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« Reply #9015 on: Sep 29, 2013, 06:58 AM »

Italy plunged into chaos as Berlusconi withdraws ministers from coalition

Move damned as 'mad and irresponsible' by prime minister of a country that is enduring its longest recession in decades

Lizzy Davies in Rome
The Observer, Saturday 28 September 2013 22.41 BST   

All five ministers from Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right party said on Saturday night they were resigning from Italy's grand coalition government in a dramatic move that plunged the country back into political uncertainty and raised the possibility of fresh elections.

Just days before a senate committee is expected to vote for him to be stripped of his seat following a conviction for tax fraud, Berlusconi said he was withdrawing his support from Enrico Letta's government over an increase in sales tax.

Letta, who has fought to hold the coalition together for five months of tensions and threats, called the move "mad and irresponsible" and said it was based on a "blatant lie". The centre-left prime minister will on Sunday meet the president, Giorgio Napolitano, who is known to be desperate to avoid any return to the polls.

Talks will begin on whether an alternative parliamentary majority can be found to support a new Letta cabinet. He had called last week for the government to be put to a confidence vote, and, although it was unclear whether that would go ahead, the prime minister said on Saturday night: "Everyone will assume their own responsibilities before the country in parliament."

Italy, the eurozone's third largest economy, is in its longest recession in decades and can ill afford more instability and rudderless leadership. "Measures we were working on now risk being set back," the labour minister, Enrico Giovannini, told Italian television. "On Monday our borrowing costs are going to rise by many points."

Citing Italy's continuing economic troubles, Beppe Grillo, the figurehead of the opposition anti-establishment Five Star Movement, called for fresh elections. "We need to go to the polls to win and save Italy," he wrote on his blog. "It's the last train."

But Stefano Fassina, the deputy economy minister and Democratic party (PD) MP, insisted the best way forward would be to find a new majority to carry out urgently needed reforms. "We won't go to elections because we will find a solution in parliament. I am sure that in parliament there is a majority that could avoid that," he was quoted by the Ansa news agency as saying.

Berlusconi's move – made on the eve of his 77th birthday – surprised many analysts. Amid threats throughout the summer, some had suspected Berlusconi of bluffing in order to win last-minute concessions on his legal problems. On Friday, a senate committee is due to meet to vote on whether he should be expelled from the upper house of parliament, and by mid-October he has to decide whether to carry out his tax fraud sentence under house arrest or in community service. The committee vote, which is expected to go against him, would still have to be ratified in a full senate vote.

The imminence of these problems appeared to have prompted the billionaire media magnate to side with party hawks, rather than those PdL members who over the summer had been urging a more conciliatory stance within the coalition.

Amid questions over whether the party would back Berlusconi to the hilt, there were hints on Saturday night that the resignations had not met with the approval of all in the party. "I think that a decision of such deep political importance should have required an in-depth discussion," said Fabrizio Cicchitto, one PdL MP.

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« Reply #9016 on: Sep 29, 2013, 07:00 AM »

Golden Dawn leader charged with heading a criminal gang

Nikos Michaloliakos appears in court after he is arrested along with key members of his Greek neo-fascist party

Helena Smith in Athens
The Observer, Saturday 28 September 2013 19.41 BST   

The leader of Greece's Golden Dawn party, widely viewed as Europe's most violent political force, appeared in court on Saturday night on charges of heading a criminal gang after police mounted an unprecedented crackdown on the neo-fascist party, arresting Nikos Michaloliakos and other key members of his organisation.

After a police operation in which anti-terrorism officers stormed the homes of Golden Dawn politicians across Athens, Michaloliakos and five of his MPs were seized. Fifteen other senior party activists, including a female police officer, were taken into custody accused of fomenting violence as members of a criminal organisation. Reading from a nine-page charge sheet, a public prosecutor accused the far-rightists of murder, extortion and money laundering.

The crackdown was hailed as "a historic day for Greece and Europe" by the public order minister, Nikos Dendias, who oversaw the operation, known only to three security officials before it was launched a little after dawn. "Golden Dawn tried to test the endurance of democracy," he said in a televised address, insisting that the inquiry into the party's illegal activities would continue apace. "Today it got an answer from state justice."

Earlier in the day, following emergency talks with the prime minister, Antonis Samaras, the justice minister, Charlambos Athanasiou, promised "just justice" for those who had been arrested. "Justice has moved with decisiveness and transparency," Athanasiou told reporters gathered outside the prime minister's city centre office. "I want to say for all those who have been arrested, if they are sent to trial there will be just justice."

By nightfall, authorities said 25 counter-terrorism units were still trying to track down the party's deputy leader, Christos Pappas, who is accused in a strict hierarchy of command of jointly running a gang that, masked as a political organisation, had spawned terror on the streets of Greece. At least 11 others were also being sought, police officials said, citing "incontrovertible evidence" from intercepted telephone calls.

Michaloliakos was arrested in his Athens home at 7am. Greek media quoted the politician as telling police: "What you are doing is not right. The truth will shine," as he was taken into custody in handcuffs. Hundreds of Golden Dawn supporters gathered outside Athens's police headquarters spurred on by a text message reportedly sent by the party to "support our moral and just struggle against the corrupt system".

Michaloliakos and his chief lieutenant, the party's spokesman, Ilias Kasidiaris, were inside the building as the supporters massed. Only on Friday, Kasidiaris, who became infamous when he assaulted two female leftwing MPs on live TV last year, had openly joked that "we are here to hand ourselves in", as the party launched a lawsuit against Pasok, the junior leftwing party in Samaras's fragile coalition. Police officials said a number of weapons had been discovered in the crackdown. Three unlicensed guns allegedly found in Michaloliakos's home were to undergo ballistics tests, and tens of thousands of euros was also apparently found, the media reported.

Greece's third biggest party, Golden Dawn, has seen its popularity soar on the back of desperation. The organisation is accused of making violence its calling card, and human rights groups hold it responsible for hundreds of attacks on dark-skinned immigrants in the three years since the debt-stricken country plunged into crisis.

Since being elected to parliament with 18 MPS and 7% of the vote for the first time in June last year, the party has been linked to a wave of violence directed mostly against migrants, gay people and leftists on Greece's increasingly fractious political scene. The fatal stabbing this month of Pavlos Fyssas, a hip-hop star popular among anti-fascists, prompted widespread outrage and galvanised the governing coalition into taking action.

Amid revelations that Golden Dawn had set up hit squads with the help of commandos in the special forces and openly colluded with the police, the authorities launched a far-reaching inquiry into the group's activities.

Two senior police officers resigned and several officers were suspended after allegations of links with the party. More than a dozen Golden Dawn members, including the 45-year-old man who confessed to murdering Fyssas, were rounded up. Not since the collapse of military rule have MPs been arrested en masse. "This is without precedent in Greek political life," said a lecturer in constitutional law, Kostas Chrysogonos. "Authorities are acting within the law, but I also think it would have been constitutionally more correct if they had asked parliament to lift their [MPs'] political immunity first."

Even if the politicians are imprisoned pending trial, they will still retain their standing as MPs, experts said.

As he was hauled under armed guard from police headquarters to the court, Kasidiaris shouted: "Long live Greece. Nothing will bend us, nothing will frighten us." Previously he had told a TV show that "they can arrest us, they can put us in prison, but we will still be MPs. We are not going to go back even one step."

Samaras's shaky coalition has been applauded for its tough stance, with opinion polls showing a drop in support for Golden Dawn and a slight rise for his conservative New Democracy party, but there are fears the crackdown could ultimately damage the government.

The opposition leader, Alexis Tsipras, of the radical left Syriza party, said last week the party should be confronted "within the law, not outside it".

Before the crackdown Golden Dawn was polling at around 15%, prompting it to boast it had "more than a million" supporters in Greece. Michaloliakos warned last week that he might withdraw his 18 MPs from parliament, a move that threatened to unleash political instability in a country dependent on international rescue funds to survive.

The politician had also said that "mudslinging and slander" against his party would "open the gates of hell".


Golden Dawn arrests take Greece into uncharted waters

The crackdown on the far-right party will undoubtedly release new tensions on to an already poisoned political scene

Helena Smith in Athens
The Observer, Saturday 28 September 2013 17.56 BST

Before his untimely death at the age of 34, Pavlos Fyssas was a hip-hop rapper popular on Greece's anti-fascist scene but little known beyond the frontiers of that music genre or the borders of the country itself. On the night of 17 September all that changed.

After becoming embroiled in a row over a soccer game being shown at a cafe in a working-class Athenian suburb, Fyssas and his friends were set upon by thugs dressed in the combat pants and black T-shirts worn by supporters of the country's far-right Golden Dawn party.

Cornered by the mob, the bearded singer was soon lying in a pool of his own blood, with stab wounds to the heart and chest. Within minutes he had died. And within hours the killer, a self-professed member of Golden Dawn, had been arrested.

Murkiness may still surround the circumstances of the murder, but what Fyssas's death revealed, in sharp relief, was the depth of division within Greece. In an atmosphere made toxic by record levels of poverty, unemployment, desperation and despair, Greeks were soon describing the killing as a "political assassination" – the latest act in a string of attacks by a party bolstered by its seemingly runaway popularity in the polls.

Overnight, Fyssas had become a martyr – with the far-rightists deemed to have crossed a red line, despite Golden Dawn's vehement protestations that it had no connection with the crime. Thousands took to the streets.

"Until then we had managed to be civilised about the differences between the left and the right that have run through our country since the [1946-49] civil war," said the political commentator Giorgos Kyrtsos. "With Fyssas's assassination, that line was crossed."

After months of tolerating a group that had brutalised society – spawning a climate of fear among immigrants, attacking gays, holding "Greek only" food handouts and coarsening political exchange with rants about "subhuman foreigners" in the Athens parliament – Antonis Samaras's fragile coalition finally took action.

And, when it did, it acted with an alacrity and determination that few might have envisaged. In the space of 10 days, Golden Dawn branches across the nation were raided and searched, members were arrested, weapons confiscated and sympathetic police officers removed from posts. In the early hours of Saturday came the next step: the arrest of five of the organisation's senior members, including its rabble-rousing leader, Nikos Michaloliakos, and 14 prominent cadres.

All 19 were due to appear late on Saturday before a public magistrate on charges of forming a criminal gang.

Not since the return of democracy after the collapse of military rule in 1974 has a party been so publicly hounded. The arrests will undoubtedly unleash new tensions on to a political scene already poisoned by profound disillusionment with an establishment widely blamed for the financial mess that has lead to the nation's economic and social meltdown.

Adding to the crippling sense of uncertainty hanging over Greeks, Michaloliakos himself pledged that the campaign against his party would "open the gates of hell" before his arrest at his home early on Saturday. As Golden Dawn supporters gathered outside the gargantuan central police headquarters in Athens – blue and white Greek flags in hand underscoring their ultranationalist views – it remained unclear how the extremist organisation would react.

In recent months Europe had looked on horrified as the group, whose emblem resembles the swastika and whose politicians have openly applauded the policies of Adolf Hitler, has gone from strength to strength. Three years ago the far-rightists won only 0.72% of the vote. In elections last year that support increased tenfold with the party winning just under 7% of the vote and 18 deputies in the 300-seat parliament on the back of deep disgruntlement over sweeping austerity measures.

The government, which had come under increasing pressure to clamp down on an organisation now viewed as the continent's most violent political force, has won plaudits for the decisiveness with which it has ultimately cracked down on the group. Polls have shown a sudden drop in support for Golden Dawn, with conservatives who had migrated to the far right in disgust with Samaras's own centre-right New Democracy party returning to the fold.

But the far-rightists have also managed to retain their core support with successive polls this week showing that the party still remained Greece's third biggest political force. If need be, Michaloliakos and his cadres have vowed to fight their corner from inside prison cells.

Many have voiced concerns that the crackdown could backfire. The government is wading into uncharted waters, constitutionally, with experts emphasising the impossibility of outlawing a party catapulted into parliament by democratic means.

Even if its MPs are found to be guilty they will still retain their political identity. Greeks are still haunted by the memory of the KKE communist party being outlawed for almost 30 years after the civil war.

"It may have been more correct constitutionally to have sought parliament's approval to lift their political immunity first," said the constitutional law professor Kostas Chrysogonos.

In a rare display of consensus on both the left and right, politicians have attributed Golden Dawn's meteoric rise to the relentless, internationally mandated cutbacks Greeks have been subjected to since their debt-stricken country descended into crisis in late 2009. Far from having ideological appeal in a country that suffered one of the most brutal occupations between 1941-44 under Nazi rule, the far-rightists have managed to capitalise on the deep sense of injustice and fury that has increasingly radicalised society.

"Golden Dawn's respirator is the memorandum," said Takis Pavlopoulos, a senior policymaker in the radical-left main opposition Syriza party, referring to the loan accord Athens has signed up to with its "troika" of creditors at the EU, ECB and IMF. "Its base is not ideological but one of desperate people. Once you abolish the memorandum, the party will wither away."

Without Greece being cut some slack by its foreign lenders – not least Germany which has paid the lion's share of its €240bn in rescue loans since 2010 but has made austerity the price – many fear the party will resurface under another name if it is ultimately banned.

Hopes abound that by exposing the inner workings of a group that has operated as a paramilitary force but until now has been shrouded in mystery, Greeks will gradually turn their backs on Golden Dawn.

"We are not saying to all those people who voted for them that they are Nazis or fascists," said Notis Marias, a senior figure in the rightwing opposition Independent Greeks party. "What we are saying is that they made a mistake and this is the time to correct it."

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« Last Edit: Sep 29, 2013, 07:09 AM by Rad » Logged
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« Reply #9017 on: Sep 29, 2013, 07:12 AM »

September 25, 2013

Can a Gay, Catholic Leftist Actually Squelch Corruption in Sicily?


Rosario Crocetta smokes two to three packs of cigarettes a day, lighting them without putting them to his lips, often glancing at the three cellphones arrayed before him as he does so. If you are speaking to him, as an emissary from Turin named Antonio Saitta was on the day I first met Crocetta, he often picks up one of the phones in midconversation, without apology, and urgently begins reading text messages.

It was spring, and we sat in Crocetta’s office in the Palazzo dei Normanni, built by the first Norman king of Sicily in the 12th century and later home to a ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, Spanish viceroys and a Bourbon king. Since 1947, it has been the seat of the Regional Assembly, the governing body of Sicily, whose current president is Crocetta, a 62-year-old gay Catholic leftist with a penchant for romanticism and poetry, who is unlike any president the region has ever seen.

Normally in Italy, it is the politicians from the impoverished south who go north with hat in hand, but Saitta had flown to Palermo to try to convince Crocetta to abandon his plan to abolish Sicily’s provincial governments — a layer of bureaucracy in Italy that exists between the regional and municipal levels, which Crocetta was arguing was a source of waste and mismanagement. As president of the Union of Italian Provinces, Saitta was of course invested in the preservation of Sicily’s nine provinces, and he was working hard to keep Crocetta’s attention and convince him that the new model he was proposing could not work. After several minutes, Crocetta tired of following the man’s argument. The real problem, he wanted Saitta to understand, was of an entirely different nature. “There is a revolution at our gates,” Crocetta said, “and if we don’t change everything — really change — the people will invade the government buildings. They’ll come in here to toss us out the window. And you know what?” — he paused and looked at each of the people in the room. “I’ll throw myself out along with them, because they’re right.”

In the eight days I spent with Crocetta, not one passed without some group protesting outside the Palazzo dei Normanni or the nearby Palazzo d’Orleans, where the presidential offices are. Some of the protesters were maintenance workers (many of them former convicts), who work for the city of Palermo, which no longer has the money to pay them. Then there were representatives of Sicily’s 26,000 forest rangers, also now a target of the president’s cuts, and large groups of workers from Sicily’s trade schools, which employ about 8,000 people in the region, nearly half of all trade-school employees in the entire country. Many of these schools are created only to get a piece of the public payroll, and Crocetta had made clear that their days were numbered.

By this point, the police knew the protesters by name. They shared smokes in the quiet moments, then when tensions rose, out came the riot gear. On my third day in Palermo, some of the ex-cons-turned-maintenance-workers took over a conference room in the Palazzo d’Orleans, saying they wouldn’t leave until the government provided them some relief.

The financial crisis has been especially brutal in Sicily — which has been referred to as the “Greece of Italy” — a place where the debt has spiraled so far out of control that many fear it will bring the rest of Italy down with it. Even by Italian standards, Sicily has long been extreme in its waste and corruption. The government spent lavishly on companies and projects that had little or no purpose other than to guarantee votes and keep political parties in power. Directly or indirectly, the regional government that Crocetta oversees employs about 50,000 people, whose salaries total more than a billion euros a year. Past presidents were able to avoid the day of reckoning, but now the money has all but dried up. And according to a study by the European Commission, among 262 European regions examined, Sicily is 235th in terms of competitiveness.

Days after he took office last December — having been elected on the ballot of the political movement he co-founded, the Megaphone — Crocetta fired his predecessor’s 21 press officers. He then took aim at about 250 of the trade schools after proving that some were operated by the chauffeurs of regional politicians. When he greeted me for the first time, he proudly announced that he had discovered even more waste: “The region looks after about 800 exotic birds,” he said, “spending astronomical sums every year — as much as 500,000 euros. It’s time to stop!”

The birds were kept in the delightful park behind the Palazzo d’Orleans, and among them were members of endangered species like the Egyptian vulture. Crocetta decided to revoke the contract with the company that maintained the park and to instead use researchers from local zoological institutions to look after the animals. Naturally, the decision sparked yet another protest, this time from the man who was the caretaker and the heir to the family that had managed the park for decades. The birds belonged to him, he claimed, although many of them are simply descendants of the original flocks brought to the park in the 1950s.

