January 8, 2013
Siberia Is Thick With Wolves, and Hunters Are in Demand
By ANDREW E. KRAMER
MOSCOW — Wolf packs are prowling at the edges of villages in the remote Sakha-Yakutia region of Siberia, eating livestock that includes horses and domesticated reindeer.
They are slinking near towns like Verkhoyansk, far above the Arctic Circle, where the mayor told a regional newspaper that he had organized a hunting party to kill as many as possible.
“Our hunters killed more than half the pack,” said the mayor, Mikhail Osipov, but that only bought time. “Those that survived are again threatening the horses,” he said, adding that the remaining wolves would also be shot at the first opportunity.
In fact, the wolves have grown so thick in Yakutia that the governor, Yegor Borisov, recently declared a state of emergency, which wildlife experts said was largely symbolic and intended to draw attention to the problem.
Far from worrying about wolf conservation — as is the case, though controversially, in parts of the western United States — the thinly populated region of Yakutia, like much of the rest of rural Russia, grapples with a perennial problem of excessive predation by wolves.
In announcing the state of emergency, the regional government said wolves killed about 16,000 domesticated reindeer last year and 313 horses. The wolf population was about 3,500, the government said, while ideally it should not exceed 500.
Experts say the wolf problem is not so much a matter of overpopulation as a cyclical collapse in the wolves’ primary prey, rabbits. In the remotest areas, the rabbit cycle is typically trailed by a decline in the numbers of wolves as they starve and freeze to death. But in populated areas, packs switch to livestock.
In Russia, a country with many enthusiastic hunters and lots of open space, only the most charismatic of predators — Amur snow tigers, for example — are accorded much protection. Because the wolves are not endangered and would most likely die anyway if not for the meals of livestock, conservationists generally do not object to the hunting.
Hunters cull wolves and bears by the hundreds. Sarah Palin would feel right at home with Russian wolf hunters, who generally hunt on snowmobiles, which can outpace the animals in thick winter snow. (As governor of Alaska, Ms. Palin encouraged aerial hunts, which were also preferred by the Soviet government.) Traps are sometimes used, though poisoning was outlawed in 2005.
Hunting is typically done for a pelt bounty, which in Yakutia this winter is $660 per adult wolf pelt and $50 for the skin of a cub.
Some municipalities provide additional incentives. The city of Verkhoyansk, for example, kicks in an extra $300 for a wolf pelt, and one town has promised a snowmobile to the hunter who stacks up the most pelts, Rossiskaya Gazeta, the Russian state newspaper, reported.
The system of bounties that remained after the end of Soviet-era aerial hunts has proved cheaper on a per head basis, though less effective in reducing overall wolf numbers, according to a summary of a debate in the Yakutia regional legislature published on its Web site. So, every year, more money is set aside for bounties: $560,000 in 2012, compared with $270,000 in 2003.
To encourage hunting, the regional government has also designated a holiday for hunters, on the second Saturday in April.
Despite these efforts, wolves will maintain their primacy in the frosty northern realms, experts say, and are expected to continue to stalk small towns in Siberia.
And the hunters are expected to continue to get a pass from the country’s conservationists. “There are too many wolves in Russia,” said Vladimir G. Krever, the director of the program in biodiversity in Russia with the World Wildlife Fund.
Swiss court relieves farmer of 656-year-old debt to Catholic Church
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, January 8, 2013 11:59 EST
A Swiss court has wiped the slate clean for a farmer and his family, relieving them of an annual debt to a Catholic church dating back to 1357, Swiss public broadcaster RTS reported Tuesday.
The court in the northeastern canton of Glarus ruled that the farmer and his family no longer needed to pay some 70 Swiss francs (58 euros, $76) a year to keep the sanctuary lamp of the Naefels Catholic church burning.
The debt dated back to 1357, when a certain Konrad Mueller killed a man named Heinrich Stucki.
To save his soul and avoid revenge attacks from the victim’s family, Mueller gave a sanctuary lamp to a local church and vowed to finance its fuel “for eternity”.
If he failed to do so, his land would go to the Church, RTS reported.
Over the centuries, owners of Mueller’s old land have continued to pay for the lamp oil.
But when the Naefels parish wanted to officially register this arrangement with the municipality, one of the landowners balked.
The church took him to court, but the court ruled on December 20 that the legal customs practised in the 14th century had ceased to be valid when Switzerland reformed its lending sector in the mid-1800s.
NASA neutron star video looks like ‘God smoking a joint’
By David Edwards
Tuesday, January 8, 2013 14:58 EST
Video released by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory on Monday showed a “fast moving jet of particles produced by a rapidly rotating neutron star,” but to some the image appear to more resemble the mask from Phantom of the Opera or “God smoking a joint.”
In a description provided with the video, NASA said that the Vela pulsar was formed after the collapse of another massive star and it “may provide new insight into the nature of some of the densest matter in the universe.”
“The Vela pulsar is about 1,000 light years from Earth, spansis about 12 miles in diameter, and makes over 11 complete rotations every second, faster than a helicopter rotor,” according to the agency. “As the pulsar whips around, it spews out a jet of charged particles that race out along the pulsar’s rotation axis at about 70% of the speed of light.”
Universe Today’s Nancy Atkinson noted that the video “has the unnerving appearance of the Phantom of the Opera – wearing not only a mask, but also a steam-blowing hat like the Tin Man in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’”
But Raw Story’s David Ferguson saw something more heavenly in the frames.
“Actually that image looks more like God smoking a joint,” he said.
Rare photo of A-bomb split cloud found in Hiroshima
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, January 9, 2013 7:35 EST
A rare photo showing the mushroom cloud from the Hiroshima atomic bombing in two distinct parts, one above the other, has been discovered in the city, a museum curator said Wednesday.
The black-and-white picture is believed to have been taken about half-an-hour after the bombing on August 6, 1945, around 10 kilometres (six miles) east of the hypocentre.
“The existence of this shot was always known in history books, but this is the first time that the actual print has been discovered,” said a curator at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.
“A shot showing the mushroom cloud split into two like this is very rare.”
The photo was found among articles related to the atomic bombing now owned by Honkawa Elementary School in Hiroshima city, she said.
The best-known pictures of the aftermath of the bombing were taken from the air by the US military.
An American B-29 bomber named Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb nicknamed “Little Boy”, turning the western Japanese city into a nuclear inferno and killing an estimated 140,000 in the final chapter of World War II.
Three days later another atomic bomb — “Fat Man” — was dropped on the city of Nagasaki, claiming the lives of another 70,000.
In the USA...
Sen. Mark Udall calls for swift passage of Violence Against Women Act
By Eric W. Dolan
Tuesday, January 8, 2013 19:42 EST
“Violence against women is unacceptable, and it is critical that we do everything we can to ensure that groups dedicated to combating domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking have the resources they need,” Udall said. “That is why the House’s lack of action last year is so discouraging. Women in Colorado and across our great nation expect better. I am calling on the House to reauthorize this law and help law enforcement officers confront perpetrators of domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse; provide safe and secure support services to survivors of crimes; and establish a National Domestic Violence Hotline.”
The VAWA had been reauthorized with bipartisan support for 18 years. However, the latest reauthorization drew opposition from Republicans because it included new protections for illegal immigrants, LGBT individuals, and Native Americans. Rather than vote on the Senate version of the VAWA, House Republicans passed their own watered-down version of the bill and allowed the VAWA to die at the end of the 112th Congress.
Gabrielle Giffords plans to take on the NRA
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, January 8, 2013 18:09 EST
Former US congresswoman and gun violence survivor Gabrielle Giffords put the National Rifle Association squarely in her sights Tuesday as she unveiled a major initiative for tougher gun laws.
Giffords, shot in the head in January 2011 while meeting constituents in her native Arizona, announced she was forming her own lobby group after a visit to Newtown, Connecticut where 20 children died in a December 14 mass shooting.
“We can’t just hope that the last shooting tragedy will prevent the next,” Giffords said, in an op-ed article in the USA Today newspaper co-signed by her astronaut husband Mark Kelly.
“Achieving reforms to reduce gun violence and prevent mass shootings will mean matching gun lobbyists in their reach and resources,” she said, referring specifically to the influential NRA.
Her group, Americans for Responsible Solutions, will “raise the funds necessary to balance the influence of the gun lobby” and support political leaders who support tougher limits on the private ownership of guns.
President Barack Obama has promised new measures to address gun violence in the United States in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in which six school staff members also died.
The gunman, Adam Lanza, 20, also killed his mother, owner of the Bushmaster military-style assault rifle he used to cut down the six- and seven-year-olds before taking his own life in one of the worst mass shootings in US history.
The NRA, with a highly motivated membership and legendary lobbying clout on Capitol Hill, is proposing to post armed guards in American schools as a means to deter future shootings.
US Senator Dianne Feinstein has meanwhile pledged to reintroduce a national ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips that expired in 2004.
The NRA said Tuesday it would send a representative to the White House on Thursday “to hear what they have to say,” following an invitation last week from the Obama administration for input on ways to confront gun violence.
In New York, meanwhile, the Gawker.com blog Tuesday posted a 446-page list identifying what it called every licensed gun owner in the city, minus addresses, obtained from police via a Freedom of Information Law request.
Publication of a similar list in a suburban New York newspaper triggered outrage among gun owners who claimed they were being vilified for legally possessing firearms.
Guns are involved in more than 30,000 deaths in the United States, the majority of them suicides, and handguns — rather than rifles or shotguns — figure in most homicides.
Giffords, who resigned from Congress a year ago to focus on her rehabilitation, said she upholds the Second Amendment of the US Constitution that sets out the rights of Americans “to keep and bear arms.”
“We don’t want to take away your guns any more than we want to give up the two guns we have locked in a safe at home,” wrote Giffords two years to the day after she was gravely shot — and six others killed, including a nine-year-old girl — in the parking lot of a Tucson, Arizona shopping mall.
“What we do want is what the majority of NRA members and other Americans want: responsible changes in our laws to require responsible gun ownership and reduce gun violence.”
Giffords and Kelly said the first change they hope to see is the introduction of comprehensive background checks for the private sale of firearms within the United States.
