01/31/2013 06:24 PM
The Grocer's Girl: Thatcher's Hometown Prefers to Forget Its Famous Daughter
By Carsten Volkery in Grantham, Britain
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was born and raised in the English town of Grantham. The local council does little to remember its famous daughter, even though it's been offered a statue of the Iron Lady currently gathering dust in a London cellar.
"The photographer is waiting," says Ray Wootten, as he opens the door to his car. "Photographer?" I ask, bewildered. I'm in Grantham, Lincolnshire, to explore the hometown of Britain's first -- and only -- female prime minister. But before I can get started, I've been roped into a local campaign led by Ray Wootten, Grantham's erstwhile mayor. He wants to erect a statue of Thatcher in the center of town and is taking every opportunity to promote his cause. "The local paper wants to write an article about your visit," he tells me.
A few minutes later, we're in the mayor's parlor in the Victorian, Neo-Gothic town hall. The photographer asks us to shake hands for a picture. Behind us is a wall hung with portraits of Grantham's mayors, as well as one of the town's famous daughter, Margaret Thatcher. A reporter with the Grantham Journal is waiting next door in the Grantham Museum. He wants to know how Thatcher is seen in Germany.
The way she is viewed locally is perhaps more to the point. Few traces remain of the famous politician here in Grantham, home to a population of 35,000. Thatcher might have shaped modern Britain, but "the Grantham people were never proud of her," says her former classmate, Christine Mary Cooper, now 90. "They look for all the mistakes she has made. I always have to defend her."
Margaret Hilda Roberts was born in North Parade, where her father Alfred Roberts owned a grocery store. Today, her former home houses a chiropractic clinic and holistic retreat. The only reminder of its earlier, esteemed inhabitant is a plaque on the wall identifying the house as the birthplace of "The RT. Hon. Margaret Thatcher." At the medical center, they frown on tourists who want to see the Iron Lady's childhood bedroom. Today, it's used for massage therapy.
There's not much more to be found in the Grantham Museum. Just one cabinet is devoted to the life and times of Margaret Thatcher. The exhibits include a pair of blue heels, dated approx. 1985, a signed autobiography with a handwritten inscription: "From this town I learned so much and am proud to be one of its citizens." And of course a handbag. Thatcher was never seen without one, famously banging on the table with it and thereby bequeathing the world the term "handbagging." She probably never used this particular one to make a point -- it's made of crepe.
An Unpopular Figure
As a Tory himself, Wootten strongly believes that Thatcher deserves more local recognition. Known as "the grocer's daughter from Grantham," she lived here until she left to study chemistry at Oxford. The town council member wants to see Grantham erect a larger-than-life statue on the market square. There's already a statue of physicist Isaac Newton, who went to school here. But Wootten's plan has met with resistance, even from Conservative Party members of the town council. The majority of locals are not well-disposed to the former prime minister, says Wooten.
The monument already exists. The House of Commons is willing to give Grantham a two-and-a-half meter marble statue currently in storage.
But the town council is worried about possible expense. "The white marble poses problems," says Jayne Robb, manager of the Grantham Museum. "If we put it into a public place, we'd be painting it every day." With its white surfaces, she points out, it would be an open invitation to vandalists -- and there are certainly enough Thatcher haters here to make that a potential problem. Robb would prefer to see the statue placed in the lobby of the museum, although it would still need guarding even there.
Her caution is not misplaced. The marble statue has already been the subject of abuse in the past. It was unveiled in May 2002 by Thatcher herself at the Guildhall Art Gallery in London and survived just two months before a theater producer beheaded it with a metal pole. He thought it looked better that way, he said later. The head is back where it belongs, but the statue has been homeless ever since.
"The statue will be here," says Robb. "Once Thatcher passes, there'll be a groundswell for a statue." Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, Baroness Thatcher is now 87 years old and leading a reclusive life in London. She suffers from dementia and is admitted to the hospital on a regular basis.
"When she passes away, the interest in Grantham will be huge," says Robb. She's already planning a major exhibition. "We have many of her possessions in storage," she says, but the museum lacks the funds to exhibit them. Nevertheless, Robb recently launched an oral history project, which sees people who knew Thatcher recording their memories of her. She's also started stocking up on Thatcher souvenirs for the museum shop.
"We don't want a shrine," says Robb. "But we want to depoliticize her and hold her up as a local figure." For now, this British pioneer of neo-liberalism continues to polarize. People either love her or hate her. In Jayne Robb's opinion, the museum's job is simply to showcase her life and times as objectively as possible.
"We have Newton and we have Thatcher. We need to promote both of them," she says.
01/31/2013 02:15 PM
An Avante-Garde Life: Frankfurt Retrospective Celebrates Yoko Ono at 80
By Ulrike Knöfel
A major new retrospective in Frankfurt aims to celebrate Yoko Ono's decades spent as a pioneering avant-garde artist and activist. It presents her as one of the most important figures in contemporary art history.
She is dressed in all black, with a small hat and big sunglasses, sitting on old upholstered furniture in a Berlin hotel. She almost looks like someone only playing the role of Yoko Ono, one of the world's most famous women.
But this is Ono herself. Looking at her, it's hard not to see John Lennon as well, though he died over 30 years ago. For many people, Ono is the eternal widow and a hated figure -- which is basically how she was treated even when Lennon was alive.
Dismissing Ono in this way is easy, but wrong, as she is an icon of 1960s avant-garde art in her own right. Ono turns 80 this February and Kunsthalle Schirn, a public art space in the western German city of Frankfurt, is putting on a retrospective of her work starting on February 15. Ono is enjoying the attention and the furore the exhibition has generated, but especially the recognition it signals. At last, the general public will recognize her important place in the history of art.
In conversation, Ono is strikingly pleasant and open, almost youthful. Her laugh sounds more like a giggle, although the life she describes is one that was often no laughing matter. Ono likes interviews, but she sticks close to the allotted time. Then her gaze settles on her teacup, an assistant hurries over and the interviewer seems to become invisible.
This Yoko Ono behaves like a pop star, which makes it difficult to imagine the other Yoko Ono, the nonconformist artist who has never shied away from taking risks.
Ono has been doing things people don't like since long before she met Lennon, in November 1966. She has gone onstage and asked the audience to cut up her dress. She has climbed into a bag together with her then-husband, leaving viewers puzzling over what exactly was going on and what it was supposed to mean. Then there were her "instruction paintings," which asked the viewer to spend a week coughing or listening to the sound of the Earth's rotation. Ono has designated as "art" many things that most people would consider crazy, at best.
It has always been that way, Ono says. She has always done things that other people have only thought about. "That's the difference," she says. "It's so funny."
Blazing Her Own Trail
But there was a life before Ono's avant-garde art. Her childhood was spent in Japan as the daughter of extremely wealthy parents. She attended the same Tokyo school as the emperor's sons, one of whom dedicated poems to her. But she also learned what it was to go hungry and beg, when her mother fled with her and her siblings to the countryside after the American bombing raids during World War II. Ono's experiences during that time informed her 1966 performance "Shadow Piece," in which the participants' shadows were meant to recall the dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Ono's childhood home was intact but cold. Her parents were cultured and had a great love of music, but they were never there for their daughter. "I must say, I was often put in a position of loneliness," Ono says, adding that what allowed her to survive her childhood and adolescence was her imagination as well as an ability, learned during the war, to "do what has to be done." Her life became an experiment, one she herself designed.
Ono was the first woman allowed to study philosophy at a Japanese university. She then went to New York, where she enrolled in writing and composition courses. She never made it as far as graduation in either Japan or New York, but instead simply transformed herself into an artist. Still, Ono wasn't a painter or a sculptor -- her materials were films, words, objects, even herself. She deconstructed what was understood as "art," and everything she did was anything but mainstream.
For example, she filmed a fly wandering across a woman's body, while another film simply showed a burning match to symbolize the passage of time. She made paintings by laying out canvases and letting gallery visitors walk on them. She advertised an exhibition at MoMA that didn't actually exist. All of it was provocative, often making fun of classical art forms and the business side of art. In a 1966 project, Ono filmed a number of people's naked derrieres, leaving doubts about whether she has a sense of humor behind.
Waiting for the World to Catch Up
It was her timing, perhaps, that was always a bit off. Ono was often too far ahead of the times, always seeking out the new and "the feeling of being alive." Ono says she experienced rejection constantly, but adds that getting approval might have destroyed her as an artist.
People started talking about her, and soon the major players in the modern art scene were visiting Ono's New York loft for her concerts and performances. Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst, for example, were among her guests. Ono also met John Cage through her first husband, who was also a composer. For many people, Cage was the god of a new form of music. For Ono, he was a god because he broke with convention so self-confidently. Cage supported Ono's work, and Ono's performance "Sky Piece to Jesus Christ," in which musicians were wrapped in bandages until they were no longer able to play their instruments, was created both in honor of Cage and as an ironic commentary on that reverence.
All this was Ono's world, yet she never completely belonged in it. As a woman, and especially as an Asian woman, life in the art world wasn't easy. And, on top of that, Ono was a conceptual artist, someone associated with strange buzzwords and odd art movements, such as Fluxus. Her parents and her first two husbands struggled with Ono's need for freedom. Her first child was raised by Ono's ex-husband, who fought a bizarre battle with Ono over their daughter that included both an attempted and a real kidnapping. Yet even this seemed to somehow fit with the strange days of the 1960s and '70s.
Ono met John Lennon in 1966 when he came to a preview of one of her exhibitions. After they became a couple, they staged high-profile events, such as their "bed-ins," in which they allowed photographers to shoot them sitting in bed to raise awareness for peace. But, more than anything, they celebrated the fact of being a couple. Ono grew famous, but only for being a wife and an eccentric. She remained an outsider-- only now on a global scale -- as people feared and pitied him.
A few days after Lennon was shot in December 1980, Ono called for 10 minutes of silence in his memory. She was already accustomed to giving the world instructions and, these days, she continues to do as she pleases. She allows serious art institutions, such as London's Serpentine Gallery, to celebrate her and at the same time accepts unusual honors, such as an award from the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, in Berlin. She has erected a tower made of light columns and campaigned for world peace on enormous billboards.
Her colorful art fits in well with today's mainstream aesthetics. Indeed, it seems like the world has finally made peace with Yoko Ono.
The retrospective "Yoko Ono. Half-a-Wind Show" will run from Feb. 15 to May 12, 2013 at Frankfurt's Schirn Kunsthalle.
Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
In the USA...
Obama to hit road to push gun violence plan
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, January 31, 2013 20:27 EST
US President Barack Obama will hit the road Monday to appear with local leaders and law enforcement officials in Minnesota to push his plan to cut gun violence, which faces a tough road in Congress.
Obama will visit Minneapolis, a city that has taken steps to tackle firearms violence, including a background check system similar to one the president is proposing for the entire country.
The president has taken 23 executive actions and challenged Congress to pass new laws, including renewing a ban on assault weapons and closing loopholes that permit 40 percent of gun sales to take place without background checks.
Obama made the measures to stem murderous firearms violence a centerpiece of his second term agenda, after America was traumatized by the massacre of 20 children and six adults at a school in Newtown, Connecticut in December.
