Alexander Litvinenko's widow criticises Pig Putin's Downing St visit
Widow says Sunday's meeting with David Cameron shows UK and Russia have agreed to ignore husband's polonium poisoning
The Guardian, Friday 14 June 2013 18.23 BST
The widow of the murdered Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko has criticised David Cameron's decision to meet Vladimir Putin in Downing Street on Sunday, in the run-up to next week's G8 summit, saying it is morally wrong to "appease dictators".
Marina Litvinenko said she was not against bilateral talks between London and Moscow. But she said she was disturbed by the prime minister's increasingly personal friendship with Russia's authoritarian president, and by Cameron's apparent willingness to forget about the killing of her husband by polonium poisoning in 2006.
Putin had refused British attempts to extradite Litvinenko's two alleged assassins, former KGB agents Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, she pointed out.
"I'm not against Russia at all. I believe these two great countries have to have a friendship. But you can't avoid the question of my husband's death," she told the Guardian on Friday. She said: "Tony Blair also sought good relations with Putin. It collapsed after a couple of years. [The former US president] George Bush looked into Putin's eyes and made the same mistake. Cameron should know better. We know from history there is no point in appeasing dictators."
Her remarks came after it emerged that a prominent Russian human rights activist and Putin critic, Oksana Chelysheva, was removed from Stansted airport on Thursday. Chelysheva, who has been the target of repeated Kremlin harassment, had been due to speak about Chechnya on Friday at a major international rights conference in Derry, Northern Ireland. Immigration officials gave no reason for her exclusion. Chelysheva, who has a Finnish passport, said: "I don't believe in coincidences."
Foreign Office officials say Cameron is keen to engage with Putin in order to make progress on Syria and to move towards a peace conference in Geneva. They stress that Russia is a key international player in the Syrian conflict, and a diplomatic and military backer of Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad. The Kremlin was unimpressed on Friday by US plans to arm Syria's moderate rebels and said Washington's proof that Assad had used chemical weapons "did not look convincing". The UK backs the US's stance.
Marina Litvinenko said she was convinced London and Moscow had struck a pragmatic understanding to bury the Litvinenko affair. She said: "How can you have serious talks about security in Syria with a person who doesn't want you to provide justice following a polonium terror attack in central London? It was obviously Mr Putin himself who protected Lugovoi from extradition. I believe it is Putin who also decided that Lugovoi should become a Russian MP."
The foreign secretary, William Hague, has succeeded in a controversial attempt to exclude sensitive government documents from an inquest into Litvinenko's death. The documents establish a prima facie case that the Russian state was behind his murder. As a result of Hague's gagging move the coroner has said he can no longer be satisfied the inquest can deliver justice. He has requested a public inquiry instead. The justice secretary, Chris Grayling, will rule on the request by 3 July.
After meeting Putin last month in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Cameron announced that British security services and Russia's FSB spy agency would resume intelligence co-operation in the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. The former foreign secretary David Miliband broke off contact in 2007 after concluding the FSB had played a lead role in the Litvinenko murder plot. UK-Russian relations improved after Putin visited London last year, watching the judo at the Olympics with Cameron. Recently there have been a series of top-level ministerial visits.
Alex Goldfarb, Litvinenko's close friend, said Cameron's wooing of Putin would ultimately "lead to disaster". Of Sunday's Downing Street meeting, he said: "It's a licence to kill, essentially. It means Putin has impunity to kill people in the centre of London and then laugh at those who think there is something wrong about that."
Goldfarb added: "If Charlie Chaplin were alive he would make a film about Putin similar to The Great Dictator. In this case Cameron has shortchanged Marina Litvinenko and justice more generally for the sake of realpolitik with Mr Putin."
When asked about Chelysheva, British officials said they would not comment on individual cases. But a Foreign Office source said: "We would not have removed someone for criticism of the British government, let alone any foreign government."
In 2006 Chelysheva won Amnesty International's special award for human rights journalism under threat for her campaign to reveal abuses in Chechnya. She was forced to flee Russia in 2008 after police raided the offices of her human rights group. Her 2013 memoir, They Followed Me in the Street, describes her harassment by Putin's secret agents, including surveillance, "weird phone calls" and interrogations.
Paul O'Connor, the organiser of the Derry event, told the Belfast Telegraph: "Why wasn't she allowed in? We are asking the question why was an esteemed, award-winning journalist recognised by Amnesty International not allowed to enter the country." He added: "We will now have an empty chair where someone was supposed to be talking about the situation in Chechnya. It does not reflect well."
Marina Litvinenko said she had met Miliband twice when he was foreign secretary. Hague had telephoned her once but had declined to meet, citing pressure of work. An FCO official said: "We are absolutely committed to getting justice for Litvinenko's family."
Syrian regime used sarin against opposition at least twice, says Cameron
Prime minister says test undertaken at weapons research centre provide credible evidence that Syria has used chemical weapons
Patrick Wintour, Miriam Elder in Moscow and Richard Norton-Taylor
guardian.co.uk, Friday 14 June 2013 18.09 BST
Link to video: Syria: Cameron responds to US chemical weapons claimhttp://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/video/2013/jun/14/syria-cameron-us-chemical-weapons-video
David Cameron has provided fresh detail from the joint intelligence committee setting out the credible evidence the UK has gathered showing that the Assad regime in Syria has used the "abhorrent agent sarin" to attack the opposition at least twice.
"There is credible evidence of multiple attacks using chemical weapons in Syria, including the use of the abhorrent agent sarin," he said.
Tests undertaken at Britain's weapons research centre, Porton Down, showed sarin was used by regime forces at Utaybah on 19 March and at Sheikh Maqsood on 13 April, he said.
"We believe the scale of the use is sanctioned and ordered by the Assad regime. We have not seen any credible reporting of chemical weapons use by the Syrian opposition. However, we assess that elements affiliated to al-Qaida in the region have attempted to acquire chemical weapons for use in Syria.
"That is the picture described to me by the joint intelligence committee and I always choose my words on this subject very carefully because of the issues that there have been in the past.
"We have made no decision to arm the opposition but it was right to lift the arms embargo. The information about chemical weapons further shows the folly of having an embargo giving some sort of moral equivalence to President Assad and the legitimate opposition. We shall continue to train, support and assist the opposition."
He said: "If we do not engage with elements of the opposition and encourage those who have a positive, democratic and pluralistic view about the future of Syria, we won't be able to influence the shape of that opposition. There is a brutal dictator who is using chemical weapons under our noses in a conflict where 100,000 people have died."
Cameron said he still wanted to see a peace conference setting up a peaceful transition to a new regime.
His comments came just hours after Russia dismissed US assertions that Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons against his own people, and said any US move to arm Syrian rebels would jeopardise efforts to convene a peace conference.
Responding to White House moves to broaden its military support for the forces lined up against Assad's regime, the Kremlin said it was not convinced by the pretext for doing so.
Yuri Ushakov, foreign policy adviser to President Vladimir Putin, said US officials had briefed Russia on the allegations against Assad. "But I will say frankly that what was presented to us by the Americans does not look convincing. It would be hard even to call them facts."
The White House said late on Thursday that it would supply direct military aid to Syria's rebels after concluding that government forces had used chemical weapons, something President Barack Obama has called a "red line".
Cameron told the Guardian on Friday that Britain shared the Americans' "candid assessment".
In Damascus, Syrian officials denounced the US verdict as a "caravan of lies" and said Washington's decision to arm the rebels was a "flagrant double standard" in its dealings with terrorism.
"The White House … relied on fabricated information in order to hold the Syrian government responsible for using these weapons, despite a series of statements that confirmed that terrorist groups in Syria have chemical weapons," the foreign ministry said.
Russia has consistently obstructed US-led attempts to bring sanctions against Assad's regime for the bloody conflict that has resulted in almost 100,000 deaths in Syria, and the displacement of millions of people. Russian officials say they do not support Assad and are merely against foreign intervention on principle, but Moscow has continued to supply arms and other aid to Assad as its last major ally alongside Iran.
