Germany ‘exporting’ elderly to foreign retirement homes
By Kate Connolly, The Guardian
Wednesday, December 26, 2012 12:49 EST
Pensioners are being sent to care homes in eastern Europe and Asia in an austerity move dismissed as ‘inhumane deportation’
Growing numbers of elderly and sick Germans are being sent overseas for long-term care in retirement and rehabilitation centres because of rising costs and falling standards in Germany.
The move, which has seen thousands of retired Germans rehoused in homes in eastern Europe and Asia, has been severely criticised by social welfare organisations who have called it “inhumane deportation”.
But with increasing numbers of Germans unable to afford the growing costs of retirement homes, and an ageing and shrinking population, the number expected to be sent abroad in the next few years is only likely to rise. Experts describe it as a “time bomb”.
Germany’s chronic care crisis – the care industry suffers from lack of workers and soaring costs – has for years been mitigated by eastern Europeans migrating to Germany in growing numbers to care for the country’s elderly.
But the transfer of old people to eastern Europe is being seen as a new and desperate departure, indicating that even with imported, cheaper workers, the system is unworkable.
Germany has one of the fastest-ageing populations in the world, and the movement here has implications for other western countries, including Britain, particularly amid fears that austerity measures and rising care costs are potentially undermining standards of residential care.
The Sozialverband Deutschland (VdK), a German socio-political advisory group, said the fact that growing numbers of Germans were unable to afford the costs of a retirement home in their own country sent a huge “alarm signal”. It has called for political intervention.
“We simply cannot let those people who built Germany up to be what it is, who put their backbones into it all their lives, be deported,” said VdK’s president, Ulrike Mascher. “It is inhumane.”
Researchers found an estimated 7,146 German pensioners living in retirement homes in Hungary in 2011. More than 3,000 had been sent to homes in the Czech Republic, and there were more than 600 in Slovakia. There are also unknown numbers in Spain, Greece and Ukraine. Thailand and the Philippines are also attracting increasing numbers.
The Guardian spoke to retired Germans and people needing long-term care living in homes in Hungary, Thailand and Greece, some of whom said that they were there out of choice, because the costs were lower – on average between a third and two-thirds of the price in Germany – and because of what they perceived as better standards of care.
But others were evidently there reluctantly.
The Guardian also found a variety of healthcare providers were in the process of building or just about to open homes overseas dedicated to the care of elderly Germans in what is clearly perceived in the industry to be a growing and highly profitable market.
According to Germany’s federal bureau of statistics, more than 400,000 senior citizens are currently unable to afford a German retirement home, a figure that is growing by around 5% a year.
The reasons are rising care home costs – which average between €2,900 and €3,400 (£2,700) a month, stagnating pensions, and the fact that people are more likely to need care as they get older.
As a result, the Krankenkassen or statutory insurers that make up Germany’s state insurance system are openly discussing how to make care in foreign retirement homes into a long-term workable financial model.
In Asia, and eastern and southern Europe, care workers’ pay and other expenses such as laundry, maintenance and not least land and building costs, are often much lower.
Today, European Union law prevents state insurers from signing contracts directly with overseas homes, but that is likely to change as legislators are forced to find ways to respond to Europe’s ageing population.
The lack of legislation has not stopped retired people or their families from opting for foreign homes if their pensions could cover the costs.
But critics of the move have voiced particular worries about patients with dementia, amid concern that they are being sent abroad on the basis that they will not know the difference.
Sabine Jansen, head of Germany’s Alzheimer Society, said that surroundings and language were often of paramount importance to those with dementia looking to cling to their identity.
“In particular, people with dementia can find it difficult to orientate themselves in a wholly other culture with a completely different language, because they’re very much living in an old world consisting of their earlier memories,” she said.
With Germany’s population expected to shrink from almost 82 million to about 69 million by 2050, one in every 15 – about 4.7 million people – are expected to be in need of care, meaning the problem of provision is only likely to worsen.
Willi Zylajew, an MP with the conservative Christian Democrats and a care service specialist, said it would be increasingly necessary to consider foreign care.
“Considering the imminent crisis, it would be judicious to at least start thinking about alternative forms of care for the elderly,” he said.
Christel Bienstein, a nursing scientist from the University of Witten/Herdecke, said many German care homes had reached breaking point due to lack of staff, and that care standards had dropped as a result.
“On average each patient is given only around 53 minutes of individual care every day, including feeding them,” she said. “Often there are 40 to 60 residents being looked after by just one carer.”
Artur Frank, the owner of Senior Palace, which finds care homes for Germans in Slovakia, said that was why it was wrong to suggest senior citizens were being “deported” abroad, as the VdK described it.
“They are not being deported or expelled,” he said. “Many are here of their own free will, and these are the results of sensible decisions by their families who know they will be better off.”
He said he had seen “plenty of examples of bad care” in German homes among the 50 pensioners for whom he had already found homes in Slovakia.
“There was one woman who had hardly been given anything to eat or drink, and in Slovakia they had to teach her how to swallow again,” he said.
German politicians have shied away from dealing with the subject, largely due to fears of a voter backlash if Germany’s state insurers are seen to be financing care workers abroad to the detriment of the domestic care industry.
© Guardian News and Media 2012
December 26, 2012
The Italian Paradox on Refugees
By ELISABETTA POVOLEDO
ROME — The abandoned building on the outskirts of Rome, colloquially known as the Salaam Palace, was once a sparsely populated shelter where new arrivals from Africa — fleeing war, persecution and economic turmoil — squatted to create their own refuge.
Over the years, scattered mattresses were joined by sloppily plastered plywood walls, slapdash doors and scavenged furniture. Today an irregular warren of cubbyholes includes a small restaurant and a common room. On a recent cold afternoon, a hammer clinked as a bathroom was added to a one-room home where an oven door was left open for heat.
Today more than 800 refugees inhabit Salaam Palace, and its dilapidation and seeming permanence have become a vivid reminder of what its residents and others say is Italy’s failure to assist and integrate those who have qualified for asylum under its laws.
Salaam Palace and an expanding population in shantytowns elsewhere in Italy are the result of what refugee agencies say is an Italian paradox surrounding asylum seekers here. The country has a good record of granting asylum status, but a disgraceful follow-through, they say, characterized by an absence of resources and a neglect that adds unnecessary hardship to already tattered lives and is creating a potential tinderbox for social unrest.
“Italy is quite good when in the asylum procedure, recognizing 40 percent, even up to 50 percent of applicants in some years,” said Laura Boldrini, the spokeswoman in Italy for the U.N. high commissioner for refugees. “What is critical is what comes after.”
Italy has only about 3,150 spots in its state-funded asylum protection system, where refugees receive government assistance. Waiting lists are astronomical. “If you’re not lucky to get one of those, you’re on your own,” Ms. Boldrini said. “You have to find a way to support yourself, learn the language, get a house and a job.”
That has certainly been the experience of those in Salaam Palace. Some have been living in the abandoned university building since early 2006, when it was occupied by a group of refugees with the help of an organized squatters’ association.
Most fled a life of war and hardship in Sudan and the Horn of Africa. Nearly all have refugee status, or some form of protection, but they have been unable to find steady work in Rome. Italy’s economic crisis has made the challenge all the harder.
“We escaped one war to find another kind of war — 800 people crammed in a palazzo,” said Yakub Abdelnabi, a resident of Salaam Palace who left Sudan in 2005.
Last summer, the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, Nils Muiznieks, visited Salaam Palace and was struck by the “destitute conditions” of its residents and “the near absence of an integration framework” for refugees in Italy, according to a report issued in September.
Mr. Muiznieks “witnessed the shocking conditions in which the men, women and children were living in this building, such as one shower and one toilet shared by 250 persons,” the report said.
Apart from volunteers, the residents had “no guidance” in finding work, going to school or dealing with administrative burdens. “This has effectively relegated these refugees or other beneficiaries of international protection to the margins of society, with little prospect of improvement in their situation,” the report said.
To grant access to social assistance, the local authorities often demand documents that are impossible for the refugees to obtain. Occasional government-financed projects designed to remedy the situation have had negligible impact, residents said.
Though immigrants have access to medical care, many are leery of navigating the labyrinthine national health system, which is why on a blustery December day medical students had volunteered to provide flu shots to some residents of the Salaam Palace in an improvised health clinic, amid cigarette butts and empty beer bottles.
“This is the worst time of the year, when the risk of epidemic is high,” said Dr. Donatella D’Angelo, president of a volunteer association that provides weekly health care at Salaam Palace.
In recent weeks, she and her team of volunteers have provided more than 100 flu shots to residents. “It’s a drop in the bucket,” she said. “Look at the conditions they live in and tell me if they’re not likely to transmit the flu to each other. I’m against vaccines, normally, but it’s better than getting sick in this place. This is another city, this is another world.”
A steady stream of residents sought help, anxious about various ailments: a persistent headache, a cyst on a shoulder, a black eye. They are referred to state hospitals and clinics, but the doctors can do little about the psychological frailty that overcomes many.
“Depression, in various forms, is normal here,” said Dr. Marta Mazza, a volunteer.
Because of its geography, Italy is more exposed to migration from Africa than many other European Union countries, and it has called on its E.U. partners to help bear the burden. Even so, Italy has lagged in its own response, refugee agencies say.
“It has never invested in a system that’s structural,” said Ms. Boldrini, of the office of the U.N. commissioner. “Every year is treated as if it’s any emergency.”
Under current E.U. rules, known as Dublin II — named for the city where the group’s first accord on refugees was reached — asylum seekers are evaluated and processed in the country where they first enter the European Union. Their fingerprints are taken and put into a databank.
If the refugees leave and are found in another E.U. country, they are returned to their point of entry. Many residents of the Salaam Palace wistfully recounted fleeting months of freedom — and hope — in France or Britain or Germany before being “Dublined” back to Rome.
The regulation has been criticized as undermining the rights of refugees.
The report issued by the commissioner for human rights pointed out that several asylum seekers who had left Italy for Germany had successfully challenged their transfer back to Italy because German courts had recognized “the risk of homelessness and a life below minimum subsistence.”
The commissioner urged Italy to adopt an E.U. directive granting long-term residency status to refugees after five years, which would facilitate their movement throughout the European Union.
“No one believes that we can live like this in Italy,” said Bahar Deen Abdal, a nattily dressed 28-year-old Sudanese man who has lived in Salaam Palace for four years. “This place, it’s like being in jail.”
About 900 other refugees in Rome live in equally, if not more, squalid conditions, according to a recent report, with one group occupying a shantytown along the Tiber.
As far as priorities go, assistance to the refugees ranks low on the government’s list at a time of economic crisis, when Italians are absorbed in their own struggles. But refugee agencies argue that Italy has every incentive to assist asylum seekers.
“Of course it means a financial effort, but it worth it to transform them into tax-paying citizens, we think the investment is worth it,” said Christopher Hein, director of the Italian Refugee Council.
Meanwhile, those at Salaam Palace make do. There is a shop for basic needs that sells injera, the Ethiopian and Eritrean bread, and some tomato sauce and spaghetti.
Yohannes Bereket, a smiling 35-year-old, was granted refugee status three years ago after fleeing his native Eritrea, where he had apprenticed as a shoemaker. Residents of Salaam Palace can hardly afford shoes. So today he ekes out a living mending clothes and cobbling the occasional sole.
“At least I have a place to sleep,” he said. “It’s not great, but I do what I can.”
« Last Edit: Dec 27, 2012, 08:09 AM by Rad »
12/27/2012 12:10 PM
Lagarde Warning: IMF Concerned about Possible German Austerity
Germany should move slower on fiscal consolidation and savings to counteract the economic effects of austerity programs currently throttling growth in Southern Europe, argues Christine Lagarde. Still, the IMF chief remains cautiously optimistic about the euro-zone's economic prospects for the next year.
International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde has said that Germany should not be looking at measures aimed at consolidating its finances, apparently in concern over a SPIEGEL report indicating that the German Finance Ministry is working on a far-reaching package of spending cuts and tax hikes for introduction following general elections next autumn. In an interview with the Thursday edition of the influential weekly Die Zeit, she said that Germany needs to continue to work as a counterbalance to the biting austerity programs passed in crisis-stricken countries in Southern Europe.
Germany and other countries "can afford to move ahead with consolidation at a slower pace than others," Lagarde said. "That serves to counteract the negative effects on growth that emanate from the cuts made in crisis countries."
The comments come just days after SPIEGEL reported that Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble is working on a list of consolidation measures. The measures may include a hiking of the value-added tax (VAT) rate of 7 percent for items such as food and public transportation to the standard 19 percent. The government would also slash its contribution to the German health fund and the retirement age would automatically rise in accordance with life expectancy. The goal of the package is to prepare Germany for the constitutionally anchored debt brake, which will severely impact Berlin's ability to take on debt in the coming years.
The Finance Ministry has denied SPIEGEL's account, saying that the goal of the plan was that of achieving a balanced budget next year and not of springing austerity measures on Germany once the votes had been counted. Still, the opposition in Berlin has demanded clarity. "The German finance minister has to put his cards on the table, and he must do so immediately," said Joachim Poss, deputy floor leader for the center-left Social Democrats.
Senior Green Party politician Volker Beck said that Schäuble had to "make clear how great is the need for consolidation so that it can be debated in the campaign."
Lagarde's comments come at the end of a year which has seen Europe engage in a prolonged debate over the benefits of austerity versus efforts to stimulate the currency bloc's moribund economy. She said that "today, we understand better than before how restrictive fiscal policies weighs on growth."
In another barb directed at Berlin, she said "German economic policy is marked by a tradition in which the supply side plays an important role. The demand side is less in focus." In reference to the British economist who introduced concepts aimed at focusing on increasing demand, she said: "John Maynard Keynes hasn't left much of a mark in Germany."
Lagarde did, however, voice some cautious optimism for the ongoing development of the euro-zone's economy in 2013. "Our forecasts say that the economy in the euro zone will develop better in the coming year than it has in past years," she said. "That, however, is dependent on the right political measures being pushed through. If that happens, we expect growth to accelerate."