The president’s measures are vehemently opposed by the firearms lobby, including the National Rifle Association, which has demanded armed guards for all schools in the United States.
Many Republicans, and some conservative Democrats, also oppose the initiative, arguing that Obama’s plans are simply a veiled attempt to infringe on Americans’ constitutionally enshrined right to bear arms.
January 31, 2013
Small Town in Alabama Confronts Boy’s Kidnapping
By ROBBIE BROWN and KIM SEVERSON
MIDLAND CITY, Ala. — Many things hold little Southern towns together. There is a common love of the region, the peace that comes with a rural life and, often, prayer.
In this town of 2,300 in the heart of peanut country, people drew on all of those as they endured what by Thursday night had stretched into an unimaginable situation.
A relative newcomer to town — a man who had fought in Vietnam and appeared to harbor a deep distrust of government and a grudge against every neighbor — shot and killed a bus driver on Tuesday, grabbed a 5-year-old boy named Ethan and then disappeared with the boy into a well-equipped bunker he had spent several months digging in his yard.
By all accounts, the man that neighbors and a sheriff’s office official identified as Jimmy Lee Dykes, 65, had no connection to the boy.
“As far as we know, there is no relation at all,” said Michael Senn, a pastor at the Midway Assembly of God Church, who comforted some of the children who escaped from the bus and ran to his church. “He just wanted a child for a hostage situation.” Like so many clerics in this Bible-reading community, Mr. Senn has been leading prayer services as the hours have stretched into days.
By late Thursday, no end was in sight. The F.B.I. stayed in contact with Mr. Dykes by day and let him sleep at night, said Police Chief James Arrington of Pinckard, a nearby city.
“They’re taking time and trying to wear him out,” he said. “He may do harm if they try to rush him. We don’t know how much ammunition or bombs he has.”
Mr. Dykes, neighbors said, has been known to stay in his bunker for up to eight days. Some said they watched him build it, carrying cinder blocks and digging for hours.
No one is sure exactly why he took the boy. “He don’t care too much for the government,” Chief Arrington said. “That’s all we know.”
The boy, whom his mother calls “love bug,” is reportedly doing well in the bunker, an Alabama state senator, Harri Anne Smith, said in a television interview early Thursday. She and State Representative Steve Clouse have met with Ethan’s mother, and said food and medication her son needed for autism was delivered to the bunker through a 60-foot plastic pipe that was about four inches in diameter.
Still, Mr. Clouse said, the family is “just holding on by a thread.”
As it became clear that the standoff would continue — the bunker was well supplied with food and, apparently, a television and lights — the national news media began arriving.
Through Wednesday and into Thursday, residents watched as their tiny town, where the National Peanut Festival in nearby Dothan is usually the biggest event of the year, became a near-constant presence on national television.
The killing of the bus driver and the resulting standoff soon became one more point of discussion in the national debate about guns. Many people here own guns and hunt and are steadfast in their belief that guns are not the problem, mental health is.
Around town and along the entrance to the dirt road where the bunker was sunk into Mr. Dykes’s land, people began arguing in favor of allowing bus drivers to carry guns.
“I follow the old Boy Scouts motto, ‘Be prepared,’ ” said James Alexander, 72, who said he sleeps with a gun by his pillow. “I cannot foresee a way to prevent this without shooting the guy.”
Although reporters were held across the highway from a red dirt road that leads into a wooded area with about a dozen houses, and there were no major developments to report on Thursday, on television the story was regularly spliced between coverage of state and national hearings on gun violence and mental health prompted by the shootings in Newtown, Conn., in December.
“It’s crazy,” said Tyler Cobb, a high school junior who was one of more than 90 students who met to pray for Ethan on Wednesday. “It happened in Connecticut. But it really hits home when it happens here. Our little town on CNN. It’s just weird.”
Prayer vigils sprung up like farm stands in the summer here. Five were held Wednesday, and on Thursday members of a church youth group gathered to pray across the highway from the road that leads to bunker.
Prayer took hold on social media sites, too. A Twitter call to pray for Ethan gained steam.
The bus driver, Charles Albert Poland Jr., 66, encountered Mr. Dykes on the way home from school on Tuesday. The bus stopped and Mr. Dykes jumped on, according to police reports based on interviews with children on the bus, and then he demanded two boys between the ages of 6 and 8.
Mr. Poland held Mr. Dykes at the front of the bus while 21 children escaped out the back. He was hit with as many as four bullets from a 9-millimeter pistol. The well-liked driver was quickly called a hero by residents.
With the driver down, Mr. Dykes grabbed two children, the police said. One escaped. Ethan may have frozen or fainted, allowing Mr. Dykes to take him swiftly from the bus.
Tim Byrd, chief investigator with the Dale County Sheriff’s Office, told the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch blog that Mr. Dykes was a Vietnam veteran with post-traumatic stress who “did not trust the government.”
He was also scheduled to face charges of menacing in court on Wednesday after neighbors said that he shot a gun at them in a dispute over someone driving on his property.
Meanwhile, the community here did what small communities do. It did not take long for churchgoers to start cooking, joining the Salvation Army and the Red Cross to feed more than 50 F.B.I. negotiators and law enforcement officers from at least eight agencies.
“Everybody wants to help; everybody is talking about the boy,” said Lisa Boatwright, a secretary at a nearby church. “But there’s only one thing we can do: pray this ends safely.”
Robbie Brown reported from Midland City, Ala., and Kim Severson from Atlanta.
January 31, 2013
Investigation to Focus on Governor’s Handling of Penn State Abuse Case
By TRIP GABRIEL
HARRISBURG, Pa. — First it was a criminal case. Then it enveloped a university athletic program. Now the Penn State child sexual abuse scandal has infiltrated the realm of politics.
Pennsylvania’s new attorney general is set to name a special prosecutor in the coming days to investigate Gov. Tom Corbett’s handling of the case, specifically why nearly three years elapsed before criminal charges were brought.
Attorney General Kathleen Kane, a Democrat elected in November, confirmed her plans in an interview here. She suggested that when he was attorney general Mr. Corbett, a Republican, slow-walked the investigation of a longtime football coach at the center of the scandal while campaigning for governor.
Mr. Corbett, who was elected in 2010, has flatly rejected the suggestion that he delayed the case.
But polls show that a majority of Pennsylvania voters are critical of his handling of the investigation, and Ms. Kane’s inquiry is likely to cast a shadow over his bid for a second term in 2014.
Ms. Kane was elected by the largest margin of any candidate on the state ballot last November — even President Obama — and said she had no interest in challenging Mr. Corbett for governor in two years. But other members of her party acknowledged that there is a risk if her investigation becomes seen as a vendetta.
“Clearly, this is a very delicate issue on the political side,” said Jay Costa, the Democratic minority leader in the State Senate. “If she creates an atmosphere that this is a witch hunt or whatever and she has already reached a conclusion, that’s not good.”
Mr. Corbett, 63, recently returned to the Penn State matter, an unhealed wound for many Pennsylvanians even after the conviction last year of the former coach, Jerry Sandusky, for molesting eight boys. In early January, the governor brought a lawsuit to lift the stiff penalties imposed on Penn State by the National Collegiate Athletic Association as a result of the episode.
The suit seeks to rescind a $60 million fine, a four-year ban on postseason football games and the forfeit of 112 Penn State football victories over a dozen years. It was filed six months after Mr. Corbett called on Pennsylvanians to accept the punishment, and it was widely viewed as calculated to win support from the legions of alumni who bleed Penn State blue and white.
Many Pennsylvania newspaper editorial boards concluded that the action was transparently political.
Mr. Corbett’s approval ratings are historically low for a first-term governor of his state. “I don’t think there’s any doubt” that Mr. Corbett’s handling of the case is “a contributing factor in his poor job performance” in polls, said G. Terry Madonna, who directs the Franklin & Marshall College Poll. “Do I think it’s an issue that will play out? The answer is yes.”
Beyond tarnishing its legendary football program, the Penn State scandal pointed at a cover-up by university leaders, including a former president who is awaiting trial.
Mr. Corbett declined to be interviewed for this article. He has denied delaying or mishandling any aspect of the investigation.
“The governor is happy to talk to anybody about it, including Kathleen Kane,” said his spokesman, Kevin Harley. “The proof is the conviction of Jerry Sandusky on 45 of 48 counts, and he will spend the rest of his life in jail because of the work of the men and women in the attorney general’s office and the State Police.”
Ms. Kane, 46, is a former county prosecutor who specialized in child sex abuse cases. She questioned why it took 33 months to arrest Mr. Sandusky in late 2011 after Mr. Corbett, as attorney general, received a complaint against Mr. Sandusky in the spring of 2009.
“It’s never taken me that long” to build a case against a molester, Ms. Kane said in the Harrisburg office she had just moved into, a Carpe Diem paperweight on her desk, adding that speed matters because child abusers seek new victims. “I was on the campaign trail almost two years; I didn’t go a single place without somebody asking me why it took so long.”
She also questioned the influence of campaign donations Mr. Corbett received from a charity Mr. Sandusky founded, the Second Mile, whose board members contributed to Mr. Corbett’s run for governor. Investigators at the time suspected Mr. Sandusky of using the foundation, which helped troubled youth, to find victims.
Mr. Corbett’s spokesman said he could not have returned the Second Mile contributions because at the time the case was before the grand jury and he was sworn to secrecy.
Ms. Kane also questioned whether Mr. Corbett devoted enough staff to the investigation and whether agents were trained to pursue child abusers.
Mr. Corbett has said his investigation moved slowly because for a long time there was only a single accuser against Mr. Sandusky. Investigators feared that the evidence was too weak to win a conviction.
“The criticism that Ms. Kane has is that she would never have put this in a grand jury,” Mr. Corbett told The Philadelphia Inquirer last week. “My observation is, I don’t think she’s ever been involved in a grand jury or understands how it operates.”
Ms. Kane replied that in her 12 years as an assistant district attorney in Lackawanna County, she brought at least a half-dozen cases to grand juries — though never for child abuse, because young victims are distraught having to speak to 30 or more jurors.
Randy Feathers, who supervised the investigating agents when Mr. Corbett was attorney general, said that from the time he got the assignment several months after the initial accusation there were at least two to four agents pursuing the case.
It took as long as it did, he said, because “we felt like we had no shot” winning in court with just a single victim testifying against Mr. Sandusky, who “walked on water” as an assistant for 31 years to the famous Penn State head coach, Joe Paterno.
So they looked for other victims. “You very rarely find a predator in those circumstances who only molested one kid,” said Mr. Feathers, now retired. “Our job was to find those kids.”
He added, “Tom Corbett had nothing to do with slowing anything down.”
Ms. Kane said she would accept whatever conclusion the special prosecutor reached.
“I am not afraid at the very end, after every stone has been turned, to tell everyone, ‘Nothing went wrong here,’ ” she said.
In the USA continued.........
January 31, 2013
Report Faults High Fees for Out-of-Network Care
By RONI CARYN RABIN
Just over a year ago, Angel Gonzalez, 36, awoke with searing chest pain at 2 a.m. A friend drove him to the closest emergency room.
Though he was living on $18,000 a year as a graduate student, Mr. Gonzalez had good insurance and the hospital, St. Charles in Port Jefferson, N.Y., was in his network. But the surgeon who came in to remove Mr. Gonzalez’s gallbladder that Sunday night was not.
