Seattle residents protest police plan to use drones
Seattle residents spoke up against their local police department’s plan to start using unmanned drones at a community meeting Thursday.
The Seattle Times reported that most of the 100 people at the meeting expressed their mistrust at the authorities’ use of two Draganflyer X6 Helicopter Techs, which was recently approved by the Federal Aviation Administration under certain guidelines.
“Hasn’t anyone heard of George Orwell’s 1984?” said one man, who identified himself as Matt. E. “This is the militarization of our streets and now the air above us.”
Authorities said the unarmed drones’ use would be limited to homicide investigations and operations involving traffic, hazardous material, natural disasters, barricaded persons and search and rescues.
According to Russia Today, FAA guidelines also restrict the drones from being used to fly over crowds, or at night, which suggests they would not be able to be used against demonstrators; the drone’s operator and observer must also be “within eyesight of the drone at all times,” and they cannot be flown at an altitude over 400 feet.
Jennifer Shaw, deputy director of the Washington state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said at the meeting that police policy regarding drone use should be set by a city ordinance, instead of the department.
“So long as it is a policy, it can be changed,” Shaw said. “An ordinance cannot be changed at will and is the only way we can be sure there is meaningful input.”
According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an activist group that partnered with Muckrock News to file more than 200 public-records requests regarding police drone use around the country, the Seattle City Council only learned about the department’s request to use the Draganflyers after the city was listed by the FAA on a Freedom of Information Act suit filed by EFF and Muckrock.
Muckrock also reported that the department is looking to buy two more drones, with the expectation that the FAA will expand the parameters for their use in the near future.
“There are definitely very legitimate uses for drones that could help out society — like you said, mapping natural disaster, fighting forest fires, those kinds of things,” EFF activist Trevor Timm told RT. “The problem is, mission creep gets involved, and when the technology advances to the point where they can fly for hours and days at a time very cheaply, police can start using them for surveillance.”
Raw Story (http://s.tt/1rcAU
October 28, 2012
Region’s Struggles Seen in a Romanian Scandal
By DAN BILEFSKY
BUCHAREST, Romania — This summer, after the police arrived at the handsome villa of Adrian Nastase, a former prime minister of Romania, to arrest him on corruption charges, he apparently pulled out a revolver and tried to kill himself. Millions of Romanians watched on television as Mr. Nastase, 62, was carried off on a stretcher, a Burberry scarf wrapped around his neck. He survived, and one week later was behind bars.
But this is Romania, where everything, it seems, is a matter of dispute.
Anticorruption advocates hailed Mr. Nastase’s downfall as a seminal moment in the evolution of a young democracy. Others have called his conviction for siphoning $2 million in state funds for his presidential campaign a show trial. Mr. Nastase’s opponents now allege that he faked a suicide attempt in an effort to avoid prison. His son, Andrei Nastase, who was at the house at the time, said the accusation was absurd.
Whatever the truth, Adrian Nastase now occupies a cell measuring 43 square feet. On his jailhouse blog, he recently recounted how prisoners ate cabbage and potatoes, braved rats and had hot water for two hours twice a week.
Today, analysts here and abroad say the Nastase case has come to reveal as much about Romania’s political polarization and dysfunction as its halting steps toward greater democracy. It comes amid heightened fears in the European Union that its newest and weakest members are not up to the task of rooting out corruption that is a legacy of decades of Communist rule and, indeed, of weak governance before that.
Across Eastern and Central Europe and the Balkans, countries are experiencing a surge of instability that, analysts say, stems almost in equal parts from endemic corruption and the sometimes ham-handed efforts to combat it in the context of bitter political rivalries.
The European Union, with 27 member nations, is so concerned about creeping lawlessness among its new members that Romania and its neighbor Bulgaria, which both entered in 2007, have not joined the bloc’s passport/visa-free travel area. On Thursday, the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, said concerns about corruption and fraud in Romania had prompted it to block development aid, potentially worth billions of euros.
In Croatia, which is set to join the European Union next year, a former prime minister, Ivo Sanader, has been charged with embezzlement.
Romania, in particular, has struggled to overcome the aftermath of the ruthless, corrupt dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. Over the past six years, 4,700 people have gone to trial on corruption charges, including 15 ministers and secretaries of state, 23 members of Parliament and more than 500 police officers.
To many, Mr. Nastase, a former member of the Communist elite who was prime minister from 2000 to 2004, is emblematic of a generation of still active politicians who assumed that power and influence could shelter them from the law. Once asked to account for his apparent wealth, he defiantly roared, “Count my eggs!” a Romanian slang word for genitals.
Monica Macovei, a former justice minister who is close to Mr. Nastase’s archrival President Traian Basescu, said that “There are too many people from the Communist era like Nastase who are still in power, and this has polluted the political class.”
Mr. Nastase’s suicide attempt, she said, was pure “theater.”
While few but Mr. Nastase’s closest allies — including the current prime minister, Victor Ponta — have sympathy for a man nicknamed “Seven-Houses Nastase” by members of the Romanian news media because of his opulent lifestyle, some have questioned the zeal of his prosecution.
Mr. Nastase’s lawyers gave a litany of judicial abuses in his case, chief among them that the prosecution called 972 witnesses — more than in the Nuremberg trials — while the defense was permitted to call only 5. They said prosecutors had brazenly charged Mr. Nastase as leader of a party rather than as a former prime minister to avoid the required parliamentary approval of the charges.
Victor Alistar, the executive director of the Romanian branch of Transparency International, an anticorruption watchdog, said the lopsided nature of the prosecution raised questions about whether Mr. Nastase had received a fair trial, regardless of his reputation.
“If you are going to catch a big fish,” Mr. Alistar said, “you need to do it properly.”
Prosecutors said so many had testified against Mr. Nastase because the corruption was so widespread. During his trial, they charged that under Mr. Nastase’s influence, companies were pressured into taking part in a 2004 construction conference whose participation fees were used to help finance his failed presidential campaign in 2004.
He also received a separate three-year suspended prison sentence for blackmail and was acquitted of corruption in a case involving a suspicious $400,000 inheritance left to his wife.
All the while, Mr. Nastase has declared his innocence, calling the charges against him a preposterous “political game.” In court this month, Mr. Nastase asked that the six days he had spent in a hospital after shooting himself be subtracted from his two-year sentence. The motion was rejected.
He declined to be interviewed. But his son, a 26-year-old businessman, said in an interview that his father had been despondent after becoming the victim of a political witch hunt by Mr. Basescu, the president.
Andrei Nastase said in the interview that the notion that his father had faked his own suicide to escape prison was both hurtful and abhorrent. In August, the general prosecutor’s office said that Mr. Nastase’s “act” had been voluntary and that police had respected legal procedures.
“I saw with my own eyes — it was not a magic trick,” the younger Mr. Nastase said, showing blood residue on the back of his father’s silver-colored watch, which he now wears. “Mr. Basescu saw my father as a threat, and these charges were created as a means to get him out of political life.”
The Romanian government recently drew European criticism for trying to influence Romania’s constitutional court after a failed effort to impeach Mr. Basescu, who himself was under fire for trying to influence prosecutors and judges.
Some analysts said Mr. Ponta, the prime minister and a former protégé of Mr. Nastase, had wanted to remove Mr. Basescu from office before he could pursue other senior officials in the Social Democratic Party.
In an interview, Mr. Ponta, who visited Mr. Nastase in hospital, said the suicide attempt had shocked him. Calling Mr. Nastase “the best prime minister Romania ever had,” he said the case showed how justice in Romania had become politicized.
Those skeptical about Mr. Nastase’s suicide attempt say he conspired with the police and doctors to fake a shot wound that might keep him from going to prison.
The anticorruption agency is now investigating whether a doctor and three police officers colluded to help Mr. Nastase evade prison. Witnesses outside the villa on the evening of the apparent suicide attempt said they had never heard a gunshot. Mr. Nastase, an experienced hunter, is right-handed, but shot himself with his left hand.
Ioan Rus, then the interior minister, told Romanian reporters that he had spoken to Mr. Nastase on the eve of his arrest because he feared he would do something drastic. When Mr. Rus offered to spirit him out of his house in a police car to avoid a public arrest, Mr. Nastase declined, he said.
“ ‘This will never happen,’ ” Mr. Rus said Mr. Nastase had told him. “ ‘I will never leave my home. I will decide by myself what’s to be done.’ ”
George Calin contributed reporting.
October 28, 2012
Opposition Party Appears to Win Lithuanian Parliamentary Vote
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — A center-left opposition party that campaigned on promises to end budget cuts and increase social spending has won Lithuania’s parliamentary election, according to a nearly complete vote count late Sunday, ending four years of conservative rule and increasingly unpopular austerity measures.
The victorious Social Democrats, who last governed the country between 2001 and 2008, vowed to form a new coalition government with smaller parties that would reverse the austerity policies and would step up public spending in hopes of improving living standards in Lithuania, which went through one of Europe’s worst recent recessions in 2009 and 2010.
The next government “will be center-left,” the Social Democratic leader, Algirdas Butkevicius, told reporters after casting his ballot.
Pointing out that Lithuanians were losing ground economically compared with their neighbors in Poland and Latvia, Mr. Butkevicius said, “More funds should be given to sectors that stimulate production.”
Unofficial vote tallies for the final roundn of voting on Sunday showed that the Social Democrats won about 38 seats in the country’s 141-seat Parliament, while its most likely coalition partners — the Labor Party and a party called Order & Justice — finished with 30 and 11 seats respectively.
The three parties said after the first round of voting two weeks ago that they would form a coalition together.
The current ruling party, the conservative Homeland Union-Christian Democrats, which is led by Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius, finished second with 32 seats.
Mr. Kubilius’ government took power in 2008, at the start of Europe’s financial crisis, and was the first in Lithuania since the nation regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 to complete an entire four-year term without new elections.
The Kubilius government has won praise for averting bankruptcy and returning the economy to growth, but it has been criticized over declining living standards and increased emigration, a problem highlighted by a recent census showing that the country’s population fell below three million earlier this year.
Mr. Kubilius promised to join the euro currency in 2014, but Mr. Butkevicius, a former finance minister, said he would postpone that step until the European Union sorts out its financial crisis.
The final decision on who will be asked to form the next government will be made by President Dalia Grybauskaite.
October 28, 2012
Governing Party Claims Victory in Ukraine Elections
By DAVID HERSZENHORN
KIEV, Ukraine — The governing party of President Viktor F. Yanukovich declared victory in Ukraine’s parliamentary elections on Sunday, based on preliminary exit polls that also showed opposition parties making strong gains, including an unexpectedly strong rise in support for an ultranationalist party with a leader who is known for anti-Semitic and racist views.
The precise makeup of the Parliament, called the Verkhovna Rada, will not be known for several weeks because half of the 450 seats will be filled by candidates who did not have to declare a party affiliation ahead of Sunday’s balloting.
But preliminary surveys of voters by five separate research and news media organizations showed Mr. Yanukovich’s Party of Regions in the lead with 27.6 percent to 32 percent of the vote, followed by the Fatherland party of Yulia V. Tymoshenko, the jailed former prime minister, with about 24 percent. A party led by the boxing champion Vitali Klitschko was third with about 14 percent.
“With this vote our people have shown that they understand what a difficult economic situation the country was in, and that our party has taken the full responsibility over the situation,” Prime Minister Mykola Azarov declared at a news conference, as hundreds of supporters gathered for a victory party on a square in central Kiev, waving blue and yellow flags.
Mr. Azarov said the preliminary results affirmed support for Mr. Yanukovich, who was elected in 2010 in a runoff against Ms. Tymoshenko. Mr. Yanukovich and his government have come under withering criticism in the West over the jailing of his rival and taking steps that have expanded executive control and rolled back previous democratic reforms.
But it appeared possible that the Party of Regions, and its traditional ally, the Communist Party, would wield less control over Parliament than they do now.
By far the most striking result from Sunday’s election was the surge in support for the Freedom Party, an ultranationalist, right wing party that could control a faction in Parliament for the first time. The surveys showed the party winning about 12 percent of the vote, compared with the less than 1 percent that it received in the last elections in 2007.
The Freedom Party’s rise caught many analysts by surprise and appeared at least partly to represent a backlash against a law elevating the status of the Russian language that was rammed through Parliament by the Party of Regions, infuriating many native Ukrainian speakers, particularly in the western part of the country.
The party’s strong performance also seemed to emphasize the growing disillusionment among many Ukrainian voters for the country’s familiar political actors, including Mr. Yanukovich and Ms. Tymoshenko, who was barred from the ballot.
The Freedom Party is led by Oleg Tyagnibok, a fiery nationalist, who has called in the past for purges of Jews and Russians from Ukraine. His party’s influence is likely to be even bigger than its share of the vote because of a cooperation agreement that it signed with Ms. Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party.
That agreement drew a critical statement on Saturday from the Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who alluded to the deaths of millions of Jews on Ukrainian soil during the Holocaust. “Anti-Semitic insults by Svoboda have caused outrage on a number of occasions both in Ukraine and in Israel,” Mr. Lieberman said, using the party’s Ukrainian name. “The expression of such views reminds of the darkest pages in the history of the last century that has led humanity to the tragedy of the Second World War.”
Mr. Tyagnibok, in an appearance on the television channel 1+1, said that the party was not surprised by the exit poll results and he accused the Yanukovich government of manipulating opinion polls ahead of the election to show the Freedom Party as unlikely to surpass the 5 percent threshold needed to hold a faction in Parliament.
“The palace sociological services were showing lower ratings of Svoboda trying to not let us above the 5 percent threshold in order to disenchant our voters, but it turned out that this only made our voters angry and mobilized them,” Mr. Tyagnibok said.
Critics of the Yanukovich government both in Ukraine and in the West said that Sunday’s election was heavily tilted in favor of the governing Party of Regions by the imprisonment of prominent opposition leaders and state pressure on news media outlets.
The criticism prompted the government to go to extraordinary lengths to portray the elections as fair, including the installation of Web cameras in more than 30,000 polling stations.
Over all, the voting seemed to go relatively smoothly with only scattered reports of Election Day shenanigans — at least at the polling stations.
In one district in Odessa, observers said there were reports of voters being given pens with disappearing ink to fill out their ballots, so their choices could be altered later. But most of the ballot counting was still under way on Sunday night, and election observers say the process of counting and certifying results often provides the greatest opportunities for fraud and manipulation.
Outside a children’s art school in Kiev where President Yanukovich cast his own ballot, Stanislav I. Titoryenko, 72, a retired construction engineer, said that he was voting for the nationalist Freedom Party because he was fed up with corruption.
Mr. Titoryenko said the corruption favored associates of Mr. Yanukovich from his hometown Donetsk, in the predominantly Russian-speaking southeast where the Party of Regions draws its base of support.
He said the Freedom Party would stand up for Ukrainians. “They can hit their opponents in the face,” Mr. Titoryenko said. “They are fighters. They will not just sit there and keep their mouths shut. They are for Ukraine.”
Nikolay Khalip contributed reporting.
October 28, 2012
Plot on U.S. Targets Cited in 11 Arrests by Indonesia
By SARA SCHONHARDT
JAKARTA, Indonesia — The Indonesian counterterrorism police conducted a series of raids over the weekend leading to the arrests of 11 people accused of planning terrorist attacks on several high-profile targets, including the American Embassy here.
A police spokesman said that those arrested were part of a relatively new group, the Sunni Movement for Indonesian Society, also known as Hasmi, and that it had been plotting to attack the embassy in Jakarta; the United States Consulate in Surabaya in eastern Java; a plaza in front of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta; and a Jakarta building that houses the Indonesian headquarters of Freeport-McMoRan Copper and Gold, the American mining giant.
The captives include Abu Hanifa, who is suspected of leading the group, and more suspects might be at large, said the police spokesman, Boy Rafli Amar. The police were continuing their investigation, but Mr. Rafli said the plot appeared to have been in its early stages.
