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Author Topic: Pluto in Cap, the USA, the future of the world  (Read 1071324 times)
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« Reply #3075 on: Nov 18, 2012, 07:48 AM »

8 November 2012 - 10H38 

New Coptic Christian pope enthroned in Egypt

AFP - Pope Tawadros II was enthroned as the new leader of Egypt's Coptic Christian minority on Sunday in a ceremony at Cairo's St Mark's Cathedral attended by Prime Minister Hisham Qandil.

Dozens of Coptic clerics in flowing robes took part in the ceremony, the first in four decades, as the Muslim premier watched on.

Tawadros received the crown and crucifix from Bishop Pachomius, who had served as the church's interim leader, before ascending the huge throne of St Mark embossed with its two wooden lions.

Arabic, English and Greek mingled with the ancient Coptic language of the church's liturgy in the psalms and prayers of the service and the tributes of well-wishers.

Tawadros, 60, was chosen on November 4 to succeed Pope Shenuda III, who died in March after four decades on the patriarchal throne.

He becomes spiritual head of the largest Christian minority in the Middle East and 118th pope in a line dating back to the origins of Christianity and to Saint Mark, the apostle and author of one of the four Gospels, who brought the new faith to Egypt.

Shenuda, a careful, pragmatic leader, died at a critical time for the increasingly beleaguered minority, which has faced a surge in sectarian attacks after an uprising overthrew president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.

The pope leads the country's Coptic Orthodox community. Christians make up between six and 10 percent of Egypt's 83-million population.

Amid increased fears about the community's future after the overthrow of Mubarak, Tawadros will be its main contact with Islamist President Mohamed Morsi.

The rise of Islamists after the revolution sparked fears among Copts of further persecution at home, despite Morsi's repeated promises to be a president "for all Egyptians."

Tawadros's official biography stresses his wish for good relations with Muslims, saying he has "asked the media to accentuate common values between the two religions to avoid extremism and consolidate national unity."

He also advocates further unity between Egypt's Copts and those of the diaspora, whose leaders have often been more outspoken against abuses suffered by the Christians in Egypt.

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« Reply #3076 on: Nov 18, 2012, 07:54 AM »

18 November 2012 - 03H25 

Sierra Leone counts ballots after high-stakes election

AFP - Sierra Leone's electoral officials tallied votes on Sunday after a peaceful day of voting in general elections seen as a litmus test of the west African nation's post-war recovery.

Observers estimate high turnout after Saturday's presidential, parliamentary and local elections in which voters lined up all day to vote for a government they hope will bring prosperity and cement growth after a decade of peace.

On Saturday night after polls closed, citizens crowded around radios as provisional results from individual polling stations were announced.

Sustained cheers, vuvuzela blasts and whistles erupted across a ruling party stronghold in Freetown as incumbent Ernest Koroma's All People's Congress (APC) pulled ahead in parliamentary poll results from the provinces.

Decisive results are not due until later next week and final results will be announced on November 26.

The poll is seen as a tight race between Koroma who has overseen a construction boom, and ex-military leader Julius Maada Bio who has amassed support amongst many still struggling to survive in what is still one of the world's poorest nations.

Koroma is regarded as the favourite, but analysts expect a tight race.

While no major incidents have marred the election process, it will be most fragile when results are released. Both candidates have said they are confident of victory and Bio has warned he will not accept a "dirty election."

Since independence from Britain the two parties have dominated the political scene, both drawing support from traditional ethnic strongholds.

Bio's Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) is typically supported by the Mende -- one of the country's main tribes -- and other southern tribes. Koroma's APC is favoured by the other major Temne tribe and others in the north and west.

"The real test for Sierra Leone's democracy is how the loser accepts the defeat," said Jonathan Bhalla of the London-based Africa Research Institute.

The election is a yardstick on Sierra Leone's recovery from the 11-year civil war that left 120,000 dead and many mutilated by rebels who hacked off hands and feet. It will also hand the victorious party stewardship of a lucrative mining boom from its rich mineral resources.

Richard Howitt, head of a European Union observer mission, on Saturday praised the peaceful election.

"The theme of this election is the fears that have been expressed to us by the people of Sierra Leone about a return to violence and so far we've seen a relaxed atmosphere with people happy to be taking part in voting and a peaceful election."

He said the transparency of the process was important for the acceptance of results and urged parties to repeat calls for non-violence to their supporters as results began to be counted on Saturday evening.

In the presidential election, a candidate will have to score 55 percent to avoid a run-off.

A decade after the end of a war synonymous with feared rebel leaders armed by the sale of "blood diamonds", Sierra Leone has become accustomed to peace.

Now the concerns of most voters are development, prosperity, improved access to education and health care, and greater employment opportunities.

While still one of the world's poorest countries, Sierra Leone is rich in mineral resources and massive iron-ore stores are expected to add 21 percent growth this year to its $2.2 billion (1.7 billion euro) gross domestic product, the International Monetary Fund estimates.

However, the country has one of Africa's lowest life expectancies at 47 years according to the World Bank, and highest rates of maternal mortality. Youth unemployment levels hover at 60 percent.

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« Reply #3077 on: Nov 18, 2012, 07:57 AM »

November 17, 2012

Russians Look Askance at Anticorruption Drive Even as New Scandals Arise


MOSCOW — Ripples of scandal are spreading in Russia’s Far East, where, auditors say, $472 million in construction financing was misallocated ahead of a government summit meeting. About $200 million in missing funds have led to firings in Russia’s space industry. And corruption in the Defense Ministry has figured prominently in Russia’s news cycles since Nov. 6, leaving the fate of its former minister uncertain.

In the past, President Vladimir V. Putin has always been reluctant to expel or prosecute high-level officials, despite widespread complaints about corruption. So the mushrooming scandals are unusual, raising questions about what has changed.

There is little doubt that the Kremlin has been battered by opposition campaigns highlighting official corruption. Political strategists, searching for ideas powerful enough to consolidate the country around Mr. Putin, may seize on fighting corruption as a Kremlin effort, and recent steps hint at a populist push to expose and punish guilty officials.

“A tough, uncompromising battle with corruption has begun,” announced Arkady Mamontov, a pro-government television host, in a much-hyped documentary titled “Corruption” that, though it was broadcast close to midnight on Tuesday, attracted nearly 20 percent of the television audience. “In the course of the next months, we will see many interesting things. The main thing is that we should not stand aside and watch what is happening, but take an active part in it.”

Political observers have watched the anticorruption drive curiously, debating where it might be headed, and especially whether, for the first time since Mr. Putin came to power, high-ranking officials would face prosecution. On Monday, the newspaper Vedomosti declared that Moscow was witnessing the beginning of a “cleansing of the elite” — a flushing out of a political system that lacks other mechanisms of renewal, like competitive elections. Others were skeptical that the effort would reach beyond midlevel officials.

“It cannot become an overall ideology, because Putin’s system is dependent on corruption — on corruption as a form of management and a guarantee of loyalty from officials,” said Aleksei Navalny, a blogger and anticorruption activist. “They will not kick out from under themselves the stool that they are standing on.”

Last week, it seemed the Kremlin had not decided how far to take its anticorruption drive. On Wednesday, Russian news agencies reported that the highest-level official to be implicated — the former defense minister Anatoly E. Serdyukov — had been offered a comfortable new job as an adviser to the director of Rostekhnologii, a company that produces and exports high-tech equipment.

The news prompted waves of angry commentary from those who had hoped Mr. Serdyukov would be prosecuted, including Adm. Vladimir Komoyedov, who heads the Defense Committee in the lower house of Parliament.

“There is a signal in the navy that means ‘man overboard,’ ” he said. “We all thought the former minister had fallen overboard, and his fate would be sorrowful. But it turned out he was still inside the submarine.”

Others said it was more evidence that Mr. Putin does not give up his own. By way of commentary, the newspaper Kommersant posted a still from “The Godfather” in which the Mafia don embraced one of his lieutenants, along with a quotation: “Friendship is everything.”

Officials the next day denied that Mr. Serdyukov had been offered the job. Asked about the case at a news conference, Mr. Putin confirmed that, but said it would not be a problem if Mr. Serdyukov was given a new position, since he has not been formally accused of wrongdoing.

“There is a generally accepted practice that a person is innocent as long as a court has not proven his guilt,” he said. “If he wants to gain work anywhere, I don’t think that we should prevent that. He has the right to work.”

The Kremlin faces a dilemma in resolving Mr. Serdyukov’s case. Russians largely supported Mr. Serdyukov’s dismissal, and some speculated that the anticorruption effort was bolstering Mr. Putin’s approval ratings. The firing was particularly popular among prosperous urban males — a population that has turned away from Mr. Putin in recent years, and which he is no doubt eager to win back. But a prosecution would shine light on a deep and pervasive flaw of Mr. Putin’s system, with unpredictable consequences.

Mr. Navalny said he was “cautiously optimistic” that information about corruption had begun to emerge into public view, even if high-level officials were not punished.

As they broadened the investigation into the Defense Ministry, federal investigators have reopened an embezzlement investigation singling out a Moscow tax official close to Mr. Serdyukov, Vedomosti reported Wednesday, citing unnamed law enforcement officials.

The tax official, Olga Stepanova, was also at the center of a notorious case: the lawyer Sergei L. Magnitsky accused her of embezzling $230 million from the Russian Treasury by filing false corporate tax returns. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Magnitsky was detained on tax evasion charges. He died in pretrial detention in 2009, at the age of 37, and the authorities have consistently denied that Mr. Magnitsky’s allegations had any merit.

“Factually, this looks like an acknowledgment of relatively obvious things,” Mr. Navalny said. “I am happy that these facts are coming out, and that it will now be harder to escape from accusations, including ours.”

There will almost certainly be more corruption cases in the coming months. One especially eager official is the deputy prime minister, Dmitri O. Rogozin, who wrote on Twitter: “I will insist that corruption in defense procurement will be equivalent to treason! Have they lost their fear? We will find them!”

Sergei V. Stepashin, the chairman of the federal accounting chamber, Russia’s main auditing body, told the news service Interfax on Wednesday that a trillion rubles a year, or around $31.5 billion, is being siphoned from Russia’s budget in the course of state procurement — about one-fourteenth of the entire budget, he estimated.

Mr. Mamontov’s documentary sketched out one scheme that made this possible: go-betweens at the Defense Ministry, he said, would buy low-quality coal at rock-bottom prices, then resell it through shell companies back to the ministry at a tenfold markup.

He then swung his focus to one person suspected of being a culprit: Yevgeniya Vasilieva, a 33-year-old lawyer at the ministry who was shown in photographs carousing in a silver sequined dress. The camera lingered over Ms. Vasilieva’s 13-room, $10 million Moscow apartment and five boxes that held $3 million worth of jewelry.

After the show was broadcast, Igor Bunin, the director of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow, said he believed fighting corruption would “become one of the elements of the regime’s ideology,” and that more films — and more prosecutions — were on the way.

“You need to understand that when you start such a battle with corruption, it touches the whole political class and, of course, leads to direct political consequences, a new political system,” Mr. Bunin said in an interview with the radio station Kommersant FM.
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« Reply #3078 on: Nov 18, 2012, 07:59 AM »

November 17, 2012

Privatizing Greece, Slowly but Not Surely


THE government inspectors set out from Athens for what they thought was a pristine patch of coastline on the Ionian Sea. Their mission was to determine how much money that sun-kissed shore, owned by the Greek government, might sell for under a sweeping privatization program demanded by the nation’s restive creditors.

What the inspectors found was 7,000 homes — none of which were supposed to be there. They had been thrown up without ever having been recorded in a land registry.

“If the government wanted to privatize here, they would have to bulldoze everything,” says Makis Paraskevopoulos, the local mayor. “And that’s never going to happen.”

Athens agreed. It scratched the town, Katakolo, off a list of potential properties to sell. But as Greece redoubles its efforts to raise billions to cut its debt and stoke its economy, the situation in Katakolo illustrates the daunting hurdles ahead.

In the three years since the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission — the so-called troika of lenders — first required Greece to sell state assets, a mere 1.6 billion euros have been raised. Last Tuesday, European leaders said Greece needed an additional 15 billion euros in aid through 2014 to meet debt-reduction targets — partly because Athens has failed to make money on privatization.

Now, the troika may consider cutting an already lowered target for Greece to raise 19 billion euros by 2015 to about 10 billion euros as investors worry that Greece may have to leave the euro. The troika is requiring that Greece must still raise 50 billion through privatizations by 2022.

The I.M.F. estimates that those funds, should they materialize, will trim only up to 1 percent from Greece’s debt, which is expected to rise to a staggering 189 percent of the nation’s economic output in 2013, from 175 percent this year.

But with Greece’s economy headed into its sixth year of recession, and unemployment at 25 percent, the nation’s immediate goal is to lure any investment it can through long-term leases on state properties to create jobs and get money flowing into depleted public coffers.

“This could put the economy back in motion,” says Andreas Taprantzis, the executive director of the Hellenic Republic Asset Development Fund, a new agency set up to hasten privatization. If investors develop land, restructure highways or build business parks, the activity would “help employment, which is a major issue for Greece,” he says.

Indeed, privatization is one of the last hopes here for luring foreign cash.

Efforts stumbled anew last summer, when the government fell and two chaotic elections were held, amplifying fears of what is known in financial circles as a “Grexit” — a Greek exit from the euro. Investor confidence fell so low that a recent survey by the BDO consulting firm found that Greece was considered more risky for investment than Syria.

Yet as Prime Minister Antonis Samaras took steps last week to secure an additional 31.5 billion euros of bailout money from creditors, the thinking is that if one major asset can be sold now, investors will feel better about spending their money on Greece.

OFFICIALS are trotting out Greece’s most tempting offer: OPAP, the highly profitable gambling company in which the government has a major stake. Its gambling agencies abound around Athens and in Greek villages. Last week, as the government went on a road show to China to drum up investor interest, eight bids landed, including one from a Chinese concern.

Still, Mr. Taprantzis’s agency faces a daunting task. The idea of the country selling off its crown jewels touches a raw nerve here. Many Greeks say the government is buckling to decrees from the troika. Citizen protests have flared over nearly every state asset up for offer, including ones that have long bled cash — even if shedding them would help Greece’s finances.

Others say the government is so desperate that prime assets will be sold too cheaply. In the case of OPAP, Greeks grumble about the government’s logic in selling one of the few things that brings a steady stream of money to the treasury.

Given the culture of clientelism that pervades business dealings in Greece, others are concerned that properties will wind up in the hands of powerful Greek oligarchs who, these critics worry, may be waiting for an opportunity to get them at a cut-rate price.

Questions swirled after a huge Athens media center and shopping mall built for the 2004 Olympics by Spyros Latsis, one of Greece’s wealthiest men, was put up for privatization. The government had initially leased the property, Golden Hall, to Mr. Latsis’ Lamda Domi firm in a 2007 deal worth about 320 million euros over 40 years. But this year, as real estate values plummeted, Lamda won an open tender for a new 90-year lease, paying the government 81 million euros in exchange for maximum additional payments of 32.4 million euros over the life of the contract.

The Greek blogosphere lit up with accusations that the government handed an influential businessman a prime asset at a loss. Mr. Taprantzis called such criticism naïve, because it failed to account for the net present value of the leases.

Still, Daniel Sahl, the head of bilateral relations at the Federation of German Industry, says there is a pattern of Greek “princes” profiting on deals at the expense of the state. “The question is whether Greek society and the Greek government are really interested in privatization or not,” says Mr. Sahl, who advocates handing the task to an outside body that would operate free from Greek political machinations.

“If they are not, they should be honest,” he says. “But if they are, they should work to get as much as they can out of the assets.”

THE agency’s mandate is to clean up legal obstacles tied to the huge package of assets being offered for concession. About 15 percent of the portfolio is stakes in banks and utilities, as well as the national lottery.

