its authority, including its emergency powers, to eliminate, prevent or diminish excessive oil speculation. It also would make the commission ensure that oil and gasoline prices are based on the fundamentals of supply and demand.

Exxon Mobil, Goldman Sachs, the American Trucking Association, Delta Airlines, the Petroleum Marketers Association of America, the Consumer Federation of America, the International Monetary Fund and a 2012 report from the St. Louis Federal Reserve all have indicated that excessive oil speculation significantly increases oil and gasoline prices.

The chairman of the commodity commission has stated that Wall Street oil speculators now control more than 80 percent of the energy futures market, a figure that has more than doubled over the past decade. This excessive oil and gasoline speculation is clearly causing major market disturbances that prevent the market from accurately reflecting the forces of supply and demand.

To read the amendment on price fixing, click here.

To read the amendment on emergency action by the CFTC, click here.


Click to watch this very important issue: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=lRkKfGr_TWw





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« Last Edit: May 22, 2013, 10:15 AM by Rad » Logged
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« Reply #6523 on: May 23, 2013, 05:59 AM »

In Pig Putin's Russia ....

Pussy Riot member begins hunger strike

Maria Alyokhina starts protest after being refused permission to attend parole hearing

Miriam Elder in Moscow
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 22 May 2013 14.05 BST   

A jailed member of the anti-Kremlin punk band Pussy Riot has begun a hunger strike to protest at a court decision to refuse her permission to attend her own parole hearing.

Maria Alyokhina, 24, also forbade her lawyers from further representing her during the parole hearing, becoming the most high-profile prisoner to reject taking part in a justice system widely criticised as absurd.

A regional court in Berezniki, a small city in the Urals region of Perm where Alyokhina's prison colony is situated, had denied the activist the right to appear at her parole hearing on Wednesday. She appeared via videolink, and was required to file all motions by fax, requiring regular breaks in the hearing.

At the end of the day-long hearing, she announced she would start a hunger strike. The parole hearing was due to continue on Thursday.

"Let the troika sitting here – the judge, the prosecutor and the colony employee – decide my fate," Alyokhina said at the close of Wednesday's proceedings, referring to the Soviet-era three-person commissions that issued sentences to perceived enemies without a trial.

Alyokhina and two of her bandmates, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich, were sentenced to two years in prison last year after being found guilty of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" for performing a punk anthem criticising Vladimir Putin inside a Moscow cathedral.

Samutsevich's sentence was later suspended. Tolokonnikova was denied parole last month. She and Alyokhina are due to be released in March next year.

In a recent letter to Radio Svoboda, Alyokhina wrote: "Soon I'll appear before the parole commission which, of course, will decide that it's impossible to let such a dangerous person as myself out into society. This is all boring and predictable."

The case against Pussy Riot signalled the start of a widespread crackdown on the anti-Putin opposition, and boosted the profile of the powerful Russian Orthodox church.

On Tuesday, the Duma approved a bill that would impose jail terms for "offending religious feelings". It must now pass a formal third reading and be signed into law by Putin. Critics fear it will add to the arsenal of new laws being used to crack down on dissent.

*************

Jailed Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova to continue activism

Anti-Kremlin punk band member gives defiant first interview with western media since being sent to prison eight months ago

Miriam Elder in Moscow
guardian.co.uk, Monday 8 April 2013 15.17 BST   

A member of the anti-Kremlin punk band Pussy Riot has vowed to continue her work as a political artist in her first interview with the western media since being sent to prison eight months ago.

Nadezhda "Nadya" Tolokonnikova, 23, sounded defiant in the 15-minute telephone interview from her prison colony in Mordovia, a central Russian region infamous for its high number of prison camps. She has been at the distant women's penal colony since October, serving the remainder of a two-year sentence on charges of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred".

Tolokonnikova and two other members of Pussy Riot, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, were found guilty in August last year after they performed a song criticising Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox church in Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral. Samutsevich was later given a suspended sentence.