The issue of arming the rebels has taken on extra urgency in recent days as pro-Assad forces are believed to be moving towards Aleppo, Syria's second city, for a possible showdown with rebel forces that could change the course of the two-year conflict. Heavy fighting was reported in Aleppo on Friday morning.
It remains unclear exactly what weaponry the Americans might supply. Senator John McCain, one of the strongest proponents of US military action in Syria, said he was told on Thursday that Obama had decided to "provide arms to the rebels". Officials told the Associated Press that details were being finalised but that the weapons might include small arms, ammunition, assault rifles and a variety of anti-tank weaponry such as shoulder-fired remote-propelled grenades and other missiles.
Czech PM under pressure to resign as officials are charged with corruption
Petr Necas insists he will stay in power after opposition threatens no-confidence vote
Reuters in Prague
guardian.co.uk, Friday 14 June 2013 17.37 BST
The Czech prime minister, Petr Necas, is clinging on to office after prosecutors accused his personal assistant of being at the centre of a corrupt web of political favours and secret surveillance.
Police raids on government offices on Thursday signalled the most significant swoop on corruption in two decades in a country that has been mired in sleaze since its "Velvet Revolution" overthrew communism in 1989.
The main Czech opposition party said it would initiate a parliamentary vote of no confidence unless Necas quit, but in a defiant speech to lawmakers, the conservative prime minister said he would stay on, and dismissed the allegations.
His fate now depends on whether the smaller parties in his coalition stand by him, and on whether the president, Milos Zeman, a political opponent, tries to use his limited constitutional powers to push Necas out.
Jeronym Tejc, an official of the opposition Social Democrat party, said: "[We] expect the speedy resignation of Prime Minister Petr Necas and the entire government. If that does not happen, the Social Democrats will initiate a vote of no confidence."
A day earlier hundreds of police with the organised crime unit, some in balaclavas to conceal their identity, swept through the government headquarters, the defence ministry, a bank and private homes, detaining several Necas associates.
He was drawn even deeper into the affair on Friday when prosecutors, giving details of their investigation for the first time, alleged the existence of corrupt dealings that intersected with Necas's personal and political life.
Tomas Sokol, a lawyer for one of the people charged, the former head of military intelligence, said prosecutors had accused his client of instructing agents to run surveillance on Necas's wife, Radka. Necas and his wife, his college sweetheart, announced this week they were divorcing.
Corruption was rife under communism but it has grown exponentially in many eastern European countries since they made the transition to a market economy. Graft is a part of everyday life in much of the region, but convictions are rare.
The Czech investigation was unusual because of its scale, and the ambition of taking on a political establishment which previously seemed to be immune from prosecution.
Prosecutors have charged seven people, including the head of Necas's office, two military intelligence service members, and two former members of parliament, the high state attorney Ivo Istvan told a news conference.
They said their suspicions focused on two areas: allegations that officials used the intelligence services for inappropriate purposes, and that corrupt favours were given to politicians.
The prosecutors said the common factor in both sets of allegations was Jana Nagyova, who heads Necas's office. She has worked for Necas since 2006 and has often appeared in Czech tabloids.
"In both of these two criminal cases, one person appears," said Pavel Komar, one of the prosecutors handling the case. "The case of Ms Nagyova has to do with organising criminal activity through the abuse of power and bribery."
A government spokesman refused to comment on the charges against Nagyova, and it was not immediately possibly to identify a lawyer who is representing her. Necas said on Thursday he did not believe she did anything dishonest.
The charges of political favours relate to a case in October last year when three lawmakers with Necas's ODS party threatened to not support the government on a no-confidence vote. But after an agreement with party leadership, they resigned from parliament, and two were later given jobs on the boards of state-controlled firms.
In an appearance in parliament, 48-year-old Necas hit back at the prosecutor's investigations.
He said that as far as the allegations of favours to politicians were concerned, this was normal political activity and not a criminal act. On the allegations of misusing intelligence services, he said they may stem from misunderstandings about instructions regarding his security.
"This is my opinion that I have no reason to back off from, and it is an opinion that leads me not to heed calls … to resign," Necas said.
Necas is the longest-serving prime minister in the past decade in the country of 10.5 million, which since the fall of the Iron Curtain has had a history of political upheavals.
His difficulties may, in part, be the result of a reform Necas himself set in motion. He tried to break with past habits of sweeping corruption under the carpet by appointing prosecutors with a free hand to go after sleaze.
One of the prime minister's coalition partners, TOP 09, threw him a potential lifeline on Friday. The finance minister Miroslav Kalousek, who is also deputy head of the party, said that if Necas fires all government employees who have been charged, "we have no reason not to believe that he did not do anything dishonest".
But the mood on the streets of Prague was impatient. Czechs are confronted daily with evidence of what they believe is pervasive corruption, including well-connected businessmen living in plush villas, and a steady stream of media reports about kickbacks and padded government procurement deals.
"I think he should [resign]. It is high time," said Nina Bechynova, 67, a teacher at a university in Prague, when asked about the prime minister. "But I'm worried that everyone is friends with everyone and that they will brush it under the rug."
Syria dominates G8 talks as anti-poverty activists gather
By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, June 15, 2013 8:05 EDT
Thousands of protesters were due on the streets of Belfast Saturday to urge G8 leaders to act on global poverty at their upcoming summit, expected to be dominated by talks on Syria.
Police in the Northern Irish capital expect 5,000 people to join each of two demonstrations organised by trade unions and campaigners against global hunger ahead of the G8 summit in the province on Monday and Tuesday.
Northern Ireland, which still suffers from sporadic sectarian violence despite a peace deal in 1998, has organised its biggest-ever police operation for the talks, with 8,000 officers deployed.
They will be split between Belfast and the luxury lakeside Lough Erne Resort where the G8 leaders will be staying, including US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe left to attend the summit, where he hopes to shore up support for his bold policy of financial reforms dubbed “Abenomics”.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, who is hosting the summit, is pushing for agreement on his three G8 priorities of trade, tax and transparency.
In a newspaper interview published on Saturday, he revealed plans to require companies in Britain to register their ultimate beneficiaries to make it harder to avoid tax, and said he would urge his G8 colleagues to adopt a similar approach.
There was progress late Friday towards what he has admitted would be the biggest prize of the summit — the start of formal negotiations between the European Union and the United States on a free trade agreement.
EU trade ministers finally thrashed out an agreement on how to negotiate for a deal, after meeting a French demand to exclude the key audiovisual sector.
But the Syrian conflict looks set to dominate the talks after Washington upped the ante by pledging military aid to rebels seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
The White House said for the first time on Thursday that the regime had used chemical weapons, notably sarin gas, on multiple occasions against the opposition — crossing what it has described as a red line.
The issue of Syria topped the agenda of an hour-long pre-summit videoconference on Friday between Obama and the leaders of France, Germany, Britain and Italy.
“They discussed the situation in Syria and how G8 countries should all agree to work on together a political transition to end the conflict,” a spokeswoman for Cameron’s Downing Street office said.
Officials said Washington would increase military support to the rebels, a move welcomed by Britain and France who successfully pushed for a lifting of the EU arms embargo on Syria last month.
Damascus rejected the US accusations as “lies”, while Moscow, a key player due to its long-standing support for Assad, said they were “unconvincing” and hurt efforts to make peace.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet Cameron in London for pre-summit talks on Sunday and then hold a bilateral with Obama in Belfast on Monday.
The US and Russian leaders will kick-start the G8 discussions on Syria, which British officials hope will get all parties in the conflict closer to the negotiating table.
Moscow and Washington have jointly proposed a peace conference in Geneva, building on a similar meeting last year, but no date has yet been set.
Cameron said he wanted G8 summits to “get back to a fireside chat” in which leaders sit together “without a lot of advisers and without a lot of communiques, addressing problems of the world that they want to do something about”.
“International gatherings are worthwhile, if they are done in the right way. The trouble is too many of them are about long communiques with endless textual arguments,” he told The Guardian newspaper.
