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« Reply #3435 on: Dec 11, 2012, 08:03 AM »

The Christian Science Monitor

New York judge's ruling sparks nationalist surge in Argentina

Stakes are high for Argentina's President Kirchner in a legal tug-of-war over full repayment of bonds from the country's 2002 default. Kirchner says her country is the victim of 'judicial colonialism.'

By Emily Schmall, Contributor   
posted December 10, 2012 at 4:23 pm EST
Buenos Aires, Argentina

The stakes couldn’t be higher for Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner as a legal tug-of-war with a $20 billion US hedge fund plays out in a New York case that has sent nationalist sentiment soaring in Argentina and raised concerns about the impact on future efforts to help debt-ridden countries recover.

NML Capital, part of American billionaire Paul Singer’s Elliott Management, is among a handful of creditors demanding full repayment of bonds that Argentina defaulted on in 2002, rather than the partial repayment to which most creditors agreed. They were buoyed by the Nov. 21 ruling of United States District Judge Thomas Griesa, who, arguing that Argentina must treat all its creditors equally, said the Southern Cone country must pay $1.33 billion to NML – as well as satisfy the demands of other creditors – by Dec. 15, or potentially face a second, “technical” default.

A US court of appeals, however, issued a stay on Griesa’s order, sending it back to let the court figure out the mechanics by which it would force Argentina, a sovereign nation, to submit to local courts.

Legal experts are watching the NML case closely because of implications they say it could have elsewhere in a scantly regulated area of international finance. President Kirchner, whose approval ratings arein a slump as the commodities-heavy economy slows, has seized the moment to shore up national sentiment among a population that remains wary of foreign creditors after Argentina’s $100-billion sovereign debt crash, the largest in history. Kirchner has used the conflict to cast Argentina as the victim of predatory “vulture funds” seeking to impose “judicial colonialism.”

“One judge wants to frustrate Argentina’s greatest achievement,” Kirchner told crowds in Buenos Aires’s Plaza de Mayo Sunday, during an event to commemorate Argentina’s return to democracy in 1983. The crowd responded with hisses and boos.

In recent months, the government’s inability to settle with a handful of holdouts led by NML has resulted in one of its Navy tall ships being impounded in Ghana and an expensive court case in New York.

Young Argentines who grew up in the shadow of former President Carlos Menem’s free-trade indebtedness in the 1990s argue that refusal to pay is a way to avenge previous wrongs – and perhaps even make a statement to the world that Argentina is skeptical of globally managed economic action.***

“They had opportunities, but they are not interested in our national project to pay off the debt. They’ll make more money if we fail,” says Maximiliano Oliva, a taxidriver and psychology student from provincial Quilmes.

American entities are concerned as well. If Griesa’s ruling is upheld, it could throw a wrench into global bond markets, the New York Federal Reserve said earlier this month. For example, Greece reached a restructuring agreement with private bondholders last February to accept a 74-percent "haircut" – in other words, only getting 26 percent of their money back. But, some ask, if the Griesa ruling holds, who’s to say once-cooperative bondholders won’t raise their own suit, citing this ruling as precedent for why they deserve more?

University of Texas bankruptcy expert Jay Westbrook says the case’s major tension– and why it could easily wind up before the US Supreme Court – is that the sovereign-bond market is not equipped to handle this dispute. The introduction of collective-action clauses, which force bondholders to accept the terms of a majority-supported deal, were not introduced until the mid-2000s, long after Argentina and other countries had inked sovereign-debt contracts with investors like NML.
2005 restructuring

During the administration of former President Nestor Kirchner, who died in October 2010, Argentina reached its first restructuring agreement in 2005 with 76 percent of creditors, who agreed to a swap of the defaulted bonds for new bonds worth about 35 cents on the dollar.

It reopened the debt exchange in 2010 and won over all but 7 percent of remaining creditors, including NML and some Argentina and Italian individual bondholders.

“The thinking then was that Argentina would never go back to the external-debt markets,” says Sergio Berensztein, president of the Buenos Aires-based independent think tank Poliarquía, and thus did not need to worry about the holdouts.

Since Kirchner came to power in 2003, and in the subsequent administrations of his wife, Argentina has taken a radical turn away from the liberal economic policies of previous administrations, moving toward more state control of markets and partnerships with other leftist leaders, including Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

Such a move could hinder Argentina in fundraising efforts, for example with YPF, the oil and gas company nationalized through expropriation from the Spanish company Repsol last April.

“Argentina had the luxury to not need to have to ask for outside funding without any major consequence, but with YPF, it’s obligated to look for foreign investments,” Berensztein says.
More leverage to holdouts

If sovereign nations were treated as companies, a bankruptcy court could divvy up assets to satisfy claims, forcing bondholders to come to accept terms by majority rule.

In the case of the US, contracts regulating government sovereign debt establish that the US retains irrevocable rights that shelter it from foreign jurisdictions.
Nevertheless, laying claim to sovereign assets has been done before. Besides the Navy frigate held by order of a court in Ghana, in previous years, Chilean and Zimbabwean aircraft have been seized at foreign airports in lieu of debt repayments.

Argentina has asked its Congress to reopen the 2010 exchange for outstanding creditors.

However, having rejected the deal in 2010, arguing that Argentina has the capacity– if not the will – to pay its debts in full, NML Capital is not likely to accept those terms now.

Strengthened by global commodity prices and a hugely depreciated peso, Argentina’seconomy grew at an average annual rate of 7.7 percent from 2004 to 2010. Tempered by the economic crises in Europe and the US, however, Argentina is employing an import-substitution strategy to save its reserves of US dollars for paying off the country’s debt.

In NML's case against Argentina in Ghana, Argentina appealed to the court on the basis of a 1976 sovereign immunities act, but a judge ruled that the country had explicitly waived its sovereign rights in the language of the contract it signed with NML in 1994. Argentina has since brought a separate case before the United Nations International Sea Tribunal in Hamburg, Germany.

On Dec. 15, Argentina is scheduled to pay $3 billion on warrants issued as part of its regularly scheduled payment to creditors who participated in the restructuring. Griesa’s ruling sent credit-default swaps of Argentine debt on a tear, but the markets normalized after the country won its appeal, quelling investor concerns about a default – at least for now.

The Fitch ratings agency downgraded Argentina’s sovereign debt to junk status last month, calling the risk of default “probable.” Argentina’s foreign minister Hernan Lorenzino questioned the agency’s credibility, citing the global credit crunch of 2008, and said the strength of Argentina’s reserves ($45.4 billion) demonstrate the country’s capacity to pay.

Whether it is willing is a question creditors do ask, says Berensztein.

“There’s a difference between can’t pay and won’t pay,” he says.
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« Reply #3436 on: Dec 11, 2012, 08:06 AM »

12/11/2012 10:33 AM

Whistleblower Accusations: Did Deutsche Bank Fraudulently Hide Huge Losses?

By Martin Hesse and Thomas Schulz

A former employee of Deutsche Bank alleges that it embellished its financial statements and concealed billions of euros in losses during the financial crisis. If it hadn't, it may have required a government bailout. Deutsche Bank vehemently denies the accusation.

One of the specialties of reknowned New York law firm of Labaton Sucharow is representing whistleblowers from the financial world: bankers wanting to expose the dubious or illegal practices of their employers. That's why Dr. Eric Ben-Artzi, looking bleary-eyed and tense, is sitting in the firm's luxurious offices on the 35th floor of a skyscraper with a view of Wall Street and of the office tower, only 300 meters (about 1,000 feet) away, of his former employer: Deutsche Bank.

Until the end of last year, Ben-Artzi worked at the Frankfurt-based banking group's North American headquarters in Manhattan. His title was Vice President, Legal, Risk & Capital Division, and his responsibilities included the disclosure of "inadequate applications of quantitative models for gap option evaluations of leveraged super-senior tranches, secured by credit default swaps."

It sounds terribly complicated and arcane, but that is because it was Ben-Artzi's job to examine and keep an eye on the most complex and exotic financial instruments, the ones that many bankers themselves no longer understood but were traded in enormous quantities in the years before the financial crisis.

Ben-Artzi dug through numbers and computer models, and reviewed whether what the bank told customers about its convoluted securities and claimed in its financial statements was actually true. In the end, he concluded that it wasn't.

According to Ben-Artzi's calculations, there were billions in liabilities that should have appeared on the bank's balance sheet but didn't. The former risk analyst is convinced that Deutsche Bank whitewashed the figures for high-risk transactions, and that in doing so it acted illegally. According to Ben-Artzi, "that is fraud."

Ben-Artzi first told his superiors about his concerns, then he contacted more senior members of management and, finally, the bank's tip hotline. A few months later, at the end of 2011, he was fired. The bank told him that it was because his department was being dissolved and incorporated into the new risk center in Berlin, but Ben-Artzi insists that it was to punish him for his perseverance.

In the meantime, Ben-Artzi had notified the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). As it turned out, he wasn't the first. In the spring of 2010, another Deutsche Bank employee -- allegedly a trader named Matthew Simpson -- told his superiors that complex transactions had been posted incorrectly. Deutsche Bank initially investigated the allegations internally and then contacted the SEC in March. Another employee had also reportedly informed the SEC about wrong accounting practices at the bank.

Allegations of Concealed Losses

Regulators have been investigating Deutsche Bank since then.

If the accusations are true, the consequences will be enormous, because it would mean that Deutsche Bank had embellished its financial statements. Even worse, the losses that were concealed, numbering in the billions, may have been so serious that the bank would have had to be bailed out by the government. And both current co-CEO Anshu Jain and his predecessor, Josef Ackermann, must have known about and approved of the practices.

The bank vehemently denies the suspicion. "The allegations of improper reporting practices at Deutsche Bank are more than two-and-a-half years old", the bank said, noting that they were the subject of a careful and extensive investigation and proven to be unfounded. "We cooperated with the SEC in this matter and will continue to do so."

It isn't the first time that Deutsche Bank is being confronted with serious allegations. Many customers have sued for damages in past years because they felt taken in by complex mortgage deals in the United States. Even the United States Department of Justice is suing the bank.

Most of the legal disputes originated in the tumultuous years between the turn of the millennium and the escalation of the financial crisis in 2008. During that time Deutsche Bank, headed by Ackermann and Jain, who was responsible for the bank's capital markets business, rose to become one of the world's leading investment banks.

The key to its ascent lay in the United States, and specifically in the business involving increasingly risky financial constructs. Deutsche Bank created the securities, first to sell them to investors and then to earn money again by trading in them later on.

The business went splendidly for years, and its success helped Jain position himself as Ackermann's crown prince. But then the American real estate bubble burst and many financial bets that had been based on this bubble fell apart. Finally banks collapsed.

Did Incorrect Accounting Help Deutsche Weather Crisis?

Deutsche Bank did not collapse. It didn't even need government assistance, as Ackermann was always quick to point out, even though it benefited greatly from the bailouts of many other banks. "I would be ashamed if we were to accept government money in this crisis," he told bank managers in October 2008.

But the Ben-Artzi case, which is now creating headlines, raises the question of whether Deutsche Bank only came through the crisis relatively well because it incorrectly reported the figures on its balance sheet.

So far only one thing is certain, namely that the numbers in question involved deals with exotic financial instruments, ones that Deutsche Bank had in fact intended to sell to customers but ended up being stuck with when the financial crisis erupted.

The financial crisis is also the reason why it is so difficult to ascertain whether Deutsche Bank reported its figures correctly. When a bank holds securities purely to resell them, it always has to report them at current values. But the market for many complex securities collapsed during this period, so that there were no reliable prices. For this reason, banks derived the values stated on their balance sheets from models. But they weren't allowed to come up with arbitrary valuations.

The deals Ben-Artzi criticizes revolve around "Leveraged Super Senior Notes" (LSS). In simplified terms, these are securities based on a very large basket of a wide range of credit instruments. In this controversial case, for example, they included the bonds of global corporations.

LSS notes are an insurance policy of sorts for these baskets. In a crisis, the market value of this insurance increases, while the securities behind the debt obligations simultaneously lose value. The former risk manager alleges that Deutsche Bank did not portray this loss of value correctly. According to Ben-Artzi, it isn't just a matter of faulty risk assessment, which is something he says is open for debate. "It isn't about a risk. No, this is valuation. There's no gray area. It's completely black."

The difference between the valuations can be of vital importance to a bank's stability in a financial crisis. At the time to which the allegations apply, Deutsche Bank was holding LSS notes with a face value of $130 billion (€100 billion). The bank itself once noted that it was the top player in the business and held a market share of up to 80 percent.

Its critics say that if Deutsche Bank had reported the numbers the way it should have, it might have incurred a loss of $4 billion, and that it could have been higher than that.

Is that why the bank reported the figures incorrectly at the time, as Ben-Artzi alleges? Was it clear to the key players that the only way the bank could make it through the financial crisis would be to lie to its customers, shareholders, the public and banking regulators?

Big Risk to Deutsche Bank's Image

And if that had been the case, what kind of a culture prevails in a company when employees whose job is to uncover problems are silenced when they actually do?

The answers to these questions could be fatal for the reputation of Deutsche Bank. And they could destroy the image, so carefully nurtured by its management, that Deutsche Bank is one of the few major players on Wall Street to have emerged from the financial crisis unscathed.

It's unlikely that the charges will melt into thin air or that the bank will simply be able to discredit Ben-Artzi. His qualifications can hardly be called into question. He holds a Ph.D. in mathematics from New York University and worked at Goldman Sachs before going to Deutsche Bank. He also doesn't come across as a reckless person or a troublemaker on a crusade. On the contrary, he looks like a model investment banker, with his boyish face and dark blue, tailored suit and striped tie. He still sounds enthusiastic about finance when he talks.

Why then is he attacking his own employer so aggressively? "I never wanted to be a whistleblower," says Ben-Artzi, noting that at first he did nothing more than make his superior aware of what he felt was an obvious problem. Then, he says, he also spoke with managers outside his department, including some in the department responsible for the valuation of the financial instruments. But his concerns were not allayed. On the contrary, he says, "they just grew worse and worse."

After he had taken his criticism to higher levels within the bank, using official channels, all discussion suddenly stopped. Instead, says Ben-Artzi, he was "isolated," "shouted at" and "harassed."

Why didn't he just drop the issue when it became clear that he wasn't making any headway and might even be jeopardizing his career?

"At the point that I went to the hotline, I was worried about being implicated myself in fraud. So that it essentially makes me an accessory to a coverup." He realized "that it was systematic," which is why he notified the SEC.

the moment when I discovered the irregularities, I had to pursue them, or else I would have implicated myself as an accessory to a cover-up." He realized "that it was a systematic issue," which is why he notified the SEC.

External Auditors Approved Valuations

Some also question Ben-Artzi's motives. They say that it's no accident that he is now going public with his charges again, because he is hoping to receive the reward promised to whistleblowers in the United States: up to 30 percent of the potentially imposed fine. A few months ago, the case of a former employee of the major Swiss bank UBS caused a stir when he collected more than $100 million for information he had provided on tax evasion.

Regardless of what conclusion will be reached in the end on these controversial events: many at the bank were involved in them, right up to the highest management level. The valuation approach for LSS notes was developed in the Global Markets Department, the department Anshu Jain headed at the time. However, experts reporting to Chief Financial Officer Stefan Krause also examined the accounting models.

The Risk Management Department, under Hugo Bänziger, analyzed the deals. Like the auditors from KPMG, it concluded that there wasn't a problem. Although insiders report that the auditors arrived at a lower overall valuation for the bank's securities portfolio in 2009, many other transactions were involved, and the total amount in question was only in the triple-digit millions.

In the spring of 2010, when the first whistleblowers were criticizing the bank's accounting practices, it hired the Fried Frank law firm, which concluded that the practice was correct.

Deals of the magnitude in question are reviewed by the risk committee of the supervisory board, which, in 2009, included Clemens Börsig, the head of the committee, former SAP CEO Henning Kagermann and Briton Peter Job. Germany's Federal Financial Supervisory Authority (BaFin) also regularly attends meetings of the bank's risk committee.

Some in financial circles also point out that the SEC's investigations yielded nothing in two-and-a-half years, and that Deutsche Bank didn't receive so much as a subpoena to produce documents. On the other hand, it's not unusual for the SEC to take its time with its investigations.

This means nothing, says Ben-Artzi's attorney, Jordan Thomas. If the bank is voluntarily answering the SEC's questions, he explains, there is no need for a subpoena to force it to comply. Thomas should know, having worked at the SEC in his previous job. This certainly doesn't improve the situation for Deutsche Bank. It's unlikely that one of New York's best known law firms specializing in finance and a former SEC official would risk their reputation on a case that has no merit.

