Central African Republic rebels advance as US embassy shuts
Afua Hirsch, west Africa correspondent
guardian.co.uk, Friday 28 December 2012 15.35 GMT
Fears that rebels will seize control of the Central African Republic's capital are growing, as the US closed its embassy in the country, citing concerns about the security of the personnel. The US ambassador and about 40 diplomats were evacuated from Bangui early on Friday .
The UN security council expressed concern, after about a dozen towns fell to the Séléka rebel coalition within the last two weeks, in one of sub-Saharan Africa's most coup-prone republics. "The members of the security council reiterate their demand that the armed groups immediately cease hostilities, withdraw from captured cities and cease any further advance towards the city of Bangui," it said.
The rebels – dissident fighters from former opposition groups in the chronically unstable but mineral-rich country – said they would topple the government unless it honoured the terms of a peace agreement. The group, whose name means coalition, has claimed that its actions are justified in light of the "thirst for justice, for peace, for security and for economic development of the people of Central African Republic".
It also opposes plans by President François Bozizé – who seized power after a brief war but has since won two elections – to seek a third term in office.
But there was confusion about the rebels' intentions, as both sides accused each other of breaking the terms of former agreements. Despite an earlier promise not to attack Bangui, the group has advanced ever closer to the capital in recent days, while also stating its willingness to engage in talks.
There were reports that the foreign minister, Antoine Gambi, has arrived in Gabon, prompting speculation that further negotiations might be imminent.
"The United States encourages all parties in the Central African Republic to participate in the dialogue," said the state department, in a statement.
Bozizé and other members of the Central African Republic government have issued increasingly desperate pleas for help, calling on France to deploy troops to oust the rebels. France, the colonial power in CAR until 1960, has 250 troops in the country, but said it would not intervene in the conflict.
President François Hollande prompted anger earlier this week, stating that the role of French troops would be confined to protecting the French embassy, which was attacked by protestors earlier this week.
There are also reports that French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, spoke on the phone with Bozizé, asking the president to take responsibility for the safety of French nationals and diplomatic missions in CAR. The French nuclear company Areva has a uranium mine in the country, which also exports diamonds and timber.
December 29, 2012
Drone War Spurs Militants to Deadly Reprisals
By DECLAN WALSH
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — They are dead men talking, and they know it. Gulping nervously, the prisoners stare into the video camera, spilling tales of intrigue, betrayal and paid espionage on behalf of the United States. Some speak in trembling voices, a glint of fear in their eyes. Others look resigned. All plead for their lives.
“I am a spy and I took part in four attacks,” said Sidinkay, a young tribesman who said he was paid $350 to help direct C.I.A. drones to their targets in Pakistan’s tribal belt. Sweat glistened on his forehead; he rocked nervously as he spoke. “Stay away from the Americans,” he said in an imploring voice. “Stay away from their dollars.”
Al Qaeda and the Taliban have few defenses against the American drones that endlessly prowl the skies over the bustling militant hubs of North and South Waziristan in northwestern Pakistan, along the Afghan border. C.I.A. missiles killed at least 246 people in 2012, most of them Islamist militants, according to watchdog groups that monitor the strikes. The dead included Abu Yahya al-Libi, the Qaeda ideologue and deputy leader.
Despite the technological superiority of their enemy, however, the militants do possess one powerful countermeasure.
For several years now, militant enforcers have scoured the tribal belt in search of informers who help the C.I.A. find and kill the spy agency’s jihadist quarry. The militants’ technique — often more witch hunt than investigation — follows a well-established pattern. Accused tribesmen are abducted from homes and workplaces at gunpoint and tortured. A sham religious court hears their case, usually declaring them guilty. Then they are forced to speak into a video camera.
The taped confessions, which are later distributed on CD, vary in style and content. But their endings are the same: execution by hanging, beheading or firing squad.
In Sidinkay’s last moments, the camera shows him standing in a dusty field with three other prisoners, all blindfolded, illuminated by car headlights. A volley of shots rings out, and the three others are mowed down. But Sidinkay, apparently untouched, is left standing. For a tragic instant, the accused spy shuffles about, confused. Then fresh shots ring out and he, too, crumples to the ground.
These macabre recordings offer a glimpse into a little-seen side of the drone war in Waziristan, a paranoid shadow conflict between militants and a faceless American enemy in which ordinary Pakistanis have often become unwitting victims.
Outside the tribal belt, the issue of civilian casualties has dominated the debate about American drones. At least 473 noncombatants have been killed by C.I.A.-directed strikes since 2004, according to monitoring groups — a toll frequently highlighted by critics of the drones like the Pakistani politician Imran Khan. Still, strike accuracy seems to be improving: just seven civilian deaths have been confirmed in 2012, down from 68 the previous year, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which has been critical of the Obama administration’s drone campaign.
And civilian lives are threatened by militants, too. As the American campaign has cut deeply into the commands of both the Taliban and Al Qaeda, drone-fearing militants have turned to the local community for reprisals, mounting a concerted campaign of fear and intimidation that has claimed dozens of lives and further stressed the already fragile order of tribal society.
The video messages from accused spies are intended to send a stark message, regardless of whether innocents are among those caught up in the deadly dragnet. The confessions are delivered at gunpoint, and usually follow extensive torture, including hanging from hooks for up to a month, human rights groups say.
“In every civilized society, the penalty for spying is death,” said a senior commander with the Pakistani Taliban, speaking on the condition of anonymity from Waziristan.
Although each of myriad militant factions in Waziristan operates its own death squads, by far the most formidable is the Ittehad-e-Mujahedeen Khorasan, a shadowy group that experts consider to be Al Qaeda’s local counterintelligence wing. Since it emerged in 2009, the group, which is led by Arab and Uzbek militants, has carefully cultivated a sinister image through video theatrics and the ruthless application of violence.
Black-clad Khorasan militants, their faces covered in balaclavas, roam across North Waziristan in jeeps with tinted windows. In one video clip from 2011, Khorasan fighters are seen searching traffic under a cluster of palm trees outside Mir Ali, a notorious militant hub. Then they move into the town center, distributing leaflets to shoppers, before executing three men outside a gas station.
“Spies, your days are numbered because we are carrying out raids,” chants the video soundtrack.
Thought to number dozens of militants, the Khorasan cooperates closely with the Afghan warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani, who is based in North Waziristan. A sister organization in Afghanistan has been responsible for 250 assassinations and executions, according to American military intelligence.
“Everyone’s frightened of them,” said Mustafa Qadri of Amnesty International, which recently published a report on human rights abuses by both the military and militants in the tribal belt. “No one really knows who is behind them. But they are very professional.”
The videotapes produced by Khorasan and other groups offer a stark, if one-dimensional, picture of their spy hunt. A review of 20 video confessions by The New York Times, as well as interviews with residents of the tribal belt, suggest the suspects are largely poor tribesmen — barbers, construction workers, Afghan migrants.
The jittery accounts of the accused men reveal dramatic stories of espionage: furtive meetings with handlers; disguising themselves as Taliban fighters, fruit sellers or even heroin addicts; payment of between $150 and $450 per drone strike; and placing American-supplied electronic tracking devices, often wrapped in cigarette foil, near the houses and cars of Qaeda fugitives.
But the videos are also portraits of fear and confusion, infused with poignant, even darkly comic, moments. Curiously, some say they have been hired through Pakistani military intelligence officials who are identified by name, directly contradicting the Pakistan government’s official stance that it vehemently opposes the drone strikes. An official with Inter-Services Intelligence, speaking on the customary condition of anonymity, said any suggestion of Pakistani cooperation was “hogwash.”
Quite clearly, the video accounts are stage-managed. Behind the camera, an unseen militant prompts the prisoners to speak. Some say they have been told they will be freed if they tell the “truth.” Others are preparing for death. “Tell my parents that I owe 250 rupees to a guy from our village,” Hamidullah, a bearded Afghan migrant, said in a quavering voice. “After I die, please repay the money to him.”
Death is not inevitable, however. Suleman Wazir, a 20-year-old goat herder from South Waziristan, said militants abducted him in September on suspicion of being a spy. “They held me in a dungeon and flogged me hundreds of times. They told me I would die,” he said in a video interview recorded through an intermediary in Waziristan. But after some weeks, Mr. Wazir said, his relatives intervened through tribal elders and persuaded the Taliban of his innocence. Upon presentation of five goats to the militants, he was set free, he said.
The Taliban and Al Qaeda have become obsessed with “patrai” — a local word for a small metallic device, now synonymous with the tiny electronic tagging devices that militants believe the C.I.A. uses to find them. In 2009 Mr. Libi, the Qaeda deputy, published an article illustrated with photographs of such devices, warning of their dangers. He was killed in a drone strike near Mir Ali in June.
This year, the Taliban released a video purporting to show one such device: an inchlong electronic circuit board, cased in transparent plastic, that, when connected to a nine-volt battery, pulsed with an infrared light. A spokesman for the C.I.A. declined to comment on details of the drone program. But a former American intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that the agency does use such GPS devices, which are commercially available in the United States through stores that supply the military.
As a result, the Taliban are adapting. Wali ur-Rehman, a senior Taliban commander, said in an interview last spring that his fighters had started to scan all visiting vehicles with camcorders set to infrared mode in order to detect potential tracking devices.
Still, the Taliban may be overestimating the importance of such devices. A former Obama administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of the subject, said that satellites and aerial surveillance planes — whose powerful sensors sweep up mobile phone, Internet and radio intercepts from the tribal belt — provide much of the drone program’s electronic intelligence. Other experts said many American intelligence informers in Waziristan are recruited in Afghanistan, where a C.I.A. base in the border province of Khost was attacked by a suicide bomber three years ago.
On the ground, though, the spy war has further destabilized a tribal society already dangerously weakened by years of violence. Paranoia about the profusion of tracking chips has fueled rivalries between different clans who accused one another of planting the devices.
“People start to think that other tribes are throwing the chips. There is so much confusion and mistrust created within the tribal communities. Drone attacks have intensified existing mistrust,” one tribesman told researchers from Columbia Law School, as part of a study into the effects of the drone campaign, last May.
The Khorasan’s brutality has alienated even some of its putative allies. In September 2011, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a leading warlord in North Waziristan, publicly withdrew his support for the group after coming under pressure from tribal supporters over the number of apparently innocent tribesmen who had been executed as spies. In a statement, the Khorasan responded that it would pursue its objectives “at all costs and not spare anyone.”
Amid the long knives and paranoia, some tribesmen believe there is no option but to flee. Some of those accused of espionage run to the gulf states; others make it to the sprawling slums of the port of Karachi. In an ethnic Pashtun neighborhood of that city, one elderly man described how he fled with his family after the execution of his son in 2009.
“I was afraid the militants would also kill me and my family,” said the man, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Still now, his life remained in danger, he added, because the Taliban believed he was spending what they said was his son’s ill-gotten money. But it was simply untrue, the old man insisted: “My son was innocent.”
Reporting was contributed by Ihsanullah Tipu Mehsud from Islamabad; Ismail Khan from Peshawar, Pakistan; Zia ur-Rehman from Karachi, Pakistan; and Scott Shane and Eric Schmitt from Washington.
France's 75% 'supertax' thrown out as unfair and unconstitutional
Kim Willsher in Paris
The Observer, Saturday 29 December 2012 21.15 GMT
French president Francois Hollande has called on the country's wealthy to show 'economic patriotism'
France's François Hollande had called on the country's wealthy to show 'economic patriotism' when proposing the 75% tax band. Photograph: Thibault Camus/AP
France's constitutional council has dealt a blow to beleaguered Socialist president François Hollande by rejecting the new 75% rate of income tax due to come into effect on Tuesday.
It declared the measure, the backbone of the French leader's successful presidential election campaign earlier this year, to be unfair and therefore unconstitutional. Immediately after the surprise legal ruling on Saturday, the French government pledged to redraft and resubmit the proposal.
The so-called "supertax" rate of 75% on individual incomes over €1m a year had provoked anger and angst in recent weeks after French national hero Gérard Depardieu announced he was moving just over the border into Belgium, reportedly for tax reasons.
After the French prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, described the actor's move into tax exile as "shabby", Depardieu wrote a furious open letter in which he accused the Socialist government of seeking to "punish… success, creation and talent".
Hollande had called on the country's wealthy to show some economic "patriotism" and said the 75% tax band would be a temporary two-year measure. The tax was expected to affect only 1,500 people and raise €500m in 2013 as part of a raft of measures aimed at helping reduce France's public deficit. The measure was broadly supported by the French left, but criticised by the right and business leaders as likely to provoke a flood of entrepreneurs and the wealthy moving abroad.
The politically independent constitutional council, made up of nine judges and three former presidents known as les sages (the wise), was asked to rule on the tax by the centre-right opposition UMP party. It did not declare the tax too high, but said its application was unconstitutional because it "failed to recognise equality before public burdens". Unlike regular income tax, which is levied on households, the 75% rate would have been applied to individuals. This meant an individual earning over €1m a year would have been subject to the tax, but a couple each earning €900,000 would not. The council ruled this was unconstitutional as it could lead to two households with identical incomes being taxed differently.
Ayrault's office said in a statement on Saturday that it would draw up a "new proposal … taking into account the principles raised by the constitutional council's decision" to be part of the next budget. No details were given on when or how this would be done. Finance minister Pierre Moscovici told BFM television: "Our deficit-cutting path will not be affected."
The council's decision comes as a triple whammy for Hollande in a week that saw unemployment leap to a 15-year high and the International Monetary Fund reduce France's growth forecasts to well below the 0.8% Hollande is seeking to reduce the deficit.
30 December 2012 - 05H28
IMF, EU push for less drastic deficit cuts
AFP - The International Monetary Fund and European Commission officials have encouraged France and its eurozone partners not to fixate on deficit reduction targets if it would exacerbate the bloc's debt crisis.
The head of an IMF mission in France, Edward Gardner, urged officials in Paris last week to consider their 2013 budget targets "in a broader European context."
The IMF and the EU Commission expect the French public deficit to amount to 3.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) next year.
