Panama finds MIG fighters on board North Korean ship
Jets uncovered with missile radar systems were on list of ordnance provided by Cuban government
Reuters in Colon, Panama
guardian.co.uk, Monday 22 July 2013 02.25 BST
Panamanian investigators unloading the cargo of a seized North Korean ship that carried arms from Cuba have found the two MiG-21 fighter jets the Cuban government had said were on board, the government said on Sunday.
Alongside the two supersonic planes, originally produced by the Soviet Union in the late 1950s, officials found two missile radar systems, President Ricardo Martinelli told reporters in the Atlantic port of Colon.
The discovery, which included cables and electrical equipment, was made inside containers on the Chong Chon Gang that Panama had feared might contain explosive material. None was found.
After stopping the vessel bound for North Korea last week, Panama revealed it had found weapons in the cargo hold. In response, Cuba said the shipment contained a range of "obsolete" arms being sent to North Korea for repair.
Panama has asked the UN security council to investigate the ship and its contents amid suspicion that the vessel is in breach of a wide-ranging arms embargo on North Korea for its nuclear and ballistic missile program.
"One can't take undeclared weapons through the Panama Canal below other cargo," Martinelli said. He had not spoken personally to any Cuban officials since they first asked for the ship to be released last Saturday, he said.
Javier Caraballo, Panama's top anti-drugs prosecutor, said the planes gave off a strong odor of gasoline, indicating it was likely they had been used recently. So far, Panama has not found anything not on the Cubans' list of ordnance, he said.
The UN team is expected to arrive in early August once Panama has finished unloading the 155-metre ship.
The weapons were hidden under thousands of sacks of sugar on the freighter. Before the arms were discovered, Cuba told Panama the cargo was a donation of sugar for the people of North Korea.
North Korea has asked Panama to release the ship and its 35-member crew, who were arrested and charged with attempting to smuggle undeclared weapons through the canal. Panama has so far dismissed North Korea's requests.
In the USA...
July 21, 2013
Obama Plans to Unveil His Agenda for Economy
By MARK LANDLER
WASHINGTON — With major battles looming in the fall over the federal budget and the debt ceiling, President Obama is trying to regain the initiative, embarking on a campaign-style tour of the Midwest this week to lay out his agenda for reinvigorating the nation’s economy, administration officials said Sunday.
Mr. Obama’s offensive will begin on Wednesday in Galesburg, Ill., with what his aides are saying will be a major address on economic policy at Knox College. Officials declined to provide details of the president’s message, but said he would set his terms for what they expect will be another bruising battle with a Republican-controlled House over the nation’s fiscal policies.
White House officials liken Wednesday’s speech to one he gave in 2011 in Osawatomie, Kan., where he articulated the theme of economic inequality in American society that became a leitmotif of his re-election campaign, and to one at Georgetown University soon after taking office in 2009, when he talked about how the American economy would recover from the Great Recession.
September will be the fifth anniversary of the financial crisis that underscored that recession, and White House officials said Mr. Obama wanted to take stock of the economy’s recovery and chart a path forward.
The nature of the economic debate has shifted in recent months, with the budget deficit shrinking rapidly while the economy, though firmly in recovery, struggles to build up a head of steam. But the president clearly expects to encounter the same resistance that has stymied him since Republicans seized control of the House in the 2010 election.
“In a couple of months, we will face some more critical budget deadlines that require Congressional action, not showdowns that serve only to harm families and businesses — and the president wants to talk about the issues that should be at the core of that debate,” Dan Pfeiffer, the president’s senior adviser, said in a mass e-mail on Sunday.
Wednesday’s speech, Mr. Obama’s aides said, will be drawn in broad strokes, reaffirming themes like the need for a prosperous middle class.
In a series of smaller speeches after that, they said, Mr. Obama will offer policy proposals — both new and familiar — on health care, housing, the affordability of higher education and how to create more manufacturing jobs. He will also make the case for the economic benefits of overhauling the immigration code — legislation that passed the Senate but is now languishing in the House.
Mr. Obama’s trip comes after a rare political victory last week, when the Senate, following a protracted stalemate, confirmed his nominees to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, the Labor Department and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
It also brings the president back to familiar ground, after his highly unusual and deeply personal remarks on Friday about the verdict in the Trayvon Martin killing. In contrast to those comments, which Mr. Obama made without any warning in the White House briefing room, his staff is meticulously orchestrating this economic tour.
The choice of Knox College — a small, private liberal arts college in rural Illinois — is laden with symbolism: he spoke there as a senator in 2005, in what was his first major address on economic issues.
This month, the International Monetary Fund trimmed its forecast for economic growth in the United States to 1.7 percent in 2013 and 2.7 percent in 2014. It reduced both by 0.2 percentage point from its World Economic Outlook forecast in April.
The I.M.F. said the reductions were in part a response to the automatic spending cuts that resulted from the failure of the White House and Congress to agree on a fiscal deal, which it said had offset healthy private demand. Mr. Obama will refer to those cuts, officials said, but not dwell on them.
“The president thinks Washington has largely taken its eye off the ball,” Mr. Pfeiffer said in his e-mail. “Instead of talking about how to help the middle class, too many in Congress are trying to score political points, re-fight old battles and trump up phony scandals.”
With Congress blocking most of Mr. Obama’s major initiatives, he has focused on measures that do not require new legislation. But he will need to forge agreements with Congress to avert another shutdown of the government or a default on the nation’s debt.
July 21, 2013
Cries of Betrayal as Detroit Plans to Cut Pensions
By STEVEN YACCINO and MICHAEL COOPER
DETROIT — Gloria Killebrew, 73, worked for the City of Detroit for 22 years and now spends her days caring for her husband, J. D., who has had three heart attacks and multiple kidney operations, the last of which left him needing dialysis three times a week at the Henry Ford Medical Center in Dearborn, Mich.
Now there is a new worry: Detroit wants to cut the pensions it pays retirees like Ms. Killebrew, who now receives about $1,900 a month.
“It’s been life on a roller coaster,” Ms. Killebrew said, explaining that even if she could find a new job at her age, there would be no one to take care of her husband. “You don’t sleep well. You think about whether you’re going to be able to make it. Right now, you don’t really know.”
Detroit’s pension shortfall accounts for about $3.5 billion of the $18 billion in debts that led the city to file for bankruptcy last week. How it handles this problem — of not enough money set aside to pay the pensions it has promised its workers — is being closely watched by other cities with fiscal troubles.
Kevyn D. Orr, the city’s emergency manager, has called for “significant cuts” to the pensions of current retirees. His plan is being fought vigorously by unions that point out that pensions are protected by Michigan’s Constitution, which calls them a contractual obligation that “shall not be diminished or impaired.”
Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan, a Republican who appointed Mr. Orr, signed off on the bankruptcy strategy for the once-mighty city, which has seen its tax base and services erode sharply in recent years. But the governor said he worried about Detroit’s 21,000 municipal retirees.
“You’ve got to have great empathy for them,” Mr. Snyder said in an interview. “These are hard-working people that are in retirement now — they’re on fixed incomes, most of them — and you look at this and say, ‘This is a very difficult situation.’ ”
On Sunday, Mr. Snyder fended off the notion that the city needed a federal bailout. “It’s not about just putting more money in a situation,” the governor said on “Face the Nation” on CBS. “It’s about better services to citizens again. It’s about accountable government.”
Many retirees see the plan to cut their pensions as a betrayal, saying that they kept their end of a deal but that the city is now reneging. Retired city workers, police officers and 911 operators said in interviews that the promise of reliable retirement income had helped draw them to work for the City of Detroit in the first place, even if they sometimes had to accept smaller salaries or work nights or weekends.
“Does Detroit have a problem?” asked William Shine, 76, a retired police sergeant. “Absolutely. Did I create it? I don’t think so. They made me some promises, and I made them some promises. I kept my promises. They’re not going to keep theirs.”
Vera Proctor, 63, who retired in 2010 after 39 years as a 911 operator and supervisor, said she worried that at her age and with her poor health, it would be difficult to find a new job to make up for any reductions to her pension payments.
“Where’s the nearest street corner where I can sell bottles of water?” Ms. Proctor asked wryly. “That’s what it’s going to come down to. We’re not going to have anything.”
Officials overseeing Detroit’s finances have called for reducing — not eliminating — pension payments to retirees, but have not said how big those reductions might be. They emphasized that they were trying to spread the pain of bankruptcy evenly.
When the small city of Central Falls, R.I., declared bankruptcy in 2011, a state law gave bondholders preferential treatment — effectively protecting investors even as the city’s retirees saw their pension benefits slashed by up to 55 percent in some cases.
Detroit, by contrast, wants to spread the losses to investors as well as pensioners, and hopes to find cheaper ways to cover retirees through the subsidized health exchanges being created by President Obama’s health care law.
Bill Nowling, a spokesman for Mr. Orr, said the emergency manager’s restructuring plan would treat bondholders the same as retirees in bankruptcy.
“How can we tell pensioners or city workers that we’re going to have to adjust their payments on their pensions because of decisions that they didn’t make but that affect them, but that we’re going to pay more to people who made risky investments?” he said.
In recent years, public sector pensions have often emerged as a political point of contention, earning scorn from taxpayers who work in the private sector, where defined-benefit pensions providing a guaranteed stream of income in retirement have grown increasingly rare.
But the average pension benefit in Detroit is not especially high. The average annual payment is about $19,000, said Bruce Babiarz, a spokesman for the pension funds. And it is about $30,000 for retired police officers and firefighters, who do not get Social Security benefits, he said. Some retired workers get larger pensions, though: about 82 retirees who either worked many years or had high-salaried jobs are paid pensions of more than $90,000 a year, he said.
Among them is Isaiah McKinnon, who was the city’s police chief in the 1990s and whose pension is just over $92,000 a year. Dr. McKinnon said he and other officers earned their retirement money by serving in a dangerous profession. Dr. McKinnon was shot at eight times while on the job and was stabbed twice, and he has scars from the attacks on his neck and abdomen, he said.
Dr. McKinnon, who holds a doctoral degree in education administration, is an associate professor at Detroit Mercy University. He expressed concern about retired rank-and-file officers whose pensions were based on salaries far lower than his.
“We’re in this predicament, and everyone has to suffer to an extent,” Dr. McKinnon said. “But the predicament and the percentage — that has to be talked about.”
Many retirees expressed a feeling of powerlessness, a sense that they stand to lose the benefits they worked a lifetime for because of things beyond their control. Motor City has lost more than a million residents over the last six decades. When it shrank its work force, it left fewer current workers to contribute to pension funds that still had to pay benefits that were earned by large numbers of older retirees who had served Detroit when it was a bigger city.
Detroit, like many other cities and states, anticipates that its pension funds will earn about 8 percent in interest each year — a target that proved overly optimistic during the recent downturn, when it fell far short.
Laws allowing workers to collect pensions even when they retired at young ages proved expensive, as did adjusting benefits for inflation. And some of the accounting measures the funds used made them look healthier than they actually were. Mr. Orr recently announced that the funds, which had reported a shortfall of around $644 million, were in fact underfinanced by more like $3.5 billion, a figure that some dispute.
But other problems are unique to Detroit. Several pension officials were accused this spring of taking bribes and kickbacks to influence investment decisions, and Mr. Orr recently called for an inquiry into possible fraud, waste or abuse in the pension system.
For some retirees, pension reductions would compound the other difficulties of living in Detroit.