It's just as unlikely that the SEC will simply allow its investigation to rest. After the financial crisis, the SEC faced harsh criticism for having repeatedly ignored signs of dubious goings-on. This is precisely why the new head of the SEC, Mary Schapiro, established the whistleblower hotline, which Ben-Artzi used -- and that is now turning him into one of the first prominent cases over whether the new system actually works.

'Another Torpedo That Could Be Fired at Jain'

For Deutsche Bank, the new headlines about controversial accounting practices come at a bad time. The consequences of murky financial dealings already influenced the dispute over who was to succeed Ackermann. But even since Jain and Jürgen Fitschen replaced him in June, the mood has been tense.

"The new leadership is in a constant race against the past," says an insider, noting that the bank keeps having to deal with problems arising from the past, most of which stemmed from the investment banking division formerly headed by Jain. According to the insider, it's like a Pandora's box that keeps opening up again.

This is why Jain's internal critics feel vindicated by Ben-Artzi's allegations, even if the responsibility for the reporting of LSS transactions was distributed among many in top management. "But this is yet another torpedo that could be fired at Jain", says one bank manager.

The reaction of the new supervisory board chairman, Paul Achleitner, shows how seriously senior management takes the "Ben-Artzi case." Achleitner, who succeeded Clemens Börsig in June, has announced internally that he plans to take a careful look at the case. Although the board has already formed a clear opinion on the case, says Achleitner, he wants to review what happened one more time, because he wasn't with the bank yet during the time period to which the allegations apply.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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« Reply #3437 on: Dec 11, 2012, 08:08 AM »

December 10, 2012

Study Predicts Future for U.S. as No. 2 Economy, but Energy Independent


WASHINGTON — A new intelligence assessment of global trends projects that China will outstrip the United States as the leading economic power before 2030, but that America will remain an indispensable world leader, bolstered in part by an era of energy independence.

Russia’s clout will wane, as will the economic strength of other countries reliant on oil for revenues, the assessment says.

“There will not be any hegemonic power,” the 166-page report says. “Power will shift to networks and coalitions in a multipolar world.”

The product of four years of intelligence-gathering and analysis, the study, by the National Intelligence Council, presents grounds for optimism and pessimism in nearly equal measure. The council reports to the director of national intelligence and has responsibilities for long-term strategic analysis.

One remarkable development it anticipates is a spreading affluence that leads to a larger global middle class that is better educated and has wider access to health care and communications technologies like the Internet and smartphones. “The growth of the global middle class constitutes a tectonic shift,” the study says, adding that billions of people will gain new individual power as they climb out of poverty. “For the first time, a majority of the world’s population will not be impoverished, and the middle classes will be the most important social and economic sector in the vast majority of countries around the world.”

At the same time, it warns, half of the world’s population will probably be living in areas that suffer from severe shortages of fresh water, meaning that management of natural resources will be a crucial component of global national security efforts.

The study also warns of the risk that terrorists could mount a computer-network attack in which the casualties would be measured not by the hundreds or thousands killed but by the millions severely affected by damaged infrastructure, like electrical grids being taken down.

At least 15 countries are “at high risk of state failure” by 2030, the report predicts, among them Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also Burundi, Rwanda, Somalia, Uganda and Yemen.

The study acknowledges that the future “is malleable,” and it lists important “game changers” that will most influence the global scene through 2030: a crisis-prone world economy, shortcomings in governance, conflicts within states and between them, the impact of new technologies and whether the United States can “work with new partners to reinvent the international system.”

The best-case situation for global security until 2030, according to the study, would be a growing political partnership between the United States and China. But it could take a crisis to bring Washington and Beijing together — something like a nuclear standoff between India and Pakistan resolved only by bold cooperation between the United States and China.

The worst-case situation envisions a stalling of economic globalization that would preclude advancement of financial well-being around the world. That would be a likely outcome after an outbreak of a health pandemic that, even if short-lived, would result in closed borders and economic isolationism.

The chief author and manager of the project, Mathew Burrows, who is counselor for the National Intelligence Council, said the findings had been presented in advance in more than 20 nations to groups of academic experts, business leaders and government officials, including local intelligence officers.

In an interview, Mr. Burrows noted that the audiences in China were far more accepting of the American intelligence assessments — both those predicting China’s economic ascendancy and those warning of political dangers if there was no reform of governance in Beijing — than were audiences in Russia.

To assess the validity of this study, the research and analysis team graded its past work on global trends, an effort undertaken every four years since 1996. Past studies, it found, underestimated the speed with which changes arrived on the global scene.

Concerns were raised that past reports may have suffered “blind spots and biases.” And while grand “isms” like fascism and communism might not be on the horizon, this study noted, previous assessments should have paid greater attention to ideology.

The risk of conflict within a state — like a civil war or an insurgency — is expected to decline in Latin America, but will remain high in sub-Saharan Africa, in parts of the Middle East and South Asia, and in some Asia-Pacific island hot spots, the study warns.

“A more fragmented international system increases the risks” of conflict between states, the study says. “Additionally, increased resource competition, spread of lethal technologies and spillover from regional conflicts increase the potential for interstate conflicts.”

Most worrisome — and already a part of the global security dynamic — is an assessment that future wars in Asia and the Middle East could include nuclear weapons.

Other important demographic trends will be aging populations in Europe, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, which could slow their economies further. The report warns that Russia’s economy will join those places in experiencing “slow relative declines.” The United States will benefit from its domestic oil and natural gas supplies and new technologies to tap them, allowing the nation to become energy independent and even a net exporter of fuel.

In general, it found, “the health of the global economy increasingly will be linked to how well the developing world does — more so than the traditional West.”

In addition to China, the developing nations that “will become especially important to the global economy” include Brazil, Colombia, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, South Africa and Turkey.
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« Reply #3438 on: Dec 11, 2012, 08:09 AM »

December 10, 2012

Putin Restores Worker Award of Soviet Era


MOSCOW — When secretaries, financial analysts and the like spilled onto the streets of Moscow in antigovernment protests last winter, Vladimir V. Putin took one look and dismissed them as a crowd of “office plankton.”

And then he set about burnishing his credentials as a champion of real, working-class Russians, a project that continued on Monday with his decision to dust off a relic of Soviet heraldry: the set of lapel pins called the Hero of Socialist Labor award, now conspicuously shortened in these capitalistic times to the Hero of Labor.

Mr. Putin, who was elected this year to his third term as president, has brought back the Soviet anthem, military parades and political repression. But until now he had not set about restoring the grandeur of the Soviet lapel pin collection for civilians — awards marked by the heads of Lenin and ribbons that once caused jackets to sag.

“Of course, I think that it would be good for us to revive the Hero of Labor award, only we need to think — we shouldn’t make a complete copy of it from the Soviet times,” Mr. Putin told a meeting of political supporters, the Interfax news agency reported Monday. “We need to be sure it covers working people, no matter where they work, and those who work with their heads and their hands.”

Igor Kholmanskikh, a rough-hewed, working-class former tank factory foreman who started a pro-Putin movement in the Ural Mountain industrial area, first proposed reviving the award in August.

Mr. Putin is believed to be swiveling to the political left through the embrace of movements like Mr. Kholmanskikh’s. The intention is to co-opt expected discontent in industrial regions, where support is still stronger than in the urban centers, in case the price of oil, the mainstay of the Russian economy, declines in coming years.

As wages level off, medals and awards that raise status without costing hard currency might substitute as compensation, as practiced in the Soviet period, beginning principally in the 1930s, when such status symbols, rather than salaries, measured accomplishment.

By the 1980s, medal inflation had rendered such awards all but meaningless, as nearly everybody had some, and they became the objects of near universal derision — eventually sold by the hundreds in canning jars on the sidewalks of East bloc countries.

The Hero of Socialist Labor award was created in 1938. It went to coal miners, milkmaids, tractor drivers and others who applied more than the typical amount of elbow grease to their work, thus contributing to “the growth of the might and glory of the U.S.S.R.,” according to an entry about the award in the Big Soviet Encyclopedia.

The award came in the form of two pins — a ribbon and a medal with a cameo of Lenin.

A revision of the rules in 1949 clarified that workers who received the award three times would also have a bronze bust made in their likeness, along with the six pieces of chest decoration. Mr. Putin did not say whether the new award would lead to any busts for repeat winners.

Other awards went to so-called shock workers who took on difficult jobs. Mothers who had 10 children or more were called Hero Mothers.

But in the late 1980s, after the devaluation of lapel pins under Leonid Brezhnev, the government scaled back to ban multiple awards to the same person, then abolished the Hero of Socialist Labor award altogether with the Soviet Union’s demise.
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« Reply #3439 on: Dec 11, 2012, 08:13 AM »

India Ink - Notes on the World's Largest Democracy

December 11, 2012, 12:45 am

India’s Real Estate Developers Predict New Construction Boom


A construction site in Mumbai, Maharashtra, in this Feb. 28, 2012, file photo.Prashanth Vishwanathan for The New York TimesA construction site in Mumbai, Maharashtra, in this Feb. 28, 2012, file photo.

The sight of a construction crane looming on the horizon has become ubiquitous in most large cities across India – and may become even more so in the near future.

The introduction of large foreign retailers like Wal-Mart into the country is eagerly awaited by many industrialists, particularly in the real estate sector, where builders and developers hope to benefit from an increased demand for retail spaces.

Commercial real estate prices in India have already risen sharply in big cities in recent years, and there is a dearth of quality retail spaces available for rent, so analysts expect a boom in construction if foreign multibrand retailers enter the market.

That looks likely: On Wednesday, India’s Lok Sabha, or lower house of Parliament, voted against a measure forbidding foreign multibrand retailers from entering India. The upper house of Parliament also voted against the measure on Friday, cementing support for new retailers. State governments have the option to ban big foreign retailers from their state, and their entry into the country comes with several conditions, but builders are already getting excited.

“Foreign retailers are most welcome by the builders community,” said Anand Gupta, the general secretary of the Builders’ Association of India and managing director and chairman of the Choudhary & Choudhary Group, a construction company working primarily in Mumbai and Pune. “There is a lack of financial support from the government for real estate,” he said, and an entry of foreign companies “will help financially and boost the demand for commercial establishments and shopping centers.”

While foreign retailers are allowed to procure land in India, as long as they build their own stores on it, they are not allowed to buy and sell undeveloped land, and they face other regulations on development set by the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry.

Therefore, most retailers prefer to lease properties. “The rental model tends to work out better for profitability,” said Subhasis Roy, the national director for retail agency at Knight Frank India, a real estate company.

In Indian cities with more than a million people, which big foreign retailers are confined to, analysts predict a marked increase in demand for commercial real estate, warehousing and office space. “In the short term there will be a spurt in demand as retailers set up test stores,” said Harvesp Mehta, director for real estate at Motilal Oswal Private Equity Advisors. “Developers in cities like Mumbai do not have sufficient demand coming in, so it will bode well for them if there are new entrants to the market.”

Whether this will translate into sustained demand in the long term depends on whether these companies are able to overcome infrastructural hurdles and fare well in the Indian market, he said.

The paucity of quality rental spaces for the retail sector in the cities where multibrand foreign retailers are expected to enter the market could trigger demand for new projects. “In India, per capita mall space among the top seven metro cities is presently estimated at less than one square foot, with the United States and Europe average being 20 to 40 times that,” said Mr. Roy. While there are several malls in the works, most won’t be finished for three to four years, he said.

However, some say a large increase in retail rents does not seem viable, with the prices of real estate in India’s biggest metropolitan areas already being unaffordable to many. “There is only a marginal jump in pricing possible, beyond which it will become a barrier to entry,” said Pankaj Renjhen, managing director for real estate services at Jones Lang LaSalle India. “While it is difficult to compare India to other markets because the industry is structured differently, prime locations in India are some of the most expensive in the world.”

In premium malls that house international brands, like the Palladium in Mumbai, the DLF Emporio in Gurgaon or Select Citywalk in New Delhi, rentals vary from 350 to 600 rupees ($6.44 to $11) per square foot per month depending on the location, the brand and other variables, he said.

Mr. Mehta said, “If the prices go up anymore from here they will kill demand the way they did in the residential real estate market. I’m sure McDonald’s would like to have a store in every corner in a city as populated as Mumbai, but they have been forced to slow down the process of opening stores because the rentals are crazy.”

Indian retail space may be getting more expensive, but it is still lower than prime retail space in some other big cities. In Manhattan, for example, retail rents on Fifth Avenue below 49th street averaged $875 per square foot a year, or $72.92 per square foot a month, according to a report from Cushman and Wakefield.

However, for companies in the Indian retail market, rental costs are a higher percentage of their turnover. While rentals are typically 3 percent of the turnover of retail companies internationally, they are well over 10 percent of turnover in India, said Mr. Roy.

International brands will have to come in with realistic expectations about where they can set up shop, analysts said.

“No quality real estate will be readily available. They will have to build it from scratch and even then it will lack the surrounding infrastructure like connectivity, parking space, water and electricity,” said Mr. Renjhen. “International brands cannot come in expecting the same quality of real estate that they are used to in Europe or America. Here, a high-end luxury retailer will have to be okay being next door to a neighborhood chemist.”

This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: December 11, 2012

An earlier version of this article mistakenly compared Manhattan rents reported on a yearly price per square foot to Indian rents reported on a monthly price per square foot.
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« Reply #3440 on: Dec 11, 2012, 08:15 AM »

Higgs boson discovery makes 2012 a landmark year for physics

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, December 10, 2012 12:20 EST

2012 will go down in history as a landmark year, when physicists discovered a fundamental particle that may answer one of the greatest riddles of all.

Investigators believe their discovery to be the long-coveted Higgs Boson, an invisible particle that explains the mystery of mass.

Without the Higgs, say theorists, we and all the other joined-up atoms in the Universe would not exist.

“The discovery is a wonderful example of the ability of the human imagination to understand the Universe to the greatest depths,” said Sir Paul Nurse, a Nobel laureate who is president of Britain’s Royal Society.

“As an achievement, it ranks alongside the confirmation that the Earth is round or Man’s first steps on the Moon,” said Pauline Gagnon at CERN, where the particle was detected in sets of rival experiments.

Theorised back in 1964, the boson carries the name of a Briton, Peter Higgs.

He was the first to suggest that a field of these particles could explain a nagging anomaly: Why do some particles have mass and why do others, such as light, have none?

That question was a gaping hole in the Standard Model, the conceptual framework for understanding the nuts-and-bolts particles and forces that constitute the cosmos.

CERN’s announcement on July 4 stressed the need to confirm that the newcomer is the Higgs, a margin of uncertainty that probably prevented the discovery from gaining a Nobel this year.

And further work is needed to see exactly how the Higgs — or Higgses, if the boson exists in different flavours — interacts with other particles.

One notion is that the Higgs was born when the new Universe cooled after the Big Bang some 14 billion years ago.

It exists in an invisible field that, to use a simple image, is like a comb whose teeth are coated with syrup.

Most types of particles interact with the treacly stuff, acquiring some of its mass to varying degrees, but a few slip through and do not acquire any. With mass comes gravity — and through gravitational pull, particles meet.

A Higgs-less Universe would thus be a terrifying thing.

It would be dark and utterly dead, its listless particles unable to join up to form atoms and thus matter.

“Without the Higgs, there would be no stars and ultimately no life,” said Themis Bowcock of Britain’s University of Liverpool. “The Higgs offers humanity, for the first time, a unique glimpse into WHY nature is the way it is.”

The discovery has unfathomable potential in practical terms, said Sir Peter Knight, head of Britain’s Institute of Physics.

He pointed to the discovery of hydrogen in 1766 by Henry Cavendish, who called the curious gas “inflammable air.”

“Now, hydrogen is our rocket fuel,” said Knight. “Who knows what purpose the Higgs will serve, but I don’t think anyone in the 18th century would have predicted a line of causation from Cavendish’s work to the first man on the Moon.”

The hunt for the Higgs was an extraordinary tale, exemplifying some of the best things in science.

It combined open debate based on evidence; fierce but friendly rivalries; and big-bucks experiments where teams threw themselves into the quest unhampered by borders and nationalities, united by the common language of physics.

It began with a dazzling series of conceptual insights by six men, including Higgs, each building on the work of others, who published a flurry of papers within four months of each other back in 1964.