“They were still preparing,” he said. “They were still in the planning process.”
The raids, which took place in four cities across the main island of Java, uncovered a completed bomb, explosive materials and bomb-making manuals, Mr. Rafli said. He said he believed the group had also been learning to build bombs through the Internet.
The police had been monitoring the group since the beginning of the year, but had moved to make arrests only once they were certain the suspects were working to build bombs, Mr. Rafli said.
The threat posed by the group is unclear, he added, calling it part of a “new generation” of terrorist organizations that has splintered off from Al Qaeda’s Southeast Asian affiliate, Jemaah Islamiyah, a militant group that backs the establishment of an Islamic state in the region.
“We’re still trying to find the motive,” Mr. Rafli said. “They are not part of J.I., but it could be they have some spirit of J.I.”
Indonesia experienced a series of high-profile terrorist attacks starting with the October 2002 bombing that killed 202 on the resort island of Bali. Most were linked to Jemaah Islamiyah and aimed at Western targets, including hotels and embassies. But since blasts rocked two luxury hotels in Jakarta in 2009, killing seven people, terrorist attacks have been small and unsophisticated.
The country is struggling to clamp down on the rise of new homegrown groups that have splintered off from global terrorist movements. Recent terrorist plots have predominantly targeted the National Police and state institutions, including Parliament, rather than foreigners.
During raids in late September, the counterterrorism police arrested 10 men and seized 12 homemade bombs after uncovering an alleged plan to attack the police and lawmakers.
While most analysts say the groups lack the skills and know-how to inflict much damage, they also say the threat should not be overlooked.
“The fact that they were aiming at Western targets, when all we’ve been hearing about is the police, shows that the West is still on their radar,” said Todd Elliott, a security analyst with Concord Consulting in Jakarta.
Mr. Elliot has been following Hasmi since 2009, when its members were involved with protests calling for church closings in the suburbs of Jakarta. In 2010, the International Crisis Group, which monitors security threats, identified it as an extremist group seeking to restore an Islamic caliphate in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country but one that is politically secular.
Most Indonesians practice a moderate form of Sunni Islam, but clashes between hard-line Muslim groups and Christians, as well as minority Muslim sects, have been on the rise in recent years. Many analysts have expressed concerns that the authorities are not doing enough to crack down on extremist groups that preach intolerance and hate.
Some extremist religious groups have started mixing with militants or finding inspiration from them, Mr. Elliott said. “Security forces are aware of it but reluctant to do anything about it,” he said.
The alleged plot uncovered over the weekend also included a police compound in central Java among its targets, and therefore was not aimed entirely at foreigners. Mr. Rafli said possible plans to attack American facilities, however, might have stemmed from the recognition of the cooperation between Indonesia and the United States, which helped train and support the country’s counterterrorism unit, Special Detachment 88.
A spokesman at the United States Embassy could not provide any additional information but said embassy officials were in close touch with investigators.
Since Special Detachment 88 was formed in 2003, the Indonesian security forces have arrested more than 700 suspected militants and killed about 60. The latest arrests were part of a continuing sweep that has netted dozens of suspected terrorists in recent months. Earlier this year, the police killed five men in Bali who security officials said they believed were planning a series of robberies to raise money for a future attack on the island.
10/29/2012 12:07 PM
Another Default?: Troika Calls for New Debt Relief for Greece
Greece's international creditors are calling for a new debt haircut for the country so as to bring down its massive debt load. This time, however, taxpayer money from Germany and other donor countries would be involved. Resistance, not surprisingly, is substantial.
For all of the uncertainty surrounding Greece's future in the euro zone and the mixed messages regarding the political and economic reform process in the country, the math is actually relatively simple. Current plans call for Greece's sovereign debt to drop to 120 percent of gross domestic product by 2020. But the country's debt load is 169 percent of GDP and it is expected to rise to 179 percent by the end of next year. In absolute terms, that is almost €350 billion ($451 billion).
Paying that down will require nothing short of an extended economic miracle in the Mediterranean country, an eventuality not looking terribly realistic following five years of economic shrinkage and a sixth on the horizon.
The other option? Another partial default. That, indeed, would seem to be the conclusion that Greece's main international creditors have come to. According to information received by SPIEGEL, representatives of the so-called troika -- made up of the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund -- proposed just such a debt haircut at a meeting last Thursday held in preparation for the next gathering of euro-zone finance ministers.
The proposal is not uncontroversial. At the beginning of this year, a similar debt relief plan resulted in just over €100 billion being shaved off of Greece's mountain of debt. But that money all came from private investors. This time around, public creditors would be involved, meaning that taxpayer money from those countries which have stood behind Greece would vanish off the books.
Not a Glowing Report
Several countries, including Germany, are opposed to such a plan, with representatives from a number of euro-zone member states saying they didn't want to write off the money they have loaned to Greece as emergency aid. The European Central Bank, which holds some €40 billion in Greek debt, would also not participate as the bank is not allowed to directly assist member states in such a manner.
Nevertheless, the ECB has said it is prepared to make available the profits it has earned from Greek sovereign bonds. The profits were generated by virtue of the fact that the ECB purchased its holdings of Greek bonds at below market rate, yet it receives the full return when those bonds mature.
The discussion over the debt haircut, however, is only one element of ongoing talks in Athens ahead of the troika's release of its next progress report. It is almost certain that the evaluation will come to the conclusion that Greece should receive the next tranche of aid money, worth €31.5 billion. Otherwise, the country would slide into uncontrolled bankruptcy by the end of next month. The money, however, may be put into an account that can be quickly blocked, so as to maintain pressure on Greece to continue down the reform path.
Still, it is not likely to be a glowing report. According to a draft report, Athens has only introduced 60 percent of the reforms demanded by the European Union. The paper notes that 20 percent of the requested reforms are currently under consideration. A further 150 measures have also been proposed, including loosening laws governing hiring and firing and those relating to minimum wage requirements.
The troika has already agreed to give Greece two extra years to meet its austerity goals, a delay that will likely result in a need for up to €30 billion in additional aid, according to the ECB and European Commission. The IMF believes the funding gap will be closer to €38 billion. The final troika report is to be presented no later than November 12.
10/29/2012 01:05 PM
The World from Berlin: 'EU Should Admit that Greece Will Need Debt Cut'
Greece's international creditors have proposed that the country receive another debt writedown, this time from EU governments. That, say German media commentators, is hardly a surprise. Fresh aid for Athens, they argue, has been inevitable for months, but leaders have shied away from telling the truth.
SPIEGEL has learned that the troika of inspectors from the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund is proposing a further debt cut for Greece, in a move that would for the first time cost taxpayers money because public creditors, meaning EU governments, would be called on to write off a portion of their claims.
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble ruled out such a move in a radio interview on Sunday, but said a debt repurchasing program, in which Greece would get new loans in order to pay back old debt, could be an option.
A public debt write-off would be damaging for Chancellor Angela Merkel because she would likely face a rebellion among lawmakers in her coalition against providing further aid to Greece.
But several German media commentators say Greece will inevitably need more time and more financial help to meet its deficit-reduction pledges, and point out that this has been evident for months. It is high time that EU governments came clean and admitted it, they say.
Center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"Credibility is what Greece lacks most. That's what German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble says and his diagnosis is as correct as it is incomplete. Ordinary people and investors haven't just lost confidence in the crisis-hit country. European leaders too have got caught up in semi-truths and delay tactics. The way the truth is being dealt with in the euro crisis is bordering on irresponsible."
"Take this ominous troika report, for example. For weeks EU leaders, including Schäuble, have been telling people that they're waiting for the report from the technocrats of the European Central Bank, European Commission and International Monetary Fund. A decision can only be taken once the report has come out, they say. What they're not saying is that they themselves decided that this report must be submitted four times a year. They got the last one in March -- which means that the one expected now is months overdue. The truth is, the troika won't submit a technical status report but a report that lives up to the political goal that Greece should remain in the euro. And that's taking a long time to compile, given the extent of the problems."
"Besides, the public creditors, meaning euro-zone member states, have long been waiving debts to Greece -- through sharply reduced interest rates. You can read all about it in the troika report from March. And there's a plan to keep doing so. If Greece is going to get back on its feet, more of its debt will have to be written off. It's time that Schäuble and other leaders start admitting this."
Conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"The Greeks face a historic decision: they must choose whether to become impoverished with the euro or the drachma. This week the parliament in Athens will vote on another austerity package, and its acceptance will presumably provide another temporary respite ensuring that Greece's loss of prosperity will take place within the common European currency."
"The crucial issue remains whether the agreed reforms will be implemented. It's good news that (Prime Minister Antonis) Samaras is doing what he can to ensure this happens. Unlike (Prime Minister Giorgos) Papandreou before him, he's engaging in a lot of micromanagement. He turns up in ministries unannounced, gives his ministers deadlines, ticks off lists, checks whether progress is being made. This kind of governing is new by Greek standards."
Berlin daily Tagesspiegel writes:
"It's astonishing how quickly the political agenda can change sometimes. Just a few weeks ago, all main EU leaders were categorically ruling out the possibility that Greece would get more time to implement is budget consolidation. Now they appear to have already decided that Greece will get a further two years to get its budget in order. And it will probably get further loans as well. They want to get everything done very quickly now: the Euro Group finance ministers could seal the change of policy as soon as Wednesday at their telephone conference."
"The realization that the current rescue plans won't work has come pretty late. It has been evident for months that Athens can't meet the main goals. The country won't be in a position to push its budget deficit under the 3 percent limit by 2014 and it is inconceivable that its can reduce its debt to 120 percent of GDP by 2020."
"That's not due to any lack of austerity efforts by the government in Athens. It has spent €2 billion less in the first nine months of the year than it was obliged to in its savings program. But Greece will nonetheless miss its deficit goal at the the end of the year because tax revenues are slumping due to the dramatically shrinking economy. It is obvious that a consolidation program has to be amended if the macro-economic parameters have changed so fundamentally. Greece needs more time. The crux of the matter is that more time costs more money. The aid agreed so far runs out in 2014. If Athens gets until 2016, further money will be needed."
"It will be hard to get a third rescue package through Berlin. Little wonder: After Greece kept on breaking its reform pledges in the last three years, there's a lot of mistrust. The opening of markets, privatizations, cuts in bureaucracy, the fight against corruption: There hasn't been much progress in any of that. Greek politicians still shy away from conflicts with powerful unions and interest groups that want to closet themselves from competition. The budget consolidation will have to be delayed. And one will have to check how Greece's crippling debt burden can be lessened. But there can be no delay in the reform timetable."
Mass circulation Bild writes:
"We Germans have shown solidarity. We kept on helping when the need was greatest. But it came to nothing. It's a painful lesson. A country incapable of repaying its debts to its European partners simply has no place in the euro. If there really will be a second debt writedown, Greece must get out of the euro. No one can accuse us of not having tried everything!"
-- David Crossland
10/29/2012 12:28 PM
Interview with ECB President Mario Draghi: 'We Couldn't Just Sit Back and Do Nothing'
In an interview with SPIEGEL, President of the European Central Bank Mario Draghi defends his euro crisis policies and promises to keep prices stable. He also says he's on Germany's side when it comes to encouraging reforms in the euro zone.
SPIEGEL: President Draghi, do you have a savings account?
SPIEGEL: Do you know much interest you are getting?
Draghi: Around 1.75 percent. That's the current rate on savings in Italy.
SPIEGEL: The rate on a German savings account is even lower than that. The returns are not anywhere near sufficient to make up for rising prices. Are savers picking up the bill for the euro crisis?
Draghi: No. If we do not resolve the euro crisis, we will all pay the price. And if we do resolve it, we will all benefit, particularly German taxpayers and savers.
SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, many people, particularly in Germany, are worried about the value of their money because the European Central Bank has reduced interest rates to a historically low level and announced its intention to make large-scale purchases of government bonds issued by indebted southern European countries. Are people right to be worried?
Draghi: We take the worries of the people very seriously. People are right to ask why we felt it necessary to announce the program for government bond purchases.
SPIEGEL: Then please explain it to us.
Draghi: The crisis of confidence means that money is flowing to Germany. This depresses interest rates in Germany and increases interest rates in other countries to unjustifiably high levels. Put simply, interest rates reflected, among other things, speculation that the euro area could break up. This speculation was unfounded, and we had to counter it.
SPIEGEL: And so you decided to help out the governments in Rome and Madrid.
Draghi: No, the decisive factor was something else. The high bond yields also caused interest rates on corporate and housing loans to shoot up. This put the effectiveness of our monetary policy at risk: No matter how much we cut interest rates, there was no longer any effect on the real economy. We couldn't just sit back and do nothing.
SPIEGEL: Many experts have expressed doubts that the interest rates on loans in Spain and Italy were really at alarming levels.
Draghi: There is no reason for this; we have a great deal of evidence. Take the bank in Spain that could barely issue a bond, although it was, objectively speaking, just as solvent as a credit institution in Germany. No wonder that banks charge completely different interest rates on loans depending on which side of the border they are resident. Also, for this reason, a married couple can get totally different mortgage conditions for an apartment in Madrid than in Munich.
SPIEGEL: It is not unusual for interest rates on loans to vary from country to country.
Draghi: That is true, but the scale of the differences had exceeded all normal levels. Interest rates do not have to be identical across the whole euro area, but it is unacceptable if major differences arise from broken capital markets or concern about a euro area break-up. In addition, short-term rates were higher than long-term rates in some countries, which we always see as a warning sign. All of our analysis indicated that we were facing a serious crisis of confidence, and that we urgently needed to do something about it.
SPIEGEL: But many people, particularly in Germany, believe that your measures are illegal. You are circumventing the prohibition on financing government deficits by printing money.
Draghi: That is incorrect. We are prohibited from buying bonds directly from governments, and we abide by this prohibition. But we are allowed to purchase bonds on what is known as the secondary market -- that is, from banks or financial institutions -- if it is necessary for our monetary policy. And that's exactly what we are doing.
SPIEGEL: The question is why you had to frighten people with the comment that you were preparing to purchase "unlimited amounts." Didn't you realize that this would make people anxious?
Draghi: I chose the word "unlimited" in order to clearly indicate our determination to defend the euro. One has to understand how markets work. But unlimited does not mean uncontrolled. On the contrary, we will only buy bonds from those countries that accept strict conditions, and we will check very carefully whether those conditions are adhered to.
SPIEGEL: We have our doubts about that. Would you really refuse to help a country that does not fulfil the reform requirements?
Draghi: Of course. If a country does not adhere to what has been agreed, we will not resume the program. We have announced that we will suspend operations once a program country is under review. We will then ask the International Monetary Fund and the European Commission to assess whether the country is keeping the conditions of the agreement, and only after a positive assessment will we resume operations.
SPIEGEL: One only needs to consider the example of Greece currently to get an idea of how credible such statements are. The government in Athens repeatedly broke their commitments to the troika, made up of the IMF, ECB and European Commission, and yet they are now about to receive the next tranche of financial assistance anyway.
Draghi: That is not an appropriate comparison. Greece will not be considered at all for our program because it is targeted exclusively at countries that finance themselves, now as before, on the capital market. This is something completely different.
SPIEGEL: Many people are nevertheless concerned that the ECB wants to take a vast amount of high-risk government bonds from southern Europe onto its balance sheet. You already have around €200 billion in securities from countries such as Portugal and Ireland on your books. Will it be the taxpayer who ultimately has to jump in if the countries cannot service their debt?
Draghi: I do not anticipate this; quite the opposite. So far we have actually made a profit on our bond purchases, which has gone to the national central banks, in turn profiting the governments and taxpayers.
SPIEGEL: Can you guarantee it will stay this way?
