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Author Topic: Pluto in Cap, the USA, the future of the world  (Read 1089503 times)
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« Reply #3690 on: Dec 26, 2012, 07:20 AM »

25 December 2012 - 21H31 

Netanyahu launches re-election bid centred on Iran

AFP - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday put Iran at the top of on his re-election campaign, pledging that halting Tehran's nuclear programme would be his first priority as premier.

"Who do (Israeli voters) think is the most suitable candidate to deal with the Iranian threat? With the missile threat? With the threat of terror?" he asked supporters in Jerusalem in a speech at the official launch of his campaign for January 22 polls.

"We still have a lot ahead of us," he said. "First and foremost we must stop Iran's nuclear programme, and the time for that is slipping away ... That is my first mission as prime minister."

Israel and Western powers accuse Iran of seeking to acquire a weapons capability under the guise of its nuclear energy programme. Iran denies the charge, saying its work is for peaceful purposes only.

At a speech before the UN's General Assembly in September, Netanyahu warned that if Iran continued work at the current pace, it could have the necessary material for a first bomb by the summer of 2013.

In his speech on Tuesday night, Netanyahu expanded on what he termed his government's economic achievements and laid out his future goals. He only briefly addressed the peace process.

"Our hand will continue to be extended to our neighbours for true and mutual peace, while continuing to insist on the state of Israel's vital interests -- I'm telling you -- in the face of all the pressure," he said.

On Monday, Israel approved the latest in a series of construction plans for approximately 5,000 Jewish homes in east Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Palestinians want east Jerusalem as capital of their promised state, and they -- along with the international community -- consider settlement construction in east Jerusalem and the West Bank a violation of international law.

"With God's help, we will continue to live and build in Jerusalem, which will always stay united under Israeli sovereignty," Netanyahu said.

Polls predict that Netanyahu's Likud party, which is running on a joint list with the ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu faction of former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, will be by far the largest party in the next parliament.


25 December 2012 - 20H11 

Naftali Bennett, Israel's new rightwing star

AFP - A smile on his lips, his voice direct and authoritative, his agenda rightwing but broadbased, Naftali Bennett is quickly turning into the newest darling of Israel's national religious bloc.

Just under a month before snap elections on January 22, Bennett's Jewish Home party is snatching seats away from the joint list of premier Benjamin Netanyahu's rightwing Likud faction and the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu of former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Polls project that the party, which now holds just three seats in the 120-seat Knesset, will win between 11 and 13 in the upcoming elections, many of them snapped from the Likud-Beitenu list, which still stands to win the most seats of any party, around 35.

The son of American immigrants to Israel, 40-year-old Bennett has succeeded in reviving the fortunes of a party that had its heyday in the 1960s, but has been a member of government coalitions from 1948 to 1992.

Traditionally representing Israel's national religious movement, Jewish Home began to shift to the right in the 1970s, before losing much of its electorate and seeing its standing in the Knesset reduced from a high of 12 seats to three in 2009, its worst-ever performance.

Bennett, a former high-tech entrepreneur who sold his start-up in 2005 for $145 million (110 million euros), tends to talk up the fact that he also served in a military commando unit -- a profile that has proved attractive to younger voters.

He has also sought to enlarge his party's traditional base by building a broad electoral list, including rabbi Eliyahu Bendahan, of Sephardic origin, a rarity in a party traditionally considered to lean towards Jews of Ashkenazi, or European origin.

The list also includes Ayelet Shaked, a young secular female politician who worked in Netanyahu's cabinet and hails from Tel Aviv -- considered the cosmopolitan heart of Israel's non-religious youth.

At the same time, Bennett, who once headed the Yesha settler council, has also sought to reassure the most rightwing of his constituents by running on a joint list with the National Union party, which is traditionally more rightwing than Jewish Home.

Before quitting Netanyahu's Likud in May 2012, Bennett created the "Israelis" movement, which promoted dialogue between religious and secular Israelis as well as his so-called "Bennett Plan" for peace with the Palestinians.

The plan called for Israel to annex all parts of the West Bank designated as "Area C" under the Oslo Accords -- approximately 60 percent of the territory -- which is already under full Israeli administrative and security control.

The Palestinian Authority would in return receive greater control over Areas A and B, which includes major Palestinian cities.

Palestinians reject such a plan, saying it leavees most of the West Bank in Israeli hands and make a contiguous Palestinian state impossible.

Bennett resolutely opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state and that puts him to the right of Likud, which officially endorses the two-state solution, a position he is comfortable with.

"I'm in favour of Netanyahu being prime minister but we will be strong in preventing the creation of a coalition of leftwing parties," Bennett told AFP.

A savvy communicator who uses social networks to connect with voters in Hebrew, English and French, Bennett has nonetheless already found himself caught up in one major political flap -- over comments suggesting he would refuse orders to evacuate Jewish settlement if he were serving in the military.

He backtracked on them after an uproar, with Netanyahu and others suggesting he was promoting insubordination, but his remarks seemed to resonate with parts of the electorate, with a poll taken after the incident showing him gaining seats.

Haaretz's Yossi Verter, analysing the poll, said Netanyahu had erred in attacking Bennett so publicly over the comments, turning his challenger "into the darling of the right, a national figure."
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« Reply #3691 on: Dec 26, 2012, 07:21 AM »

26 December 2012 - 03H54 

Hawkish Abe to be named Japan's next prime minister

AFP - Japan's conservative leader Shinzo Abe is to be named as the country's new prime minister on Wednesday, after he swept to power on a hawkish platform of getting tough on diplomacy while fixing the economy.

The powerful lower house will name the 58-year-old as leader in an extraordinary session Wednesday afternoon, following a resounding national election victory for his Liberal Democratic Party earlier this month.

Hours ahead of the appointment, the yen tumbled against the dollar in currency trade on growing speculation that the Bank of Japan will usher in further easing measures to boost the economy -- a key plank of Abe's campaign.

As Japan's seventh premier in less than seven years, Abe will replace outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda whose Democratic Party of Japan suffered a stinging defeat at the polls.

The party, which came to power in 2009, was seen as being punished for policy flip-flops and its clumsy handling of last year's atomic disaster at Fukushima.

As expected, Noda's cabinet resigned en masse Wednesday morning before the LDP-controlled lower house names Abe as Japan's leader, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told reporters.

Abe, who previously served as prime minister from 2006 to 2007, is expected to form a new cabinet later in the day as he rushes to draft an extra budget to spur the nation's flagging economy.

Japanese media have suggested Abe was likely to tap close associates and senior party members for key posts.

Taro Aso, another former prime minister in Japan's revolving-door political system, was widely expected to be named as both Abe's deputy and also finance minister, the reports said.

Japan's new foreign minister was likely to be Fumio Kishida, who served as a state minister in charge of Okinawan affairs during Abe's previous tenure.

The expected appointment was seen as a reflection of Abe's desire for progress on the relocation of US military bases in the southern island chain.

The defence portfolio would be handed to Itsunori Onodera, who served as deputy foreign minister for a year during Abe's stint in Japan's top political job and that of his successor Yasuo Fukuda, reports said.

Sadakazu Tanigaki, the head of the LDP when the party was in opposition after ruling Japan for most of the past six decades, is tipped to become the country's justice minister, according to local media.

Abe won conservative support with nationalistic pronouncements on diplomacy in the midst of a territorial row with Beijing over a group of East China Sea islands, saying Japan would stand firm on its claim to the chain.

But he quickly toned down the campaign rhetoric and has said he wants improved ties with China, Japan's biggest trading partner.

Abe called for a solution through what he described as "patient exchanges".

The new leader, whose key campaign platform was reviving the world's third-largest economy, has also said he would look at revising Japan's post-war pacifist constitution, alarming officials in China and South Korea.

He vowed to pressure the Bank of Japan for further easing measures to boost growth, while also promising big government spending to spur the economy.

Analysts said Abe was likely to hold off drastic policy measures ahead of upper house elections next year, while the LDP's moderate junior coalition partner New Komeito could balance his right-leaning instincts.
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« Reply #3692 on: Dec 26, 2012, 07:26 AM »

December 25, 2012

Israel to Review Curbs on Women’s Prayer at Western Wall


JERUSALEM — Amid outrage across the Jewish diaspora over a flurry of recent arrests of women seeking to pray at the Western Wall with ritual garments in defiance of Israeli law, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has asked Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, to study the issue and suggest ways to make the site more accommodating to all Jews.

The move comes after more than two decades of civil disobedience by a group called Women of the Wall against regulations, legislation and a 2003 Israeli Supreme Court ruling that allow for gender division at the wall, one of Judaism’s holiest sites, and prohibit women from carrying a Torah or wearing prayer shawls there.

Although the movement has struggled to gain traction in Israel, where the ultra-Orthodox retain great sway over public life, the issue has deepened a divide between the Jewish state and Jews around the world at a time when Israel is battling international isolation over its settlement policy. Critics, particularly leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements in the United States, complain that the government’s recent aggressive enforcement of restrictions at the wall has turned a national monument into an ultra-Orthodox synagogue.

“The prime minister thinks the Western Wall has to be a site that expresses the unity of the Jewish people, both inside Israel and outside the state of Israel,” Ron Dermer, Mr. Netanyahu’s senior adviser, said in an interview on Tuesday. “He wants to preserve the unity of world Jewry. This is an important component of Israel’s strength.”

Mr. Sharansky, whose quasi-governmental nonprofit organization handles immigration for the state and is a bridge between Israel and Jews around the world, said that Mr. Netanyahu asked him on Monday to take up the matter, and that he expected to have recommendations within a few months. He and Mr. Dermer said the agenda would include improvements for Robinson’s Arch, a discreet area of the wall designated for coed prayer under the court ruling, and the easing of restrictions in the larger area known as the Western Wall plaza, along with the more sensitive questions regarding prayer at the main site.

Mr. Sharansky said the Jewish Agency itself stopped having ceremonies for new immigrants in the plaza about two years ago after the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which controls the site, said that men and women could not sit together. Under pressure from the international groups that provide its financing, the agency passed a resolution on Oct. 30 calling for a “satisfactory approach to the issue of prayer at the Western Wall.”

Asked whether he could imagine a day when women could wear prayer shawls and read a Torah at the wall itself, Mr. Sharansky said, “I imagine very easily a situation where everybody will have their opportunity to express their solidarity with Judaism and the Jewish people and the state of Israel in a way he or she wants, without undermining the other.”

“That’s as much as I want to say at this moment,” he added. “Now I have to share this vision with the appropriate bodies.”

Mr. Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident and widely respected figure, has been called upon before to broker peace with the diaspora over questions of religious pluralism, most recently during a harsh fight over conversion. Anat Hoffman, the chairwoman of Women of the Wall, reacted with cautious optimism to Mr. Netanyahu’s initiative, but said it would not stop the Israel Religious Action Center, of which she is executive director, from filing a Supreme Court petition as soon as next week challenging the makeup of the heritage foundation’s board.

“It’s a good thing that after 24 years the highest echelons in Israel are actually paying attention to this rift that is breaking diaspora Jews from Israel,” she said. “The table that should run the Western Wall should have everyone who has an interest in the wall sitting around it.”

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the head of the heritage foundation, said in an e-mailed statement that he was unaware of the Sharansky initiative and therefore “does not have an opinion about it.”

While Ms. Hoffman said the women’s group would be satisfied if it were allowed to pray at the wall once a month with full regalia, her religious action center wants hours each day, between scheduled prayer times, when the gender partition is removed and people can freely enjoy the site as a cultural monument.

“If in the end what happens is that the Robinson’s Arch area will be run by the Jewish Agency instead of the antiquities department, then we’re talking about who’s going to take care of the air-conditioning in the back of the bus,” she said. “I don’t care about that. I don’t want to sit in the back of the bus. I want to dismantle the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.”

Abraham H. Foxman, the director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he discussed the wall and other questions of religious pluralism with Mr. Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Monday.

“This is a wise initiative, but it’s only a beginning,” Mr. Foxman said.

Irit Pazner Garshowitz contributed reporting.
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« Reply #3693 on: Dec 26, 2012, 07:28 AM »

December 25, 2012

Chinese Officials Find Misbehavior Now Carries Cost


BEIJING — The Chinese have become largely inured to tales of voracious officials stockpiling luxury apartments, $30,000 Swiss watches or enough stolen cash to buy their mistress a Porsche.

But when images of a bulbous-faced Communist Party functionary in southwest China having sex with an 18-year-old girl spread on the Internet late last month, even the most jaded citizens took note — as did the local party watchdogs who ordered his dismissal.

