Baghdad car bombs kill dozens
Scores wounded in attacks after 12 car bombs hit markets and car parks in Shia neighbourhoods of Iraqi capital
Associated Press in Baghdad
guardian.co.uk, Monday 29 July 2013 12.56 BST
A wave of more than a dozen car bombings hit central and southern Iraq during morning rush hour on Monday, killing at least 51 people, officials said, in the latest co-ordinated attack by insurgents determined to undermine the government.
The blasts, which wounded scores more, are part of a months-long surge of attacks that is reviving fears of a return to the widespread sectarian bloodshed that pushed the country to the brink of civil war after the 2003 US-led invasion.
Suicide attacks, car bombings and other violence have killed more than 3,000 people since April, including more than 500 since the start of July, according to an Associated Press count.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Monday's attacks, but they bore the hallmarks of al-Qaida's Iraqi arm. The group, known as the Islamic State of Iraq, frequently sets off such co-ordinated blasts in an effort to break Iraqis' confidence in the Shia-led government.
Police said a total of 12 parked car bombs hit markets and car parks in predominantly Shia neighbourhoods of Baghdad within an hour of each other. They said the deadliest were in the eastern Shia neighbourhood of Sadr City, where two separate explosions killed nine civilians and wounded 33 others.
Ambulances rushed to the scene where rescuers and police were removing the charred and twisted remains of the car bombs from the bloodstained pavement. The force of the two explosions lightly damaged nearby houses and shops.
Ali Khalil, 36, a taxi driver, said he was passing nearby when the first bomb exploded. "I heard a thunderous explosion that shook my car and broke the rear window," he said. "I immediately pulled over and didn't know what to do while seeing people running or lying on the ground."
He said he brought two of the wounded to a nearby hospital before heading back to his home to stay indoors for the rest the day. Like many Iraqis he blamed political infighting and incapable security forces for the deteriorating security situation.
Several hours after the explosions, the acting UN envoy to Iraq, Gyorgy Busztin, expressed concern over "the heightened level of violence which carries the danger that the country falls back into sectarian strife".
He said: "Iraq is bleeding from random violence, which sadly reached record heights during the holy month of Ramadan." He called for immediate and decisive action to stop the "senseless bloodshed".
Ten other bombs around Baghdad, mostly in Shia-dominated suburbs, as well as in the town of Mahmoudiya, 20 miles to the south, killed 31 people.
The wave of bombings also extended to Iraq's majority-Shia south. Back-to-back explosions of two parked car bombs in an outdoor market and near a gathering of construction workers killed seven civilians and wounded 35 in the city of Kut.
And in the oil-rich city of Basra, four people were killed and five wounded when a parked car bomb ripped through a market. Health officials confirmed the casualty figures.
The violence surged after a crackdown by security forces on a Sunni protest camp in the northern town of Hawija in April that killed 44 civilians and a member of the security forces, according to UN estimates. The bloodshed is linked to rising sectarian divisions between Sunnis and Shias as well as friction between Arabs and Kurds, dampening hopes for a return to normalcy nearly two years after US forces withdrew from the country.
Family of Indian gang rape victim call for youngest suspect to be hanged
Relatives of woman who died after being attacked by six men, call standard three-year term for juveniles 'totally unacceptable'
Jason Burke in Delhi
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 28 July 2013 18.52 BST
The family of the 23-year-old woman who died of injuries sustained when raped by six men last year in Delhi has called for the youngest of the alleged attackers, a juvenile who can only be given a three-year sentence, to be hanged "whatever his age".
The attack on the physiotherapy intern returning with a friend from a cinema in south Delhi last December provoked outrage and grief in India, with protests across the country. It led to an unprecedented national discussion about sexual violence and calls for widespread changes in cultural attitudes, as well as policing and legal reform.
However, the debate is now focusing on India's punishment of under-18s. There have been fiery debates in the media about the issue, as well as protests outside the juvenile court in Delhi where the juvenile's trial was held.
A cover story in the local India Today magazine called the suspect "India's most hated", though, describing his poverty-stricken upbringing in the chaotic and lawless state of Uttar Pradesh, the magazine said he was "as tragic as he is terrifying".
Badri Singh, father of the victim, said the standard three-year term for the man, who is now 18 and will be sentenced next week, would be "totally unacceptable".
"It has to be the death penalty ... The fight will go on. Right up to the supreme court and internationally after that," Singh, 48, said.
The five adult men, aged between 19 and 28, who were charged with the rape and murder of the woman, face the death penalty. The alleged ringleader of the group, 35, hanged himself in prison while awaiting trial.
The six were accused of repeatedly raping the woman and violently assaulting her with an iron bar, causing massive internal injuries. She was then dumped with her friend, semi-conscious, in a layby and died 10 days later.
The 18-year-old, whose trial in a court for juveniles has now ended and who cannot be named under Indian law, has denied all charges against him.
Ranjana Kumari, a women's activist and director of the Centre for Social Research, a Delhi-based thinktank, said she and others had suggested the "nature of the crime" should be considered.
"It would not be right to lower the age limit for adulthood but when it is a very horrible crime as in this case then it could go to adult courts. We are absolutely very upset about this," Kumari said.
Earlier this month, the juvenile was found guilty of robbery. All those accused of raping the woman are also charged with robbing another man earlier in the evening of the incident.
The Indian supreme court is to decide this week on a new bid for a "fresh interpretation" of who can be considered juvenile.
There has also been also widespread criticism of the "fast-track court" set up to specifically to ensure rapid justice in the case, which is one of the most-high profile in India for many years.
The trial of the adult defendants started in January but no verdict has yet been reached. The accused deny all charges against them.
"The whole judicial process is now being questioned. It takes so long that when justice is delivered it has caused more pain for the victims," said Kumari.
Singh, the victim's father, said the idea of a fast-track court was a "farce".
"This case should've wound up within a month after it started … We've waited so long. We don't want it to be for nothing," he said.
Retailers urged to take Bangladesh safety deal further
Initiative to improve conditions should be used as blueprint for tackling similar problems elsewhere, say campaigners
The Guardian, Sunday 28 July 2013 19.38 BST
Workers rights groups are calling on retailers to use a legally binding deal to improve safety for clothes factory workers in Bangladesh as a blueprint for tackling similar problems elsewhere.
IndustriALL, the international union group which is backing the deal between textile workers and more than 70 retailers to tackle fire safety and building security in Bangladesh, said it had already begun work to build a similar agreement in Pakistan. It comes amid evidence that workers in Pakistan and China face greater workplace risks than those in Bangladesh.
Retailers including Primark, Marks & Spencer and H&M agreed to independent factory inspections and action to improve manufacturers' buildings in Bangladesh after the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in April killed more than 1,100 people.
Jyrki Raina, general secretary of IndustriALL, said many of those retailers also produced goods in Pakistan and could sign up to a second deal. "The strategy of working through the global supply chain does work and should be a blueprint for countries beyond Bangladesh," he said.