“They will be fine,” Crocetta said of the birds as he hurried through the corridor, past paintings depicting scenes of Greek mythology. He was trailed by a clutch of reporters accustomed to hearing him cite the Sufi mystic Rumi in response to questions about sanitation, or Bertolt Brecht, when asked about public health. “The cockatoos,” Crocetta announced to the group, “will live like royalty.”

Crocetta’s predecessor is currently being prosecuted on charges of ties to organized crime. The one before him is serving time in jail. Another one, Piersanti Mattarella, was killed by the Mafia in 1980. “Either dead or in jail,” Crocetta told me. “I don’t know yet how my story will end.”

The threats against him are serious enough that he travels with an escort of six armed men and every outing involves a caravan of armored cars. In January, Giuseppe Di Giovanna, president of Palermo’s manufacturers’ association, received a warning in the mail: “Mind your own business — otherwise you will end up like that faggot Crocetta: slaughtered like a pig.” To this day, the threats persist, coming in the form of letters or phone calls or messages posted to Crocetta’s Facebook page saying that he will be killed.

Last spring, the city’s deputy prosecutor received a letter that included the line, “We cannot be governed by clowns and fags.” According to some interpretations, “clown” referred to Beppe Grillo, the comedian whose political party, the Five Star Movement, has become the third-strongest political force in Italy. And the “fag” is Crocetta, who in trying to build a coalition with Grillo’s group (the “Grillini,” as they are called), was thought to be creating a “Sicilian model” that could be exported to the rest of the country.

For this and other reasons, Crocetta has become popular far beyond his own region, regularly invited to appear on prime-time talk shows, a voice so different that it cannot be ignored.

Every night Crocetta leaves Palermo and travels to spend the night in the seaside town Castel di Tusa, an hour away. He goes there, he says, because he likes to hear the sound of the waves. But it’s also a survival strategy. He ventures out as little as possible, and when he is not in his office in either the Palazzo dei Normanni or the Palazzo d’Orleans, he is surrounded by a small circle of confidants and bodyguards. “Before you shake hands with somebody in Sicily, you have to ask for his criminal-clearance certificate,” he jokes.

In Tusa, his center of operations is a hotel called the Atelier sul Mare. At the entrance to the hotel is a two-story gold column in the shape of the goddess Nike; above the concierge’s window is the motto “devotion to beauty.” Twenty of the hotel’s rooms were decorated by artists or other notables. The Water-Carriers’ Room, where I slept, is a work by Danielle Mitterrand, widow of the former French president. Crocetta used to sleep in the Room of the Forbidden Sea, which has six overhead screens all showing the same video clip of a wave breaking on a shore. He has also stayed in the Room of the Prophet, which is dedicated to the Italian filmmaker and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini. In that room, the walls and ceiling are made of straw and mud to imitate a house in Yemen, where Pasolini shot many of his films, and beneath the bed is sand from the beach near Rome where he was killed. Inscribed in Arabic is the famous refrain from his 1974 denunciation of corruption: “I know. But I have no evidence.” Instead of a bathroom shower, there is a system of pipes that spray strong jets of water everywhere (“It tends to flood the room,” the guide who gave me a tour said), what the brochure describes as “a great purifying bath where each of us is washed and spun like the car that ran over Pasolini and killed him.”

Crocetta, too, is designing a room. “There will be no separation between it and the sea,” he tells me. “And when you press a button, the bed will come down from a golden dome modeled on the Palatine Chapel in the Palazzo dei Normanni. There will be built-in banquettes covered with golden mosaics, like the ones in Monreale, to relax on during the day, alone or with someone else. The bathroom will have a waterfall gushing from the wall. It will be Arab-inspired, and I’d really like to include verses by the Syrian poet Adonis, one of the great contemporary poets of love.”

He relocated to a nearby apartment for the summer, to avoid tourists and for security reasons, but he maintains a room in the Atelier that has his initials on the door in rhinestones. When I visited, there were piles of clothes on every surface, a table full of creams and a small television on which, in the morning, he watched the Disney Junior channel (he is fond of Peppa Pig, a cartoon about a family of pigs and their animal friends).

The Atelier sul Mare has become a kind of alternative capital of Sicily. Crocetta often convenes executive-committee meetings in the Hall of the Double Dream, where two columns seem to plunge into the wall and shatter it. By day, crowds of people arrive to meet with him, but in the evening only his intimates remain. They call the hotel a “convent,” and when they are in good spirits, they refer to one another as “Sister” or “Abbess.” When I told Crocetta that I felt as if I had dropped into the movie “Birdcage,” but with bodyguards placed outside the doors, he replied, “Unfortunately, it’s not Miami out there, but Sicily.” After a moment he added: “I don’t care. This is how I am. And anyhow I prefer the films of Almodóvar.”

His extended family at the hotel includes a septuagenarian, who prepares meals at all hours (dinners often start after midnight); Giuseppe Comandatore, his personal assistant, who keeps Crocetta’s suitcase ready and is always on the lookout for special ingredients for the next meal; and Michela Stancheris, a former assistant who is now in charge of tourism for the region. (After my departure, a new man, Moussa Ndoye, a Senegalese married to a Sicilian, was brought on as Crocetta’s personal secretary. “Again, I’m sending a strong message of progress in a country where Cécile Kyenge” — Italy’s first black government minister — “was outrageously referred to as an ‘orangutan,’ ” Crocetta said.)

And then there is Antonio Presti, proprietor of the Atelier, who many Sicilians believe is Crocetta’s partner. On the night I arrived, however, Presti told me that he has been with another man for 12 years. Presti has also had his own long struggle against the Mafia. His father owned a cement factory, and Presti learned after his death in 1983 that he had been paying bribes to the Mafia in order to conduct business. Presti knew that if he took over the factory, he would have to do the same, but he was unwilling to pay the bribes his father had paid. “I realized I only had three options: to be killed, kill myself or give up. I chose beauty.” Instead of paying for protection, he invested in works of art, creating an outdoor museum in Tusa. In 1992, a bomb went off in Presti’s hotel, and another in the cement factory. “I got threatening letters,” Presti said. “No one on the street spoke to me.” He met Crocetta two decades ago. “This is the story of a generation that’s now 60 years old,” Presti said. He was troubled by the way that power, whether by the Mafia or by the “anti-Mafia,” was wielded in Sicily and the way that counterculture figures became part of the establishment. “It bothers me a little bit now,” Presti said, “because Rosario embodies the power that I have fought for years. I am interested in Rosario my friend, not the politician.” (Not long after I visited, Crocetta offered him a job in his administration, as a minister of culture, and Presti refused.)

The following night, when I told Crocetta what Presti said, he shook his head in disagreement. “It is not true that politics has nothing to do with the soul,” he said. “Pope Paul VI said that it is the highest form of charity. But then the Gospel also has the passage that says, ‘I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents.’ ”

It was after midnight and everyone had gone to bed, leaving us alone at a table that had a plate of sliced oranges sprinkled with cinnamon and a bowl of raw fennel bulbs that Crocetta chewed whole. When I asked him whom he considered his enemies to be, he said, “The old leopards who think that because I want to change everything, nothing will change, who think I’m just a temporary phenomenon and that all they need to do is wait me out.”

He pulled out a plastic supermarket bag from the black backpack that he carries everywhere and plucked out a pill for his back pain. “It’s wrong to think that Sicily is any different from Rome,” he said. “You find useless institutions there, too, public utilities created only as a favor for a friend and not because it serves the community. Sicily always turns into a metaphor, because here everything is exaggerated.” In Sicily, he explained, the Mafia has magnified the same corruption that exists everywhere, and has perfected it. “The Mafiosi no longer even need to fire a single bullet,” he said, “because they are inside the machine, doing legal business with illegal methods.”

From 2003 to 2009, Crocetta was the mayor of Gela, a small city 115 miles south of Palermo where Aeschylus died and that remained a seaside resort until the 1950s, when oil was found underground and just off the coast. In 1963, the energy company Eni built its first Italian refinery there, a plant that now dominates the city with its towers. The refinery brought money and a new social stratum, an industrial underclass, where once there had been only farmers and fishermen. The population quickly increased by 50 percent, to 85,000 inhabitants, without any strategic plan. People simply occupied land and began to build houses for themselves; there are now about 20,000 unauthorized buildings in seven neighborhoods that need to be regulated.

I rode through one of these neighborhoods with Elisa Nuara, who was the deputy mayor of Gela under Crocetta and is now a prominent lawyer. “The illegal houses have their pillars left up and protruding,” Nuara said, pointing out that many buildings lack roofs. “They are ready for the construction of more floors in case another child is born.” In 1983, Nuara told me, when the mayor tried to put an end to such construction, the city was set aflame and thousands of people took to the streets, occupying the town hall, burning the archives that detailed the unlawful building and seizing the mayor, forcing him to read a public speech of solidarity with the protesters.

Crocetta grew up near the refinery in Gela. His father was a firefighter until government cuts forced him to take odd jobs before finding a position as an aqueduct worker. The children were supported for a number of years by their mother, who sewed clothes for the city’s wealthy and, according to Crocetta, forced him to go to school wearing a smock made from his grandmother’s old dress.

He was the youngest of four brothers. When he was 23, he got a job working for Eni, where he later became a computer technician, and eventually left Gela to work in other parts of Italy and for three years in Bahrain. When he returned, at 39, he founded a center for at-risk children.

It was the early 1990s, and Gela was torn by an intense Mafia war: the Cosa Nostra pitted against the Stidda, an organization made up of men who had been expelled from traditional Mafia families and who refused to abide by the Mafia codes of honor. On one night in November 1990, the Stidda left eight men dead and several wounded in the streets of Gela.

“You could get killed just for putting your motorbike in the wrong place,” Nuara said. Before a truce was called, business owners and shopkeepers had to pay protection money to both groups, and any refusal was punished, sometimes with a random execution. In 1992, the names of shopkeepers who were reluctant to pay were written on slips of paper and placed in a pot. The Mafiosi pulled out the name of Gaetano Giordano, a man who ran three perfume shops in the center of town. They killed him outside his house.

Crocetta ran for mayor in 2002 on the promise that he would usher in a renaissance of Gela, that it would become a city, as his billboards proclaimed, “where beauty and peace leave no space for the Mafia.” When he lost by 107 votes, he filed a complaint of electoral fraud, and the judge who oversaw a ballot recount determined that the original count had indeed been manipulated; instead of losing by 107 votes, he had won by more than 500.

“The city was in the hands of criminals,” Nuara told me, “and when Rosario was elected, they thought that they would go on as before.” The first threat came one minute after the official announcement of the recount. “My office phone rang,” Nuara said, “and someone said: ‘What does this guy want to do? We’ll swallow him in one second.’ ” While marching in a procession in Gela on Good Friday in 2003, a few weeks after he was sworn in, Crocetta found, directly at his back, Salvatore Di Giacomo, the city’s chief of maintenance, who for years doled out jobs to Mafia-connected companies instead of calling for bids. “His message to the people watching us was quite clear,” Crocetta told me. " ‘I’m still in charge, I’m right behind the mayor.’ I felt scared, but I stayed put, because otherwise I would have sent a misleading message to the people.”

Crocetta moved Di Giacomo out of his post and eliminated all noncompetitive contracts. To work with the city, businesses now needed an anti-Mafia certificate from the prefecture, and everyone on a work site had to have a clean record, to prevent Mafia infiltration. He urged shopkeepers to unite and refuse to pay for protection.

Di Giacomo, who is under house arrest for an attempted murder, has been linked to the Stidda, but Crocetta also went after the Cosa Nostra. Right after his election, he held a rally at which he read the names of the city’s Mafiosi. After several were arrested, he was present in the courtroom for their trials; at one, he waved two fingers at the men behind bars, signaling V for “victory” but also the length of the punishment to come — two decades in jail.

Perhaps Crocetta’s most sensational gesture as mayor came when he discovered that among Gela’s municipal employees was a woman named Virginia Di Fede, the wife of Daniele Emmanuello, the boss of the area’s leading Mafia clan. At the time, Emmanuello commanded an army of perhaps 200 Mafia soldiers and was among the 10 most-wanted fugitives in Italy. Crocetta fired Di Fede immediately, then denounced the official protection that kept Emmanuello from being captured.

A special police team was created to track down and arrest Emmanuello, and on a cold December dawn in 2007, officers surrounded the country house where Emmanuello was hiding. Usually the police avoid killing mobsters, but this time the officers shot him in the neck and killed him as he tried to escape. During the autopsy, doctors found several small squares of paper in Emmanuello’s esophagus and stomach. These were pizzini, the handwritten messages that Mafia bosses use to communicate. During the ambush, Emmanuello had swallowed the pizzini in a desperate attempt to hide them. Once deciphered, they contributed to the indictment of members of the clan, some of whom reported to investigators that Emmanuello had sentenced Crocetta to death. And since a Mafia death sentence can be revoked only by the person who made it, they explained, an eternal condemnation now hangs over Crocetta.

When Crocetta’s mother saw a news report about a plan to kill her son, she phoned him in fear. She was 98, and from that day she stopped eating. “I believe that she could not bear to survive if I died,” Crocetta said, “and that’s why she let herself die.”

For the first time in his life, Crocetta turned to therapy. “It was a mixture of Freudian and Jungian, the way it’s done nowadays,” he said. “But I don’t go anymore. The doctor let me down, because I saw that he was under his girlfriend’s thumb. I wanted to avoid the possibility of succumbing to the same thing by transference,” he said, laughing.

Crocetta laughs often, a long, whooping laugh that is quite contagious. He likes to lighten moments of gravity with facetiousness, and to mix the sacred and the profane. When I asked about his religious faith, he said: “I like the figure of the Virgin Mary, who bears everything and never judges the incomprehensible and unfathomable acts of God. She just says, ‘Thy will be done.’ Perhaps I identify her with my mother,” he went on. “The older she got, the more I idolized her suffering and linked her to the Virgin. The Mafiosi also use a holy card of the Virgin in their initiation rites. It’s like I want to repossess the Virgin, like I want to steal her back from the mobsters. We’re fighting over the sacred.”

When Crocetta was young, Sicily was in the hands of the Christian Democrats, the party that governed all of Italy in those years. His father, too, voted for the Christian Democrats, in gratitude to the Gela politician who found him a job and saved his family from poverty. But Crocetta had several arguments with his father over his political beliefs, because the Christian Democrats were associated with the Mafia. “I was an altar boy and flirted with the idea of going to the seminary and becoming a priest,” Crocetta said. “But already at 12 years old I was going to school and telling the teachers, ‘Enough with the Christian Democrats and corruption.’ I got myself expelled from religion class.” The young Crocetta began to move away from the church and later joined the Communist Party, which stood for the rule of law and resistance against the Mafia system.

“I chose to be a Communist at the same time that I understood that I was homosexual,” Crocetta told me. “But I soon realized that I had simply shifted from a ‘white church’ into a ‘red church.’ When I was 25, a leader of the Communist Party came to Gela and asked me nastily if I was gay. I asked what difference it made to him. He replied that my homosexuality could be a scandal for the party. So I distanced myself from the Communist Party too, while continuing my civic engagement. Suddenly a very private thing became an instrument of modern torture.”

Crocetta took pains to tell me that he does not think of himself as a gay man, but as a homosexual. “There is a huge difference between these two terms. Gay is someone who identifies with a culture that I’m not part of. I never went to a gay disco. I’m in favor of gay marriage and gay adoption, but I will never marry and I don’t want a family, because that, for me, is conforming to the norm. I never fell in love with an openly gay man. That does not mean that I like heterosexual men. I like a person who is unaware of his emotions. I like unaware beauty.”

Last March, on the evening of the election of Pope Francis, Crocetta appeared on a popular talk show, “Le Invasioni Barbariche” (“The Barbarian Invasions”). The plan was to do an interview about his life, but he ended up commenting — this was before Pope Francis’s recent conciliatory gestures — on the Catholic church’s aversion to gay marriage. “We should start talking about a church where a woman can become pope,” Crocetta said, “where priests can marry, where even gay marriages can be performed. A church that is an expression of — I won’t say contemporary life, but an expression of humanity. I don’t think you can get close to the sacred by denying the human being.” At that point the host, Daria Bignardi, interrupted him to ask if his confessor knew that he thought that way. “Of course he knows,” Crocetta answered. “If not, what are we talking about?” Bignardi pressed on, “And he absolves you anyway?” Crocetta replied: “Why shouldn’t he absolve me? Confessors give absolution to Mafiosi who have killed people. Why shouldn’t he absolve someone who frankly admits that he doesn’t feel it’s sinful to consider that love is a gift given by God?”

Crocetta’s confessor was a priest named Luigi Petralia. The two had been friends for 17 years, but the next day Petralia gave an open letter to the media saying that he was surprised that the president of the region would make such statements. He then said that by airing these views, Crocetta had placed himself outside the church: “He can be forgiven and come back only if he demonstrates — not only in words but in deeds — that he sincerely repents what he said.”

When Crocetta heard of Petralia’s statement, he fell into a funk that lasted for two days. In Palermo, protesters were occupying the Palazzo d’Orleans, but every conversation went back to his confessor. “It’s as if he’s gripped by sacred fury,” Crocetta told me. “Like a man who suddenly starts killing prostitutes. He’s made a very violent attack.”

He felt as if he had been excommunicated, Crocetta said, despite knowing that excommunication can come only from the Vatican. At dinner that evening he ate very little and spent his time sending text messages back and forth with the priest, who apologized for his remarks. The next day, as we drove to a rally at a church in the mountain town of Mistretta, Crocetta read aloud his final messages to Petralia: “I want to remind you that when your former associate pastor would come to church with his lovers, who he presented as just friends, you never accused him in the press, nor in front of the congregation.