He billed Mr. Gonzalez $30,000, and an assistant billed an additional $30,000. Mr. Gonzalez’s policy covered out-of-network providers, but at a rate it considered appropriate: $2,000. “I was on the hook for more than I made in a year,” Mr. Gonzalez said.
A health insurance industry report to be released on Friday highlights the exorbitant fees charged by some doctors to out-of-network patients like Mr. Gonzalez. The report, by America’s Health Insurance Plans, or AHIP, contrasts some of the highest bills charged by non-network providers in 30 states with Medicare rates for the same services. Some of the charges, the insurers assert, are 30, 40 or nearly 100 times greater than Medicare rates.
Insurers hope to spotlight a vexing problem that they say the Affordable Care Act does little to address. “When you’re out of network, it’s a blank check,” said Karen Ignagni, president and chief executive of AHIP. “The consumer is vulnerable to ‘anything goes.’ ”
“Unless we deal with cost, we won’t have affordability,” she added. “And unless we have affordability, we won’t have people participating” under the Affordable Care Act.
Among the fees on the report’s list are a $6,205 outpatient office visit to a doctor in Massachusetts for which Medicare would have paid $152; a $12,000 bill for examining a tissue specimen in New York for which Medicare would have paid $128; and a $48,983 surgeon’s fee for a total hip replacement in New Jersey that Medicare would have reimbursed at $1,543. Many of the highest billers were in New York, Texas, Florida and New Jersey.
Elisabeth R. Benjamin, co-founder of the Health Care for All New York coalition, who is often at odds with the insurance industry, said that “is one area we totally agree on.” She continued, “Out-of-network billing is just out of control.”
Even when out-of-network fees are compared with average commercial insurance reimbursements, which are usually greater than Medicare, she said, “It’s pretty outrageous.”
Doctors say the report is skewed because it focuses on a few dozen cases of overcharging that are not representative of their billing. In response to the insurers’ report, the American Medical Association noted on Thursday that a recent analysis found that doctors’ services account for just 16 percent of health care costs.
“There are outliers in every profession, in every business,” said Dr. Andrew Y. Kleinman, a plastic surgeon who is vice president of the Medical Society of the State of New York.
Dr. Kleinman also noted that insurers had effectively shifted the costs of out-of-network care onto patients by changing reimbursement formulas. Instead of the rates commercial insurers usually pay doctors, insurers increasingly are basing their out-of-network payments on Medicare rates, usually far lower.
A growing number of high-end, flexible health plans offer policies that cover outside providers at, for example, 140 percent of Medicare. “They’re selling you an insurance product you can’t use,” Dr. Kleinman said. “You’re buying an insurance policy where the out-of-network benefit is worthless.”
The industry’s own report suggests that using Medicare rates as a benchmark will lead to patients’ picking up much more of the cost for out-of-network care, whether they carefully select a specialist or, as in the case of Mr. Gonzalez and many others, have no choice in the matter.
Had Mr. Gonzalez been 65 or older, Medicare would have paid only $958 for the surgery. The average commercial price is $12,292, according to FAIR Health, an independent nonprofit group that tracks information on health care costs.
But Mr. Gonzalez’s health plan, United Healthcare, determined the fee should be $1,273, of which the company paid $838. Mr. Gonzalez filed appeals, which were rejected. He then contacted Community Health Advocates at the Community Service Society of New York for help, and the group’s caseworkers negotiated with the surgeon on his behalf.
After months of wrangling, the surgeon agreed to accept a significantly reduced payment: $340.
Consumer advocates and health insurance executives are calling for greater transparency in health care pricing, including upfront disclosure of prices of medical procedures and services.
“The health care industry can give you an estimate, just like any other industry,” said Carrie H. Colla, an assistant professor at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, noting that the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center has a patient price estimator online.
“It’s just not current practice right now,” Dr. Colla said. “Sometimes a doctor won’t even know. The patient really has to push for it.”
India Ink - Notes on the World's Largest Democracy
February 2, 2013, 7:25 am
Five Accused in Delhi Gang Rape Case Plead ‘Not Guilty’
By NEHA THIRANI BAGRI
The five men accused in a brutal gang rape that led to nationwide protests entered not guilty pleas Saturday to the 13 charges filed against them.
The charges - including gang rape, murder, kidnapping and conspiracy - stem from the Dec. 16 rape and murder of a physiotherapy student. Reports of the attack led to days of protests in India over the violent treatment of women.
A trial for the five suspects - Ram Singh, Mukesh Singh, Pawan Gupta, Vinay Sharma and Akshay Thakur - is scheduled to begin Tuesday in Saket District Court Complex in New Delhi.
V.K. Anand, defense counsel for the brothers Ram Singh and Mukesh Singh said in a telephone interview that "All the five accused have pleaded not guilty."
"The charges being framed is one thing," Mr. Anand said, "but proving the charges is another."
Pretrial arguments for the five suspects were completed on Wednesday. On Monday, the sixth accused was declared officially a juvenile by the Indian Juvenile Justice Board, meaning the maximum sentence he could receive is three years in a detention facility. If they are convicted, the five on trial could face the death penalty. The Supreme Court dismissed a plea to transfer the New Delhi gang rape trial outside the city on Tuesday. The trial, which is being carefully watched by the country, has brought about renewed debate on the challenges facing the Indian legal system.
According to the local news channel IBN Live, 86 witnesses will be examined during the course of the trial.
Pamposh Raina contributed to this post.
India Ink - Notes on the World's Largest Democracy
February 2, 2013, 6:40 am
India Moves to Strengthen Sexual Assault Laws
By NEHA THIRANI BAGRI
On Friday, a special meeting of the Union Cabinet approved an ordinance to strengthen laws to deal with sexual violence against women. While the ordinance approved some suggestions made by the Justice Verma Committee making stalking, voyeurism and acid attacks punishable under criminal law, it diverged on issues such as marital rape, capital punishment and the prosecution of armed forces personnel who commit sexual assaults. The ordinance has received a mixed response from lawyers and women's groups, who were agitating for more holistic legislation.
"This is a piecemeal and fragmented ordinance which seems to be more of an exercise to make an impact," said Kirti Singh, a senior advocate in the Supreme Court of India who specializes in women's issues. "After twenty years of not doing anything they seem to be in a tremendous hurry to do something or the other to appease public sentiment."
The Dec. 16 rape and subsequent death of a young woman on a moving bus in India prompted a nationwide response and calls to improve India's legislation to curb sexual violence against women. On Jan. 23, a three-member committee headed by a retired Supreme Court chief justice, J.S. Verma, submitted its recommendations urging the government to act. In response, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pledged Wednesday to act quickly to adopt the committee's recommendations.
Mr. Singh on Friday convened a special cabinet meeting to discuss the recommendations of the Justice Verma Committee, after which the ordinance was passed. The ordinance must be approved by President Pranab Mukherjee and passed by the Parliament to become law. "The approval of the ordinance in an utmost expeditious manner is in response to the sensitivities of the people felt in the aftermath of the gruesome incident that happened on Dec. 16," Ashwani Kumar, the Union Law Minister, told the Indian Express. He said that the ordinance contains provisions of Verma Committee recommendations along with the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2012 that is pending in Parliament.
The ordinance has accepted some of the recommendations made by the Justice Verma Committee such as making voyeurism, stalking and acid attacks punishable offenses. "We welcome some of the things mentioned in the ordinance such as the inclusion of graded sexual abuse and harsher punishment for sexual offenses," said Annie Raja, general secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women. The recognition that the sexual history of the victim should not be an issue and addition of improved investigation procedures that require the presence of female police officers were also welcomed by women's rights activists.
Contrasting with the recommendations made by the Verma Committee, the ordinance has introduced capital punishment for special cases of sexual violence that cause severe physical or mental damage, lead to death or leave the victim in a persistent vegetative state. The ordinance provides for varying degrees of punishment for rapists depending on the gravity of the crime such that the punishment for those convicted for rape can range from seven years to the death penalty. There has also been a special provision for gang rape, which entails a minimum punishment of 20 years and a maximum punishment of the death sentence.
"Every country is moving towards the elimination of death penalty and India is strengthening the legislation for death penalty," said Kavita Srivastava , the national secretary for the People's Union for Civil Liberties. "Here we are still looking for an eye for an eye framework."
While the Dec. 16 gang rape revived debates about the application of the death penalty for rape and calls for the six accused men to be executed, legal experts believe that the provision of the death penalty is a regressive step.
"We have had a long experience of the court not even awarding the minimum sentence for rape," Ms. Singh said. "Rather than the introduction of the death penalty, which seems like a knee-jerk reaction to public demands, there should be a provision for the certainty of punishment which ties down the discretion of the court." Ms. Singh also said that the law should assure that a life sentence cannot be commuted and actually results in rigorous imprisonment for life.
The ordinance also did not accept the suggestions of the Verma Committee that dealt with sexual violence among members of the armed forces and police personnel. The committee had asked for a removal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act that gives the armed forces immunity from prosecution and proposed that the senior police or army officer would be held responsible for a sexual offense committed by a junior officer.
Other issues in which the government ordinance rejected the suggestions of the Verma committee are the incorporation of marital rape as a punishable criminal offense, the payment of compensation to victims of sexual violence and the lowering of the juvenile age from 18 to 16 years. The ordinance has also made the definition of rape gender neutral, rather than keeping it gender-specific to women as suggested by the Verma Committee.
A statement issued by the All India Democratic Women's Association objected to what they described as the "selective and arbitrary approach of the government" with regards to the Verma Committee recommendations. "The present piecemeal and fragmented ordinance can only serve to sabotage the intention of providing recourse to victims of sexual violence," the statement said.
The introduction of an ordinance -- ahead of the budget session in parliament scheduled to begin later this month -- has been criticized by women's rights activists and lawyers. "It is on the whole a very, very problematic ordinance that disregards many suggestions made by the Verma Committee," said Ms. Kavita Srivastava. "It is too serious an issue for the cabinet to have gone ahead on its own, they could have waited for the budget session which is only twenty days away."
Activists said that they would be issuing responses to the ordinance and asking for the legislation to be debated in parliament.
"They should have convened a special parliament session to the debate the question of sexual violence against women and discuss the human resources and financial resources required to implement new measures," Ms. Raja said. "Because it has taken the form of an ordinance, there is no room for discussion or debate. Legislation cannot be made on the basis of popular opinion."
Israeli warplanes fly over Lebanon
Israeli fighter jets violate Lebanese airspace two days after launching air strikes on targets inside Syrian territory
Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem
guardian.co.uk, Friday 1 February 2013 14.19 GMT
Israeli warplanes flew over Lebanon again on Friday, two days after air strikes targeted a convoy of arms or a weapons research base inside Syrian territory.
Andrea Tenenti, a spokesman for the UN forces in Lebanon, Unifil, confirmed that Israeli forces had continued to violate Lebanese airspace, but said this was routine. "On Tuesday [ahead of the air strikes] there were a high number of violations, but since then it has not been unusual," he told the Guardian.
Under UN security council resolution 1701, passed following the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war, Israeli planes are forbidden from flying over Lebanon.