Raina believes the Bangladeshi deal, on which talks had started two years before the Rana Plaza collapse put it in the spotlight, was likely to be effective because retailers had promised funds for factory inspections, changes and rebuilding, and faced legal repercussions if they did not co-operate.
Bangladesh, however, is ranked only the 17th-worst country on a labour rights and protection index put together by global risk consultancy Maplecroft and referred to by major retailers around the world. The index takes into account factors including working conditions, the prevalence of forced or child labour and the freedom to form unions.
Pakistan and China are ranked respectively third- and fourth-worst places to work on the index, behind the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burma.
More than half of clothing factories inspected in Bangladesh and Pakistan failed to meet fire safety standards, according to Sedex, a not for profit group that compiles ethical audit data for companies to monitor their supply chain.
In both countries safety issues such as blocked fire exits or a lack of alarms were the biggest single problem identified by inspectors, ahead of long working hours, low wages and the use of child labour.
Other countries did not fare much better. More than 40% of clothing factories in China, India and Turkey, all major producers of clothing for shops in the UK and elsewhere, failed fire safety inspections.
While a third of clothing factories in Bangladesh did not meet building and site maintenance standards, more than a quarter of factories in India, Pakistan and Turkey were in the same position, said Sedex.
Sam Maher, a workers rights campaigner at pressure group Labour Behind the Label, said Sedex only inspected a limited number of factories and its findings were likely to be the tip of the iceberg. "
"These issues are completely systemic and relate to the way the industry operates," she said.
In the past, retailers and brands have not taken sufficient action to tackle the problems highlighted by such inspections, according to Maher. "There is a definite need for the industry in each country to come together and work with different stakeholders to change things," she said.
But Maher said factory safety agreements in other countries could not just be cut and pasted from the deal in Bangladesh. "We don't want cheap knock-off accords. The key principles are legal influence, the involvement of workers' representatives and full building inspections – but that has to be looked at in the context of each country."
Arvind Ramakrishnan, an analyst at Maplecroft, agreed that political and social differences meant that fire safety might be more important in some countries whereas forced labour, low wages or freedom to develop unions might be a priority elsewhere.
He said deals which meant retailers faced legal consequences in their home country were necessary to drive real change in countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, where factory owners are a powerful lobby. Because they earn a high proportion of export income and often contribute to the major political parties they are able to lobby against workers rights moves which they believe could dent profits.
"Wages are desperately low in India and Bangladesh but manufacturers have quite a lot of political clout," he said.
Cambodia opposition party makes big gains in election
Preliminary results show Cambodia National Rescue won 55 seats, but leader calls for investigation into 'irregularities'
Kate Hodal in Bangkok
guardian.co.uk, Monday 29 July 2013 12.14 BST
Cambodia's opposition has made what appear to be significant gains in a general election that could prove to be the ruling party's worst show in more than a decade, according to preliminary results.
The incumbent Cambodian People's party, presided over by prime minister Hun Sen, won 68 of the 123 National assembly seats in Sunday's polls, according to provisional figures from the national election commission. The opposition's Cambodia National Rescue party won 55, up from 29 in the outgoing parliament.
Hun Sen – who has been in power for 28 years – will serve another term as prime minister, a win rejected by opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, who has claimed that "serious election irregularities" should be reviewed by an independent body.
The significant gains are a considerable boost for the opposition, already buoyed by the return of Rainsy last week after a royal pardon meant he came back to Cambodia from self-imposed exile.
Rainsy was barred from participating in the elections, as the national election commission deemed his return too late to be included in the polls.
A man reads newspaper coverage about the elections A man reads newspaper coverage of the election. Photograph: Samrang Pring/Reuters
While this election was in many ways unprecedented – with a significant number of young voters using social media to share information and rally for change – many expected the CPP to win by another landslide, as happened in the last two elections, despite widespread allegations of fraud.
The opposition has said it wants an independent investigation of all voting irregularities in Sunday's poll, which are said to range from alleged problems with indelible ink to claims that around 1 million voters were written off voting lists.
Transparency International said that at 60% of polling stations, citizens with proper ID could not find their names on the voter lists.
In an interview with the Guardian last week, Rainsy warned that an election deemed "not free and fair" by the Cambodian public could lead to violence, including protests during which "anything is possible".
It is unclear what the next move is for Rainsy or his party, but if there is an opposition boycott of the results, the ruling CPP will not be able to form a new government.
July 28, 2013
South Korea Pledges Millions in Aid for North
By CHOE SANG-HUN
SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea announced $7.3 million worth of humanitarian aid for North Korea on Sunday, a conciliatory gesture that coincided with a call by the South for “one last round” of talks on restarting a jointly operated industrial complex.
The majority of the aid — $6 million — will be provided by the South Korean government and shipped through Unicef, the United Nations children’s agency, which provides vaccines, medicine and nutritional supplements for malnourished children and pregnant women in the impoverished North. Five private humanitarian aid groups from South Korea will provide the remainder; they will also send medicine and food for young children.
The South Korean minister in charge of policy toward the North, Ryoo Kihl-jae, said the aid shipments were not linked to political issues. But the announcement was contained in a statement in which Mr. Ryoo also called for a final round of talks with the North to settle disputes over the Kaesong industrial complex, which has been closed since early April.
There was no immediate response from the North Korean government.
The economy in the North remains in dire shape despite international aid and gradual improvements in the North’s grain production in recent years. More than one-quarter of North Korean children under age 5 suffer from chronic malnourishment, according to surveys by the United Nations and international aid groups. South Korean government statistics showed that the North’s infant mortality rates in recent years were several times higher than those in the South.
South Korean governmental and private aid for North Korea plunged by more than 95 percent over the last five years. Conservative South Korean governments curtailed aid shipments and trade with North Korea, citing its nuclear weapons development and military provocations, like the sinking of a South Korean warship in 2010, for which the South Korean government blamed the North.
The North pulled its 53,000 workers out of the Kaesong industrial complex in April, citing military tensions that it said were caused by joint South Korean-American military exercises.
North Korea has insisted that the shutdown was the South’s fault. It has also accused the South of making unreasonable demands as a pretext to terminating the Kaesong project.
China's wine boom of little profit to giant pandas and small farmers
Vineyard growth plan for 'Bordeaux of China' raises concerns for animal habitats and livelihoods of villagers who switch to grapes
Nicola Davison in Xiaojin
guardian.co.uk, Friday 26 July 2013 14.47 BST
In 1985, Li Hua visited a valley in the foothills of the Tibetan plateau. The area was better known for its panda population, but the oenologist realised that its high altitude, hours of sunshine, sandy soil and low precipitation also offered ideal conditions for growing grapes.
Li's findings gave local authorities an idea, and over the past decade they have begun to implement an ambitious plan: to convert Xiaojin, a county in Aba prefecture, Sichuan province, into the Bordeaux of China.