“Instead what prevailed was love for the clique of the clergy. You stabbed me cruelly in the name of pride. A priest does not attack people; he says he does not share their view. You excommunicate, and you get written up on the front page. You destroyed half of my work of the past four months, my insomnia, my dedication to my land. And I’m supposed to apologize for you lynching me. Never again. We will not see each other again, not even in heaven, because your condemnation will keep me out! I’m not going to ask you to forgive, because you destroyed the relationship between confessor and sinner, by dropping down to the level of degradation that you accuse me of. Goodbye Luigi. Too bad — I believed in you.”

Two days later, Crocetta announced that he wanted to go to Gela. We made plans to go in the afternoon, but we didn’t leave Palermo until midnight, after a long, tense dinner with his entourage. Courteous as always, Crocetta did not want to say that he was too exhausted to answer my questions; instead he fiddled with his phone, nodded off, then startled awake, pressing buttons on his phone to appear busy. We arrived at 3 a.m., and he went to sleep in the apartment he keeps there, armored to withstand automatic-rifle fire.

The next day we ate lunch at a cafe where many people stopped at our table to greet Crocetta. To everybody there he is still just “Saro,” the nickname he had as a boy. Eventually, Petralia arrived at the cafe, wearing jeans and a clerical shirt with a stained white neckband. “He must have heard from someone that I was there,” Crocetta said. “Word gets around in Gela.” The two men stepped outside and talked for 10 minutes.

Later, I asked if they had reconciled, and Crocetta said: “I always forgive. But I don’t know if I want him as my confessor. Now I confess my sins directly to God, that’s the safest thing.” What wounded him the most, he said, was that it “brought me back to being an altar boy, when I discovered my sexuality that I had denied. I discovered that I had to die — someday — that I would go to hell if I masturbated. It was a flashback to all the repression I had suffered. Just terrible.” After a moment he added: “But more than anything else, a thing like that delegitimizes you. It makes you more vulnerable. It makes people understand that you can be hit. The messages of solidarity that I received all said, ‘Keep going, but make sure you’re protected.’ People read the confessor’s words and think of bodyguards, because an attack like this makes you more fragile.”

The tenuousness of Crocetta’s political survival only became clear to me when I visited Giancarlo Cancelleri, the head of the contingent of Grillini (from Grillo’s Five Star Movement) that permits Crocetta’s governing coalition to survive. The “Sicilian model” that had been so widely discussed was all but laughable to Cancelleri. “We are the Sicilian model,” he said. “Crocetta is not part of it. He works both sides of the street. I respect him, but we do all the work. He’s nothing but talk and a badge,” Cancelleri added, quoting Robert De Niro as Al Capone in “The Untouchables.” It seemed that Crocetta was much more alone than he wanted to believe, that even his supposed allies would not stand up for him. And this was only a start; relations between Crocetta and the Grillini would turn even more sour in the coming months.

While I was there, both the brashness of Crocetta’s vision and the limits of his power were on display in negotiations over a satellite communications system (called MUOS, for mobile-user objective system) that the U.S. Defense Department was building at Niscemi, in the province of Caltanissetta. Part of an agreement between the American and Italian governments, the MUOS base sits in a cork forest that is an important stopover for birds migrating between North Africa and Europe. Because of the site’s potential dangers — not only for birds but also for humans — the Grillini vigorously opposed the base. Groups of protesters that have included mothers and children from Niscemi have frequently blocked construction trucks from reaching the base. Crocetta, caught between the Americans and the government in Rome on one side and the Grillini on the other, told the press on the day I arrived in Palermo, “I’m sitting on a powder keg.”

For the next several days he practiced on me the arguments that he would repeat in a formal meeting with Donald Moore, the American consul in Naples, who came to visit him at the Palazzo d’Orleans: “The Grillini are anti-militarist and anti-American,” he said. “I’m not. I’m just a poor soul who ended up in this inferno. Everyone wants to do me in, and I’m trying to survive.” He then explained to Moore that opposition to the base was not just local but national, and that the work had to stop to make way for an independent scientific study on the impact the antennas might have on citizens’ health. On top of that, Crocetta pointed out, there was an investigation into Mafia ties to a construction company that was working on the base.

The more Crocetta talked, the sharper and more bold he became. “This isn’t the first time I’ve asked you to listen to me,” he told the American. “By not blocking the base earlier, like I told you, you handed Sicily over to the Grillini, making them into the strongest party — on the basis of the unpopularity of your initiative. If you go forward now, you’ll have to take the responsibility for toppling my government and returning Sicily to the Mafia. But I won’t go along. There is a Sicilian proverb that says, ‘A killer always wipes the blood off his knife using someone else’s jacket.’ I do not want my jacket to be used for this. But I don’t mean this in a hostile way at all. I’m behaving like any governor in the United States would behave if his state’s citizens raised doubts about the danger of a military base. We should wait for the independent study.”

Crocetta settled himself, and the meeting ended cordially, but one week later Sicily’s regional government revoked authorization for construction at the military base.

The day before his meeting with the American consul, Crocetta won his greatest political victory so far. After six hours of debate, the Sicilian Regional Assembly voted for the abolition of the Sicilian provincial governments within the year. Before entering the chamber for the debate, Crocetta went to his computer and searched the terms “courage to change” and “Pasolini.” His speech ended with an attack on those who criticized his initiative: “You want a Sicily of waste and ruin,” he said. “I want to give the Sicilians a dream — a dream that change is possible.”

He was beaming as reporters surrounded him on his way out of the Palazzo dei Normanni. “It’s a great victory,” he said, but soon went off on a tangent, as he so often does: “What was I doing during the debate?” he said in response to a reporter’s question. “Reading poetry on my iPhone.”

The reporters didn’t take him seriously, but that evening, driving back to the hotel in Tusa in the armored car, I asked him if he had been joking. “No, I was very serious,” he said. “Parts of the debate bored me badly, parts of it irritated me because of the aggression. I had to take refuge in poetry.”

In an hour we would be where he is most comfortable, at the Atelier. Signora Maria would have dinner ready: chickpea soup followed by meatballs and raw fennel. Crocetta would search YouTube and find one of his beloved Gregorian chants to play in the background while we talked of his youth and his travels outside Italy.

That spring evening at the Atelier was, in retrospect, a rare oasis in what has turned out to be a difficult year in office. The struggle over whether the American military base would be completed left Crocetta more alienated than ever. In July, the National Institute of Health, in Italy, published the study saying that there were no apparent health dangers from the antennas at the American military base, and work has continued despite the ongoing protests. To the anti-MUOS movement — and to the Grillini — Crocetta was now seen as a traitor.

Any illusions that the “Sicilian model” could persevere now seem permanently dashed. The Democratic Party, which had fully supported Crocetta earlier in the year, is now demanding more power in the government. A satirical Facebook page called “Crocetta can do it” now gets regular updates. (“Turn water into wine? Heal the blind? Get resurrected after three days? The President of the Region of Sicily is no amateur! Crocetta can do it!”)

Crocetta’s claims that he would bring a revolution to Sicily now ring more hollow. But if the revolution dies, it may not be from a Mafia assassin’s knife in the back but from a thousand political cuts. When I spoke with him by phone in mid-September, however, Crocetta seemed upbeat. Isolation is something of a natural condition for him. He did not manage to cut many jobs (“This is not a time for social slaughter,” he told me), but he saved money in other ways. “When I came into office, Sicily was risking bankruptcy,” he said. “We have cut more than 2.5 billion euros in expenses without significant job losses, and we succeeded in freeing 850 million in European funds” — earmarked for aid to Sicily — “that were tied up in bureaucracy.” He went on, anticipating questions about the criticisms that are now regularly lodged against him: “We cannot make miracles. Even President Obama has to wait to see the effect of big revolutions like the health care reform.” He went silent for a while on the phone, then said: “I don’t know if my government will be the one to harvest the results of change, but I’m sure that I have disrupted things. It’s my presence, more than my accomplishments, that signifies change.”

The conversation brought me back to that night of celebration in the spring, after the vote on the province reform, and Crocetta’s expression of exhaustion and relief as we drove in his car to Tusa. He seemed to want to talk more about the poetry that he was reading in the chamber as the debate wore on than about the debate itself, and so I asked him what it was.

“The ‘Duino Elegies,’ ” he said, “by Rainer Maria Rilke. I could have quoted every verse in there, especially those beautiful passages about the impossibility of a dream. But it would have been too big a leap, too incomprehensible. In that chamber,” Crocetta said, “they don’t speak the language of love.”

Marco De Martino is a longtime U.S. correspondent for Italian magazines and currently writes for Vanity Fair Italy. This is his first article for the magazine.

Editor: Joel Lovell

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« Reply #9018 on: Sep 29, 2013, 07:15 AM »

September 28, 2013

A Surface Calm, Punctured by Artillery and Weary Arguments


DAMASCUS, Syria — Camouflage-clad militiamen guard sandbagged checkpoints along this storied city’s elegant downtown boulevards. Merchants who once owned their own shops are reduced to selling plastic trinkets on the street. Families from war-torn provinces sleep in mosques and schools.

The Syrian capital has been deeply altered by the country’s civil war, now in its third year. The economy is collapsing. Displaced people arrive faster than they can be absorbed. Most of all, there is a sense that the war will continue, perhaps for years, making the country’s rifts progressively harder to heal.

Dark as it is, that foreboding has led to a convergence of sorts, a desire by many on both sides of the conflict to bring an end to the killing and destruction even if it means compromise.

“There is no more pro and anti,” said a janitor who opposed the uprising, but like many here in the capital has relatives and co-workers who supported it. “We all want security.”

Some here wonder if that increasingly popular, though by no means universal, view could be the basis of peace talks that world leaders are seeking to arrange half a world away. Others warn that moderate sentiments on both sides may have little bearing on the combat, which is driven by government hard-liners, rebel extremists and anger over the deaths of more than 100,000 people.

Yet in whispers, or among trusted friends, people in central Damascus across the political spectrum are increasingly questioning the value of pressing the conflict. Many no longer believe the assurances of their nominal leaders and doubt they have the interests of ordinary people in mind. Most share a horror of extremist Islamist groups in the armed opposition, disagreeing only on whether that translates into a desire for the current government to remain.

With the war mired in stalemate and the possibility of American airstrikes receding, people here are no longer bracing for what many once expected, a rebel invasion of the city. Instead, problems seep from within. Political tensions intrude on social gatherings. In a city with a long history of coexistence among religious and ethnic groups, the war is deforming relationships, neighborhoods and landscapes.

The checkpoints, once shocking to residents here, have become fixtures, popping up every few blocks. Their red, white and black Syrian flags are tattered and gray; regular commuters greet guards by name; and some checkpoints have been expanded, from simple shelters to sandbagged concrete bunkers.

The government rarely permits soldiers, checkpoints or military vehicles to be photographed, keeping from the international news media the visible militarization of daily life.

Beneath highway overpasses, Syrians newly joining the five million pushed from their homes by war mill about with their baggage, not sure where to go.

Outside the city center, some roads made impassable at times by the fighting are safe, at least during the day. But along one such highway, from Damascus to the suburb of Sahnaya to the southwest, malls, restaurants and office buildings stand abandoned, their windows shattered, their parking lots mostly empty. One lot is crowded with the twisted carcasses of burned city buses.

Streets are busier now, giving a surface sense of normalcy. The plaza outside the Umayyad Mosque at the heart of the Old City hums in the evenings, no longer deserted after dark as it often was just a few months ago. Children race after balls, vendors sell roasted corn and housewares, and families rest along the base of the mosque’s thick stone wall.

But a closer look reveals that many of these people are displaced, living nearby in cramped apartments, storefronts and offices, filling the gap left by tourists and residents who fled the country.

Ask them why they are venturing out, and Damascenes and newcomers offer similar answers: They do not necessarily feel safer; they are simply used to danger and sick of distorting their lives to avoid it.

“We got tired of staying inside,” said Umm Abdullah, a 60-year-old woman from Daraya, a suburb pulverized by war, sitting with her three daughters and a toddler granddaughter outside the mosque to escape the confines of a lawyer’s office where they live with five other relatives.

At the Nufara cafe, a favorite spot in the Old City, a group of teenagers barely looked up from their coffee and water pipes one recent night as half a dozen shells crashed down, close enough to jar the gut.

“Count,” said one boy, glimpsing a flash over the rooftops. He ticked off the seconds until the boom, calculating the distance. Artillery barrages are as familiar as thunder and lightning.

This group of high school friends supported the government, but disagreed on the nature of the opposition and how to solve the crisis. Some called for talks with Syrian rebels; others dismissed the insurgency as the work of Al Qaeda.

After a lively discussion, one alluded to the symbols of the warring parties, the government flag and the revolutionary one, revived from Syria’s early years of postcolonial independence, that replaces the state flag’s red strip with a green one.

“Now you got the opinion of the red flag,” he told a reporter. “Where are you going to go to get the opinion of the green flag?”

But it is not necessary to travel to rebel-held suburbs, bombarded by government warplanes, to find supporters or sympathizers of the insurgency. In shops and workplaces, in circles of friends and increasingly in shelters and schools for the displaced, government supporters and opponents interact and even socialize within the relatively safe space of Damascus, an experience less common in other parts of the country, where disagreements have turned into large-scale slaughter.

One recent evening at a Damascus restaurant, two longtime friends who took opposite sides early in the uprising lamented where it had ended up. The government opponent denounced Damascus intellectuals for ceding leadership of the rebellion to armed groups. The pro-government friend, surprisingly, was more forgiving, noting the government of President Bashar al-Assad had cracked down quickly on peaceful activists.

“They were never given the space to act,” she said.

On both sides, flashes of emotion telegraph deepening frustration. Walking past a wall scrawled with the slogan “Assad only, Assad forever,” one government supporter spluttered: “This is wrong. Syria is for my children — for everyone equally, not just for one person.”

Some government supporters passionately back Mr. Assad, but others call him “crazy” or the lesser of two evils.

At an out-of-the-way cafe in the Old City, a group of government supporters met to discuss the situation, fearing the security services enough that, like others interviewed for this article, they did not want their names or pictures used. The atmosphere was cozy, but as the arak and vodka flowed, nerves grew raw, and what began as an abstract political discussion flared suddenly into a personal quarrel.

An artist mused that Syrian Jews who left the country should be allowed back in; a gallery owner shot back that they had chosen to leave, as had the artist, who was visiting Damascus after moving with his family to Europe to escape the war.

“Don’t start,” the gallery owner said. “You left the country. I stayed here.”

“I have children, I had to leave,” the artist protested.

“I have kids too,” the gallery owner said, and began to cry.

Resentment between those who fled and those who stayed also suffuses the opposition.

At another gathering, a government critic complained that the exile opposition had gutted the movement by luring young activists to Turkey to work fruitlessly, if lucratively, to set up an alternative government.

The critic’s daughter said she had lost hope that their dreams of democracy would be achieved. “Not in our lifetime,” she said.

The critic, appalled, said: “No! Maybe not in my lifetime. But in yours,” adding, “We’ll see.”

The young woman shook her head. “We’ve been seeing,” she said.

Andrea Bruce and Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.

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« Reply #9019 on: Sep 29, 2013, 07:17 AM »

September 28, 2013

South Sudan’s Army Faces Accusations of Civilian Abuse


PIBOR, South Sudan — As the international community pours billions of dollars into South Sudan in an effort to make it a viable nation, Western observers are now worried that the armed forces in a country they helped create have been preying on civilians.

Witnesses have described soldiers from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army indiscriminately firing on busy market squares, fatally beating noncombatants and raping women.

It is not as if this young nation is lacking in challenges. Since it achieved independence two summers ago, South Sudan has been bedeviled by poverty, high infant mortality, a crippling lack of infrastructure, internal rebellion and frequent disputes over oil and the border with Sudan. In July, South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, abruptly fired the entire cabinet and the vice president, raising political uncertainty even further.

But another longstanding problem — large-scale violence against civilians — has been particularly damaging, claiming thousands of lives in recent years. It is not just deadly clashes among ethnic groups that alarm humanitarian groups and diplomats here. Government forces, in their effort to root out rebels, have been accused of targeting the Murle minority as well.

“The most pressing issue is the abuses by the S.P.L.A., by the army,” said Joshua Konyi Irer, the commissioner of Pibor County, where most of the attacks on civilians have taken place.

South Sudan was established as part of an effort to end a civil war with Sudanese forces in the north that claimed more than two million lives. For decades, Sudanese forces killed civilians in the south, often bombing indiscriminately, part of the staggering death toll that generated international support for the separation of South Sudan.

South Sudan’s international backers have taken a huge stake in its stability and success. Last year alone, the United States gave South Sudan $620 million, making it one of the top recipients of American aid in Africa.

“We’ve seen very disturbing reports about abuses,” said Grant Harris, senior director for African affairs at the National Security Council, adding that the United States had been “unequivocal” with Mr. Kiir about “the need for South Sudan to protect human rights, protect civilians and ensure accountability for anyone complicit in human rights violations.”

A village elder from the town of Manyabol described a massacre in May where at least a dozen people were killed after the military opened fire on civilians. Government soldiers rampaged through the market in Pibor in January, killing seven civilians and burning 150 huts, local leaders said.

One Pibor resident, Mary Tarawach, said she had hoped that the troops would treat her decently as long as she served them stew and bread at her tiny dirt-floor restaurant in the market here. It did not help. Sometimes they hit her, even as her stomach swelled with a child. Finally, she went to work in May and found the same soldiers looting the market and destroying her business. She ran, but they caught and taunted her, accusing her of being the wife of the local rebel leader, David Yau Yau, also a member of the Murle ethnic group.