Draft document reveals G8 will avoid ‘naming and shaming’ corporate tax avoiders
Friday, June 14, 2013 10:18 EDT
By Tom Bergin
LONDON (Reuters) – The G8 group of leading economies will shy away from adopting a measure aimed at curbing tax avoidance by highlighting when companies channel profits into tax havens, and will include a watered down alternative, according to a draft statement.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, who is hosting the annual G8 Summit in Northern Ireland next week, has said he will put tax evasion and aggressive avoidance at the heart of the meeting.
Tackling corporate tax avoidance has become a political goal internationally following public anger about revelations over the past year that companies like Apple and Google had used structures U.S. and European politicians said were contrived to minimize the amount of taxes paid.
But a draft of the communique to be released by the leaders at the end of the summit, circulated by Britain and seen by Reuters, will not support a rule that would force companies to publish their profits, revenues and tax payments on a country-by-country basis.
The draft is dated May 21 and will have been subject to change but without a dramatic shift, the thrust seems clear.
The European Commission and tax campaigners back such a measure in the hope that companies would be shamed into abandoning corporate structures under which most of their profits are reported in tax havens, where they have few staff or sales.
The British plan envisages that companies would, potentially on a voluntary basis, report financial information on every country where they operate, to the tax administration in each of the countries.
“We call on the OECD to develop a common template for country by country reporting to tax authorities … including an examination of both voluntary and compulsory approaches,” the draft said.
Most countries already have access to such information but it could help some developing countries who have expressed difficulties in accessing information about companies outside their territory which they suspect to be involved in siphoning profits from affiliated companies on their territory.
However, even here the information would be of limited benefit since it would not be sufficient to legally prove abusive behavior.
Business groups have lobbied heavily against public country by country reporting saying it would be unreasonably burdensome but Sven Giegold, member of the European Parliament for Germany’s Green Party criticized the failure to adopt the measure.
“This is not the expected breakthrough we had hoped for and may not be solid a step forward,” he said. “The G8 declaration offers nothing new on tax.”
Britain’s finance ministry declined to comment on the draft.
The UK government has so far declined to support the EU proposal on publishing country-by-country profits and only said it supports voluntary disclosure by companies.
The draft communique also included a commitment to create central registries that would contain details of the beneficial owners of companies, a move aimed at stopping individuals stashing possibly stolen money in tax havens out of the gaze of tax authorities.
The communique says these registers would be accessible to tax authorities and law enforcement agencies but tax campaigners had called on the registers to be made public.
Giegold also criticized the draft’s failure to include automatic exchange of information on beneficial ownership to tax authorities.
Automatic exchange of information is seen as more helpful in highlighting wrongdoing since offering information on a requested basis requires a tax authority to already have a suspicion of wrongdoing.
Norway lawmakers vote to extend military conscription to women
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, June 14, 2013 19:00 EDT
Norway will soon become the only country in Europe to extend its military conscription to women in peacetime, after parliament reached agreement on the issue on Friday.
All of the parties represented in parliament, with the exception of the small Christian Democrat party, agreed to back a proposal by the centre-left government for a “gender neutral” military conscription.
In practice, that means that Norway’s mandatory one-year military service will be extended to women, probably as of 2015, according to the defence ministry’s proposal.
“Norway will be the first European country to draft women in peacetime,” a defence ministry spokesman, Lars Gjemble, said.
A number of other European countries have gone in the opposite direction in recent years, moving away from conscription towards professional armies.
Norway’s parliament is expected to adopt the bill by a broad majority, but a date has yet to be set for the vote.
The move is seen as a step towards gender equality and a bid to diversify the competencies within the military.
It is not due to a lack of conscripts: only 8,000 to 10,000 Norwegians are called up each year, among the some 60,000 who are theoretically eligible.
The conscripts are selected based on physical and psychological tests, as well as their motivation.
“This is a historic day,” Defence Minister Anne-Grete Stroem-Erichsen said.
“And it comes the very week when we are celebrating the 100th anniversary of women obtaining the right to vote,” she added.
Norwegian women have been allowed to do military service on a volunteer basis since 1976. They currently represent about 10 percent of conscripts.
Even before the adoption of a “gender neutral” military service, the defence ministry had set a target of 20 percent women in the armed forces by 2020.
Outside of Europe, some countries such as Israel require both men and women to complete their military service.
Belgium's education system needs to answer its own questions of morality
Critics say a 60-year-old practice of segregating faiths for weekly lessons is out of step with modern need for coexistence
Guardian Weekly, Friday 14 June 2013 11.08 BST
It is 8am and Corine Vida, 50, is preparing for a class of 13- to 14-year-olds. She arranges tables and chairs into a U shape so that the pupils have to look at and speak to one another. The empty space represents "the agora, the space in which to pour out words and ideas", explains this teacher of "non-confessional morals" at the Athénée des Pagodes secondary school at Laeken, a suburb of Brussels.
The school has 700 pupils in all, but this morning 14 teenagers, displaying varying degrees of sleepiness and enthusiasm, line up behind their seats. "Sit down, take out your register and mark today's date. I shall record attendance," she says firmly.
The programme for today's 90-minute lesson, the penultimate before the end-of-year exam, includes a section on method, then a question for debate: "Have you ever eaten human flesh?"
The students appear unshocked. In previous sessions they have discussed the relationship between humans and animals. "We accept the theory of evolution, but if anyone has other beliefs, please speak up," Vida says. There is silence.
Those with "other beliefs" may be elsewhere, perhaps in parallel classes for Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox Christians, Muslims and Jews.
The Belgian national curriculum requires pupils to spend two hours a week, for 12 years, studying morals – either non-confessional or religious, depending on their own or more likely their parents' beliefs. "It's a big headache for the timetable," says Charly Hannon, the school head. If just one pupil demands a course for their religion, a teacher has to be found.
And what has all this to do with morals? It is a sort of "default" subject for many pupils with no beliefs, or at least none that are officially recognised, explains Jean de Brueker, the deputy head of the Lay Action Centre. He would prefer classes in philosophy, which he sees as a way to foster "consensus on shared values and promote social cohesiveness and the development of an inclusive society".
Whatever your point of view, this aspect of the Belgian education system seems to be in need of a rethink. It was set out about 60 years ago when a compromise needed to be found between Catholics who advocated freedom of religion in instruction and their opponents – socialists, communists and liberals – who supported secular state education. So in 1959, a pact between centre-left parties guaranteed a free choice over what both primary and secondary schools taught.
The dominance of Catholics in Belgium back then led to state schools having to include religious instruction in their curriculum, whereas "free" schools were under no obligation to organise classes on morals. Society is very different now, particularly in Brussels where the population is made up of people from many faiths and cultures and there is a need for them to be brought together rather than segregated according to religion via the education system.
To complicate matters further for the heads of state schools, the supervision of religious education classes is now in the hands of the relevant clerics. "I just want to check that the teaching is actually in French," says Hannon. How, under these circumstances is it possible to prevent teaching hostile to social harmony or the spread of radical ideas? It is a major problem for the schools operated by the Greater Brussels authority, which maintains a position of "active neutrality". The headteacher has no intention of promoting secular values but is worried, in particular, about some of the teaching dispensed by Islamic instructors. "Given the huge mixture of cultures, it wouldn't take much for things to slip out of control," he warns.
For the second half of the lesson Vida asks her pupils to read a text by the atheist French philosopher Michel Onfray, sentence by sentence. "It stops them staring at the ceiling," she explains. "Driven by a vital need, can one eat human flesh?" Florian reads out. "Is it shameful to eat our fellows?" Tiffany continues. "What would we feel if we ate humans?" Ashmita asks. Off his own bat Elliot inquires: "Is it bad for our health?", but is ticked off. "This isn't a lesson on diet and I'm not a nutritional expert," Vida retorts. Debate then turns to respect for the dead, burial rites, the concept of vital needs and custom.