These have been especially nerve-racking times for Chinese officials who cheat, steal and bribe. Since the local bureaucrat, Lei Zhengfu, became an unwilling celebrity here, a succession of others have been publicly exposed. And despite the usual cries of innocence, most have been removed from office while party investigators sort through their bedrooms and bank accounts.

In the weeks since the Communist Party elevated a new slate of top leaders, the state media, often fed by freelance vigilantes, have been serving up a head-spinning collection of scandals.

Highlights include a deputy district official in Shanxi Province who fathered 10 children with four wives; a prefecture chief from Yunnan with an opium habit who managed to accumulate 23 homes, including 6 in Australia; and a Hunan bureaucrat with $19 million in unexplained assets who once gave his young daughter $32,000 in cash for her birthday.

“The anticorruption storm has begun,” People’s Daily, the party mouthpiece, wrote on its Web site this month.

The flurry of revelations suggests that members of China’s new leadership may be more serious than their predecessors about trying to tame the cronyism, bribery and debauchery that afflict state-run companies and local governments, right down to the outwardly dowdy neighborhood committees that oversee sanitation. Efforts began just days after Xi Jinping, the newly appointed Communist Party chief and China’s incoming president, warned that failing to curb corruption could put the party’s grip on power at risk.

“Something has shifted,” said Zhu Ruifeng, a Beijing journalist who has exposed more than a hundred cases of alleged corruption on his Web site, including the lurid exertions of Mr. Lei. “In the past, it might take 10 days for an official involved in a sex scandal to lose his job. This time he was gone in 66 hours.”

The licentiousness of Qi Fang, the public security chief of a small city in the far west, probably deserves a prize for originality. This month, an Internet sleuth revealed that Mr. Qi was maintaining two young sisters as mistresses. The sisters, as luck would have it, had also landed police department jobs and shared an apartment bankrolled by the city.

Mr. Qi lost his post, but not before denying any mischief and correcting one detail of the story: the sisters, contrary to earlier reports, are not twins.

Still, for all the salaciousness associated with the latest scandals, analysts say it is too soon to know whether Mr. Xi and other senior leaders have the stomach to wage a no-holds-barred war on the party’s pervasive corruption.

They point out that most of the recent scandals were uncovered by journalists, anonymous citizens or disgruntled colleagues who posted photographs and other damning allegations on the Internet, forcing the authorities to respond. Also significant is that most of those ousted were relatively minor officials.

The manager of a major Chinese Internet company said the party was effectively abetting the anticorruption free-for-all by declining to pull the plug on the online denunciations. But he said there was an implicit understanding that high-ranking officials were off limits.

“For now it’s spontaneous,” said the manager, who asked that the name of his company be withheld because of the political sensitivities involved. “But we also understand the parameters.”

This month, Luo Changping, deputy managing editor at the enterprising newsmagazine Caijing, published accusations on his microblog about improper business dealings by Liu Tienan, the director of China’s National Energy Administration. The postings, which also included charges that Mr. Liu had fabricated his academic qualifications and had threatened to kill his mistress, have caused something of an earthquake, given that they targeted such a high-level official. Just as astonishing, many say, is that Mr. Luo’s claims remain undeleted by censors despite Mr. Liu’s denials of wrongdoing.

Mr. Zhu, the online journalist who exposes official impropriety, has also been surprised to find his Web site untouched a month after he ran five-year-old images of Mr. Lei engaged in lusty acrobatics with the 18-year-old in a hotel room. In the past, Mr. Zhu said, his site was often blocked after each revelation, usually followed by a menacing visit from security officials.

“This time, I received a call from the Beijing police saying that they had received instructions to protect me,” he said in amazement.

With four more damning videos in his possession, Mr. Zhu has promised encores — once he can verify the identities of the main actors.

In the absence of any new policies from the central government, many Chinese have been left to parse the words of Mr. Xi and Wang Qishan, the new head of the central agency that investigates misconduct among party members.

“In recent years,” Mr. Xi said during his inaugural speech on Nov. 15, “some countries have stored up problems for a long time leading to public anger and outcry, civil unrest and regime collapse. Corruption has been a very important factor in this.”

Even more telling are reports that Mr. Wang has been urging officials to read Alexis de Tocqueville’s “The Old Regime and the Revolution,” a 19th-century analysis of the unbridled excess among French aristocrats that ended with the guillotine. Gao Yi, a history professor at Peking University, said Mr. Wang’s message was clear: “The biggest failing of the old regime was the corruption of the rulers,” he told the 21st Century Business Herald.

The warnings appear to be having some impact within the party hierarchy. Real estate brokers in at least two provinces say they have been inundated by anxious government officials desperate to unload property they fear could attract unwanted scrutiny, The Oriental Morning Post reported Monday.

Wang Baolin, a former lowly official in the southern city of Guangzhou, provided a glimpse of the pervasive culture of corruption during his recent trial on charges that the $3.3 million in his bank account was of dubious provenance. Seeking to explain his behavior, Mr. Wang said he had no choice but to take bribes. “If I didn’t take them, I’d offend too many people,” he said.

Mr. Xi is not the first Chinese leader to rail against official vice and venality. Hu Jintao, China’s departing president, called graft a “time bomb buried under society.” Former Premier Zhu Rongji vowed to give his life in the fight against official malfeasance. “I’ll have 100 coffins prepared,” he said after taking office in 1998. “Ninety-nine are for corrupt officials, and the last one is for myself.”

Mr. Zhu is still around; his son, Zhu Yunlai, became head of one of China’s biggest investment banks shortly after his father left office.

Critics say members of the party elite fear that any far-reaching crackdown might hit too close to home, given how many of their relatives have profited from the proximity to power. Immediate family members of Wen Jiabao, China’s departing prime minister, have controlled assets worth at least $2.7 billion, The New York Times revealed in October, even as he projected an image of frugality.

Many of Mr. Xi’s relatives, especially his older sister, have also done well in recent years, with hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate holdings and at least a half-dozen high-end properties in Hong Kong, an investigation by Bloomberg News found in June.

There is no indication either Mr. Xi or Mr. Wen benefited from the business dealings of his relatives. But the perception that family members of ranking officials have grown rich from their connections has long angered many Chinese.

A businessman who knows several senior leaders said they had been taken aback by the rash of Internet-based denunciations. “There will be less waste and graft for a while,” he said. “But that was true when Hu Jintao came in, and then look how things turned out by the time he left.”

Already, the state media have begun to urge caution, and one newspaper editor in Beijing said propaganda officials had been seeking to impose some restrictions on exposés. And experts note that Chinese leaders have so far refused to even consider the key ingredients needed to root out corruption: governmental transparency, a system of checks and balances, a free press and an independent judiciary.

“Without effective institutions,” said Li Xinde, who runs a Web site that exposes corrupt officials, “anticorruption campaigns can just become a tool for settling scores.”

Patrick Zuo contributed research.


26 December 2012 - 12H48 

China warns of rising financial risks

AFP - China's financial system is facing increasing risks due to soaring bank loans, with lending to the property sector and local governments a particular concern, the finance ministry warned Wednesday.

Bank lending has been rising "at a high speed" in recent years and the quality is yet to be tested, Li Yong, vice finance minister, was quoted in a statement as saying.

"There are rather high potential risks, particularly in (loans extended to) the real-estate sector and its related industries and in the poorly designed maturity of lending granted to local government financing vehicles," he said, without elaborating.

He made the remarks at a national financial work conference earlier this month, according to the statement.

Chinese banks extended 7.75 trillion yuan ($1.2 trillion) in new loans in the first 11 months of the year, 919.1 billion yuan more than the same period last year, official data showed.

Lending to the property sector totalled 982.1 billion yuan in the first three quarters of the year, 10.2 billion yuan less than the same period in 2011, according to the latest central bank quarterly report.

China has for the past two years sought to tighten policies on the property sector to rein in rising home prices.

Measures included limits on second and third home purchases, higher minimum downpayments, and annual taxes in some cities on multiple and non-locally-owned homes. These dampened speculation and strained developers' cash flow.

The National Audit Office last year put the debt held by local governments at 10.7 trillion yuan at the end of 2010, or about 27 percent of China's gross domestic product that year.

Some economists have said most of the debt was cheap medium to long-term loans granted by commercial banks, according to previous media reports.

Li also said China's economic growth was set to slow over the long term due to sluggish foreign demand, insufficient domestic consumption, rising labour costs and increasing resource and environment constraints.

The world's second-largest economy has slowed for seven consecutive quarters. It expanded 7.4 percent in the three months ended September 30, its worst performance since the first quarter of 2009.

The government has cut its target to 7.0 percent annually for the five years through 2015.
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« Reply #3694 on: Dec 26, 2012, 07:30 AM »

Bangladesh slaughters 150,000 birds over avian flu

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, December 26, 2012 2:31 EST

Bangladesh’s livestock authorities are slaughtering around 150,000 chickens at a giant poultry farm near Dhaka after the worst outbreak of avian flu in five years, officials said Wednesday.

The deadly H5N1 strain of flu was detected at Bay Agro farm at Gazipur, 40 kilometres (25 miles) north of Dhaka, on Monday after dozens of chickens died, prompting the company to send samples to a laboratory for tests.

“There are about 150,000 chickens at the farm. We have already killed and destroyed 120,000 chickens and we will kill the rest today,” livestock department director Mosaddeq Hossain told AFP, adding it was the worst bird flu outbreak in five years.

Bangladesh was hit by bird flu in February 2007, when over one million birds were slaughtered on thousands of farms. Since then the flu has entrenched in the country, seriously ravaging one of the world’s largest poultry industries.

The last major outbreak was in March 2010 when at least 117,000 chickens and 200,000 eggs were destroyed at a farm in northern Bangladesh.

The latest outbreak is the 23rd to be recorded this year. Even before the new mass slaughter, a total of 107,252 chickens had been destroyed in 22 farms, said Ataur Rahman, a livestock control room official.

The country has also reported six confirmed human cases of bird flu since May 2008, but the government’s health department said all have recovered.
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« Reply #3695 on: Dec 26, 2012, 07:32 AM »

‘Yak insurance’ plan saving Nepal’s endangered snow leopard

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, December 26, 2012 7:15 EST

The remorse felt by Himali Chungda Sherpa after he killed three snow leopard cubs in retaliation for his lost cattle inspired him to set up a scheme to prevent other herders from doing the same.

Sherpa lost his cattle near Ghunsa village at the base of Mount Kangchenjunga on the Nepal-India border, later finding their remains in a cave beside three sleeping snow leopard cubs.

The Nepalese herder put the cubs in a sack and threw them into the river, finding their bodies the next day.

“From that night onwards the mother snow leopard started crying from the mountain for her cubs, and my cattle were crying for the loss of their calves.

“I realised how big a sin I had committed and promised myself that I would never do such a thing in the future.”

Four years ago Sherpa, 48, founded with other locals an insurance plan for livestock that conservationists say is deterring herders from killing snow leopards that attack their animals.

In doing so the scheme has given hope for the endangered cat, whose numbers across the mountains of 12 countries in south and central Asia are thought to have declined by 20 percent over the past 16 years.

Under the scheme, herders pay in 55 rupees ($1.50) a year for each of their hairy yaks, the vital pack animal that is also kept for milk and meat, and are paid 2,500 rupees for any animal killed by the endangered cat.

“The (Himalayan) communities have been able to pay out compensation for more than 200 animals since the scheme started,” WWF Nepal conservation director Ghana Gurung told reporters at a presentation in the capital Kathmandu.

“The community members are the ones that monitor this, they are the ones who do the patrolling and they are the ones who verify the kills.”

The global snow leopard population is estimated at just 4,080-6,590 adults according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which lists the animal as “endangered” on its red list of threatened species.

Experts believe just 300 to 500 adults survive in Nepal, and few can claim ever to have seen the secretive, solitary “mountain ghost”, which lives 5,000 to 6,000 metres (16,500 to 20,000 feet) above sea level.

Despite its name, it is not a close relative of the leopard and has much more in common genetically with the tiger, though it is thought to have a placid temperament.

“There has never been a case of a snow leopard attacking a human,” Gurung said of the animal, revered for its thick grey patterned pelt.

It does, however, have a taste for sheep, goats and other livestock essential for the livelihoods of farmers and is often killed by humans either as a preventative measure or in revenge for the deaths of their animals.

WWF Nepal revealed details of its insurance scheme in filmed interviews shown at the recent Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival.

Sherpa now campaigns to convince Himalayan farmers that killing snow leopards is wrong, but has been frequently told they need to kill the animal to protect their livelihoods.