They do not believe France can reach its 3.0 percent goal, the eurozone limit, without additional measures that could aggravate an already tenuous economic situation.
"The credibility of the medium term orientation policy" was more important than a specific deficit target, Gardner told reporters.
Loosening the criteria would "be more effective, more credible in a coordinated fashion" across the 17-nation eurozone, he suggested.
In Portugal the public deficit fell at the end of the third quarter to 5.6 percent of GDP from 6.7 percent at the same point a year earlier, while neighbouring Spain has promised to slash its deficit to 3.0 percent by 2014 from a blowout shortfall equal to 9.4 percent of output last year.
Germany expects its budget to be in balance this year, two years ahead of schedule, but IMF head Christine Lagarde has suggested that Berlin ease up a bit in its drive for healthy finances.
"Germany ... and others ... can allow themselves to go a little more slowly than others in the push to straighten out their public finances," Lagarde told the German weekly Die Zeit in comments published last week.
Her call echoed other European voices that are now arguing for greater emphasis on growth rather than austerity measures.
"The IMF is beginning to understand that the French situation has become dangerous," economist Marc Touati at the ACDefi consulting group said. Unemployment is climbing and the economy is still struggling, he pointed out.
The IMF was "trying to prepare public opinion" for missed government targets, Touati suggested.
"This is not really a new position," Frederique Cerisier at the French bank BNP Paribas said of Lagarde's recent remarks. She acknowledged however that some international institutions were "placing added emphasis" on the need to cut deficits more gradually.
On Tuesday, the EU's 'fiscal compact,' a hard-won step towards tighter economic coordination agreed as part of efforts to tame the debilitating debt crisis, takes effect.
Finalised in March, 25 of the 27 EU member states accepted a 'balanced budget rule' in the compact to ensure that governments would no longer run the massive budget deficits which drove the debt crisis and nearly sank the euro.
But as the European debt crisis drags on and economies flounder, the idea of allowing governments more time to straighten out their finances has gained ground.
European Economic Affairs Commissioner Ollie Rehn said last week that France needed more reforms rather than more austerity.
"Once you have a credible medium-term budget strategy, backed up by reforms, you can have a slower adjustment," he told French daily Le Monde.
If a 3.0-percent French deficit remains a valid reference, "what needs to be taken into account above all is the structural budget adjustment effort which France is making with remarkable intensity," the EU official said.
French officials nevertheless seem determined to stick by their targets. They insist that the public deficit will be brought down to 3.0 percent of GDP next year from 4.5 percent in 2012, based on a 2013 growth estimate of 0.8 percent that economists consider overly optimistic.
Friday's third-quarter growth figures gave them little comfort: official statistics revised growth over that period down from 0.2 to 0.1 percent.
French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici wrote in the German business daily Handelsblatt that France had a duty to reverse years of budget deficits.
"In the past 30 years, France has not been able to pass a balanced budget. State debt rose to an unacceptable 1.7 trillion euros ($2.2 trillion) in 2011. It is our duty to reverse this," Moscovici said.
On Friday he reaffirmed the goverment's 2013 growth target.
Cerisier at BNP Paribas warned that France, which is now benefitting from exceptionally low borrowing rates, must be careful how it communicates to markets, if it wants to maintain its credibility.
But, she added: "The fact that we can begin to discuss all that is proof that countries have become more credible with respect to their economic targets."
30 December 2012 - 12H51
Egypt wants to resume talks on IMF loan: PM
AFP - Prime Minister Hisham Qandil said on Sunday that Egypt wants to resume talks with the International Monetary Fund in January on a $4.8-billion loan frozen this month because of political tensions and unrest.
"We have invited (the IMF) to resume talks during January," Qandil told a news conference in Cairo.
He said the sum involved was "small," but "its value is in the sign of confidence it gives to the Egyptian economy," which he admitted was in difficulty although talk of bankruptcy was not in order.
The request for a loan, made last August, was suspended on December 11 for a month, with Cairo saying the postponement was "because of the political situation in the country."
The presidency of the Mohamed Morsi is going through its worst crisis since his election in June, mainly over a disputed referendum on a new Islamist-drafted constitution that was approved by 64 percent of voters.
The likelihood of prolonged "elevated" political conflict despite the adoption of the constitution prompted the ratings agency Standard and Poor's this week to knock Egypt's long-term credit rating down a peg to "B-".
Egypt has also frozen a series of planned tax rises aimed at bringing state finances into line with the expected terms of the IMF loan, and that could have had serious social repercussions.
"The economic situation is difficult, there's no doubt about that," Qandil told reporters on Sunday, adding: "But we cannot talk about bankruptcy."
Since the February 2011 ouster of long-time strongman Hosni Mubarak after a popular revolt, the country's economy has nosedived as investment from abroad has dried up and major revenue-earner tourism took a major tumble.
In a speech to the senate on Saturday, Morsi tried to sound a note of economic optimism.
"I say to all, both at home and abroad, the state of financial institutions is not what some are trying to picture," he said, adding that foreign reserves increased by $1.1 billion from July to $15.5 billion in November.
"We cannot even consider this satisfactory. In June 2010 it was $35 billion. But in July 2012 it was $14.4 billion," he said.
"But with Egypt now approaching stability, and with a sense of responsibility, we will do our utmost to double it (reserves) in future."
However, the Central Bank said in a statement later on Saturday that foreign currency reserves were critically low and must not be allowed to sink further or the country would not be able to meet its external debts. It did not give a figure
30 December 2012 - 06H11
US lawmakers seek last-gasp fiscal deal
AFP - After weeks of failed haggling, the fiscal cliffhanger is at hand as US lawmakers convene Sunday in a bid to strike a year-end deal that avoids huge tax hikes and possibly spending cuts set to kick in January 1.
With the clock ticking ever closer to the New Year's time bomb, the suddenly alarmed Senate and House were holding special sessions 36 hours before the year-end deadline for a plan that would keep America from tumbling off the so-called fiscal cliff.
The stakes in the game of holiday-interrupting brinkmanship are enormous.
Economists agree the $500 billion in fiscal pain due to hit when the new year starts would stifle the US economic recovery and send the country back into recession, spelling bad news for the global economy as well.
Aides to both sides' leaders in the Democrat-controlled Senate worked feverishly behind closed doors Saturday to fashion a deal palatable to Democrats as well as to Republicans, who control the House of Representatives.
The Senate convenes Sunday at 1:00 pm (1800 GMT) while the House goes into session an hour later, with no votes expected before 2330 GMT.
Both chambers would have little time to debate and then pass a deal that has eluded the White House and Congress for weeks.
President Barack Obama, who called congressional leaders to the White House on Friday, will address the crisis once more when he gives an interview on NBC's Sunday morning talk show "Meet the Press."
Amid the tense negotiations, Obama pressed lawmakers to clinch a deal, even if they must reach a compromise that lacks the significant deficit-reduction measures both sides had sought.
If lawmakers fail, "every American's paycheck will get a lot smaller," the president warned. "Congress can prevent it from happening, if they act now."
Obama, sensing a mandate from his re-election last month, wants to raise taxes on the rich. Republicans want only to close tax loopholes to raise revenue and demand significant spending cuts in return, notably to federal benefit programs like Social Security.
But if nothing is done by the deadline, all taxpayers will see an increase.
Following the White House talks, the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are heading efforts to craft a deal.
But any agreement would also have to pass the House, where there is doubt that an Obama-backed deal would win favor with restive conservatives in the Republican caucus.
While each side must for the sake of appearances be seen to be seeking a deal, one way out is to go over the cliff, then fix the problem in the first days of next year.
Under that scenario, Republicans who are philosophically opposed to raising taxes could vote to lower the newly raised rates on almost all Americans without formally hiking taxes.
Lawmakers, while ruing the inability to work out a multi-trillion-dollar grand bargain in time, have said a pared down version dealing mainly with taxes was within reach.
Citing unnamed people briefed on the talks, The Washington Post said one version under consideration would protect nearly 30 million taxpayers from paying the higher, alternative minimum tax rate for the first time and maintain unemployment benefits for two million people.
The plan also would halt a steep cut in Medicare reimbursements for doctors and preserve popular tax breaks for both businesses and individuals, such as those for research and college tuition, the report said.
But the two sides were still at odds over where to set the limits of wealthy -- at $250,000 or $400,000 of annual income -- and over taxes on inherited estates.
Nor has there been agreement on spending cuts so sought after by Republicans, who say excessive government spending is the main driver of US debt.
Obama warned that if an agreement was not reached in time, he would ask the Senate to hold an up-or-down vote on a basic package that protects the middle class from a tax hike, extends unemployment insurance, and "lays the groundwork for future... deficit reduction."
In a weekly Republican address, Senator Roy Blunt expressed some optimism, saying that "going over the fiscal cliff is avoidable."
But he criticized Democrats for focusing mainly on taxes while setting aside government spending, arguing that such inaction "shouldn't be an option."
30 December 2012 - 05H40
Italy upbeat at end of 2012 after year of tension
AFP - Italy is ending 2012 on an upbeat note, with renewed financial market confidence and optimism among analysts that the worst of the financial crisis is over, despite expectations of political uncertainty in the run-up to a general election in February.
The Treasury's borrowing rates were slightly higher at short, medium and long-term debt auctions last week, but were well below levels seen at the end of 2011, when Prime Minister Mario Monti took over from Silvio Berlusconi as Italy teetered on the brink amid the eurozone debt crisis.
In late November 2011, the country was paying a 7.56 percent rate for its benchmark ten-year bonds, sparking widespread concerns it might have to ask for a bailout.
On Friday, that rate stood at 4.48 percent.
As 2012 draws to a close, "even if public debt has breached the two trillion euros mark, Italy's ability to finance itself is no longer in doubt," said Enrico Marro in Italy's Il Sole 24 Ore financial daily.
"For 2013, optimism reigns," he concluded.
The turnaround is principally the result of two factors: the European Central Bank's promise to buy sovereign debt issued by eurozone member states without limit if necessary if they meet certain strict conditions, and Monti's decisive reforms which have restored Italy's credibility internationally.
Experts have forecast a couple of months of volatility on the markets in the lead up to the February 24 and 25 elections, but the worst appears to be over.
Italian bank Intesa Sanpaolo said "the fever should drop off in 2013 compared with 2012."
The bond spread -- a key measure of the difference between Italian and German 10-year bond yields -- has also dropped sharply over the year, dipping below 300 basis points in early December from double that figure at its peak.
While European leaders congratulated Monti on restoring calm to the markets, Berlusconi's announcement at the start of December that he is running again for prime minister sparked panic and the spread began to inch up again.
The media magnate has dismissed the spread measure as "a trick and an invention" used to bring down his government.
Investors will be watching closely in the coming weeks to see if Berlusconi's large-scale media campaign for re-election wins him potential votes from Italians tired of Monti's austerity packages and record unemployment levels.
Renewed confidence in financial markets contrasts sharply with official forecasts for economic growth over the coming year, as Italy struggles to pull itself out of a recession.
Despite Monti's "Grow Italy" plan, the economy is not expected to return to growth before the end of 2012 or the beginning of 2014.
"Business and household sentiment does not appear to have benefited from the easing market tension," Intensa Sanpaolo said.
The government has forecast a 0.2 percent contraction of the country's gross domestic product in 2013 -- an outlook considered overly optimistic by Italy's business association Confindustria, which expects GDP to shrink by 1.1 percent next year.
One figure is on the rise however: the number of people on Twitter following Monti, who is drumming up support for a reform-led electoral campaign.
Monti, who resigned last week after Berlusconi's People of Freedom party pulled support from the government, has said he is keen to lead the country again after the elections -- a message welcomed by the markets, European leaders and Italy's Catholic Church alike.
30 December 2012 - 08H58
China's Chengdu aiming to be world's next Silicon Valley
AFP - Entrepreneurs in China's southwest are dreaming of turning the city of Chengdu into the world's next Silicon Valley as the government encourages more investment outside the booming coastal regions.
Small startups as well as big-name western companies have flocked to the metropolis of 14 million people, attracted by cheap labour costs and favourable government investment policies and hoping to tap into China's rapidly expanding consumer market.
And the Silicon Valley dream is becoming reality as the city, already a hi-tech manufacturing hub, seeks increasingly to become a magnet for software development and innovation.
Between one-third to one-half of the iPads sold worldwide are assembled in Chengdu, while computer giant Intel makes up to half of its chips in the city.
Far from the booming coastal regions, Chengdu can offer perks through the government's "Go West" development programme, with incentives for startups such as one-year interest-free loans.
So far it has attracted about 29,000 companies to its 130-square-kilometre (50-square-mile) "hi-tech development zone", including about 1,000 foreign enterprises.
Chengdu is also developing a nearby "Software Park" as the city aims to go beyond manufacturing and become a centre of innovation.
At Chinese startup GoodTeam, a software engineer shows off his latest creation: a game in which players try to place a bottle into the mouth of a baby.
The application is being developed for pre-schoolers between one and three years old, the age at which children in Chengdu begin to toy with computer technology.
Founded in 2009, the startup employs 32 people and has seen strong growth in the gaming market, with most of its applications used on mobile telephones.
"In July 2009 we had about five downloads a day, today we have more than 100,000 a day for each game. We are confident in the market," Liu Jia, a GoodTeam manager, told AFP.
"Since we started we have survived three crises but it has been the hi-tech zone that has sustained us by allowing us to borrow money."
With five nearby universities focusing on science and technology, cafes and restaurants around the development zone have become networking hotspots for software programmers.
"The best reason (to come to Chengdu) is the education environment. The region has great universities," Xiong Jie, the director of Thoughtworks, which runs an Internet site for a group of Australian insurance companies, told AFP.
"Only China and India have this talent pool. We have grown very fast, we started with zero people in April and now we have 50."
The company plans to add at least 30 more workers in 2013 and all will likely be aged under 30, he said.
The zone boasts Chinese technology companies like Lenovo, Huawei, ZTE and the Taiwan electronics giant Foxconn, as well as Internet portals Tencent and Alibaba.