Michael Wells, 65, retired in 2011 after working at the Detroit Public Library for 34 years. He said he still owed close to $100,000 on his house in Detroit, which was appraised recently at $25,000. “I’m totally underwater here,” said Mr. Wells, who is one of the plaintiffs in a union-backed lawsuit to stop the city from filing for bankruptcy and from reducing pension payments.
He said he viewed the pension as part of the overall pay he was promised. “It’s deferred income,” he said. “Had I not had a pension, perhaps I would have gotten several dollars an hour more and that would be O.K. I would have taken that money and invested it in some kind of mutual fund or stock.”
Paula Kaczmarek, 64, said that she had planned to retire from the Detroit Public Library in 2014, but that she decided to retire early because she was having health problems and she feared younger co-workers could be laid off if there were more rounds of staff cuts. (The city, which had 12,302 workers three years ago, now has only 9,560.)
“It’s not anxiety, it’s fear,” Ms. Kaczmarek said of the proposed cuts.
And many simply cannot believe that Detroit, which was once the nation’s fourth-largest city, could go bankrupt.
Dr. McKinnon recalled that when he was a young man in the police academy, he once asked a sergeant what would happen if the city went bankrupt. “ ‘The city won’t,’ ” he said the sergeant had replied. “ ‘And besides, there’s billions of dollars in the retirement fund.’ ”
Steven Yaccino reported from Detroit, and Michael Cooper from New York. Erica Goode and Monica Davey contributed reporting from Detroit, and Mary Williams Walsh from New York.
July 21, 2013
Republicans in Arizona Are at Odds on Medicaid
By FERNANDA SANTOS
PHOENIX — For Gov. Jan Brewer, the passage last month of a Medicaid expansion was a major coup. Despite a Republican majority in the Legislature, where she faced significant opposition from Tea Party members, she rallied the entire Democratic delegation to her side and made a progressive issue palatable to just enough conservatives, casting the expansion as the right decision for the state, morally and monetarily.
“It’s pro-life, it’s saving lives, it is creating jobs, it is saving hospitals,” Ms. Brewer said in an interview from her office in the Capitol’s executive tower, where she conducts what she often describes as “the people’s business.”
“I don’t know how you can get any more conservative than that,” she said.
A lot of conservatives disagree. Ms. Brewer’s maneuvering, including a threat to veto any bill brought before her until the expansion was voted on and a last-minute call for a legislative special session to force the vote, has sparked ire among the Republican rank and file. In interviews, many of its most loyal members conceded that the party’s once cohesive ideology has been tainted by the governor’s stance, and they are arming themselves for payback.
Name-calling, once reserved for closed-door encounters and precinct committee meetings, has seeped into the public debate, loudly. One conservative blog, Sonoran Alliance, has taken to describing the Republican legislators who voted for the expansion as “Brewercrats” and the expansion itself as “Obrewercare,” a play on the Republican moniker for President Obama’s health care overhaul.
A. J. LaFaro, the chairman of the Maricopa County Republican Committee, compared the governor to Judas during a hearing in the State House of Representatives. In a blog post by FreedomWorks, a libertarian group, Tyler S. Boyer, a district chairman, characterized the tactics that Ms. Brewer used to push through the expansion as “an unfortunate display of moral ineptitude.”
“Reagan once said Republicans shouldn’t speak ill of one another,” said Shawnna L. M. Bolick, a conservative who began exploring a run for a legislative seat after her district’s Republican state representative and senator voted to expand Medicaid. “I’ve had a very hard time keeping my mouth shut.”
Volunteers have eight more weeks to finish the job of collecting signatures to put the Medicaid expansion on the ballot, with the hope that voters will undo what Ms. Brewer fought so hard to get approved. That is happening despite the fact that voters agreed, in 1996 and in 2000, to extend Medicaid coverage to childless adults, one of the main beneficiaries of expansion.
“She abandoned the planks of the Republican Party platform to do whatever she perceived to be popular, and she grossly miscalculated the power we had to fight back,” said Frank Antenori, a former Republican state senator from Tucson and one of the forces behind the initiative.
Volunteers must gather 86,400 valid signatures to put the question to voters. Mr. Antenori said they were collecting, on average, 1,300 signatures a day.
Meanwhile, inside and outside the Capitol, Ms. Brewer’s team has been building its defenses. This month, it hired circulators to get people to sign a petition in support of the Medicaid expansion, an effort that has been largely bankrolled by the same business and health care groups that financed the campaign to guarantee its passage through the Legislature. The groups have also committed to help the Republican lawmakers who stood by Ms. Brewer fend off primary challengers who plan to use Medicaid to draw disaffected voters to the polls.
“The thing to keep in mind is that the Republican primary voter is much more conservative than the Republican general-election voter,” said Barrett Marson, a public relations consultant who works on Republican campaigns. “There’s no doubt 2014 is going to mark the end of some careers in the Legislature for the people who lent their support to Medicaid expansion.”
The governor said she would use money raised by her political action committee to aid Republican incumbents who supported her, but also to fight against those who strongly opposed her.
She also signed a piece of legislation, pushed primarily by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, that significantly raised the limits for contributions to political campaigns.
Chuck Coughlin, a political consultant who managed Ms. Brewer’s transition team and remains a very close ally, said the “loosening of the spigot is going to do a tremendous service for that part of our party, pro-business and pro-job growth, to exercise their will in the elections.” (The law is being challenged on the basis that it undermines the state’s public campaign financing program, which voters enacted to limit the influence of money in politics.)
“Ideologues have their agendas,” said Mr. Coughlin, who orchestrated the push to get the Medicaid expansion through the Legislature, “and the part of the party that’s taking issue with the governor right now is all made up of ideologues.”
The strategy, he explained, is to expand the universe of voters that moderate Republican candidates can reach by expanding the means by which their message is delivered. Instead of knocking on doors, as Tea Party volunteers have successfully done to get like-minded voters to the polls, there will be more ads, more phone calls and more events targeting specific groups of people, like women and independents, “always a big swing vote in any election,” he said.
Bruce Merrill, a political behaviorist who is a senior research fellow at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University, said that in the end, the reaction over Medicaid was prime evidence of “how truly fractured the Republican Party in Arizona is.”
For people like Ms. Bolick, the potential legislative candidate, and Hugh Hallman, who is running for governor on the Republican ticket, the real battle is over principle: what is the right role for the federal government in people’s lives? Both are self-described fiscal conservatives, but they differ on Medicaid expansion.
Ms. Bolick, a public policy analyst who worked for Rick Santorum during his time in the Senate and Rick Perry when he was lieutenant governor in Texas, is against it. Mr. Hallman, a former mayor and city councilman in Tempe, supports it.
“The real brilliance of Barack Obama when he made Medicaid an all-or-nothing proposition,” giving states no option but to cover individuals with incomes up to 133 percent of the federal poverty line if they were to qualify for federal reimbursement, “was that he pitted fiscally conservative Republicans against one another,” he said.
Ms. Brewer, in the interview, chalked it up to bruised egos, something that time and pep talks could easily resolve.
“Nobody likes to lose, and that’s what happened” the night the Medicaid expansion got past the Legislature, she said. “I believe we will heal.”
Rebekah Zemansky contributed reporting.
John Boehner Claims The American People Don’t Want A Congress That Passes Laws
By: Jason Easley
Jul. 21st, 2013
Speaker John Boehner tried to justify the House Republicans’ lousy record of not passing legislation by claiming that American people want a Congress that repeals laws instead of passing them.
Speaker Boehner said that the House is reflecting the will of the American people, “I talked about this the day I was sworn into speaker. That I considered my job was to open up the process, let members participate. Yeah, I’ve got certain things that I’d like to see accomplished. But this is not going to be about me. I said it the opening day. And it’s never going to be about me. It’s what’s in the best interest of the country. If we’re listening to the American people and we’re following their will, our House will work just fine.”
Boehner was asked how he felt about presiding over one of the least productive, and least popular Congresses in history. The Speaker of the House answered, “Well, Bob, we should not be judged on how many new laws we create. We ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal. We’ve got more laws than the administration could ever enforce. And so we don’t do commemorative bills on the floor. We don’t do all that nonsense. We deal with what the American people want us to deal with. Unpopular? Yes. Why? We’re in a divided government. We’re fighting for what we believe in. Sometimes, you know, the American people don’t like this mess.”
According to Boehner, the House is reflecting the will of the American people by spending much of their time trying to repeal Obamacare. The problem with Boehner’s premise is that it isn’t true. Recent polling has shown that 49% of Republicans don’t think their party is doing enough to compromise with President Obama. Overall, 68% of Americans believe that Republicans aren’t doing enough to compromise with the president. The American people want compromise, because they want to see legislation passed.
John Boehner was wrong. The American people don’t want a Congress that repeals laws. They want a Congress that passes more laws. Boehner can’t defend his abysmal record of passing only 15 bills in the first six months of the year, so he turned his party’s obstruction into a virtue. The funny thing about Boehner’s repealing laws statement is that House Republicans have spent 15% of their time trying and failing to repeal Obamacare, so by Boehner’s own metric House Republicans have failed miserably because Obamacare is still the law of the land.
House Republicans have failed to pass new laws. They have failed to repeal old laws. House Republicans have just plain failed. No matter how you cut it, John Boehner has been a miserable failure as the Speaker of the House.
July 22, 2013
Russia Cites Extradition as Sore Point With U.S.
By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN
MOSCOW — Russian officials complained on Monday that the United States routinely disregards extradition requests by the Russian government, the latest in a series of public statements that seem aimed at laying the groundwork for granting asylum to Edward J. Snowden, the former intelligence contractor on the run from the American authorities.
In separate but apparently coordinated statements, officials from the Russian Interior Ministry and from the prosecutor general’s office complained that the United States had refused to extradite individuals sought by Russia as suspected terrorists or on serious criminal charges.
“The United States is repeatedly refusing Russia to extradite individuals, to hold them criminally liable, including those accused of committing serious or heinous crimes,” Sergei Gorlenko, the acting chief of the prosecutor general’s extradition office, told the Interfax news agency. “We have been denied the extradition of murderers, bandits and bribetakers.”
The Interior Ministry accused the United States of “double standards” in demanding Mr. Snowden’s return. The prosecutor general’s office said the United States had refused to extradite about 20 suspects over the past decade, citing the lack of an extradition treaty — the same reason senior Kremlin officials have given in saying they have no plan to repatriate Mr. Snowden.
Mr. Snowden, who faces criminal espionage charges for leaking classified information about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, has requested temporary asylum in Russia, and has accused the United States of violating international law by blocking him from traveling to Latin America, where three countries have expressed a willingness to take him.
A decision on Mr. Snowden’s application for temporary asylum by officials from the Federal Migration Service could come any day. By applying for temporary rather than political asylum, Mr. Snowden took the easiest route to permission for an extended stay in Russia, according to Anatoly Kucherena, a Russian lawyer who is advising him.
While President Pig Putin is widely believed to have the ultimate say over Mr. Snowden’s request, applications for temporary asylum technically do not need the president’s personal approval and are routinely granted directly by the Federal Migration Service.
The Obama administration has been pressing Russia to detain Mr. Snowden and send him to Washington. In recent days officials have sent signals that President Obama is considering canceling a planned summit meeting in Moscow in September, frustrated by the Snowden case as well as disagreements over human rights and how to end the civil war in Syria.
The Kremlin has repeatedly said it does not want Mr. Snowden’s case to harm bilateral relations but also has shown no willingness to turn him over to the American authorities. “This position remains unchanged,” Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said over the weekend.
