10/28/2013 04:18 PM
Roma Stereotypes: How Racist Assumptions Fueled 'Maria' Fiasco
When Greek police stumbled upon a blond, blue-eyed girl when raiding a Roma settlement two weeks ago, it triggered a wave of worries fed by long-held stereotypes. The fears proved unfounded, but the family remains divided.
Emanuela Delibsi wants to quickly return the things to the cupboard, otherwise Nikos will start crying again. Her little 12-year-old brother has been upset and not sleeping well since Maria was taken away -- along with their parents. Sometimes he starts sobbing for no apparent reason. But Maria's things are still lying on the bed with the turquoise sheets: a Barbie and a baby doll, two stuffed animals, coloring pens and a small plastic dragon. Delibsi -- 17 years old, yet already married -- sits down on the bed's pillow. She is wearing a scrunchie on her ring finger.
Delibsi is Maria's sister, the small blond girl whose picture was disseminated by media around the world last week. She's not the biological sister, though, because Delibsi's mother, Eleftheria Dimopoulou, is not Maria's biological mother, as a DNA comparison with the parents has shown. "But does that give them the right to just take her away from us?" asks Delibsi. It's Maria's scrunchie that she has wrapped around her finger.
For over a week, the image of Maria -- a small girl with pigtails, blond hair, light skin and blue-green eyes standing in front of a red wall -- was widely interpreted as an example of all the terrible things that can happen to a child. Ever since police discovered little Maria during a raid on the Roma community in the Greek town of Farsala, there has been speculation about what may have been done to this girl.
Police were actually looking for drugs and weapons, but then they caught sight of this girl who looks so different than the rest of the family -- and that alone sparked suspicions and fueled speculation: Maria could have been abducted or sold to a Roma family that kept the girl as an attraction, just as dancing bears were once led on chains through the towns of Europe. They could have forced her to beg or work for them, it was thought.
Fears Fed by Stereotypes
The medieval myth of the Gypsy who steals light-skinned children -- the subject of countless copperplate prints -- was suddenly revived in people's minds. Here was a small blond girl, "alone among Gypsies," as a Greek tabloid wrote. Maria's tale is also the story of the racism and discrimination that the Roma experience on a daily basis.
"When she came to us, she was perhaps four days old," says Delibsi. She can't recall the exact details anymore. In any case, the remains of the umbilical cord were still visible, she says, adding that a Bulgarian woman gave the infant to her mother because she could not provide for her.
Delibsi carefully picks up the playthings from the bed and stores them in the cupboard. The family lives in a small, low building with a tiled roof that has two rooms and a large bathroom. In the living room stands a kitchenette that is half obscured by a huge flat-screen TV. In one corner is a small table with icons -- a tiny altar with the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus. Delibsi folds the colorful blankets that the family uses when they all sleep on the floor of the living room -- everyone except for Maria, that is, who slept in the little bed with her dolls, who she always gave something to drink before she fell asleep. "So they can also sleep well," as she used to say.
The big sister was visiting her parents when 10 police officers banged on the door early on the morning of Oct. 16 and then pulled Maria out of bed.
"This child is not yours; it's white," yelled one of the policemen. The little girl didn't cry. The police also took along the parents, and the three of them sat in the backseat of a squad car.
Truth Lost in Lies
Since then, the older sister has been living in the house and taking care of Nikos.
"I'd like to know how Maria is doing," she says, now that the little girl is all alone in Athens, where she is living with a children's aid organization. According to TV reports, she is doing well, "but they all lie," says Delibsi. The TV stations are now also illustrating the difficult search for Maria's family. "We are her family," says Delibsi. The Bulgarian woman gave the child to her parents, she insists, and Maria has been part of the family ever since: "We love her."
The family has collected money over the past few days from people throughout the local Roma community. Now, the brothers of Christos -- the man who, until recently, was still Maria's father -- are on their way to Bulgaria, where they hope to find the biological mother so she can exonerate the family. "She has to sign a document to confirm that we didn't steal Maria," says Delibsi.
Eleftheria Dimopoulou, 40, and Christos Salis, 39 -- the couple that passed off Maria as their daughter, have been in police custody since last week. The public prosecutor's office is investigating them on suspicion of abducting a minor and falsifying documents.
When police questioned them about Maria, they lied at first. But they eventually told the story of the Bulgarian woman, a migrant worker who placed the child in their care. Nevertheless, mistrust persisted. Dimopoulou, the mother, had a forged passport. To make matters worse, the couple have reportedly been collecting child benefits for a total of 14 officially registered children, six of which must have been born within a 10-month period, according to the information that they provided. They allegedly collected €2,800 ($3,850) a month this way.
Guilty Until Proven Innocent
But is that enough in a country with such widespread social-benefit fraud to insinuate that they bought, abducted and used the child? Or that they are even part of a human trafficking ring?
Some TV reports have even speculated that the family wanted to raise Maria so they could sell her organs, and one story on organ trafficking included images of the Roma settlement. The principle of innocent until proven guilty -- which should also apply to Roma families -- was ignored by the TV reporters. Every day now, the Greek government orders Roma communities to be searched for weapons, drugs and blond children.
Of course, child trafficking exists in Greece, and since the borders to Romania and Bulgaria have been opened, the country has even become a key point of transit, says Daniel Esdras, head of the Athens office of the International Organization for Migration (IOM). A human-trafficking ring was busted on the Greek border just two years ago: At the time, police arrested five Bulgarians and nine Greeks; the gang reportedly sold at least 14 infants.
Furthermore, just last week, two couples were arrested for having allegedly sold children, including a newborn for €4,000 and a 3-month-old baby. Police are investigating them on suspicion of aiding and abetting the abduction of a minor.
For some time, it has been remarkably easy to register a new child in a family in Greece. All one has to do is make a statement under oath at a civil registry office and have it confirmed by two acquaintances. But that may soon change. The government wants to require fraternity and maternity tests for the parents of all officially registered children.
A Separate Community
Roughly 2,000 Roma live in Farsala, the town where Maria grew up, in the heart of a fertile region that has brought prosperity to the local Greek farmers. The people in Farsala say that there are no problems with the Roma: They note that they live apart in their own settlement, adding that some work in the city, while most of them have itinerant jobs selling carpets, ceramics or scrap metal. "They live differently than we do, have more children, eat different things and sleep on the floor," says a tavern owner. It doesn't sound as if he sees them as a threat.
Many of the Roma in Farsala live in containers like the ones used on ships, which the Greek government made available with the help of EU subsidies in 2004. It's primarily young people who live here. The area resembles a campground where a great deal of laundry is washed and a great deal of scrap metal is stored.
The families who have been here for a long time live in low buildings made of cement with tiled roofs and spacious terraces, which are regularly sprayed down with a garden hose.
'We Gypsies Love Our Children'
Across from Maria's home, Nikos Karakostas, 42, is sitting on a plastic chair. He's a gaunt man with a furrowed face. Above him hangs a laundry line with brightly colored romper suits. He's not sure exactly how many children he has, at least not offhand -- six or seven. He has to ask his wife. Six, she yells through the window. And two grandchildren! "We Gypsies love our children; we allow them to live," he says. As long as we can feed our children, everything is fine, says Karakostas.
But since the beginning of the economic crisis, his family has not been doing very well. At midday, he jams a glass of frappé -- Greek ice coffee -- between his windshield and his dashboard, and drives around in his old Mitsubishi van with its busted-off handbrake lever. He collects steel and iron that he sells at the scrap yard. Christos Salis also collected scrap metal with his blue pickup. Maria and the other children liked to sit on the truck bed. They used to earn around €40 a day, says Karakostas. Now it's only about €20.
Sometimes he takes the children along so they can lend a hand, but they would rather throw cotton balls at each other than collect copper. The plains surrounding Farsala are dotted with cotton fields. Fluffy balls hang from the plants like huge cotton swabs -- and cotton lines the roadsides like snow that never melts.
"Maria's family was a good family," says Karakostas. He says that the little girl had big problems with her eyes -- and that her parents took her all the way to Thessaloniki to see doctors. Everyone knew Maria in the settlement, as her blond hair made her something special. The fact that she was picked up and taken away, just like that, is not just a matter for the family, he says. "It affects us all," says Karakostas, "when the ballame, the whites, now believe again that we sell children." He doesn't see anything wrong with raising someone else's child.
And what about the mother's forged passport and the 14 children? Were Maria's ostensible parents criminals?
Of course, you shouldn't cheat, says Karakostas. On the other hand: Who doesn't? If the authorities had really checked, they would have immediately noticed that the two parents could not have had 14 children together, he argues.