Foreign companies include Texas Instruments, Intel, Fujitsu, IBM, Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, Sun, SAP, Ubisoft, Siemens, Motorola, Nokia, Ericsson, Alcatel and Dell.
Chengdu highlights the changing nature of the technology scene in China, where Beijing, Shanghai and the metropolis of Shenzhen near Hong Kong have long been the centre for the country's IT industry.
Multinationals have traditionally set up in those areas, initially making products for export but increasingly tapping into the country's lucrative domestic markets.
Sales revenue for Chengdu's information technology sector neared 36 billion euros ($47.6 billion) in 2011, with 20 million computers produced and production capacity four times that.
In 2012 production capacity was set to surpass 100 million, with more than 50 million computers delivered, while by 2015 capacity is expected to reach 150 million tablets and 80 million laptop computers.
"Although the speed of growth has slowed everywhere, for us the loss has been minimal," said Tang Jiqiang, the Chengdu hi-tech's zone's director of strategy. "We have seen growth slip from 25 percent to 23 percent."
Overall, Chengdu expects economic growth of 13 percent in 2012, down from around 15 percent in recent years, but still well above the expected national average of about eight percent.
Gao Wenshu, an expert on labour economics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, said Chengdu's skilled labour force could help it emulate Silicon Valley.
But the city offers relatively low wages compared to Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, and the challenge will be attracting and keeping an innovative workforce.
"I don't think the local salary level can meet the high-salary demands technology specialists seek," Gao said.
December 29, 2012
Winter’s Deadly Bite Returns to Refugee Camps of Kabul
By ROD NORDLAND
KABUL, Afghanistan — The snow that fell on a refugee camp in Kabul last week left thick powder piled voluptuously on the sagging roofs of huts and skinny tree branches, turning the squalor into a winter wonderland. The mistake of a toddler named Janan was to play in it.
By nightfall Thursday, Janan, 3, was sick. On Friday, he never woke up.
He became the first known victim to freeze to death this winter in the mud and tarpaulin warrens of Kabul’s 44 refugee camps, where more than 100 children died of cold last winter.
His father, Taj Mohammad, 32, fears Janan may not be the last. “I am worried that more of my children will die,” he said.
When the children died here last winter, the question was, how could this happen in the capital city, home to 2,000 aid groups, recipient of $58 billion in development aid and at least $3.5 billion in humanitarian aid over the past 10 years?
The question this winter is, how could it happen again?
The answer appears to be a combination of stubbornness, by the Afghan government and the refugees themselves; inadequate deliveries of aid as winter sets in; and, in some cases, desperate families who sold their winter clothes and blankets in the summer to get food.
Last winter, after news reports drew attention to the deaths, aid groups, individuals and the American military rushed in with blankets and warm clothing, charcoal and firewood.
The United Nations organized the aid to try to get supplies where they were needed most.
In a report in November, the organization’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that distribution of fuel, cold-weather clothing, blankets and tarpaulins would begin Dec. 9 and continue through January, although the agency warned that firewood supplies for February had not yet been financed by donor countries.
Despite the preparations, matters rapidly took a turn for the worse the first time that protracted subfreezing temperatures set in with a snowstorm on Thursday and Friday.
In visits on Saturday to two camps that were the worst hit last January and February, Charahi Qambar and Nasaji Bagrami, residents were clearly ill prepared for the conditions around them now.
Small boys and girls ran through the muddy ice and snow in open sandals, flip-flops and even just barefoot. While here and there a child had a donated coat or sweater, they were the exception. Some adult men were better clothed, often with donated warm clothing, but few had hats, gloves or warm boots.
“I fear for the future,” said Mohammad Yousef, the manager of Aschiana, one of the few refugee groups working in the Kabul camps. “This is only the start of the cold weather.”
Abdul Wakil, 8, recounted what had happened to his little brother Janan at the Charahi Qambar camp on the western side of the capital. “He was playing in the cold and snow,” Abdul Wakil said, shivering in a thin cotton shirt and trousers, a pair of toeless socks poking out of the front of his sandals, his only footwear. “Then he got sick and got a fever and died.”
His father, Mr. Mohammad, filled in the blanks. They brought the 3-year-old into their mud hut, but its roof was leaking and they were out of fuel. “We couldn’t get him warm again,” he said. “We were just wrapping ourselves in our blankets, it was all we could do.” They had received an aid distribution of charcoal 15 days earlier, but it had run out by then, he said.
Now the family, with six other young children, has a bit more fuel, donated by friends after Janan’s death: a sack of sawdust donated by a carpenter, some roof poles and pieces of dried shrubs. Their only food is some bread and potatoes. Only a couple of his children have warm clothing; the rest are in rags. “That’s all they have,” he said, “they have nothing else to wear.”
“There are 900 families here, and every family has 10 to 15 children,” said Najibullah, an Aschiana worker at the Charahi Qambar camp, the biggest in Kabul. Distributions of clothing mostly came after the worst of last year’s winter weather. “When the NGOs came, they gave out one jacket per house.”
United Nations officials could not immediately be reached to discuss why supplies are apparently still so short in the camps.
In the past, though, officials have said the 35,000 refugees in the Kabul camps are caught in a Catch-22. Their camps are unregistered and the government wants the residents to return to their homes, so they do not qualify for many forms of emergency aid. But most of them come from war zones, particularly Helmand Province in these two large camps, and say it is not safe to return.
Even after losing one of his sons, Mr. Mohammad said he had no intention of returning south. “I would rather freeze to death than get bombed again,” he said.
In an interview last February during the height of last winter’s crisis, the head of the United Nations’ humanitarian coordination agency, Aidan O’Leary, said emergency aid was not a long-term answer. “It will keep them alive, but we can’t afford to lose sight that there has to be a better solution going forward, not to be dealing with this situation every time winter comes about,” he said.
Afghan government officials and international agencies held a meeting last summer with camp leaders to try to persuade them to take offers of allotments of farmland if the refugees would return to Helmand, but nearly all of them refused. Instead, many new refugees from the fighting arrived in the past year; nationwide, 33,000 people were newly displaced by the fighting in November, according to United Nations figures.
Camp representatives counter-proposed that they would be willing to settle on farmland in Kabul Province instead. Mohammad Ibrahim, the leader of the Nasaji Bagrami camp, said they were promised that efforts would be made to find international donors to finance that, but nothing came of it.
During the summer, Mr. Ibrahim said, camp residents still had chronic problems finding work and buying food, and many of them sold the blankets and warm clothing they had received.
“It’s true, that is what happened,” he said. “People do what they have to do to get food to eat.”
Islamuldin Jurat, spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation, had not yet heard of the death of 3-year-old Janan, but was unsurprised. “We are expecting casualties,” he said. “They needed more help from the beginning of the year. From spring until now, these people did not have enough food, enough calories and fat, so in the winter they need much more food, so we are expecting the cold weather might take the lives of some children.”
So far, no children have died in the Nasaji Bagrami camp this winter, but Mr. Ibrahim said he believed it was only a matter of time.
In one hut live two widows, Rahima, 24, and Shahid, 45. They had married brothers in Marja, in Helmand, and both men were killed in an aerial bombardment six months ago; so they fled here. Between them they have 14 children, ranging in age from 8 months to 13 years. They were all crammed into a one-room mud hut with a wet floor, a ceiling that dripped from snow melt, and no stove or heater. Instead there was a small pile of embers, and over it a pot of rice. The heat was so sparse that the rice had been cooking for hours and was still not ready.
There was no other food or fuel in sight.
All of the children appeared to have colds, eyes and noses streaming. Rahima said she was painfully aware of the risk of cold to her infant son, 8-month-old Niaz Mohammad. “And I’m not only worried about him but the rest of the children, too,” she said. “They all cry at night because of the cold. We try to cover them with whatever we have but they still do.”
And then there was the hut of Baidullah, 55, whose 6-year-old son Pardeen was among the 17 children in this camp who died last winter from the cold. Mr. Baidullah, who fled with his family of seven from Helmand, said he feared his 3-year-old son Ismail will be next; he has been sick with a cold and fever for 10 days.
Mr. Baidullah’s hut has new United Nations-donated tarps on the roof, so for now it is dry. But inside there is only a metal dish of embers for heat. They place the dish inside a sandalee, a square wooden frame covered with a blanket under which they sit or lie with their legs inside. On Saturday, Ismail and his mother were huddled under the sandalee, but the embers were dwindling, and with nightfall still five hours away, the family supply of fuel was down to scraps of cardboard and plastic bottles.
“I’m worried,” Mr. Baidullah said. Not so much about another death in the family, to which he seems to have resigned himself, but about the costs of the funeral. “I don’t even have enough money for the burial shroud.”
December 29, 2012
To Save Wildlife, and Tourism, Kenyans Take Up Arms
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
ARCHER’S POST, Kenya — Julius Lokinyi was one of the most notorious poachers in this part of Kenya, accused of single-handedly killing as many as 100 elephants and selling the tusks by the side of the road in the dead of night, pumping vast amounts of ivory into a shadowy global underground trade.
But after being hounded, shamed, browbeaten and finally persuaded by his elders, he recently made a remarkable transformation. Elephants, he has come to believe, are actually worth more alive than dead, because of the tourists they attract. So Mr. Lokinyi stopped poaching and joined a grass-roots squad of rangers — essentially a conservation militia — to protect the wildlife he once slaughtered.
Nowadays he gets up at dawn, slurps down a cup of sugary tea, tightens his combat boots and marches off with other villagers, some who had never picked up a gun before and are little more than volunteers, to fight poachers.
“We got to protect the elephants,” said Mr. Lokinyi, whose hooded eyes now glow with the zeal of a convert.
From Tanzania to Cameroon, tens of thousands of elephants are being poached each year, more than at any time in decades, because of Asia’s soaring demand for ivory. Nothing seems to be stopping it, including deploying national armies, and the bullet-riddled carcasses keep stacking up. Scientists say that at this rate, African elephants could soon go the way of the wild American bison.
But in this stretch of northern Kenya, destitute villagers have seized upon an unconventional solution that, if replicated elsewhere, could be the key to saving thousands of elephants across Africa, conservationists say. In a growing number of communities here, people are so eager, even desperate, to protect their wildlife that civilians with no military experience are banding together, grabbing shotguns and G3 assault rifles and risking their lives to confront heavily armed poaching gangs.
It is essentially a militarized neighborhood watch, with loping, 6-foot-6 former herdsmen acting as the block captains, and the block being miles and miles of zebra-studded bush. These citizen-rangers are not doing this out of altruism or some undying love for pachyderms. They do it because in Kenya, perhaps more than just about anywhere else, wildlife means tourists, and tourists mean dollars — a lot of dollars.
It is not unusual here for a floppy-hatted visitor to drop $700 a night to sleep in a tent and absorb the sights, sounds and musky smells of wondrous game. Much of that money is contractually bound to go directly to impoverished local communities, which use it for everything from pumping water to college scholarships, giving them a clear financial stake in preserving wildlife. The safari business is a pillar of the Kenyan economy, generating more than a billion dollars a year and nearly 500,000 jobs: cooks, cleaners, bead-stringers, safari guides, bush pilots, even accountants to tally the proceeds.
Surprisingly, many jobs in the safari industry can pay as much as poaching. Though the ivory trade may seem lucrative, it is often like the Somali pirate business model, with the entry-level hijacker getting just a minuscule cut of the million-dollar ransoms. While a pound of ivory can fetch $1,000 on the streets of Beijing, Mr. Lokinyi, despite his lengthy poaching résumé, was broke, making it easier to lure him out of the business.
Villagers are also turning against poachers because the illegal wildlife trade fuels crime, corruption, instability and intercommunal fighting. Here in northern Kenya, poachers are diversifying into stealing livestock, printing counterfeit money and sometimes holding up tourists. Some are even buying assault rifles used in ethnic conflicts.
The conservation militias are often the only security forces around, so they have become de facto 911 squads, rushing off to all sorts of emergencies in areas too remote for the police to quickly gain access to and often getting into shootouts with poachers and bandits.
“This isn’t just about animals,” said Paul Elkan, a director at the Wildlife Conservation Society, who is trying to set up community ranger squads in South Sudan modeled on the Kenyan template. “It’s about security, conflict reconciliation, even nation building.”
The rangers tend to be hardened and uneducated, drawn from different ethnic groups and the surplus of unemployed youth. Gabriel Lesoipa was a goat herder; Joseph Lopeiyok, a cattle rustler; John Pameri won his coveted spot because he was fast — at the time he was selected, the first entry requirement was a grueling 11-mile race.
Many are considered warriors in their communities, experts in so-called bushcraft from years of grazing cattle and goats across the thorny savanna — and defending them against armed raiders. They can follow faint footprints across long, thirsty distances and instantly intuit when someone has trespassed on their land.
The American government is throwing its weight behind such community conservation efforts, contributing more than $4 million to Kenya. But there are obvious risks. In Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other African countries, homegrown militias initially mustered to protect communities have often turned into predators themselves.
“It’s pretty hopeless to stop elephant poaching in Africa unless you get local buy-in,” said Iain Douglas-Hamilton, one of the world’s most celebrated elephant researchers, who runs Save the Elephants. “But implementing this is a different matter. If you don’t do this carefully, you’ll have people killing each other.”
In 1989, during Africa’s last poaching crisis, Ian Craig sat up on a rock in the craggy Mathews range of northern Kenya, where his family owned a big cattle ranch, and watched helplessly through a pair of binoculars as poachers mowed down a whole herd of elephants.
It was a searing lesson.
“Government couldn’t be everywhere,” he said. “And poaching was everywhere.”
So Mr. Craig, who is often considered the grandfather of Kenya’s community conservation efforts, began enlisting local men to help protect wildlife. At first, the national government refused to arm them, saying there was absolutely no way it was going to deputize civilians, especially when Kenya, like many African countries, has a shoot-to-kill policy for any armed poacher spotted in a wildlife zone.