After years of cut-and-thrust debate in the community of particle physics, momentum developed for building machines that smash sub-atomic particles together and trawl through the debris for clues.

Ultimately the crown went to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), whose labs are enclosed in a giant circular tunnel straddling the French and Swiss borders.

The massive project was completed four years ago at a cost of 6.03 billion Swiss francs (five billion euros, $6.27 billion dollars), yet is still not even close to running at full capacity.

Many challenges lie ahead in fundamental physics, said Gagnon.

“We have enough questions to keep us happy for many decades to come,” she quipped.

There is the search for the graviton, a theoretical particle that explains gravity.

Then there is dark matter, a bizarre substance which can only be perceived indirectly, though its gravitational pull, yet accounts for around 25 percent of the contents of Universe.

One explanation lies in supersymmetry, the notion that there are novel particles that are counterparts to the known actors in the Standard Model.

Supersymmetry is deemed by some to be marginal or plain weird. But then, so too was the Higgs Boson, half a century ago.
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« Reply #3441 on: Dec 11, 2012, 08:16 AM »

Analysts: NASA needs other countries to explore final frontier

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, December 10, 2012 12:23 EST

If NASA wants to help humans boldly go where no man has gone before, the US space agency must work with other countries, say experts who fear budget constraints will keep astronauts stuck on Earth.

The fears were laid out in stark terms last week in a report by the National Academy of Sciences, which concluded that the space agency’s $18 billion-a-year budget was simply not enough for it to fulfill all its missions.

Moreover, it said, there is a lack of national consensus on where exactly NASA should be spending its money in the first place.

Some think the agency should focus on getting humans back on the moon, four decades after the last astronaut landed there, as a stepping stone toward heading to Mars.

That’s the “Constellation” program, promoted by then president George W. Bush in 2004, and later cancelled by President Barack Obama, who deemed it too expensive.

Obama instead has proposed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 before launching a manned voyage to the Red Planet in the 2030s.

But NASA doesn’t have the money to make this plan a reality, the report said. Nor is it clear anyone is really dedicated to making it happen.

“We’ve seen limited evidence that (an asteroid) has been widely accepted as a compelling destination by NASA’s own work force, by the nation as a whole, or by the international community,” said Albert Carnesale, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, who chaired the review committee.

Its congressionally-mandated report urged Obama to set an ambitious but technically feasible agenda for NASA, after consulting with potential international partners, in order to better align NASA’s goals with its resources.

The White House has yet to respond, with the president mired in fraught negotiations over the broader federal budget, aimed at finding a deficit-slashing compromise with Republicans to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff” looming just weeks away.

But analysts said the president can’t ignore NASA forever.

In recent years, the White House has acted under the assumption that “things are stable and are not a problem. And as long that stays the case they are not paying much attention to it,” explained John Logsdon, former director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, who consulted on the panel.

“This report could upset this equilibrium because it is kind of saying that the emperor has no clothes,” and that “what you are doing (with NASA) makes no sense,” he said.

Ultimately, Logsdon said, “What they say is if the US wants to remain a leader in space, the US should work more closely with other countries in defining the future that all can agree on.”

And that’s not what the US has been doing so far, he emphasized.

The report’s conclusions are not surprising to people who watch the space industry closely, he said, “but what is surprising is that such a high level committee said it.”

Scott Hubbard, a former NASA Mars program director and now a Stanford University professor, agreed that “NASA has been asked for decades to do more than it has funding to do.”

“For a really ambitious major effort like a moon mission or, particularly, sending humans to Mars, I think almost without a doubt that has to be through international collaboration,” he said.

He cited the International Space Station — a $100 billion project that was built with contributions from 16 countries — as the best example of a successful international space cooperation.

“I can imagine something like that being organized for deep space and ultimately for Mars,” he said.

But some of the US’s international efforts have been less fruitful.

Logsdon recalled that in February the US cancelled its contribution — worth more than a billion dollars — in the ExoMars project, a cooperation with the European Space Agency, citing budgetary constraints.

The project aims to send two probes to Mars in 2016 and 2018 to search for signs of life. ESA filled NASA’s spot with the Russian space agency.

Hubbard said he’d prefer to see NASA’s budget go up than to see the agency give up any of its ambitious plans. But he said most experts agree it would take $3 billion a year extra to make the difference.

“In a $3.7 trillion-a-year budget, $3 billion is not all that much money,” Hubbard said, except that, “these days people argue over pennies.”
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« Reply #3442 on: Dec 11, 2012, 08:18 AM »

Frail Nelson Mandela’s ‘sparkle fading’: wife

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, December 11, 2012 3:35 EST

Ailing anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela was Tuesday spending a fourth day in hospital for more tests, as his wife said his trademark “sparkle” was waning.

Looking calm in an interview with a local television network, Graca Machel did not give details about Mandela’s health status, just saying it was painful to see the nonagenarian “aging”.

“I mean, this spirit and this sparkle, you see that somehow it’s fading,” she told ENews Central Africa (ENCA) on Monday in her first interview since Mandela was hospitalised at the weekend.

South African government officials have said the former president is comfortable and does not face immediate danger, but they refuse to speculate on when he is likely to be discharged from a Pretoria military hospital.

Mandela, 94, was at the weekend admitted to hospital for tests that authorities say are expected of people of his age.

“To see him aging, it’s something also which pains you. . . . You understand and you know it has to happen,” said Graca.

Mandela’s grand-daughter Ndileka told the same TV network that he has taken to accept his condition.

“I think he takes it in his strides, he has come to accept that it’s part of growing old, and it’s part of humanity as such. At some point you will dependent on someone else, he has come to embrace it,” she said.

Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula visited Mandela on Monday and said the revered statesman was “doing very, very well”.

The presidency said it was too early to give an update as they have to hear first from the doctors.

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« Reply #3443 on: Dec 11, 2012, 08:20 AM »

December 8, 2012

A Tepid ‘Welcome Back’ for Spanish Jews



I AM conducting a global search for a missing menorah that my great-aunt Luz concealed in a commode in her cramped bedroom in a garden apartment in San José, Costa Rica. She preserved it until she died, in her 80s, in 1998, when she was buried swiftly the next day with a Sabbath-day psalm on her funeral card — cryptic signs of my Catholic family’s clandestine Sephardic Jewish identity because the prayer avoided any reference to the trinity or Jesus.

I tallied these and other Carvajal family clues a few days after the Spanish government heralded its new immigration reform last month. Five hundred and twenty years after the start of the Inquisition, Spain opened the door to descendants of Sephardic Jews whose ancestors had fled the Iberian Peninsula, forced, in order to live in Spain or its colonies, to choose between exile or conversion to Christianity. Or worse.

Top government officials pledged to speed up the existing naturalization process for Sephardic Jews who through the centuries spread in a diaspora — to the Ottoman Empire and the south of Italy; to Spain’s colonies in Central and South America; and to outposts in what are now New Mexico, Texas and Mexico.

Spain’s foreign minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, sought to address his nation’s painful legacy when he revealed the reforms, declaring it was time “to recover Spain’s silenced memory.” But the process is much more complicated than it appears, and some descendants are discounting the offer as useless, or even insulting, as it dawns on them that they are excluded.

Some of those converts in Spain’s colonies — still within the reach of the Inquisition — led double lives for generations, as I learned from writing a book about my own family’s concealed identity. They lived discreetly, maintaining Jewish rituals that would have put them in peril if they had been discovered. They risked confiscation of wealth, prison, torture or death. Some relatives knew, some didn’t and others refused to see.

For this act of heresy, living life as Jews, a branch of Carvajal converts in the 16th century was decimated in the Spanish colony of Mexico by burning at the stake.

They are called anousim — Hebrew for the forced ones — crypto Jews or Marranos, which in Spanish means swine. I prefer a more poetic term that I read in a French book: silent Jews who lived double lives.

The Spanish offer was not as simple as it first sounded, and almost immediately evoked a mix of reactions. The Federation of Sephardic Jews in Argentina, for one, was elated. But there were some hard questions from bnei anousim, the descendants of the anousim. They were concerned about criteria that were not widely explained.

Genie Milgrom, president of the Jewish Genealogical Association of Greater Miami, researched her family’s unbroken Sephardic Jewish line through 19 generations of grandmothers to Spain. She said she had no interest in Spanish citizenship in “a country that extinguished my heritage.” But for those who want nationality, she said Spain “needs to be abundantly clear on what they are going to do with the anousim.”

The proof of Jewish identity among the anousim is often pieced together like a mosaic of broken Spanish tiles. Clues range from last names to cultural customs in the home to intermarriages among families with traditional Sephardic Jewish names.

In my case, I have a family tree ornamented with such names, since ancestors had an enduring habit of marrying among trusted distant cousins to protect their secret lives. Is it enough, though, to offer the Spanish government a family tree? Or what about Aunt Luz’s old menorah if I can ever find it? My great-grandfather had a habit of visiting a local rabbi in San José weekly. Was that evidence of interior religious lives?

When I asked Isaac Querub, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain, about the criteria for anousim, I was startled by the response. To be naturalized and become citizens, secular bnei anousim Jewish applicants whose families had maintained double lives as Catholics must seek religious training and undergo formal conversion to Judaism. It is the federation that will screen and certify the Sephardic Jewish backgrounds of applicants who seek the documents that can be submitted to the government to obtain citizenship. Mr. Querub said that what the government meant by Jews is “the Sephardic descendants who are members of the Jewish community.”

The fundamental change is that the Spanish government eliminated a residency requirement, proof of financial resources and an onerous standard that applicants must renounce current citizenship.

I am pondering the next step. Mr. Querub predicted that the process would be smooth if I started formal conversion, extolling my name, “Carvajal,” as a 100 percent old Spanish name.

The good news is that perhaps I can finally close the circle with the past, deepen my ties to Spain, and learn more about Judaism and ultimately convert. I already feel that connection so profoundly that I moved one summer with my family into a village of white houses on a sandstone ridge in Andalusia to understand my family’s fear and penchant for secrecy.

But there is something about the Spanish offer of citizenship with new religious requirements that unsettles me and others in the shadowy category of bnei anousim. The anousim were the forced ones. To seek Spain’s generous gift, isn’t that happening again?

Michael Freund, who created the Jerusalem-based Shavei Israel to aid anousim descendants seeking to reclaim their religious identity, initially praised the offer as a symbol of “modern day Spain’s efforts to make amends.”

But when he learned more about the criteria, gratitude turned to gloom about limiting the decree to Sephardic Jews while excluding bnei anousim.

It’s “as if to say that there is no need to right the historical wrong that was done to forcibly converted Spanish Jews,” he said. “This is an outrage, and it goes against the spirit of reconciliation which the Spanish government claims to cherish. How sad that instead of utilizing this opportunity to send an unequivocal message of contrition, Spain is choosing to heap further insult on injury.”

Doreen Carvajal is a reporter for The International Herald Tribune and The New York Times and the author of “The Forgetting River.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: December 10, 2012

An earlier version of this article referred imprecisely to a Jerusalem-based organization that helps “lost” or “hidden” Jews to reclaim their religious identities. It is Shavei Israel, not the Shavei Foundation.

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« Reply #3444 on: Dec 11, 2012, 08:23 AM »

Nicholas D. Kristof - A New York Times Blog
December 10, 2012, 4:22 pm

Life After Escaping an Indian Brothel


Minati, 19, was never meant to be rescued from a brothel here in the red light district of Kolkata, India. When Nick Kristof accompanied the International Justice Mission and the police on a raid in a brothel in the Songachi district last year, they were looking for a girl much younger than Minati.

It almost came as a surprise when Minati, a pseudonym I am using to protect her identity, spoke up and asked if she too could leave the brothel. Everyone assumed that she was there voluntarily and when Nick wrote about the raid in a column he mentioned her only in passing.

I caught up with Minati on my recent trip to India, and learned very quickly that she had suffered more than anyone had imagined. Her story sounds like something out of a Hollywood drama, but unfortunately Minati's experience is an all too common path into sex slavery for girls in India, which has the largest number of human trafficking victims in the world.

The ordeal began when, at the age of about 17, she got into a particularly vicious fight with her older brother over money. Their parents had died some years earlier, leaving Minati's brother in charge of the family's finances.

"He used to never hit me, but that day he hit me," Minati said, "I wanted to leave home." And so, without telling anybody, she packed a bag with a few clothes, two of her favorite books and cashed in her life insurance policy for a grand total of $32.

She only took two dollars with her though, as a precaution. "I used to always be afraid, if I have too much money on me then the bad guys will come and get me."

On the way out of her rural village in West Bengal, Minati stopped at a teahouse. She doesn't remember much after that, but she assumes she was drugged because when she came to she found herself in a brothel in Kolkata, hundreds of miles from home.

"I thought that I was far from my home country, in a foreign country," Minati said. It was only when she saw a man from her village exchanging money with the brothel owner that she began to realize, with the help of some of the other girls in captivity, where she was.

Minati said she cried every day after that, and that any time she spoke up or asked for anything the woman who ran the brothel would beat her mercilessly. "I became very afraid, I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep properly." It didn't work. The brothel forced her to take any customer that walked through the door, and she wasn't allowed to venture outside once.

Unlike the brothel owner's husband, who brought Minati books to read from time to time, the madam showed no compassion for any of the girls, Minati said. The woman even had her own teenage daughter seeing clients after she returned from school.

As far as Minati knows, the madam and her husband pocketed all of the money from her clients. She said she couldn't even bear to look at it.

"I didn't take that money, I didn't feel like taking it," she said, "I just left it there."

Nick and the IJM team raided the brothel less than a month into Minati's captivity there, and she says that she feels incredibly lucky to have escaped. "Twenty-eight days was all I had to suffer, there are many girls there suffering much longer."

But some of the girls who were there on the day of the raid decided to stay in the brothel. Their decision lays bare an uncomfortable truth about the sex trafficking business: over time, the line between forced and voluntary labor can become blurred, complicating efforts to empower women and close the revolving door through which an estimated 90 percent of the daughters of Indian sex workers enter the trade.

"Some of them need the money, some of them have children, some of them want to support their families," she said, and added that because of the stigma attached to sex work, many of the girls felt they couldn't return to their villages. Their families, she said, "have an idea of where they have been, because of that they don't want to take them back into their homes."

Another deterrent follows a better the devil you know logic. The girls are used to life in the brothels, hard as it may be, and don't trust that they'll be better off if they opt out. Even Minati said she was initially reluctant to leave, and that an older girl who also escaped that day convinced her that it was the right thing to do.

"She said you know you are always crying so it is probably better off that you leave," Minati said of her friend. And when Minati first moved out of the brothel and into a shelter, she said that she felt desperate. "I would cry saying I should run away, or better if I die than stay here," she said. But she slowly began to trust her caretakers, who she says have taught her that "there are people who can love you more than your family."

Today Minati is completing the equivalent of the 3rd grade in an aftercare home supported by IJM, and speaks with an unmistakable confidence.

She gets particularly animated when talking about her plans for the future. Minati's favorite subject in school is math, and she said that she has had dreams where she is running her own business alongside the men in her town.

Minati sounded cautious about returning to her village, though, and said that she wants to wait until she's settled with a good job before seeing her family again.

"Everyone in my village kind of assumes I am in a bad place right now," she said, "I want to be independent and actually go back and show them that I have been able to do something with my life."

Walking through a classroom at the shelter where she lives, Minati sounded like an upbeat entrepreneur in the making. "I'm confident, whatever my goals are, of getting there. The past doesn't bother me that much anymore," she said, adding with a wry smile, "right now I'm not thinking about marriage or love so I feel that my goals are there for me to achieve."

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« Reply #3445 on: Dec 11, 2012, 08:49 AM »

In the USA...

Violence Against Women Act: Eric Cantor, Joe Biden In Talks Amid Stalled Tribal Provision

Posted: 12/06/2012 5:18 pm EST  |  Updated: 12/10/2012 9:42 am EST

WASHINGTON -- Vice President Joe Biden is quietly working with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) to try to pass an inclusive version of the Violence Against Women Act in the lame-duck Congress. And so far, sources tell HuffPost, Cantor is on board as long as one thing is stripped from the bill: a key protection for Native American women.

Staffers for Biden and Cantor have been trying to reach a deal on the bill for at least a week. Neither camp publicly let on it was talking to the other until Wednesday, when Cantor said the two are in negotiations and he's feeling hopeful about a deal.

"I am speaking with the vice president and his office and trying to resolve the issue of the differences surrounding the VAWA bill," Cantor said during remarks on the House floor.