Israel has maintained silence over Wednesday's bombing, despite a statement from the Syrian regime that a "scientific research centre" between Damascus and the Lebanese border had been hit. Reports described the centre as a large military complex with training and communications facilities. Western diplomatic and security sources said Israel's target was a convoy of trucks carrying Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles from Syria to the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.
Shlomo Brom of Israel's Institute of National Security Studies said there was "no contradiction" between the two accounts. "The convoy may have been attacked while being loaded or while leaving the installation," he said. Hezbollah was keen to extract from Syria as much weaponry as possible before supply routes closed off.
Concern about possible retaliatory action was fuelled by comments made by an Iranian legislator. "Damascus retaliation against the illegal move of the Zionist regime is a right of the Syrian people," said Mohammad Hassan Asafari. If the Syrian regime failed to deliver a "proper response", Israel would not hesitate to carry out further attacks, he added.
The Israeli foreign ministry declined to comment on reports that its embassies and missions worldwide had been placed on a heightened security alert, and the Israeli Defence Forces declined to say whether leave had been cancelled for troops based in northern Israel and the Golan Heights.
Many Israeli analysts thought that the chances of immediate retaliation were low, with some suggesting that any response was more likely to be targeted at Israeli assets or citizens abroad rather than rocket attacks or other military action aimed at Israel itself.
"The combination of strategic circumstances in the region at the moment makes the chance of a direct Iranian response unlikely," wrote Amos Harel, Haaretz's defence correspondent. "A Syrian military response seems even less likely, though neither possibility can be ruled out. The most worrying unknown since Tuesday night concerns Hezbollah's reaction … Hezbollah is a sophisticated enemy operating in a tough environment. Complete restraint over the long term to Israel's actions could be considered weakness by Hezbollah, so we should expect some form of response, even if not immediately and not necessarily a broad rocket and missile attack on Israel."
Yedioth Ahronoth's defence analyst Alex Fishman wrote: "Something major went down in Syria, but a heavy smokescreen is already blurring the tracks … If the signal sent to the Syrians and to Hezbollah by whomever produced this show – telling them to stop the unmonitored circulation of the weapons held by the Syrian army – is not picked up, then the next operation will not be able to leave such a vague address. And this will bring the region into an open and violent clash.
"Missiles may not fly at Israel this time. It seems that this time, we will get through the storm safely. And the proof: the defence minister allowed himself to leave for a conference of defence ministers in Germany. But Israel should prepare for the possibility of acts of revenge overseas, in the style of the terror attacks that took place in the past."
February 1, 2013
Soldiers in Lebanon Die in Raid Near Syria
By ANNE BARNARD and HWAIDA SAAD
BEIRUT, Lebanon — At least three Lebanese Army soldiers were killed Friday in a shootout as they tried to arrest a resident of a village that has become a hub of refugees and where Syrian rebels often cross the border. Their target was also fatally shot.
There were conflicting reports about the nature of the clash, in which security forces were ambushed as they pursued a wanted man, but the episode played into fears that the accelerating influx of Syrians could spread the conflict into Lebanon.
The village, Aarsel, lies in the eastern Bekaa Valley, a mountainous region bordering Syria, and is a stronghold of support for the rebellion against the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. Syrian refugees who prefer to avoid areas of the Bekaa that are closely controlled by Hezbollah, an ally of Mr. Assad, have also crammed into the town.
In a statement, the Lebanese Army said that a captain was among those killed and declared without elaborating, “There will be no compromises on attempts to hide armed militants.”
Some reports, citing unnamed security sources, said that the soldiers were attacked by Syrian rebels, while residents said that villagers chased down and attacked plainclothes security personnel who arrived to arrest a Lebanese suspect without coordinating with local leaders.
The suspect, a resident of Aarsel, was identified as Khaled Hummayed. Lebanon’s national news agency said that he was wanted for involvement in the kidnapping of Estonian tourists in the Bekaa in 2011.
Several Lebanese media outlets said that members of the Free Syrian Army, the loose-knit rebel coalition, attacked the soldiers, while Reuters reported that Mr. Hummayed was believed to be a member of a jihadist rebel group that has been active in Syria, Al Nusra Front, who traveled frequently in and out of the country.
The deputy mayor of Aarsel said Mr. Hummayed was driving a pickup truck when security personnel in civilian cars confronted him, shot him and left with his body. He said he did not know if Mr. Hummayed was involved with Syrian rebels, but added that “90 percent of Aarsel’s people support the revolution.”
A smuggler from Aarsel, who gave only a nickname, Abu Hussein, said he was on the way to Friday Prayer and witnessed the shootout. He said that Mr. Hummayed’s pickup truck was left behind, smeared with blood, as angry residents pursued the cars. He said that Mr. Hummayed had once draped the flag of the Syrian revolution around his body.
Supporters of the revolution are deeply suspicious of Lebanese security forces, which they see as aiding the Syrian government. Lebanon has officially adopted a policy of “disassociation” from the Syrian conflict.
But in practice, many Lebanese have taken sides, with many Sunni Muslims supporting the rebellion led by Syria’s Sunni majority, while Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim movement that relies on Syria as an arms conduit, has supported the government dominated by Mr. Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiism.
The border area has been tense, with rebels hiding and resting on the Lebanese side, and Syrian troops sometimes shelling Lebanese territory, crossing the border to fight rebels or shooting civilian refugees as they flee.
New pressures are growing as the flow of refugees — there are already more than 200,000 in Lebanon, a country of four million — overtaxes Sunni areas that have hosted most of them and pushes refugees into new areas.
More than two million people are displaced inside Syria, and on Friday, the United Nations children’s agency said 420,000 people — half of them children — need urgent help in Homs Province.
A spokeswoman for Unicef, Marixie Mercado, told reporters in Geneva that 200 of Homs’s 1,500 schools were damaged, with 65 more housing refugees, news agencies reported.
The United Nations refugee agency said it had for the first time reached Azaz, a town near the Turkish border, to deliver tents with Syrian government permission, and found 45,000 people living in makeshift tents.
February 1, 2013
A Rebel Commander in Syria Holds the Reins of War
By C. J. CHIVERS
THE would-be assassin was patient, if not an accomplished shot.
His victim, the Syrian rebel commander Hajji Marea, was fighting a cold and had sent a bodyguard out to find medicine, the commander’s supporters said. As he waited, Hajji Marea stepped outside to make a phone call, when the gunman fired. The bullet missed his head, and struck his left shoulder.
Months later, Hajji Marea made a fist with his left hand, demonstrating that he had healed, even while the Syrian government’s bounty remained. “The bone was broken, but it is O.K. now,” he said, before dressing against the chill and heading back onto the city’s streets, where artillery boomed.
Such is the persona of Abdulkader al-Saleh, a k a Hajji Marea, an example of the antigovernment leadership emerging inside Syria — a phenomenon unfolding on battlefields only intermittently visited by outsiders.
Mr. Saleh leads the military wing of Al Tawhid, the largest antigovernment fighting group operating in and near Syria’s most populous city, Aleppo — a position that has made him one of the government’s most wanted men.
The uprising to unseat President Bashar al-Assad is now almost two years old. While Western governments have long worried that its self-declared leaders, many of whom operate from Turkey, cannot jell into a coherent movement with unifying leaders, the fighting across the country has been producing a crop of field commanders who stand to assume just these roles.
These men — with inside connections, street credibility and revolutionary narratives that many of the Western-recognized leadership lacks — have taken the reins of the war. They hold the weapons. They have their own international relations and financing.
Should they survive, many of them could become Syria’s postwar power brokers.
The commanders range from secular and chain-smoking former military officers who are products of the same institutions they are fighting, to bearded extremists working for an Islamic Syria based on their interpretation of religious law.
Men like Mr. Saleh present both a challenge and an opportunity for the West as it struggles to understand what is happening in Syria and to nurture networks that might provide stability and routes for Western influence should the government fall.
Mr. Saleh’s long-term intentions are not entirely clear. He says he is focused solely on winning the war, and promotes a tolerant pluralistic vision for the future. He is also openly aligned with Al Nusra Front, a growing Islamic militia that has been blacklisted by the United States, which accuses it of embracing terrorist tactics.
Officials in Washington are aware of Mr. Saleh, and other commanders of his standing. There is no evidence that they have connections with them, or a plan for how to develop relations in a Syria that is partly under their influence.
MR. SALEH, wounded in battle multiple times, survived an assassination attempt in the fall, adding to his legend in the Aleppo governorate, where he is the rebels’ primary military commander.
“Was it $200,000?” he asked a peer, during a recent interview in a command post hidden in an Aleppo basement, about the bounty for his head. He seemed uninterested by the answer.
“Our concern now is only in the military side and how to fight this regime and finish this,” he said.
The son of a shopkeeper in Marea, just north of Aleppo, Mr. Saleh took an indirect route to guerrilla leader. As a young man, he served two and a half years as an army conscript, working, he said, in a chemical weapons unit.
He later joined the Dawa religious movement as a missionary. He traveled abroad, including, one of his brothers said, to Jordan, Turkey and Bangladesh, where he taught and studied Islam and invited people to hear the call to faith.
Life in Syria lured him back. His hometown lies in an agricultural belt, ringed by dark-soiled fields. Mr. Saleh opened a shop on one of Marea’s main streets, from where he imported and sold seeds. He married and started a family, which grew to include five children.
Not long after the uprising began, he joined with neighbors and relatives to organize demonstrations against what he described as the government’s repression.
When the fighting began, and rebels formed underground cells to plan ambushes, make bombs and persuade government soldiers to defect, Mr. Saleh’s standing grew. People spoke of a successful commander who was honest, organized and almost serenely calm under fire.
In many quarters his identity remained unknown. “We were secretive,” he said. “The public knew there was someone named Hajji Marea who led the demonstrations. But nobody knew who he was.”
Though he stands a little more than six feet tall, Mr. Saleh is unimposing, retaining an open face and youthful lankiness. Outsiders might not even make him for a fighter. One recent day, wearing a hoodie and moving with a loping gait, he could have passed for a graduate student.
His battlefield name, Hajji Marea, roughly translated, means “the respectable man from Marea.”
BY last summer, the fighting units near Aleppo had chased most government forces from the countryside and seized control of a border crossing to Turkey. Simultaneously, Mr. Saleh was emerging as the main leader of Al Tawhid. His anonymity ended.
He was soon seen as pragmatic and accommodating, an active commander who was able to navigate the uprising’s sometimes seemingly contradictory social worlds. A friend of the Islamists fighting beside him, he also spoke of avoiding the nihilism of sectarian war.
One of his subcommanders, Omar Abdulkader of the Grandsons of Saladin, a Kurdish fighting group, described how Mr. Saleh welcomed him and fellow fighters into Al Tawhid — though they were not Arabs.
“He has supported us since we have formed our battalion, and he bought for us some weapons and ammunition,” he said. “We’ve never heard or seen any bad acts from him — all good deeds all the time.”
He added: “Hajji Marea told us there is no difference between Muslim or Christian, Kurdish or Arab or even Alawi. We are all brothers.”
These days, when Mr. Saleh appears in public, his supporters treat him with reverential deference. In the summer, Mr. Saleh arrived at a meeting of commanders in another hidden command post. Several seasoned battalion leaders almost sat at his feet.