Her comments are in line with European Central Bank forecasts which predict that the euro-zone economy will grow by an extremely modest 0.5 percent in 2013. Germany, too, expects some growth in 2013, but the German government does not expect it to exceed 1 percent.
cgh -- with wire reports
December 26, 2012
Coca Licensing Is a Weapon in Bolivia’s Drug War
By WILLIAM NEUMAN
TODOS SANTOS, Bolivia — There is nothing clandestine about Julián Rojas’s coca plot, which is tucked deep within acres of banana groves. It has been mapped with satellite imagery, cataloged in a government database, cross-referenced with his personal information and checked and rechecked by the local coca growers’ union. The same goes for the plots worked by Mr. Rojas’s neighbors and thousands of other farmers in this torrid region east of the Andes who are licensed by the Bolivian government to grow coca, the plant used to make cocaine.
President Evo Morales, who first came to prominence as a leader of coca growers, kicked out the Drug Enforcement Administration in 2009. That ouster, together with events like the arrest last year of the former head of the Bolivian anti-narcotics police on trafficking charges, led Washington to conclude that Bolivia was not meeting its global obligations to fight narcotics.
But despite the rift with the United States, Bolivia, the world’s third-largest cocaine producer, has advanced its own unorthodox approach toward controlling the growing of coca, which veers markedly from the wider war on drugs and includes high-tech monitoring of thousands of legal coca patches intended to produce coca leaf for traditional uses.
To the surprise of many, this experiment has now led to a significant drop in coca plantings in Mr. Morales’s Bolivia, an accomplishment that has largely occurred without the murders and other violence that have become the bloody byproduct of American-led measures to control trafficking in Colombia, Mexico and other parts of the region.
Yet there are also worrisome signs that such gains are being undercut as traffickers use more efficient methods to produce cocaine and outmaneuver Bolivian law enforcement to keep drugs flowing out of the country.
In one key sign of progress in Bolivia’s approach toward coca, the total acres planted with coca dropped 12 to 13 percent last year, according to separate reports by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. At the same time, the Bolivian government stepped up efforts to rip out unauthorized coca plantings and reported an increase in seizures of cocaine and cocaine base.
“It’s fascinating to look at a country that kicked out the United States ambassador and the D.E.A., and the expectation on the part of the United States is that drug war efforts would fall apart,” said Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network, a Bolivian research group. Instead, she said, Bolivia’s approach is “showing results.”
Still, there is skepticism. “Our perspective is they’ve made real advances, and they’re a long way from where we’d like to see them,” said Larry Memmott, chargé d’affaires of the American Embassy in La Paz. “In terms of law enforcement, a lot remains to be done.”
Although Bolivia outlaws cocaine, it permits the growing of coca for traditional uses. Bolivians chew coca leaf as a mild stimulant and use it as a medicine, as a tea and, particularly among the majority indigenous population, in religious rituals.
On a recent afternoon, Mr. Rojas placed a few dried leaves into his mouth and watched the sun set over his coca field, slightly less than two-fifths of an acre, the maximum allowed per farmer here in this region, known as the Chapare.
“This is a way to keep it under control,” he said, spitting a stream of green juice. “Everyone should have the same amount.”
Mr. Rojas is a face of a changing region. He makes far more money growing bananas for export on about 74 acres than he does growing coca. But he has no intention of giving up his tiny coca plot. “What happens if a disease attacks the bananas?” he asked. “Then we still have the coca to save us.”
The Bolivian government has persuaded growers that by limiting the amount of plantings, coca prices will remain high. And it has largely focused eradication efforts, of the kind that once spurred strong popular resistance, outside the areas controlled by growers’ unions, like in national parks.
The registration of thousands of Chapare growers, completed this year, is part of an enforcement system that relies on growers to police one another. If registered growers are found to have plantings above the maximum allowed, soldiers are called in to remove the excess. If growers violate the limit a second time, their entire crop is cut down and they lose the right to grow coca.
Growers’ unions can also be punished if there are multiple violations among their members.
“We have to be constantly vigilant,” said Nelson Sejas, a Chapare grower who was part of a team that checked coca plots to make sure they did not exceed the limit.
But there is still plenty of cheating. Officials say they are going over the registry of about 43,000 Chapare growers to find those who may have multiple plots or who may violate other rules.
“The results speak for themselves,” said Carlos Romero, the minister of government. “We have demonstrated that you can objectively do eradication work without violating human rights, without polemicizing the topic and with clear results.”
He said that the government was on pace to eradicate more acres of coca this year than it did last year, without the violence of years past. A government report said 60 people were killed and more than 700 were wounded in the Chapare from 1998 to 2002 in violence related to eradication.
But even as Bolivia shows progress, grave concerns remain.
The White House drug office estimated that despite the decrease in total coca acreage last year, the amount of cocaine that could potentially be produced from the coca grown in Bolivia jumped by more than a quarter. That is because a large amount of recent plantings began to mature and reach higher yields; new plantings with higher yields replaced older, less productive fields; and traffickers switched to more efficient processing methods.
Yet the glaring paradox of Bolivia’s monitoring program is that vast amounts of the legally grown coca ultimately wind up in the hands of drug traffickers and are converted into cocaine and other drugs. Most of those drugs go to Brazil, considered the world’s second-largest cocaine market. Virtually no Bolivian cocaine ends up in the United States.
César Guedes, the representative in Bolivia of the United Nations drugs office, said that roughly half of the country’s coca acreage produces coca that goes to the drug trade. By some estimates, more than 90 percent of the coca in Chapare, one of two main producing regions, goes to drugs.
Two Chapare farmers explained that they generally sell one 50-pound bag of coca leaf from each harvest to the government-regulated market. The rest, often 200 pounds or more, is sold to buyers who work with traffickers and pay a premium over the government-authorized price. One of the growers said he recently delivered coca leaf directly to a lab where it would be turned into drugs.
The central question is how much coca is needed to supply traditional needs. Current government policy permits about 50,000 acres of legal coca plantings, although the actual area in cultivation is much higher. The United Nations estimated there were 67,000 acres of coca last year.
Whatever the exact figure, most analysts agree that far more is produced than is needed to supply the traditional market.
The European Union financed a study several years ago to estimate how much coca was needed for traditional uses, but the Bolivian government has refused to release it, saying that more research is needed.
The push to reduce coca acreage comes as the Morales government is lobbying other countries to amend a United Nations convention on narcotics to recognize the legality of traditional uses of coca leaf in Bolivia. A decision is expected in January.
On a recent morning just after dawn, a squad of uniformed soldiers used machetes to cut down a plot of coca plants near the town of Ivirgarzama.
They had come to chop down an old coca patch that had passed its prime and measure a replacement plot planted by the farmer. The soldiers determined that the new plot was slightly over the limit and removed about two rows of plants before going on their way.
“Before, there was more tension, more conflict, more people injured,” Lt. Col. Willy Pozo said. “This is no longer a war.”
Jean Friedman-Rudovsky contributed reporting from Ivirgarzama, Bolivia.
December 26, 2012
In Gabon, Lure of Ivory Is Hard for Many to Resist
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
OYEM, Gabon — This lush country, often called a “forest republic,” used to stand proudly apart from its shaky neighbors, like the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic, tropical disaster zones where state failure, rebel marauders and loose weapons conspired to spell doom for endangered wildlife.
Gabon’s government, blessed with billions of dollars of oil money and miles and miles of virgin rain forest, has made many of the right moves to protect its animals by setting aside chunks of land for national parks, actually paying wildlife rangers on time (a rarity in Africa) and recently destroying a towering mountain of ivory in a statement of its refusal to look the other way.
But as the price of ivory keeps going up, hitting levels too high for many people to resist, Gabon’s elephants are getting slaughtered by poachers from across the borders and within the rain forests, proof that just about nowhere in Africa are elephants safe.
In the past several years, 10,000 elephants in Gabon have been wiped out, some picked off by impoverished hunters creeping around the jungle with rusty shotguns and willing to be paid in sacks of salt, others mowed down en masse by criminal gangs that slice off the dead elephants’ faces with chain saws. Gabon’s jails are filling up with small-time poachers and ivory traffickers, destitute men and women like Therese Medza, a village hairdresser arrested a few months ago for selling 45 pounds of tusks.
“I had no idea it was illegal,” Ms. Medza said, almost convincingly, from the central jail here in Oyem, in the north. “I was told the tusks were found in the forest.”
She netted about $700, far more than she usually makes in a month, and the reason she did it was simple, she said. “I got seven kids.”
It seems that Gabon’s elephants are getting squeezed in a deadly vise between a seemingly insatiable lust for ivory in Asia, where some people pay as much as $1,000 a pound, and desperate hunters and traffickers in central Africa.
It is a story of temptation — and exploitation — and it shows that the problem is not just about demand, but about supply as well. Poverty, as well as greed, is killing Africa’s elephants.
Across the continent, tens of thousands of elephants are being poached each year in what is emerging as one of the gravest wildlife crises in decades. Gabon’s elephants are among the last of the planet’s rare forest elephants, a subspecies or possibly a totally distinct species (scientists can’t agree), which makes the stakes particularly high here. Forest elephants are smaller than their savanna cousins and have an alluring, extra-hard pinkish ivory that is especially prized.
A few decades ago, there were perhaps 700,000 forest elephants roaming through the jungles of central Africa. Now there may be fewer than 100,000, and about half of them live in Gabon.
“We’re talking about the survival of the species,” said Lee White, the British-born head of Gabon’s national parks.
In June, Gabon’s president, Ali Bongo, defiantly lighted a pyramid of 10,000 pounds of ivory on fire to make the point that the ivory trade was reprehensible, a public display of resolve that Kenya has put on in years past. It took three days for all the ivory to burn, and even after the last tusks were reduced to glowing embers, policemen vigilantly guarded the ashes. Ivory powder is valued in Asia for its purported medicinal powers, and the officers were worried someone might try to sweep up the ashes and sell them.
Some African countries, like Zimbabwe and Tanzania, are sitting on million-dollar stockpiles of ivory (usually from law enforcement seizures or elephants that died naturally) that someday may be legal to sell. Gabon has the unusual luxury of kissing its ivory mountain goodbye because it has an even more lucrative resource: two billion barrels of crude oil.
But it is not clear how long Gabon will continue as this relatively prosperous, politically stable corner of Africa. Protesters recently began chaffing against Mr. Bongo’s rule, saying he rigged an election to ensure that he would take over from his father, who died in 2009 after 41 years in office.
Despite the country’s conservation policies, which wildlife groups say are among the best in Africa, the logging men dig deeper into the rain forest each day, felling colossal trees, dragging them out with chains and shipping them out on logging roads that lead to where the elephants live.
The growing resentment of the government is undermining conservation efforts, too, with villagers grumbling about not seeing a trace of the oil money and saying Mr. Bongo should not lecture them about poaching for a living.
The village of Bitouga is a study in bitterness about five hours away from the small administrative hub of Oyem, reached only after a sweaty hike through the jungle and a precarious ride in a dugout canoe up a river so rich and sooty with tannin that the water is nearly black.
Bitouga’s people live in rough clapboard houses with floors of dirt. They do not have any electricity or clean water, which villagers say is a scandal in a country with a per capita gross domestic product of $16,000, one of the highest in Africa.
The children here eat thumb-size caterpillars, cooked in enormous vats, because there is little else to eat. Many men have bloodshot eyes and spend their mornings sitting on the ground, staring into space, reeking of sour, fermented home-brew.
For generations, the people of Bitouga, who are from the Baka ethnic group, have lived off the game in their ancestral forests.
“Elephant meat is pretty good,” said Jean-Paul Ndangbifele, paddling his dugout canoe upriver. “A lot like beef.”
But now they have been ordered to stop killing elephants and other endangered animals. Officials said that several Baka hunters had cycled through Oyem’s prison, sometimes co-opted into killing elephants for as little as a sack of salt, which most Baka are too poor to afford. Baka hunters said they were routinely approached by well-dressed men with shotguns and invited to “work together.”
“The first thing a civil servant will do when they get sent to Minvoul,” a nearby town, “is buy a gun and start sponsoring elephant hunts,” said Marc Ella Akou, an inventory officer for the World Wildlife Fund in Gabon.
International law enforcement officials say the illicit ivory trade is dominated by Mafia-like gangs that buy off local officials and organize huge, secretive shipments to move tusks from the farthest reaches of Africa to workshops in Beijing, Bangkok and Manila, where they are carved into bookmarks, earrings and figurines.
But often the first link in that chain is a threadbare hunter, someone like Mannick Emane, a young man in Bitouga. Adept in the forest, he was trained nearly from birth to follow tracks and stalk game, and was puffing idly on a cigarette he had just lighted with a burning log.
He conceded he would kill elephants, “for the right price.”
“Life is tough,” he said. “So if someone is going to give us an opportunity for big money, we’re going to take it.”
Big money, he said, was about $50.
His friend Vincent Biyogo, also a hunter, nodded in agreement.
“When I was born,” he said, “I dreamed of a better life, I dreamed of driving a car, going to school, living like a normal human being.”
“Not this,” he added quietly, staring at a pot of boiling caterpillars. “Not this.”
December 26, 2012
‘Untamed Motorization’ Wraps an Indian City in Smog
By NIHARIKA MANDHANA
NEW DELHI — When an acrid blanket of gray smog settled over India’s capital last month, environmentalists warned of health hazards, India’s Supreme Court promised action and state officials struggled to understand why the air had suddenly gone so bad.
The heavy smog has dissipated for the moment, but it has left behind a troubling reality for one of India’s most important cities: Despite measures to improve air quality, pollution is steadily worsening here, without any simple solutions in sight.
“This is like a ding-dong battle,” said Sheila Dikshit, the chief minister of the State of Delhi, moving her fingers like the flippers of a pinball machine. “We catch up with something; the pressures catch up more than that.”
Delhi, a growing metropolis of nearly 20 million people, has struggled to reconcile its rapid economic growth with environmental safeguards. Over a decade ago, the city introduced a host of policies that raised emission standards, closed polluting industries and expanded green spaces. It made a costly investment to convert the city’s buses and auto rickshaws to compressed natural gas. For a time, air quality visibly improved.
But those gains have been overwhelmed in recent years. “We have already plucked the low-hanging fruits, so to speak,” said Anumita Roychowdhury, the executive director of the Center for Science and Environment here. “Now it’s time for aggressive, second-generation reforms.”
Ms. Roychowdhury and other environmentalists say the government must now concentrate on slowing the rising number of vehicles on New Delhi’s roads. Each day, about 1,400 new vehicles hit the roads of the city, already home to over seven million registered vehicles, a 65 percent jump from 2003. As a result, fine-particle pollution has risen by 47 percent in the last decade. Nitrogen dioxide levels have increased by 57 percent.