In the digital age it is an uphill struggle persuading young people to read carefully, classify ideas and organise their thoughts logically. But here that goal seems to have been achieved. "I try to develop their basic critical faculties, so that as young adults they will be able to think freely," Vida sums up as she wipes the board clean, ready for the next class.
We follow her to a classroom in another part of the school. She rearranges it in a similar way. But here her lesson hinges on identity and difference, with references to Rimbaud, Shakespeare and Freud. At one point even Alfred Hitchcock crops up, with mention of Spellbound and how a psychiatrist uses her skills to unlock the amnesia of the man she loves and clear his name. Intrigued by this account of dreams, amnesia, guilt and innocence the supposedly blase students display a lively interest in Vida's suggestion that ultimately we are an enigma to ourselves.
June 14, 2013
Judge at War Crimes Tribunal Faults Acquittals of Serb and Croat Commanders
By MARLISE SIMONS
PARIS — A judge at the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague has exposed a deep rift at the highest levels of the court in a blistering letter suggesting that the court’s president, an American, pressured other judges into approving the recent acquittals of top Serb and Croat commanders.
The letter from the judge, Frederik Harhoff of Denmark, raised serious questions about the credibility of the court, which was created in 1993 to address the atrocities committed in the wars in the former Yugoslavia.
Even before Judge Harhoff’s letter was made public Thursday, in the Danish newspaper Berlingske, the recent acquittals had provoked a storm of complaints from international lawyers, human rights groups and other judges at the court, who claimed in private that the rulings had abruptly rewritten legal standards that had been applied in earlier cases.
Experts say they see a shift in the court toward protecting the interests of the military. “A decade ago, there was a very strong humanitarian message coming out of the tribunal, very concerned with the protection of civilians,” said William Schabas, who teaches law at Middlesex University in London. “It was not concerned with the prerogatives of the military and the police. This message has now been weakened, there is less protection for civilians and human rights.”
Other lawyers agreed that the tribunal, which has pioneered new laws, is sending a new message to other armies: they do not need to be as frightened of international justice as they might have been four or five years ago.
But until now, no judge at the tribunal had openly attributed the apparent change to the court’s current president, Theodor Meron, 83, a longtime legal scholar and judge.
Judge Harhoff’s letter, dated June 6, was e-mailed to 56 lawyers, friends and associates; the newspaper did not say how it obtained a copy.
In his letter, Judge Harhoff, 64, who has been on the tribunal since 2007, said that in two cases Judge Meron, a United States citizen who was formerly an Israeli diplomat, applied “tenacious pressure” on his fellow judges in such a way that it “makes you think he was determined to achieve an acquittal.”
“Have any American or Israeli officials ever exerted pressure on the American presiding judge (the presiding judge for the court that is) to ensure a change of direction?” Judge Harhoff asked. “We will probably never know.”
A spokesman at the court declined to comment on the letter. Other judges and lawyers were willing to speak, provided that their names were not used.
By their accounts, a mini-rebellion has been brewing against Judge Meron, prompting some of the 18 judges of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia to group around an alternative candidate for the election for tribunal president this fall.
“I’d say about half the judges are feeling very uncomfortable and prefer to turn to a different candidate,” said a senior court official. The official said he did not believe that American officials had pressured Judge Meron to rule a certain way in any case, “But I believe he wants to cooperate with his government,” the official said. “He’s putting on a lot of pressure and imposing internal deadlines that do not exist.”
The legal dispute that is the focus of Judge Harhoff’s letter and that has led to sharp language in dissents is the degree of responsibility that senior military leaders should bear for war crimes committed by their subordinates.
In earlier cases before the tribunal, a number of military or police officers and politicians were convicted of massacres and other war crimes committed by followers or subordinates on the principle that they had been members of a “joint criminal enterprise.”
In contrast, three Serbian leaders and two Croatian generals who played crucial roles during the war were acquitted because judges argued that they had not specifically ordered or approved war crimes committed by subordinates.
Judge Meron has led a push for raising the bar for conviction in such cases, prosecutors say, to the point where a conviction has become nearly impossible. Critics say he misjudged the roles played by the high-level accused and has set legal precedents that will protect military commanders in the future.
The United Nations Security Council created the tribunal, a costly endeavor, and has been pressing it for years to speed up work and wind down, with the United States and Russia at the forefront of those efforts.
By early this year, 68 suspects had been sentenced and 18 acquitted. But some of the highest-ranking wartime leaders have been judged at a time when the tribunal is short-staffed and under pressure to close down.
Several senior court officials, while declining to discuss individual cases, said judges had been perturbed by pressures from Judge Meron to deliver judgments before they were ready.
After the only session to deliberate the acquittal that Judge Meron had drafted in the case of the two Croatian generals, one official said, the judge abruptly declined a request by two dissenting judges for further debate.
In his letter, Judge Harhoff also said Judge Michele Picard of France was recently given only four days to write her dissent against the majority decision to acquit two Serbian police chiefs, Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic.
“She was very taken aback by the acquittal and deeply upset about the fast way it had to be handled,” said an official close to the case.
Judge Harhoff’s letter seems likely to add a bruise to the tribunal’s reputation.
“The latest judgments here have brought before me a deep professional and moral dilemma not previously faced,” he wrote in conclusion. “The worst is the suspicion that some of my colleagues have been behind a shortsighted political pressure that completely changes the premises of my work in my service to wisdom and the law.”
June 15, 2013
Moderate in Iranian Election Takes Strong Lead in Early Returns
By THOMAS ERDBRINK
TEHRAN — Iranian officials spent Saturday tallying votes in the nation’s presidential election, with a surge of interest apparently swinging the tide in the favor of the most moderate candidate. With a fraction of the vote counted, the moderate, Hassan Rowhani, was holding a strong lead, but it was uncertain whether he would exceed the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff next week.
With long lines at the polls on Friday, voting hours were extended by five hours in parts of Tehran and four hours in the rest of the country. Turnout reached 75 percent, by official count, as disaffected members of the Green Movement, which was crushed in the uprising that followed the disputed 2009 presidential election, dropped a threatened boycott and appeared to coalesce behind Mr. Rowhani, a cleric, and the mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf.
By early afternoon on Saturday, the preliminary results showed Mr. Rowhani with slightly more than half the votes, followed by Mr. Ghalibaf, who was trailing far behind. Iran’s interior minister, Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, did not say when the final results would be available. Iran has more than 50 million eligible voters and as of midday Saturday nearly 16 million votes had been counted.
The early results seemed to repudiate the coalition of conservative clerics and Revolutionary Guard commanders, the so-called traditionalists, who consolidated power after the 2009 election, which the opposition said was rigged. The traditionalists’ favored candidate, Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator and a protégé of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, did not seem to have gained much traction with the public, emphasizing vague concepts like “Islamic society” and standing up to Western pressure.
Interior Ministry officials who had access to the preliminary tallies said that Mr. Rowhani appeared to be the clear winner in some cities. Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, the spokesman for the Guardian Council, warned against publishing any rumored results until the official results were in.
Ayatollah Khamenei praised the voting in a Twitter post on Saturday despite the fact that the traditionalists’ favored candidate appeared far behind.
“A vote for any of these candidates is a vote for the Islamic Republic and a vote of confidence in the system,” he said.
Many veteran Iran political watchers, who had expected a conservative winner in what had been a carefully vetted and controlled campaign, expressed surprise at the early results.
“If the reports are true, it tells me that there was a hidden but huge reservoir of reformist energy in Iran that broke loose in a true political wave,” said Cliff Kupchan, an Iran analyst for the Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting firm in Washington. “It was unpredictable — not even tip of the iceberg visible two days or three days ago — but it seems to have happened.”
Farideh Farhi, an Iran scholar at the University of Hawaii, while careful not to draw conclusions until the official result was known, said it was clear that reformers and other disaffected voters in Iran had mobilized a heavy turnout despite doubts about the system.
“Everyone’s assumption was they would not be able to create a wave of voters in the society,” Ms. Farhi said. “This outcome was not something planned by Ayatollah Khamenei.”