“I swear if I can catch a snow leopard. They rob our animals and our source of livelihood,” herder Chokyab Bhuttia told the WWF.

The insurance plan, which also covers sheep and goats, was set up with 1.2 million rupees donated by the University of Zurich.

Since the Kangchenjunga Conservation Area Snow Leopard Insurance plan was launched four years ago no snow leopard is thought to have been killed in retaliation for preying on livestock since.

Locals, who count the number of cattle attacked as well as tracks, fecal pellets and scratches in the ground, believe snow leopard numbers have significantly increased.

“There is now an awareness among people that the snow leopard is an endangered animal and we have to protect it. The insurance policy has made people more tolerant to the loss of their livestock,” Sherpa said.

He believes protecting the snow leopard is vital to boosting the economy in an area which gets just a few hundred trekkers a year, compared with 74,000 in Annapurna.

“If a tourist sees a snow leopard and takes a picture of it there will be publicity of our region and more tourists will come,” Sherpa said.

Evidence of the scheme’s benefits will remain anecdotal until the publication next year of the results of a wide-ranging camera trapping survey.

But locals are optimistic about the animal’s future, according to Tsheten Dandu Sherpa, chairman of the Kangchenjunga Conservation Area Management Council.

“In this area there was never any poaching of snow leopards for trade. They were killed only as a retaliatory act by livestock owners,” he said.

“Now with this insurance policy there will definitely be protection of the snow leopard and its numbers will increase.”

* Snowleopard_AFP.jpg (73.13 KB, 615x345 - viewed 44 times.)
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« Reply #3696 on: Dec 26, 2012, 07:35 AM »

Saving the rhino with U.S. military surveillance drones

By David Smith, The Guardian
Wednesday, December 26, 2012 3:37 EST

South African farmer plans to put 30 drones in the air to help combat poachers

A rhino farmer in South Africa is planning to use surveillance drones designed for the US military to combat poachers who are driving the animals towards extinction.

Clive Vivier, cofounder of the Zululand rhino reserve in KwaZulu-Natal province, said he has been granted permission by the US state department to buy the state-of-the-art Arcturus T-20 drone.

He is now seeking clearance from local civil aviation authorities to put 30 of the drones in South African skies.

Radical solutions are needed, he argues, at the end of a year which has seen a record of more than 650 rhinos slaughtered for their horns to meet demand from the Far East.

Vivier believes the true figure may be closer to 1,000, a significant dent in a population of around 20,000. “We’re now eating into our capital of rhino,” he said. “From here they are heading rapidly towards extinction. Despite all our efforts, we’re just historians recording the demise of a species. We don’t have the numbers on the ground to see people and stop them killing the animals.”

Around 400 rhinos have been killed this year in the world-famous Kruger national park, which spans 2m hectares – impossible for a limited number of rangers to guard effectively. Vivier estimates it as the equivalent of a town with one policeman for every 100,000 houses, “all with the doors and windows and open and rhino horn inside”.

He continued: “We need to change the rules of the game. We need technology. The only thing that can see these people before they do the dirty deed is surveillance drones.”

The answer, he believes, is the unmanned Arcturus T-20, which, with a 17ft wingspan, can fly for 16 hours without refuelling at a height of 15,000 feet. Its lack of noise and infrared camera would be invaluable for spotting poachers at night. “It can tell whether a man is carrying a shovel or firearm and whether he has his finger on the trigger or not,” said Vivier, 65. “We can see the poacher but he can’t see us. We’re good at arresting them when we know where they are. Otherwise it’s a needle in a haystack.”

Vivier has spent two years in talks with civil aviation officials and is hopeful that he will soon get the green light for a six-month trial. He proposes 10 of the drones for Kruger park, and a further 20 for other vulnerable reserves in South Africa.

He estimates that each drone would cost roughly $300,000 (£184,445) to keep in the air for two years, making a total of around $9m (£5.53m).

“The drones are economical to fly and will get us information at a very low cost. We need this technology to put us in a position to catch the guys. We need to do it before they kill rhino. The drone is, in my opinion, the only solution. It is highly sophisticated and can see things no other technology can.”

After the worst rhino poaching year on record in South Africa, air technology is seen as a crucial preventative step. Earlier this month, a reconnaissance plane with surveillance equipment including thermal imaging began patrolling over Kruger park.

But Vivier believes such alternatives lack the Calfornia-built Arcturus T-20′s capability. “The smaller ones are like using a bucket to put out a fire at the Empire State building. We need fire engines. We’re now an inferno. If we don’t wake up and do something, the world will lose the rhino.”

He appealed for the US, UK or other countries to help raise the necessary funds. “The company making the drone has to be paid and we don’t have the money. We need the best technology because the criminals are sharp. We’ve had approval from the US state department and we’re trying to work with them. It’s a world problem and the rest of the world needs to help us.”

Vivier is among a group of rhino farmers who believe that legalising the trade in horn would thwart the black market and reduce poaching. Several conservation groups disagree and call for measures that will reduce demand in countries such as Vietnam, where horn is seen as a delicacy with health benefits.

Ike Phaahla, a spokesman for South African National Parks, welcomed moves to put eyes in the sky. “In the past three months that is a strategy we have decided to use,” he said. “We are able to use the intelligence to intercept the poachers, although you can’t have a silver bullet for this kind of thing.”

© Guardian News and Media 2012

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« Reply #3697 on: Dec 26, 2012, 07:37 AM »

Boxing for bread: a forgotten story from Auschwitz

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, December 26, 2012 2:09 EST

The memory of Prisoner Number 77 still brings hope to the heart of Auschwitz survivor Tadeusz Sobolewicz as he remembers how his friend boxed for bread in the notorious Nazi German camp.

The story of fellow inmate and boxer Tadeusz Pietrzykowski has been all but forgotten nearly seven decades after the end of World War II.

The very idea of sport at Auschwitz seems preposterous.

The camp was set up by the Nazis in southern Poland after their 1939 invasion to hold and kill Polish political prisoners, and was to become a hub of the Holocaust, during which the Nazis murdered six million Jews.

Polish author Marta Bogacka, in a new book “The Auschwitz Boxer”, has brought the story of Pietrzykowski, little known outside Poland, back into the spotlight.

To Sobolewicz, 89, it still seems like yesterday.

“The first bout took place on a Sunday in March 1941 next to the Auschwitz kitchens between Tadeusz Pietrzykowski and the German ‘kapo’ Walter Dunning,” he told AFP, using the term for the common criminals deployed by the Nazis as overseers.

A rumour went around that Dunning, a former middleweight professional who had fallen foul of the law, was looking for an opponent in exchange for a loaf of bread and some margarine.

Pietrzykowski, a pre-war bantamweight at the boxing club Legia Warsaw, rose to the challenge.

“Teddy, as the Polish media nicknamed him before the war, must have weighed about 45 kilos (99 pounds), and Walter around 70 (154 pounds),” Sobolewicz said.

In peacetime, the maximum fighting weight in Pietrzykowski’s category was 54 kilos, and 75 kilos in Dunning’s.

In June 1940 Pietrzykowski had been on the first train convoy of 700 Polish political prisoners deported to Auschwitz — a former army barracks in the city of Oswiecim.

“So he was already very thin after eight months of backbreaking work and malnutrition,” Sobolewicz said.

“He was the smaller of the two, but he was agile and fast. He had an incredible punch, aimed right for the stomach, and knew how to duck his opponent’s blows. He won the fight and got his bread and margarine. You have to admit that the Germans kept their promise.”

More fights were to follow.

Pietrzykowski threw himself into them, knowing full well that he risked death by starvation.

For his fellow inmates, every blow he struck was a source of pride and hope.

“We were elated. We said to ourselves, ‘As long as there’s a Pole punching a German in the face, Poland’s not finished’,” Sobolewicz said.

After Germany’s defeat by the Soviets at the Battle of Stalingrad in early 1943, the camp guards from the Nazis’ notorious SS sought ways to forget that the tide of the war was turning, Sobolewicz said.

They watched the matches — pitting prisoners amongst themselves as well as against the kapos — and placed bets.

After the first scratch bouts, the camp authorities let the boxers build a proper ring and allowed them to make gloves, according to Bogacka’s research.

Pietrzykowski notched up some 40 fights, and around 20 more after he was transferred to the Neuengamme camp in northern Germany in 1943.

He survived the war, passing away in 1991 in Bielsko-Biala in southern Poland.

His most celebrated Auschwitz match was against Schally Hottenach, a 96-kilo German. He won with a second-round knockout.

That bout inspired the 1963 film “The Boxer and Death” by Slovak director Peter Solan.

Auschwitz’s twin camp of Birkenau was purpose-built nearby in 1942.

Jews from across Europe — often told by the Nazis that they were being “resettled” in the East — were sent there directly by train to be murdered in its gas chambers.

The new arrivals had a meagre chance of surviving thanks to the “selection”, where the SS picked out individuals deemed suitable for forced labour because of their peacetime professions.

Boxers were on the list.

Jewish middleweight Salamo Barouch, from Greece, was one who survived as a result, though he is not known to have faced Pietrzykowski in the ring.

The camp also saw football matches.

“The kapos wanted to amuse themselves. They played football amongst themselves, but taking on players of a different nationality had an extra edge,” said Kazimierz Albin, who escaped in February 1943 and joined the Polish resistance.

“And for us, being on the team meant getting extra food rations and getting given lighter forced labour, so it was a chance to survive,” recalled Albin, 90.

Adam Cyra, a historian at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, said a football pitch was set up to the right of the Birkenau train-ramp.

“For people who were about to die, the vision of prisoners playing football against the kapos was meant to be reassuring,” he said.

A million Jews perished at Auschwitz-Birkenau, along with tens of thousands of others including Poles, Roma and Soviet prisoners of war, between 1940 and its liberation by the Red Army in January 1945.

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« Reply #3698 on: Dec 26, 2012, 07:55 AM »

In the USA...

Originally published Tuesday, December 25, 2012 at 12:37 PM   

Lost, blind dog finds way back to Alaska owners

The Associated Press

Blind and alone in Alaska winter temperatures that dipped 40 degrees below zero, a lost 8-year-old Fairbanks dog wasn't given much of a chance to make it home.

But after walking 10 miles to the edge of a local musher's dog yard, Abby the brown-and-white mixed breed was found and returned to her owners, a family that includes two boys and one girl under the age of 10.

The dog that the family raised from an animal-shelter puppy went missing during a snowstorm on Dec. 13, and the family never expected to see her again, The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported ( ).

"It's a miracle, there's no other words to describe it," said McKenzie Grapengeter, emotion choking her voice and tears coming to her eyes. "We never expected to have her to be returned safe and alive."

Musher and veterinarian Mark May said he came across the dog while running his team on Dec. 19, but didn't stop to pick her up.

"It ran with us for about a mile on the way home before she fell off the pace, but I had a big dog team so I couldn't grab it," he said. "I said, `boy I hope it finds somebody's house.'"

The next day, the dog turned up at May's house.

"Everybody just assumed it was some kind of scaredy-cat, but there it was in front of the door in our dog lot and it was blind," May said. "It was sitting there, all the way from 14 mile on the winter trail down into this neighborhood, I guess by just sniffing, so I picked it up and brought it in."

To May's surprise, the dog had no signs of frostbite.

"No frozen ears, no frozen toes, she'll probably go back home and it'll (be) business as usual. She's no worse for wear but quite an adventure," he said.

The Grapengeter family hadn't tagged or put a microchip in the dog, but the community used social media to track down Abby's owners.

"We're so, so grateful for all (the community's) hard work," McKenzie Grapengeter said. "They've given us the most amazing Christmas gift we could ever ask for."


Obama breaks off vacation in Hawaii to deal with fiscal cliff

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, December 26, 2012 2:34 EST

President Barack Obama was to cut his holiday short and head back to Washington on Wednesday to try to address the “fiscal cliff,” a set of tax hikes and spending cuts to take effect next year.

Despite weeks of negotiations, Obama has been unable to reach a budget deal with congressional Republicans to slash the deficit and avert the mandatory austerity measures, which could pitch the economy back into recession.

The White House said Tuesday that Obama would fly back from his native Hawaii on Wednesday, cutting short his Christmas break and raising the possibility of renewed negotiations in Washington as early as Thursday.

Democratic and Republican leaders traded blame last week over the failure to reach a deal before the holidays to prevent most Americans from seeing their taxes go up next year.

The so-called fiscal cliff is the result of a poison pill agreement reached earlier this year that would require major spending reductions as tax cuts passed under former president George W. Bush expire at the end of the year — should Democrats and Republicans fail to reach a deal to cut the deficit.