The bulk, however, includes properties that would require years to develop and wouldn’t generate significant cash flow instantly. Approximately 30 percent comprises ports, airports, motorways and other infrastructure. The vast remainder consists of real estate — from a former royal palace to the Athens police headquarters — and prime cuts of land. These include beaches on the vacation playgrounds of Rhodes and Corfu.

Interest is high. Six bids — including one from Lamda — have been submitted for a site on Rhodes alone.

But even if investors are persuaded to part with their money, the properties must still be cleared of a thicket of complications.

“The reality is that the assets that have been allocated to the fund are not conducive to privatization,” said a person who has been involved in the initiative and spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the situation. “Nearly every one is fraught with problems.”

For instance, while investors are expected to commit equity, foreign banks remain wary of lending for deals in Greece. Some financing must come from Greek banks, which are now barely making loans. More than 85 percent of the aide tranche of 31.5 billion euros that Greece hopes to receive this month is needed to recapitalize Greek banks.

And many assets are encumbered with legal issues. In many cases, such problems must be resolved through government decrees or politically charged legislation. This month, Parliament squabbled over a privatization law revoking the condition that the state retain a minimum stake in utilities and ports.

The measure, which barely passed, cleared the way to privatize assets like Greece’s water utility. Yet even there, a new regulatory agency must be established, along with a public policy on how to price water.

The government owes the utility around 700 million euros in unpaid bills; when it will ever pay is unclear.

And then there is land: It is the bulk of the portfolio, and it comes with the biggest problems. Property registries are almost nonexistent in Greece, a curiosity that dates back to the Ottoman Empire. Ownership was almost never recorded, so investors could face potential lawsuits from people claiming land as theirs.

“Just imagine — the state doesn’t know exactly what real estate it really owns,” says George Katrougalos, a Greek constitutional lawyer who is currently a fellow at New York University. “It’s a legal mess.”

Worse still, Greeks built on state land probably while the government looked the other way. That was the situation that Mr. Taprantzis’s agency found in Katakolo, a once-verdant beachfront near ancient Olympia. in the Western Peloponnese, where thousands of people squatted on state land without paying for or registering the property.

Local politicians enabled the activity. For decades, on days when national elections were held, hundreds of people would throw up cinder-block houses literally overnight. In exchange, locals supported candidates who would not sanction them or force them to pay taxes on the construction. Electricity was eventually brought in through political favors, and little by little, a community was established.

“Politicians turned a blind eye in exchange for votes,” Christos Konstantopoulos, a spokesman for the mayor, said during a recent tour of the area.

The result: miles of beachfront property littered with the skeletons of shabbily built homes. Taxes went unpaid. Other homes had been spruced up over time, with porch swings, ornamental hedges and, in one case, a faux lighthouse with a small pool. “Everybody in town has a brother, a sister, an uncle or a cousin who lives here,” Mr. Konstantopoulos said, calling the situation disheartening. “But now we’re stuck with it.”

The state lost untold income, including that from unpaid taxes, although residents are now forced to pay a property tax through electricity bills. Still, the area is a lost cause for privatization, as far as Mr. Taprantzis’s agency is concerned.

NOW, the government is scrambling to set up an electronic land registry. It is a herculean task, though not insurmountable, Mr. Taprantzis says.

At Hellinikon, the old Athens airport site that is one of the largest land areas to be privatized in Europe, “the property is more or less clean,” says Spiros N. Pollalis, the head of the project and a professor at the Harvard school of design. Property disputes have been fast-tracked for resolution, and the concerns of locals who feared excessive development have been largely addressed, he says.

If all goes well, some investor will spend six billion euros on a huge urban landscaping project to turn the 1,500-acre site into a vast business hub and pedestrian area, Mr. Pollalis says. That could draw innovative companies and generate more than 20,000 high-paying jobs.

Mr. Pollalis hopes that developers will see things his way, even if their goal is to maximize profit.

“In Hellinikon, we need not only a partner but someone who understands the needs of the Greek people,” he says. “We do not want greed.”

That was a concern of locals in the Afandou beachfront area of Rhodes, which was founded as a refuge in an era when pirates roamed the Mediterranean. Like Katakolo, some parts of the land were squatted on — a problem that blocked four previous efforts at privatization. The agency is bent on clearing the land titles, but that requires a ruling by Greek courts, which can up to a decade to occur.

Local residents wanted the Afandou plot transformed into year-round, sports-theme vacation attractions. Some are now trying to block privatization for fear that investors will erect cheap hotels, bringing only low-paying jobs.

Nektarios Santorinios, a representative of the left-leaning Syriza party who is heading protests, contends that the state was so desperate that it was accepting about 50 euros per square meter, compared with an estimated market value of 180 euros. “They are trying to sell the gold of Rhodes in a fire sale,” he says. “Meanwhile, the money will just go into a black hole, which is the national debt.”

BACK in Athens, Mr. Taprantzis says the government understands that it needs to show Greeks that they have nothing to fear from privatization.

The process could be a breakthrough for Greece that clears away deep-seated problems like the one in Katakolo.

“The state is not the best businessman,” he says. “So privatization will be transformational in many respects.”

Although any transition would be painful for vested interests, Mr. Taprantzis says, “we’re discussing this as if Greece had another option.” He paused, then added, “I’m not sure another option is there.”

Dimitris Bounias contributed reporting.
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« Reply #3079 on: Nov 18, 2012, 08:01 AM »

Austerity: No sacrifices without hope

16 November 2012
Project Syndicate
Michael kountouris

If the EU had greater legitimacy, Europeans would agree more readily to the efforts that are asked of them, because they could then expect to see these sacrifices rewarded.
Michael Marder

In a recent interview, French President François Hollande made the crucial, but often forgotten, point that there are limits to the level of sacrifice that can be demanded of the citizens of southern Europe’s financially distressed countries. To avoid turning Greece, Portugal, and Spain into collective “correctional houses,” Hollande reasoned, people need hope beyond the ever-receding horizon of spending cuts and austerity measures.

Even the most rudimentary understanding of psychology supports Hollande’s assessment. Negative reinforcement and delayed gratification are unlikely to achieve their goals unless there is a perceived light at the end of the tunnel – a future reward for today’s sacrifices.

Public pessimism in southern Europe is largely attributable to the absence of such a reward. As declining consumer confidence and household purchasing power deepen the recession, projections of when the crisis will end are repeatedly pushed back, and those bearing the brunt of austerity are losing hope.

Throughout history, the concept of sacrifice has merged theology and economics. In the ancient world, people made often-bloody offeringsto divinities, whom they believed would reward them with, say, good harvests or protection from evil. Christianity, with its belief that God (or the Son of God) sacrificed Himself to expiate humanity’s sins, inverted the traditional economy of sacrifice. In this case, divine suffering serves as an exemplar of the selflesshumility with which earthly misfortunes should be endured.

Churchill gave Britons something to look forward to

Despite secularization, the belief that rewards, or achievements, require sacrifice has become an integral part of European cultural consciousness. The idea of a “social contract” – which arose during the Enlightenment in orderto address, without resort to divine right, the legitimacy of the state’s authority over its citizens – rests on the premise that individuals surrender a certain degree of personal liberty in order to secure peace and prosperity for all.

As a result, political leaders have often asked citizens to sacrifice personal freedoms and comforts in the name of secularized spiritual entities, such as the nation or the state – and citizens have eagerly obliged. In his first speech to the House of Commons as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Winston Churchill inspired hope in a beleaguered nation when he famously declared that he – and thus Britain – had “nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”

Given such countless precedents, it may be surprising that the rhetoric of sacrifice under the banner of austerity has proven so ineffective in Europe’s current crisis. Some observers blame declining levels of commitment to anything that transcends the individual, including the political system.

But resistance to austerity in southern Europe is not rooted in general hostility toward sacrifice. Rather, Europeans have come to believe that their leaders are demanding sacrifices that do not advance their interests. Churchill gave Britons something to look forward to: victory. Without a clear end that justifies it, sacrifice becomes meaningless.

Europe’s leaders must imbue their citizens with renewed hope

Prosperity was supposed to legitimize the European Union. After the period of rapid economic growth ended, Europe’s leaders came to rely, instead, on the threat of an evil that is greater than austerity: further destabilization of debtor countries, leading to default, expulsion from the eurozone, and economic, social, and political collapse.

But the rhetoric of fear is losing sway, because the “new deal” taking shape across southern Europe offers morerepression and less protection, thus violating the social contract’s fundamental tenets. Indeed, while European citizens are being asked to sacrifice their standard of living – and even their livelihoods – for the sake of the “national economy,” transnational corporations are thriving.

The conditions imposed by the “troika” – the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund – amount to an indefinite delay in addressing the needs of those asked to sacrifice and in repairing tattered social safety nets. Yet national governments continue to implement policies that exacerbate injustice. For example, Portugal’s 2013 budget reduces the number of tax brackets from eight to five – a move that will devastate the middle class.

Sacrifice used to involve ransoming the body – its pleasures, basic needs, and even vitality – for the sake of the spirit. While the discourse of sacrifice persists, the logic that has shored it up for millennia has been abandoned. Europe’s leaders must imbue their citizens with renewed hope. The legitimacy of “post-national” Europe – based on the EU’s obligation, enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty, to promote “the well-being of its people” – is at stake.
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« Reply #3080 on: Nov 18, 2012, 08:04 AM »

Solar vehicles in Chile race across world’s driest desert

By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, November 17, 2012 11:12 EST

Fifteen solar panel vehicles, some that look like small space ships, raced across Chile’s Atacama desert as part of a contest to build low-cost environmentally-friendly cars.

Teams from countries like Argentina, Chile, India and Venezuela have crafted aerodynamic racers to speed across 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) of the world’s driest desert in the second edition of the Atacama Solar Challenge.

The race, which began Thursday and ends Monday, pits teams from universities that build their cars on a tight budget in the slog across northern Chile.

Some of the vehicles powered exclusively by the sun’s rays, while others are solar- and pedal-powered hybrids.

The solar-powered vehicles are mostly flat rectangular contraptions lined with solar panels to absorb solar energy, which is stored in batteries, and with a cubicle to house the driver. The hybrids look like neighborhood go-carts with solar panels glued on.

The race started Thursday at the Humberstone saltpeter, about 800 kilometers (500 miles) north of Chile’s capital, Santiago. The site, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a ghost town that has been abandoned since saltpeter mining was halted ended there in the mid 20th century.

This year, a team from oil-rich Venezuela made their debut in the competition that celebrates an alternative to fossil fuels.

“In a country with a mono-economy based on oil, with an infinite potential of hydraulic energy, and without an energy problem, it is a miracle to build a car like this,” said the Venezuelan team captain Carlos Mata.

“The import laws in Venezuela meant we could not get all the necessary materials, so we had to adapt what we had. It was a huge effort,” he explained.

But his team persisted, eager to participate in an event organizers say is aimed at encouraging research into alternative sources of energy.

The solar vehicles shared the same northern Chilean highway with trucks, busses and cars, but are a long way from replacing them, said Leonardo Saguas, captain of the Antakar team from Chile’s Universidad de La Serena.

Yet Saguas, whose team built last year’s winning car, said he can envision a day when Chile is mass producing solar cars.

“We have plenty of resources, we just need to develop them,” he said.

Gabriel Martinez, proud team captain from the University of Concepcion, spent a year perfecting his vehicle.

“It has 244 solar cells” which capture the sun’s energy and convert it to electricity stored in batteries, he bragged, adding that the vehicle “weighs 300 kilograms and its peak power is 950 watts.”

“This race is awesome. It applies all the engineering and technology we learn into a sport. I love it,” he gushed.

Luciano Chiang, professor at Chile’s Catholic University, supervises the Solar Mecatronica team, one of five competing from Chilean universities.

“The market for (solar) panels belongs 90 percent to China, which no one can compete with on price,” Chiang said.

“Yet Chile is the country with the most potential solar energy in the world,” he said. “It is the same paradox as with batteries. We buy them from China, but they are made of lithium that surely comes from Chile,” the world’s leading source of the mineral.

Solar powered racer in Chile via AFP

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« Reply #3081 on: Nov 18, 2012, 08:25 AM »

In the USA

Originally published November 17, 2012 at 5:57 PM | Page modified November 17, 2012 at 8:17 PM
U.S. House sets hearing on missing war records

Subcommittee hearing follows a ProPublica-Seattle Times investigation revealing dozens of military units deployed in the war on terror have destroyed or failed to keep field reports of their activities.

By Peter Sleeth
Special to ProPublica

Missing military records from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — detailed in a ProPublica-Seattle Times investigation over Veterans Day — will be the subject of a congressional hearing next month, the spokeswoman for a House Veterans Affairs subcommittee said Friday.

Separately, Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, called on Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to respond to findings of the investigation, which detailed how dozens of Army units and U.S. Central Command destroyed or failed to keep field reports.

Michaud sits on the House Veterans Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, which added the topic to a Dec. 4 session about the Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) effort to move its claims and benefit record-keeping systems into the digital era.

ProPublica and The Times found that some veterans were denied disability benefits or faced delays in some cases because field records were unavailable to prove that injuries were combat related. The stories focused on missing Army and Centcom field reports rather than those created and kept by the VA.

Michaud called for a joint study by the VA and the Pentagon into the impact of missing field records on veterans' benefit claims and the ability to study wartime health risks, such as concern about exposure to toxic particulates from open-air burn pits used to incinerate garbage in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We cannot allow these lost records to lead to the same gaps in knowledge and care that our Vietnam veterans face with Agent Orange and our First Gulf War veterans face with medically unexplained illnesses," wrote Michaud. "We need to get to the bottom of this in order to understand the full scope of the problem and ensure it doesn't happen again."

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has also asked Panetta's office to report on the status of efforts to find and collect field records from Iraq and Afghanistan. A spokesman for Murray, who chairs the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said Panetta has not yet responded.

Among the witnesses being called to the Dec. 4 hearing are representatives from the Department of Defense, the VA, the National Archives and Records Administration and veterans' advocates, a subcommittee spokeswoman said.

The final list of witnesses will be released later, but David Hobson, executive director of the National Organization of Veterans' Advocates, said he had been asked to testify about specific examples of veterans who have had to deal with lost field records and the impact it had on them.

Despite assurances from the VA that veterans can work around missing field records, Hobson said, "oftentimes the other methods don't work out so well, if at all."

ProPublica is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.


Originally published Saturday, November 17, 2012 at 3:34 PM
Asia trip gives Obama opportunity to build legacy

With a second term now guaranteed, aides say President Obama, who kicks off his trip in Bangkok, will be a regular visitor to the entire region over the next four years as well.

The Associated Press

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — For President Obama, expanding U.S. influence in Asia is more than just countering China or opening up new markets to American businesses. It's also about building his legacy.

Fresh off re-election, Obama will make a significant investment in that effort during a quick run through Southeast Asia that begins Sunday.

In addition to stops in Thailand and Cambodia, the president will make a historic visit to Myanmar, where his administration has led efforts to ease the once-pariah nation out of international isolation.

The trip marks Obama's fourth visit to Asia in as many years. With a second term now guaranteed, aides say Obama, who kicks off his schedule in Bangkok, will be a regular visitor to the region over the next four years as well.

"Continuing to fill in our pivot to Asia will be a critical part of the president's second term and ultimately his foreign policy legacy," said Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser.

The president's motivations in Asia are personal and strategic.

Obama, who was born in Hawaii and lived in Indonesia as a child, has called himself America's first "Pacific president." The region gives him an opportunity to open up new markets for U.S. companies, promote democracy and ease fears of China's rise by boosting U.S. military presence in Asia.