“They pushed me and they stomped on my stomach,” Ms. Tarawach said. “The child came out. The child is dead.”

The Pibor market, once thriving, remained empty one recent afternoon, the doors to the corrugated metal stalls creaking on their hinges as they swung open and closed, the grass now knee-high. “It’s a ghost city,” said Peter Guzulu, coordinator for the Murle Peace Committee, a group representing local interests.

In another episode, soldiers fatally shot two women in Pibor on July 31. Under pressure to act, the army chief of staff had the two soldiers responsible arrested, part of the new effort to crack down on abuses. The government also recently arrested a senior military commander over allegations of abuse by troops here in Pibor.

“Those who will be found to have committed those abuses will actually be punished,” Barnaba Marial Benjamin, the foreign minister appointed after the government reshuffle, said last month.

Human Rights Watch issued a report this month documenting nearly 100 killings by government forces, saying that “the potential for further grave violations and violence is high,” in part because of anti-Murle sentiment.

Mr. Benjamin asked for understanding of the challenges facing the weak central government and for financial support to build up troubled Jonglei State, where the violence has been concentrated. “There’s nowhere where you can build a country within two years with such enormous difficulties,” he said.

The army is waging a counterinsurgency campaign against Mr. Yau Yau’s rebel forces. It includes a program to take weapons from civilians. Col. Philip Aguer, spokesman for the military, said more than 30 soldiers had been arrested and were being put on trial over abuses.

“The army is doing its best to investigate and take whoever will be proved committed human rights violation to court,” Colonel Aguer said.

In a military where abuses against its own troops are routine, trying soldiers is itself a significant step.

But Murle leaders say a more systemic bias is at work. They contend that government troops assisted fighters from the rival Lou Nuer ethnic group when they swept through Murle areas in July, helping turn cattle raids into large offensives in which more than 300 people were killed.

The Small Arms Survey, a research project, said it had received credible testimony from international observers that South Sudanese soldiers had “dropped ammunition on several occasions to the Lou Nuer in several locations prior and during the July attacks,” said Jonah Leff, a South Sudan analyst with the survey.

Witnesses said that military helicopters took wounded Lou Nuer fighters to the hospital in the state capital, Bor, and that uniformed soldiers were among the returning fighters.

“The S.P.L.A. uniform, Khartoum uniform, you will get it anywhere even among the civilians; that does not mean they are part of the S.P.L.A.,” Colonel Aguer said, referring to the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. “The S.P.L.A. in its history has never sided with any community.”

Some people have begun returning to towns like Gumuruk, but many more have stayed away, or joined Mr. Yau Yau’s rebels. The South Sudanese government contends that the Sudanese government in Khartoum is providing him with weapons and other support to wage his rebellion.

One woman from Pibor named Uruyen described how five soldiers came to her home in March. “They said, ‘Bring your gun. Bring your weapon.’ I said, ‘I am a woman. I do not have a weapon,’ ” she recalled, her gaze vacant, her voice soft and affectless. She said they kicked her and beat her with sticks before taking turns raping her.

The military’s harsh response may be fueling, rather than dampening, the insurgency. Relatives and community leaders say that young men feel the only place they are safe now is with Mr. Yau Yau’s forces. A woman from Boma told how her husband, a 39-year-old Murle soldier who had fought for the S.P.L.A. since he was 13 years old, was killed along with all the other ethnic Murle in his unit.

Charles Manyang D’Awol, under secretary in the South Sudanese Foreign Ministry, said he objected to any portrayal of Murle as innocent victims. Attacks by the Lou Nuer were reprisals for Murle raids on Lou Nuer and Dinka villages and towns, he said, which have gone on for years. “Their aim is to take your children, your cattle and your wife if possible,” Mr. Manyang said of Murle raiders.

“What the S.P.L.A. is doing now is against Yau Yau,” he said, “not against Murle people.”

The question is whether soldiers in the field are trying to differentiate. “If they get an old man in the market they say, ‘This is the father of Yau Yau,’ ” said Marko, a great-grandfather from Pibor who was afraid to give his last name.

When S.P.L.A. soldiers rampaged through Pibor in January after an altercation in the market, Marko said he watched an old man he had known his entire life fatally shot in the back. He said soldiers fired a heavy, truck-mounted machine gun and a PK machine gun during the attack.

Displaced residents of the town of Manyabol described a similar episode there in May. Rebels ambushed two soldiers collecting firewood, killing one. It was a Sunday and church services had just ended. The local chiefs had gathered under a tree to settle disputes among townspeople. Several witnesses described how soldiers opened fire on the gathering, killing several of the chiefs and two of the petitioners.

According to an elder from Manyabol who narrowly escaped and asked not to be identified out of fear of the S.P.L.A., they were firing not just rifles but machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, by his count killing 14 in all. “They used any machine that they had,” he said.

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« Reply #9020 on: Sep 29, 2013, 07:19 AM »

Nigeria students killed in college attack

Dozens shot dead by suspected Islamic militants in night-time assault in country's north-east similar to those on schools nearby

Associated Press in Potiskum, Sunday 29 September 2013 13.44 BST   

Suspected Islamic extremists have gunned down dozens of students as they slept in their dormitories during a night-time attack on an agricultural college in north-east Nigeria, the school's provost said.

As many as 50 students may have been killed in the assault that began at about 1am local time on Sunday, said Molima Idi Mato, provost of the Yobe State College of Agriculture in Gujba.

"They attacked our students while they were sleeping, they opened fire at them," he said, but could not give an exact death toll as security forces still were recovering bodies from the college.

The Nigerian military had collected 42 bodies and transported 18 injured students to Damaturu specialist hospital, according to a military intelligence official.

The school's other 1,000 students fled the college, about 25 miles (40km) north of Damaturu town, where there have been similar attacks on schools as part of a continuing Islamist uprising, said Mato.

He said there were no security forces stationed at the college despite government assurances that they would be deployed. The state education chief, Mohammed Lamin, held a news conference two weeks ago in which he urged all schools to reopen and promised protection from soldiers and police.

Most schools in the area closed after militants on 6 July killed 29 pupils and a teacher, burning some alive in their hostels, at Mamudo, outside Damaturu.

North-east Nigeria is under a military state of emergency to battle the Islamist uprising by Boko Haram militants who have killed more than 1,700 people since 2010 in their quest for an Islamic state. Boko Haram means "western education is forbidden" in the local Hausa language.

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau last week published a video to prove he was alive and was not killed in during the crackdown by the military.

Government and security officials claim they are winning their war on terror in the north-east despite the attacks.

The Islamic extremists have killed at least 30 other civilians in the past week.

Twenty-seven people died in separate attacks on Wednesday and Thursday night in two villages of Borno state near the north-east border with Cameroon, according to the local council chairman, Modu-Gana Bukar Sheriiff.

The military spokesman did not respond to requests for information on those attacks, but a security official confirmed the death toll.

Also on Thursday, police said suspected Islamic militants killed a pastor, his son and a village head and torched their Christian church in Dorawa, about 60 miles from Damaturu. They said the gunmen used explosives to set fire to the church and five homes.

Farmers and government officials are fleeing threats of imminent attacks from Boko Haram in the area of the Gwoza Hills, a mountainous area with caves that shelter the militants despite repeated aerial bombardments by the military.

A local government official said there had been a series of attacks in recent weeks and threats of more. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared for his life, said Gwoza town was deserted when he visited it briefly under heavy security escort on Thursday.

He said militants had chased medical officers from the town's government hospital, which had been treating some victims of attacks. He added that militants had burned down three public schools in the area.

The official said the Gwoza local government has set up offices in Maiduguri, the state capital to the north.

More than 30,000 people have fled the terrorist attacks to neighbouring Cameroon and Chad and the uprising combined with the military emergency has forced farmers from their fields and vendors from their markets.

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« Reply #9021 on: Sep 29, 2013, 07:22 AM »

Saudi Arabian cleric says female drivers risk damaging ovaries

Leading conservative's comments aimed at activists protesting against Islamic kingdom's male-only driving rules

Reuters in Riyadh, Sunday 29 September 2013 11.09 BST      

One of Saudi Arabia's leading conservative clerics has said women who drive risk damaging their ovaries and bearing children with clinical problems, countering activists who are trying to end the Islamic kingdom's male-only driving rules.

A campaign calling for women to defy the ban in a protest drive on 26 October has spread rapidly online over the past week and gained support from prominent women activists. On Sunday, the campaign's website was blocked inside the kingdom.

As one of the 21 members of the senior council of scholars, Sheikh Saleh al-Lohaidan can write fatwas, or religious edicts, advise the government and has a large following among other influential conservatives.

His comments have in the past played into debates in Saudi society and he has been a vocal opponent of tentative reforms to increase freedoms for women by King Abdullah, who sacked him as head of a top judiciary council in 2009.

In an interview published on Friday on the website, he said women aiming to overturn the ban on driving should put "reason ahead of their hearts, emotions and passions".

Although the council does not set Saudi policy, which is ultimately decided by King Abdullah, it can slow government action in a country where the ruling al-Saud family derives much of its legitimacy from the clerical elite.

It is unclear whether Lohaidan's strong endorsement of the ban is shared by other members of the council, but his comments demonstrate how entrenched the opposition is to women driving among some conservative Saudis.

"If a woman drives a car, not out of pure necessity, that could have negative physiological impacts as functional and physiological medical studies show that it automatically affects the ovaries and pushes the pelvis upwards," he told Sabq. "That is why we find those who regularly drive have children with clinical problems of varying degrees."

A biography on his website does not list any background in medicine and he did not cite any studies to back up his claims.

US diplomats in a 2009 Riyadh embassy cable released by WikiLeaks, described Lohaidan as "broadly viewed as an obstacle to reform" and said his "ill-considered remarks embarrassed the kingdom on more than one occasion".

The ban on women driving is not backed by a specific law, but only men are granted driving licences. Women can be fined for driving without a licence but have also been detained and put on trial in the past on charges of political protest.

Sheikh Abdulatif Al al-Sheikh, the head of the morality police, told Reuters last week that there was no text in the documents making up sharia law that bars women from driving.


Women's rights supporters condemn Saudi Arabia as activists ordered to jail

Supporters condemn length of sentences as bid by authorities to silence criticism

Tracy McVeigh   
The Observer, Sunday 29 September 2013   

Two prominent female rights activists who went to the aid of a woman they believed to be in distress are expected to go to jail in Saudi Arabia on Sunday after the failure of their appeal against a 10-month prison sentence and a two-year travel ban.

Wajeha al-Huwaider, a writer who has repeatedly defied Saudi laws by driving a car, and Fawzia al-Oyouni were arrested for taking a food parcel to the house of someone they thought was in an abusive relationship. In June they were found guilty on a sharia law charge of takhbib – incitement of a wife to defy the authority of her husband, thus undermining the marriage.

Campaigners say they are "heroes" who have been given heavy sentences to punish them for speaking out against Saudi restrictions on women's rights, which include limited access to education and child marriage as well as not being able to drive or even travel in a car without a male relative being present.

In 2007 a Saudi appeal court doubled a sentence of 90 lashes to be given to a teenager because she had been in a car with a male friend when they were abducted and gang-raped by seven men.

Suad Abu-Dayyeh, an activist for the group Equality Now , said the authorities had been trying to silence the two women for years and their sentence "is unfortunate and scandalous". It marked a dangerous escalation of how far Saudi authorities were willing to go.

"These women are extremely brave and active in fighting for women's rights in Saudi Arabia, and this is a way for the Saudi authorities to silence them," she said. "If they are sent to jail, it sends a very clear message to defenders of human rights that they should be silent and stop their activities – not just in Saudi Arabia, but across Arab countries. These women are innocent – they should be praised for trying to help a woman in need, not imprisoned. They now find themselves at the mercy of the system they have fought so tirelessly to change."

According to reports, this is also the first time in Saudi legal history that a travel ban has been imposed in a case involving domestic issues.

"This case and the system of lifelong male guardianship of women in Saudi Arabia shows that protecting a husband's dominant, even abusive, position in the family is far more important than his wife's wellbeing," said Suad Abu-Dayyeh.

The women themselves believe they may have been set up, that they were contacted by text message by a woman claiming to be the mother of Natalie Morin, a Canadian national married to a Saudi who has herself been campaigning for several years to be allowed to leave the country with her three young children – something she says the authorities will not allow her to do.

The text, in June 2011, said she had been abused by her husband, an unemployed former Saudi intelligence officer, who had then left for a wedding and left her and her children locked in their apartment in the eastern city of Dammam for a week and that they were running out of food and water. When the two women arrived in Morin's street they were immediately arrested.

"Actually when we went to there, the minute we arrived a police car arrived," said Wajeha al-Huwaider. "I'm sure the judge knows that it was a trap and they meant to catch us at that time in order to make a case against us."

At first they were charged with trying to aid Morin escape to the Canadian embassy in Riyadh, but the intervention of a local member of the Saudi royal family led to those charges being dropped, because, said Huwaider, even he was embarrassed at the obvious nature of the set-up.

Morin was also arrested and held for several hours. It was not until a year later that the two women were told they were to face the new charge of takhbib, a law that effectively puts all aid workers and activists helping Saudi women in need of protection from domestic violence, at risk.

Morin was not permitted to testify at their trial earlier this year that she had never met Huwaider and Oyouni. She has declared support for them on her blog writing: "I am sorry for what's happening to madam Wajeha al-Huwaider and her friend." She said the "two Saudi women find themselves in a serious legal problem with jail just for trying to help me … there is no evidence for the charges that are against her and her friend."

Huwaider and Oyouni's conviction has been condemned by numerous human rights organisations, including the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, Equality Now and Pen International.

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« Reply #9022 on: Sep 29, 2013, 07:25 AM »

September 28, 2013

Former Chilean Intelligence Chief Commits Suicide, Officials Say


SANTIAGO, Chile — A former director of a Pinochet-era intelligence agency killed himself on Saturday, officials said, days after the government announced that it would close the exclusive military prison where he was being held for human rights crimes and transfer the inmates to a less privileged detention center.

The former intelligence chief, Gen. Odlanier Mena, 87, shot himself at home, officials said, where he had been allowed to spend weekends since mid-2011. At that time, he had completed half of a six-year sentence for the 1973 murder of three leftists while he was commander of an army regiment in Arica, in northern Chile. General Mena, who retired from the army, was director of the National Information Center intelligence agency from 1977 to 1980.

The Cordillera Detention Center in eastern Santiago, where General Mena had been serving his sentence, was set up on the grounds of the army’s telecommunications command center in 2004. At the time, the Supreme Court was abandoning its practice of applying a 1978 amnesty law in human rights cases, and the government feared that Punta Peuco, a special military prison created in 1995 to hold human rights offenders, would not suffice.

General Mena’s lawyer, Jorge Balmaceda, blamed the recent government decision for his client’s suicide. “In the last letter he sent me he expressed concern for the eventual transfer, which would cause him serious moral, physical and psychological harm,” Mr. Balmaceda said in an interview with TVN, the Chilean national television station.

On Thursday, after news reports about the preferential treatment of the Cordillera inmates prompted a public outcry, President Sebastián Piñera announced that he would close the prison and transfer the 10 inmates there to Punta Peuco, on the outskirts of the capital, Santiago.

The president’s decision came after a televised interview with Gen. Manuel Contreras, former director of Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s National Intelligence Directorate, which was responsible for systematic human rights violations in the first few years of General Pinochet’s military dictatorship. In the interview with CNN Chile on Sept. 10, one day before the 40th anniversary of the coup that toppled President Salvador Allende, General Contreras denied that the directorate had been responsible for any torture or crimes and expressed no remorse. He was also imprisoned at Cordillera, serving a sentence of nearly 360 years for multiple murders and disappearances.

The Cordillera inmates, who range in age from 68 to 86 and include top commanders of the National Intelligence Directorate, lived in five cabins — each with a private bathroom — on grounds that include a tennis court, according to a court report on a visit to the prison last Monday. They were assisted by nutritionists, kinesiologists, doctors, psychologists, social workers and a physical education professor, the report said.

Despite the suicide, the government announced Saturday that it would go ahead with the transfer, and the nine remaining inmates were taken to Punta Peuco overnight.
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« Reply #9023 on: Sep 29, 2013, 07:27 AM »

Spain denies Argentina’s claims of a Falkland Islands ownership deal

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, September 27, 2013 22:58 EDT

Spain denied Argentina’s claims the two countries had clinched an agreement to get Britain to negotiate the future of the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar.

Both territories — the Falklands in the South Atlantic, which Argentina calls the Malvinas, and Gibraltar at Spain’s southern tip — are controlled by Britain.

But Argentina and Spain claim sovereignty over them, respectively.

Buenos Aires announced on Thursday that the two countries had agreed to work together on their respective disputes with Britain.

Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo Friday pointed to “coincidences” in the sovereignty disputes, namely that “the solution to the conflicts must come through bilateral discussions or talks between Great Britain and Argentina and between Great Britain and Spain.”

But “there has been some misunderstanding,” Garcia-Margallo added, making it clear that the parallels do not mean that the parties support all measures taken by each government.

Still, he added, “Spain, and I’m sure Argentina too, are willing to play all their cards on the international stage to continue defending their legitimate demands.”

Spain has been struggling for decades to recover Gibraltar, the rocky and strategic promontory that overseas the gateway into the Mediterranean from the Atlantic. Spain ceded it to Britain in 1713.

London says it will not do so against the wishes of Gibraltarians, who are staunchly pro-British.

Argentina and Britain fought a brief but costly war over the Falklands in 1982, which Buenos Aires lost. The fighting left 649 Argentines and 255 Britons dead.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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« Reply #9024 on: Sep 29, 2013, 07:56 AM »

In the USA...United Surveillance America..