Environmentalists recommend a hefty tax on diesel vehicles, a steep increase in parking charges and a rapid upgrade of the public transportation system to ensure more timely bus service and a better integration of buses and the metro rail system.
“These strategies can be implemented immediately and will have an immediate impact on the numbers of vehicles,” Ms. Roychowdhury said. “We have to stop this untamed motorization now.”
But government officials say that a mere crackdown on vehicles ignores other aspects of the problem. They note that New Delhi is landlocked and lacks the coastal breezes that flush polluted air out of other major Indian cities like Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai. Ms. Dikshit said New Delhi’s rapidly growing population and prosperity add to the pollution.
“It’s an epicenter of trade, of commerce, of governance for this entire northern area,” she said. As a consequence, Delhi “bears a much bigger burden.”
Officials say much of the pollution comes from neighboring areas, where emissions standards are lower and environmental policies virtually nonexistent. For days after November’s smog spell, many Delhi officials responded by blaming a coincidence of factors, including agricultural burnings in the neighboring states of Punjab and Haryana and the impact of a cyclone off the southern coast.
Weather conditions played a role, environmentalists agree, but that is no excuse for ignoring the underlying problems.
“The government cannot say that the smog was solely because of bad weather,” said Mukesh Khare, a professor of environmental engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi. “They are making excuses to avoid facing the fact that Delhi has a pollution problem once again.”
Until two years ago, environmentalists and city officials in New Delhi lacked monitoring equipment to determine air pollution levels, and scientists and policy makers were dependent on ad hoc surveys conducted manually or on data from the national pollution body that often were incomplete or arrived too late.
In 2010, the Delhi government posted six state-of-the-art monitoring machines around the capital that now constantly measure a host of pollutants, sending real-time data to a publicly accessible Web site.
“We didn’t really understand the situation before,” said Mohan George, a scientist at the Delhi Pollution Control Committee. “Now we have authentic, continuous and reliable data.”
In November, the machines recorded pollution levels at least six or seven times greater than the national standard for safe air. On Nov. 9, for instance, the levels of particulate matter called PM10 near the University of Delhi measured 908 micrograms per cubic meter, against the standard limit of 100, falling into the “very unhealthy” category.
The city’s doctors are worried. Dr. Randeep Guleria, who runs the pulmonary medicine department at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, said the number of emergency visits relating to respiratory and heart problems had risen sharply this winter.
What is going on in New Delhi reflects a larger trend. A recent study published in the medical journal Lancet shows air pollution has become a major health risk in developing countries, contributing to about 3.2 million premature deaths worldwide. South Asian countries are particularly vulnerable, the study found.
The local government has commissioned a study to understand what exactly caused the smog, and is working on an “air action plan” that would expand the subway system, introduce a network of bike lanes and make the city’s roadways more friendly to pedestrians.
The Supreme Court, which has played the role of environmental watchdog in Delhi for more than a decade, has recommended a more politically delicate measure: imposing an “environment compensation charge” of 25 percent on new diesel vehicles and requiring a much smaller fee for existing gasoline- and diesel-powered cars.
Ms. Dikshit, Delhi’s chief minister, has agreed to consider such a “green tax” and welcomed other solutions, even as she denied that the city’s pollution was reaching alarming levels.
“What is alarming is the impact that Delhi’s prosperity and its comfortable living is having on attracting more and more people to come here,” Ms. Dikshit said. “How much we will be able to sustain that impact of people coming and never going out is a big question.”
A great story from America ....Unbelievable sports story about high school basketball hero Jason McElwain
December 19, 2012
An unbelievable sports story took place and is inspiring the entire country.
Jason McElwain was a special education student at Greece Athena Highschool in Rochester, New York. Born with autism, his life has always been a little different.
Jason's passion for basketball landed him the role of team manager for his final few years of high school. He helped with anything the team needed, whether it was handing out water or assisting the coach in practice drills. His enthusiasm for the game never went unnoticed.
He never actually played for the team, but it was his senior year and the last game of the season. Head Coach Jim Johnson decided to let him suit up. Jason put on the team uniform for the first and last time.
This should begin to remind you of Rudy, the true story about a dyslexic high school football player who finally suited up for the last game of his senior year at Notre Dame. This story might actually be better!
With only four minutes left to play in the game, Coach Johnson called for #52. Jason was about to enter his first ever high school basketball game.
His first shot was a complete air ball, missing everything. The second, not much better. His third...nothing but net. It was all over after that.
"I just caught fire, I was hot as a pistol," Jason said in his interview.
Jason hit six consecutive 3-pointers in a row. Each time the ball hit the bottom of the net, the crowd erupted.
"If I wasn't there to witness it, I wouldn't have believed it," said Coach Johnson.
With only seconds left, Jason took the last shot of the game, sinking his last and final 3-pointer at the buzzer. The crowd went crazy and rushed down on the court to be with the hero of the game.
Like coach Johnson, you need to see this to believe it.
Click to watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=GMjmzhF5320
In the USA...
December 26, 2012
Senators to Return With 5 Days Left and No Clear Fiscal Path
By JONATHAN WEISMAN and JENNIFER STEINHAUER
WASHINGTON — With just five days left to make a deal, President Obama and members of the Senate were set to return to Washington on Thursday with no clear path out of their fiscal morass even as the Treasury Department warned that the government will soon be unable to pay its bills unless Congress acts.
Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, adding to the building tension over how to handle a year-end pileup of threatened tax increases and spending cuts, formally notified Congress on Wednesday that the government would hit its statutory borrowing limit on Monday, raising anew the threat of a federal default as the two parties remained in a standoff.
Mr. Geithner wrote that he would take “extraordinary measures” to keep the government afloat but said that with so much uncertainty over the shape of the tax code and future government spending he did not know how long the Treasury could shuffle accounts before the government could no longer pay its creditors.
For months, President Obama, members of Congress of both parties and top economists have warned that the nation’s fragile economy could be swept back into recession if the two parties did not come to a post-election compromise on January’s combination of tax increases and across-the-board spending cuts.
Yet with days left before the fiscal punch lands, both sides are exhibiting little sense of urgency, and new public statements Wednesday appeared to be designed more to ensure the other side is blamed rather than to foster progress toward a deal.
After a high-level telephone conference call, House Republican leaders called on the Senate to act but opened the door to bringing to the House floor any last-minute legislation the Senate could produce.
“The House will take this action on whatever the Senate can pass, but the Senate first must act,” said the statement issued on behalf of Speaker John A. Boehner and his three top lieutenants.
But Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, instead called on House Republicans to pass an existing Senate measure that would prevent tax increases on household income up to $250,000. “The Senate has already rejected House Republicans’ Tea Party bills, and no further legislation can move through the Senate until Republicans drop their knee-jerk obstruction,” he said in a statement.
Senators will return to the Capitol on Thursday evening with nothing yet to consider. The series of votes waiting for them are unrelated to the fiscal deadline. The House will be gaveled into session at 2 p.m., but since Mr. Boehner has not called the members back to Washington, it will most likely be gaveled back into recess shortly thereafter.
The shift to the Senate has focused new attention on Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader and a deal-making veteran. Democrats say they need assurances from Mr. McConnell that he will not use procedural tactics to delay any potential bill for an interim solution to avert the fiscal crisis.
But Don Stewart, a spokesman for Mr. McConnell, said no one from the White House or from Mr. Reid’s office has reached out to begin negotiations. Democrats say that Mr. McConnell knows full well what they are proposing: the same Senate bill that passed in July extending all the expiring Bush-era income tax cuts on incomes below $250,000, setting the tax rate on dividends and capital gains at 20 percent, and stopping the alternative minimum tax from rising to hit more middle class taxpayers. Onto that, Democrats would like to add an extension of expiring unemployment benefits and a delay in across-the-board spending cuts while negotiations on a broader deficit reduction plan slips into next year.
Democrats now suggest that Republicans are content to wait until after the January deadline. On Jan. 3, Mr. Boehner is likely to be re-elected speaker for the 113th Congress. After that roll call, he may feel less pressure from his right flank against a deal.
For its part, the Senate may simply be out of time. Without unanimous agreement, Mr. Reid would have to take procedural steps to begin considering a bill. He could then be forced to press for another vote to cut off debate before final passage. If forced to jump through those hoops, the 112th Congress could expire before final votes could be cast.
“I think there’s some chance that we get a deal done in the early weeks of January, which technically means you’re going over the cliff,” Representative Jim Himes, Democrat of Connecticut, said on CNBC on Wednesday.
Lawmakers from both parties say Mr. McConnell could be the key to a resolution. He has played the role of adjudicator for Congressional Republicans before, during last year’s fight over a payroll tax extension and the battle between Democrats and Republicans over how, or if, to pay for an emergency disaster financing bill.
With days to spare, Mr. McConnell must decide whether to allow on the Senate floor the Democrats’ bill to extend expiring tax cuts. If passed without a filibuster, that legislation could force the House speaker’s hand and quiet his raucous Republican conference. Or Mr. McConnell, who is up for re-election in 2014 and would like to avoid a primary fight, could stand back quietly and hope that Mr. Boehner and Mr. Obama somehow manage to put together a deal that saves him the trouble.
If Mr. McConnell cannot come to the rescue, there is another hope: Starbucks. Howard Schultz, the company’s chief executive officer, asked baristas who work in Washington-area Starbucks to scrawl “Come Together” on coffee cups for the rest of the week to generate enthusiasm for a compromise.
Treasury Dept. warns of ‘extraordinary measures’ amid fiscal cliff deadlock
By Dominic Rushe, The Guardian
Wednesday, December 26, 2012 17:10 EST
Barack Obama cuts short holiday to tackle budget crisis as country faces breaching its $16.4tn debt limit
US Treasury secretary Tim Geithner warned on Wednesday he would have to take “extraordinary measures” to avoid a default on the US’s legal obligations as the country is set to breach its $16.4tn (£10.16tn) debt limit.
In a letter to Congress, Geithner said the debt ceiling would be reached on 31 December and that the Treasury could raise $200bn (£124bn) to fund government spending as a stopgap measure. But he warned that the current impasse over the fiscal cliff budget crisis meant it was uncertain how long that money would last.
“Under normal circumstances, that amount of headroom would last approximately two months.
“However, given the significant uncertainty that now exists with regard to unresolved tax and spending policies for 2013, it is not possible to predict the effective duration of these measures,” Geithner warned.
In the two-paragraph letter Geithner also warned that “the extent to which the upcoming tax filing season will be delayed as a result of these unresolved policy questions is also uncertain.”
A similar row over increases in the debt ceiling in the summer of 2011 led to a historic downgrade of the US’s credit rating and panic on stock markets around the world.
The Treasury secretary’s warning comes as Barack Obama prepared to cut short his Christmas holiday in Hawaii, with the intention of returning to Washington in the hope of restarting the stalled budget talks.
Discussions with House speaker John Boehner collapsed last week after the top ranking Republican launched his own “Plan B” aimed at tackling the year-end budget crisis. But Boehner’s plan also fell after members of his own party threatened to block any deal that would raise taxes.
Boehner and other senior Republicans released a statement on Wednesday saying: “The lines of communication remain open, and we will continue to work with our colleagues to avert the largest tax hike in American history, and to address the underlying problem, which is spending.”
Obama is hoping to pass a stop-gap deal through the Senate, where he has some support from Republicans. The president wants to implement measures that would raise taxes on those earning over $250,000 (£155,000) while preserving most of the other tax cuts under threat, delaying spending cuts and extending unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed.
Boehner said the Senate would have to make the first move before the House would commit to voting on any bill. He said two bills had already been put forward to tackle the crisis.
“If the Senate will not approve and send them to the president to be signed into law in their current form, they must be amended and returned to the House. Once this has occurred, the House will then consider whether to accept the bills as amended, or to send them back to the Senate with additional amendments,” he said.
The Treasury said it can free up around $200bn (£124bn) by taking four “extraordinary measures.” Nearly all the measures relate to peripheral investments that the Treasury makes in certain funds.
In essence, the Treasury will act like an indebted consumer who stops running up his credit card when he already has more bills than he can pay. The result: the Treasury will not cut its debt, but only stop spending until its credit limit is raised again. Only Congress can raise the debt limit.
The department took similar measures last year, when the US passed the debt ceiling limit in May and Congress didn’t increase it again until August. The most remarkable of the extraordinary measures includes allowing the Treasury to redeem, or stop, any investments in two major pension funds.
The first is the civil service retirement and disability fund. The CSRDF, as it is known, is a kind of pension fund that provides defined benefits (stock market-linked retirement incomes) to retired and disabled federal employees.
The US Treasury puts about $6bn (£4bn)a month into the fund – not in cash, but in Treasury securities. The Treasury would either redeem some of those securities or suspend new payments. It could also choose to continue to make payments to the fund, but if the debt ceiling is not raised within two months, the Treasury would have to stop.
The second major pension fund is the government securities investment fund, or G Fund, which is part of the federal employees’ retirement system thrift savings plan. Like the CSRDF, the G Fund is invested in special securities. But, because the G Fund matures every day, the Treasury can immediately free up money by suspending the whole thing. Suspending the G Fund will do the most to make room for the Treasury, freeing up $156bn (£96bn) of the $200bn (£124bn) it’s aiming for.
After Congress raises the debt ceiling, the Treasury has to make up for all the payments it missed to the pension funds, so none of the employees will be hurt.
The Treasury will also temporarily stop issuing state and local government securities or SLGS – bonds it created to help state and local governments reinvest any profits made from issuing regular municipal securities.
Since state and local governments are not allowed to reinvest their profits in other, riskier kinds of investments, the Treasury gives them SLGS bonds as a way of holding their money safe.
But stopping SGLS bonds won’t cut the country’s debt; it will only avoid adding to it. In its most minor move, the Treasury will stop contributing to the exchange stabilisation fund, which it uses to buy foreign currencies. The public debt of the US is increasing at about $100bn per month, the Treasury said.
© Guardian News and Media 2012
December 26, 2012
Washington State Senators Cross Aisle and Tilt Ideological Balance
By KIRK JOHNSON
OLYMPIA, Wash. — From the governor-elect on down, through both chambers of the Legislature, a tincture of blue political monoculture drifts through Washington State politics like mist through the pines.
Or is the Democrat-led consensus an illusion, a distortion of liberal Seattle, Washington’s urban center and the heartland of the Pacific Northwest left? Two Democrats in the State Senate, in bolting from the party’s ranks this month to join with Republicans in creating a new majority coalition, say yes.