Draghi: One thing is clear: If the governments in southern Europe continue with the successful implementation of policy reforms seen in the last few months, German taxpayers will make a profit from our purchases. There is no better protection against the euro crisis than successful structural reforms in southern Europe.
SPIEGEL: This can also be expressed in a different way: Your balance sheet is dependent upon political developments in Madrid, Rome and Lisbon. Do you think it is wise for a central bank to make itself dependent on governments in this way?
Draghi: We are not making ourselves dependent, quite the opposite. When the crisis escalated in early summer, the ECB had three options: First, do nothing, allowing the crisis to get worse and worse with greater risks, particularly for the German taxpayer; second, provide support unconditionally; or third, provide support under certain conditions. The ECB chose the third option because that was the best way to combat the causes of the crisis. Governments must commit to sound economic and financial policies. This is how we ensure reform in the euro area -- and our independence.
'We Have Decided Not to Give Exact Figures For Our Program'
SPIEGEL: Experience shows otherwise. If you artificially lower interest rates, it makes it easier for governments to become indebted and decreases the pressure for reform.
Draghi: High interest rates are the most significant source of pressure for a government resisting reform, I agree with you there. This is exactly why we insist on adherence to strict conditions. Moreover, we do not want to completely eliminate differences in interest rates between countries. We will only intervene if the differences become excessive.
SPIEGEL: Many experts doubt that you can make a clear distinction in this regard.
Draghi: We would disagree. There are models and indicators available that will help us to make an informed judgement.
SPIEGEL: When you announced your program, interest rates in Spain, for example, stood at 6.5 percent. What proportion of this was speculative?
Draghi: I will not tell you that. We have decided not to give exact figures for our program that we could later be pinned down to. What I can tell you is that a good analysis will provide you with the necessary indications regarding at which point the differences give cause for concern.
SPIEGEL: We fear that you are getting entangled in hopeless political discussions with the European governments. In order to put the monetary union on firm footing, you are in favour of, for example, greater centralization of economic and financial policy. Up to now we have seen little of this.
Draghi: This is not how I see it. Governments are on the right path. They have committed themselves to transferring more competencies for budgetary and financial policy to the European level. They need to make the necessary decisions on this at their summit meeting in December.
SPIEGEL: Up to now, governments have only been ready to concede greater powers to the Commission regarding the control of their budgets. The actual decisions will continue to be taken at the national level, however.
Draghi: The governments have made decisions that would have been inconceivable even one year ago. This is progress, but it is not enough.
SPIEGEL: Why not?
Draghi: If you want to restore confidence in the euro area, you need rules. But that is only the first step. You also need to ensure that the rules are adhered to. This is what was lacking in the past and what governments need to work on.
SPIEGEL: German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has proposed giving the European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs a direct say in national budgets. What do you think of that proposal?
Draghi: I am fully in favour of it. Governments would be wise to seriously consider it. I firmly believe that, in order to restore confidence in the euro area, countries need to transfer part of their sovereignty to the European level.
SPIEGEL: But this is precisely what many governments are unwilling to do. Why is there so much resistance?
Draghi: A lot of governments have yet to realize that they lost their national sovereignty a long time ago. Because, in the past, they have allowed their debt to pile up, they now need the goodwill of the financial markets. That sounds like a paradox, but it is nonetheless true. Only when the euro area countries are willing to share sovereignty at the European level will they gain sovereignty.
SPIEGEL: The second measure with which you wanted to place the monetary union on a firmer footing was the establishment of a single supervisory mechanism (SSM), with the ECB at the helm. However, it will now not be up and running on Jan. 1, 2013, as planned. Are you disappointed?
Draghi: Not at all. What is more important is that the SSM works well, not when it starts. Otherwise, the reputation and independence of the ECB are at risk.
SPIEGEL: Why do you think that the ECB will do a better job of supervising banks than the national authorities that have been responsible for doing it until now?
Draghi: It is not that we want to replace the national supervisory authorities; on the contrary, we want to work closely with them. However, they need to be independent of their governments in their assessment of the problems. In the past, problems in the banking sector have been hushed up time and again.
SPIEGEL: Like in Spain…
Draghi: I am not going to mention any names. However, I am certain that we will be able to act more independently and quickly if Frankfurt is at the heart of the decision-making.
SPIEGEL: But that means that the independence of your monetary policy will come under threat. Will you still be able to take an impartial decision on interest rates if there is the danger that major banks will be pushed into financial ruin?
Draghi: I am aware of the risk, which is why there must be a strict separation between the two areas at the ECB. The Governing Council of the ECB should assign most of the supervisory tasks to an independent committee composed primarily of supervisors.
SPIEGEL: That sounds modest, because you now actually have more responsibilities than any other central banker before you. You are the biggest creditor of many euro area countries; you are the chief banking supervisor and are designing a new structure for the euro area alongside the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy. Would it be wrong to call you the most powerful man in Europe?
Draghi: That is certainly not the way I see myself. With regard to the banking union, for example, we are only providing technical assistance because we were asked to.
SPIEGEL: You are in the news after every EU summit along with world leaders. Are you trying to say that you don't have any influence?
Draghi: I can see how I may give this impression, but I am well aware that I am a central banker without a political mandate, who only acts together with the Governing Council of the ECB.
SPIEGEL: In Germany, people have several reservations about your crisis policies. Were you surprised to receive so much criticism?
Draghi: I had the opportunity of a very deep and wide-ranging exchange of views with members of the Bundestag last Wednesday. My impression was that I was able to explain a number of issues, in particular how the measures comply with our mandate to safeguard our independence and to ensure price stability in the medium term.
SPIEGEL: This fear stems from historical experience. Germans have learned that, if central banks flood the markets with money, this always leads to inflation.
Draghi: We have to take these fears very seriously. But the correlation is not so simple. In some cases, such as in the Weimar Republic, printing money caused inflation. But in other cases, proactive central bank action did not.
SPIEGEL: You mean the Federal Reserve System's decision at the start of this millennium to drastically reduce interest rates, a policy which contributed to the price bubble on the housing market and the financial crisis of 2007-2008. How do you intend to rule out something similar repeating itself in Europe?
Draghi: We are committed to safeguarding price stability and avoiding systemic asset bubbles. So far we have seen some rising prices in a few asset markets at the local level. Such phenomena must be dealt with regionally by the relevant political and supervisory authorities, for example by asking banks to hold more capital against their real estate exposure.
SPIEGEL: What would you say to German taxpayers who fear inflation?
Draghi: At present I do not see any risks to price stability. The ECB remains committed to safeguarding price stability as it has always done in the past. We firmly expect the inflation rate in the euro area to fall next year to below our target of close to 2 percent.
SPIEGEL: At the start of Monetary Union, Germans were promised that the ECB would behave like a second Bundesbank, the country's central bank. Many people here now speak of a new Banca d'Italia, which tolerated double-figure inflation rates in the 1970s.
Draghi: I consider such accusations, to put it mildly, inelegant. For two reasons: in the 1970s, the Banca d'Italia was not independent. Today, the situation is completely different. But there is also a personal reason. Because of inflation, my family lost a large part of its savings at that time. You can therefore rest assured that I am personally and not only professionally committed to delivering price stability.
SPIEGEL: Two German members of the ECB's Governing Council have stepped down in protest, and the head of the Bundesbank Jens Weidmann openly opposes your policy. Does that not make you think?
Draghi: Of course. That reflects concerns which we incorporate into our decisions. You can be assured that, in taking measures, we stick strictly to our mandate.
SPIEGEL: Your former colleague Jürgen Stark, who resigned, sees it differently.
Draghi: His reasoning is not shared by the Governing Council of the ECB.
SPIEGEL: But the fact is you are doing things that would have previously been inconceivable.
Draghi: We are also currently in a crisis that was previously inconceivable. It is therefore not very helpful to compare our measures with the past. When we speak of the Bundesbank culture, we mean a culture of independence and price stability. I am deeply attached to both principles and can assure you that each member of the Governing Council is just as deeply committed to delivering price stability in total independence and fully in line with the mandate of our founding fathers.
SPIEGEL: In a recent interview with SPIEGEL, Mr. Weidmann warned that central bank financing could become addictive, like a drug.
Draghi: That risk exists, and we have it in mind. But central bank financing can also be helpful, like medicine. And that should also be kept in mind.
SPIEGEL: How long can these controversies between you and Mr. Weidmann continue?
Draghi: I would like certain discussions to proceed in a more controlled way. Mr. Weidmann and I still have a great deal of understanding for one another. We have the same goal and our differences of opinion over the correct instruments are not insurmountable.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Draghi, thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Michael Sauga and Anna Seith
October 28, 2012
Greek Editor Is Arrested After Publishing a List of Swiss Bank Accounts
By LIZ ALDERMAN
ATHENS — The Greek police arrested and then quickly released the owner and editor of a respected investigative magazine on Sunday morning hours after he published a list of more than 2,000 Greeks who were said to have accounts at a bank in Switzerland, throwing new controversy into a scandal over whether the government is actively pursuing suspected tax cheats.
The dramatic moves, which tens of thousands of Greeks were following on the Internet, came days before Greece’s European partners were to meet to decide whether to grant tens of billions of euros in new aid to the financially struggling nation. Greece’s lenders have long said that the government must crack down on tax evasion to be eligible for more aid.
The police said they had been ordered to take the editor, Kostas Vaxevanis, who runs Hot Doc magazine and who is one of the nation’s most famous investigative journalists, into custody on misdemeanor charges. The Greek news media reported that the charges concerned the violation of the privacy of those on the list.
Mr. Vaxevanis posted a message to his Twitter account early Sunday saying that 15 officers had surrounded the home of a friend with whom he had been staying “like Greek storm troopers in German uniforms.”
Mr. Vaxevanis soon followed up with another Twitter message: “They’re entering my house with the prosecutor right now. They are arresting me. Spread the word.”
Hours later, he was released from Athens police headquarters to loud cheers from a crowd outside. He is to face a magistrate at noon on Monday, when his trial date is to be set.
On the list were a former culture minister, several employees of the Finance Ministry and a number of business leaders. Hot Doc reported that they had accounts in a Geneva branch of HSBC. The magazine said its list matched a list of 2,059 people that was handed over to the Greek government in 2010 by Christine Lagarde, then the French finance minister and now the head of the International Monetary Fund, to help Greece crack down on rampant tax evasion as it was trying to steady its economy.
A spokesman for Ms. Lagarde referred questions to the French tax authorities, who did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Last week, as the controversy grew, two former ministers were pressed to explain why the government appeared to have taken no action on the list in the two years since Ms. Lagarde handed it over.
George Papaconstantinou, the ex-finance minister who received the list from Ms. Lagarde, told a parliamentary panel last week that he had been advised that he could not use it because a former HSBC employee obtained the names illegally. Mr. Papaconstantinou said that after receiving the names, he had passed them on a memory stick to the chief of Greece’s financial crimes unit, Ioannis Diotis, who later gave it to Mr. Papaconstantinou’s successor, Evangelos Venizelos, the current leader of the Socialists. Mr. Diotis said that Mr. Venizelos had not instructed him to investigate it.
Mr. Vaxevanis’s publication of the list raises the stakes in a heated battle over which current and former government officials had seen the original — and whether they had used it to check for possible tax evasion.
Moreover, Mr. Vaxevanis’s arrest raises questions about freedom of the press in a country that frequently reminds its European Union partners that it is the birthplace of democracy. The Greek chapter of Reporters Without Borders issued a statement on Sunday expressing concern about the speed of his arrest.
Mr. Vaxevanis “is not a dangerous criminal,” the group said. “The pressure created by the arrest of a reporter is clearly disproportionate. This procedure simply encourages an excessive cover-up, and the authorities appear to be imposing the ‘therapy’ of this sensitive issue, which is a gripping matter of public interest.”
The group added that the handling of Mr. Vaxevanis’s case “cannot be any different in a member state of the European Union.”
Mr. Vaxevanis said he was the wrong target. “Instead of arresting the tax evaders and the ministers who had the list in their hands, they are trying to arrest the truth and free journalism,” he said in a telephone interview that was uploaded on the Internet and widely circulated.
Greek blogs posted petitions calling for Mr. Vaxevanis’s release, and they had generated more than 10,000 online signatures by early afternoon.
Greeks are skeptical that political leaders will investigate the business elite, with whom they often have close ties, even as middle- and lower-class people have struggled with higher taxes and increasingly ardent tax collectors. Parliament is expected to vote on a new 13.5 billion euro austerity package (about $17.5 billion) that could further reduce standards of living.
The fallout over the publication of the list is certain to distract Greek politicians, and may raise fresh questions among Greece’s European partners during a week when European finance ministers are scheduled to discuss the release of a 31.5 billion euro loan tranche (about $41 billion) that Athens needs to avoid bankruptcy. The magazine was careful to note that having an account at HSBC was not illegal or proof of evading Greek taxes, a point underscored by a spokesman for the Finance Ministry. But the magazine suggested that Greek officials should check whether those on the list had moved money into the accounts to escape paying taxes.
The existence of the list has shaken the country, posing new challenges to the fragile three-way coalition government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras. There was no immediate comment from Mr. Samaras, who was meeting with aides to discuss the new austerity measures.
Rachel Donadio and Niki Kitsantonis contributed reporting.
French president Hollande to meet with World Bank
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, October 29, 2012 7:05 EDT
French President Francois Hollande holds talks on Monday with the heads of the World Bank and other top economic bodies to discuss the eurozone debt crisis and ways to kickstart growth.
The meeting will start at 11:00 am (1000 GMT) at the Paris headquarters of the OECD and will be followed by a working lunch and a press conference, the Elysee presidential office said.
An official told AFP that Hollande had called the meeting “to discuss international economic issues and economic and social recovery … to spur growth, jobs and competitiveness”.
Those attending include World Bank chief Jim Yong Kim, the International Monetary Fund’s Christine Lagarde, World Trade Organization head Pascal Lamy, International Labour Organization Secretary General Guy Ryder and the OECD’s Angel Gurria.
They will all then go on to Berlin to hold talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday.
France’s foreign, finance and labour ministers will also be present to “exchange expertise” at the Paris meeting where “international organisations will outline their vision of economic perspectives for developed and emerging nations,” the official said.
The meeting comes amid tortuous efforts to battle the contagion threatening the euro currency zone and different approaches advocated by the heads of the bloc’s two main economies — Merkel and Hollande.
Merkel is all for austerity while Hollande insists on measures that will spur growth.
At the end of July, Hollande and the OECD secretary general had agreed to hold “regular talks on economic and social matters” as well as the effects of globalisation.
A member of Hollande’s entourage said the French president will stress “the need for better coordination among different economies and economic organisations on a global level for regulated globalisation to promote growth and jobs”.
France is also trying to restore competitiveness in its domestic industry. Its share in the global market has fallen from 6.2 percent in 1990 to 3.6 percent.
A government-commissioned report has sparked outrage here by saying that France needs a “shock” to boost competitiveness and evoking the scrapping of payroll levies paid by employers by as much as 50 billion euros ($65 billion).
The idea is to shift a part of the tax burden on to workers by increasing the so-called CSG levy which helps fund the social security system.
In a bid to soothe concerns voiced by leading unions Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the programme could be spread over two or three years and it would not be a “shock” but more of a “holistic plan”.
Egypt’s Copts to choose new pope
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, October 29, 2012 7:20 EDT
Egypt’s Coptic Christians vote on Monday for a new leader to succeed Pope Shenuda III, who died in March leaving behind a community anxious about its status under an Islamist-led government.
The death of Shenuda, who headed the church for four decades, set in motion the process to elect a new patriarch to lead the community through the post-revolution era in Egypt, which is marked by increased sectarian tension.
Five candidates — two bishops and three monks — are vying to become the 118th Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa in the Holy See of St Mark the Apostle.
A council of senior clergy, current and former Coptic public officials, MPs, local councillors and journalists will cast a vote for their preferred candidate.