In a phonecall monitored by prison officials, who repeatedly interrupted the conversation in order to prevent Tolokonnikova from talking about politics, the Pussy Riot founder said she had no hope that Putin's government would release her early.

A court in Mordovia is due to hold a parole hearing in Tolokonnikova's case on 26 April. Although the interview was held one day after the parole hearing date was set, Tolokonnikova, who has been kept largely in an information vacuum, said she had not heard the news.

"For me, the parole hearing means nothing," she said. "In our case, the government wants us to recognise our guilt, which of course we won't do," Tolokonnikova said. "I submitted the parole documents to show that they cannot break a person."

Pussy Riot's supporters have accused Putin of orchestrating the case against them. The women carried out their 40-second cathedral performance in the runup to a contested March presidential election that brought Putin back to the Kremlin. The highly publicised trial against them signalled the start of a sweeping crackdown on the opposition.

Tolokonnikova has also continued to appeal against her guilty verdict through the Moscow court system, and is one step away from it reaching the country's pliant supreme court. Late on Sunday, a leading judge in the Moscow appeals court denied that the case against the women of Pussy Riot was political. "We don't hear political cases," Olga Yegorova said in an interview with state-run NTV television. "It is in my power to lessen their sentence – it's not excluded that that will happen."

The case against Pussy Riot, conducted at lightning speed and rife with procedural abnormalities, highlighted the politicised nature of Russia's court system. Their guilty verdict sent a warning signal to the largely young and urban opposition, while the state's representation of Pussy Riot's performance as an attack on the church pandered to the post-Soviet growth in religious sentiment in the Russian heartland.

The next political trial due to shake the nation is that of the opposition leader Alexey Navalny, whose trial is set to start in the city of Kirov, 500 miles from Moscow, on 17 April. He has been charged with embezzlement in a case he believes has been designed to silence him.

Before being cut off by a prison official, Tolokonnikova said: "I hope they don't have the impudence to jail him – because, after all, he is even more of a media figure among the people than the members of Pussy Riot, at least in Russia.

"I'm very happy he exists, as I'm happy that any political activist exists, especially someone who is willing to spend all his time and energy to change the political situation in Russia," she said.

Tolokonnikova spends her days adhering to a strict prison regimen dominated by work in the colony's factory, sewing uniforms for various Russian officials. She said she felt fine and that "it could be worse". She takes medicine daily for persistent headaches.

Asked if she had begun to think about life after prison, Tolokonnikova said: "My life isn't going to change – there will be new key components because of the experience I've gathered here. The vectors of politics and art will continue the same."

The prison routine leaves her little free time. Whatever time she gets goes towards reading books and the many letters from supporters delivered to her twice a week. Any information from the outside world comes from the newspapers and magazines that her relatives bring her during visits.

"I try to use all my time constructively – productively, creatively. I'm trying to learn how to relate to all this with interest, and I think I am achieving it," she said. "If your mood is bad, then time goes slow. If you learn to live paying attention to life and valuing it, even here, then time isn't lost.

"That's my main task: to make it so that the time they tried to take from me isn't lost. And I think I am successful."

***********

Paul McCartney writes to Russian leaders over treatment of Pussy Riot

Former Beatle lauds country's 'great tradition of fair-mindedness' in handwritten letters pleading for the release of jailed band members

Dan Martin   
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 23 May 2013 10.57 BST   

Paul McCartney performs in Orlando, US, on 18 May.
We can work it out … Paul McCartney performs in Orlando, US, on 18 May, during the first US concert of his Out There tour. Photograph: John Raoux/AP

Paul McCartney has protested to the Russian government about the treatment of the members of Pussy Riot, after it emerged Maria Alyokhina has gone on hunger strike in prison after being refused the right to attend her own parole hearing.