The White House has offered a deal with $1.2 trillion in revenues — by fulfilling an Obama campaign promise to allow the Bush tax cuts to expire for the wealthy — and nearly $1 trillion in spending cuts.

Republicans are opposed to raising taxes in principle and have questioned whether the spending cuts proposed by the White House are real.

They have instead offered a deal that would raise $1 trillion in tax revenue — mainly by closing loopholes and ending deductions — and another $1 trillion in spending cuts, including cuts to Medicare and other social programs.

Venting frustration with Republicans, Obama on Friday urged lawmakers to pass scaled-down legislation that would at least prevent taxes from going up on the vast majority of Americans, those making $250,000 or less per year.

The move would satisfy Obama’s demand to raise taxes on the richest Americans, as all Bush-era taxes will go up on January 1, and Obama only envisions extending the lower rates for middle class earners.

House Republicans led by Speaker John Boehner have meanwhile punted to the Democratically-led Senate, asking Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to write up legislation that can pass both houses.

Obama’s suggestion would extend tax breaks to 98 percent of Americans — those earning below $250,000 a year. In talks on a larger compromise, the president had offered to raise that threshold to $400,000.


Suicide underscores grim conditions at Guantanamo

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, December 25, 2012 9:32 EST

The suicide of a Guantanamo inmate underscores the grim reality for detainees held there for nearly 11 years without charge or trial, with no end in sight to their imprisonment.

Three months after Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif was found dead in his cell, the US Army formally declared his death to be a suicide — the seventh at the prison.

US Southern Command, which oversees Guantanamo, said the US Navy’s criminal investigation unit has opened a probe into Yemeni’s the death.

“Too many questions are open,” his attorney David Remes told AFP.

How, Remes would like to know, did the prisoner manage to die at the tightly-controlled facility of a self-administered drug overdose, as the autopsy report cites as the cause?

And how could an inmate suffering from acute pneumonia be languishing in a disciplinary cell without medical care?

“If it was suicide, it was assisted suicide,” the attorney quipped.

Remes said that his client “foresaw that the military was trying to kill him, but without their fingerprints.”

Other Guantanamo detainees have reported finding “scissors and sharp objects in their cells,” he said.

Remes recalled that Latif was known as a difficult inmate, and had been placed in a block of inmates being punished for throwing urine on his jailers.

“He was a pain in the neck for the authorities. No doubt that he expressed and tried to commit suicide,” Remes said.

“Nothing worse than spending 11 years of captivity. Nobody asked whether they are guilty or not. It’s a misery. They feel very depressed.”

Remes said the despair is especially acute among the 15 Yemenis that he represents at Guantanamo.

President Barack Obama’s re-election, after nearly four years of failing to fulfill his vow to shutter the controversial facility, has compounded the despondency felt by many detainees.

In one of his first acts in office, Obama declared that he would close the doors of the George W. Bush-era “war on terror” prison for good. But it remains open, housing 166 detainees on the eve of his inauguration next month to a second term.

Lieutenant Colonel Barry Wingard, an attorney who represents three of the detainees, said closing the prison would not necessary solve the inmates’ problems.

“If closing Guantanamo means relocating my clients to other prisons throughout the world without a chance to prove their innocence, then it represents a new beginning without end for the prisoners,” he said.

“What we really need is the beginning of the end, and that involves release after 11 years in animal cages.”

Among his clients is Fayiz Kandari, a Kuwaiti man who saw his war crime charges recently dropped.

“People always ask me ‘why are you so committed to your clients?’” Wingard told AFP.

“When I travel to Gitmo, I look into the eyes of evil and injustice. There can be nothing more obscene in a legal system than keeping innocent men in prison.”

Prison conditions and legal constraints have only gotten tougher, not easier, under the Democratic president, according to Wingard.

“Some of best examples involve the current regime insisting on reading my mail to my clients, deciding what mail he can receive and not allowing me to travel outside the US on behalf of my clients,” he said.

“Under the Bush administration, these were protections we took for granted,” Wingard said, adding that the prison conditions “haven’t gotten any better.”

Wingard said detention under Obama has been no less cruel than under Bush.

“Being punched in the face with a leather glove feels the same as being punched with a velvet glove,” he said.

Of the 166 detainees still held at Guantanamo, 55 have received the US military’s formal approval to be transferred, as had Latif. But there is no immediate prospect for their release.

And their status only became more uncertain after Congress gave its final nod last week to an annual defense bill with provisions barring detainees from being moved to the United States or to foreign countries — in effect forcing the controversial facility to remain open.

Various human rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have urged Obama to veto the bill.

“President Obama must also keep his promise to close Guantanamo,” Amnesty International’s Washington office chief Frank Jannuzi said after lawmakers approved the bill.

“President Obama must veto this legislation.”


Gunman Who Killed 2 Firefighters Left Chilling Note

Jamie German
Associated Press

WEBSTER, N.Y. — On Monday morning when darkness was still raw, William Spengler Jr. armed himself with a rifle, a revolver and a shotgun. He had killed before. Harboring a deep-seated hatred of his sister, who lived with him, and a desire to harm his neighbors on a beachfront strip off Lake Ontario, Mr. Spengler composed a rough, typewritten plan that foretold of the destruction to come.

Residents held a candlelight vigil outside the West Webster Fire Hall.

“I still have to get ready to see how much of the neighborhood I can burn down and do what I like doing best — killing people,” Mr. Spengler, 62, wrote, in a note the police recovered.

It had been 32 years since he beat his grandmother to death with a hammer in the Lake Road house next to his.

As Christmas Eve dawned in this suburb of Rochester, local authorities say, Mr. Spengler set fire to a car, as a trap. When an engine company came roaring down the street, he started shooting at the first responders, most likely from his Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle. It was the same type of semiautomatic weapon used in the school shooting 10 days earlier in Newtown, Conn.

“He was equipped to go to war to kill innocent people,” the Webster police chief, Gerald L. Pickering, said of Mr. Spengler.

The authorities say Mr. Spengler fired shots that killed two volunteer firefighters from long range and seriously wounded two others, and set a “raging inferno.” The police found him dead on a berm about five hours after the siege started, with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

On Tuesday, the authorities added another likely victim: Cheryl Spengler, 67, the gunman’s sister. Chief Pickering said “human remains” were found at the shooter’s house, 191 Lake Road, that they believed were of Ms. Spengler. The Monroe County medical examiner’s office declined to comment on the identification of the remains or the cause of death.

Mr. Spengler’s note, Chief Pickering said, contained no motive, just ramblings, and spoke only to a murderous intent. He said he was not at liberty to disclose it in full because of the investigation.

As investigators tried on Tuesday to determine reasons for the brutal acts that shattered the holiday peace of a close-knit town, details emerged about Mr. Spengler and his bitter relationship with his sister. A relative said it was possible the two were in a dispute over who would inherit the family home after their mother’s death in October.

The siblings had such antipathy for each other that they lived on separate sides of the house, a former neighbor, Roger D. Vercruysse, said Monday.

“He hated his sister, but he loved his mama,” Mr. Vercruysse said.

Mr. Spengler was 30 in the summer of 1980 when he killed his 92-year-old grandmother, Rose. According to newspaper accounts from the time, he lied to his mother, saying he had found her at the bottom of the stairs. He accepted a plea bargain for manslaughter and went to state prison for 17 years.

A 1997 transcript said Mr. Spengler abruptly cut a parole hearing short when he discovered that he did not need to be there, displaying an irascible, unrepentant attitude. He was released in 1998 and moved back home.

“If you kill a family member, I don’t know why you would ever be out of jail,” Shirley Ashwood, 63, a first cousin of Mr. Spengler, said in a telephone interview from Rochester. “It frightened me, and that’s why I and my family stayed away from him.”

She added: “If you’re going to kill your grandmother, you’re going to kill anybody.”

Mr. Spengler adored his mother, however. When Arline Spengler was in a nearby nursing home, Mr. Spengler would visit her each day, Mr. Vercruysse said.

Arline Spengler died on Oct. 7, at age 91. In the weeks to follow, Cheryl Spengler apparently told a relative that she had hired a lawyer because there could be issues about inheriting the house. “I could see a fight brewing, right after her mom passed,” the relative said.

An account from an unintentional first responder bolstered officials’ descriptions of the harrowing siege. John Ritter, a police officer from the nearby town of Greece, said in an interview in his home on Tuesday that he was driving to work around 5:35 a.m. on Monday when he suddenly came upon the scene. He had no scanner in his car, nor did he have a weapon.

“I came around the corner, and the fire truck is in the road backing up on the left,” said Officer Ritter, showing a deep bruise on his left breast area and cuts on his left arm. “I hear popping. Several pops. Suddenly my windshield explodes and there’s a hole right in front of my head. I was in shock. I leaned over into the passenger seat and slammed it in reverse around the corner, out of the line of sight.”

Chief Pickering said another officer from his department had returned fire from his own rifle. The chief did not reveal that officer’s name.

Funeral arrangements were being made for the volunteer firefighters who were killed: Michael Chiapperini, 43, and Tomasz Kaczowka, 19. The two firefighters who were severely wounded, Theodore Scardino and Joseph Hofstetter, remained in stable condition, in the intensive care unit at Strong Memorial Hospital.

In the chaos, seven houses burned and 33 residents were displaced.

Chief Pickering said all people were accounted for. Displaced residents were waiting Tuesday night to return to their homes along Lake Road.

John Kohut, 68, whose house burned down in Mr. Spengler’s attack, described him as quiet, socially awkward and “kind of rough” from his years spent in prison.

Last summer, Mr. Kohut had asked him if he wanted a beer because it was a hot day. “He said, ‘No, because I’m on meds,’ ” Mr. Kohut recalled Tuesday, while waiting to be let back onto Lake Road.

Liz Robbins reported from Webster, and Joseph Goldstein from New York. Reporting was contributed by Alain Delaquérière, Patrick McGeehan and Michael D. Regan.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: December 25, 2012

An earlier version of this article misstated the given name of Mr. Spengler’s sister. She is Cheryl Spengler, not Cherly.


December 25, 2012

Pay in Oil Fields, Not College, Is Luring Youths in Montana


SIDNEY, Mont. — For most high school seniors, a college degree is the surest path to a decent job and a stable future. But here in oil country, some teenagers are choosing the oil fields over universities, forgoing higher education for jobs with salaries that can start at $50,000 a year.

It is a lucrative but risky decision for any 18-year-old to make, one that could foreclose on his future if the frenzied pace of oil and gas drilling from here to North Dakota to Texas falters and work dries up. But with unemployment at more than 12 percent nationwide for young adults and college tuition soaring, students here on the snow-glazed plains of eastern Montana said they were ready to take their chances.

“I just figured, the oil field is here and I’d make the money while I could,” said Tegan Sivertson, 19, who monitors pipelines for a gas company, sometimes working 15-hour days. “I didn’t want to waste the money and go to school when I could make just as much.”

Less than a year after proms and homecoming games, teenagers like Mr. Sivertson now wake at 4 a.m. to make the three-hour trek to remote oil rigs. They fish busted machinery out of two-mile-deep hydraulic fracturing wells and repair safety devices that keep the wells from rupturing, often working alongside men old enough to be their fathers. Some live at home; others drive back on weekends to eat their mothers’ food, do loads of laundry and go to high school basketball games, still straddling the blurred border between childhood and adulthood.

Just as gold rushes and silver booms once brought opera houses and armies of prospectors to rugged corners of the West, today’s headlong race for oil and gas is reshaping staid communities in the northern Plains, bringing once untold floods of cash and job prospects, but also deep anxieties about crime, growth and a future newly vulnerable to cycles of boom and bust.

Even gas stations are enticing students away from college. Katorina Pippenger, a high school senior in the tiny town of Bainville, Mont., said she makes $24 an hour as a cashier in nearby Williston, N.D., the epicenter of the boom. Her plan is to work for a few years after she graduates this spring, save up and flee. She likes the look of Denver. “I just want to make money and get out,” she said.

The shift appears to be localized around centers of oil production like Sidney. School counselors in western Montana, far from the boom, said that few of their students were abandoning college for energy jobs. And even here, a majority of graduates are still choosing universities and community colleges.

But school officials in eastern Montana said more and more students were interested in working for at least a year after graduation and getting technical training instead of a four-year degree.

Last year, one-third of the graduating seniors at Sidney High School headed off to work instead of going to college or joining the military, a record percentage. Some found work making deliveries to oil rigs, doing construction and repairing machinery. Others decided to first seek training as welders or diesel mechanics, which pay more than entry-level jobs.