But after Kenya’s wildlife department changed leadership in the mid-1990s, Mr. Craig prevailed, and he has slowly but steadily built a nonprofit army. The Northern Rangelands Trust, the umbrella organization he helped found in 2004, is made up of 19 communities, with another 32 asking to join. It has 461 scouts patrolling nearly 8,000 square miles; two small airplanes and a million-dollar helicopter on its way; an “ops” center with flat-screen monitors tracking elephants by satellite; and a “strong room” packed with thermal-imagery scopes and a rack of weapons.
Some of the guns are Mr. Craig’s. Others are provided by the Kenya police reserve, which makes a cursory background check before handing out weapons to civilians. But once the guns are in the hands of the roaming citizen-rangers, there is little direct government oversight.
The militiamen receive anywhere from $25 to $320 a month, which comes from the nonprofit wildlife zones, known as conservancies, that are obligated to give 60 percent of their safari revenues to local communities and hire 75 percent local staff.
The local incentive to protect wildlife seems self-evident. Namibia, for instance, now has more than 70 community conservancies. And villagers there take them very seriously, ready to pounce — or at least alert the authorities — if there are any intruders.
“An enemy of wildlife is an enemy of the people,” said Rob Moffett, an executive with Wilderness Safaris, a company in Namibia.
On a recent day, a squad of community scouts near Archer’s Post, in Kenya’s arid north, were guarding Matt, a massive, treetop-high bull with enormous tusks — six feet long and as thick as paint cans, a poacher’s dream. The plan was to shadow Matt as he ranged across the veld, knocking down trees and snacking on leaves.
“No elephants, no money,” explained Mr. Lopeiyok, the former cattle rustler turned scout.
He and the other scouts said that they had killed several poaching suspects, sometimes showing off the pictures, and that they do not blink at taking a human life to protect an elephant’s.
It is difficult to measure the success of the community ranger programs, but Kenya’s poaching levels have declined drastically from the slaughter days of the 1970s and 1980s, when thousands of elephants were poached each year.
This year, Kenyan authorities say, around 350 elephants have been poached, triple the number in 2008 — but those are just the confirmed kills, and many carcasses are never discovered. The government is trying to work more closely with the community rangers, running training courses for some of them.
A Killer Transformed
Mr. Lokinyi is one of the rookie rangers, around 28 years old and slowly emerging from his days of ill repute. His stipend is a mere $25 a month. He calls himself “a volunteer.”
“I had this Somali friend, a poacher, who said to me, ‘You kill elephants, we share,’ ” said Mr. Lokinyi, recalling how he got into the business. “I had raided cattle. I had killed many people. So killing elephants caused no feeling.”
He became the leader of a secretive gang that would take specific orders, maybe 6 tusks today, 10 the next. After they killed the elephants and hacked out the ivory, they waited until the middle of the night to rendezvous with ivory brokers, often Somalis from nearby Isiolo, a frontier town of hard looks where Somalis, Samburus, Boranas and Turkanas have feuded for years. Yet the money he made flowed through his fingers like sand, and he had become a liability for his community, with the authorities constantly looking for him and harassing his relatives.
That is when Benjamin Lopetet stepped in. Mr. Lopetet is a fellow Turkana who left a comfortable job at a bank to run the Nakuprat-Gotu community conservancy, which started last year.
“Whenever we heard of an elephant getting killed,” Mr. Lopetet said, “it was always Lokinyi, Lokinyi, Lokinyi.”
He spent months begging Mr. Lokinyi’s relatives to set up a meeting, and when they finally met last year, Mr. Lopetet explained that Somali ivory traffickers were exploiting Mr. Lokinyi, paying him peanuts and using the money to buy rifles to kill Turkanas. “I realized I was being used,” Mr. Lokinyi said. “And that I was useless.”
Mr. Lopetet offered him a deal: stop poaching elephants and work with us.
Of course, there is always a risk in trying to reform a poacher.
“It’s backfired before,” Mr. Craig said. “We’ve had bad guys become good guys and then bad guys again. But you got to try.”
These days Mr. Lokinyi sports his crisp camouflage fatigues with pride and patrols the same scratchy miles of thorn bush he used to stalk, using his bushcraft to predict where the poachers will strike next. He went through a proper redemption ritual this spring in which goats were slaughtered and fat smeared over his body. He moved into a new home and was even given a new set of ceremonial parents, elders who took him in.
“I’ve done many bad things,” Mr. Lokinyi said. “But now I am clean.”
How NASA gave us the images that shine new light on Earth – and beyond
By Robin McKie, The Observer
Saturday, December 29, 2012 17:24 EST
It’s 50 years since the first interplanetary probe, and this year’s stunning pictures from across the solar system show how far space technology has come
This image gives us an unprecedented view of Earth at night. Ribbons of light from cities stretch across the shadows of the world’s great land masses and reveal the extent of our species’ conquest of the planet. The picture is one of a series known as the Black Marble photographs, released this month by Nasa.
The US space agency created them from data gathered between April and June by the Suomi NPP satellite, which sweeps over the poles at a height of 500 miles, covering the entire planet as it revolves beneath. Each picture is a composite of several photographs taken on different cloud-free nights using the satellite’s visible infrared imaging radiometer suite; they are remarkable for the detail they provide of Earth at night.
The Black Marble photographs were just one of several sets of stunning photographs generated by Nasa spacecraft last year. Other probes sent back enthralling images of Mars, Saturn, the Moon, Mercury and other planets, revealing remarkable information and unexpected details of these distant worlds. Has Nasa become, along with everything else, the world’s best photographic agency?
The publication of these interplanetary photographs marks the 50th anniversary of the first successful flight of an interplanetary probe and demonstrates the dramatic changes that have been made to America’s fleet of robot spacecraft in that time. Launched on 26 August 1962, the US probe Mariner 2 swept past Venus at a distance of 22,000 miles in December that year. Its radiometers revealed a world with cool, thick clouds and a very hot surface. It returned no images of Venus, however, for the craft was not fitted with a camera.
Today Nasa spaceships bristle with them. The US robot rover Curiosity, which landed on Mars this summer, has a total of 17 on board. These recorded the craft’s descent to the surface of the red planet and have since provided detailed images of every manoeuvre the rover has made.
Curiosity landed on Mars in August and has since been subjecting rocks and soil to a detailed examination. The craft has a laser to vaporise slivers of rocks and analyse their chemical composition; a robot arm to pulverise pieces of stone; and an oven in which soil and rock samples are baked and tested for the presence of organic carbon. In addition, Curiosity’s cameras have returned glorious images of the terrain and hills as the robot rover trundles along on a journey of investigation that has been designed to discover if Mars ever possessed the right atmospheric and geological conditions to support life.
In contrast to Curiosity, which has subjected Mars to an investigation that is up close and personal, most other US probes are surveying their targets from a distance. An example is Nasa’s Messenger probe, which has been in orbit around Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun, for almost two years. Daytime temperatures there can reach more than 400C. Despite the searing heat, however, Messenger last month sent back data which showed that ice and frozen organic material exists in craters permanently shadowed in Mercury’s north pole.
“It’s not something we expected to see, but then of course you realise it kind of makes sense because we see this in other places,” planetary scientist David Paige of the University of California told Reuters at the time. Other probes have shown that our own Moon has ice in craters at its poles, for example.
The discovery of the ice and frozen organics on Mercury is a technical triumph. The planet’s orbit approaches to within 46 million kilometres of the Sun (compared with the Earth, which reaches 147m km at its closest). At this distance, the radiation from the Sun and its intense gravitational pull make it difficult to manoeuvre and observe Mercury. In fact, Messenger is the only spacecraft to achieve orbit round the planet. It used radar imagery to detect ice and organics. These icy deposits are thought to have been dumped on Mercury by comets in the distant past and their discovery helps explain how such material might have appeared on Earth and how life could have evolved here.
Equally surprising were the results produced by two Nasa satellites called Ebb and Flow, collectively known as the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (Grail) mission. They have been measuring tiny fluctuations in the gravitational field of the Moon and have produced a detailed map of rock densities there. The map shows that, in its first billion years, the Moon was fractured repeatedly by impacts of unexpected violence from asteroids and other remnants from the early years of the solar system.
On Earth, the shifting of tectonic plates and churning of our planet’s molten mantle have wiped out most evidence of these early asteroid bombardments. Grail has now revealed that conditions in the early solar system must have been far more violent than we once thought and has shown that our planet must have gone through some particularly violent formative years.
The photographs and information sent back by Messenger, Grail and Curiosity show worlds that are very different from our own. By contrast, those returned last month by the probe Cassini of Titan, the largest moon of distant Saturn, have a very familiar look. They show images of a river valley that stretches for more than 400 km from its “headwaters” to a large sea. The valley crosses Titan’s north polar region and runs into Ligeia Mare, one of the three great seas in Titan’s high northern latitudes. The river has tributaries and in some places meanders just like those on Earth. On a smaller scale, it could be confused – from these images – with the Nile delta.
Appearances would be deceptive, however. This river is no flowing waterway like those on Earth. It is made up of liquid hydrocarbons including methane and ethane. Titan may be the only other world in the solar system that has open stretches of liquid on its surface but that liquid is very different from the rivers of Earth.
© Guardian News and Media 2012
A NASA colour image of the surface of Mars taken Aug. 23 by the rover Curiosity. File photo via AFP.
Topics: solar system
In the USA..
December 29, 2012
Senate Seeks Bipartisan Formula to Reach Tax Deal
By MICHAEL D. SHEAR and ANNIE LOWREY
WASHINGTON — Senate leaders and their aides spent Saturday searching for a formula to extend tax cuts for most Americans that could win bipartisan support in the Senate and final approval in the fractious House by the new year, hoping to prevent large tax increases and budget cuts that could threaten the fragile economy.
As part of the last-minute negotiations, the lawmakers were haggling over unemployment benefits, cuts in Medicare payments to doctors, taxes on large inheritances and how to limit the impact of the alternative minimum tax, a parallel income tax system that is intended to ensure the rich pay a fair share but that is increasingly encroaching on the middle class.
President Obama said that if talks between the Senate leaders broke down, he wanted the Senate to schedule an up-or-down vote on a narrower measure that would extend only the middle-class tax breaks and unemployment benefits. The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, said he would schedule such a vote on Monday absent a deal.
If Congress is unable to act before the new year, Washington will effectively usher in a series of automatic tax increases and a program of drastic spending cuts that economists say could pitch the country back into recession.
The president and lawmakers put those spending cuts in place this year as draconian incentives that would force them to confront the nation’s growing debt. Now, lawmakers are trying to keep them from happening, though it seemed most likely on Saturday that the cuts, known as sequestration, would be left for the next Congress, to be sworn in this week.
“We just can’t afford a politically self-inflicted wound to our economy,” Mr. Obama said Saturday in his weekly address. “The housing market is healing, but that could stall if folks are seeing smaller paychecks. The unemployment rate is the lowest it’s been since 2008, but already families and businesses are starting to hold back because of the dysfunction they see in Washington.”
The fear of another painful economic slowdown appears to have accelerated deal-making on Capitol Hill with just 48 hours left before the so-called fiscal cliff arrives. Weeks of public sniping between Mr. Reid, the Democratic leader, and Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, ebbed on Friday evening with pledges of cooperation and optimism from both.
On Saturday, though, that sentiment was put to the test as 98 senators waited for word whether their leaders had come up with a proposal that might pass muster with members of both parties. The first votes in the Senate, if needed, are scheduled for Sunday afternoon.
“It’s a little like playing Russian roulette with the economy,” said Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia. “The consequences could be enormous.”
Members of Congress were mostly absent from the Capitol on Saturday, after two days of Senate votes on other matters and a day before both chambers were to reconvene. However, senior aides were working on proposals in their offices or at their homes.
Speaker John A. Boehner stopped by the Capitol briefly to see his chief of staff on Saturday afternoon. Mr. McConnell spent much of the day in his office.
Aides to Mr. Reid were expecting to receive offers from Mr. McConnell’s staff, but no progress was reported by midday. Even if the talks took a positive turn, Senate aides said, no announcement was expected before the leaders briefed their caucuses on Sunday.
The chief sticking point among lawmakers and the president continued to be how to set tax rates for the next decade and beyond. With the Bush-era tax cuts expiring, Mr. Obama and Democrats have said they want tax rates to rise on income over $250,000 a year, while Republicans want a higher threshold, perhaps at $400,000.
Democrats and Republicans are also divided on the tax on inherited estates, which currently hits inheritances over $5 million at 35 percent. On Jan. 1, it is scheduled to rise to 55 percent beginning with inheritances exceeding $1 million.
The political drama in Washington over the weekend was given greater urgency by the fear that the economic gains of the past two years could be lost if no deal is reached.
Some of the consequences of Congressional inaction would be felt almost at once on Tuesday, in employee paychecks, doctors’ offices and financial markets. Analysts said the effect would be cumulative, building over time.
An early barometer would probably be the financial markets, where skittish investors, as they have during previous Congressional cliffhangers, could send the stock market lower on fears of another prolonged period of economic distress.
In 2011, the political battles over whether to raise the nation’s borrowing limit prompted Standard & Poor’s to downgrade its rating of American debt, suggesting a higher risk of default. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 635 points in a volatile day of trading after the downgrade.
This month, traders have again nervously watched the political maneuvering in Washington, and the markets have jumped or dropped at tidbits of news from the negotiations. Two weeks ago, Ben S. Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, predicted that if lawmakers failed to reach a deal, “the economy will, I think, go off the cliff.”
Immediately — regardless of whether a deal is reached — every working American’s taxes will go up because neither party is fighting to extend a Social Security payroll tax cut that has been in place for two years.
But failure to reach a broader deal on taxes and spending would increase taxes even further, returning rates to Clinton-era levels. January paychecks would shrink as employers start withholding more for taxes.
Many families would also suffer if Congress failed to extend emergency jobless benefits, meaning that 2.1 million Americans would abruptly stop receiving expected payments.
“There’s going to be a hit to people who don’t have much capacity to absorb a hit,” said Christine L. Owens of the National Employment Law Project. “A lot of families are going to be in a bad place, not being able to pay their rent, or their mortgage, or their bills.”
In short order, such changes are expected to dampen consumer confidence and spending, with potentially grave consequences for an economy already struggling to recover momentum.