We all knew about the little girl, says Nikos' brother Angelos, 34, the father of five children ages five to 18. He pulls out a photo album. In a plastic jacket is a picture of his daughter, who is also blond. "If she still lived here, they would take her away from me," he says, shaking his head -- just because she doesn't look like him or his wife. Maria was the child of a Bulgarian woman who was just traveling through the area, according to Nikos and Angelos Karakostas. The same story is told by the women who are sorting laundry in the evening sun on the tiled terrace of the little house where Maria lived.
The women are sitting on blankets with a number of babies between them. Three small children are smearing each other with halva, a sweet confection made with sesame seeds. These are Emanuela Delibsi's cousins, aunts and sisters-in-law. They are somehow all related to each other, but the exact nature of their kinship is rather complicated.
Neither Child Traffickers Nor Thieves
The road to Maria's biological mother leads to Bulgaria, to the small town of Nikolaevo, a 90-minute drive from Sofia. It ends on an unlit street where Sasha Ruseva lives. She says that little Maria is her daughter.
On Thursday evening, she and her husband are still being interviewed by the police. It's already dark when they return home. Ruseva is a petite, thin woman with dark skin. She looks like she is in her mid-fifties, although she's only 34. If one includes Maria, she has a total of 10 children. She is carrying one of them on her arm -- and it's also blond.
Ruseva doesn't want to talk to the press. She is afraid of her husband, who is hot-tempered and drinks too much, she says.
Neighbors have gathered in front of her home, and the mayor is also there; he knows her story. Someone says: "She should talk. We Roma don't steal children; we don't sell children."
Then she begins to tell how it happened: In 2008, she went to Greece to harvest oranges and gave birth to a girl there. She actually intended to name her Stanka, but since nobody at the hospital understood that, she called the baby Maria. She said she had no money to acquire papers for the child. One of the women helping with the harvest offered to take care of the child and promised: "You can pick her up her anytime." She never took any money for the girl, says Ruseva. She worked for another few days in Greece, and then she returned to Nikolaevo, she says.
Ruseva has seen pictures of Maria on TV. "I would take her back, but I'm so poor that I don't even have enough money to properly clothe my children," she says. Maria is pretty -- very pretty -- and she looks healthy, she says. Then she retreats into her house.
One day later, on Friday evening, a DNA test confirms Ruseva's story: The Bulgarian woman is Maria's biological mother. And the Greek Roma who have raised Maria are thus neither child traffickers nor thieves, but merely the two adults who have been Maria's father and mother since soon after her birth.
BY VESSELIN DIMITROV, MANFRED ERTEL, JULIA AMALIA HEYER AND JAN PUHL
Maria is Roma – so now she will become invisible once more
When the glare of the media spotlight fades, Maria will go back to a life of exclusion, without basic documentation or rights
theguardian.com, Monday 28 October 2013 16.28 GMT
Maria, the "mystery" girl taken away from a Roma couple in Greece was, DNA evidence has shown, the biological daughter of a Roma couple in Bulgaria. Blonde hair and blue eyes was evidence enough for police in Greece, and in two separate cases in Ireland, to take action. But now that it has emerged that Maria is a Roma child, it is painfully predictable that global interest in her fate will fade. Whatever the legal fate of the couple who have been charged with her abduction, Maria, like other Roma children, will have to navigate her way through life suffering illiteracy, unemployment, and segregation in education.
She will have on average 10 years lower life expectancy than the mainstream population due to hunger and malnutrition, squalid housing and substandard healthcare. If European governments or the wider community are really interested in helping Maria and other Roma children like her, they should start with ensuring access to basic documentation and fundamental rights.
I am Roma and have worked on social justice for many years. The incidents in Greece and Ireland should make it uncomfortably clear to the wider public how quickly Europe can still be whipped into a racist hysteria. They also however illustrate an issue that Roma rights groups have campaigned on for years. The lack of official documentation for Roma – highlighted in the absence of appropriate birth certificates and other papers in Maria's case – is a major reason for Roma exclusion in Europe today.
No country in Europe has accurate statistics for Roma citizens in their official census or other state records. Many Roma do not have birth certificates either; Roma families often forgo registering the birth of a child with local authorities as the cost of obtaining a birth certificate can be prohibitive. Because of this official invisibility, Roma are denied legal protection, public healthcare and the opportunity to enrol their children in school, get a job and register to vote. It also means Roma are at increased risk of human trafficking and miscarriages of justice. If you do not officially exist, it is easy to disappear and be disappeared.
The gaps in official census records for Roma are staggering. A recent census registration campaign carried out by the Open Society Foundations and Roma communities in Hungary achieved a 63% increase in the registered Roma population, from 190,000 to more than 300,000. Huge disparities remain. In Serbia, the 2012 census registered 190,000 Roma; the real number is closer to 300,000.
Some Roma do not officially register their identity due to fear of discrimination. Only six decades ago hatemongers and political leaders sent more than half a million Roma to their deaths for the "collective crime" of simply being Roma; this memory lives on among Roma. Their suspicion of registration is not unfounded. In a recent case in Sweden it was revealed that the police kept a secret and illegal list of more than 4,000 Roma, including many children.
More often, deliberate legal and procedural difficulties put in place by governments restrict Roma from securing proper documentation. A fully documented and registered Roma population means governments must provide fundamental rights such as access to education, healthcare and justice; they must fulfil public job quotas for Roma and include a quota of Roma politicians on electoral rolls. For many governments in Europe, Roma invisibility is politically and economically expedient.
Without official identification documents or legal claims to their property, Roma families are at increased risk of statelessness. A stateless person is not recognised as a citizen by any state. This is important because citizenship is the essential foundation of a person's legal identity. It is your right to have rights. Many Roma in Europe today are trapped in this legal limbo. One example that illustrates the fate of thousands of Roma is Tarmis Urmin, who fled Kosovo in 1999 to a Roma settlement in Belgrade. Urmin had made the 150km trek to Serbia's registration office in a vain attempt to obtain documentation. Because his wife has no documents, his four children cannot get documents either. "When I brought my youngest child to be vaccinated the medical staff demanded 2,000 dinars (about €25)" Urmin recounted. "I had no money and could not afford it. They shouted at me and my family that if we know how to make children we should know how to get documents."
Statelessness exists in western Europe too. Italy is home to thousands of Roma families, many of whom are stateless or at risk of it. They exist in legal limbo, lacking official citizenship for any country, deprived of fundamental civil, political, economic, cultural, and social rights.
Europe's 12 million Roma continue to endure violent attacks, firebombings and serial killings, yet their official invisibility can be just as deadly.
PIG PUTIN'S RUSSIA ....
Greenpeace Arctic 30's plight highlights the inhumanity of Russia's jails
The prisons that the arrested environmental activists are being held in are designed to break people. Cold and cramped, remand cells are notoriously harsh
The Guardian, Monday 28 October 2013 16.31 GMT
It is now a month since the 30 Greenpeace activists arrested for attempting to board the Prirazlomnaya oil platform were transferred from police lock-ups to remand prisons in Murmansk region in the Arctic circle. Now facing the lesser charge of hooliganism, they may be lucky and get off with a fine, but a custodial sentence, involving a spell of up to seven years in a correctional colony, is still on the cards for some. In the latter case, the destination will be correctional colony No 22, tucked away in the forests of Mordovia in the cluster of penal institutions where Nadezhda Tolokonnikov, one of the imprisoned members of Pussy Riot, has been on hunger strike. But whatever the eventual outcome, it is unlikely that the torment of the five British arrestees will end soon. New charges, a request by investigators for an extension of remand and post-sentencing appeals could keep the activists in their prison cells for longer than the current two‑month limit.
The remand prison or "investigatory isolator" (the Russian abbreviation is "sizo") is one of the most hated institutions among Russian prisoners. Even though prisoners in sizos are innocent until proved guilty, punishment begins in the remand prison. Furthermore, few people can expect to leave the remand prison other than in a prison transport to a distant correctional colony. Olga (not her real name), whom I interviewed for a research project on the penal system shortly after her release from prison, described how prisoners are broken while on remand so that by the time they arrive at the correctional colonies where they are to serve their sentences, they are already "done for": "The prisoners have been already victimised, broken and therefore compliant with the regime they find there."
The degrading and demeaning treatment of prisoners under investigation has a long history in Russia stretching back to the Stalin era. Its most public manifestation today is the practice of confining defendants behind bars for court appearances. As one prisoner's grandmother said of her grandson: "He was like a dog in a cage."
The Murmansk regional prison service's website has made interesting reading of late. Alongside the usual diet of prison officers' sports achievements, celebrations of anniversaries and news from individual colonies, there are updates on the detention of the Greenpeace activists and reports from press conferences. The prisoners, it appears, have everything they need. So, when the Greenpeace activists complain of cold, poor food and obstacles to visits, as far as the average Russian is concerned they are manifesting behaviour typical of the spoilt westerner. The penal service has made a particular effort to reassure the public that the Greenpeace activists are being treated exactly the same as ordinary Russians on remand – for foreigners, no special conditions.