Meanwhile, enrollment at Dawson Community College in Glendive, about an hour from Sidney, has fallen to 225 students from 446 just a few years ago, as fewer local students pursue two-year degrees.

“It’s the allure of the money,” said Thom Barnhart, a guidance counselor at Sidney High.

As more families arrive from Florida and Michigan and throughout Montana, seeking a new start after bankruptcies and layoffs, schools in places like Sidney are buckling. School enrollment leapt to 863 students from 723 in three years. The district is scrambling to hire good teachers who can get by on a $32,000 yearly salary in a town where apartments can rent for $1,500 a month. Freshmen are sharing lockers, and the district reopened a school that had been shuttered for years.

But every year, hundreds of those new students depart within a few weeks, tugged along by parents heading off to another job in another town.

“It’s a revolving door,” said Daniel Farr, the district’s superintendent.

At the end of a gravel highway in northeastern Montana, graduating seniors in Bainville are asking similar questions about their future. Should they get an education and pursue their interests? Or should they stick close to home and surf a wave of cash and jobs that will only grow as companies begin to build a new industrial rail terminal and worker camps, forever transforming this quiet farm town where residents say the population has doubled since the 2010 census found 300.

Dmetri Ross, 17, said he would join his father and uncle at an outpost of Nabors Industries in western North Dakota, working in a lab running tests on water samples and cement related to drilling.

“I’d be happy to make a career out of it,” he said.

Renee Rasmussen, the Bainville school superintendent, said she worried about young people like these if oil prices plunged or the government passed new regulations limiting the fracking techniques that have driven this energy rush. If they go back to school, they could be hurt by the delay. A 2005 federal Department of Education report showed that students who delayed college were more likely to drop out.

School officials said that few teenagers were working directly for energy companies. Instead, they are working with the wide range of support companies that excavate, build and maintain the wells, or, in a race with the dizzying pace of growth, construct the hotels, apartments and camps for employees. Starved for workers, many companies offer $20 an hour to start, plus benefits.

“They’ve come here looking for dropouts in the past,” said Bruce Clausen, the principal of Dawson County High School in Glendive, who said that a few students had gone to work in the oil fields after dropping out. “I told them I appreciate them not coming out here.”

Nobody needed to recruit Shay Findlay. One day after he graduated from Sidney High School, he drove into town and started looking for work. He found a job on the first try, doing repair work on drilling pumps.

He is 19 and on his second job now, earning about $40,000 a year and still sleeping in a bedroom in his parents’ basement decorated with his high school graduation picture and diploma. He bought a dirt bike and a flat-screen television, and took out a loan on a hulking black Chevy Silverado truck with personalized license plates — FDLSTIX — for his childhood nickname, Fiddlesticks.

His mother, Stacy Gustafson, said she worried about exposing her son to the accidents, alcoholism and violence that haunt oil workers. She is glad he still comes home after each shift. Mr. Findlay said he had no complaints about the job. His family comes from the oil fields, and he said he liked the work and was good at it.

Now, his friends are filtering back to Sidney after their first semesters at college, and their stories of dorm-room dramas and drunken scuffles with campus police officers are like reports from another world. He said he misses them sometimes, but would not trade places with them.

“They’re going to have to come back and look for work,” he said. “And there’s nothing but oil fields over here.”


December 25, 2012

Los Angeles Weighs Law Banning Elephant Shows


LOS ANGELES — The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus train has been bringing four-ton Asian elephants to this city since 1919.

But “The Greatest Show on Earth” might have made its last stop here.

Los Angeles is poised to ban elephants from performing in circuses within its city limits, after pressure from animal welfare advocates who have for decades condemned the methods used to train and transport elephants as abusive and cruel.

If the City Council adopts the ban early next year, Ringling Brothers, the oldest continuously operated circus in the country, will be barred from the nation’s second-largest city unless its owners agree to abandon one of the show’s signature acts.

“The treatment of elephants in traveling circuses is one of the crueler practices, and it’s time for us to stand up for them,” said Paul Koretz, the City Council member who sponsored the ban. He predicted that once Los Angeles outlawed circus elephants, other communities would follow. “At some point, this will be universally banned throughout the country,” he said.

The movement to ban elephant acts, which had until recently made little progress in this country, may now have found a foothold in Southern California, a region that has emerged as a hub of animal welfare legislation of all kinds. (It is illegal for pet owners to declaw their cats in this city, while in neighboring West Hollywood, the city government went so far as to officially deem pets “companion animals” and their owners “guardians.”)

Six Southern California cities already ban circus elephants, more than in any other state, according to animal welfare organizations. In addition, over the last year, the Santa Ana Zoo and the Orange County Fair both stopped offering elephant rides.

Ringling Brothers has fought back, arguing that its treatment of elephants, tigers and other animals is humane, and pointing to frequent inspections by the Department of Agriculture as proof that the animals are receiving exemplary care.

But the fight over whether elephants should be allowed to perform in traveling shows is only partly about how they are treated: an endangered species, Asian elephants are part of a broader debate over how, and whether, humans should interact with wild animals.

Trainers argue that letting people interact with elephants makes them more likely to support conservation efforts.

“Seeing animals up close is one of the main reasons people come to Ringling Brothers,” said Stephen Payne, a spokesman for Feld Entertainment, which bought Ringling Brothers in 1967. “Animal rights organizations want no human-animal interaction, period, regardless of how the animals are cared for.”

Elephants had been trained to work with humans for thousands of years before they became fixtures in circuses and roaming carnivals (just ask Hannibal). Intelligent and normally docile, they can learn tricks like headstands for wide-eyed children.

But pressure on circuses to drop wild animal acts has grown steadily, as activists have waged a campaign to convince the public that it is cruel to haul animals back and forth across the country to perform in front of crowds.

Animal rights organizations have criticized the conditions in which the animals are kept, offering what they say is evidence of mistreatment, including undercover videos of handlers hitting elephants over the head with bull hooks, rods with a curved, sharp end long used to train and control elephants.

Some organizations, like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, want to remove animals not only from circuses but also from zoos, even though those animals are not made to travel in boxcars or perform tricks.

“For the circuses, profit is always the priority,” said Lindsay Rajt, a spokeswoman for PETA. “Any time animals are used for profit, you’re going to see corners cut on their welfare, because it’s not the top priority.”

Even people who are not actively involved in animal rights have grown more receptive to this argument.

Rebecca Goldstein, a Los Angeles resident, said it would be a shame if she could not take children of her own to see a circus with live animals, like the one she went to when she was young.

“But if the way they’re treating animals is inhumane,” Ms. Goldstein, 29, said, “I’ll take them to see people instead.”

More than a dozen countries have banned at least some wild animals from performing in public. Several major American circuses have voluntarily eliminated animals from their shows, instead focusing on human acrobatics, while zoos, including the Los Angeles Zoo, have moved away from use of the bull hook.

But the pull to see elephants up close has proved a difficult force to overcome. Lawsuits designed to force Ringling Brothers to abandon elephant acts have been dismissed. Only a scattering of relatively small cities have adopted bans of their own.

About 10 million people nationwide came to see Ringling Brothers circuses in 2012, according to Feld Entertainment, including 100,000 in Los Angeles.

Despite the continued popularity of elephant acts, though, some elephant trainers fear that their work may soon be outlawed.

Kari Johnson, a co-owner of Have Trunk Will Travel, a company that trains and rents elephants for shows, including Hollywood movies, said the end of elephant rides in Orange County had hurt her business. A ban in Los Angeles could be ruinous.

“I believe if something drastic doesn’t happen, then we will be the last generation that trains elephants,” said Ms. Johnson, whose stepfather was also an elephant trainer. “People love elephants because they get to be around them a little.”

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« Reply #3699 on: Dec 27, 2012, 07:20 AM »

India Ink - Notes on the World's Largest Democracy
December 27, 2012, 6:54 am

After Delhi Rape Victim Leaves India, Questions Raised About Media’s Role


On Wednesday night, the entrance of Safdarjung Hospital in New Delhi resembled a carnival, overrun with police officers, eager journalists and curious passersby.  At least two dozen television news vans were staked outside, awaiting the latest word on the condition of the 23-year-old woman who was gang-raped on a Delhi bus last week.

Reporters gave on-camera analysis and competed for snippets of "exclusive" news from the hospital authorities, while drivers stopped to gawk at the spectacle. Inside, security officers guarded the premises like a fortress.  At 10:30 p.m., the woman departed the hospital for the airport, to be flown to Singapore for further treatment; she left Safdarjung in a procession consisting of three ambulances, as many police vans and multiple police cars, with dozens of television vans not far behind.

The Indian news media's coverage of the Delhi gang rape and its aftermath has started to resemble the kind of play-by-play commentary once seen only in cricket matches, with a focus on the short-term and the sensational that is drawing criticism from many quarters.

On his Facebook page, actor Amitabh Bachchan wrote "Ethics be damned !!," and cited a story of a journalist who once came to his hospital room dressed as a doctor.

Noopor Tiwari, a journalist based in Paris, writes that in concentrating on stories like the Delhi gang rape,  the Indian media risk making other, more common forms of rape, such as acquaintance rape or marital rape, seem less serious. The Indian Express argued in an editorial that the nonstop coverage was breeding "bloodlust" in Delhi, saying that the recent protests in the capital had been "amplified and primed up hysterically by the electronic media."

Unlike in many previous high-profile rape cases, the media (and the police) have not made the victim's name public. But critics say the coverage has not only been incendiary but has, yet again, painted a rape victim as a shamed woman.

Activists from women's groups say it is important to speak of rape not as the ruination of a life, but as a horrific act that one can survive and move on from. "There is this tendency to equate rape with the end of the girl's life, which sends a very counterproductive message," said Jayati Ghosh, a professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University. "The media tend to refer to the girl as a victim - I believe that rape is an act of extreme physical violence from which one is a survivor and not a victim."

The girl has been dubbed "Damini"  by protesters and on social networking sites, after a Hindi film about a woman's struggle for justice for a rape survivor. Another survivor of the attack last week, a male, 28-year-old software engineer who, like the woman, was beaten and thrown out of the moving bus, has also been hounded by reporters, but is said to have been so traumatized by the incident that his father is taking him to their hometown in Uttar Pradesh to recover.

On Thursday morning the 23-year-old was admitted to Mount Elizabeth Hospital in Singapore, which specializes in multi-organ transplant. The woman suffered severe injuries during the attack; at Safdarjung she underwent three abdominal operations and experienced a cardiac arrest.

On Thursday evening Kevin Loh, the chief executive of the hospital said in a statement that the patient is still in extremely critical condition and was being treated at the hospital's Intensive Care Unit. "A multi-disciplinary team of specialists is taking care of her and doing everything possible to stabilize her condition," he said. Earlier today, a hospital official told the Press Trust of India, "We request that the privacy of the patient and family be respected."

Barkha Dutt, a prominent Indian journalist, was among the first to reveal the name of the Singapore hospital on Twitter on Wednesday night, writing:

    The delhi bravehearts father and mother are accompanying her to singapore. The hospital is Mt Elizabeth, Gleneagles group. Prayers

    - barkha dutt (@BDUTT) 26 Dec 12

The release of this information incited some angry responses. One Twitter user, Pranav Sapra, wrote:

    Hey @BDUTT, you missed out on giving google map directions to that hospital in Singapore. Do that, you'll get more RTs and mentions here!

    - Pranav Sapra (@pranavsapra) 27 Dec 12

As of  Thursday morning, "Barkha Dutt" was trending in India on Twitter. Ms Dutt later tweeted:

    My appeal to my fraternity now. Let the girl and her family have some privacy. Her plane is leaving any moment. India prays for her

    - barkha dutt (@BDUTT) 26 Dec 12


India Ink - Notes on the World's Largest Democracy
December 27, 2012, 12:17 am

Delhi Police Deploy Mimes Against Sexual Assault


How well Delhi's police protect women, particularly from sexual attacks, has become an increasingly politicized issue after the Dec. 16 gang rape of a medical student on a moving bus. Protesters outraged over the crime, and the rise in reported rape cases in the city, have been calling for Delhi's police commissioner, Neeraj Kumar, to step down.

In 2005, the Delhi police created the Parivartan ("Change") program to increase awareness about women's safety in the nation's capital in response to several sexual attacks. India Ink recently took a look at the Parivartan program to learn more about how Delhi's police are trying to fight the problem of violence against women.

From the Ashok Vihar police station in West Delhi, Usha Sanghwan, an inspector, has run Parivartan for the past year. Her job includes sending female constables door to door in slum areas, talking about sexual violence with elders in the community and gathering information on reports of domestic and sexual violence from police-appointed "guardians," members of the community with clean records who are considered responsible.