Analysts of the war say that for those who hope to speed the end to the violence or have influence in Syria afterward, men like Mr. Saleh present a diplomatic challenge. Should foreign governments and aid organizations try to establish connections and open a dialogue, before the window narrows?
At least one organization has tried. Although some antigovernment fighters in Aleppo have participated in abuses and battlefield excesses — including the summary execution of prisoners — the perpetrators have often not been identified and the crimes have not been directly linked to Mr. Saleh or his immediate followers, a researcher with Human Rights Watch said.
The researcher, Ole Solvang, said the rights group had urged Mr. Saleh to direct his fighters to behave lawfully. “As an influential military opposition leader, Hajji Marea has a particular responsibility to ensure that opposition fighters do not commit such abuses,” Mr. Solvang said.
For Western governments, outreach is problematic, in part because of Washington’s policies, which rebels said first were noncommittal, then shaped by fears of Islam and a tendency toward counterterrorism solutions.
One American official called Mr. Saleh “the real thing” — a commander with thousands of fighters, independent sources of financing and supply, good relations with other fighting groups and a record of tactical success.
But Mr. Saleh, who said he differentiates between the American people, who he said support the uprising, and the American government, which he said does not, did not hide his displeasure with the Obama administration.
Like many activists and rebels, he saw inconsistency and hypocrisy in Washington’s position, which Syrians often summarize as this: For the Assad government to use chemical weapons would be unacceptable; for it to kill civilians with conventional weapons is fine.
“America keeps silent,” he said. “The way we see it as Arabs: If you are silent, then you are agreeing with what is happening.”
Sitting nearby, Abdel-Aziz Salameh, Al Tawhid’s political leader, warned that time was running short for the United States. “All the world has abandoned us,” he said. “If the revolution lasts for another year, you’ll see all the Syrian people like Al Qaeda; all the people will be like Al Qaeda.”
Syrian opposition says it is ready for conditional peace talks
Coalition is prepared to negotiate with regime after UN backs its position that Assad will have no role in transitional government
Julian Borger in Munich and Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem
guardian.co.uk, Friday 1 February 2013 18.54 GMT
The Syrian opposition has said it is ready for exploratory peace talks with the regime after gaining UN backing for its position that Bashar al-Assad himself "would have no role" in a transitional government.
The developments served to increase the isolation of Russia which remains a staunch backer of the regime in Damascus, and has insisted that Assad stay in place through any future transition to democracy. As senior officials arrived in Munich for a security conference this week, it was unclear on Friday night whether the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, would join the US vice-president, Joseph Biden, and the UN special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, in meeting the opposition National Coalition leader, Moaz al-Khatib.
Despite Syrian opposition claims that Lavrov would take part in a four-way meeting, one of his deputies, Gennady Gatilov, said there were no plans for such a meeting.
Khatib arrived in Munich having survived a challenge to his leadership from Islamists inside the coalition, who objected to his offer, first made on his personal Facebook page, to talk to the regime while Assad remained in power. The objection had been that Assad had to leave office before talks could begin but Khatib defended himself against criticism at an emergency coalition meeting in Cairo on Thursday, saying that the talks would remain conditional on the release of thousands of political prisoners.
The Munich talks will take place as the conflict showed its potential for escalating into a regional conflagration. Israeli warplanes flew over Lebanon again on Friday, two days after air strikes inside Syrian territory, according to a UN official.
Khatib's statement was welcomed by the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, who called for "a credible process that would lead to a real change, a clear break from the past". A UN source added that the opposition would now have to "walk the walk" in demonstrating its readiness to talk.
However, the opposition and its western supporters won a significant victory in their stand-off with Moscow when Brahimi backed their position that Assad could not participate in any transitional government that might result from peace talks. At a meeting in Geneva last year, western governments and Russia came to an agreement on transition that fudged that critical issue. It said a transitional government had to be chosen "by mutual consent".
In a briefing to the security council, Brahimi said: "The Geneva communiqué was elegant and creative in that it did not speak of President Bashar Al-Assad and his role in the transition and beyond. I think, however, it is largely understood that 'governing body with full executive powers' clearly meant that the president would have no role in the transition."
A transcript of the briefing was obtained by the UN Report website, and was confirmed as accurate by UN sources. Arguing that in Syria "things are bad and getting worse, the country is breaking up before everyone's eyes", Brahimi put forward a step-by-step peace plan, starting with talks "between a strong, fully representative team on behalf of the opposition and a strong civilian-military delegation representing the government".
He added: "These negotiations should start outside of Syria and take place according to an agreed timetable to enable the process to move – as fast as possible – towards the democratic process which would include the election, constitutional reform and referendum." He pointed out that it would not be hard to transform the current presidential system to a parliamentary system of government.
On Friday, western officials stuck to their analysis that the target of the Israeli air strikes was a convoy of trucks carrying anti-aircraft missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Syrian government described the target as a military research centre.
Andrea Tenenti, a spokesman for the UN forces in Lebanon, Unifil, confirmed that there had been continued violations of Lebanese airspace by Israeli forces. "On Tuesday [ahead of the air strike] there were a high number of violations, but since then it has not been unusual," he told the Guardian.
Under UN security council resolution 1701, passed after the 2006 Israel-Lebanese war, Israeli planes are forbidden from flying over Lebanon.
February 1, 2013
Egypt’s Divisions Deepen as Protests Rage Outside Presidential Palace
By KAREEM FAHIM and DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
CAIRO — During an anti-government demonstration on Friday, protesters hurled fire bombs over the wall of Egypt’s presidential palace, setting fire to a gatehouse in a symbolically potent show of disregard for the country’s leader.
Riot police responded by firing tear gas and birdshot at demonstrators, and television cameras captured officers near the palace stripping and beating a man. By midnight, the Health Ministry reported that one protester was killed in the violence. A day after Egypt’s new Islamist leaders held talks with their political opponents for the first time about solving the crisis, each side blamed the other for the conflagration outside the palace, apparently extinguishing any hope they might quickly resolve their differences.
As clashes raged on a broad avenue outside the presidential palace and thousands of demonstrators marched in cities along the Suez Canal, the warring parties reverted to the recriminations that Egypt’s defense minister recently warned had brought the country to the brink of collapse. The feuds have fed an atmosphere of growing polarization that many Egyptians blame for a rising tide of violence. The actions by some protesters on Friday — and the officers’ response — seemed to confirm another fear: neither the opposition parties nor the government exercises firm control over the confrontations in the streets.
In a statement, President Mohamed Morsi blamed unnamed “political forces” for inciting what he said was an attempt to “storm the gates of the palace.”
“We stress that such violent practices have nothing to do with the principles of the revolution or legitimate means of expression,” the statement said. It called on “patriotic forces” to denounce the violence and “urge their supporters to immediately withdraw from the palace area.”
The National Salvation Front, the largest coalition of secular-leaning opposition groups, said it had no connection to the violence and blamed “Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood group that he belongs to” for the “state of congestions and tension prevailing in the Egyptian society for the last two months.”
It remained to be seen whether the fighting at the palace would turn into a deeper conflagration, like the deadly clashes outside the presidential palace in December between Mr. Morsi’s supporters and anti-government protesters. The Brotherhood said on Friday that its members were staying away from the clashes and did not wish to be “dragged into the violence.”
The clashes started after a peaceful sit-in that lasted several hours outside the palace walls, where protesters chanted against the rule of Mr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Witnesses said that when a young man briefly climbed onto the palace wall, that crowd chanted for him to get down, eager not to provoke a confrontation with the riot police.
But the peace did not last long after dark. A small group of protesters threw fire bombs over a palace gate, and launched fireworks toward buildings on the palace grounds. Officers inside fired a water cannon back to disperse demonstrators but also to douse small fires.
Within an hour, the fighting had intensified, with armored personnel carriers advancing and firing tear gas into the crowd, which was forced back several blocks from the palace. Security officers set fire to tents set up by protesters across the street from the palace and threw flags and banners on bonfires in the street.
The riot police officers, who report to the Interior Ministry, also captured and beat several protesters, witnesses said. In one of the beatings, which was captured on live television, officers could be seen dragging a naked middle-aged man, covered in soot, across the asphalt toward an armored personnel carrier. For many, the image served as a reminder that more than two years after Egypt’s uprising, the Interior Ministry remains one of the country’s many recalcitrant institutions, unreformed by Egypt’s new leaders and saddled with poorly trained officers who resort quickly to abuse. The Interior Ministry said it would investigate the beating.
In recent days, signs emerged that Egypt’s political elite, unnerved by the sudden erosion of the state’s authority, were working to settle some of their differences. Earlier this week, opposition parties reached across ideological lines for the first time, as a hard-line Islamist party joined with the National Salvation Front to put pressure on Mr. Morsi to form a new government.
Then on Thursday, a group of young revolutionaries managed to organize a meeting between opposition leaders and representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood. The meeting did not result in any breakthroughs, but the simple act of putting the antagonists in the same room was seen as a step forward.
Those efforts appeared to come undone on Friday.
The violent turn was met with anger by some anti-government activists. On Twitter, one activist, Tarek Shalaby, wrote: “I always support facing the regime’s thugs, but this time, a bunch of idiots started attacking the police behind the gates for no reason.”
Shady el-Ghazali-Harb, a young organizer who helped guide the revolt against Hosni Mubarak two years ago, was on the scene with a gas mask draped around his neck. “As long as the demands of the people are not met, people will stay in the street, and no one can control this violence,” he said, arguing that the underlying issue was the Constitution’s failure to address the revolution’s goals — bread, freedom and social justice, as the familiar chant goes.
Mai Ayyad contributed reporting.
February 1, 2013
Tribal Battles Displace Thousands in Darfur
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
NAIROBI, Kenya — Intense clashes between two Arab tribes fighting over a gold mine in a remote corner of Darfur, Sudan, have displaced around 100,000 people, becoming one of the biggest crises in Darfur in years, United Nations officials said Friday.
The fighting broke out last month in the Jebel Amir gold mining area. The region is so isolated that the United Nations has had to use peacekeeping helicopters to reach the thousands of people on the move, many of whom have been sleeping outside during the cold desert nights with no blankets or plastic sheeting.
“Many of these people are living in the open in appalling conditions,” the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a recent statement. The fight is between the Beni Hussein, who are largely cattle herders, and the northern Rizeigat, a powerful tribe known for its camel herding. Scores of people have been killed and dozens of villages burned, according to the local authorities. Members of the Beni Hussein tribe accused government forces of helping the Rizeigat and giving them powerful weaponry.
Darfur, a vast and arid region of western Sudan, has been a battle zone for years. Though some parts have stabilized enough that thousands of displaced people have ventured home, many areas are still hotly contested. The original fault lines between herders and farmers and between Arabs and non-Arabs have split into new conflicts, with violence now being waged by a dizzying array of armed groups.
Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College who follows Sudan closely, said that the recent increase in fighting was connected to Sudan’s economic woes. Because of disputes with the newly independent nation of South Sudan, much of Sudan’s oil industry — a vital source of money for both nations — has been battered. Sudan’s currency, the pound, has plunged; rapid inflation has set off riots; and the government has been scrambling for new sources of revenue.