Mr. Peskov added that Pig Putin had more important things to think about. “Snowden cannot top the Pig's schedule,” he said.
In complaining about the United States’ refusal to grant Russian extradition requests, Andrey Pilipchuk, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, cited the examples of Ilyas Akhmadov, a former senior leader of the Chechen separatist movement who is accused by Russia of terrorism, and Tamaz Nalbandov, who is accused of kidnapping and extortion as part of an organized crime group. Both have been living in the United States for several years.
In Mr. Akhmadov’s case, American officials have said they found no evidence that he was connected to terrorism.
Separately on Monday, Mr. Kucherna, the Kremlin-connected lawyer who has been assisting Mr. Snowden, accused United States Embassy officials in Moscow of not showing any concern about Mr. Snowden, even though he has been living in the transit zone of Sheremetyevo airport since June 23, when he arrived on a flight from Hong Kong.
On Twitter, the American ambassador, Michael A. McFaul, wrote, “Mr. Snowden ought to be returned to the United States to face the felony charges against him.”
Alexandra Kozlova contributed reporting.
07/23/2013 12:43 PM
Rajoy's Successor? The Most Powerful Woman in Spanish Politics
By Helene Zuber
As illegal party financing allegations close in around Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, his 42-year-old deputy has kept her name clean. Now Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, the most powerful woman in Spanish politics, is well poised to be his successor.
"Bring your own chorizos," read the invitation. Thousands showed up, assembling outside the headquarters of Spain's ruling People's Party in downtown Madrid for a symbolic barbecue. Similar gatherings took place in front of the party's offices in 30 other Spanish towns. Chorizo is both the name of the thick, spicy sausage popular in Spain, and a word used to describe corrupt politicians.
The protests came in response to double accounting conducted by the party's former treasurer, Luis Bárcenas. His incriminating ledgers, uncovered by Spanish newspapers, also implicate Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, as well as the party's secretary-general, other former ministers in the People's Party and further prominent conservative politicians. The only one who doesn't make an appearance in Bárcenas' accounts is Spain's most powerful female politician, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, the 42-year-old deputy and closest confidante of the prime minister.
As Rajoy becomes increasingly mired in the massive scandal over illegal party donations, corruption and financial contributions, Sáenz de Santamaría, a former state lawyer who represented the country's highest court, is one of the few in the party to remain untouched by the allegations. And that alone may be enough to qualify her for the government's top job.
Calls for Resignation
The prime minister, meanwhile, is having to answer some uncomfortable questions: Why, for example, he continued to pay his party's former treasurer a monthly salary of €21,300 ($28,100), even though Bárcenas was forced to resign from his position three years ago after first being accused of corruption. Or why Rajoy continued to send Bárcenas friendly text messages even long after it emerged that Bárcenas had illegally moved many millions of euros into bank accounts abroad.
The opposition in Spain is demanding Rajoy's resignation. On Monday he agreed to appear before parliament to discuss the allegations after the opposition threatened to call a symbolic vote of no-confidence. The date for the appearance is set for August 1, before the prime minister leaves for holiday in his native Galicia.
Even within the usually closed ranks of the conservative People's Party, the calls to replace Rajoy are growing louder. Political commentators in Madrid believe Sáenz de Santamaría, Rajoy's right-hand woman, could well become his replacement. The diminutive lawyer, often seen in high heels, is already Spain's most influential female politician. Since taking office in December 2011, she has coordinated joint work between the cabinet and her party's parliamentary group, and now between the different departments that handle economic matters as well. She also oversees the country's intelligence service.
Austerity with a Smile
Spain's general population knows Sáenz de Santamaría's face, with her large brown eyes and conservative makeup, mainly from television. After each Friday's cabinet session, it is Sáenz de Santamaría who goes on air to announce the ministers' decisions, which often concern new and painful austerity programs. Despite this, she remains the most popular woman in Rajoy's government, which polls show has otherwise taken a brutal nosedive in public opinion.
Late this June, Sáenz de Santamaría announced a tax hike on tobacco and alcohol. She delivered this news as a non-stop cascade of facts, in a firm voice and at breathtaking speed. After 15 minutes of this outpouring, Sáenz de Santamaría cast a quick glance at her purple plastic watch, then took just a few questions from journalists. Asked about the donations scandal surrounding her party, she muttered, "We respect the justice system's verdicts," then swept from the room.
While growing up in Spain's Castile region, Sáenz de Santamaría was an unusual child, who studied every day even during vacations, according to one school friend. She completed law school at the top of her class, then passed the difficult exam to become a lawyer in Spain's civil service. Former professors and fellow students praise her feats of memory, her tenacity and her hardworking attitude.
Cleaning Up the Mess
Sáenz de Santamaría first became involved in politics in the summer of 1999, when she introduced herself to Rajoy, then deputy prime minister and looking for a legal advisor. "Does it bother you to constantly have to clean up the mess?" is the decisive interview question Rajoy asked the lawyer, then 29. "Not in the least," she answered.
When her boss became interior minister two years later, Sáenz de Santamaría became part of his inner circle of advisors, overseeing immigration matters. In Spain's 2004 parliamentary elections, Rajoy was his party's leading candidate for the first time and asked Sáenz de Santamaría to assist in writing the party's platform. It was at this point that Sáenz de Santamaría first joined the People's Party. Following the party's 2011 electoral win, Rajoy tasked her with preparing the transfer of power from the Socialist Workers' Party to the People's Party. This was just days after Sáenz de Santamaría, then 40, gave birth to her first child.
One reason Rajoy is pleased to be able to rely on his deputy prime minister is that he can always count on her to have his back at the expense of developing a political profile of her own. But is that qualification enough for Sáenz de Santamaría to take charge of the government?
Friendly with Merkel
When fellow People's Party members talk about the "Soraya factor" in the current government, they mean the politician's capacity for mediating between various parties and her willingness to work to the point of exhaustion, something she demands of her staff. Several times, Rajoy has sent Sáenz de Santamaría to talk to Angela Merkel, since he himself has little idea what to say to the German chancellor. Sáenz de Santamaría proudly displays a photograph of herself and Merkel on a bookshelf in her office.
The "Vice," as colleagues call her -- short for the Spanish vicepresidenta -- keeps her private life strictly private. She reacted in anger to television journalists who broadcast footage of a demonstration held in front of her home in the wealthy residential area Fuente del Berro, and only rarely lets herself be seen in a nearby park pushing her son Iván around in a stroller.
Sáenz de Santamaría's husband has been the primary caregiver for their son, taking professional leave to do so. But if the politician soon finds herself and her family moving into Moncloa Palace, the official residence of Spain's prime minister, it could have an added advantage. Without a long commute in an official government car, it could also give her more time with her family.
Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
07/22/2013 04:36 PM
EU Terror List: Hezbollah Unlikely to Feel Sanctions
By Ulrike Putz in Beirut, Lebanon
EU foreign ministers agreed on Monday to put the military wing of Lebanese militant group Hezbollah on the bloc's list of terrorist groups. But sanctions will have little impact on the "Party of God," which has long since become Lebanon's most powerful political force.
It's a mistake that many make when they first arrive in Lebanon. Along the highway between the airport and city center, they see portraits of a plump man hanging on buildings, billboards and street lamps. He wears a black turban and glasses, his mouth usually turned up in a smile under his bushy, gray beard. Visitors often wonder if this is Lebanon's president.
But Hassan Nasrallah holds neither the office of president, nor any other political post in the country. Nevertheless, he is a powerful man in his homeland -- perhaps even its most powerful -- as the leader of Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group and political party that heads the strongest coalition in the country's parliament. Nasrallah also directs thousands of elite fighters who are searching for like-minded recruits in the region. Thanks to Nasrallah's private army, which is fighting on the side of the Syrian regime, President Bashar Assad has the upper hand against rebels there once again.
On Monday, European Union foreign ministers agreed to put this armed wing of Hezbollah on the bloc's list of terrorist groups. The move marks a striking about-face in European policy regarding the Shiite militants. Previously, European leaders had argued that Lebanon, already in a vulnerable state, would be further destabilized if the influential group were declared outcasts.
Sanctions Won't Be Felt
But Britain, the Netherlands and France have pushed just such a measure through, arguing that by interfering in the Syrian civil war, Hezbollah is now threatening the fragile peace inside Lebanon as well. European restraint on the matter no longer makes sense, they argue.
This change in heart was sparked by a terrorist attack on European soil that has been linked to the militant group. In July 2012, five Israeli tourists and a bus driver were killed in a suicide bombing on a bus at an airport in the Bulgarian Black Sea resort town of Burgas. Advocates of Monday's decision to blacklist Hezbollah argued that the group must be thwarted before it became active in Europe again.
Hezbollah did not immediately react to the decision in Brussels on Monday, but a spokesperson had declared beforehand that the decision would not deter the "Party of God."
"Hezbollah is a single large organization, we have no wings that are separate from one another," spokesman Ibrahim Mussawi told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "What's being said in Brussels doesn't exist for us."
It is true that Hezbollah does manage and pay its many social institutions and armed forces from the same source. "Political and social work, in addition to jihad, are operated by the same leadership," reads an explanation from Hezbollah in response to a question about the division of labor within the party. In this way, the group has skillfully leveraged its way out of feeling the EU sanctions, because the 28-member bloc agreed to apply punitive measures solely to Hezbollah troops out of the fear that they would otherwise destabilize Lebanon.
Civil and Military Division Unclear
The fact that outsiders are unable to discern where Hezbollah's civilian wing ends and the militant one begins is likely to mean that the organization will escape the EU's measures unscathed, say Western diplomats in Beirut. The decision in Brussels was purely symbolic, serving only to appease the United States, which declared Hezbollah a terrorist organization in 1995 after two devastating attacks against the Israeli embassy and a Jewish organization in the Argentinean capital of Buenos Aires. Since then, the US has been pressuring its allies to follow suit.
Hezbollah was formed in 1982 after Israel's invasion of Lebanon. Iran had sent a few hundred members of its Revolutionary Guard to the Shiite-dominated south of the country to aid in resisting the occupier. Hezbollah grew from this nucleus, partially financed, armed and supported politically by Iran and Syria.
Today, the civilian arm of the group has created a state within a state, and runs schools, hospitals, orphanages and a television station. Through its charity work the group has secured the support and loyalty of the population, and since the party first stood for election in 1992, it has come to dominate parliament in Beirut. In doing so, it has shaped Lebanon's fate.
For many years, Nasrallah has been considered the most popular Arab politician. But since the beginning of the civil war in Syria, he has lost his top spot in the correponding yearly opinion poll. Hezbollah's interference in the Syrian conflict has deeply disappointed many Arabs. In their eyes, the "Party of God" has betrayed its own confession of faith. That's because instead of fighting Israel, the group's elite Shiite militants are now suddenly battling fellow Arabs. Getting mixed up in the dirty conflict between Shiites and Sunnis has cost Hezbollah many fans.
French MP accused of saying Hitler 'didn't kill enough' Travellers
Gilles Bourdouleix, MP and mayor of the town of Cholet, faces expulsion from his party and legal action by the state
Angelique Chrisafis in Paris
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 23 July 2013 11.17 BST
A centrist French MP is facing expulsion from his party and legal action by the state after allegations that he said of French Travellers: "Hitler maybe didn't kill enough of them."
Gilles Bourdouleix, MP and mayor of the town of Cholet in the Maine and Loire region of western France, allegedly made the comments on Sunday during an encounter with a group of Travellers who had parked their caravans in a field owned by the local authority.