“Every day that goes by is this needless self-flagellation,” said Stuart G. Hoffman, the chief economist of PNC Financial Services Group, who estimated that the tax increases and loss of unemployment benefits would reduce take-home pay by $9 billion a week.
The fallout would continue to worsen if the inaction and stalemate continue into late January.
Tens of millions of families would probably be ensnared by the alternative minimum tax, raising their 2012 tax bill and potentially throwing the coming tax season into disarray. This month, the Internal Revenue Service warned that as many as 100 million filers, out of 150 million, could be affected. Analysts said the I.R.S. might have to delay the start of filing season and the delivery of expected refund checks.
Again, the lowest-income families are expected to be hit the hardest. “Those early filers, 95 percent of them are expecting a healthy refund early in the year,” said Mark Steber, the chief tax officer of Jackson Hewitt.
Come mid-January, some Medicare patients also might struggle to find doctors to treat them. Without Congressional action, doctors would face two cuts to reimbursement rates: a 26.5 percent reduction in Medicare payment rates from a 1997 law, and a further 2 percent cut adopted to reduce the deficit last year.
“I feel I am being held hostage,” said Lee R. Rovik, 70, a Medicare beneficiary in Camdenton, Mo. A sign at his doctor’s office warns that it might have to close if Congress does not fix the Medicare payment formula.
“Politicians don’t give a damn about me or the doctor,” Mr. Rovik said. “If the clinic goes out of business, which is entirely possible, where will we go?”
By late February or early March, lawmakers would face another economic showdown over raising the nation’s borrowing limit again to avoid a cash-management crisis and a government shutdown. Republicans have already said they intend to use the Congressional authority to increase the so-called debt ceiling to extract cuts from entitlement programs — a threat Mr. Obama has said he will resist.
Around the same time, the government and its workers would begin feeling the cuts to defense and domestic spending.
Without a compromise, the Pentagon and its civilian contractors would face steep reductions in virtually every program. Military officials said those spending reductions — $500 billion over 10 years — would eventually force the canceling or shrinking of projects and large-scale layoffs of military and civilian personnel.
Hundreds of other federal programs would see cuts, beginning in late January. These include reductions of about 8 percent in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children; the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program; and rental housing assistance.
Economists said the spending cuts and tax increases by themselves would smother the recovery. Analysts fear that the economic disruption and political flailing could spook financial markets, amplifying the pain.
“It would be a triple whammy,” said Mr. Hoffman of PNC, referring to the tax hikes, spending cuts and confidence effects. “Actually, as many whammies as you could come up with.”
Robert Pear and Jennifer Steinhauer contributed reporting.
December 29, 2012
Wishful Thinking and Middle-Class Taxes
By N. GREGORY MANKIW
IN the continuing fiscal negotiations between President Obama and House Republicans, both sides have, from the very beginning, agreed on one point: Taxes on the middle class must not rise. But maybe it’s time to reconsider this premise. An unwavering commitment to keep middle-class taxes low could be one reason the political process has become so deeply dysfunctional.
Let’s start with the problem: the budget deficit. Under current policy, the federal government is spending vastly more than it is collecting in tax revenue. And that will be true for the next several decades, thanks largely to the growth in entitlement spending that will occur automatically as the population ages and health care costs increase. As a result, the ratio of government debt to the nation’s gross domestic product is projected to rise, substantially and without an end in sight.
That can happen for a while, or even a long while, but not forever. At some point, investors at home and abroad will start questioning our ability to service our debts without creating steep inflation. It’s hard to say precisely when this shift in investor sentiment will occur, and even whether it will strike in this president’s term or the next, but when it does, it won’t be pretty. The United States will find itself at the brink of an unprecedented financial crisis.
Republicans and Democrats agree on the nature of the problem, but they embrace very different solutions. My fear is that both sides are engaged in an excess of wishful thinking, with a dash of mendacity.
If Republicans had their way, they would focus the entire solution on the spending side. They say that reform of the entitlement programs can reduce their cost. The so-called premium-support plan for Medicare, from Paul D. Ryan, the 2012 Republican vice-presidential candidate, would let older Americans use their health care dollars to buy insurance from competing private plans. (Interestingly, it’s similar to the system envisioned for the nonelderly by President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.) The hope is that competition and choice would keep health care costs down without sacrificing quality.
The premium-support model may well be better than the current Medicare system, but its supporters oversell what it would be likely to accomplish. The primary driver of increasing health care costs over time is new technology, which extends and improves the quality of life, but often at high cost. Unless the pace or nature of medical innovation changes, this trend is likely to continue, regardless of structural reforms we enact for Medicare.
Democrats, meanwhile, want to preserve the social safety net pretty much as is. They balk at any attempt to reduce this spending, including even modest changes like altering the price index used to calculate Social Security benefits. They focus their attention on raising taxes on the most financially successful Americans, contending that the rich are not paying their “fair share.”
Fairness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Unfortunately, people’s judgment is often based on anecdotes that distort rather than illuminate. The story of the undertaxed Warren Buffett and his overtaxed secretary looms larger in the public’s mind than it should.
Here are some facts, so you can judge for yourself:
In 2009, the most recent year for which data are available, the richest 1 percent of Americans paid 28.9 percent of their income in federal taxes, according to the Congressional Budget Office. (That includes income taxes, both individual and corporate, and payroll taxes.) Members of the middle class, defined as the middle fifth of households, paid 11.1 percent of their income in taxes.
Some of this difference in tax rates is attributable to temporary tax changes passed in response to the recent recession. But not all. In 2006, before the financial crisis, the top 1 percent paid 30 percent of their income in taxes, compared with 13.9 percent for the middle class.
These data suggest that the rich are not, as a general matter, shirking their responsibilities to support the federal government. To me, the current tax system looks plenty progressive. Others may disagree.
One point, however, cannot be disputed: Even if President Obama wins all the tax increases on the rich that he is asking for, the long-term fiscal picture will still look grim. Perhaps we can stabilize the situation for a few years just by taxing the rich, but as greater numbers of baby boomers retire and start collecting Social Security and Medicare, more will need to be done.
Which brings us back to the middle class. When President Obama talks about taxing the rich, he means the top 2 percent of Americans. John A. Boehner, the House speaker, talks about an even thinner slice. But the current and future fiscal imbalances are too large to exempt 98 percent or more of the public from being part of the solution.
Ultimately, unless we scale back entitlement programs far more than anyone in Washington is now seriously considering, we will have no choice but to increase taxes on a vast majority of Americans. This could involve higher tax rates or an elimination of popular deductions. Or it could mean an entirely new tax, such as a value-added tax or a carbon tax.
To be sure, the path ahead is not easy. No politician who wants to be re-elected is eager to entertain the possibility of higher taxes on the middle class. But fiscal negotiations might become a bit easier if everyone started by agreeing that the policies we choose must be constrained by the laws of arithmetic.
N. Gregory Mankiw is a professor of economics at Harvard. He was an adviser to Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential campaign.
December 29, 2012
Biden Is Back for a 2nd Run at Gun Limits
By PETER BAKER
WASHINGTON — Never much known for restraint, Joseph R. Biden Jr. did not hold back during a presidential primary debate in 2007 when a voter asking about gun rights in a recorded video displayed a fearsome-looking semiautomatic rifle and declared, “This is my baby.”
Mr. Biden, then a Delaware senator in a dark-horse bid for the White House, shook his head. “I tell you what, if that’s his baby, he needs help,” he said. “I think he just made an admission against self-interest. I don’t know if he’s mentally qualified to own that gun.”
The candidate’s blunt, dismissive remark cheered one side of America’s long-polarized debate about guns and alienated the other. But it overlooked the salient reality that the rifle-toting voter was able to buy it legally even under a law that theoretically banned assault weapons and was co-written by Mr. Biden.
Five years later, that same type of weapon, a Bushmaster AR-15, is at the heart of a renewed national conversation about gun laws because it was used this month by the mass killer in Newtown, Conn. For Mr. Biden, now the vice president, the moment offers a second chance as he drafts a legislative response for President Obama that would reinstate his expired assault weapons ban, while also applying lessons from the last time around to make it more effective.
A president intent on pressing Congress to restrict access to high-powered guns could hardly find a more seasoned figure to take charge of the effort. Mr. Biden, who owns two shotguns, brings decades of experience and plenty of scar tissue from past battles with the National Rifle Association to frame recommendations that Mr. Obama wants ready by next month.
“He’s basically been doing this for a little over 30 years,” said former Senator Ted Kaufman of Delaware, a longtime Biden adviser who was appointed to fill out his term. “I really do believe there isn’t anybody in America who has a better chance of getting this done by Jan. 15 than he does, not just because of his background in guns but because he’s not politically intimidated by the N.R.A., to put it mildly.”
As far as the N.R.A. is concerned, Mr. Biden is an ideologue whose mind is already made up about the “conversation” he is now supposed to lead.
“This is somebody who’s bombastic and really does think that anybody who disagrees with him is not only wrong but crazy,” David Keene, the N.R.A. president, said in an interview. “That’s his style.”
Mr. Biden, he added, has not reached out to his group and has shown contempt for gun owners who value their Second Amendment rights. “His debate response and how he’s acted as a legislator indicates that he not only doesn’t understand it but doesn’t have any desire to understand it,” Mr. Keene said. “Joe is not a nuance character. He knows what he knows, and he doesn’t need to be told that other people think differently than he does.”
What Mr. Biden knows is that gun control is not only a fiercely emotional topic for many Americans but also a tricky area for legislation. The assault weapons ban he helped pass in 1994 was written narrowly enough that it allowed plenty of guns to still be sold. Moreover, a 10-year expiration clause was added as a compromise. Democrats went on to lose control of Congress that fall, a defeat that many attributed to the gun law, leaving the party skittish ever since.
This time, Mr. Biden wants to tighten the strictures, but to succeed he needs to get legislation through a Republican-controlled House. And even if he and Mr. Obama can persuade Congress to ban the sale of new semiautomatic rifles, more than three million AR-15 rifles are already in private hands, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
First elected to the Senate in 1972, Mr. Biden had a long interest in passing crime legislation, and gun control eventually became part of his proposals. An assault weapons ban he wrote in the 1980s failed in Congress, but by 1994, as he put together a comprehensive crime package, a new Democratic senator, Dianne Feinstein of California, wanted to try again. Burned after so many failures, Mr. Biden was skeptical.
“When I told Joe Biden, who was chairman of the Judiciary Committee, that I was going to move this as an amendment on the crime bill, he laughed at me,” Ms. Feinstein recalled this month on the NBC program “Meet the Press.” “He said, ‘You’re new here. Wait till you learn.’ ”
President Bill Clinton’s White House and House Democrats worried that the gun ban would end up taking down the entire crime bill, which authorized 100,000 more police officers, expanded the death penalty, built more prisons, cracked down on hate crimes and violence against women, and financed prevention programs.
In the end, it passed, in significant part because of Mr. Biden. “I think there were days the chairman didn’t sleep,” said Karen Robb, who worked for the committee at the time. “It never would have made it out of the Senate without his help, period. It never would have made it out of conference without him.”
To get it through required a compromise. The bill defined an assault weapon as a gun that was able to accept a detachable magazine and that included two or more other combat-type accessories, like a pistol grip, a flash suppressor or a grenade launcher; those with just one accessory were still legal.
The upheaval brought about by the midterm election later that year soured Democrats on gun control, although Mr. Biden survived efforts to defeat him two years later. A Republican-led Congress let the assault weapons ban expire in 2004 amid debate about the effectiveness of the original legislation.
By the time Jered Townsend, the Bushmaster owner from Michigan, recorded his question for the 2007 primary debate, Mr. Biden was one of the few outspoken voices on gun control left among Democratic leaders.
Mr. Obama, running against him, offered a modulated position. He agreed with conservatives that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms — a view later upheld by the Supreme Court — but he supported gun control measures like a ban on assault rifles that he considered constitutional.
Mr. Townsend, now 36 years old and a contract writer at a construction company, said he bought the Bushmaster he displayed on television legally during the period that Mr. Biden’s ban was in place. “We don’t need politicians writing gun laws because they don’t know what they’re doing,” he said in a recent interview.
Mr. Townsend said he owned 13 guns and that he liked the Bushmaster’s accuracy when he goes target shooting with his father and friends. “There’s somebody on the end of every gun pulling the trigger,” he said. “We need to treat that person. The gun’s not the problem.”
Mr. Biden was at the White House when the Newtown massacre occurred. With the shootings coming just days before the 40th anniversary of the car accident that killed his first wife and baby daughter, an aide said, “all he could think about was those parents getting the same devastating phone call” that he once did.
After Mr. Obama assigned him to develop a response, Mr. Biden followed his 1990s script, inviting law enforcement leaders to the White House to harness their ideas and public credibility. “I’ve been in Washington over 20 years, and this was unique,” said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. “There is a sense of importance and urgency to this issue.”
Ms. Feinstein plans to reintroduce the assault weapons bill with a more inclusive definition, banning even those with just “one or more military characteristics.” It identifies 120 guns by name whose manufacture and sale would be banned, and it would outlaw certain modifications used to bypass the last law.
Mr. Kaufman acknowledged that actually banning guns was difficult. As soon as one gun is outlawed, another pops up. But he argued that symbolism itself was important. “You send a message,” he said, “when you don’t do anything.”
December 30, 2012
In Gun Debate, Two Sides Speak Different Languages
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
WEXFORD, Pa. (AP) — Inside the Big Buck Sport Shop, where mounted moose and deer heads loom over rifles, handguns, targets and ammunition, the customers have no doubt: More gun laws will not save lives.
Fifteen miles south, in the city of Pittsburgh, many confronted by a steady stream of gun violence are just as certain: To reduce the carnage, stricter gun control is needed.
This divide has existed for decades, separating America into hostile camps of conservative vs. liberal, rural vs. urban. As the nation responds to the massacre of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Conn., the gulf has rarely felt wider than now.