There are two problems with these arguments. The first is that the Russian prison service's idea of "everything they need" falls well below the standards of other jurisdictions. The foreign prisoners have each been allocated a metal bunk in a small cell occupied by four or five other prisoners, in which there is a washbasin, a cold-water tap, a tepid radiator, a toilet only partly concealed by a low partition, and a table and bench screwed to the floor next to the toilet. This is where they spend 23 hours of the day, where they eat, wash and defecate in close proximity to one another. One hour is allowed for exercise, which takes place in a small walled yard, enclosed from the sky by metal caging. The female Greenpeace activists, unlike their male counterparts, are being held in single cells less than 9 sq m. They live in conditions that have much in common with isolation cells for hardened criminals. Russia joined the Council of Europe in 1996, which committed it to bringing its prisons up to European standards; yet last year, the European Court of Human Rights concluded that conditions in sizos systematically subject prisoners to inhuman and degrading treatment. So, when the prison service in Murmansk reassures the public that the Greenpeace activists are being treated no differently from other prisoners, it is admitting their human rights are also being violated.
Secondly, it is inaccurate to suggest domestic and foreign prisoners are receiving equal treatment. As every prisoner in Russia knows, the most crucial factor in survival is the 30kg food and medicine parcel that prisoners are entitled to receive a month. Every day all over Russia people queue up at the small hatch in sizos to hand over a parcel for a relative inside. These parcels not only provide the recipient with food and vitamins to supplement the meagre and unchanging prison diet, but also medicines and essential sanitary products. These parcels can make the difference between illness and health, cleanliness and filth. When the Greenpeace activists asked for vegetarian meals, the response of the prison authorities was, to put it mildly, disingenuous: foreign prisoners are entitled – as are Russians – to receive food parcels, so they could meet their special dietary needs that way. Russians know to bring warm clothes, an electric coil to heat water for a cup of tea, newspapers for a prisoner to read and use as toilet paper, and so on. No doubt local Greenpeace supporters can get some parcels to the imprisoned activists, but there are other difficulties that are not so easy for foreign prisoners to overcome, such as not having the language or cultural knowledge needed to spot who can be trusted – also essential to survival.
The demonstrators who over the last month have come out on to the streets to support the Greenpeace activists have focused the world's attention on the absurdity of the piracy charge. But the plight of the Greenpeace activists also throws light on the scandalous conditions in which more than 114,000 people are held awaiting trial in the Russian Federation's remand prisons. We will know that Russia has really turned its back on its problematic penal legacy when people also protest on the street about the conditions of its prisons.
• Judith Pallot is professor of the human geography of Russia at the University of Oxford
David Cameron may speak to Vladimir Putin directly over Arctic 30 arrests
Prime minister says he's prepared to go to Russian president if it would help six Britons detained after Greenpeace protest
Sam Jones and agency
The Guardian, Monday 28 October 2013 19.13 GMT
David Cameron is prepared to consider contacting Pig Putin directly to raise the "very serious issue" of the six Britons who have been detained in Russia following a Greenpeace protest against oil drilling in the Arctic last month.
The prime minister told parliament he would personally speak to the Russian president if it would help the plight of the detainees, who learnt last week that the authorities had decided to downgrade their charges from piracy to hooliganism.
One of the British people currently in detention is activist Phil Ball, from Cameron's constituency of Witney in Oxfordshire. The other five are freelance video journalist Kieron Bryan – who had been hired by Greenpeace to document the protest – engineer Iain Rogers, and activists Alexandra Harris, Frank Hewetson and Anthony Perrett.
Speaking in the Commons on Monday, Cameron said the Foreign Office minister David Lidington was dealing with the case on a daily basis.
But he added: "I think this is a very serious issue and I have spoken about this in the house before, not least because one of my constituents is involved.
"I will look at every single intervention I could possibly make in order to help and if contact directly with Pig Putin would be helpful, then that is certainly something I would be prepared to consider."
The prime minister's offer came after a question from Labour MP Chris Bryant.
The MP for Rhondda told Cameron that the German chancellor, Angel Merkel, had rung Pig Putin despite the fact that no Germans had been detained.
"Have you already rung the Pig and if not, will you do so as a matter or urgency?" asked Bryant.
The so-called Arctic 30 and their ship, the Arctic Sunrise, were taken from waters near the port of Murmansk on 19 September after two of them tried to board a Gazprom oil rig.
The families of the Britons met Foreign Office officials earlier this month to discuss what action was being taken to help bring their loved ones home.
In a letter seen by the Guardian, Harris told her parents and younger sister that she felt like she was "slowly dying" in her cell.
Bryan's family, meanwhile, are still trying to understand why a journalist was detained for doing his job.
Last week his brother, Russell, said: "From our point of view, they've replaced the piracy charges with other very serious charges, which still carry a maximum of seven years. We don't believe Kieron should be there facing any charges as a journalist and we still want him freed."
IMF urges Slovenia to recapitalise banks
Bank recapitalisation is an urgent issue that must be addressed immediately, IMF says
The Guardian, Monday 28 October 2013 19.09 GMT
Slovenia must immediately address the issue of recapitalising its banks, the head of the International Monetary Fund's mission to the country said .
Slovenia is struggling to avoid becoming the next eurozone state to take an international bailout under the weight of 7.9 billion euros ($10.9bn) of bad loans in the mostly state-owned banking sector.
"Bank recapitalisation is an urgent issue that has to be addressed immediately," Antonio Spilimbergo told a news conference in Ljubljana.
Bank of Slovenia's governor, Bostjan Jazbec, who also sits on the European Central Bank's governing board, said it was unclear whether Slovenia will recapitalise its banks later this year or next year.
"We have to wait for the results [of external stress tests of Slovenian banks] ... which are due at the end of November and then decisions regarding recapitalisations will be made," Jazbec told the same news conference.
The government has reserved 1.2 bn euros for recapitalisation of its main banks, but analysts believe the tests may show significantly higher capital needs.
Spilimbergo said that Slovenian authorities were determined to solve the country's financial crisis by themselves and added that they were taking "strong action" in that direction.
When asked, Jazbec said he was "confident" Slovenia would be able to avert a bailout.
Spilimbergo also said Slovenia cannot afford its present pension system and that reform of management at public-sector companies is needed, adding: "We strongly believe that privatisation is important in Slovenia right now."
The government hopes to avert a bailout by raising taxes, cutting spending and through privatisations including telecoms provider Telekom Slovenia.
Slovenia was the fastest-growing eurozone member in 2007, but was badly hit by the global crisis due to its dependence on exports.
Since 2012 it has been in a recession caused by lower demand for its exports, a credit crunch and falling domestic consumption. Reuters
UBS forced to hold more capital amid currency probe
Swiss bank appears to admit it had taken disciplinary action against staff involved in currency markets which regulators have begun to investigate
theguardian.com, Tuesday 29 October 2013 09.58 GMT
Swiss bank UBS revealed on Tuesday it is co-operating with global investigations into the potential manipulation of the £3tn foreign exchange market, in a stark reminder that the banking industry is still struggling to repair its reputation in the wake of the financial crisis.
It made the admission as it reported third quarter results in which it stunned the market by revealing its regulator was forcing it hold more capital because of the risk of hefty new fines and litigation.
It said the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority is forcing it to hold more capital because of "known or unknown litigation, compliance and other operational risk matters".
The bank appeared to admit it had taken disciplinary action against staff involved in currency markets which regulators have begun to investigate. Regulators are focusing on the potential manipulation of currency benchmarks, in a move reminiscent of the Libor-rigging probe.
Bailed-out Royal Bank of Scotland is among the other major banks which have been contacted by regulators as part of the investigation which could take months to conclude.
UBS has already paid the highest penalty – £940m – for attempting to rig Libor, the key benchmark interest rate, and has also settled claims with US regulators about the misselling of sub-prime mortgages in the run-up to the financial crisis.
A report by Bloomberg in June had raised the prospect of potential manipulation of a currency benchmark and UBS said that after that report "we immediately commenced an internal review of our foreign exchange business".
It added: "UBS and other financial institutions have received requests from various authorities relating to their foreign exchange businesses, and UBS is cooperating with the authorities." "We have taken and will take appropriate action with respect to certain personnel as a result of our review, which is ongoing," the bank said.
It came as Deutsche Bank was forced to report a dramatic drop in third quarter profits as a result of a €1.2bn (£1bn) charge for litigation, without specifying what penalties or court cases it could be facing. Deutsche's shares fell 2.5% in early trading, with UBS down nearly 6%.