As a result, Mr. Reeves said, “the regime has been unable to pay the militias for some time now, and the result is that competition has become inter-Arab.”
Thousands of gold miners have been working in Jebel Amir since last year, and the opposing Arab militias have been eager to seize control of the area so they can levy taxes on the miners. Human rights groups said the conflict has widened beyond the two groups because each has called in heavily armed allies from various corners of Darfur.
Isma’il Kushkush contributed reporting from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
February 1, 2013
Algeria Sowed Seeds of Hostage Crisis as It Nurtured Warlord
By ADAM NOSSITER and NEIL MacFARQUHAR
ALGIERS — To the Algerians, the desert warlord in the swirling blue robes was a man of his word — the key to managing the crisis next door in northern Mali — and for months they lodged his representative here in the Algerian capital in high style in one of the city’s finest hotels.
They were nurturing a viper. The warlord, as the Algerians well knew, was the leader of one of the militant Islamist groups holding northern Mali captive. That was not a deal-breaker, they reasoned. To the contrary, having tight connections with a powerful militant across the border, much as Pakistan does in Afghanistan, could protect their interests.
But instead of ensuring that the conflict remained outside their country, a longstanding imperative of the Algerians, the warlord, Iyad Ag Ghali, ended up bringing it right to them. His forces made a sudden push toward the Malian capital in January, enraging his Algerian patrons, bringing on a French military intervention and ultimately giving extremists a rallying cry to seize an Algerian gas field, leading to the deaths of at least 38 hostages.
“They told me they didn’t want to have anything more to do with me,” recalled Mr. Ag Ghali’s representative in Algeria, Mohamed Ag Aharib. The militant offensive in Mali, which set off the deadly chain of events, “really shocked the Algerians,” he said.
For months, the United States and French officials upheld Algeria, with its counterterrorism know-how and the biggest military budget in Africa, as the linchpin in resolving the threat of Islamist extremism in Mali.
But Algeria helped maintain its dominance of the Sahara by playing favorites among the various armed groups plaguing its neighbor, a policy that backfired tragically last month and failed to achieve its most basic aim: to push the problem away.
The tangled web of allies and interests across the volatile region underscore the unique difficulties the French and the African forces could face as they begin to wrest control of Mali’s north from the jihadists who have held sway there for almost a year.
Chasing a few hundred foreign fighters inspired by religious zeal from the vast, trackless area would be challenge enough. But the forces shaping the conflict are far more complicated than that, driven by personal ambitions, old rivalries, tribal politics, the relationship between militants and states, and even the fight for control of the lucrative drug trade.
All of these power struggles have helped shape the fate of the region — and they will almost surely continue long after the battle to recapture the north is over.
“We have two kinds of logic looking at these organizations and these people,” Georg Klute, a professor at the University of Bayreuth, Germany, said of the mosaic of rebels, bandits and Islamist militants in the region. “One is the ideology. The other is the local logic.”
Mr. Ag Ghali’s own evolution is a case in point. A charismatic Tuareg aristocrat who for years had been alternatively leading rebellions in the desert and helping tamp them down, he once functioned as a liaison for European governments seeking to pay huge ransoms to release kidnapped tourists. He was even named Mali’s consul general in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, from 2007 to 2009.
“He has been on both sides of everything,” said Gregory Mann, an associate professor of African history at Columbia University.
Even Mr. Ag Ghali’s pivotal decision to form Ansar Dine, one of the Islamist groups that seized northern Mali last year, stemmed as much from local politics and personal ambition as his newfound devotion to enforcing a puritanical form of Islam.
In late 2011, scholars say, he made a bid to become head of his Tuareg tribe — a position that would have put him at the forefront of northern Mali’s struggle for autonomy. When he was rebuffed, Mr. Ag Ghali struck out on his own and formed Ansar Dine, branding it as a religiously inspired alternative to the more secular Tuaregs.
Though Algeria is brutally intolerant of Islamist militants — having fought a bloody war against them in the 1990s that ultimately led to the creation of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — it found common ground with Mr. Ag Ghali. Ansar Dine may have been religious, but its ambitions did not seem to challenge Algeria directly. By contrast, the Tuaregs, newly fueled with nationalists returning from Libya, were demanding independence, frightening Algeria that its own minorities might become inspired as well.
The Algerians gambled that “Ansar Dine could be a counterweight to these attempts to erecting an independent Tuareg state,” Professor Klute said, so “they closed their eyes when Ansar Dine crossed the border” for “gas, cars, spare parts.”
All through the fall of 2012, as Mr. Ag Ghali’s fighters lorded over civilians in northern Mali and the world made plans to oust them and other militants by force, his men were in Algiers negotiating with the government, promising peace and signing agreements. This continued despite ample evidence that Mr. Ag Ghali had become a committed ally of Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb — Algeria’s sworn enemy — receiving arms, weapons, men and other material from the group.
“The ties were very strong,” Mr. Aharib, Mr. Ag Ghali’s representative here, said. “They shared the spoils. They worked side-by-side.”
Rather than denouncing Ansar Dine, the Algerians appeared intent on preserving the alliance, hoping to pry it away from the religious extremists and portray it as a solution to the crisis in Mali.
“A man of his word, a man one can trust,” a retired senior Algerian diplomat said of Mr. Ag Ghali in a recent interview.
“A calm and polite man, who knows what he wants,” echoed a retired ranking officer in the Algerian military.
Algerian officials publicly scoffed at fears that northern Mali had been lost to Islamist militancy, and on Dec. 23, Algeria’s foreign minister hailed a peace deal involving Ansar Dine as a “very encouraging step.” The day after, however, an Ansar Dine spokesman in Timbuktu announced that the group would destroy all of the city’s remaining aboveground mausoleums — sacred to the city’s residents — in the name of Allah.
But then Mr. Ag Ghali did not stick to his scripted role. In January, he joined the other jihadists in pushing farther south into Mali, precipitating the French military intervention that Algeria wanted to avoid.
“He decided this with his other jihadist comrades,” Mr. Aharib said of the push into southern Mali. It led to a break within the group, he said: “This was too much for us. We didn’t look favorably on this at all.”
The consequences unfolded quickly. Algerian citizens were enraged that their government allowed the French to use its airspace to carry out the military campaign. Within days, Islamist extremists stormed a remote gas field in the Algerian desert, calling it vengeance for the French assault and Algeria’s compliance with it. At least 38 hostages were killed. The image of Algeria as the regional powerhouse that had conquered terrorism was suddenly, perhaps irrevocably, undermined.
“This is really a failure of their strategy,” said Anouar Boukhars, an expert on North Africa at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It was flawed from the get-go.”
In the aftermath, Mr. Aharib and some others in Ansar Dine announced last week that they had split off from the group because they were “moderates.” For now, Mr. Aharib has saved his room at the hotel in Algiers. With the Islamists of northern Mali in full retreat as a result of the French military campaign, Mr. Ag Ghali is on the run somewhere in the desert.
Yet the Algerians have not given up hope of working with Ansar Dine, or at least some iteration of it.
“I’m sure Ansar Dine can be brought around,” said a senior Algerian official, the day before Mr. Aharib’s announcement. “There must be a renewal of dialogue.”
Adam Nossiter reported from Algiers, and Neil MacFarquhar from New York. Hadjer Guenanfa contributed reporting from Algiers.
February 1, 2013
Islamists’ Harsh Rule Awakened Ethnic Tensions in Timbuktu
By LYDIA POLGREEN
TIMBUKTU, Mali — Zahby Ould Ibrahim’s general store was looted to the studs this week. The horde that descended upon it took not just the shop’s stock of pots, pans and bedding but the electric sockets, the light bulbs and the doorframe, too.
A few shops away, Mahamane Dguitteye’s grocery store, its shelves lined with packets of spaghetti, bottles of olive oil and bars of soap, was completely untouched.
The main difference between the men? Mr. Ibrahim is an Arab. Mr. Dguitteye is a black African of the Songhai ethnic group.
“They bypassed my shop because I am not an Islamist, I am not an Arab, I am not light skinned,” Mr. Dguitteye said. “So they let me be.”
The looting that took place here, along with reports of army executions of suspected Islamists and their allies, has raised fears that Mali, after two decades of peace among its many ethnic groups, is headed for a period of deep ethnic tension. That prospect is dampening the celebrations over the retaking of Timbuktu on Monday by French and Malian soldiers from the Islamist militants who occupied it.
The rebellion in Mali started with disgruntled members of the Tuareg ethnic group, who have risen up three times since Mali won its independence from France in 1960 to demand a state of their own. But Islamists with links to an extremist group, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, quickly overran the secular rebels. They planned to turn northern Mali into an Islamic state, and some ethnic Arabs and black Africans joined their cause.
These alliances have driven deep wedges in this crossroads city, where the two ancient superhighways of the Sahara — the fabled caravan route and the Niger River — meet, bringing travelers from far and wide who have long found ways to live together in relative peace.
“Before, we were friends,” said Dramane Cissé, the imam of one of the city’s most important mosques. “But this is not the first time the Tuaregs have made trouble. They brought calamity on us. After this, the relationship will not be the same.”
These tensions could be exacerbated by calls to negotiate with the secular Tuareg rebels, whose uprising in January 2012 started the crisis.
France, whose troops helped push the Islamists from the northern towns they held, are pressing for African troops to come garrison the cities of northern Mali before the rains arrive in March, and they are pressing President Dioncounda Traoré to start negotiations quickly with Tuareg rebels in the north, most of whom do not hold radical Islamist views.
The majority of Tuaregs, the French contend, will agree to remain in a sovereign Mali with more guarantees of political autonomy, and the French hope that a deal will lead to early national elections. The Foreign Ministry has called on the Malian government to open talks with “legitimate representatives” and “non-terrorist armed groups” in the north, a clear reference to the more secular Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, known as the M.N.L.A.
That is a message that President François Hollande of France is likely to reiterate when he meets with Mr. Traoré in the central town of Sévaré on Saturday and then travels with him to meet with French and Malian forces stationed here.
The Malian government has said it is open to talks with the rebel movement, which has dissociated itself from the Islamists, as long as it gives up its demand for full Tuareg independence. But the government has ruled out talks with Islamist groups, including Ansar Dine.
Several days after the looting ended, a group of young men had gathered, shiftless and bored in front of Mr. Ibrahim’s shop, Boutique Najat. They explained why they had taken part in the spree.
“We are punishing them for what they did to us,” said Aboukarime, a 17-year-old student who would give only his first name. “We suffered under the Islamists. They beat our mothers. They must pay.”
His friend Mohammed chimed in.
“After what they have done we cannot forgive that,” he said. “They can never come back here.”
Such sentiments were painful to Siolina Cissé, a tall, pale-skinned man with light brown eyes whose lineage is a mix of Arab and Songhai.
“Our religion is one of tolerance,” said Mr. Cissé, a Koranic scholar whose family has been teaching Arabic and the Koran to the children of Timbuktu for centuries. “We forget things quickly. But the trust has been broken.”
Asked if he worried that his light skin might make him a target of ethnic violence, Mr. Cissé laughed.
“There is scarcely a child in this village that I have not taught to read the Koran,” he said. “I am well known as a son of Timbuktu.”