There are 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) of vines in Aba, but in December the local government announced a project to plant 6,700 hectares by 2020.
But as plans to enlarge the vineyards are drafted, conservationists are voicing concern. A recent reform in land tenure in the area, according to research published in the journal Science, could threaten the natural habitat of endangered species such as the giant panda, red panda, golden snub-nosed monkey and Thorold's deer. The reform enables farming households to transfer the operation rights of their land to outside enterprises. This could allow logging companies or other industries, including wineries, access to 350,000 hectares of previously undisturbed forest, which represents about 15% of panda habitat.
"Pandas are squished into the last little upland refuge that hasn't been converted into agriculture," says Lee Hannah, a senior scientist at Conservation International, a US-based NGO in. "A species that has lost so much habitat can't afford to lose more." But Hannah, however, saysthat if vines are planted in areas already adapted for crops, the renewed threat to pandas will be minimal.
China's wine industry is young and holdings small by western standards. But it is consuming and producing wine in unprecedented volumes. Wine sales reached £27bn last year, an increase of 20% on 2011, according to the research firm Euromonitor International.
As the rising middle classes seek new gastronomic experience China has become crucial market for global conglomerates: last year imports accounted for 45% of wine sales. Increasingly, though, wines are being made in China. International Wine and Spirit Research predicts China will overtake Australia to become the world's sixth largest wine producer by 2016. But just a handful of regions are suited to growing European-style grapes, and from these ever more is being demanded.
On a sweltering day in the Xiaojin valley, a dozen farmers shelter from the midday heat beneath some apple trees. The eaves of their houses are painted deep crimson with white circles – the typical style of this majority Tibetan region – while bright frescoes on doorways depict Buddhist prayer wheels and lotus flowers. (In the last few years Aba has been at the centre of a wave of self-immolations by mostly Tibetan monks protesting against the exile of the Dalai Lama and Chinese government rule.)
Aba is a mountainous region and fertile land scarce. While farmers have made a living growing cash crops such as corn and potatoes for centuries, today a stack of concrete posts, soon to form trellises, obstructs a village road. One farmer, Huang Nonghai, saws a metal rod to help erect a vineyard fence.
Last spring, he and his fellow villagers signed over their land to Jiuzhaigou Natural Wine Industry Company in a 20-year contract. They are optimistic: "We hope the company will help our village earn more, so we can all share the profits brought by the developing wine industry," Huang said.
But keeping ambitious developers in check is an issue. Zhang Zhengqiao, the chairman of Jiuzhaigou, says the "next step" is to construct vineyards in the foothills of Wolong and Siguniang mountains, two peaks that are Unesco-protected panda habitats. "We sold around 1m bottles of wine in 2012, with sales reaching 120m yuan [£13m]," he said. "My aim is to bring the total sales to about 2bn yuan."
Founded in 2001, the firm is the sole wine producer in Xiaojin. From its Tibetan-style chateau headquarters it produces eight wines, ranging from a £10 merlot to a £240 cabernet sauvignon worth £240. The majority of cases are sold to officials for gift giving or to drink at banquets.
In order to expand current operations Jiuzhaigou needs more apple farmers to switch to grapes. It sometimes meets resistance. "But their land is state-owned, not their own," said Zhang, adding that the Xiaojin government intends to steer the region's agricultural output away from crops such as corn.: "Our vineyards make more profit," he said.
Twelve years ago, when Jiuzhaigou was first established, Wu Qiyun and his wife converted their modest 1 acre orchard into a vineyard. "We expected the vineyard to bring more income," he said as he headed towards his vines with a plastic container of pesticide strapped to his back. "But the prices for apples rose over the last decade, so growing grapes is actually not as good." Last year, the couple made 20,000 yuan from the vineyard. If they still had apple trees they could have earned twice that.
It has been a struggle for Wu to support his two children. Last year, in protest over the low price Jiuzhaigou offered for grapes, farmers began selling their harvest to a producer in a neighbouring county. Eventually authorities intervened, forcing Jiuzhaigou to raise the buying price to three yuan a 0.5kg.
It was a small victory, but Wu is under no illusion about who is profiting from the wine industry in Xiaojin. "Jiuzhaigou benefits most from our vineyards, followed by local officials who enjoy some takings from the trade as well as wine at their government banquets," he said. "Farmers like us never drink wine."
Additional reporting by Xia Keyu
Russians smell something fishy in Pig Putin’s latest stunt
Monday, July 29, 2013 7:58 EDT
MOSCOW (Reuters) – There was a time when Pig Putin’s macho antics inspired pride among Russians, but many are finding it hard to believe the president’s latest stunt – catching a huge pike in Siberia.
Video footage released by the Kremlin last week showed Pig Putin dressed in camouflage fatigues and sunglasses, fishing, driving a motorboat and petting reindeer in a remote region of Siberia with his prime minister and defense minister.
But the images of the 60-year-old president hauling in a pike which the Kremlin said weighed 21 kg (46 pounds) proved too much for some Russians to swallow.
Within hours, online satirists were questioning whether the incident was staged and whether the pike was really as big as the Kremlin said.
“Wonder who planted that fish for Putin to catch,” said a caption placed under two online pictures, one of Pig Putin holding the fish and the other showing Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev emerging from a river in a wetsuit with a satisfied look.
Experienced anglers posted photographs of large pike they had caught, questioning the size and weight of the ex-KGB officer’s catch.
One photo caption called it “Churov’s Pike” – a reference to election commission chief Vladimir Churov who is accused by the opposition of conjuring victory for Putin’s party in elections which they say were marred by fraud. He denies doing so.
Pig Putin has often burnished his image since first coming to power in 2000 with outdoor exploits such as riding a horse with a bare torso and shooting a tiger with a tranquilizer.
But the Kremlin admitted under pressure that a stunt in 2011, in which Pig Putin found ancient artifacts at the bottom of the Black Sea, was staged. When he flew with migrating storks last year, he was widely mocked online.
This time, the Kremlin stood firm.
“I personally saw the scales and was present in the weighing. It was seriously more than 20 kg (44 lb),” Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, told Interfax news agency.
Pig Putin remains Russia’s most popular politician, with a recent opinion poll showing his trust level at 45 percent, but his authority was dented by mass protests in Moscow and other big cities that began in late 2011 and carried on into 2012.
(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, Editing by Timothy Heritage and Alistair Lyon)
July 28, 2013
Ukrainian Court Fines Feminist Protesters
By SOPHIA KISHKOVSKY
A court in Kiev fined three activists of Femen, the Ukrainian feminist organization known for its bare-breasted protests, and a Russian photojournalist on Sunday and released them following their Saturday arrest.
Femen said that the women had been beaten and kidnapped when they were arrested and that they had been targeted by Ukraine’s security service, the SBU, to prevent protests during a visit to Kiev by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Patriarch Kirill I of the Russian Orthodox church, who have been accosted by Femen members in the past.