The president, like many of his predecessors, had hoped to cement his foreign-policy legacy in the Middle East. He visited two major allies in the region, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, on one of his first overseas trips as president, and he attempted to revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

But those talks stalled, and fresh outbursts of violence between Israel and the Palestinians make the prospects of a peace accord appear increasingly slim.

The Obama-backed Arab Spring democracy push has had mixed results so far, with Islamists taking power in Egypt and progress in Libya tainted by the deadly attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. Obama hasn't been back to the region since 2009.

In Asia, however, Obama will be viewed as something of an elder statesman when he returns less than two weeks after winning re-election. The region is undergoing significant leadership changes, most notably in China, where the Communist Party tapped new leaders last week. Japan's prime minister and South Korea's president are also stepping down soon.

"Most of the leaders he'll meet with will not have a tenure as long as he will as president," said Michael Green, an Asia scholar at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "So he'll go into this in a very strong position."

The centerpiece of Obama's whirlwind Asia tour is his visit to Myanmar. It will be the first time a U.S. president has visited there.

Myanmar has become something of a pet project for Obama and his national security aides, who have cheered the country's significant strides toward democracy. Obama lifted some U.S. penalties on Myanmar, appointed a permanent U.S. ambassador and hosted democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi at the White House this year.

Many of the same strategic motivations behind Obama's larger focus on Asia are at play in Myanmar.

The country long has oriented itself toward China, but the easing of sanctions gives U.S. businesses a chance to gain a foothold there. It's also an opportunity for the Obama administration to show other nations in the region, and elsewhere in the world, that there are benefits to aligning with the U.S.

Still, there's little denying that history has been a draw for Obama's team when it comes to its dealings with Myanmar. That's led to criticism from some human-rights groups that say Obama's visit is premature given the country continues to hold political prisoners and has been unable to stem some ethnic violence.

"This trip risks being an ill-timed presidential pat on the back for a regime that has looked the other way as violence rages, destroying villages and communities just in the last few weeks," said Suzanne Nossel, the U.S.-based director of Amnesty International.

Obama's other stops in the region also underscore the potential pitfalls of going all-in in Asia.

Thailand's 2006 coup, which led to the ouster of the prime minister, strained relations with the U.S. and raised questions in Washington, D.C., about the stability of its longtime regional ally. Cambodia, where Obama's visit also marks the first by a U.S. president, has a dismal human-rights record.

White House officials have emphasized that Obama is only visiting Cambodia because it is hosting the East Asia Summit, an annual meeting the U.S. attends. Aides say the president will voice his human-rights concerns during his meeting with Hun Sen, Cambodia's long-serving prime minister.


Republican modernizers desert Romney as GOP looks to the future

By Paul Harris, The Guardian
Saturday, November 17, 2012 21:49 EST

A succession of top Republicans have begun distancing themselves fromMitt Romney after the former presidential hopeful made a series of blunt comments about minority groups as he sought to explain why he lost the race for the White House.

Romney, who less than two weeks ago was still a real contender to be America’s next president, appears to have dramatically damaged his chances of becoming an influential party figure in the future.

Some moderate conservatives have started calling for Republicans to work harder to attract Hispanic voters, other minorities and women and to appear less extreme in some of its ideological stances such as tax cuts for the wealthy. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal even went so far as to say the party had to stop being “the stupid party”.

But on a conference call with his defeated donors last week Romney sparked outrage among many Republican figures after he appeared to say Obama had won support by “giving a lot of stuff” to some voters such as Hispanics, black Americans and young people in the form of healthcare, free contraceptives and forgiveness of college loan interests. “In each case, they were very generous in what they gave to those groups,” Romney said.

Those comments caused Jindal to criticise the former governor of Massachusetts in a CNN interview. “I absolutely reject that notion, that description. If you want voters to like you, the first thing you need to do is like them yourself,” Jindal said.

He was far from alone. New Hampshire senator Kelly Ayotte, who was once talked about as a potential Romney running mate, told MSNBC: “I don’t agree with the comments. I think the campaign is over, and what the voters are looking for us to do is to accept their votes and then go forward, and we’ve got some big challenges that need to be resolved.”

New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who caused ructions within the Romney campaign by praising President Barack Obama’s handling of Hurricane Sandy, also spoke to the left-leaning cable channel and pulled no punches. “You can’t expect to be a leader of all the people and [be so] divisive. Someone asked me: ‘Why did Mitt Romney lose?’ And I said: ‘Because he got less votes than Barack Obama. That’s why’,” Christie said.

As the Republican party digests its defeat by Obama, a profound debate is taking place about its future direction given the breakdown of the results. Romney won the white vote with 59%, according to exit polls, but minorities coalesced around the president with 93% of blacks and 71% of Hispanics backing Obama. The changing demographics of the US mean those minority voters are only likely to get more powerful in future elections.

The attacks on Romney are coming from people associated with an emerging, modernising wing of the Republican party who want the party to broaden its appeal and believe its recent shift to the right runs the risk of making the party far too reliant on older, white voters.

However, Romney’s comments during the donor phone call have surprised many experts. It was widely thought that Romney, who governed Massachusetts as a moderate Republican, was uncomfortable with some of the conservative positions he had to take to win his party’s 2012 nomination. But his remarks suggest that he is still going to hew to a more conservative line that echoes some of the infamous phrases he made on a secretly-taped video at a donor meeting about the “47%” of Americans who pay no income tax.

One Republican politician, Idaho congressman Raul Labrador, was brutal in his assessment of Romney’s position in the party. “He’s not going to be running for anything in the future,” he told the Washington Post.

That is true. Romney has no natural base in the Republican party, outside the world of high finance and big business. Unlike failed 2008 challenger John McCain – who remains very active in the Senate – Romney has no elected office to use as a platform. That is going to be make if difficult for Romney to influence either public opinion or Republican politicians.

Nor is he now trusted by many people on either wing of the Republican party. Moderates look set to disavow him as a divisive conservative who failed to adapt to a changed American electorate, while the right wing still sees him as an unconvincing convert to their causes.


November 17, 2012 08:00 AM

Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price

By Diane Sweet

Released in theaters November 4th, 2005, WAL-MART: THE HIGH COST OF LOW PRICE is a feature length documentary that uncovers a retail giant's assault on families and American values.

The film dives into the deeply personal stories and everyday lives of families and communities struggling to fight a goliath. A working mother is forced to turn to public assistance to provide healthcare for her two small children. A Missouri family loses its business after Wal-Mart is given over $2 million to open its doors down the road. A mayor struggles to equip his first responders after Wal-Mart pulls out and relocates just outside the city limits. A community in California unites, takes on the giant, and wins!

Producer/Director Robert Greenwald and Brave New Films take you on an extraordinary journey that will change the way you think, feel -- and shop.

If you don't already understand what's wrong with Wal-Mart, this film will fill in the blanks for you, and if you haven't already, hopefully you'll support the Wal-Mart employees as they strike on Black Friday for fair wages, and fair treatment.

The richest people in America: The owners of Wal-Mart -- six members of the Walton family -- are all on the list of Forbes 400 richest people in America. Combined, the Waltons have a net worth equal to the bottom 30 percent of all Americans. They are all children or children-in-law of the founders of Walmart. Six people. As much wealth as 30 percent of all the people in America. The Waltons are now collectively worth about $93 billion, according to Forbes.

Wal-Mart employs more people than any other company in the United States outside of the Federal government, yet the majority of its employees with children live below the poverty line.

Critics believe that Wal-Mart opens stores to saturate the marketplace and clear out the competition, and they do. Small businesses are crushed, they simply cannot compete with the chain of super stores that buy in mass quantities and sell far cheaper than an ordinary business. The small businesses go broke, and buildings are left empty.

The sentiment behind Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton's promise of a "better life for all" belies questionable business practices - many that have been challenged by employees, unions, environmentalists, recording artists and human rights organizations.

Forbes magazine, polling business executives (not employees) has ranked Wal-Mart among the best 100 corporations to work for. Yet the employees on average take home pay of under $250 a week. The salary for full-time employees (called "associates") is $6 to $7.50 an hour for 28-40 hours a week, which is typical in the discount retail industry. This pay scale places employees with families below the poverty line, with the majority of employees' children qualifying for free lunch at school. When closely examined, this amounts to a form of corporate welfare, as the taxpayer subsidizes the low salaries. One-third are part-time employees - limited to less than 28 hours of work per week - and are not eligible for benefits.

The company is staunchly anti-union. New employees are shown videotapes explaining that instead of unionizing, they benefit from the open door policy, allowing them to take their complaints beyond the supervisors to higher management. When the United Food and Commercial Workers tried to organize workers across the country, labor experts were brought in for "coaching sessions" with personnel who support unionization. Employees complained that these were intimidation sessions. Many such complaints are currently on file with the National Labor Relations Board.

A study by researchers at UC Berkeley's Labor Center has quantified what happened to retail wages when Wal-Mart set up shop, drawing on 15 years of data on actual store openings. The study found that Wal-Mart drives down wages in urban areas, with an annual loss of at least $4.7 billion dollars in earnings for retail workers.

And in 2004, a study released the UC Berkeley Labor Center found that "reliance by Wal-Mart workers on public assistance programs in California comes at a cost to taxpayers of an estimated $86 million annually; this is comprised of $32 million in health related expenses and $54 million in other assistance. Source: Ken Jacobs and Arindrajit Dube, "Hidden Costs of Wal-Mart Jobs" [PDF file], UC Berkeley Labor Center.

Wal-Mart dismissed the findings of the UC Berkeley study, "Hidden Costs of Wal-Mart Jobs," as a "union hit piece." However, text from Wal-Mart's own internal memo substantially corroborates their findings.

An excerpt from the memo states:

    "We also have a significant number of Associates and their children who receive health insurance through public-assistance programs. Five percent of our Associates are on Medicaid compared to an average for national employers of 4 percent. Twenty-seven percent of Associates' children are on such programs, compared to a national average of 22 percent. In total, 46 percent of Associates' children are either on Medicaid or are uninsured."

    Source: Wal-Mart Internal Memo [PDF File], via New York Times

A few statistics on exactly how many children of Wal-Mart of employees receive state-funded health care, and the cost to those states:

- FLORIDA: 12,300 WAL-MART Workers and their Dependents on Medicaid

- GEORGIA: 10,261 Children of WAL-MART Employees are Enrolled in PeachCare for Kids

- WISCONSIN: 1,252 WAL-MART Employees and Dependents on BadgerCare

Why are states subsidizing health care for Wal-Mart employees when the Walton family are all in the top ten wealthiest people in the entire nation? I'm not complaining that these families are getting health care, everyone deserves health care, but the Walton's should be ashamed that they aren't providing it.

WAL-MART Costs Taxpayers $1,557,000,000,00 to Support its Employees

"The Democratic Staff of the Committee on Education and the Workforce estimates that one 200-person Wal-Mart store may result in a cost to federal taxpayers of $420,750 per year - about $2,103 per employee. Specifically, the low wages result in the following additional public costs being passed along to taxpayers:

- $36,000 a year for free and reduced lunches for just 50 qualifying Wal-Mart families.
- $42,000 a year for Section 8 housing assistance, assuming 3 percent of the store employees qualify for such assistance, at $6,700 per family.
- $125,000 a year for federal tax credits and deductions for low-income families, assuming 50 employees are heads of household with a child and 50 are married with two children.
- $100,000 a year for the additional Title I expenses, assuming 50 Wal-Mart families qualify with an average of 2 children.
- $108,000 a year for the additional federal health care costs of moving into state children's health insurance programs (S-CHIP), assuming 30 employees with an average of two children qualify.
$9,750 a year for the additional costs for low income energy assistance."

The total figure is based on the average $420,750 per-store figure, multiplied by 3700 (the approximate number of stores currently in the United States).

Source: Rep. George Miller / Democratic Staff of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, "Everyday Low Wages: The Hidden Price We All Pay for Wal-Mart", February 16, 2004.

You can tell Wal-mart to give their employees the basic respect they deserve by signing the declaration here. Or donate to help the striking workers here, and check here for solidarity actions planned in your area here.

click to watch the whole movie:


November 17, 2012 04:30 PM

Lawsuit Alleges CCA Uses Violent Gang Members To Save Money

By Susie Madrak

Just perfect. Why wouldn't they hire gangs to do their dirty work? After all, the for-profit prison industry is run by crooks. Why would the Corrections Corporation of America draw the line at working with violent criminals to save money?

    A new lawsuit brought by eight inmates of the Idaho Correctional Center alleges that the company is cutting back on personnel costs by partnering with violent prison gangs to help control the facility. Court documents and an investigative report issued by the state’s Department of Corrections show how guards routinely looked the other way when gang members violated basic facility rules, negotiated with gang leaders on the cell placement of new inmates, and in one instance may have even helped one group of inmates plan a violent attack on members of a rival gang.

    Rather than working with corporate headquarters or local authorities to combat the growing threat of gangs, CCA officials at the prison — the state’s largest, with more than 2,000 beds — used those same gangs as a way to control the rest of the inmates and save money:

        The inmates also contend that CCA officials use gang violence and the threat of gang violence as an “inexpensive device to gain control over the inmate population,” according to the lawsuit, and that housing gang members together allows the company to use fewer guards, reducing payroll costs.

        “The complaint alleges that CCA fosters and develops criminal gangs,” attorney Wyatt Johnson, who along with T.J. Angstman represents the inmates, said in a statement. “Ideally, the lawsuit should force this to come to an end.”

    The CCA has operated the prison in partnership with the Idaho corrections department since 2000, at the beginning of a boom period when the number of inmates detained in CCA’s private prisons nationwide climbed nearly 50 percent between 2000 and 2009. States have invited private prison corporations to run some of their facilities as a cost-cutting measure, even though recent studies show that private prisons ultimately cost states millions more than public ones.

click to watch:


November 17, 2012

Gas Boom County Strives for Economic Afterglow


WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — The flames started slowly, emerging from the top of oil field equipment, and then quickly grew to a roar.

This was not an emergency, though it looked like one. It was a “burn exercise” for safety workers in the oil and gas industry, part of a new course at the Pennsylvania College of Technology.

A gas boom has brought companies and workers into parts of Pennsylvania that lie atop the Marcellus Shale formation, a rich source of both natural gas and controversy. The common economic criticism of the drilling industry is that it booms and then busts, generating few local jobs and leaving little lasting economic benefit.

But Lycoming County, in the north-central part of the state, is trying to change that.

The county and its main city, Williamsport, are working diligently to position themselves not just as a host to the arriving companies, but also as a source of local workers for the industry and a long-term beneficiary of its local and national expansion.

The industry helped give the Williamsport metropolitan area the seventh-fastest-growing economy in the United States in 2010, according to figures released last year by the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis. Four new hotels have been built in town, and restaurants and bars have sprouted, including a barbecue place to meet the carnivorous needs of homesick Texans and Oklahomans.

“We’re wrapping our arms around the industry,” said Williamsport’s mayor, Gabe Campana. “Drill, baby, drill!”

County officials, to help deal with the impact of the boom, examined the early effects on housing, roads, social services, and water and sewage infrastructure.

The college, part of the Pennsylvania State University system, increased efforts to train local workers, educating 7,000 students in short courses since 2009 and expanding two- and four-year degree programs as well. The initiative is part of its work with a consortium of colleges called ShaleNET, financed with a $15 million federal grant.

Thanks to such initiatives, said Kurt Hausammann, the county’s director of planning, “we are seeing more of our own Pennsylvania youth and young professionals getting into the gas industry now.”

Local businesses have also stepped up to work with the industry. The Ralph S. Alberts Company makes custom molded polymers, anything from seats for amusement park rides to medical training mannequins. “We really have been able to adapt and almost continually change our identity to keep up with whatever new technology is coming around,” said Edward Alberts, the company’s president.