UBS is facing a setback in meeting promises on returns to shareholders as a result of being forced to hold more capital. Chief executive Sergio Ermotti, appointed in the wake of the £1.5bn Kweku Adoboli fraudulent trading scandal, tried to remain upbeat. "Our results this quarter provide more evidence that our business model works in a variety of market conditions. One year into the acceleration of our strategy we are ahead of plan on execution," Ermotti said. He has previously announced plans to cut 10,000 to try to bolster the profitability of the bank.
The Swiss regulator Finma will review the temporary add-on to the capital requirement once there is better clarity about the risks it faces from litigation and other matters, UBS said.
"Finma informed us that its decision was based on a comparison of recent loss history with the capital underpinning for operational risks," the bank said.
"Our ability to absorb this event is a prime example of the benefits of our strong capital position and our emphasis on building best-in- class capital ratios," the bank added.
Finma is among the regulators around the world to admit it is looking at the currency markets and the potential to rig a benchmark used by fund managers to set prices.
The Christian Science Monitor
Billionaires, Communists, corruption: Seven-way split stymies Czech election
By Benjamin Cunningham, Correspondent / October 28, 2013 at 1:47 pm EDT
Prague, Czech Republic
If there's one thing to be learned from the Czech Republic's elections, it's that the country's political instability shows no sign of abating.
A strong showing by a billionaire-backed anti-establishment party in this weekend's elections has further shaken already unstable ground, as seven parties reached parliament in a vote expressing public anger at the political status quo.
Years of political scandals – including a major sex, spying, and graft affair that brought down a government earlier this year – have led to deep disillusionment with the Czech political class. Voter turnout in this election was the lowest in more than a decade and the second lowest since 1989. Many who did vote vented frustrations by supporting hastily formed populist parties.
The results leave no clear road to a stable government and did little to improve the mood. A Czech television poll found that 80 percent of people believe a state of political crisis will continue.
According to the Czech Statistical Office, the Social Democrats were the ostensible winners with 20.5 percent of the vote, but this proved a huge disappointment as the party had hoped to control 70 of the Chamber of Deputies' 200 seats. They now hold just 50.
If there was a real winner it was ANO ("yes" in Czech), a loose coalition campaigning on a vague anti-corruption platform that is backed by the country's second richest man, Andrej Babiš. Finishing second with 18.7 percent, the biggest unknown is how this populist surge will translate into parliamentary policy.
"Babiš runs a movement which is not transparent and totally depends on him." says Jiří Pehe, a political analyst and onetime adviser to Václav Havel, the late dissident playwright who became the country's first post-communist president. "It doesn't really matter if he is an angel or a devil."
Regardless, Babiš comes with what appears some messy baggage. Earlier this year he bought two of the country's largest daily newspapers, which combined with his political ambitions lead some to nickname him the "Czech Berlusconi," a reference to the flamboyant Italian media tycoon, Silvio Belusconi. Meanwhile, in the weeks running up to the election, two separate archived documents surfaced alleging Babiš was initially a collaborator and then an agent for the communist-era secret police, the StB, in the 1980s. He has denied the allegations.
"I had no idea about the fact they had the file about me," he said in an interview before the election. "I have never signed any kind of cooperation, so I brought a lawsuit."
ANO voters were undeterred, and indeed support surpassed pre-election forecasts. This may be the clearest sign yet that for many voters the communist-era really is a thing of the past.
The Communists themselves finished third with 14.9 percent of the vote. Unlike parties in other post-communist states, the Czech communists remain fully constituted in their old form. Elsewhere parties were dissolved and reformed, often under different names and with different platforms. The Czech party still has a Stalinist wing.
At the same time, the Communists have shown administrative skills in several local and regional governments in recent years, making it a viable option for some. The Social Democrats had hoped to form a minority government, backed by Communist votes, but neither party performed to expectations.
In other results, the right-of-center TOP 09 and Civic Democrats took 12.0 percent and 7.7 percent respectively. Usvít (Dawn), a party Mr. Pehe termed "proto-fascist," took 6.9 percent and the Christian Democrats 6.8 percent.
The Civic Democrats' poor showing highlights the party's reversal of fortunes. They had been the country's dominant center-right party for decades, but are still reeling from a corruption scandal that brought down Prime Minister Petr Nečas in June and spurred the weekend's elections.
In the scandal, Jana Nagyová, Nečas' chief of staff and then-lover, allegedly used military intelligence to spy on Nečas' wife. Alongside this came allegations of bribery and kickbacks. After divorcing his wife, Nečas married Nagyová in September, meaning that they cannot be forced to testify against one another in court. Nagyová, meanwhile, faces criminal charges for abuse of power. Nečas has not been charged, though he is still under investigation.
Such scandals, and repeated allegations of graft involving high-level politicians, have given rise to this sour public mood and the prevailing feeling that the rich and politically connected are above the law. Until last year, Czech parliamentarians were guaranteed immunity from criminal prosecution not only while in office, but for life.
In terms of forming a government, the only viable way forward seems a power sharing agreement involving the Social Democrats, the Christian Democrats and ANO. But this is nobody's preference and the Social Democrats are in turmoil, with many in the party calling for the resignation of Bohsulav Sobotka, the chairman who was touted the likely prime minister.
"Most of the scenarios are rather gloomy," Pehe says.
Prior to the election, ANO and Social Democrats had foresworn cooperation with one another, and indeed ANO had insisted it wished to remain in opposition. The party's strong showing, however, has forced it to quickly come to grips with expectations that it help make post-election solutions.
"This party must be given a chance, let's say a hundred days of tolerance, to translate dissatisfaction into concrete bills," President Milos Zeman said of ANO during a post-election television interview.
Little oversight of Afghan aid as bulk of U.S. troops pullout
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, October 28, 2013 14:52 EDT
US officials will not be able to visit or inspect major reconstruction projects in Afghanistan after most American troops withdraw in about a year, an inspector general said Monday.
The planned departure of the bulk of the US-led force by the end of 2014 will deprive US civilian officials of security needed to travel to project sites across the country, undercutting efforts to keep tabs on multi-billion dollar aid programs, officials said.
“Although it is difficult to predict the future of the US presence in Afghanistan, it is likely that no more than 21 percent of Afghanistan will be accessible to US civilian oversight personnel by the end of the transition, a 47 percent decrease since 2009,” said the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, John Sopko.
“We have also been told by State Department officials that this projection may be optimistic, especially if the security situation does not improve,” Sopko wrote in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the head of the Agency for International Development (AID), Rajiv Shah.
Previous audits have found major waste and mismanagement in the US reconstruction effort in Afghanistan, the most expensive aid mission in America’s history.
Keeping up a flow of Western aid to Afghanistan is considered crucial to ensuring a degree of stability in the country once the NATO-led force departs, officials and analysts say. But a lack of oversight could prompt lawmakers to slash reconstruction funds and one senator voiced dismay at the inspector general’s warning.
“I would be shocked if this doesn’t have an unhappy ending,” Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri told the Washington Post, which first reported the findings over the weekend.
“They are kissing oversight goodbye,” she said.
The State Department and USAID are looking at other ways to check up on aid projects by using third-party contractors, who would inspect the work of other contractors, the inspector general’s letter said.
“Even if these alternative means are used to oversee reconstruction sites, direct oversight of reconstruction programs in much of Afghanistan will become prohibitively hazardous or impossible as US military units are withdrawn, coalition bases are closed, and civilian reconstruction offices in the field are closed,” he said.
To allow for a first-hand visit, an aid project has to be within a 30-minute coalition helicopter flight in case of a medical evacuation and coalition forces have to be close enough to respond to an attack, the inspector general said.
There are about 51,000 US troops in Afghanistan now and almost the entire contingent is due to depart by the end of 2014, with dozens of bases due to close.
Washington hopes to retain a smaller force of about 8,000-12,000 troops in the country but has yet to clinch a security agreement with the Afghan government on a post-2014 presence.
Afghan villagers beat to death man blamed for roadside bomb deaths
After an IED killed 18 wedding guests in Ghazni province, an angry mob headed for the house of a suspected Taliban sympathiser, according to local officials
Emma Graham-Harrison in Kabul
theguardian.com, Monday 28 October 2013 16.53 GMT
Afghan villagers devastated by a roadside bomb that killed 18 people, most of them women and children, hunted down the man they believed set the explosives and beat him to death, officials have said.
The killing, in a restive province south of the capital, was a rare reprisal for a Taliban attack. Most Afghans in rural areas, where the group holds sway, are either sympathetic to their aims or have been cowed into silent acquiescence.
The violence began with a blast on Sunday afternoon that ripped apart a minibus full of wedding guests arriving from a neighbouring village. Only five survived, and they were badly injured. Among the dead were 14 women and girls, one teenage boy and three men.
Villagers rushed to the site of the explosion, in the Andar district of Ghazni province, and amid the devastation found a set of footprints leading to a nearby building, home to a suspected Taliban sympathiser.