"This week I've actually been encouraged to see that we could very well see agreement on VAWA, and I'm very hopeful that that comes about. But I am encouraged about the discussions that my office is having with the vice president's office right now, that bill being a high priority of Vice President Biden."

VAWA, which has been reauthorized consistently for 18 years with little fanfare, was, for the first time, left to expire in Sept. 2011. The sticking point has been new protections for three particularly vulnerable groups: undocumented immigrants, members of the LGBT community and Native Americans. The additions are supported by Democrats and opposed by House Republicans, who are calling them politically driven. The Senate passed a bipartisan bill in April with the additional protections, and House Republicans passed their own bill in May that omitted those three provisions. Since then, the issue has gone nowhere.

The fact that Cantor is working directly with Biden, an original sponsor of the 1994 law and a strong supporter of the Senate bill, suggests a real possibility that something could advance in the final weeks of a Congress otherwise consumed by a major tax fight. And now that the elections are over -- and the GOP received the message that they need to do a better job of appealing to women and minorities -- House Republicans may be more inclined to support the more inclusive bill.

But two sources familiar with negotiations on VAWA, both of whom requested anonymity given the sensitive nature of talks, have told HuffPost that Cantor is refusing to accept any added protections for Native American women that would give expanded jurisdiction to tribes, and is pressuring Democrats to concede on that front. There does seem to be room to negotiate with Cantor on the other two provisions relating to LGBT and undocumented immigrant protections, the sources say.

Asked to confirm if this is the current state of play in VAWA talks, a Cantor spokesman said only, "Your source is mistaken."

Later, the Cantor spokesman said in a statement, "Majority Leader Cantor and the Vice President have had a conversation seeking to find a solution. Since then, we have continued to work with the Vice President's staff, as well as Senate Democratic staff to work on a solution that gets to the root of the problem, namely, violence against women. Our staffs continue to work towards a compromise on those multiple provisions outstanding in the hopes of finding a solution."

A White House official did not respond to a request for comment on the tribal provision but confirmed that Biden is "talking to both the Senate and House about trying to get [VAWA] done if possible."

Meanwhile, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the author of the Senate VAWA bill, went to the Senate floor on Thursday and plainly announced that House Republican leaders are blocking his bill "because of their objections to [the] ... tribal provision."

Leahy explained the provision, probably the least understood of the three additions in the Senate bill: It gives tribal courts limited jurisdiction to oversee domestic violence offenses committed against Native American women by non-Native American men on tribal lands. Currently, federal and state law enforcement have jurisdiction over domestic violence on tribal lands, but in many cases, they are hours away and lack the resources to respond to those cases. Tribal courts, meanwhile, are on site and familiar with tribal laws, but lack the jurisdiction to address domestic violence on tribal lands when it is carried out by a non-Native American individual.

That means non-Native American men who abuse Native American women on tribal lands are essentially "immune from the law, and they know it," Leahy said.

The standoff over including VAWA protections for Native American women comes at a time of appallingly high levels of violence on tribal lands. One in three Native American women have been raped or experienced attempted rape, the New York Times reported in March, and the rate of sexual assault on Native American women is more than twice the national average. President Barack Obama has called violence on tribal lands "an affront to our shared humanity."

Of the Native American women who are raped, 86 percent of them are raped by non-Native men, according to an Amnesty International report. That statistic is precisely what the Senate's tribal provision targets.

The two sources say, to Cantor's credit, his staff has said they're willing to try to come up with other solutions to responding to violence against women on tribal lands, as long as the solution doesn't give tribes jurisdiction over the matter. But proponents of the Senate bill see the limited jurisdictional change as the only realistic way to address the problem.

Some House Republicans do support giving tribes that limited jurisdictional authority and have put forward a solution of their own. Earlier this week, Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Tom Cole (R-Okla.) introduced a bill that has the same jurisdictional language for tribes as the Senate bill, but would also allow the defendant to move his case to a federal court if he feels his rights were violated in a tribal court. As a standalone bill that wades into complex jurisdictional laws, though, even Issa told HuffPost last week that the bill has little chance of passing in the lame duck.

Cantor's insistence on keeping the tribal jurisdictional provision out of VAWA has infuriated some backers of the Senate bill and elicited vows to prevent any VAWA bill from advancing that doesn't protect all victims of abuse. Terry O’Neill, the president of the National Organization for Women and someone who regularly talks to people directly involved in VAWA negotiations, called Cantor's stance "completely outrageous."

"Who is Eric Cantor to say that it's okay for some women to get beaten and raped?" O'Neill said. "If they happen to be Native women who are attacked by a non-Native man, as far as Eric Cantor is concerned, those women are tossed."

O'Neill's incendiary and extreme charge highlights the intense passion that has engulfed the negotiations around the bill.

The NOW president said she didn't know why the GOP leader was so opposed to keeping the provision, since it has the backing of the Justice Department. She said any concerns about constitutional laws being circumvented on tribal lands have already been vetted. Regardless, she said she doesn't expect the White House or Democratic lawmakers to cave on the provision.

"We are not going to leave behind sisters who have been brutally raped," O'Neill said.

click to watch:


Obama’s corporate charm offensive: Wooing the Republicans’ beloved base

By Heidi Moore, The Guardian
Monday, December 10, 2012 22:47 EST

Two years ago, Bloomberg ran a survey of American investors. Three-quarters of them believed Obama was against business. Ivan Seidenberg, the CEO of Verizon, was moved to declare the president hostile to investment and job creation.

Today, it’s a different picture. The president, after blasting fat cats and the self-interest of Wall Street for years, has made a landmark move in his relationship with companies: he is taking corporate donations to fund the parade and parties of his second inauguration. Someone has to pay for the party, so you might as well invite the people with money.

Granted, it’s an uneasy detente: Obama’s team made it clear that it is only accepting the filthy lucre of corporate America because their old donors are tapped out. And there’s an arm’s length aspect, too: the Obama campaign is warily posting the names of all donors on the web, and it won’t accept sponsorships of any kind or donations from lobbyists.

Still, what a turnaround. If you add the inauguration pivot to the president’s other recent contacts with the business world, you get something that looks almost like friendliness.

In the past few weeks, the president has called the members of the Business Roundtable “patriots.” He seemed to renounce his previously disdainful stance toward CEOs, saying: “I realize in the first four years my relationship with the business community was skewed.” He even told Bloomberg TV: “There’s a lot of confluence between my agenda and the business community’s,” which makes one think: really? When did that happen?

Add to that the fact that the White House has an open door for the pinstriped suits of Wall Street financiers and corporate CEOs if they want to talk about the fiscal cliff. It’s so comfortable between the White House and CEOs that watchdogs are worried, in fact, that the president is ceding too much power to corporate interests.

What happened to the old bile, on both sides? Shrug and call it bygones.

That leaves the question: are these approaches and blandishments the tentative beginnings of a new pragmatism emerging in Obama’s relations with business leaders?

It looks that way. The president used to be criticized by his Republican adversaries as having a “glass jaw.” He was relatively new and sensitive to the low blows and body slams of partisan politics. But his management of the fiscal cliff discussions, so far, show that he may be finally learning some good old-fashioned Washington jiu jitsu.

There is no better way to drive a stake in Republican negotiators on the fiscal cliff than to woo their most beloved base: the business community. Obama has recognized that, when it comes to the fiscal cliff, the rift between him and corporate leaders is shallower than that between him and Republicans.

The calculus is clear: Obama’s single-minded, most often-stated goal in the ongoing debt debacle is to raise taxes on the top 2% of earners. Republican leaders draw a hard line against that proposal. CEOs – surprise! – aren’t so resistant. This is where Obama is trying to drive a wedge between corporate leaders and the Republican leadership.

It’s not as if he has to pound that wedge very hard. Business leaders desperately want to be wooed by Obama; they have spent an unaccustomed time wandering in the political cold as the financial crisis, recession and weak recovery weakened their negotiating position.

In October, about 80 CEOs of major companies – backed by the fiscal cliff duo of Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles – tried to send a love letter to Obama. They agreed that “higher revenue” has to be a part of a plan to avoid the fiscal cliff. In Washington patois, “higher revenue” means higher taxes. That armed Obama admirably to start reaching out to Wall Street and corporate America: if business leaders are willing to pay higher taxes, after all, why are Republican leaders still refusing? These CEOs wafting through the White House provide Obama with a valuable bargaining chip.

Like all Washington power plays, this one has complications. Obama needs business leaders to help him win the fight on the fiscal cliff – but it doesn’t help his image with his die-hard fans. Those voters who support Obama and are still angry with Wall Street after the financial crisis may regard this new partnership with complicated feelings.

The support of those CEOs doesn’t come without strings: those business leaders don’t love Obama’s economic policies, nor are they for raising taxes willy-nilly. Instead, they largely like the Simpson-Bowles plan, which cuts programs like Social Security and Medicare. The President opposes any cuts to those programs.

Over time, those business leaders will also want to bend the president’s ear for a greater purpose: they will want tax breaks not for themselves – they can handle that with savvy accountants – but for their companies.

Many corporate leaders support the idea of a tax holiday that would allow them to bring back cash currently trapped in their overseas divisions. They promise that this cash, once “repatriated,” would go into the economy. It’s a hard sell: that tax holiday was tried once, and the corporations just kept the extra cash for themselves.

This big thaw between Obama and CEOs may also freeze up after the CEOs cease to be useful to the president. As many CEOs could have learned over the past four years, any line to the White House is better than a closed line. They just have to see whether they can hold his attention for the next four years. © Guardian News and Media 2012


December 10, 2012

Obama, With Blue-Collar Backdrop, Pushes for Higher Taxes on the Richest


REDFORD, Mich. — Using a German-owned truck factory as a grease-stained backdrop, President Obama on Monday pressed his case for higher tax rates for the richest Americans, declaring that his economic program would cut the deficit without crimping the job market.

“Our economic success has never come from the top down,” Mr. Obama said to a few hundred cheering autoworkers. “It comes from the middle out; it comes from the bottom up.”

A day after the president and the House speaker, John A. Boehner, held face-to-face budget talks at the White House, Mr. Obama took his case again to the American public — a tactic he has used repeatedly to go around reluctant party leaders in Congress.

This time, he chose a nearly 75-year-old truck engine maker, where the owner, the German company Daimler, announced $120 million in investments in new production that will create 115 jobs.

In a speech replete with the cadences of his late-inning campaign swings, Mr. Obama ratcheted up the pressure on Republicans, who are still resisting his call for higher tax rates on income above $250,000 a year, three weeks before a deadline that could set off across-the-board tax increases and automatic spending cuts.

Under his plan, Mr. Obama said, taxes would not increase for 98 percent of Americans, and even those whose taxes would rise would not be taxed at a higher rate on their first $250,000 of income. But fairness, he said, demanded that those earning much more pay a greater share.

“I’m not going to have a situation where the wealthiest among us, including folks like me, get to keep all our tax breaks, and then we’re asking students to pay higher student loans,” he said.

The White House is also cranking up the machinery of the Obama campaign to help in the battle. On Monday, the campaign sent an e-mail to its entire mailing list from its deputy manager, Stephanie Cutter, urging supporters in Republican districts to press their representative to agree to the mix of higher tax rates and spending cuts offered by Mr. Obama.

“Who will decide if your taxes increase in just 22 days?” Ms. Cutter said. “A few dozen members of the House of Representatives, that’s who.” A spokeswoman, Katie Hogan, said that the campaign had sent updates to supporters about the fiscal negotiations a few times since the election, but that this one was unusual for its wide distribution.

In Mr. Obama’s first visit to Michigan since the election, he still seemed to be in election mode, presenting the fiscal debate as a choice about what kind of future America will have. But he skipped partisan attacks on the Republicans and devoted much of his remarks to extolling Detroit Diesel as an example of how the country can rebound.

Daimler, which owns Detroit Diesel, will invest in new equipment to make truck engines, axles, and transmissions on a single site at the sprawling factory in this suburb of Detroit. That will improve the integration of its components, said Mr. Obama, who took a tour of the plant floor and watched a demonstration of pistons being inserted into an engine.

Detroit Diesel, a manufacturer of heavy-duty trucks, traces its roots to 1938. It was sold to Daimler in 2000, after Daimler had acquired Chrysler. The company remained part of Daimler after it sold off Chrysler, amid heavy losses, to a private equity firm in 2007. The carmaker was rescued in a bailout by the Obama administration.

Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, said Daimler’s up-and-down history in Detroit was less of an issue for Mr. Obama than what it was doing now. “He’s focused on the present and future,” Mr. Carney said to reporters on Air Force One.

Indeed, Mr. Obama praised Daimler as a company that was willing to invest in manufacturing in the United States.

“For a long time companies, they weren’t always making those kinds of investments here in the United States,” he said, “They certainly weren’t willing to make them in the U.S. automotive industry.”

If the factory attested to Detroit’s brightening future, Mr. Obama’s ride from the airport spoke to the city’s troubled past. Lining the president’s motorcade route, which also passed the headquarters of Ford Motor Company, were boarded-up houses, storefronts and factories.


December 10, 2012

Obama Approves Health Insurance Marketplaces in 6 States


WASHINGTON — The Obama administration gave conditional approval on Monday to health insurance marketplaces being set up by six states led by Democratic governors eager to carry out President Obama’s health care overhaul.

The six are Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Oregon and Washington.

At the same time, the administration rejected pleas from other states that want to carry out a partial expansion of Medicaid, to cover fewer people than the president and Congress originally intended. Some states want to expand Medicaid to cover childless adults with incomes up to the poverty level, $19,090 for a family of three.

But Cindy Mann, the top federal Medicaid official, said the federal government would pay the full cost of newly eligible Medicaid beneficiaries only if a state raised the threshold to 133 percent of the poverty level — or 138 percent, with an adjustment allowed by federal law. This would guarantee Medicaid coverage for a family of three with income less than or equal to $26,340.

Matt D. Salo, the executive director of the National Association of Medicaid Directors, which represents state officials, summarized the administration’s position this way: “No partial expansion of Medicaid. No phased-in expansion. It’s all or nothing.”

In upholding the health care law in June, the Supreme Court said the expansion of Medicaid was an option for states, not a requirement as Mr. Obama had argued. Still, the White House says the expansion would be a good deal for states because the federal government would pay the entire cost of Medicaid for newly eligible beneficiaries from 2014 to 2016 and then 90 percent or more of the costs in later years.

Republican governors expressed disappointment. “The Obama administration’s refusal to grant states more flexibility on Medicaid is as disheartening as it is shortsighted,” said Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, the chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

The White House policy, he said, “will make a state’s decision on Medicaid expansion more difficult.”

In a letter last week, Mr. Jindal and 10 other Republican governors asked Mr. Obama to meet with them to discuss Medicaid.

Dr. Bruce Siegel, the president of the National Association of Public Hospitals and Health Systems, praised the administration’s decision on Medicaid, saying it was consistent with the letter and spirit of the law, “to expand health care coverage as broadly as possible.”

The administration announced its policies in answering questions that state officials had asked about the expansion of Medicaid and the creation of online supermarkets known as health insurance exchanges.

Starting in 2014, the federal government will require most Americans to have health insurance, and it will offer financial assistance to millions of people to help them pay premiums.

Friday is the deadline for states to tell the federal government whether they intend to establish their own insurance exchanges. Federal officials will create and operate an exchange in any state that is unable or unwilling to do so.

Gary M. Cohen, a federal health official, said the federal government had received applications from 14 states that wanted to run their own exchanges. These include the six tentatively approved on Monday.

State legislators and governors of both parties say they cannot afford the Medicaid programs they have now, and they express two concerns about expanding the program.

First, they say many uninsured people already eligible for Medicaid will apply for coverage in 2014 and later years. For those beneficiaries, the federal government will pay its standard share of the costs, averaging 57 percent — not the 100 percent allowed for people who become newly eligible under the Affordable Care Act.

In addition, state officials fear that Mr. Obama and Congress will reduce federal Medicaid payments to states as part of a deal to cut the federal budget deficit.

On Monday, the administration repudiated a proposal for Medicaid savings that Mr. Obama made in 2011 and repeated in his budget request this year. The proposal would reduce the federal share of payments to health care providers treating low-income people under Medicaid.

Such a reduction could shift costs to states and reduce the likelihood of their expanding Medicaid. In negotiations with the White House, Congressional Republicans have demanded savings in Medicare and Medicaid.

Abby Goodnough contributed reporting.