When the drillers came to town, the company quickly found a way to apply its expertise to the industry’s needs, opening a business that constructs containment pens for drilling and storage equipment that are lined with heavy-duty spray-on polymer so that any spills do not contaminate the soil. The company is building the enclosures in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and drillers are talking to it about taking on jobs in Texas.

Despite the opportunities, the jobs do not suit everyone, said Westley Smith, who was raised in nearby Mifflinburg and designs critical welding processes for pipelines. Many people in the industry work six days a week, 10 hours a day, he said, and “a lot of people around here don’t typically want to do that.”

Tracy L. Brundage, Penn College’s assistant vice president for work-force and economic development, said training courses often started with an information session attended by 200 people. The instructor begins with the “work ethic components” of these jobs, including the long hours and the requirement that workers be physically fit and drug free. “By break time,” she said, “half of the room is gone.”

Evan DiCiolli, a 24-year-old Californian working on gas wells near town, said that while local residents might object to the inconveniences associated with the drilling boom, “this is calm” compared with the year he spent in North Dakota. Stores there were unable to keep the shelves stocked, he said, and men slept in their cars because hotel rooms and apartments could not be had.

Mr. DiCiolli, who was enjoying a rare night off at Bullfrog Brewery, a restaurant downtown, added of those who disapprove of the drilling going on around them: “Don’t frown on the things people do to get natural resources out of the ground when you’re using the resources.”

Environmentalists contend that state and local governments have grossly overstated the economic benefits while playing down the environmental risks of shale drilling.

Anne and Eric Nordell started their organic farm in Trout Run, 25 miles from Williamsport, in the 1980s. From the highest point on their 90 acres, one can see drilling rigs and platforms on the surrounding hills, as well as deforestation that makes way for the drilling platforms and the roads to get to them. “We’re just praying that our water will be safe,” Ms. Nordell said.

“The first indication that we have any type of contamination, we will shut down,” she added. “I eat the food that I grow, and I will not sell anything that’s unsafe.”

Ralph Kisberg, the president of the Responsible Drilling Alliance, an environmental group, said he was not trying to block the gas boom. “We know it can’t be stopped,” he said. But, he added, the state should benefit more from the removal of its resources.

A new state law, Act 13, includes fees for the industry that generated about $200 million in revenue in its first year, but that amount is expected to drop off quickly. Mr. Kisberg said the state could receive far more money over time through a direct tax on the gas itself.

Mark Price, a labor economist at the liberal-leaning Keystone Research Center in Harrisburg, estimated that the industry had generated 20,000 jobs in Pennsylvania since the first quarter of 2008. While “any job over that time period is one to be lauded,” he said, the total constituted less than half a percentage point of all employment in the state.

(The Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group, argues that if all jobs tied to shale gas are counted, the number rises to 234,000.)

Mr. Price said he was skeptical that Pennsylvania could buffer the cycle of boom and bust, one the state had seen before with timber and coal. The area has already had a taste of what a bust might be like; natural gas prices have dropped in the past year, and drilling has slowed.

“You would think that there would be a sensitivity to this issue,” Mr. Price said. “But memories are short.”


November 17, 2012

Counting the Days Till Marijuana’s Legal


SEATTLE — Stoner humor just got a lot more complicated.

Back in the days when Cheech and Chong were more risqué than wrinkled, it wafted along as one of those cultural subgenres, with its own nudge-and-wink punch lines. If you got it and laughed, you implicated yourself — and laughed again. The police mostly kept their faces straight.

But now the prospect of legalized marijuana in small amounts for personal use — approved by voters in Washington State and Colorado on Election Day — is creating a buzz of improvisation, from local law enforcement agencies up through state government.

Devising from scratch a system for legal sales and informing the public about the law are both tasks, state and local officials say, that require the turning over of a new leaf.

And the Seattle Police Department — through blog posts written by Jonah Spangenthal-Lee, 29, a former crime reporter for a Seattle alternative weekly called The Stranger — is leading the charge. Bilbo Baggins from “The Lord of the Rings” lends a hand too, shown in a film clip on the police blog relishing a smokable product of uncertain provenance called Old Toby, which Bilbo says, with a blissful sigh, is “the finest weed in the South Farthing.”

The goal: official communications in language that the hip, young, urban and quite possibly stoned audience that Mr. Spangenthal-Lee wrote for at The Stranger might actually want to read.

Worried about what happens if the police pull you over after Dec. 6, when the law, I-502, takes effect, and you are sober but they smell that bag of Super Skunk in your trunk? Mr. Spangenthal-Lee’s “Marijwhatnow” post has the answer. “The smell of pot alone will not be reason to search,” he writes.

Another question: “December 6th seems like a really long ways away. What happens if I get caught with marijuana before then?”

Answer: “Hold your breath.”

Question: “SPD seized a bunch of my marijuana before I-502 passed. Can I have it back?”

Answer: “No.”

“There’s no handbook for any of this,” Mr. Spangenthal-Lee said in an interview. Meanwhile, the “Marijwhatnow” post has gone closer to viral than perhaps any official police communication in history, with 26,000 Facebook “likes” and more than 218,000 page views as of Friday.

Whether full legalization will actually occur as envisioned by the law — up to an ounce is allowed for use by an adult — is hazy. Possession remains a federal crime, but Gov. Christine Gregoire, after meeting with Justice Department officials last week, said federal prosecutors gave her no clear indication of what they would do either before or after Dec. 6.

“We are following the will of the voters and moving ahead with implementation,” Ms. Gregoire said in a statement.

“Implementation” presents some high hurdles. The law allows only one year for the state to create a system of licenses for growers, processors and sellers, and to resolve equally confusing issues like the potency levels of the various products and the prices. Teams began meeting right after the election at the Washington State Liquor Control Board, which has been assigned to create and administer a marketplace.

Mr. Spangenthal-Lee, who has been writing for the Seattle Police Department’s crime blog, SPD Blotter, since March, said he tried to imagine all the questions people would ask about the new law and then follow his own nose as a newsman in getting the answers.

Will, for example, police officers be allowed to smoke marijuana?

“As of right now, no,” he wrote.

“Marijuana legalization creates some challenges for the Seattle Police Department,” the post said, “but SPD is already working to respond to these issues head on.”


November 17, 2012

Tribe Looks to End Old Exile, but Casino Plans Lead to Conflict


AKELA FLATS, N.M. — On a dust-swept strip of Interstate, not far from the Mexican border, sits a small rest stop where weary truckers trickle in day and night, slump down at the handful of tables inside and order a half-pound burger or a cup of coffee.

Unbeknown to many who end up here, they have happened upon the land of the Fort Sill Apache, the newest Indian reservation in the country and, at just 30 acres, the tiniest.

No tribal members live on the reservation yet. The Fort Sill Apache, who trace their lineage to Geronimo, were driven from New Mexico more than a century ago, and the largest population concentration now resides in Oklahoma. But they still consider this area their ancestral home.

Now, one year after the federal government designated the roadside plot as the tribe’s sole reservation, the Fort Sill Apache are mired in a dispute over their efforts to transform the lonesome site into a casino.

The hope, said Jeff Haozous, the tribal chairman, is that a casino will generate enough money to buy additional land and compel some of the 700 enrolled tribal members to come back.

“There is a serious difference between our situation and any other case, in that we’re returning to a place from which we’ve been exiled for over a century,” Mr. Haozous said as a customer strolled past a wall of photos showing stone-faced Apaches, some draped in traditional garb and others in stiff suits, gazing out on the room.

According to tribal history, the Fort Sill Apache descend primarily from the Warm Springs and Chiricahua Apache bands, who were held as prisoners of war by the United States government in Alabama and Florida before being moved to Fort Sill, Okla.

The tribe bought the New Mexico parcel in 1998 for $30,000, and the land was put in trust for it by the federal government in 2002.

Sitting between Tucson and El Paso on Interstate 10, the rest stop is a natural way station for travelers and has been operating as the Apache Homelands Entertainment Center since 2008.

But casino gambling on Indian lands is a highly competitive and frequently controversial business that can pit tribes against federal and state regulators — and even one another. Whether the Fort Sill Apache will get approval for a casino is unclear.

The federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act largely prohibits gambling on lands acquired after Oct. 17, 1988, with certain exceptions. Previous efforts by the tribe to get approval for gambling have failed.

In 2008, believing that the National Indian Gaming Commission, which helps regulate Indian casinos, would ultimately approve their plans, the Fort Sill Apache tried to open a temporary bingo hall here.

But Bill Richardson, the governor at the time, ordered the state police to block access to the building, saying the tribe lacked the authority to operate a casino. The next year, the National Indian Gaming Commission issued a violation to the tribe for running a gambling operation on the site.

Phillip Thompson, the tribe’s lawyer, said the Fort Sill Apache had appealed the violation and contend that they should qualify for gambling based on their unique history.

“If they are not allowed to develop anything in Oklahoma or New Mexico, where is their existence?” he said, adding that the Fort Sill Apache also own a casino in Lawton, Okla., but are prohibited from acquiring additional land there without permission from three other tribes in the area.

This spring, the Fort Sill Apache also filed a gambling application with the Interior Department, which can grant an exception to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

A spokeswoman for the department, Nedra Darling, said it would determine whether gambling is in the tribe’s best interest and whether it would be detrimental to the surrounding area. If the application is approved, the department will also seek the support of Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico, who could potentially block the casino.

So far, Ms. Martinez has opposed the idea.

“When the land was placed in trust, there was an understanding that the tribe would not take part in gaming,” Scott Darnell, a spokesman for the governor, said in an e-mail. “It was a premise of the discussion at the time and was based on representations made by the tribe.”

Reaction in New Mexico’s Indian Country, where tribes operate more than a dozen casinos, has been mixed.

The Pojoaque Pueblo wrote a letter to Mr. Haozous expressing support for the Fort Sill Apache’s “economic initiatives.” That tribe’s two casinos are some 300 miles away.

The Mescalero Apache, who operate the Inn of the Mountain Gods Resort and Casino about 150 miles away, the nearest tribal gambling operation in New Mexico, are against the proposal, Mr. Haozous said.

Sandra Platero, vice president of the Mescalero, declined to comment about the issue.

In nearby Deming, some hope that the casino will provide an economic boon to Luna County, which has an unemployment rate of about 12 percent.

“I think it’s a good idea,” said Linda Franklin, Deming’s mayor pro tem. “They have proven they are a tribe. They are from the area. I think we all need to live and work together.”

On Friday, the tribe held a celebration here, commemorating the first anniversary of its reservation proclamation.

Mr. Haozous said he hoped that a decision on the casino would come next year.

“This would be the achievement of a goal that has been held by the Chiricahua people since 1886, when they were removed from the Southwest,” he said. “To return home.”

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November 18, 2012

An Outgunned Hamas Tries to Tap Islamists’ Growing Clout


CAIRO — Emboldened by the rising power of Islamists around the region, the Palestinian militant group Hamas demanded new Israeli concessions to its security and autonomy before it halts its rocket attacks on Israel, even as the conflict took an increasing toll on Sunday.

After five days of punishing Israeli airstrikes on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and no letup in the rocket fire in return, representatives of Israel and Hamas met separately with Egyptian officials in Cairo on Sunday for indirect talks about a truce.

The talks came as an Israeli bomb struck a house in Gaza on Sunday afternoon, killing 11 people, in the deadliest single strike since the conflict between Israel and Hamas escalated on Wednesday. The strike, along with several others that killed civilians across the Gaza Strip, signaled that Israel was broadening its range of targets on the fifth day of the campaign.

By the end of the day, Gaza health officials reported that 70 Palestinians had been killed in airstrikes since Wednesday, including 20 children, and that 600 had been wounded. Three Israelis have been killed and at least 79 wounded by unrelenting rocket fire out of Gaza into southern Israel and as far north as Tel Aviv.

Hamas, badly outgunned on the battlefield, appeared to be trying to exploit its increased political clout with its ideological allies in Egypt’s new Islamist-led government. The group’s leaders, rejecting Israel’s call for an immediate end to the rocket attacks, have instead laid down sweeping demands that would put Hamas in a stronger position than when the conflict began: an end to Israel’s five-year-old embargo of the Gaza Strip, a pledge by Israel not to attack again and multinational guarantees that Israel would abide by its commitments.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel stuck to his demand that all rocket fire cease before the air campaign lets up, and Israeli tanks and troops remained lined up outside Gaza on Sunday. Tens of thousands of reserve troops had been called up. “The army is prepared to significantly expand the operation,” Mr. Netanyahu said at the start of a cabinet meeting.

Reda Fahmy, a member of Egypt’s upper house of Parliament and of the nation’s dominant Islamist party, who is following the talks, said Hamas’s position was just as unequivocal. “Hamas has one clear and specific demand: for the siege to be completely lifted from Gaza,” he said. “It’s not reasonable that every now and then Israel decides to level Gaza to the ground, and then we decide to sit down and talk about it after it is done. On the Israeli part, they want to stop the missiles from one side. How is that?”

He added: “If they stop the aircraft from shooting, Hamas will then stop its missiles. But violence couldn’t be stopped from one side.”

Hamas’s aggressive stance in the cease-fire talks is the first test of the group’s belief that the Arab Spring and the rise in Islamist influence around the region have strengthened its political hand, both against Israel and against Hamas’s Palestinian rivals, who now control the West Bank with Western backing.

It also puts intense new pressure on President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who was known for his fiery speeches defending Hamas and denouncing Israel. Mr. Morsi must now balance the conflicting demands of an Egyptian public that is deeply sympathetic to Hamas and the Palestinian cause against Western pleadings to help broker a peace and Egypt’s need for regional stability to help revive its moribund economy.

Indeed, the Egyptian-led cease-fire talks illustrate the diverging paths of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, a Palestinian offshoot of the original Egyptian Islamist group. Hamas has evolved into a more militant insurgency and is labeled a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel, while the Brotherhood has effectively become Egypt’s ruling party. Mr. Fahmy said in an interview in March that the Brotherhood’s new responsibilities required a step back from its ideological cousins in Hamas, and even a new push to persuade the group to compromise.

But Moussa Abu Marzouk, a senior Hamas official who was allowed to settle in Cairo after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, predicted a different outcome. In an interview at the same time, he said that if another conflict broke out with Israel, the moderate Islamist politicians around the region like the Egyptian Brotherhood would have to line up with the militants in Gaza.

“The position of all Islamists in the region will be that of Hamas,” Mr. Abu Marzouk said, “not the other way around.”

Israeli officials are conducting their side of the cease-fire talks through the contacts in Egyptian intelligence with whom they worked during Mr. Mubarak’s rule. Officials said their main focus was on ending the threat of rocket fire from Gaza, whether by diplomatic or military means.

Dan Meridor, the Israeli intelligence minister, said on Israeli television that the government would wait for Hamas “to stop firing” before it would negotiate a long-term cease-fire. In the meantime, he said, Israel would do “whatever it takes” to eliminate Hamas’s ability to fire rockets, potentially including an incursion into Gaza.

In his first public comments on Gaza since the latest violence broke out, President Obama said in Bangkok early Monday that he supported Israel’s right to take action in Gaza but that he was trying to defuse the conflict.

“We are actively working with all the parties in the region to see if we can end those missiles being fired without further escalation of violence in the region,” Mr. Obama said, noting that he had spoken with Mr. Netanyahu several times, as well as with Mr. Morsi and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. “We’re going to have to see what kind of progress we can make in the next 24, 36, 48 hours,” Mr. Obama added.

As the conflict has intensified, so has diplomatic pressure on Israel to restrain its military campaign. William Hague, the British foreign minister, said in a television appearance on Sunday that he and Prime Minister David Cameron “stressed to our Israeli counterparts that a ground invasion of Gaza would lose Israel a lot of the international support and sympathy that they have in this situation,” The Associated Press reported.