According to the local paper Le Courrier de L'Ouest, the meeting, in which Bourdouleix told the Travellers they would have to move on, was tense, with some Travellers accusing him of racism and a few making a Nazi salute towards him.
During the exchange, as reported by the newspaper, a man said to Bourdouleix: "You know how to talk better than [the former president Nicolas] Sarkozy." Bourdouleix replied that "the law must be implemented". There was murmuring and Bourdouleix reportedly said in a hushed tone: "Just goes to show that Hitler maybe didn't kill enough of them."
When the MP denied the comments, the paper published a recording on its website. Bourdouleix, 53, insisted that he had been the victim of a "scandalous montage" and would sue.
The local prefect's office has moved to file a lawsuit against Bourdouleix for glorification of crimes against humanity. At least 200,000 Gypsies are estimated to have been killed during the Holocaust in the second world war.
The Socialist interior minister Manuel Valls said he hoped Bourdouleix would be sanctioned "very heavily". He said a mayor lauding Nazism was "intolerable".
France has one of the biggest Traveller communities in mainland Europe, with around 350,000 French Travellers, a nomadic population which is different from the Roma community from eastern Europe.
In recent weeks, rights groups have warned of rising tension in France over non-settled communities, after several rightwing politicians spoke out against illegal caravan camps using strong language that the left said was provocative.
Bourdouleix belongs to the centre-right grouping the Union of Democrats and Independents, UDI, headed by the former environment minister Jean-Louis Borloo. The party is to meet to discuss his possible expulsion.
Gypsies arrived in Europe 1,500 years ago, genetic study says
Migrants from India came to continent much earlier than previously thought, analysis suggests, and arrived in the Balkans
Giles Tremlett in Madrid
The Guardian, Friday 7 December 2012 18.09 GMT
In parts of Europe they are still shunned as disruptive outsiders or patronised as little more than an exotic source of music and dance, but Gypsies have ancient roots that stretch back more than a millennium, scientists have proved.
A genetic analysis of 13 Gypsy groups around Europe, published in Current Biology journal, has revealed that the arrival on the continent of their forebears from northern India happened far earlier than was thought, about 1,500 years ago.
The earliest population reached the Balkans, while the spread outwards from there came nine centuries ago, according to researchers at Spain's Institute of Evolutionary Biology and elsewhere.
"There were already some linguistic studies that gave clues pointing to India and genetic studies too, though without being precise about the where or when," said David Comas, who led the research group.
"Now we can see that they arrived in one single wave from the north-west of India around 1,500 years ago."
Gypsies were originally thought to have come from Egypt and some of the earliest references to them in English, dating back to the 16th century, call them "Egyptians".
Early European references describe wandering, nomadic communities who were known for their music and skill with horses.
They arrived in Spain in the 15th century or earlier – with records of groups of up to a hundred Gypsies travelling together, often led by someone who termed himself a "count" or "duke" – and held on despite attempts to expel them or imprison those who refused to give up their language and culture.
They were accompanied by a legend that they had been expelled from Egypt for trying to hide Jesus.
The new study now sets their arrival in Europe in the sixth century – a time when Britain was still in its early post-Roman era.
Gypsies, often referred to as Roma, are found across all of Europe and make up the continent's largest ethnic minority. There are about 11 million of Gypsies in Europe.
Centuries of discrimination, including systematic extermination by some 20th-century fascist regimes, have helped keep many of them marginalised.
"There is still widespread discrimination and this is the most marginalised minority in Europe," said Robert Kushen of the European Roma Rights Centre in Hungary.
Both France, during Nicolas Sarkozy's presidency, and Italy, under Silvio Berlusconi, targeted Gypsy communities with populist eviction policies, while long-running discrimination continues in much of eastern Europe.
Sarkozy's Socialist successor, François Hollande, has done little to change policies in France.
"They suffer from forced evictions – and have been targeted recently in both France and Italy," Kushen said. "And it seems that in some places, like Romania and Bulgaria, the laws applying to free movement within the European Union don't quite apply to them in the same way that they apply to other people."
But the stereotypical wandering Gypsy in a mule-drawn caravan belongs to the distant past. The vast majority of Europe's Gypsies have long been settled. "There is still the myth of the nomad, which drives bad policy in places like Italy, where the government maintains they are nomads when in fact they are not," said Kushen.
His group has called on the European Union to bypass national governments, many of whom ignore EU rules on the treatment of Gypsies and Roma, in order to enforce policies.
And Comas's study shows not only that they share common ancestry from north-west India, but also that they have mixed extensively with other Europeans.
"That is more pronounced in northern and western Europe," he said. "They conserve the genetic footprint from India, but their ancestors are both European and Indian."
Gypsies on screen
Black Cat, White Cat
Emir Kusturica's 1998 madcap comedy set on the frontiers of Serbia and Bulgaria revolves around Gypsy families living by the Danube. The film started life as a non-fiction documentary on Gypsy music, and has a fabulous soundtrack. Its main characters switch easily from the Gypsy language of Romani to Serbian and Bulgarian.
My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding
Channel 4's series revealed the hidden glory of marrying Gypsy-style in Britain. The series attracted audiences of 7 million, made an unlikely star of Paddy Doherty and spawned spinoffs such as Thelma's Gypsy Girls, while also attracting criticism from some Gypsy and Traveller communities for its depiction of their lifestyle.
This 1963 Spanish version of Romeo and Juliet features legendary flamenco dancers Carmen Amaya and Antonio Gades in a tragic romance set among Catalan Gypsies from rival families in the beachside 1960s shantytowns of Barcelona.
International focus: Roma people denied social housing in Italy
Rome authorities deny access to public housing for the 4,000 Roma living in metal containers in remote camps
Guardian Professional, Tuesday 19 March 2013 09.51 GMT
Roma people in the Italian capital are being denied access to social housing – despite living in segregated and basic camps, far from facilities such as schools and hospitals. Rome's authorities have put in place regulations which prevent thousands of Roma, many of whom were born in Italy, from applying for public housing in a move which has angered human rights groups.
Under the new rules, anyone living in a formal camp – fenced-off areas far from work opportunities, usually patrolled by guards and with cramped metal containers for housing – is deemed to be in permanent accommodation, and therefore cannot apply for social housing.
Campaigners suspect the move is politically-motivated – the rules that govern housing allocation having been amended at the last moment, to prevent Roma from competing for the highly-coveted properties. They claim it is the latest in a long list of Italian policies which discriminate against Roma people in the country.
Costanza Hermanin, programme officer at the Open Society Foundation (OSF), says: "The authorities in Italy simply don't conceive of Roma as normal human beings. This new regulation is plainly discriminatory, and also counter-productive as it prevents them from integrating properly into society."
Camp families had not previously been eligible for public housing in Rome, but this has appeared to change at the end of December. The city authorities issued a public notice, stating that the maximum eligibility score – category A1 – would now be granted to those in "greatly disadvantaged housing conditions," including families "in centres, public dormitories or any other appropriate structures temporarily provided by entities, institutions and recognised and authorised charitable organisations dedicated to public assistance."
This appeared to include the official camps, in which upwards of 4,000 Roma live; scores of families prepared and lodged applications. But within weeks a clarification was published, excluding so-called "nomad camps" whose containers were to be regarded as permanent structures.
Italy's treatment of its Gypsy minority is regularly challenged by human rights groups. Its system of formal camps emerged in the 1970s, when inhabitants were mainly showpeople and Sinti, an indigenous Italian Gypsy group with ethnic connections to the Roma. In the early 1990s, there was an influx of Roma from the former Yugoslavia, followed later by migrants from Romania and other European Union accession states.
As many as 10,000 Roma in Italy are thought to be technically stateless, either through not being granted citizenship by the former Yugoslavian state or because they were born to foreign parents (Italy does not grant automatic citizenship through birth). Those without papers are at risk of police checks and legal action.
In 2008, Silvio Berlusconi's government gave municipal authorities emergency powers to survey, register and move Roma. Since then the sanctioned camps have been managed much more strictly: fenced, surrounded by CCTV, patrolled by guards and often with early curfews and a requirement to sign in visitors.
A Roma-only fingerprint database is being compiled, and camp residents must have no criminal convictions – a condition that is not required for social housing allocation in the country. The latest camp, La Barbuta, opened in June 2012 next to the runway of Rome's Ciampino airport.
Residents of the many illegal settlements across the city face worse conditions. They live without access to water, sanitation or electricity, and are often evicted in dawn raids in which they are given a choice between repatriation or a place in a segregated formal camp.
Hermanin says: "I think when the municipal authorities realised they had put Roma and very poor citizens from Rome in the same category for social housing they felt they needed to do something, hence the change in rules. There is a lot of hostility towards Roma among politicians and the media.
"They say Roma are not segregated from the rest of the city, and that people are only housed in these camps temporarily. But we say they are giving the residents no choices and no opportunity to move on, integrate and live normal lives."
OSF has joined forces with Amnesty International, Associazione 21 Luglio and the European Roma Rights Centre to oppose Rome's policy and are calling on the new Italian government and the European Commission to take action.
Amnesty has also made a submission for the opening of a EU infringement procedure against Italy over its segregation of Roma residents, including this social housing policy.
Elisa De Pieri, an Amnesty researcher, says: "We think this is plainly discriminatory, because the Roma are being prevented from getting out of segregation. We are not saying there should be preferential treatment for the Roma families but we think they should be treated the same as other residents and allowed to apply for housing."
Goran Bregovic: 'I want to remind people what Gypsy culture's given'
Once the former Yugoslavia's biggest rock star, he received international acclaim when he embraced the Gypsy rhythms of his native Balkans on soundtracks for Emir Kusturica's films
The Guardian, Friday 8 March 2013
Twenty-five years ago, Goran Bregovic was a philosophy graduate. The slim 62-year-old still looks the part, even though – he says – he was "rescued from the sad destiny of teaching Marxism" by rocketing to fame "literally, in one week", as leader of the former Yugoslavia's biggest ever rock group, Bijelo Dugme (White Button). Though not of Gypsy parentage himself, Bregovic was already a devotee of Balkan Gypsy brass music – "we used to have Gypsy bands play in our dressing room to get us in a good mood for stadium gigs" – and was approached by fledgling film director Emir Kusturica to write a soundtrack for his 1988 movie Time of the Gypsies.
Neither Kusturica nor Bregovic have ever looked back. The figure in front of me, his hair appropriately grizzled but luxuriant, produced two more award-winning soundtracks for the director, plus a series of highly successful Gypsy-rock albums, pop operas, including a Gypsy Carmen, oratoria, song poems and at one point even advertising jingles. He also embarked on what seems like an intermittent but endless world tour of "the best festivals and concert halls in the world, and also shitty places like Novosibirsk".
We first meet in a Marseilles hotel room, then catch up at a chalet in a mountain resort near Sarajevo, from where he will drive to his house in Belgrade, before taking a flight to Australia and the Sydney Opera House. "This is how I work," he says. "I'm an old-fashioned live musician, not a TV guy."
The current tour is theoretically linked to the launch of Bregovic's new album Champagne for Gypsies, a goodtime record replete with the trademark Gypsy brass of his Weddings and Funerals Orchestra, touches of newer manele urban Gypsy pop, galloping rhythms, and a rich cast of vocalists, including four members of the venerable French rumba gitane combo the Gypsy Kings. "The destiny of these songs, at least in the Balkans, is to have the women dancing on the tables and the musicians getting lots of tips," Bregovic says.