Michigan prepares for mass protests against right-to-work legislation

By Adam Gabbatt, The Guardian
Monday, December 10, 2012 20:10 EST

Union leaders in Michigan have been training members in “peaceful civil disobedience” methods in preparation for a protest on Tuesday against controversial right-to-work legislation.

Supporters of the law, which among other measures would prohibit unions from collecting fees from non-union workers, are also expected to demonstrate at the state capitol in Lansing.

The Republican-dominated Michigan Senate voted the right-to-work bill on Thursday by 22 votes to 16. Governor Rick Synder has said he will sign the bill into law and could do so on Tuesday.

The Teamsters union, which helped host the training sessions at the weekend, said hundreds of people are “ready to get arrested” in the push against right-to-work legislation.

Union officials said the mass demonstration outside the capitol would be accompanied by flash mobs, rallies and news conferences throughout the day.

Barack Obama, who reiterated his opposition to right-to-work laws on Thursday, was due in Michigan on Monday as he presses his case for fiscal cliff negotiations to result in tax hikes for the wealthiest Americans. It is not known if Obama will discuss Michigan’s right-to-work status, but last week White House spokesman Matt Lehrich said the president “continues to oppose” the law.

“The president believes our economy is stronger when workers get good wages and good benefits, and he opposes attempts to roll back their rights,” Lehrich said. “Michigan – and its workers’ role in the revival of the US automobile industry – is a prime example of how unions have helped build a strong middle class and a strong American economy.”

Eight people were arrested at the Capitol on Thursday as state senators voted on the legislation. Police said the arrests came after some of the crowd had attempted to rush into the Senate. Officers used pepper spray on some of the protesters.

Opponents of the right-to-work laws said the bills ad been rushed through the legislature. Democrats said Republicans had wanted to act to pass the law before a new Senate takes office next month – when the Republican majority will be weakened as the party lost five House seats in the November elections.

Should the bills be signed into law on Tuesday Michigan will become the 24th state to introduce right-to-work legislation. Unions argue that wages in right-to-work states are lower than those which do not have the legislation. In February last year a study by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute found that wages in right-to-work states are on average 3.2% lower than states without it.

The right to work legislation in Michigan is made up of three bills – Senate bill 116 and two House bills, 4003 and 4054.

The legislation would make it illegal for workers to be required to pay union dues as a condition of employment, which Republicans say would attract more jobs.

Opponents of the law say that the bill can lead to a “free rider” problem, where workers do not pay union fees yet still get the benefits of collective bargaining by the union, funded by members. Democrats have criticised the legislation as existing to curb the power of the unions and reduce their influence.

Neighbouring Indiana passed its own right-to-work law earlier this year, becoming the first rust-belt state to back the law. Previously most of the right-to-work states had been in the south.

More than 3,000 people have signed up to a Facebook event created for Tuesday’s protests on Facebook, with attendees being encouraged to wear red to show their opposition to the legislation. On Monday the Michigan branch of National Nurses United protested outside the building, with members fixing tape over their mouth.

“Nurses are outraged at Gov Snyder’s war on workers, knowing that the wounds he is inflicting on our state will hurt for decades to come,” said Katie Oppenheim, a registered nurse from Ann Arbor.

“Our union is our voice in the workplace, and nurses use that voice every single day to keep patients safe against corporations that only care about their profits. Gov Snyder and CEOs are using ‘Right to Work’ to shut workers up, pure and simple.”

The NNA will be among several unions with a presence in Lansing on Tuesday. Last week protesters received a boost when the NFL Players Association came out against right to work.

“We stood up against this in the past, and we stand against it in its current form in Michigan,” George Atallah, the association’s assistant executive director for external affairs, told ThinkProgress. “Our leadership and players are always proud to stand with workers in Michigan and everywhere else. We don’t think voters chose this, and we don’t think workers deserve this.”

Michigan state police posted the rules of the state capitol over the weekend and said it would be strictly enforcing the guidelines, which say action should not interfere with a legislative session or threaten the safety of those who work at the capitol. Streets will be closed to traffic around the building on Tuesday morning in anticipation of large numbers of protesters. © Guardian News and Media 2012


December 10, 2012

Michigan Labor Fight Cleaves a Union Bulwark


LANSING, Mich. — With Democratic furor escalating and party leaders warning that Michigan was about to be plunged into lasting political discord, the state’s Republican-led Legislature was on the verge of approving new limits to unions here in the birthplace of the modern labor movement.

Republicans said they intended to cast final votes as early as Tuesday on legislation abruptly announced last week that would bar workers from being required to pay union fees as a condition of employment, even as thousands of union members planned to protest at the state Capitol and as President Obama, visiting a truck factory outside Detroit, denounced the notion.

“You know, these so-called right-to-work laws, they don’t have to do with economics,” Mr. Obama said. “They have everything to do with politics. What they’re really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money.”

From a distance, there would seem no more unlikely a target for this fight than Michigan, where labor, hoping to demonstrate strength after a series of setbacks, asked voters last month to enshrine collective bargaining into the state Constitution.

But that ballot measure failed badly, and suddenly a reverse drive was under way that has brought the state to a moment startling in its symbolism. How the home of the United Automobile Workers finds itself close to becoming the 24th state to ban compulsory union fees — and only the second state to pass such legislation in a decade — is the latest chapter in a larger battle over the role of unions in the nation’s midsection.

It is a reflection of mounting tension between labor leaders and Michigan Republicans who took control of the state two years ago, and the result of a change of position by Gov. Rick Snyder, a political novice who had long avoided the issue because, he had said, it was too divisive. It is also an effort being closely watched — and fueled, labor leaders say — by national conservative groups who see the outcome in Michigan as an emblem for similar measures in other states with far thinner union histories.

“Everybody has this image of Michigan as a labor state,” said Bill Ballenger, the editor of Inside Michigan Politics. “But organized labor has been losing clout, and the Republicans saw an opportunity, and now the chickens are coming home to roost.”

Since the wave of Republican wins in 2010 in statehouses in the Midwest, campaigns to limit unions have boiled over in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and elsewhere. But in Michigan, where Republicans also won control, those efforts had seemed more muted, with some in the party, including Mr. Snyder, shying away from the broadest, most sweeping measures.

“When you’re proposing to make changes of this magnitude in a culture that’s steeped in a long legacy involving labor, it’s going to take a long time to communicate with and educate people,” said Mike Shirkey, a Republican state representative.

Supporters of such a limit on unions, which is already the law in many in Southern and Western states, say it grants workers freedom and attracts new businesses to the state. Detractors say it lowers workers’ salaries and weakens unions. Indiana passed such a law this year, the first new state to do so since 2001.

Mr. Snyder, an accountant and venture capitalist in his first term as governor, prided himself on avoiding partisan labels and said over and over that a “right-to-work” measure was not on his agenda. “This is not Wisconsin,” Mr. Snyder told a group of union members last year as a battle over limits to collective bargaining raged in Madison.

Still, labor leaders complained that Mr. Snyder and lawmakers were harming unions in other ways: trying to prevent school districts from deducting dues from paychecks, for instance, and allowing state-appointed managers to toss out union contracts in the most financially troubled cities. Labor leaders went on the offensive, proposing the unusual ballot measure to enshrine collective bargaining rights into the state Constitution, a move Mr. Snyder opposed.

As it has throughout the country, membership in unions has fallen here in recent decades — about 17.5 percent of Michigan residents are members — and the statewide ballot proposal failed by 14 percentage points on Nov. 6 even as Mr. Obama won the state.

Not long after the election, lawmakers here say, private conversations began anew about the possibility of a law limiting unions while Republicans held a larger majority in the State House than they will come January when newly elected members are seated. Some labor leaders contended the move was retribution for the ballot measure.

But Republicans said they viewed the outcome of the election as merely a sign that public opinion had shifted, and that the timing might now be right. “Business people are absolutely ecstatic with this possibility for Michigan,” said Dick DeVos, a former Republican candidate for governor. “They share my view that there was no single initiative from a business perspective that would be more powerful to put a sign out — open for business in Michigan.”

Not long after Thanksgiving, as word spread of an effort to ban mandatory union contributions, labor leaders began holding meetings with Mr. Snyder, his aides and lawmakers. The labor leaders said they believed the talks had been going along productively until last week.

“Then, suddenly we’re told that this thing is on the governor’s agenda now after all, and here we are,” said Steve Cook, president of the Michigan Education Association. Bob King, the president of the U.A.W., who took part in the talks, said he believed Mr. Snyder was eventually “overwhelmed by pressure from right-wing sources.”

Mr. Snyder announced Thursday that he would sign a package of bills blocking mandatory payments to unions by private and most public workers, and he urged lawmakers to move it through their chambers within days. Of suggestions that he had bent to pressure from the right, a spokeswoman for Mr. Snyder said: “The governor doesn’t make decisions based on ‘pressure.’ Period.”

In an interview, explaining his decision, Mr. Snyder said the issue “wasn’t going to go away.”

“And my view was since it’s here, it’s better to be proactive to show leadership, to say O.K., let’s address the issue, let’s come out with a conclusion, a resolution, and then let’s do something about it and then move forward.”

But on Monday, Democrats in Michigan’s Congressional delegation, who met with Mr. Snyder urging him to veto the package, said moving forward appeared unlikely. Some union members were already suggesting recall efforts against Republicans, while other people called for lawsuits to block the legislation or a ballot initiative to bring the issue before voters. Still others appeared already to be gearing up for election fights in 2014.

“We’re hearing from people around the country asking what in the world is happening in Michigan,” said Senator Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat. “The governor had said he didn’t want to be to become Wisconsin. Well, this is Wisconsin — and worse, because we’re the place, frankly, where the middle class began.”

Mark Landler contributed reporting from Redford, Mich.


December 11, 2012 07:00 AM

Obama: Michigan Anti-Union Law Means Right To Work For Less

By Susie Madrak

Via Raw Story, President Obama really slammed the union-busting laws rammed through the law duck session in Michigan, calling it a "right to work for less money":

    President Barack Obama traveled to Michigan on Monday where he said a controversial anti-union “right to work” law passed by the Republican-controlled state Legislature last week really meant that workers had a “right to work for less money.”

    “What we shouldn’t be doing is taking away your rights to bargain for better wages and working conditions,” Obama told a crowd of supporters at a Daimler AG plant in Redford. “These so-called right to work laws, they don’t have anything to do with economics, they have everything to do with politics.”

    “What they’re really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money,” he added. “America’s not going to compete based on low skill, low wage, no workers rights. That’s not our competitive advantage. There’s always going to be some other country that can treat its workers even worse.”

    “So, we’ve got to get passed this whole situation were we manufacture crises because of politics. That actually leads to less certainty, more conflict and we can’t all focus on coming together to grow.”

    Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) and other Democratic lawmakers met with Gov. Rick Snyder (R) on Monday and encouraged him to veto the right to work legislation, although he had already vowed to sign it

click to watch:


Soledad grills Jeff Sessions: ‘You hurt people who need food’ with food stamp cuts

By David Edwards
Tuesday, December 11, 2012 9:27 EST

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) on Tuesday faced tough questions from CNN host Soledad O’Brien for his plan to cut the food stamp program and “hurt people who need food,” including 20 percent of his own constituents in Alabama.

Speaking to Sessions in an interview on CNN’s Starting Point, O’Brien wondered if cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) should be on the table as part of the so-called fiscal cliff negotiations.

“Absolutely,” Sessions insisted. “This month was a record increase in food stamp participation at a time when unemployment is declining.”

“But there are people who say if you’re doing cuts, you invariably hurt people who need food,” O’Brien observed. “It’s 61 percent of households in your state have children who are recipients of the food program that they’re on.”

“Soledad, this program has been growing out of control at an incredible rate and there are a lot of people receiving benefits who do not qualify and should not receive them,” Sessions remarked. “No child, no person who needs food should be denied that food. Nobody proposes that. We are talking about an amendment that I offered that would have reduced and closed a loophole of $8 billion when we would spend $800 billion was opposed by saying it would help — it would leave people hungry in America, but it would have only eliminated abuses in the program.”

The CNN host, however, pointed out that the Alabama Republican had voted twice to grow the program and the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities had determined that “SNAP has one of the most rigorous quality control systems of any public benefit program.”

“People highlight the program as actually not having a lot of fraud,” O’Brien explained. “Most people who are on it are not somehow working the system. They’re just hungry people.”

“That’s not accurate,” Sessions replied. “They’re counting the computer system fraud error rate, but they’re not out counting the real people who are filing false incomes or haven’t reported changes in their income.”

O’Brien continued to press Sessions, noting that “the problem could be in the reverse” because less than 70 percent of the people who qualify for food stamps were using the program.

“I guess when you are thinking of things to cut, people basically say, why are you trying to balance the budget on people who are making under $23,000 a year?” she asked. “I think that range, roughly, is the national average for what a family of four would get on food stamps. So, why not cut something else? There are other things that could be on the table before you pick a program that is feeding the nations poor children.”

“I say all programs need to be examined in this government,” Sessions shot back. “This government is wasting money every day. There is no doubt about that. And food stamps is a program that was totally exempted from any oversight when it has gone up four times in the last ten years in the amount we spend.”

“Two of those times you voted for it, sir!” O’Brien interrupted. “Some people would say it’s growing because people are hurting.”

“I voted for the [agriculture] bill that had that in it, probably so,” Sessions shrugged.


HSBC to pay $1.9 billion to settle money laundering claims: report

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, December 10, 2012 20:19 EST

US authorities plan to announce a record $1.9 billion settlement with British bank HSBC to end allegations of money laundering, The Wall Street Journal reported on its website.

The deal could be announced as early as Tuesday in New York, officials told the Journal.

Citing people familiar with the matter, the Journal said that the figure includes nearly $1.3 billion, a record amount for a bank, as part of a deferred prosecution agreement.

The London-based bank also would pay a civil fine of more than $650 million, according to people briefed on the issue, the newspaper said.

US lawmakers have accused the global bank of giving Iran, terrorists and drug dealers access to the US financial system.

Criminal investigators have been pursuing some of the same allegations highlighted in the Senate probe, the Journal noted.

HSBC in July admitted to poor anti-laundering controls.

The settlement would resolve investigations by the Justice and Treasury departments and other federal agencies, as well as the Manhattan district attorney.

As part of the HSBC settlement deal, the Journal said, citing a government official, it will admit to violating the Bank Secrecy Act and the Trading with the Enemy Act.

The US Treasury declined to comment on the Journal report.

In early November HSBC said it had increased the amount set aside for fines linked to money-laundering in the United States to $1.5 billion.

The Journal report came the same day the US Treasury announced that another British bank, Standard Chartered, would pay $327 million to settle charges it violated US sanctions on Iran, Myanmar, Libya and Sudan.

For Standard Chartered, the fines from the Treasury and other US federal and local regulators brought to $667 million the total it has been charged for sanctions violations.


U.S. to launch military space drone on Tuesday

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, December 10, 2012 20:16 EST

The United States is planning a new launch of its tiny, pilotless military space plane on Tuesday as part of a futuristic Air Force program that has fueled speculation over its mission.

The X-37B, which weighs five tonnes and is 29 feet (8.9 meters) long, can return material to Earth in the way of the retired shuttle Orbiter program but is designed to stay in orbit for much longer at 270 days.

The last X-37B returned in June after orbiting for 469 days in a test of endurance.

The United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, approved the X-37B at Cape Canaveral in Florida after finding no danger following an anomaly during a separate launch two months ago.

The company said in a statement that a Global Positioning System satellite was put into orbit as expected on October 4 but that a fuel leak took place inside the thrust chamber, triggering an investigation.

Patrick Air Force Base gave notice of a hazard from a launch between 10:45 am to 5:15 pm (1545 to 2215 GMT) on Tuesday.

Authorities have said little more about the X-37B. An Air Force fact sheet described it as “experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the US Air Force.”

The secretive nature of the equipment on the X-37B has led to speculation in the media over its true nature, with some experts saying it could eventually be designed to tamper with satellites from rival nations.

China in 2007 became the first nation after the United States and the former Soviet Union to shoot down one of its own satellites, in a test seen in Washington as a sign of the rising power’s ambitions in space.

The X-37B project was launched by the space agency NASA in 1999 before being adopted by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which designs new technologies for the US military.


December 10, 2012

Drought and Economy Plague Sheep Farmers


SEVERANCE, Colo. — Since he was a boy in western Colorado, John Bartmann seemed destined to become a sheep man. He raised lambs with the local 4-H club and sheared them for elderly German farmers. His office is lined with paintings of sheep and a plaque honoring him for “promoting culinary excellence” in lambs.