While the Israelis talked to their longtime contacts in Egyptian intelligence, Mr. Morsi’s office worked through its own channels of communication with Hamas, and Mr. Morsi himself met on Sunday with Hamas’s top leader, Khaled Mashaal.

Mr. Fahmy, of Mr. Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party, insisted Sunday that Israel was to blame for starting the current round of violence by killing Hamas’s top military leader, and that Israel would have to act to end it. “Now we’re exerting pressure to stop the fighting on both sides, but we can’t pressure the victim while the perpetrator isn’t even ready to settle,” he said.

Mr. Morsi, speaking Saturday night at a joint news conference with Mr. Erdogan, accused Israel of failing to abide by an earlier cease-fire with Hamas that Egypt had negotiated just a week earlier.

“There is a power imbalance,” Mr. Morsi said, noting the death tolls on each side: three Israelis killed by Hamas attacks during the five days of fighting, compared with more than 40 Palestinians killed by Israel, a figure that rose to 70 on Sunday.

“Israel is an occupying country, and international laws oblige occupiers with many things that Israel doesn’t abide by,” Mr. Morsi said. “If the situation was further escalated, or if a land invasion took place as Israelis have said, this would mean dire consequences in the region, and we could never accept that, and the free world could never accept that.”

Still, Mr. Morsi may not have a free hand. He is a new president of a country in a fragile political transition away from military-dominated rule. He must maintain good relations with Egypt’s still-powerful army and intelligence services, which are deeply wary of Hamas.

He has already shown a willingness to snub Hamas in the interest of Egyptian security, by leading a campaign to shut down the tunnels used to smuggle goods and occasionally weapons into Gaza under the Egyptian border. “We are closing them every day,” he said with evident passion in a recent interview.

Others in the Egyptian government argued that President Morsi was gaining a new perspective on Hamas, and on what officials of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry have long said was the group’s pattern of sacrificing the lives of Gazans to Israeli military campaigns for little reason other than to burnish its claim to be the champion of resistance to the Israeli occupation. That status is a key to its hold on power, and an asset in its rivalry with Fatah, the Western-backed faction that controls the West Bank.

Still, in his appearance on Saturday, Mr. Morsi publicly blamed only Israel for the violence, and warned its government that the Arab Spring had changed the Middle East. “Everyone should remember, the peoples of the region are different than before,” he said. “The leadership in the region is different.”

Reporting was contributed by Ethan Bronner, Irit Pazner Garshowitz and Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem, and Peter Baker from Bangkok.


November 18, 2012

Brigades That Fire on Israel Are Showing a New Discipline


MAGHAZI REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip — From the time he was a boy, Ali al-Manama dreamed of joining the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the Islamic Hamas movement. His commitment intensified when his father, a Qassam fighter, was killed by an Israeli drone in 2001 as he fired mortar shells over the border. Ali joined up at 15, relatives said, and by 23 had risen to be a commander in this neighborhood in the midsection of this coastal Palestinian territory.

On Friday, at the funeral of a fellow fighter, Mr. Manama leaned over the body and said, “I’ll join you soon, God willing,” recalled a cousin who spoke on the condition that he be identified only by his first name, Mahmoud.

His wish to die fighting and become a martyr — and the honor it would bring in his community — was fulfilled Saturday morning at 7:30, though the missile struck him not while he was in active combat, but while talking on a cellphone that Israeli intelligence might have used to track his whereabouts.

“He had been telling us all week about all the achievements of Qassam,” Mahmoud said. “When he heard about the rockets in Israel, he would be very proud.”

Mr. Manama was one of as many as 15,000 Qassam fighters who are responsible for most of the rocket blitzes that have blanketed southern Israel and reached as far as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in the five days since the brigade’s operations commander, Ahmed al-Jabari, was assassinated, experts say.

Highly organized and increasingly professionalized yet still secretive and cultlike, Qassam is emblematic of Hamas’s struggle to balance its history as a resistance movement and its governing role in Gaza since 2007.

Israel has blamed the growing number of civilian casualties in Gaza on the fact that Qassam and Hamas are inextricable, and military storehouses are woven into residential neighborhoods. Most Qassam fighters have day jobs — as police officers, university professors, ministry clerks, and Mr. Manama’s relatives said he had been sleeping at home even during last week’s widening war.

Mr. Jabari in recent years had both increased the military branch’s political power and become a popular hero whose visage adorned posters and billboards throughout the Gaza Strip.

With an expanding arsenal and financing provided by Iran, Syria, Sudan and other foreign sources, Qassam expanded and matured under Mr. Jabari, adopting clear training regimens and chains of command. Last year he even negotiated with Israel to return an Israeli sergeant, Gilad Shalit — whose kidnapping he had engineered five years earlier — in exchange for 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.

Yet Qassam remains a fundamentalist jihadi enterprise whose culture and goals — terrorizing and obliterating Israel — resemble those of ragtag militia cells.

“The point of departure shouldn’t be that we have a state and within a state we have institutions and within the institutions you have a division of labor,” cautioned Shaul Mishal, a professor of political science at Tel Aviv University who wrote a book on Hamas. “Hamas maybe dreams about being a state, and Qassam, sometimes they delude themselves that they are an army, but at the end I think their basic perception is that they’re part and parcel of a community. It’s blurred boundaries between the political activities and the military operations.”

Named for a Syrian who was killed in 1935 while battling the British occupation of what was then known as Palestine, the brigades made their first strike on Jan. 1, 1992, killing a rabbi in the former Kfar Darom settlement, not far from here. It has grown over two decades into by far the largest and strongest of Gaza’s many militant factions — though others have also been lobbing rockets into Israel in recent days and months — with a strong sociological pull on the Gaza population.

The welcome banner over the entrance to this refugee camp is signed by the Qassam. Mosques are decorated with Qassam slogans and pictures of its more than 800 fallen fighters. Those who know active brigade members use them as conduits with the Hamas authorities, to speed passage through the Rafah crossing into Egypt or help resolve problems with the police.

When a fighter dies, his comrades show up in force on the third and final day of tent-sitting and set up a projector to show a film about his achievements. Qassam also takes responsibility for ferreting out suspected collaborators with Israel, like the one it took credit for executing in a public square on Friday.

“It’s no longer a secret that the Qassam has the final word in Gaza,” said Adner Abu Amr, dean of journalism and political science lecturer at Umah University in Gaza. “He who has a relation with a commander of Qassam, he considers himself the holder of a diplomatic passport. You have a password that opens all doors.”

Jonathan Schanzer, author of the 2008 book “Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine,” said Qassam has had four distinct phases. The first was a single-minded focus on suicide bombings, until Yahya Ayyash, the engineer of that strategy, was killed in 1996, when the cellphone he was holding was blown up remotely.

Leading up to the start of the second intifada in 2000, Hamas joined forces with its rival Fatah faction and the brigades expanded suicide bombings but also began using rockets they called Qassam.

Over the last decade, Mohammed Deif — who was severely injured in 2003 but technically remains Qassam’s commander — upgraded and expanded rocket production and import, and Mr. Jabari professionalized operations, culminating in the Shalit deal.

With the death of Mr. Jabari, a charismatic figure influential with Hamas leaders inside and outside Gaza, “They are off balance for sure,” Mr. Schanzer said. “Every time this happens it forces change, it forces adaptation.”

But Qassam “has long operated in a decentralized structure, so that if its leadership is decapitated it will always find new leaders to rise up,” he added. “It’s compartmentalized. They work in cells. So even if he was the leader, there are other leaders.”

A 2009 paper published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy contains an organizational chart of the Qassam Brigades showing Gaza divided into six geographic areas, each with its own commander reporting to Mr. Jabari. Each also has separate artillery, antitank and antiaircraft units as well as snipers, engineers and infantry, according to the paper, titled “Hamas in Combat,” with forcewide units handling communications, logistics, smuggling, weapons, intelligence and public affairs.

“Almost by any definition they have become more institutionalized,” said Nathan Thrall, an analyst who covers the Palestinian territories for the International Crisis Group. “They more or less have been keeping a calm in Gaza. A very imperfect calm, and one that has escalations every three or four or five months, but they are the party that Egypt has gone to to ensure that things don’t get out of control.”

Mr. Abu Amr, who has followed Qassam closely since its inception, said most fighters join at the age of 16 or 17, and spend about a year in religious indoctrination, security education, and finally combat training before secret induction ceremonies in which they take an oath on the Koran. But Gaza is a 150-square-mile strip with 1.5 million people who know one another’s business, and parents are proud when their sons enlist.

Banners and plaques, in homes and on streets, display the brigade’s signature seal: an M-16 rifle in front of Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque, with a green Hamas flag and green copy of the Koran. “No God but Allah,” it says. “You did not kill them, it’s God who killed them.”

After the current conflagration began, Mr. Abu Amr’s only son, Mohammed, 15, changed the profile picture on his Facebook page, to Mr. Jabari from Cristiano Ronaldo, the soccer star of Real Madrid. And what if Mohammed, the eldest of Mr. Abu Amr’s six children, decides that he, like Ali al-Manama, wants to be a fighter?

“It will be hard for me — I will be sad, and his mother as well,” Mr. Abu Amr said, aware that martyrdom is both the aspiration and the expectation of those who take the oath. “But there are something called the hard choices. He’s not the first and he’s not going to be the last one. My only condolence will be that he has gone for the sake of a national cause.”

Fares Akram contributed reporting.


Gaza braces for ground invasion as death toll mounts

By Harriet Sherwood, The Guardian
Sunday, November 18, 2012 12:54 EST

Gaza is braced for a ground invasion by Israeli forces following intensified bombing that included the flattening of the headquarters of the Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh.

As the Israeli military began the emergency call-up of up to 75,000 reservists, leaders from Turkey, Egypt and Qatar met in Cairo to discuss ways of ending the escalating violence. Since Wednesday Israel has launched about 1,000 air strikes on the coastal Palestinian territory.

The raids have continued past midnight into Sunday. Two pre-dawn attacks on houses in the Jabiliya refugee camp killed two children and wounded 13 other people, Gaza medical officials said.

Witnesses said a building in Gaza City housing the offices of Hamas’s al-Aqsa TV was bombed, wounding six journalists. The building was also used by Arabic and international news outlets including Germany’s ARD, Kuwait TV, the Italian RAI, Sky News of Britain and others.

The Israeli military also appeared to take over the frequencies of the radio stations of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad militant group to broadcast a recorded, Arabic-language warning to the people of Gaza to stay away from Hamas installations and personnel. “To the people of Gaza, Hamas is playing with fire and gambling with your fate. The Israel defence force is moving toward the second phase of its operation. For your safety you should stay away from Hamas infrastructure and personnel.”

The message did not say what the “second phase” was but thousands of Israeli troops are massed near the Gaza border awaiting an order to invade.

Overnight, aircraft targeted dozens of underground rocket launchers and a major Hamas training base and command centre, the Israeli military said. It said it also attacked a communications antenna and gunboats fired on militant sites on the Gaza shoreline.

In all 48 Palestinians, about half of them civilians, have been killed and more than 400 civilians wounded, according to Gaza medical officials. The World Health Organisation said Gaza hospitals were overwhelmed with casualties and their medical supplies were running short.

Three Israeli civilians have been killed and more than 50 wounded.

The US urged diplomacy and “de-escalation” but said Israel had the right to self-defence. It wanted the “same thing as the Israelis want” in ending rocket attacks, the White House said in a statement. In Tel Aviv air raid sirens sounded for the third day running, with residents reporting the sound of an explosion. Hamas said it had fired a Fajr-5 rocket from its arsenal of long-range missiles. Three Israelis have been killed since the conflict began on Wednesday.

A small mountain of rubble, twisted metal and broken glass was all that remained of Haniyeh’s headquarters. Several Palestinian flags fluttered on poles poking out from the debris. Strikes from Israeli aircraft and warships continued to pummel the Gaza Strip throughout Saturday.

Israel’s hardline foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, warned of a “crushing response” still to come to prevent missile fire by Hamas and other militant groups but denied that Israel had launched an all-out war.

“The only way we can achieve peace and security is to create real deterrence via a crushing response that will make sure they don’t try to test us again,” he said. “This isn’t an all-out war but an operation with defined goals.” If a ground invasion were authorised Israel would have to “see it through,” he said. “This wasn’t done during Operation Cast Lead [the 22-day war four years ago], which is why we failed to achieve our goal.”

On a visit to Gaza the Tunisian foreign minister, Rafik Abdesslem, denounced the Israeli attacks as unacceptable and against international law. “Israel should understand that many things have changed and that lots of water has run in the Arab river,” he said. “It should realise it no longer has a free hand. It does not have total immunity and is not above international law … What Israel is doing is not legitimate and is not acceptable at all.”

He was expected to later join a meeting in Cairo of regional leaders, along with Hamas’s Khaled Mashaal and Ramadan Shallah, the Islamic Jihad secretary general, to discuss ways of trying to contain the crisis. Others at the gathering included Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the Qatari emir.

The meeting came as Arab League foreign ministers also met to draw up a draft statement calling for a negotiated ceasefire. The league was further expected to authorise its general secretary, Nabil Elaraby, to lead a delegation into Gaza following visits in recent days.

Erdogan has been a highly outspoken critic of Israel, while Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, visited Gaza in October, breaking the isolation of the Hamas government.

Arab League diplomats briefed on Saturday evening that its statement would be calling for an immediate ceasefire. However Hamas officials in Gaza said that any truce would be dependent on Israel agreeing to lift its long-term blockade of the territory and agree to end its policy of assassinations of Hamas leaders, conditions that Israel is unlikely to accept.

The disclosure of the terms of the talks began to emerge as Hamas fired a Fajr-5 missile at the outskirts of Tel Aviv, which is likely to reinforce Israel’s willingness to push ahead with the campaign after a day of continuing rocket fire out of Gaza and Israeli air strikes.

According to military sources, Egyptian intelligence officials met Hamas officials in Gaza for the second day running. The talks coincided with recent high-profile delegations that have entered Gaza to show solidarity with Palestinians living there.

Tunisian foreign minister Rafik Abdesslem visited Gaza a day after Egyptian prime minister Hisham Kandil crossed the border into the Palestinian enclave, condemning Israeli actions and pledging to work for a truce. Meshaal also held talks on Saturday with Egyptian security officials on prospects for a truce.

Egypt brokered an informal truce in October, which has since collapsed. It now says it is seeking a new deal.

An Arab diplomatic source, who declined to be named, told Reuters the Arab League draft to be discussed by the ministers expressed the Cairo-based league’s support for Egypt’s efforts to achieve a “long-term truce” between Israel and Palestinian factions.

The draft also calls for the UN security council to take the necessary steps to halt the violence and “protect the Palestinian people”.

Rumours emerged late on Saturday that possible truce talks could take place in Cairo as early as Sunday. © Guardian News and Media 2012


November 18, 2012

Israeli Iron Dome Stops a Rocket With a Rocket


JERUSALEM — An abiding image of the former Israel defense minister Amir Peretz was a photograph of him peering at a military drill — with the black lens caps still on his binoculars. Mr. Peretz resigned months after the 2006 war in Lebanon, which was widely regarded as a failure.

Yet on Sunday, as rockets fired by Gaza militants streaked toward Tel Aviv, Ashdod and other Israeli cities, Mr. Peretz, a resident of the rocket-battered border town of Sderot, was being hailed as a defense visionary for having had the foresight while in office to face down myriad skeptics and push for the development of Iron Dome, Israel’s unique anti-rocket interceptor system.