Crimes against women are prevalent in West Delhi's slum areas. "It's not safe, even for our girls," Mrs. Sanghwan said in an interview. "The men in these localities are often under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and can be extremely resistant to our efforts, if not outright violent," she said.

Every week, constables and junior officers head out to the lower-income areas of Jahangirpuri, in north Delhi, to talk to residents on issues like sexual violence and substance abuse. Their three-pronged intervention, Mrs. Sanghwan said, includes one-one-one interactions, film screenings on the relevant themes, and pantomimes aimed at children, performed by the Delhi-based mime theater troupe Jagran.

Pantomime day is particularly popular, she said. Every fortnight in a different part of Jahangirpuri, a rickety stage is erected, usually facing blocks of makeshift shacks. A recent performance by Jagran drew a crowd of 200 children, some as young as two years old, others on the fringes of adulthood.

The troupe of four men and two women painted their faces in white with black outlines, with some of them in garish silk costumes. A dholki, or drummer, accompanied them on the side. The comically attired adults were introduced to their impressionable audience by a man standing opposite the drummer. Dressed plainly, microphone in hand, he was both narrator and watchdog.

The mimes typically perform three skits: the first about a young boy who falls victim to drugs, the second on the dangers women face from physically and verbally violent spouses, and the final one on the trauma of sexual abuse. During the skits, the narrator stops the action to call out questions to the children in the audience: "Should that man have behaved in this disgusting manner?" "Should they have kept quiet?" "Should she have alerted the Delhi Police?"

Plainclothes Delhi police officers who organized the show stood by, trying to blend in with the crowd. "We have been attempting to educate residents here," a constable, Abhishek Khatri, said as he watched the performance.

Mr. Khatri has been with the Parivartan unit for a little more than a year. "We can't change society, obviously," he said. But what the program is trying to do is "engage with different members of society - academics, teachers, social scientists, N.G.O.'s," he said, about "how to address the menace of violence and abuse."

"We need them to know that violence and sexual abuse are common, and that there is no shame in reporting a case of assault immediately," he said.

As he spoke, a colleague was called away to investigate a case of domestic violence in a neighboring block. "It is quite frustrating for us," Mr. Khatri said, "because there are so many reports of such violent acts, every day."

"There's only so much that you can do and you can say to the slum-dwellers," he said. "This kind of systemic violence is very hard for us to fight."

While we watched the final act of the troupe's performance, a 13-year-old boy started pulling viciously at a little girl's hair while slapping her across the face, for reasons unknown. Mr. Khatri quickly rushed over to break up the altercation, but by then the boy had disappeared. "It takes nothing to start a fight in Delhi, you see," Mr. Khatri said, grimacing. "We'll be chasing the same boy across state lines tomorrow."

Parivartan's effectiveness in the slum areas is limited, some police officials acknowledge. Those involved with the program said they have suggested that Parivartan be held in wealthier neighborhoods too, but resident associations there have dismissed the idea.

The impact of these programs "is very slow," said Suman Nalwa, additional deputy commissioner of the police and head of the women and children's unit, in a recent interview. "People remain in their own social circle, where their beliefs about sexuality, their beliefs about relationships are accentuated," she said.

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« Reply #3700 on: Dec 27, 2012, 07:26 AM »

U.N. pulls staff out of Central African Republic as rebels attack

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, December 26, 2012 20:30 EST

The United Nations on Wednesday ordered more than 200 non-essential staff and families of other workers to leave Central African Republic because of a rebel offensive against the government.

Rebel coalition troops have stopped short of the capital, but UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said “their contradictory messages and their continued military offensive seem to indicate that they might be intent on taking Bangui.”

“The temporary relocation is a precautionary measure to reduce our presence in the event the security situation further deteriorates in Bangui,” he added.

The decision “will not detract from the ability of the United Nations to continue its support to the peace consolidation and development efforts in the Central African Republic,” the UN spokesman said.

The United Nations has a major political mission in Central African Republic seeking to help the government overcome more than a decade of strife. More than 200 people are involved in the withdrawal order, a UN official said.

The Seleka coalition is made up of rebels who say President Francois Bozize has not honored peace accords signed between 2007 and 2011 that offered financial support and other help for insurgents who laid down their arms.

On Wednesday, the rebels urged government troops to lay down their weapons.

The insurgents are about 300 kilometers (200 miles) from Bangui and have said they do not plan to take the capital, where Bozizi is being helped by Chadian forces.

Demonstrations against former colonial power France have added to tensions.

Nesirky said the head of the UN mission in the country, Margaret Vogt, “continues to engage the Government and the rebel leaders with a view to ensuring a ceasefire and initiating dialogue.”

Meanwhile, statement said UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon “strongly condemns the armed attacks on several towns” in the country by the Seleka coalition.

“These developments gravely undermine the peace agreements in place and the efforts of the international community to consolidate peace in the Central African Republic.

“The secretary general deeply regrets the loss of life and population displacement caused by the fighting.”

Ban called on the rival sides to follow the decisions of the Central African summit on December 21, which he added could “provide a basis for a peaceful resolution of the dispute.”

Ban reminded the Central African Republic’s government “of its responsibility to ensure the safety and security of UN personnel and its premises.”
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« Reply #3701 on: Dec 27, 2012, 07:31 AM »

December 27, 2012

U.N. Envoy Calls for a Transitional Government in Syria


MOSCOW — The international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, on a mission to Damascus seeking an end to the escalating civil conflict in Syria, said Thursday that a transitional government should be granted full executive powers until President Bashar al-Assad’s term ends in 2014.

Mr. Brahimi’s remarks to journalists, reported by news agencies, follow intensive talks this week with Mr. Assad and a range of opposition figures.

Over the past month, Mr. Brahimi, as special representative from the United Nations and Arab League, has consulted extensively with both the United States and Russia in hopes of fulfilling of an accord reached in Geneva this summer calling for dialogue between Syria’s government and the opposition.

“The Syrian people seek genuine change,” he said. He emphasized the importance of preserving state institutions and warned that military intervention would “lead to the destruction of the Syrian state” according to Russia’s ITAR-TASS news service.

“There will be no victor in this war,” he said.

As a Syrian government delegation met with Russia’s top diplomats in Moscow, a spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Aleksandr K. Lukashevich, said there was no specific plan under discussion that would envisage a transitional government. Opposition figures have suggested that Mr. Brahimi presented Mr. Assad with offers either to cede some of his authority or to leave the country, but Mr. Lukashevich denied that. “There was and is no plan, it is not being discussed with Mr. Brahimi or with American colleagues,” he said.

Russia, a key ally of the government in Damascus, has long pointed to the Geneva agreement, which calls for negotiation between the government and the opposition, as the only acceptable basis for resolving the conflict.

But the agreement requires both Mr. Assad’s allies and Syrian opposition forces to agree to negotiate — a long shot, said Dmitri V. Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Earlier this year, he said, influential policy makers in Moscow favored a process like the one that led to the Dayton accords to end the Bosnian war of the 1990s: “Bring them together, close the door and don’t let them out until they reach an agreement.” He said he had serious doubts that either Moscow or Washington could induce the two sides to sit down at the table.

“Frankly, I see very little leverage that Russia has over Assad,” Mr. Trenin said. “Even if the United States were prepared to lean hard on the opposition, or push them toward some kind of negotiation, I do not see the Gulf states or the Turks backing that move.”

In recent weeks, Mr. Lukashevich said Thursday, Moscow has ratcheted up its diplomacy in an effort to “intensify dialogue, not only with the government but also with the opposition groups.” Top Russian officials met Thursday with Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal al-Meqdad. Mr. Brahimi will have his own meeting with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, in Moscow on Saturday.

Mr. Lukashevich said Russia was open to talks with Syria’s national opposition coalition, which has been recognized by many Western governments as representing the Syrian people.

“We are not rejecting this dialogue,” he said. “On the contrary, we are holding it very vigorously with all opposition groups who are also interested in getting better insight into the Russian approach.”

“It is obviously another question when and at what level they will take place,” he said.

Among the widely discussed sticking points for a possible transition plan is what role, if any, Mr. Assad and his allies would play in the process. Among the options being floated this week are an arrangement that would allow him to remain in office for most or all of the rest of his presidential term, which ends in 2014, but transferring much of his authority to a transitional body. A separate question is whether the agreement would allow him to run for re-election in 2014.

Mr. Lukashevich said Russia had no role in determining this.

“We are not lawyers for this regime,” he said. “We would prefer that the Syrians themselves should determine the prospects for their state’s further development.”

Ellen Barry reported from Moscow, and Kareem Fahim from Beirut, Lebanon.


Netanyahu met with Jordan’s King Abdullah to discuss Syria: reports

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, December 27, 2012 6:46 EST

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held talks with Jordan’s King Abdullah II in Amman recently to discuss violence in Syria and the country’s chemical weapons stock, Israeli media said Thursday.

Public radio, as well as several local newspapers, said Israeli and Jordanian officials had confirmed the meeting, which was first reported in the Al-Quds al-Arabi daily on Wednesday.

A spokesman for Netanyahu declined to comment on the reports.

The date of the meeting has not been reported, but Israeli media said the meeting focused on the regional threat posed by Syria’s chemical weapons stocks.

“Both sides arrived at the meeting with maps in hand,” the Yediot Aharonot daily said. “Their maps marked the various sites across Syria where the forbidden weapons are being stored.”

The newspaper cited Jordanian officials as saying the king and Netanyahu “raised situation assessments about the ‘day after Assad,’ and examined the danger posed by the chemical weapons in Syria to the neighbouring countries, first and foremost Jordan and Israel.”

The meeting also touched on Jordan’s attempts to kickstart negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, with the monarch urging Netanyahu to renew discussions directly after a general election on January 22.

“At this stage it is not clear what this Israeli-Jordanian brainstorming is going to produce,” analyst Smadar Peri wrote.

“The entire world wants (Syrian President Bashar) al-Assad gone, but Israel and Jordan — as well as Turkey and Lebanon — are going to have to deal with what he might do in his final moments in power.”

Assad’s stocks of chemical and biological weapons remain a primary concern for Syria’s neighbours as well as for much of the international community.

Assad’s regime has insisted it would never use the weapons against its own people, but as violence between the regime and rebels seeking its overthrow rages on, there are fears an embattled leadership could unleash the weapons.

The international community also fears the weapons could be transferred to or seized by militant groups.


December 26, 2012

Syrian General Whose Task Was Halting Defections Flees


BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syria’s government suffered an embarrassing new setback as the top general responsible for preventing defections within the military became a defector himself, making what insurgents described on Wednesday as a daring back-roads escape by motorcycle across the border into Turkey.

The defector, Maj. Gen. Abdul Aziz Jassem al-Shallal, the chief of the military police, was one of the highest-ranking military officers to abandon President Bashar al-Assad in the nearly two-year-old uprising against him.

His departure, first reported by Al Arabiya late on Tuesday evening and confirmed by opposition figures on Wednesday, came as a flurry of diplomatic activity suggested the possibility of movement toward a political solution to the Syrian crisis. A deputy Syrian foreign minister flew to Moscow for meetings with Kremlin officials, and the international envoy who met with Mr. Assad in Damascus earlier this week was planning to visit Moscow this weekend. Russia, one of Mr. Assad’s most ardent foreign defenders, has in recent weeks suggested it was open to a negotiated transition that would ease him out of power.

Opposition figures said General Shallal’s defection had taken weeks to prepare and ended with a four-hour sprint by motorcycle to the Turkish border, driving through woods and on muddy roads. In a video broadcast by Al Arabiya, the general said that he had taken the step because the Syrian military had deviated from its mission to protect the country, and had transformed into “a gang for killing and destruction.”

“The regime army has lost control over most of the country,” the general said in an interview on the Saudi-owned channel, which has heavily criticized the Syrian government.

Opposition fighters embraced the defection as more than a symbolic blow to the government because of the general’s primary responsibility as an enforcer of Mr. Assad’s repression of dissent and guarantor of loyalty by the armed forces. As head of the military police, General Shallal was responsible for the department that was supposed to stop defections. He also presided over a force that guarded prisons where civilian dissidents were held.

Maj. Ibrahim Moutawe, who defected from the Syrian Army a year ago, said defection was a “last resort” for high-ranking officials like General Shallal. “They only consider it when fear and danger begin to threaten them directly, and when the regime can no longer protect them,” he said.

General Shallal was not a member of Mr. Assad’s inner circle, and analysts said that the defections of other officials with impressive titles — including the prime minister, a brigadier general and a well-known government spokesman — had done little to shake Mr. Assad’s basic hold on power.