But over the last few years, skyrocketing costs, a brutal drought and plunging lamb prices have battered Mr. Bartmann and the 80,000 ranchers across the county who raise sheep — from a few to several thousand. It is the latest threat to shadow a Western way of life that still relies on the whims of summer rains, lonely immigrant sheep herders and old grazing trails into the mountains.

“For the sheep industry, it’s the perfect storm,” Mr. Bartmann said, glancing out his office window here at a bleating sea of wool. “The money is just not there.”

Many ranchers are laying off employees, cutting their flocks and selling at a loss, and industry groups said a handful had abandoned the business entirely. Mr. Bartmann has trimmed his flock of 2,000 by one-third. With prices down more than half since last year and higher costs for gasoline and corn, Mr. Bartmann said he expected to lose about $100 for every lamb he sold.

“Even in the good years, you don’t make that much money,” he said. “We can’t take that kind of hit.”

Weather and economics take big shares of the blame. The drought withered grazing grounds, killed off young lambs and dried up irrigation ditches, and a glut of meat and imported lambs from New Zealand helped send prices plummeting.

But some ranchers and officials in Washington believe that the deck was stacked against the sheep ranchers by the small number of powerful feedlots that buy lambs, slaughter them and sell them to grocery stores and restaurants. Even as prices farmers received fell to 85 cents a pound, consumers at supermarkets were paying $7 or more a pound for the same meat.

As cows, pigs, sheep and other animals make their doomed way from the range to kitchen tables, many of them end up in a matrix of feedlots, slaughterhouses and meatpacking facilities where a few companies control a vast share of the market. The top four companies control about 65 percent of the market for lamb and as much as 85 percent of the market for cows.

That kind of concentration makes it easier for a few powerful companies to manipulate prices to their advantage, said Patrick Woodall, the research director at Food and Water Watch, an environmental advocacy group.

This fall, several Western senators and ranchers’ groups wrote to the Agriculture Department saying they suspected that meatpackers had been hoarding sheep in feedlots and keeping prices artificially low. The agency that oversees stockyards said it would investigate.

“We’re going to force a lot of people in the lamb industry out of that business,” said Senator Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana. “You want competition that’s fair. If you have manipulation, that’s a whole different story.”

In Kaycee, Wyo., Lisa Cunningham said she and other sheep ranchers watched with astonishment as their prices soared and then crashed over the course of the last two years. Ms. Cunningham said she was lucky to get $1 a pound for young lambs, down from more than $2.

“You can’t hardly get anyone to buy your lamb,” she said.

Still, even some sheep ranchers do not blame the packers and say they believe that the declines are related to shifts in the market.

Federal insurance has helped blunt the blow, as have government programs to buy lamb from struggling ranchers.

It is the latest twist in a brutal year for thousands of farmers and ranchers across the country. In a slow-motion disaster, a drought covering more than 60 percent of the country scorched corn stalks into parchment, dried up irrigation ponds and turned farm fields into brittle crust. Farmers begged local governments to let them tap aquifers. Scores of ranchers dumped their livestock at drought auctions.

Farmers say they are still paying near-record prices for corn and hay to feed their livestock through the winter. And if abundant snows do not come to replenish streams and coax new grass from the ground, they worry that next summer could be even worse than last.

“The drought plays into everything,” said Fred Roberts, a sheep rancher in Rock Springs, Wyo. “We have absolutely no feed. We’re feeding as much corn to the sheep as they can eat, and you can imagine how expensive that is. Nothing grew here last year.”

Here in the northern Colorado town of Severance, Mr. Bartmann, a man with a Wyatt Earp mustache and a master’s degree in animal production, spends his days managing a lamb feedlot increasingly surrounded by high-end ranch subdivisions.

Even before “the wreck” in prices, he said, his business had been growing increasingly tenuous. A few years ago, he lost big areas of grazing land because it was declared potential habitat for wild bighorn sheep. The summer drought claimed even more grassland. Now, many of his sheep are spending the winter on a Kansas feedlot. A few hundred others are here, munching hay under gray skies. Mr. Bartmann climbed into a battered pickup truck to check on them one recent morning, unsure what the next season would bring.

“It just keeps pulling everything down,” he said. “After a while, you say it isn’t worth it.”


December 9, 2012

In Girl’s Last Hope, Altered Immune Cells Beat Leukemia


PHILIPSBURG, Pa. — Emma Whitehead has been bounding around the house lately, practicing somersaults and rugby-style tumbles that make her parents wince.

It is hard to believe, but last spring Emma, then 6, was near death from leukemia. She had relapsed twice after chemotherapy, and doctors had run out of options.

Desperate to save her, her parents sought an experimental treatment at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, one that had never before been tried in a child, or in anyone with the type of leukemia Emma had. The experiment, in April, used a disabled form of the virus that causes AIDS to reprogram Emma’s immune system genetically to kill cancer cells.

The treatment very nearly killed her. But she emerged from it cancer-free, and about seven months later is still in complete remission. She is the first child and one of the first humans ever in whom new techniques have achieved a long-sought goal — giving a patient’s own immune system the lasting ability to fight cancer.

Emma had been ill with acute lymphoblastic leukemia since 2010, when she was 5, said her parents, Kari and Tom. She is their only child.

She is among just a dozen patients with advanced leukemia to have received the experimental treatment, which was developed at the University of Pennsylvania. Similar approaches are also being tried at other centers, including the National Cancer Institute and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

“Our goal is to have a cure, but we can’t say that word,” said Dr. Carl June, who leads the research team at the University of Pennsylvania. He hopes the new treatment will eventually replace bone-marrow transplantation, an even more arduous, risky and expensive procedure that is now the last hope when other treatments fail in leukemia and related diseases.

Three adults with chronic leukemia treated at the University of Pennsylvania have also had complete remissions, with no signs of disease; two of them have been well for more than two years, said Dr. David Porter. Four adults improved but did not have full remissions, and one was treated too recently to evaluate. A child improved and then relapsed. In two adults, the treatment did not work at all. The Pennsylvania researchers were presenting their results on Sunday and Monday in Atlanta at a meeting of the American Society of Hematology.

Despite the mixed results, cancer experts not involved with the research say it has tremendous promise, because even in this early phase of testing it has worked in seemingly hopeless cases. “I think this is a major breakthrough,” said Dr. Ivan Borrello, a cancer expert and associate professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Dr. John Wagner, the director of pediatric blood and marrow transplantation at the University of Minnesota, called the Pennsylvania results “phenomenal” and said they were “what we’ve all been working and hoping for but not seeing to this extent.”

A major drug company, Novartis, is betting on the Pennsylvania team and has committed $20 million to building a research center on the university’s campus to bring the treatment to market.

Hervé Hoppenot, the president of Novartis Oncology, called the research “fantastic” and said it had the potential — if the early results held up — to revolutionize the treatment of leukemia and related blood cancers. Researchers say the same approach, reprogramming the patient’s immune system, may also eventually be used against tumors like breast and prostate cancer.

To perform the treatment, doctors remove millions of the patient’s T-cells — a type of white blood cell — and insert new genes that enable the T-cells to kill cancer cells. The technique employs a disabled form of H.I.V. because it is very good at carrying genetic material into T-cells. The new genes program the T-cells to attack B-cells, a normal part of the immune system that turn malignant in leukemia.

The altered T-cells — called chimeric antigen receptor cells — are then dripped back into the patient’s veins, and if all goes well they multiply and start destroying the cancer.

The T-cells home in on a protein called CD-19 that is found on the surface of most B-cells, whether they are healthy or malignant.

A sign that the treatment is working is that the patient becomes terribly ill, with raging fevers and chills — a reaction that oncologists call “shake and bake,” Dr. June said. Its medical name is cytokine-release syndrome, or cytokine storm, referring to the natural chemicals that pour out of cells in the immune system as they are being activated, causing fevers and other symptoms. The storm can also flood the lungs and cause perilous drops in blood pressure — effects that nearly killed Emma.

Steroids sometimes ease the reaction, but they did not help Emma. Her temperature hit 105. She wound up on a ventilator, unconscious and swollen almost beyond recognition, surrounded by friends and family who had come to say goodbye.

But at the 11th hour, a battery of blood tests gave the researchers a clue as to what might help save Emma: her level of one of the cytokines, interleukin-6 or IL-6, had shot up a thousandfold. Doctors had never seen such a spike before and thought it might be what was making her so sick.

Dr. June knew that a drug could lower IL-6 — his daughter takes it for rheumatoid arthritis. It had never been used for a crisis like Emma’s, but there was little to lose. Her oncologist, Dr. Stephan A. Grupp, ordered the drug. The response, he said, was “amazing.”

Within hours, Emma began to stabilize. She woke up a week later, on May 2, the day she turned 7; the intensive-care staff sang “Happy Birthday.”

Since then, the research team has used the same drug, tocilizumab, in several other patients.

In patients with lasting remissions after the treatment, the altered T-cells persist in the bloodstream, though in smaller numbers than when they were fighting the disease. Some patients have had the cells for years.

Dr. Michel Sadelain, who conducts similar studies at the Sloan-Kettering Institute, said: “These T-cells are living drugs. With a pill, you take it, it’s eliminated from your body and you have to take it again.” But T-cells, he said, “could potentially be given only once, maybe only once or twice or three times.”

The Pennsylvania researchers said they were surprised to find any big drug company interested in their work, because a new batch of T-cells must be created for each patient — a far cry from the familiar commercial strategy of developing products like Viagra or cholesterol medicines, in which millions of people take the same drug.

But Mr. Hoppenot said Novartis was taking a different path with cancer drugs, looking for treatments that would have a big, unmistakable impact on a small number of patients. Such home-run drugs can be approved more quickly and efficiently, he said, with smaller studies than are needed for drugs with less obvious benefits.

“The economic model is totally acceptable,” Mr. Hoppenot said.

But such drugs tend to be extremely expensive. A prime example is the Novartis drug Gleevec, which won rapid approval in 2001 for use against certain types of leukemia and gastrointestinal tumors. It can cost more than $5,000 a month, depending on the dosage.

Dr. June said that producing engineered T-cells costs about $20,000 per patient — far less than the cost of a bone-marrow transplant. Scaling up the procedure should make it even less expensive, he said, but he added, “Our costs do not include any profit margin, facility depreciation costs or other clinical care costs, and other research costs.”

The research is still in its early stages, and many questions remain. The researchers are not entirely sure why the treatment works, or why it sometimes fails. One patient had a remission after being treated only twice, and even then the reaction was so delayed that it took the researchers by surprise. For the patients who had no response whatsoever, the team suspects a flawed batch of T-cells. The child who had a temporary remission apparently relapsed because not all of her leukemic cells had the marker that was targeted by the altered T-cells.

It is not clear whether a patient’s body needs the altered T-cells forever. The cells do have a drawback: they destroy healthy B-cells as well as cancerous ones, leaving patients vulnerable to certain types of infections, so Emma and the other patients need regular treatments with immune globulins to prevent illness.

So far, her parents say, Emma seems to have taken it all in stride. She went back to school this year with her second-grade classmates, and though her grades are high and she reads about 50 books a month, she insists impishly that her favorite subjects are lunch and recess.

“It’s time for her to be a kid again and get her childhood back,” Mr. Whitehead said.

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« Reply #3446 on: Dec 12, 2012, 07:03 AM »

North Korea launches long-range rocket despite international pressure

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, December 11, 2012 22:29 EST

North Korea successfully launched a long-range rocket on Wednesday, in defiance of UN sanctions threats over what Pyongyang’s critics have condemned as a disguised ballistic missile test.

North Korea said the three-stage rocket, which Pyongyang insists was solely aimed at placing a satellite in orbit, had achieved all its objectives.

“The launch of the second version of our Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite from the Sohae Space Centre … on December 12 was successful,” the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said.

“The satellite has entered the orbit as planned,” it added.

Officials in South Korea and Japan confirmed that all three stages of the rocket appeared to have separated as scheduled.

However, South Korean defence ministry spokesman Kim Min-Seok cautioned that further analysis was required.

“There are many factors to determine whether it was successful or not … we need more extensive analysis. We need more consultation with the United States since our own capability is limited,” Kim told reporters.

There was no immediate comment from Washington. But Japan’s government said it “cannot tolerate” the “extremely regrettable” launch, and Britain “deplored” North Korea’s decision to go ahead rather try to improve its people’s welfare.

In Seoul, President Lee Myung-Bak called an emergency meeting of his National Security Council to discuss the implications of the launch.

The North’s decision to launch the rocket in winter had led analysts to suggest a political imperative behind the timing, which may have overruled technical considerations.

New leader Kim Jong-Un was believed to be extremely keen that the launch fell around the first anniversary of the death of his father and former leader Kim Jong-Il on December 17.

A previous launch of the same Unha-3 rocket in April had ended in failure, with the carrier exploding shortly after take-off.

A successful launch this time carries profound security implications, marking a major advance in the North’s ability to mate an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability with its nuclear weapons programme.

In October, North Korea had said it already possessed rockets capable of striking the US mainland — a claim which many analysts dismissed as bluster.

According to tracking reports from the South Korean and Japanese armed forces, the rocket took off from the Sohae centre around 9:51 am (0051 GMT).

Japan, which had deployed missile defence systems to intercept and destroy the rocket if it looked set to fall on its territory, said it passed over its southern island chain of Okinawa around 12 minutes after take-off.

The first and second stages fell in the sea west and southwest of the Korean Peninsula, while the third splashed down 300 kilometres (188 miles) east of the Philippines.”

North Korea had originally provided a December 10-22 launch window, but extended that by a week on Monday when a “technical deficiency” was discovered in the first-stage control engine.

Washington and its allies insist the launch is a disguised ballistic missile test that violates UN resolutions triggered by Pyongyang’s two nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.

In 2006 the Security Council imposed an embargo against North Korea on arms and material for ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction. It also banned imports of luxury goods and named individuals and companies to be subject to a global assets freeze and travel ban.

In 2009, it imposed a ban on North Korea’s weapons exports and ordered all countries to search suspect shipments.

According to Japanese reports, Japan, the United States and South Korea have agreed to demand the Security Council strengthen sanctions on North Korea to levels that match those on Iran.

That would include increasing the list of financial institutions, entities and individuals subject to asset freezes.

Much will depend on the stance taken by UN veto holder China, North Korea’s sole major ally and its biggest trade partner and aid provider.

Beijing had expressed “concern” about the planned launch, but in the past it has resisted tougher UN sanctions against Pyongyang demanded by other countries.

“China sets the maximum response level in the Security Council when it comes to North Korea,” said a senior South Korean government official. “So the existing list of UN sanctions on the North is essentially China’s list.”

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« Reply #3447 on: Dec 12, 2012, 07:11 AM »

Obama recognizes Syrian rebels as ‘legitimate representative’ of the people

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, December 11, 2012 21:09 EST

President Barack Obama said Tuesday that the Syrian opposition was now “the legitimate representative” of the Syrian people, in the most significant US intervention yet in the brutal civil war.

“We have made a decision that the Syrian opposition coalition is now inclusive enough, is reflective and representative enough of the Syrian population, that we consider them the legitimate representative of the Syrian people,” Obama told ABC News in an interview.

France last month became the first Western nation to formally recognize the Syrian National Coalition group as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people, as it fights beleaguered President Bashar al-Assad.

Britain, Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council followed suit, but the coalition did not win immediate universal backing because of doubts about whether it is genuinely representative of all sectors of Syrian society.

Earlier, Washington blacklisted an Al-Qaeda-linked rebel group in Syria, warning extremists could play no role in building the nation’s future as the US readied to recognize the new Syrian alliance.

“There is a small element of those that oppose the Assad regime, that in fact are affiliated with Al-Qaeda in Iraq and we have designated them, Al-Nusra, as a terrorist organization,” Obama said in the interview.

Though a minority, Al-Nusra has been one of the most effective rebel groups fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, raising concerns that hardline extremists are hijacking the 21-month-old revolt.

Senior officials however said that despite the move on recognizing the opposition, Washington sticks by its policy of not directly arming the rebels.


December 12, 2012

‘Friends of Syria’ Poised to Recognize Anti-Assad Rebels


MARRAKESH, Morocco — Representatives of more than 100 countries and organizations gathered here on Wednesday for a meeting of the so-called Friends of Syria ranged against President Bashar al-Assad, and news reports said they would recognizea newly-formed coalition seeking his overthrow.