The naysayers now are few. In the five days since Israel began its fierce assault on the militant infrastructure in Hamas-run Gaza, after years of rocket fire against southern Israel, Iron Dome has successfully intercepted more than 300 rockets fired at densely populated areas, with a success rate of 80 to 90 percent, top officials said. Developed with significant American financing and undergoing its ultimate battle test, the Iron Dome system has saved many lives, protected property and proved to be a strategic game changer, experts said.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak toured a newly deployed mobile unit near Tel Aviv on Sunday and described Iron Dome as “probably the most technologically impressive achievement in recent years in Israel.” He called its performance “almost perfect.”

By preventing mass casualties, experts said, Israel’s leaders have retained public support for the continuing operation and have had more time to weigh a possible ground incursion.

Three Israelis were killed last week in a rocket attack on Kiryat Malachi, and on Sunday two Israelis were injured in Ofakim when a rocket crashed near their car. But casualties on the Israeli side have been kept low by the Iron Dome system and the fact that most Israelis have followed the instructions of the Home Front Command, taking shelter in the 15 to 90 seconds they have between the warning sirens and the landing of a rocket.

About a decade ago after primitive rockets fired from Gaza began crashing into Sderot, the Israeli defense industries’ research and development teams started working on defending against short- and midrange rockets that now travel 12 to 50 miles.

Soon after the monthlong war in Lebanon in summer 2006, when the Lebanese Hezbollah organization fired thousands of Katyusha rockets and paralyzed northern Israel, Mr. Peretz, officials said, budgeted roughly $200 million for the first two Iron Dome mobile units.

With the Israelis racing against the growing capabilities of rocket developers in Gaza, the first units were deployed in March 2011. An upgraded, fifth unit was deployed on the outskirts of Tel Aviv on Saturday, two months ahead of schedule. Iron Dome is part of what professionals describe as a “multi-layer shield” that includes the Arrow system, which is being upgraded, and the Magic Wand, now in development. When finished, the system should guard against destruction from crude, short-range rockets made in Gaza to ballistic missiles from Iran.

Iron Dome shoots down rockets with a radar-guided missile known as Tamir, which was developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, an Israeli company. The radar was developed by Elta, a subsidiary of Israel Aerospace Industries, and another company, Impress, developed the command and control system.

Because each interceptor missile costs $40,000 to $50,000, the system is designed to aim only at rockets headed for populated areas and to ignore those destined for open ground outside cities and towns.

Israeli officials say that the cost is offset by the lives and property that are saved.

About three years ago, Israel received $204 million from the United States to help pay for the country’s third through sixth mobile units. In February, Israel again approached the Obama administration for urgent support for four more batteries. They received $70 million immediately, and an additional $610 million has been pledged over the next three years, according to a senior official in Israel’s missile defense organization.

Dennis B. Ross, a former adviser to President Obama on Iran and the Middle East and now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in an interview that the funds came despite “a very stringent environment for assistance, where it was being cut across the board,” and that they were “emblematic” of the administration’s commitment to Israel’s security.

A defense industry official said that there were hopes the system could be exported and that the more the missiles were in demand, the cheaper they would be to make.

Rafael Advanced Defense Systems’ president, Yedidia Yaari, a former commander of the Israeli Navy, said on Israel Radio on Sunday that other countries were interested in the Iron Dome system, though there were “very few countries on the planet with threats such as we have.”

“When I have time I’ll sell to others,” he said. “Right now we are busy protecting the state of Israel.”


Obama on Gaza: Next 48 hours will show what progress can be made

By Matt Williams, The Guardian
Sunday, November 18, 2012 12:27 EST

President Barack Obama suggested Sunday that it was “preferable” that Israel did not launch a ground invasion in Gaza, but stood firm over support of its ally despite mounting Palestinian civilian casualties.

Speaking at the start of a three-day tour of south-east Asia, he reiterated the White House position that rockets fired into Israel by Hamas were the “precipitating event” in the ratcheting up of cross-border conflict.

Obama added that America had been “actively working with all the parties in the region” to bring about a de-escalation of violence and that the next 48 hours would be important if progress were to be made.

The comments come on a backdrop of a continuing pummeling of Gaza from missile strikes. Overnight, two children died and 12 people were injured when houses were hit in northern Gaza by Israeli shells.

Since Wednesday, 57 Palestinians have been killed as a result of air strikes, including 24 civilians. More than 400 Gazans have been wounded, according to medics.

Meanwhile, Hamas has continued to fire rockets into Israel, resulting in three civilian deaths.

Despite the growing number of Palestinian casualties, Obama again declined to criticise the show of force by its traditional Middle East ally during Sunday’s press conference.

He blamed Hamas for provoking Israel with an “ever-escalating number of missiles”.

“There is no country on Earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders. So we are fully supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself from missiles landing on people’s homes and workplaces and potentially killing civilians.

“And we will continue to support Israel’s right to defend itself,” Obama said.

Asked whether he believed an Israeli ground invasion would be an escalation of the conflict and if he would support such a move, Obama said he had been in regular contact with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan and with Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi.

“My message to all of them was Israel has every right to expect that it does not have missiles fired into its territory.”

“If this can be accomplished without a ramping up of military activity in Gaza, that is preferable, that’s not just preferable for the people of Gaza, it’s also preferable for Israelis because if Israeli troops are in Gaza they’re much more at risk of incurring fatalities or being wounded,” he said.

He added: “We’re going to have to see what kind of progress we can make in the next 24, 36, 48 hours.” © Guardian News and Media 2012


Originally published Sunday, November 18, 2012 at 7:38 PM
Egypt condemns Gaza attacks, but most don't want war with Israel

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has condemned Israel's offensive in the Gaza Strip in recent days, but he has sought peace, not war, and few in Cairo interviewed Sunday seemed to think it should be any different.

By Michael Birnbaum
The Washington Post

CAIRO — For 30 years, Egyptians simmered with anger toward Israel, frustrated that their longtime leader Hosni Mubarak wasn't aggressive enough toward their hated neighbor. But under Mubarak's successor, few in Egypt seem to be spoiling for a fight.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, has condemned Israel's offensive in the Gaza Strip in recent days and has sent high-level delegations in support of Hamas, the Brotherhood-aligned Islamist group that rules Gaza and that Israel considers a terrorist organization. But Morsi has sought peace, not war, and few in Cairo interviewed Sunday seemed to think it should be any different.

From residents of a deeply conservative Cairo neighborhood to visitors at a memorial to the last major war between Egypt and Israel, almost no one was seeking war, no matter how strongly they condemned Israel.

"We are all against Israel," said Adel Mohammed, 35, a music teacher who was chaperoning a squealing school group during a visit to the October War Panorama, a large memorial to what is mythologized in Egypt as a decisive victory over Israel in a 1973 conflict also known as the Yom Kippur War.

"But Morsi can help people in Gaza through aid or money. We don't want to be involved in a war," Mohammed said. "Egypt is not stable economically."

The Egyptian government has been walking a fine line between giving as much support as possible to Hamas and Gaza without violating a 1979 peace treaty with Israel. The deal strictly limits Egypt's military presence in the Sinai Peninsula, which borders the Gaza Strip and Israel.

Many Egyptians resented Mubarak for what they saw as an overly subservient attitude toward the neighboring country. During Israel's three-week military campaign against Gaza in 2008-2009, Mubarak was seen as acquiescing to it.

This time around, Morsi has recalled Egypt's ambassador in Tel Aviv and sent his prime minister to visit Hamas' offices in Gaza City, which were subsequently destroyed in an Israeli airstrike. He has been trying to broker a cease-fire and will host U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in Cairo on Monday. Also Monday, Mohamed Saad Katatny, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood's political wing, will visit Gaza.

But Morsi has stopped well short of taking an aggressive military stance against Israel. Actions have been symbolic rather than explicit. On Sunday, the administrator of his Facebook page posted a photograph of him meeting with Lt. Gen. Reda Mahmoud Hafez, the Egyptian minister of state for military production, and another of him meeting with Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, the head of the Gaza-based Islamic Jihad movement, and Khaled Meshal, the leader of Hamas.

Inside the October War Panorama, whose grounds display Egyptian fighter jets and captured Israeli tanks, a narrator reads a triumphal account of the attack against Israel that started the 1973 war. That conflict ended with a cease-fire, Israel retaining control of most of the Sinai Peninsula, and both Egypt and Israel capturing each other's territory.

The highlight of the exhibition is a diorama and 360-degree mural of a battle in which Egyptian forces overtook Israeli troops near the Suez Canal.

"Whenever I see it, I feel we are stronger than Israel," said Mohammed Yusuf, 40, a civil servant who said he visits the monument annually. But, he said, he was not looking for war this time around.

"We have a peace deal, and we are committed to it," he said.

Elsewhere in Cairo, in a northeast neighborhood that is a center of ultraconservative Salafi Islamic life in the city, attitudes toward the ongoing Gaza conflict were similarly mixed.

"The Israeli government is trying to test the Egyptians. They want to see what we will do if they go to war with Gaza," said Abdel Aziz Matrawi, 24, a worker at an Islamic bookstore, where a sermon about the Israeli offensive blared on the radio.

"Mubarak slept 24 hours a day on a bed made by the Israelis," Matrawi said, accusing the former president of collusion. "But our response will be diplomacy," he said.

Two months ago, Matrawi's neighborhood was a center for protests against an anti-Islam video that was made in the United States and posted on YouTube. The Salafi Nour party helped spur protests outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, sparking a wave of anti-American rallies in many Muslim-majority countries.

At the time, Morsi more clearly struggled between the need to appease an angry domestic audience and the desire to maintain billions of dollars of Western aid that streams into the country. It took days before a stern phone call from President Obama spurred Morsi to clamp down on the protests.

« Last Edit: Nov 19, 2012, 07:14 AM by Rad » Logged
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« Reply #3083 on: Nov 19, 2012, 07:10 AM »

Iran warns against arming Syrian rebels

By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, November 18, 2012 12:03 EST

TEHRAN — Iran on Sunday warned against sending weapons to Syrian rebels battling its ally in Damascus, saying that this would threaten regional stability and increase the “risk of terrorism.”

“Some countries envisage arming the opposition with heavy and semi-heavy weaponry,” Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said in a speech to open an inter-Syria dialogue in Tehran.

“In reality, they seek to legitimise publicly what they have been doing in secret,” Salehi said, without naming any country.

On Monday, EU foreign ministers at talks in Brussels are due to discuss lifting a strict embargo on arms deliveries to Syria. France has publicly said it favours sending “defensive” weapons to the Syrian opposition.

The initiative would allow the arming of the National Coalition of opposition groups formed in Doha on November 11.

Salehi said such arms deliveries would set a “dangerous precedent” and constitute “a clear interference in the affairs of an independent country.”

“It will spread insecurity, the risk of terrorism and organised violence in all of the region,” he said.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its main allies, Iran and Russia, accuse some Arab and Western countries of having secretly provided weapons to Syrian rebels for months.

The opposition National Coalition, recognised by France, Turkey and Gulf countries, has asked for weapons to bring down the regime and hasten the end of a conflict which has killed more than 39,000 people since mid-March last year.

Russia has warned that providing the coalition with weapons would be a “gross violation” of international law.

In a message to the Tehran meeting, Moscow’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia and Iran “shared a common position on the crisis in Syria,” the official IRNA news agency reported.

Lavrov also warned against the risk of weapons ending up in the hands of “Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups” which he said were seeking to seize Syria.

No representative from the Syrian opposition coalition attended the Tehran meeting, as it rejects dialogue for as long as Assad remains in power.

Iranian media said the meeting brought together some 200 representatives of the Syrian government and different political, religious and ethnic groups.
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« Reply #3084 on: Nov 19, 2012, 07:18 AM »

19 November 2012 - 12H09 

DR. Congo rebels give 24-hour talks ultimatum

AFP - DR Congo's M23 rebels who have closed in on the main eastern city of Goma warned on Monday that they will continue their fight against the government unless it opens direct talks with them within 24 hours.

The rebels said in a statement they will "pursue the resistance against the government of Kinshasa until it falls" unless it starts "direct political negotiations" with the insurgents within the next 24 hours and demilitarises Goma and the city's airport.

The rebels, army mutineers whose uprising in April has unleashed fresh unrest in the country's mineral-rich but chronically restive east, were massed at the gates of Goma on Sunday despite efforts by government troops and UN helicopters to stop them.

The United Nations has warned there was a real threat that Goma could fall to the rebels, who it says are being supported by neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda, charges both countries deny.

The EU, Britain and France have also expressed alarm at the violence, which has displaced thousands of civilians and flared up again after a three-month truce on Thursday, just two days after the UN and the United States imposed sanctions on the M23 leader.

In Goma on Monday, schools were shut and streets were deserted save for rare army or UN vehicles a day after the rebels advanced to near the airport, just a few kilometres outside the city itself.

As government troops and local officials fled the city, according to several sources, the regional governor Julien Paluku said he was staying and appealed for residents to do the same.

"There is nothing to fear, the city is protected by the international community," he said according to his spokesman.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon vowed on Sunday that peacekeepers would stay in Goma.

The UN troops "will remain present in Goma and will continue all efforts to robustly implement its mandate to the fullest of its capabilities with regard to the protection of civilians", he said.

The United Nations has about 6,700 troops in Nord Kivu province, backing government forces against the rebels. About 1,500 of them are in Goma, deployed in "quick reaction units".

UN attack helicopters have staged cannon and rocket strikes against the rebels but have not been able to stop the steady advance towards the capital of Nord Kivu, a key mineral producing region in the vast central African nation.

In New York, UN peacekeeping spokesman Kieran Dwyer told AFP that UN forces were supporting government troops in the region by firing cannon and rockets at the rebels, after similar action on Saturday.

"The situation in Goma is extremely tense. There is a real threat that the city could fall into the M23's hands," said Dwyer.

The M23 rebels are ethnic Tutsi former soldiers who mutinied in April after the failure of a 2009 peace deal that integrated them into the regular army.

UN experts have said Rwanda and Uganda back the rebels, a charge fiercely denied by both countries.

The EU on Sunday joined the UN in calling on the rebels to halt their advance.

The UN Security Council held an emergency session on the crisis on Saturday, demanding an end to the M23 advance and "that any and all outside support and supply of equipment to the M23 cease immediately".

It also vowed fresh sanctions against M23 leaders and those who help it breach UN sanctions and an arms embargo.

The fighting is the most serious since July, when UN helicopters last went into action against the M23.

* easternd.r.congo.jpg (15.9 KB, 245x178 - viewed 121 times.)
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« Reply #3085 on: Nov 19, 2012, 07:20 AM »

November 19, 2012

U.S. Asks New Georgian Government to Stop Arrests of Rivals


TBILISI, Georgia — Concerned that Georgia’s bitter political transition could turn into a wave of political reprisals, American officials have urged the new prime minister to stop the arrests of officials who served under President Mikheil Saakashvili, warning that politically motivated prosecutions could jeopardize Georgia’s chances of joining NATO.

But a court in Tbilisi decided over the weekend to leave 12 Interior Ministry officials in detention pending their trial. The officials are accused of using illegal surveillance to record conversations discrediting Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose party defeated Mr. Saakashvili’s in parliamentary elections last month.

Lawmakers from the rival parties must now share power in Parliament, but Mr. Ivanishvili, the new prime minister, said he would make it a priority to investigate officials leaving the government of Mr. Saakashvili, whose term ends next year.

Philip H. Gordon, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, met with Mr. Ivanishvili on Friday and said that Georgia’s transfer of power was seen as “in some ways a model for the region.” But Mr. Gordon warned that prosecutions of officials who served under Mr. Saakashvili could be viewed as political payback.

“Nobody wants to see, or get the perception, that all this is about retribution against political enemies rather than the rule of law,” Mr. Gordon said. “That’s the balance that the government is going to have to strike, as it absolutely rightly seeks to hold people accountable for their actions according to Georgian law — but also seeks to avoid giving the impression internationally and domestically that it’s going to use its power to execute retribution on other political leaders.”