"When they saw the trail on the ground, because it is all farming fields round there they could follow the footprints to his house," said Maulavi Abdul Hakim, a mullah from the village.
The owner of the house, whom Hakim and the deputy provincial governor named as Mohammad Asef, was already a village outcast because of his reluctance last year to join an uprising against the Taliban that plunged Andar into turmoil.
On that occasion, dozens of men took an unexpected stand against the insurgents, instead throwing their weight behind rival commanders with no official position but with cash and political support from Kabul. Asef, however, stood apart, villagers believed.
"In the area there is no Taliban, because the people of this village are against them," said the district police chief, Haji Mohammad. "Only this house, they suspected, had connections with the Taliban. They always doubted him."
The angry crowd rushed to the house and surged inside, where they ransacked the rooms and finally found Asef trying to hide in a chicken coop. Inside one room the search party also found wires and electronics of a kind they believed were used in bombs, the police chief and the village mullah said.
"I tried to interfere but the people didn't allow the national police to have control. They brought him out from the house and broke his arms and legs, and after that they started beating him with stones and their hands," Mohammad told the Guardian.
The group's anger was intensified, Hakim said, by deaths in the village during the uprising. "For some time they have been warning this man, who killed my people. In each house from this village, two or three people were killed when they rose against the Taliban."
Eventually, the man confessed to planting the first bomb and a second one nearby. The mob beat and kicked him to death, using stones, planks, fists and feet. But despite an extensive search, the second bomb he confessed to planting has not been found, raising questions about his confession.
"Local people control the area," said the deputy provincial governor, Mohammad Ali Ahmadi. "So far, they haven't found the other IED [improvised explosive device]. The Americans have offered to come and help find it, if help is needed."
A Taliban spokesman said they were not aware of the bomb or the lynching. However, they sometimes deny attacks that are politically sensitive.
The group was responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths in Afghanistan in the first half of this year, according to United Nations statistics. Many of the dead were killed by roadside bombs that hit civilian cars or buses.
• A Guardian employee contributed, reporting from Ghazni
India Ink - Notes on the World's Largest Democracy
October 29, 2013, 3:02 am
Morality and Mobile Phones in India
By ASSA DORON and ROBIN JEFFREY
The cheap mobile phone is the most disruptive device to hit humanity since shoes. It’s no accident that “barefoot” comes even before “pregnant and in the kitchen” in the male chauvinist’s trinity. Today, keeping mobile phones out of the hands of women has become a crusade for gray-bearded chauvinists in India.
The cheap mobile is particularly troublesome in India to those who want to preserve old controls, as Ellen Barry wrote recently. “The mobile plays a main role,” a male elder in a village near New Delhi told her as he described the temptations that personal communications posed for unrestrained young women. “A girl sits on a bus, she calls a male friend, asks him to put money on her mobile. Is he going to put money on her mobile for free? No. He will meet her at a certain place, with five of his friends, and they will call it rape.”
In West Africa and the Caribbean, people have been putting credit on other people’s phones for 15 years, as the anthropologist Daniel Miller has written. But in India, the old-style moral guardians assert that such demonstrations of autonomy lead to rape and murder.
India’s struggle with mobiles and morality began in 2004, just as mobile phones were becoming affordable for the middle class. Two New Delhi high-school students used a cell phone to make a video of “an intimate moment,” as the police and the Los Angeles Times described it. The clip quickly sped round the digital universe through multimedia message service (MMS). India beat its breast about threats to traditional values. And porn entrepreneurs who download pornography on phones for a fee added it to their growing repertoire.
In 2004, phones and talk time were still relatively expensive in India, though prices were falling rapidly, and the country had a mere 34 million mobile subscribers. Today, official figures show more than 900 million subscribers – 75 percent of the country. Perhaps a third of these may be inactive numbers, but it still averages one phone for every two Indians.
You can buy a secondhand phone for less than $10, and a dollar will let you talk for three hours if you choose your plan carefully. A phone is not far away from anyone any more – even from young women and low-caste people. And for high-status men who have been accustomed to obedience and deference from these quarters, cheap phones are a menace.
The cheap mobile unsettles long-standing gender relations because it introduces a means of autonomy that was not present before. The sociologist Manuel Castells exquisitely captured the essence when he wrote that, “mobile communication is not about mobility but about autonomy.” It’s autonomy that makes a personal, private communications device so disruptive of old social structures.
The phone also gives a gentle judder to power relations. In 2007, Bahujan Samaj Party, the lower-caste political party, won an outright majority in India’s largest state. It had a large, dedicated but poor cadre of workers and it anticipated, in a low-budget, low-tech way, some of the techniques that the Obama campaign deployed in the 2008 and 2012 elections. Previously, such low-status people had communicated through postcards, bicycle processions and telegrams. The cheap mobile phone in the hands of dedicated cadres put metaphorical jet engines on their organizational bicycles.
But it’s in gender relations that the cheap phone so relentlessly challenges old ways. Daily decisions have to be made about who is to have a phone and how it is to be used. A new bride coming to live in her husband’s household in north India, for example, may be required by her in-laws to surrender her phone.
Stories are common of village councils declaring (without any legal right to do so) that no woman under 40 should have a mobile phone. Mobile phones, according to this view, are especially dangerous in the hands of young people who can engage in clandestine courtships, which could lead to elopements or resistance to marriages arranged by family elders.
The mobile phone’s ancestor—the landline telephone-was also controversial when it debuted 130 years ago.
“Telephone-company managers,” wrote Michele Martin in her study of gender and the early days of the telephone in North America, thought that, “women’s use of men’s technology would come to no good end.”
In India, where scarce landlines were the privilege of elites until 10 years ago, the arrival of the cheap cell phone is sending chills throughout society, challenging old relations of domination across gender, age and caste. For women and oppressed classes, the autonomy of the cheap mobile phone presents new possibilities for emancipation and change.
Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey are authors of “The Great Indian Phone Book. How the Cheap Cell Phones Changes Business, Politics and Daily Life” (Harvard UP). Mr. Doron works at the Australian National University, Canberra. Mr. Jeffrey is at the Institute of South Asian Studies, Singapore.
Japan to probe megabanks after mobster loan scandal
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, October 29, 2013 7:03 EDT
Japan’s financial watchdog said Tuesday it would probe the country’s top three banks in the wake of a loans-to-mobsters scandal that has scarred the reputation of major lender Mizuho.
The Financial Services Agency (FSA) will look at Mizuho’s business dealings as well as rivals Mitsubishi UFJ and Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp., an agency spokesman said, without disclosing further details.
Jiji Press news agency said the widening investigation would probe a range of issues including the banks’ risk management systems, while Japan’s finance minister said earlier Tuesday that the watchdog must do a better job in weeding out corporate misdeeds.
The scandal has made headlines for weeks in Japanese media, and reportedly sparked a police investigation into corporate ties with organized crime.
The widening regulatory probe comes a day after a panel of lawyers hired by Mizuho to look into its links with organized crime said bank executives knew it was doing business with gangsters but failed to stop the practice.
“Many officials and board members were aware of, or were in a position to be aware of, the issue,” said the panel’s 100-page report.
“However, they failed to recognize it as a problem, believing that the compliance division … was taking care of it.”
Mizuho has been under fire since it emerged last month that it processed hundreds of loans worth about $2 million for the country’s notorious yakuza crime syndicates, which are involved in activities ranging from prostitution and drugs to extortion and corporate crime.
Finance Minister Taro Aso on Monday slammed the Mizuho transactions as a “huge problem”, and said the bank’s initial — and incorrect — claims to regulators that executives knew nothing about the shady loans was “the worst thing a bank can do”.
On Tuesday, Aso took aim at the FSA, saying that “we have to improve what we are supposed to be doing.” His comments were in response to questions about the watchdog’s handling of the high-profile case.
Mizuho has submitted its own report to regulators, and said Monday that 54 former and current executives would be punished, including Mizuho Bank chairman Takashi Tsukamoto. He will step down from his post but stay on as head of the parent company.
Mizuho Financial Group chief executive Yasuhiro Sato — who has acknowledged he was in “a position to be aware of” the loans but refused to quit — will work without pay for six months. Other managers would also take wage cuts.
“I apologize sincerely … The problem was that we weren’t aware or sensitive enough to loans that were being done by an affiliate company,” Sato told a press briefing in Tokyo this week.
He also said the bank will invite a former judge of the Supreme Court as an external board member to beef up compliance.
The panel’s report Monday called on Mizuho to overhaul its compliance department, noting that the transactions were made via a complicated scheme involving the affiliate firm.
Like the Italian mafia or Chinese triads, the yakuza engage in activities ranging from gambling, drugs, and prostitution to loan sharking, protection rackets, white-collar crime and business conducted through front companies.