The meeting began less than a day after President Obama said the United States would join a handful of other Western and Arab countries in recognizing the rebellious National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the country’s sole legitimate representative — a diplomatic gambit that had been widely anticipated.

News reports on Wednesday said a draft declaration likely to be adopted by the meeting would recognize the coalition as the “legitimate representative of the Syrian people” and would call on President Assad to “stand aside” to permit a “sustainable political transition” after the months of revolt and bloodshed that have claimed tens of thousands of lives and sent hundreds of thousands of Syrians fleeing into neighboring countries.

The draft also warned against any use by government forces of chemical or biological weapons, saying such action would be met by a “serious response,” Reuters reported. The Syrian authorities have denied that they would use chemical weapons against their own people.

But, according to some accounts, rebel demands have outstepped diplomatic formulations. “Recognition is nice, but we need real support,” a spokesman for the coalition, Walid Al-Bunni, told The Associated Press. Another opposition figure was quoted as saying: “We need not only bread to help our people. We need support for our Syrian army — we need to speed things up and get rid of this regime.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had been expected to attend the Marrakesh gathering, is not feeling well and did not travel to North Africa and the Middle East this week as planned. Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns is leading the United States delegation at the meeting.For much of the broadening civil war in Syria, Washington largely sat on the sidelines, only recently moving more energetically as it appeared the opposition fighters were beginning to gain momentum — and radical Islamists were playing a growing role.

Experts and many Syrians, including rebels, say the American move may well be too little, too late. They note that it is not clear if this group will be able to coalesce into a viable leadership, if it has any influence over the fighters waging war with the government or if it can reverse widespread anger at the United States.

The opposition coalition was formed in November at a conference in Doha, Qatar.

The meeting came as Syrian government forces were reported to have launched a major counteroffensive against rebels gnawing at the southern approaches to Damascus, the capital.

While the rebels say that they need weapons more than recognition, Western countries have been reluctant to supply them, in part because of fears that arms supplies could fall into the hands of Islamist militants, suspected of links to Al Qaeda, who have joined the fight against Mr. Assad.

Earlier this week, the United States formally designated one such militant group, the Al Nusra Front, as a foreign terrorist organization.

On Wednesday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that it was too early for France to supply arms to the insurgents. “For now, we have decided not to move on this," Mr. Fabius told reporters in Morocco, Reuters reported. “We shall see in the coming months.”

France was the first Western country to extend diplomatic recognition to the opposition coalition last month, followed by Britain, Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council.

At the gathering here, Mr. Fabius described a “large part” of Syrian territory as “free because the legitimacy of the Syrian regime that was already weak is near to zero.”

Sheik Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, the newly appointed leader of the Syrian opposition coalition, said he wanted financial help and arms to build a “country of freedom” and bring “faith back to the Syrian people.”

Aida Alami reported from Marrakesh, Morocco, and Alan Cowell from London.


December 11, 2012

Armenians Fleeing Anew as Syria Erupts in Battle


YEREVAN, Armenia — At the newly opened Cilician School in this former Soviet republic, the textbooks are in Arabic, photocopied from a single set flown out of war-torn Syria. The curriculum is Syrian, the flag on the principal’s desk is Syrian, and the teachers and students are all Syrians.

They are also ethnic Armenians, driven by Syria’s civil war to a notional motherland most barely know.

“Those who are coming here clearly want to go back,” said the school’s principal, Noura Pilibosyan, who came from Aleppo, Syria, in the summer. “Armenian is our language, but our culture is Syrian. It is hard to come here.”

Their ancestors fled the Ottoman genocide in what is now Turkey nearly a century ago and flourished in Syria, reviving one of the many minority groups that have long coexisted there.

Now, the flight of Syrian Armenians — one of many lesser-noticed ripple effects that could reshape countries well beyond Syria’s neighbors — is raising questions about the future of Syria’s diversity. And it is forcing Armenia, which depends on its strong diaspora communities to augment its otherwise scant geopolitical heft, to make delicate calculations about whether to encourage their exodus or slow it.

For now, Armenia is hedging its bets. It is sending aid to Armenians in Syria, helping them stay and survive. But it is also helping them come to Armenia, temporarily or permanently, by fast-tracking visas, residency permits and citizenship.

“Our policy is to help them the way they tell us to help them,” said Vigen Sargsyan, the chief of staff to Armenia’s president, Serzh Sargsyan.

About 6,000 Syrians have sought refuge in Armenia as fighting engulfs Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, where an estimated 80,000 of Syria’s 120,000 Armenians live. More arrive each week even as a few trickle back, unable to afford Yerevan or stay away from houses and businesses they left behind unguarded in Syria.

Ethnic Armenians are a fraction of an accelerating flood of fleeing Syrians expected to reach 700,000 by year’s end, mainly in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. But since the Armenians, unlike other Syrians, can easily acquire an alternative nationality, Syria could see one of its vibrant communities permanently diminished.

Syrian Armenians are known for their gold and silver craftsmanship and exquisite cuisine. They are also a critical component of Syria’s connection to Russia and the West, serving an intermediary role through their relations with the global Armenian diaspora.

Aleppo represents the last vestiges of Western Armenia, which was historically divided from what is now modern-day Armenia by Mount Ararat, a separation that through the centuries gave rise to different languages and cultures.

While Syrian Armenians have remained officially neutral in Syria’s civil war, as Christians many are wary of the rebels’ Islamist strains, and as Armenians suspicious of the rebels’ Turkish support.

The Cilician School, with 250 students, reflects the ambivalence of Syrian Armenians here: many want to return to their existence in the diaspora, even as they are welcomed in their historical homeland.

“Armenia always said, ‘Come to your home.’ They always asked us to come back,” said a man who identified himself only as Harout and was visiting a new Syrian Armenian club here in Yerevan, the capital. “Honestly, I love Armenia, but I wouldn’t leave Syria. I am praying just to go back.”

For Armenia, the Syrians’ arrival reignites a debate over how to manage its relationship with Armenians in the diaspora: encourage them to immigrate or keep them where they are, from the United States to the Middle East, generous with remittances and committed to lobbying abroad for Armenia’s interests.

Advocates of resettlement contend that Syria’s loss could ultimately be Armenia’s gain. Not only do they want to protect fellow Armenians, they want Syrian Armenians — often skilled, wealthy, educated and entrepreneurial — to help the struggling post-Soviet economy, stem high emigration and bring new ideas.

“Such diversity only enriches a nation,” said Vahe Yacoubian, a lawyer based in California who invests in Armenia and has advised the government.

So the government is easing relocation. Syrians in Armenia can use Syrian drivers’ licenses, obtain free medical care and pay local tuition at universities. Governmental and private groups help Syrian Armenians find jobs and transfer businesses to Armenia.

A vociferous minority has seized on fears of violence in Syria — and memories of the Ottoman genocide — to push for a larger nationalist goal, the return of all Armenians to the country.

“This is our land — not L.A., not New York, not Syria,” said Vartan Marashlyan, Armenia’s former deputy diaspora minister and the executive director of Repat Armenia, an organization founded in August to “actively champion” what it calls the “repatriation” of Armenians from around the world.

Syrian Armenians who yearn for Syria “want to be in the Aleppo of one year ago,” a setting whose peaceful coexistence may not return, he said. Referring to estimates of genocide deaths, he added, “We lost 1.5 million people to this mentality that it will all work out.”

But homesick Syrian Armenians find resettling hard to contemplate. They point out that nationalists like Mr. Marashlyan came to Armenia by choice, not fleeing violence.

“They want to put the label ‘repat’ on me,” said Harout Ekmanian, a Syrian Armenian journalist from Aleppo. “I am a Syrian in exile.”

Few Syrian Armenians have heeded past calls to immigrate, even after Armenia’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. They considered themselves Syrian, speaking Arabic and Western Armenian, not the Eastern Armenian spoken in Armenia.

Still, many contributed money and support to the fledgling state, especially during a territorial war with Azerbaijan that ended in 1994 and still simmers.

Armenia, too, needs its influential Middle East diaspora to navigate regional tensions, said Salpi Ghazarian, the director of the Civilitas Foundation in Yerevan and a former Foreign Ministry official. She said ethnic Armenians in Arab countries and Iran had helped keep the dispute between Armenia, a largely Christian country, and Azerbaijan, which is mainly Muslim, from gaining traction as a pan-Muslim issue, urging their governments not to take sides.

Tehran’s Armenian community also promotes crucial trade with neighboring Iran, she said. Armenia is landlocked, and its borders with Azerbaijan, and its ally Turkey, are closed, making Iran a lifeline. “If those communities disappear, those human relations disappear,” Ms. Ghazarian said. “Then we are left without good friends.”

Armenia has kept neutral on Syria’s uprising and has worked hard to aid people inside Syria. In recent months, three cargo planes carrying food and donations from Armenians flew from Yerevan to Aleppo, after intense negotiations with both Syria, which has severely limited external aid, and Turkey, which normally bans Armenian cargo from its airspace.

The aid was distributed in Armenian neighborhoods, but without regard to sect or ethnicity.

“We consider Syria our neighbor,” said Vahan Hovhannisyan, a Parliament member who oversaw the effort. Armenians are “grateful to Syria,” he said, because after the genocide, “Syria gave them back life.”

The government recognizes that Syria is the only home several generations of Syrian Armenians know. It approved the Cilician School’s Syrian curriculum and Western Armenian instruction. An Armenian political party covers costs; tuition is free.

“They feel like Syria is their home,” said Amalia Qocharyan, an Armenian education official. “But the reality is they have two homelands, Syria and Armenia.”

At the school, a class of seventh graders was asked who missed Syria. They answered in unison, in Arabic.

“Ana,” they said. “Me.”

Asked about life in Yerevan, they were quieter. They said they missed houses and friends; one said he could not be happy seeing pictures of fighting in Aleppo.

“In Aleppo, I used to see the Armenian flag, and I wanted to go,” said Vana, 11. “Here, when I see the Syrian flag, I just want to go home.”

This article was financed in part by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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« Reply #3448 on: Dec 12, 2012, 07:14 AM »

Egypt splits constitution vote into two rounds

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, December 12, 2012 7:30 EST

Egypt’s vote on a divisive draft charter will take place in two rounds, its electoral commission said, after the army urged President Mohamed Morsi and his opponents to meet Wednesday over the crisis.

Cairo’s presidential palace and surrounding streets were calm after a mass demonstration calling for Morsi’s ouster, condemning the Muslim Brotherhood and opposing the draft constitution approved last month by an Islamist-dominated panel.

The charter has pitted Islamist allies of Morsi against secular-leaning foes in rival rallies that clashed last week, killing several people and wounding hundreds more.

The electoral commission decided to hold the vote in two separate, regional rounds on December 15 and 22, rather than one nationwide poll on Saturday, state television said.

The expatriate vote — itself postponed for days — began with the polling of more than 500,000 Egyptians at embassies and consulates in 150 countries, official news agency MENA said.

Armed forces chief and defence minister General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi on Tuesday called for Morsi and the opposition to meet as rival rallies numbering tens of thousands took to the streets in what are becoming daily mass protests.

Troops and tanks deployed on Tuesday outside the presidential palace in Cairo — the scene of the Egyptian capital’s worst violence since before Morsi’s election in June.

Protesters partially destroyed metal and concrete barriers a short distance away from the palace on Tuesday, pouring through to protest peacefully. There were no clashes, however.

Opposition protester Ahmed Fuad, 30, said: “If the majority turns out to vote, it’ll be a no (for the constitution). But we might be able to postpone the referendum.”

A bigger Islamist counter-demonstration a few kilometres (miles) away gathered tens of thousands of referendum supporters whose mood was equally determined.

“It’s the last battle for Islam against the secularists who want to ruin Egypt,” said Ahmed Alaa, who was bussed in from the north of the country.

The military has said it fears the Arab world’s most populous country is headed for a disastrous “dark tunnel” unless the two sides talk. It has warned it will not allow the situation to worsen.

The United States has urged Egypt’s army, which it provides with $1.3 billion (1.0 billion euros) each year, “to exercise restraint, to respect the right of peaceful protest”.

The main opposition group, the National Salvation Front, has so far rejected talks with Morsi and his camp unless the referendum is scrapped. But it said it was weighing the army’s appeal.

Morsi has previously declared himself ready to start dialogue with the Front but has said postponing the referendum is impossible.

Sissi said the proposed meeting for Wednesday, in a military sports complex in northeast Cairo, aimed to bring all political actors together along with youth movements, judges and journalists.

It would not, he said, be a forum for structured political negotiations but rather an attempt to come up with some sort of entente “for the sake of Egypt”.

“We will not talk politics or the referendum. We will just sit together so that every Egyptian who is worried in their home is reassured,” the armed forces chief said. “You can have differences, but not quarrel.”

The opposition, made up of secular, leftwing and liberal groups, sees the draft constitution rushed through by the Islamist-dominated panel last month as weakening human rights, the rights of women and religious minorities.

Morsi’s supporters argue it is up to voters to decide.

The United States said there were “real and legitimate questions” about the referendum process.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said there were fears for “public order surrounding the polling”, but urged the military to show restraint.

The prolonged crisis is also intensifying economic uncertainty.

The International Monetary Fund on Tuesday put on hold a $4.8-billion loan Egypt has sought to fill budget gaps it will face in the 2013-2014 fiscal year. The IMF had been expected to review the loan, which would have come with budget-cutting requirements attached, this month for final approval.


December 12, 2012

Egyptians Overseas Vote on Disputed Charter


CAIRO — As political maneuvering continued in Cairo over last-minute proposals to broaden support for a referendum on a contentious draft constitution, Egyptian officials outside the country pressed ahead with the ballot, opening embassies to overseas voters potentially numbering hundreds of thousands.

While the number of expatriate Egyptian voters is small compared to its population of around 83 million, news reports said the ballot could yield hints about the balance of opinion toward the Islamist-based draft.

According to the International Organization for Migration, around 2.7 million Egyptians live abroad, about 70 percent of them in Arab countries, where support for the draft is likely to be stronger, with the remaining 30 percent in Europe, Australia and North America, including Coptic migrants, thought to lean more toward the secular opposition.

According to the Web site of the Al Ahram state newspaper, quoting official figures, only around 300,000 expatriates voted in the most recent presidential runoff vote. The significance of the expatriate ballot thus may lie more in the fact that the authorities pressed ahead with it despite opposition at home.

At the Egyptian Embassy in London, an official speaking in return for anonymity said there had been a slow start to voting on Wednesday among the several thousand Egyptian expatriates in Britain. The referendum in Egypt itself is set for December 15 and 22.

The overseas ballot came as President Mohamed Morsi’s advisers struggled to work with a panel of politicians and intellectuals to work out last-minute proposals to enhance support for the draft.

Just outside Mr. Morsi’s office, thousands of his opponents staged a seventh night of demonstrations. Many of those against the proposed charter chanted for the downfall of Mr. Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president.

Blocks away, crowds of Islamists denounced the secular opposition’s leaders as murderers for encouraging protests last week that led to deadly clashes with members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The huge crowds of rivals underscored the animosity and distrust that have all but shut down political dialogue here just as Egypt is poised to complete its promised transition to a constitutional democracy.

Khaled al-Qazzaz, a spokesman for the president, said a “national dialogue” committee convened by Mr. Morsi was continuing to meet to try to come up with measures that might bridge the gap between the Islamists and their opponents over the proposed charter.

Mr. Qazzaz said the panel was discussing measures that the president could announce now but that would take effect after the referendum. “If a segment of society has concerns about some articles of the constitution, how are we going to bring them together?” he said, declining to provide more detail.

Separately, Egypt’s defense minister, Gen. Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, issued a formal invitation to Mr. Morsi, the leaders of all political factions and officials from across the institutions of government for what the invitation called “a meeting for humanitarian communication and national coherence in the love of Egypt.”

The invitation raised alarms that General Sisi intended to play a role in the constitutional debate and perhaps have the military resume the explicitly political role it had in managing the transition before Mr. Morsi took over. But a military spokesman later said in a statement that politics and policy were off the agenda.

Mr. Qazzaz called the event a display of unity at a military-run facility and said Mr. Morsi would attend. It is a “social event to show that society is in coherence, that we are one big family,” he said.

Liberals complain that the charter does not do enough to prevent a future Islamist majority from limiting individual freedoms or women’s rights.

But the Islamists’ political strength may only partly account for the expected approval of the draft constitution in Saturday’s scheduled referendum. (Egyptians abroad begin voting on Wednesday.) The charter also promises stability after two years of the country’s chaotic transition.