In surveys and interviews throughout the campaign, Iranians have consistently listed the economy, individual rights and the normalization of relations with the rest of the world as their top priorities. They also said they saw the vote as a way to send a message about their displeasure with the direction of Iran, which has been hobbled by economic mismanagement and tough Western sanctions, stemming from the government’s refusal to stop enriching uranium.
Mr. Rowhani, a former nuclear negotiator, had been criticized by Mr. Jalili as being too willing to bargain away Iran’s nuclear program, which the West says is a cover for developing nuclear weapons but Tehran says is for peaceful purposes.
But Mr. Rowhani seemed to strike a more popular chord by promoting more freedoms and rights for women, and gained momentum late in the campaign with the withdrawal of the only other candidate with any reformist tendencies and the endorsement of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, 78, a moderate former president who was disqualified by the Guardian Council, which vets all presidential candidates.
While not claiming victory, Mr. Rowhani’s campaign released a statement on Saturday urging the authorities to conduct a clean count. “We hope that the respected Guardian Council and the election headquarters of the country will follow the guidelines of the supreme leader regarding protecting the peoples’ rights in counting the votes,” it read.
Mr. Rowhani’s closest competitor in the early results, Mr. Ghalibaf, is also considered a moderate and a strong manager who has improved the quality of life in Tehran in his eight years as mayor. The other four candidates, all conservatives, seemed to be trailing badly.
Mr. Jalili, known for his unyielding stance as a nuclear negotiator, had been considered a front-runner less than three weeks ago. But his campaign never gained much momentum, and in his public statements and appearances he appeared to have little knowledge of Iran’s economic problems, one of the biggest concerns here.
In the Iranian political system, the president appoints governors, some members of the cabinet and other officials, and has some say in economic policy. But all power ultimately resides with the supreme leader, particularly in foreign policy and the nuclear program.
Buy as the departing incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, made clear with his bombastic appearances at the United Nations and his express desire to see Israel “wiped off the map,” the president can have a profound effect in setting the tone in Iran. Analysts said they expected the election of either Mr. Rowhani or Mr. Ghalibaf might soften Tehran’s confrontational tone, if not its actual stance in negotiations.
As the counting continued into Saturday, officials issued an edict that all candidates to avoid any gatherings until the official result was announced. The order was a reminder of the political minefield presented by the election, which descended into protest and chaos four years ago when pro-reformist candidates accused the authorities of rigging the vote to ensure Mr. Ahmadinejad’s re-election. He was not eligible for a third term.
Wary of stirring those passions, the authorities banned street rallies and limited the candidates to smaller meetings in enclosed spaces like theaters and gymnasiums. After casting his ballot, Ayatollah Khamenei went out of his way to reassure Iranians that the vote would be free and fair.
“I have advice for the people in charge of ballot boxes and counting the votes,” he said. “They need to know that they are the trustee of the people and their vote needs to be preserved, and this is the people’s right.”
The top election official in Tehran Province, which includes the capital and is the country’s largest urban area, said at least 70 percent of voters had cast ballots by the end of Friday. “The political epic that the leader expected took place,” the official, Safar Ali Baratloo, was quoted as saying by the Iranian Students’ News Agency.
Mr. Rowhani was drawing a number of votes in Geysha, a middle-class Tehran neighborhood. “He will change this country,” said Golnaz, 20, who refused to give her family name for security reasons. “We need change.”
But there were some doubts about just how much would change even with a more moderate president. Addressing American skepticism about the outcome as he exhorted Iranians to vote, Ayatollah Khamenei told reporters: “To hell with you if you do not believe in our election. If the Iranian nation had to wait for you to see what you believe in and what you do not, then the Iranian nation would have lagged behind.”
Rick Gladstone and Robert Mackey contributed reporting from New York.
June 15, 2013
Al-Qaida's Iraq Head Refuses to Scrap Syria Merger
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
BAGHDAD — The leader of al-Qaida's Iraq arm defiantly rejected an order from the terror network's global command to scrap a merger with the organization's Syria affiliate, according to a message purporting to be from him that was posted online Saturday.
The latest statement by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who heads the Islamic State of Iraq, reveals a growing rift within the terror network and highlights the Iraqi wing's determination to link its own fight against the Shiite-led government in Baghdad with the cause of rebels trying to topple the Syrian regime.
In an audio message posted online, a speaker identified as al-Baghdadi insists that a merger he announced in April with Syria's Jabhat al-Nusra rebel group to create a cross-border movement known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant will continue.
"The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant will continue as long as we live. We will not give up and we will not compromise over this," he said.
Al-Nusra is Syria's most powerful rebel extremist group, and its head has rejected the takeover attempt.
The Qatar-based Al-Jazeera TV reported late Sunday that al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri had issued a letter trying to end the squabbling and ordering the two groups to stay separate.
Al-Baghdadi is now defying that command.
In his statement, he referred to "the letter attributed to Sheik al-Zawahiri," suggesting he was calling into question the authenticity of the letter.
"I chose the command of God over the command that runs against it in the letter," al-Baghdadi said.
He urged his followers to rise up against Shiites, Alawites, and the "Party of Satan" — a reference to the Iran-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah, which has been sending fighters to Syria to fight alongside of President Bashar Assad's regime. Assad comes from the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
It was not possible to independently confirm whether the speaker was al-Baghdadi, but the man's voice was similar to that in an earlier recording announcing the merger.
Violence has spiked sharply in Iraq in recent months, with the death toll rising to levels not seen since 2008. Al-Qaida in Iraq is thought responsible for many of the car bombings and other violent attacks targeting the country's majority Shiites and symbols of the Shiite-led government's authority.
Iraq risks getting more deeply involved in the Syrian civil war raging across its western border.
Iraqi border posts along the Syrian frontier have come under attack by rebels, and Syrian truck drivers and soldiers have been killed inside Iraq. Iraqi fighters are moving across the border, with Sunni extremists cooperating with the rebels and Shiite militants fighting alongside government forces.
Also on Saturday, an Iranian exile group living in a camp near Baghdad airport, the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, said it came under attack from rockets that caused casualties among its members, according to camp spokesman Shahriar Kia.
Camp resident Kolthom Serahati was reported killed and others were wounded, according to the group.
Iraq's government wants the MEK out of the country, and the United Nations is working to relocate residents abroad.
The group is the militant wing of a Paris-based Iranian opposition group that opposes Iran's clerical regime and has carried out assassinations and bombings in Iran. It fought alongside Saddam Hussein's forces in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, and several thousand of its members were given sanctuary in Iraq. It renounced violence in 2001.
Iraqi police officials reported that explosions — which they said were caused by mortar shells — struck near the airport, but there was no immediate word on casualties. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed reporting.__
une 14, 2013
A Myanmar in Transition Says Little of Past Abuses
By THOMAS FULLER
YANGON, Myanmar — The former head of military intelligence, once feared and loathed for the torture his agents inflicted, now runs an art gallery. Myanmar’s former dictator, U Than Shwe, is reportedly enjoying a peaceful retirement in a secluded compound, while family members who grew rich during his military rule live luxurious lifestyles that contrast with the crippling poverty that afflicts most of the country. And a former top general in what was one of the world’s most repressive governments, U Thein Sein, is president, hailed both inside the country and abroad as a great reformer. He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
To the outside world, Myanmar’s transition from military rule to fledgling democracy can appear jarringly forgiving.
Even those who suffered torture and years of solitary confinement as political prisoners say there is no point calling for retribution. They cite the role of Buddhism, a certain pragmatism and, in some cases, political calculations for their restraint.
The old elite — the generals and the businessmen who were close to them — are reinventing themselves.
The most stark example may be U Khin Nyunt, the former spymaster, who opened his art gallery and cafe last month in the compound of his yellow-ocher mansion in Yangon that during the junta’s rule was off limits to all but those with top military clearance.
Mr. Khin Nyunt spends his mornings in prayer surrounded by Buddhist statues and his afternoons tending to an orchid garden.