True representation of state residents — republican government with a small “r” — demanded a broader discussion and a larger voice, they said, for marginalized segments of the electorate.
“Seattle-centric,” said Senator Tim Sheldon, a two-decade veteran lawmaker and Democrat from a district west of Olympia, summing up the combination of forces that alienated him: safe seats in Seattle, campaign money raised in safe seats but spread around, and a caucus that rewards and reinforces the safe-seat equation with powerful leadership posts. “They’re not representative of the state,” he said.
The fact that Gov.-elect Jay Inslee, a former Democratic congressman, will take office in January having won majorities in only eight liberal counties while losing in the other 31 only bolstered the case for change, said Mr. Sheldon, who said he voted for Mr. Inslee’s opponent, Rob McKenna, the state’s attorney general and a Republican.
But the Senate’s Republicans have not simply gained power with a couple of recruited allies. The plot is thicker than that.
When the session convenes in January, Mr. Sheldon will be elected president pro-tem, the coalition has said — leader of the chamber when the lieutenant governor, a Democrat, is away. The other Democratic recruit, Senator Rodney Tom, will become majority leader, undertaking to speak for, and presumably direct, an overwhelmingly Republican coalition membership. On paper, the Democrats have a 26-to-23 majority. The coalition, with 25 votes, tips the balance.
“There’s something about this whole thing that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” said the current majority leader, Senator Ed Murray, a Democrat from Seattle.
There are other wrinkles to ponder, too. Mr. Tom, a real estate agent and a former Republican who represents a district east of Seattle, is, in his own words, fiscally conservative but “very socially liberal.” He changed parties six years ago, at least in part, he said, because of the Republican drift to the right on social issues.
He said many Republicans never forgot or forgave. They targeted him for removal in his last election, in 2010, spending more than $800,000 — a huge amount for a State Senate contest — in a failed bid to get the seat back.
In the new coalition, as it turns out, the conservative social legislation that Mr. Tom loathes will be off the table, with a relentless focus on what he called, in an interview, the “bread and butter” of the budget, job creation and education financing.
“We’re not going to turn back the clock and pass any new social legislation,” he said.
Here in the capital, legislative staff members and senators alike were pondering where they stood, and where they might sit — office space in the new power-sharing arrangement being one of the unknowns of the holiday season. What seemed increasingly clear, though, is that in the coalition agreement, Mr. Sheldon and Mr. Tom had achieved a kind of coup within a coup, silencing Republican social conservatives on one hand and distancing Seattle Democrats on the other, all in one karate chop.
The Republican floor leader, Senator Mark Schoesler, agreed that the new relationship was complicated.
“All of us have to have trust,” he said. “I trust Senator Tom and his word that we’re sticking to jobs, education and budgets; he trusts me that I’m not going to go cut a deal and cut his legs out from underneath him.”
The further paradox of the situation, some political experts said, is that in muting social conservatives, coalition Democrats may have ridden to the Republicans’ long-term rescue.
“It’s probably a good development for the Washington Republican Party if they want to hold power again,” said Travis N. Ridout, a professor of political science at Washington State University. He said that as Republicans moved to the right on social legislation in recent years — a pattern reflected across the nation — their success rates collapsed in Seattle’s suburbs where they were once strong. Becoming competitive again statewide, he said, means winning over voters like Mr. Tom, who might be moderate or conservative on economics, but vehemently liberal beyond that.
“It may be masterful,” Professor Ridout said. “Or it may be a disaster — we don’t know.”
A spokesman for Governor-elect Inslee said the road ahead was too uncertain to comment. The Senate rules, for one thing, will have to be changed in the opening days of the session, which begins Jan. 14, to allow a majority leader to be elected by the chamber as a whole, rather than in the traditional way by the party having the most R’s or D’s on its roster.
The coalition has said that Republicans will preside over six influential committees dealing with the budget, labor and economics, education and health care. Democratic Senators will lead six other committees, with three committees to be led jointly.
What happens even further down the road in the next election cycle — in bridges burned or new trails blazed — is even more of a guess.
“If I run again, I have no idea how I’m going to get funded,” Mr. Tom said.
Supreme Court refuses to hear challenge to Obamacare contraception requirement
By Arturo Garcia
Wednesday, December 26, 2012 23:47 EST
The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a request by the Hobby Lobby chain of arts and crafts stores to temporarily block a provision in the Affordable Care Act making employers responsible for covering the insurance costs of their employees’ birth control, NBC News reported on Wednesday.
Hobby Lobby and another company, the Christian bookstore chain Mardel, had petitioned the court for an injunction preventing the birth-control mandate from going into effect on Jan. 1 while they appeal a similar decision handed down by a federal court on Dec. 21.
According to The Hill, Justice Sonia Sotomayor acknowledged the companies’ right to challenge the law, commonly known as “Obamacare,” in a brief opinion rejecting the companies’ request.
“While the applicants allege they will face irreparable harm if they are forced to choose between complying with the contraception-coverage requirement and paying significant fines, they cannot show that an injunction is necessary or appropriate to aid our jurisdiction,” she wrote.
After the contraception mandate takes effect, the companies risk fines of up to $1.3 million a day for not complying. Some religious institutions have been granted exemptions based on their faith, but similar requests by for-profit businesses have been refused by federal officials.
Ford to invest $773 million in the U.S. to create 2,350 new jobs and save 3,240 existing jobs
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, December 27, 2012 6:17 EST
US auto giant Ford said Thursday it will invest $773 million to expand factories across its home state of Michigan, generating 2,350 new jobs, part of a plan to add 12,000 jobs by 2015.
The investment will help save an additional 3,240 jobs, it said.
“Even as we wrap up an incredibly busy year of capacity expansions and product launches, we are continuing to look to the future,” Jim Tetreault, Ford vice president of North America Manufacturing, said in a statement.
“These investments, many of which are already under way, will ensure our southeast Michigan manufacturing facilities can support our aggressive growth plans.”
The Dearborn-based manufacturer posted its best November since 2005, as sales rose six percent to 177,673 vehicles. The results were driven by strong demand for its small cars, which posted their best November in 12 years.
Ford employs some 172,000 people and maintains 65 plants worldwide.
George H.W. Bush in intensive care following ‘setbacks’
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, December 26, 2012 18:06 EST
Former US president George H.W. Bush has taken a turn for the a worse and is in intensive care after a “stubborn fever” delayed his recovery from bronchitis, a spokesman said Wednesday.
“He’s had a series of setbacks now that have landed him in guarded condition in the intensive care unit,” spokesman Jim McGrath told AFP.
The 88-year-old was first admitted to Methodist Hospital in Houston on November 7 for bronchitis treatment and released on November 19. But he was readmitted on November 23 after his cough flared up again.
Doctors had initially hoped to have the elder statesman home for Christmas, but he was instead forced to spend the holiday in hospital, where he was joined by his wife Barbara, son Neil and grandson Pierce.
“I wouldn’t say he was able to celebrate it in the traditional sense,” McGrath said. “His family was with him, and he’s conscious and he’s able to engage in humorous banter with his doctor.”
Bush, a Republican, was in the White House from 1989 to 1993 and sent US forces into Iraq in the first Gulf war after Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait.
During his time in public service, he also served as vice president, congressman and director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He is the father of former president George W. Bush.
India Ink - Notes on the World's Largest Democracy
December 28, 2012, 2:19 am
Delhi Gang Rape Patient Has Brain Injury and Is Fighting for Life, Doctors Say
By NEHA THIRANI and SRUTHI GOTTIPATI
The medical condition of the 23-year-old woman who was raped by several men and thrown off a moving bus on Dec. 16 is worse than previous reports had indicated, according to the Singapore hospital where she is being treated.
Dr. Kevin Loh, chief executive of Mount Elizabeth Hospital, said in a statement Friday:
"As at 28 Dec, 11am (Singapore time) the patient continues to remain in an extremely critical condition. She is still receiving treatment at Mount Elizabeth Hospital's Intensive Care Unit.
"Our medical team's investigations upon her arrival at the hospital yesterday showed that in addition to her prior cardiac arrest, she also had infection of her lungs and abdomen, as well as significant brain injury. The patient is currently struggling against the odds, and fighting for her life.
"A multi-disciplinary team of specialists has been working tirelessly to treat her since her arrival, and is doing everything possible to stabilize her condition over the next few days."
On Thursday afternoon, hours after the patient arrived in Singapore from New Delhi, Dr. Loh described her condition as "extremely critical," and said she had had three abdominal surgeries and a cardiac arrest before arrival.
In an interview Thursday evening, Dr. Mahesh Chandra Misra, professor and head of the department of surgical disciplines at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, who was part of the team caring for the patient in New Delhi, described her initial injuries as the worst he'd ever seen.
"As doctors, we've never witnessed anything like this," he said.
The patient was "practically dead" when she was brought in to Safdarjung Hospital on the morning of Dec. 17, and had to be resuscitated, he said. Then, the doctor's immediate focus was on damage control, he said, and her small and large intestines were removed because they were gangrenous.
"Her intestines were hanging out" when she arrived at the hospital, Dr. Misra said, adding that her injuries indicated that an iron rod had been used to attack her. The young woman was taken off a ventilator last Friday, when was reported to have spoken to her family, but then put back on a ventilator on Sunday.
She has had three surgeries so far, which were extensive operations, Dr. Misra said, noting that her health was critical when she was shifted to Singapore Wednesday night.
"Right now, her heart needs to be stabilized," Dr. Misra said Thursday night. The doctors' task in Singapore is "bringing her back from this condition," he said.
Indian teen kills self after police pressure her to marry rapist
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, December 27, 2012 17:14 EST
A 17-year-old Indian girl who was gang-raped committed suicide after police pressured her to drop the case and marry one of her attackers, police and a relative said on Thursday.
Amid the ongoing uproar over the gang-rape of a student on a bus in New Delhi earlier this month, the latest case has again shone the spotlight on the police’s handling of sex crimes.
One police officer has been sacked and another suspended over their conduct after the assault during the festival of Diwali on November 13 in the Patiala region in the Punjab, according to officials.
The teenager was found dead on Wednesday night after swallowing poison.
Inspector General Paramjit Singh Gill said that the teenager had been “running from pillar to post to get her case registered” but officers failed to open a formal inquiry.
“One of the officers tried to convince her to withdraw the case,” Gill, the police chief for the area, told AFP.
Before her death, there had been no arrests over her case although three people were detained on Thursday. Two of them were her alleged male attackers and the third was a suspected woman accomplice.
The victim’s sister told Indian television that the teenager had been urged to either accept a cash settlement or marry one of her attackers.
“The police started pressuring her to either reach a financial settlement with her attackers or marry one of them,” her sister told the NDTV network.
Meanwhile, the Press Trust of India reported that a police officer has been suspended for allegedly refusing to register a rape complaint in the northern state of Chhattisgar.
The woman and her husband later brought the case to the attention of a more senior officer and a hunt has now been launched for her attacker, an auto rickshaw driver.
Official figures show that 228,650 of the total 256,329 violent crimes recorded last year in India were against women.
The real figure is thought to be much higher as so many women are reluctant to report attacks to the police.
During an address to the chief ministers of India’s states on Thursday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pledged to bring in new laws to cover attacks on women.
India Ink - Notes on the World's Largest Democracy
December 28, 2012, 3:02 am
Debating the Death Penalty for Rape in India
By NEHA THIRANI
A gang rape in Delhi has revived the debate about which crimes merit the death penalty in India, as calls for justice for the victim have quickly morphed into demands that the six suspects in police custody be executed.
Such demands have come from protesters and politicians alike. In the capital, crowds at India Gate carried banners saying, "Hang the rapists - We want justice."
Last week, the home minister, Sushil Kumar Shinde said in a statement that the government will take steps to amend the criminal law so that the death penalty could be applied to particular cases of rape like this one. In a speech in the lower house of Parliament, the leader of the opposition, Sushma Swaraj, also favored capital punishment for the rape suspects.
At the National Development Council in New Delhi on Thursday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the "government has decided to review the present laws and examine the levels of punishments in cases of aggravated sexual assault." A committee of eminent jurists, headed by Justice J.S. Verma, the former Chief Justice of India, has been formed to review these laws.
On Monday, the father of the victim said that the culprits should be hanged. "If they remain alive and are later freed, they will again commit such crimes," he said. Petitions to execute the six men have rapidly circulated on social media, and a Facebook page titled "Hang the Rapists" had 1,437 "likes" as of Friday morning.
Capital punishment is legal in India, though it is seldom exercised. According to a ruling by India's Supreme Court in 1980, the death penalty can only be applied for the "rarest of rare" cases. In July this year, 14 former judges appealed to the president of India to use his powers to commute the sentences of 13 people placed on death row from 1996 to 2009, after the Supreme Court admitted that the 13 had been erroneously charged.
On Nov. 21, the Supreme Court called for a "fresh look" at the application of the "rarest of rare" criterion, saying that there had been "little or no uniformity in the application of this approach." That same day, the death penalty was applied in India for the first time in eight years when Ajmal Kasab, the lone surviving gunman in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, was executed. Two days earlier, India had voted against a resolution in the United Nations General Assembly that urged members to abolish the death penalty.
In the case of the gang rape in Delhi, it is unlikely that anyone convicted of the crime will receive the death sentence, legal experts say. Currently, the minimum punishment for gang rape is 10 years in prison, with life imprisonment as the maximum. Under the Indian Constitution, one cannot receive a punishment greater than that prescribed by the law at the time of the crime.
"Jurisprudence is prospective, not retrospective, and in this case the law will be applied the way it is at present," said Pinky Anand, a senior advocate practicing in the Supreme Court of India who specializes in cases for women, constitutional law and international law. If the law is amended, the change will apply only to the crimes that occur afterward. "We all condemn the incident, but there has to be some rationality in the statements made by politicians," she said.
For proponents of the death penalty, the chilling possibility of an execution by hanging is seen as the ultimate deterrent to crime. "Nobody values anything more than his or her life, and any system that takes away your life will terrify you," said Ms. Anand. "It is human psychology in addition to criminal jurisprudence."
However, critics of capital punishment say that there has not been any research proving that the death penalty is effective in preventing crime. A robust criminal justice system, they say, would act as a more effective deterrent against rape or sexual violence.
"There must be the feeling that there is a government and judiciary who will take such crimes seriously and nobody will be allowed to get away with committing such heinous crimes - that will serve as a deterrent," said Annie Raja, general secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women. "If you are able to create confidence in your judicial system and your policing system, then people will not need to demand the death penalty."