“I bought a gun at Walmart recently and I went through a background check. It’s not a difficult thing to do,” Kelly said. “Why can’t we just do that and make it more difficult for criminals and the mentally ill to get guns?”
He also disputed the need for civilians to own high-capacity ammunition clips, noting how the “clearly mentally ill” man who shot Giffords, Jared Lee Loughner, had used a 33-round clip in a Glock semi-automatic handgun.
January 8, 2013
After Newtown, Congress Must Act on Guns, Pelosi Says
By CARL HULSE
WASHINGTON — As she begins her second Congress as leader of the opposition in the House, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California is confident that Democrats will get behind President Obama on the big clashes with Republicans. But she thinks the president should aggressively line up much wider support for raising the federal debt limit and enacting new gun rules.
“He has to communicate with the American people on it,” Ms. Pelosi said about the debt-limit increase during an interview in which she looked ahead to the issues facing the 113th Congress. She urged the president “to bring everyone to a place where we can say we are going to remove all doubt that the full faith and credit of the United States of America will be honored.”
Ms. Pelosi, 72, who is leading an expanded House minority, offered similar advice for the president in building momentum for gun restrictions in the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., school shootings. If lawmakers balk, she said, take the issue to the public.
“There has to be a national conversation,” said Ms. Pelosi, who was active in the House in 1994 when Congress passed an assault-weapons ban that has since expired. “The safety of our country cannot go as slow as the slowest ship in the House of Representatives or even the United States Senate.”
“If we come out of the Newtown experience and all we do is talk about it and not have a result,” she added, “that would be a dereliction of duty on the part of us in public office. We must find a place where we can come to agreement on this.”
With the year-end fiscal pileup over taxes and spending concluded after Democrats provided the majority of support for House passage, Ms. Pelosi enters the latest Congress with 49 new Democrats and a net gain of 8 seats in the November elections. She said the infusion of new blood in the rank-and-file has brought energy and gives Democrats a “fresh start.” Over all, Republicans outnumber Democrats in the new House, 233 to 200, with 2 vacancies.
After prompting some discussion that she might retire after Democrats failed to retake the House in November, Ms. Pelosi, who served as the first female speaker from 2007 to 2011, gave no impression that she is winding down as she enthusiastically gamed out the policy that will figure into the coming months as well as the politics.
“While I’m in it, I’m in it,” she said “When I go, I’ll go.” She is far from ready to say that she will go.
“We just finished a lame-duck session,” she said. “I don’t want to be a lame-duck leader.”
The president’s party traditionally takes a hammering in the midterm election of second term, but Ms. Pelosi is cautious about making presumptions about 2014, particularly given the fundamental changes in political communications and strategy.
“Any assumption of past performance when it comes to elections in this day and age is stale,” said Ms. Pelosi, who said she would make her judgment on the electoral landscape about a year from the election.
Given the issues in Washington, plenty could change between now and then with Congress veering toward multiple fiscal showdowns as well as difficult debates over gun control and immigration law.
Ms. Pelosi said she and her fellow Democrats wholeheartedly support the president’s declaration that he will not horse trade with Republicans over the need to raise the debt limit as early as next month.
“It is bigger than just the accounting, it is about who we are as a country, how we professionally deal with the challenges,” she said.
Democrats are willing to entertain spending cuts, she said, but the reductions need to be considered separately from the debt-limit discussion. And cuts that go too deep or are aimed at the wrong programs can, she said, hurt the nation in crucial areas like education, technology, science and energy.
On gun rights, Ms. Pelosi said Democrats are no longer talking about gun control but refer instead to what she calls gun violence prevention — an effort by Democrats and their allies to find a less politically charged term, one that suggests a broader range of approaches beyond simply gun regulation.
She called it challenging to balance the rights of gun ownership with public safety and security but said Congress needed to find a way to reach consensus.
“We have to prioritize, get the votes and do something,” said Ms. Pelosi, who identified limits on high-capacity ammunition magazines as one area that Democrats would explore.
She acknowledged a strong sentiment in Congress against gun law changes as well as the political risks usually associated with taking votes on gun restrictions. But in light of the Connecticut shooting, she said she expected the weight of public opinion to push Congress in the direction of new laws.
“I think you are going to see something outside of Washington have an impact on what happens inside of Washington,” she said.
Illinois offers driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, January 8, 2013 18:08 EST
Undocumented immigrants will soon be able to get driver’s licenses in Illinois after lawmakers passed a bill Tuesday aimed at ensuring an estimated 250,000 unlicensed drivers get tested and insured.
Federal law prevents states from issuing regular driver’s licenses — which are accepted as identification for voting, boarding airplanes and buying guns — to people without lawful immigration status.
Illinois will instead begin issuing a “temporary visitor driver’s license,” which clearly states it is not a valid proof of identification.
Several other states such as New Mexico, Utah and Washington already offer similar licenses.
“Illinois roads will be safer if we ensure every driver learns the rules of the road and is trained to drive safely,” Governor Pat Quinn said in a statement.
He said the move would save lives as well as saving Illinois motorists $46 million a year in insurance premiums on account of uninsured drivers.
Undocumented immigrants regularly faced steep fines — and possible deportation — when caught driving without a license. Even if they paid for insurance, claims would often be denied because of their immigration status.
The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights hailed the bill’s passage as a significant step toward much-needed immigration reform.
There are an estimated 11.5 million undocumented immigrants in the United States
Congress less popular than cockroaches and Genghis Khan
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, January 8, 2013 22:20 EST
The little loved US Congress, fresh off its fiscal cliff budget crisis, is now less popular than cockroaches and lice, a survey released Tuesday found.
The Public Policy Polling survey of 830 Americans from January 3-6 revealed that Congress had hit new lows in the eyes of the same US voters who sent representatives to work there.
The legislative body proved less popular than traffic jams, Donald Trump, France, lice, Genghis Khan, cockroaches and used car dealers, the poll found.
Just nine percent of those surveyed had a favorable opinion of Congress.
“We all know Congress is unpopular,” said Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling.
“But the fact that voters like it less than cockroaches… really shows how far its esteem has fallen with the American public over the last few weeks.”
January 8, 2013
Interior Dept. Expedites Review of Arctic Drilling After Accidents
By JOHN M. BRODER and CLIFFORD KRAUSS
WASHINGTON — The Interior Department on Tuesday opened an urgent review of Arctic offshore drilling operations after a series of blunders and accidents involving Shell Oil’s drill ships and support equipment, culminating in the grounding of one of its drilling vessels last week off the coast of Alaska.
Officials said the new assessment by federal regulators could halt or scale back Shell’s program to open Alaska’s Arctic waters to oil exploration, a $4.5 billion effort that has been plagued by equipment failures, legal delays, mismanagement and bad weather.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said that the expedited review, which is to be completed within 60 days, was prompted by accidents and equipment problems aboard Shell’s two Arctic drilling rigs, the Kulluk and the Noble Discoverer, as well as the Arctic Challenger, a vessel designed to respond to a potential well blowout and oil spill.
In addition, the Coast Guard announced Tuesday that it would conduct a comprehensive marine casualty investigation of the grounding of the Kulluk on Dec. 31.
Shell’s repeated and early misadventures have confirmed the fears of Arctic drilling critics, who said that the company and its federal partners had not shown that they had the equipment, skill or experience to cope with the unforgiving environment there.
Tommy Beaudreau, director of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, will lead the review. “As part of our department’s oversight responsibilities,” Mr. Beaudreau said in a statement, “our review will look at Shell’s management and operations in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. We will assess Shell’s performance in the Arctic’s challenging environment.”
The assessment will look at Shell’s safety management systems, its oversight of contracted services and its ability to meet federal standards for Arctic oil and gas operations.
Marvin E. Odum, president of Shell Oil, said of the government assessment: “It’s not a concern to me. I welcome this kind of high-level review. It’s important that both we and the Department of Interior take a look at the 2012 season.”
Mr. Odum added: “There are obviously some issues that need to be worked on, particularly the marine transport.” He said that it was too early to say what damage may have occurred to the Kulluk but that he had “great confidence in this program.”
Shell’s rigs drilled two shallow wells last summer, but were halted by government officials before they reached oil-bearing formations. Officials would not allow Shell to drill deeper because the company did not have the required capacity to contain spills after the testing failure of a device designed to cap a runaway well and collect the oil.
In the past several months, the Coast Guard has examined the containment barge and the rebuilt dome, and both passed necessary tests. But the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement still needs to inspect the equipment before it can be deployed. Those inspections were originally to be done later this month, but have been put off because of the Kulluk accident.
Environmental advocates have been leery of the Arctic drilling program for years and became especially vocal after the Kulluk ran aground.
Greenpeace, which is circulating petitions calling on President Obama to halt the Arctic drilling program, said that the Interior Department’s reassessment was long overdue.
“We’ve repeatedly been told Shell is the best in the business, and so we can only conclude after this series of mishaps that the best in the business is simply not good enough for the Arctic,” said Dan Howells, Greenpeace deputy campaigns director. “We only hope that 60 days is long enough to properly examine the extraordinary number of dangerous incidents that have beset Shell’s accident-prone drilling program and put Alaska’s environment at risk.”
Michael LeVine, senior Pacific counsel for the environmental advocacy group Oceana, said that government regulators were too lax in allowing the program to go forward without adequate assurances that Shell could operate safely and competently.
“We hope this review amounts to more than a paper exercise,” Mr. LeVine said. “The Department of the Interior, after all, is complicit in Shell’s failures because it granted the approvals that allowed Shell to operate.”
The Kulluk was towed to a safe harbor on Monday, where it will undergo extensive inspections before continuing its journey to its winter home in Seattle.
If the Kulluk, which Shell has upgraded in recent years at a cost of nearly $300 million, is found to have been wrecked or substantially damaged, it will be hard for the company to find a replacement and receive the numerous government permits needed to resume drilling in July, as it has planned.
Under Department of Interior rules governing Arctic drilling, the company must have two rigs on site at all times to provide for a backup vessel to drill a relief well in case of a blowout, an uncontrolled escape of oil or gas.