“I don’t want to analyze or look back on the actions of the past,” Mr. Khin Nyunt said in an interview. “Look at how peaceful my life is now, very peaceful.”
Myanmar is unlike other countries emerging from years of extreme repression in that there have been few calls for trials, war crimes tribunals or even the kind of truth-and-reconciliation commission that helped South Africa move beyond apartheid.
The tone has been set by the most famous of the thousands of the country’s former political prisoners, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the political opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate who spent a total of 15 years under house arrest before her release in 2010.
“I for one am entirely against the whole concept of revenge,” she said this month to an audience of Myanmar government officials and foreign business executives.
“I would like us to have the courage to be able to face our past squarely,” she said, “but making it quite clear that I personally am not for trying anybody or punishing them or seeking revenge or taking the kind of action that will destroy people for what they have done in the past.”
For Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, which leads the opposition in Parliament, there is a critical political element to the pragmatism. The next general elections are in 2015, and for them to proceed smoothly without a threat of a return to military rule, many are urging a go-softly approach.
Myanmar has been nominally under civilian rule for the past two years, but the government officials leading the transition to democracy today are largely the former apparatchiks of the military governments that ruled the country for five decades.
U Thiha Saw, a leading journalist, said this is the critical distinction between Myanmar and other societies going through convulsive transformations.
“This is not a bottom-up revolution,” he said. “It’s a top-down transformation.”
Some former political prisoners suggest there is an unspoken social contract in Myanmar today, which recognizes that the military elite might be unwilling to continue to let go of power if they fear retribution.
“We can forgive them if they transform the country from military rule to democracy,” said U Tin Aung, 71, who spent 23 years in prison for student activism and affiliation with the Communist movement. Despite losing a friend who he believes died from torture soon after being arrested, he said he was against seeking retribution; he said that as a Buddhist, he harbored no ill will toward his former captors.
As part of the new deal for the country, he said, the government should “give up their control over the economy.”
But that seems unlikely to happen anytime soon.
Myanmar’s economy is still largely dominated by a group of businessmen who worked alongside the military government and who are known collectively in the country as the “cronies.”
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who recently announced that she would like to run for president, has welcomed their participation in the new Myanmar and has even accepted donations from them for charities that her party runs.
“I have no compunctions about that,” she said last week. “I think it’s better that they use their money in that way rather than, for example, buying another private jet or something like that.”
Still, there are some in Myanmar who believe it is only a matter of time before more people call for justice or retribution, especially those who are likely to lose out in the country’s new Darwinian market economy.
Mr. Thiha Saw, the journalist, who is introducing the first privately owned English-language daily newspaper in Myanmar in decades, said that those in ethnic minorities who were involved in armed conflict with the Burmese Army, and who suffered widespread abuses, are unlikely to stay silent about the past.
“They were raped, killed, looted and robbed,” Mr. Thiha Saw said. “Will they just say, ‘What is done is done’ ? I don’t think so.”
U Aung Tun, a former student activist who spent 17 years as a political prisoner, said there are likely to be more calls for justice as disappointment grows among those who are not benefiting from the country’s changes.
Mr. Aung Tun has already made his own efforts to at least begin a move toward examining the past. Last year, he sent a letter to 15 former members of the junta, including Mr. Than Shwe and Mr. Khin Nyunt, demanding an apology and threatening legal action. He has yet to receive any formal replies. (The country’s Constitution, drawn up by the generals, offers impunity for the junta, banning any “proceeding” against former officials of the military government “in respect of any act done in the execution of their respective duties.”)
Mr. Khin Nyunt, the former intelligence chief, admitted to mistakes — “to err is human,” he said — but he was just doing “what I was ordered to do.”
During the course of two interviews, Mr. Khin Nyunt, 74, made frequent references to Buddhism and spirituality. “I am not an ordinary, traditional Buddhist,” he said. “I am a genuine devotee of Buddhism.”
As he spoke in his compound filled with citrus and mango trees, there were more employees than customers in the new cafe. The adjacent art gallery features the type of paintings that fill tourist shops around Yangon: portraits of Buddhist monks or villagers; still lifes of tropical fruit; landscapes showing the colorful fields of the Shan Plateau in the northeast. Mr. Khin Nyunt said he wanted to give space to “little-known” artists.
“I have no regrets,” he said, referring to his years in power. “I had no intention of doing harm to others. I believe that I did no violence, I did no injustice.”
These words, relayed to Mr. Aung Tun, the former political prisoner, were met with disbelief.
Mr. Aung Tun said he was beaten and deprived of food and sleep for days at a time after being detained by military intelligence officers who worked for Mr. Khin Nyunt’s spy agency. Among his alleged crimes: writing a book on the student protest movement. He said agents read the book’s acknowledgments and arrested those Mr. Aung Tun had thanked for help with his research.
As for the former spy chief’s new career as patron of the arts, Mr. Aung Tun’s reaction dripped with bitter sarcasm.
“I’m glad to hear he is at peace,” Mr. Aung Tun said. “But you cannot hide from history. The truth will find its place.”
Wai Moe contributed reporting.
Sattler sacked for insulting Gillard
Perth presenter who asked if the prime minister's partner was gay says he will sue Fairfax radio
guardian.co.uk, Saturday 15 June 2013 00.44 BST
The Perth radio presenter Howard Sattler says he will pursue legal action against Fairfax radio after he was sacked for asking Julia Gillard whether her partner was gay.
Sattler's live radio interview on Thursday night made international headlines after he asked the prime minister about Tim Mathieson's sexuality.
Fairfax management suspended Sattler, who had worked at Radio 6PR for 28 years, on Thursday night and then announced he had been sacked on-air on Friday afternoon.
Station general manager Martin Boylen said Sattler's conduct was disrespectful and entirely inappropriate.
Boylen apologised to Gillard and Mathieson for allowing Sattler to raise such matters.
"The station has now decided to terminate Mr Sattler's engagement effective immediately," he said.
Sattler told reporters he was taking legal action against Fairfax because he had six months left on his two-year contract.
He said he was sorry he offended the prime minister but had no regrets because he had told her it would be a "candid" interview.
"She should have known it was coming," he told reporters on Friday.
Ecuador imposes ‘gag order’ on radio and TV stations
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, June 14, 2013 21:15 EDT
Ecuador slashed the private sector’s share of radio and television frequencies Friday and restricted content, the culmination of a battle between the president and media he accuses of undermining him.
Leftist President Correa has long had tense relations with private news outlets and has come under fire from international rights groups.
Members of the leading opposition party, called Creo, attended Friday’s session wearing white handkerchiefs over their mouths, likening the law to a gag order.
“Life is nothing if you lose freedom,” read one of the signs they carried.
Correa’s party Alianza Pais ruling party, which holds an absolute majority of 100 out of 137 seats in Congress, was easily able to pass the bill despite criticism that it will tighten the state’s control over the media.
The law redistributes broadcast media frequencies and licenses, allotting 34 percent to community media and 33 percent to the public sector.
The private sector, which currently controls 85.5 percent of radio frequencies and 71 percent of television frequencies, will be confined to the remaining 33 percent.
“Goodbye to the monopoly on the media,” said Mauro Andino, the ruling party lawmaker who sponsored the bill.
It also requires Ecuadorian media to dedicate 50 percent of radio programming and 60 percent of television programming to locally-produced content.
The law establishes a regulatory body to restrict violent, sexual or discriminatory content and to sanction and fine violators.
Correa, a populist in the mold of the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, has long clashed with private media.
In July 2011 an Ecuadorian court sent four journalists from the daily El Universo to prison and imposed a $40 million fine for “defamatory libel” for running opinion articles criticizing Correa.
The ruling unleashed a storm of protests by rights groups and media watchdogs, with Human Rights Watch Americas director Jose Miguel Vivanco denouncing what he called a “major setback for free speech in Ecuador.”
Correa later pardoned the journalists, but is still battling some media groups that he says are attempting to destabilize his government.