Nonetheless, if the album is, as he reiterates, "fun music – joyful actually", it comes with a serious subtext. The album sleeve contains throwaway references to society's debt to a curious selection of Gypsies: Django Reinhardt, Mother Teresa, Elvis Presley, Ronnie Wood, Adam Ant, all of whom, according to Bregovic's research, have Gypsy ancestry. "All over Europe, Gypsies are being persecuted again," he says, referring to the shanty towns of Romany economic refugees sprouting on the periphery of Paris, where he has another home. "I remember the huge encampment of Kosovan Gypsies under a bridge in Belgrade during the Balkan war ... I just wanted to remind people of what Gypsy culture has given the world. Just send out a little signal."
Bregovic has his own debt to Gypsydom, and vice versa, and thereby hangs a certain amount of controversy. He has built a career on the use of Gypsy culture, and his success has contributed greatly to the new appetite for Balkan Gypsy music around the world. As a result of its international vogue, its popularity has grown back home, where it was unfashionable for years due to its former status as government-promoted folklore, or "communist shit" in Bregovic's pithier terminology. But Bregovic has also been accused of registering traditional melodies, or even specific Gypsy musicians' melodies, as his own: the great standard Ederlezi is a case in point, or the track Mesecina from Bregovic's hit album Underground, which the late singer Saban Bajramovic once claimed was a version of one of his songs, though Bajramovic did seem to remember signing some paper with Bregovic about it.
Bregovic deflects these complaints with a mixture of frankness – "everyone starts from existing melodies ... composing is kleptomaniac work" – and dismissal – "this is just gossip". Whatever, the complexities of Balkan copyright enforcement, and the lure of working on his prestigious projects, deter most jobbing musicians from rocking the boat too vigorously.
For his new world tour, a couple of dozen musicians are involved, half the maximum Bregovic sometimes marshals. "There will be six male singers, a string quartet, I'll do some liturgical pieces, some stuff from movies, some of Champagne for Gypsies." None of the star guests from the album will be coming, though all the agents are asking for them. Can he still reproduce the Gypsy Kings numbers live without them? "Oh, sure," says Bregovic laconically, "I've got very good singers." In fact, Bregovic has very good everything. The Weddings and Funerals Orchestra I saw in Marseille was a crack outfit, drilled to perfection, a mixture of authentic Gypsy players –the Kosovan refugee goc drummer Muharem Redzepi – and conservatory pros such as saxophonist Stojan Dimov.
Further new plans encompass another opera, "a drinking and dancing version of Orfeo", commissioned by an Italian festival, although because of that country's political chaos "now nobody knows if there's still funding ... "
Bregovic doesn't sound nervous. If anyone's going to emerge from the economic shipwreck that is Europe with a full engagement book, it's him.
Goran Bregovic's world tour begins on Friday 8 March, including appearances at Womadelaide on Mon 11 March, the Adelaide festival on Tues 12 March and the Royal Festival Hall in London on 18 May. The Guardian is the Adelaide festival's partner, supported by Emirates, and the media partner of Womad at Charlton Park in the UK in July.
France's headscarf war: 'It's an attack on freedom'
With rioting breaking out in Paris over the weekend, the row over Muslim headwear has erupted again. Will it lead to a new law against women wearing headscarves? And could that fan the flames of a French identity crisis?
The Guardian, Monday 22 July 2013 18.37 BST
When Youssra's three-and-a-half-year-old son started nursery school, he really wanted his mum to come on a school trip. So she signed up to help out on a cinema visit. She buttoned the children's coats outside their classroom and accompanied them to the front hall. But there, she was stopped by the headteacher, who told her, in front of the baffled children: "You don't have the right to accompany the class because you're wearing a headscarf." She was told to remove her hijab, or basic Muslim head covering, because it was an affront to the secular French Republic. "I fought back," she says. "I brought up all the arguments about equality and freedom for all. But I was forced home, humiliated. The last thing I saw was my distressed son in tears. He didn't understand why I'd been made to leave."
The French charity worker is now part of the protest group Mamans Toutes Égales, or Mothers All Equal. Based in Montreuil outside Paris, it has blocked school coaches, boycotted outings and staged street demonstrations in protest at the growing number of mothers in headscarves being barred from school trips. "This is an attack on freedom and democracy in state schools. They seem to want to wipe Muslim women off the landscape," says Youssra, 36.
Almost 10 years after France banned girls from wearing veils in state schools in 2004 – along with other religious symbols such as crosses or turbans – the Muslim headscarf is once again being pushed to the top of French political debate. France was shaken by two nights of rioting and car-burning in the Paris suburb of Trappes at the weekend after a police identity check on a French woman wearing a niqab, or full-face Muslim veil, raised questions about Nicolas Sarkozy's controversial 2011 law banning the niqab from public places. But even before the Trappes riots shocked the political class, tension had been rising for months in France over the broader issue of Muslim headscarves, including the simple hijab. Far from the headscarf debate being the preserve of the French right, the current Socialist government was already considering tightening laws on standard headscarves, despite France having some of the hardest-hitting legislation on veils in Europe. The headscarf, a piece of fabric which one Socialist MP complained was a French "obsession", is still a major political issue in François Hollande's France. MPs are now considering passing a new, tighter law limiting the professions in which headscarves can be worn, including banning carers in private nurseries from wearing it in front of young children.
"The veil: the left wants its own law," ran a headline on the front page of the leftwing daily Libération in March. The debate is raging on several fronts. First, mothers in hijab petitioned the government about being excluded from school trips, to no avail. Then the focus turned to babies' nurseries after a high court ruled in March in favour of a woman it said was unfairly dismissed from her job in a private creche for wearing a headscarf. The judgment sparked a political frenzy. Intellectuals and politicians criticised the court for backing the woman and warned that headscarves worn in private childcare centres could be a danger to impressionable young children. Hollande said a new law was needed over whether religious symbols such as headscarves could be worn by staff in private creches, perhaps extending the law to other areas of the private sector. Tension has been heightened by recent violent attacks on women in headscarves in Argenteuil, a Paris suburb, where a pregnant woman who was attacked miscarried days later. Hundreds of protesters at a street demonstration in Argenteuil last month condemned the toxic nature of the debate around the veil, weeks before the Trappes riots. Islamophobic attacks in France more than doubled between 2011 and 2012– with women in headscarves the principle target, accounting for 77% of victims of physical or verbal attacks, according to the French Collective Against Islamophobia. After the attacks on veiled women in Argenteuil, the French Muslim Council warned: "Attacks on women in headscarves multiply around the time of each debate about the wearing of the Muslim veil."
"France is not like it used to be. When I was a child, there wasn't a problem. I was born here. I was accepted," says Yetto Souiriy, 37, a mother of five who had been barred from school trips with her son in Montreuil because of her headscarf. "France now seems to be stoking a kind of anger against Muslims. You hear of women having their headscarves pulled off at the market. Even parents at my child's school look at me differently since I was excluded from trips. I had a lot of hope for the left in France, but in terms of discrimination, nothing has changed. Even in shops, I've had people say: 'Take off your headscarf. You're only wearing it to be aggressive.'"
The French Republic is built on a strict separation of church and state, intended to foster equality for all private beliefs rather than stigmatise any religion. Secularism is one of the few issues that unites left, right and the far-right of Marine Le Pen. At the heart is the rule that any state worker in the public service must be impartial and neutral, and so cannot show their religious belief with an outward symbol such as a headscarf. Public-sector workers – from teachers to post office or train station staff – are prohibited from wearing the hijab, a visible cross, turban or Jewish kippa. This legislation, dating back 60 years, is set in stone. But difficulties are emerging under Hollande's presidency as some politicians and philosophers petition for the state rules to be extended to parts of the private sector, namely restricting the wearing of Muslim veils by carers in private nurseries and asking mothers to take off their headscarves if they help on school trips. That the debate is centred on young children and whether they should not be "exposed" to headscarves has made it seem all the more divisive.
Anissa Fathi, 34, stirs her coffee in a halal burger bar in Montreuil while her eldest son plays. She has three children. Since her eight-year-old second son's primary school barred her from helping on outings because of her headscarf, she worries about the impact on a new generation who have seen their mothers picked out and excluded in front of the class. "Children are not stupid. They understand. A lot of children who have been exposed to this treatment of their mothers have had psychological difficulties. My son would have fits of rage, he was self-harming and hitting his head against the wall at home because I couldn't go. Whenever the date of a school trip approached, he would be extremely anxious and in tears."
Fathi, who is French, remembers her own mother going on school trips in a headscarf without a problem. "Sometimes I think tolerance has gone backwards." Once stopped from accompanying a school library trip because of her hijab, she noticed another mother allowed on the trip was wearing a large, visible cross. "That mother backed me, saying: 'If they had asked, I would never have taken off my cross.'" Fathi says her problems didn't start with her son's school. She left her job in a private company after being told that her hijab was a safety risk while she operated a small sewing machine attaching labels to hospital sheets. She feels Muslims are unfairly targeted. "Since September 11th I haven't really felt comfortable going out on my own in a headscarf."
There is no law that specifically bars mothers in headscarves from school trips – legal experts warn it would contravene European human rights legislation. Instead, after a Montreuil court upheld a school's right to bar a mother in a hijab from an outing in 2011, Sarkozy's education minister issued a memo in 2012 recommending schools uphold the "neutrality of public service" on school trips, meaning mothers in hijabs should take off their veils if they want to help on a picnic or gallery visit. The memo leaves schools free to decide for themselves, so some bar mothers in headscarves and others don't. Despite petitions from Muslim mothers, the memo has not been annulled by the Socialists. The current education department said it was not about excluding parents from trips but reminding them that neutrality applies when on school activities. Mothers said barring them from outings while at the same time allowing them to run school summer fete stands in their headscarves was absurd.
In 2008, Fatima Afif was dismissed from her job at a private creche, Baby Loup, in Chanteloup-Les-Vignes, north-west of Paris. Located in one of France's poorest towns, the creche was unique – open 24 hours, every day, to help single mothers with awkward working schedules, including nurses, police officers and waitresses. The creche sacked Afif for insubordination and misconduct. She argued that it was religious discrimination because she returned from parental leave wearing a headscarf. The creche had an internal rule book that banned religious symbols worn by any staff. After years of fighting through the lower courts, which all found against her, the French high court ruled in March this year that Afif was wrongfully dismissed as a result of "discrimination on the basis of religious conviction" and that private firms could not apply blanket bans against all staff wearing the hijab.
The effect was a political bombshell. Many politicians and intellectuals were up in arms at the decision, warning that headscarves must be kept out of creches. The Socialist interior minister, Manuel Valls, told parliament he "regretted" the court decision, which "undermined" secularism in France. The feminist philosopher Elisabeth Badinter and other leftwing intellectuals demanded tighter laws enforcing secularism to keep religious symbols such as headscarves out of private creches to protect children and ensure "neutrality". One lawyer for the creche spoke of the "danger" of the hijab to impressionable children. Baby Loup became a byword for a new debate about tighter laws on the veil. Hollande swiftly announced on TV that a new law on religious symbols such as Muslim headscarves was a "necessity". He said that when there is "contact with children" in a private creche there should be a similar approach to the state sector. He went further, suggesting that in private firms where there was "contact with the public" a law may also be needed to limit religious symbols.