But there are good reasons to be concerned about reprisals against people of ethnic groups associated with the Islamist and Tuareg rebels, human rights groups warned.
“Over a dozen witnesses told Human Rights Watch that pro-government militias and youth groups have prepared lists of those who would be targeted for retaliation if government forces retake the north,” Human Rights Watch said in a report released in December.
The Malian Army has been accused of executing suspected militants, and has faced accusations of torture and other mistreatment.
Three men suspected of being Islamist militants who were arrested near the town of Léré told The Associated Press that they had been subjected to a form of waterboarding.
“To force me to talk they poured 40 liters of water in my mouth and over my nostrils, which made it so that I could not breathe anymore,” one of the men, who gave his name as Ali Guindo, told The A.P. “For a moment I thought I was even going to die.”
In Timbuktu, residents said it would take a long time for the old ways of coexistence to return.
“In Timbuktu, we are not racists,” Mr. Dguitteye said. “But people are angry. They feel betrayed. The trust is lost.”
Steven Erlanger contributed reporting from Munich, Eric Schmitt from Washington and Scott Sayare from Paris.
François Hollande visits Timbuktu as Mali intervention declared successful
With the key phase of France's campaign over, it is unclear whether lasting peace or a simmering guerrilla war will follow
Conal Urquhart, Luke Harding in Mopti and Angelique Chrisafis in Paris
guardian.co.uk, Saturday 2 February 2013 11.46 GMT
The French president, accompanied by his ministers for defence and foreign affairs, landed in Sevare in central Mali before travelling north.
Until just over a week ago, fighters from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb controlled Timbuktu, torching its showpiece library of ancient manuscripts in a vengeful departing act. They retreated from the town without firing a shot.
Malians have overwhelmingly welcomed France's military operation, which has involved 3,700 ground troops. Their own unelected leaders failed to stop a rebel advance last year, which meant the towns of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal fell under Islamist rule. French, Malian and other African forces have retaken all three.
But with the major phase of the French campaign over, there is uncertainty about what comes next: a lasting peace or, as seems more probable, a simmering guerrilla war. There are also questions about the human rights record of Mali's army. In separate reports, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch accused the military on Friday of carrying out extrajudicial killings.
Hollande's visit comes after the UN's adviser on the prevention of genocide, Adama Dieng, warned of the increasing risk of reprisal attacks against ethnic Tuareg and Arab civilian populations in the Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao regions.
"While the liberation of towns once under the control of the rebel and extremist groups has brought hope to the populations of northern Mali, I am deeply concerned at the risk of reprisal attacks against ethnic Tuareg and Arab civilians," he said.
"There have been serious allegations of human rights violations committed by the Malian army, including summary executions and disappearances, in Sevare, Mopti, Niono and other towns close to the areas where fighting has
occurred. There have also been reports of incidents of mob lynching and looting of properties belonging to Arab and Tuareg communities. These communities are reportedly being accused of supporting armed groups, based simply on their ethnic affiliation."
Some Malians, meanwhile, are unhappy about negotiations in Kidal between French forces and the MNLA, a secular Tuareg nationalist militia that has been fighting in the south for decades. The MNLA wants an independent republic – something Dioncounda Traoré, Mali's interim president, has categorically ruled out.
France's defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, has declared the intervention a success, while recognising that Mali's situation is not secure. He also said Malians should now establish a reconciliation process, but this call has left some unhappy. "I welcome the French, but I'm extremely angry they are talking to the MNLA," Ibrahim al-Senussi, a corporal in Mali's army, said. "The MNLA are liars and traitors."
The fate of several French hostages held by Islamist groups is likely to feature in any private dialogue between Paris and northern Malian leaders. Some 11 westerners are being held by jihadist forces, it is believed, including three tourists who were kidnapped from their Timbuktu hotel in 2011. A German who resisted was shot dead.
There has been no information on the hostages, but the remote mountains north of Kidal have previously been a haven for radical Islamist guerrillas. French fighter jets bombed the area on Thursday.
Most of the French public back the intervention in Mali, even if it is not their top concern. A poll this week suggested Hollande's swift decision to deploy troops had boosted his presidential stature and approval ratings slightly. But pollsters said despite a small bounce in his ratings, Hollande's status remained "fragile". The president is unpopular because of high unemployment and the economic crisis.
This week he said French and African forces in Mali were "winning the battle", but the joint African force taking over must continue the pursuit of Islamists in the north. France is due to gradually hand over to a UN-backed African force of some 8,000 soldiers. Its job will be to secure northern towns and pursue militants into their mountain redoubts near Algeria's border, but timings remain unclear.
Mali needs more than a call to arms
West Africa's al-Qaida clones are neither religious nor political. The world is facing viral mutations of the human psyche
The Guardian, Friday 1 February 2013 19.49 GMT
My mind, frankly, was on anything but peace as I entered the United Nations conference hall to participate in a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence event. On that same day – 21 September 2012 – yet another UN resolution had been released on the crisis in Mali. I felt overwhelmed by the ponderousness of the UN machine. That the UN, in association with African political leaders, recognised the danger posed by fundamentalist aggression to the Sahel and west Africa was not in doubt. The sense of urgency, however, lagged so far behind my own that it was a marvel I did not invade the conference hall with a banner, screaming: TAKE BACK MALI – YESTERDAY!
The security council had already set out a "roadmap" for a west African force of intervention in the Sahel – it required the secretary general to report back on "progress" a few months later. This, it struck me, was an instruction not to the secretary general, but to the fundamentalist invaders to report to the world on the progress they would have made in destroying the ancient libraries of Timbuktu; amputating the arms of a few more Malians; and stoning to death deviationists from their "moral code".
It was an invitation to Ansar Dine's allies Boko Haram to nudge a few more terminators into Nigeria; demolish a few more educational, cultural and religious institutions; eliminate what was left of the UN presence after its bomb attack on the UN HQ in Abuja; and continue its project of unleashing death and destruction in southern Nigeria.
Before the conference, I had button-holed senior Nigerian officials at every opportunity. None needed any persuasion about the danger to west Africa if the fundamentalist menace were not contained, rapidly. President Jonathan himself, I was assured, was sensitive to the ramifications of Mali's northern takeover. So were a number of African heads of state. What was lacking was the practical preparedness for action. To any student of the fundamentalist temperament, this imperative of urgent response should be second nature. Africa's political leadership should be in a state of permanent consciousness – and responsiveness. We are not novices, after all, to the ruthless nature of fundamentalist insurgency, its territorial desperation and, above all, its contempt for humanity.
Logically, Mali's neighbours should have taken the initiative – and within weeks of the expansion of what had been a local, opportunistic insurgency into the global arena. As it was, evidence accumulated that northern Mali had been infiltrated by al-Qaida fighters dislodged from Libya, Somalia and other former sanctuaries, as was acknowledged by the Nigerian government.
Nevertheless, in the end, it took a former colonial power to seize the leadership. Humiliating? Not quite. This invasion was not just a Malian affair, or even an African one: it was a global challenge. It had become clear that a few more weeks of inaction would have empowered Mali's invaders and, by extension, the murderous campaign of Nigeria's own Boko Haram.
Unlike most commentators, I confess that I find it impossible to regard these al-Qaida clones as either political or religious movements, even of the extremist kind. That their ability to recruit footsoldiers is a reflection on society's failures is not in doubt; nonetheless, it is naive to attribute this solely to unemployment, marginalisation and other social inequities. The world is facing viral mutations of the human psyche. Take Joseph Kony, the Christian warrior of Uganda whose idea of "resistance" is child conscription, abduction and rape, spiced with the slicing off of lips, ears and noses of unbelievers. People such as he belong to a special category that is part-criminal, part-psychopathic – hence my warning to that UN meeting:
"Let us recall that it is not anti-Muslims who have lately desecrated and destroyed – and with such fiendish self-righteousness – the tombs of Muslim saints in Timbuktu … The orientation – backed by declarations – of these violators leaves us with a foreboding that the invaluable library treasures of Timbuktu may be next."
The truth, alas, is that the science fiction archetype of the mad scientist who craves to dominate the world has been replaced by the mad cleric who can only conceive of the world in his own image, proudly flaunting James Bond's 007 credentials – licensed to kill. The sooner national leaders and genuine religious leaders understand this, and admit that no nation lacks its own dangerous lunatics, be they Ansar Dine of Mali, or Terry Jones of Florida, the earlier they will turn their attention to the issues truly deserving priority.
The treasures of Timbuktu appear to have been saved from total destruction. Mali, finally, is being restored. For Africa's leadership, however, it is yet another wake-up call – and one that goes beyond a mere call to arms.
Originally published Friday, February 1, 2013 at 9:03 PM
North Korea threatens US over rocket launches
The Associated Press
SEOUL, South Korea —
North Korea is threatening to retaliate for what it calls U.S. double standards over recent rocket launches by Pyongyang and U.S. ally Seoul.
A North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman did not elaborate on what that might entail in his comments Saturday to the official Korean Central News Agency. But Pyongyang has recently threatened to conduct its third nuclear test in response to what it calls U.S. hostility.
Washington says Seoul's rocket launch Wednesday had no military intent while Pyongyang's in December was a test of banned ballistic missile technology.
The U.N. Security Council has imposed new sanctions on Pyongyang for its launch. Pyongyang says it should be allowed to launch satellites for peaceful purposes.
Both Koreas say their satellites are working properly. U.S. experts say Pyongyang's satellite is apparently malfunctioning.
February 1, 2013
North Korea Covers Tunnel at a Nuclear Site
By CHOE SANG-HUN
SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea has put a cover over the entrance of a tunnel at its main underground nuclear test site to foil American intelligence efforts to determine whether a detonation there is imminent, a South Korean military official and media reported on Friday.
The news comes a day after a South Korean general said “brisk” activity had been spotted at the site. North Korea has said it will conduct a third nuclear test to retaliate against the United Nations Security Council’s unanimous decision last month to respond to a rocket test by tightening sanctions on the country. The North’s media cited the country’s top leader, Kim Jong-un, as ordering his military and government last week to take “high-profile” measures, suggesting that the test might happen soon despite international warnings against it.
In recent months, American and South Korean officials have detected new tunneling activities and what appeared to be other efforts to prepare for another underground test at the site, Punggye-ri in northeastern North Korea, where the country conducted tests in 2006 and 2009.
The North Korean threats have kept officials and analysts in the region on tenterhooks as any test is likely to aggravate tensions on the Korean Peninsula and anger the United States and other western countries alarmed at the North’s recent advances in its arms programs. Earthquake monitoring stations and military planes are on standby to detect seismic tremors and measure increased radiation in the air in case of a detonation. American and South Korean officials have been scrutinizing daily updates from satellite imagery of the Punggye-ri site, which features three tunnels dug into a 7,380-foot-tall mountain.
Still, predicting when a test might happen has been difficult because the satellites cannot observe what is going on underground. So the officials had been zeroing in on the entrance of the newest of the tunnels, where a test is considered most likely.
The South Korean military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media on the record, said on Friday that the tunnel was covered recently. South Korean news media, including the national Yonhap news agency, also cited military sources on Friday in reporting the recent covering.