The gangs, which themselves are not illegal, have historically been tolerated by the authorities, although there are periodic clampdowns on some of their less savoury activities.
North Korea is treated as a joke, but the reality is a repressive regime the world must no longer ignore
By Ian Birrell, The Guardian
Tuesday, October 29, 2013 3:20 EDT
Kim Song-ju sought to escape the living hell of North Korea, but after crossing a freezing river into China was returned, like so many other defectors. He was sent to a prison camp, where he shared – with 40 other unfortunates – a cramped cell that had to be entered on all fours through a tiny door less than two feet high. They were starved – their watery soup often containing stones – and routinely beaten by guards, who told them they were no longer human.
Kim’s mother died in the prison, handcuffed to her bed. Her body was never returned to her family, who fear it was used for medical experiments. Eventually Kim escaped again, and now lives in Surrey’s serene suburbia. Last week, he was in Westminster Central Hall, in London, one of several witnesses telling their horror stories to a United Nations commission of inquiry investigating the hermit state’s atrocities. “In North Korea the words ‘human rights’ do not exist,” he said.
Other defectors told of hunger and torture, of forced marriage and abortions. One woman had to leave her Chinese-born son when sent back to North Korea, fearing he might be killed, given the regime’s obsession with racial purity. She was chained to three other women and made to haul heavy loads after being returned. The panel has also heard of mothers forced to drown children in buckets, of men seeing brothers executed, and of families eating lizards and grass in order to survive.
North Korea is often seen as something of a joke: a strange, secretive place in the grip of cartoon communism and under the thumb of crazed dictators. Rare glimpses behind the bamboo curtain fuel the fascination, with images of mass games, military parades, rocket launches and a ski resort built by its Swiss-educated young ruler. Or there are the buffoonish antics of US basketball star Dennis Rodman, drinking tequila with Kim Jong-un and saying the “dear leader” only wants the world’s most repressed people to be happy.
The UN inquiry, due to release initial findings this week before giving its full verdict early next year, will hopefully challenge such complacency. If it finds there are crimes against humanity – and it is hard to envisage any other conclusion – then there could be the establishment of a special prosecution by the international criminal court (ICC).
Such a move might be only symbolic, since North Korea is not a signatory to the treaty that created the court, and its vainglorious leaders will not risk their liberty by travelling anywhere that might hand them over to justice. But it would demonstrate belated determination to confront what is without doubt a hideously despotic regime, and put some pressure on China to stop protecting its client state and neighbour.
It would also shore up a crucial court, established to prosecute the world’s worst crimes but facing unprecedented pressure over its relentless focus on African offenders. There is rightful outrage all those indicted are from Africa. But now this is being used to press for the deferral of charges against Kenya’s new president, Uhuru Kenyatta, and his deputy over their alleged roles in 2007 election violence. These calls are shamefully being supported by some western nations, which fear a diplomatic rift could damage their war on terror in east Africa.
There should be no illusions over North Korea: it is a quasi-fascist state, ruled along racist lines by a highly corrupt elite. It has run giant gulags holding an estimated 120,000 people in the most inhumane conditions imaginable for half a century – yet how often do we hear them condemned by either politicians or celebrities? One camp is 31 miles long – and, as Amnesty International will reveal next month, satellite images show they are expanding.
The only exit usually is death – and it is thought that four in 10 inmates at one prison died from malnutrition. Uniquely, this is a country in which not only is life totally controlled, with circumstances dependent upon the actions of your forebears in the Korean war, but with collective punishment. If someone commits a crime, such as watching a banned soap opera or possessing a Bible, their family, friends and even children can be deemed to share guilt. So there are thousands born into slave labour who know of no existence beyond the barbed wire and brutality.
I visited North Korea last month in the guise of a tourist. The propaganda is relentless, from endless portraits of the regime’s two dead leaders to a vast mausoleum holding their bodies, built of finest marble and the size of a small airport in a nation where millions are impoverished, hungry and without healthcare. Workers march to their jobs behind red flags and posters exhort people to work harder, yet this bankrupt nation is propped up by aid, black markets and China.
Throughout my trip I was escorted by two “guides” who even stayed in my hotel; they were members of the elite trusted to mix with foreigners. Their explanations for the lack of cars on the roads or goods in shops were farcical, but they were friendly and funny; one night we got drunk together in a karaoke bar. Yet despite their elevated status they had not heard of the Beatles, hip-hop or even South Korean superstar Psy – and my attempted explanation of his YouTube hit foundered on their lack of knowledge of the internet.
It was a surreal experience, like visiting a Stalinist theme park – and so baffling that I left with more questions than when I arrived. But visitors do not see the death camps, dreadful famine or grinding poverty, which has stunted growth of North Koreans by three inches and shortened life expectancy by a decade. This is an entire country imprisoned by ghastly rulers, a state of affairs both intolerable and unsustainable. The world has stood by and done nothing for too long.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
Tony Abbott visits Afghanistan to declare Australia's war over
PM says war is ending 'not with victory, not with defeat' at recognition ceremony also attended by Bill Shorten
Oliver Laughland and agencies
theguardian.com, Monday 28 October 2013 20.39 GMT
Tony Abbott has declared an end to Australia’s frontline involvement in Afghanistan during a surprise visit to troops, saying the ADF’s presence in Uruzgan province had been worth its “high price”.
The prime minister spoke at a special ceremony at the ADF-operated Tarin Kowt base in Uruzgan province. He confirmed the Australian mission in the region would wind down by the end of the year.
“It has been worth it. This has been a very difficult commitment. People have paid a high price. We have lost 40 of our best. We mourn them, we remember them, we honour them, we want to work with their families. We will never forget them," Abbott said.
He added that Australia’s involvement was ending, “not with victory, not with defeat, but with, we hope, an Afghanistan that is better for our presence here”.
He described the withdrawal as “bitter-sweet”. It was “sweet because hundreds of soldiers will be home for Christmas; bitter because not all Australian families have had their sons, fathers and partners return. Sweet because our soldiers have given a magnificent account of themselves; bitter because Afghanistan remains a dangerous place despite all that has been done.”
Australia will continue to provide support to Afghanistan beyond 2014, including training of the Afghan national security forces and development assistance.
Australian forces have maintained a permanent presence in Uruzgan since 2005, with more than 20,000 serving in the country since the start of the war.
Abbott was accompanied on the trip by the opposition leader, Bill Shorten, marking the first Australian bipartisan political visit to Afghanistan.
Addressing the ceremony, attended by defence personnel, Afghan officials and representatives from a range of other countries, Shorten said: “I don't think saying thank you is quite enough but it's the words that we can find. You can be assured that every Australian knows of this and appreciates it and honours it.”
In a later release Abbott said that Australian presence in the region had helped build schools, improve healthcare and upgrade infrastructure. He said there were now 26 girls’ schools in the province, and 200 schools in the area, marking a twentyfold increase since the war began.
The Tarin Kowt base will handed over to Afghan forces when the ADF departs.
At the ceremony, the chief of the defence force, David Hurley, said a “lasting friendship” had been forged between the ADF and Afghan forces.
“The Afghan people have shown strong support for their own security forces and growing confidence that the Afghan national security forces can confront and defeat the insurgents in their own right.
“The ADF and our civilian partners have made a lasting contribution to Uruzgan with tangible improvements that have significantly enhanced the quality of life for the people who live in the province,” he said.
Thailand racism row reignited by Unilever ad for skin-whitening cream
Firm's Thai subsidiary Citra withdraws TV ad for Pearly White cream after critics say it equates lighter skin with intelligence
Kate Hodal in Bangkok
theguardian.com, Sunday 27 October 2013 15.38 GMT
An advert for a skin-whitening cream that appeared to offer university scholarships to students with fairer skin has stoked a debate over racism in Thailand, where Unilever – the company behind the ad – has been forced to apologise for any "misunderstandings".
The "Citra search for clear, soft and glowing skin" asked female students to submit photographs of themselves in their university uniform along with a bottle of Citra Pearly White UV body lotion, for a reward of 100,000 baht (£2,000). Citra is a Thai subsidiary of Unilever.
The advert – broadcast on Thai TV and YouTube – showed two female students, one lighter-skinned and another darker-skinned, who were asked what could make them "outstanding in uniform".
The darker-skinned girl seemed incapable of answering, while the fairer one – whom presenters described as "beautiful" – said Citra products could help.
The advert sparked a debate over skin tone and education levels. Many believed the inference to be that darker-skinned students are less intelligent than their lighter-skinned colleagues in a country where fairer skin has long been equated with higher class – as a whiter complexion suggests a life not spent toiling on a farm.
Although the advert was withdrawn last week the scholarship competition still stands. Contestants have a chance to enter until 31 October and their skin will be judged on "product efficacy", with winners allowed to spend the funds as they choose.