More critically, the opposition has failed to attract either officers or rank-and-file soldiers belonging to Syria’s Alawite minority, the sect that Mr. Assad belongs to, doing little to assuage fears among Alawites that the Sunni-led insurgency threatens their existence, analysts said.

But the departure of a major general who publicly condemned the armed forces seemed likely to undercut Mr. Assad’s attempts to maintain morale.

The negotiations for the general’s defection began weeks ago, after members of his tribe reached out to opposition commanders, according to Louay Mekdad, the political and media coordinator for the Free Syrian Army, an umbrella organization for rebel fighting groups. Mr. Mekdad said that the general had tried to defect several times before, but had been prevented for what he called “technical reasons,” without giving any more detail.

Rebel commanders gave differing accounts of how much power the general had held in Syria. One commander said he had been a member of Mr. Assad’s “crisis team” of top military, security and intelligence officials coordinating the government’s response to the war. Capt. Adnan Dayoub, a rebel commander in Hama, said that General Shallal had been responsible for prisons — “God knows how many,” he said — and was almost certainly guilty of crimes.

“He’s contaminated from top to bottom,” the captain said. “Tomorrow he will be a hero.”

Another commander said General Shallal and many other top military leaders had been stripped of power during the last two years, and served as figureheads. One Syrian security official was quoted by Reuters as saying the general had been near retirement when he defected.

Among civilians who have abandoned Mr. Assad, the highest-ranking defector so far has been the prime minister, Riyad Farid Hijab, who fled to Jordan on Aug. 6. In the past few weeks, unconfirmed reports have also abounded about the possible defection of Syria’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, who had numerous foreign contacts and who disappeared from public view in early December.

The Guardian reported this week that Mr. Makdissi had fled to the United States and was cooperating with American intelligence. But Patrick Ventrell, a State Department spokesman in Washington, said Wednesday that Mr. Makdissi was not in the United States.

Mr. Makdissi’s whereabouts and status remained murky. American officials said that they did not know where he was, and that reports this month saying that Mr. Makdissi had flown to London were incorrect.

In Lebanon, Syria’s interior minister, Muhammad Ibrahim al-Shaar, who had been recovering at a Beirut hospital from wounds said to have been received in a Dec. 12 suicide bombing outside his offices in Damascus, was on his way back to the Syrian capital on Wednesday, according to a Lebanese security official.

In a sign of the growing pressure on top Syrian officials, a Lebanese security official was quoted by The Associated Press as saying that Mr. Shaar had left the hospital abruptly for fear of arrest in Lebanon, after the authorities received information of a possible international warrant against him for his role in suppressing the Syrian uprising.

Against the backdrop of the Assad government’s growing isolation, Russia appeared to be playing a more active diplomatic role. An official from Russia’s Foreign Ministry was quoted by the Itar-Tass news service as saying that a Syrian government delegation would meet Thursday with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov. That will be followed on Saturday by a visit from the special representative from the United Nations and Arab League, Lakhdar Brahimi, who has been in Syria this week.

Mr. Brahimi is widely believed to have presented Mr. Assad with a proposal that would allow him to remain in his post for a specified amount of time, but require him to transfer his authority to a transitional government.

Russia has staunchly opposed military intervention in Syria, insisting on a negotiated solution. But its officials have acknowledged that Mr. Assad’s forces are losing control, and are preparing for a chaotic period of transition.

Fyodor Lukyanov, a top analyst, said Russia would be eager for a solution that imposed a political process and ruled out “regime change by force.” Any formulation that allowed Mr. Assad to remain until the end of his term in 2014 — and especially one that put the choice into the hands of Syrian voters — would be seen in Russia as a “very, very good solution,” said Mr. Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs.

Kommersant, a respected daily newspaper, reported that the sticking point in Mr. Brahimi’s proposal is whether Mr. Assad would retain the right to run for office again when his presidential term ends. The newspaper reported that Mr. Assad insists on retaining that right.

Kommersant also reported that Russia and the United States had discussed the question of asylum for Mr. Assad, mentioning specifically the United Arab Emirates, Belarus or Venezuela.

Mr. Lavrov has said Russia will not pressure the Syrian leader to leave. “We don’t get involved in regime change,” he told Russia Today, a cable news channel.

Kareem Fahim reported from Beirut, and Rick Gladstone from New York. Reporting was contributed by Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Ellen Barry from Moscow, Hala Droubi from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.

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« Reply #3702 on: Dec 27, 2012, 07:35 AM »

December 26, 2012

Morsi Admits ‘Mistakes’ in Drafting Egypt’s Constitution


CAIRO — President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt took responsibility on Wednesday for “mistakes” during the run-up to ratification of the new Constitution and urged Egyptians to appreciate the fierce disagreements about it as a “healthy phenomenon” of their new democracy.

Appealing for unity after the bitter debate over the charter, which was finalized by his Islamist allies over the objections of opposition parties and the Coptic Christian Church, Mr. Morsi pledged in a televised address to respect the one-third of voters who cast ballots against it. “This is their right, because Egypt of the revolution — Egypt’s people and its elected president — can never feel annoyed by the active patriotic opposition,” he said, bobbing his head between the camera and the lectern as he read from a prepared text. “We don’t want to go back to the era of the one opinion and fabricated fake majorities.”

But Mr. Morsi offered no concrete concessions, and he did not acknowledge any specific errors, saying only, “There have been mistakes here and there, and I bear responsibility.” His most tangible outreach to the opposition was an invitation to join a so-called national dialogue that has already begun under his auspices. Hussein Abdel Ghani, a spokesman for the main opposition bloc, dismissed it as “a dialogue with himself” based on “political bribes.”

Still, Mr. Morsi’s attempt at reconciliation, however vague or superficial, represented another notable step in Egypt’s political transition. Here was a recently elected politician seeking to move from the brutally partisan campaign back to the political middle. The speech echoed many American inaugural addresses.

It was a stark contrast to Mr. Morsi’s previous speech, given just 20 days ago, when he sounded far more like his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak. Then, Mr. Morsi attributed a night of deadly violence between his Islamist supporters and their opponents to a conspiracy of foreign agents, old-regime insiders and his political rivals.

“As we all welcome difference in opinion, we all reject violence and breaking the law,” Mr. Morsi said Wednesday, without blaming either side this time.

In Egypt, where previous presidents more often jailed political opponents, even Mr. Morsi’s limited mea culpa appeared to be the first of its kind in decades. The last presidential apology was President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s speech offering his short-lived resignation after the humiliation of losing the 1967 war with Israel, said Khaled Fahmy, a liberal historian at the American University in Cairo. “It is the only thing comparable in its clarity,” Mr. Fahmy said. (Nasser’s theatrical resignation was rejected in a staged plebiscite.)

But at a news conference on Wednesday that was billed as a response to Mr. Morsi, the opposition leaders said they had not even listened to the speech. Mr. Abdel Ghani said the opposition coalition leaders had been in a meeting to draft a statement calling for new protests against the Constitution on the anniversary of the uprising that overthrew Mr. Mubarak on Jan. 25.

In its statement, the coalition complained of “scandalous violations that amounted to fraud” in the referendum that approved the Constitution.

“Even if this Constitution is considered approved legally,” the coalition said, “it lacks moral legitimacy, political legitimacy and popular legitimacy because it lacks national consensus.”

But with the results confirmed, the new order began to take shape. The Islamist-dominated upper house of Parliament met on Wednesday for the first time under provisions of the Constitution that empower it to act as the legislature until the election of a new lower house. The upper house had been almost powerless under the former Constitution, but a court order disbanded the more authoritative lower house last spring while Egypt was still under military rule.

The upper house’s first move was to relocate to the lower house chambers until the new elections, which are expected to be held in two months.

The Supreme Constitutional Court accepted its reconstitution under the new charter, which removed several of the most recently appointed judges. The reduction in its size effectively purged certain judges, including some who were Mubarak loyalists appointed in recent years and one who was an outspoken opponent who was often cast in the role of a villain by the Islamists.

The court’s response to the Constitution had been a matter of some suspense. Mr. Morsi and his Islamist allies had feared that the court would strike down the assembly that was created to draw up the charter, just as it had dissolved the lower house of Parliament, or would seek to review the Constitution. In a pre-emptive strike, Mr. Morsi sought last month to temporarily elevate his own powers over the court, setting off a month of sometimes violent battles between the Islamists and their opponents.

Since then, Mr. Morsi has come under growing international pressure to compromise and resolve the tensions.

After taking a notably evenhanded tone toward Mr. Morsi and his opponents through the stormy days after his power grab, the United States State Department said this week that the onus was on Mr. Morsi to pull Egypt back together. “Democracy requires much more than simple majority rule,” said a department spokesman, Patrick Ventrell. “It requires protecting the rights and building the institutions that make democracy meaningful and durable.

“President Morsi, as the democratically elected leader of Egypt, has a special responsibility to move forward in a way that recognizes the urgent need to bridge divisions, build trust and broaden support for the political process,” he added.

Mr. Morsi declared in his speech on Wednesday that Egypt was “moving steadfastly toward democracy and pluralism.” Under the new Constitution, he said, “everyone is equal without any discrimination.”

“No matter what were the hardships of the past period, I see it as the pain of birthing the new Egypt,” Mr. Morsi said. “It is truly the dawn of the new Egypt, which has risen and is now shining.”

Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting.
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« Reply #3703 on: Dec 27, 2012, 07:40 AM »

December 26, 2012

Ex-Premier Is Chosen to Govern Japan Again


TOKYO — Parliament formally elected Shinzo Abe as prime minister on Wednesday, ending a three-year break from decades of near-constant rule by his conservative Liberal Democratic Party.

The victory puts Mr. Abe, 58, a former prime minister and an outspoken nationalist, at Japan’s helm as it faces the growing burden of its aging population, years of industrial decline and the challenge of an increasingly assertive China. The change in prime ministers is the seventh in six years, a high turnover that is itself a sign of the nation’s inability to escape its long economic funk.

Mr. Abe won the support of 328 members of the 480-seat lower house, a total that included votes from the Liberal Democrats’ coalition partner, a small Buddhist party.

Mr. Abe’s pro-business party won a landslide victory over the left-leaning Democratic Party in lower-house elections on Dec. 16. Earlier on Wednesday, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and his cabinet resigned to make way for the new leader.

Despite Mr. Abe’s vows to strengthen control of a chain of islands in the East China Sea that both Japan and China claim, he has played down any confrontations between Tokyo and its Asian neighbors since the elections, instead focusing his agenda on lifting Japan’s economy out of recession before the upper-house elections next summer.

Mr. Abe has vowed to encourage growth quickly by offering 10 trillion yen, or about $120 billion, in public works and other emergency stimulus spending. He has also promised to force the central bank to move more aggressively to combat deflation and to weaken the value of the yen, actions that would offer relief to beleaguered export industries by making Japanese products cheaper abroad.

The measures are intended to revive the economy ahead of the elections in June, to give Mr. Abe’s party a better chance of winning the upper house and, with it, control of Parliament. Mr. Abe will have to hurry to retain the support of Japan’s weary voters, who have shown themselves quick to turn against leaders who fail to deliver on promises of change.

Immediately after the vote on Wednesday, Mr. Abe began appointing a cabinet filled with relatively young and unknown faces. While many of these appointees are Mr. Abe’s friends, the fresh lineup is also apparently intended to emphasize that the party has changed since it was driven from power three years ago.

Among the few veterans in the cabinet is Taro Aso, 72, a former prime minister, who was appointed finance minister. The post of foreign minister went to Fumio Kishida, 55, a former minister in charge of Okinawan affairs. He is expected to try to smooth ties with the United States, which have been frayed by a dispute over an American air base on Okinawa.

Mr. Abe will face other early challenges, like bridging a rift within his party over whether Japan should join a new regional free-trade agreement led by the United States. The pact, called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, is supported by business leaders but opposed by farmers, two groups that are among the staunchest supporters of the Liberal Democrats.

Another challenge will be responding to China’s stepped-up efforts to assert its claims to the disputed islands, which Japan calls the Senkaku and China calls the Diaoyu. Chinese ships and, more recently, aircraft now make almost daily incursions into Japanese-controlled waters and airspace near the islands, with no signs of letting up.

Mr. Abe has been vague about whether he will shift his energies to his long-held desire to rewrite Japan’s antiwar Constitution to allow for a full-fledged military.