The New York Times
September 28, 2013

N.S.A. Gathers Data on Social Connections of U.S. Citizens


WASHINGTON — Since 2010, the National Security Agency has been exploiting its huge collections of data to create sophisticated graphs of some Americans’ social connections that can identify their associates, their locations at certain times, their traveling companions and other personal information, according to newly disclosed documents and interviews with officials.

The spy agency began allowing the analysis of phone call and e-mail logs in November 2010 to examine Americans’ networks of associations for foreign intelligence purposes after N.S.A. officials lifted restrictions on the practice, according to documents provided by Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor.

The policy shift was intended to help the agency “discover and track” connections between intelligence targets overseas and people in the United States, according to an N.S.A. memorandum from January 2011. The agency was authorized to conduct “large-scale graph analysis on very large sets of communications metadata without having to check foreignness” of every e-mail address, phone number or other identifier, the document said. Because of concerns about infringing on the privacy of American citizens, the computer analysis of such data had previously been permitted only for foreigners.

The agency can augment the communications data with material from public, commercial and other sources, including bank codes, insurance information, Facebook profiles, passenger manifests, voter registration rolls and GPS location information, as well as property records and unspecified tax data, according to the documents. They do not indicate any restrictions on the use of such “enrichment” data, and several former senior Obama administration officials said the agency drew on it for both Americans and foreigners.

N.S.A. officials declined to say how many Americans have been caught up in the effort, including people involved in no wrongdoing. The documents do not describe what has resulted from the scrutiny, which links phone numbers and e-mails in a “contact chain” tied directly or indirectly to a person or organization overseas that is of foreign intelligence interest.

The new disclosures add to the growing body of knowledge in recent months about the N.S.A.’s access to and use of private information concerning Americans, prompting lawmakers in Washington to call for reining in the agency and President Obama to order an examination of its surveillance policies. Almost everything about the agency’s operations is hidden, and the decision to revise the limits concerning Americans was made in secret, without review by the nation’s intelligence court or any public debate. As far back as 2006, a Justice Department memo warned of the potential for the “misuse” of such information without adequate safeguards.

An agency spokeswoman, asked about the analyses of Americans’ data, said, “All data queries must include a foreign intelligence justification, period.”

“All of N.S.A.’s work has a foreign intelligence purpose,” the spokeswoman added. “Our activities are centered on counterterrorism, counterproliferation and cybersecurity.”

The legal underpinning of the policy change, she said, was a 1979 Supreme Court ruling that Americans could have no expectation of privacy about what numbers they had called. Based on that ruling, the Justice Department and the Pentagon decided that it was permissible to create contact chains using Americans’ “metadata,” which includes the timing, location and other details of calls and e-mails, but not their content. The agency is not required to seek warrants for the analyses from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

N.S.A. officials declined to identify which phone and e-mail databases are used to create the social network diagrams, and the documents provided by Mr. Snowden do not specify them. The agency did say that the large database of Americans’ domestic phone call records, which was revealed by Mr. Snowden in June and caused bipartisan alarm in Washington, was excluded. (N.S.A. officials have previously acknowledged that the agency has done limited analysis in that database, collected under provisions of the Patriot Act, exclusively for people who might be linked to terrorism suspects.)

But the agency has multiple collection programs and databases, the former officials said, adding that the social networking analyses relied on both domestic and international metadata. They spoke only on the condition of anonymity because the information was classified.

The concerns in the United States since Mr. Snowden’s revelations have largely focused on the scope of the agency’s collection of the private data of Americans and the potential for abuse. But the new documents provide a rare window into what the N.S.A. actually does with the information it gathers.

A series of agency PowerPoint presentations and memos describe how the N.S.A. has been able to develop software and other tools — one document cited a new generation of programs that “revolutionize” data collection and analysis — to unlock as many secrets about individuals as possible.

The spy agency, led by Gen. Keith B. Alexander, an unabashed advocate for more weapons in the hunt for information about the nation’s adversaries, clearly views its collections of metadata as one of its most powerful resources. N.S.A. analysts can exploit that information to develop a portrait of an individual, one that is perhaps more complete and predictive of behavior than could be obtained by listening to phone conversations or reading e-mails, experts say.

Phone and e-mail logs, for example, allow analysts to identify people’s friends and associates, detect where they were at a certain time, acquire clues to religious or political affiliations, and pick up sensitive information like regular calls to a psychiatrist’s office, late-night messages to an extramarital partner or exchanges with a fellow plotter.

“Metadata can be very revealing,” said Orin S. Kerr, a law professor at George Washington University. “Knowing things like the number someone just dialed or the location of the person’s cellphone is going to allow them to assemble a picture of what someone is up to. It’s the digital equivalent of tailing a suspect.”

The N.S.A. had been pushing for more than a decade to obtain the rule change allowing the analysis of Americans’ phone and e-mail data. Intelligence officials had been frustrated that they had to stop when a contact chain hit a telephone number or e-mail address believed to be used by an American, even though it might yield valuable intelligence primarily concerning a foreigner who was overseas, according to documents previously disclosed by Mr. Snowden. N.S.A. officials also wanted to employ the agency’s advanced computer analysis tools to sift through its huge databases with much greater efficiency.

The agency had asked for the new power as early as 1999, the documents show, but had been initially rebuffed because it was not permitted under rules of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that were intended to protect the privacy of Americans.

A 2009 draft of an N.S.A. inspector general’s report suggests that contact chaining and analysis may have been done on Americans’ communications data under the Bush administration’s program of wiretapping without warrants, which began after the Sept. 11 attacks to detect terrorist activities and skirted the existing laws governing electronic surveillance.

In 2006, months after the wiretapping program was disclosed by The New York Times, the N.S.A.’s acting general counsel wrote a letter to a senior Justice Department official, which was also leaked by Mr. Snowden, formally asking for permission to perform the analysis on American phone and e-mail data. A Justice Department memo to the attorney general noted that the “misuse” of such information “could raise serious concerns,” and said the N.S.A. promised to impose safeguards, including regular audits, on the metadata program. In 2008, the Bush administration gave its approval.

A new policy that year, detailed in “Defense Supplemental Procedures Governing Communications Metadata Analysis,” authorized by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey, said that since the Supreme Court had ruled that metadata was not constitutionally protected, N.S.A. analysts could use such information “without regard to the nationality or location of the communicants,” according to an internal N.S.A. description of the policy.

After that decision, which was previously reported by The Guardian, the N.S.A. performed the social network graphing in a pilot project for 1 ½ years “to great benefit,” according to the 2011 memo. It was put in place in November 2010 in “Sigint Management Directive 424” (sigint refers to signals intelligence).

In the 2011 memo explaining the shift, N.S.A. analysts were told that they could trace the contacts of Americans as long as they cited a foreign intelligence justification. That could include anything from ties to terrorism, weapons proliferation or international drug smuggling to spying on conversations of foreign politicians, business figures or activists.

Analysts were warned to follow existing “minimization rules,” which prohibit the N.S.A. from sharing with other agencies names and other details of Americans whose communications are collected, unless they are necessary to understand foreign intelligence reports or there is evidence of a crime. The agency is required to obtain a warrant from the intelligence court to target a “U.S. person” — a citizen or legal resident — for actual eavesdropping.

The N.S.A. documents show that one of the main tools used for chaining phone numbers and e-mail addresses has the code name Mainway. It is a repository into which vast amounts of data flow daily from the agency’s fiber-optic cables, corporate partners and foreign computer networks that have been hacked.

The documents show that significant amounts of information from the United States go into Mainway. An internal N.S.A. bulletin, for example, noted that in 2011 Mainway was taking in 700 million phone records per day. In August 2011, it began receiving an additional 1.1 billion cellphone records daily from an unnamed American service provider under Section 702 of the 2008 FISA Amendments Act, which allows for the collection of the data of Americans if at least one end of the communication is believed to be foreign.

The overall volume of metadata collected by the N.S.A. is reflected in the agency’s secret 2013 budget request to Congress. The budget document, disclosed by Mr. Snowden, shows that the agency is pouring money and manpower into creating a metadata repository capable of taking in 20 billion “record events” daily and making them available to N.S.A. analysts within 60 minutes.

The spending includes support for the “Enterprise Knowledge System,” which has a $394 million multiyear budget and is designed to “rapidly discover and correlate complex relationships and patterns across diverse data sources on a massive scale,” according to a 2008 document. The data is automatically computed to speed queries and discover new targets for surveillance.

A top-secret document titled “Better Person Centric Analysis” describes how the agency looks for 94 “entity types,” including phone numbers, e-mail addresses and IP addresses. In addition, the N.S.A. correlates 164 “relationship types” to build social networks and what the agency calls “community of interest” profiles, using queries like “travelsWith, hasFather, sentForumMessage, employs.”

A 2009 PowerPoint presentation provided more examples of data sources available in the “enrichment” process, including location-based services like GPS and TomTom, online social networks, billing records and bank codes for transactions in the United States and overseas.

At a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Thursday, General Alexander was asked if the agency ever collected or planned to collect bulk records about Americans’ locations based on cellphone tower data. He replied that it was not doing so as part of the call log program authorized by the Patriot Act, but said a fuller response would be classified.

If the N.S.A. does not immediately use the phone and e-mail logging data of an American, it can be stored for later use, at least under certain circumstances, according to several documents.

One 2011 memo, for example, said that after a court ruling narrowed the scope of the agency’s collection, the data in question was “being buffered for possible ingest” later. A year earlier, an internal briefing paper from the N.S.A. Office of Legal Counsel showed that the agency was allowed to collect and retain raw traffic, which includes both metadata and content, about “U.S. persons” for up to five years online and for an additional 10 years offline for “historical searches.”

James Risen reported from Washington and New York. Laura Poitras, a freelance journalist, reported from Berlin.


September 28, 2013

U.S. Shutdown Nears as House Votes to Delay Health Law


WASHINGTON — The federal government on Sunday morning barreled toward its first shutdown in 17 years after the Republican-run House, choosing a hard line, voted to attach a one-year delay of President Obama’s health care law and a repeal of a tax to pay for it to legislation to keep the government running.

The votes, just past midnight, followed an often-angry debate, with members shouting one another down on the House floor. Democrats insisted that Republicans refused to accept their losses in 2012, were putting contempt for the president over the good of the country and would bear responsibility for a shutdown. Republicans said they had the public on their side and were acting to protect Americans from a harmful and unpopular law that had already proved a failure.

The House first voted 248-174 to repeal a tax on medical devices, then voted 231-192 to delay the law’s implementation by a year — just days before the uninsured begin enrolling in the law’s insurance exchanges. The delay included a provision favored by social conservatives that would allow employers and health care providers to opt out of mandatory contraception coverage.

But before the House had even voted, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, declared the House bill dead. Senate Democrats are planning to table the Republican measures when they convene on Monday, leaving the House just hours to pass a stand-alone spending bill free of any measures that undermine the health care law.

The House’s votes early Sunday all but assured that large parts of the government would be shuttered as of 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday. More than 800,000 federal workers deemed nonessential faced furloughs; millions more could be working without paychecks.

“The American people don’t want a government shutdown, and they don’t want Obamacare,” House Republican leaders said in a statement. “We will do our job and send this bill over, and then it’s up to the Senate to pass it and stop a government shutdown.”

A separate House Republican bill passed unanimously Sunday morning to ensure that military personnel continued to be paid in the event of a government shutdown, an acknowledgment that a shutdown is likely. En route to South Korea, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was unimpressed, excoriating his former Republican colleagues in Congress.

“This is an astoundingly irresponsible way to govern,” Mr. Hagel said, adding that a fully functioning military went beyond its uniformed forces to its civilian personnel. “If this continues, we will have a country that is ungovernable.”

Representative Darrell Issa, a powerful Republican committee chairman who is close to the leadership but has sided with those who want to gut the health care law, flashed anger when asked what would happen when the Senate rejected the House’s offer.

“How dare you presume a failure?” he snapped. “We continue to believe there’s an opportunity for sensible compromise, and I will not accept from anybody the assumption of failure.”

But Mr. Reid made it clear that failure was inevitable. “After weeks of futile political games from Republicans, we are still at Square 1,” he said. “We continue to be willing to debate these issues in a calm and rational atmosphere. But the American people will not be extorted by Tea Party anarchists.”

The White House was just as blunt. “Any member of the Republican Party who votes for this bill is voting for a shutdown,” the press secretary, Jay Carney, said in a written statement. The White House also said that the president would veto the House bill if approved by the Senate.

In fact, many House Republicans acknowledged that they expected the Senate to reject the House’s provisions, making a shutdown all but assured. House Republicans were warned repeatedly that Senate Democrats would not accept any changes to the health care law.

Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio faced a critical decision this weekend: Accept a bill passed by the Senate on Friday to keep the government financed and the health care law intact and risk a conservative revolt that could threaten his speakership, or make one more effort to undermine the president’s signature domestic initiative and hope that a shutdown would not do serious political harm to his party.

With no guarantee that Democrats would help him, he chose the shutdown option. The House’s unruly conservatives had more than enough votes to defeat a spending bill that would not do significant damage to the health care law, unless Democrats were willing to bail out the speaker. And Democrats showed little inclination to alleviate the Republicans’ intraparty warfare.

“The federal government has shut down 17 times before, sometimes when the Democrats were in control, sometimes with divided government,” said Representative Virginia Foxx, Republican of North Carolina. “What are we doing on our side of the aisle? We’re fighting for the American people.”

Veteran House Republicans say there is still one plausible way to avoid a shutdown. The Senate could take up the House spending bill, strip out the one-year health care delay and accept the 2.3-percent medical device tax repeal as a face-saving victory for Republicans. The tax, worth $30 billion over 10 years, has ardent opponents among Democrats as well. Its repeal would not prevent the law from going into effect. Consumers can begin signing up for insurance plans under the law beginning on Tuesday.

Mr. Reid has already said he would not accept even that measure as a condition to keep the government operating. Special parliamentary language in the House measure provided for rapid action Monday in the Senate that would once again most likely leave House Republican leaders with the option of approving a spending bill without policy prescriptions. But there was little indication they would accept it.

“By pandering to the Tea Party minority and trying to delay the benefits of health care reform for millions of seniors and families, House Republicans are now actively pushing for a completely unnecessary government shutdown,” said Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the Democrat who leads the Budget Committee.

As provocative as it was, the move by House Republicans was an expression of their most basic political goal since they took control in 2010: doing what they can to derail the biggest legislative achievement of Mr. Obama’s presidency.

As a debate inside the party raged over whether it was politically wise to demand delay or defunding of the act, many Republicans argued that they should fight as hard as they could because that is what their constituents were expecting. “This is exactly what the public wants,” Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota said.

The mood in the Capitol on Saturday, at least among Republicans, was downright giddy. When Republican leaders presented their plan in a closed-door meeting on Saturday, cheers and chants of “Vote, vote, vote!” went up. As members left the meeting, many wore beaming grins.

Representative John Culberson of Texas said that as he and his colleagues were clamoring for a vote, he shouted out his own encouragement. “I said, like 9/11, ‘Let’s roll!’ “ That the Senate would almost certainly reject the health care delay, he added, was not a concern. “Ulysses S. Grant used to say, ‘Boys, quit worrying about what Bobby Lee is doing. I want to know what we are doing.’ And that’s what the House is doing today, thank God.”

After the shutdowns of 1995 and 1996, Republicans were roundly blamed. Their approval ratings plunged, and President Bill Clinton sailed to re-election. This time they say they have a strategy that will shield them from political fallout, especially with the bill to keep money flowing to members of the military.

“If Harry Reid and the Senate Democrats would stop being so stubborn then no, of course the government won’t get shut down,” said Representative Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas.

Republicans readily acknowledged that the difficulty is what is next. If the Senate sends back a bill, it will most likely not have a yearlong delay. Then Mr. Boehner must decide whether to put that measure on the floor, which would anger his conservative members.

Jennifer Steinhauer contributed reporting.


September 28, 2013

Last Shutdown a Lesson Lost on Capitol Hill


WASHINGTON — The ghosts of shutdowns past are lurking in the halls of the Capitol, influencing Congressional leaders as they look for a way out of the latest budget standoff and wonder who will take the fall. But there is one little problem: even those who lived through those government shutdowns have varied recollections, or none at all, about how and why they happened.

“I’ll buy you a Coke Zero if you can tell me what the government shutdown was about in ’95,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who was among the raucous House freshmen then. “What was the issue? Nobody remembers!”

Previous Congresses and administrations managed to find a way out of their own conflagrations. In fact, the last major shutdowns, in late 1995 and early 1996, paved the way for sweeping bipartisan compromises, including tax and budget changes that both Congressional Republicans and President Bill Clinton were pleased to call their own.

The entire exercise solidified a pattern of high-pressure, low-skill budget showdowns for the next generation, but a sinewy economy made it all seem O.K.

“It’s easy to look back and say it was all planned that way,” said Leon E. Panetta, Mr. Obama’s former defense secretary and Mr. Clinton’s chief of staff during the shutdowns. “But I have to tell you, it was a day-to-day crisis, and you never quite knew what the hell was going to happen.”

Whether those stuck in some Congressional fiscal jam in 2033 will study 2013 for lessons on how a divided Washington finally pulled back from the brink with a last-minute compromise or engaged in a meltdown that harmed the economy and ended careers is yet to be determined. But in many ways, Washington of today feels a lot like 1995-96, when the government shut down twice over the course of a month.

Then, as now, partisan rancor over federal spending burned hotly. Congressional Republicans complained bitterly about the Democratic president, jabbing at him for playing too much golf and opposing military action in a factionalized foreign land.

Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, then on a lower rung of leadership, was tormented by House freshmen who were trying to use spending agreements to undo social policy, lamenting that “you can’t bring about this much change without a lot of listening and hand-holding.”

Partisan divides over the role and scope of government are even deeper now, with the procedures of government thrown into such chaos that Republican senators took to the floor last week to offer something close to a comedy roast of one of their own, Ted Cruz of Texas. The lessons of the Clinton-era deadlock, which damaged the Republican Party while restoring a weakened president, may be elusive.

Unlike this Congress, both chambers then were ruled by one party, which worked in concert, at least in the beginning, to undermine a president who, unlike Mr. Obama, was up for re-election. Mr. Clinton engaged in daily castigations of Congress while keeping alive negotiations with his adversaries, two things Mr. Obama eschews.

Further, Mr. Clinton’s incipient opponent back then, Senator Bob Dole of Kansas, was the majority leader with a centrist agenda that is hard to find among current Senate Republicans. “It’s mind boggling,” Mr. Dole said of the current budget impasse. “The difference between then and now is the Senate said enough is enough.” (Also, no senator performed a fake filibuster as Mr. Cruz did last week. They were old-fashioned that way.)

An important structural difference exists as well: before the shutdowns of 1995-96, Congress had already passed numerous appropriations bills to finance main areas of government. Congress today has passed zero, the net result of an earmark ban (money to fix a bridge tends to be the best fixer for hurt feelings) and a divided opinion in the House and Senate over how much money the government is actually allowed to spend.

“This would be as complete a government shutdown as you can get,” said Stan Collender, a veteran federal budget expert.

Stalemates between Congress and the White House over spending have existed since the government began, but they became more severe during the 1970s, leading to an increased number of stopgap spending agreements. From that ensued increasingly protracted fights over how to fix those spending gaps, and the spending bills became proxies for other policy battles.

In 1984, President Ronald Reagan, sparring with Democrats over spending, military aid to Nicaragua and other issues, initiated a shutdown of various cabinet-level agencies for a short period. President George Bush had his own fight with Congress over discretionary spending, which led to a shutdown in 1990.

In the 1996 fiscal year, which featured the two most infamous shutdowns in American history, the battle between Congress and Mr. Clinton centered principally around how to balance the budget, with a side fight over Medicare premiums that ultimately provoked the shutdown. Republicans wore lapel pins calling for a balanced budget.

The current fight over a doomed Republican plan to deprive Mr. Obama’s health care law of money, Mr. Graham said, “is about taking a legislative proposal, the signature issue of the president, and asking him to walk away from it. I just don’t see that as being the best tactic.”

In stark contrast to the current fight, the Republican game plan in the mid-1990s came from the top. The speaker at the time, Newt Gingrich, fresh off a popular campaign to take over the House, led the shutdown strategy, and his members largely rallied around it. Senate Republicans, while dubious about the politics, went along for the ride.

Today, Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, is plagued by both his minority status and a primary challenge from the right. He has done little to bridge the gap between Republicans willing to fight to the end and those who want to move on. But the latest crop of Republican senators often seems impervious to pressure from their leaders.

It was Mr. Dole, with his presidential ambitions affirmed and his control of his conference secure, who pulled the plug on Mr. Gingrich and his revolutionaries.

Mr. Dole said his biggest regret was not moving sooner. “I think we could have ended it a day or two earlier,” he said, “because Clinton was eating our lunch.”

Jonathan Weisman contributed reporting.


The Forgetful Elephant: A Quick History Lesson for Today’s GOP

By: Trevor LaFauci
Sep. 28th, 2013

Today, we have a major political party that believes the President of the United States is a tyrant and a dangerous man.  This major political party also believes that the president is abusing his political power and is not properly working with Congress, which best represents the American people.  They also believe that the government is overreaching and that this overreaching will ultimately lead to the demise of our great country.

This political party is doing everything it can to get the word out about these issues and concerns.  Its backers have major influence in today’s media.  This party is aided by its ties to the churches, who often implore their members to vote for this party.  This party has a wide variety of supporters from all socio-economic backgrounds; however, its opponents have been successful in casting this political party as the party of the wealthy.

Despite all this, this major political party is being pulled about by the major social issues of its day.  The broad coalition within this part is being torn apart and cannot seem to come to a consensus concerning major issues affecting today’s average American citizen.  At a time where the economy is doing fairly well, many of the best and brightest minds of the political party are opting for other, more lucrative careers rather than getting into politics.

Such is life here in 1850′s America.

Wait, what?

Yes, you read that correctly.  The issues of the Republican Party circa 2013 are eerily reminiscent of the Whig Party, which became a major political party in the United States from the 1830s through the early part of the 1850s.  The Whigs believed that “King” Andrew Jackson was a tyrant who was abusing the office of the presidency, much like today’s Republicans believe Barack Obama is doing.  The Whigs of the 1830s and 1840s controlled the day’s media, largely thanks to the efforts of Horace Greeley at The New York Tribune.  Today’s Republican Party has a massive media presence thanks to the Koch Brothers and Rupert Murdoch.  The Whigs of the 1830s and 1840s were made up of people from all walks of life, but Democrats were able to successfully paint them as the party of the rich.  The same idea holds true today with Democrats casting Republicans as the “party of the 1%”.

What caused the demise of the Whigs of the 1850s was the fact that they were unable to deal with the issue of slavery after the Compromise of 1850, which, oddly enough, was originally a Whig idea by Henry Clay from Kentucky.  Northern Whigs wanted to see slavery abolished while southern Whigs, many of them slave owners, wanted to see the institution of slavery continue.  Today’s Republican Party is unable to deal with the Affordable Care Act, originally a Republican idea from Mitt Romney and the Heritage Foundation.  As we have seen this past week, Republicans remain sharply divided about what to do with the law.  With the Whig party lost out on a central issue it had originally supported, its best and brightest members left the party.  With today’s Republican Party speaking out against The Affordable Care Act, we’ve seen the best and brightest member of the party speak out against the law by quoting Dr. Seuss, Ashton Kutcher, and Ayn Rand.

So, what happened to our Whig friends?

Despite the Whig Party’s influence in local and state elections and its ability to elect both William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor to the nation’s highest office, the party eventually became too fractured to continue to be successful.  When the fractured party ran General Winfield Scott in 1854, who ended up losing convincingly to Democrat Franklin Pierce, it was all over for the party.  Ironically, many Whigs in the north regrouped and joined the a new party that called themselves the Republican Party.  Chief among their ranks was a lawyer living in Illinois who had abandoned the party in the late 1840s.  His name was Abraham Lincoln.

Republicans, are you seeing any pattern here yet?

Fortunately for Democrats, Republicans have never been too keen on picking up on these historical patterns.  The truth is that today’s Republican Party is essentially the Whig Party reincarnated one-hundred and sixty years later.  The are deeply, deeply fractured.  We’ve seen that on full display this week via the antics of Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin, Bob Corker, and John McCain among others.  What was once a loose alliance based on wanting to make Barack Obama a one-term president has become an all-out civil war among the rank and file of the GOP and the Tea Party wing.  Having a national candidate get crushed in a national election and then experiencing very public in-fighting has not helped the Republicans in their efforts to rebrand their political party’s image.

And yet, as infuriating as it is to watch with Republicans toy with the idea of blowing up the global economy so that 12 million Americans have access to health insurance, it has brought to light just how rapidly the death rattle of the Republican Party is approaching.  The Republican Party is the Whig Party of 1854.  Their candidate just got shellacked in a national election.  They are currently against an idea that their own people first brought forth and proposed.  They have multiple factions competing for the future of the party.  They have no visible leader and the country as a whole is losing interest

As much as liberals are enjoying the Hindenburg that is today’s Republican Party, what it ultimately means is that there is hope for the two party system to re-emerge in a way that is vital for our democracy.  The Republican Party of the mid-1850s solved its issues on the Compromise of 1850 and eventually came out as strongly anti-slavery, a platform which eventually helped Abraham Lincoln become our nation’s sixteenth president and helped with the passage of the 13th amendment.  Imagine a new political party in 2016 that is against the Affordable Care Act but that is actually against it because a single payer system would be even better for the American people.

It is that kind of new Republican Party that could actually bring pride back to the party of Lincoln.


Delusional House Republicans Laugh at Obama’s Promise to Veto Government Funding Bill

By: Jason EasleySep. 28th, 2013

Watch delusional House Republicans literally laugh at President Obama’s promise to veto their 44th attempt to get rid of the ACA.

When confronted with the prospect of a presidential veto of their pointless legislation during the meeting of the House Rules Committee, Rep. Hal Rogers joked about Obama setting a red line.

In the video clip, Rep. Jim McGovern tries to warn the Republicans on the House Rules Committee that the votes aren’t there, the Senate isn’t going to take this up, and if it got to President Obama he would veto it. Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY) asked, “He has threatened to veto?” Rep. McGovern (D-MA) replied, “He hasn’t threatened. He absolutely will veto.” Rogers replied, “He’s drawn a red line.” This brought about much laughter from the Republican side.

House Republicans would be wise to understand the lesson of the red line. Obama drew that red line on Syria, and then got exactly what he wanted.

Republicans are so delusional that they are laughing off the threat of a presidential veto. They really believe that they can bully Obama into killing his signature healthcare reform law. They don’t believe that the president will stand firm. The laughter and jokes from Republicans suggest that they are celebrating shutting the government down. House Republicans are trying to spin what they are doing as an effort to keep the government open, but it is the exact opposite.

House Republicans are giddily trying to shut the government down. Forty seven million Americans will no longer receive a paycheck if the government shuts down. Veterans will be hurt by limited or no access to veterans’ services. House Republicans don’t care that they are about to injure tens of millions of people. They are laughing while inflicting pain on millions of Americans.

House Republicans may not believe it, but President Obama would veto their bill so fast that their heads would spin. They think they hold all of the cards, when they hold none. House Republicans are committing an act of economic hostage taking with a joke and smile. They appear to cluelessly believe that this time their failed tactics will work. House Republicans are counting on their 44th try to be the one that finally gets rid of Obamacare.

You can’t fix stupid, and House Republicans are showing just how dumb they really are.


Harry Reid Tells Pointless House Republicans, ‘We will not be extorted by tea party anarchists.’

By: Jason Easley
Sep. 28th, 2013

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid responded to the news the House Republicans are going to vote against Obamacare for a 43rd time by saying, “The American people will not be extorted by Tea Party anarchists.”

After House Republicans came out of their brainstorming session with the bright idea to keep trying to get rid of Obamacare, Reid said in a statement:

    To be absolutely clear, the Senate will reject both the one-year delay of the Affordable Care Act and the repeal of the medical device tax. After weeks of futile political games from Republicans, we are still at square one: Republicans must decide whether to pass the Senate’s clean CR, or force a Republican government shutdown. Senate Democrats have shown that we are willing to debate and vote on a wide range of issues, including efforts to improve the Affordable Care Act. We continue to be willing to debate these issues in a calm and rational atmosphere. But the American people will not be extorted by Tea Party anarchists.

Using the exact same language that the president used yesterday about being willing to debate anything was a nice touch, but Reid’s message is the same as it was yesterday, last week, last month, and last year. The ACA isn’t going anywhere.

Some Democrats have complained about the lack of leadership at the top of the party, but those complaints never had much merit. If you want to see what a party without leadership really looks like, check out what’s happening over on the Republican side of the street. Democrats aren’t going to give in. The entire House Republican premise is that if they just keep saying no, eventually Democrats will give in and give them what they want.

It seems lost on them that this approach has never worked. What happened each time that House Republicans have done this is that Democrats tell them to grow up, the pressure from the corporate interests and billionaires who fund Republican campaigns gets to be too much, and Boehner manages to cobble together just enough Republican support for Nancy Pelosi to pass a bill in the House that saves us all from disaster.

That’s how it always goes. So far, House Republicans are sticking to the script. They are going to continue to talk tough and pass something that won’t even be considered by the Senate. Democrats are saying no, and now we all will sit around and wait for the House Republicans to cave and pass a clean CR.

Democrats are unified. They have all the leadership, and they hold all of the cards. Once again, the country will be injured because House Republicans want no part of reality. Reid and Obama are leading, and Democrats should be proud to hear their leaders just say no.


Republican Voters Now See Ted Cruz as Their Leader

By: Keith Brekhus
Sep. 28th, 2013

A Public Policy Polling national poll released today finds that among Republican voters Ted Cruz is now the favorite GOP candidate for President in 2016. The same poll also found that by lopsided margins, Republican voters trust Ted Cruz more than either Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell or House Speaker John Boehner.

While Cruz’s faux filibuster stunt was rebuked by fellow GOP Senators, it appears to have won him the hearts and minds of the tea-stained Republican electorate, dominated as it is by staunchly conservative voters. Cruz now leads the GOP field for President according to the PPP poll, garnering 20 percent to 17 percent for runner up Rand Paul. Christ Christie polls at 14 percent followed by Jeb Bush (11 percent), Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan (each at 10 percent).  Republicans who identify themselves as “very conservative” support Cruz by a 34 to 17 percent margin over his nearest challenger, Rand Paul.

Perhaps more importantly, Republican voters trust Ted Cruz over Mitch McConnell by a gaudy 49 to 13 margin, and they trust Cruz over John Boehner by a 51 to 20 percent spread. It is clear that the Republican leadership in Congress is distrusted even by Republican voters and that Ted Cruz is earning popularity by challenging the GOP leadership. It is also clear that Republican primary voters have embraced Ted Cruz’s extreme views and his hard line politics and that they have little interest in compromise or effective governance. The shut it down mentality has become a popular position within the GOP voting base, meaning we can expect more brinkmanship legislative stunts by republican politicians trying to curry favor with the far right base that now makes up a major and influential portion of the GOP electorate.

In 2010, Republican leaders did all they could to fire up angry voters to attend town meetings and disrupt proceedings in opposition to the Affordable Care Act and other policies supported by Barack Obama and House Democrats. They helped served up heated rhetoric to gin up aroused conservative voters in order to get them to vote out liberal members of Congress. Of course their overblown rhetoric planted the seeds that helped form the modern Tea Party movement, and now that movement threatens to consume the very Republican leadership that helped create it.

Mitch McConnell and John Boehner have lost control of the Republican Party and handed  its future to hardcore ideologues like Texas Senator Ted Cruz. While Cruz is increasingly popular with Republican voters, his appeal with Independents and Democrats is very thin. Republicans may like his uncompromising rhetoric and his arrogant in your face style, but in a national general election choosing Ted Cruz as the party’s nominee will be a recipe for political disaster. The GOP voters should be warned that they will lose if they go with Cruz. However, since they are not much interested in reality based reasoning, those warnings will almost certainly fall on deaf ears.


The Crazies Rally Around their Own, Ted Cruz

By: Hrafnkell Haraldsson
Sep. 29th, 2013

Ted CruzYou have to wonder at Republican reactions to Ted Cruz’s pseudo-filibuster prank this past week. We saw Bryan Fischer calling him a modern-day prophet Elijah, Karl Rove told Greta Van Susteren that it was “an extraordinary performance,” and Matt Barber of Liberty Counsel wrote a piece on World Net Daily that “Liberty Counsel’s got your flank” and revealed his belief that “Mr. Cruz emasculated, delightfully, Obama’s political yes-bots on both sides of the aisle.”

Rove thought Cruz “was cogent, he was thoughtful, he was funny, he was engaging, he was personal, he was personable.”

I think Cruz is barely cogent at the best of times but during his phony filibuster he displayed just how clueless he is by failing to understand a children’s book.

And we want this guy to have the nuclear football?

Yes, some Republicans are more than fed up with Cruz and his antics. But it is almost as if the worse Cruz gets the more other Republicans portray him as the second coming. But I guess even crazy folks need a hero. Matt Barber calls that first group RINOs. They can’t really be Republicans, after all, if they don’t share Cruz’s delusions.

In his search for an argument, Barber cited an article from Politico:

    The Obamacare that consumers will finally be able to sign up for next week is a long way from the health plan President Barack Obama first pitched to the nation.

    Millions of low-income Americans won’t receive coverage. Many workers at small businesses won’t get a choice of insurance plans right away. Large employers won’t need to provide insurance for another year. Far more states than expected won’t run their own insurance marketplaces. And a growing number of workers won’t get to keep their employer-provided coverage.

But Barber fails to mention that the reasons given for this in that same article are that the AFA was “the casualty of a divisive legislative fight, a surprise Supreme Court ruling, a complex implementation and an unrelenting political opposition.”

And gosh. Guess where most of that opposition came from?

Barber’s cry amounts to, “Look, we’ve gutted Obamacare! It sucks! Let’s get rid of it!” which is identical to the tea party cry of “Look, we’ve obstructed Obama’s presidency! He can’t run the country! Let’s impeach him!”

Barber also fails to mention something else the Politico article said:

    More than 3.1 million young adults gained coverage because they could stay on their parents’ insurance; 17 million children with pre-existing conditions can no longer be denied coverage; and insurers have been forced to issue more than $500 million in rebate checks to consumers because they failed to spend at least 80 percent of premiums on medical care.

Barber and others continue to claim that Obamacare violates religious freedoms. Apparently their religion says people who don’t share their religion should fail to get adequate healthcare because of somebody else’s religious beliefs.

But Barber himself is one of our country’s biggest foes of religious freedom, expecting all non-Christians and even Christians who don’t share his beliefs, to follow his particular form of Christianity. He calls THAT religious freedom for the simple reason that it gives his type of so-called Christian the right to legislate their beliefs in violation of the First Amendment.

Obamacare has nothing to do with religion. It has everything to do with healthcare. Unlike Republicans, President Obama did not try to sneak in some anti-religious law into an agriculture bill. He Affordable Care Act is what it says it is: a health care act designed to provide affordable healthcare to millions of Americans.