The Kulluk, which does not have a propulsion system of its own, ran into trouble in late December when its tow ship, the Aiviq, lost engine power and the towline separated in high winds and heavy seas.
Shell’s other Arctic drill ship, the Noble Discoverer, has also had problems. In July, before sailing to the Arctic, it nearly ran aground after dragging its anchor in the Aleutian Islands. Then in November it had a small engine fire.
Later that month, during an inspection in the Alaskan port of Seward, the Coast Guard found more than a dozen violations involving safety systems and pollution equipment.
At the end of December, the Noble Corporation, the Swiss company that owns the 512-foot-long drill ship and is leasing it to Shell for $240,000 a day, said that many of the problems had been repaired and that the ship was preparing to sail to Seattle to fix the remainder of them.
January 8, 2013
Justices Rule on Staying Death Row Challenges
By ADAM LIPTAK
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday unanimously ruled that federal courts should not automatically suspend postconviction challenges from death row inmates who are mentally incompetent to help their lawyers. The decision left open the possibility that such suspensions may sometimes be warranted, but it said that they should not be indefinite.
“Where there is no reasonable hope of competence,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the court, “a stay is inappropriate.”
The Supreme Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional to put mentally incompetent defendants on trial because they cannot understand the proceedings against them or assist their lawyers. The court has also barred “carrying out a sentence of death upon a prisoner who is insane.”
Tuesday’s decision in a pair of cases — Ryan v. Gonzales, No. 10-930, and Tibbals v. Carter, No. 11-218 — concerned challenges brought after trial and before execution. One involved Ernest Valencia Gonzales, who was convicted of stabbing an Arizona couple in front of their 7-year-old son, killing the father. The other concerned Sean Carter, an Ohio man convicted of raping his adoptive grandmother and stabbing her to death.
By the time the federal courts considered the two men’s challenges to their state court convictions, there was substantial evidence that they were mentally incompetent. Relying on different federal statutes, the appeals courts in the two cases said that the challenges must await their return to mental competence.
When the cases were argued in October, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said he was concerned that the rulings were a ploy “that will permit stays in virtually every capital case” because “a lot of district judges and a lot of court of appeals judges don’t like the death penalty and will go to some length to prevent the imposition of that sentence.”
In Tuesday’s decision, Justice Thomas wrote that postconviction challenges are typically based on the court record, meaning that the inmate would have nothing to add even if he were able to work with his lawyers. “Counsel can generally provide effective representation to a habeas petitioner regardless of the petitioner’s competence,” Justice Thomas wrote, adding that “attorneys are quite capable of reviewing the state-court record, identifying legal errors and marshaling relevant arguments, even without their clients’ assistance.”
The appeals courts had relied on a curious order from the Supreme Court in 1967 in Rees v. Peyton, in which the court “held without action” a request for review from a mentally incompetent death row inmate. The court finally dismissed the inmate’s petition in 1995 after his death in prison.
Justice Thomas said that procedure set no precedent and that a 1996 federal law in any event altered the legal landscape.
Lawyers for the two inmates did not try very hard to persuade the justices that the appeals courts — the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, in Mr. Gonzales’s case and the Sixth Circuit, in Cincinnati, in Mr. Carter’s — were correct in interpreting federal statutes to require automatic stays. “Gonzales barely defends the Ninth Circuit’s interpretation,” Justice Thomas wrote. He added that “we would address Carter’s arguments in defense of the Sixth Circuit’s decision, but there are none.”
The inmates instead argued that federal trial judges should have discretion to enter stays, and the Supreme Court agreed.
“We do not presume that district courts need unsolicited advice from us on how to manage their dockets,” Justice Thomas wrote. “For purposes of resolving these cases, it is unnecessary to determine the precise contours of the district court’s discretion to issue stays.”
January 8, 2013
Nashville’s Latest Big Hit Could Be the City Itself
By KIM SEVERSON
NASHVILLE — Portland knows the feeling. Austin had it once, too. So did Dallas. Even Las Vegas enjoyed a brief moment as the nation’s “it” city.
Now, it’s Nashville’s turn.
Here in a city once embarrassed by its Grand Ole Opry roots, a place that sat on the sidelines while its Southern sisters boomed economically, it is hard to find a resident who does not break into the goofy grin of the newly popular when the subject of Nashville’s status comes up.
Mayor Karl Dean, a Democrat in his second term, is the head cheerleader.
“It’s good to be Nashville right now,” he said during a recent tour of his favorite civic sites, the biggest of which is a publicly financed gamble: a new $623 million downtown convention center complex that is the one of the most expensive public projects in Tennessee history.
The city remains traditionally Southern in its sensibility, but it has taken on the luster of the current. On a Venn diagram, the place where conservative Christians and hipsters overlap would be today’s Nashville.
Flush with young new residents and alive with immigrants, tourists and music, the city made its way to the top of all kinds of lists in 2012.
A Gallup poll ranked it in the top five regions for job growth. A national entrepreneurs’ group called it one of the best places to begin a technology start-up. Critics admire its growing food scene. GQ magazine declared it simply “Nowville.”
And then there is the television show."Nashville,"a song-filled ABC drama about two warring country divas, had its premiere in October with nine million viewers. It appears to be doing for the city of 610,000 people what the prime-time soap opera"Dallas"did for that Texas city in the ‘80s.
“You can’t buy that,” Mr. Dean said. “The city looks great in it.”
Different regions capture the nation’s fancy for different reasons. Sometimes, as with Silicon Valley, innovation and economic engines drive it. Other times, it’s a bold civic event, like the Olympics, or a cultural wave, like the way grunge music elevated Seattle.
Here in a fast-growing metropolitan region with more than 1.6 million people, the ingredients for Nashville’s rise are as much economic as they are cultural and, critics worry, could be as fleeting as its fame.
“People are too smug about how fortunate we are now,” said the Southern journalist John Egerton, 77, who has lived in Nashville since the 1970s.
“We ought to be paying more attention to how many people we have who are ill-fed and ill-housed and ill-educated,” he said.
Many will argue that the city’s schools need improvement, and although it remains more progressive on social issues than Tennessee as a whole, the city, with its largely white population, still struggles with a legacy of segregation and has had public battles over immigration and sexual orientation.From an economic standpoint, it has been a measured rise. When the housing boom hit the South, Nashville, long a sleepy capital city with a Bible Belt sensibility, did not reap the financial gains seen in cities like Atlanta, whose metropolitan region is more than three times its size.
But Nashville’s modest growth meant a softer fall and a quicker path out of recession. By July 2012, real estate closings were up 28 percent over the previous year. Unemployment in Davidson County, which includes Nashville, is about 5.7 percent, compared with 7.8 percent nationally, and job growth is predicted to rise by 18 percent in next five years, said Garrett Harper, vice president for research with the Nashville Chamber of Commerce.
He and others attribute Nashville’s stability and current economic health to a staid mix of employers in fields like health care management, religious publishing, car manufacturing and higher education, led by Vanderbilt University.
By some estimates, half of the nation’s health care plans are run by companies in the Nashville area.
“Health care is countercyclical,” Mr. Harper said. “It inoculates the city against a lot of the winds that blow.”
But the music industry is the bedrock of Nashville’s economy. In the past two decades, country music has grown into a national darling. The city has attracted musicians and producers whose work moves beyond the twang and heartache.
On a recent evening, Nashville’s once-seedy honky-tonk district was jammed with young hopefuls pulling guitars out of Hondas, a bus from “America’s Got Talent” and Aerosmith fans heading to the Bridgestone Arena.
It is not uncommon to see the power couple Keith Urban andNicole Kidmanshow up at a popular restaurant, or to pass Vince Gill on the street.
Music celebrities are attracted to a state with no income tax and a ready-made talent pool. But they also just like it.
Jennifer Nettles, of the country duo Sugarland, spent 17 years in Atlanta and has been dipping in and out of New York and Nashville for years. She recently bought a farm here, had a baby and is settling in with her husband, Justin Miller.
“Part of what is really attractive about Nashville right now is that it isn’t Atlanta, and I love Atlanta,” she said. “There’s a bit of charm and a richness a city the size of Nashville allows for.”
As if to underscore Nashville’s position in the nation’s musical hierarchy, the city hosted the annual Grammy nomination concert in December. It was the first time the show was not held in Los Angeles.
But to be a truly great city, some skeptics argue, it has to be a place that tends to its residents first and tourists second.
The city’s politicians are banking on the tourists. At the center of the plan is the Music City Center, a huge convention center whose main section is shaped like a giant guitar laid on its back.
It sits on 19 downtown acres and is attached to both the Country Music Hall of Fame and an 800-room, $270 million Omni Hotel, which is expected to open in the fall.
To pay for it all, the city offered generous tax breaks and based public financing on increased hotel and rental car fees and taxes. To lure the hotel, for example, the city discounted property taxes by more than 60 percent for 25 years.
The idea was to help the city land bigger conventions, like the National Rifle Association conference, which will bring 48,000 people to the city in 2015.
But using generous economic incentives and relying on conventions has been called an outdated economic strategy.
“This was probably a good idea in 1985. And probably a good idea in 1995, said Emily Evans, a member of the region’s Metropolitan Council. “But in 2012, the momentum for that kind of economic development has passed.”
She once called the convention center a “riverboat gamble.”
“In giving away your tax base for the purpose of expanding your tax base in the future,” Ms. Evans said, “you make it difficult to deliver on the fundamentals, the things that make your city livable, like parks and roads and schools.”
Mr. Dean, a former city lawyer who became mayor in 2007 and led the city’s recovery from historic floods in 2010, said the project, which got under way during the recession, has been a fight every step of the way.
“The gains for the city are real and tangible,” he said.
The mayor has orchestrated more than a dozen tax incentive deals over the past few years. Most recently, he arranged a $66 million incentive package to help the health care giant HCA Holdings move part of its Nashville operations to new midtown high-rise buildings.
He acknowledges that more needs to be done on transportation and education, but in the meantime, he, like most of Nashville’s residents, is enjoying its ride.
“I love the rhythm of this town and the pace of it and the tone of it,” said Mr. Egerton, the writer. “I think Nashville is a big unfinished song.”