Police said that the women, Oksana Shachko, Alexandra Shevchenko, and Yana Zhdanova, were detained by a patrol car after officers spotted them naked and arrested them for “petty hooliganism” after they failed to cover up. The photojournalist, Dmitry Kostyukov, was accused of disobeying police orders.
Mr. Kostyukov told the Russian television channel Dozhd, on Sunday that all the women had been clothed and that he and they were attacked and beaten by 15 to 20 men in plain clothes as he was photographing the activists outside an apartment building. A police car drove up then to arrest them.
“My head, face and back hurt, and I have some dizziness,” Mr. Kostyukov told Dozhd. “Oksana was hit in the kidneys and the chest.”
Sunday’s fines were small, the equivalent of about $10.50 for each woman and just over $16.70 for Mr. Kostyukov, the Interfax-Ukraine news agency reported. Femen’s leader, Anna Hutsol, said she was attacked twice on Saturday, in which her dog was kidnapped and she was beaten in the face.
“This is not possible in a normal, democratic country,” she in a telephone interview. “More and more we are resembling Russia and Belarus.”
Femen also reported on Thursday that Viktor Svyatsky, a political scientists who is affiliated with the organization, was beaten on Wednesday and warned by his attackers that similar measures would be used against other activists. Graphic photographs of his swollen and cut face were posted on the site.
Cannes robbery: armed thief steals jewels worth €40m
Thief stuffs suitcase with Leviev gems in daylight raid at luxury Carlton hotel in French resort
Kim Willsher in Paris
The Guardian, Monday 29 July 2013
A lone thief armed with a gun and considerable sang froid made off with jewellery and watches worth an estimated €40m (£35m) from a luxury hotel in Cannes on Sunday, in what was reported to be France's second biggest jewel robbery.
The man, wearing a mask and gloves and carrying a briefcase, strolled into a diamond exhibition at the Carlton hotel just before midday, threatened staff and visitors and filled the case with jewels and diamond-encrusted watches before walking out.
"It was all over very quickly. There was no violence," a French police officer said. The thief entered the hotel alone, but police said they believed he had an accomplice waiting outside.
It is the third significant jewel theft from hotels in the Cannes area in just over two months. During the Cannes film festival in May, thieves stole more than £660,000 worth of jewellery belonging to the exclusive Swiss jeweller and watchmaker Chopard.
The gems were to have been loaned to A-list film stars and celebrities attending the festival, and were in a safe in a room at the Suite Novotel in Cannes. The thieves removed the whole safe in the middle of the night without forcing the room's door or using a keycard, according to police.
A week later a necklace reportedly worth €1.9m by the Swiss jeweller De Grisogono vanished after a celebrity party at the five-star Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in the resort town of Cap d'Antibes. Police are investigating whether the raids were the work of the same gang.
"Thieves see Cannes as rich pickings," said a police officer with the crime squad in Nice, which is investigating the raid. "A full and urgent operation is under way to catch the culprit and recover these jewels."
Another police officer told the Nice Matin newspaper: "The raid took place in broad daylight at a time when hundreds of tourists were enjoying the sunshine. It could not have been more daring. The thief took advantage of the crowds and the fact it was Sunday and the atmosphere was relaxed."
Police refused to say whether they were linking the raid with the escape of a member of the notorious Pink Panther gang from a Swiss jail on Thursday.
Milan Poparic fled with another inmate from Orbe prison, in the western Swiss state of Vaud, after his accomplices rammed a prison gate and overpowered guards with bursts from their AK-47 automatic rifles. Police said he was the third member of the Pink Panthers to have escaped in as many months.
Interpol believes that the group has been targeting luxury watch, gem and jewellery stores in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and the United States since 1999 and has netted more than €330m.
The stolen diamonds had been on show since 20 July and were supposed to remain at the Carlton until the end of August in an exhibition called Extraordinary Diamonds, organised by the prestigious Leviev diamond house owned by the Russian-born Israeli billionaire Lev Leviev.
Leviev, 57, who is described as a diamond dealer, businessman and philanthropist, owns diamond mines in Russia and Africa and is a major competitor to the African diamond giant De Beers. The father-of-nine has a £35m home in Hampstead and last year was involved in a high-profile high court battle against a former business partner, Arkady Gaydamak, which he won.
Staff at the Carlton, situated on the exclusive Promenade de la Croisette, said they had been told not to give any information about the raid.
Police unions criticised the practice of jewellery companies holding exhibitions in luxury hotels, saying they could not provide the necessary security to prevent thefts. In August 1994, a security guard was shot at the Carlton as he tried to stop thieves making off with gems in a similar exhibition.
Europe's top heists
• Harry Winston's jewellery store, in the chic Avenue Montaigne in Paris, December 2008, $107m (£70m)haul. The biggest heist in French history. Just before closing time before Christmas, four men – three disguised as women with long blonde hair, sunglasses and scarves – were buzzed into the shop. Once in they set off a grenade in the shop and made off with gems, jewellery and watches. Police said they believed the thieves, who reportedly had Slavic accents, were Serbian members of the Pink Panther gang.
• Schiphol Aairport, Amsterdam, February 2005. Thieves stole diamonds worth an estimated $118m which were never recovered, although police arrested several suspects.
• Antwerp Diamond Centre, Antwerp, Belgium, February 2003, $100m haul.
• Graff Diamonds store, London, August 2009, $65m haul.
• Carlton hotel, Cannes, August 1994, $60m haul. The thieves were never caught. Kim Willsher
Shame on the IOC, NBC and foreign governments for turning a blind eye on Russia's LGBT hate campaign
As long as the Sochi games are fine, the IOC and others will ignore Putin's moves to intimidate and hurt LGBT Russians
guardian.co.uk, Monday 29 July 2013 12.30 BST
Outrage of the week: this past Friday's announcement by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that it has "received assurances from the highest level of government in Russia" that the country's draconian new anti-LGBT policies "will not affect those attending or taking part in the games".
As a reminder, the IOC is referring to the trifecta of bills signed into law by President Pig Putin this summer that roll the status of LGBT people back to the Stalin era. One criminalizes any behavior seen as pro-gay. Another bans the adoption of Russian children by gay couples and any single parent from a country that recognizes marriage equality. And a third allows police officers to arrest tourists and foreign nationals they suspect of being homosexual, lesbian or "pro-gay" and detain them for up to 14 days. Next up: it's rumored that a soon-to-be-enacted law will remove Russian children from the homes of their Russian parents, biological or adoptive, if they are, or are suspected to be, LGBT.
So who on earth does the IOC, or Putin for that matter, think they're kidding with their "assurances"? Can they really be so entirely naïve or so thoroughly cynical that they don't think non-Russian LGBT people or our allies care about what's been happening to our Russian counterparts in the wake of Pig Putin's edicts so long as our own skins are safe? That we'll just happily ignore last week's news of skinheads luring gay teenagers with an online dating scam, then taping the sessions where they torture them so long as no one blocks our view of the figure skating events? That we can't recognize Third Reich-style politics or bureaucratic complacency? That, per the IOC, "it remains to be seen whether and how" the recently-passed legislation "will be implemented"?