After the gunman invaded an elementary school with a Bushmaster AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and magazines of 30 bullets each, there was a brief moment of unity amid the nation's grief. Across partisan divides, politicians said something must be done about weapons based upon military designs. Many wondered if even the National Rifle Association would adjust its staunch opposition to gun control.
Then both sides regrouped. With President Barack Obama pushing for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and memory lingering of Obama's divisive 2008 comment that some Americans "cling to guns and religion," positions hardened.
Listening to the public discourse, and to citizens in places like Pittsburgh and the Big Buck Sport Shop, people seem to be speaking different languages entirely. Communication has broken down amid a flurry of accusations, denials, political maneuvering and catch phrases.
"You have to place some people in the category of 'you cannot communicate with them,'" Big Buck salesman Dave Riddle said Friday, standing between a rack of rifles and a glass case full of used handguns. "Their minds are set; they cannot change."
A short drive away, at the New Pittsburgh Courier newspaper, editor and publisher Rod Doss pondered how to tell gun enthusiasts about his belief that assault weapons should be banned.
"I don't know that they would hear me," Doss finally said. "Their culture is totally different. They've grown up around guns. It's part of their life and their lifestyle. It's second nature. Hunting, shooting, it's the love of guns."
Doss does not own a firearm: "I don't feel a need for any. I personally don't live in fear." His newspaper, which covers the African-American community, publishes detailed information on every Pittsburgh homicide because most are black-on-black crimes.
"I'm awestruck with their fascination with guns," Doss said of his suburban and rural neighbors. "When you look at it from that perspective, it's hard to relate to anything."
Locally, nationally, even globally, this is the issue that places people at odds — a fact seen by the passionate, often angry conversations that are ringing out across the world in the days since the Newtown shootings. Harry Wilson, author of "Guns, Gun Control and Elections: The Politics and Policy of Firearms," sees common misperceptions on both sides.
Wilson, a Roanoke College political science professor, would like gun control advocates to know: "Gun owners are not idiots. Gun owners are not in favor of gun violence. Gun owners are in many ways like them, and would genuinely like to see gun violence reduced. Obviously they have a different solution. But they're people too, just with different perspectives."
"And what I would want gun owners to know is, the large majority of people in favor of gun control don't really want to take all of your guns."
Guns were inseparable from America even before their enshrinement in the Second Amendment. With guns we secured the nation's independence, seized vast territory from indigenous peoples wielding arrows and tomahawks, and forged an ethos of personal freedom. Today, according to most estimates, there are about 250 million guns in our nation of 310 million people.
America has a higher rate of gun deaths than most similarly developed nations: 3.2 firearm homicides per 100,000 people in 2009, according to a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. That compared with a rate of 0.5 per 100,000 in Canada; 0.2 in Spain; 0.2 in Germany; and 0.1 in the United Kingdom and Australia. No data was available for Russia.
To many gun enthusiasts, though, these numbers have nothing to do with guns themselves.
With so many guns in circulation, they say, people intent on killing will always find a way to do it. Nor do they fault high-capacity magazines, because it can take only seconds to reload a standard 10-bullet version.
Some even say the solution to gun violence is more guns — to deter, and to fight back against the bad guys.
"The easy, lazy conclusion is that (gun violence) has to do with firearms," said Sam Liberto, a business consultant shopping in Big Buck with his two young sons. "We should look at the root cause: parenting or lack thereof, mental illness, video games. The underlying forces are probably far more important."
Liberto does think gun laws could be tightened, to track and collect more sale information. He's against an assault weapons ban but expects one to happen soon, as a first step to outlawing even more guns.
So after Newtown, Liberto hustled to buy the same type of semiautomatic rifle used by the school gunman. On his iPhone was a photo of his weapon's handiwork: an Osama bin Laden target that featured a face full of bullet holes.
"It's a target item," Liberto said of his purchase. "Unlike a hunting rifle or a sport shotgun it has less kick, a lighter weight. It's designed to be carried. It's just nice, a nice gun to shoot."
Liberto and Riddle, the Big Buck salesman, are officers of the Millvale Sportsmen's Club, where target shooters and hunters enjoy their pursuits. Riddle knows many people who enter competitions with the type of AR-15 used in Newtown.
The gray-bearded Riddle has been around firearms since he was born in rural Pennsylvania. To him, guns are no more dangerous than an axe or a bat.
What would he tell people who want more gun control?
"Let's go out and shoot a little bit," Riddle offers. "I'd take 'em out, introduce them to firearms, show them the safety aspects of it. I'd just go out and start shooting, have some fun. Shoot some paper targets, some cans. Shooting guns is a lot of fun, it really is."
That's incomprehensible to Pittsburgh resident Valerie Dixon, whose law-abiding 22-year-old son was killed in Pittsburgh a decade ago by a neighborhood thug with an illegal .357 Magnum.
"The original purpose of the Second Amendment was not a sport," she said. "I do think the laws need to be looked at. Look at lifestyles as they are today, as opposed to when they created the Second Amendment."
Dixon doesn't only blame guns for her tragedy. She said better parenting and education are among many other factors that need to change. But still: She says her son's killer was able to obtain the fateful gun within two hours.
"I believe in the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms, but I believe there's a responsibility with our rights," said Dixon, who does not own a gun.
How to draw the line? That would require consultation and cooperation. Those who don't own guns might have to learn things from those who do. People who like to shoot military-style weapons might have to sacrifice some of their recreation.
Or sacrifice some of their way of life.
Over the Christmas holiday, James and Jennifer Shafer shot guns with their parents and young kids at their ranch an hour north of Pittsburgh. The Shafers feel the pain of parents who have lost children. The Newtown killings left them shaken. But the response scares them, too.
"You can't take away our right to protect ourselves," said James Shafer, a former Marine who has called his congressional representatives to voice his opposition to laws that limit guns.
"We're not going to give them up, that's plain and simple," he said.
"I don't know how to get on the subway in a big city," said his wife, Jennifer. "I've heard bad things about it, and I'm scared of it. But the subway is normal for other people . guns are the thread of our culture."
James' cousin, Erik Shafer, started buying guns a few years ago after he returned to his rural home and found it ransacked by burglars. Police took 20 minutes to arrive.
After listening to conversations about Newtown, "I honestly don't think there is a middle to meet in," said Erik Shafer, a small business owner with a wife and two young daughters.
Then what does the future hold? He sees no end to gun violence, no matter what laws are passed.
"How do you prepare yourself for an infinite way that people can be shot and killed?" Erik Shafer responded. "It's tough. I really don't know what the answer is."
December 29, 2012
Oil Giants Heading to Trial in Water Pollution Lawsuit
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Nearly a decade after it was first brought, a lawsuit accusing two oil giants of widespread groundwater contamination in New Hampshire is expected to present jurors with the most complex and time-consuming trial in the state’s history.
The products liability case against the oil companies, Exxon Mobil and Citgo, is to go to trial in mid-January. In 2003, New Hampshire sued 26 oil companies and subsidiaries, claiming the gasoline additive M.T.B.E., or methyl tertiary butyl ether, caused groundwater contamination in a state where 60 percent of the population relies on private wells for drinking water.
New Hampshire is seeking more than $700 million in damages to test and monitor every private well and public drinking water system in the state and to cover cleanup costs where needed, according to court documents.
It is the only state to have reached the trial stage in a suit over M.T.B.E.
Other lawsuits have been brought by municipalities, water districts or individual well owners, and most filed in the past decade have ended in settlements. New York City won a $105 million federal jury verdict against Exxon Mobil in 2009 for M.T.B.E. contamination of city wells; that verdict has been appealed.
M.T.B.E. had been used in gasoline since the 1970s to increase octane and to reduce smog-causing emissions. While it was credited with cutting air pollution, it was found in the late 1990s to contaminate drinking water when gasoline is spilled or leaks into surface water or groundwater.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency had classified it as a “possible human carcinogen.” New Hampshire banned its use in 2007.
All the sued oil companies except Exxon Mobil, based in Irving, Tex., and Citgo, based in Houston and owned by Venezuela, have reached settlement agreements with the state. Just last month, Shell Oil and Sunoco agreed to pay the state a total of $35 million.
When the suit was filed, the state attorney general at the time, Peter W. Heed, said M.T.B.E. contamination had caused an “unprecedented environmental problem.” He said M.T.B.E. “has been associated with adverse health consequences and can render water unpalatable.”
The case was tied up for years on jurisdiction issues in federal courts before being sent back to state court.
Lawyers for the defendants say that they were not liable and that M.T.B.E. functioned as it should. They also stress that the companies have cleaned up their own sites and that contamination elsewhere was caused by third parties that have not been sued.
“They haven’t suffered the injury they claim they did,” James Quinn, a lawyer for ExxonMobil, said during a pretrial hearing in November. He said pre-existing contaminants — including iron, radon and E. coli — could unfairly drive up damages.
Jessica Grant, a lawyer representing the state at the same pretrial hearing, said the case is about whether the oil companies designed a defective product, failed to warn consumers of the dangers of M.T.B.E. “and ignored their own experts who said don’t use M.T.B.E.”
Court officials in October sent a 22-page questionnaire to 500 potential jurors. It asked them whether they believed that oil companies value profits over safety and whether the companies do not fully disclose the dangers associated with their products.
After eliminating those who got their drinking water from a well and those with hardships or deep biases, lawyers this month chose 12 jurors and four alternates who were told to report to Federal District Court here in Concord on Jan. 14. They have been told to expect a four-month trial.
“Everybody who sits on this case is going to be inconvenienced,” Judge Peter Fauver told prospective jurors during jury selection. “We will do everything we can to minimize the impact.”
More than 50,000 exhibits have been marked for identification, and there are upward of 100 lawyers on record in the case. The witness list numbers 230.
Court officials had to improvise a special docketing system because of the number of participants and documents involved. It is one of only a handful of state court cases that have gone fully electronic, with all motions and orders being e-mailed.
Bill McGraw, the chief clerk, noted that the only other case that comes close to it in complexity is a school financing challenge of the 1990s, “and that pales in comparison to this.”
“It’s been a unique experience,” Mr. McGraw said.
December 29, 2012
Braced for Hardship, an Amish Clan Awaits Sentences in Shearing Attacks
By ERIK ECKHOLM
BERGHOLZ, Ohio — At their afternoon meeting in a bare farmhouse room, in a circle with infants on their laps and toddlers tugging at their skirts, the women of this breakaway Amish settlement have some most un-Amish matters to discuss.
Who will make the weekly van ride to visit their nine menfolk in prison, awaiting sentencing for a series of beard- and hair-cutting attacks against other Amish last year? And who will mind all the children left motherless for the day?
Should the six mothers who were also convicted, but are home on bail, sign over legal guardianship of their combined 47 children to friends or relatives, in case both parents wind up in prison?
By kerosene light, the women pass around handwritten letters from their imprisoned bishop, Samuel Mullet Sr., offering reminders about farm chores and descriptions of prison food and chess games with his jailed sons.
The farmhouse yard bustles with giddy children’s play, but the air is burdened with a shared dread of what will happen on Feb. 8. On that day, a federal judge is scheduled to announce punishments for the assaults by Bergholz residents in the fall of 2011 that spread terror through the Amish of eastern Ohio and led federal prosecutors to file felony hate-crime charges, arguing that the victims were harmed for religious reasons. Sixteen residents of this insular community of 137 — 10 men, 1 of them out on bail, and 6 women — were convicted this fall.
“It’s getting scary,” said Elizabeth Miller, 38, as she cradled one of her 11 children. She and her husband, Lester Miller, took part in the assault on his parents in September 2011, shearing the father’s beard and the mother’s hair, both treasured symbols of Amish identity; he is among the men being held without bail.
The parents had condemned Mr. Mullet as a cult leader, but Mrs. Miller, her husband and several of his siblings and their spouses remained loyal to Mr. Mullet’s vision of a more “pure” Amish community. In courtroom testimony, one of the 12 attackers said they had considered the parents to be straying hypocrites who needed a lesson.
Now, preparing for prison even as she prays for leniency, Mrs. Miller has arranged for a cousin, Mary Mast, 47, to take care of her children, who range in age from 1 to 15.
Several years leading up to the assaults had been marked by feuds with outsiders and wrenching internal strife, culminating in the five separate attacks on Mr. Mullet’s Amish critics that brought calamity to the community.
With nine male breadwinners — half the married men — in federal prison, residents say they have pulled together as never before.
The hardships were eased by a $3 million payment for gas exploration rights on Mr. Mullet’s 700 acres, an offer that arrived, providentially, just as the leader and his followers faced financial ruin. Mr. Mullet used part of it to pay off his mortgage and those of his sons on adjacent land.
Martha Mullet, his wife of 46 years, was not charged with any crime and is managing the rest of the money. She has paid for the $250 van rides to the prison and doled out cash to families struggling without fathers — generosity that has bound together this community but also deepened the dependence of some.
“We are praying that God will send another miracle,” Mrs. Mullet, 64, said of the hope that the judge will give the men short sentences and the women probation.
The remaining men and their crews of teenage boys still earn money in construction and farming, and they hunt deer in the fall for meat.
While admitting that the attacks were a mistake, many church members and Mr. Mullet himself, who spoke in a two-hour interview at the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in Youngstown, called the hate-crime charges overly harsh.
Prosecutors have described the clan’s unorthodox practices as signs of Mr. Mullet’s dictatorial domination. Those practices included earlier beard-cutting of men by their own wives for ogling “English” women at Walmart, the forcing of men to do penance for impure thoughts by making them sleep in chicken coops and Mr. Mullet’s decision to abolish formal church services as meaningless displays.
His followers say they accepted these acts to get closer to God. Shorn of their beards, the men were supposed to confront their sinful ways and redouble their faith.
Even now, Bergholz residents do not seem to fully understand how terrifying these practices were to outside Amish communities, who heard of brethren assaulted in their homes at night and humiliated with scissors, clippers and shears designed to trim horse manes.
Mr. Mullet, who was also accused in trial testimony of engaging in intimate sexual “counseling” of female followers, claimed he never had sex with them. He has been maligned by lurid rumors, he said, spread by Amish rivals who resented him for exposing their sins.