The president quickly reactivated a consulting body, the Observatory on Secularism, which is expected to report back in the coming months on how to frame a new law restricting headscarves and religious symbols in private creches. Aware of the explosive potential of this public debate, Hollande called for "calm and constructive dialogue". In the political class, some questioned the initiative. François Lamy, junior minister for urban affairs, warned that for years French secularism was just being built on "laws banning things", resulting in "rifts" and cracks in society. The Socialist MP Christophe Caresche cautioned against the danger of the "recurring political debate on the wearing of the veil", saying that passing a new law would just "fan the flames" of a French identity crisis and lead to "exclusion".
Françoise Laborde, a senator for the Parti Radical de Gauche, who sits on the Observatory on Secularism, had previously proposed a law to restrict religious symbols worn by people working with children, including childminders who look after children in their own homes. France's high number of state-registered childminders – recently praised by Britain's Conservative party as something to emulate – includes many Muslim women. That their work might be limited on the basis of religious beliefs and clothing was controversial and caused a row on the left. Laborde recently told Libération she still believed in ensuring religious "neutrality" for private creches and childcare professionals. She said she was sceptical about whether the Muslim headscarf could be worn by women of their own free choice. "In a way, it's the same question as prostitution. There are choices which are non-choices."
Djamilia Latrèche, 50, an experienced childminder in Nanterre, west of Paris, who wears a headscarf, says there is a mood of dread and disappointment among childminders. "Currently, I look after three children from families of all beliefs, Christian to atheist. They have never minded about my headscarf. For childminders now, it feels like the state wants to question us about our religion in terms of being fit for the job. This is unfair, discriminatory and absurd. I feel I have to hide the few religious books in my apartment, hide my identity. I was really happy when the high court found in favour of the Baby Loup creche-worker over religious discrimination. But what worries me now is the government deliberately stirring things, creating divisions in society by pushing for new laws. It's sending the wrong message to a society which should be inclusive. What if I'm out with the children I mind and someone tries to pull off my headscarf or throw stones at me?"
Dounia Bouzar, a French anthropologist specialising in legislation concerning religious symbols, says current laws in France are already sufficient to deal with workplace issues around the headscarf. Currently, 94% of problems with religious symbols or practises in the private sector are settled through dialogue. On the consultation to produce a new headscarf law, she says: "I hope it won't just add to hatred of Muslims, or worse prejudice than today."
In a patterned headscarf, Hafida Ouhami was standing with her young son at a recent Paris demonstration for equal rights for mothers in hijabs. "I work in social services," she told me. "So I take off my headscarf each morning when I arrive at work, and put it back on again when I leave. It's a bit like taking off part of my personality, but that's the law. I'm uncomfortable about politicians now pushing a debate about whether headscarves should come off in private companies and for childminders. It feels like pushing things to the extreme. It feels as if we're not welcome to be ourselves anywhere."
Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center launches campaign in Germany to find last perpetrators of the Holocaust
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, July 23, 2013 4:14 EDT
The Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center hung posters on the streets of major German cities Tuesday seeking information on the last perpetrators of the Holocaust still at large nearly 70 years on.
The 2,000 placards displayed in cities including Berlin feature a chilling black-and-white photograph of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp and the tagline: “Late but not too late.”
Part of the Wiesenthal Center’s “Operation Last Chance” to catch the surviving suspects behind World War II-era atrocities, the signs offer a reward of up to 25,000 euros ($33,000) for information leading to the capture and conviction of such criminals.
“We expect to get tips about people who served in the death camps or in Einsatzgruppen (mobile death squads) and in that way to help bring them to justice,” the campaign’s initiator, Efraim Zuroff, told AFP.
“But of course you realise that such a campaign also raises public interest (and serves) as a reminder of the importance to bring those people to justice.”
Zuroff heads the Jerusalem office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Los Angeles-based organisation named after the Holocaust survivor who was perhaps the best-known Nazi hunter until his death in 2005.
The posters, which will confront Germans on their high streets, pack an emotional punch.
“Millions of innocents were murdered by Nazi war criminals. Some of the perpetrators are free and alive,” they read. “Help us to bring them before a court.”
Zuroff estimates that only around 60 potential defendants are still alive. He dismisses the idea that they should be shown clemency given their advanced age.
“In my 33 years of hunting Nazis I never once had a case of a Nazi who ever said he was sorry,” he said.
“Don’t look at these people and see a frail old man or woman, think of someone who at the height of his physical strength devoted his energy to murdering innocent women and men. These are the last people on Earth deserving any sympathy because they had absolutely no sympathy for their victims.”
Zuroff said a precedent set by the conviction in Germany in May 2011 of former camp guard John Demjanjuk had opened the door to a renewed effort to bring others to book.
A Munich court sentenced the Ukrainian-born Demjanjuk to five years’ imprisonment for helping the Nazis kill almost 30,000 Jews during his time at the Sobibor extermination camp in German-occupied Poland during World War II.
In a legal first, it found that simply demonstrating Demjanjuk’s employment at the camp, rather than his involvement in specific murders, was enough to implicate him in the killings committed there.
Two recent cases, in Hungary and Germany, underlined a new commitment by European authorities to capture the very last of the alleged perpetrators after decades of foot-dragging.
In June, acting on a tip from Zuroff, Budapest prosecutors charged Laszlo Lajos Csatari, 98, with organising the deportation of 12,000 Jews to death camps.
His trial is due to start in September. He denies the charges.
German police in May arrested alleged former Auschwitz guard Hans Lipschis, 93, on charges of complicity in mass murder.
Lipschis insists he only worked as a cook at the extermination camp.
His capture revived a charged debate on whether a measure of justice can be too late in coming.
Fellow Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld told AFP that the 11th-hour bids to see justice done using a lower standard of proof based on the Demjanjuk precedent left a “bitter aftertaste”.
“A principle is being applied that is more Soviet than democratic: you were at a camp thus you are guilty,” he said. “It’s up to you to prove your innocence.”
He said the German justice system had in the critical postwar years not lived up to its responsibilities.
“At the time when it was possible to try the criminals, when there was evidence, Germany failed to do its work,” he said.
Montenegro to hold its first gay pride parade
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, July 22, 2013 20:06 EDT
Traditionally conservative Montenegro is to hold its first ever gay pride parade later this week in the coastal town of Budva, organisers said Monday.
“The first Montenegrin gay parade will be held on Wednesday, July 24, in front of the walls of Budva’s old town,” a centuries-old tourist resort on the Adriatic Coast, said Aleksandar Zekovic of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) forum Progress.
“This is a good opportunity to test political will, police capabilities and the LGBT community itself,” Zekovic told reporters.
Human Rights Minister Suad Numanovic said the government would send a representative to show its support for the event but could not confirm he would attend personally.
The LGBT forum tried to organise a gay pride parade two years ago, but eventually cancelled it blaming a lack of backing from the government.
Since then, under EU pressure, the Montenegrin government has adopted a strategy to protect the LGBT community and improve their rights.
In a highly patriarchal society, surveys show 70 percent of Montenegrins still consider homosexuality an illness, while 80 percent believe it should be kept private.
Sexual minorities are largely invisible in the tiny Adriatic state with some 650,000 inhabitants.
Gays and lesbians live in isolation, in permanent fear of hate attacks and do not trust the authorities to protect their rights.
There are few openly gay-friendly bars, restaurants and hotels and they mostly meet in private homes or in the offices of the rare NGOs that deal with gay rights.
On the coast, there are several gay beaches which are largely avoided by other visitors.
July 22, 2013
Romanian Denies Burning Stolen Art
By ANDREW HIGGINS
BUCHAREST, Romania — Olga Dogaru, the Romanian woman who told investigators that she had incinerated seven works of art by Matisse, Picasso and other modern masters in an effort to protect her son, denied in court on Monday that she had burned the works.
Standing alongside her son, Radu, 29, who has admitted stealing the paintings in October from the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam, Mrs. Dogaru, 50, told a panel of three judges that her earlier account of destroying the works in a stove at her house in the tiny village of Carcaliu was untrue. “I did not burn them,” she said in a soft voice.
Alarm swept the art world last week when it appeared that the theft in the Netherlands had ended with a spasm of wanton destruction in a remote corner of Romania. The head of Romania’s National History Museum, Ernest Oberlander-Tarnoveanu, described the supposed burning as a “barbarian crime against humanity.”
The artworks — paintings and drawings signed by Picasso, Matisse, Monet, Gauguin, Lucian Freud and Meyer de Haan — were stolen from the Kunsthal in a brazen nighttime robbery led, according to prosecutors, by Mrs. Dogaru’s son, who was arrested in Romania in January. Mrs. Dogaru told investigators in May that months earlier, in February, she had shoved the stolen artworks into a stove used to heat a sauna at her family home and then set them alight, in a desperate attempt to destroy evidence and save her son from going to jail. News of her account circulated widely last week, along with reports that forensic scientists had found trace evidence to support it.
In the hearing on Monday, though, she said she had made it all up. “I believed that what I said before was the best thing at the moment, that this was the right thing to do,” Mrs. Dogaru said in court, dressed in a blue T-shirt and baggy white pants. When she was asked what had become of the stolen art, she stuttered and then denied that any burning of artwork had occurred.
The purpose of the hearing on Monday was to review a defense lawyer’s request that Mrs. Dogaru, who was arrested in March, and her son be released from detention while awaiting the start of their trial, scheduled for next month. A lawyer for another defendant in the case, Eugen Darie, also requested the release of her client. Prosecutors opposed the requests.
Mrs. Dogaru’s son, who wore a tight black T-shirt and bluejeans, stood silently throughout the proceedings, flexing his biceps as defense lawyers and a state prosecutor argued.
Radu Catalin Dancu, Mrs. Dogaru’s lawyer, said after the hearing that his client had invented the story about burning the artworks “to protect her son and under pressure from prosecutors.” He said it was unclear what had become of the stolen works. “We might never find out what happened to the paintings,” he said.
The most serious charge against Mrs. Dogaru arose from her earlier claim to have destroyed the artworks, which are valued at tens of millions of dollars. Under Romanian law, the crime of “destruction with very serious consequences,” one of three charges against Mrs. Dogaru, carries a sentence of 3 to 10 years — far longer than the punishment for her two other alleged crimes, “supporting a criminal group” and “assisting criminals.”
Relatives and friends in the village of Carcaliu have long insisted that Mrs. Dogaru invented the incineration story, but fears that it might be true were bolstered last week when the National History Museum in Bucharest announced that forensic scientists had found ash material consistent with burned paintings, including copper tacks and pigments used by artists of the relevant periods.
Mr. Dancu, the lawyer, challenged the findings and said he had not seen a final report by the forensic scientists. He added that he wanted the ash to be sent to the Louvre in Paris for further analysis by experts with better equipment and more experience in artwork. Of his client’s earlier story, he said bluntly: “She was lying. What she said before was 100 percent untrue.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: July 22, 2013
In an earlier version of this article, the surname of an artist whose work was stolen in Rotterdam was misspelled. It is Gauguin, not Gaugin.
Pussy Riot campaign draws Adele, U2, Radiohead and Paul McCartney
Bruce Springsteen and Madonna also among scores of musicians who sign letter calling for band members' release
Associated Press in Moscow
guardian.co.uk, Monday 22 July 2013 17.28 BST
Amnesty International says that more than 100 leading musicians are calling for release of jailed members of the Russian punk group Pussy Riot.
Amnesty said on Monday that Adele, U2, Madonna, Yoko Ono, Radiohead, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, Ke$ha, Sir Paul McCartney and Sting were among those who signed an open letter organised by the group.
The musicians say in the letter that the impact of Pussy Riot's "shockingly unjust trial and imprisonment has spread far and wide, especially among your fellow artists, musicians and citizens around the world".