Gentlemen, guess again. Because we have access to the internet, Facebook, and Twitter (where John Aravosis of AmericaBlog aptly snarked, "The IOC has promised 'safe passage' for gays attending the Sochi Olympics in 2014 - the skinheads will reportedly only beat up Russian fags.") We are already "affected" by a steady stream of articles, images, and videos coming out of Russia that very clearly document what implementation of these first stages of Pig Putin's final solution looks like.
Harvey Fierstein's piece in last week's New York Times aptly linked Putin's "strategy of demonizing a minority for political gain" to "the Nazi playbook," noting that "this kind of scapegoating is used by politicians to solidify their bases and draw attention away from their failing policies".
The timing for this crusade is no accident. Not only is Russia's economy currently in the crapper, but in the months leading up to Putin's sudden wave of anti-gay edicts there's been plenty of public disgruntlement over the $30bn slated for Sochi-related projects that has gone "missing" into his pockets and those of his cronies.
But Fierstein's piece was only the beginning. Next day's BuzzFeed photomontage of "36 Pictures From Russia That Everyone Needs to See" brought millions of viewers image after image of bloodied and crying LGBT Russians clinging to one another — people trying to shield themselves from blows and rotten eggs at peaceful protests turned violent where the police, skinheads, and large crowds of anti-gay protestors beat, mock, assault, and arrest them.
So the news from the Russian LGBT Network that four Dutch tourists had just been jailed under the new "gay propaganda" law for filming a documentary on LGBT rights in Russia was the last straw. By the time Dan Savage called for a boycott of Russian vodka mid-week, gay bars from New York, Miami, Chicago, Seattle, and LA to Sydney, London, and Vancouver were good and ready to begin pouring Russian booze into the streets.
Had Pig Putin reignited Russia's abuse of its Jewish citizens, it would have been unthinkable for the IOC to issue a statement suggesting that non-Russian Jewish athletes, pundits, and spectators could go have a blast in Sochi because we'd be spared the anti-Semitic violence sweeping the rest of the country. There's just no way. The American Jewish community and the Obama administration would have (rightly) enacted trade sanctions instantly. There would have been no statement from the State Department like the one issued the same day as the IOC announcement saying that it does not support a boycott of the games.
So how does a pogrom against LGBT people and our allies pass muster in 2013?
Twenty-first century queers aren't going to wait quietly for a diplomatic solution while each month more of us are tortured and more of us are murdered. Last month, killers reportedly stabbed and trampled a man to death before putting his body in his car and setting it on fire. Just weeks before, 23-year-old Vladislav Tornovoi's friends murdered him because he mentioned he was gay while they were getting drunk, according to the BBC. They raped him with beer bottles before smashing his skull in with rocks.
We've been here before. And we know the power of economic sanctions and boycotts. When Congress finally came around in 1986 and passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act (overriding President Ronald Reagan's veto) that banned all new trade and investments in South Africa, other countries followed suit, South Africa's economy went into free fall. Five years later, its Parliament voted to repeal the legal framework for apartheid.
So it's no surprise that Stolichnaya, which is freaking out over the boycott, is running a disinformation campaign where it tries to convince the public that it's not actually Russian vodka because it's currently distilled and bottled in Latvia. Nice try, guys, but the label on the bottle says "Russian vodka" (three times), you're owned by Yuri Scheffler, one of the 100 richest men in Russia, your vodka is made from Russian products, and you've taken great pains to market Stoli as the iconic Russian vodka.
NBC Universal, which has paid $4 billion dollars for the rights to cover the Olympics from 2014 through 2020, has also been squirmy. Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin's letter (pdf) asking them to include news of Russia's human rights violations alongside their standard Olympics coverage has elicited a hasty if mealy-mouthed response from the network saying that it will "provide coverage of Russia's anti-gay laws if the controversial measures surface as an issue during the upcoming Winter Olympics". In short, they're punting for now and hoping we'll all forget about it.
Kris van der Veen, one of the Dutch filmmakers who was arrested, then released last week, told me he wants governments from all over the world to help LGBT organizers have a Pride march in Sochi. A petition calling on corporate sponsors like Coca-Cola, Panasonic, VISA, Samsung, and Procter & Gamble to speak out against Russia's anti-gay laws has garnered around 40,000 signatures in a matter of days.
This much I can promise. No international bureaucracy, corporate entity, or modern-day führer is going to shrug us off with the assurance that we don't need to worry about our brothers and sisters because the haters will never come for us. Our hearts and our history tell us otherwise.
William Hague turns up heat on Spain over Gibraltar border jams
Foreign secretary telephoned Spanish counterpart to raise 'serious concerns' after a weekend of heightened tensions
The Guardian, Monday 29 July 2013
William Hague has put pressure on Spain over claims it is deliberately engineering lengthy delays at the border with Gibraltar.
The foreign secretary telephoned his Spanish counterpart, José García-Margallo, to raise "serious concerns" after a weekend of heightened tensions when officials carried out intensive vehicle searches in searing heat causing long hold-ups.
Thousands of cars leaving the British territory were stopped for checks causing six-hour traffic jams.
Gibraltar's government accused Spain of "torture" by inflicting searches on vulnerable passengers and causing "unnecessary delays".
Hague used British diplomatic channels to make Britain's concerns known over the weekend but on Sunday night moved to intervene directly.
A Foreign Office spokesman said: "We are aware and very concerned about events at the Spain-Gibraltar border.
"Over the weekend, our ambassador in Madrid has raised our concerns with the Spanish deputy foreign minister and we have registered our protest with the Spanish ambassador in London.
"The foreign secretary has also called the Spanish foreign minister Garcia-Margallo this evening to express our serious concerns and to urge a speedy resolution to the problems at the border."
The episode comes after relations were strained following a number of accusations of Spanish incursions into British waters.
The Gibraltar government said the delays had affected thousands of people, according to a statement reported by the BBC. "The Spanish government has inflicted these unnecessary delays on the elderly, children and the infirm in up to 30 degrees of heat.
"This torture has resulted in an ambulance being deployed to treat people with medical conditions. On Friday, for instance, a Spanish man had to be taken to hospital with chest pains.
Victims remembered as German war criminal turns 100 in Rome
Mayor has said there will be no public birthday celebration for Erich Priebke, who is living under house arrest 70 years after massacre
Lizzy Davies in Rome
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 28 July 2013 17.43 BST
The victims of one of Italy's most notorious wartime massacres will be remembered on Monday as a former SS captain given a life sentence for his role in their deaths turns 100 at his home in a quiet suburb of Rome.
Nearly 70 years after he helped co-ordinate the execution of 335 Italians at the Ardeatine caves, Erich Priebke is living under house arrest in the capital but is free to go out for tasks deemed indispensable to his everyday life. In recent years he has been filmed or photographed taking a stroll, eating in local restaurants and going to the supermarket.