Because the convictions described the forcible restraint of the victims as kidnapping, Judge Dan Aaron Polster, of Federal District Court in Cleveland, will have unusually wide discretion in sentencing and could hand down anything from probation to life sentences, said Edward G. Bryan, Mr. Mullet’s lawyer. The prosecution has indicated that it will seek lengthy prison terms for at least several of the men.
Throughout the arrests, the trial and now the tense waiting, only one member of the group, a 19-year-old grandson of Mr. Mullet’s, has left Bergholz. The rest have vowed to stick together, following the vision that brought Mr. and Mrs. Mullet here nearly 18 years ago, and to stay removed from what they describe as rampant drinking, smoking, use of musical instruments, premarital sex and other sins of nearby Amish.
“No matter if he gets life in prison, he will still be our bishop here,” said Wilma Mullet, 30, one of Mr. Mullet’s daughters, who did not participate in the 2011 attacks.
Mr. Mullet’s stature was clear on Thanksgiving Day, when he conducted the marriage service for his youngest daughter, Lizzie, and Ferdinand Miller, whose father is also being held. Mr. Mullet presided from behind glass in a prison visitor room, reciting vows and prayers via telephone as nearly 20 Bergholz residents stood behind the couple on the other side, then returned to their settlement for a bittersweet celebratory dinner.
Mrs. Mullet sat stoically through the September trial of her husband, three sons and 12 other church members.
But in Bergholz last week, she burst into tears as she bemoaned the upheaval and what she sees as the unfair severity of the prosecutions.
“We’re not denying that we did wrong,” she said, “but it should never have been classified as a hate crime.” Her sons felt they had a reason for the attacks, she added, “because of the way our community was being treated.”
“They can go on with their lives,” Mrs. Mullet said of the shearing victims. “Their hair and beards will grow back.”
“But they don’t want our families to have any lives at all,” she said.
In the prison interview, Mr. Mullet, 67, in a yellow jumpsuit, complained of the conditions in the section of the Youngstown prison reserved for those awaiting sentencing. He said inmates are locked up several times a day in 6-by-12-foot cells that were built for two people but now have a third bunk on the wall and an open toilet with no privacy.
The men have kept their beards and mostly keep to themselves, Mr. Mullet said, but they do not pray together. “How do you live an Amish life with 100 inmates screaming and cussing?” he said.
By all accounts, Mr. Mullet did not participate in the attacks, but he was convicted as a co-conspirator. He sought to play down the strength of his authority.
After learning of the first attack, he recalled, “I said, ‘If you’re going to do something like that, leave me out of it.’ ”
“I guess I didn’t want my beard cut off, and that probably would have happened if I had tried to stop them,” he said. “The only thing I did wrong was that I didn’t tell them to stop.”
But this month, Judge Polster, as he denied Mr. Mullet’s request for a new trial, said the jury had good reason to place Mr. Mullet at the heart of the conspiracy.
“Suffice it to say, the evidence at trial conclusively established that defendant, as bishop of Bergholz, ran his community with an iron fist,” the judge wrote in a ruling on Dec. 6. “Nothing of significance happened without his knowledge and approval.”
Al Jazerra: Ukraine: State of Chaos: Has the eastern European country been returned to the grips of the powerful oligarchs and neighbouring Russia?
Ukraine, the biggest country in Eastern Europe, is sandwiched between Russia and the West. It was a vital player in the downfall of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991.
And the Orange Revolution in 2004 ended the corrupt autocratic pro-Russian regime.
But six years later, through the newly elected President Viktor Yanukovich, the head of the Party of Regions, it returned to the grips of its powerful oligarchs and Russia. So the people got neither the rule of law nor the democracy they had imagined.
Filmmaker's view: By Jill Emery
It's terrible to lie in chains and rot in dungy deep,
But it's still worse when you are free,
To sleep and sleep and sleep.
(Taras Chevchenko, 1814-1861, a famous Ukrainian poet and author of the national anthem)
I visited Ukraine for the first time in 1963 on a school trip to Russia for pupils studying Russian in the UK. Ukrainian Nikita Kruschev had replaced Joseph Stalin at the head of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
Ukraine, at the western extremity, was not like Russia - it seemed sunnier.
In the streets, young people gave us shy glances filled with curiosity, before lowering their eyes and hastening their pace. Talking to us meant danger for them. To them, we were from outer space - the enemy. But we soon found they were ready to take risks.
During our visit we were strictly controlled by our tourist guides. But at night we managed to escape their guard to meet two boys who had earlier thrown us a discrete ball of screwed up paper, which seemed to suggest a meeting place.
They were proficient in English, keen to know about the other side, rebellious, intelligent and curious. But they disappeared as soon as they heard the familiar sound of OGPU (secret police) officers nearby.
Unfortunately, Ukraine was another planet then, and to me it still is.
Ukraine has been shaped by centuries of invasion and today people of many different ethnic origins make up the population. The Ukrainians are an explosive, colourful, joyous people despite centuries of repression by big brother Russia. But the Orange Revolution was proof of what the people were capable of.
By the end of 2004, I returned to Ukraine with Jean-Michel Carre to start work on a film.
It was during this period that the revolution was fully underway in Ukraine. In the capital, Kiev, people thronged the streets, night and day, old and young, together, talking in groups about their revolution, their democracy. How proud and optimistic they were.
We felt that our own democracies had a bitter flavour, but these people were so positive, so sure. Why had the Orange Revolution taken place? What had led up to it? How was history responsible for the present? A film had to be made.
We continued to film over the next six years at parliamentary election times, meeting people in different towns and villages. Crossing the country on bumpy roads, we followed the relentless and glamorous Yulia Tymoshenko as she campaigned in Siberian weather, opened blocks of council flats or visited modest shops.
People threw themselves at her feet. She was the Ukrainian Evita Peron. President Viktor Yushchenko remained more discreet, patriotic but inefficient and - to most minds - seriously, physically and psychologically diminished by his infamous poisoning during the Orange Revolution.
In the interviews we obtained, he makes damning accusations against Russian President Vladimir Putin and speaks frankly of his hatred for Tymoshenko.
For the Ukrainian people, Yushchenko and Tymoshenko's "political divorce" after only months in office was the end of a soap opera dream and the beginning of the end.
It became clear that the country was still corrupt, the political infrastructure a mess, individual personalities too important and basic essentials still Soviet.
Today, Ukraine still seems so different from Russia. The "bandit state" created by serving President Viktor Yanukovich and his oligarch cronies is even worse than the one that preceded the Orange Revolution.
Since filming, one of our journalist's assistants became councillor for her village on the outskirts of Kiev. She created a petition to protect Kiev Forest from building developers affiliated with Yanukovich. But she has had to hire bodyguards to protect her and her family from the oligarch police.
Meanwhile, our co-producer, who is now campaigning in the elections, is under investigation for his role in our film.
I have also personally received an official legal summons in Ukraine to reveal how much money Tymoshenko's party allegedly paid me to make a film against the regime.
My only hope is that the new regime has gone too far this time and that the people will revolt once again.
Click to watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I8cNVr0Qtks
December 30, 2012
Indian Women March: ‘That Girl Could Have Been Any One of Us’
By HEATHER TIMMONS and SRUTHI GOTTIPATI
NEW DELHI — Neha Kaul Mehra says she was only 7 years old the first time she was sexually harassed. She was walking to a dance class in an affluent neighborhood of New Delhi when a man confronted her and began openly masturbating.
That episode was far from the last. Years of verbal and physical sexual affronts left Ms. Mehra, now 29, filled with what she described as “impotent rage.”
Last week, she and thousands of Indian women like her poured that anger into public demonstrations, reacting to news of the gang rape of another young woman who had moved to the city from a small village, with a new life in front of her.
That woman, a 23-year-old physiotherapy student, died Saturday from internal injuries inflicted with a metal rod during the rape, which took place on a bus two weeks ago.
In her story and its brutal ending, many women in the world’s largest democracy say they see themselves.
“That girl could have been any one of us,” said Sangeetha Saini, 44, who took her two teenage daughters to a candle-filled demonstration on Sunday in Delhi. Women in India “face harassment in public spaces, streets, on buses,” she said. “We can only tackle this by becoming Durga,” she added, referring to the female Hindu god who slays a demon.
Indian women have made impressive gains in recent years: maternal mortality rates have dropped, literacy rates and education levels have risen, and millions of women have joined the professional classes. But the women at the heart of the protest movement say it was born of their outraged realization that no matter how accomplished they become, or how hard they work, women here will never fully take part in the promise of a new and more prosperous India unless something fundamental about the culture changes.
Indeed, many women in India say they are still subject to regular harassment and assault during the day and are fearful of leaving their homes alone after dark. Now they are demanding that the government, and a police force that they say offers women little or no protection, do something about it.
Ankita Cheerakathil, 20, a student at St. Stephen’s College who attended a protest on Thursday, remembered dreading the daily bus ride when she was in high school in the southern state of Kerala. Before she stepped outside her house, she recalled, she would scrutinize herself in a mirror, checking to see whether her blouse was too tight. At the bus stop, inevitably, men would zero in on the schoolgirls in their uniforms, some as young as 10, to leer and make cracks filled with sexual innuendo.
“This is not an isolated incident,” Ms. Cheerakathil said of the death of the New Delhi rape victim. “This is the story of every Indian woman.”
While the Dec. 16 attack was extreme in its savagery, gang rapes of women have been happening with frightening regularity in recent months, particularly in northern India. Critics say the response from a mostly male police force is often inadequate at best.
Last week, an 18-year-old woman in Punjab State committed suicide by drinking poison after being raped by two men and then humiliated by male police officers, who made her describe her attack in detail several times, then tried to encourage her to marry one of her rapists. Dozens more gang rapes have been reported in the states of Haryana, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in recent months.
The government does not keep statistics on gang rape, but over all, rapes increased 25 percent from 2006 to 2011. More than 600 rapes were reported in New Delhi alone in 2012. So far, only one attack has resulted in a conviction.
Sociologists and crime experts say the attacks are the result of deeply entrenched misogynistic attitudes and the rising visibility of women, underpinned by long-term demographic trends in India.
After years of aborting female fetuses, a practice that is still on the rise in some areas because of a cultural preference for male children, India has about 15 million “extra” men between the ages of 15 and 35, the range when men are most likely to commit crimes. By 2020, those “extra” men will have doubled to 30 million.
“There is a strong correlation between masculinized sex ratios and higher rates of violent crime against women,” said Valerie M. Hudson, a co-author of “Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia’s Surplus Male Population.” Men who do not have wives and families often gather in packs, Ms. Hudson argues, and then commit more gruesome and violent crimes than they would on their own.
Others point to the gains that women have made as triggers for an increase in violent crimes. “Women are rising in society and fighting for equal space, and these crimes are almost like a backlash,” said Vijay Raghavan, chairman of the Center for Criminology and Justice at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. If poverty and unemployment were the only reason for these crimes, rates would already be much higher, he said, because both are constants in India.
In India’s conservative society, male sexual aggression is portrayed in unexpected ways. In Bollywood films, kissing on screen is still rare and nudity forbidden. But the rape scene has been a staple of movies for decades. And depictions of harassment often have an innocent woman resisting nobly, but eventually succumbing to the male hero. One commonly used term for sexual harassment is “eve-teasing,” which critics say implies the act is gentle and harmless.
The New Delhi rape victim, whose funeral was held on Sunday, and whose name had not been revealed, was from a small village in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. Her journey to Delhi was the same that thousands of young women make every year to big cities around the country, in search of a better education and opportunities than their parents had. “My brother’s entire salary was spent on educating his children so that their aspirations were fulfilled,” the woman’s uncle told the newspaper The Hindu.
In South Delhi, hundreds of students from Jawaharlal Nehru University organized a silent march from their campus to Munirka, the bus stop where the rape victim was picked up, after her death became public on Saturday. The crowd of protesters trudged along a busy road, a few holding hastily made placards with phrases like “You are an inspiration to us all.”
“There’s a movement that has been built out of this,” said Ruchira Sen, 25, a student of economics on the march to Munirka. “We are going to do everything it takes to make it last,” she said.
Students and activist groups have presented a list of demands to the government, including the fast-tracking of rape cases through India’s courts and improved training for the police.
Part of the policing problem is that less than 4 percent of India’s overall force is female, said Suman Nalwa, head of Delhi’s special unit for women, in an interview. She said she was working to improve police response to sexual assault.
“Earlier, women didn’t leave their homes, so there was no crime,” Ms. Nalwa said. “We are doing our best, but, of course, there is a lot more to be done.”
Like many who attended these protests and rallies, Ms. Mehra had been urged to go by her mother, who she said had given this reason: “Because I don’t want my granddaughter to face this.”
Men have also been a large presence at the protests, though not always a positive one. After the large central Delhi protests on Dec. 22 and 23, the police received 42 complaints from women about men’s behavior there, said a senior police officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the information was not public. He balked at describing the actions as “harassment” or “molestation,” saying that implied aggravated or sustained behavior. Instead, he said, the men were merely “eve-teasing.”
Reporting was contributed by Malavika Vyawahare, Anjani Trivedi, Niharika Mandhana and Saritha Rai.
India Ink - Notes on the World's Largest Democracy
December 31, 2012, 3:45 am
Portrait Emerges of Victim in New Delhi Gang Rape
By NIHARIKA MANDHANA
She was studious, ambitious and about to be married.
Her parents had sold off land and scrimped on food to pay for her and her brothers' education. She came to India's capital to pursue dreams of being a doctor, from a tiny farming village that regularly suffered drought and floods.
Details about the life of the 23-year-old New Delhi gang rape victim, who died on Saturday, began to trickle out over the weekend, as relatives and neighbors spoke publicly for the first time since the woman was raped by several men in a moving bus, assaulted with an iron rod and dumped on the side of a highway.
For nearly two weeks, as she battled for life, first at a hospital in New Delhi and then in Singapore, hundreds of Indians poured onto the streets in angry protests praying for her demanding justice. On Sunday, as the victim was cremated in a private ceremony in New Delhi, a picture emerged of her life, her family and her dreams. Her name has not been disclosed.