Now McCartney has written to Russian officials, urging them to reconsider the jailing of Alyokhina and bandmate Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, asking them to remember the country's "great tradition of fair-mindedness". In the letter concerning Alyokhina, McCartney writes: "My personal belief is that further incarceration for Maria will be harmful for her and the situation as a whole, which, of course, is being watched by people all over the world. In the great tradition of fair-mindedness which the Russian people (many of whom are my friends) are famous for, I believe that you granting this request would send a very positive message to all the people who have followed this case."

In a separate letter regarding Tolokonnikova, who last month was denied parole, he writes: "I have had a long relationship with the Russian people, and, with this in mind, I am making the following request in a spirit of friendship for my many Russian acquaintances who, like me, believe in treating people – all people – with compassion and kindness."

Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were jailed for two years in August 2012 for breach of the public order motivated by religious hatred after staging their now infamous "punk prayer" protest against Vladimir Putin in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in February 2012. A third woman, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was released last October after being given a suspended sentence.




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« Reply #6524 on: May 23, 2013, 06:03 AM »


Femen protester stages mock suicide at Notre Dame cathedral

Feminist appeals for 'death of fascism' day after far-right historian Dominique Venner shot himself dead at altar

Kim Willsher in Paris
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 22 May 2013 17.03 BST   

A member of the militant feminist group Femen, known for its provocative topless protests, on Wednesday staged a mock suicide in Notre Dame cathedral in the French capital, less than 24 hours after a far-right historian killed himself there in front of visitors and church-goers.

Posing with a pistol in her mouth the woman, who had "May fascism rest in hell" written in black letters across her naked torso, was detained by security guards. She was then arrested by police outside the cathedral and taken to the nearby police station.

Femen claimed responsibility for the protest on its Facebook page writing: "Femen appealed for the death of facism at the exact same place extreme-right activist Dominique Venner committed suicide yesterday afternoon. Our activist was arrested by the police."

Inna Schevchenko, leader of the Femen movement, told journalists the protester was a French woman named Marguerite. "It is a message addressed to all those who support facism and those who have expressed sympathy for the extreme-right militant who killed himself in Notre Dame – namely Marine Le Pen."

Dominique Venner, 78, a far-right essayist and historian took his life in front of the altar at Notre Dame on Tuesday after writing a blog condemning France's recently passed law allowing same-sex marriage and adoption.

The cathedral was evacuated after Venner walked into the building with tourists at about 4pm, placed a letter on the altar, then shot himself through the mouth. Hundreds of visitors were evacuated.

Afterwards, Le Pen, head of the far-right Front National, tweeted her "respect" for Venner and said his death was an "eminently political" gesture.

Before killing himself Venner sent a letter to friends saying he was in good health in body and in mind, was filled with love for his wife and children, and loved life.

He had written: "I expect nothing more from life except the continuation of my race and my spirit. However, at this, in the evening of that life and in the face of immense dangers for my French and European heritage, I feel the need to act, while I still have the force. I believe it is necessary to sacrifice myself to break the lethargy that oppresses us. I offer what remains of my life in an act of protest."

Venner said he chose Notre-Dame as a "symbolic place … which recalls our immortal origins"; the reason for his suicide would be evident from his recent writings.

The historian had described France's same-sex marriage bill, known as the "marriage for all" law, as vile. It passed into the statute books on Saturday after months of furious and often ferocious debate, protest and violence.

Venner was a former member of the Secret Army Organisation, which opposed Algerian independence in the early 1960s and waged a terror campaign against Charles de Gaulle's government.

Hours before killing himself, Venner wrote on his blog of his anger at the law allowing homosexual couples to marry.

Referring to a rally against the law, planned for Sunday, he said the demonstrators were "right to shout their impatience and anger".

He also wrote of what he described as the risk of France "fallen to the power of Islamists", saying that for 40 years all governments and parties, except the Front National, businesses and the church, had accelerated north African immigration.

He claimed there needed to be "new gestures, spectacular and symbolic" to "reawaken the memory of our origins". He said: "We're entering a time where words should be authenticated by actions."


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