NASA takes special interest in ‘potentially hazardous asteroid’ Apophis
By Stuart Clark The Guardian
Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:50 EST
Apophis hit the headlines in December 2004. Six months after its discovery, astronomers had accrued enough images to calculate a reasonable orbit for the 300-metre chunk of space rock. What they saw was shocking.
There was a roughly 1 in 300 chance of the asteroid hitting Earth during April 2029. Nasa issued a press release spurring astronomers around the world to take more observations in order to refine the orbit. Far from dropping, however, the chances of an impact on (you’ve guessed it) Friday 13 April 2029 actually rose.
By Christmas Day 2004, the chance of the 2029 impact was 1 in 45 and things were looking serious. Then, on 27 December astronomers had a stroke of luck.
Looking back through previous images, they found one from March on which the asteroid had been captured but had gone unnoticed. This significantly improved the orbital calculation and the chances of the 2029 impact dropped to essentially zero. However, the small chance of an impact in 2036 opened up and remains open today.
While there is no cause for alarm, similarly there is no room for complacency either. Apophis remains on the list of Potentially Hazardous Asteroids compiled by the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center.
Although most asteroids are found in the belt of space between Mars and Jupiter, not all of them reside there. Apophis belongs to a group known as the Aten family. These do not belong to the asteroid belt and spend most of their time inside the orbit of the Earth, placing them between our planet and the sun.
That makes them particularly dangerous because they spend the majority of their orbit close to the sun, whose overwhelming glare obscures them to telescopes on Earth – rather like a second world war fighter ace approaching out of the sun.
Having crossed outside Earth’s orbit, Apophis will appear briefly in the night-time sky. Wednesday 9 January will afford astronomers the rare opportunity to bring a battery of telescopes to bear: from optical telescopes to radio telescopes to the European Space Agency’s Infrared Space Observatory Herschel. Two of the biggest unknowns that remain to be established are the asteroid’s mass and the way it is spinning. Both of these affect the asteroid’s orbit and without them, precise calculations cannot be made.
Another unknown is the way sunlight affects the asteroid’s orbit, either through heating the asteroid or the pressure of sunlight itself. Russia has announced tentative plans to land a tracking beacon on Apophis sometime after 2020, so that its orbit can be much more precisely followed from Earth.
Wednesday’s pass is only really close by astronomical standards, taking place at around 14.5 million kilometres above Earth’s surface. The moon’s orbit is 385,000 km. The 2029 close pass is another matter entirely, however.
On Friday 13 April 2029, Apophis will slip past the Earth just 30,000km above our heads – less that one-tenth the distance of the moon and closer even than the communication satellites that encircle the Earth at 36,000km. It will appear as a moderate bright moving object, visible from the mid-Atlantic. Depending upon its composition, astronomers could watch the Earth’s gravity pull the asteroid out of shape, offering an unprecedented insight into its composition.
So, although Apophis poses no immediate danger, we are almost certain to hear a lot more about it over the coming years and decades. Apart from all the science we can learn, its orbit’s proximity to Earth’s makes it a potential target for future robotic and even manned missions.
Stuart Clark is the author of Voyager: 101 Wonders Between Earth and the Edge of the Cosmos (Atlantic).
***********Rogue asteroid is 20 percent bigger than previously thought
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, January 9, 2013 11:45 EST
An asteroid believed to pose a remote risk of colliding with Earth this century is 20 percent bigger than previously thought, the European Space Agency (ESA) said on Wednesday.
In a press release, ESA said its Herschel deep-space telescope had scanned a space rock called 99942 Apophis last weekend as it headed towards its closest flyby with our planet in years on Wednesday.
Previous estimates bracketed the asteroid’s average diameter at 270 metres (877 feet) give or take 60m (195 feet), representing a mass that would equal the energy release of a 506-megatonne bomb, according to NASA figures.
In a two-hour observation, Herschel returned a diameter of 325m (1,056 feet), with a range of 15m (48.75 feet) either way, ESA said.
“The 20-percent increase in diameter, from 270 to 325m (877 to 1,056 feet), translates into a 75-percent increase in our estimates of the asteroid’s volume or mass,” said Thomas Mueller of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, who led the data analysis.
Named after the god of evil and darkness in Egyptian mythology, Apophis sparked a scare when it was first detected in 2004.
Early calculations suggested a 2.7-percent probability of collision in 2029, the highest ever for an asteroid, but the risk was swiftly downgraded after further observations.
A distance of 35,000 kilometres (22,500 miles), meaning it will flit past inside the orbit of geostationary satellites, is the latest estimate for 2029, ESA said.
There remains a tiny impact risk of about one in 250,000 on April 13, 2036, when it will pass even closer to Earth, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
Astronomers hope that Wednesday’s flyby, with Apophis due to zip past at a distance of some 14.5 million kilometres (nine million miles), will help them fine tune the 2029 and 2036 estimates.
Herschel, using thermal sensors, also found that Apophis is somewhat darker than thought, ESA added.
Only 23 percent of light that falls on it is reflected, and the rest is absorbed by the asteroid. Previous estimates of this reflectivity, known as albedo, were in the order of 33 percent.
This finding is important because asteroids experience something called the Yarkovsky effect, or an increase in thrust that comes from alternate heating and cooling as the rock slowly turns in space.
Over time, this momentum can change the body’s trajectory as it moves through the Solar System.
On February 15, a 57-metre (185-feet) asteroid, 2012 DA14, will skim the planet at just 34,500 kilometres (21,600 miles), making the narrowest approach so far of any detected asteroid.
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Defense attorney alleges police brutality in Delhi gang-rape case
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, January 10, 2013 4:14 EST
A defence lawyer accused Indian police on Thursday of beating confessions out of five men charged with murdering and gang-raping a student in New Delhi, as they were due to appear in court again.
Speaking before a hearing at which a magistrate is expected to transfer the case to a fast-track court, M.L. Sharma told AFP that his clients had been beaten while in custody and were innocent of the charges.
A spokesman for Delhi police refused to comment on the allegations.
Sharma is defending three of the five adult defendants. The three are expected to plead not guilty to a string of charges over the brutal attack on a moving bus on December 16 which sparked mass protests across India.
The other two defendants have yet to get themselves a lawyer while a sixth accused, who is 17, will be tried in a juvenile court.
“All the accused have been badly beaten by the police and they have used the third degree to extract the statement that suits the evidence they have collected,” M.L. Sharma said outside Saket District Court in southern Delhi.
“My clients have been forced to confess to crimes that they did not commit.”
The five were expected to appear in court from about 2:30pm (0900 GMT) after their first appearance on Monday was marred by chaotic scenes which led the presiding magistrate to order the court cleared.
A court officer said Monday that the case would be transferred to a fast-track trial court during Thursday’s hearing, which will take place behind closed doors with media coverage restricted by a gagging order.
If the men are convicted, they could face the death penalty.
Police say the group lured the 23-year-old woman and a male companion onto the bus in New Delhi after they had spent the evening at the cinema and were trying to go home.
They then took it in turns to rape the woman and violate her with an iron bar as well as assault her partner before throwing them off the bus.
In an interview with Bloomberg, Sharma was quoted as saying the male companion of the murdered 23-year-old was “wholly responsible” for the incident because the unmarried couple should not have been on the streets at night.
“Until today I have not seen a single incident or example of rape with a respected lady,” he told the financial newswire.
“Even an underworld don would not like to touch a girl with respect.”
Sharma told AFP that he had not been trying to smear the victim.
“I did speak to Bloomberg but did not say anything about the victim. I only told them that women are respected in India, they are mothers, sisters, friends but tell me which country respects a prostitute.”
Asked if that meant that he regarded the victim as a prostitute, Sharma replied: “No, not at all but I have to protect my clients and prove that they did not commit this heinous crime.”
The victim died in a Singapore hospital, 13 days after the attack which triggered mass protests across India and soul-searching over the levels of violence against women.
The father of the victim, who cannot be named for legal reasons, said in a television interview he was proud of his daughter and believed her death had served as a badly-needed wake of call.
“She has brought an awakening to society. Society cannot any longer turn a blind eye to these sorts of incidences which are happening every day,” he told Britain’s ITV network.
“We have to change ourselves. If there are no change then these horrible things won’t stop. The public have to wake up now.”
While gang-rapes are commonplace in India, the Delhi case has touched a nerve, sparking three weeks of introspection about the widespread harassment and abuse of Indian women and their difficulty in reporting in sex crime.
India Ink - Notes on the World's Largest Democracy
January 10, 2013, 7:16 am
The Delhi Gang Rape Accused: Vinay Sharma, a ‘Quiet and Simple’ Boy
By BETWA SHARMA
To keep her children warm on Wednesday night, Champa Devi tried to get a small fire going by puffing air into four pieces of wood outside their home in a South Delhi slum.
"I am heartbroken," she said, coughing as a cloud of smoke billowed around her. "When I wake up, it feels like my heart has been torn away."
Ms. Champa, 37, is the mother of Vinay Sharma, one of the six accused in the gang rape of a 23-year-old woman on a moving bus on Dec. 16, which resulted in her death two weeks later.
The horrific account of the rape, in which attackers beat their victim and her male companion with an iron rod and threw them naked onto a highway, sent shock waves through India.
Ms. Champa said she still can't fathom how her son, who she says was born in March 1994, could have been involved in the gruesome crime. "He was always a quiet and simple boy," she said. "He worked hard in school and always got top marks," she said. "He especially liked studying English. We hoped for a good job in the future."
Mr. Sharma, his family said, had grown up to be serious-minded man who recently registered for college. He earned 3,000 rupees, or about $54, a month as a handyman in a gym. The money went mostly to support the meager wages of his father, who works as a laborer.
The Sharma household is in the Ravidas slum, where four of the six accused lived, according to police. The slum, made up of about 300 houses, is maze of muddy alleys, next to the Bijri Khan tomb, a monument from the 15th century Lodhi dynasty.
On an early Wednesday visit to the Sharma home, no one responded to a few initial knocks on their door. "Leave them alone -- haven't they suffered for losing their son?" cried an elderly woman standing in the narrow lane. "Now what are they to do except be hounded by you media people?"