Amid a chorus of anger from Jewish and anti-fascist groups at the possibility that he may choose to celebrate his birthday publicly, activists will gather to read the names of the massacre's victims at a branch of the Left Ecology Freedom (SEL) party near Priebke's home.
"We cannot allow or accept that a man sentenced to life for war crimes and for the shameful massacre at the Fosse Ardeatine behaves as if all has been forgotten. None of us has forgotten," said Marta Bonafoni, regional councillor for the Lazio region.
Members of the Cantiere Democratico movement will deliver an open letter to Priebke's house naming all the victims – men and boys from all walks of life, almost a quarter of whom were Jewish and the youngest of whom was 15 years old. "We have decided that the 29th July will be Romans' day of indifference towards a Nazi criminal which history has judged," said Stefano Pedica, a senator.
When he turned 90, Priebke, from Hennigsdorf in Brandenburg, celebrated with dozens of friends and supporters at an agriturismo outside of Rome, a sight that provoked revulsion among victims' relatives and Jewish groups who accuse the Italian authorities of handling the war criminal with kid gloves.
Speculation last week that his entourage might be planning a repeat party prompted calls for any public celebrations to be prevented. Riccardo Pacifici, president of Rome's Jewish community, said Priebke was "a man who has been convicted of war crimes, who has never repented, who has never asked for forgiveness."
He added: "The bone of contention is not the 100th birthday of Priebke but the tribute that many pay him by going to see him at his house. It is to them that we express our indignation, not just as Jews but as Italians."
In response, the recently elected mayor of Rome, Ignazio Marino, vowed to personally make sure that no public celebrations would take place. Priebke's lawyer, meanwhile, denounced a "climate of hatred and aggression" surrounding his client.
Extradited from Argentina in 1995 after he was tracked down by an American television journalist, Priebke was sentenced to life imprisonment by an Italian appeals court in 1998. He has always rejected his guilt, insisting he was following orders and would have been killed himself had he not carried them out.
The commands had come directly from Berlin in response to a partisan attack on Nazi soldiers the previous day. Working to a ratio of 10 Italian deaths for every one of their own killed, the Nazis identified 330 victims – and added five more for good measure. The slaughter took place on 24 March 1944, the list of names checked off by Priebke. He admitted to having personally killed two people.
In the aftermath of the massacre there were attempts to twist the narrative of events to shift the blame on to the partisans who, it was said, had failed to give themselves up. In reality, historians say now, the reprisal was carried out so swiftly afterwards that such a surrender would have been impossible.
"It's very controversial. For a long time people blamed the resistance group for the massacre," said Robert Gordon, professor of Italian at Cambridge University. But that powerful urban myth had subsequently been proved to be wrong, he said. "Even if they had made the calculation that they should give themselves up to prevent the massacre, the massacre took place before it had been announced. They couldn't have acted in time to prevent it happening."
Italian integration minister issues defiant response to banana stunt
Country's first black minister chides unknown culprit for 'wasting food', after fruit was thrown at the stage during political rally
Lizzy Davies in Rome
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 28 July 2013 14.52 BST
Cécile Kyenge, whose groundbreaking term as Italy's first black minister has been repeatedly marred by racist insults and protests, has reacted with defiance after bananas were thrown at her during a political rally.
The minister for integration, who is a naturalised Italian citizen born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, was giving a speech in the town of Cervia on the Adriatic coast on Friday.
After the bananas narrowly missed the stage, she chided the unknown culprit for "wasting food". On Sunday she said that the unrelenting barrage of hostility since she became minister in April was more vicious than she had anticipated, but would not stop her doing her job.
"I cannot hide that at times I feel tired of the repetition of such serious insults. I did not expect them to be this strong," she told daily newspaper La Repubblica. "But I will not stop or dwell on the attacks themselves. I am trying to look ahead, to reflect on the discomfort that we must understand is behind these incidents and on how politics and society as a whole can best respond."
Since her inclusion in Enrico Letta's grand coalition prompted one MEP in the xenophobic Northern League to brand it a "bongo bongo" government, Kyenge has been the target of repeated racial abuse. Before her arrival in Cervia, police said they had found mannequins daubed with blood-red paint and bearing signs reading: "Immigration kills".
The far-right party Forza Nuova (FN) claimed responsibility for the mannequins but denied having anything to do with the banana throwing. Graffiti daubed on a wall the town of Macerata, near Ancona, in May, however, would appear to show the party is not averse to such actions. It read: "Kyenge, go back to Congo".
Police said on Sunday they were trying to identify who had thrown the bananas.
Asked if the attacks would deter Kyenge from her priorities – which include changing the law to make it easier for children born to immigrants in Italy to gain Italian citizenship – she replied that, on the contrary, they gave her confidence, even if they also made her concerned for the safety and wellbeing of her family. "In a way, the attacks strengthen me and the country," she said. "The reactions to these insults … end up uniting 'good' Italy and will perhaps help to reawaken many consciences which have slightly dozed off in recent years."
The latest incident was roundly condemned by the political mainstream, with expressions of solidarity from her centre-left Democratic Party (PD) and members Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right Freedom People PdL party and the Northern League.
However, in a pointed comment, Kyenge called on her fellow politicians to watch what they say. "Those who take on public roles or political leadership should understand the importance of the words they utter," she said.
Earlier this month, Roberto Calderoli, the League's vice-president in the Senate with a track record of racist and Islamophobic comments, prompted intense controversy when he said the minister reminded him of an orang-utan. Although the remark was condemned furiously by many, including prime minister Letta, who said he should resign, Calderoli remains in his job.
Kyenge, an eye surgeon who was elected as an MP in February, said her experience in recent months showed that there was a need for a nationwide reflection on racism and immigration in Italy. "In other European countries, like Sweden, there are black ministers, but what happens to me in Italy does not happen to them," she said.
Edward Snowden's study guide to Russian literature
As Snowden contemplates staying in Russia, his lawyer advises him to read Dostoevsky and Chekhov
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 28 July 2013 14.00 BST
Edward Snowden, NSA leaker, fugitive under the Espionage Act, trapped in limbo at a Moscow airport, has homework.
His lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, has given him a copy of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, along with a book by Anton Chekhov "for dessert". The most wanted man in the world is studying Russian lit – this is music to the ears of Russian majors everywhere. After all those years of being asked "So what're you going to do with that?" as if we had extra limbs, we finally have an excuse to talk about Dostoevsky.