From a Hindu family of modest means, the victim, who was studying physiotherapy, was a "brilliant" and "hard working" student who had doggedly pursued a medical education. "She had made up her mind very early that she wanted to become a doctor," The Hindu newspaper quoted Lalji Singh, who said he was the victim's uncle.
The victim's parents had moved to New Delhi from a small town called Ballia in Uttar Pradesh, among hundreds of Indians who migrate to large Indian cities in search of a better future for their children. Her father worked as a loader with a private airline at New Delhi's international airport, according to The Hindustan Times.
He had invested heavily in his children's education, even selling his ancestral property, "so that their aspirations could be fulfilled," Mr. Singh was quoted as saying. Her father always encouraged her to shine in life, and, unlike many traditional families who save first for their daughter's marriage, he spared no expense for her education, the Times of India said.
Her father's sacrifices sparked in the victim a determination to succeed at an early age. As a teenager, she reportedly gave lessons to younger children to supplement the household income. A role model for those in her neighborhood, her parents hoped her two younger siblings would emulate her. She was determined to start earning so she could repay her father, Indian media reported.
On Sunday evening, reports suggested that the victim was preparing for her marriage in February. "They had made all the wedding preparations and had planned a wedding party in Delhi," Agence France-Presse quoted Meena Rai, who said she had accompanied the victim on shopping trips.
She told her family she had battled her attackers, her brother told India Today. "While she was admitted in hospital, she told me that she fought back as hard as she could. She was defending herself by beating and biting them."
The victim last spoke to her family on Wednesday, her brother said. "She asked me if I had taken my dinner. I answered yes. She then told me that I should sleep. She said, 'aap so jao, main bhi ab soungi' (you go to sleep, I will also sleep)," he said. "Then she embraced my hand and slept as a tear dropped from the corner of her eye. Those were her last words to me. Thereafter, she never gained consciousness and didn't talk to any of us."
India gang-rape victim cremated as UN chief calls for action to protect women
Jason Burke in Delhi
The Guardian, Sunday 30 December 2012 15.35 GMT
The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, has urged the Indian government to take action to protect women after a 23-year-old student died of injuries sustained during a gang rape in Delhi.
"Every girl and woman has the right to be respected, valued and protected," Ban said in a statement in which he welcomed efforts by the government but called for "further steps and reforms to deter such crimes and bring perpetrators to justice".
The intervention of the UN takes the fallout from the incident two weeks ago to a new level and underlines the damage it has done to India's international image, already battered by corruption scandals, a huge power failure earlier this year, and slowing economic growth.
The body of the still unnamed victim was cremated according to Hindu rites in Delhi shortly after dawn on Sunday. More details have emerged about her: the eldest of three children, she was reportedly a bright and funny, independent woman from a humble background who impressed her tutors at medical college and taught schoolchildren in the family home, a one-bedroom flat, to help with finances. Her father is reported to be a loader at Delhi's airport.
Friends quoted by local media said she had been planning to marry the 28-year-old male friend she was with when the attack took place.
The prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and Sonia Gandhi, the president of the ruling Congress party, met the plane carrying her body from Singapore, where doctors had tried to save her life after 10 days of treatment in India.
Singh and Gandhi, with other senior Indian politicians, have been heavily criticised for their slow and high-handed response to the incident, which has generated outrage, grief and anger across the country. "It's been a huge challenge to all of them. They have seen the whole affair as basically a law and order problem. There has been no conversation," said Swapan Dasgupta, a Delhi-based analyst.
"But that style of top-down politics is not going to work any more, particularly with young, aspirational urban people."
Figures published on Sunday revealed that despite 635 reported cases of rape and 745 arrests in Delhi this year, there had been only one conviction.
A total of 572 rapes were reported to Delhi police in 2011, up from 507 in 2010, 469 in 2009 and 466 in 2008. The government has said it will bring in fast-track courts to accelerate the legal process.
The funeral was conducted in secrecy and under heavy police guard, with the media abiding by a collective decision to stay away. Demonstrations calling for reforms and the execution of the six men detained for the attack continued in Delhi and other major cities, as they have done every day for nearly two weeks.
Despite a major security operation that kept mourners and protesters away from the centre of the capital, there were some clashes on Sunday afternoon. Local newspapers said more than 18,000 police had been deployed, nearly a quarter of the Delhi force's total strength.
India has been plunged into an extraordinary bout of self-analysis following the woman's death. The media have provided blanket coverage of the attack, which took place on a moving bus in south Delhi on 16 December.
All of Sunday's front pages and news bulletins were devoted to the incident and its aftermath. High profile new year parties in the capital and elsewhere have been cancelled. Bollywood stars have expressed their shame and anger. One of the biggest, Shahrukh Khan, posted on Twitter: "Rape embodies sexuality as our culture and society has defined it. I am so sorry that I am a part of this society and culture."
Bollywood itself has been under fire. One columnist spoke of how plots of often classic films "sanctify pestering and stalking of women".
The new interest in sexual crimes has led to reports that would have struggled to make it on air or into newspapers in the normal frenzied Indian news cycle, where often sensationalist TV channels compete ruthlessly.
One major newspaper ran a list of sexual crimes against women that have taken place during the ongoing battle between security forces and Maoist guerillas in the centre of the country. Headlined "Women suffer big in India's state vs rebels war", it held both sides responsible.
Over the past 24 hours, other reported incidents have included women attempting to take their own lives after being gang raped, the attempted murder of a rape victim in Rajasthan and an infant dying after a rape in Gujarat.
In West Bengal, a woman was reportedly raped by three hospital workers after seeking treatment for her baby. A woman was also allegedly assaulted on a bus in Delhi. One man was arrested.
India's courts have a backlog of hundreds of thousands of cases, which would take decades to clear if all were heard. Facilities for forensic analysis are few and poorly equipped. Healthcare in many of the rural areas where assaults are endemic is often rudimentary. The UN has offered to help India "strengthen critical services for rape victims" with "technical expertise and other support as required," Ban said.
The problem is, however, enormously complex. For example, women in rural India are rendered more vulnerable because a lack of sanitation facilities forces them to defecate in woods or fields after dark.
Dasgupta said the affair had laid bare the gulf between India's political elite and younger voters. "There's a big demographic factor that we are beginning to see. How parties react to it will determine their political future," he said.
A clash of two cultures as women are left out of India's bright new future
The Observer, Saturday 29 December 2012 20.07 GMT
The horrific gang-rape is as much a part of the story of change in this vast and complex nation as the impressive creation of wealth or the country's famous infotech industry. It has, however, laid bare the dark side of India's growth story.
First there is the acutely unhappy coexistence of mutually incompatible social norms: those of a deeply conservative patriarchal rural society and those of a modern urban city where hierarchies that have been in place for centuries are fast breaking down. As an editorial in the Mint financial newspaper put it last week: "India is currently in a twilight zone when the traditional social norms have lost their resonance while modern values based on individual liberty have not yet gained acceptance."
Urbanisation has brought the two cultures together in an unprecedented way. The six men accused of the attack grew up in villages where rapes, which happen with frightening regularity, are dismissed as a risk teenage girls run, an extension of the activities of young men doing what young men do.
A second element is a continuing inability to see women in any role other than mother, child or spouse. Indian media have persistently referred to the rape victim as the nation's "daughter". Even in death she has been confined to one of these three categories. But a modern economy needs and creates women who are independent.
A third is the violence so endemic in so much of India. Alongside the dozens of rapes discovered by reporters last week across the country, local newspapers reported a tea planter burned to death in Assam and an alleged petty criminal blinded with acid by villagers. Delhi is a particularly rough-edged city where the aggression stains the most mundane of normal social transactions. A policeman strikes a shopkeeper for talking back; traffic gives way to the biggest, most belligerently driven vehicle; a teenage girl is shot dead for telling a drunk not to urinate on her front door.
Violence contaminates relations between sexes from the start. Hundreds of thousands of female foetuses and infants each year are killed because they are not male. One poll last year found that around two-thirds of Indian men surveyed thought women needed to be beaten.
Much of this violence is linked to the tensions generated by change. This is compounded by the extraordinary isolation of the political elite, which has remained locked in the 1920s in terms of accountability, transparency and communication.
The response of the ruling centre-left Congress party to the protests was silence and teargas. "Our model of policing is colonial," a senior officer in south Delhi explained. But the colonialists left India 65 years ago and the country has moved on.
It is this that tempers this otherwise dystopic vision. This week, tens of millions have made their outrage and grief clear. They are representative of a different India, one much closer to the image of the country overseas, and as change continues in India their voices will grow louder every day. But they have a tough fight ahead of them.
Angered India demands change after gang rape exposes a society in crisis
Six men may face the death penalty after a student was attacked on a bus. Her death may be a turning point in the nation's attitude to women, reports Jason Burke in Delhi
Jason Burke in Delhi
The Observer, Saturday 29 December 2012 20.23 GMT
At seven o'clock on Saturday night, they lit the candles – on Juhu Beach, where Mumbai meets the Indian Ocean; in the centre of the bustling southern cities of Hyderabad and Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore); at the statue of Mahatma Gandhi in chaotic, poverty-stricken Lucknow, 1,000 miles to the north.
Simultaneously, thousands of people across this vast nation remembered a still anonymous 23-year-old medical student who, late on Friday night, died of injuries sustained when she was raped and brutalised with an iron bar by six men on a moving bus in Delhi two weeks ago.
In Delhi itself, a city full of temples, mosques and churches, scores gathered at a shrine set up at the bus stop where, tired of waiting for the rare public buses after a trip to see the film Life of Pi, the young woman and her male friend had accepted a lift from the men who would rape her. Whether those in the crowd were mourners, protesters or both was unclear. Under the hastily printed posters reading "You Inspired Us All" and "No to Violence to Women", they too lit their candles. "We are feeling very sad. We are feeling very angry. Now we hope our lives will change," said Archana Balodi, a 24-year-old student.
The six men who are accused of the attack were charged on Saturday with murder, an offence which can be punished by death in India. Even this would be insufficent, said some demonstrators. "Hanging them is not enough. They should be tortured like she was," said Srishdi Kumar, 16. "Then maybe there will be a change. Why not?"
The victim died of organ failure after internal injuries sustained during an assault that lasted for more than an hour. She and her male friend were thrown from the moving bus.
Few now doubt that India, and particularly Delhi, has a problem with rape and sexual violence against women. In recent weeks the issue has changed from being "a privately accepted fact" to a "public cause", said the local Indian Express newspaper. Now many are talking about a turning point.
"In legal terms, it can be [a turning point] if there is the political will. But more broadly it could be a turning point for young women in India. They have seen and sensed the power of their united voice and their resistance, and that is critical," Brinda Karat, a veteran activist and Communist MP, told the Observer.
Many have been angered by the response of the authorities since the incident. While leading figures of the beleaguered ruling Congress party pledged action and spoke of their deep sadness on Saturday, a huge security operation was under way in the capital city to prevent demonstrators reaching parliament, the India Gate war memorial or their own official residences.
Protests last weekend turned violent with water cannon, teargas and baton charges used to disperse demonstrators. But there appeared to be no such threat on Saturday and the massed ranks of police looked like an over-reaction rooted in the paranoia and aloofness of India's political elite.
In a rare televised address, Sonia Gandhi, president of the Congress party, said that she spoke as "a mother and a woman", and called for efforts to counter "shameful social attitudes and mindsets that allow men to rape with such impunity".
Sexual harassment – known locally as "Eve-teasing" – is endemic in India. The belief that women are responsible for sexual assault is widespread. This year a series of rapes in rural areas in the state of Haryana, which is adjacent to Delhi, led to suggestions from politicians and community leaders that much sexual violence was consensual.
Investigations have revealed similar attitudes among the police. Women who report rapes are repeatedly ignored or even harassed themselves.
In the wake of the most recent incident, dozens of other rapes, often by multiple assailants, have been reported by the media across India. More than 24,000 rape cases were registered with the authorities in 2011, a 9% increase on the previous year.
In one incident reported last week, police took 14 days to register a complaint from a 17-year-old in Patiala, in the north-western state of Punjab, who attempted to report a gang rape. She later took her own life. Two officers have been sacked and one suspended.
The government has set up two committees to recommend new measures to combat sexual violence against women. One is likely to be the publication on the internet of a register of sex offenders; others include fast-track courts and a higher proportion of female police officers.
But the events of the past week have also revealed a growing gulf between young Indians and the ageing political class. The prime minister, Manmohan Singh, an 80-year-old former economist, encountered derision when he described the "emotions and energies this incident has generated" as "perfectly understandable reactions from a young India and an India that genuinely desires change".
Sheila Dikshit, the chief minister of Delhi – an otherwise popular figure who said she felt ashamed "not just as [chief minister], but as a citizen of India" – was booed when she tried to visit one of the protests in the city on Saturday . Few among the overwhelmingly youthful protesters had much confidence in their leaders. Many asked why they should trust political parties who in the last five years have fielded candidates for state elections that included 27 charged with rape and scores more under investigation for harassment and assault.
Brinda Karat said some good might yet come out of the tragedy – but at a high cost. "There has been a critical shift," she said. "But how many young lives and how many young women have to be sacrificed for change to happen?"
December 30, 2012
Al Qaeda Places Bounties on Americans in Yemen
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
SANA, Yemen (AP) — Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen has offered bounties worth tens of thousands of dollars to anyone who kills the American ambassador or an American soldier in the country.
An audio recording produced by the group’s media arm, Al-Malahem Foundation, and posted on militant Web sites on Saturday said it offered to pay three kilograms — about four and a half pounds — of gold, worth $160,000, to anyone who killed the ambassador.
The group also said it would pay five million Yemeni riyals, about $23,000, to anyone who killed an American soldier inside Yemen.
It said the offer was valid for six months.
The bounties were set up to “inspire and encourage our Muslim nation for jihad,” the statement said.
The American Embassy in Sana, Yemen’s capital, did not respond to requests for comment. Gerald M. Feierstein has been the ambassador since September 2010.