Skin-whitening products abound in Thailand, as they do all over south-east Asia, with pale models advertising cosmetics, pills and diet supplements to lighten dark complexions.
Products promise "the miracle of white skin" at the same time that common Thai insults use darker skin as a subject of denigration, like dam mhuen e-ga, "black like a crow".
Much of the debate over the Citra advert raged online in popular forums such as Pantip.com, where users questioned why a skin-whitening product should even be related to a university scholarship.
"Now you can get a scholarship because of white skin – not because of good studying, not if you are poor and dark," user MyOwnDream was quoted as saying in the Bangkok Post.
Unilever Thai Trading said it never intended "to suggest racial discrimination" and apologised for "any misunderstandings regarding the campaign".
It said: "The Citra brand will exercise greater sensitivity for brand activation campaigns that take place in the future."
Thailand is no stranger to race-based controversy. In September, a Dunkin' Donuts ad had to be withdrawn after human rights groups complained about a model in blackface makeup advertising a "charcoal donut", while in May an advert for a skin-whitening drink that featured a brown bear, a black doctor and a Thai woman in blackface was also deemed racially insensitive.
Al-Shabaab rebuilds forces in Somalia as African Union campaign stalls
Extreme Islamist group is now 'an extended hand of al-Qaida', declares Somali president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud
David Smith in Kismayo
The Guardian, Monday 28 October 2013 15.34 GMT
A Kenyan soldier clambers up to his sentry post and stares out across vast plains of bush, acacia trees and red dust. The savanna is peaceful now, but he knows that when darkness falls the enemy will return, typically a band of 15 to 20 men armed with AK-47 rifles. "Every night they are in front of us," the soldier says. "They shoot and go. They run away."
Along the frontline, the Kenyans have piled clusters of green sandbags to provide cover. Behind them, a military base is protected by high walls crowned with razor wire. About 1,200 troops from Kenya and Sierra Leone are garrisoned in this desolate Somali hinterland. On an average day, green, heavily armoured vehicles set off to patrol the crucial port city of Kismayo, running the gauntlet of roadside bombs, a deadly tactic imported from Afghanistan and Iraq. In punishing heat, soldiers can be seen rolling a surveillance drone across the tarmac of the Italian-built airport.
This is where the war on terror in east Africa is being waged. Troops from the African Union and the fledgling Somali national army are battling al-Shabaab, the extremist Islamist group notorious for carrying out beheadings, recruiting boys to fight and forcing girls into marriage that claimed responsibility for last month's attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi, which claimed 70 victims.
Some analysts interpreted the Kenyan atrocity as a sign of weakness, the thrashings of a dying animal. But there are signs that al-Shabaab is regrouping and evolving, recruiting members more quickly than it loses them and, in the words of Somalia's president, becoming "an extended hand of al-Qaida". Officials admit that, after forcing al-Shabaab out of the capital, Mogadishu, in 2011 and Kismayo in 2012, the campaign against it has lost momentum and stalled. Military maps show swaths of red labelled "AS infested area", while the African Union force, Amisom, lacks a single helicopter in a country similar in size to Afghanistan.
A series of propaganda photographs published on Somali websites last week, apparently from al-Shabaab strongholds, show uniformed men riding through town on motorbikes and in pickup trucks, with banners celebrating the Westgate attack and, bizarrely, sporting contests such as a tug-of-war and an egg-and-spoon race. Children feature heavily in the images. "This is intended as a message they are still alive," one Somali government official said.
While a UN report in 2011 put al-Shabaab's strength at about 5,000 fighters, a Kenyan military intelligence officer serving with Amisom put the true figure almost three times higher, and probably growing. The group may have lost key urban centres, but it still controls a third of Somalia's total territory, he estimates.
"Al-Shabaab trains its recruits on a daily basis," said the officer, who did not wish to be named. "They train more new troops than are killed, so they could even be increasing. They are powerful and you cannot underestimate them. They are still very active, not in fighting but in moving, especially in areas they control."
The organisation has turned to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to attack Amisom convoys, already injuring four Kenyans who had to be evacuated home. "They bury them along routes where they expect our troops to go then spring the ambush. We cannot rule out support by al-Qaida," said the officer. "We're not sure they're getting logistical support, but they are getting expertise. Some of the IEDs we come across are not locally assembled; they are assembled with foreign expertise."
The officer added that he had heard unconfirmed reports that the Briton Samantha Lewthwaite, the so-called "white widow" wanted by Interpol, was operating in the mountains of Somalia's Puntland province. He also cast doubt on claims that US-born "jihadist rapper" Omar Hammami had perished last month after falling out with al-Shabaab's leadership: "There is no confirmation he has been killed. They are rumours. I believe he is still around."
Nevertheless, al-Shabaab is understood to be suffering logistical problems, shortages of ammunition and recent internal power struggles, though it appears that the hardline Ahmed Abdi Godane has emerged supreme. Witnesses say that he maintains control over towns such as Barawe with just a handful of armed loyalists, whose presence is enough to instil fear and obedience.
Al-Shabaab (the Youth) first emerged as the radical youth wing of Somalia's now defunct Union of Islamic Courts in 2006. It filled a vacuum, imposing a strict version of sharia law in areas under its control, including stoning to death women accused of adultery and amputating the hands of thieves. It soon nurtured ambitions to join forces with al-Qaida, but was reportedly rebuffed by Osama bin Laden, who warned in a letter that it was causing too many civilian casualties in Mogadishu. Bin Laden's death, however, removed that obstacle and al-Shabaab declared itself an al-Qaida affiliate early last year.
Questions remain over the precise nature of the relationship, but the year-old Somali government believes they are now virtually indistinguishable. "Al-Qaida and al-Shabaab, there's no difference here in Somalia: they are one," President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud told the Guardian in an interview in Mogadishu. "The leadership, the foreigners that are fighting here in Somalia, those who died here in Somalia, all of them were al-Qaida people.
"Experts are sent by al-Qaida to train and arm and give all the new techniques of al-Qaida to al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab is an affiliate, an extended hand of al-Qaida, there's no doubt, there's a lot of proofs of that."
Mohamud said there was no evidence the Westgate mall attack had been planned within Somalia or carried out by operatives from there, suggesting that al-Shabaab had common cause with allies across borders. "Al-Shabaab is an organisation that is based on certain ideologies and the ideology has no citizenship. This is the nature of this organisation: it's not domestic, it's not Somali only, this is an international regional organisation and its crimes have impacted at international and regional level. This is a threat to the region. So what we need as regional countries, within the framework of African Union, is to collaborate in order to uproot these evil forces."
Mohamud admitted that he had no idea of Lewthwaite's whereabouts. "These people move across borders; maybe if yesterday she was in Kenya, today she's somewhere else, maybe she's in Somalia or she's in Tanzania, Uganda or any other place. They can move, they can slip into the porous borders of the African countries."
The loss of ports and businesses has been a financial setback to al-Shabaab and, the president claimed, the government is now close to full control of the financial sector so that it can monitor incoming funds. But the Islamist group is said to run a parallel administration with strict discipline and greater efficiency, including accountants who impose taxes on goods, services and personal incomes.
The illicit trade in elephant ivory, smuggling of charcoal and expropriation of cash intended for respectable Islamic charities are among al-Shabaab's other revenue streams, generating between $70m and $100m a year (£43m-£62m), according to the UN. Some members of the Somali diaspora have also been implicated: two women in Minnesota were jailed after running a teleconference line in which al-Shabaab members openly solicited funds.
Officials fear that, in cities outside its control in Somalia and beyond, al-Shabaab will follow the al-Qaida textbook by diffusing into semi-autonomous cells plotting more attacks like Westgate. Few doubt that the group retains a lethal presence in Mogadishu despite the capital's tentative recovery. On 7 September, a car bomb exploded outside the Village, one of a chain of restaurants owned by British-trained chef Ahmed Jama. As people gathered to help, a suicide bomber in a soldier's uniform blew himself up, killing 15 people and maiming several others. Jama was in his car, having driven away just five minutes earlier.
"It was a big boom, something I never heard before in my life, like a two-tonne explosion," he recalled, pointing to dark scorch marks still visible in the parking bay. "I came back and it was a disaster. There were bodies burning. There was a small shop where a lady had been selling cigarettes and she was burning. Her sister, who had come from London, was screaming and died later in hospital."
Jama, who studied catering in Solihull and owns a restaurant in west London, considered quitting for the first time since he moved back to Somalia five years ago. Then René Redzepi of Danish restaurant Noma and other star chefs from around the world stepped in with a financial donation. "I was really close to the point of closing the restaurants," Jama admitted. "I have a wife and children who don't want to be here. But the world chefs touched me and made me feel like I should continue and not fear al-Shabaab. I was getting demoralised until then but it's given me new energy."