Hearing the commotion, a teenage girl emerged from a nearby house and first identified herself as a neighbor. "He was a really good guy who was led astray," she said about Mr. Sharma. But the emotions on her face betrayed her, and she quickly admitted to being Manju Sharma, his sister. The 14-year-old, who has burn marks on her face, described her brother as deeply caring about his three siblings.
"After I was burned as a baby, he always made sure I stayed away from the stove," she said. "As kids, he used to gently pinch me on my feet and he often played hide-and-seek with our small brother." Ms. Sharma said that her brother also paid for the medicines needed to treat her diabetes.
Later in the evening, the accused's mother agreed to an interview. She said that she had spent the day standing in a long hospital line to get her daughter's medicine. Without a regular dosage, she faints and can't attend school, she said.
"It costs 100 rupees a week and we can't afford it without Vinay," said Ms. Champa. "Without him, how will get the girls married?"
While it isn't surprising for Mr. Sharma's family to speak well of him, his neighbors and friends give similar accounts.
"I've known Vinay since he was a boy and played with my children," said a middle-aged shopkeeper in the slum, who declined to give her name to avoid any further media attention. "He just isn't the kind to make trouble."
Anil, 14, who declined to give his last name, recalled his friend had only one interest: cricket. "When Vinay wasn't at work, he would play some fun matches," he said.
A short distance from the slum, another middle-aged woman who knew the family agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity to avoid upsetting them. She said she hoped none of the four men returned.
"Vinay may have been a good boy, but now even he can't be trusted," she said. "As a woman, I wouldn't feel safe. What if they tried something on me?"
Mr. Sharma confessed to beating up the woman's male friend in a December court appearance and asked to be hanged, according to local media reports. He and another defendant, Pawan Kumar, a fruit seller from the same slum, also volunteered to become witnesses for the government, a Delhi police official said.
Mr. Sharma's friends and neighbors say they blame Ram Singh and Mukesh Singh, two brothers who are also accused in the rape case, for leading the other men astray.
Some residents of the Ravidas neighborhood said they clearly remembered the night of Dec. 16, and that they sensed that Ram and Mukesh Singh, who also lived in the area, were in a mood to make trouble after they had drunk alcohol.
Ms. Sharma said that her brother was playing marbles with the neighborhood children. When it grew dark, his mother recalled, he came into the house and watched television.
"He was eating a sweet bun and laughing over cartoons with his siblings," she said. "Then, the fruit seller boy came to call him and he left," she said. "That was the last time I saw him."
India Ink is profiling the men accused in the Delhi gang rape case. This is the second. Read the first here.
01/09/2013 04:54 PM
Sex Abuse Scandal: German Catholic Church Cancels Inquiry
By Barbara Hans
An independent inquiry into sex abuse in the German Catholic Church was supposed to restore faith in the embattled institution. But now the Church has called it off, citing a breakdown in trust with the researchers.
It was a major promise after a major disaster: In summer 2011, the Catholic Church in Germany pledged full transparency. One year earlier, an abuse scandal had shaken the country's faithful, as an increasing number of cases surfaced in which priests had sexually abused children and then hidden behind a wall of silence.
The Lower Saxony Criminological Research Institute (KFN) was given the job of investigating the cases in 2011. The personnel files from churches in all 27 dioceses were to be examined for cases of abuse in an attempt to win back some of the Church's depleted credibility.
But now the Church has called off the study, citing a breakdown in trust. "The relationship of mutual trust between the bishops and the head of the institute has been destroyed," said the Bishop of Trier, Stephan Ackermann, on Wednesday morning.
The director of the KFN, Christian Pfeiffer, told SPIEGEL ONLINE that the Church had refused to cooperate. At the end of last year, he contacted the dioceses twice in writing. He reminded them of their promised transparency and cooperation. He also asked them whether there was any indication that in some dioceses files had been actively destroyed.
The Bishops' Conference, the country's official body of the Church, was apparently unable to agree on any form of cooperation with the KFN.
The controversy in recent months centered on privacy and data protection: various dioceses have refused to issue documents, allegedly fearing that the anonymity of those affected would not be maintained and that sensitive information could potentially be made public. In response, Pfeiffer asserted in April 2012 that the perpetrator files "never left the church space made available by the Vicar General." A meeting with the indignant clergy around that time was unsuccessful.
Criticism for the Church
German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger has defended the KFN's professional credibility and demanded that the issue be cleared up. "The accusation that censorship and the desire to maintain control hindered an independent examination must quickly be resolved by the Bishops' Conference," she told the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung on Wednesday, urging the Church to conduct a thorough investigation of the abuse scandal.
"It is a necessary and overdue step for the Catholic Church to open up its archives to specialists outside the Church for the first time," she said. "The dramatic shock of 2010 must not be allowed to trickle off into a half-hearted inquiry."
Before the inquiry was called off, the spokesman for the German Bishops' Conference, Matthias Kopp, had insisted that the project should continue regardless of the outcome of the conflict: "Should cooperation with the KFN fall through, there would be a continuation of the project with another partner," he said.
Pfeiffer insists that the church did not uphold their end of the agreement, which was signed by the research institute and the Association of German Dioceses (VDD). Debate broke out about whether individual dioceses were contractually bound by the agreement.
The structure of the study was unique in Europe: All 27 dioceses had wanted to grant the KFN access to their complete personnel files from the past ten years. In nine dioceses, the investigation was to have gone back as far as 1945.
The German Bishops' Conference reached the agreement with the KFN on June 20, 2011. Under the supervision of a team of KFN researchers, church officials were to examine the files for indications of sexual assault. Retired prosecutors and judges would carry out much of the work to evaluate files that were found to be suspicious.
The German Bishops' Conference hoped the examination would answer three questions: Under what circumstances was the abuse allowed to happen? How has the Church dealt with these actions? And what can be done to prevent future acts? The research project was scheduled to last three years and was also meant to examine how offender profiles have changed in recent years.
The project was of incalculable importance to the Catholic Church, because the loss of confidence after the abuse scandal was enormous. The cancellation of the inquiry throws into high relief Bishop Ackermann's statement from 2011: "We also want the truth, which may still lie hidden in decades-old files, to be uncovered."
Early on there was criticism of the project, though. The conservative Network of Catholic Priests pointed out that "even according to normal labor law, third parties are not entitled to claim personnel files."
The model for the study was a survey in Munich, where an attorney went through personnel files -- and identified nine more cases of abuse than had previously been discovered by the dioceses.
Mass donor organ fraud shakes Germany
Criminal inquiry launched into transplant centres as senior doctors are accused of 'jumping' waiting lists
Kate Connolly in Berlin
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 9 January 2013 19.44 GMT
German medical authorities are calling for an extensive overhaul of the country's organ transplant programme after transplant centres across Germany were placed under criminal investigation over allegations that they had systematically manipulated donor waiting lists.
Scores of patients are believed to have been given priority access to donor organs after doctors falsified the severity of their illnesses to ensure they received treatment ahead of other patients in Europe.
The revelations have led to accusations of widespread corruption and dishonesty in the system, and shattered public trust. Since the scandal emerged last year as a handful of cases that were initially believed to be isolated incidents, the number of Germans willing to donate organs has plummeted.
Post-death donations have dropped by between 20% and 40%, according to the German foundation for organ transplantation (DSO), which said the public's faith had been "massively shaken".
Investigations across the country have revealed that in at least four clinics, patient data was distorted or falsified in order to improve patients' chances of getting an organ. At least 107 cases of obvious manipulation have come to light so far.
At one clinic in Munich, in southern Germany, doctors were accused of "active manipulation" of data after investigators discovered cases in which patients' blood samples were mixed with urine to make them appear sicker than they were. Urine in the blood is an indication that internal organs are no longer functioning properly.
In two further cases, blood samples were submitted from a person who had never even been a patient at the clinic.
Clinics have come under investigation in Göttingen, Regensburg, Munich and Leipzig. All of them are university teaching hospitals with hitherto excellent reputations. Experts blamed the growing competition between clinics, which are increasingly coming under pressure to boost revenue. The worldwide shortage of organ donors exacerbates the problem.
Senior doctors and transplant surgeons across the four clinics have been suspended pending further investigations.
"There are too many transplant centres in Germany and too few organs," said Eugen Brysch, the head of Germany's foundation for patient protection.
A doctor in Göttingen is reported to have had written into his contract that he would receive bonus payments for every liver he was able to transplant, a system of rewards already deeply criticised by Germany's medical authorities.
In other cases, doctors are believed to have come under pressure to help increase the prestige of the institutions where they worked. The more successful transplants a hospital carries out, the more its reputation is boosted and the more funding it is likely to receive.
At Leipzig's University Clinic, the latest hospital to be investigated, surgeons are accused of blocking the investigation by Germany's general medical council after claiming to have mislaid patients' notes, including details of who was receiving dialysis treatment. The documents finally came to light this month, allegedly revealing a similar pattern of data manipulation.
The medical council (Ärztekammer), has identified at least 38 cases of manipulation in Leipzig, allegedly involving distorted applications to Eurotransplant, the European organ transplant centre based in Leiden, the Netherlands, claiming that patients with liver disease had had their blood cleansed. This improves a patient's chance of receiving a donor liver because there is a high chance that as well as the liver, their kidneys will fail.
Wolfgang Fleig, director of the medical board of the Leipzig clinic, said he was shocked by the allegations, but said it was still unclear whether bribery had been involved. "I cannot put my hand in the fire and say that no money changed hands over this," he said.
Since the allegations came to light, Eurotransplant has tightened its application procedure, requiring doctors to give more detailed information about patients, such as records of dialysis treatment, rather than just a ticked box.
The president of the medical council, Frank Ulrich Montgomery, promised that all 47 transplantation centres in Germany were now being thoroughly inspected for any irregularities and not just in cases where wrongdoing was suspected. "The sad message is … that obviously more centres have been involved in manipulation than initially thought," he said, adding he expected more cases to come to light, but that procedures had been considerably tightened.
Eurotransplant receives donor organs from around Europe, and redistributes them according to various criteria, including urgency and chance of success.