The low conviction rate for rape means that very often cases either languish in the Indian courts for years or those arrested end up walking free. "The real problem is the conviction rate, the delay in the administration of justice, the lack of sensitivity of the police with dealing with such matters, the lack of security in the city," said Jayati Ghosh, a professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, who was present at the protests in New Delhi. "Last year, the conviction rate in New Delhi for those who appeared in court for rape cases was less than 5 percent. The problem lies in the certainty of punishment rather than the severity."
As the legal process for death penalty cases is significantly longer and more complex than for cases of life imprisonment, lawyers, activists and academic experts fear that applying the death penalty for rape will only result in more acquittals than convictions. "The whole legal process to establish is so rigorous if it is for death penalty," said Ranjana Kumari, director at the Center for Social Research. "We currently have approximately 40,000 cases of rape pending in different courts in the country, while we have only given 46 death penalties so far since 1947."
Legal experts say that in many cases, the threat of capital punishment might encourage rapists to kill their victims in order to eliminate the prime witness.
"I believe that the most stringent punishment possible must be applied in such cases, but in this case if you impose the death penalty, the criminal will have a motive to commit murder to cover up the crime and eliminate evidence," said Rana Parween Siddiqui, a member of the Bar Council of Delhi who practices in the High Court and the Supreme Court and specializes in civil and criminal law. "Instead, the criminal must be given life imprisonment without the possibility of bail or parole under any circumstances and there should be chemical castration."
Another argument frequently made against the demand for the death penalty in a rape case is that such a demand ultimately equates rape with death. A statement by a collective of women's groups, progressive groups and individuals condemning sexual violence and opposing death penalty on Kafila blog reads:
The logic of awarding death penalty to rapists is based on the belief that rape is a fate worse than death. Patriarchal notions of 'honor' lead us to believe that rape is the worst thing that can happen to a woman. There is a need to strongly challenge this stereotype of the 'destroyed' woman who loses her honor and who has no place in society after she's been sexually assaulted. We believe that rape is tool of patriarchy, an act of violence, and has nothing to do with morality, character or behavior.
Those on both sides of the death penalty debate do agree that in order to be effective, justice must be swift, as delays not only allow rapists to believe that they are immune to prosecution but also dissuades their victims from accessing the legal remedies available to them. "Enhancing the efficiency of the system will be more effective than enhancing the punishment," said Ms. Anand, the Supreme Court advocate.
U.S. evacuates embassy in Central African Republic
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, December 28, 2012 7:22 EST
The United States evacuated its embassy in the Central African Republic and temporarily halted its operations, amid security fears after rebels seized large swathes of the country.
The State Department said it had not broken off diplomatic ties with the beleaguered government in Bangui, but warned US citizens not to travel to the mineral-rich but chronically unstable country while unrest continues.
“Ambassador (Lawrence) Wohlers and his diplomatic team left Bangui today along with several private US citizens,” a statement said. Separately, a US official told AFP the team flew out of Bangui at 0000 GMT Friday.
“This decision is solely due to concerns about the security of our personnel and has no relation to our continuing and long-standing diplomatic relations with the CAR,” the State Department said.
In a separate travel warning issued to US citizens, the department said: “As a result of the deteriorating security situation, the US Embassy in Bangui suspended its operations on December 28, 2012.
“The Department of State warns U.S. citizens against all travel to the Central African Republic,” it said.
“US citizens who have decided to stay in CAR should review their personal security situation and seriously consider departing.”
Washington’s decision comes amid mounting fears in the Central African Republic’s capital that President Francois Bozize’s government is facing defeat by an advancing army of rebel fighters.
The United Nations has also pulled non-essential staff out of the country, which has a history of violent unrest, and former colonial power France has ordered its military to step up security around its Bangui embassy.
A rebel coalition known as Seleka — which means “alliance” in the country’s Sango language — has seized four regional centers, including a diamond mining hub, since its fighters took up arms on December 10.
Bozize’s troops have fallen back from the rebel advance in disarray and he has appealed for US and French help.
December 27, 2012
Rebels Are Advancing Toward Capital of Central African Republic
By LYDIA POLGREEN and JOSH KRON
JOHANNESBURG — Rebels on Thursday inched closer to the capital of the Central African Republic, one of Africa’s most fragile states, threatening to topple an elected government that has had an unsteady grip on power for nearly a decade.
Thousands of civilians fled cities and towns into dense forest as embassies and humanitarian aid organizations evacuated many of their staff members from the capital, Bangui.
The United States Embassy in Bangui temporarily suspended operations on Friday over security concerns in the country, the State Department said on its Web site. It emphasized that it was not suspending diplomatic relations with the Central African Republic.
The rebel group, an amalgamation of several different factions fighting under the name Seleka Coalition, is trying to remove President François Bozizé, a military officer who seized power in 2003 and has twice since been elected president. The rebels accuse Mr. Bozizé of failing to live up to the terms of peace agreements signed beginning in 2007 to quell several uprisings.
The rebels have trounced government forces in the country’s central and northern regions, taking many towns and chopping away at the distance between them and a potential overthrow in Bangui, the seat of one of Africa’s weakest governments, in the middle of one of Africa’s most volatile, porous regions.
Central African Republic is sandwiched between some of the most unstable nations on the continent: Chad and South Sudan sit to its north and east, and just south is the Democratic Republic of Congo. Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army and the focus of a global manhunt, is believed to be hiding in the dense forests of southeastern Central African Republic.
Caught in the middle of this maelstrom are the country’s nearly five million civilians, who have been forced to flee their homes for the deep cover of the dense, central African forest dozens of times over the past five decades. In 2007, fighting grew so intense that tens of thousands of people fled into the deeply troubled nations of Chad and Sudan, so desperate were they for some respite from the bloodshed.
“The population is extremely worried because the rebel advance has moved quickly in a short matter of time, and the army is moving backward,” said Sylvain Groulx, head of mission for Doctors Without Borders in Bangui.
The mass exodus raised the specter of a humanitarian crisis.
“You have a population that under the best times of peace have alarming rates of mortality, some of the worst sanitary conditions in the world; health indicators are extremely bad,” Mr. Groulx said. “Now, all of a sudden, when there is fighting, they are out into the field.”
Protesters threw stones and tore down the French flag at the French Embassy, demanding that the former colonial power do more to stop the rebels.
France, which maintains a contingent of about 250 soldiers near Bangui as part of a multinational peacekeeping force, has made clear that it does not intend to be drawn into the conflict, despite requests by Mr. Bozizé.
“If we’re present, it is not in order to protect a regime,” the French president, François Hollande, told reporters on Thursday. “It’s to protect our citizens and our interests and in no way to intervene in the interior affairs of a country.”
Only under a United Nations mandate would France consider a nonpeacekeeping intervention in the Central African Republic, which gained independence from its French colonizers in 1960, Mr. Hollande said. The era of regular French intervention in the internal affairs of its former colonies “is over with,” he said.
The Central African Republic is a landlocked nation with plenty of natural wealth but a history of violence, repression and bad government that has left its people among the poorest in the globe.
It has known little peace since it won its independence from France in 1960. The leader of its independence movement, Barthélemy Boganda, died in a mysterious plane crash just before the country was liberated, and a power struggle ensued, leaving David Dacko as president. But Mr. Dacko’s rule was short-lived — in 1965 his cousin, a military officer named Jean-Bédel Bokassa, overthrew his government.
Mr. Bokassa, with the support of the French government, became a monstrous caricature of the brutal, post-colonial African dictator. In 1977 he crowned himself emperor of his tiny nation, sitting upon a golden throne shaped like an eagle and his head topped by a diamond-encrusted crown, in an elaborate ceremony costing $22 million. His cruelty knew no bounds — he fed people to crocodiles for sport, and torture was a common tactic of his police and army. Rumors abounded that he was a cannibal who enjoyed eating the flesh of small children.
A coup removed Mr. Bokassa from power in 1979, and another quickly followed. Like many African nations, Central African Republic took halting steps toward democracy in the 1980s and ’90s, but attempted coups and military domination of politics continued.
Mr. Bozizé has twice run for election, first in 2005 and again in 2011, when he was re-elected by substantial margins.
Lydia Polgreen reported from Johannesburg, and Josh Kron from Kampala, Uganda. Scott Sayare contributed reporting from Paris.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: December 27, 2012
An earlier version of this article misstated the given name of the leader of Central African Republic’s independence movement. He is Barthélemy Boganda, not Bartélémy.
December 27, 2012
Islamists’ Harsh Justice Is on the Rise in North Mali
By ADAM NOSSITER
BAMAKO, Mali — Moctar Touré was strapped to a chair, blindfolded, his right hand bound tight to the armrest with a rubber tube. A doctor came and administered a shot. Then Mr. Touré’s own brother wielded a knife, the kind used to slaughter sheep, and methodically carried out the sentence.
“I myself cut off my brother’s hand,” said Aliou Touré, a police chief in the Islamist-held north of this divided nation. “We had no choice but to practice the justice of God.”
Such amputations are designed to shock — residents are often summoned to watch — and even as the world makes plans to recapture northern Mali by force, the Islamists who control it show no qualms about carrying them out.
After the United Nations Security Council authorized a military campaign to retake the region last week, Islamists in Gao, Mr. Touré’s town, cut the hands off two more people accused of being thieves the very next day, a leading local official said, describing it as a brazen response to the United Nations resolution. Then the Islamists, undeterred by the international threats against them, warned reporters that eight others “will soon share the same fate.”
This harsh application of Shariah law, with people accused of being thieves sometimes having their feet amputated as well, has occurred at least 14 times since the Islamist takeover last spring, not including the recent vow of more to come, according to Human Rights Watch and independent observers.
But those are just the known cases, and dozens of other residents have been publicly flogged with camel-hair whips or tree branches for offenses like smoking, or even for playing music on the radio. Several were whipped in Gao on Monday for smoking in public, an official said, while others said that anything other than Koranic verses were proscribed as cellphone ringtones. A jaunty tune is punishable by flogging.
At least one case of the most severe punishment — stoning to death — was carried out in the town of Aguelhok in July against a couple accused of having children out of wedlock.
Trials are often rudimentary. A dozen or so jihadi judges sitting in a circle on floor mats pronounce judgment, according to former Malian officials in the north. Hearings, judgment and sentence are usually carried out rapidly, on the same day.
“They do it among themselves, in closed session,” said Abdou Sidibé, a parliamentary deputy from Gao, now in exile here in the capital, Bamako. “These people who have come among us have imposed their justice,” he said. “It comes from nowhere.”
The jihadists are even attempting to sell the former criminal courts building in Gao, Mr. Sidibé said, because they no longer have any use for it. In Timbuktu, justice is dispensed from a room in a former hotel.
Many of the amputation victims have now drifted down to Bamako, in the south, which despite suffering from its own political volatility has become a haven for tens of thousands fleeing harsh conditions in the north, including the forced recruitment of child soldiers by the Islamists.
Moctar Touré, 25, and Souleymane Traoré, 25, both spoke haltingly and stared into the distance, remembering life before the moments that turned their worlds upside down and made them, as they felt, useless. They gently cradled the rounded stumps that now serve as arms, wondering what would come next.
The two young men had been truck drivers before Gao was overrun last spring. Both were accused of stealing guns; both said they merely acted out of patriotic feeling for the now-divided Malian state, with the intention of helping it regain the north.
In September, Mr. Traoré said, he was summoned from his jail cell after three months of a brutal prison term in which he was often fed nothing. Acquaintances had denounced him to the Islamist police; he was stealing the extremists’ weapons at night, he said, and burying them in the sand by the Niger River.
As ten other prisoners watched, he was ordered to sit in a chair, and his arms were tightly bound to it. With a razor, one of his jailers traced a circle on his forearm. “It pains me to even think about it,” he said, looking down, cradling his head in his remaining hand.
Mr. Touré’s brother, Aliou, the police chief, sawed off his hand. It took three minutes. Mr. Traoré said he passed out.
“I said nothing. I let them do it,” he said.
Moctar Touré had his hand amputated several weeks later. He said it took 30 minutes, though he fainted in the process, awakening in the hospital bed where the Islamists had placed him afterward.
Mr. Touré said his brother had insisted that the sentence be carried out.
“They asked my own brother three times if that was the sentence,” Mr. Touré said. “He’s the commissioner of police in Gao, and he wants to die a martyr,” Mr. Touré said quietly. “He joined up with the Islamists when they came to Gao.”
Aliou Touré, reached by telephone in the Sahara, said the decision was a simple one.
“He stole nine times,” he said of his brother. “He’s my own brother. God told us to do it. God created my brother. God created me. You must read the Koran to see that what I say is true. This is in the Koran. That’s why we do it.”
Moctar Touré had a different story. The Islamists had pressed him into joining their militia, he said, but the training was brutal and Mr. Touré quit. One day they saw him carrying some guns, and they accused him of wanting to subvert the new order. He was jailed.
Sweat streamed down Mr. Touré’s forehead as he recalled the terrible memories, sitting on a bench at a busy bus station here, 600 miles from Gao.
The Islamists had called out five prisoners that morning; four were to be witnesses. They took them all to an unused customs post at the edge of Gao, and Mr. Touré was ordered to wash himself. The Islamists told him what his sentence was to be.
“I was helpless,” he said. “I was completely tied up.”
Now, Mr. Touré spends his days hanging out at the bus station near a cousin’s house. Mr. Traoré hopes to learn a new trade, given that “I can’t be a driver anymore,” he said.
Mr. Touré, for his part, is in despair. “I have no idea what I am going to do,” he said. “I’m completely lost. Night and day, I ask myself, ‘What is going to happen?’ Nobody has helped me.”
The people in Gao have protested the amputations several times, according to Human Rights Watch, even halting them once by throwing stones at the Islamic police and blocking the entrance to the main square.
“To come to Gao and inflict these sentences they call Islamic, I say it is illegal,” said Abderrahmane Oumarou, a communal councilor there, reached by telephone after last week’s amputations.
As for the Islamists’ justice, “I don’t give credit to their accusations,” Mr. Oumarou said. “You can’t replace Malian justice.”
Mr. Oumarou said the Islamists had been busy lately writing “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great,” in Arabic on the former Malian administrative buildings in Gao.
“Their accusations are false,” he said. “They said weapons were stolen. But these are lies.”