“I do think the members of NATO have been watching very carefully how this plays out,” he said, adding that they will be determining “whether the process with NATO should move forward.” Both Mr. Saakashvili and Mr. Ivanishvili have said they hoped to steer Georgia toward membership in the alliance.

Tedo Japaridze, one of Mr. Ivanishvili’s top aides, said the United States seemed intent on protecting Mr. Saakashvili and his allies from prosecution.

“They may try to save Saakashvili’s party and, moreover, their own reputations, because for nine years they have been supporting the government whose deeds have become the subject for investigation,” he said.

Emotions ran high at the detention hearing, where the mayor of Tbilisi, a close ally of Mr. Saakashvili’s, argued that the result of the prosecutions could be a political setback for Georgia.

“Every charge is fabricated and serves only political goals,” said the mayor, Gigi Ugulava, speaking to reporters after the court hearing.

But the court said the defendants would remain in custody because they were flight risks and could intimidate witnesses or destroy evidence.

At least 15 former and current officials from the Defense and Interior Ministries have been arrested in the past two weeks.
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« Reply #3086 on: Nov 19, 2012, 07:23 AM »

Justice: The crooked judges of Slovakia

19 November 2012
Respekt Prague

Almost a year after the so-called “Gorilla” file lifted the lid on corruption in Slovakia, a new documentary reveals a Slovak judiciary controlled by a clique of unscrupulous judges ready to thwart those who resist them. Its director, Zuzana Piussi now faces up to two years in prison. Excerpts.
Martin M. Šimečka

A delicate blonde woman with the squeaky voice of a child has proved capable of enraging people high up in the Slovak judiciary. Her documentary on the diseased Slovak justice system, called “Disease of the Third Power”, has become a symbol of rebellion against the closed circle of judges who mock justice itself.

Zuzana Piussi has already felt the power of this clique for herself: one of the judges the film portrays has filed a criminal complaint. And the young investigator questioning her at the police station said apologetically: “You know, there are pressures around here.” If convicted, she faces up to two years in prison.

A man named Harabin

The Slovak judiciary is run by a group of judges who treat the justice system as a milk cow and rule favourably for “mafia groups”. Some 70 percent no longer trust it. Even the current Minister of Justice Tomáš Borec says that confidence in the system “could not be worse.” The assessment of the World Economic Forum, which puts Slovak law enforcement at 140th place among 144 countries, is also crushing.

How could something like this happen in a country that otherwise belongs among those that managed the transition from communism to democracy successfully?

The man who has left the deepest mark in the modern history of Slovak justice is Stefan Harabin (55). A former communist judge and a good friend of former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, he has been the head of the Supreme Court for years and was also a Minister of Justice. Harabin’s greatest impact, though, has been as the long-time head of the main lever of power within the judiciary – the Judicial Council.

To some he comes across as a dance-floor charmer, to others as a vulgar tyrant with a thirst for power and revenge against his critics. Thanks to servile judges around him, Harabin has already sued Slovak media for many tens of thousands of euros for “damage to his reputation”.

Harabin has taught members of his clique other tricks, too. In October he even won a lawsuit against the Slovak state. The judge awarded him 150,000 euros in damages from the General Prosecutor’s Office for having damaged Harabin’s reputation a few years earlier by publicly confirming the authenticity of a private phone call between Harabin and the Albanian drug baron Baki Sadiki, which was published in the media. Sadiki escaped, and was later sentenced in absentia to 22 years in prison in Slovakia.


In 2003 the Judicial Council became the symbol of independence and the highest body in the system of judicial self-regulation. However, the Council came under the control of persons with bad reputations and began crushing its critics.

The originator of the idea, the prominent vice-chair of the Supreme Court, Juraj Majchrák, was the first casualty. When in 2009, as head of the Supreme Court, Harabin instituted a series of disciplinary proceedings against him for alleged dilatoriness and demanded the strictest punishment – removal of a judge from office. Majchrák fell seriously depressed. In April 2011 he hanged himself in the garage of his home.

At the funeral, which despite the solemnity turned into something of a demonstration against Harabin, one of the judges said openly that “bullying” had played a part in Majchrák’s death.

The story of Judge Marta Lauková is also a sad one. In spring 2009 she received a note from her superior pressing her to release from detention a man suspected of belonging to an international gang of human traffickers – it was a “request from the ministry” (then controlled by Harabin), she said. Lauková refused and filed a police complaint alleging an attempt to influence her verdict.

She soon began to be bullied from higher up, was transferred to civil law, had her attendance checked, and was humiliated. She collapsed and fell ill. The Judicial Council denied her sickness benefits, alleging that she was faking her illness. Shortly afterwards, she fell into a coma and died of heart failure.

Her senior colleague, who was taking revenge on her and forcing the stopping of her sickness benefits, was Helena Kožíková. This is the judge who has now filed a criminal complaint against director Zuzana Piussi for capturing on film the dramatic moment when the daughter of the dead judge blamed Kožíková to her face for having played a part in her mother's death. In addition to imprisonment, Kožíková wants to sue the Slovak television director for 40 000 euros in damages in a civil trial.

Change is on the way

The deaths of two judges were perhaps the proverbial droplets that woke the silent majority from their sleep. “It must not be wasted,” rang out at a public meeting of the new judges’ initiative ‘For an Open Judiciary’. “There are about 50 of us,” says association President Judge Javorčíková. “Thanks to the media, more and more people are hearing about us, so today they won’t dare bully us as they did a few years ago. And the public is starting to be more sensitive.” The Slovak Republic has some 1,400 judges, of whom a relatively small part (some tens) created the clique that controls the tip of the hierarchy.

And there is already something happening. While Harabin still controls the Judicial Council, he no longer has a majority. The disciplinary proceedings against recalcitrant judges, which resemble criminal tribunals under the communist regime (the wrongdoers, after all, “are damaging the reputation of the justice system”), are attended by colleagues come to show solidarity and by the media and European ambassadors as well.

The case against Zuzana Piussi is being followed too. A petition has begun to make the rounds, in the style of petitions under the Communist regime. The signatories approve of the alleged offence of Piussi – a shot of Judge Kožíková included in the film without her consent – and demand the same punishment for themselves. Hundreds of well-known names have signed the petition.

The film ‘Disease of the Third Power’ has been posted for free on the Internet, where tens of thousands of people have already watched it.

“What has it come to that people sign a petition to defend others, as used to happen under communism?” Zuzana Piussi asks.  “Without that support, though, I would probably go to jail.”
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« Reply #3087 on: Nov 19, 2012, 07:28 AM »

19 November 2012 - 05H01  

Obama makes history with Myanmar visit

AFP - US President Barack Obama arrived in Myanmar on Monday for a historic visit aimed at encouraging a string of dramatic political reforms in the former pariah state.

Obama is the first serving US president to set foot in the country also known as Burma, in the starkest illustration yet of its emergence from a long period of isolation and repression.

Air Force One touched down in Yangon, where Obama hopes to embolden President Thein Sein to deepen the country's startling march out of decades of iron-fisted military rule.

Obama will use a major speech at Yangon University to hail "the flickers of progress" in Myanmar, the White House said.

"Today, I have come to keep my promise, and extend the hand of friendship," Obama will say, according to excerpts of his address. "But this remarkable journey has just begun, and has much further to go."

The setting for the speech will be rich in symbolism as the university was the scene of past episodes of pro-democratic student unrest, including mass demonstrations in 1988 that ended in a bloody military crackdown.

"Instead of being repressed, the right of people to assemble together must now be fully respected," Obama was to say. "Instead of being stifled, the veil of media censorship must continue to be lifted."

In a nod to a recent wave of deadly sectarian violence in western Rakhine state, Obama will urge Myanmar to "draw on diversity as a strength, not a weakness".

In a scene that would have been unthinkable until recently, Obama will on Monday stand side-by-side with democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi at the lakeside villa where his fellow Nobel laureate languished for years under house arrest.

The White House hopes Obama's visit to Myanmar will boost Thein Sein's reform drive, which saw Suu Kyi enter parliament after her rivals in the junta made way for a nominally civilian government -- albeit in a system still stacked heavily in favour of the military.

US officials said Obama would announce a $170 million development aid pledge to Myanmar to coincide with the formal opening of a US Agency for International Development (USAID) mission in Myanmar, which was suspended for years over the junta's repression of the democracy movement.

The money, spread over a two-year period, will target projects in civil society designed to build democratic institutions and improve education.

Some human rights groups said Obama should have waited longer to visit, arguing that he could have dangled the prospect of a trip as leverage to seek more progress such as the release of scores of remaining political prisoners.

Myanmar unveiled new pledges on human rights on the eve of the visit, saying it would review prisoner cases in line with "international standards" and open its jails to the Red Cross, as part of efforts to burnish its reform credentials.

The United States on Friday scrapped a nearly decade-old ban on most imports from the country, after earlier lifting other sanctions.

But it continues to call for the release of scores of political prisoners still in Myanmar's jails, as well as an end to sectarian bloodshed between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine state.

Obama fever has swept Myanmar's biggest city Yangon, with his image emblazoned on T-shirts, mugs and even graffiti-covered walls.

"I would like to tell President Obama to push the Myanmar government to walk the path to democracy bravely and to aim for full human rights which our country needs," said 28-year-old shopkeeper Thant Zaw Oo.

Obama's trip to Asia, coming less than a fortnight after his re-election, is the latest manifestation of his determination to anchor the United States in a dynamic, fast-emerging region he sees as vital to its future.

The Hawaii-born US president is making his fifth official visit to the region, where he spent four years as a boy in Indonesia, and is diving back into foreign policy after a year spent on the campaign trail.

Later on Monday Obama will fly to Cambodia, where he is likely to face a tense encounter over human rights with Prime Minister Hun Sen, ahead of the East Asia Summit, the main institutional focus of his pivot of US foreign policy to the region.

November 19, 2012

Obama, in an Emerging Myanmar, Vows Support


YANGON, Myanmar — President Obama journeyed to this storied tropical outpost of jade and jungles on Monday to “extend the hand of friendship” as a land long tormented by repression and poverty begins to throw off military rule and emerge from decades of isolation.

Mr. Obama arrived here as the first sitting American president to visit Myanmar with the hope of solidifying the stunning changes that have transformed this Southeast Asian country and encouraging additional progress toward a more democratic system. With the promise of more financial assistance, Mr. Obama vowed to “support you every step of the way.”

The president was greeted on a mild, muggy day by tens of thousands of people lining the road from the airport — and by further promises of reform by the government, which announced a series of specific commitments regarding the release of political prisoners and the end of ethnic violence. Although Mr. Obama stayed just six hours, his visit was seen here as a validation of a new era.

He met at the government headquarters with President Thein Sein, who has ushered in change, and then made a personal pilgrimage to the home of the opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, where she was confined for most of two decades before her release from house arrest two years ago. Overlooking the manicured lawn and well-tended garden outside the elegant two-story lakeside house, the president celebrated the Nobel-winning dissident as an “icon of democracy” who inspired the world, then kissed and embraced her.

Still, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who according to human rights activists privately counseled Americans against Mr. Obama making the trip out of concern that it was premature, sounded a note of caution. “The most difficult time in any transition is when we think that success is in sight,” she warned. “Then we have to be very careful that we are not lured by a mirage of success.”

While local leaders attribute the changes so far to internal factors and decisions far removed from policies set in Washington, Mr. Obama was eager to claim a measure of credit and drank in the adulation of the crowd. Outside the gates of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s home, thousands of people gathered, chanting, “Obama, Obama!” and crowding his motorcade as it passed.

Mr. Obama has tried to play nursemaid to the opening of Myanmar, formerly and still known by many as Burma, by sending the first American ambassador in 22 years, easing sanctions and meeting with Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi at the White House. On Monday, he announced the return of the United States Agency for International Development along with $170 million for projects over the next two years.

In a small gesture during his meeting with Mr. Thein Sein, Mr. Obama even called the country Myanmar, the term favored by the generals who renamed it, even though the United States government officially prefers Burma. The president noted that in his inaugural address in 2009 he had vowed to reach out to those “willing to unclench your fist” and hailed Myanmar for responding.

“So today, I have come to keep my promise and extend the hand of friendship,” Mr. Obama said in a speech at the University of Yangon. He promised to “help rebuild an economy” and develop new institutions that can be sustained.

“The flickers of progress that we have seen must not be extinguished — they must be strengthened, they must become a shining north star for all this nation’s people,” he said.

Although human rights activists criticized him for visiting while hundreds of political prisoners remain locked up and violence rages through parts of the country, Mr. Obama used the occasion to nudge Myanmar to move further. He noted that democracy is about constraints on power, pointing to his own limits as president.

“That is how you must reach for the future you deserve, a future where a single prisoner of conscience is one too many,” he said at the university. “You need to reach for a future where the law is stronger than any single leader.”

The audience of 1,500, with Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi seated next to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in the front row, listened attentively but quietly. It interrupted with applause at just two points, once when Mr. Obama said that “no process of reform will succeed without national reconciliation” and again when he talked of the duties of being a citizen.

The choice of venue for his centerpiece speech spoke to the incomplete nature of change here. The university once was the engine of protest, fueling uprisings by students, including one in 1988 that was put down violently by the military and opened the modern era of repression.

In recent years, the university has fallen into disrepair, its campus largely empty except for graduate students and the building where Mr. Obama spoke decaying and blackened on the outside. In recent days, the government scrambled to spruce up the campus before Mr. Obama’s arrival, leaving him to speak in a repainted hall addressing a university that is not functioning in any real way.

Still, change has come more quickly than anyone imagined. Under Mr. Thein Sein, a former general, many political prisoners have been released and media restrictions have been eased. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, was allowed to run in elections and she won a seat in Parliament. Even before Air Force One landed here, Mr. Thein Sein offered a further gesture.

His office announced that the government would set up a process to review the fate of remaining political prisoners by the end of the year, allow international human rights organizations more access to prisons and conflict zones and take “decisive action” to stop violence against the country’s minority Muslim population.

More than 200 political prisoners remain in custody, and the government has waged a brutal campaign against insurgents in Kachin State. Human Rights Watch said Sunday that satellite imagery showed violence, arson and extensive destruction of homes in Rohingya Muslim areas in Arakan State by ethnic Arakans in October, which it said was carried out with support of state security forces and local government officials.

John Sifton of Human Rights Watch said that if the promises Mr. Thein Sein announced Monday were kept, it would “be a huge step in the right direction for the people” and future of Myanmar, although he maintained it could have been achieved without rewarding the government with a presidential visit so soon.

During a stop in Thailand on Sunday, Mr. Obama defended his decision to travel to Myanmar. “This is not an endorsement of the Burmese government,” he said. “This is an acknowledgment that there is a process under way inside that country that even a year and a half, two years ago, nobody foresaw.”

He added: “I don’t think anybody’s under any illusion that Burma’s arrived, that they’re where they need to be. On the other hand, if we waited to engage until they achieved a perfect democracy, my suspicion is we’d be waiting an awful long time.”

Myanmar was the second stop on Mr. Obama’s three-country swing through Southeast Asia. He spent Sunday in Bangkok, visiting America’s oldest ally in the region, and headed from here to Cambodia for summit meetings with leaders from throughout the region. It will also be the first time an American president has visited that country, but there are few of the same stirrings of reform in Cambodia, which is dominated by Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander.

The embrace of Myanmar fits into a larger effort by the Obama administration to reorient American foreign policy more toward Asia and to engage the countries on China’s periphery at a time of nervousness in the region about Beijing’s increasing assertiveness. Myanmar was for years locked solidly in China’s orbit, but its move toward the West in the last two years has been driven at least partly by resentment of Beijing’s rapacious exploitation of natural resources here.