"Only with the maximum amount of transparency and better controls are we going to be able to bring trust back into the system," said Montgomery. Politicians from across the divide have called for tighter state regulation of the organ donor system.
Germany's parliament amended the organ transplant law last year to address the desperate shortage of donor organs. Now everyone over the age of 16 is asked whether they are prepared to be a donor. Around 12,000 people are currently waiting for a transplant in Germany, according to DSO. But donor readiness remains low. There are only 15.8 donations for every million inhabitants, compared with 32 per million in Spain.
Germany's health minister, Daniel Bahr, defended Germany's transplant system, saying: "Germany has some of the strictest rules governing the transfer of organs."
Supply and demand
Organ transplants are miraculous and save lives, but the difficulty obtaining enough organs to supply the demand generates regular scandals.
The Leipzig affair would appear unprecedented. It is hard to imagine the motivation of doctors who would falsify the paperwork to make their patients appear sicker than others to jump the queue. Questions will be asked about the ambitions and reimbursement of the clinics and doctors involved.
But patients – sometimes helped by their doctors – do go to extreme lengths to obtain the organs they need in a global market with insufficient supply.
The shortfalls have become worse as transplantation has become more routine and, in countries such as Britain, seatbelt legislation has cut the number of healthy young adults dying prematurely in motor accidents.
Reports of human organs for sale have been common across the world. Police in South Africa and Brazil uncovered an international organ trafficking syndicate.
In the case of kidneys, as humans can function with one fewer than most of us are born with, respectable doctors and ethicists have argued the case for allowing people to sell one to relieve their poverty. Parts of the liver (which can regenerate) and the corneas from eyes are also saleable.
But the World Health Organisation fears donors in countries without regulatory frameworks are at risk of coercion, exploitation and physical harm.
Not all donors have volunteered. A major scandal broke in China when it was discovered that most of the organs in 12,000 kidney and liver transplants carried out in 2005 came from executed prisoners.
Some of them went to people with money in need of a transplant who flew to China from 19 different countries.
anuary 10, 2013
With Laos Disappearance, Signs of a Liberalization in Backslide
By THOMAS FULLER
VIENTIANE, LAOS — He was last seen driving home in his old, rusty jeep. And then he vanished.
The disappearance nearly one month ago of Sombath Somphone, a U.S.-trained agriculture specialist who led one of the most successful nonprofit organizations in Laos, has baffled his family and friends and raised alarms that a nascent liberalization of the Communist-ruled country could be sliding backwards.
Mr. Sombath, 60, who won many awards for his public service, was known to be nonconfrontational and adept at forging compromises with the authoritarian government of Laos.
“We have no malice against the government,” said Ng Shui Meng, Mr. Sombath’s wife, who is from Singapore and met Mr. Sombath while they both studied in the United States. “We want to live our lives quietly.”
The disappearance has set off an enormous campaign by Mr. Sombath’s large network of friends and aid workers across Southeast Asia who know him from his development work. The campaign has put Laos, an obscure country run by an opaque Communist party, under increasing pressure to provide answers.
The country has taken halting steps to modernize its one-party system in recent years but has also cracked down on dissent, and its security services have been linked to a series of politically motivated assassinations in neighboring Thailand.
Paradoxically for the Lao government, it is a network of cameras that the municipal police installed over the past three years to monitor “anti-social behavior” that have pointed to signs of the government’s involvement in Mr. Sombath’s disappearance.
Helpful workers at a local police station initially showed the family images of Mr. Sombath’s jeep stopped at a police checkpoint on the evening of Dec. 15. Mr. Sombath then appeared to be driven off in a white vehicle.
Family members had the presence of mind to record the footage with their own digital devices — crucial because the government now refuses to let them view the video again despite pleas by diplomats who would like to analyze it for clues like license plates. (The video is now circulating on YouTube and is also available at sombath.org, a site put up by Mr. Sombath’s friends and dedicated to tracing his whereabouts).
Since the search for Mr. Sombath began, the Lao government has issued only short statements that suggest, without offering details, that he may have been involved in a personal dispute. But those following the case closely remain unconvinced.
“The bottom line is that we haven’t heard anything beyond a brief statement that doesn’t clarify anything,” Karen B. Stewart, the U.S. ambassador to Laos, said in an interview. “There’s been no full report about the status of the investigation or whatever is going on.”
A mountainous and landlocked country of six million, Laos is often portrayed in guidebooks and tourist brochures as a gentle land of stilt houses along the Mekong River, smiling and easygoing rice farmers, Buddhist monks and village silk weavers.
But the contrast to these placid images is a Communist party, formally called the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, that crushes anything deemed to be a threat to its monopoly on power.
“There’s a nostalgic picture of women in their wraparound skirts, a beautiful country with tourist attractions,” said Adisorn Semyaem, an expert on Laos at the Mekong Studies Center at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. “That’s not the total picture. There’s also another side of the coin.”
A precise accounting of repression in Laos in difficult to obtain because the news media are controlled by the government and communication is poor across the impoverished countryside. But one measure of politically related violence can be found when it spills over into the country’s freewheeling neighbor, Thailand, where it is recorded by the police and reported in the news media.
Mr. Adisorn, who has researched Lao politics for the past two decades, has compiled a list of more than 20 Lao citizens assassinated in Thailand over what appear to be political reasons, including a Buddhist monk who opposed the government and a member of the former Lao royal family. The crimes all remain unresolved.
Inside Laos, the government periodically arrests members of Protestant Christian religious groups, farmers who complain that their land had been taken away and anyone else whom they judge to “have political agendas,” Mr. Adisorn said.
Mr. Adisorn has an extensive network of contacts inside the Lao government and has been asking about Mr. Sombath’s case. “I assume that he is still alive but that the government is finding it very difficult to find a way out of the situation,” he said.
An official who answered the telephone at the Lao Foreign Ministry advised a reporter to monitor the Lao press for updates on the case and said a spokesperson was not available.
There is a troubling precedent for a politically linked disappearance. In 2007, Sompawn Khantisouk, the manager of an ecotourism guesthouse who was outspoken in his criticism of Chinese-owned plantations in the north of the country, disappeared and has not been seen since.
If Laos has avoided the same level of scrutiny of other authoritarian countries in the region, it is partly because the political oppression is hardly visible to outsiders when they visit. The center of Vientiane has lively, outdoor restaurants and countless small hotels and tourist shops.
The country received a record 3.1 million foreign visitors last year — equivalent to half the population — according to the government, which promoted 2012 as Visit Laos Year under the slogan “Simply Beautiful.”
Tourists come for the mountain scenery, spicy Lao food, the charms of towns like Luang Prabang and the cultural legacies of the French colonial years — ocher buildings and nearly tax-free French wine.
But as the country opens up and embraces capitalism more vigorously, there are tensions between the old and new Laos, between a more transparent government and the more cloistered system that fought off U.S.-backed militias during what is known as the Secret War of the 1960s and 1970s.
“There’s not total, 100 percent agreement or understanding about how to manage a market economy, a more globally oriented rule-of-law state and yet maintain the kind of political system they have,” said Ms. Stewart, the U.S. ambassador.
The country’s National Assembly has taken a more assertive role in debating government policies that were previously dictated by the top leaders. Last year, Laos completed negotiations to join the World Trade Organization and was the host of a major meeting between the European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the grouping of 10 countries in which Laos is seeking a more active role.
At the same time, the Lao government cracked down on budding signs of free expression. In January 2012, the authorities shut down a radio program that discussed the issue of land seizures — a hot topic with the increasing number of projects in rural areas led by Chinese and Vietnamese companies.
The host of that radio program, Ounkeo Souksavanh, said that farmers who appeared on the program were arrested several months later.
In December, the government expelled Anne-Sophie Gindroz, the head of the Lao chapter of the Swiss charity Helvetas, citing her “explicit rejection” of the Lao political system.
As for Mr. Sombath’s case, the possible motives for his disappearance remain unclear. He retired last year from his organization, the Participatory Development Training Center, but continued to be engaged with nonprofit organizations in Laos.
Some speculate that going after such a high-profile personality was a warning to other private groups.
“To this day I am baffled,” Mr. Sombath’s wife said.
She rejects the term “activist” that many news organizations have used in describing him. “We have lived here for a long time, during periods when Laos was less open than now, when people were afraid to talk openly. We survived that period without something like this happening.”
Mr. Sombath’s U.S. connections may have made some old-guard officials suspicious, friends and old acquaintances say. He was an exchange student in Wisconsin in high school and went to college in Hawaii.
But his farming roots — both his parents were rice farmers in Laos — and his three decades of carrying out programs to help the poor won over many people. In 2005, he was awarded the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award, which honors public service in Asia.
Ms. Ng frets for her husband’s health and safety at the couple’s home overlooking the Mekong River. Mr. Sombath has a prostate condition and had been prescribed daily medication.
“I don’t know where he is,” she said. “I hope he is safe.”
Poypiti Amatatham contributed reporting from Vientiane and Bangkok.
'Lack of national plan' heightens struggle to rebuild unstable Haiti
Political instability, natural disasters and a cholera epidemic, plus a confused aid effort, mean there is still work for Haiti to do
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 10 January 2013 11.43 GMT
Father Kawas François, a Haitian Jesuit priest, sighs deeply when asked about the 300,000 people still living in tents three years after an earthquake ripped through his country.
The disaster killed between 230,000 and 300,000 people in what was already the western hemisphere's poorest state, and made 1.5 million people homeless. For Father Kawas, who co-ordinated emergency response efforts in 2010 (video), several reasons lie behind the continued existence of tent cities where people swelter during the day and are soaked by evening rains.
But the main one is the government's inability to acquire land from powerful families around the capital. "I think it's difficult to rehouse these people because most of the land surrounding Port-au-Prince belongs to very powerful families and those families don't want to give the land to the state to rehouse people. It's a very big problem because those families are very powerful and they have many political resources so they can influence the decisions of the state."
Father Kawas, who was in the UK this week at the invitation of NGOs Progressio, Christian Aid and Cafod to talk about Haiti's reconstruction, cited the standoff between a weak government and powerful vested interests as one among many difficulties facing Haiti, a country hit repeatedly by natural disasters.