December 27, 2012
Battle for Syrian City Lays Both Sides’ Weaknesses Bare
By C. J. CHIVERS
ALEPPO, Syria — The sniper walked through the rubble near this city’s front lines. He was searching for another spot from where he might catch a Syrian soldier in his rifle scope’s cross hairs.
Speaking in French-accented English, he said he was not Syrian, but a roaming jihadist who had journeyed here to help the Sunni uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s secular, Alawite rule.
“I am a Muslim,” he said. “When you see on TV many of your brothers and sisters being killed you have to go help them. This is an obligation in Islam.”
The presence of this foreign antigovernment fighter, who claimed to be from Paris and gave his name as Abu Abdullah, pointed to recurring questions of the battle for Syria’s largest city: How much longer will the fighting last, and what will its effects be?
Now in its sixth month, the battle for Aleppo has become the contest for Syria in a microcosm, exposing the weakness of both sides, while highlighting anew the perils and costs of the country’s bitter civil war.
It has underlined the rebels’ difficulties in organizing a coherent campaign; their paucity of infantry weapons heavier than machine guns; and some of their fighters’ participation in the same human rights abuses for which they condemn the government, including the summary killing of prisoners.
It has also left rebels vulnerable to allegations of corruption, including the theft of much needed food and other aid.
Simultaneously, the fighting has exposed the government’s seemingly fatal miscalculations. For all of its statements to the contrary, and no matter its effort to mass soldiers and firepower here, Mr. Assad’s government has mustered neither the popular support nor the military might to stop the rebels’ slow momentum, much less to defeat them.
These days rumors circulate of Mr. Assad’s dilemma — will he flee Damascus, Syria’s capital, or die behind the palace gate? — while it is rebels who speak with confidence.
“Now we are making very good progress,” said Col. Abdul Jabbar al-Okaidi, a former Syrian military officer who is now one of the senior rebel commanders in the Aleppo region. “Almost all of the military bases and regime forces in Aleppo have been surrounded.”
As winter descends, intensifying the humanitarian crisis for Aleppo’s civilians, the battle’s direction has decisively shifted.
The Syrian Army units here have been largely cut off from the capital. For weeks they have been yielding ground, contracting under the pressures of persistent rebel attacks from almost every direction and the related difficulties of resupply.
The military’s tactic of collective punishment — manifested through seemingly indiscriminate airstrikes and artillery barrages on residential neighborhoods — has earned it only anger and disgust.
One opposition activist noted the army’s practice of firing a few artillery rounds into neighborhoods, waiting five or ten minutes for civilians to gather to help the wounded, and then firing again — resembling NATO’s practice of repeat airstrikes in its campaign in 2011 to unseat Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya. “Sometimes we wait and don’t go out after the first shells, because we know other shells are coming,” said the activist, Mumtaz Mohammad. “There are a lot of victims who were killed because of this policy.”
Once able to roam freely in its armored columns, the army begins the winter confined mostly to the city’s south and west. It also retains tenuous control of the airport in the southeast, although rebels have pushed close to its fences and claim to have positioned many antiaircraft weapons there.
Syrian Air Force support, almost continuous in the city over the summer, has dwindled. The sound of Russian-made helicopters, once constant, is now unusual.
Passing attack jets often dispense bright strings of decoy flares — a sign that pilots fear the rebels’ portable, heat-seeking missiles, used to shoot down at least one aircraft late in the fall.
But these accumulating rebel successes have not come without setbacks, costs and questions about Syria’s future. The army, while weak, is still potent and difficult to dislodge where it has concentrated forces in Aleppo, just as it has done in most of Syria’s cities.
On one recent day, rebels gathered at their front-line posts near the Hanano military base. The rebels had captured the base in the summer, only to lose it to an army counterattack, apparently after the rebels left too light a guard and failed to consolidate their gains.
Now the rebels tried to retake what they had held, pressing within 65 yards of their enemies via a warren of alleys.
In one street, the corpse of a Syrian soldier lay in the rubble. Both sides watched over the body, since neither could venture into the daylight to retrieve it without drawing fire.
One front-line commander, Mohammad Bakkar, 36, said he had been drawn almost unwillingly into his life as an urban guerrilla.
“The regime considered almost every grown man who was not on their side to be a wanted man,” he said. “They started visiting my house, asking about me. They left a note telling me to come visit them at the intelligence department.”
“Instead I joined the Free Syrian Army,” he said.
Mr. Bakkar, like others, spoke of returning to a peaceful life after Mr. Assad’s defeat.
But these men also said that the army could prove even more dangerous in its decline. Cornered units, knowing that rebels have killed prisoners, might fight until death. And there have been ample signs throughout the year that the government has exercised less restraint as rebels have grown stronger.
(Colonel Okaidi said that rebels often try to take army positions piecemeal, hoping, as they advance, to persuade soldiers to surrender.)
The fighters and opposition activists also said that Syria’s population has been altered by the war, and is now more sectarian, more religious, much more armed and deeply disappointed, often outraged, at the inaction by the West.
The presence of foreign fighters like Abu Abdullah, and the calls for religious law that have been heard in many places across rebel-held territory, have left many to say that the fall of Mr. Assad, even if the day came soon, would signal the end of one phase of the war, and perhaps the start of another. In this way, Aleppo offered a glimpse.
Abu Abdullah, for his part, wandered the front with unmistakable approval of the Syrian fighters around him. With dreadlocks protruding beneath his black watch cap, he slung his Dragunov-style rifle and surveyed the broken buildings, looking for an elevated spot from which to watch the army positions near Hanano, waiting for a soldier to become a target.
He said that he had fought in Pakistan and Afghanistan and suggested that he had been a sniper in Iraq. Now, he said, it was Syria’s turn at war, which mixes an uprising against a repressive government with the older, uglier contest between Sunnis and Shiites. His mission suggested he saw no quick end to the violence. “I am here,” he said, “to teach the Syrians to snipe.”
12/28/2012 12:55 PM
Ineffective and Unsustainable: Failure Threatens Afghan Police Training Mission
By Andreas Ulrich
German officials have been training police in Afghanistan for a decade, but a visit to their training center in Mazar-e-Sharif creates major doubts about the effectiveness of the mission. Afghan police remain poorly prepared to tackle the mighty challenges they will face as Western forces withdraw.
The Afghan national sport is called buzkashi. It's a game in which horsemen battle over a goat carcass. There are no established teams.
During a match, the competitors forge brief, continuously shifting alliances. They only work together until they have gained a short-term advantage. The game can last for hours, even days. The winner is the rider who manages to carry the carcass to the goal. Buzkashi is a mirror of Afghan society.
By contrast, the German police officers who train local recruits in Afghanistan have brought soccer balls and nets to their base in Mazar-e-Sharif. Football is all about teamwork and team spirit. The goal is to form a team and achieve an objective together.
In a corner of the training center, on a patch of parched earth, there is now a soccer field where the next generation of Afghan police officers is learning the game.
"What we want to achieve with the recruits is a change in mentality," says a German instructor. More team spirit, a better sense of community, more loyalty. More soccer, less buzkashi.
Over the past 10 years, Germany has instructed some 56,000 Afghan police officers at four training centers in the region. The training is part of Germany's responsibility as a member of NATO, and so far the project has cost some €380 million ($503 million). As many as 200 German police officers are regularly stationed in Afghanistan, most of them in Mazar-e-Sharif.
But anyone who accompanies the German security aid workers for a few days is bound to doubt the mission's effectiveness after observing the mood among the officers and reading between the lines of official statements. Even now, when Western security forces have entered their 11th year of training, the police in Afghanistan don't stand for public order and security -- but rather for helplessness, arbitrariness and corruption.
A Prime Target
"The mission is neither effective nor sustainable," says Josef Scheuring, chairman of the Germany's largest police union, the GdP, adding that it endangers the lives of the German police officers. "We should withdraw from Afghanistan as quickly as possible," urges Scheuring. Nevertheless, police officers continue to work in the region, usually for a year. They are attracted by overseas bonuses of up to €200 per day.
Alex, 32, a mid-level police officer from the northeastern German town of Ueckermünde, is one of them. He is due to meet with Ayatullah at the Regional Police Training Center (RPTC) in Mazar-e-Sharif late in the afternoon. The next day, the 22-year-old low-ranking officer in the Afghan national police force will show class 6.2 how a road checkpoint works.
"Checkpoints are crucial," says Alex, adding that "they have a high death rate." This makes it important to teach "survival skills," as he puts it. Of all the uniformed officials in Afghanistan, police officers are at the highest risk.
Secluded from the outside world, many of them spend weeks at such checkpoints and are charged with representing the state. They are a symbol of the new Afghanistan, which is massively supported by the West -- and thus a prime target for insurgents. There are currently some 150,000 police officers in Afghanistan. Since 2002, when various Western nations launched training programs, it's estimated that nearly 10,000 police officers have been killed -- and some 15 percent desert the force every year.
Alex plans the next day with Ayatullah. "We'll meet at 7:50 a.m. in front of the armory, and by 8:20 a.m. the checkpoint will be set up. Is that enough time?" asks Alex.
"No problem," says Ayatullah.
"We need a patrol car and a civilian car, plus three boxes as barriers. Ideally, by this evening already. Is that okay?"
"Okay, I'll see you tomorrow," says Alex.
A Critical Phase
The ambitious project of developing an Afghan police force, which was to operate at least according to the basic principles of its German counterpart, began 10 years ago and involved three phases.
Phase 1, training recruits, was completed long ago.
Phase 2, instructing the police officers in practical operations on location, was abandoned last year. German police officers -- at the time still under the protection of German soldiers -- drove through the country for hours to call on various police stations. Since they had to be back before sundown due to security concerns, there often remained very little time for training.
Phase 3 is currently underway: Afghan police officers train Afghan recruits while the Germans monitor them. They correct mistakes and give suggestions. Based on the methodology and didactics of the German police school, it is hoped that the Afghans can train uneducated men to become good officers in just eight weeks.
Like all German police officers in Mazar-e-Sharif, Alex is living at Camp Marmal, the headquarters of the coalition troops in northern Afghanistan. The ISAF military base is one of the safest places in the country -- a well-equipped artificial world with shops, cafeterias, gyms and pool tables. Private security guards stand at the gates, while soldiers patrol outside the compound. A zeppelin floats in the sky, jam-packed with cameras and surveillance electronics.
The German police officers are not allowed to leave the camp. They used to accept invitations to eat meals with locals, were allowed to move about freely and had opportunities to get to know the country. Today, that would be unthinkable. The upcoming ISAF withdrawal has made the security situation extremely precarious.
Lieutenant General Rainer Glatz, the commander of all German military operations abroad, says that the mission in Afghanistan has reached a "critical phase." Glatz says the Afghan army and police will soon undergo a litmus test to see whether and how they can ensure security without outside help.
A Certain Kind of Order
Alex from Ueckermünde begins his workday at 6:15 a.m. with breakfast in the air-conditioned canteen. At 7 a.m., he goes to the barracks where the German police have their offices. Some two dozen men and women have gathered there. They are wearing khaki-colored uniforms made of breathable fabrics with "vector protection," a special treatment that is designed to prevent bites from blood-sucking arthropods like ticks and flying insects.
A security briefing is part of the daily routine for the Germans at Camp Marmal. A colleague brings them up to speed: In Helmand Province, 15 men and 2 women were decapitated, allegedly because they had celebrated and danced; in Laghman Province in the east, two US soldiers were killed by Afghan military personnel. And in the north, where Camp Marmal is located, there were "no incidents."
That is no coincidence, because the north is under the control of Governor Atta Mohammed Noor. The former warlord is one of the richest men in the country. Every day, hundreds of supplicants wait for an opportunity to enter his office, which is decorated with chandeliers, paintings and silk upholstered chairs.
In the governor's realm, the opium smuggling trade is booming, as are alcohol sales and business with prostitutes from Tajikistan. The Western forces simply look the other way. Otherwise "the fragile economic system would collapse," said a US major during a confidential discussion behind the ISAF barracks.
Governor Noor stands for a certain amount of order. It is not the order that comes from the rule of law -- but it is enough for the German government to thank him with the construction of a new airport in Mazar-e-Sharif. A consulate general is due to be opened next year.
A Proud People
The RPTC training center is located roughly 800 meters (2,600 feet) from Camp Marmal. Before the Germans drive there, they each put on bulletproof vests, grab a G-36 assault rifle and climb into an armored SUV.
The Germans also carry their weapons on the secured military base. Their Afghan colleagues, however, must surrender their arms at the gate. An Afghan, a uniform and a loaded weapon can be a deadly combination in this part of the world. Some 50 ISAF soldiers have been shot by Afghans in uniform this year alone. The Taliban proudly boasts that it has managed to infiltrate the local police force. As a precautionary measure, the Kalashnikovs distributed to class 6.2 shortly before 8 a.m. are missing their firing pins. That way means any cartridges smuggled into the training center couldn't hurt anyone.
Ayatullah, the Afghan police instructor, has the checkpoint set up. "Where is the patrol car?" asks Alex, the German instructor.
Ayatullah hesitates. His superiors didn't want to hand over the car, he admits. He says they use it to drive home in the evening. They told him to tell the Germans that they would only make the vehicle available if they were given more gasoline.
His superiors are playing buzkashi with squad cars. As a result, class 6.2 practices without a vehicle.
Ayatullah assigns positions at the checkpoint. Four recruits secure the area, one stops an oncoming civilian car, and two others stand behind him. Stop, hands up, search the vehicle, make arrests.
Alex is not satisfied.
"Ayatullah should have explained the process once again to the entire class before the exercise, ideally at each individual stage," he says. Many of the recruits were not paying attention or didn't even understand which task had been assigned to them, he criticizes. Although Ayatullah has professional knowledge, he can't teach it to others, says the German.
At 10:15 a.m., the Afghan trainer and his German supervisor meet to review the session. "How did it go?" asks Alex.
"Really well," says Ayatullah, who is beaming.
Alex was expecting that answer. "Nevertheless, we have to talk about a few points," he says. The trick is to package the criticism so it sounds like praise. The Afghans are a proud people.
Running Out of Time
Eight weeks is not much time to make a police officer of a man who has perhaps never attended a school. The country's illiteracy rate is currently at roughly 70 percent, and sometimes the recruits don't understand a word, for instance, if an instructor tries to teach a group of Pashtuns in Dari. Only the most basic knowledge is taught: roadblocks, house searches, self-defense and making arrests, weaponry and a few legal principles, including human rights.
But is that enough?