The names of the top three vote-getters will then be written on separate pieces of paper and placed in a box on the altar of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo.
On November 4, a child will be blindfolded and asked to choose one of the papers.
The person chosen will be enthroned in a ceremony on November 18.
The candidates are Bishop Rafael, 54, a medical doctor and current assistant bishop for central Cairo; Bishop Tawadros of the Nile Delta province of Beheira, 60; Father Rafael Ava Mina, the oldest of the five candidates at 70; Father Seraphim al-Souriani, 53 and Father Pachomious al-Suriani, 49.
They have been visiting churches and preaching across the country ahead of the voting.
Copts around the world were asked to fast for three days before the voting, and a second period of fasting will begin on October 31, said Bishop Paul, spokesman for the selection committee.
One cleric who did not make the short list is hardline Bishop Bishoy because of, as the state-owned Egyptian Gazette said in a recent editorial, “his fierce attacks on other denominations and his previous statements to the press that could have sparked sectarian sedition in the country.”
Bishoy came under fire over comments he made about the Muslim holy book, the Koran, and his exclusion suggests the church is trying to keep controversial figures out of the race.
Egypt’s Copts, who make up six to 10 percent of the 83 million population, have regularly complained of discrimination and marginalisation, even under the secular regime of president Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled last year.
The subsequent rise of Islamists, and the election of the country’s first Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, have sparked fears of further persecution at home despite Morsi’s repeated promises to be a president “for all Egyptians”.
In the latest incident, five Egyptian Coptic Christians were injured Sunday in clashes with Muslims at a church in a village south of Cairo, security sources said.
The violence took place as Muslim villagers attempted to block access to the church as the Coptic faithful arrived from throughout the area to attend Sunday mass.
Bishop Morcos, chairman of the church’s influential media committee, recently told the state owned Al-Ahram weekly “we reject the notion of a religious state that would prevent us from exercising our freedom as Copts”.
“The state should be ruled by law and not religion,” he said.
In the USA...
Texas judge rules that Gov. Perry can’t yank women’s clinic funding yet
By Andrea Plaid
Sunday, October 28, 2012 22:18 EDT
It’s a Texas state judge that’s now blocking Gov. Rick Perry’s (R) quest to get rid of Planned Parenthood.
According The Austin Chronicle, Judge Amy Clark Meachem issued a temporary restraining order against a federal ruling that would let the state pull funding from women’s clinics affiliated with the Texas Women’s Health Program if they’re also with abortion providers.
Perry interpreted interperted an earlier ruling by the 5th U.S. District Court of Appeals to mean he can “immediately” defund Planned Parenthood’s clinics–”immediately” meaning starting Nov. 1–though the vast majority of their Texas clinics don’t actually perform abortions.
Judge Meachem issued the order until she can hear the case brought by Planned Parenthood, setting the hearing date for November 8. The nonprofit argued that Perry’s rule violates Texas’ Human Resource Code, which created the state’s program to provide vital health services for about 50,000 low-income and uninsured women. The state said that under the restructured program, Planned Parenthood would be ineligible for public funding because of its affiliations with abortion providers. In the process, the resulting cuts will mainly impact clinics that serve low-income and uninsured women.
According to The Austin Chronicle, the temporary restraining order likely won’t stop Perry, who said on Twitter that the judge’s order “ignores the will” of Texans and their lawmakers.
Tea Party ‘lying low’ on presidential race, but still active locally
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, October 29, 2012 7:45 EDT
The Tea Party has been relatively quiet during the presidential election but supporters of the right-wing movement which burst on to the political scene three years ago say it has not gone away.
“They say that the Tea Party is dead because we’re not probably as active out there with rallies,” said Nancy Schiffman, 75, president of the Tea Party Patriots in Prince William County in the southern state of Virginia.
“Initially, when the Tea Party first started back in 2009, the rallies were the only way to express ourselves as a group,” Schiffman said.
“Now (people) know who we are,” she said, and the Tea Party movement has become a force to be reckoned with.
The loose coalition of conservative groups is unified by several key principles: a desire for a radically reduced role for government, lower taxes, an end to deficit spending, and a scrupulous adherence to the US Constitution.
Just two years after Democrat Barack Obama’s historic 2008 election, Tea Party candidates enjoyed a wave of success in a 2010 midterm election that handed control of the US House of Representatives to the Republican Party.
Schiffman said her Tea Party branch, which has around 700 members in Prince William County, has been lying low ahead of the November 6 contest for the White House between Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
Instead, Schiffman and her husband Yale, 74, have been spending their time focusing on local elections, ballot initiatives within their state and education measures in the schools.
Kevin McCarthy, 61, a Tea Party activist, said the continued influence of the movement can be measured by the impact it is having down-ticket — in races for governor, senator, the House or Representatives and other contests.
“The Tea party focuses not only on big issues, but on local elections too,” McCarthy said.
The Tea Party movement has come to wield considerable clout in setting the Republican agenda in its brief existence but it was unable to prevent Romney — seen by many as not being conservative enough — from winning the presidential nomination.
Other Republican candidates for the nomination such as former pizza executive Herman Cain, US lawmaker Michele Bachmann, former House speaker Newt Gingrich and even Libertarian-leaning Republican lawmaker Ron Paul were seen by some in the Tea Party as being more in line with their principles.
“There was definitely not an initial consensus (on a candidate),” McCarthy said.
As governor of traditionally Democratic Massachusetts, Romney was viewed as a centrist, embracing policies that included backing a woman’s right to have an abortion and a medical insurance reform overhaul that ended up providing the template for Obama’s health care reform.
But since Romney’s nomination, the Tea Party, like other conservative groups, has rallied around the multi-millionaire businessman — spurred by their intense dislike of Obama and their ardent wish to see him defeated.
As the presidential election approaches, the Schiffmans have come together behind Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, the congressman from Wisconsin.
“I think Romney did very well (in the debates),” Nancy Schiffman said. “He certainly impressed people and now the polls have changed, the dynamic has changed.”
“Especially in the first debate, Romney did very well and Obama was terrible,” McCarthy said. “In the last few days, and I think it will continue, the undecided voters are really trending towards Romney.”
“Strategically Romney linked the idea of a strong American foreign policy to a strong economy at home, that was very good,” he said.
Alluding to high gas prices, McCarthy added that “everytime you go to pump gas it’s a political commercial for Romney.”
And while McCarthy has thrown his support behind the former Massachusetts governor, he wistfully points to another former governor — Ronald Reagan — as the truly ideal Tea Party candidate.
“He really understood how the presidency is supposed to run, how this country is supposed to run,” McCarthy said of Reagan, who served as governor of California before going on to serve two terms in the White House.
Eastern U.S. in lockdown ahead of Hurricane Sandy
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, October 29, 2012 7:30 EDT
Much of the eastern United States was in lockdown mode Monday awaiting the arrival of a hurricane dubbed “Frankenstorm” that threatened to wreak havoc on the area with storm surges, driving rain and gale-force winds.
New York authorities ordered the evacuation Sunday of 375,000 people from low-lying coastal areas as the imminent arrival of Hurricane Sandy forced the entire eastern seaboard into lockdown mode.
More than 7,400 flights out of east coast hubs were canceled and ground transport was due to grind to a halt on as non-essential government staff were told not to show up for work and public schools were shuttered.
Amtrak suspended all bus and train services up and down the coast. Subway services, buses and commuter trains were also shut down in New York, Philadelphia and Washington.
And the said it will be completely closed on Monday, and possibly on Tuesday.
Hundreds of thousands of residents in low-lying coastal areas were under orders to clear out and an AFP reporter said the beach resort of Rehoboth in Delaware was a ghost town as the deadline passed for mandatory evacuation.
The storm made its presence felt on the knife-edge US presidential race as President Barack Obama’s jittery campaign voiced fears about turnout on November 6 and both candidates pulled out of rallies in must-win states.
“My first message is to all people across the eastern seaboard, mid-Atlantic going north. You need to take this very seriously,” Obama said, urging 50 million Americans across the region to heed the advice of local authorities.
The president, who spoke after being briefed at the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), cautioned that Sandy was a slow-moving storm that certain areas would take a long time to recover from.
“The time for preparing and talking is about over,” FEMA administrator Craig Fugate warned. “People need to be acting now.”
As some defiant New Yorkers stocked up on beer and laughed off the evacuation orders saying they intended to ride out the storm, the National Weather Service office in neighboring New Jersey held no punches in its warning to residents.
“If you are reluctant to evacuate, and you know someone who rode out the ’62 storm on the Barrier Islands, ask them if they could do it again,” a bulletin said, referring to the notorious Ash Wednesday storm of 1962.
“If you are reluctant, think about your loved ones, think about the emergency responders who will be unable to reach you when you make the panicked phone call to be rescued, think about the rescue/recovery teams who will rescue you if you are injured or recover your remains if you do not survive.”
Fearful residents from Washington to New York to Boston queued for emergency provisions like bottled water and batteries in long lines that stretched out the doors of supermarkets.
After laying waste to parts of the Caribbean, where it claimed 66 lives, most of them in Cuba and Haiti, Hurricane Sandy was predicted to come crashing ashore in New Jersey and Delaware late Monday or early Tuesday.
Packing hurricane force winds upwards of 75 miles per hour (120 kilometers per hour), the storm was about 470 miles (760 kilometers) south southeast of New York early Monday and beginning to turn west, the National Hurricane Center said.
Winds stretched more than 520 miles (835 kilometers) from its eye, meaning everywhere from South Carolina to southern Canada was due to be affected.
“The system is so large that I would say millions of people are at least in areas that have some chance of experiencing either flash flooding or river flooding,” National Hurricane Center director Rick Knabb warned.
Forecasters cautioned that the massive storm was far larger and more dangerous than last year’s devastating Hurricane Irene that claimed 47 lives and caused an estimated $15 billion in damage.
Current projections show Sandy barreling north on a collision course with two other weather systems that would send it hooking into the Delaware or New Jersey coast as one of the worst storms on record.
Weather experts say the collision could create a super-charged storm bringing floods, high winds and even heavy snow across a swath of eastern states and as far inland as Ohio.
Governors have declared states of emergency in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia and the US capital Washington.
Obama signed emergency declarations to free up federal disaster funds for New York state, Massachusetts, Maryland and Washington, New Jersey and Connecticut.
October 28, 2012
In Middle of a Messy Election, a Nightmare Makes Landfall
By PETER BAKER
WASHINGTON — In the dark of night, when they get what little sleep they get these days, the people running the campaigns for president have more than enough fodder for nightmares. Worse, come daybreak, they realize their worst fears may yet come true.
Dancing in their heads are visions of recounts, contested ballots and lawsuits. The possibility that their candidate could win the popular vote yet lose the presidency. Even the outside chance of an Electoral College tie that throws the contest to Congress.
Now add to that parade of potential horrors one more: a freakish two-in-one storm that could, if the more dire forecasts prove correct, warp an election two years and $2 billion in the making.
Despite the meticulous planning, careful strategies, polling, advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts, the election could produce the sort of messy outcome that defies expectation and prognostication. Polls show such a tight race between President Obama and Mitt Romney heading into this final week that the two sides are playing out any number of wild possibilities.
The approach of Hurricane Sandy reminded them just how out of their control democracy can be.
“Obviously, we believe the more people participate in the election, the better,” said David Axelrod, the president’s senior strategist, “and the storm can be disruptive. But to the 50 million people in its path, there are more immediate and potentially grave concerns that transcend politics. We’ll have to wait and see its impact.”
The storm forced both candidates to scrap campaign stops and, with eight days until Election Day, will require Mr. Obama to balance the roles of president in an emergency and candidate. That could benefit or hurt him, depending on how voters view his performance, and distract from efforts by both camps to advance a closing argument.
Early voting, which Mr. Obama has counted on to bolster his chances of a second term, will most likely grind to a halt in some places along the Eastern Seaboard, while power failures could last much of the week and conceivably until Election Day in some places. It went unnoticed by no one that Virginia, among the most tightly contested states, may be among the most affected.
Meteorology is only one wild card facing the campaigns in the final week. On Election Day, the winner may not be known right away; results in one or more states may be close enough to merit recounts. In Ohio, which could decide the election, so many provisional ballots may be cast — and by law are not counted right away — that it may be mid-November before a winner is declared.
“The Boy Scout motto comes in handy — be prepared,” said Bradley Blakeman, a Republican strategist and veteran of George W. Bush’s recount fight in Florida. “I know that lists of local lawyers and national legal talent are amassed and will be deployed if need be. After the recount in 2000 and the nail-biter in 2004, the G.O.P. is ready with multiple scenarios already modeled.”
The campaigns are so worried about every electoral vote that a pro-Romney “super PAC” even invested in ads in Maine, a largely Democratic state, because it allocates some electoral votes by Congressional district and Republicans have a chance of picking up a single vote there.
Of all the messy outcomes, the one that seems likeliest is a candidate’s winning the presidency through the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote, as Mr. Bush did in 2000. If it happens again, it might be in the opposite way, with the Republican, Mr. Romney, in range of a popular plurality and the Democrat, Mr. Obama, with an apparently easier route to an Electoral College victory.
Charlie Cook, a well-known political handicapper, said the chance of that happening was 10 to 15 percent. Stanley B. Greenberg, a longtime Democratic pollster, put the odds at “one in three.”
“Not trivial,” Mr. Greenberg said of the chances. “If that happens, it is because the anti-Obama vote, mostly in the South, turns out in big numbers,” while the pro-Obama vote is not as overwhelming in Democratic states but pulls him over the top in vital places like Ohio, Iowa and Nevada.
If Mr. Obama wins a second term while losing the popular vote, it would again throw a harsh spotlight on the Electoral College, an artifact of the 18th century. Each state has one elector for each of its members in the House and Senate. With 538 electors, it takes 270 to win. If no one does, the House decides who will be president.
In 1800, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr received the same number of electoral votes. The House sided with Jefferson. In 1824, none of four candidates received an electoral majority, and John Quincy Adams won in the House although he trailed Andrew Jackson in both the popular and the electoral votes.
Two other presidents, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 and Benjamin Harrison in 1888, won in the Electoral College even though they lost the popular vote.
The Electoral College has been attacked almost from the start. Over 200 years, more than 700 proposals to eliminate or revise it have been introduced in Congress, and more constitutional amendments have been proposed to change the system than on any other subject, according to the National Archives. A Gallup poll last year found that 62 percent favored a constitutional amendment making the popular vote decisive.
“If you were to have a repeat of that except the popular vote winner was the Republican and the Electoral College winner was the Democrat this time, then you would have had each party burned by the Electoral College over the course of 12 years, and that might be conducive to a serious look at reform,” said Robert W. Bennett, a Northwestern University law professor who has written extensively on the Electoral College.
Less likely is a tie, 269 to 269. If that happened, strategists envision an intense postelection campaign of state-by-state recounts, lawsuits, qualification challenges, efforts to flip electors, horse trading and pressure on members of Congress. The result would be a highly volatile 11-week obstacle course to Inauguration Day that would leave the country uncertain for a time about its next president and potentially undermine the credibility of the winner.
“If this election does require some extra innings, we have plans in place to deal with that,” said Bill Burton, a former Obama aide and co-founder of a super PAC supporting the president. “But the odds of that are infinitesimally small.”
If recounts did not change any Electoral College votes, both sides could lobby electors to switch before they met in state capitals on Dec. 17. While more than half the states have laws intended to force electors to cast ballots for the popular vote winner in their states, there have been “faithless electors.” In 2004, a Democratic elector in Minnesota wrote in John Edwards’s name instead of John Kerry’s.
If no electors flipped, the issue would go to the newly elected House. Each state gets one vote, meaning that Delaware has the same power as California. In the current House, Republicans control 33 delegations, while Democrats have 16 and 1 is split. Few analysts believe the election will change the House enough to shift that balance.