For Mr. Obama, it also represents one of the few relatively unvarnished success stories in the democratic movement that he can point to during his time in office. By contrast, the Arab Spring revolutions in the Middle East have now become bogged down in more ambiguous outcomes, as in Libya, where Islamic extremists attacked a United States diplomatic mission in Benghazi in September, killing the ambassador and three other Americans.

None of that anti-American sentiment was on display here Monday. By the time he left six hours later, the crowds had begun to thin and the country began to look ahead to a future that has yet to be written.


Originally published Monday, November 19, 2012 at 5:16 AM
Obama's Myanmar speech layered with popular appeal

President Barack Obama spoke to hundreds of students, officials and former generals in long-closed Myanmar about freedom and the importance of finding strength in diversity. But for some, the more significant message came from what he did, not what he said.

Associated Press

YANGON, Myanmar —

President Barack Obama spoke to hundreds of students, officials and former generals in long-closed Myanmar about freedom and the importance of finding strength in diversity. But for some, the more significant message came from what he did, not what he said.

Instead of traveling to the isolated capital, Naypyitaw, Obama became the first foreign leader to meet with President Thein Sein in Yangon, Myanmar's largest city and cultural heart.

While the government says the location was chosen for logistical reasons, many cheered Obama's decision to give a speech at the University of Yangon, a place brimming with opposition history and personal memories for many in the audience, rather than sequester himself with top leaders in the empty, soulless capital built by the former military junta in 2006.

"The arrangement was made for mutual convenience," said Zaw Htay, the director of the president's office. "Due to time constraints on the part of President Obama and also because Obama wanted to deliver a speech at Yangon University, it was agreed by both sides to have a meeting in Yangon."

The diverse 1,500-member audience - students, activists, lawmakers, former generals and members of ethnic minority groups - mingled for several hours, listening to jazz music, while waiting for Obama to arrive. Everyone, including the former generals and parliamentarians, had to walk through the same security gauntlet. There was no VIP line, which surprised some in this hierarchical society.

"We couldn't even think of that two or three months ago," said Rebecca Htin, an ethnic Karen. "The message is clear. We are moving more toward democracy. That's encouraging for me."

"There's no separation because of Mr. Obama," said Nge Nge Aye Maung, the chairwoman of the Association of Myanmar Disabled Women Affairs. "There's no ranking. We are all together. We are all human beings. That's human rights."

Obama drew applause twice during the 30-minute speech, first when he said reform will not succeed without national reconciliation - Myanmar has been struggling for decades to resolve a plethora of armed insurgencies - and again when he stressed the role citizens must play in a democracy.

"That's the thing that's been denied," said Thant Myint-U, an author and presidential adviser. "There hasn't been a sense of citizenship for the whole lifetime of the majority of people in that room."

He said the most important impact of Obama's visit was not the boost it gives to reformers within the government, but the inspiration it offers people who must meet Myanmar's top-down transformation with grassroots energy if the country's transition is to succeed.

"It is much more about emboldening ordinary people to be willing to do their part in seeing through these changes," he said.

But there were still signs of the old days. Plainclothes government security personnel videotaped guests as they walked to the university's Convocation Hall to hear Obama talk about freedom.


Associated Press writer Aye Aye Win contributed to this report.


Originally published November 19, 2012 at 3:59 AM | Page modified November 19, 2012 at 6:02 AM   

Obama in Cambodia after rousing Myanmar welcome

Making history twice within hours, President Barack Obama on Monday became the first U.S. president to set foot in Cambodia, a country once known for its Khmer Rouge "killing fields." He left behind flag-waving crowds on the streets of Myanmar, the once internationally shunned nation now showing democratic promise.

Associated Press

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia —

Making history twice within hours, President Barack Obama on Monday became the first U.S. president to set foot in Cambodia, a country once known for its Khmer Rouge "killing fields." He left behind flag-waving crowds on the streets of Myanmar, the once internationally shunned nation now showing democratic promise.

Unlike the visit to Myanmar, where Obama seemed to revel in that nation's new hope, the White House made clear that Obama is only in Cambodia to attend an East Asia Summit and said the visit should not be seen as an endorsement of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his government.

Indeed, Obama's arrival in Cambodia lacked the euphoria of his greeting in Myanmar, where tens of thousands of people lined the streets of Yangon to cheer the first American president to visit a country that until recently had long been isolated from the West. "You gave us hope," Obama declared in Yangon.

In Phnom Penh, small clusters of Cambodians gathered in the streets to watch the motorcade pass by, without any of the outpouring that greeted Obama in Myanmar.

From the airport, Obama headed straight to the Peace Palace for a meeting with Hun Sen that later was described by U.S. officials as a tense encounter dominated by the president voicing concerns about Cambodia's human rights record. He specifically raised the lack of free and fair elections, the detention of political prisoners and land seizures, officials said.

Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said Obama told the prime minister that those issues are "an impediment" to a deeper relationship between the U.S. and Cambodia. Rhodes said Hun Sen defended his country's record, saying unique circumstances motivate its policies and practices. Still, the prime minister expressed a desire to deepen ties with the U.S., Rhodes said.

Earlier in Myanmar, Obama addressed a national audience from the University of Yangon, offering a "hand of friendship" and a lasting U.S. commitment, yet a warning, too. He said the new civilian government must nurture democracy or watch it, and U.S. support, disappear.

The six-hour stop in Myanmar was the centerpiece of a four-day trip to Southeast Asia that began in Bangkok and ends Tuesday in Cambodia, where Obama will visit with Chinese, Japanese and Southeast Asia leaders in addition to attending the East Asia Summit with regional leaders.

Obama celebrated the history of what he was witnessing in Myanmar - a nation shedding years of military rule, and a relationship between two nations changing fast.

"This remarkable journey has just begun," he said.

In a notable detour from U.S. policy, the president referred to the nation as Myanmar in his talks with President Thein Sein. That is the name preferred by the former military regime and the new government, rather than Burma, the old name favored by democracy advocates and the U.S. government.

Rhodes said afterward that Obama's use of Myanmar was "a diplomatic courtesy" that doesn't change the U.S. position that the country is still Burma.

On his first trip abroad since his re-election earlier this month, Obama's motorcade sped him to the lakeside home in Yangon of longtime opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. He hugged her and lauded her as a personal inspiration. Suu Kyi spent most of the past 20 years in house detention at her home.

In remarks after their meeting, Suu Kyi echoed Obama's tone with an admonition of her own, one that could have been directed at her own ruling party as much as to the United States:

"The most difficult time in any transition is when we think that success is in sight," she said. "Then we have to be very careful that we're not lured by the mirage of success."

Rhodes said Obama was moved the visit with Suu Kyi at her home, and was pleased to see on prominent display a stuffed replica of the president's dog Bo in the house. Obama gave Suu Kyi the stuffed animal when she visited Washington earlier this year.

Crowds swelled at every intersection in Yangon, yelling affectionately for both Obama and his secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"You are the legend hero of our world," one banner read.

Obama spoke at a university that was once the center of government opposition, and his message was as much a call for Myanmar to continue in its promising steps as it was a tribute to democracy in general. He held up the United States as an example of its triumph and its imperfections.

Coinciding with the president's visit, the government of Myanmar announced further human rights steps to review prisoner cases and de-escalate conflicts in ethnic regions of the country.

But Obama urged even more, calling for a government where, as he put it, "those in power must accept constraints."

"The flickers of progress that we have seen must not be extinguished," Obama said in the address televised to the nation.

Rhodes said the president was moved by the throngs of people who lined the streets to greet him. The president made one unscheduled stop, at the Shwedagon Pagoda. After seeing the pagoda as Air Force One approached Yangon, then seeing the outpouring of support from people who worship the site, Obama personally decided to make the unscheduled stop, Rhodes said.

As Obama arrived in Cambodia, he was dogged by concerns from human rights groups that have cast Hun Sen as a violent authoritarian and voiced apprehension that Obama's visit will be perceived inside Cambodia as validation of the prime minister's regime.

Still, many Cambodians credit Hun Sen with helping the country emerge from the horrors of the 1970s Khmer Rouge reign, when systematic genocide by the communist regime left 1.7 million dead. Vietnam invaded and ousted that regime in 1979. By 1985, Hun Sen had become prime minister.


Kuhnhenn reported from Yangon, Myanmar.

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« Last Edit: Nov 19, 2012, 08:54 AM by Rad » Logged
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« Reply #3088 on: Nov 19, 2012, 07:32 AM »

November 19, 2012

Vote for French Opposition Leader Raises Tensions


PARIS — A vote to choose the next leader of France’s center-right opposition party was considered too close to call early Monday morning, and there were angry charges of electoral fraud.

The party, the Union for a Popular Movement, faced a choice between two men of very different styles: François Fillon, the elegant prime minister under President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was defeated for re-election six months ago, and Jean-François Copé, a firebrand 10 years younger than Mr. Fillon who is the acting party leader. Some 300,000 party members were entitled to vote in 650 different polling places, and partial results late on Sunday showed Mr. Copé with a narrow lead.

Both men claimed victory, and the closeness of the result will not help the party find a clear direction.

Mr. Sarkozy’s defeat badly bruised the party, known as the U.M.P. for its initials in French, and it was followed by defeat in legislative elections in June. Now, much like the Republican Party in the United States, the U.M.P. faces difficult choices as it tries to redefine itself and work through a crisis of identity.

Its one advantage now is that the Socialist government of François Hollande, who replaced Mr. Sarkozy, is already declining in popularity as it struggles to rein in the nation’s budget deficit and avert a recession.

In essence, the U.M.P. must decide whether it will remain the political heir to the party founded by Charles de Gaulle after World War II, or will move to the right in the face of a challenge from the far-right National Front.

Mr. Fillon, 58, is a traditional conservative who, as prime minister, managed to remain personally popular even as his hyperactive boss sank in opinion polls. Quiet and urbane, and a touch dull, he has tried to steer the party toward the center, hoping to attract voters who opted to support Mr. Hollande for president but who are already growing disillusioned with his performance.

Mr. Copé, 48, generally shares Mr. Fillon’s views on economic policy and Europe. But as a legislator and mayor of Meaux, northeast of Paris, he has been decidedly more provocative in his statements. He has also been unabashed in his efforts to woo voters from the National Front, whose strong showing at the polls this year split the conservative vote, sealing Mr. Sarkozy’s fate as the country’s first one-term president in three decades.

Mr. Copé describes himself as a “nonpracticing Jew” whose mother was born in Algeria and whose paternal grandfather immigrated from Romania. Some see him as a man in the Sarkozy mold, supporting the former president’s tough policies on immigration and the role of Islam in French society. But critics call him “Sarkozy lite.”

During the campaign, Mr. Copé — a driving force behind a 2011 law that banned the wearing of the burqa, or full veil, in public — adopted a more divisive tone, focusing on themes like stricter immigration laws and the reinforcement of France’s secularism, as a not-so-subtle response to fears of radical Islam.

Last month, in “A Manifesto for an Uninhibited Right,” Mr. Copé wrote that the suburbs of France’s biggest cities had become bastions of “anti-white racism,” a term much discussed and mocked in the French news media. He later used his Twitter account to relay an anecdote about a child who had been robbed of a chocolate pastry by “thugs” who were said to be enforcing the Ramadan fast. The remarks prompted outrage on the left and produced cringing among some U.M.P. members.

“All these little phrases are toxic and dangerous,” said François Baroin, a former Sarkozy finance minister and a supporter of Mr. Fillon. Benoist Apparu, a former junior minister, concurred. “Such positions weaken our political family,” he said.

Others disagreed.

“He speaks the truth about these things that others are afraid to say,” said Nadine Morano, a former minister close to Mr. Sarkozy who backed Mr. Copé. His frankness is especially appealing to “exasperated” young conservatives, she said. “They are very attached to the language of the truth.”

For Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, Mr. Copé’s strategy was an admission that party leaders are out of touch. “The U.M.P. rank and file feels much closer to our positions than to those of the U.M.P. leadership,” she said in a radio interview. “Mr. Copé is chasing after his base.”

This election will give analysts “a sense of the balance of power,” said Bruno Cautrès, a public opinion specialist at the Center for Political Research at the Institut d’Études Politiques, or Sciences Po. “It will determine their electoral strategy — not only for 2017, but for interim elections in 2014.”

After losing the presidency and both houses of the legislature in June, the party is now focusing on local and municipal elections scheduled in just over a year’s time. Local government is dominated by the left now, but with Mr. Hollande’s government struggling, analysts suggested that the right could make real gains.

Regardless of who becomes the leader of the party, the U.M.P. is likely to continue its delicate dance with far-right voters while avoiding any outright alliance with the National Front. “Marine Le Pen is young; she’s only 43 years old,” Mr. Cautrès said. “The French right will have to deal with her for some time.”

Both Mr. Fillon and Mr. Copé reject any partnership with the National Front, a move that would be considered politically suicidal.

The U.M.P. is already displaying some nostalgia for Mr. Sarkozy, 57. After a summer spent on the beaches of Morocco and southern France, he began a series of public appearances that seemed choreographed to keep him in the picture for the presidential race in 2017.

The French news media has seemed only happy to oblige him: “Yoo-hoo! I’m back!” was the headline on a recent cover of the magazine Le Point, over a photo of Mr. Sarkozy.

“Like any president who has been beaten — especially after only one term, and so narrowly — he dreams of revenge,” Mr. Cautrès said. “Officially, he makes it seem like he has turned the page, that he lives another life. But that is a complete fantasy.”
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« Reply #3089 on: Nov 19, 2012, 07:36 AM »

11/19/2012 12:05 PM

The Merkel Paradox: Chancellor Fares Well, But Government Tanks in Polls

Almost 70 percent of Germans believe that Angela Merkel's government pursues special interests to the detriment of the public good. Sixty-five percent say her government isn't doing enough to address Germany's future problems. Yet the chancellor remains the country's most popular politician, far ahead of her challenger in next year's general elections.

With less than a year to go before Germans head to the polls for the 2013 general election, a quick glance at public opinion surveys would seem to indicate that Chancellor Angela Merkel has little to fear from her center-left challenger Peer Steinbrück. Her party holds a comfortable lead of 39 percent to 30 percent and some 53 percent would prefer to see Merkel remain chancellor, compared to just 38 percent backing Steinbrück.

Such numbers, however, don't tell the whole story. In reality, German voters are not at all impressed with the job her government is doing. According to a new survey performed by the polling group Forschungsgruppe Wahlen, an overwhelming majority believes that Merkel's governing coalition, which matches her conservatives with the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), is not focused on the public good.

The survey, called the "government monitor," found that close to seven out of 10 Germans think that Merkel's coalition only pursues special interests, with just 24 percent believing that the public good is her administration's priority. Furthermore, 65 percent of respondents believe the Merkel's government is "not at all" or "not very strongly" focused on problems of the future. The poll also found that voter support for Merkel's shift toward renewable energies is evaporating, with just 42 percent content with the change in course, down 10 percentage points from the last such survey conducted in July.

A Diminishing Coalition Partner

Not surprisingly, Merkel's key coalition partner, the FDP, has emerged as the greatest drag on her government's popularity. The party has been suffering in the polls ever since it hit an historical high-water mark in the 2009 election, winning 14.6 percent of the vote. It has been all downhill from there, however, and a separate survey recently found that the party remains below the 5 percent hurdle necessary for representation in German parliament.

According to the government monitor survey, FDP head and Vice Chancellor Philipp Rösler commands very little respect from the German electorate. Only 15 percent believe he is effective.

Ironically, despite voters' apparent frustration with the work of Merkel's government, her own popularity remains high and most tend to believe that she is cutting a good figure in the euro crisis. The chancellor is, in fact, the most popular politician in Germany at the moment according to a separate survey conducted last week. Right behind her? Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, with 67 percent surveyed valuing his performance as "very good."
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