Ecuador has meanwhile granted asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been holed up at its London embassy for the last year in a bid to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted on sex crime allegations.
Assange — who has portrayed his disclosure of a trove of leaked US documents as the act of a whistleblower intending to reveal official misdeeds — says he fears he will be handed over to the United States for prosecution.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Guatemala reeling after mass cop shooting inside station
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, June 14, 2013 22:45 EDT
Guatemalan authorities expressed concern about the power of organized drug gangs Friday after eight police officers were shot dead inside their station.
On Thursday night, gunmen shot eight officers dead and kidnapped the chief of police in Salcaja, about 200 km (125 miles) from Guatemala City.
According to national police chief Gerson Olivia, investigators believe the officers were disarmed and could have been positioned face down on the ground before being riddled with bullets.
“This event is lamentable and I think it is a direct affront to the state as an institution,” said Adolfo Alarcon, a security analyst at the Center for National and Economic Inquiry.
He said the killing was a message from traffickers “to the state and society that they do not fear them, that they will use all means necessary to cause chaos and reduce the population to a state of terror and defenselessness.”
In a statement, President Otto Perez attributed the attack to drug gangs operating in the area with possible links to Mexican cartels such as the Sinaloa or Los Zetas organizations.
According to Perez, twelve to thirteen people traveling in three vehicles were involved in the operation.
Perez said he had not ruled out the option of declaring a state of emergency in the Salcaja area.
Jorge Santos of the International Center for Human Rights Research, set up to secure political rights after Guatemala’s civil war, said he hoped “this terror will not lead to greater levels of social control by the executive.”
The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned the killing “emphatically” and urged authorities to quickly shed light on the events.
Guatemala is experiencing a wave of violence that claims 16 victims a day, one of the highest rates in Latin America.
Authorities estimate that around 50 percent of violent deaths in Guatemala are linked to the drug trade and gang violence.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
June 14, 2013
Court in Venezuela Orders Release of a Judge Once Scorned and Jailed by Chávez
By WILLIAM NEUMAN and MARÍA EUGENIA DÍAZ
During the three and a half years that she was held in prison or under house arrest, Judge Lourdes Afiuni became a symbol of political persecution for many in Venezuela under President Hugo Chávez. On Friday, a court in Caracas, acting at the government’s request, ordered Ms. Afiuni to be set free in the latest sign of a shifting political landscape in post-Chávez Venezuela.
Ms. Afiuni was jailed in December 2009 after issuing a court ruling that infuriated Mr. Chávez, who went on television and demanded that she be sentenced to 30 years in prison. For years Mr. Chávez ignored international appeals for her release, including from the American leftist intellectual Noam Chomsky.
Mr. Chávez, a charismatic socialist, died in March, leaving a bitterly divided country.
His handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, was elected by a slim margin in April and since then has confronted political turmoil and serious economic difficulties that have tested his nascent leadership skills. As Mr. Maduro lurches from one crisis to the next, the quality he seems to have honed most is delivering mixed messages at top volume.
He branded President Obama “the big boss of the devils” and then sent his foreign minister to shake hands with Secretary of State John Kerry and call for warmer relations.
He assailed capitalists for causing soaring inflation and rampant product shortages and then sat down with the head of the country’s biggest private company to discuss the economy.
And while he has relentlessly vilified the political opposition and the man he edged out in the election, Henrique Capriles Radonski, as traitors and coup plotters, his government has made some moves that could be seen as concessions to longstanding grievances of the opposition, which has been demanding Ms. Afiuni’s release.
“There are lots of mixed signals,” said Elsa Cardozo, a professor of political science at the Central University of Venezuela. “It is clear the government of President Maduro is in a situation that is forcing it to make some changes in direction. What we don’t know is if they are permanent changes or tactical changes.”
But while government opponents have long called for Ms. Afiuni’s release, the action may actually be intended to counter an opposition campaign to take its message abroad, with leaders visiting countries around the world to make the case that Mr. Maduro was unfairly declared the winner of a flawed election and that his government is repressive.
The opposition routinely points to Ms. Afiuni as the most prominent among a group of what it calls political prisoners, who it says were jailed arbitrarily or were convicted in politically motivated trials.
“I view it as a sign from the government to the outside world, the international community, that it is trying to show that it is respectful of human rights,” José Vicente Haro, a constitutional law expert, said of Ms. Afiuni’s release.
Ms. Afiuni was arrested after she ordered a jailed businessman accused of evading currency controls freed while awaiting trial. She has said that the man had been held in custody for longer than Venezuelan law generally permitted under the circumstances and that her ruling complied with a recommendation by United Nations human rights monitors.
Her lawyer, José Amalio Graterol, confirmed reports last year that she was raped while in prison, became pregnant and had an abortion, which led to other health problems. She was moved to house arrest in Caracas in 2011.
Ms. Afiuni’s trial began last November and is continuing, although she has refused to attend it.
Last week the national prosecutor’s office made a surprise announcement that it had asked a court to release Ms. Afiuni from house arrest, citing her need for medical treatment. The prosecutor asked the court to require her to report to the authorities every 15 days and to bar her from leaving the country and speaking to the news media.
“A judge never should have been imprisoned for three years and six months for issuing a decision in accordance with the law,” Ms. Afiuni’s lawyer, Mr. Graterol, said Friday, adding that her case had intimidated other judges who feared defying the government.
William Neuman reported from New York, and María Eugenia Díaz from Caracas, Venezuela.
June 14, 2013
Aleppo Pounded, Rebels Weigh U.S. Vow of Aid
By BEN HUBBARD
CAIRO — As a group of rebels gathered in an apartment in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, debating the value of the United States’ decision to provide them with weapons, government forces nearby began pounding an opposition-held neighborhood.
The opposing events led the group to focus on a question asked on Friday by many in Syria’s beleaguered opposition: Would the promised aid come in time, or would be it be too little, too late?
An older rebel who leads a few dozen fighters on one of the front lines in Aleppo was skeptical. “I’ll believe that America is helping us when I see American arms in my group’s hands, not statements and food baskets,” said the 40-year-old fighter, who calls himself Abu Zaki. “We will accept all support even from Satan to finish the Assad regime, then we will not forget those who stand and support us and who stand and support the regime.”
At the same time, he said, he did not understand American fears that arms would go to Al Nusra Front, a rebel group linked to Al Qaeda, since it had never attacked Western targets.
The announcement on Thursday that the United States concluded that the forces of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, had used chemical weapons and that President Obama was now prepared to send light arms and ammunition to the rebels, set off a similar debate around the world. Allies and adversaries of the Syrian president argued whether the decision would help speed the end of the conflict, or serve only to escalate the bloodshed.
“What are we going to do about the fact that in our world today there is a dictatorial and brutal leader who is using chemical weapons under our noses against his own people?” Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain asked in an interview with the newspaper The Guardian.
Britain said Friday that it would confer with American and French leaders, with some of those discussions occurring at a Group of 8 summit meeting next week in Northern Ireland that the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, would attend. Germany called for an urgent meeting of the United Nations Security Council.
But President Assad’s allies in Russia and Iran condemned the decision, and the leader of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, vowed to continue fighting on behalf of the Syrian government “wherever needed.”
In a telephone call on Friday, the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, told Secretary of State John Kerry that Washington’s allegations about chemical weapons “were not supported by reliable evidence,” according to a Russian Foreign Ministry statement. Mr. Lavrov said American support for the opposition risked escalation in the region.
The Syrian government said the American reports about chemical weapons use were “full of lies” and paved the way for intervention.
“The United States is using cheap tactics to justify President Barack Obama’s decision to arm the Syrian opposition,” Syria’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Syria’s conflict began in March 2011 with protests calling for political reform. Since then, it has evolved into a civil war, with armed brigades fighting Mr. Assad’s forces across the country.
The war, which the United Nations said Thursday has killed more than 90,000 people, has accented sectarian divisions inside Syria and across the Middle East.