That would give Mr. Romney the advantage, although pressure would intensify if Mr. Obama won the popular vote. But even if Mr. Romney wins in the House, there is an extra wrinkle: The vice president would be chosen by the Senate, which may remain in Democratic hands.
If the Senate is deadlocked, the tie could be broken by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., presumably voting for himself.
And the nation could wind up with President Romney and Vice President Biden.
October 28, 2012
With Less Time for Voting, Black Churches Redouble Their Efforts
By SUSAN SAULNY
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The Rev. Eugene W. Diamond of the Abyssinia Missionary Baptist Church here rarely pays attention to the clock when the spirit moves him to preach, but midsermon on Sunday, he said something unusual to his flock of hundreds: “Timing is critical, so let me hustle.”
He had already scaled back the minutes devoted to worship. Congregants had been instructed to forget wearing their Sunday best in favor of comfortable shoes because they all had work to do: moving thousands of “souls to the polls.” And they had only one Sunday to do it.
Mr. Diamond stressed the urgency in a tambourine-shaking, trumpet-blaring finale to his prayers: “Bless us as we make our voices heard!” he shouted above the music. “Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!”
Across Florida, black churches have responded with ferocity to changes that Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, and the Legislature made to eliminate six days of early voting this year — including the Sunday before Election Day, which had been the traditional day to mobilize black congregations. In 2008, black voters cast early ballots at twice the rate of white voters, and turned out in significant strength on the Sunday before Election Day to help propel Mr. Obama to victory here.
Now, with Florida’s 29 electoral votes up for grabs in a close race, Obama supporters are counting on a newly energized black base to put them over the edge despite the tighter window for early voting. A victory here for the president would defy recent polling and make his path back to the White House much easier.
In the newly revised schedule, early voting began on Saturday and continues through next Saturday. The churches, then, have one Sunday instead of two to move their members to vote.
In Jacksonville alone, black churches enlisted 40 buses and vans to move people who did not have transportation to voting sites. They also ran car pools, offered breakfasts and lunch, and helped organize rallies with music and celebrity appearances.
In precincts in black areas like the Highlands section in the north quadrant, lines snaked out of doors and into parking lots and onto sidewalks. A 40-minute wait to vote was not uncommon. On Saturday, before the supervisor of elections opened the main polling site of Duval County at 7 a.m., a line of almost 100 voters, all black, had already formed. Within a half-hour, the line had doubled in length.
“I think the going sentiment was that Obama wouldn’t get the same rally cry this year as last time, but Florida woke up a sleeping giant that’s showing its defiance,” Mr. Diamond said. “I hate to say it, but Republicans probably would have done better if they had not tampered with early voting.”
Still, the pastors took pains not to advocate any particular candidate from the pulpit, because doing so could open their churches’ tax-exempt status to question.
Turnout for Mitt Romney also looked strong at several polling sites across Jacksonville, and his campaign was canvassing neighborhoods and calling residents from phone banks to remind them to vote early. One office had a goal of 5,000 calls on Saturday. (As of noon, 403 had been made.)
“We’re dedicated,” said Carolyn Hardin, 60, a Romney campaign volunteer working the phones. “I’ll do this as many hours as I can. The most important thing is turnout.”
In Gainesville, Tallahassee and Miami, the Obama campaign organized “communities of faith” to march to polls together on Sunday. And they did.
The Rev. R. L. Gundy, pastor of Mount Sinai Missionary Baptist Church and the state president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led prayers outside the office of the supervisor of elections on Saturday morning, before the polls opened.
“Our ancestors paid a dear price to have a right to vote, and we don’t take it for granted,” he told a crowd. “Yet the enemy does all it can to disenfranchise us. God, go with us into these polls and every poll around the country.”
Many of the voters listening to Mr. Gundy had spent the night sleeping in tents and recreational vehicles near the polling site. Their plan was to “occupy the polls,” so to speak, in an attempt to raise awareness about the schedule changes.
Some who spent the night at the polls had been organized by Florida New Majority, a nonprofit civic engagement group that helped bring black fraternities, military veterans and faith groups together across the state to turn out voters. And, of course, there were Obama campaign volunteers and union representatives on site. The campaign organized at least two major rallies in Jacksonville on Sunday.
One campaign volunteer, Veronica Glover, 49, had been making calls and canvassing neighborhoods on evenings and weekends since June to tell Obama supporters about the new voting rules. “Wind can’t stop me, rain can’t stop me,” she said. “I’ll be calling. I’ll be knocking. It’s crunch time now. Not next weekend. Now.”
Evie Welch, a member of St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, spent her weekend going to stores in her neighborhood and passing out posters that said “African-Americans for Obama.”
“I was asked to leave a number of times,” she said. “But I just smiled and said, ‘Thank you.’ ”
Governor Scott and legislators have consistently defended the changes to early voting as necessary to combat fraud, and they reject the notion that the revised schedule burdens any one demographic group, no matter how much many blacks disagree.
“Early voting was successful for blacks and Obama,” said Mr. Diamond, the pastor. “That’s why they took it away.”
Mary Eunice, a retired pharmacy technician and member of Mr. Diamond’s church, walked directly from her pew after the service on Sunday onto a bus headed for the closest polling place. “I usually wait until Tuesday, but today, since the pastor is urging it, I’m going to take this ride and go,” she said.
At the Northside Church of Christ on Sunday morning, its senior pastor, Charlie McClendon, strongly encouraged congregants to head to the polls directly after Bible study.
Jay Johnson, 42, followed that advice. Outside his polling place, he said: “Take away some early voting and people are definitely going to get out and early vote. I’d say this was a plan that backfired.”
October 28, 2012
Silos Loom as Death Traps on American Farms
By JOHN M. BRODER
STERLING, Mich. — Tommy Osier, 18, a popular but indifferent student, was still a year from graduating from high school, and that was no sure thing. Farm work paid him $7.40 an hour, taught him discipline and gave him new skills. He had begun talking about making a life in farming.
But he hated the chore he drew on Memorial Day of last year, working inside the silo at Pine Grove Farm. The corn was damp and crusted. It tended to hang up on the sides of the old six-story cement bin and had to be busted up with a steel rod before it would cascade to the bottom to be shoveled out.
That morning, just after 9, the phone rang in the Osier home. “Tommy’s in the silo,” his sister relayed to their mother, Linda, unsure of what it meant.
Ms. Osier grew up on a hog farm and knew right away. “He’s dead,” she said, slumping to the floor. “Tommy’s dead.”
Even as the rate of serious injury and fatalities on American farms has fallen, the number of workers dying by entrapment in grain bins and silos has remained stubbornly steady. The annual number of such accidents rose throughout the past decade, reaching a peak of at least 26 deaths in 2010, before dropping somewhat since.
Silos teeming with corn, wheat or soybeans become death traps when grain cascades out of control, asphyxiating or crushing their victims. Since 2007, 80 farmworkers have died in silo accidents; 14 of them were teenage boys.
The deaths are horrific and virtually all preventable.
Experts say the continuing rate of silo deaths is due in part to the huge amount of corn being produced and stored in the United States to meet the global demand for food, feed and, increasingly, ethanol-based fuel.
That the deaths persist reveals continuing flaws in the enforcement of worker safety laws and weaknesses in rules meant to protect the youngest farmworkers. Nearly 20 percent of all serious grain bin accidents involve workers under the age of 20.
Last year, the Labor Department proposed new regulations aimed at tightening protections for children doing farm work.
The proposed federal regulations would have prohibited children under 18 from working in large commercial grain bins, silos or other enclosed spaces. But the Obama administration, sensitive to Republican charges that it was choking the economy with expensive regulations, pulled back the proposed rules this year in the face of furious farm-state objections.
Even those rules would not have covered working conditions on family farms and small operations like the one where Tommy Osier died and which account for 70 percent of grain entrapment accidents. Experts on farm safety say that most farmers are aware of the hazards of sending someone into a bin full of unstable grain, but often lack the equipment or training to protect their workers against an avalanche.
“The concept of walking down the grain should be avoided at all costs,” said Wayne Bauer, the safety director at the Star of the West Milling Company in Frankenmuth, Mich., which operates grain elevators in five states. “And people sending kids into spaces where they have no business being deserve to be fined.”
Dave Schwab, who operated the farm where Tommy Osier died, told investigators that he knew the air inside silos could be toxic and combustible, but that he was unaware of the dangers of entrapment in cascading corn. He did not have air-monitoring or rescue equipment at the farm, but investigators found no evidence that he willfully flouted state rules for sending workers into confined spaces.
‘They Didn’t Have a Clue’
Wyatt Whitebread, 14, had been on the job for just two weeks at a commercial grain-elevator complex in Mount Carroll, Ill., when he was sent into a 500,000-bushel storage tower to loosen corn kernels that were sticking to the side. Bin No. 9 was one of more than a dozen buildings on the property owned and operated by Haasbach L.L.C.
Shortly after he and other teenage workers entered the bin on July 10, 2010, a manager at the base opened two floor holes to speed the flow of the grain. The sudden action dragged Wyatt, who was walking atop the corn to help it flow, toward the floor of the bin, engulfing him under the corn as he screamed for help. Alejandro Pacas, 19, who had joined the work crew the day before, rushed over to aid him and was quickly entrapped himself. Both teenagers died in seconds.
A third young worker, Will Piper, 20, was injured when he became trapped trying to save Mr. Pacas, his best friend. Pinned against Mr. Pacas’s lifeless body for nearly 12 hours as 300 rescuers worked to drain the bin and free him, he managed to keep his head above the corn and survived.
“They sent those boys in there ill-equipped to do a job that even adults should not do,” said Carla Whitebread, Wyatt’s mother. “They sacrificed our boys to save a buck and get more corn out.”
William E. Field, a professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Purdue University and the country’s foremost expert on grain storage accidents, has documented more than 800 serious entrapment cases since 1970, a count likely shy by hundreds, he said, because many go unreported.
Virtually every entrapment is preventable, Dr. Field said, by following simple guidelines established by the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Before any worker enters a grain silo, employers must turn off all power equipment, particularly loaders and augers. Any worker entering a bin must be provided a safety harness or a supporting chair. There must be an observer monitoring the bin worker at all times. No one should enter a bin when grain is bridged overhead or built up on the sides. Air must be tested for the presence of combustible or toxic gases.
Almost none of these precautions were followed the day the teenagers died at the Illinois elevator or at the farm where Tommy Osier died.
The Labor Department identified two dozen violations of required safety practices and child labor laws that contributed to the deaths of Alejandro Pacas and Wyatt Whitebread.
“Grain entrapments kill workers,” David Michaels, the OSHA director, said in announcing $618,000 in fines and penalties, later negotiated down to $268,000. “There is absolutely no excuse for any worker to be killed in this type of incident.”
Catherine Rylatt, Mr. Pacas’s aunt, who has established a group to promote safety in grain handling and to raise awareness, said that the fines were too low to deter operators from cutting corners and that the government needed to do more.
“He was never supposed to be in that grain bin, and he didn’t receive proper training,” she said. “I know my nephew had some awareness of the scientific properties, the weight of the corn if you did get trapped, it would take this much force to pull someone out. But any sense of real danger, how to prevent that danger — they didn’t have a clue.”
Exemptions and Proposals
Hundreds of thousands of silos sit on small and medium-size farms and at local grain terminals, and because these operations employ fewer than 10 workers, they are exempt from most federal health and safety rules.
Children working for their parents or close relatives are exempt from all labor regulations, a feature of federal law since 1938 that is based on the theory that parents will take extra care of their own children.
Federal labor standards apply to only the 13,000 largest grain handling facilities, operations like the Mount Carroll grain terminal, even though historically a majority of reported grain entrapments occur on family farms and at small grain elevators.
A week after the deaths in Mount Carroll, the Labor Department sent a sharply worded letter to all commercial grain handling facilities.
“As an employer of workers facing these hazards, you have the legal obligation to protect and train your workers,” Mr. Michaels wrote. “I am calling on you to prevent these needless deaths.” Criminal prosecution would be recommended in future egregious cases, he added.
But the silo deaths and injuries continued. On Aug. 4 last year, Bryce Gannon and Tyler Zander, 17-year-old high school seniors, were inside a commercial grain bin in Kremlin, Okla., operating a 10-inch sweep auger on the floor. Mr. Gannon’s leg got caught in the auger, and when Mr. Zander tried to help him, he also became ensnared in the machinery. Each teenager lost a leg.
Three weeks later, the federal government proposed new child labor rules for agriculture, the first major revision in nearly half a century.
“Children employed in agriculture are some of the most vulnerable workers in America,” Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis said in announcing the proposed rules.
The proposal, covering 49 pages in the Federal Register, noted that the hazards of farm work had changed drastically and that while teenage farmworkers accounted for only 4 percent of the country’s working youths, they suffered more than 40 percent of overall workplace deaths.
The proposed regulations would have barred young workers from entering silos and other enclosed spaces. But they went much further in other areas, prohibiting teenagers from doing a broad array of farm tasks, including herding livestock and driving large farm vehicles. They also would have set new limits on the height of ladders that they could climb and the size of trees that they could cut.
Dr. Field of Purdue University said the administration squandered an opportunity by drawing the rules too broadly.
“They needed to address new technology and new equipment,” he said. “But in my mind, the Department of Labor, or whoever was pushing it, took it as an opportunity to throw everything, including the kitchen sink, at this thing.”
Though the regulations enshrined the longstanding exemption for children working on small family farms, the reaction was intense. Thousands of farmers wrote in protest. Even the parents of children killed in farm accidents — including Ms. Osier and Mrs. Whitebread — opposed the measures.
“I was very against it and was disappointed that they were using Wyatt as a reason for pursuing it,” Mrs. Whitebread said in an e-mail message. “Preventing kids from working on farms and around livestock is not the answer.”
Members of Congress from both parties demanded that the rules be killed in their entirety — largely based on the distorted reading by opponents that they would have forbidden children from performing chores on their own families’ farms.
Democratic senators facing tight races in farm states — including Jon Tester of Montana, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Claire McCaskill of Missouri — complained directly to the White House. Bipartisan groups in both chambers of Congress introduced legislation that would overturn the regulations if they were finalized.
The White House made no effort to defend its own Labor Department’s rules, directing Secretary Solis to kill them, Obama administration and Labor Department officials said.
The White House would not comment on confidential conversations between staff members and a cabinet officer. But a spokesman, Matthew Lehrich, said in a written statement: “President Obama believes that family farms and rural traditions are critical to the American economy and way of life. He has also directed his administration to be responsive to public input in the rulemaking process.” He added that permanently withdrawing the proposal was “very much in keeping with both of those principles.”
In April, the Labor Department abruptly withdrew the rules with a brief written statement expressing its commitment to respecting the role of parents and family members in passing down rural traditions.
“To be clear,” it continued in a highly unusual comment, “this regulation will not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration.”
Public health and farmworker advocates were shocked. One called it a sucker punch to the Labor Department and to groups that had spent more than a decade trying to modernize farm safety rules for working children.
“I’m very frustrated and disgusted with the White House,” said Rena Steinzor, a professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law and an expert on federal health and safety regulation.
“Normally an agency proposes a regulation and, if there are problems, the agency revises it,” Ms. Steinzor continued. “But we live in an age of greed and insanity, and people on the Hill went crazy. Rather than defend it, the Obama administration just caved.”
The day he died, Tommy Osier climbed a 10-foot ladder and crawled into the cement silo. The corn was caked along the sides of the bin and also formed a solid crust, or bridge, above his head. He began poking at the corn with an iron rod while his co-worker Patrick Pickvet, then 23, shoveled corn out of a small hole at the outside base of the bin.
Suddenly, the corn above and below Tommy gave way, and in seconds he was gone, buried under the avalanche, heaved against the rough side of the silo, sliding downward, yellow-brown kernels forced up his nose, into his ears and down his throat.