In 2008, it was struck by four deadly storms – Fay, Gustav, Hannah and Ike – that killed 800 people and devastated 70% of the agricultural land. As it was still picking up the pieces after the earthquake on 12 January 2010, Haiti was hit by hurricane Sandy last November.
Poverty was cited by Father Kawas as another reason why so many people remain homeless. "They don't have enough money to rent a house, or to rebuild a house," he says. "It is difficult for them because most of them don't work, they have no jobs. NGOs cannot do everything. They cannot rehouse all the people in Haiti."
Haiti's earthquake prompted a large response from governments and NGOs worldwide. Three years on, aid agencies trumpet their efforts. The EU, which has spent 85% of the €522m (£425m) funds it promised to send to Haiti, said its aid had provided more than 500,000 people with housing and supported the treatment of cholera – an outbreak widely blamed on Nepalese UN troops. About 6% of the population have been infected and more than 7,500 people have died – a higher toll than the political instability that brought the peacekeepers to Haiti in 2004.
The Red Cross and Red Crescent launched their biggest single country response in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, sending 21 emergency teams to provide food, water, shelter and healthcare, and providing emergency aid for 1.1 million people. The British Red Cross said it began a second phase of recovery work in July focusing on one neighbourhood in Port-au-Prince, Delmas 19, to provide more in-depth support, from rebuilding basic infrastructure to getting children into school, and increasing the number of small businesses.
Unicef, the UN agency for children, said preliminary results of a national household survey show substantial progress for children in education, nutrition, health and sanitation since 2006.
According to the initial results of the Haiti demographic and health survey (DHS), covering 13,350 households, 77% of children aged 6-11 years attended primary school last year compared with just below 50% in 2005-06. Acute malnutrition among children aged 6-59 months has been reduced to 5% from 10%.
International aid has undoubtedly provided much-needed help. The lack of co-ordination, however, – apparent from the start – persists. "I don't think there is real co-ordination," says Father Kawas. "We have observed a lot of conflict on the ground in Haiti, conflict for example between Venezuelans and French NGOs, between French NGOs and Cubans, between Americans and Cubans in Haiti.
"For example, the Canadian agency for international development – they have a lot of projects in Haiti, but we don't see co-ordination with USAid. Sometimes they do the same work so it's also a real problem for the government. I would like international actors to help the government to have a plan, a national plan of construction."
Haiti's state institutions were fragile even before the earthquake and were weakened by the disaster. The Haitian government has received little in reconstruction funds as foreign governments have had little faith in its ability to handle the relief effort. That the government has yet to draw up a national reconstruction plan speaks volumes.
"The big problem for NGOs and for many actors in Haiti is the lack of a national plan for construction," says Father Kawas. "The government speaks about that but right now, we don't see this plan and we know that this plan is very important for the country, for the development of the country. For example, the NGOs are working separately, in isolation, and there is no co-ordination, there is no plan [from] the government, so for me it's a real problem for the development of the country. And the international organisations do the same."
Father Kawas acknowledges the difficulties in trying to strengthen his government, but urged aid agencies to provide training for public employees, as well as to help parliament and political parties.
"In Haiti, the public administration does not function, it's a real problem. The government cannot put in practice its policies if the public administration does not function so it's a real necessity for foreign governments to help the Haitian government find solutions."
Hugo Chávez inauguration delay angers Venezuelan opposition
Support from military and supreme court for postponement after president's cancer surgery sparks fears of power vacuum
Jonathan Watts and Virginia Lopez in Caracas
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 9 January 2013 16.40 GMT
The Venezuelan military and the supreme court have followed legislators in backing the postponement of the inauguration of the country's ailing president, Hugo Chávez, despite warnings from the opposition of a destabilising "constitutional coup".
The president was due to be sworn in on Thursday but the government said on Tuesday that the event would be postponed to allow him more time to recover from the "respiratory insufficiency" he has suffered since undergoing emergency cancer surgery on 11 December.
The move prompted a furious debate in the national assembly and dire predictions of "anarchy" by the opposition, but the ruling party has planned a mass rally on Thursday to demonstrate popular and regional support.
Venezuela's armed forces expressed support for the postponement. In a televised video conference with the vice-president, Nicolás Maduro, the minister of defence, Admiral Diego Molero, said he was in full agreement with a delay.
Chávez's aides have described the inauguration ceremony as a "mere formality". As a serving president with a fresh electoral mandate and legislative permission to travel to Cuba for treatment, Chávez offers continuity of rule, and a delay that will allow him to recover enjoys popular support, they say. The constitution covers this because it allows for a president-elect to be sworn in by the supreme court if he is unable to attend the inauguration, the aides add.
But the constitution fails to specify when this should happen, and the government gave no indication of timing. With no word from the president for almost a month, and scant information about his current health condition, the opposition and the Catholic church have expressed fears that the delay could become indefinite, leaving Venezuela with an open-ended power vacuum.
The opposition demands the judiciary approve a medical panel to travel to Havana to assess whether Chávez's absence is temporary or absolute. In a passionate debate in the national assembly on Tuesday, it said Diosdado Cabello, as national assembly president and head of the legislature, should officially take the reins.
"Who is governing Venezuela?" asked Julio Borges, head of the opposition Justice First party, prompting chants of "Chávez, Chávez, Chávez!" by ruling party legislators waving copies of the constitution.
The former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles said the government was violating Venezuela's constitution. "This isn't a monarchy and we aren't in Cuba," Capriles told a press conference, warning of the prospect of anarchy or a military uprising if the constitution were breached. He said he had talked to generals, but none have publicly backed his claims.
"The nation's political and social stability is at serious risk," said Bishop Diego Padrón, the conference's president, reading a statement from the Venezuelan bishops' conference.
The opposition asked the supreme court to rule that Chávez's current term expire on 10 January; after that, they say, Maduro has no constitutional right to run the government on his behalf.
But the ruling party holds sway. The judiciary, which is packed with judges appointed by Chávez, rejected the opposition's proposal. The vote on a postponement was approved by the assembly, which is dominated by the ruling party.
The opposition has sent a complaint to the Organisation of American States, but there is little sign that regional powers such as Brazil and the United States will condemn the actions of the government, as Capriles has urged them to do.
The US weighed in to the debate on Tuesday with a call for transparency and inclusiveness in the decision-making process, but it stopped short of directly criticising the postponement. A state department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, said: "This is an issue for Venezuelans to decide, and they need to do it in a manner that includes all the voices in the discussion. So it needs to be a broad-based discussion, and it needs to be decided in a manner that is free, fair, transparent [and] … seen as ensuring a level political playing field in Venezuela."
Earlier this week, Brazil showed its support by declaring that the constitution of Venezuela allowed for a gap of up to 180 days, should Chávez not be sworn in at the scheduled date. Uruguay's president, José Mujica, and Evo Morales of Bolivia will join the rally on Thursday to show the support of the Latin American left; Argentina's Cristina Kirchner will fly to Havana to see Chávez the same day.
Cabello told legislators Chávez could be away for as long as he wants. "There is no power vacuum," he said. "In Venezuela, there is a vacuum of the opposition."
The military's position is likely to be crucial. While the prospect of large-scale unrest on Thursday is slim, in the longer term the security forces will play an important role, not just because of their arms but also because of their influence. Representatives of the armed forces have three seats in the cabinet, hold top office in almost half of the 23 provinces, and play a key role in the oil industry and in social programmes.
As a former army officer, Cabello is thought to retain close ties to the military, because most of the generals graduated from the military academy at around the same time as him. Cabello has sworn unity with Maduro, whom Chávez chose as his successor, and is likely to support him in the event of an election.
Whether the army is united is another matter, though. Although packed with Chávistas, their loyalty to Molero, who was sworn in to office only hours before the president flew to Havana for surgery, has yet to be proved. The anti-Chávez coup in 2002 saw a split in the ranks. Chávez himself rose to prominence in a failed coup in 1992.
Afghan MPs warn against total pullout of US troops
Disaster and civil war will follow if all US forces leave after 2014, leaders warn, as Obama and Karzai prepare to hold talks
Staff and agencies
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 10 January 2013 05.15 GMT
Afghan politicians have reacted with alarm to a White House announcement that it is considering a complete withdrawal of US troops after 2014, warning that disaster and civil war would follow.
The Obama administration has said it is considering the so-called "zero option" of a complete pullout despite earlier recommendations from the top military commander in Afghanistan to keep soldiers there to help the government.
That option and the angry reaction from Afghan officials are likely to dominate talks between President Barack Obama and his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai, in Washington on Friday.
The meeting was already likely to be tense given ongoing strains in their relationship over the war.
"If Americans pull out all of their troops without a plan the civil war of the 1990s would repeat itself," said Naeem Lalai, a lawmaker from volatile Kandahar province, the birthplace of the Taliban.
"It [full withdrawal] will pave the way for the Taliban to take over militarily," Lalai told the Reuters news agency.
When the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989 after a decade-long war, financial aid dried up and the Afghan communist government collapsed, leading to infighting between warlords. A civil war paved the way for the Taliban's rise to power.
The United States has about 68,000 troops in Afghanistan and that number is expected to reduce sharply ahead of 31 December 2014, the official end of the Nato-led combat mission in the country.
Nato and its partners are trying to train Afghanistan's 350,000 security personnel but questions remain over how their effectiveness against insurgents and leading Afghan officials had assumed some US troops would stay.
"If American forces leave Afghanistan without properly training the Afghan security forces and equipping them it would be a disaster," said member of parliament Mirwais Yasini.
Shukria Barekzai, another MP, said a total withdrawal after 2014 would be equivalent to the United States "accepting defeat".
The Taliban said the US "zero option" was speculative and it had no comment for the moment.
The US deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said on Tuesday that the complete withdrawal was "an option that we would consider".
He made clear that a decision on post-2014 troop levels was not expected for months and would be made based on two US security objectives in Afghanistan: denying a safe haven to al-Qaida and ensuring Afghan forces were trained and equipped so that they, not foreign forces, could secure the nation.
Washington officials have privately said the White House is seeking a post-2014 presence of between 3,000 and 9,000 troops, which is significantly less than the 6,000 to 15,000 number given by the top commander, US General John Allen.