They urged Russian authorities to free 23-year old Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and 25-year-old Maria Alekhina, who received two-year sentences last August for an irreverent punk protest against President Pig Putin in Moscow's main cathedral.
Their parole appeal hearings are due this week.
Iraq: hundreds escape from Abu Ghraib jail
Ten police officers killed as suicide bombers drove car packed with explosives into prison gates on Baghdad outskirts
Associated Press in Baghdad
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 23 July 2013 08.12 BST
Hundreds of convicts, including senior members of al-Qaida, broke out of Iraq's Abu Ghraib jail as comrades launched a military-style assault to free them, authorities said on Monday.
The deadly raid on the high-security jail happened as Sunni Muslim militants are regaining momentum in their insurgency against the Shia-led government.
Suicide bombers drove cars packed with explosives to the gates of the prison on the outskirts of Baghdad on Sunday night and blasted their way into the compound, while gunmen attacked guards with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.
Other militants took up positions near the main road, fighting off security reinforcements sent from Baghdad as militants wearing suicide vests entered the prison on foot to help free the inmates.
Ten policemen and four militants were killed in the ensuing clashes, which continued until Monday morning, when military helicopters arrived, helping to regain control.
By that time, hundreds of inmates had succeeded in fleeing Abu Ghraib, the prison made notorious a decade ago by photographs showing abuse of prisoners by US soldiers.
"The number of escaped inmates has reached 500, most of them were convicted senior members of al-Qaida and had received death sentences," Hakim al-Zamili, a senior member of the security and defence committee in parliament, told Reuters.
"The security forces arrested some of them, but the rest are still free."
One security official told Reuters on condition of anonymity: "It's obviously a terrorist attack carried out by al-Qaida to free convicted terrorists."
A simultaneous attack on another prison, in Taji, around 12 miles north of Baghdad, followed a similar pattern, but guards managed to prevent any inmates escaping. Sixteen soldiers and six militants were killed.
Sunni insurgents, including the al-Qaida-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq, have been regaining strength in recent months and striking on an almost daily basis against Shia Muslims and security forces amongst other targets.
The violence has raised fears of a return to full-blown conflict in a country where Kurds, Shia and Sunni Muslims have yet to find a stable way of sharing power.
Relations between Islam's two main denominations have been put under further strain from the civil war in Syria, which has drawn in Shia and Sunni fighters from Iraq and beyond to fight against each other.
Nearly 600 people have been killed in militant attacks across Iraq so far this month, according to violence monitoring group Iraq Body Count.
Recent attacks have targeted mosques, amateur football matches, shopping areas and cafes where people gather to socialise after breaking their daily fast for the holy Muslim month of Ramadan.
July 22, 2013
Iran Leader Not Optimistic About Talks With U.S.
By THOMAS ERDBRINK
TEHRAN — Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, threw some cold water on recent efforts to reinvigorate diplomatic contacts between Iran and the United States, saying he was not optimistic that any agreement would be reached, though he does not oppose talks “on certain issues.”
At a meeting on Sunday with the departing president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his cabinet, Mr. Khamenei said that he did not believe that direct talks with the United States would have a positive result for Iran.
“The Americans are unreliable and illogical, and are not honest in their approach,” Mr. Khamenei warned, adding that his view was based on previous talks with the United States, often conducted secretly, on issues like Iraq.
President-elect Hassan Rowhani, who will be inaugurated Aug. 4, argued during his election campaign that it was better to talk to “the head of the village,” meaning he preferred negotiating directly with the United States rather than with its European allies.
Last week, 131 members of Congress signed a letter drafted by Representatives Charlie Dent, Republican of Pennsylvania, and David E. Price, Democrat of North Carolina, encouraging President Obama to reach out to Iran now that it has elected Mr. Rowhani.
But Mr. Khamenei, who has the final word on potential talks, said on Sunday that he did not trust American officials enough to engage in comprehensive direct talks. He did not elaborate, but a speech he made in March laid out some of his reasons for skepticism. “Despite their claims of friendship with the Iranian nation, the Americans started imposing harsh and widespread oil and banking sanctions on Iran, and they insist that they should not be considered enemies in spite of these hostile actions,” he said in a broadcast speech.
Hamid-Reza Taraghi, a political activist close to Mr. Khamenei, also mentioned the embargoes. “It is not enough for some U.S. congressmen to write a letter,” Mr. Taraghi said. “They should start lifting sanctions. That would be a real green light for negotiations.”
Mr. Khamenei and his supporters have often demanded that the United States start lifting sanctions and agree to compensate Iran for what they call historical wrongs, like the American-engineered coup d'état in 1953 and the downing of an Iranian civilian airliner in 1988. Still Mr. Khamenei, who has been Iran’s top leader since 1989, has allowed some deals to be negotiated, including support and intelligence for the American-led fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 and the formation of governments in Afghanistan and Iraq, people who were close to those talks said.
Mr. Khamenei emphasized in his remarks on Sunday that Iran was ready to increase its interaction with the world, one of the main election promises Mr. Rowhani made. But “if interactions with the world means we retreat from our path, this is a loss,” Mr. Khamenei said.
A person close to Mr. Rowhani’s camp, who spoke on condition that he not be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject, said that he interpreted Mr. Khamenei’s speech as supportive of the new president. “It is clear we are ready to talk, if the other side explains what the end results of such talks can be,” he said.
Iran: EU blacklisting of Hezbollah serves Israeli interests
Decision to place military win of Lebanese group on terrorist list will only complicate Middle East situation, Tehran says
Ian Black, Middle East editor, and agencies
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 23 July 2013 09.29 BST
Iran says the European Union's decision to blacklist the military wing of Lebanon's Hezbollah is strange and uncalculated.
The foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Araghchi told a news conference in Tehran on Tuesday that the decision by the EU to place the group on its terrorist list served Israel's interests and would only complicate the situation in the Middle East. Hezbollah is an ally of Iran.
He told reporters that the designation wouldn't change Hezbollah's "popular and justice-seeking identity".
EU governments agreed to list the armed wing of Hezbollah as a terrorist group because of concerns over its activities in Europe. But the EU ignored pressure from the US and Israel to ban the Lebanese organisation outright, allowing contacts with its political representatives.
Monday's decision came after months of wrangling between member states, who needed to agree the ban unanimously. William Hague, Britain's foreign secretary, said the move would not harm European or UK relations with the Lebanese government.
But there was condemnation from Beirut, where the caretaker government had described Hezbollah as "an essential component of Lebanese society". Leading politicians warned the move would play into the hands of Israel. Al-Manar, the pro-Hezbollah TV channel, reported: "Israel has imposed its will on Europe."
Last year's terrorist attack on Israeli tourists in Bulgaria and another incident in Cyprus fuelled long-standing demands for action against the group.
Officials in Brussels said details had yet to be worked out, but travel bans and assets being frozen were likely outcomes.
Hezbollah is a big player on the hottest frontlines of the Middle East. The "Party of God" is a sworn enemy of Israel and the US, a loyal ally of Iran and a partner of the Syrian military in its attempts to crush the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad.
Israel called the EU move "correct and just". The prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, thanked the EU ministers for the action, saying "as far as Israel is concerned, Hezbollah is one organisation without distinctions between its wings".
The US and Israel have spent years urging the EU to outlaw Hezbollah outright. In 2008, the UK borrowed from its experience with the IRA and Sinn Féin to ban Hezbollah's military wing while allowing contact with its political representatives.
Elsewhere in the EU, only the Netherlands had previously banned the entire organisation. But France and Germany backed the latest policy shift – making for a powerful coalition in Brussels.
Hezbollah emerged under the influence of revolutionary Iran around the time of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The invasion targeted the Palestinian Liberation Organisation but ended up creating a new enemy in Lebanon's Shia community. Known as "the resistance" – including by its detractors in Lebanon and elsewhere – Hezbollah bolstered its reputation in the 2006 war. Israel says the group has increase its weapons stockpiles since, building up an arsenal of more than 60,000 rockets. But it is Hezbollah's operations elsewhere that have caused it most trouble.
Pressure mounted from the US and Israel after five Israeli tourists and their Bulgarian driver where killed last July in a bus bombing in the Black Sea resort of Burgas. Hezbollah denies any involvement and says Israel is waging an "international campaign" against it. Around the same time a court in Cyprus convicted an operative of helping plan attacks on Israelis.
Hezbollah is assumed to be seeking to avenge the death of its military commander, Imad Mughniyeh. He was assassinated in Damascus in 2008 in a sophisticated operation widely blamed on the Mossad, the Israeli secret service – a belief Israel has done nothing to discourage.
Another significant new factor is Hezbollah's role in Syria. Hassan Nasrallah, its secretary general, never made any secret of his support for Assad, but in recent months Hezbollah has come out far more openly on the Syrian president's side, sending fighters in organised units to help retake the strategic town of Qusayr between Damascus and Homs and no longer concealing its losses. That has shaken Lebanon. A car bomb in the Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs of Beirut showed that the stakes have moved beyond the rhetorical to open war.
The EU blacklisting decision, some observers had warned, could undermine a very fragile situation and promote sectarianism.
"To date, EU policy to keep channels of communications open in Lebanon has allowed it to play a pro-active role in promoting political reform, social development and reconciliation in the country," said the Conciliation Resources group. "Today's development is disappointing for peace prospects in the region. Opportunities for dialogue should be encouraged rather than restrained, particularly at a time when Lebanon seems to be drawn ever more into the situation in Syria."
The British ambassador to Lebanon, Tom Fletcher, said on Twitter that the EU's blacklisting of Hezbollah would not affect dealings with its political wing.
India's acid attack ruling risks rubbing salt into survivors' wounds
Survivors are demanding free treatment or more compensation to pay for surgery that can cost thousands
KumKum Dasgupta in New Delhi
Tuesday 23 July 2013 07.00 BST guardian.co.uk
India's supreme court has announced a raft of orders to regulate the sale of acid in an attempt to curb attacks on women.
Last week it ruled that acid should be sold only to people above 18 with valid identity cards. Buyers will have to explain why they need the substance, sales must be reported to the police, and, in the case of an attack, the accused will not be granted bail. In addition, acid attack survivors will receive 300,000 rupees (£3,300) from state governments.
The court, which heard a public interest litigation filed in 2006 by Laxmi, 22, a Delhi-based acid attack survivor, gave the central and state governments three months to implement the measures.
There are about 1,000 acid attacks in India each year. Until recently, there was no separate legislation for such incidents, and data was not collated. But the gang rape of a student in New Delhi in December prompted the government to look at strengthening laws on violence against women. It resulted in an amendment to the penal code that made acid attacks a standalone offence. The court set a minimum 10-year prison sentence and a maximum of life for perpetrators.
The ruling is not retrospective, which means that women who were attacked previously will not receive support. Other recommendations from survivors – such as full medical treatment and assistance finding work – were not included in the ruling.
Compensation to survivors is often insufficient as the multiple surgeries many women require can cost up to £34,000. Activists say no government officials spoke to any survivors or civil society organisations before suggesting the compensation figure to the court. However, the real challenge will be to implement the rules and train police officers to respond quickly to such attacks.
The case of Rupa, 21, from Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, illustrates the challenges ahead and the ruling's shortcomings. She was attacked by her stepmother in 2008.
"I was sleeping in my room after a day of back-breaking housework. Suddenly, I felt searing pain in my face. I did not know what had hit me … I ran out of the room, crying," says Rupa. Her father refused to take her to the public health centre, and for the first six hours after the incident she did not receive any first aid.