Mr. Pickvet said that the two of them had been in and out of the bin for weeks because of the broken floor augers, manually helping the corn to flow. “I knew it was a little bit of a risk,” he said, “but I didn’t realize it was going to end up being that bad.”
Mr. Pickvet did not know what had happened until the rod emerged from the lower hole. Then Tommy’s cellphone came out, and he could see his leg inside.
Tommy suffocated in minutes but it took 35 men more than four hours to free his bruised body from the bin. The coroner found kernels embedded in his lungs.
Rescue workers laid him on the back of a pickup truck in the calf barn and formed a screen to block the local television cameras. His mother was waiting there for him.
Ms. Osier said she was not surprised by the extent of his injuries, but was shocked that the impact had dislocated his jaw.
“You know, it’s morbid, but I wish I had photos of that so I could use it for rescuers because it devastated so many of the first responders,” she said.
What most confounds safety experts and advocates is how simple and inexpensive it is to avoid such tragedies. A pulley system, a safety harness and a set of boards to fence off a trapped worker cost less than $1,000 per elevator, said Mr. Bauer, the safety director at the Michigan grain company, and following federal requirements, like having a spotter and shutting off any mechanical equipment, costs nothing.
The Labor Department has increased enforcement in recent years. After issuing 663 citations for grain handling violations in 2008, the number jumped to 1,532 in 2011.
But federal regulators had no jurisdiction over Mr. Schwab’s small farm. Instead, Michigan worker safety officials fined him $7,000 for general safety violations, an amount cut in half once he fixed the broken augers and posted warning signs.
In March, Ms. Osier attended a safety conference in Grand Rapids, Mich., where grain entrapment rescue techniques were being taught to farmers and firefighters using a cross-section of a metal grain bin filled with plastic pellets.
No one there knew she had lost a son in a silo accident nine months earlier, and she was called on from the crowd to participate.
“I said I would, but I didn’t want to be the victim,” she recalled. “So I took off my heels and climbed into that bin and helped place the metal containment panels around the victim.”
She paused, reliving the experience. “My feet were sinking into the pellets,” she said, and then went silent. She could not go on.
Seth Berkman and Jake Rosenwasser contributed reporting from New York.
October 28, 2012
Oxen’s Fate Is Embattled as the Abattoir Awaits
By JESS BIDGOOD
POULTNEY, Vt. — Just past the village here is the farm at Green Mountain College, where chickens roam free and solar panels heat a greenhouse. The idea of sustainability runs so deep that instead of machines fueled by diesel, a pair of working oxen have tilled the fields for the better part of a decade, a rare evocation of a New England agricultural tradition.
Their names are Bill and Lou, and by the end of the month, they are to be slaughtered and turned into hamburger meat for the dining hall.
Their fate has prompted a barrage of criticism from townspeople, animal rights supporters and tens of thousands of online petitioners, perplexing many at the college who say that using Bill and Lou for food is an appropriate, if awkward, execution of the school’s mission.
“Our choice is either to eat the animals that we know have been cared for and lived good lives or serve the bodies of nameless animals we do not know,” said William Throop, the college’s provost, who specializes in environmental ethics.
Last July, Lou stepped into a woodchuck hole and worsened an injury in his left rear leg, which in combination with other medical problems has rendered him unable to work. His partner, Bill, is not injured, but he is aging too, and probably could not work without Lou.
Now permanently out of the yoke, Bill and Lou reclined in their pasture on a recent afternoon. Lou lay stretched out and still — a sign of ill health for cattle, which usually chew cud to pass the time — his leg joint still swollen from the injury. But he raised his head as Baylee Drown, the assistant manager of the farm here, approached him to scratch his back.
“His quality of life is rapidly deteriorating, and this is the logical time to use him for another purpose,” Ms. Drown said of Lou. “But I would like to take him home.”
Philip Ackerman-Leist, the farm director, said the college had three options for Bill and Lou: euthanasia, sanctuary or slaughter. On Oct. 12, after extensive campus discussion, the college posted its choice to its Facebook page.
“It makes sense to consume the resources we have on campus,” said Mr. Ackerman-Leist, who pointed out that the farm’s purpose is to produce food in a humane and sustainable way, not to shelter animals. “We have to think about the farm system as a whole.”
But the decision incensed animal rights groups, which posted online petitions that have amassed thousands of signatures and took to the college’s Facebook page to call for a reprieve. An animal sanctuary in Springfield, Vt., known as Veganism Is the Next Evolution, offered to take Bill and Lou into retirement.
“We thought, ‘We can solve this problem,’ ” said Pattrice Jones, a founder of the sanctuary. “It just shocks the conscience of anybody who believes in kindness to animals.”
But the college has not taken up the offer, which it says does not align with the values of a sustainable, production-based farm, further stoking the aggravation of its critics.
“It’s overwhelming,” said Ali Putnam, a senior who says she spends an hour a day reading and responding to vitriolic commentary on social media sites. “It’s really bizarre. We’re this small environmental college.”
Many locals here have struggled to accept Bill and Lou’s fate, filling newspapers with editorials and discussing the issue at length in town. Pam and Rich Mikkelson run an inn near the farm and used to watch as the oxen pulled a cart of produce down Main Street to the farmer’s market.
“We watched them train them, we watch them till the fields, plow the snow,” Ms. Mikkelson said. “They’re not just animals, they’re Bill and Lou.”
The critics, Mr. Throop said, have not fully grasped Bill and Lou’s role in the school’s sustainable farming mission.
“Bill and Lou are not pets,” he said. “They’re part of an intimate biotic community on the farm, in food webs and relationships of care and respect.”
On campus, support for their consumption is strong, even among the 30 percent of students who are vegan or vegetarian.
“It’s about sustainability, and I’ve been a vegetarian for three years, but I’m excited to eat Bill and Lou,” said Lisa Wilson, a senior. “I eat meat when I know where it comes from.”
Andrew Kohler, a senior, took a course in which he learned how to drive the oxen team.
“They start listening to you, and they become your friend,” Mr. Kohler said. “I feel honored to eat them.”
Voicing a rare opinion on campus, Lilly Byers, a junior from Albany, joined a group of about 20 protesters who gathered near campus on Friday and faced down a counterprotest of her fellow students.
“I come from a family of dairy farmers,” Ms. Byers said. “When you’ve worked an animal this long, they usually go into retirement, so I come to it from that perspective.”
Meanwhile, Emerald Hardiman, a freshman, confronted the protesters.
“Why aren’t you at factory farms right now?” Ms. Hardiman said. “They’re going to taste delicious!”
Showdown set on bid to give UN control of Internet
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, October 29, 2012 7:00 EDT
It is expected to be the mother of all cyber diplomatic battles.
When delegates gather in Dubai in December for an obscure UN agency meeting, fighting is expected to be intense over proposals to rewrite global telecom rules to effectively give the United Nations control over the Internet.
Russia, China and other countries back a move to place the Internet under the authority of the International Telecommunications Union, a UN agency that sets technical standards for global phone calls.
US officials say placing the Internet under UN control would undermine the freewheeling nature of cyberspace, which promotes open commerce and free expression, and could give a green light for some countries to crack down on dissidents.
Observers say a number of authoritarian states will back the move, and that the major Western nations will oppose it, meaning the developing world could make a difference.
“The most likely outcome is a tie, and if that happens there won’t be any dramatic changes, although that could change if the developing countries make a big push,” said James Lewis, director of the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“But there is a lot of discontent with how the Internet is governed and the US will have to deal with that at some point.”
Lewis said there was still an overwhelming perception that the US owns and manages the Internet. Opponents have a “powerful argument” to create a global authority to manage the Internet, Lewis said, but “we need to find some way to accommodate national laws in a way that doesn’t sacrifice human rights.”
Terry Kramer, the special US envoy for the talks, has expressed Washington’s position opposing proposals by Russia, China and others to expand the ITU’s authority to regulate the Internet.
“The Internet has grown precisely because it has not been micro-managed or owned by any government or multinational organization,” Kramer told a recent forum.
“There is no Internet central office. Its openness and decentralization are its strengths.”
The head of the ITU, Hamadoun Toure, said his agency has “the depth of experience that comes from being the world’s longest established intergovernmental organization.”
Toure wrote in the British newspaper The Guardian that any change in regulation should “express the common will of ITU’s major stakeholders” and “find win-win solutions that will act as a positive catalyst.”
But Harold Feld of the US-based non-government group Public Knowledge said any new rules could have devastating consequences.
“These proposals, from the Russian Federation and several Arab states, would for the first time explicitly embrace the concept that governments have a right to control online communications and disrupt Internet access services,” Feld said on a blog post.
“This would reverse the trend of the last few years increasingly finding that such actions violate fundamental human rights.”
Paul Rohmeyer, who follows cybersecurity at the Stevens Institute of Technology, pointed to a “sense of anxiety” about the meeting in part because of a lack of transparency.
He said it was unclear why the ITU is being considered for a role in the Internet.
“The ITU historically has been a standards-setting body and its roots are in the telecom industry. I’m not familiar with anything they’ve done that’s had an impact on the Internet today,” Rohmeyer told AFP.
And the analyst noted that the significance of extending “governance” of the Internet to the ITU remains unclear.
Some observers point out that the ITU hired a Russian security firm to investigate the Flame virus, which sparked concerns about the dangers in cyberspace and the need for better cybersecurity cooperation.
Rohmeyer said it was unclear whether a conspiracy was at hand, but that “the suggestion that the Internet is a dangerous place could be used to justify greater controls.”
Observers are also troubled by a proposal by European telecom operators seeking to shift the cost of communication from the receiving party to the sender. This could mean huge costs for US Internet giants like Facebook and Google.
“This would create a new revenue stream for corrupt, autocratic regimes and raise the cost of accessing international websites and information on the Internet,” said Eli Dourado of George Mason University.
Milton Mueller, a professor of information studies at Syracuse University who specializes in Internet governance, said most of the concerns are being blown out of proportion.
Mueller said the ITU “already recognizes the sovereign right of nations to restrict communications into and out of the country.”
“What gets lost in the confusion over content regulation is that the real motive of most of the reactionary governments is to protect themselves from economic competition caused by telecom liberalization and deregulation, of which the Internet is only one part,” he said.
Band Members in Putin Protest Said to Face Harsh Conditions
MOSCOW (Reuters) — Two women from the punk band Pussy Riot who were sentenced to prison terms for an anti-Putin protest in a Moscow cathedral face harsh prison camps with inadequate medicine and no hot water despite subzero winter temperatures, according to a recently released bandmate.
The freed member, Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, spoke in an interview in a small McDonald’s in a town just outside Moscow because of concerns about her security. The first part of the interview was filmed, and took place outside in a howling cold wind because the restaurant would not allow TV cameras inside.
“The system itself is crumbling,” she said, adding: “Those in power have very strong fears, and their behavior is more and more wild. We could end with a total collapse like the Soviet Union.”
She and two bandmates were given two-year sentences for what prosecutors called “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” for a punk prayer in Moscow’s main cathedral last February, during which the balaclava-clad women appealed to the Virgin Mary to get rid of President Vladimir V. Putin. Ms. Samutsevich, however, was freed in October, when an appeals court apparently accepted her lawyer’s argument that she had played a relatively small role.
She described harsh conditions at the prison camp in Mordovia, about 300 miles southeast of Moscow, where bandmate Nadezhda Tolokonnikova has been sent to serve her two-year sentence.
“There is no hot water in Mordovia and there are only special prison clothes given out which are very cold for the weather,” she said. “There is no medicine.”
She said that “if someone gets sick and nobody helps them, they can die — unfortunately there have been such cases and they happen periodically.”
The other jailed group member, Maria Alyokhina, is bound for a prison camp in the Urals city of Perm, a location used to jail political prisoners in the Soviet era. She has not yet arrived.
Mr. Putin is now starting a fresh six-year term as president, having won an election in March with 63.6 percent of the vote. Opponents said the Kremlin’s dominance over the mass media, obstacles placed in the way of the opposition, ballot-stuffing and the extensive use of government resources meant the vote was not free or fair.
Last Thursday, he said that the women “deserved what they got” because their protest in the cathedral amounted to “group sex” and threatened the moral foundations of Russia.
Polls have shown that in Russia’s predominantly conservative society, in which Orthodox Christian believers are a majority, most citizens approve of the jail terms for the band members and dislike their actions.
Asked about popular hostility to the band, Ms. Samutsevich said the Kremlin had used state television channels to present a distorted picture.
Viewers, she said, “didn’t see us, they didn’t hear us because the federal TV channels have done their best to cut out our speech.” Any section where the lyrics could be heard was cut, she said. “When people hear the lyrics, they immediately understand the purpose of our action,” she said.
The lyrics began, “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish Putin, Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish him, we pray thee.”
*****************Russia ‘returns to Stalin-era show trials’: Memorial
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, October 30, 2012 7:58 EDT
Russia’s leaders are using Stalin-era tactics against the opposition including show trials and camp sentences, one of its most authoritative rights groups warned Tuesday.
Memorial rights group slammed the treatment of activists after two members of the Pussy Riot feminist rock group were sent to prison camps for a protest against President Vladimir Putin and several protest leaders were charged in criminal probes.
“The events of recent weeks show that in its dialogue with the opposition, the Russian authorities intend to rely on the language of repression — arrests, courts, camps,” Memorial said.
Its statement came during annual events in Russia to remember the victims of political repression, including a reading outside the Lubyanka security service headquarters of the names of victims killed during the purges under Josef Stalin’s rule.
“Once again, as in the 1920s and 1930s, the experience of fabricating political show trials is in demand,” Memorial commented. “Once again Russia is being pushed onto its usual and tragic path.”
Russia’s leaders seem to have no sense of history repeating itself, Memorial said.
“We are not addressing the historical responsibility of our government leaders. They are apparently lacking this feeling.”
Both President Vladimir Putin and his predecessor Dmitry Medvedev have spoken out against Stalin-era repression but only sporadically and Russia has resisted opening up its archives from the period.
In a rare comment in 2007, Putin called the deaths of those killed in purges a “particular tragedy” for Russia, while Medvedev as president called for a programme of de-Stalinisation.
Little progress has been made on de-Stalinisation, Memorial’s chairman Arseny Roginsky said Tuesday.
“We can talk about powerful political opposition, since the programme is based on freedom, and our life is moving in the other direction.”
Under Stalin’s rule, millions were imprisoned in a vast camp system and hundreds of thousands shot in purges against those perceived as disloyal to the regime. Nevertheless he is revered by some Russians, particularly as the wartime leader.
Memorial was founded in 1989 and has developed dual roles of keeping alive the memory of Stalin-era repression and fighting for current rights causes.
*******************Berlin Starts to Test Its Ties With Russia
By JUDY DEMPSEY
BERLIN — One of the first items in the fascinating exhibition “Russians and Germans: 1,000 Years of Art, History and Culture” is a woodcut.
This beautifully carved work, done between 1360 and 1370, shows scenes of Russian hunters armed with axes, bows and arrows, and sticks. Once they have caught their prey, they select the finest furs and hides. The Russians then approach the German traders. The traders stand, arms folded, waiting to bargain.
The woodcut captures the old trading ties between Russians and Germans.
Despite the many vicissitudes, culminating in the terrible suffering of World War II, the relationship has been remarkably close. Germany is Russia’s most important trading partner and a loyal ally in the European Union.
Yet over the past few weeks, an increasing number of German politicians from the main political parties are questioning Berlin’s special relationship with Russia under Putin Two, as President Vladimir V. Putin’s return to the presidency has been called.
“There is definitely a change in the discourse,” said Stefan Meister, a Russia specialist at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. “There are a number of politicians now saying that something is going wrong with Russia and that Germany must reassess its strategy toward Moscow. The big question is, how can the policy be changed, or what is the alternative?”