Crime and Punishment, briefly: A young man named Rod Raskolnikov wonders why he ought to follow the rules like everybody else. He drops out of school. Suddenly, he murders a sleazy pawnbroker, and then her sister, too, when she walks in on the crime. He stumbles around, sleeps on his sofa, freaks out, and becomes alienated from his family and friends. There are funny, painfully awkward conversations. He meets a prostitute named Sonya and a sinister rapscallion named Arkady; she tells him to find Christ and he tells him that none of it matters – you might as well make the best of it. A clever detective almost corners Rod. Eventually, Sonya convinces him to confess and go to jail. Years later, in prison and with Sonya at his side, he finally breaks down and presumably find peace. To be overly reductive, Dostoevsky's moral of the story is that sacrifice and submission – to God, and each other – can save your life.
What on earth is Snowden supposed to take from this?
He can at least identify with Raskolnikov a little, as Kucherena has pointed out. First off, the name Raskolnikov derives from the word "dissenter" by way of the verb "to split". He's a man who commits a "crime" he's not sure is actually a crime, and who struggles with the idea of personal freedom. He spends a lot of time by himself in a little room. That's about where the similarities end.
Raskolnikov is a rebel unsure of a cause. Besides a vague impulse to test the limits of freedom and to prove himself special, it's never wholly clear why he murders; much of the novel consists of his own desperate search for a reason. Eventually, he chooses to make Sonya his cause, and for her he gives in and accepts Siberia. Kucherena – a pro-Kremlin stalwart – seems to think Snowden would also do well to submit to the powers that be, whether Putin's Russia or the NSA's America.
But unlike poor old Rod, Snowden is already close to Dostoevsky's moral message: he's knowingly sacrificed "the good life" because he refused to pay the ethical price, and because he believes in something bigger than himself. Snowden has put faith in American society – our notion of civil liberties, at least – where Dostoevsky put faith in God. He didn't want the NSA's sticky stain on his conscience, and he wanted Americans to know and confront their government's misdeeds. For that he gave up a family, a relationship, a well-paid job and a home on Hawaii. He's chosen this course, and except for the bizarre flight that trapped him in Moscow, he seems to have carefully considered each step.
Snowden's mission isn't like Raskolnikov's quest for redemption, it's more like Dostoevsky's attempt to make people confront difficult, uncomfortable questions, and to make them choose what they believe in. In this light, Crime and Punishment ought to give Snowden strength. The novel won't prepare him for the depressing Russian winter, but it'll boost his conviction that we have to draw the lines between right and wrong, and that secret police – of the tsar or the spy-tsar – don't have the right to make up the rules.
Chekhov doesn't bother with all this philosophy, at least not explicitly. He tells short stories about everyone you've ever known. There's your grade school teacher, your college roommate, your boss, the cab driver from last weekend, and you, and his stories are charming, heartbreaking and funny. Characters commute to work, worry about impressing the opposite sex, and go to happy hour. Chekhov doesn't judge his characters, because they go about with the same hopes and disappointments that we do.
His stories are often called "grey" for their simple language and seemingly boring protagonists, but they're full of colors and insight into the countless ways hope springs eternal. In one of his most famous stories, a man and woman slowly fall in love, over years, despite spouses and life in different cities. When they finally realize what's happened, they've grown old and come to feel that they have double lives: a public, false life and a secret, true life together. They're trapped in a bind, and yet there's hope:
It seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and splendid life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that they had still a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning.
Chekhov refuses to sugarcoat reality just as he refuses to give up on humanity. It might be bittersweet, but it's the same hope you find in Pushkin a hundred years before and Solzenitsyn 50 years later; in Walt Whitman during the Civil War and John Steinbeck during the Great Depression.
Kucherena says that Snowden will learn about Russian life – "our reality" as he puts it – from these books. Julia Ioffe, usually astute about Putin's Russia, demurs:
The reality that lies before Snowden … is not that of [Dostoevsky's] Petersburg slum or [Chekhov's] cherry orchard. More likely, he will be given an apartment somewhere in the endless, soulless highrises with filthy stairwells that spread like fields around Moscow's periphery.
In the immediate sense, she's right: these writers' world is nothing like Russia today (pun intended); Snowden won't learn a thing about Moscow life from reading 19th century novels, and Snowden probably does not have a bright future if he ends up in Russia.
In the more important sense, she and Kucherena have glibly missed the point. After all, Snowden wouldn't learn about living in contemporary America by reading Melville, Faulkner or (God forbid) Pynchon, either. By definition, fiction isn't literal, and it's completely impractical – hence all those questions to Russian majors about what we're going to do with our lives. Fiction is an odd beast: it's a guide to life that's completely made up, an elaborate lie strung together to tell a truth. If you take it literally, you'll end up like Don Quixote, charging into windmills, yet Cervantes' "reality" is also Kucherena's, and Chekhov's, Snowden's and ours.
Russian literature can give Snowden exactly it gives the rest of us, except that his situation is more extreme. Facing extradition, jail, or eternal airport limbo, Snowden has to decide what really matters to him, and he has to hold on to hope with his fate on the line. Every so often, we should face the tough questions that Dostoevsky flings at us: what do we really care about; what do we consider right and wrong; and what about our leaders, whom we elect to confront tough decisions, and who largely refuse to make any choices at all?
And it's OK that we spend most of our time thinking about little problems, wasting time on Twitter, getting annoyed at train delays and thinking about dinner. Chekhov reminds us that we've got lives to attend to, and that they're often difficult, often fun. He reminds us that there's always hope somewhere, so long as we're looking for it. (But Pushkin really is the best.)
Greenwald: ‘I defy’ NSA officials to deny spying program details under oath
By David Edwards
Sunday, July 28, 2013 12:15 EDT
Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald on Sunday revealed that he would be publishing new details that backed up former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edwards Snowden’s claim that low-level analysts could listen to the phone calls of any American or even read President Barack Obama’s emails.
“The story that we’ve been working on for the last month that we’re publishing this week very clearly sets forth what these programs are that NSA analysts — low-level ones, not just one that work for the NSA, but private contractors like Mr. Snowden — are able to do,” Greenwald told ABC News host George Stephanopoulos. “The NSA has trillions of telephone calls and emails in their databases that they’ve collected over the last several years.”
He continued: “And what these programs are, are very simple screens, like the ones that supermarket clerks or shipping and receiving clerks use, where all an analyst has to do is enter an email address or an IP address, and it does two things. It searches that database and lets them listen to the calls or read the emails of everything that the NSA has stored, or look at the browsing histories or Google search terms that you’ve entered, and it also alerts them to any further activity that people connected to that email address or that IP address do in the future.
Greenwald insisted that it was “all done with no need to go to a court, with no need to even get supervisor approval on the part of the analyst.”
The columnist admitted that there were “legal constraints for how you can spy on Americans, you can’t target them without going to the FISA court.”
“But these systems allow analysts to listen to whatever emails they want, whatever telephone calls, browsing histories, Microsoft Word documents,” he pointed out. “It’s an incredibly powerful and invasive tool, exactly of the type that Mr. Snowden described.”
“NSA officials are going to be testifying before the Senate on Wednesday, and I defy them to deny that these programs work exactly as I just said.”