When the village chief heard about the incident, he informed Rupa's uncle, who took her to a health centre. However, the facilities proved inadequate and Rupa was taken to Safdarjung hospital, a government-run facility in Delhi. She was admitted for three months and underwent seven surgeries.
Rupa's uncle, who spent about £10,000 on her treatment, earns about £165 a month and has a family of four to support. When he could no longer afford to pay for further treatment he sent his niece back to the village.
"I am a burden on my uncle's family," says Rupa, who dropped out of school. "If only the government had made my treatment free or had given me compensation, I would not have to go back to those who don't want me."
Rupa's stepmother spent a year in prison and has been released on bail.
Most acid attack survivors are poor, and their families struggle to pay for medical care. Specialised burns wards are located in urban areas, forcing families to pay large amounts to travel to and stay in the nearest cities.
Things would have been different had the government taken note of recommendations made by the National Commission for Women, a statutory body dedicated to representing the rights of women.
In a draft bill, prevention of offences (by acids) act 2008 (pdf), the commission suggested: setting up a national acid attack survivors assistance board to ensure they receive adequate medical treatment and psychological counselling; providing legal support services; and formulating rehabilitation schemes and insurance cover. It also recommended establishing a national assistance fund.
The recommendations were sent to the ministry of women and child development, but so far they have not been adopted. It is hardly surprising, then, that many acid attack survivors regard the court order as only a partial victory. Archana Kumari, who was attacked with acid in 2008, reportedly said the ruling rubbed "salt on the wounds", rather than healed them.
July 23, 2013
Biden Meets India’s Leaders to Promote Closer Ties
By GARDINER HARRIS
NEW DELHI — Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. held a parade of meetings on Tuesday with India’s top political leaders, but the most important part of his trip to India will begin Wednesday when he is expected to discuss with India’s business elite in Mumbai the growing concerns about India’s economy.
Mr. Biden started his trip Monday afternoon with a visit to the memorial to Mohandas K. Gandhi, who is considered India’s founding father. Mr. Biden wrote a tribute to Gandhi in the visitor’s book, calling Gandhi “one man who changed the world."
On Tuesday, Mr. Biden held meetings with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, President Pranab Mukherjee, Vice President Mohammad Hamid Ansari and Sushma Swaraj, a leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. A banquet in Mr. Biden’s honor was scheduled for Tuesday night, after which he was scheduled to fly to India’s financial capital, Mumbai.
Mr. Biden’s trip is part of a long-term effort to convince India’s officials and people that the days when Pakistan, India’s longtime rival, was the United States’ favorite friend in South Asia are over. Mr. Biden’s trip is the first by an American vice president in nearly 30 years, and it comes one month after Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to New Delhi, the capital, to discuss climate change and diplomacy.
But Mr. Biden is expected to deliver more than just happy talk about the growing strategic and cultural ties between the United States and India. While in Mumbai, he is expected to voice growing concerns about India’s economy and its openness to foreign investment before leaving for Singapore on Thursday night.
Investors from the United States and around the globe once flocked to India, drawn by its rapid economic growth, gradual economic liberalization and huge population. But in the last decade, many American companies have found the going far tougher than expected, and their complaints are beginning to resonate in Washington.
The problems that companies confront here — endemic corruption, shifting government rules and poor infrastructure, among others — seemed less dire when the Indian economy was growing at a blistering rate. But growth has slowed to 5 percent over the past year, and those issues have become far greater irritants.
Mr. Biden’s complaints about India’s investment climate are likely to be greeted with some sympathy in Mumbai, since even Indian companies have begun looking for growth outside their country’s borders. Investments by foreign and domestic companies have fallen over the last five years to 31 percent of the country’s gross domestic product from nearly 38 percent, said Subir Gokarn, director of research at Brookings India, with crucial sectors like manufacturing and mining doing especially poorly.
The prime minister, Mr. Singh, acknowledged in a speech to a prominent business group here on Friday that the nation’s economy was under stress.
“We, like most other countries, are going through a difficult period,” Mr. Singh said in his barely audible whisper. “I know that business is deeply concerned about the slowdown in our economy.”
The Indian rupee has lost about 9 percent of its value against the dollar in recent months, a decline exceeded only by the Brazilian real among major emerging market currencies. India has substantial budget and current account deficits, and inflation is running at nearly 10 percent annually.
The country’s central bank has been faced with the difficult task of defending the currency by trying to raise short-term interest rates without pushing up long-term rates, which would further slow growth. But the Reserve Bank of India took the unusual step last week of withdrawing a bond sale after investors insisted on interest rates that were higher than the government’s bankers wanted to pay.
Ajay Shah, a professor at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy in New Delhi, said these problems guaranteed that India’s era of rapid economic growth would not return for many years.
“There’s been a tremendous collapse in confidence,” Mr. Shah said.
India’s government has taken steps to put its fiscal house in order by reducing fuel subsidies, a hugely expensive program that largely benefits the rich. Last week, the government announced a loosening of restrictions on certain foreign investments.
But national elections scheduled for next year are likely to mean that the government will be loath to make additional cuts to popular welfare projects, said Sreeram Chaulia, a professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs. A new food security bill could even expand such social spending significantly.
“Right now, this government is concerned about winning the next election,” Mr. Chaulia said.
Mr. Biden also intends to push India for further defense cooperation and more arms purchases from the United States, according to a senior Obama administration official.
India has long resisted becoming too close to the American military. But recent border tensions between India and China have jangled nerves in New Delhi and made officials here strive to improve India’s defense manufacturing abilities, something the United States has said it could help achieve.
July 22, 2013
Report Finds Gradual Fall in Female Genital Cutting in Africa
By CELIA W. DUGGER
A comprehensive new assessment of the ancient practice of female genital cutting has found a gradual but significant decline in many countries, even in some where it remains deeply entrenched.
Teenage girls are now less likely to have been cut than older women in more than half of the 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East where the practice is concentrated, according to the assessment by the United Nations Children’s Fund. In Egypt, for example, where more women have been cut than in any other nation, survey data showed that 81 percent of 15- to 19-year-olds had undergone the practice, compared with 96 percent of women in their late 40s.
The report’s authors stress that the tradition still has a tenacious hold in many places, but they say the fledgling declines may foreshadow more generational change. In almost half of the 29 countries, young women were less likely to support the practice than older women. The difference in Egypt was especially stark: only a third of teenage girls who were surveyed thought it should continue, compared with almost two-thirds of older women.
“The fact that young women are against the practice in places like Egypt gives us hope that they will be able to stop the cutting of their daughters,” said Claudia Cappa, lead author of the Unicef report. “We need to create conditions so they can act on their beliefs.”
Over all, Unicef estimates that more than 125 million girls and women have undergone the practice and that 30 million girls are at risk of it over the coming decade. The report, released Monday, is the first in which Unicef assessed the practice among all age groups based on household survey data from all of the 29 countries. Its last report, issued eight years ago, was based on 30 surveys in 20 of the countries; the new study includes 74 surveys done in 29 countries over two decades.
The report depicts progress against female genital cutting as halting and uneven. It also offers a portrait of nations where its prevalence is still stunningly high. In addition to Egypt, where 91 percent of women 15 to 49 have undergone the practice, countries with the highest percentages of women who have been cut include Somalia, at 98 percent; Guinea, at 96 percent; Djibouti, at 93 percent; Eritrea and Mali, at 89 percent; and Sierra Leone and Sudan, at 88 percent.
Unicef found that the steepest declines in the prevalence of the practice, also known as female genital mutilation, have occurred in Kenya, one of Africa’s most dynamic and developed nations, and — most surprisingly — in the Central African Republic, one of its poorest and least developed.
Researchers now say the prevalence of the practice in these two countries began to fall four or five decades ago. They said the progress made sense in Kenya, where efforts to stop female genital cutting stretch to the early 1900s, but they were at a loss to explain why it had plunged in the Central African Republic, to 24 percent in 2010 from 43 percent in the mid-1990s.
“We have no idea, not even a guess,” said Bettina Shell-Duncan, an anthropology professor at the University of Washington who was a consultant on the report. Professor Shell-Duncan said researchers needed to get to the Central African Republic soon to figure out what was happening there.
The country has received no significant foreign aid to combat the practice that Unicef researchers knew of, and it has been the subject of no scholarly study that they could find.
While experts were amazed about the Central African Republic, they were disappointed that no significant decline had been detected in Senegal between the surveys done in 2005 and 2010-11. Tostan, a human rights group whose name means “breakthrough,” has led a much-hailed and growing social movement there to stop the practice, with support from Unicef and other donors. Thousands of villages working with the group have declared their intent to abandon genital cutting.
Molly Melching, Tostan’s executive director, said in an e-mail that the momentum in Senegal had accelerated in the past five years and that changes would probably become visible only in 2020, as girls who would otherwise have been cut grow old enough to be interviewed in household surveys. She also noted that the national surveys had not specifically sampled the villages where Tostan worked or evaluated the group’s impact.
Mrs. Cappa, of Unicef, acknowledged Ms. Melching’s points but said “the real surprise for Senegal” was that support for the practice among women and girls had not noticeably declined.
The new report is based on data from the Demographic and Health Surveys and the Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys; women ages 15 to 49 were questioned about their own status and that of their daughters.
This self-reported data should be treated with caution because women may be unwilling to disclose having undergone the procedure because of the sensitivity of the topic or the illegality of the practice. And some women may be unaware that they had been cut or the extent of the cutting, especially if the procedure was done at an early age.
Nonetheless, it identifies intriguing trends in who is performing the cutting, its severity and people’s attitudes toward it.
In most countries, traditional circumcisers still do the cutting. But in Egypt, a troubling shift has occurred as people have become more aware that girls can die from the procedure: the number of girls and young women cut by medical professionals, mostly doctors, has risen to three out of four from just over half in 1995.
“Women know more about the harms, but there is still social pressure to conform, and so they medicalize the procedure,” said Francesca Moneti, a senior child protection specialist at Unicef.
Across all countries, one in five of the women and girls genitally cut has undergone the most severe form, known as infibulation. It usually involves cutting and stitching together the vaginal labia, nearly covering the urethra and the vaginal opening, which must be open later for intercourse and childbirth.
But a trend toward less radical forms of genital cutting has taken hold in some countries, including Djibouti, where 83 percent of women in their late 40s report being infibulated — sewn closed — compared with 42 percent of 15- to 19-year-olds.
Female genital cutting includes a range of practices from pricking or piercing female genitals to amputating some or all of the external genitalia, including the clitoris. The practice can diminish women’s sexual pleasure and increase the risk that they and their babies will die in childbirth.
The Unicef report also found that while the practice is sometimes seen as a patriarchal effort to control women’s sexuality, it is often women who carry it out, and in a few countries, including Guinea, Sierra Leone and Chad, more men than women support its abandonment. Significant numbers of women also do not know what men think about the practice and often underestimate the proportion of them who want it to end, survey data show.
“In the United States, how many husbands and wives talk about sex?” asked Stanley Yoder, a researcher with ICF International, a consulting firm, who has been involved in surveys in Africa for 15 years. “Some do, but many don’t. There are things people don’t talk about.”
The most common reason women give for continuing genital cutting is to gain social acceptance. United Nations researchers for the first time cross-tabulated data on women’s views and learned that many mothers opposed to the practice reported having had their daughters cut.
“This shows the gap between attitudes and behavior,” Mrs. Cappa said. “What you think as an individual is not enough to put an end to the practice because of social pressures and obligations.”