The secular opposition’s main coalition postponed for a third day on Tuesday a formal announcement of its decision on whether to advocate a boycott of the referendum or to urge Egyptians to vote no. A statement on Sunday had appeared to declare a boycott.

People involved said the coalition was struggling to overcome internal disagreements. “Every hour there is a change,” an aide to one opposition leader said Tuesday evening.

Also on Tuesday, the chief of the largest judicial professional association, Ahmed al-Zend, announced that 90 percent of its members would refuse to monitor the polls. Judicial supervision of elections is required by Egyptian tradition and law, but the judges said they would boycott to protest the charter and Mr. Morsi’s decree, since withdrawn, putting the president above judicial review.

Mr. Zend was a loyalist of former President Hosni Mubarak who is now more or less openly at war with Egypt’s new Islamist leaders. Some doubted that he spoke for all of his members, and advisers to Mr. Morsi insist that they have the cooperation of enough judges.

On Tuesday, Mr. Morsi’s government also put off until next month the signing of a badly needed $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund intended to help prevent an economic collapse. Officials said they wanted more time to discuss the related economic reform package with the public.

“The delay will have some economic impact, but we are discussing necessary measures” to address that until the loan can be finalized, Finance Minister Mumtaz al-Said told Reuters by telephone. “I am optimistic,” he added.

David D. Kirkpatrick and Kareem Fahim reported from Cairo, and Alan Cowell from London. Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting from Cairo.


12/11/2012 06:41 PM

Accusations of Torture in Egypt: Muslim Brotherhood Metes Out Vigilante Justice

By Nicola Abé and Matthias Gebauer in Cairo

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood are resorting to vigilante justice in Egypt's power struggle. During clashes with opponents of President Mohammed Morsi last Wednesday night, the Islamists took prisoners and tortured them with beatings. Eyewitness reports suggest that the police tolerated the attacks.

The Islamists got hold of Mohammed Omar just as he was delivering bandages to a gas station where injured people were being treated. "You're an enemy of God!" they yelled at him.

"There were five men. They beat me and dragged me away," says Omar, a computer expert who lives in Cairo. His face is bruised and his eyes are swollen shut, and his wrists are cut from the plastic cuffs they put on him.

They took him to a sort of room consisting on one side of a gate to the presidential palace, with the other walls made up of steel barriers and police officers. Here members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups interrogated and mistreated their "prisoners."

Mohammed Omar is one of many demonstrators who say they were held by Islamists last Wednesday, in some cases for more than 12 hours. Now, as witnesses are telling their stories of that night, a clear picture is emerging not just of the violence committed by members of the Brotherhood, but also their readiness to mete out arbitrary vigilante justice.

Last Wednesday, supporters and opponents of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi fought running battles in front of the presidential palace in Cairo's upscale district of Heliopolis. Both sides were extremely violent, beating each other with baseball bats, firing guns and hurling stones and Molotov cocktails. Eight people died. The Muslim Brotherhood said all the dead were from their ranks, but that's probably not entirely true. There is no reliable information, however.

Some 140 people, among them women and minors, were "arrested" -- not by the police, but by the Islamists. "That is an incredible occurrence," says human rights lawyer Ragya Omran, who was at the scene. "They have no right whatsoever to do that."

The Islamists had set up a number of improvised "chambers" around the palace. Mohammed al-Garhi, a journalist for daily newspaper Al-Masry al-Youm, had access to such a chamber located near the Omar-Bin-Abdel-Azis mosque. "At first they didn't want to let me in," he says. But then a friend who works for Misr TV, the Muslim Brotherhood's channel, came by and led Garhi inside.

Bloodiest Night Since The Revolution

"There were around 15 members of the Brotherhood -- big strong guys who looked like bodybuilders. They hit the prisoners with their fists and kicked them and tore their clothes off them," he says. He saw how the Islamists repeatedly brought in young men whom they had picked out of the crowd at random. Their money, telephones and identity papers were confiscated. They were passed on to the police later. "The Muslim Brotherhood members demanded the young men tell them who had paid them, and accused them of being thieves or supporters of the old regime," he says.

Three of the Muslim Brotherhood men appeared to be in charge and were issuing orders. "If the prisoners denied the accusations then the beatings got worse," says Garhi. One of the men begged: "I'm an educated man. I have a car. Do I look like a thief?" Most of the prisoners were too weak to be able to speak. Two of them were unconsciousness and looked to be in life-threatening condition.

"I'd call what happened there torture," says Garhi.

An investigating committee set up by the Justice Ministry issued a statement saying that on this night, the bloodiest since the revolution almost two years ago, 31 people were tortured. Human rights lawyer Ragya Oman insists the total is higher than that. "116 people were badly mistreated," she says.

The Muslim Brotherhood insists on its version of the story. "These people had weapons," says Mahmoud Hussein, general secretary of the Brotherhood. "They attacked us and we only defended ourselves." He admits that some of the people making arrests were members of the Muslim Brotherhood. But he says they immediately handed the men over to the police.

He defended the protests despite the violence. "It is our duty to defend our democratically legitimate president." He said the prisoners were supporters of the old regime and paid troublemakers.

Particularly controversial is the fact that President Morsi also initially championed this version of the story. How much he knew of the Islamists' indiscriminate vigilante justice is not yet clear. However something he said in a statement on national television last Thursday raises questions. Morsi said the detained had admitted to having ties to the political opposition and having been paid to carry out violence. He appeared to be referring to statements forced out of the prisoners by the Islamists.

Shock over Cooperation Between Islamists and Police

"At that time, the logs of the state prosecutor's office had not yet been released," says Ragya Omran. Spokesmen for the Muslim Brotherhood and the government have reassured that Morsi was only referring to the official confessions. "But there weren't any confessions at all, and there wasn't any evidence," Omran says. "Practically all of those who were arrested were released on the next day because they were innocent." She says she finds it scandalous that Morsi publicly and prematurely discredited the prisoners.

"The Interior Ministry did nothing to protect the citizens from the brutality and vigilante justice of the Islamists," Omran says. Garhi, the journalist, also says he was shocked by the cooperation between the Islamists and the police. "They didn't just tolerate the abuse, they also supported them by covering up their torture chambers." A spokesman for the Morsi government has since told The New York Times that there will be an investigation into the incidents.

Since that night, there has been intensified debate on whether the Brotherhood has a militia -- thugs who train in so-called sports clubs. The Muslim Brotherhood disputes that the brutal interrogations were organized in any form.

"There was a hierarchical structure at least," Garhi says. "With the Muslim Brotherhood, everything is organized." However he did sense that the violence itself was spontaneous. "I could see the rage that they fought with, the glow of revenge in their eyes. They were fighting jihad."

On the morning after the fighting, burned cars were still smoking in the side streets by the presidential palace and the stench of burned tires and tear gas lingered in the air. The Muslim Brotherhood was presenting itself as the clear victor of a war. "This here is our area now," said Fatih al-Mahdi. "We have protected our president in a heroic fight, and clearly won."

The trophies of the victory squatted behind Mahdi. In front of a gate of the palace, the Muslim Brotherhood followers had herded together 63 young men like animals. They squinted fearfully in the morning sun with swollen, bruised and bloody faces.

Photos weren't allowed of the brutal scene, which said much about the hate between the political opponents in Egypt's power struggle and about the Muslim Brotherhood's certainty of victory. "They are our prisoners," said Madih, who said he was a lawyer. "Like in war, the Geneva Convention applies to them, and that prohibits photos."
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December 11, 2012

Mali’s Prime Minister Resigns After Arrest, Muddling Plans to Retake North


BAMAKO, Mali — Soldiers carried out a late-night arrest of Mali’s prime minister at his home here, forcing his resignation early Tuesday and casting new doubt on plans to chase out radical Islamists who control much of this troubled West African nation.

Hours after being taken to the main army camp outside the capital for a dressing-down by military officers, Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra, a former NASA astrophysicist, appeared grim-faced on national television to announce that he was resigning, along with all of his ministers.

Mali’s interim president, Dioncounda Traoré, named Django Sissoko as prime minister. Mr. Sissoko, who had been Mali’s ombudsman, will be tasked with forming a new government, according to a presidential decree read on state television.

A spokesman for the soldiers who seized power in Mali this year — and later nominally relinquished it to Mr. Diarra — accused him of “playing a personal agenda” while the country faced a crisis in the north, which fell to the Islamists after a military coup d’état in March. “There was a paralysis in the executive,” said the spokesman, Bakary Mariko.

But diplomats, human rights activists and analysts said the military’s arrest of Mr. Diarra on Monday merely confirmed that the army junta continued to hold power, despite the window-dressing of the civilian government, whose presence it resented. That reality, they said, complicates planned military aid meant to help the army reconquer northern Mali, an area that now alarms Western governments as a large-scale stronghold for Qaeda-linked jihadists.

“You don’t need to be an Einstein to know that this will slow everything down,” a Western diplomat here said Tuesday, speaking on the condition of anonymity. The planned assistance to Mali “just has to be on ice,” he said. Power has shifted entirely to the junta, the diplomat said.

The prime minister’s forced resignation was greeted in Paris and Berlin with expressions of dismay Tuesday, and new uncertainty surrounds a planned United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing force to retake the north.

France has been pushing for early intervention there, although the United States has expressed skepticism about plans by the regional grouping of West African states to retake the region and wariness about providing aid to the shaky civilian government — reservations likely to be reinforced by the latest developments.

In Washington, the State Department sharply criticized Mr. Diarra’s forced resignation.  “We condemn this act by the military junta, and insist that it halt its continued interference in Malian political affairs and government,” Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, told reporters on Tuesday.

With scorn for Mr. Diarra, the coup leader, Capt. Amadou Sanogo, said in an interview on state television Tuesday night, “Cheick Modibo Diarra has not given a thing, one single piece of equipment, to the Malian Army.”

Several soldiers and police officers guarded Mr. Diarra’s expansive villa at the edge of town here Tuesday. A request to see Mr. Diarra was turned down by soldiers, who said he was inside “resting.”

The prime minister’s fall from grace, via a military that had helped install him nine months ago, was as sudden as it was steep. He was appointed last spring as a caretaker prime minister until new elections, halted by the coup, could be organized.

Early Tuesday, after Mr. Diarra was hauled to the camp at Kati, outside the capital, Captain Sanogo, who led the coup in March, told him there was proof “against him that he was calling for subversion,” said Mr. Mariko, the military spokesman. “He had recorded cassettes that were going to be broadcast on ORTM,” the state broadcaster, Mr. Mariko said. “These cassettes called on the people of Mali to go into the street to oppose the army.”

But a more likely explanation was a growing and public clash about the best way of chasing the Islamists from the north.

Mr. Diarra, derided as an amateur politician by the well-entrenched political class here, has nonetheless been steadily raising his profile at the expense of Captain Sanogo. He has made the rounds of foreign capitals to push his view that reconquering the north required immediate international military assistance. Captain Sanogo has rebuffed suggestions that the Malian Army is incapable of handling the job on its own. Indeed, for weeks, the captain resisted the idea that troops from other African nations should even go near the capital.

Despite this, the Malian Army, defeated by Islamists and nomadic rebels last winter and spring, has been deemed seriously deficient by United Nations and Western military officials.

Captain Sanogo, trained in the United States, has depicted himself as a national savior, even comparing himself to Gen. Charles de Gaulle in an op-ed article in Le Monde several months ago. Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch has implicated him in serious violations involving rival soldiers who tried to roll back the coup in April.

The conflict between the two men was evident in the declarations of the military’s spokesman Tuesday. “Since he has been in power, he has been working simply to position his own family,” Mr. Mariko said.

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.


12/11/2012 04:42 PM

Military Mission: Paris Pushing for Risky Intervention in Mali

By Raniah Salloum and Stefan Simons

Northern Mali is at risk of becoming a breeding ground for terrorists. But with a poorly trained Malian military and political chaos in the capital, few can agree on what should be done to bring peace and the rule of law to the region. France is in favor of quick action, but most of its allies are skeptical.

As Modibo Diarra began to read his statement on state television, his nervousness was clearly visible. "I, Cheick Modibo Diarra, am resigning along with my entire government," he said in the early hours of Tuesday. "I apologize before the entire population of Mali."

It's anything but a voluntary departure for the now ex-prime minister. The military junta had arrested him on Monday evening, accusing him of "no longer working in the interest of the country."

Modibo Diarra's downfall could intensify the political crisis in Bamako. Since the elected government was deposed by the military in March, the coup leaders have been sharing power with him and the president. Who exactly speaks for the country is a tug-of-war among the various parties.

More than anything else, it's this political chaos that makes an international military mission in Mali extremely dangerous. There is no clear contact person for international allies. Despite this, the military mission in Mali has already been agreed upon. It is meant to be the next step in the war on terror. But the operational details are still being negotiated -- who, when, what and with how many soldiers.

Fears of a New Terrorist Breeding Ground

Since the beginning of the year, several militias have seized power in the north of Mali, among them a separatist movement and jihadists with ties to al-Qaida. Parts of the region have come under Sharia law. SPIEGEL has reported that people have had their hands cut off as punishment for crimes. In Europe, the fear is the emergence of a new breeding ground for terrorism and crime, just a few hours away by plane.

The Malian military, with a force of 5,000 soldiers, is to bring peace to the region. International troops are also to lend their support with around 3,300 soldiers, mostly from members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The United States would likely proffer surveillance from the air. Still, such a campaign would not start sooner than September 2013. Between now and then, the Malian military has to be trained in anti-guerilla desert warfare -- a challenge that around 400 European military officers are to undertake.

France is pushing for a Mali mission as soon as possible, and would like the training mission to begin already in January. But the rest of Europe and the United Nations are more inclined to give the situation more time. The resignation of Modibo Diarra could delay the plans even further. On Monday, EU foreign ministers approved an initial conceptual outline for a training mission in Mali. But it will likely take months rather than weeks for the details to be filled in, much to Paris' chagrin.

"In Mali, it is our own security that is at stake," French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said recently. "If we don't move, a terrorist entity will take shape, which could hit this or another country, including France, and including Europe."

Europe and the UN Hesitate

There have already been reports of French jihadists residing in Mali who could plan attacks in France. In the Sahel region, six French nationals are being held hostage by jihadist groups. And France is worried about Mali for more than just security reasons. In contrast to its allies, Paris has economic interests in the country too. Nuclear energy giant Areva, a large portion of which is owned by the French state, had plans to open up a uranium mine there. The company already has several similar mines operating in Niger, to the north, and the region is the most important source of uranium for the company.

France is already at work and has reportedly begun stationing surveillance drones in the country. The government in Paris is putting pressure on the UN Security Council to give the green light for a military mission before the end of the year. But the organization appears to have its doubts.

"A military operation may be required as a last resort to deal with the most hard-line extremist and criminal elements in the north," wrote UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a report to the Security Council. First, he said, there must be a "broad-based political dialogue" that would address the "long-standing grievances" of communities in the north. That point, he added, has not yet been reached.

The main obstacle to that dialogue is the risks created by the political chaos in the capital Bamako. As long as there is no clear government, negotiations with separatists and Islamists in the north will be difficult. But they are necessary, at the very least to win over individual groups to Bamako's side. Otherwise it will be impossible to achieve lasting peace to the north.

Malian Military Unprepared to Fight

Wolfram Lacher, an expert on Islamist extremism in the Sahel region at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said he believes things in the north are still developing. "The borders between the different groups are very fluid," he said. "However you proceed militarily, you have to get the pragmatic groups on the side of the government." If domestic and international troops march in without concurrent negotiations, he said, the pragmatists and the extremists in northern Mali could merge together against the common enemy.

The treatment of politicians in Bamako by parts of the Malian military also makes US involvement in the international mission more doubtful. American law forbids Washington from militarily supporting a regime that took power by deposing a democratically elected government. For this reason, the United States is joining calls for a slower approach -- no military mission until elections take place.

The state of the Malian military is also cause for concern. Even the perpetually diplomatic Ban Ki-moon came to the conclusion in his report that the country's army is simply not capable at the moment of taking back control of the north from the estimated 10,000 Islamist extremists and separatist guerilla fighters. The support of 3,300 international soldiers is not likely to change that fact.

Malian soldiers tried once before to stop the militias in the north. When that effort failed, part of a frustrated Malian military overthrew the elected government in Bamako. "Mali's army doesn't need just training, it first needs reforms," said Wolfram Lacher, the expert on the region. The institution is crippled by internal power struggles and divided along ethnic lines, he said. "If you deployed them to the north, the consequences would be truly fatal."

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