And it is doing just that.

Matt Barber and his fellow religious bigots are welcome to their own beliefs, but they are not welcome to ours.

They are blind to ours; they have no right to expect everyone else to do the same. He doesn’t like his taxes going to things he doesn’t approve of (even when they actually don’t). I got news for him: I don’t like my taxes going to his religion (which they do).

How about our religious freedoms, Matt Barber. You seem t have forgotten them in your quest to aggrandize your own at the expense of ours.


Bill Maher Calls Ted Cruz The Miley Cyrus of Politics

By: Jason Easley
Sep. 28th, 2013

On Real Time, Bill Maher labeled Ted Cruz the Miley Cyrus of politics. Maher said, ‘I really think that a filibuster is the political version of twerking.’


Maher said, “I was thinking the other night. He reminds me of Miley Cyrus, Ted Cruz. Because he is not afraid to incur the wrath of even some of his fans for the greater good of drawing attention to himself. I really think that a filibuster is the political version of twerking. And for those people who say, Ted Cruz he hung himself, no. Just like Miley Cyrus, she came out the winner in that. Everybody said, oh, she ruined her career. She’s on the cover of Rolling Stone. Her records are outselling everyone else’s. I think Ted Cruz will be the winner too.”

Bill Maher has a bad habit of jumping on the hot Republican flavor of the moment and proclaiming them the new leader. He did it with Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry in 2012, and he is doing it with Cruz. There is one big difference between Cyrus and Cruz. Cyrus timed her publicity stunt to promote her new album. Cruz staged a publicity stunt years before the next election. Outside of the right, Cruz’s filibuster bounce has already faded.

Within the Republican Party leadership, Cruz is toast. While Rand Paul has been cutting deals with Mitch McConnell to open doors for him to the establishment in 2016, Ted Cruz is burning bridges. People talk about the power of the tea party, but the reality is that the Republican establishment controls the nominating process. Ask Rick Santorum how easy it is to win the Republican nomination without the money and support of the party establishment. 2012 was an example of the weakness of the tea party, and it will be even more difficult in 2016 because the RNC has rigged their nominating process to favor an establishment candidate.

Ted Cruz and Rand Paul are angling for the same 2016 voters. If Cruz and Paul both run, they could easily cancel each other out. This would leave someone like Chris Christie as the nominee. Cruz’s filibuster was an attempt to counter Rand Paul’s filibuster. Cruz and Paul need the same primary voters, and they are jockeying for position in the 2016 Republican field. Neither one of them would win a general election contest against Hillary Clinton, so it would be a dream come true for Democrats if Cruz and Paul end up being the top two choices for the Republican nomination.

Maher did have one thing right. Cruz and Miley Cyrus are both out for attention. They don’t care about anything else. The difference is that Miley is a former Disney kid who wants to show the world that she’s all grown up. Cruz is a United States Senator whose activities might collapse the entire economy. The VMA’s aren’t the Senate. Unlike twerking, what Ted Cruz is doing could harm millions of Americans.


September 28, 2013 07:00 PM

Ted Cruz for President in 2016?

By Susie Sampson

Ted Cruz is runnin' for president! How do I know? He spoke for 21 hours about...absolutely nothin'! But he got a whole lot of attention for it! Smart man. And his speech was scintillatin'...he talked about Dr. Seuss, reality tv, his hurt feet...what a hero! Plus, he showed Rand Paul what it means to reaaalllly care about Americans, right? Well, he spoke longer than Rand anyway so that's proof of somethin'. This will be an excitin' presidential season, that's for sure!

Click to watch:

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Golden Dawn MP Christos Pappas surrenders to Greek police

Far-right party's parliamentary spokesman walks into police headquarters 24 hours after arrests of key members

Helena Smith in Athens, Sunday 29 September 2013 19.46 BST   
A Greek MP said to be the second in command of the far-right Golden Dawn party has surrendered after authorities arrested the organisation's leader and other key members on charges of running a criminal gang.

Christos Pappas, the party's parliamentary spokesman and unrepentant holder of many of its most hardline views, handed himself over to police more than 24 hours after an unprecedented crackdown on the neo-fascist group began.

Appearing at Athens's central police headquarters in a taxi, the politician insisted the vehemently anti-immigrant party would "survive … the political persecution" it was being subjected to.

"I present myself voluntarily. I have nothing to hide, nothing to fear," he told reporters waiting outside the building where five other Golden Dawn MPs, including Nikos Michaloliakos, its leader, were taken into custody on Saturday. "The truth will shine. Nationalism will win. We will wage a non-stop political struggle and we will survive."

Like other members who appeared in court in handcuffs hours after their arrest, Pappas faces charges of murder, money laundering, extortion and intent to commit crimes.

His surrender came as officials in Europe, human rights groups, Jewish organisations and diaspora Greeks applauded the crackdown – the first to be conducted against sitting MPs since the collapse of military rule in 1974. Golden Dawn is often seen as Europe's most violent political group and has been blamed for more than 300 attacks on immigrants in the three years since Greece plunged into economic crisis.

"We praise the Greek government for taking bold measures to bring the leaders of Golden Dawn to account for their actions and to safeguard Greece's democracy," said Anthony Kouzounis, the head of Ahepa, an association representing ethnic Greeks in the US, the world's biggest diaspora community.

"The party's extremist principles and paramilitary-like tactics perpetrated upon any individuals of a free, democratic society are alarming and are a true threat to Greece's democracy."

Emboldened by its meteoric rise in the polls, the party had begun to look abroad, establishing branches in the US, Canada and Australia in the hope that it could capitalise on the anger of diaspora Greeks over the financial meltdown.

Before this month's murder of a Greek musician by a Golden Dawn supporter spurred the government into finally taking action, the organisation was scoring as much as 15% in opinion polls – more than double its vote when it took seats in Athens on the back of economic despair for the first time in June last year.

With six deputies now in custody, pending trial, the party's executive power has been severely diminished and its parliamentary presence cut by a third. Byelections are expected to take place to replace the deputies.

As he was being hauled before the court, Michaloliakos shouted: "Golden Dawn will never die."

But without its leader, the party seems rudderless. Tellingly, only a few hundred sympathisers heeded a call for support following the arrests, gathering outside police headquarters as the politicians were brought in.

The government of prime minister Antonis Samaras has pledged that the inquiry will continue. Arrest warrants have been issued for another 11 Golden Dawn members who are still at large.


The arrest of Golden Dawn's leader will do little to counter institutional racism

The authorities in Greece have long been aware of this neo-Nazi group. So why are they only now taking action?

Costas Douzinas, Hara Kouki and Antonis Vradis   
The Guardian, Sunday 29 September 2013 20.30 BST   

Imagine an Athenian who went on an overseas trip for a couple of weeks and returned to the city on 28 September. The traveller left before Pavlos Fyssas's assassination, and the awakening of media and government to the neo-Nazi threat, leading to the arrest of Golden Dawn leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos and some of its MPs and supporters.

The initial reaction of the traveller to the crackdown would be jubilation mixed with surprise: the change in the authorities' attitude following Fyssas's murder was dramatic. And yet, the same authorities have had detailed information about the party's criminal activities for years. Racist violence is experienced daily and has been widely reported by international media, national and international NGOs and the EU commissioner for human rights. Indeed, racist violence had become normalised for many. Legal and political authorities were unwilling to take action; Greece's anti-racist law was never applied (an improved version was recently rejected in parliament); and perpetrators of racist attacks were offered impunity.

Less than a year ago, Nikos Dendias, the minister of public order, insisted that no link existed between the police and Golden Dawn, and threatened the Guardian with a libel suit when it reported that policemen tortured anti-fascists. Yet in the wake of Fyssas's assassination, Dendias was forced to launch an inquiry into such links. Several senior officers were sacked or suspended. A day after the assassination, 32 legal cases were filed against Golden Dawn including violent, even lethal incidents.

Our Athenian would be puzzled by the obvious questions: why did the authorities not step in earlier? Why are they stepping in now? Could it be because a Greek has been murdered?

Golden Dawn should have been designated a criminal gang and legally confronted a long time ago. This course of action would have been automatic in most European countries. After the murder, European politicians indicated their displeasure, with several suggesting that unless Greece confronts the neo-Nazis it should not assume the EU's rotating presidency in January.

But perhaps the main motive in the government's fluctuating response has been political calculation: until very recently senior rightwing politicians and commentators suggested that the rightwing New Democracy (ND) party should consider entering a coalition government with the neo-Nazis, if they became more "moderate". The government presented the left and anti-fascist movement as one of the two pro-violence "extremes", even though they resisted Nazism all those years.

This historically ignorant and morally perverse "theory of two extremes" was meant to instil fear and turn people away from the leftist organisations and grassroots movements resisting neo-Nazi attacks and supporting their victims. The ND/Pasok coalition government now hopes that the exposure of Golden Dawn criminality will attract its voters to their natural home.

And so, the feeling is bittersweet: even if delayed, the heavily publicised arrest of the Golden Dawn leadership will be a relief to many. To the city's migrants, who may find it easier to walk the Athenian streets, to homosexuals, leftists, to all anti-fascists to everyone resenting Golden Dawn's shameless entry into everyday life and in the country's politics.

Every dark-skinned person had to take precautions in Athens. Evil walked the streets.

Little has changed at the institutional level, however. The application of the criminal law to thugs will not change the widespread racism fuelled by the New Democracy-Pasok coalition government. It was Andreas Loverdos, a prominent Pasok member at the time, who likened Golden Dawn to a "Greek Hezbollah" because they are "active in the big issues" and "create trust".

It was Vyron Polydoras, a former New Democracy minister, who urged a coalition with them. And it was prime minister Samaras himself who declared, in March 2012: "Our cities have been occupied by illegal migrants; we will take them back." Sticking to its word, this government launched the ironically named hospitable Xenios Zeus operation, rounding up dark-skinned people and detaining undocumented immigrants in camps euphemistically named "holding centres".

The same government repealed the reform of the 2010 Greek citizenship law, the first to offer second-generation migrants a potential entitlement to citizenship. The government and authorities criminalised HIV patients and drug addicts; persecuted and illegally detained anarchists and anti-fascists; slashed salaries and pensions; saw youth unemployment rocket to over 60%; shut down hospitals; and pushed universities to the point of collapse. This is the great paradox of dismantling Golden Dawn: the same government which threatens democracy and indulges fascism gives itself democratic credentials for its supposed curbing of extremism.

Golden Dawn is both a political party and a gang – and outlawing political parties often proves problematic and ineffective. The law can prohibit, but it cannot eliminate, fascist ideas; these must be confronted politically instead. For ordinary people, the struggle against Golden Dawn is not limited to the welcome though theatrical arrest of its leadership. Anti-fascism is a political struggle about the kind of life we want to live. It is fought daily by citizens, activists, civil society groups and migrant communities. It is a battle for democracy, solidarity and social justice. It cannot be won unless the systemic injustice of austerity is defeated.

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« Reply #9026 on: Sep 30, 2013, 05:42 AM »

09/30/2013 12:42 PM

Populists Gain Ground: Austrian Voters Shift to the Right

Austrians voted on Sunday to re-elect their current coalition government. But the country's two largest parties saw their worst nationwide election results since World War II while the right-wing populists made substantial gains.

Austria's governing parties were voted back into office in national elections on Sunday, despite losses and an unmistakable shift to the right in the country.

Preliminary official results show Chancellor Werner Faymann's center-left Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) as the strongest in parliament, with 27.1 percent of votes. Its coalition partner, the center-right Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) scored 23.8 percent of the vote.

The right-wing populist Freedom Party (FPÖ) has once again secured its slot as the third biggest party in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, with 21.4 percent of the vote. The party also registered a 3.9 percent increase in votes compared to 2008 elections. The Green Party will be fourth largest, with 11.5 percent of the votes.

For the first time, Team Stronach -- a euroskeptic party founded by outspoken billionaire Frank Stronach -- will enter into parliament, with 5.8 percent of total votes. With 4.8 percent, the newly founded business-friendly NEOS also cleared the 4 percent hurdle for entering the Austrian parliament.

By securing seats in parliament, the right-wing populists have emerged as the big winners in the Austrian vote, particularly the FPÖ under party leader Heinz-Christian Strache. The FPÖ set the tone for the right-wing camp with its anti-foreigner sentiment. The camp also includes the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) and to some extent Team Stronach. Altogether, these parties secured more than 30 percent of all votes.

The SPÖ and the ÖVP, which traditionally govern together in a "grand coalition," each lost 2.2 percentage points, leading to the worst results for both parties since World War II. Back in the 1970s, the two mainstream parties were still able to capture 93 percent of the votes. But countless corruption scandals have eroded public support for both parties.

Two New Parties Enter Parliament

Still, with close to 52 percent of all votes, the parties maintain a narrow, seven-seat majority that will enable them to form a government in the National Assembly.

This marks the first time that the newly founded Team Stronach and NEOS parties will be represented in national parliament. Team Stronach is already part of government coalitions in three Austrian states. During the campaign, Stronach posed shirtless in photos to show that, at the advanced age of 81, he is still in good shape. And at the beginning of September, he told the Vorarlberger Nachrichten newspaper that he wanted to reintroduce the death penalty, which Austria eliminated in 1950, for contract killers. The proposal immediately outraged members of other political parties.

With its 3.6 percent of votes, the BZÖ -- the party founded by Jörg Haider after he split from the further-right FPÖ -- failed to secure enough votes to remain in parliament. During the 2008 election, the party managed to garner 10.7 percent of votes.

The current government in Austria has been in office for five years, the country's standard term. Even prior to the election, Chancellor Faymann had said he would like to continue governing with the conservative ÖVP. Polls taken prior to the election indicated the race would be a close one.

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« Reply #9027 on: Sep 30, 2013, 05:45 AM »

Silvio Berlusconi calls for fresh Italian elections 'as soon as possible'

The former prime minister declares he is 'ready to take up the battle' despite signs of rebellion in his own party

Lizzy Davies in Rome, Sunday 29 September 2013 18.52 BST   

An embattled but bellicose Silvio Berlusconi called on Sunday for fresh Italian elections to be held as soon as possible, even as signs of rebellion in his own party grew and the country's president indicated that the country would only return to the polls as a last resort.

In a drastic and much-criticised move that reignited fears for the health of the eurozone's third-largest economy, the former prime minister and centre-right leader announced on Saturday he was pulling his ministers out of Enrico Letta's ever-fraught grand coalition government.

On Sunday in a telephone address to supporters of his Freedom People (PdL) party on his 77th birthday, Berlusconi declared he was "ready to take up the battle again". He said: "The only way is to proceed with conviction to elections as soon as possible. All the opinion polls tell us that we will win."

One of his keenest supporters, former topless model and former equal opportunities minister Mara Carfagna, lauded him with a phrase attributed to Albert Einstein: "Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds."

Most of the media delivered scathing verdicts on the billionaire politician's gambit and, in a wry joke at a peace conference organised by the community of Sant'Egidio, Letta asked the audience to say "some prayers for Italy". The prime minister is expected to address parliament early this week.

Worryingly for Berlusconi, much of the criticism came from within his own party, which he recently relaunched as Forza Italia.

Four of the five ministers whose resignations were announced on Saturday voiced misgivings about the centre-right's direction, which Beatrice Lorenzin, outgoing health minister, described as tending towards "a radical right".

The most stinging blow came from Angelino Alfano, Berlusconi's right-hand man, who has been acting as deputy prime minister and interior minister in the Letta coalition. He said that if Forza Italia were to be dominated by "extreme positions", he would have to be "a Berlusconi-ite in a different way".

Perhaps in view of this highly unusual dissent, the three-time prime minister later issued a statement appearing to soften his stance and said the PdL would support a 2014 budget next month if it was "truly useful" to Italy.

Berlusconi blamed his decision to withdraw support from Letta's government on what he said was a failure to pass economic measures − notably a postponement of a sales tax hike due to take effect this week. Keen to point the finger at the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) for the crisis, the Berlusconi family newspaper Il Giornale headlined its website "Letta brings down the government".

The prime minister from the PD gave this suggestion short shrift, saying that Berlusconi was motivated "exclusively" by his own affairs.

Berlusconi suffered his first definitive conviction in two decades of legal tussles on 1 August, and the ensuing sentence for tax fraud ratcheted up tension on the fragile coalition formed in late April.

A senate committee vote due on Friday is expected to strip him of his seat in the senate, and by mid-October he will have to decide whether he wants to serve his sentence under house arrest or in community service.

Some analysts saw the decision to pull the plug on the government as the last roll of the dice for a life-long gambler who felt the trap closing in. However, they said, it is a big gamble.

Returning to Rome from Naples (SUNday)on Sunday night before a crucial meeting with Letta, president Giorgio Napolitano reiterated his desire to find an alternative parliamentary majority for a Letta government. Engaged in frantic number-crunching and horse-trading, some senior PD figures said they were optimistic that such a solution could be found.

The February election that led to a prolonged period of political uncertainty gave the centre-left bloc a commanding majority in the lower house of parliament but a wafer thin lead in the senate, or upper house. To ensure Letta a workable majority, extra support would have to be secured from rebellious senators in, for instance, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and PdL.

But, if this proves impossible, Italy might eventually have to return to the polls. "It is tradition for the president to dissolve parliament early when it isn't possible to create a majority and a government for the good of the country," acknowledged Napolitano.

The shockwaves sent through Italy's already fragile political landscape raised fears of a rise in Italy's borrowing costs at the opening of markets (MON)on Monday morning.

Fabrizio Saccomanni, the economy minister, sought to play down those fears, telling business daily Il Sole 24 Ore he had faith in the credibility which he said Italy had built up in recent months.