Wyden calls Fisa court 'anachronistic' as pressure builds on Senate to act
Dick Durbin joins growing outcry among senators to rein in power of secretive court meant to serve as a check on NSA
Ed Pilkington in New York
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 28 July 2013 18.25 BST
Pressure is building within the US Senate for an overhaul of the secret court that is supposed to act as a check on the National Security Agency's executive power, with one prominent senator describing the judicial panel as "anachronistic" and outdated.
Ron Wyden, a Democratic senator for Oregon, said discussions were under way about how to reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court, the body entrusted with providing oversight on the NSA and its metadata-collecting activities. He told C-Span's Newsmaker programme on Sunday that the court, which was set up in 1978 under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (Fisa), was ill-equipped to deal with the massive digital dragnet of millions of Americans' phone records developed by the NSA in recent years.
"In many particulars, the Fisa court is anachronistic – they are using processes that simply don't fit the times," Wyden said.
The Oregon senator is at the forefront of a growing chorus of political voices criticising the Fisa court for being biased towards the executive branch to the exclusion of all other positions. "It is the most one-sided legal process in the US, I don't know of any other legal system or court that doesn't highlight anything except one point of view – the executive point of view."
Wyden added: "When that point of view also dominates the thinking of justices, you've got a fairly combustible situation on your hands."
The court's secretive deliberations were first revealed in June by the Guardian which published its order approving the collection of phone Verizon phone records. The order was among a raft of top secret documents leaked to the Guardian and Washington Post by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Since the Guardian's disclosure, attention has grown on the composition and practices of the Fisa court. The New York Times has shown how the court has secretly expanded its operations until it now holds the status almost of a parallel supreme court.
The Times has also analysed the make-up of the court and discovered an alarming bias within the ranks of its judges in favour of government. More than a third of the justices appointed to the court since its inception have had executive branch experience.
On Sunday, the prominent Democratic senator for Illinois, Dick Durbin, added his voice to the mounting criticism of the Fisa court, telling ABC's This Week: "There should be a real court proceeding. In this case, it's fixed in a way, it's loaded. There's only one case coming before the Fisa, the government's case. Let's have an advocate for someone standing up for civil liberties to speak up about the privacy of Americans."
The outcry from Durbin and Wyden chimes with other moves within the US Senate to reform the way the court is constructed. Adam Schiff, a Democratic member of the House intelligence committee, has tabled legislation that would transfer the power to nominate judges to the court from the chief justice of the US supreme court, John Roberts, as is the current arrangement, to President Obama subject to senate approval.
The groundswell for reform received a boost from last week's narrow vote in the House of Representatives over a move to cut off federal funding for the NSA's metadata-gathering activities. The proposal to knock back the agency's collection of the phone records of millions of Americans was defeated by 217 to 205 votes, but more than half of the Democratic caucus in the House as well as 94 Republicans voted in favour of reform.
Wyden said that the vote has acted as a stimulus to discussions about NSA reform. "You are going to see a very strong and bipartisan effort in the Senate to pick up on the work of the House."
This week, the congressional debate about how to deal with anxieties over the NSA's data collection methods is certain to flair up again. On Wednesday, two congressional hearings will be held in which both sides of the argument are likely to be forcefully presented.
Those opposing positions were reflected in Sunday's political TV talk shows. Mike Rogers, chair of the Republican-led House intelligence committee, told NBC's Meet the Press that the NSA did not spy on Americans and that no names or addresses were included in its databases of phone records. "In this programme: zero privacy violations, 54 terrorist plots foiled – that's a pretty good record," he said.
Peter King, a congressman for New York, slammed fellow Republicans who had voted to cut off funding for the NSA sweep of phone records. "I thought it was absolutely disgraceful that so many Republicans voted to defund the NSA programme, which has done so much to protect our country," he told CNN.
On the other side of the argument, Mark Udall, Democratic senator from Colorado, told Face the Nation on CBS that he regarded the dragnet of phone records of millions of Americans as something that "comes close to being unconstitutional".
Weird Fuzzy Compound Could Be Next Big Fuel Cell Catalyst
Sunday, July 28, 2013 5:56 EDT
Viewed up close, tungsten sulfide looks like a bunch of sea urchins moshing at a foam party, but this chemical compound could become the next workhorse of the hydrogen fuel cell field. A team of researchers from Rutgers University is on track to develop nanoscale sheets of tungsten sulfide as a low cost replacement for platinum catalysts in fuel cells, and that could help push the electric vehicle market out of reliance on expensive lithium-ion batteries and into a more affordable format. No worries for Tesla EV fans, though, at least not yet. The research is still in its early stages and meanwhile the nation’s EV battery charging network has been skyrocketing.
A Low Cost Hydrogen Fuel Cell Catalyst
Just last week we were talking about the affordability obstacles faced by hydrogen fuel cells, and the catalyst is the big one. Currently the catalyst of choice is platinum, so the hunt has been on for low-cost alternatives.
Tungsten sulfide (WS2) is of interest because of its inorganic nanotube structure, and it is already in use as a catalyst in reactions such as hydrodesulfurization. It occurs naturally in tungstenite, which is a rare mineral, but it can also be synthesized in a variety of ways.
According to the Rutgers team, WS2 is among a group of compounds that are promising, but lack efficiency due to their relatively low number of active sites.
To increase the number of sites and boost their activity level, the team took a page out of the graphene book. Graphene is a superstrong “miracle material” only one atom thick, originally obtained through a crude form of exfoliation. The team that discovered graphene literally lifted a layer from the surface of a chunk of graphite with sticky tape.
The exfoliation process used by the Rutgers team was somewhat more sophisticated, but the idea was similar: take a chunk of bulk material and lift a nanoscale sheet from the surface.
As described by writer Belle Dumé in nanotechweb.org, the result was a structure never studied before, a sheet of WS2 only three atoms thick with the tungsten atom wedged between the sulphur atoms (keep in mind that graphene consists only of carbon, therefore a single-atom layer is possible in graphene but not in WS2).
So far, tests have shown that the WS2 sheets produce a level of catalytic activity far greater than would be expected, given how extremely thin they are. The obvious result is that very little of the compound would be needed to coat a surface, resulting in lower costs.
Fuel Cells VS Batteries
As for whether fuel cells or batteries will eventually dominate the EV market, the jury is still out. If costs keep dropping for both formats, the result could be a far more diverse and flexible vehicle market than petroleum fuel currently permits, with both commercial and individual buyers being able to tailor their choices more precisely to their actual driving patterns.
The Obama Administration has been betting on both sides, though so far in terms of research dollars batteries seem to be winning out, with the Administration providing a hefty boost to EV battery research through the JCESR initiative. A more modest effort has gone into fuel cell electric vehicle development, through the public-private H2USA initiative as well as a number of Department of Defense and DOE programs.
On the other hand, one focus of JCESR is on new flow battery technology, and other formats such as zinc-air are coming close to commercialization, so the payout for that initiative won’t necessarily fall to lithium-ion batteries alone.