As the developments were unfolding, the U.S.S. San Francisco, a nuclear submarine, was docked at the Jinhae naval base on the southern coast of South Korea ahead of a joint American-South Korean submarine exercise slated for next week. Gen. Jung Seung-jo of the army said the drill was not timed to a possible nuclear test, but added that South Korea and the United States were guarding against possible North Korean provocations involving submarines.
In 2010, a South Korean warship exploded and sank, killing 46 sailors. The United States and South Korea blamed a torpedo attack by a North Korean submarine, despite denials from the North.
American nuclear submarines have occasionally visited South Korean naval ports, and North Korea has often cited such port calls in justifying its efforts to build what it calls a “nuclear deterrence.”
January 31, 2013
Armenian Presidential Candidate Shot
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — The shooting of a presidential candidate threw Armenia's election into disarray Friday, with the wounded victim saying he will call for a delay of the vote.
Paruir Airikian, 63, was shot and wounded by an unidentified assailant outside his home in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, on Thursday just before midnight. Airikian said from the hospital after surgery Friday that he would initiate proceedings as allowed by the constitution to delay the vote for 15 days due to his condition, but not longer.
He is one of eight candidates in the Feb. 18 race in this landlocked former Soviet republic and wasn't expected to get more than 1 percent of the vote. But postponing the election could help opponents of President Serge Sarkisian, who was expected to easily win a second five-year term.
Sarkisian said after visiting Airikian in the hospital that the perpetrators of the attack "obviously had an intention to influence the normal election process."
Armenia — a landlocked nation of 3 million people bordering Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran and Turkey in the volatile Caucasus — has been known for its turbulent and often violent politics. A 1999 attack on Parliament by six gunmen killed the prime minister, the speaker and six other officials and lawmakers.
In 2006, a deputy chief of tax police was blown up in his car. Police found the man who placed explosives in the vehicle, but failed to determine who ordered the killing.
In March 2008, clashes between police and supporters of former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, who lost to Sarkisian in a vote the previous month, left 10 people dead and more than 250 injured. Later that year, a deputy police chief was shot and killed in the elevator of his apartment building, a slaying that remains unsolved.
Sarkisian, a conservative, has stolen the opposition's thunder by talking with critics and allowing opposition protests. In 2009, the Parliament granted a sweeping amnesty to hundreds of people detained for taking part in the post-election violence.
Sarkisian also has overseen a return to economic growth after years of stagnation and has managed to reduce the country's endemic poverty. Recent opinion surveys show him getting the support of up to 70 percent of the population.
"Sarkisian has a clear advantage ... and he doesn't need destabilization," said Stepan Grigorian, an independent political analyst.
He said Sarkisian is poised to win the vote anyway, but if he performs worse than initially expected, that could give more leverage to fringe groups. "That could make the president more dependent on such marginal groups," Grigorian said.
Sarkisian's closest rival is Raffi Hovanessian, a former foreign minister who has campaigned on populist promises to sharply increase state salaries and pensions.
Hovanessian also has pledged to recognize the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh, a stance favored by nationalists. The Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan and some adjacent territory have been under the control of Armenian troops and local ethnic Armenian forces since a six-year war ended with a truce in 1994.
Armenia has faced severe economic challenges caused by the closing of its borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey because of the conflict and international efforts to mediate a settlement have produced no result. Sarkisian, like his predecessors, has stopped short of recognizing the territory as independent.
At the same time, he has taken a tough stance on other foreign policy issues, pushing strongly for international recognition that the killings of some 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915 constituted genocide. Turkey has furiously opposed that.
Armenian Parliament Speaker Ovik Abramian, who visited the wounded candidate in the hospital, said Friday that the attack was a "blow to the Armenian statehood" and that the election could now be delayed. The nation's election chief, however, has not commented on the possibility.
Armenia's constitution requires the vote to be postponed for two weeks if one of the candidates is unable to take part due to circumstances beyond his control. A further 40-day delay beyond that is also possible.
"I have no intention to seek a 40-day delay as I realize that we are in a process that needs to be finalized," Airikian said in televised remarks from the hospital. "But I will have to choose the option of postponing the vote by 15 days."
Yerevan Clinical Hospital's chief doctor, Ara Minasian, said Airikian was being treated for a single gunshot wound and remained in stable condition. Doctors successfully operated to remove a bullet in his shoulder.
Airikian, an also-ran in three previous Armenian presidential elections, was a dissident during Soviet times. He was first arrested by the KGB when he was 20, and spent 17 years in prison, according to his party.
In 1987, after Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev launched his liberal reforms, Airikian created the National Self-Determination Party. When the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan erupted the next year, he accused the Soviet authorities of stirring up violence and was evicted from the country.
Airikian soon returned to his homeland and in the 1990s had senior positions in Armenia's parliament and government.
On Friday, Airikian blamed ex-Soviet KGB agents of launching the attack.
"I would sincerely say that I see the style of special services of a foreign state, which haunted me for so long, not Russia, but its predecessor," Airikian said. He added that they could have been worried by his push for Armenia's closer integration into Europe.
Armenia has an economic and security pact with Russia and also hosts a Russian military base.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland condemned the shooting of Airikian, adding that Washington expects the Armenian government to ensure a fair vote in line with the law.
"If he's unable to campaign, we obviously call on Armenians to settle this constitutionally in a way that assures that these elections go forward in a way that is free and fair and protects the rights of all candidates," she said.
February 1, 2013
Novella’s Sympathetic Portrayal of Armenians Causes Uproar in Azerbaijan
By SHAHLA SULTANOVA
BAKU, Azerbaijan —A novella by an Azeri author that portrays ethnic Armenians sympathetically has provoked an uproar in Azerbaijan, with Azeri lawmakers denouncing the work and protesters burning the author’s portrait outside his house.
The novella, “Stone Dreams,” was published in mid-December by Ekrem Eylisli, a former lawmaker, but condemnation grew strident only over the last week, after mainstream news outlets began reporting on and discussing it.
On Thursday, a crowd of several dozen people gathered around Mr. Eylisli’s house and burned his portrait. At a session of Azerbaijan’s Parliament on Friday, lawmakers attacked the novel, with one recommending that Mr. Eylisli be stripped of his citizenship and urging him to move to Armenia.
Another lawmaker, Melahet Ibrahimqizi, said, “He insulted not only Azerbaijanis, but the whole Turkish nation,” a reference to passages in the book that discuss historical Turkish violence toward Armenians.
The work tells the story of two Azeri men who try to protect their Armenian neighbors from ethnic violence, an incendiary topic in Azerbaijan, a country still gripped by the war it fought two decades ago with Armenia. Since the war ended, Azerbaijan has been trying to regain control of Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly ethnically Armenian enclave within its borders, and secure the return of Azeris who were forced from their homes.
Mr. Eylisli, 75, said he knew there might be an uproar over his book, which he finished in 2007. He said he decided to publish it last year in a relatively obscure Russian-language journal, Friendship of Peoples, because Russian-language speakers tend to be better educated and more progressive.
“Armenians are not enemies for me,” he said in an interview. “How can they be? I am a writer living in the 21st century. A solution to Nagorno-Karabakh is being delayed, and hostility is growing between the two nations. I want to contribute to a peaceful solution.”
He added that he was shocked by the ferocity of the reaction. “I did not say anything insulting, I did not betray my country,” he said. “I describe how an Azerbaijani helps an Armenian. What is bad about this?”
On Friday, protesters placed a copy of the journal containing “Stone Dreams” in a coffin and held a mock funeral at a monument in honor of Azeris who were killed in the war.
Via social media, young people discussed passages in the book that they found particularly distasteful, like a description of the young hero’s impulse to convert to Christianity and “ask God to forgive Muslims for what they did to the Armenians.” Armenia is predominantly Christian, while most Azeris are Muslim.
Qan Turali, 28, a popular novelist, said he saw the book’s artistic merit but believed that Mr. Eylisli had chosen the wrong time to publish a book portraying Armenians in a positive light.
“He is a great writer, the novel is good, but the time is not right,” he said. “Azeri people still feel pain and are aggressive. Instead of increasing tolerance toward Armenians, the writer caused more hatred.”
He said Mr. Eylisli’s work would have been received better if he had added depictions of Azeris being killed by Armenians. Another writer, Oktay Hajimusali, 32, was blunter, saying that it is “nonsense to promote peace with Armenians.”
Ellen Barry contributed reporting from Moscow.
Romania: New mediation law still in question
1 February 2013
Romanian criminal cases ranging from robbery to rape may now be settled by a mediator rather than in court. A new law that went into effect on February 1 aims to reduce the backlog in the courts and to promote social peace. But there is a risk is that it will fail because it is too ambiguous and difficult to interpret.
As was to be expected, the law, proposed by Alina Gorghiu of the National Liberal Party, caused a wave of protest in civil society and in the media, which brands it "aberrant". Yet the issue is not that the new law allows one to "buy" one's innocence or that it puts a price on rape. Nor is it that it is considered unconstitutional.
The real problem is whether or not the new system is optional – on this point ambiguity remains. Alina Gorghiu says that "the victim is not obligated to attend an informational meeting or mediation," while the spokesperson for the National Mediation Council claims that the informational meeting is mandatory.
Mercantile or beneficial?
Assuming that one knows what is good for the victims better than the victims themselves opens the door to all sorts of abuse. On the other hand, mediation between victim and aggressor is what is known as "restorative justice" and is aimed at making citizens, rather than the state, responsible for keeping the wheels of justice turning properly. In face-to-face meetings between victims and aggressors, the guilty parties can admit guilt and the victims can ask for what they believe is adequate compensation for the injury inflicted. If in Romania victims can ask for an excuse or for money, in the United States they can ask for more, including that the aggressor move out of the area.
Some studies show that this type of justice facilitates victims' the return to normality because they feel they have been awarded a just reparation. Furthermore, it leads to a decline in the level of recidivism among the aggressors.
Contempt for others
Rape, in and of itself, shows contempt for another person's will. One person forces another to submit without consent. Keeping this in mind, it is astonishing that we nonetheless choose to force rape victims, yet again, to submit to a slew of procedures. There is a risk that the imbalance in favour of the aggressor will be increased even more at a time when helping the weakest should be the focus. Anyone proposing mandatory mediation is forgetting that the state must protect its citizens and respect their freedom.
Furthermore, the Council of Europe's recommendation regarding the new law stipulates that victims must be provided the option of mediation but that in no instance should it be obligatory.
Talks regarding amending the mediation bill are symbolic of the level of public policy debates in Romania. Journalists are accustomed to politicians churning out aberrant laws, so they criticise. The worst part is that we now find ourselves with a law that cannot be interpreted. Good intentions that provide bad results tend to be rather harmful.
Point of view: Is forgiveness a Romanian gene?
"We have to think about how Romanian society will cope with this law and whether it is adapted to the mind-set of the people," says lawyer Andrei Nistor in an article published by financial weekly Capital. Showing a pinch of scepticism, he says that "mediation, as it stands, needs strong support [from the public] in order for it to make a place for itself within a very rigid system."
According to Nistor, the law "should, nonetheless, provide some genuine progress in unclogging the judicial system." He adds that divorce cases and partition disputes [over goods or property], for example, should be resolved more quickly.