"And I also think the uncertainty connected to the government's instability has been largely already factored in during the last few weeks," he said.

But with unemployment at 12%- − nearly 40% among young people − and a public debt of €2tn (£1.75tn), Italy's recession-mired economy is in desperate need of decisive government.

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« Reply #9028 on: Sep 30, 2013, 05:49 AM »


Hunger-striking jailed Pussy Riot member moved to hospital

By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, September 29, 2013 13:54 EDT

Jailed hunger-striking Pussy Riot punk band member, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, who is refusing food in protest over what she has called murder threats and “slave labour conditions,” was on Sunday moved to a hospital, an official said.

An officer on duty at the hospital No 21 in the village of Barashevo in the Mordovia region said that Tolokonnikova, who entered her seventh day of hunger strike on Sunday, was moved earlier in the day.

“Doctors accepted her,” Major Sergei Shalin told AFP by phone. The hospital is part of the prison system but is located outside Tolokonnikova’s penal colony.

Tolokonnikova’s husband, activist Pyotr Verzilov, said several sources among prison employees and inmates had told him his wife had been moved from prison.

“We are now outside the hospital,” he told AFP, adding he would seek a meeting with his wife.

Mordovia’s prison administration later released a statement, confirming Tolokonnikova had agreed to be moved to the hospital so that her health could be monitored.

Earlier Sunday, Verzilov issued an open letter addressed to the head of the Federal Service for the Execution of Punishment which oversees prisons, complaining that Tolokonnikova had been held incommunicado for more than 60 hours.

Tolokonnikova went on a hunger strike on Monday, releasing an open letter in which she described harrowing conditions at her prison.

Female inmates have to work for up to 17 hours, sleep four hours and endure repeated abuse, she claimed. Tolokonnikova also complained of what she said were death threats from the prison’s deputy chief over her complaints.

On the fifth day of her hunger strike Friday, Tolokonnikova was moved to the medical unit of her penal colony after her health worsened.

Verzilov’s Voina (War) art group described her condition at the time as “terrible.”

Tolokonnikova said she would refuse food until she’s transferred to another prison.

The 23-year-old mother of a young daughter is serving a two-year sentence for a punk protest against President Vladimir Putin in a Moscow church last year.

Observers have said that the unrepentant activist was deliberately sent to Mordovia — notorious for its network of Soviet-era Gulag prison camps — in a bid to break her will.

The open letter came after the counterculture activist had over the past year sought to come to terms with her imprisonment, sharing philosophy books with her fellow inmates and learning to sew police uniforms.

Pressure began to build when she tried to stand up for prisoners’ rights, her defence said.

She claimed several prisoners were forced to sew in the workshop naked as punishment for working slowly.

A system of collective punishment and a culture of violence saw prison staff encouraging inmates to beat up rule-breakers.

‘The icy breath of the Gulag’

Tolokonnikova’s lawyer Irina Khrunova, speaking to opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta in an interview released on Saturday, said HIV patients were forced to work on a par with healthy prisoners, noting prison administration had pitted Tolokonnikova against other inmates.

“She had porridge poured over her head in a canteen,” Khrunova said. “It’s difficult to imagine what you feel when you stand alone with 500 people against you, and everyone wants you dead.”

Tolokonnikova’s hunger strike and letter drew fresh attention to routine prisoner abuse in Russia. Prison management denies the charges.

Political analyst Alexander Golts said Tolokonnikova’s description of the “monstrous detention conditions” shocked many in Russia.

“This is an icy breath of the Gulag,” he wrote on the opposition online portal

“Hundreds of today’s inmates, the tens of thousands who have already gone through this hell take all these tortures in stride. They are not trying to protest, are not trying to punish their tormentors. They have been crushed.”

Tolokonnikova and the other jailed Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina are scheduled for release in March.

Alyokhina has also repeatedly complained about prisoner rights abuses in her prison colony in the Perm region.

Pig Putin has called the women’s sentence correct and repeatedly defended the tough verdict from criticism by Western leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and celebrities like Madonna.


The Lede - The New York Times News Blog
September 27, 2013, 8:30 pm

Russian News Sites Protest Detention of Journalists With Greenpeace Activists


A Russian court on Thursday ordered that 22 members of the Greenpeace team that protested Arctic drilling by trying to scale a state-run oil rig may spend up to two months in detention in a Murmansk jail, while investigators decide whether to charge them with committing an act of piracy.

Among the activists were two journalists: Kieron Bryan, a British videographer who formerly worked for The Times of London, and Denis Sinyakov, a well-known Moscow-based freelance photographer, whom their colleagues and international organizations say have been jailed for merely doing their jobs. Mr. Sinyakov is a former Reuters photojournalist who has been granted behind-the-scenes access by protest groups including Pussy Riot and Femen.

Reporters Without Borders called on the Russian government to release both photojournalists. And more than a dozen independent Russian media sites responded to the detention of Mr. Sinyakov with a literal blackout: covering all the images on their sites with black squares on Friday as a sign of protest.

The protest included Russia’s most popular radio station, Ekho Moskvy; popular magazines, including one of the country’s top photography weeklies; an Internet television station; the independent newspaper that published Anna Politkovskaya’s writings; and several of Russia’s most popular Internet sites.

For a short time even NTV, a conservative, pro-Kremlin television station that has shown vitriolic documentaries against Russian opposition leaders, joined the protest, to the surprise of many.

Critics have contended that the Russian government overreacted to the protest last week. Many pointed at video recorded by the Russian Coast Guard that showed two of the activists dangling precariously from the oil platform as pressurized water slammed against them from above and law enforcement members tugged on them from below.

“I’m coming down! I’m coming down!” one of the activists, Sini Saarela from Finland, could be heard yelling above the roar of the waves in the video.

Ms. Saarela was one of eight members of the 30-person crew who still has not been formally arrested by a Russian court, though she remains in police custody.

The police opened an investigation into the protest on Tuesday, and a spokesman for the powerful state Investigative Committee said that all of the participants in the protest, regardless of nationality, would be investigated for what he called an “encroachment on the sovereignty” of Russia.

Mr. Sinyakov, pictured handcuffed in a cage for criminal defendants, argued that he had not participated in the demonstration or broken the law, according to Yulia Bragina of Sky News.

    “Criminal activity i am blamed for is called journalism.I will keep doing it” -photographer Denis Sinyakov,arrested today.Greenpeace

    — Yulia Bragina (@YuliaSkyNews) 26 Sep 13

A judge decided that Mr. Sinyakov posed a flight risk, as he traveled regularly and did not have a place of residence in Murmansk. Mr. Sinyakov replied that he is an internationally published photographer with a wife and a child in Moscow. He offered to travel to Murmansk for the hearings. He also pointed out that his passport and equipment had been seized.

“My weapon is a camera,” he added. “I did not poke a hole in the boats, on the contrary, Greenpeace’s boats were punctured. I cannot answer for the actions of the captain of the icebreaker.”

Some journalists covering the hearing were struck by the sentence, the first of 30 decisions concerning the activists that were handed down. Some had traveled on the Greenpeace boat last year, when it carried out a similar demonstration at the same oil rig.

    Watching Greenpeace Russia’s Roman Dolgov on APTN in the defendants cage at Murmansk court.We were on the same G trip 2yrs ago. #surreal

    — Nataliya Vasilyeva (@NatVasilyevaAP) 26 Sep 13

    it’s probably the first time in my life when the people I know are on television behind the bars.

    — Nataliya Vasilyeva (@NatVasilyevaAP) 26 Sep 13

Other photographers began holding individual pickets outside the main office of the Investigative Committee, the only form of public protests that can be held in Russia without prior sanction. Among them was Mr. Sinyakov’s wife, Alina Zhiganova.

Ilya Varlamov, a photographer who is friends with Mr. Sinyakov and has one of Russia’s most popular photoblogs, said that photographers were usually released quickly by police when they were detained at protests.

“It seems like Denis just ended up in a dangerous spot; nobody was trying to figure out who was a journalist, who wasn’t,” Mr. Varlamov said by telephone. “This is the first time I remember something like this happening in Russia. Sure, there have been detentions of journalists, but they’d always release them.”

Mr. Varlamov said that Mr. Sinyakov had taken his place aboard the Arctic Sunrise at the last minute.

“The trip that he went on, that was supposed to be me,” Mr. Varlamov said. “Denis couldn’t go, he asked me if I could go and shoot. It didn’t work out for me, so Denis went, and this is what happened. It was probably supposed to be me in his place.”

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« Reply #9029 on: Sep 30, 2013, 05:54 AM »

Europe's nationalists seek solidarity with Scotland's independence campaign

Amongst the saltires flying at the independence march in Edinburgh were flags from Flemish Belgium, Catalonia, Sardinia and Venice as European nationalists plan for a mass march in Brussels

Monday 30 September 2013 11.16 BST 

The Scottish independence movement's difficult quest for a victory in next year's referendum is getting a wider audience on the continent: its Flemish supporters are planning a mass march in Brussels next year to help proclaim "Yes for Scotland."

As upwards of 20,000 nationalists and independence activists gathered in Edinburgh nine days ago, some 50 to 60 Flemish nationalist campaigners from the Vlaamse Volksbeweging (VVB) coalition were distributing leaflets to promote that march and a pan-European initiative to get one million signatures on a "petition for self determination" sent in to the European Commission.

And Saturday's march, timed for the 21st to mark the "year to go" before next September's Scottish independence referendum, became something of a rallying point for other European nationalist, separatist and independence groups.

Each had different motives and perspectives: solidarity for the largest; inspiration and succour for the smallest. And Scotland's status in the nationalist spectrum too varied, from being the flag-bearer with next year's ground-breaking referendum, to being second string to Catalonia's far stronger mass movement.

The Scottish end of the one million signature campaign (organised by a group calling itself the International Commission of European Citizens) was launched there too by the Scottish Independence Convention (SIC).

That number is the trigger for a new European commission process to allow EU citizens to directly call for action enacted under the Lisbon Treaty. (According to this report on the website, it is a laborious and technical process, working to strict timetables and verification rules.)

About 250,000 signatures have already been gathered, an SIC spokesman said. On this issue, it is essentially symbolic: in a neat circular argument, the commission is expected to declare independence movements as outside the scope of EU treaties.

Amid the uniformity of hundreds of blue and white saltires were vast fringed red banners from the Venetian La Serenissima republic era with its golden winged lion; the bold black on yellow Flemish lion rampant called the Vlaamse Leeuw or the "lion flag" (a relic of the Crusades); a three-legged Bannera dâ Sicilia of Sicily with its head of Medusa at its centre (reminiscent of the Isle of Man's three-legged symbol) and the "four Moors" banner of Sardinia (four silhouetted, blindfolded heads transected by a distinctive red on white St George's cross, funnily enough).

Some, such as the VVB and the small Catalonian campaign Estat Català (now one of a range of civic campaigns groups yet which some 80 years ago had its own army and paramilitaries), said they were there in solidarity and mutual support. Their respective movements are the equals at least of Scotland's.

That march in Brussels and the petition are designed to give collective, pan-European momentum for the parallel campaigns in Scotland, Catalonia, Flanders and the Basque country and others; it seems those four are the big brother movements of Europe.

Standing alongside the VVB, the right wing, anti-EU Flemish student nationalist group the Nationalistische Studentenvereniging (NSV) with came with the VBB, its supporters wearing identical grey leather students caps and tricolour ribbons, had bought along an expensive long banner proclaiming in Gothic, blackletter script: "Scotland and Flanders, One Struggle: Freedom!"

Bart de Valck, the VVB's president, said his group was allied to the Scottish Independence Convention, along with others from the Tyrol, the autonomous region of Italy, Catalonia and the Basque country.

The Brussels march and petition is designed to pressurise the EU into amending European treaties, to embed a right to self-determination within the Union. This to counter the resistance of current Commission president Jose Manual Barroso to both Scottish and Catalan independence; Barroso insists any region or area of an existing member state which declares independence will then leave the EU, and must reapply.

De Valck said the VBB's first goal was to achieve a federal Belgium, dividing it into a Flemish state and Walloon state:

    The political debate is about more devolution.. the purpose is to get independence for Flanders but the process is slowly towards federation.

    We're here to support the Scottish independence movement because we know very well that Europe is going to change, and that all these states were formed in the 19th century by [royal] weddings. That has passed. We know many people want to get out of these unions that they didn't choose. We think that self-determination is the best form of democracy.

Bouyant from yet another vast march in Barcelona earlier this month, De Valck said Catalonia is giving the greatest hope to Europe's separatist causes, rather than Scotland, despite Salmond's domestic success and next year's referendum (a first in Europe):

    I think at this time that Catalonia is the most important region in Europe because they're the strongest in numbers. The last manifestation [march] was 1.6m people who gathered together in Barcelona; it's unbelievable.

    It's the motor of the Spanish economy, just like Flanders is the motor the Belgian economy; 60% of our exports are from Flanders.

De Valck was wearing a kilt bought in Edinburgh for last year's independence march. Asked which tartan it was, he said: "I haven't the slightest idea." His colleague Paul van Cappellen noted with a smile: "We bought it from a Paki shop."

There were also more than a dozen from the Raixe Venete cultural association from Venice, one of the scores of autonomist, separatist and pro-independence groups in Italy, where some in the Veneto area such as the Liga Nord are on the far right of the political spectrum.

Ivan Carollo, one of its members, said it was not a political party, but a cultural group; it publishing a paper. Scotland's independence movement was part of a continuum covering Catalonia, Corsica, Venice and the Basque country, he said in halting English.

    We support the liberation of Scotland: a new nation in Europe.

Waving a vast Venetian banner, some shouted: "Venezia – freedom" as the marchers gathered; in an echo, the Sicilians shouted: "Sicilia – libera".

But there were other far smaller groups on their country's political fringes looking for succour: a Sardinian independence party called Sardignia Natzione Indipendentzia (SNI) and that tiny Sicilian outfit doing the chanting, called the National Liberation Movement for the People of Sicily (MLNPS).

The MLNPS was in Geneva recently to file a petition with the United Nations appealing for Sicily's right to self-determination. It appears they have minimal support in Sicily, however, with no political representation.

Its president Rosa Cassata, again in hesitant English, said they were in Edinburgh

    for freedom for Scotland, for 'yes' of Scotland and for independent Sicilia. Sicily is not Italy.

A campaigner with the SNI, John Loi, an airline pilot with very good English and real fluency in the Nato phonetic alphabet, said:

    We're here first to give support to the Scottish people and for the Scottish idea of independence because this is the same ideology we have, so we're like brothers. We all support this positive idea for the Scottish people, this idea of emancipation.

He candidly acknowledged the independence cause is a minority one in Sardinia: there are six independence parties and his attracts around to 6 to 7% support in elections. It has one elected politician to its devolved regional assembly, Claudia Zuncheddu. Sardinians may identify with their native language, Sardish, but not many vote to leave Italy entirely.

Juggling a conversation in several languages, Loi helped an interview with Jordi Miro, of Estat Catalan, who, he said, helped organise the mass march in Barcelona.

Unlike de Valck from the VBB, Miro sees Scotland's independence movement as the frontrunners. Next year's legally-watertight mutually agreed referendum is the defining difference, he said:

    Catalonia numerically presently is bigger but on the question of independence, Scotland is ahead. For the laws [allowing a referendum], Catalonia doesn't have this. The Scottish law is ahead.

    Maybe the UK is more democratic than the Spanish government. It's more opened its eyes.

Despite the spread of pro-independence groups in Europe, few have any direct contact with either Yes Scotland said Blair Jenkins, chief executive of that official pro-independence campaign, nor the SNP and the Scottish government.

After years asserting its inclusive, anti-racist credentials, the SNP is deliberately careful about seeking explicit alliances with other European nationalist parties; it can be tricky navigating the different ethnic, political and regional ideologies and policies of other countries.

Writing in the Telegraph after the march, Andrew Gilligan alleged that some senior figures in the VVB are closely aligned with far right, Islamophobic Belgian nationalist groups, reporting academics warning that Flemish politics is freighted with ethnic nationalism of a far more exclusive nature that Scotland's open-handed civic nationalism.

Another of its allies, say anti-racist campaigners, is the NSV group standing alongside the VVB beside St Giles cathedral.

Speaking as the march stopped outside the Scottish government's headquarters at St Andrew's House, Nicola Sturgeon, the deputy first minister, said:

    I think what's happening in Scotland is pretty unique to Scotland. Yes there are other movements in Europe, but no two independence movements are the same and I think it's really important that they're seen in their own circumstances and contexts.

    I'm not saying there are no common themes around decentralisation and bringing decision-making closer to the people affected, but we can't draw parallels between Scotland and Catalonia.

The Edinburgh agreement, the legal deal between the UK and Scottish governments establishing the referendum, was a template for other movements:

    I think we do provide a shining example of how to allow a country to take a decision on its constitutional future consensually and democratically.

The main contact for European groups is with the Scottish Independence Convention, an unaligned group set up long before Yes Scotland, which has deliberately forged alliances on the continent with some of the larger campaigns.

It is directly involved in the one million signatures campaign and next spring's march in Brussels, said Chris White, the convention's international liaison officer.

    We believe in a democratic Europe, one that listens and responds to the voice of its citizens. Next March we will deliver the signatures and we will, as one, express a very clear message that we want to see the democratic right, and as importantly respect of, self-determination enshrined within the European framework.

The SIC, he insisted, has "no truck" with right wing doctrines:

    As a group we condemn in the strongest possible terms any racist or xenophobic attitudes wherever they may come from, these types of attitudes have no place in our society'

    The SIC has no links with political parties outside Scotland, we believe in a more democratic Europe, one that respects fundamental human rights such as the right to self-determination.

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