Mr. Abe and other conservatives say such a step is needed for Japan to stand up for itself in light of China’s growing strength, and to share more of the regional security burden with the United States. However, the move could also be seen as provocative by China and South Korea, two victims of Japan’s World War II-era militaristic policies.


Japan’s new pro-business government set to dismantle ‘zero nuclear power by 2040′ goal

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, December 27, 2012 4:55 EST

Japan’s new leaders set to work Thursday on dismantling plans to rid the country of nuclear power by 2040, pledging to review a post-Fukushima policy.

The pro-business Liberal Democratic Party-led government also said they would give the green light to any reactors deemed safe by regulators, indicating shuttered power stations could start coming back online.

“We need to reconsider the previous administration’s policy that aimed to make zero nuclear power operation possible during the 2030s,” Toshimitsu Motegi told a news conference.

Shinzo Abe, who was elected as prime minister and unveiled his cabinet line-up on Wednesday, appointed Motegi as his economy, trade and industry minister, also in charge of supervising the nuclear industry.

Abe’s LDP won a landslide victory in the December 16 election, returning to power after a three-year break.

Despite anti-nuclear sentiment running high in Japan following the Fukushima disaster, parties opposing atomic energy made little impact at the ballot box.

Motegi said he was ready to give the go-ahead to resuming generation at nuclear power plants “if they are confirmed safe”.

All but two of Japan’s reactors remain offline after being shuttered for regular safety checks following the crisis at Fukushima when a tsunami knocked out cooling systems.

Hundreds of thousands of people were made homeless by meltdowns, which spewed radiation over a wide area of farmland.

Power plant operators must get permission from the newly-formed Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) before their reactors can be restarted.

In June then-prime minister Yoshihiko Noda ordered the restarting of reactors at Oi amid fears of a summer power shortage, but he vowed ahead of the election to phase out nuclear power by 2040.

Motegi said abandoning Japan’s only reprocessing plant for spent nuclear fuel at Rokkasho in the far north “is not an option”.

Some experts have warned the plant could sit on an active seismic fault and would be vulnerable to a massive earthquake.

If regulators agree they will have to order its closure and Japan would be without any recycling capacity of its own.

Resource-poor Japan, which relied on atomic power for around a third of its electricity has poured billions of dollars into its nuclear fuel recycling programme, in which uranium and plutonium are extracted from spent fuel for re-use in nuclear power plants.

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« Reply #3704 on: Dec 27, 2012, 07:48 AM »

12/27/2012 01:42 PM

Mortgage Nightmares: Forced Evictions Become Focus of Spanish Crisis

By Helene Zuber

After a record number in 2012, forced evictions in Spain have become the symbol of a crisis that shows no signs of improving. Next year isn't likely to be any better, but with more attention now being paid to those losing their homes, relief in the form of legal reform may soon be on the way.

Joan Peinado Garrido, 59, can't sleep at night and he's lost his appetite. He takes various medications and, has resumed stuttering when he's upset. The frail man gently guides his 86-year-old mother, María José, from the tiled kitchen to the living room.

The old woman uses a cane and is dependent on her son's help for more than just walking. For half a century, the family has been living in the white corner house at 52 Avenida Mediterránea in the town of Vidreres, near the provincial capital of Girona northeast of Barcelona. Now, Peinado has to vacate his home -- and he has no idea where he, his unemployed daughter Mireilla, 28, his seven-year-old grandson and his mother will find lodging.

It smells like cleanser in the house. The floors of the kitchen and bathroom are sparkling clean, and the wineglasses are arranged in neat rows in the living room glass cabinet. Grandson Marc has created a nearly perfect circle with his toy cars in front of his bed. His grandfather sleeps on a nearby cot. There are no boxes or other indications that the family is about to move.

Some 400,000 eviction proceedings have been opened in Spain since 2007, with roughly half of the families involved having already lost residential properties due to foreclosures. For most of them, these were their homes. Now, in the fifth year of the financial crisis, the evictions have become an iconic image of the country's economic plight. During the first six months of this year alone, the Consejo De Poder Jucicial, a professional association of judges, registered 94,502 repossessions -- and the evictions reached a record 532 a day during the first half of 2012.

No End in Sight

What happens to people who lose not only their jobs, but whose homes and hopes for a better future are taken away? There are now 1.7 million Spanish households in which not a single family member still earns a salary. Nearly 4 million people have lost their jobs since late 2007, when the real estate bubble burst. More than half of those out of work in Spain are now considered to be long-term unemployed. The result is that an increasing number of them can no longer service the loans they took to purchase apartments, houses and commercial space during the boom years prior to the crisis.

According to a forecast by the Spanish central bank, the number of foreclosures will increase by another 30 percent in the coming year. And as the year draws to a close, there is no end in sight to the financial crisis. The outlook for 2013 is grim.

Small companies are facing bankruptcy, large companies are announcing additional layoffs and international corporations are pulling out of the country. The Madrid Confederation of Employers and Industries estimates that economic output could drop by a further 1.3 percent in the coming year, with the ranks of the unemployed likely to swell to over 6 million.

Currently, 12.7 million people are already forced to survive on less than 60 percent of the average Spanish income, meaning that 27 percent of the population is living below the poverty threshold. A joint study by UNICEF, Oxfam and Doctors Without Borders concluded that the country will need over 20 years to regain the standard of living it attained in the prosperous, pre-crisis years.

The crisis has "altered Spain's DNA," says Francisco Lorenzo, who heads a social research group at the Catholic aid organization Caritas. Lorenzo notes that "we are currently transforming from a society with poverty to an impoverished society."

One year after the government of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy took office, the country is worse off than ever. In mid-December, Spain received nearly €40 billion ($53 billion) from the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) to restructure its ailing banks. But experts in Madrid and Brussels still fear that the government will have to apply for a bailout of the entire economy in early 2013. And the unstable political situation in Italy could also drive up interest rates on Spanish sovereign bonds, making it increasingly difficult for Spain to acquire fresh capital.

Justice for the Rich?

In early December, Rajoy said that if his country needed to ask the ESM for a bailout, it would do so, but he insisted that Spain currently does not need such aid. To quarantine toxic mortgages issued by the country's savings and loans and banks (known as cajas), the government has created a "bad bank" as part of its package of measures to combat the crisis. They have not, however, managed to restore the Spanish people's lost confidence in their own economy. Teachers and students are protesting cutbacks in education spending, doctors oppose the privatization of public hospitals, and judges object to plans to charge a fee for civil court cases, which they say would mean justice only for the rich.

The mounting poverty across the country -- and its most visible manifestation, the evictions -- now affects pensioners, who have used their own homes as collateral to take out loans for their sons and daughters, along with the once well-off middle class and young self-employed professionals. The situation is particularly dire in Catalonia, above all in the area around Girona, where unemployment has now reached 26 percent.

It is a situation that has received much attention in recent weeks, following four suicides of people who were about to lose their homes. The Rajoy government quickly ordered a two-year moratorium on evictions -- but only for cases of extreme hardship. Families will be given a temporary reprieve if they have more than two children and an annual income of less than €19,000, more than half of which has to be used for mortgage payments. This also applies to single parents with children under the age of three. But the interest on their loans continues to accumulate.

The moratorium does not apply to Joan Peinado. A food chemist, he used to work at the local dairy and now receives a disability pension following a work-related accident 20 years and 10 knee operations ago. He is not recognized as a hardship case.

At 8 a.m. on Friday, Dec. 14, over 100 women and men braved icy winds to gather under clear skies in front of Peinado's white house in Vidreres. It was the day when the eviction squad was due to arrive, but the assembled supporters were determined to stand in the way. Two police officers parked their patrol car on the other side of the street.

Instantaneous Repayment

Peinado's ordeal dates back to when he signed a mortgage for €160,200 with the Caja Madrid savings and loan, which was looking to acquire new customers in Catalonia. In early 2006, he decided to purchase the parental home in Vidreres from his widowed mother.

At the time, his wife was still working. But she left him three years ago. His daughter lost her job and, with her small son, moved back to live with her father, who also has to look after the grandmother. With a disability pension of €1,050, Peinado could no longer afford to pay the monthly installments of €700. To make matters worse, the family's old-fashioned house has become virtually unsellable. It is located in the aspiring community of Vidreres, where large new condominium projects were rapidly built on the outskirts of town during Spain's real estate boom years.

In May 2010, Peinado's savings and loan, which has since been purchased by the Spanish banking conglomerate Bankia, took him to court and demanded early and instantaneous repayment of the entire loan -- including interest on arrears and legal fees. All in all, Peinado was asked to come up with more than €210,000. Since he could not meet their demands, the presiding judge ordered his eviction in September. Bankia, which was nationalized in May, subsequently repossessed the property at 60 percent of its original estimated value.

The amount remaining on the mortgage, however, still has to be paid to the bank. According to Spanish law, Peinado, though he lost his property, remains legally liable to service the home loan, including late charges -- if need be, for the rest of his life. In desperation, Peinado turned for help to an initiative called "Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca" (PAH), or "Mortgage Holders' Platform." Since it was founded in Barcelona nearly four years ago, the organization has been able to prevent 510 evictions. Lawyers provide free services to help individuals deal with legal formalities and negotiate with banks. Protest and support groups are forming all across the country. Even Spain's predominantly conservative judges have taken to the streets to protest the widespread evictions.

On the day when Peinado was to be evicted, Marta Afuera from PAH came from Girona to support him. She accompanied him to the courthouse in the small city of Santa Coloma de Farners to review the eviction notice. They had already managed to get a four-week extension back in November. Afuera says that it's "inhuman" to leave the family in suspense right up to the last minute.

Tarninshing Its Image

When Afuera and Peinado returned to Vidreres that morning with the news that the family's eviction had been postponed until further notice, the crowd clad in green PAH T-shirts cheered. Two days earlier, Peinado's bank had asked the presiding judge to suspend the eviction. The financial institution had just received billions in EU bailout money -- and apparently didn't want to risk tarnishing its image just a few days before Christmas.

The eviction, to be sure, has not been permanently averted. Nevertheless, young and old protesters waved red cardboard stop signs and hand-painted banners. "Together we are strong," they chanted. Peinado grabbed a microphone, said thank you and hardly stuttered at all. He beamed with relief, finally freed of "the noose that I have felt around my neck for days now."

Joan Bossacoma from the town of Celrà also stood in front of the Peinado family house and applauded. The burly man used to earn good money selling clothing at weekly markets. But one day, while he was out, he was evicted from his home. The Catalan police had simply had the locks changed. He had never received a court order for eviction. Acting in "self-defense," as he says, Bossacoma has illegally moved back into his own home. During the crisis, even otherwise compliant Spaniards have been forced to become "okupas" and have occupied their own repossessed homes or other empty apartments. Bossacoma says that he even has the backing of the local mayor.

Indeed, Celrà Mayor Dani Cornellà, 34, is championing the rights of the town's new poor. The mayor, a member of Catalonia's left-wing and pro-independence Popular Unity Candidates (CUP) party, has been in office for the past year and a half. To help Bossacoma, he personally informed the judge of the man's predicament and intervened on his behalf in negotiations with the bank.

Cornellà contends that financial institutions which have been bailed out with public money should be forced to increase the amount of social housing available at low rents. He says that the banks should have to accept the return of property in lieu of mortgage payments. Until now, says Cornellà, borrowers who defaulted on their mortgages were simply excluded from society and never again granted a loan. "How can someone be expected to work when all his money goes to the bank for the rest of his life?", asks the mayor.

Simply at Home

The situation, says Cornellà, has to change, and he expects that demonstrations over the course of next year will force a reform of what he calls Europe's harshest mortgage legislation. Even the conservative Professional Association of Magistrates is calling for a reform. José María Fernández Seijo, the head judge at the provincial capital's third mercantile court, sparked the debate when he submitted a query to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxembourg concerning the eviction case of a Moroccan living near Barcelona. In a preliminary ruling, the ECJ confirmed in early November that the Spanish law regulating such evictions was incompatible with European norms because it does not sufficiently protect consumers against abusive clauses in mortgage contracts and excessive interest rates.

Judge Fernández Seijo says that he expects a final decision in February. "The law has to be fundamentally amended," he says. Along with many of his colleagues, he is urging a portion of mortgage-holders' debts to be forgiven, to give "them a second chance."

It remains to be seen whether Peinado and his family will be able to remain in their home, whether he will be able to free himself of his debts, and whether he will be able to sleep soundly again at night. On January 6, when his grandson Marc, like all Spanish children, is looking forward to receiving presents on the Epiphany, Peinado hopes that they will be able to celebrate the holiday at 52 Avenida Mediterránea. Not with friends. Not in an emergency shelter. But simply at home.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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