Sometimes the Village stays open until 2am, bringing a nightlife to Mogadishu that was unthinkable three years ago. Jama added: "I'm optimistic. The future is getting better. I came home in 2008 and every year is improving. It takes time. It needs patience." The war is being fought on fronts big and small. Last Friday, before prayers, saboteurs blew up a lamppost on one of Mogadishu's busiest thoroughfares. It seemed to be an attempt to disrupt efforts to make the streets feel safe again for pedestrians in the evening. In addition, one resident suggested, members of al-Shabaab are brainwashed into believing that lampposts have a sinister power and are "waiting for their deaths" so must be destroyed.
At Lido beach each Friday there is a festival mood and constant hubbub as thousands of young people gather, kicking a football, performing gymnastics or simply bracing in the sea and letting the surf wash over them. Girls laugh and frolic joyfully in the water, their brightly coloured jilbabs soaking as the tide comes in. "I think it's fantastic, it's vibrant and it's really a testimony that peace is coming back to Mogadishu and Somalia," said human rights activist Farida Simba, sitting in a packed beachside restaurant that opened a few months ago.
Simba's organisation, the African Initiative for Women in Africa, works with the mothers of young men recruited by al-Shabaab. The main reasons they join al-Shabaab, she said, are poverty and lack of education. "The mothers had no choice but to let young men go. The recruiters would go to the families and give them $50. They were poor and had no choice." Recruiters also use physical force, or indoctrination in madrasas, or threaten to kill the families of young men unless they join, she added. "The mothers feel helpless."
Such evidence exposes the limitations of a purely military solution, even as the African Union has called for a "surge" of more than 6,000 troops to take Amisom's strength up to around 23,000. Kismayo may have been liberated, but its 300,000 population suffers deficiencies in food and clean water, medical facilities, basic infrastructure and state schooling. On Tuesday, there was a not a single ship in port.
The absence of a functioning jail means uncertainty over what to do with al-Shabaab members who are captured or who defect. There is no programme for defectors' rehabilitation and reintegration into society.
Most of the Somali population are children or teenagers who have known only conflict and have little prospect of a job. "Al-Shabaab is both an organisation and an idea," a local politician told visiting European ambassadors in Kismayo on Tuesday. "You might be able to defeat the organisation, but the idea is still there. You must invest in education."
Officials express frustration that, despite a number of high-profile conferences, the international community is proving slow to offer practical support. Mohamud, described by critics as weak and lacking political acumen, said: "The world has to focus on one thing and only one: support the Somali government to control its own territory. Blaming, finger-pointing will not help at all.
"Unless that state and its institutions are there and control the territory, we will always have dark holes where al-Shabaab and others can go. Yesterday it was al-Qaida/al-Shabaab, the other day it was the piracy, tomorrow we don't know what will come out, and anything can come out unless there is a functioning Somali state that controls the Somali territory."
Oil-rich Kuwait warns citizens: Major budget cuts are coming
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, October 28, 2013 18:05 EDT
Oil-rich Kuwait said Monday that the generous cradle-to-grave welfare system provided to its 1.2 million citizens was “unsustainable” and it was time for change.
“The fact everyone must be aware of … is that the existing welfare state system that Kuwaitis are used to is unsustainable,” Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber Mubarak Al-Sabah said, presenting his government’s four-year programme to parliament.
The programme up to the 2016/2017 fiscal year aims to review subsidies, charges and prices of public services, besides imposing a taxation system in a country that generates 94 percent of its income from selling oil and where individuals and corporates pay no taxes.
The government has also promised to cut public expenditure, especially current spending which includes wages, subsidies and defence spending.
Finance Minister Sheikh Salem Abdulaziz Al-Sabah said last week that current spending constitutes 85 percent of the budget.
The government warned that if the welfare system remains, the OPEC nation will start facing “real” budget deficits from 2021 and is expected to accumulate shortfalls of up to 414 billion dinars (around $1.46 trillion) by 2035.
It insists there is an urgent need to reduce subsidies on fuel, electricity and water and raise charges on public services which are offered to citizens for free or at highly-subsidised rates.
For example, fuel prices have not changed for the past 15 years, while power is offered to citizens and the 2.7 million foreign residents at less than five percent of the cost, according to government figures.
Earlier this month, the International Monetary Fund urged Kuwait to contain public spending, which has trebled in seven years, to avoid risks from a drop in crude prices.
According to finance ministry figures, between the fiscal years 2005/2006 and 2012/2013, public spending surged from $24.4 billion to $68.2 billion, during which government wages rose from $6.7 billion to $17 billion.
In the same period, oil income, which makes up around 94 percent of public revenues, more than doubled from $45.9 billion to $106 billion.
Kuwait has boasted a budget surplus in each of the past 13 fiscal years, accumulating around $300 billion, whereas the size of its sovereign wealth fund has increased to over $400 billion.
Nominal GDP rose to $184.5 billion last year from $160.7 billion in 2011, said the IMF.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Dozens of Niger migrants die of thirst in desert
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, October 28, 2013 14:55 EDT
Dozens of migrants to Algeria from Niger died of thirst in the desert south of the Sahara after their vehicle broke down, local officials said Monday, while police said 19 survived.
“About 40 Niger people, including numerous children and women, who were attempting to emigrate to Algeria, died of thirst in mid-October,” Rhissa Feltou, the mayor of the main northern town of Agadez, told AFP.
“Many others have been reported missing since their vehicle broke down in the desert,” he said.
“Travellers told us that they saw and counted up to 35 bodies, mostly those of women and children, by the road,” said Abdourahmane Maouli, the mayor of the northern uranium mining town of Arlit.
The army has found the bodies of two women and three adolescents, a paramilitary policeman told AFP. No other bodies have so far turned up.
However, 19 survivors have been taken to Arlit, the policeman said.
According to Feltou, two vehicles carrying “at least” 60 would-be emigrants left Arlit “around October 15″, heading for Tamanrassett, an Algerian town in the heart of the Sahara.
When one vehicle broke down, the other drove on empty, leaving the passengers behind in a plan to find spare parts and bring them back for repairs, the mayor of Agadez said.
The migrants, short of water, dispersed in small groups in search of an oasis, Feltou said. After days of walking, five survivors reached Arlit and alerted the army, “who arrived too late at the scene.”
In the lucrative business of transporting Africans fleeing conditions at home for what they hope will be a better life elsewhere, traffickers quite frequently abandon their human cargo in the desert, leaving them to near certain death.
Azaoua Mamane, who works for the non-governmental organisation Synergie in Arlit, said the group left behind consisted of “entire families, including very many children and women, who departed for Algeria, where they hoped to beg for their keep.”
Morsi rejects Egyptian court’s authority to try him on incitement charges
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, October 28, 2013 18:25 EDT
Egypt’s ousted president Mohamed Morsi has rejected the authority of the court that is due to try him next week for incitement to murder, his supporters said Monday.
Morsi, an Islamist hailing from the Muslim Brotherhood who was Egypt’s first freely elected leader, was ousted by the military on July 3 amid massive protests against his year-long rule.
He is due to stand trial with 14 others on November 4 for incitement to murder in connection with deadly clashes between his supporters and opponents outside the presidential palace in December 2012.
“No lawyers will be defending president Mohamed Morsi, neither Egyptians nor foreigners, because the president does not recognise the trial or any action and processes that result from the coup,” the Anti-Coup Alliance, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, said in a statement.
The group said a team of Egyptian lawyers would be attending the trial with Morsi, but only “to observe proceedings, not to defend him.”
It said its statement was prompted by false reports in pro-military media outlets saying the Muslim Brotherhood had appointed lawyers from Turkey and Qatar to represent Morsi.
The group called on international human rights activists and lawyers to attend the trial to see first hand “the trampling of justice.”
The Anti-Coup Alliance has called for mass protests on the day of the trial, raising fears of further violence in the deeply polarised country.
Security forces launched a massive crackdown on Morsi’s supporters in August, violently dispersing two protest camps in Cairo.
More than 1,000 people have been killed since Morsi’s ouster — mainly his supporters — and the authorities have arrested some 2,000 Islamists, including most of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership.
Morsi himself has been held incommunicado in military custody since his ouster.
The arrests have not deterred Morsi’s supporters from organising demonstrations, which have deteriorated into deadly street fights pitting them against opponents and security forces.
Islamist militants have meanwhile attacked Coptic Christians and security forces, mainly in Upper Egypt and the increasingly volatile Sinai Peninsula.
Morsi’s opponents accused him of poor governance and charged the Muslim Brotherhood with trying to monopolise power following the 2011 overthrow of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak.
His supporters deny such allegations and point to the Muslim Brotherhood’s victories in a series of polls held after Mubarak’s overthrow.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]