Interior Minister for the northern German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Lorenz Caffier, who also currently heads the German Interior Ministers' Conference, has his doubts. The problem is "that in Afghanistan we primarily train recruits for basic police service," says Caffier, "and we don't know how many of them will remain with the police force and how many will go to work for the warlords." The conservative politician, who is a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), says it would be preferable to train more senior officers who are less embedded in the country's old clan structures.
Not much time is left, though. By the end of February 2014, the number of German soldiers stationed in Afghanistan will have been reduced from the Bundeswehr's current force of nearly 4,500 to 3,300 -- and German combat troops will have been completely withdrawn by the end of 2014. German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to the CDU, says that he intends "to consolidate what has been accomplished, even after 2014," adding that a "certain presence" by German police officers will be required in the region to achieve this.
But Alex and his colleagues on the ground in Afghanistan are asking themselves how long the camp will remain intact after the withdrawal. There is a great deal of concern that the training center will fall into disrepair, the air conditioning units will no longer be maintained, and that many items that can be used privately will quickly go missing. The establishment plan for the Afghan police does not include positions for maintenance workers.
After the lunch break, Alex turns his attention to another Afghan instructor: Tarek. This time the focus is on arrest and search techniques. Tarek stands confidently in front of the group, speaking loudly and gesticulating frequently. He also provides explanations, allows the recruits to practice individual steps and intervenes when necessary.
Then a recruit appears, wrapped in a large cloak with fuses visible from underneath. It's time to practice handling suicide bombers.
"Shout loudly to warn everyone around you, run backwards as quickly as possible and look for cover," explains Tarek.
"Only open fire if the insurgent attempts to detonate the bomb," Alex reminds them. Then he admits that only a bullet aimed at the head will help. "And quickly," he adds.
The day is over. Tarek collects empty water bottles and the recruits return to their living quarters. The Afghan head of the medical center at Camp Marmal climbs behind the wheel of his Ford Ranger. The colonel passes the checkpoints and takes the paved road toward the center of Mazar-e-Sharif. He drives for nearly 10 kilometers -- first through a desert-like landscape, then past garages, filling stations and shops. Shortly after entering the town, he turns left.
The car rumbles over a path through one of the city's better neighborhoods, where multi-story buildings are hidden from view behind high walls. Shortly before the medical officer reaches his own house, he passes by a corner property. Two men clad in Afghan army uniforms are trimming a hedge in the front garden. "A general lives here," the colonel explains.
The colonel is a member of the police force. He has to trim his own hedges -- at least as long as the Germans are still in Afghanistan.
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
December 27, 2012
Betrayed While Asleep, Afghan Police Die at Hands of Their Countrymen
By ROD NORDLAND
KABUL, Afghanistan — A wave of betrayal has left at least 17 Afghan policemen dead in the past 10 days — all killed in their sleep, at the hands of those close to them.
Early Thursday morning, an Afghan policeman unlocked the door of the check post where he was stationed in Oruzgan Province and let in his friends from the Taliban, who helped him attack his sleeping colleagues with knives and guns, eventually killing four and wounding eight.
On Sunday, a local police commander in a remote northern province, Jawzjan, shot to death, in their beds, five men under his command and fled to join the Taliban.
And on Dec. 18, a teenager, apparently being kept for sexual purposes by an Afghan border police commander in southern Kandahar Province, drugged the commander and the other 10 policemen at the post to put them to sleep, and then shot them all; eight died.
In the crisis that has risen in the past year over insider killings, in which Afghan security forces turn on their allies, the toll has been even heavier for the Afghans themselves — at least 86 in a count by The New York Times this year, and the full toll is likely to be higher — than it has been for American and other NATO forces, which have lost at least 62 so far, the latest in Kabul on Monday.
Unlike most insider attacks against foreign forces, known as “green on blue” killings, most of the attacks between Afghans, “green on green,” have been clear cases of either infiltration by Taliban insurgents or turncoat attacks. As with the three recent attacks, they have fallen most heavily on police units, and they have followed a familiar pattern: the Taliban either infiltrate someone into a unit, or win over someone already in a unit, who then kills his comrades in their sleep. Frequently, the victims are first poisoned or drugged at dinner.
“I tell my cook not to allow any police officer in the kitchen,” said Taaj Mohammad, a commander of a border police check post near the one in Kandahar that was attacked on Dec. 18. “This kind of incident really creates mistrust among comrades, which is not good. Now we don’t trust anyone, even those who spent years in the post.”
The most recent of the green-on-green betrayals took place on Thursday about 3 a.m., in the town of Tirin Kot, the capital of Oruzgan Province in southern Afghanistan. According to Fareed Ayal, a spokesman for the provincial police chief, a police officer named Hayat Khan, who had been in regular touch with the Taliban for religious guidance, waited until the other officers at his check post fell asleep and then called Taliban fighters by cellphone and let them in. First the attackers stabbed the one officer who was on watch, but he raised the alarm in time to awaken some of the police officers.
In the ensuing firefight, four policemen were killed and eight wounded, while Mr. Khan and his Taliban confederates managed to escape, according to Mr. Ayal’s account.
In the attack on Sunday, in Jawzjan Province, the victims were all part of an Afghan Local Police unit whose commander had previous connections with the Taliban. Such local police units, strongly supported as part of American policy in Afghanistan, undergo training, and community leaders and elders offer guarantees that the units have no further insurgent ties.
Gen. Abdul Aziz Ghairat of the Jawzjan Provincial Police said that the commander who had killed the men in their sleep, Dur Mohammad, had fled but that his relatives and a community elder who vouched for him had been detained and were being interrogated.
In some green-on-green cases, personal grievances may drive the attackers to throw in their lot with the Taliban.
That is apparently what happened in the case of Noor Agha, a young man who the police say killed eight border security police officers in their check post on the border near Spinbaldak, the major crossing point between Kandahar and Pakistan, on Dec. 18.
The police said that Mr. Agha, whose age was unclear but whom police sources described as “still beardless,” had been the involuntary companion of the border police commander at that check post, Agha Amire, for several years. Other police commanders who knew both said there was clearly an “improper relationship” between the two.
While not saying so explicitly, they were suggesting that Mr. Amire was using Mr. Agha in the commonplace practice known as bacha baazi, in which powerful Afghan commanders frequently keep young boys as personal servants, dancers and sex slaves.
The practice was outlawed during Taliban times but has never gone away, and even some provincial governors and other top officials openly keep bacha baazi harems. The practice was noted in the latest United States State Department’s annual human rights report, but the report said “credible statistics were difficult to acquire as the subject was a source of shame.”
The night of the attack, Mr. Agha offered to make a special dinner for the police at the check post and invited two friends to attend. He and his friends put drugs in the food and then shot everyone there, including Mr. Amire, and the three attackers escaped across the border to join Taliban insurgents in Pakistan, according to a police official. Mr. Agha’s family, who lived in Arghandab district, a former Taliban stronghold near Kandahar city, fled their home, leaving behind livestock and personal possessions, according to police officials and relatives of the commander.
Although a police official who spoke on the condition of anonymity put the toll at eight dead and three wounded in that episode, officially, the Kandahar Province police chief, Gen. Abdul Raziq, said only four had been killed and three wounded. General Raziq also denied that there had been a young boy involved in drugging the food.
The wave of killings over the past year has police officers all over Afghanistan watching what they eat, and sleeping uneasily.
“We make sure that nobody gets the chance to poison the food,” said Sharif Agha, 26, a police sergeant who commands a small outpost in Khost city, in eastern Afghanistan. The ten officers there take turns helping the cook and make sure at least two people are in the kitchen at all times. At night, a third guard is assigned to watch the two guards normally on duty.
“I don’t know about the rest of the guys,” Sergeant Agha said, “but I have not slept properly over the past few months.”
Reporting was contributed by Taimoor Shah from Kandahar, Afghanistan; Habib Zahori and Jawad Sukhanyar from Kabul; and Enayat Najafizada from Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan.
December 27, 2012
Iranian Leader Fires Woman From Cabinet
By RICK GLADSTONE
Iran’s president on Thursday dismissed his health minister, the only woman to serve in the cabinet since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, after she publicly criticized the government’s response to acute shortages of medicine imports, an indirect consequence of the Western sanctions imposed on the country.
Accounts in the state-run news media of the dismissal of the minister, Marzieh Vahid-Dastjerdi, did not provide an explanation for it. Iran’s Press TV Web site said President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had appointed a caretaker health minister, Mohammad Hassan Tariqat-Monfared, and had told him in a presidential decree that the reduction of people’s health care expenses was among “the main priorities of this important ministry.”
Dr. Vahid-Dastjerdi, a gynecologist, was appointed in 2009 and is considered an advocate of women’s rights in Iranian society. She spoke out last month, apparently angering the president, by saying that an allocation in the budget of foreign currency needed to purchase medicines abroad was inadequate.
“I have heard that luxury cars have been imported with subsidized dollars, but I don’t know what happened to the dollars that were supposed to be allocated for importing medicine,” Dr. Vahid-Dastjerdi said on state television, according to a translation of her remarks reported by Reuters.
Absent such an allocation, she said, it was necessary to impose a large increase in the price of medicines, which would add to the inflationary pressures already afflicting the economy because of a plunge in value this year of the Iranian currency, the rial. Mr. Ahmadinejad opposed the price increase.
Many economists have attributed the rial’s depreciation to Iran’s increased isolation, a consequence of the penalties imposed by the United States and European Union to pressure Iran to stop enriching uranium for its disputed nuclear energy program. Some of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s critics in Iran have also blamed what they call his economic mismanagement for the currency problems.
The medicine shortage in Iran has become an urgent problem because many Western-made drugs are increasingly hard to obtain. Under the sanctions, a broad Western ban on many financial transactions with Iran has dissuaded many foreign companies from doing business with the country, even though medicines are among items exempted from the sanctions.
Recently, the president of the Iranian Academy of Medical Sciences, Seyed Alireza Marandi, bitterly complained about the medical impact of the sanctions in a letter to Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general. Dr. Marandi called the sanctions brutal measures that had increased mortality rates “as a result of the unavailability of essential drugs and shortages of medical supplies and equipment,” according to a report by the Fars News Agency.
December 27, 2012
Iran’s Slowing of Enrichment Efforts May Show It Wants a Deal, Analysts Say
By DAVID E. SANGER and JAMES RISEN
WASHINGTON — By subtly putting its hands on the brakes of its uranium enrichment efforts, Iran may be signaling that it wants to avoid a direct confrontation over its nuclear program, at least in the near term, according to United States and other Western officials. The action has also led some analysts to conclude that Iran’s leaders are showing signs that they may be more interested in a deal to end the nuclear standoff with the West.
Evidence began emerging last summer that the Iranians were diverting a significant portion of their medium-enriched uranium for use in a small research reactor, converting it into a form that cannot easily be used in a weapon.
One American official said the move amounted to trying to “put more time on the clock to solve this,” characterizing it as a step “you have to assume was highly calculated, because everything the Iranians do in a negotiation is highly calculated.” Israel’s departing defense minister, Ehud Barak, came to a similar conclusion when he said in October that his country could safely back away from threats of military action against Iran, at least until the late spring or summer of 2013.
But White House, State Department and Pentagon officials all cautioned against drawing firm conclusions about Iran’s ultimate intentions.
A new session of talks involving Iran and six major powers, including the United States, is expected next year, and American officials say they still cannot determine whether Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is ready to strike a deal.
A quiet feeler seeking direct talks with Iran that the administration put out after President Obama’s re-election last month resulted in “no real response,” another senior official said, adding: “It wasn’t that they said yes or no. They said nothing.”
These uncertainties underlie the hunger in Western countries to understand why Iran appears to be keeping its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium — which could be converted to bomb fuel in weeks or months — to a level below the amount necessary to build a single weapon.
Evidence from a variety of sources, including the International Atomic Energy Agency, suggests that as Iran produced more uranium enriched to near 20 percent purity, a process that takes it most of the way to bomb-grade fuel, it began diverting some into an oxide powder that could be used in a small research reactor in Tehran. That diversion is believed to have begun in August.
Iran had been complaining for years that the research reactor, which was supplied by the United States during the rule of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to produce isotopes for medical purposes, was running out of fuel, and that the West refused to sell it more. So it decided to make the fuel itself. Now, even though it has enough fuel to keep the reactor running for at least a decade, it may be making more, several sources indicate.
The statistics released in quarterly reports by the atomic energy agency show that if Iran had not diverted fuel to that project, it would have enough medium-enriched fuel for one bomb and would be on its way to enough for a second. Instead, as of the agency’s last report, in November, Iran had enriched 232 kilograms (about 511 pounds) of the fuel, nearly enough to produce a weapon. But more than 96 kilograms (almost 212 pounds) had been sent off for fabrication into fuel plates for the reactor. Once turned to that purpose, the fuel is very difficult to use in a bomb.
The diversion “was a move to take heat away so that things didn’t go over the tipping point,” said Olli Heinonen, the former head of inspections for the atomic energy agency, who dealt with Iran extensively. Mr. Heinonen, now a senior fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, said that since the diversion, the Iranians had continued to produce about 15 kilograms (about 33 pounds) a month of medium-enriched fuel. So unless they slow that pace, or divert more fuel to the reactor program, “they are going back up to the tipping point,” he said.
Iran could use that to its advantage in negotiations. “I think it is hard to understand what Iran was doing if not sending a deliberate signal, signaling some cautiousness,” said Greg Thielmann, a former State Department intelligence analyst who is now at the Arms Control Association. “I think it is reasonable to see the diversion as a negotiating signal, and a note of moderation.”
Ray Takeyh, an Iran specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that “the sanctions policy that the United States has pursued over the past decade is beginning to bear fruit.” He said that the steps, which have led to a huge devaluation of the Iranian currency and a sharp decline in Iranian oil exports, “have seemingly succeeded in convincing influential sectors of the theocracy to reconsider their options.”
Some Arab officials agree, though they warn that it could be three years before the sanctions hurt Iran enough to bring about a change of position. “The problem is we don’t have three years,” a senior Arab diplomat said recently.
The big question is whether any of this is more than tactical positioning. “Tehran almost certainly hopes the diversion will be read in Western capitals as a sign of its willingness to reach a deal,” said Paul R. Pillar, a former C.I.A. analyst who is now at Georgetown University.
U.S. think-tank says N.Korea is nuclear test-ready
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, December 28, 2012 7:17 EST
North Korea has repaired extensive rain damage at its nuclear test facility and could conduct a detonation on two weeks notice, a US think-tank said on Friday, citing satellite imagery analysis.