Karzai and Obama talks to focus on US military strategy in Afghanistan
Officials also to broach on-again, off-again peace talks between Taliban and Afghan government over three-day visit
Richard Adams in Washington
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 8 January 2013 19.18 GMT
With the US poised to draw down its military forces from Afghanistan and peace talks with the Taliban seemingly back on the agenda, President Hamid Karzai arrives in Washington on Tuesday for three days of discussions with far-reaching implications for both countries.
On Friday Karzai holds his first face-to-face talks with President Obama since last year's Nato summit in Chicago, shortly after the pair had signed a long-term strategic partnership.
Karzai has said that the main topic of discussion will be the continued US military involvement in Afghanistan. The Obama administration is committed to withdrawing the majority of its 60,000-strong military stationed there by the end of next year – with the size of the remaining force still to be decided, as well as the key question of legal immunity for US military operating in the country.
Under the agreement signed last year, some US troops may remain to train Afghan forces and continue to fight al-Qaida cells. General John Allen, the Nato commander and top US general in Afghanistan, has recommended keeping between 6,000 and 15,000 troops in the country after 2014. An unnamed US official told Reuters the White House has asked for scenarios for between 3,000 and 9,000 troops to remain.
But the Afghan leader is said to want an end to US military operations in villages, as well as protection from militants based across the border with Pakistan.
Karzai also wants the US to provide helicopters, heavy weapons and other advanced military equipment for Afghanistan's army as well as warplanes for the Afghan air force, and for humanitarian and reconstruction aid to be channelled through Afghan government ministries rather than via western aid agencies. Kabul has accused the US of fostering corruption by giving funding directly to warlords.
Officials are also to broach the on-again, off-again peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
The prospects for talks has been helped by Pakistan's recent release of groups of imprisoned Taliban commanders, including eight people on New Year's Eve, following an improvement in the Afghan-Pakistan relations that are crucial to any hopes of a peaceful settlement.
Hopes have been further raised by a meeting in France between the Taliban and the Afghan High Peace Council last month, which US officials have described as "promising". Direct talks with the Karzai government have been ruled out by the Taliban, which wants to negotiate with the American government, while the US says that the Taliban should speak directly to the Afghan government.
To foster negotiations President Obama is likely to urge that Kabul support the Taliban's establishment of a political consulate in Qatar.
Other topics to be discussed during the Washington meetings include the fate of Afghanistan's Parwan Detention Centre, which was to have been handed over to Afghan control last year but now seems likely to stay under US control until 2014.
The Afghan leader will also meet secretary of state Hillary Clinton – who is back at work after hospitalisation from a blood clot and concussion – and plans to give a high-profile speech at Washington's Georgetown University.
Karzai is also expected to visit his ally Asadullah Khalid, the head of Afghanistan's homeland security agency, who is in the US receiving medical treatment after being injured in a Taliban assassination attempt in Kabul last month.
Four Polish soldiers re-tried in Afghan war crimes case
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:43 EST
Four Polish soldiers, accused of committing war crimes in Afghanistan, on Wednesday faced the first day of a re-trial after Poland’s Supreme Court last year overturned their acquittal, a military court spokesman said.
The case marks the first instance in which Polish troops have faced a court martial for war crimes while fighting abroad.
The men are suspected in connection with the August 2007 deaths of six civilians in the Afghan village of Nangar Khel, in the mountainous southeastern province of Paktika.
The victims included a man, two women and three children who were killed by machinegun fire and shrapnel.
All members of Poland’s contingent in NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the soldiers opened fire with mortars and automatic weapons on the village claiming they had been responding to an attack by Taliban rebels.
In a previous ruling, in June 2011, a Polish court cleared them for lack of evidence they had intended to attack civilians.
But in March 2012, the Supreme court overturned the acquittal, arguing that evidence suggesting the deaths were “a deliberate act” had been overlooked.
Prosecutors have said the deaths occurred several hours after the Poles had responded to another attack on a separate patrol.
Three of the four accused face life in prison if found guilty.
The fourth, who is not accused of deliberately killing civilians but only of opening fire on a civilian target, faces 15 years imprisonment.
All of them have pleaded not guilty, claiming that the civilian deaths resulted from faulty mortar equipment when they responded to a Taliban attack.
Ex-communist Poland, which joined NATO in 1999, has some 1,800 troops deployed in Afghanistan with NATO’s ISAF mission fighting a Taliban insurgency.
Close to 40 Polish military personnel have died there since the mission began in 2002.
January 9, 2013
Afghan Amnesty Program Falls Short, Leaving Ex-Insurgents Regretful and Angry
By AZAM AHMED
MEHTAR LAM, Afghanistan — Eidi Mohammed, a former Taliban commander who recently renounced violence and sought amnesty under the Afghan government’s reconciliation program, has had another change of heart. Now he is thinking about rejoining his old comrades. Jobless and losing hope he will ever find work, Mr. Mohammed, 38, took his frustrations to provincial officials. They told him there was nothing they could do.
“The moment I feel like I can move, I will go back to the mountains, rearm myself and fight you again,” Mr. Mohammed, who is recovering from a recent gunshot wound to the leg caused by a clash with a police officer, recalled warning the governor, police chief and top security official of Badghis Province.
He is not alone. Interviews with more than a dozen former insurgents find a group embittered and torn about their choice to lay down their arms. Many are unable to work and often unable to return to their villages for safety reasons; most feel the government has cheated them.
“I am just counting the days before someone kills me,” said Akhtar Mohammad, a former Taliban commander in Oruzgan. “Every passing moment I feel regret for joining the peace process.”
Mr. Mohammad, who is from the south, where the insurgency is the deadliest, said the only thing he had to show for his decision to switch sides was the turban he had been given for his reintegration ceremony.
Two years into one of the most ambitious efforts to lure Taliban fighters off the battlefield, many Afghan and Western officials acknowledge that the results have been disappointing. Though the number of people claiming the amnesty has swelled in the past year, violence remains high in the hotbeds of the insurgency, where the program has struggled to take hold.
Of the roughly 6,100 participants so far, 80 percent come from the relatively peaceful north and west of the country, where the Taliban presence is thinnest. And even some of those fighters say their activity was more criminal than political or ideological, even though the program was designed to flip the most committed fighters.
Many onetime fighters say they were only loosely affiliated with the Taliban. Though widely thought of as a unified Islamic movement, the Taliban in reality consist of a shifting constellation of forces whose agendas sometimes line up. Many of the insurgents who have given up fighting said they were formerly of Hezb-e-Islami, a rival faction to the Taliban that has been losing power and influence in recent years.
Although some fighters have found employment, Western officials argue that the reintegration initiative was never meant to be a jobs program. It pays a modest stipend, about $100 to $200 monthly for the first three months, depending on the fighter’s rank. In theory, the former fighters can find work on development projects financed in their home villages, though many projects have failed to get off the ground.
In two years, the so-called High Peace Council has spent less than half of what officials hoped to spend in 2011 alone. Tight controls have stalled village development projects meant to employ the former insurgents in their communities. About $180 million of the $235 million the program was granted sits idle in Afghan coffers.
The officials running the program called it a work in progress that would improve over time. The importance of employment for former fighters is acknowledged as an important element of keeping them from picking up arms again.
“We’re working on ways to improve the effectiveness of the program,” said Paul Martin Mason, who oversees the reintegration program for the United Nations Development Program.
In the meantime, many former fighters are expressing second thoughts with their decisions. Having tired of endless fighting, Hazrat Mir, a former Taliban commander in Laghman, joined the government with 130 of his men last year.
With promises of jobs and land, Mr. Mir said, his men left their villages and turned in their weapons, a dangerous prospect given the threat from former comrades. The danger, it turned out, was made clear by an attack the day before their reintegration ceremony in which the Taliban killed Mr. Mir’s top deputy.
“It’s been 11 months, and the government hasn’t given us anything,” Mr. Mir complained. “We’ve spent all of our money living in the capital, where we don’t know anyone.”
The governor of Laghman Province, Fazlullah Mujadidi, extolled the virtues of the reintegration program during an interview in the pale-blue parlor of his tidy government compound. The roads are clear, and the Taliban no longer operate with impunity, he said. The reintegration effort, which has drawn in 276 former insurgents, has been a remarkable success, he said.
A bear-size man with a heavy beard, Mr. Mujadidi counted out on each finger the new development projects headed to his districts thanks to the program: a dam, a major road and wells.
Asked about Hazrat Mir and his men’s frustrations, Mr. Mujadidi grew silent.
“We can confirm those details,” he said of Mr. Mir’s account, adding that the various projects he listed are still in the application phase. “We don’t have the resources at the provincial level to support them.”
Some former Taliban commanders suspect bit players in the insurgency have been used to pad the data and make the program appear more effective than it really is.
“If we believe the figures of the High Peace Council, then the Taliban should be weakened significantly,” said Syed Muhammad Akbar Agha, a former Taliban commander, seated in his frigid living room on the outskirts of Kabul. “But they are not.”
“I doubt 2 out of every 1,500 are true Taliban fighters,” he added.
All who switch sides, though, face real threats. While the government said it did not collect data on the number of enrollees killed, the Taliban have taken steps to target as many as possible.
In Kapisa, a restive province northeast of Kabul, just seven fighters have laid down arms since the program started. That, in part, is because the Taliban fatally shot one of the early defectors, Qand Agha.
Abdul Malik, a former comrade of Mr. Agha’s, said gunmen recently tried to storm his home in the dead of night. He fought them off with his assault rifle, a weapon he was allowed to keep for self-defense after renouncing the Taliban. But a farmer found a bomb the next morning that had been left behind in a field by his house.
In addition to complaining about the lack of security, Mr. Malik said the government broke its promise to give him a job with the Afghan Local Police.
“I’ve told everyone I know not to join the government,” he said.
Abdul Momen Muslim, who as chairman of the Kapisa peace council persuaded Mr. Malik to join the government, agreed.
“I can no longer in good conscience tell people to come to the government,” he said.
Sangar Rahimi contributed reporting from Mehtar Lam, and Taimoor Shah from Kandahar.