Over the years, Germany’s strategy toward Russia was focused on trying to bring Russia as close as possible to Europe. To achieve that goal, successive governments have used trade, loans, stronger energy ties and more.
The former Social Democrat-Green coalition under Gerhard Schröder as well as Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right coalition agreed to support the modernization of the Russian economy. They hoped that over time, modernization would infiltrate the political system to make it more democratic and accountable.
That has not happened.
A parliamentary motion by Ms. Merkel’s conservative bloc that was toned down by the Foreign Ministry — its top diplomats believe Russia is too important in global affairs to confront — questioned where Russia was heading and how Germany should react.
The motion bemoaned the lack of progress over modernization, the absence of transparency, the corruption, the curbing of nongovernmental organizations and the imprisonment of the Pussy Riot band members.
Andreas Schockenhoff, a conservative lawmaker and Germany’s special envoy responsible for Russia, said recently that Russia’s disregard for the rule of law was damaging Russia itself and its attempts to establish a modern, competitive economy.
Last week, the Russian Foreign Ministry hit back with undiplomatic language against Mr. Schockenhoff. It accused him of “making defamatory remarks” about Russia.
The ministry even said that the Kremlin no longer regarded Mr. Schockenhoff as having the authority to speak on behalf of the German government.
The reaction by the government was revealing. The German Foreign Ministry barely came to Mr. Schockenhoff’s defense — but the Chancellery went on the offensive.
The criticism of Mr. Schockenhoff “astonished us,” said Steffen Seibert, the government’s spokesman. It was not up to Russia to decide who spoke on Germany’s behalf. Ms. Merkel, he added, fully intended to speak her mind when she meets Mr. Putin next month in Russia. “There will have to be frank words spoken there,” Mr. Seibert warned.
Even the opposition Social Democrats are no longer prepared to remain silent over Russia. To this day, they are embarrassed by Mr. Schröder’s description of Mr. Putin in 2005 as an “impeccable democrat.” Mr. Schröder went on to be a top adviser to Gazprom, Russia’s state-run energy monopoly, soon after he was defeated in 2005 by Ms. Merkel.
Franz Thönnes, a Social Democrat lawmaker and member of the Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, has openly criticized Mr. Putin’s crackdown on nongovernmental organizations and questioned the success of Russia’s modernization program.
Yet despite this changed discourse about Russia, Germany has yet to adopt a new strategy.
The conservative bloc and the opposition advocate a much broader dialogue, especially with civil society movements. They believe Russia under Mr. Putin has changed so much that Germany needs new interlocutors and a new approach.
But any new strategy needs the support of the Foreign Ministry and also industry, particularly the Ost-Ausschuss. This influential lobby, which is active throughout the former Soviet Union, is extremely reluctant to criticize the Kremlin and does not relish German criticism of Russia.
In practice, this means that as long as Germany fails to adopt a new strategy toward Russia, the European Union will continue to have no long-term and united policy toward Moscow. That could only happen, Mr. Meister said, “once Germany really recognizes that its current approach has failed.”
Judy Dempsey is editor in chief of Strategic Europe, a project of Carnegie Europe. (www.carnegieeurope.eu
October 29, 2012
Observers Denounce Ukrainian Election, Citing Abuses by Rulers
By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN
KIEV, Ukraine — International observers delivered scathing criticism on Monday of Ukraine’s parliamentary election, saying the vote was heavily tilted in favor of President Viktor F. Yanukovich’s Party of Regions through the abuse of government resources, the dominance of media coverage and the jailing of two prominent opposition leaders.
“Considering the abuse of power, and the excessive role of money in this election, democratic progress appears to have reversed in Ukraine,” said Walburga Habsburg Douglas, a Swedish lawmaker who led an observer mission for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly.
With more than 80 percent of Sunday’s ballots counted by Monday night, the results showed the Party of Regions well ahead of its opponents, with about 32 percent of the vote.
The Fatherland party of the jailed former prime minister, Yulia V. Tymoshenko, was second, with about 24 percent. The results showed the Communist Party with about 14 percent; Punch, a party led by the boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, with 13 percent; and the ultranationalist Freedom party with 9 percent.
The vote was closely watched as a gauge of developing democracy in this former Soviet republic of 45 million, once viewed as being on a steady track toward integration with Europe after the Orange Revolution of 2004.
Framed in that context, the verdict by international observers was devastating.
“Obviously, if you look at the excitement of the Orange Revolution and what it brought about and where we are today, it’s very unfortunate,” said Representative David Dreier, Republican of California, who led an American delegation here.
“When you have political opponents incarcerated, when you have the minority television stations basically kept off the air, these are not positive developments,” Mr. Dreier said. “Democracy is about much more than elections. Democracy is about recognizing the rights of minorities, respecting the rule of law, building Democratic institutions. Unfortunately, we have not heard that taking place here.”
Andreas Gross, a member of the Swiss Parliament who led a delegation to Ukraine from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, said problems were so deep that even calling a new election would not help.
“We have systemic problems,” Mr. Gross said. “To make a new election with the same rules, you get the same result.”
The Yanukovich government had been bracing for criticism from international observers and went to great lengths to portray the balloting as free and fair, even installing Web cameras in more than 30,000 polling stations. The casting of votes itself seemed largely free of shenanigans, with only scattered complaints of malfeasance.
But observers said they could not look past the overall tilting of the political field in favor of the Party of Regions, particularly the continued jailing of Ms. Tymoshenko, the country’s best-known opposition politician, and Yuri Lutsenko, another opposition leader.
Ms. Tymoshenko announced through a lawyer on Monday that she would begin a hunger strike to protest fraud in the parliamentary election.
The balance of power in the Ukrainian Parliament will not be known for several weeks because half of the 450 seats will be filled by candidates who did not have to declare a party affiliation ahead of Sunday’s vote. They can choose later to align with a party.
The relatively strong showing by the right-wing Freedom party, whose leader, Oleg Tyagnibok, is known for espousing anti-Semitic and racist views, had not been predicted in opinion polls. In the last parliamentary elections five years ago, the party won less than 1 percent of the vote, far short of the threshold to control a faction in Parliament.
Support for the nationalists seemed partly to reflect a backlash against a law rammed through Parliament this year elevating the status of the Russian language, a move viewed by many as undercutting Ukrainian.
The Party of Regions has its base of support in the predominantly Russian-speaking south and east of the country, while the nationalists are stronger in the Ukrainian-speaking west.
Some voters said their support of the nationalists was a general protest against the ruling authorities. Others said they were disenchanted with all of the familiar choices.
About 16 miles outside Kiev, in the small city of Brovary, Natalya Volonyuk voted at a school, accompanied by her husband, Yevgeny, the director of a small Internet company, and her sons, Denis, 4, and Svyatoslav, 2.
“I don’t like Yanukovich or Yulia,” Ms. Volonyuk said. “They disappointed us.”
Anatoly Gaidai, 51, who worked for a German distribution company and now seeks out freelance jobs while his wife works as a teacher, said Ukraine needed to adopt a nationalist stance to avoid being dominated by Russia.
Mr. Gaidai said he had voted for Freedom also hoping that the party would fight corruption.
“It’s the only political party that can maybe, maybe change something in Ukraine, because it’s really very corrupted,” he said. “Everything in Ukraine belongs to one family, the Yanukovich family.”
Pavlo Rizanenko, a former investment banker and city councilman who ran for Parliament in Brovary for the Punch party, said the authorities had repeatedly tried to have him thrown off the ballot. He said they had hoped to help the Party of Regions candidate, Sergey Federenko, who is Prime Minister Mykola Azarov’s massage therapist.
On the City Council, Mr. Rizanenko built a reputation for fighting land-use corruption by public officials. Last year, he spent a month in a hospital after four men beat him with rubber clubs on a street.
Mr. Rizanenko declared victory on Monday, citing parallel counting of votes at polling stations by his supporters. The official count, however, seemed stalled with a lesser-known, independent candidate in the lead.
“They don’t live by laws,” Mr. Rizanenko said of officials connected to the Yanukovich administration. “They live by their own rules.”
October 29, 2012
Low Voter Turnout in Sicily Suggests Anger at Politicians
By ELISABETTA POVOLEDO
ROME — Sicilians shunned regional elections to renew the island’s Parliament on Sunday in record numbers, in an unequivocal signal of growing disaffection with Italy’s political class, even as the center-left wrested control from center-right parties that had governed the region since 2000.
A little over 47 percent of Sicily’s eligible voters turned out, a record low, down from 67 percent in the 2008 elections, according to the Electoral Office of the Sicily Region. Another pointer of widespread malaise was the surprising success of the Five Star Movement, a nascent protest group. Headed by Beppe Grillo, a sardonic comedian turned political guru, Five Star has surged in a series of local elections this year on a campaign to overthrow the existing political order. With half the ballots counted, the movement had won about 18 percent of the vote.
Mr. Grillo campaigned actively in Sicily, swimming across the channel that separates the island from the rest of Italy, scaling its active volcano, Mount Etna, and drawing thousands of Sicilians to campaign rallies for his derisive stand-up routines. The party’s candidate, Giancarlo Cancelleri, told Sky News on Monday, “It’s possible that we got many protest votes to give a signal to the political parties.” But he also said low turnout “is always a sign of defeat for politics.”
Though local, the elections were closely watched as a possible harbinger of voter intent in national polls next April, when the main political parties appear poised to implode because of internal dissent.
The low turnout and success of a protest movement suggested that public tolerance of Italy’s political class had drastically dwindled in the wake of a series of corruption scandals that brought down regional leaders in Lazio and Lombardy.
The center-left candidate, Rosario Crocetta, was ahead in the polls at about 30 percent, running on a ballot with a multiparty alliance, while the results dealt a further blow to former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party, whose candidate, Sebastiano Musumeci, was struggling to reach a little more than 25 percent of the vote.
Mr. Crocetta will have to forge alliances with other parties in order to have enough seats to form a majority.
The results also reflected Sicily’s own problems, including chronic wastefulness and questionable administrative practices. On Monday, the ratings agency Fitch downgraded Sicily’s credit ratings to the lowest rungs above speculative, or junk, grade.
The departing Sicily president, Raffaele Lombardo, who belongs to the Movement for Autonomy — which calls on Sicily to secede from Italy — and is under investigation on reported Mafia ties, resigned in July as the region struggled to balance its books. He denies the accusations and has not been formally charged.
Sunday’s vote boded badly for Mr. Berlusconi’s chosen successor in the People of Liberty party, Angelino Alfano, a Sicilian lawmaker who had largely staked his reputation on the outcome.
Mr. Alfano’s attempts to unify the party behind him were effectively quashed over the weekend when Mr. Berlusconi announced that he had reversed his decision last week to retire from politics. The turnabout was prompted by a desire to reform the justice system, he said in a rambling speech on Saturday, the day after he was convicted of tax fraud.
In the speech, Mr. Berlusconi also warned that his party’s support of Prime Minister Mario Monti’s technocratic government was wavering, and he distanced himself from the tough measures that Mr. Monti has passed to put Italy on a more virtuous economic path.
Mr. Berlusconi’s abrupt hard line against Mr. Monti — along with jabs at Germany, which he accused of swaying Italian economic policy — threw his fracturing party into further disarray, with several prominent members seeking to distance themselves from Mr. Berlusconi. “The Monti government guarantees the credibility of Italy,” Franco Frattini, a former foreign minister, told the Milan daily newspaper Corriere della Sera on Monday.
10/29/2012 06:05 PM
A Trip Through Hell: Daily Life in Islamist Northern Mali
By Paul Hyacinthe Mben
For months, an Islamist regime has been terrorizing northern Mali. Hundreds of thousands have already fled the region, and those who have stayed behind are experiencing new forms of cruelty with each passing day. A SPIEGEL reporter documents a two-week journey through a region Europe fears will become the next Somalia.
Northern Mali is virtually inaccessible to journalists at present. Sharia law has been in effect there since last spring, when fundamentalists took control of a large part of the country, which had been considered a model nation until then. The fundamentalists stone adulturers, amputate limbs and squelch all opposition. They have destroyed tombs in Timbuktu that were recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site. Despite the risks, Paul Hyacinthe Mben, 39, a SPIEGEL employee and journalist in the capital Bamako , which is not yet under Islamist control, ventured into northern Mali . Before the trip, he spent weeks negotiating with Islamist leaders for safe passage. In return, he was forced to accept certain conditions. During his almost three-week stay in the north, he had to conform to the Islamists' dress code, as well as submit to a number of searches and interrogations. But he never revealed to the Islamists where he was staying overnight, and he never stayed in the same place for more than a day. He lived in constant fear of being kidnapped. He had hardly returned to Bamako before learning that seven armed men had been following him in the north, with the aim of taking him captive.
A checkpoint set up by the Islamist police on the road to Gao marks the beginning of the region controlled by the new rulers of northern Mali. Adolescents wielding Kalashnikovs stand at the barrier with their legs apart. The oldest one keeps repeating the same instructions through a megaphone: "No cigarettes, no CDs, no radios, no cameras, no jewelry," an endless loop of prohibitions, a list of everything that's haram, or impure, with which this journey to the north begins. The men stand guard in the name of the Prophet Muhammad.
With arrogant gestures, they stop the few long-distance buses still coming from southern Mali. One of the men, holding his weapon at the ready, inspects the busses by walking down the aisle and checking to make sure everyone is in compliance with the Islamists' rules: Are women and men sitting in separate areas? Are the women wearing the hijab? And are the men wearing trousers that reach to their ankles, the kind of trousers that radical Muslims believe the Prophet favored? They are now obligatory in Gao.
The driver and the passengers submit to the procedure in silence. When it's over, the inspector jumps out of the back door, still wielding his Kalashnikov, and calls out "Salam alaikum," the greeting commonly used in the Muslim world. The bus has now been cleared to pass through the checkpoint.
A Divided Nation
Mali has been a divided country since April, when Islamists took control of a region in the north larger than France, while the south is still administered by a government that is incapable of defending itself.
This spring, forces with the Tuareg ethnic group drove the Malian army out of the country's northern regions within only a few weeks. They proclaimed the Tuareg nation of Azawad, which no nation in the world has recognized.
Then came the Islamists, armed to the teeth with what was left of the arsenal of the former Gadhafi regime in nearby Libya. The Islamists are also well connected with al-Qaida fighters who for some years now have found a safe haven in the Maghreb region of North Africa and the countries of the Sahel zone south of the Sahara Desert.
Those Tuareg who didn't join the Islamists were driven out. The fronts of buildings in Gao still show traces of the power struggle between the two groups, including bullet holes and blackened and crumbling walls. The world is now deeply concerned that Mali could turn into another Somalia or Afghanistan.
In principle, the United Nations Security Council has already approved the deployment of international troops against the north. The European Union has decided to send military advisors, and the United States is even considering the use of remote-controlled drones to fight the Islamist leaders. Northern Mali, less than a five-hour flight from Paris, cannot become a new hotbed of terrorism or a second Somalia, says German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. His US counterpart, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, believes that the Islamists in Mali were behind the attack that led to the death of the American ambassador in the Libyan city of Benghazi seven weeks ago.
A Lifeless Place
Gao, a city of 100,000 people, has become a lifeless place since the Islamists took over. It was once a stopping point for tourists traveling to Timbuktu, but now the roadside stands have disappeared, bars and restaurants are boarded up and music is banned. The new strongmen proclaim their creed on signs posted at street corners, written in white Arabic lettering on a black background, that read: "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger."
To make matters worse, garbage collection has been suspended, leaving waste to rot in the streets at temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). Around 400,000 people have already fled the Islamists. Most who have left represent the better-educated parts of the work force, like the engineers who kept the power plant and waterworks in operation. Foreign aid organizations are gone, as are government officials who were in the process of implementing a new road construction program.