The rebels mostly hail from Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority and are primarily backed by the Sunni monarchies of Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Mr. Assad’s government has long given privilege to members of his Alawite minority and is backed by the region’s Shiites, including Iran and the Lebanese group Hezbollah. Their strategic alliance allows Iran to use Syria as a crucial land link for the delivery of weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Inside Syria, the news of American aid energized antigovernment activists in Aleppo. The rebels had blasted into Aleppo almost a year ago, energized and eager to occupy the most populous city and a commercial center. But the government fought back and the rebels stalled.
The city is now roughly divided between government- and rebel-controlled neighborhoods and the differences in each are clear to residents.
While government-controlled areas still have running water and electricity, rebel areas lack centralized administration. Their streets are piled with garbage, medical services and food are scant, and residents spend hours searching for fuel to run generators.
Most affluent families have left, and the Islamist orientation of the rebels has alienated many residents and scared away minority Syrians who had long called the city home.
“I sell more bottles of wine to Muslims than to Christians,” said Abu Elian, a Christian Syrian who sat in his shop, drinking wine and smoking cigarettes. He said that every day he heard of new Christian families that had left the city. “Every day that comes, we feel it is harder for us to live in this country,” he said.
Once the government, with Hezbollah’s help, managed to rout the rebels from the city of Qusayr, there were fears that the forces would move on Aleppo. It was not clear Friday if the heavy fighting represented the start of an all-out attack, or just another skirmish, but the timing served to magnify the significance of Washington’s announcement.
Fighting that antigovernment activists described as the heaviest in months raged Friday around the eastern rebel-held neighborhood of Sakhour, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group based in Britain that relies on a network of contacts in Syria.
“Now we can say Americans are our real friends, and we will not forget their position and help to finish the Assad regime,” said Abdel-Qader, 30, an activist in Aleppo.
A rebel commander reached in Aleppo via Skype called the American decision “good news,” but said what the rebels really needed were antitank and antiaircraft missiles.
Reflecting the questions that remain about which rebels the United States will arm, the commander, Jamal Maarouf, said he did not know if his group would qualify.
“The American said they will arm moderate battalions,” he said. “I don’t know if my battalion is moderate.”
Hania Mourtada contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon, and an employee of The New York Times from Aleppo, Syria.
June 14, 2013
Heavy Pressure Led to Decision by Obama on Syrian Arms
By PETER BAKER
WASHINGTON — For two years, President Obama has resisted being drawn deeper into the civil war in Syria. It was a miserable problem, he told aides, and not one he thought he could solve. At most, it could be managed. And besides, he wanted to be remembered for getting out of Middle East wars, not embarking on new ones.
So when Mr. Obama agreed this week for the first time to send small arms and ammunition to Syrian rebel forces, he had to be almost dragged into the decision at a time when critics, some advisers and even Bill Clinton were pressing for more action. Coming so late into the conflict, Mr. Obama expressed no confidence it would change the outcome, but privately expressed hope it might buy time to bring about a negotiated settlement.
His ambivalence about the decision seemed evident even in the way it was announced. Mr. Obama left it to a deputy national security adviser, Benjamin J. Rhodes, to declare Thursday evening that the president’s “red line” on chemical weapons had been crossed and that support to the opposition would be increased. At the time, Mr. Obama was addressing a gay pride event in the East Room. On Friday, as Mr. Rhodes was again dispatched to defend the move at a briefing, the president was hosting a Father’s Day luncheon in the State Dining Room.
Few international problems have bedeviled Mr. Obama as much as Syria and few have so challenged his desire to reduce the American footprint in the world in order to focus energies instead on what he calls “nation building here at home.” As much as he wants to avoid getting entangled in what he regards as another quagmire, he finds himself confronted by a conflict that is spilling over into the region and testing American resolve.
“It was a matter of time — the White House may not have wanted intervention but intervention itself was chasing the administration,” said Emile Hokayem, a Middle East-based analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “The White House underestimated the potency of this struggle and its profound implications for the region and its own interests, and then found itself lacking space, strategic clarity and momentum to do anything meaningful.”
While an aide said Mr. Obama’s decision was made even before Mr. Clinton’s comments this week endorsing more robust intervention, the president ended up satisfying neither side in the Syrian debate. For those who have pressed the White House to do more, the belated agreement to send small arms after nearly 93,000 deaths seems too little, too late. For those who warn that Syria could become another Iraq or Libya, the latest move comes across as another step down a slippery slope toward a messy outcome.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former director of policy planning in Mr. Obama’s State Department, said her onetime boss so clearly wanted to be a domestic president and yet could not remain at a distance from the Syria conflict because it could set the Middle East in flames. Already, she noted, it has helped destabilize Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey and flooded refugees into Jordan.
“I really worry this is going to be remembered as the United States standing by and watching a Middle East war ignite,” said Ms. Slaughter, who will become president of the New America Foundation in Washington in September. “I fear the president thinks he can stand apart. He’s the one who always says with power comes responsibility. That’s his line.”
But White House aides on Friday again ruled out sending United States troops and dismissed calls for a no-fly zone over Syria, calling it “dramatically more difficult and dangerous and costly” than it had been in Libya in 2011, as Mr. Rhodes put it. And there is little domestic constituency for another American adventure abroad.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, said he was “baffled” by Mr. Obama’s decision to become more deeply involved. “What exactly is our objective?” he asked. “It’s not clear to me that every nondemocratic government in the world has to be removed by force.”
The Syria war is a struggle for power, not democracy, he said. “Is that something we should be engaged in?”
The president’s decision came just before he was to leave Sunday for a summit meeting in Europe, where Syria may be a dominant issue. The British government, which will host the annual Group of 8 gathering in Northern Ireland, offered support Friday for Mr. Obama’s decision, while the Russian government said it did not find the American intelligence on chemical weapons use persuasive.
On the sidelines of the summit meeting, Mr. Obama is scheduled to meet with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has rebuffed American pressure to abandon President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. The Obama administration sees Russia as the key to forcing peace negotiations even as prospects for a Geneva conference fade.
Mr. Obama came around to the idea of arming the rebels, at least modestly, only months after rejecting it. In part, that was because of confirmation by intelligence agencies that Mr. Assad’s forces had used sarin gas against his people. If Mr. Obama did not respond in some fashion, it would have been taken as a question of credibility since he had previously said such a development would change his calculus.
But the move also reflects nervousness in the White House about the increased involvement of Iran and its proxy group, Hezbollah, in the fight on Mr. Assad’s behalf. With the Syrian opposition on the defensive, a victory by Mr. Assad would be a victory for Iran as well. By providing limited arms, Mr. Obama hopes to bolster the rebels enough to even the odds and give the Syrian leadership incentive to broker a resolution.
“We believe that we can make a difference,” Mr. Rhodes said Friday. The aid will ensure that the rebels are “able to firm up their position” and become more cohesive. “We still believe that there is not a scenario we can foresee where Bashar al-Assad can remain in power in a country that so clearly rejects his rule.”
Even as he outlined those goals, though, Mr. Rhodes made clear the limits of Mr. Obama’s willingness to achieve them. The president wants to avoid sending “heavier weapons systems,” Mr. Rhodes said, recognizing that they might fall into the hands of Al Nusra Front, an opposition group affiliated with Al Qaeda. Sending American troops is “off the table,” Mr. Rhodes added, citing the difficulties they faced stopping violence during the Iraq war. And as for a no-fly zone, he said “we don’t at this point believe that the U.S. has a national interest in pursuing a very intense, open-ended military engagement through a no-fly zone in Syria.”
Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, has urged the administration for months to arm the opposition yet also opposes a no-fly zone. While he supported Mr. Obama’s latest decision, he said the president had not articulated a long-term strategy, but instead seemed to be responding in a “transactional, ad hoc” basis, buffeted by competing views around him.
“As I watch from the outside, I do think that it’s just very difficult for them to come to a place and settle upon it,” Mr. Corker said. “There are a lot of different voices, there’s a lot of agonizing.”
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.