With the UN Security Council debating possible sanctions against the North following the launch earlier this month of a long-range rocket, there has been widespread speculation that Pyongyang may carry out its third nuclear test.
Satellite photos as recent as December 13 show that Pyongyang is determined to maintain a state of readiness at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University said.
Following heavy flooding earlier in the year that destroyed key infrastructure elements, the North has moved quickly to restore its ability to operate the complex, it said on its closely followed website 38 North.
“They continue to maintain the test site at a state of readiness that could allow them to conduct a detonation as soon as two weeks after such a decision is made,” the institute reported.
However, it noted a possible “wildcard” in the form of a stream of water that appears to be coming from the entrance of the south tunnel at the test facility.
The flow indicates a possible problem with seepage that could adversely affect a nuclear device and sensors intended to gather data and monitor the test.
“Whether this problem is under control or has been solved remains unclear,” it said.
The US and its allies have called for tough sanctions against Pyongyang for the rocket launch which they saw as a disguised ballistic missile test that violated UN sanctions imposed after the North’s previous nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.
Both of those tests were conducted in the wake of long-range missile launches.
The North’s only major ally and main economic supporter, China, is resisting any significant tightening of sanctions already in place.
However, analysts say another nuclear test would severely test Beijing’s patience with its unpredictable neighbour.
China launches rival GPS satellite system
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, December 28, 2012 7:29 EST
China has launched commercial and public services across the Asia-Pacific region on its domestic satellite navigation network built to rival the US global positioning system.
The Beidou system started providing services to civilians in the region on Thursday and is expected to provide global coverage by 2020, state media reported.
Ran Chengqi, spokesman for the China Satellite Navigation Office said the system’s performance was “comparable” to GPS, the China Daily said.
“Signals from Beidou can be received in countries such as Australia,” he said.
It is the latest accomplishment in space technology for China, which aims to build a space station by the end of the decade and eventually send a manned mission to the moon.
China sees the multi-billion-dollar programme as a symbol of its rising global stature, growing technical expertise, and the Communist Party’s success in turning around the fortunes of the once poverty-stricken nation.
The Beidou system comprises 16 navigation satellites and four experimental satellites, the paper said. Ran added that the system would ultimately provide global navigation, positioning and timing services.
The start of commercial services comes a year after Beidou began a limited positioning service for China and adjacent areas.
China began building the network in 2000 to avoid relying on GPS.
“Having a satellite navigation system is of great strategic significance,” the Global Times, which has links to the Communist Party, said in an editorial.
“China has a large market, where the Beidou system can benefit both the military and civilians,” the paper said.
“With increases in profit, the Beidou system will be able to eventually develop into a global navigation satellite system which can compete with GPS.”
In a separate report, the paper said satellite navigation was seen as one of China’s “strategic emerging industries”.
Sun Jiadong, the system’s chief engineer, told the 21st century Business Herald newspaper that as Beidou matures it will erode GPs’s current 95 percent market share in China, the Global Times said.
December 27, 2012
With Focus on Unity, China Embraces Its Pre-Communist Past
By EDWARD WONG
GUANGZHOU, China — It was 1926, not long after the fall of the Qing dynasty, and much of China had been divided among warlords. In the south, leaders of the young Kuomintang mustered an army. At its head rode Chiang Kai-shek, who called to his side officers he had helped train, and together they marched north to take down the warlords, one by one.
The Northern Expedition was one of the first major tests for graduates of the Whampoa Military Academy, founded just two years earlier on quiet Changzhou Island, about 10 miles east of central Guangzhou, then known to the West as Canton. Mr. Chiang was the academy’s first commandant, appointed by Sun Yat-sen, the idealistic firebrand who wanted to build an army that would unite China.
The academy, now a collection of two-story white buildings near an active naval yard, stands as one of the most potent symbols of the nationalist movement led by Mr. Sun, which has strong contemporary echoes in the rallying cry that Xi Jinping made to his fellow Chinese after taking over in November as general secretary of the Communist Party.
Mr. Xi has spoken of a “great revival of the Chinese nation,” apparently to be accomplished through further opening the economy, tackling official corruption and building up the military. This month, on his first trip outside Beijing, Mr. Xi traveled to several cities here in Guangdong Province; the tour included visits with senior officers of the People’s Liberation Army and a photo opportunity on a naval destroyer. Though he did not visit the Whampoa academy, the message Mr. Xi was telegraphing was the same one Mr. Sun had relayed a century ago.
“When Sun Yat-sen founded the Whampoa academy, his goal was to unite China and to revive China as a nation, which is exactly the same mission that Secretary Xi is on,” said Zeng Qingliu, a historian with the Guangzhou Academy of Social Sciences who wrote a television script for a drama series on Whampoa. “Under that goal and that mission, Chinese people from all over the world and across the country were attracted to Whampoa.”
In fits and starts since the end of the Mao era, the Communists and the Kuomintang, who decamped to Taiwan after losing the civil war in 1949, have been engaging in rapprochement. The Whampoa academy represents an era when the two sides cooperated for a greater good, and recent exhibitions organized there by a museum portray the Kuomintang in a relatively conciliatory light. That, too, has resonance with Mr. Xi’s clarion call, which is meant to inspire all Chinese, even those outside the mainland, including in Taiwan, to take part in the Communist-led project of reviving the motherland.
The first class at Whampoa had 600 students, 100 Communists among them, Mr. Zeng said. Prominent Russian advisers worked at the school. Zhou Enlai was the political director, and other famous Communists held posts or trained there. But the school was never under the party’s control.
The Kuomintang moved it to the city of Nanjing in 1927, after a split with the Communists, and then to the southwestern city of Chengdu, after the Japanese occupied Nanjing, then known as Nanking. After the Kuomintang moved to Taiwan, they established a military academy there that they called the successor to Whampoa. But when historians speak of Whampoa, they mean the original incarnation of the school, before it moved from Guangzhou, Mr. Zeng said.
Japanese bombs decimated the campus in 1938; it was not rebuilt until after 1984, when plans were made to establish a museum. The white buildings interlaced with thick wooden beams are recreations of the originals. A statue of Mr. Sun overlooks the site from a hill. Military enthusiasts, history buffs and other tourists reach the museum by a 10-minute ferry ride from a quiet pier on the east side of Guangzhou.
On a recent afternoon, a young woman guided a handful of soldiers. They walked along a balcony on the second floor and peered into the recreated rooms, including a dormitory with dozens of simple beds on wooden floorboards, a dining room and Mr. Sun’s office.
Outside the main gate, not far from a black wall inscribed with the names of fallen soldiers, tour groups posed for photographs. Then they walked slowly through the gallery rooms to gaze at the black-and-white photos and paintings that showed, from a party-approved perspective, the history of China’s 20th-century wars.
This year, there was a special exhibition on Chinese soldiers who had fought the Japanese in southwest China, along the Burma Road. The exhibition included photographs of Lt. Gen. Claire Lee Chennault, the American aviator who led the “Flying Tigers” unit in that theater. One showed him with Mr. Chiang.
Depictions of Mr. Chiang and senior Kuomintang cohorts seemed to draw the most attention, especially from visitors who had spent decades hearing the Communists demonize them. Texts praised Mr. Chiang for leading the Northern Expedition and the earlier Eastern Expedition, which in 1925 wrested territory from warlords in Guangdong.
“In my time, the Communists called him Bandit Chiang,” said Yook Kearn Wong, 80, a former Communist soldier visiting from the United States (and a relative of this reporter). “Now he’s known as Mr. Chiang.”
Mr. Wong and two of his former high school classmates from Guangzhou who were touring the museum pointed at various figures in the photos.
“There are even portraits of officers who fought the Communists,” said Chen Guorong, one of the classmates. “We’ve read about all this on the Internet and watched documentaries online. Before, we didn’t know our history. Now it’s slowly returning.”
The third man, Zhou Zhaohong, nodded. “The Communists never revealed the true history of the Kuomintang,” he said.
The museum took the unusual step this year of organizing an exhibition of 240 historical photographs that traveled to two cities in Taiwan in early December, according to a report by Xinhua, the state news agency. More than 100 Whampoa alumni attended the exhibit opening in Kaohsiung on Dec. 1, Xinhua reported; it added that there were more than 200 living alumni in mainland China and Taiwan.
“The photos really bring history to life, and what glorious history it was,” said Liu Ding-Pang, 55, a graduate of the Kaohsiung academy descended from Whampoa.
But Mr. Liu, who viewed the exhibition in Taiwan, added that he did not see as many images of famous Kuomintang graduates of Whampoa as he had expected. “I wish the mainland would have a more open attitude towards history,” he said.
An agency under the Chinese Ministry of Culture and an alumni club on the mainland helped organize the exhibition. Lin Shangyuan, 88, chairman of the Whampoa Alumni Association, a national umbrella group, said the aim of the alumni clubs was to “keep the Whampoa spirit alive.”
Sounding a bit like Mr. Xi and other party leaders today, Mr. Lin said those like him who attended Whampoa had the “same goal, the same dream, the same belief, which is to make the Chinese nation an independent, democratic and prosperous one.”
Mia Li contributed research.
12/28/2012 12:48 PM
Zaha Hadid vs. the Pirates: Copycat Architects in China Take Aim at the Stars
By Kevin Holden Platt in Beijing
Star architect Zaha Hadid is currently building several projects across China. One of them, however, is being constructed twice. Pirates are the process of copying one of her provocative designs, and the race is on to see who can finish first.
London-based Zaha Hadid, widely regarded as one of the leading lights in the constellation of avant-garde architecture, has likewise become a superstar in China, where her latest designs radiate out through architecture schools and studios across the country. On a recent trip to Beijing, 15,000 artists, architects and other fans swarmed to a talk she gave for the opening of the futuristic Galaxy SOHO complex -- just one of 11 projects she is designing across the country.
But the appeal of the Prtizker Prize winner's experimental architecture, especially since the unveiling of her glowing, crystalline Guangzhou Opera House two years ago, has expanded so explosively that a contingent of pirate architects and construction teams in southern China is now building a carbon copy of one of Hadid's Beijing projects.
What's worse, Hadid said in an interview, she is now being forced to race these pirates to complete her original project first.
The project being pirated is the Wangjing SOHO, a complex of three towers that resemble curved sails, sculpted in stone and etched with wave-like aluminum bands, that appear to swim across the surface of the Earth when viewed from the air.
Zhang Xin, the billionaire property developer who heads SOHO China and commissioned Hadid to design the complex, lashed out against the pirates during the Galaxy opening: "Even as we build one of Zaha's projects, it is being replicated in Chongqing," a megacity near the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau. At this point in time, she added, the pirates of Chongqing are building faster than SOHO. The original is set for completion in 2014.
'China Can Copy Anything'
Zhang has issued an open appeal for help in combatting this massive, open counterfeiting operation, and lamented: "Everyone says that China is a great copycat country, and that it can copy anything."
Piracy is pervasive in China, where counterfeit iPods, iPhones and iPads are sold openly, and even entire fake Apple stores have proliferated across upwardly mobile cities. Although China has, on paper at least, a series of laws to protect intellectual property, enforcement of these rules is wildly sporadic.
Yet You Yunting, a Shanghai-based lawyer who founded an online journal covering intellectual property issues, said China's copyright law includes protection for works of architecture. You said he has studied the copying of the Hadid project, and added: "The two versions of the complex are quite similar."
"SOHO could have a good chance of winning litigation in this case," he predicted. "But even if the judge rules in favor of SOHO, the court will not force the defendant to pull the building down. But it could order the payment of compensation."
Zaha Hadid is not the first Westerner to see her architecture mimicked in China. Last year, citizens of the Austrian hillside hamlet of Hallstatt were shocked when they inadvertently discovered Chinese architects had surreptitiously and extensively photographed their homes and were building a doppelgänger version of the UNESCO World Heritage site in southern China.
Hans-Jörg Kaiser, an Austrian representative on the International Council on Monuments and Sites, which advises UNESCO on heritage preservation, said Halstatt residents were quite upset that their homes were being secretly cloned half a world away.
'As Easy as Photoshop'
Chinese architects involved in replicating the Austrian town, wedged between snow-covered peaks and a vast high-elevation lake, apparently created the simulacrum of Halstatt by using imagery software to create an intricate montage of the site, and then transformed these images into a 3D model.
The initial outcry among the people of Halstatt against the secretive mapping of their homes has since subsided, said Kaiser, who added he did not discover any UNESCO rules that could have prevented the replication of the World Heritage site.
Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, who designed Beijing's surreal, next-generation CCTV tower, has stated the super-speed expansion of Chinese cities is producing architects who use laptops to quickly cut and paste buildings into existence. Koolhaas, in the book "Mutations," calls these architects Photoshop designers: "Photoshop allows us to make collages of photographs -- (and) this is the essence of (China's) architectural and urban production…. Design today becomes as easy as Photoshop, even on the scale of a city."
Satoshi Ohashi, project director at Zaha Hadid Architects for the SOHO complex that is now being cloned, said: "It is possible that the Chongqing pirates got hold of some digital files or renderings of the project." From these, he added, "you could work out a similar building if you are technically very capable, but this would only be a rough simulation of the architecture."
One SOHO executive identified the property developer accused of pirating the design of the Hadid project as Chongqing Meiquan. When contacted by telephone, a Chongqing Meiquan official declined to comment on the case.
Zaha Hadid said she has a philosophical stance on the replication of her designs: If future generations of these cloned buildings display innovative mutations, "that could be quite exciting."
An entire generation of new-millennium Chinese architects has been tracking, and been inspired by, Hadid's architectural advances, said Beijing-based Ohashi. He also predicted a rise of a new class of pirate architects with a sophisticated focus on the globe's leading experimental buildings: "If someone really likes Zaha, we will probably see more of her designs across China," he says.
And the ability to bounce images, renderings, and even leading-edge 3D models of architectural designs around the globe at the speed of light via the Internet will aid not only avant-garde architecture teams from Beijing to London working together on joint projects, but also pirate architects who aim to build skyscrapers or even cities at a lightning pace.
Could there one day appear an entire Chinese cosmopolis populated by mutant versions of the cool crystal-shaped cultural centers crafted by Zaha Hadid? Could China see the proliferation of 10 or 20 architectural clones of the Guangzhou Opera House spread out across its leading megacities?
"I am sure," said Ohashi, "that some architect is already working on another version of the Guangzhou Opera House."