"Gao is a dead city," says Allassane Amadou Touré, a mechanic, as he drinks tea in the shade. He is unemployed, like many in the city, and says that Gao's economic output has "declined by 85 percent" since the spring.
The Islamic police have become the city's biggest employers. Ironically, their headquarters are on Washington Street in downtown Gao. From there, the armed police officers, most of them young men who are little more than children, are sent out into the neighborhoods to drum into residents what is considered "haram" and "halal," or pure.
Until recently, the Sharia courts' sentences were also carried out on Washington Street, but now the Islamic police have become more cautious. Since an angry crowd managed to rescue people who had been convicted of crimes from the executioner, hands and feet are now being severed in secret.
The Sharia court uses a former military base outside the city to carry out its grisly punishments. One of its victims is Alhassane Boncana Maiga, who was found guilty of stealing cattle. Four guards drag Maiga, wearing a white robe, into a dark room and tie him to a chair, leaving only one hand free. A doctor gives the victim an injection for the pain.
Then Omar Ben Saïd, the senior executioner, pulls a knife out of its sheath. "In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful," he calls out, takes the convicted man's hand and begins to slice into it, as blood squirts out. It becomes more difficult when Saïd reaches the bone, and it's a full three minutes before the hand drops into a bucket. The executioner reaches for his mobile phone, calls his superior and says: "The man has been punished."
Maiga had kept his eyes shut the entire time, not even screaming. The men lead him into another room, where his arm is bandaged, and after 15 minutes he is released and stumbles into the street. "I'm innocent," he says. "What am I supposed to do now? I can't work anymore."
A few days later, Maiga is dead, probably as a result of blood loss or an infection.
A Mastermind Behind the Islamist Terror
One of the masterminds behind Islamist terror in Mali is Iyad Ag Ghali. He lives in Kidal, 320 kilometers (200 miles) northeast of Gao, in an opulent house near the airport, which is now closed. A short man with a long beard and sunglasses, Ag Ghali is constantly surrounded by a throng of heavily armed men with the group Ansar Dine, or "Defenders of the Faith."
Ansar Dine is a new organization. Until last year, Ag Ghali was known as a leading Tuareg separatist. He vacillated between seeking dialogue with Bamako and declaring an independent Tuareg state. Ag Ghali had a reputation for smoking and drinking, but he was also considered unreliable, so the Tuareg rebels marginalized him politically last November. That was probably the moment Ag Ghali discovered Islamism.
From then on, instead of calling for a Tuareg nation, he promoted Sharia, saying: "All those who do not walk on Allah's paths are infidels." His change of heart secured him the support of al-Qaida and other extremists from the Maghreb.
His group is also involved in the drug trade in the Sahara. South American cartels send cocaine by ship to Guinea-Bissau in West Africa. From there, the drugs travel northward by land, transported -- in return for a hefty share of the profits -- by rebels, revolutionaries and bandits, like the Ansar Dine combatants. Kidnappings are another source of income for the "Defenders of the Faith." When the UN approved the deployment of troops to northern Mali in mid-October, Ansar Dine threatened to kill French hostages under its control.
Ag Ghali has little to say to the visitor. "Welcome to the Islamic city of Kidal," he says, before getting into his SUV and racing off, followed by his entourage.
Islamic Police Everywhere
But Kidal isn't really welcoming at all. Half of its residents have fled to Mauretania or Niger, and Islamic police in pickup trucks patrol the streets. The market is closed, and women are no longer permitted to go out in public alone in the city.
The men were instructed to grow beards. Those who do not obey the muezzin's call to prayer are either whipped or jailed for three days. Listening to the radio is banned, and the new rulers have simply sawed off satellite dishes on the roofs of houses.
Yacouba Mahamane Maiga is dozing under a tree. He is wearing a washed out T-shirt and shorts. He was one of the richest men in the city before the Islamists came to Kidal.
"I can't stand any of this anymore," he says, making a fist and pointing it in the direction of the boys with the Kalashnikovs. Before the takeover, his construction company had just been hired to build a new prison and a new courthouse, both government contracts worth millions. Maiga invested €1.5 million ($1.9 million) in new excavators and cranes.
But there has been no construction in Kidal since the Islamists arrived, and Maiga is forced to look on as his country falls apart. His machines are covered in desert dust, and his employees have fled. "I worked with these hands my entire life," he says. "Those stupid Salafists." He refuses to take them very seriously and isn't fooled by their piety. He calls them bandits, not holy warriors.
Tirades in public can be dangerous. The Islamic police are everywhere, and yet Maiga no longer makes any effort to hide his anger. There are more than 20 ethnic groups in Mali, and until now, Muslims, Christians and animists coexisted peacefully. Religion was always a private matter, says Maiga. He is convinced that the Islamists have no popular support, and he says that the people of Kidal are tired of being pushed around by adolescents.
Pushed Around by Adolescents
Maimouna Wallet Zeidane, 27, is one of the people who are trying to organize the resistance that is popping up everywhere. When it was still allowed, she was very athletic and shared a two-room apartment with her boyfriend in the Etambar neighborhood.
Now she lives alone. Thugs with Ansar Dine wanted to cut off her boyfriend's hands, because they were living together. He has since fled to Algeria. "We live in 2012. How can they try to turn back time to the days of the Prophet?" Zeidane asks.
She wears jeans and a T-shirt at home, but if she wore such clothing outside she would be beaten with a stick. She has spread out sheets of paper in her living room and started writing out slogans. One reads: "Islamists = Drug Dealers."
There is a knock at the door, and she quickly puts away the paper. "If the Islamic police find this here, they'll burn down the building." She puts a veil over her head and opens the door, by only a crack at first, but then all the way. Three women, her fellow campaigners, walk into the apartment. They call themselves the "Kidal Amazons." The group also consists of 250 women, and it grows larger at every demonstration, they say.
They'll be back on the streets in a few days, holding up their banners, in the middle of the Islamic city of Kidal. They'll risk beatings, each consisting of at least 40 lashes with a stick or a whip, and they'll go to prison.
But Zeidane is determined to take that risk. The Islamists have destroyed her life, and she is no longer afraid of the men with the beards and guns. "They should all burn in hell," she says.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
October 29, 2012
U.S. and Algeria Discuss Ousting Mali Militants
By MICHAEL R. GORDON
ALGIERS — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sought Algeria’s backing on Monday for an emerging international effort to push Islamic militants out of northern Mali, in a meeting here with the president of Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
In several hours of discussions, the two sides focused on the deteriorating situation in northern Mali, which has become a sanctuary for terrorists, including militants from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, since the national army lost control of the region after a coup in March.
After the meetings, American officials asserted that the Algerians’ and Americans’ political and military approaches to the crisis had begun to converge, but that more work was needed. “We have agreed to continue with in-depth expert discussions,” Mrs. Clinton said, “to determine the most effective approaches that we should be taking.”
The Islamist takeover of northern Mali is a growing worry for the United States and for France, the former colonial power, which maintains an interest in West Africa and has been pressing for international action.
Earlier this month, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution underscoring its “readiness” to send an international force to evict the militants in response to a request from a Mali government. While a military plan has yet to be drafted, the basic idea has been for forces from Nigeria and other African countries to help Mali’s military mount a campaign against the militants. France, the United States and other countries would help with training, intelligence and logistics.
The support of Algeria, a regional power and neighbor of Mali, would be essential, diplomats say. Algeria, which waged a brutal war against militants in its own country, has one of the strongest militaries in the region and an active intelligence service. Algeria, Niger, Mali and Mauritania have set up an intelligence center in the southern Algerian city of Tamanrasset to coordinate efforts against Al Qaeda and other regional threats.
“There is a strong recognition that Algeria has to be a central part of the solution,” an American official said.
Algeria, however, has not always been supportive of an international effort in Mali, particularly since the prospect of a military campaign in Mali risked pushing militants north into Algerian territory and, in the Algerians’ estimation, radicalizing the Tuaregs, a nomadic group who live in the desert area straddling the borders of Algeria, Mali and Niger.
But as security in Mali continued to deteriorate, the Algerians have eased their objections. “There is a Malian institutional crisis,” the Algerian foreign minister, Mourad Medelci, said on Oct. 19 in an interview during an international meeting in Bamako, the capital of Mali.
“The Algerians are ready to help,” he said.
Mrs. Clinton’s visit to Algeria, her second to the country as secretary of state, followed a series of high-level meetings in Washington last week between American and Algerian officials. France’s foreign minister visited Algeria earlier this month.
In the meeting with Secretary Clinton, President Bouteflika emphasized the political side of the problem, noting steps that Algeria had taken to facilitate a dialogue between moderate Tuaregs and the Malian authorities. American officials acknowledged the value of reaching out to moderate Tuaregs, but said the United States does not want to defer the planning for a military campaign while those contacts are pursued.
“It’s very clear that a political process and our counterterrorism efforts in Mali need to work in parallel and be mutually reinforcing,” a senior State Department official said.
The Islamist gains in Mali stem from a number of factors. The fall of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya prompted ethnic Tuareg rebels from Mali, who had been fighting alongside Colonel Qaddafi’s forces, to return to northern Mali with weapons from Libyan arsenals. They joined with Qaeda-affiliated Islamist militants who had moved to the lightly policed region from Algeria, and the two groups easily drove out the weakened Malian army in late March and early April. Then the Islamists turned on the Tuaregs, chasing them off and consolidating control in the region in May and June.
After her stop in Algeria, Mrs. Clinton traveled to Bosnia. She is also scheduled to visit Serbia, Kosovo, Croatia and Albania.
Adam Nossiter contributed reporting from Dakar, Senegal.
10/29/2012 04:31 PM
Al-Qaida Threat: EU Weighs Options for Helping Mali
By Horand Knaup, Gordon Repinski and Christoph Schult
The European Union wants to help the Malian army recapture the renegade north from terrorists with a military mission. But the French and the Americans have already been operating in the region for years without success. Can EU intervention really make a difference?
When the French foreign minister talks about Africa in the European Council, his counterparts from other European capitals listen very carefully. Because of their colonial past, France's diplomats are viewed as experts on Africa.
This was also the case on Monday two weeks ago, when the foreign ministers of European Union member states came together in Luxembourg to discuss the division of the West African country of Mali. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius used drastic language to warn of the "terrorist threat" developing in the northern part of the country. He made the case for an EU military mission to the country, saying: "Europe cannot simply stand on the sidelines."
Previously, French President François Hollande had used similar arguments to persuade German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But what politicians in Paris glossed over is that France has been fighting Islamic fundamentalists in the Sahel for years -- with its own elite soldiers, with instructors for the Malian army, with money and equipment and, most of all, without success.
Last Monday, Merkel had hardly given marching orders of sorts to high-ranking officers in Strausberg, near Berlin, telling them that "Mali's armed forces need support," when the political debate began in Berlin. Economic Cooperation and Development Minister Dirk Niebel, a member of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), the junior partner in Merkel's center-right coalition government, warned that the country could turn into a "second Afghanistan," and said that he believed "Germany's fundamental interests" are in jeopardy in the Sahel. Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière, a member of Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), was more reserved, but did make it clear to his generals that even a training mission could last "a few years." Military officials like Harald Kujat, the former general inspector of the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, expressed concerns that there is a great "risk that this could turn into an armed conflict."
Skepticism also prevails in the German parliament, the Bundestag. "Let's not jump the gun," warns Florian Hahn, a defense expert with the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU's conservative Bavarian sister party. "We should tell ourselves what it is we want in Mali before running after Paris's interests," says FDP parliamentarian Elke Hoff.
In fact, the French have been the most enthusiastic about moving forward with a military mission. The Elysée Palace has believed for years that French interests in the Sahel zone are under threat. Faced with attacks, abductions of French citizens and shootings, Hollande's predecessor, former President Nicolas Sarkozy, already felt that the region was one of his most significant challenges on the foreign policy front. In July 2010, then Foreign Minister François Fillon announced: "We are at war with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb."
Now the rest of the Western world is also concerned about developments in divided Mali. Islamists have seized power in the northern part of the country, where they have established an archaic legal system that includes stoning, whipping and amputation, in addition to forcing hundreds of thousands to flee the region.
The transitional government in the capital Bamako appealed for help, as did the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Even the United Nations Security Council favors intervention.
France and the United States want the entire EU to participate. The German government is preparing to send several dozen soldiers as part of the mission, and Defense Minister de Maizière says that he cannot rule out the possibility that they will be involved in armed combat.
The plans are being treated with great discretion in Brussels. Catherine Ashton, the EU's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, describes the deployment options in a confidential, eight-page report. The situation in Mali, the report reads, constitutes a direct threat to the overall security of the European Union, as well as increasing the risk of terrorist attacks on European soil.
The military experts agree that European combat units will not intervene in Mali, at least not for the time being. The EU plans to provide the Malian government with instructors, money, military equipment and reconnaissance images. But is that enough? Can EU instructors sufficiently build up the ECOWAS troops and Malian soldiers so that they are capable of expelling the Islamists from the region?
Little Success in Recent Years
To stabilize the situation, French and US experts have been trying for years to improve the condition of the Malian army. But the effort has been relatively unsuccessful, as evidenced by the military coup that ousted President Amadou Touré last March. The north declared its independence soon afterwards.
The desolate state of the Malian army is revealed in reports from the US embassy in Bamako published by WikiLeaks. The commanding officers were interested in a lot of things, just not in rapidly improving the fighting capacity of their soldiers. There is a long list of failures and handicaps, including elite units that are poorly equipped and wear sandals, demoralized troops from the south who show little enthusiasm for being sent to slaughter in the north and a lack of ammunition for training purposes.
When US observers visited a military outpost in northern Mali, they described it as a picture of misery: "Living conditions on the base are ... harsh. Meals for the troops consists of sandy rice with bean sauce. Meat is extraordinarily hard to come by." The situation for deployed troops is "considerably worse," the observers' report continues. "Lacking shelter, the troops sleep under their vehicles, and often run short of drinking water."
Now these very soldiers are to be trained, partly by Bundeswehr instructors, and brought to a level at which they can prevail against the heavily armed desert combatants. Military officials and security experts in Brussels are working feverishly on preparations for the mission, which could consist of one of three likely variants:
An advisory mission, known as EUSEC in the jargon of Brussels experts. Its goal would be to instruct Malian officers and noncommissioned officers at three military schools, including one in the city of Gao in the north, which is currently in the hands of the Islamists. This would require an estimated several dozen EU military trainers. Another aspect would include professionalizing the work of the general staff.
A training mission (EUTM), which would require sending some 150 instructors to Mali for at least two years. Each of them would train a battalion (up to 800 soldiers) in one of four locations. The Europeans are also considering training an elite unit that could spearhead the fight in the north.
A training mission with involvement in combat operations (EUTM+) that would accompany the Malian units into the war zone after their training is complete. The EU would deploy 400 to 500 of its own troops for this purpose. According to the EU, it would constitute "a military presence in the field, with direct involvement in the fighting."
The problem with this is that EU governments want to minimize the risk for their soldiers. But this modest deployment would have "little effect in the short term," warn experts with the European External Action Service.
Proposals over what to do about Mali raise significant doubts elsewhere too. "A military intervention comes with enormous dangers," says Philippe Hugon, research director at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris. "Even after a recapture of the north, the effects of a military campaign on the country would be unforeseeable."
The Tuareg, who are currently suffering greatly at the hands of the Islamists, also warn against foreign intervention. Their representatives told members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg last week that al-Qaida is no longer popular in the northern part of the country, but that an offensive supported by the West could revive the terrorist group.
The mission threatens to become a failure, particularly because time is running out. If the Malian army and the West African intervention force hope to invade the north before the hot summer, the Europeans will have to begin their training activities in the winter. And if they delay the mission, the Islamists will have plenty of time to strengthen their positions.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan