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« Reply #4560 on: Feb 13, 2013, 08:17 AM »

02/13/2013 08:09 AM

Losing Steam: Massive Rail Project Haunts Merkel Campaign

The bottom appears to be falling out of one of the costliest construction projects ever undertaken by the German government. Amid delays and cost overruns, government players in the Stuttgart 21 train station venture are looking for the exit door. It could become a problem for Chancellor Merkel ahead of fall elections. By SPIEGEL Staff

German rail CEO Rüdiger Grube has suffered greatly as a result of Stuttgart 21, the controversial large-scale railway construction project in the major southern German city. Enraged citizens have called Grube a swindler and worse. He even received anonymous death threats when a section of Stuttgart's old railway station was demolished to make room for the new project.

Throughout all this, though, Grube knew he could rely on support from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her administration, the politicians who first elevated construction of a new transport hub to become a key issue for Germany in its role as an economic power.

But that support, too, now appears to be a thing of the past. Last week, three state secretaries from the German government paid a visit to Deutsche Bahn's headquarters in Berlin, where they spent four hours questioning Grube on Stuttgart 21, calling into doubt nearly every bit of planning Grube had ever drafted for the project.

Michael Odenwald, a state secretary at the German Transport Ministry, along with his counterparts Hans Bernhard Beus from the Finance Ministry and Bernhard Heitzer from the Economics Ministry, also hold seats on the supervisory board of Deutsche Bahn, which is currently 100 percent owned by the German government. The three government officials queried Grube's projected costs for the undertaking, also finding fault with its sloppy planning and lack of alternative options. They were particularly relentless on the matter of Deutsche Bahn's estimate of the cost if the project were to be called off: an additional €2 billion ($2.7 billion).

The three state secretaries called that approximation into question, saying there was "cause to believe these costs are artificially inflated." Grube was stunned by this expression of mistrust from his government watchdogs. "Does the government still support Stuttgart 21?" he asked the representatives. Individuals who were present for the discussion say he never got a clear answer. The Deutsche Bahn CEO feels he's been abandoned by the same politicians who have been pushing for the project since 1995.

Containing Collateral Damage

One of the most expensive construction projects the German government has ever undertaken now looks unlikely ever to be completed. Chancellor Merkel's Christian Democrats have already lost a state election in Baden-Württemberg as well as a municipal election in the state's capital of Stuttgart over the issue, with the Green Party installing the governor and the mayor. Now the controversy surrounding this regional train station threatens to impact the national election in September as well.

That's an outcome none of the project's major players wants, and all of them are hurrying to distance themselves as much as possible from Stuttgart 21 and its problems. No one wants to take responsibility for the delays and billions in additional costs the project has run up. Instead, those involved with the project are looking for a more or less acceptable way to shut down the entire venture -- and to keep it from causing collateral damage in Berlin just months before the country's voters head to the polls.

The situation strikes particularly close to home for the state secretaries who also serve on Deutsche Bahn's supervisory board. They have watched the debacle over Berlin's much-delayed new airport unfold over the last months, and know that auditors and lawyers will examine whether to hold not only the project's managers but also the supervisory board accountable for the financial problems that have arisen in the course of the airport's construction.

The government representatives on the Deutsche Bahn supervisory board don't want to let things get that far in the case of Stuttgart 21, so they're stopping CEO Grube in his tracks early on. The chancellor and Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer have every interest in avoiding the same sort of political disgrace that has now enveloped the Berlin airport's two principle constructors, Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit and Matthias Platzeck, governor of the state of Brandenburg, which surrounds Berlin.

Only Greens Benefit from Problems

Even the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD) is getting nervous. Strategists at the party's Berlin headquarters are watching anxiously as their colleagues in Stuttgart continue to fight a losing battle to see the construction project through -- and in doing so, risk losing their party considerable support in the federal elections to be held in September.

At the moment, only the Green Party is benefiting from the situation. "Ramsauer already holds a considerable share of the responsibility for the Berlin airport," says Green Party co-chair Cem Özdemir. "I'm very curious to see if and how the CDU's leading candidate Merkel plans to enter the parliamentary election campaign weighed down by these two major construction project debacles."

The three state secretaries who sit on the Deutsche Bahn supervisory board met for a crisis summit last Thursday, in the hope of preventing any further damage. The three supervisory board members had plenty to talk about -- they were not satisfied with the information they had received from Grube two days before.

"The more I look into this matter, the more skeptical I become," said one supervisory board member. "Does it really make sense to keep hanging on to Stuttgart 21?"

The three state secretaries want to get the Deutsche Bahn supervisory board to call a special session as soon as possible. The date currently under discussion for the meeting is March 5, and the supervisory board would then instruct Deutsche Bahn's executive board to begin discussing with the other parties involved in the project -- the state of Baden-Württemberg, as well as both the city and region of Stuttgart -- how to allocate responsibility for the project's over-budget expenses.

One option the federal government would consider is that of having the project's local partners take on all costs that relate to landscaping around the railway station. It isn't Deutsche Bahn's responsibility, says one supervisory board member, to fund the city of Stuttgart's landscaping. "If the city and the state want it to look nice, they need to do that at their own expense," he says.

No Longer Economically Feasible

Such strategies, though, are essentially just playing for time. The state secretaries know it's highly unlikely that Stuttgart will contribute even a single euro more to this project that has grown so unpopular there and has become such a lightning rod for mass protests. Ultimately, most of the additional costs will end up being shouldered by Deutsche Bahn.

That's why the three state secretaries want to know as precisely as possible what risks the federal government faces as Deutsche Bahn's sole owner. All project figures so far have been calculated either by Deutsche Bahn's executive board or by external consultants the board hired, and the government is no longer willing to rely on those numbers.

The mistrust that has arisen between the supervisory board and Deutsche Bahn's management is considerable. Grube and his executives, the supervisory board says, must have known by last summer at the latest about the billions in excess costs, but the board says it wasn't informed until shortly before its December session.

Now Deutsche Bahn is paying a high price for that presumed sleight of hand. The supervisory board wants to know, for example, exactly why the project still hasn't found a technical solution for over 1,000 supply lines it needs, or why the purchase of more than 2,700 land lots still isn't complete.

What Happens Then?
Current estimates show the project costing at least €2.3 billion more than originally planned. If Deutsche Bahn is required to pay that entire amount, the project will no longer be economically feasible for the company and will result in financial losses, the Deutsche Bahn executive board admitted to the supervisory board last week.

The question now is which route will be less financially painful -- cancelling the project or continuing it? "If it turns out that cancelling the project would lead to even greater losses than continuing it," reads a Deutsche Bahn statement submitted to the supervisory board, then "the danger of a negative return on equity capital" could be an acceptable risk to take. That ending the project would in fact be more expensive, the statement continued, appears to be "at least a possibility, according to the current state of our knowledge."

The state secretaries, though, don't find the projected €2 billion for closing down the project realistic. In reviewing Deutsche Bahn's plans, they found items included in the calculations that weren't actually connected to Stuttgart 21, or that they felt were assessed at too high a rate.

For example, the cost of buying back plots of land that had been sold to the city of Stuttgart was put at €795 million. These properties, however, were recorded as being worth just €25 million when they still belonged to Deutsche Bahn. The state secretaries also found that the calculations included €17.6 million for engineering work that was carried out not as part of Stuttgart 21, but rather during the construction of a new high-speed rail line between the Stuttgart suburb Wendlingen and Ulm, a city of around 125,000 along the main railway route to Munich. The compensation payments to contractors also seemed to be calculated quite generously at €486 million. Deutsche Bahn based that sum on an assertion that contractors would supposedly be entitled to 30 percent of any contract that was cancelled. But that, says one Deutsche Bahn insider, is "complete nonsense." Deutsche Bahn, meanwhile, insists its calculations are correct.

Government Considers External Audit

Since it has been difficult for the three state secretaries on the supervisory board to check the validity of Deutsche Bahn's figures, they are now considering bringing in external inspectors. In a few months' time, those inspectors' verdict could well be the deciding factor in whether or not Berlin shuts down Stuttgart 21.

In Stuttgart, opponents of the multi-billion-euro railway station are dusting off alternative scenarios they had set aside after losing a 2011 statewide referendum on the fate of the project.

One such scenario is the so-called "combination solution," which mediator Heiner Geissler, a former top CDU official, presented in summer 2011 as a possible compromise. In this variation of the plan, only four instead of eight platforms would need to be built underground for intercity trains, while regional trains would remain in the old, aboveground station.

Then there's the "terminus solution," known by its German abbreviation "K21," a rallying cry that can be seen adorning bright green tote bags around Stuttgart. This name actually encompasses at least a dozen different concepts, but all have one thing in common: They propose giving up on the underground station entirely, instead using the existing tracks in the current terminus-style station and renovating the station's historical main hall.

In Tübingen, just south of Stuttgart, Mayor Boris Palmer of the Green Party is one of the most prominent critics of the construction project, and he considers the K21 approach the best option. "This way the current railway station, which is fully functional, is simply retained," he says.

One of the most important points in favor of the terminus solution is its flexibility. "K21 is a modular construction concept that can be implemented in stages," Palmer explains. For example, he says, the first step could be to renovate the existing station building. After that, decisions could be made bit by bit concerning other measures, for example a possible link to the new stretch of track between Wendlingen and Ulm.

All together, Palmer says, the most recent estimates put the cost of this plan at between €1.3 billion and €1.7 billion, or around a quarter of the projected cost for the Stuttgart 21 project. Furthermore, he adds, the K21 approach "can be oriented according to the actual transportation needs and financial resources of the city and the state," whereas Stuttgart 21 is an "all or nothing" project. "That's just not a modern approach," Palmer believes.

Examining Alternatives

But while Palmer and others within the protest movement are hatching plans, the state government is consciously holding back. The government stands by its obligation to support the project, says the office of Baden-Württemberg Transport Minister Winfried Hermann of the Green Party, even though the minister himself has spent decades fighting Stuttgart 21.

Political relations remain tense between Baden-Württemberg's state government coalition partners, with the Green Party generally opposing the project and the SPD supporting it. One critical glance, one statement from the Green distancing themselves from the project, is enough to alarm members of the SPD. This is particularly true of Claus Schmiedel, head of the party's state parliamentary group, who seems to be trying to outdo the opposition in his declarations of how impossibly high the cost of stopping the project would be.

Baden-Württemberg's governor, Winfried Kretschmann of the Green Party, also curtly declared last week that "cancelling the project is not up for discussion." The struggle against Stuttgart 21 is what first brought the Green Party into office, but Kretschmann is trying to support his coalition partner, the SPD. The executive branch of the state government, he says, considers itself bound to honor the results of the 2011 referendum that established support for the project.

The Transport Ministry in Berlin likewise has not officially examined any alternative proposals. "If that were the case and it got out, there would be a serious uproar within the coalition," explains one insider. Still, the same individual believes that it's only a matter of time before the ministry receives the go-ahead to look at other possibilities. "We won't be able to make an objective assessment of the current situation until our specialists are finally allowed to start examining the alternatives in detail," says one ministry official.

Members of an alliance of organizations working to stop Stuttgart 21 don't want to wait that long. Hannes Rockenbauch, a Stuttgart city council member, has been part of the Stuttgart 21 protest movement since 2007 and says he's clear on what the next steps should be.

"Five million euros to €10 million would be enough to straighten back out the worst of Deutsche Bahn's mistakes on the existing station," he says, adding that there would be plenty of time after that to discuss other options with the public. There is only one aspect in which Rockenbauch feels time is of the essence: "We're calling for construction to be halted immediately."


Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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« Reply #4561 on: Feb 13, 2013, 08:19 AM »

02/12/2013 05:48 PM

The Italian Patient: Resisting Berlusconi's Charms

By Fiona Ehlers and Alexander Smoltczyk

Silvio Berlusconi may be back with his customary bombastic campaign promises. But will the Italians bite? If they do, it could spell doom for the country. If they don't, Italy's tradition of political instability might return anyway.

The rumors had been swirling for days, and there were mysterious Tweets coming from a certain Berlusconi2013. Then, last Sunday, it was finally time for Berlusconi's big surprise, when he announced "la proposta shock," -- his big campaign promise. Critics promptly dubbed it a "proposta sciocca," or foolish proposal.

It was 12:32 p.m. in the old Milan convention center when Berlusconi explained that he not only intended to abolish the real estate tax but also wanted to reimburse those who have paid it by March -- in cash if necessary. "You can pick up your money at any post office," he says. "If you vote for me."

The announcement triggered shrieks of delight only three weeks before the election. "Silvio," one woman shouted, "you are a legend!" The financial markets were less impressed and immediately reacted negatively. Europe had believed this particular chapter was over. But there he was again, the undead of Italian politics, the gifted populist and vote-getter.

Berlusconi's promise zeroed in on a property tax levied on homeowners. Some 80 percent of Italians live in their own home and are subject to the payment, one that Prime Minister Mario Monti had reintroduced as part of his effort to clean up Italy's deficit-ridden government budget. The tax came due a week before Christmas.

It invigorated Berlusconi's fans, who began waving the flag of the party Berlusconi founded, "The People of Freedom" (PDL), and playing its 2008 campaign song, "Meno male che Silvio c'è," or "It's a Good Thing that We Have Silvio." The party is currently working on a new campaign song.

"Vote-buying" and "corruption," Monti cried. "Demagoguery," shouted the center-left camp led by Pier Luigi Bersani, but they sounded like spoilsports.

The Mummy Has Returned

Berlusconi upped the ante a day later, promising an amnesty for tax evaders, of which there are many in Italy. The amount of tax revenue lost to tax evasion -- some €120 billion ($160 billion) -- is the equivalent of 6 percent of Italy's sovereign debt.

Berlusconi's return to the political arena is a shock. It would be his sixth candidacy, his "last great political battle," as he calls it. He will be 77 this year and is currently defending himself in two court cases. It's been hardly a year since the rating agencies downgraded Italy's credit rating because of its unstable political situation, and Berlusconi submitted his resignation on Nov. 12, 2011.

But now the mummy has returned, and has rapidly become the most important personality in the pending general election. A remark by Berlusconi, like the one he made on Sunday, is enough to cause the markets to plunge and the risk premiums for Italian sovereign bonds to rise. It is enough to trigger the return of worry about the Italian patient, the fear of contagion, the euro crisis and political self-paralysis -- in short, the fear of the former Italy.

Thanks to Monti, Europe was able to experience a different Italy for 13 months, a country of reforms in which calcified ways of doing things were being changed. For 13 months, Monti spearheaded a silent revolution, the markets regained confidence in Italy and the country was spared social unrest. To its neighbors, it seemed that for the first time in a long time, a form of policy was being pursued in Rome that had more in common with Max Weber than Federico Fellini: a patient implementation of the necessary rather than a garish display of vanities and favors.

Now, however, things are once again going well for Berlusconi. He is a fighter, he says, "destined to win." As the campaign has progressed, and as revelations regarding the scandal surrounding the world's oldest bank, Monte dei Paschi di Siena -- an affair Berlusconi blames on the leftist city government of Siena -- have become more embarrassing, the better his poll numbers have become.

A Master Salesman

As recently as January, his campaign alliance was trailing significantly behind the real favorite in this election, center-left politician Pier Luigi Bersani, 61, of the Democratic Party (PD). But now the gap has narrowed, depending on the polling organization, to less than 5 percentage points. His rival Monti is only polling at 13 percent, or about half of Berlusconi's result.

Berlusconi is still a master salesman, a man who knows how to campaign better than anyone else. Helpfully, he still also owns several television stations. Hardly a day goes by when he doesn't appear on a talk show, wearing a dark-blue, double-breasted suit, his legs crossed, holding forth in a mixture between stump speech and pure entertainment. He brags about his heroic deeds, talks about how he captured the heart of his new girlfriend, the 27-year-old Francesca, and how he, as the owner of AC Milan, paid €20 million for the football star Mario Balotelli.

It is still his audacity and his intuition for the fears and yearnings of ordinary Italians that captivate the populace. One day, he praises former fascist dictator Benito Mussolini on Holocaust Memorial Day, the next he threatens German Chancellor Angela Merkel with Italy's withdrawal from the euro zone. He complains about the "leftist, feminist judges" who ordered him to pay his ex-wife €3 million a month in alimony. It's all textbook populism, but it works for Berlusconi and has brought him votes.

Some 50 million Italians will go to the polls on Feb. 24 and 25. The question is whether they will put their faith, once again, in a man who has been promising them an Italian economic miracle for almost 20 years, but has in fact driven the country into financial ruin. Or will Italian voters switch on their long-term memory?

They will have a choice between two policy concepts, between Monti's reform course and the art of seduction practiced by someone like Berlusconi, between reason and emotion and between what their heads tell them and their gut feelings.

The decision sounds easy from the outside. But the Berlusconi platform is nothing if not alluring. Furthermore, many families can hardly afford to wait for the fruits of long-term reforms. There is an Italian saying that goes: "Meglio un uovo oggi che una gallina domain." Better an egg today than a hen tomorrow.

A Great Contrast

When the ancient Romans were in dire straits and no one in the Senate knew what to do, an honest man was appointed "dictator." For a short time, he had free rein without having to worry about political majorities. After that, the temporary dictator was expected to step down again, which he usually did.

Mario Monti, 69, most closely approximates this figure in recent Italian history. He was directly appointed to the position by the Italian president, as a sort of special envoy of political reason and commissioner of the economic imperative. There is no greater contrast possible than that between Monti and Berlusconi, between the extremely levelheaded economics professor and Il Cavaliere, the seducer.

Monti and his cabinet of technocrats had more than a year to turn their attention to the reform projects Italian political parties had never embarked upon, because they were always more concerned about votes and favors than acting in the interest of future generations. Monti refused to accept a salary for his services, as if, by making this small sacrifice, he were invoking the willingness of his fellow Italians to endure hardships.

The financial markets reacted favorably immediately after Monti was sworn in on Nov. 16, 2011. The feared "spread," or risk premium on government bonds, began to shrink. Since then it has remained at a high but not critical level, at least until the Sunday Berlusconi made his campaign promise in Milan.

Monti's results are respectable. He had set out to achieve nothing less than a "general overhaul" of Italian society, complete with its evils and sicknesses, like corruption, mismanagement and Mafia connections. It was time Italy got its house in order, he often said, adding: "We alone are to blame for our plight."

A Return to Italy's Past
Monti has returned the country to the international stage, where it had ultimately become the subject of ridicule under Berlusconi. He introduced a different style, one of respect for rather than derision of the country's institutions, the courts and political rivals.

A professor from Varese in northern Italy, Monti was cautious in his explanations of the country's crises and efficient in resolving them. He assembled a €30 billion austerity package and pushed through a pension reform based on the German model, with a retirement age of 66 and greater restrictions on early retirement. It was a huge step for Italy, proving that the Bel Paese (beautiful country), could indeed change. Until then, it had been an oft-derided idiosyncrasy that Italians were to retire extremely early in some cases. Pensions are one of the root causes of Italy's debts.

Italy was on the verge of collapse when Monti took the reins. British and US analysts were betting on a national bankruptcy and a scenario similar to what had happened in Greece. "Italy has become a different country," Switzerland's Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper concluded after Monti had been in office for 100 days. But soon Italians began to reject the changes. Taxi drivers and pharmacists were the first to successfully fight the curtailment of their privileges. No Italian government has ever managed to prevail against the tassisti contingent. Monti should have remained resolute, but he didn't have the necessary mandate.

A further example is provided by the fate of Monti's attempt to reduce the number of provinces (and thus provincial politicians) from 86 to 51. There is no reasonable explanation for the fact that a prefecture exists in the town of Isernia, and one that costs 14 times as much as the one in Milan.

Minister for Public Administration and Simplification Patroni Griffi felt that the communal and regional administration could take on additional tasks. But then all affected provinces, with governments on both the left and the right, claimed historical particularities, filed lawsuits, and cited exception clauses and the right to codetermination. Nothing would work without "a serious debate among all institutional, political and social players," according to a statement by trade unions in the Latium region.

Falling by the Wayside

Not surprisingly, Monti's reformist zeal began to wane halfway through his time in office. There were a few more crackdowns on tax evaders in ski resorts, but not much after that. A deregulation of the labor market, including the loosening of protections against wrongful dismissal, was intended to put an end to the two-class system in which older employees are well protected but younger ones have few rights and myriad uncertainties. It failed after being negotiated to death in the parliament, leading to a compromise instead of significant reform. Unemployment among young adults has since jumped to almost 37 percent.

Monti has gotten many efforts off the ground but has not brought them to completion. Both an anti-corruption law and a campaign reform fell by the wayside. Monti's efforts to dismantle the inflated government bureaucracy, with its favoritism and constantly obstructive unions, did not progress. He only managed to cut a tiny fraction of government spending, eliminating a mere €4 billion from a total budget of €800 billion, with another €11 billion in cuts planned for 2013. But even this tentative adjustment resulted in a significant battle in parliament, complete with hundreds of proposed amendments and 33 votes of confidence.

There was a jolt, but over the centuries Italian society has become masterful at elegantly offsetting sudden change. And the effects of Monti's reforms haven't been felt in the real economy yet. Italy lags far behind its competitors in productivity and unit labor costs haven't declined significantly.

And Berlusconi, one of the richest men in Italy, never tires of playing the social rebel on television. "This man there," he says, referring to Monti, "has increased unemployment by half a million in 13 months. That's the reality, not gossip."

Most of all, the promised growth has failed to materialize. And that even though -- or as critics, say, because -- Monti adhered to the creed of Merkel-style economics. He had a commissioner comb through government spending and cut expenditures. He raised the value-added tax to 22 percent and reintroduced the hated property tax. All of this was done to reduce the government deficit for 2013 and satisfy EU requirements.

His austerity program cost Monti a great deal of support and produced few results. Italy faces yet another year of recession. The economy contracted by 2.1 percent in 2012, and another 1 percent decline is forecast for this year. Italy also remains unattractive to foreign investors, ranking 73rd on the World Bank's ease of doing business index.

Battling the 'Monster'

Indeed, it takes a martyr's constitution to complete an investment in southern Italy. In November, Shell abandoned a liquid gas plant project in Sicily. British natural gas giant BG gave up a similar project in the southern city of Brindisi, after having spent €250 million on planning and facing 11 years of resistance at all levels. That resistance included environmental concerns, even though one of Europe's most notorious coal-fired power plants belches its fumes into the air above Brindisi. Natural gas would be cleaner, but now gas is becoming scarce and more expensive because it has to be imported.

The Monti administration supported the project. So did Berlusconi when he was prime minister, which didn't stop a fellow party member in Brindisi from leading the protests and describing the planned gas plant as a "monster." Better an egg today than a hen tomorrow.

Monti has helped his country a little and shaken it up a bit, but Italy nevertheless remains more or less the same place. At the beginning of his transitional government, Italians saw Monti as a man of the banks who could protect them from disaster. Now they are seeing the once serious, cool-headed professor turn into an ordinary politician and aggressive campaigner. Trust has waned as a result.

Monti's campaign is destined to become an ill-fated one. Critics have said that it was a mistake for him to descend from his role as a technocrat into lowly partisan politics. The truth is that he hesitated for a long time before deciding to run. Both his wife and the country's president were against it. The name of his campaign alliance sounded too complicated: "Scelta Civica con Monti per l'Italia," or "Civil Decision with Monti for Italy." How could anyone remember that? He seems stiff on television and stopped talking about substance long ago, choosing instead to attack his old and now new nemesis, Berlusconi.

It's a very Italian election campaign that is now entering its critical phase, a mudslinging match filled with sleights of hand and polemics, and yet devoid of any significant discussion of party platforms or of the dramatic situation facing the country.

Potential Devastation

Bersani is still considered the frontrunner, and it seems likely that he will become the next Italian premier. He has been a social democrat for more than 20 years, and before that he was a communist. The son of a filling station attendant from the Emilia Romagna region, he is part of "La Caste," the unpopular political caste. He is an apparatchik who served in various cabinet positions under former Prime Minister Romano Prodi, always remaining inconspicuous.

But in late 2012, in his party's primary, he roundly defeated the young mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi. In a record turnout, more than three million people voted in the primary, making Bersani the top candidate of all those who were tired of Berlusconi's bunga-bunga escapades, and of people who longed for political stability and social justice.

But no matter who is proclaimed winner of the election on the evening of Feb. 25, it is already becoming clear that achieving a stable majority in both chambers of parliament could be tricky. Yet a shaky government (it would the 60th of its kind since 1947) that is forced to step down after a few months would be devastating. Not just for Italy but for all of Europe.

So how much damage can Berlusconi do? Bersani's alliance could end up with a small majority in the parliament; under current election law the party receiving the most votes automatically receives at least 54 percent of seats.

It is, however, a different story in the Senate, the second chamber of parliament, where the seats are assigned to senators from the regions. If Berlusconi manages to capture Lombardy together with the Northern League, he could block a center-left government's proposals. Lombardy is the most important swing state -- the Ohio of this Italian election.

The Show Goes On

And Berlusconi has an interest in doing all he can to prevent a leftist majority in the senate. He hopes to be able to torpedo laws in the future that would limit his media empire or allow him to be prosecuted. He knows that his chances of becoming prime minister are slim, which is why he has nothing to lose. He lies and makes promises he cannot keep, determined only to make sure that the show goes on.

Other populists are also gathering votes in the race to the finish line. One of them is Beppe Grillo of the protest movement "Movimento 5 Stelle." Grillo travels around the country on a "tsunami tour," hates Merkel, doesn't want to repay a cent of debt and is seriously calling upon Al-Qaida to bomb the parliament in Rome, saying that he would even provide the terrorists with the necessary coordinates. Polls estimate that Grillo has the potential to capture 20 percent of the vote. He could become the third-strongest force by securing the support of the sizable number of undecided Italians who are weary of politics.

With the election only two weeks away, everything remains up in the air. There is still hope that 50 million Italians will activate "le memoria," or their powers of recollection. And even if they don't, the country can look back on a brief Italian spring, a period during which the sole objective was not to destroy one's political opponent, because fear of the abyss brought all camps to a cease-fire.

For political veteran Pier Ferdinando Casini, this period already seems to have been a "miracolo," a true miracle. He is a Christian democrat. He is allowed to believe in miracles.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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« Reply #4562 on: Feb 13, 2013, 08:27 AM »

February 12, 2013

‘Constant Drumbeat’ Sped the Pope’s Exit


VATICAN CITY — Just days after Pope Benedict XVI returned from a 2010 trip to Britain where he met the queen and mended fences with the Anglicans, prosecutors in Rome impounded $30 million from the Vatican Bank in an investigation linked to money laundering.

In May, soon after the pope made an address on the priesthood, chastising those who sought to stretch the church’s rules and calling for “radical obedience,” Vatican gendarmes arrested Benedict’s butler on charges of theft after a tell-all book appeared, based on stolen confidential documents detailing profound mismanagement and corruption inside the Vatican.

Benedict had hoped that his papacy would rekindle the Catholic faith in Europe and compel Catholics to forge bonds between faith and reason, as he so loved to do.

But after a seemingly endless series of scandals, the 85-year-old who so ably enforced doctrine for his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, seemingly came to understand that only a new pope, one with far greater energies than he, could lead a global church and clean house inside the hierarchy at its helm. In the end, Vatican experts said, he decided he could best serve the church by resigning, a momentous decision with far-reaching implications that are still not fully understood.

“It wasn’t one thing, but a whole combination of them” that caused him to resign, said Paolo Rodari, a Vatican expert at the Italian daily newspaper Il Foglio. Clerical sex abuse scandals battered the papacy relentlessly, erupting in the United States, Ireland and across Europe, all the way to Australia.

But the most recent, the scandal involving the butler, “was a constant drumbeat on the pope,” he said, hitting close to home — literally where the pope lived. In the end, Mr. Rodari said, the message was, “I can’t change things, so I will erase everything.”

While the pope clearly has been losing strength in recent years, some Vatican experts saw Benedict’s decision less as a sign of frailty than one of strength that sent a clear message — and a challenge — to the Vatican prelates whose misdeeds he had struggled to rein in: No one is irreplaceable, not even the pope.

Even the Vatican acknowledged this. “The pope is someone of great realism,” the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said on Tuesday. “And he knows very well what the problems and the difficulties are.”

Father Lombardi added: “I think this decision sends many messages to all of us, of humility, courage, of wisdom in evaluating one’s situation before God.” He said the resignation could “open the door for a potential wave of resignations” — including from within the administrative body known as the Curia, Massimo Franco, a political columnist at the Corriere della Sera daily newspaper and an expert in relations between Italy and the Vatican, wrote on Tuesday.

A weak manager further weakened by age — the Vatican said for the first time on Tuesday that the pope had a pacemaker— Benedict apparently no longer felt equal to the task of governing an institution that had lacked a strong leader for over a decade, ever since John Paul II began a slow descent into Parkinson’s disease.

It was another scandal-marred trip, this one to Mexico and Cuba in March, that seems to have finally persuaded Benedict to consider the idea of stepping aside, Vatican officials said.

The visit to Mexico was haunted by the specter of the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the Mexican founder of the Legionaries of Christ, a powerful and deeply conservative religious order with close ties to John Paul’s papacy. Before he died in 2008, Father Maciel was found to have raped seminarians, fathered several children and engaged in drug abuse.

Throughout the visit, victims’ groups and other advocates organized news conferences and other events to call attention to what they saw as the church’s dismal record on sexual abuse, even though Benedict, as the Vatican’s chief doctrinal officer, had reopened an investigation into Father Maciel that ultimately disclosed his double life. But he failed to address the issue in Mexico, upsetting victims’ groups there and around the world. When he became pope, Benedict knew of what he spoke, but he struggled to make the mighty wheels of a 1,000-year-old bureaucracy turn smoothly.

Benedict’s first missteps were seen as problems of communications. When in 2006 he quoted a Byzantine emperor saying Islam had brought things “evil and inhuman,” remarks that helped provoke riots in which several people died, the Vatican said his words had been misinterpreted. Clearly pained, he visited Turkey as a way to make amends.

In 2009, when Benedict lifted the excommunication of four schismatic bishops, one of whom had denied the scope of the Holocaust, the Vatican — and the pope — said the gesture was aimed at healing a rift in the church, not at offending. Officials also admitted they had failed to use the Internet to research the bishop’s views.

But later that same year, when the Vatican shocked many, including the archbishop of Canterbury, by announcing a new structure to welcome traditionalist Anglicans back into Catholicism, it became clear that the crisis of communications might in fact be a crisis of governance.

The Vatican official then in charge of the church’s relations with Anglicans, Cardinal Walter Kasper, said he had not been informed of the new structure, which had been announced in an impromptu news conference by a different Vatican office when he was out of town.

As a theologian intent on making overtures to the more traditionalist elements of the church, and lacking John Paul’s charisma, Benedict was bound to ruffle some feathers. But the fatal flaw of his papacy, Vatican experts say, and a leading cause of the scandals and missteps, is that he did not choose the right deputies to make the institution run well.

“The daily running of the shop is in such disarray because he doesn’t consult with anybody,” said Robert Mickens, a Vatican expert for The Tablet, a London-based Catholic weekly.

“The major problem of this pontificate is his choice of Bertone as secretary of state, and his insistence in keeping him there,” he added, referring to Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. “This has angered and alienated people. He put a non-diplomat in the office that deals mostly with people who were trained to be diplomats, and he’s not very diplomatic.”

Vatican experts speculate that the scandal over the butler leaking confidential information was part of a complex power battle within the Vatican by factions that wanted to undermine Cardinal Bertone, a canon lawyer and a former archbishop of Genoa.

In January 2012, letters emerged in the Italian news media and later a book, “Your Holiness,” in which a high-ranking Vatican official said he had discovered corruption and mismanagement in the awarding of construction contracts and said that Cardinal Bertone had been influenced by Italian political circles.

In a letter, the official, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, then the second-ranking official of the part of the Curia that administers Vatican City, implored both Benedict and Cardinal Bertone to allow him to stay in a job overseeing the Holy See’s financial affairs. Instead, Benedict transferred Archbishop Viganò to become the papal nuncio, a diplomatic post, in Washington.

And he stood by Cardinal Bertone even after the pope’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, was arrested in May 2012 on charges he took confidential documents that wound up in the book. In October, Mr. Gabriele was sentenced to 18 months of house arrest in the Vatican, but over the Christmas holidays, Benedict pardoned him.

Mr. Franco wrote in Corriere della Sera that Benedict was believed to be distraught by a secret report compiled by the three cardinals that the pope had appointed to investigate the leaks scandal.

As the scandals piled up, it was clear that the pope was increasingly tired, his voice strained, his face drained. But although the resignation was related to a series of painful personal defeats, Benedict’s act was expected to resonate through history.

“It’s revolutionary,” said Eamon Duffy, a professor of the history of Christianity at Cambridge. “He’s sweeping away the mystical in favor of the utilitarian: That being a pope is a job, and the pope must be in the condition to do the job.”

Elisabetta Povoledo contributed reporting from Rome, and Laurie Goodstein from New York.


February 13, 2013

Pope Makes First Public Appearance Since Decision to Resign


VATICAN CITY — In his first public appearance since the stunning announcement of his resignation two days ago, Pope Benedict XVI said on Wednesday he had made his decision “in full liberty for the good of the church” because he no longer had the strength needed to carry out the duties of the papacy.

Clad in simple, white robes and a skullcap at a general audience in the Vatican, the pope spoke as Christians began Lent, the 40-day period of fasting and prayer preceding Easter, which begins on Ash Wednesday. Later he was scheduled to celebrate the Ash Wednesday mass at St. Peter’s, an event described by his aides as likely to be his final major mass in the huge basilica before his retirement on Feb. 28.

The announcement on Monday signaled the first papal resignation in almost 600 years, triggering a behind-the-scenes contest among the cardinals of the Roman Catholic church to succeed him. While that drama is played out, Benedict himself will spend his final day as pope bidding farewell to cardinals in the morning of Feb. 28, and then take a helicopter trip in the afternoon to the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, where he will be when his resignation takes effect at 8 p.m. local time, Vatican officials said on Wednesday.

The Vatican spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi, said that in the remaining 15 days of his papacy, the pope would hold scheduled audiences with the Romanian and Guatemalan presidents this week and with the Italian president on Feb. 23. But there would be no formal ceremony of resignation because Benedict had already fulfilled the canonical requirements for his departure by affirming publicly and in Latin, as he did on Monday, that he was resigning of his own free will.

Earlier, a cheering crowd greeted the pope with a standing ovation as he entered the Vatican’s cavernous Paul VI audience hall which has a capacity of around 8,000 people.

Before reaching his decision, the pope said he had prayed and examined his conscience for a long time. Referring to the papacy, he said he had been “well aware of the seriousness of this act, but also aware of the fact that I am no longer capable of carrying out Peter’s Ministry with the strength needed.”

“The certainty that the church belongs to God supports and illuminates me, and Christ will always give his guidance and care. I thank you all for your love and prayer with which you’ve accompanied me. Please keep praying for the pope and the church,” he said to loud applause. “I felt it almost physically throughout these days that were not easy for me. Keep praying for me, for the church and for the future pope. The Lord will guide us.”

The pope’s appearances on Wednesday offered his followers a chance to see and hear him before he withdraws into a far more sheltered life in a convent within the Vatican walls where an apartment has been prepared for him.

Still unclear, however, are some of the practical consequences of Benedict’s decision, Vatican officials acknowledged Tuesday, from how the former pope will be addressed, to what to do with the papal ring used to seal important documents, traditionally destroyed upon a pope’s death.

Officials also disclosed on Tuesday that the pope had been fitted with a cardiac pacemaker a decade ago but said this had not been a major health issue and had not contributed to his reasons for resigning. “There are a series of questions that remain to be seen, also on the part of the pope himself, even if it is a decision that he had made some time ago,” Father Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said at a news conference. “How he will live afterward, which will be very different from how he lives now, will require time and tranquillity and reflection and a moment of adaptation to a new situation.”

On Wednesday, thousands of Catholics gathered for a glimpse of the pope, including Francesca Meggiorini, from Verona, who had brought her four children with her because, she said, “this is special. I wanted my kids to be present. The pope was a man whose simple words went straight to the heart. So it’s wonderful for my children to be here. I think this experience will remain in their memory.”

Kevin Murphy, on a pilgrimage from Saint Benedict School in Bury St. Edmunds in eastern England, called Benedict “a great moral and spiritual leader.” And Fabio Semeraro, a ballet dancer from Rome, said he came to see the pope “because it’s an important event. You get attached to a pope, but then again, after there will be another.”

The Ash Wednesday mass, to be held later on Wednesday, usually takes place in a church on the Aventine Hill. But this year it will be conducted in St. Peter’s to allow a greater number of the faithful to attend, Father Lombardi said. Even though the Code of Canon Law allows popes to resign, the occurrence was rare enough to have caught Vatican officials off guard, including on issues like the protocol and potentially awkward logistics of having a former pope and his successor share a backyard.

When he leaves the papacy at the end of the month, Benedict will retire to his summer home in Castel Gandolfo, in the hills outside Rome, before moving to the Mater Ecclesiae convent, a plain, four-story structure built 21 years ago to serve as an international place “for contemplative life within the walls of Vatican City,” as it is described on a Vatican Web site.

Workers began transforming the building into a residence in November, after the cloistered nuns who had occupied the convent left, Father Lombardi said. He did not tip his hand about whether the renovations were carried out with the pontiff as the future occupant in mind. “The pope knew this place, this building and thought it was appropriate for his needs,” he said.

The timing, however, raised suspicions that the pope had been planning the details of his retirement for some time. The editor of the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, wrote Monday that the pope had made his decision “many months ago,” after a demanding trip to Mexico and Cuba in March 2012, “and kept with a reserve that no one could violate.”

Father Lombardi said that the stress of that trip had further convinced the pope that he no longer had the stamina to do the job.

In fact, the pope had meditated on the possibility of resigning for years. In the 2010 book “Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times,” from a series of interviews conducted by Peter Seewald, a German journalist, Benedict said that if a pope “clearly realized that he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of carrying out the duties of his office,” he would have “the right, and under some circumstances also an obligation, to resign.”

Rumors of his imminent resignation began to appear periodically in the Italian news media in recent years, as the pope appeared increasingly frail in public appearances.

A Vatican official, who asked not to be named because he was discussing papal business, said that the number of people who had known about the pope’s decision “a long time, could be counted on one hand.” But the pope had informed a small group of other collaborators “in recent days.”

When he retires to Vatican City, the pope will be able to move freely, Father Lombardi said, though it was “premature” to say how involved he will be in day-to-day activities — like saying Mass — at the Vatican.

He would not, however, intervene in the choice of his successor. “You can be sure that the cardinals will be autonomous in their decision and he will have no specific role in this election,” Father Lombardi said, adding that the pope was “a very discreet person.”

The conclave to choose the next pope will begin 15 to 20 days after the pope resigns, and a new leader of the Roman Catholic Church is expected to be in place by Easter, which falls on March 31 this year.

Father Lombardi said the pope would continue to perform his regular duties until the end of the month, and would keep all the appointments on his calendar. Some parts of his schedule will be modified to take into account the heightened public interest in the pope during his final days in office, Father Lombardi indicated.

His final audience, on Feb. 27, for instance, will be moved to St. Peter’s Square instead of the usual indoor venue used in winter, “to allow the faithful to say goodbye to the pope.”

Elisabetta Povoledo reported from Vatican City, and Alan Cowell from Paris. Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting from Rome.


02/12/2013 12:57 PM

The World from Berlin: 'It Is Good that Benedict Is Gone'

Pope Benedict XVI is nothing if not conservative. He spent the last eight years battling against relativism and individualism -- before breaking with tradition and taking a step that no pope has made for over 700 years. German commentators say his papacy failed to introduce much-needed reforms.

Pope Benedict XVI told almost no one that he was preparing to become the first pope in 719 years to resign from the papacy. His advisors were taken by surprise, as were the cardinals attending a papal consistory on Monday, a gathering they believed had been called for a trio of canonizations. Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who was present, called the announcement "a bolt of lightning in a clear blue sky."

But the pope's brother, Georg Ratzinger, knew. He knew the exact date and even the time when Joseph, three years his junior, was going to announce his resignation. "In old age, strength fades," the 89-year-old told SPIEGEL ONLINE, adding that he did not seek to influence his brother's decision in any way. "He must bear the responsibility alone, he reached his decision alone."

In announcing his decision, Benedict, 86, cited his failing health. His doctors had advised him against making flights overseas and Georg himself noted on Monday that his brother had weakened. He said that he "wishes for both of us that we are spared further health problems until our dear Lord calls for us."

Benedict "broke a taboo" by resigning, Parisian Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois told the Associated Press. "He broke away from several centuries of practice," he added, "and expressed the view that it wasn't just legitimate but probably useful for a pope to renounce and withdraw from his duties." Vingt-Trois added that "for the century to come, I think that none of Benedict XVI's successors will feel morally obliged to remain until their death."

The manner of his departure, however, is only one small element of Pope Benedict XVI's legacy. Already, Vatican observers are trying to determine exactly how history will remember Joseph Ratzinger, a man many felt was too conservative for a church experiencing a rapid loss of membership in many countries, including Germany, amid abuse scandals and intrigue at the Vatican.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said on Monday that the Vatican hopes to complete the task of electing a new pope by Easter at the end of March. But on Tuesday, German commentators take a look back at the last eight years of Joseph Ratzinger's papacy.

Center-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"There is something bitter and tragic about (Pope Benedict XVI's decision to resign)…. Only in his departure has Benedict broken the chains of tradition. Everywhere else, he left those chains alone, or even strengthened them. Only this one time has he stepped beyond himself, beyond his origins, beyond his traditional understanding of the church. Only this one time has he stepped beyond all that has always been held true by the church. In the face of all the problems facing the church in the third millennium, he remained the pope of the 20th century, a pope who was at home in the theological wisdom of the second millennium, but who had no understanding for the third millennium. Benedict was and remains the last old-style church patriarch."

"When Benedict was chosen eight years ago, he was seen as a transitional pope. And he made many sacrifices in moderating that transition. He impressively faced up to the abuse scandal. But he remained a transitional pope. As a bridge builder, he was never able to reach the other side of the bridge. As such, the question remains at the end of his papacy: transition to what? Nobody knows. This church is no longer triumphant, nor is it combative. It is a questioning church. The questions are knocking, are hammering, at the doors of the Vatican, but they have not been allowed to enter: the role of women in the church, celibacy, sexual morality and the role of the church in the international community."

"This church has remained stationary for 200 years. The Vatican has not allowed the vitality and imaginative power of the church in the Third World and in Latin America to approach. The houses of God in Europe are large, but they are empty. The organization is efficient, but powerless…. Ecclesia semper reformanda -- the church is always to be reformed -- goes the saying, which is sometimes ascribed to St. Augustine, sometimes to Martin Luther. But if reform is part of the essence of the church's being, then it has forgotten its essence. The church has seldom needed reform as badly as it does at the end of Pope Benedict XVI's papacy."

Conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"With his unheard of resignation, Joseph Ratzinger has revealed an almost individualistic weakness of a kind that seems foreign to him. As mild as he can be in personal interactions, theologically and ecclesiastically he has long been a man of tradition and of authority, one who believes in the immovability of conventions. Many critics see the German pope as an archconservative who is unable to understand the modern world, either because of stubbornness or obtuseness. Now, they are likely to pay him ironic respect: Welcome to the club of self-actualization."

"One doesn't have to share his stubborn refusal to modernize the church in the spirit of participatory democracy. One should, however, recognize that there are good reasons for strengthening the earthly institution of the church as an antipode to the current zeitgeist and its unavoidable relativization of values. One should understand why he cannot say yes to gay marriage and why he cannot embrace Protestantism. The church's dilemma is simple: If it refuses to bend to the times, it will lose members; if it does bend, it will lose them anyway. Joseph Ratzinger, who once called himself a 'servant to the truth,' embodies and bears witness to the conviction that the church can only be healthy if it remains convinced of the unlimited possibilities opened up by complete faith."

Center-right daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"The pope's decision to renounce the power vested in him is not just the product of his failing strength. Benedict saw himself confronted with powers in the church that darkened the light of faith, dampened hope and perverted love. The long episode of sexual abuse fell over the papacy of Benedict XVI and over the entire church like a devilish shadow. But this trial too showed the greatness of the man: More than any of his predecessors, he faced up to the wrongdoing and looked the victims in the eyes. Whether the structures installed by the Vatican to prevent new episodes of abuse will work remains to be seen."

"In one facet, Benedict is similar to his predecessor Pope John Paul II. Both had their difficulties in dealing with the Roman Curia and with the machinations of the cardinals. John Paul II escaped by travelling the world, Benedict XVI retired to the world of his books. But their successor will be unable to avoid reforming the Vatican from the ground up."

Left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung's front page is largely blank on Tuesday, but for the words "Gott Sei Dank," or "Thank God." Below the fold is an editorial entitled "Even Worse than Expected."

"It is good that this pope is gone, because nothing is good. Not in the Vatican and certainly not in the rest of the global church. During his eight-year papacy, Pope Benedict XVI managed to outdo even the worst fears harbored by Catholics in Germany. As God's deputy, Benedict showed little interest in facing the numerous sexual abuse crimes within his own institution. Nor did he wish to confront the fascist organization Opus Dei. Whether the topic was women, homosexuals, rape or human rights, it is hard to be more reactionary than this pope proved to be."

"The papal visit to the home of Martin Luther also served to cement the schism and destroyed all hope for a long overdue rapprochement between the two large Christian churches."

"It would be a good thing if Pope Benedict XVI were the last of his kind. And were history books to be able to write: 'This papal resignation was the beginning of a new era. The Catholic Church finally understood that it couldn't continue as before.'"

-- Charles Hawley, with reporting by Julia Jüttner


Catholic church ready for non- European pope, says Ghanaian cardinal

Peter Turkson responds to speculation that he could be chosen as Benedict XVI's successor, saying 'if it's the will of God'

Lizzy Davies and agencies, Wednesday 13 February 2013 08.39 GMT   

One of the developing world's leading candidates for the pope's successor has declared the Catholic church ready to have its first non-European Pope - and said that he will gladly take on the role "if it's the will of God".

Ghanaian cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Vatican's pontifical council for justice and peace, said he believed the the churches of Africa and Asia had grown in strength to the extent they had produced "mature clergymen and prelates that are capable of exercising leadership also of this world institution."

"I think in a way the church is always and has forever been ready for a non-European pope," the 64-year-old, a favourite of Benedict XVI, told the Associated Press on Tuesday. He did not think the prospect was "too far away", he added.

Asked about speculation that he could himself emerge from next month's conclave as Benedict's successor, he said: "I've always answered 'if it's the will of God.'"

However, although Turkson is an early favourite of the bookmakers in a very open field of candidates, there are question marks over his credentials, which some Vatican observers say could hold him back. He was forced to apologise last year after screening a YouTube video at a meeting of bishops which made alarmist predictions about the rise of Islam in Europe. It claimed, among other things, that France would be an Islamic republic within 39 years.

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« Reply #4563 on: Feb 13, 2013, 08:34 AM »

Archeologists find ancient ‘Temple of Fire’ in Peru

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, February 13, 2013 7:00

Peruvian archeologists have discovered a temple believed to be about 5,000 years old at the ancient El Paraiso archeological site in a valley just north of Lima, the Culture Ministry said.

If the date is confirmed, it would be among the oldest sites in the world, comparable to the ancient city of Caral, a coastal city some 200 kilometers (125 miles) to the north.

The discovery, dubbed the Temple of Fire, was found in one of the wings of El Paraiso’s main pyramid. It includes a hearth that experts believe was used to burn ceremonial offerings.

“The smoke allowed the priests to connect with the gods,” said Marco Guillen, who led the team of researchers who made the find.

Archeologists found the hearth in mid-January as they were carrying out conservation work at a set of 4,000-year-old ruins known as El Paraiso, located some 40 kilometers northeast of Lima in the Chillon River Valley.

The discovery shows “that the Lima region was a focus of civilizations in the Andean territory,” Deputy Culture Minister Rafael Varon told reporters.

Archeologists believe the ancient coastal civilizations raised crops including cotton, which they traded with coastal fishermen for food.

El Paraiso, spread across 50 hectares (125 acres), has 10 buildings and is one of the largest ancient sites in central Peru.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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« Reply #4564 on: Feb 13, 2013, 09:03 AM »

In the USA...

February 12, 2013

Obama Pledges Push to Lift Economy for Middle Class


WASHINGTON — President Obama, seeking to put the prosperity and promise of the middle class at the heart of his second-term agenda, called on Congress on Tuesday night to raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour, saying that would lift millions out of poverty and energize the economy.

In an assertive State of the Union address that fleshed out the populist themes of his inauguration speech, Mr. Obama declared it was “our generation’s task” to “reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth — a rising, thriving middle class.”

“Every day,” he said, “we should ask ourselves three questions as a nation: How do we attract more jobs to our shores? How do we equip our people with the skills to get those jobs? And how do we make sure that hard work leads to a decent living?”

The increase in the minimum wage, from $7.25 an hour now, was the most tangible of a raft of initiatives laid out by the president, from education and energy to public works projects. Taken together, Mr. Obama said, these investments would accelerate the nation’s recovery by helping those in the broad middle class.

Raising the minimum wage holds particular political appeal for younger Americans, struggling workers and labor groups, all of which were important to Mr. Obama’s re-election. His proposal drew one of the loudest ovations of the evening from Democrats in the House chamber.

Speaking to a divided Congress, with many Republicans still smarting from his November victory, Mr. Obama declared, “Together, we have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and we can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is stronger.”

He urged lawmakers to act on immigration, climate change, budget negotiations, and, above all, on gun violence, delivering an emotional appeal for stricter controls that drew on recent tragedies like the schoolhouse massacre in Newtown, Conn.

“They deserve a vote,” Mr. Obama declared over and over, gesturing to victims of various shootings, who were scattered through the audience.

Mr. Obama took the podium after a rousing welcome from lawmakers and other dignitaries. But millions of TV viewers, not to mention people glancing at their smartphones inside the chamber, were distracted by a manhunt across the country, where the police in California were tracking a suspect in the killing of officers and others.

News coverage concentrated on the search almost up to the point the president entered the chamber, and immediately after he finished, networks cut away to continue reporting on the events in California.

Republicans quickly rejected Mr. Obama’s activist approach, saying it would inevitably translate into higher taxes and an overweening government role, strangling economic growth and deepening the nation’s fiscal hole.

Still, in selecting Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American from Florida, to deliver their party’s official rebuttal, Republicans implicitly acknowledged the damage they had suffered at the polls from their hard line stance on immigration. Mr. Rubio, one of the party’s rising stars, favors overhauling immigration laws.

On Tuesday, he complained that Mr. Obama’s “solution to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more, and spend more.”

In a speech dominated by domestic issues, Mr. Obama admonished North Korea a day after it tested a nuclear weapon. He warned the country’s reclusive government that it faced further isolation, swift retaliation and a United States bent on improving its own missile defense systems.

As new threats erupted, however, old threats were receding, Mr. Obama said. He announced, for example, that 34,000 troops would return home from Afghanistan by this time next year. That withdrawal, representing slightly more than half the current American force, underlined his resolve to quickly wind down the second war of his presidency.

Mr. Obama did not match the lofty tone of his inauguration speech, but the address was clearly intended to be its workmanlike companion. In place of his ringing call for a more equitable society was a package of proposals that constitute a blueprint for the remainder of his presidency. Some would require legislation; others merely an executive order.

Among the proposals was a $1 billion investment to create 15 institutes to develop new manufacturing technologies, building on the success of a pilot project in Youngstown, Ohio. He said he would use oil and gas royalties from federal lands to pay for research in clean energy technology that would wean cars and trucks off oil.

Mr. Obama pledged to work with states to provide high-quality preschool to every child in America. And he recycled a proposal to help homeowners refinance their mortgages.

None of these proposals, Mr. Obama said, would add to the deficit, since they were consistent with the budget deal of 18 months ago. “It’s not a bigger government we need,” he said, “but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth.”

Mr. Obama also signaled, however, that the era of single-minded deficit-cutting should end. He noted that the recent agreements on taxes and spending reduced the deficit by $2.5 trillion, more than halfway toward the $4 trillion in reductions that economists say would put the nation’s finances on a sustainable course.

Mr. Obama spoke darkly of the consequences of a failure to reach a budget deal, which would set off automatic spending cuts on the military and other programs. “These sudden, harsh, arbitrary cuts would jeopardize our military readiness,” he said.

On climate change, Mr. Obama endorsed the cap-and-trade legislation once championed by Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and former Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, but long stalled in Congress. Though the president said he would not hesitate to use executive orders to push his own measures to reduce carbon emissions, he did not give any details.

In another sign of the election’s lingering shadow, Mr. Obama was creating a bipartisan commission to investigate voting irregularities that led to long lines at polling sites in November. Studies indicate that these lines cost Democrats hundreds of thousands of votes. The commission will be led by the chief counsel of the Obama presidential campaign, Robert Bauer, and a legal adviser to Mitt Romney’s campaign, Ben Ginsberg.

On trade policy, the president said that the United States and the European Union were ready to begin negotiations on a comprehensive trade treaty. That came after a report submitted earlier in the day concluded that the gaps between the two sides were narrow enough to put a deal within reach.

The most impassioned parts of the speech echoed those that Mr. Obama delivered on the west front of the Capitol three weeks ago.

“It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country,” he said. “The idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love.”

“It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many, and not just the few,” he continued. “That it encourages free enterprise, rewards individual initiative and opens the doors of opportunity to every child across this great nation of ours.”

Children loomed large on Tuesday night. In addition to a teacher from Sandy Hook Elementary School, the guests included the parents of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old high school student whose shooting death in Chicago has become an emblem of the grim toll of gun violence.

“She was 15 years old,” Mr. Obama said of Ms. Pendleton, in words that briefly transcended the political bromides and policy prescriptions of these speeches. “She loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss. She was a majorette. She was so good to her friends, they all thought they were her best friend.”

Click to watch the whole speech:

and then this stupefying 'response' by the Republican Senator Rubio:


February 13, 2013

In an Age of Spending Cuts, Making the Case for Government


WASHINGTON — Thirty-two years after President Ronald Reagan proclaimed that “government is the problem” and 17 years after President Bill Clinton offered a surrender of sorts on that issue by stating that the “era of big government is over,” President Obama made a case Tuesday night for closing out the politics of austerity.

In a State of the Union address largely focused on economic themes, he asserted that “we can’t just cut our way to prosperity” and suggested that it is time for a more balanced approach, including accepting that government has a vital role to play in ensuring economic growth and a secure middle class.

“Most of us agree that a plan to reduce the deficit must be part of our agenda,” Mr. Obama said. “But let’s be clear: deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan.”

In setting out how government could reach what he considers an acceptable level of fiscal stability through Medicare cuts and tax increases, Mr. Obama was doing more than trying to set the terms for the next, fast-approaching rounds in his fiscal cage match with Congressional Republicans. He was also building a broader argument that the nation needs to shift away from the focus on shrinking the government that has dominated politics for the past several years and toward a modestly more activist agenda aimed at tackling persistent inequality and the dislocating forces of a globalized, technology-driven economy.

At the same time, Mr. Obama explicitly recognized the political and policy limitations of his stance after four years of budget deficits in excess of $1 trillion and broad public unease about saddling future generations with a crippling debt burden. There was no new stimulus plan, no mission to Mars, no ambitious plan to address the hangover from the housing market crash.

“Let me repeat: Nothing I’m proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime,” he said. “It’s not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth.”

The president’s nod toward bipartisanship and his willingness to put entitlement programs on the table as he works on the budget with Congress were unlikely to head off harsh Republican criticism. Even before the speech, Republicans were mocking his “single dime” line and said he was failing to do enough to bring down a national debt that threatens to reach dangerous levels in coming decades. In the Republican response, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida referred to “the president’s plan to grow our government.”

But by filling in the details of the philosophical framework he set out last month in his second inaugural address, Mr. Obama made clear that after his re-election in November, he does not intend to allow a relentless Republican drive for spending cuts to define his second term. And in laying out his agenda, he continued trying to define a 21st-century version of liberalism that could outlast his time in office and do for Democrats what Reagan did for Republicans.

Mr. Obama has already shown a more emboldened approach to his second term.

The use of executive authority to begin addressing global warming in a more aggressive way would be a turning point in dealing with a potentially existential problem. Winning passage of an immigration bill and even modest new gun control measures would amount to breakthroughs, largely on Democratic terms, in a polarized capital; his call to “make what difference we can” on gun control was one of the most impassioned of his address.

But Mr. Obama has always looked admiringly at Reagan’s success in shifting the nation’s ideological center of gravity in an enduring way that transcended the issues of the moment. While no fan of Reagan’s policies, he credited him during the 2008 campaign with changing “the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way Bill Clinton did not.”

To achieve that level of influence before he leaves the White House will require not only that he enact an ambitious legislative agenda in the next year or two but also that he provide — and sell to voters beyond his base — a compelling alternative to the conservative mantra that nearly all problems can be traced back to excess government.

He has been honing that argument for years, asserting that America’s success was built as much on common effort as an individual initiative, a theme that recurred through his 2012 re-election campaign and surfaced again on Tuesday night.

“The American people don’t expect government to solve every problem,” Mr. Obama said, but they also know that “America moves forward only when we do so together, and that the responsibility of improving this union remains the task of us all.”

Unlike Reagan, Mr. Obama is no hero to his own party’s more ideological warriors, who still see him as timid and disturbingly centrist. And in fact, if his liberalism can be characterized by any one element, it is his willingness to acknowledge and absorb into his own worldview some of the very underpinnings of the modern conservative movement.

His more extreme conservative critics notwithstanding, Mr. Obama has a healthy respect and admiration for markets and economic growth as often the most powerful forces for good. He has long put personal responsibility at the core of efforts to address socioeconomic issues.

He has adopted ideas, like the individual mandate at the heart of his health insurance overhaul, that originated among conservative thinkers. He has sought to impose greater accountability on teachers and schools for the quality of education; on Tuesday night he announced that the federal government would begin issuing scorecards for colleges assessing educational value relative to cost.

“In his somewhat incremental way, I do think Obama is redefining liberalism and relocating the center of American politics well to the left of where it’s been since Ronald Reagan’s time,” said Michael Tomasky, the editor of Democracy and a leading liberal thinker.

“It’s his instinct not to be an ideological warrior but to be an ideological mediator,” Mr. Tomasky said. “And yet, in performing those acts of ideological mediation I think he’s renewed liberalism and made it more acceptable to people who might have rejected it.”

It is not clear whether Mr. Obama’s effort to broaden and deepen his party’s appeal will succeed in a more enduring way than a similar effort, built around similar themes of middle-class security, by the last Democratic president, Mr. Clinton.

Mr. Clinton presided over a booming economy and he balanced the budget. But Clinton-ism, at least by Mr. Obama’s own assessment in 2008, proved not to be transformative. Whether Obama-ism does any better in the long run will be judged in part on his success in changing the austerity narrative along the lines he set out Tuesday night.


February 13, 2013

Raising Minimum Wage Would Ease Income Gap but Carries Political Risks


WASHINGTON — President Obama called on Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour from $7.25 and to automatically adjust it with inflation, a move aimed at increasing the earnings of millions of cooks, janitors, aides to the elderly and other low-wage workers.

The proposal directly addresses the country’s yawning levels of income inequality, which the White House has tried to reduce with targeted tax credits, a major expansion of health insurance, education and other proposals. But it is sure to be politically divisive, especially given the weakness of the recovery and the continued high levels of joblessness.

The proposal would see the federal floor on hourly wages reach $9 in stages by the end of 2015. Tying the minimum wage to inflation would allow it to rise along with the cost of living. If enacted, the measure would boost the wages of about 15 million low-income workers, the White House estimated. The $9 minimum wage would be the highest in more than three decades, accounting for inflation, but still lower than the peaks reached in the 1960s and 1970s.

“Even with the tax relief we’ve put in place, a family with two kids that earns the minimum wage still lives below the poverty line. That’s wrong,” Mr. Obama said in his State of the Union address Tuesday night. “Let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on earth, no one who works full time should have to live in poverty.”

The White House said that the move would have profoundly positive effects for low-income families without unduly burdening businesses or raising the unemployment rate. It cited research showing “no detectable employment losses from the kind of minimum wage increases we have seen in the United States.” The White House also pointed to companies like Costco, the retail discount chain, and Stride Rite, a children’s shoe seller, that have previously supported increasing the minimum wage as a way to reduce employee turnover and improve workers’ productivity.

But the move would almost certainly face stiff opposition. Many companies that hire low-wage workers — both small businesses and large businesses — have in the past vociferously opposed raising the minimum wage, as it increases their cost of business. By making employees more expensive for companies to hire, some economists argue that higher minimum wages increase the unemployment rate — a particularly toxic possibility given the high levels of joblessness that remain long after the recession has ended.

Moreover, some economists, like David Neumark of the University of California, Irvine, have even argued that minimum wages are counterproductive at reducing poverty.

On top of that, conservatives have often argued that higher minimum wages burden job creators, especially during times when the economy is weak. House Speaker John A. Boehner voted against a 2006 bill letting the minimum wage rise to its current level of $7.25 from $5.15. The legislation ultimately passed with bipartisan support in 2007, though many Republicans voted against it.

But many centrist, labor and liberal groups have pushed for higher minimum wages, and left-of-center research groups praised Mr. Obama’s new push on Tuesday evening.

“The president said he was putting jobs and the economy front and center tonight, and that’s exactly what he did by calling for a minimum wage increase,” Christine Owens, the executive director of the National Employment Law Project, said in a statement. “A higher minimum wage is key to getting the economy back on track for working people and the middle class. The president’s remarks also cement the growing consensus on the left and right that one of the best ways to get the economy going again is to put money in the pockets of people who work.”

Many state and local government set their own minimum wages above the federal floor. Currently Washington is the only state that sets a minimum wage above $9 an hour, but several states exceed the current rate of $7.25.

The White House said that the $1.75 increase in the minimum wage would be enough to offset roughly 10 to 20 percent of the increase in income inequality since 1980. According to data compiled by the economists Thomas Piketty, at the Paris School of Economics, and Emmanuel Saez, at the University of California, Berkeley, inequality has worsened considerably during that time, and many metrics show that wages have stagnated or declined for millions of working families. The income share of the top 1 percent of earners has doubled, to 20 percent in 2011 from 10 percent in 1980. Between 1980 and 2008, according to analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, the top 10 percent of earners captured 98 percent of all income gains.

The proposal is one of several that the White House has put forward to tackle that inequality. In the speech, Mr. Obama also proposed expanding early childhood education programs — another path that experts say can tackle inequality by leveling the playing field and increasing mobility among children from low-income families. “Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than $7 later on by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime,” Mr. Obama said. “Let’s do what works, and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance.”

In his 2008 campaign, Mr. Obama proposed lifting the minimum wage yet higher, to $9.50. Under the current proposal, the White House said that a family earning $20,000 to $30,000 would see an additional $3,500 of income a year.

“This single step would raise the incomes of millions of working families,” said Mr. Obama on Tuesday night. “It could mean the difference between groceries or the food bank, rent or eviction, scraping by or finally getting ahead. For businesses across the country, it would mean customers with more money in their pockets. In fact, working folks shouldn’t have to wait year after year for the minimum wage to go up while C.E.O. pay has never been higher.”


Obama signs executive order to defend U.S. infrastructure from cyberattacks

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, February 12, 2013 23:57 EST

Warning that cyberattacks pose a danger to US security, President Barack Obama signed an executive order designed to better protect critical infrastructure from computer hackers.

Obama, in his annual State of the Union speech to a joint session of the US Congress, said the United States is facing a “rapidly growing threat from cyber-attacks.”

“We know hackers steal people’s identities and infiltrate private email,” he said. “We know foreign countries and companies swipe our corporate secrets.

“Now our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, and our air traffic control systems,” Obama said.

“We cannot look back years from now and wonder why we did nothing in the face of real threats to our security and our economy.”

Obama said his executive order would “strengthen our cyber defenses by increasing information sharing, and developing standards to protect our national security, our jobs, and our privacy.”

The president also urged Congress to pass legislation “to give our government a greater capacity to secure our networks and deter attacks.”

The executive order calls for voluntary reporting of threats to US infrastructure such as power grids, pipelines and water systems.

The directive, which follows two failed attempts in Congress to pass cybersecurity legislation, allows the government to lead an information-sharing network but stops short of making mandatory the reporting of cyber threats.

A senior administration official said the order does not preclude the need for legislation but gets a cybersecurity program started that can encourage sharing information that may be confidential or classified.

The order allows for “sharing of classified information in a way that protects that classified information but enables the broader use of it to protect our critical infrastructure,” the official said.

The White House move came despite criticism from some lawmakers that an executive order bypasses the legislative process.

White House officials pointed out that the measure would not apply to consumer-based services or information systems which do not meet the standard of “critical infrastructure.”

“It’s about protecting the systems and assets where an attack could have a debilitating impact on our national security,” one official said.

The officials sought to quell concerns the measure could lead to increased surveillance of citizens, and said it requires federal agencies “to carry out these tasks in a way that protects privacy and civil liberties.”

Legislation has stalled on cybersecurity amid opposition from a coalition of civil libertarians who fear it could allow too much government snooping and conservatives who said it would create a new bureaucracy.

US military officials have argued that legislation is needed to protect infrastructure critical to national defense, including power grids, water systems and industries ranging from transportation to communications.

Analyists at the National Cybersecurity & Communications Integration Center in Arlington, VA, September 24, 2010. Warning that cyberattacks pose a danger to US security, President Barack Obama signed an executive order designed to better protect critical infrastructure from computer hackers.


February 12, 2013

Bitterly Divided Senate Panel Backs Hagel for Defense


WASHINGTON — After a combative two-hour debate that tested the bounds of Senate collegiality, the Armed Services Committee on Tuesday approved the nomination of former Senator Chuck Hagel as defense secretary on a sharply partisan vote.

The 14-to-11 vote to send the nomination to the Senate floor with a favorable recommendation was the latest step in a process that has deepened festering hostilities between Congressional Republicans and the White House and has exposed stark disagreements over wartime foreign policy.

After the vote, Republicans threatened to try to filibuster the nomination of Mr. Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War veteran whom some had worked with as a member of their own party, while Democrats were promising to force a vote of the full Senate as early as Wednesday night.

At times, the meeting slipped into an unusually accusatory and bitter back-and-forth, with Republicans like Ted Cruz, a freshman senator from Texas, going as far as to suggest that Mr. Hagel had accepted money from nations that oppose American interests.

Saying that he had serious doubts about the source of payments that Mr. Hagel had accepted for speaking engagements, Mr. Cruz declared, “It is at a minimum relevant to know if that $200,000 that he deposited in his bank account came directly from Saudi Arabia, came directly from North Korea.”

Senator Bill Nelson of Florida and other Democrats countered by saying that Republicans had unfairly questioned the integrity of both Mr. Hagel, a two-time Purple Heart recipient, and had undermined the work of the normally bipartisan committee itself.

“Senator Cruz has gone over the line,” Mr. Nelson said. “He basically has impugned the patriotism of the nominee.”

Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, who is opposing his former colleague, also bristled at the attacks on Mr. Hagel, saying that “no one on this committee should at any time impugn his character or his integrity.”

Tension reached its height when Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the senior Republican on the committee, said that those who had suggested that Mr. Hagel was “cozy” with terrorist states had a basis for their claims because Iran had expressed support for his nomination.

“He’s endorsed by them,” Mr. Inhofe said. “You can’t get any cozier than that.”

Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, gasped in disgust. “Senator Inhofe, be careful,” she later warned him. “What if some horrible organization said tomorrow that you were the best guy that they knew?”

Then, looking directly at Mr. Cruz, she insisted that the president should be free to choose his own cabinet.

“As much as some people in this room don’t like it,” she said, “he was elected president of the United States by the American people. And he has selected an honorable veteran, a Republican who has served our country in various capacities, including in this body.”

Blocking such a high-level presidential appointee is a rare move. Since 1917, when the Senate’s modern filibuster rules were created, a cabinet-level nominee has faced a supermajority barrier to confirmation only twice: Ronald Reagan’s nominee for commerce secretary in 1987, C. William Verity Jr., and George W. Bush’s nominee for interior secretary in 2006, Dirk Kempthorne.

Mr. Inhofe has vowed to use procedural tactics to slow the Senate’s consideration of Mr. Hagel, a step that would require 60 votes for confirmation instead of the usual simple majority of 51.

The tactic could prove mainly symbolic, however, because at least 60 senators, including some of those who voted against him on Tuesday, have indicated that they will allow his nomination to come to the Senate floor.

Even as Mr. Inhofe threatened to draw the process out, the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, was preparing to hold a vote as early as Wednesday night. Still, Senate Democrats said that given the late timing of the committee vote, they did not expect Mr. Hagel’s nomination to reach the Senate floor until Thursday morning.

Mr. Hagel has faced opposition from Republicans and Democrats alike, drawing criticism over past remarks that were seen as anti-Jewish, anti-gay or insufficiently supportive of American foreign policy.

And a confirmation hearing performance that members of both parties said was uneven and underwhelming — at one point he misrepresented the Obama administration’s policy toward Iran as “containment” but later corrected himself to say it was preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons — seemed to do him little good.

Mr. McCain said bluntly, “His performance before this committee was the worst that I have seen of any nominee for office.”

Criticism of Mr. Hagel from other quarters in the Senate has died down. Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, who initially expressed reservations, announced last month that he was reassured that Mr. Hagel did indeed support Israel despite derisive comments that the nominee once made about the “Jewish lobby.”

And Mr. McCain and other swing-vote Republicans like Senator Susan Collins of Maine came out against a filibuster last week.

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of the Republicans who objected the most vociferiously to Mr. Hagel’s nomination, told the committee on Tuesday that the nominee’s previous statements and positions on national security issues like sanctions on Iran, which he opposed, should disqualify him from the job.

“He’s in a league of his own, guys,” an animated Mr. Graham said. “I say dumb things every day. But it’s a series of things, a series of votes, an edge about him that makes many of us unnerved about his selection when the world is on fire.”

The meeting served as the latest example of the deep partisan rift that has left the Senate dysfunctional and, at times, inoperative in carrying out some of its most basic functions like voting on presidential nominees. In the case of Mr. Hagel, the clash has drawn greater notice because senators and former senators generally receive a warm reception before the Senate.

“I’m often asked what’s happened to the committee,” Mr. Graham said. “Nothing. We just disagree on occasion.”

As he concluded the meeting, Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan and the chairman of the committee, remarked, “And we look forward to another wonderful year together.”

The room rumbled with laughter.


February 12, 2013

Gun Debate on Capitol Hill Turns to Constitutional Issues


WASHINGTON — The discussion on Capitol Hill over proposed new gun legislation turned on Tuesday to the underlying constitutional issues around which the entire debate pivots.

Scores of families whose loved ones were killed by gun violence — including some parents of children from Newtown, Conn., the site of a mass school shooting in December — packed a hearing room here where legal scholars, lawyers, gun rights advocates and others testified before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights about the constitutionality of various proposals now being mulled by Congress, including the reinstatement of an assault weapons ban.

“Some say that all we should do is enforce the laws on the books,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois and the subcommittee’s chairman. The senator citied various measures under consideration, including universal background checks for gun sales, enhanced tools to stem the straw purchasing of guns, an assault weapons ban and limits on the capacity of some ammunition magazines.

“All of these proposals are common sense,” he said. “All of them have strong support among the American public. And all of them are clearly consistent with the Constitution and the Second Amendment.”

Lawmakers tangled over the 2008 Supreme Court decision that struck down parts of the District of Columbia’s strict gun-control law, particularly the majority opinion that found gun rights “not unlimited.”

The interpretation fell along party lines. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, the subcommittee’s ranking Republican, summed up the position of other Republicans in his opening remarks.

“In my view the divide on this issue is fairly straightforward,” Mr. Cruz said.

“The focus should be on criminals” and enhancing prosecutor’s tools, he said, including possibly adding a new federal statute against straw purchasing, in which people buy firearms for those who are prohibited from doing so; Mr. Cruz called such a statute an idea with “potential bipartisan” support.

“At the same time,” he said, “we should continue to respect and protect the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens.”

Timothy J. Heaphy, the United States attorney for the Western District of Virginia, was repeatedly questioned on the efficacy of current gun laws. When asked to weigh in on an assault weapons ban — which many gun rights advocates believe violates the spirit of the Supreme Court ruling because it bans, rather than limits, a specific category of firearms — he said he believed it passed the constitutional test.

While the topics of the hearing varied from proposed legislation on mental health services in schools to the wisdom of carrying a gun in restaurants, much attention focused on the one area upon which there is an increasing bipartisan consensus: enhanced and increased background checks for gun buyers. Patching holes in the existing laws is “our best opportunity to keep firearms out of dangerous hands,” Mr. Heaphy said.

Some Republicans expressed concerns about the wisdom of such enhanced laws. At one point Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina seemed deeply miffed that he might have to undergo a background check to buy a gun from Senator John Cornyn of Texas to improve his hunting outcomes.

Others wondered about how effective such laws would be. “Some on our side wonder why raise all this fuss about background checks,” said Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, noting that most criminals buy guns illegally.

But the enduring potential of new background checks was underscored by submitted testimony from Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who emphasized the “need to close existing loopholes that allow criminals to avoid the common-sense requirement that gun sales should be performed with a background check,” and made some references to violent video games, but was silent on an assault weapon ban.

Next to the hearing, dozens of people affected by gun violence gathered in the afternoon in the Capitol basement in a room named for Gabriel Zimmerman, a Congressional staffer killed in Tuscon in 2011 when a gunman opened fire on Representative Gabrielle Giffords.

Mr. Zimmerman’s mother, Emily Nottingham, was one of several who called on Congress to reform the country’s gun safety laws. In an emotional plea, she recalled how her son had loved and admired the political process.

“But he was not naïve — he knew government processes are long,” she said. “Please don’t let us down.”


February 13, 2013 09:00 AM

Study: Kochs Tried To Start 'Grassroots' Tea Party In 2002

By Susie Madrak

Here's a screenshot, below,  of the archived U.S. Tea Party site, as it appeared online on Sept. 13, 2002.

Send this one to your teabagger relatives and watch their heads explode:

    A new academic study confirms that front groups with longstanding ties to the tobacco industry and the billionaire Koch brothers planned the formation of the Tea Party movement more than a decade before it exploded onto the U.S. political scene.

    Far from a genuine grassroots uprising, this astroturf effort was curated by wealthy industrialists years in advance. Many of the anti-science operatives who defended cigarettes are currently deploying their tobacco-inspired playbook internationally to evade accountability for the fossil fuel industry's role in driving climate disruption.

    The study, funded by the National Cancer Institute of the National Institute of Health, traces the roots of the Tea Party's anti-tax movement back to the early 1980s when tobacco companies began to invest in third party groups to fight excise taxes on cigarettes, as well as health studies finding a link between cancer and secondhand cigarette smoke.Published in the peer-reviewed academic journal, Tobacco Control, the study titled, 'To quarterback behind the scenes, third party efforts': the tobacco industry and the Tea Party, is not just an historical account of activities in a bygone era. As senior author, Stanton Glantz, a University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) professor of medicine, writes:

        "Nonprofit organizations associated with the Tea Party have longstanding ties to tobacco companies, and continue to advocate on behalf of the tobacco industry's anti-tax, anti-regulation agenda."

    The two main organizations identified in the UCSF Quarterback study are Americans for Prosperity and Freedomworks. Both groups are now "supporting the tobacco companies' political agenda by mobilizing local Tea Party opposition to tobacco taxes and smoke-free laws."

    Freedomworks and Americans for Prosperity were once a single organization called Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE). CSE was founded in 1984 by the infamous Koch Brothers, David and Charles Koch, and received over $5.3 million from tobacco companies, mainly Philip Morris, between 1991 and 2004.In 1990, Tim Hyde, RJR Tobacco's head of national field operations, in an eerily similar description of the Tea Party today, explained why groups like CSE were important to the tobacco industry's fight against government regulation. Hyde wrote:

        "... coalition building should proceed along two tracks: a) a grassroots organizational and largely local track,; b) and a national, intellectual track within the DC-New York corridor. Ultimately, we are talking about a "movement," a national effort to change the way people think about government's (and big business) role in our lives. Any such effort requires an intellectual foundation - a set of theoretical and ideological arguments on its behalf."

    The common public understanding of the origins of the Tea Party is that it is a popular grassroots uprising that began with anti-tax protests in 2009.However, the Quarterback study reveals that in 2002, the Kochs and tobacco-backed CSE designed and made public the first Tea Party Movement website under the web address

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« Reply #4565 on: Feb 14, 2013, 08:09 AM »

Canadian federal police allegedly abused and raped native women

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, February 13, 2013 16:57 EST

Human Rights Watch accused Canada’s federal police Wednesday of striking fear in the hearts of aboriginal women, offering up testimonies of alleged police threats, abuse and even rape.

The fear of police expressed by 50 women and girls interviewed in the north of British Columbia province — the focus of the HRW investigation — was comparable with what its researchers witnessed in post-war Iraq and Libya, the group said.

“The threat of domestic and random violence on one side, and mistreatment by RCMP officers on the other, leaves indigenous women in a constant state of insecurity,” said Meghan Rhoad, co-author of an 89-page report on the matter.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said it took the allegations “very seriously.”

But the RCMP added: “It is impossible to deal with such public and serious complaints when we have no method to determine who the victims of the accused are.”

The report does not identify any victims and perpetrators or specific dates for the alleged incidents.

Ottawa, meanwhile, rejected HRW’s calls for a public inquiry.

HRW interviewed 42 women and eight girls in 10 communities along a highway connecting the cities of Prince George and Prince Rupert in Canada’s westernmost province in July and August.

The interviewees alleged officers often used excessive force in arresting them and then mistreated them while in custody.

A 15-year-old girl said her arm was broken by a policeman who was called by her mother to intervene in a dispute with her boyfriend.

Another girl claimed to have been zapped with a 50,000-volt Taser gun while police handcuffed her.

One woman said she was strip-searched by a male officer, while another claimed that four officers drove her into the woods in July, raped her and threatened to kill her if she told anyone.

The RCMP is investigating 13 homicides and five cases of women reported missing on or near the 724-kilometer (450-mile) highway in question, described on hand-painted signposts as the “Highway of Tears,” since the late 1960s.

Aboriginal leaders have estimated the number of dead or missing at more than 40. Some speculated that a serial killer has been targeting hitchhikers in the remote mountainous region.

“The failure of law enforcement authorities to deal effectively with the problem of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada is just one element of the dysfunctional relationship between the Canadian police and indigenous communities,” the HRW report concluded.

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« Reply #4566 on: Feb 14, 2013, 08:27 AM »

India leads day of ‘One Billion Rising’ for women

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, February 14, 2013 7:25 EST

Indians were at the forefront of global protests on Thursday in the One Billion Rising campaign for women’s rights, galvanised by the recent fatal gang rape that shocked the country.

Flashmobs, marches, singing and dances were planned in about 200 countries as part of the campaign’s day of action, timed to coincide with Valentine’s Day and aiming to bring an end to violence against women.

In New Delhi, the site of angry protests just weeks ago after the brutal rape of a student on a bus, campaigners said they would use the day to keep pressure on the government to introduce new measures to protect women.

“Our programmes have started in colleges and I am going with women taxi drivers to spread the word of equality because today is the day of love,” Kamla Bhasin, leading the campaign in South Asia, told AFP.

Along with protests and candle-lit marches, India’s plans included a noisy “open drum circle” at sunset by the sea in Mumbai and a “ceremonial burial” of patriarchy and misogyny in Gurgaon city, near the capital.

Sydney, Singapore and Manila were among the cities to kickstart the day of action by One Billion Rising, founded by American playwright and leading feminist Eve Ensler, best known for her play “The Vagina Monologues”.

The campaign is calling on one billion people to rise against violence and take a stand for the one billion women — one in three in the world — who will be raped or beaten in their lifetimes.

Among those supporting this year’s campaign was Anoushka Shankar, daughter of legendary Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar, who said in a video released Thursday that she had been sexually abused as a child by a family friend.

The US-born musician dedicated her message to the victim of the Delhi rape on December 16 by six drunken men, who later died in hospital from horrific injuries.

“Enough is enough. I am rising,” she said. “I am rising with the women of my country.”

As scores of flashmobs took place on beaches and city squares across Australia, Minister for the Status of Women Julie Collins told parliament it was “a sad fact that every day millions of women are subjected to violence and physical abuse”.

“Violence against women has no geographical financial or cultural boundaries; it is, regrettably, happening everywhere, every day,” she said.

In Singapore, dozens of activists with black balloons taped to their shoulders weaved through a jam-packed foyer of a busy mall to draw attention of the passing shoppers.

At the blow of a whistle, the participants dramatically covered their mouths and froze. After a minute, they shouted in unison: “Shout! Sexual harassment out!” and then released the balloons.

The demonstration was welcomed by Lim Shu Li, 28, who took part after her own experience of sexual harassment.

“It was an uncomfortable situation but I didn’t dare to speak up about it at that time. So I thought this was a great message,” she told AFP.

In the Philippines, the day began with celebrity-led flashmob dances in a crowded Manila park and will be capped by a concert of local artists, with events from bazaars to dance shows at 25 sites throughout the day.

Rallies were also held in New Zealand’s capital Wellington and at Auckland’s Bastion Point, where a Maori elder led prayers before about 100 women and and children danced by the waterfront.

“We danced and sang and talked about cherishing women and loving our children,” organiser Helen Te Hira said.

“There was a real sense you were part of a world-wide movement that was taking a stand against violence.”


Violence against women: 1bn rising
One Billion Rising: 'It's like a feminist tsunami'

Flashmobs in Mogadishu, marches in Bute and mass rallies in India: Eve Ensler on the global response to her One Billion Rising campaign to end violence against women

Click to watch:

Jane Martinson   
The Guardian, Monday 28 January 2013 19.30 GMT           

Since Eve Ensler launched the One Billion Rising campaign to end violence against women she has been repeatedly asked: is it a dance movement or overtly political? A protest or a giant global celebration? Just a few weeks before 14 February, the date that Ensler, activist and author of The Vagina Monologues, designated the "day to rise", she says: "I've never seen anything like it in my lifetime."

One in three women around the world are subject to violence at some point in their life, a statistic that prompted Ensler, who wrote the Monologues in 1996, to set up One Billion Rising. With such violence encompassing domestic abuse, gang rape, female genital mutilation and war, it is perhaps unsurprising that the campaign has taken on a different hue in each of the 190 countries where events to mark 14 February are planned.

"It is something that has gone across class, social group and religion. It's like a huge feminist tsunami," she said on a stopover in Paris.

Local protests range from the first ever flashmob in Mogadishu, Somalia, to the town square in Rothesay on the Isle of Bute and encompass Maori women in New Zealand and an estimated 25m protesters in Bangladesh. Ensler's idea for One Billion Rising came from her work in the Congo, where she set up the City of Joy to help female victims of violence and where she plans to be on 14 February itself, a day chosen partly to take back the idea of love from the soppy commercialism of Valentine's Day. Her last stop before Congo will be London, with a sold-out event at the Café de Paris including Thandie Newton and other campaigners.

Ensler says a combination of social media and the world's grassroots feminist movements have driven the way the campaign has taken off globally. In south Asia for three weeks over Christmas, she was struck by how much the horror over the gang rape of the 23-year-old medical student Jyoti Singh in Delhi had given impetus to the campaign. "In India, One Billion Rising is at the centre of the biggest breakthrough in sexual violence ever seen," she says.

Kamla Bhasin, a feminist campaigner in the continent for more than 30 years, says each country is taking a different approach – from the astonishing mass movement in Bangladesh, organised by Brac, one of the world's largest NGOs, to Afghanistan, where "there will be no dancing and no singing but people still want to say, 'Enough is enough'".

The idea of dancing to stop violence has understandably attracted naysayers, even among committed supporters, but two videos, among hundreds, sum up how Ensler's idea inspires campaigners. The first is the one that launched the new anthem written and produced by Grammy-award-winning Tena Clark, Break the Chain , with a video choreographed by Debbie Allen, who went on to make her own accompanying "how to" dance video. The second is one produced by campaigners in Norwich. Without the involvement of the sort of Hollywood A-listers – Robert Redford, Jane Fonda – usually associated with Ensler, it's still hugely effective. Local organisers were keen to show that the campaign is supported by men and boys as well as women.

Much of the effort in the UK has been concentrated on changing sex education in schools to embrace relationships and violence. A cross-party group including Labour MP Stella Creasy and Conservative MP Amber Rudd is hoping for parliamentary time on 14 February to vote on making "personal, social and health education a requirement in schools, including a zero tolerance approach to violence and abuse in relationships".

Efforts to get the government to recognise the campaign itself have so far failed to gain much ground. In the latest parliamentary debate, foreign office minister Hugo Swire restricted himself to pointing out that the government took such violence seriously and warned women to be careful when going abroad.

In the US, veteran campaigner Pat Reuss is also hoping to use support for OBR in every state to resuscitate the Violence Against Women Act that provides protection for victims, yet which Congress failed to reauthorise last year.

When asked which country she has been most amazed by, Ensler rattles off a list of action – from those protesting against sex trafficking in Mexico to mass activity in the Philippines. She adds that the 50 cities preparing events in Italy took her by surprise. "That was a real turning point for me," she says. "Fifty cities in Italy!"

Campaigners are already wondering what will happen after V-day. "The dancing will be amazing but more important is what's happening to move violence against women to the forefront of the agenda," says Ensler. "It will never be a marginalised issue again ... At this point it really feels like a wave with a life of its own."


What is One Billion Rising? Founder Eve Ensler explains

Playwright and activist Eve Ensler explains One Billion Rising, a global day of action – and dancing – in protest against violence against women

Activists in Delhi rehearse for a One Billion Rising event: Click to watch:

This February 14 2013, V-Day will be 15 years old. It was never our intention to be around that long. Our mission was to end violence against women and girls, and so we planned to be out of business years ago.

We have had enormous victories in these years. We have broken taboos, spoken the word "vagina" in 50 languages in 140 countries, called up stories and truths about violence against women, breaking the silence, supported amazing activists across the planet who have created and changed laws. But we have not fulfilled our mission to end violence against women and girls. In fact the UN says that one out of three women on the planet will be beaten or raped in her lifetime. That is one billion women plus. That is simply insane and unacceptable.

So this V-Day we knew we had to go further; we knew we had to escalate our efforts to break through the patriarchal wall of oppression and denial, to transform the mindset that has normalised this violence, to bring women survivors into their bodies, their strength, their determination, their energy and power and to dance up the will of the world to finally make violence against women unacceptable.

So less than a year ago, we announced One Billion Rising, a call for the one billion women and all the men who love them to walk out of their jobs, schools, offices, homes on Feb 14, 2013 and strike, rise and dance!

Nothing we have ever done has spread so fast and happened so easily. Our motto was "not branding but expanding": a global action to be determined and carried out locally. Every city, town, village, person would determine what they were rising for - to end FGM, to remember their daughter's rape, to stop sex slavery, to educate young boys and girls about non-violence sexual relations.

During this year horrific stories of sexual violence broke through the news clutter with headlines reporting Malala Yousafzai shot for demanding girls to be educated in Afghanistan, the death and gang rape of Jyoti Singh in Delhi, the gang rape in Steubenville, Ohio.

All these stories have built the outrage and ignited a fire burning through the world.

One Billion Rising is happening big time, full scale, one Billion size. It is happening in 205 countries. It is happening where women will risk their lives to dance and where women have never danced before. It is happening in all 7,000 islands of the Philippines and in over 50 cities in Turkey. There are 100 risings in Italy, 135 risings in UK and thousands in North America. We are expecting 25 million to rise in Bangladesh, and it's hard to imagine the numbers in India but they will be massive.

The diversity of the risings is beyond anything we could have imagined: the carnival queen in Rio de Janeiro, the queen mother of Bhutan, prime ministers of Australia and Croatia, members of the European parliament, lamas, nuns, unions leaders, avatars in Second Life, zumba dancers, classical dancers in Karachi, cast members of Wicked and The Lion King on Broadway, women in the Andes, 200 women in a parking lots in Kamloops, British Columbia, Iranian teenagers in their bedrooms, thousands of Afghani women dressed in OBR scarves, Filipino domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, people on bridges, in buses, prisons, squares, in stadiums, in churches, theatres.

But what is most remarkable is what One Billion Rising has already accomplished before we even begin to dance today.

It has brought together coalitions of groups and individuals that have never worked together before, galvanised new people and groups and associations and masses of men who were not engaged before but now see violence as their issue – and all of this putting violence against women to the centre of the global discussion.

It has broken taboos and silences everywhere, inspired a radical outpouring of individuals and groups to reveal the world wide system of patriarchy which sustains the violence. One Billion Rising has also shown that violence against women is not a national, tribal, ethnic, religious issue but a global phenomena, and the rising will give survivors the confidence of knowing that violence is not their fault or their country's fault or their families fault.

Today the dancing begins and with this dancing we express our outrage and joy and our firm global call for a world where women are free and safe and cherished and equal. Dance with your body, for your body, for the bodies of women and the earth.

And please click this link in order to view all the events around the world, and all the testimonials that support it, for One Billion Rising against violence to women:


Latin America still a bastion of draconian anti-abortion laws

The region has the world's highest rate of unsafe abortions, and pro-choice activists are not only up against the law, but also have to convince health professionals

Annie Kelly, Wednesday 13 February 2013 15.21 GMT   

In 2007, a battle was won in the bitter fight to decriminalise abortion in Latin America when Mexico City passed groundbreaking legislation that allowed any woman to access abortion on request up to 12 weeks into pregnancy.

Latin America remains a bastion of draconian anti-abortion legislation, where the termination of a pregnancy is almost universally considered a criminal act. Most countries operate an exemptions approach, where abortion is illegal but penalties are waived in a few specific circumstances. Chile, Nicaragua and El Salvador ban abortion completely, even if the pregnancy threatens the life of both the mother and the foetus.

In such an environment, Mexico City's bold step was celebrated as a major victory by those wanting to increase access to safe abortions for women in Central and South America.

"What happened in Mexico City was the result of decades of relentless work to try and reframe abortion as a public health and human right as well as a moral or religious issue," says Maria Mejia, executive director of Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir (Catholics in favour of the right to decide) in Mexico City.

"I think what was key to our success [in Mexico City] was to stick to a harm reduction strategy over decades of campaigning," she says. "Basically saying to the authorities, if you can't make this legal then at least reduce the risks for women. This emphasis on abortion as a public health issue eventually led to the opening up of a dialogue, which simply hadn't existed before."

Latin America and the Caribbean have the highest regional rate of unsafe abortions (pdf) per capita in the world at 31 per 1,000 women, aged 15 to 44. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), there are about 4.2m unsafe abortions each year in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Abortion is a major cause of maternal mortality in Latin America. The WHO, which calls unsafe abortion a "persistent, preventable pandemic", estimates that in 2008, 12% of all maternal deaths in Latin America and the Caribbean were caused by abortions. Many other women die as a result of complications stemming from unsafe abortions such as septic shock or perforation of internal organs.

In recent years, the ground has begun to shift. In 2006, Colombia lifted an absolute ban on abortion to allow terminations in certain cases. In Argentina, a supreme court ruling in March 2012 stipulated that rape victims should not be prevented from accessing abortion. Then, in October, Uruguay became the first country in the region to partially decriminalise abortion, passing a bill that legalised abortion in the first trimester, permitting abortion within the first 14 weeks of pregnancy in cases of rape and allowing later abortions when a woman's health is at risk.

"Overall, women's rights and access to abortion look very different than they did 10 years ago," says Mejia. "Abortion is finally becoming part of the public debate, something that would have been inconceivable a decade ago."

While these changes could be seen as representing a growing momentum in moves to decriminalise abortion across the continent, some say progress is still painfully slow. "What we gain in one country we have lost in another," says Carmen Barroso, western hemisphere regional director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF).

She points out that in Mexico the change to the law in the capital was swiftly followed by 31 Mexican states passing hardline new anti-abortion laws, which defined a fertilised egg as a person with the right to legal protection. "Any changes that are implemented are constantly attacked. We may have increased the number of people supporting us, but we have also greatly increased the number of people actively fighting us."

One major stumbling block is that while the pro-choice and women's rights movements have become more adept at speaking to legislators and reframing abortion within the public health agenda, they struggle to engage health professionals with the same message.

"Despite the new laws, we had whole hospitals in Mexico City saying they were refusing to offer abortions to any woman on moral grounds," says Mejia, who says 85% of gynaecologists in the city's public hospitals declared themselves conscientious objectors following the legislation.

"The anti-abortion stance and attitude of many service providers is one of the strongest weapons the opposition has across the region," says Mejia. "Medical professionals have perhaps been the least involved [of all sectors] in debates and discussions around abortion, and anti-choice groups have very effectively carried out a deliberate strategy of targeting and influencing health professionals. This is a failure on our part, which is having devastating consequences for women, especially poor women, across the region."

According to research by the Guttmacher Institute, Latin American women cite fear of legal consequences, the attitude of healthcare providers and a lack of access to health services as the major barriers to accessing abortion (pdf), even if they are legally entitled to one. Judgmental attitudes among clinic and hospital staff, and delays in treatment were cited as factors in poor post-abortion services.

In 2008, I interviewed women who had suffered serious post-abortion health complications in Córdoba, Argentina's second city, who spoke of their fear of hospital staff.

Giselle Carino, director of programmes for universal access at IPPF, agrees that health providers must be part of a solution when trying to curb deaths and injuries from illegal abortions. "Health providers have in their hands the answers to these women's problems," she says. She talks of a worrying "polarisation" within the health community over abortion across the region that threatens to make conscientious objection a serious risk to all efforts to increase access to safe abortion.

"We know that the women who are most at risk from unsafe abortions are poor, rural women, many of whom won't know the complex legal status of abortion, yet feel they have no option but to seek one," she says. "What we have failed to do is effectively communicate the message that women also have the right to survive. If we don't focus our efforts on getting this message heard in rural wards, in city hospitals and outreach services, then no changes to any legislation will do enough to stop women continuing to die in such great numbers."

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Israel's Prisoner X driven to suicide by interrogation, lawyer suggests

Lawyer for Australian-Israeli Ben Zygier says his client was discussing plea bargain just before his death in prison in 2010

Peter Beaumont, Thursday 14 February 2013 12.11 GMT   

Ben Zygier – the man known as Israel's Prisoner X, an Australian-Israeli citizen who died in mysterious circumstances while secretly imprisoned after an apparent career in the Mossad — had denied the "serious" allegations against him and was discussing a plea bargain just before his death.

In the latest twist in a story that has engulfed both Israel and Australia, Zygier's lawyer, Avigdor Feldman, told Israel's Channel 10 on Thursday that he had seen him the day before his death in 2010 and that he had appeared rational. He had, however, been put under intense emotional pressure by those interrogating him, which Feldman speculated could have contributed to his suicide.

"His interrogators told him he could expect lengthy jail time and be ostracised from his family and the Jewish community. There was no heartstring they did not pull, and I suppose that ultimately brought about the tragic end," he said.

Zygier, who was 34 when he died, was known by at least three different names and had reportedly visited countries hostile to Israel, including Iran.

The decision to allow Feldman to discuss his representation of Zygier in a case that had been covered for two years by a draconian gagging order, came as both Israel and Australia attempted to justify their roles in the affair. It suggests Israel is keen to counter claims that Zygier's secret and solitary confinement under a false name in Ayalon Unit 15, a secret prison-within-a-prison, did not mean he had not had legal representation. Earlier, Australian officials – reversing an earlier claim – admitted that they had known about Zygier's detention.

Defending his actions in trying to silence the Israeli press, the country's chief military censor, Brigadier General Sima Vaknin, insisted on Army Radio that the case had been examined by judges "from the district to the supreme court and by other people who do not take freedom of expression or state security lightly, and they were all convinced that issuing a gag order on this case was the right thing to do … This was an unusual gag order."

The latest revelations come amid a growing outcry over the case in Israel, with some comparing the treatment of Zygier to that meted out in the Soviet Union or Argentina and Chile under their military dictatorships.

The anachronistic role of both Vaknin and the Mossad have also come in for harsh criticism.

Under mounting pressure on Wednesday, Israel acknowledged for the first time that it had held a dual Israeli citizen under a false name for security reasons and that he had died in prison in 2010.

The story broke earlier this week when Australia's ABC reported that the prisoner, who it referred to as Ben Zygier, migrated from Australia to Israel in 2000 and worked for the Mossad.

The report forced the Australian government to admit that it had known about the case but had kept it under wraps after the Australian intelligence agency ASIO informed officials of Zygier's arrest. ASIO had been investigating Zygier for fraudulent use of passports for espionage purposes.

Speaking on Thursday, Feldman said: "I met a balanced person … He was rationally considering legal options.

"I can say that he denied the charges … The crimes he was suspected of were serious … He didn't admit to anything."

In one of the fiercest denunciations yet of the behaviour of the authorities and media in the Prisoner X affair, the veteran liberal Israeli journalist Gideon Levy, writing in Haaretz, condemned the state's ability to "disappear" people with the collusion of the press and courts.

"Alongside the organisations of darkness was the collaborating judicial system, the newspaper editors who were keen to bring back the days of the disgraceful editors' committee, the newspapers and the broadcast channels that only two days ago were trying to suppress the affair — all the agents, lawyers, jailers, censors, police and investigators who knew and kept quiet."


February 12, 2013

Silenced in Israel, Spy Tale Unfolds in Australia


JERUSALEM — The story had all the trappings of a spy thriller: an anonymous prisoner linked to Israel’s secret service, Mossad, isolated in a top-security wing originally built for the assassin of a prime minister. A suicide — or was it a murder? — never officially reported. A gag order that barred journalists from even acknowledging the gag order. And a code name to rival 007: Prisoner X.

The first reports about the death of Prisoner X leaked out in 2010, both in Israel and the United States, where a blogger identified the mystery man as a former Iranian general. Government censors immediately forced an Israeli news site to remove two items related to Prisoner X — and journalists were interrogated about it by the police.

On Tuesday, after an extensive Australian television report identifying Prisoner X as an Australian father of two who became an Israeli spy, the prime minister’s office summoned Israeli editors to a rare meeting to remind them of the court order blocking publication of anything connected to the matter.

It remains unclear what Prisoner X might have done to warrant such extreme treatment — and such extreme secrecy, which human rights groups have denounced as violating international law. What is clear is that the modern media landscape makes the Israeli censorship system established in the 1950s hopelessly porous: the Australian report quickly made the rounds on social media, prompting outraged inquiries from opposition lawmakers on the floor of Parliament.

“The Israeli public will know sooner or later what happened,” declared Nahman Shai, a Parliament member from the Labor Party.

Aluf Benn, the editor of the Israeli daily Haaretz, said the government forced him and another news organization to delete items about the Australian reports from their Web sites on Tuesday. Later, Haaretz posted an article on the unusual editors meeting and the parliamentary discussion.

“They live in a previous century, unfortunately,” Mr. Benn said of the Israeli administration. “Today, whatever is blocked in news sites is up in the air on Facebook walls and Twitter feeds. You can’t just make a story disappear. I hope that they’re more updated in whatever they do professionally.”

The prime minister’s office and prison service declined on Tuesday to comment. “I can’t tell you anything; I’m not dealing with this,” said the prison spokeswoman, Sivan Weizman. “I can’t answer any question about it. Sorry.”

The Australian report, a half-hour segment based on a 10-month investigation that was broadcast Tuesday on the ABC News magazine program “Foreign Correspondent,” identified Prisoner X as Ben Zygier and said he had used the name Ben Alon in Israel. Mr. Zygier immigrated to Israel about a decade before his death at age 34, married an Israeli woman and had two small children, according to the report.

“ABC understands he was recruited by spy agency Mossad,” read a post on the Australian network’s Web site. “His incarceration was so secret that it is claimed not even guards knew his identity.” Mr. Zygier “was found hanged in a cell with state-of-the-art surveillance systems that are installed to prevent suicide,” it said, adding that guards tried unsuccessfully to revive him and that he was buried a week later in a Jewish cemetery in a suburb of Melbourne.

A spokeswoman for the Australian government said in an e-mail that its embassy was unaware of the prisoner’s detention until his family asked for help repatriating the remains, and that she could not “comment on intelligence matters (alleged or actual).”

The Australian report builds on news items from 2010 that described the death of Prisoner X in solitary-confinement cell 15 in a part of Israel’s Ayalon Prison said to have been created especially for Yigal Amir, who killed Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Prisoner X was not allowed visitors or a lawyer, according to those reports.

Richard Silverstein, an American blogger, claimed in 2010 that Prisoner X was Ali-Reza Asgari, a former general in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and a government minister, who had previously been reported to have defected to Israel and cooperated with Western intelligence agencies. On Tuesday, Mr. Silverstein acknowledged his error, saying his source apparently was part of “a ruse designed to throw the media off the scent of the real story.”

Bill van Esveld, a Jerusalem-based analyst with Human Rights Watch, said the reports suggested a serious violation of international law. “That’s the most basic obligation you can think of, not disappearing people,” he said. “You can’t take somebody into detention, deny any knowledge of them, and not allow their families to be in communication with them, not allow them to see a lawyer or have any due process. That’s what needs to be looked into.”

Dov Hanin, a member of Parliament from the left-wing Hadash Party, on Tuesday questioned Israel’s justice minister, Yaakov Ne’eman, about Prisoner X, asking: “Are there people whose arrest is kept a secret? What are the legal monitoring mechanisms in charge of such a situation? What are the parliamentary monitoring systems in charge of such a situation? And how can public criticism exist in cases of such a situation?”

Mr. Ne’eman replied that the matter did not fall under his jurisdiction, but said, “There is no doubt that if true, the matter must be looked into.”

Israel has long employed a military censor and refused to acknowledge certain operations, most recently its airstrike last month in Syria. Most politicians here offer only winks and nods about Israel’s well-known nuclear program, and Israeli journalists are left to quote foreign news media reports about such things. Two weeks ago, Reporters Without Borders ranked Israel 112th out of 179 countries on its annual press freedom index.

But even within that context, experts said the Prisoner X situation was extraordinary. They likened it to the case of Marcus Klingberg, a Soviet spy who was held in Israel for years under a false name.

“There are some episodes in the history of Israel that are still kept under the strongest secrecy thick veil possible,” said Ronen Bergman, an Israeli journalist and contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine who is writing a book about the Mossad. “Some of them are 40 years old, 50 years old, and are still under thick, thick secrecy, and anyone violating this secrecy would be thrown into jail himself.”

Mr. Bergman said he had information about Prisoner X but could not share it because “so far the gag order is in motion and I’m an Israeli citizen.” Three former directors of the Mossad also refused on Tuesday to comment on the case.

“This is the topic you want to talk to me about? No way,” said Danny Yatom, who headed the spy agency in the late 1990s and later served as a Labor member of Parliament. “I don’t know if it is true or not. Even if I would have known if it were true, I wouldn’t have talked about it.”


Prisoner X throws spotlight on Israel's treatment of those it regards as enemies

Ben Zygier case suggests Israel going back on 2006 promise not to hold prisoners in secret outside of international legal norms

Peter Beaumont, Wednesday 13 February 2013 14.48 GMT   

The infamous case of Prisoner X – revealed this week to be Australian dual national and Mossad agent Ben Zygier, who killed himself in solitary confinement in an Israeli prison in 2010 – has once again focused attention on how the country treats those it regards as enemies of the state.

Following the revelation of the existence of a detention facility known as Camp 1391 in 2003, Israel said three years later that it no longer held prisoners in secret outside of international legal norms. The Zygier case suggests the Israeli government has not stuck to that promise.

Even the location of Camp 1391 was airbrushed from aerial images. An Israeli court ruled at the time that the facility – run by Israel's domestic intelligence agency Shin Bet, used to house Palestinian prisoners with no access to their families and designated a military secret – held its inmates in substandard conditions.

When the UN Committee Against Torture reported on conditions in Israeli jails in 2009, it noted that while Israel had said the "secret detention and interrogation facility" had not been used since 2006 it had rejected a request to inspect the prison.

The report added: "The State party should ensure that no one is detained in any secret detention facility under its control in the future, as a secret detention centre is per se a breach of the Convention [on torture]. The State party should investigate and disclose the existence of any other such facility and the authority under which it has been established."

Although it might be argued that cell 15 at Israel's Ayalon prison, where Zygier was held before his death, was not a secret detention facility like Camp 1391, the fact that he was held in conditions of complete isolation and without access to a lawyer, with his guards not even knowing who their prisoner was, effectively created a "secret prison" within a prison.

The Zygier case is not the first where Israel has evaded international legal norms in incarcerating perceived enemies of the state.

A precedent for the Zygier case was that of Marcus Klingberg, an Israeli chemical weapons researcher, who was discovered to be spying for the Soviet Union. In 1983, he was lured to an undisclosed location after being told he was going to Singapore to investigate a fire at a chemical plant, kidnapped, tortured and imprisoned after a secret trial under a false identity.

He was eventually released to live in France.

The last known case with similar features involved the kidnap in Ukraine by Mossad and subsequent detention without trial of Dirar Abu Sisi, a Hamas figure accused of being a senior bombmaker.

Abu Sisi vanished after boarding a train in February 2011, only to resurface in Israel three weeks later in detention.

In that case, too, an Israeli court issued a gag order on his detention.

Abu Sisi was ultimately accused of masterminding Hamas's rocket programme and training fighters in the Gaza Strip. He is charged with attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder and weapons production.

In some respects the Zygier case raises even more serious questions.

As Bill van Esveld, a Human Rights Watch researcher who has been following the case, told the Guardian secret detention without trial and without access to family and lawyers is a serious breach of Israel's obligations under international law.

Israeli journalists, too, have raised questions over how a prisoner who was supposed to have been monitored 24 hours a day was able to kill himself and in what circumstances.

This issue was also raised by Israeli MP Nitzan Horowitz, who wrote to Israel's deputy attorney general in 2010 seeking information about Prisoner X and guarantees about his wellbeing when the existence of a Prisoner X was first disclosed. He was told the man's wellbeing and safety was being safeguarded.

As Horowitz wrote in his letter at the time: "Keeping a prisoner or detainee from contact with all others and from the outside world over a long period of time is fraught with many dangers.

"Besides the terrible fear of violating the rights of a human being who has no contact with the outside world, a report of the prison service and the public security ministry determined that long-term imprisonment in isolation causes a great deal of physical and psychological damage, to the point of deeply psychotic reactions.

"Even when it is necessary to keep a prisoner separate, everything must be done to ensure that this will not lead to keeping him in utter isolation and depriving him of all contact with other human beings.

"These principles are not being applied in the case of 'Mr. X.' Besides the isolation, such a complete blackout concerning the arrest of a person and perhaps his trial too is unacceptable. Secret arrests and trials are unacceptable in a free democratic country; they pose a tangible threat to the rule of law and deeply harm the public's trust in the legal system."

What has made the Prisoner X case even more serious is that the office of Israel's prime minister attempted to coerce journalists into not reporting on the case for no better reason than to save the "embarrassment of a certain agency" – in other words Mossad.

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Aid to Syria fails to keep pace with desperate need as death toll rises

UN humanitarian chief Baroness Amos admits not enough help is reaching refugees and displaced people, especially in rebel-held areas

Mark Tran, Thursday 14 February 2013 07.00 GMT   

Relief efforts are failing to keep pace with the scale of the emergency in Syria, where the death toll has risen to nearly 70,000, the UN's head of humanitarian operations said on Wednesday.

Baroness Valerie Amos said the UN and its partners were struggling to cope with the number of refugees fleeing Syria and the 4 million people inside the country who need help, including 2 million who have left their homes.

"You have over 700,000 people who are registered as refugees in neighbouring countries, we are seeing on the border with Jordan on average 3,000 people a night that are crossing," she said. "It is very difficult for us to keep pace with that level of exodus from the country but also keep pace with the impact of the conflict inside the country itself."

Navi Pillay, the UN's commissioner for human rights, on Tuesday said the number of deaths from the nearly two-year-old conflict – the bloodiest of the Arab spring uprisings that toppled autocrats in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen – is approaching 70,000, with civilians paying the price for the UN security council's lack of action. Pillay repeated her call for Syria to be referred by the security council to the international criminal court to send a message to all parties in the civil war there would be consequences for their actions.

As for the UN's relief efforts – international donors last month pledged $1.5bn in humanitarian aid – Amos said the organisation had partners operating in a difficult security environment, but not nearly enough. She acknowledged criticism from the Syrian opposition that aid was not getting enough to its areas and said the UN was working with the opposition's humanitarian arm on ways to extend operations inside Syria.

"I am very mindful that there have been criticisms that we are not doing nearly enough in opposition-controlled areas," she said. "I don't think it is as straightforward as that because what you have is an urban crisis with towns and cities where you have neighbourhoods which are controlled by government and some controlled by opposition and a lot of disputed areas. But even with that I think we can and must do more to forge relationships on the ground that enable us to move more freely between the lines that are government-controlled and those that are opposition-controlled."

Syria has allowed some aid deliveries from Damascus to be taken to opposition-held areas, but has not agreed that humanitarian assistance may be sent to opposition areas directly from neighbouring countries. Independent organisations are delivering some aid from Turkey to northern Syria, under a UN general assembly resolution, but UN agencies are not allowed to work across borders without Syria's consent, unless the security council authorises such efforts.

Human Rights Watch has urged donors not to wait for Syria's go-ahead, but immediately expand support to NGOs already able to deliver aid from Turkey into opposition-held areas. The UN agency for refugees, UNHCR, on Wednesday completed its second aid delivery into north-west Syria, where thousands of internally displaced people are in dire need. The operation, carried out in partnership with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the local community, consisted of seven trucks carrying 1,000 tents and 15,000 blankets. The convoy travelled from Latakia on the Syrian coast and Damascus to the Bab al-Hawa area near the Turkish border.

UNHCR's previous aid convoy to northern Syria at the end of January was the first of its kind, delivering 2,000 tents and 15,000 blankets from Latakia to A'zaz, also close to the Turkish border.

Echoing comments this week from the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, who said Syria was "self-destructing", Amos said what will make a major difference is an end to the conflict, but acknowledged that the international community is stuck. Russia is backing President Bashar al-Assad, while the west wants him to step down, ahead of any political settlement. Russia said on Wednesday that it will continue deliveries to the Syrian army despite the civil war.
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« Reply #4569 on: Feb 14, 2013, 08:46 AM »

Russia arming Mali, more Islamist attacks feared

By David Ferguson
Thursday, February 14, 2013 7:22 EST

Russia revealed it was supplying guns to Mali’s government, as French troops defused a massive bomb in the north of the country, the latest bid by Islamist rebels to strike back.

The head of Russia’s arms export agency said it had delivered small amounts of light weapons for the West African nation’s poorly equipped and deeply divided army.

“We are in talks about sending more, in small quantities,” said Rosoboronexport chief Anatoly Isaikin, quoted by the Interfax news agency.

In the centre of the northern city of Gao, the scene of twin suicide bombings and a street battle in recent days, French troops defused a homemade bomb they said contained 600 kilogrammes (1,300 pounds).

The bomb, four metal barrels filled with explosives and connecting wires, was in the courtyard of an abandoned house and had been there since at least Monday, according to an AFP correspondent at the scene.

The United Nations said Wednesday it was working on a “regional strategy” for the Sahel, the semi-arid region south of the Sahara desert. Analysts say a dangerous mix of Islamist extremism, kidnapping, drug trafficking and organised crime are fuelling the unrest there.

Mali’s army is struggling to restore security after a French-led military intervention helped it push out Al-Qaeda-linked rebels who had seized the country’s north.

Romano Prodi, the UN’s special envoy for the Sahel, and UN West Africa representative Said Djinnit began a three-day visit to the region Wednesday to discuss the situation in Mali with the presidents of its neighbours Senegal, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Niger.

On Tuesday, UN rights chief Navi Pillay warned that Mali risked descending into a cycle of violence.

The problem, she said, was not just rebel groups but also the army and black majority who have carried out reprisal attacks on light-skinned Tuaregs and Arabs accused of supporting the insurgents.

Rights groups have accused the Malian army of killing suspected rebel supporters and dumping their bodies in wells. Tuaregs and Arabs have also come under attack from their black neighbours in northern towns such as Timbuktu.

In all, the crisis has caused some 377,000 people to flee their homes, including 150,000 who have sought refuge across Mali’s borders, according to the UN.

“The recent developments in the conflict have sown panic among these people, who have fled for fear of being trapped between two fires,” Nawezi Karl of aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said Wednesday.

Refugees, who had taken few belongings with them, were living in precarious conditions and threatened by hunger, the agency said.

Mali imploded after a March coup by soldiers who blamed the government for the army’s humiliation at the hands of north African Tuareg rebels, who had launched an uprising in the north two months earlier.

With the capital in disarray, Al-Qaeda-linked fighters hijacked the Tuareg rebellion and took control of the north.

France launched its intervention on January 11, after Mali’s interim government called for help fending off the Islamist insurgents as they made incursions into government territory.

But after pushing the rebels from the towns under their control, France is eager to wind down the operation in its former colony and hand over to United Nations peacekeepers.

In Bamako on Wednesday the leader of the March coup, Captain Amadou Sanogo, was sworn in as head of a military reform committee.

Sanogo, under pressure from the international community, handed power to the interim government last April, but continued to exercise influence behind the scenes.

Sanogo’s new post comes with living quarters at the army chief of staff’s offices in Bamako — an arrangement political and military insiders say is a bid to lure him away from his loyalists in the garrison town of Kati.
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« Reply #4570 on: Feb 14, 2013, 08:52 AM »

February 13, 2013

In Speech, Obama Tempers Expectations of Syria’s Future


WASHINGTON – Having overruled top advisers who had argued for arming the opposition in Syria, President Obama appeared to moderate his expectations for change in that war-torn country in Tuesday’s State of the Union speech.

“We will keep the pressure on a Syrian regime that has murdered its own people, and support opposition leaders that respect the rights of every Syrian,” Mr. Obama said. He made no predictions about where that support might lead.

A year earlier, in his 2012 address, Mr. Obama had expressed confidence that the end of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad was near. Noting that Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan dictator, had been ousted by a popular revolt, the president said then: “And in Syria, I have no doubt that the Assad regime will soon discover that the forces of change can’t be reversed, and that human dignity can’t be denied.”

The shift may reflect the president’s determination to keep from getting entangled in the messiest of Middle Eastern conflicts, as well as a sober assessment of Mr. Assad’s tenacious grip on power. Though he touched briefly on foreign policy challenges from Afghanistan to Al Qaeda, Mr. Obama clearly sought to keep the focus on his domestic economic program. The threat of violence he emphasized was not from international terrorism, but from gun violence at home.


February 13, 2013

Kerry Says Trip Will Focus on Finding Syria Solution


WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry said on Wednesday that he planned to use his first foreign trip to advance new ideas about how to persuade President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to yield power and agree to a political transition.

Mr. Kerry’s itinerary has not been formally announced, but he is expected to go to Europe and the Middle East later this month.

Though the United States has sought to encourage a negotiated handover of authority to a transitional government, Mr. Assad’s determination to cling to power has proved to be a major, and so far insurmountable, impediment.

“I believe there are additional things that can be done to change his current perception,” Mr. Kerry said. “My goal is to see us change his calculation.”

Mr. Kerry did not say what ideas he had in mind. But he stressed the importance of trying to find common ground with the Russians, whose cooperation the Americans have long sought in trying to convince Mr. Assad that he is isolated internationally.

Russia has publicly insisted that Mr. Assad’s departure from power should not be a precondition for negotiations between the rebels and the government. Russia has also continued to ship arms to the Assad government and provide financial support, American officials say.

Mr. Kerry’s comments followed a meeting at the State Department with Jordan’s foreign minister, Nasser Judeh, who made similar comments about the need to narrow differences between Syrian rebels, who have demanded that Mr. Assad give up before a political transition is worked out, and the Syrian president’s supporters.

“The positions are far apart, one requiring immediate departure, one saying that discussions will not take place if that is the precondition,” Mr. Judeh said. “So I think you have to go down the middle and try to bridge the two positions together. And I think we’ve seen some initiatives in that regard.”

King Abdullah of Jordan is planning to visit Russia soon to discuss Middle East issues, including Syria. And Mr. Kerry indicated that he planned to follow up those discussions.

Mr. Kerry’s comment on Syria came a day after Mr. Obama said little about the Syria crisis in his State of the Union address. In that speech, Mr. Obama said he would keep pressure on the Syrian government and support the Syrian opposition politically. But he did not voice confidence, as he had in his 2012 address, that Mr. Assad would soon be forced to relinquish power.

Mr. Obama rebuffed a proposal last year by the heads of the C.I.A., State Department and Pentagon that the United States vet and arm a cadre of Syrian rebels. And there has been no indication that the White House is actively reconsidering that plan.

Mr. Kerry lowered expectations for the trip Mr. Obama is planning to Israel next month, saying that the president would begin by listening to Israeli and Arab leaders and would not be bringing a major new proposal.

“The president is not prepared, at this point in time, to do more than to listen to the parties, which is why he has announced he’s going to go to Israel,” Mr. Kerry said. “I think we start out by listening and get a sense of what the current state of possibilities are and then begin to make some choices.”
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« Reply #4571 on: Feb 14, 2013, 08:54 AM »

February 13, 2013

Christians Squeezed Out by Violent Struggle in North Syria


MIDYAT, TURKEY — The bright voices of children at play echoed off the ancient walls of Mor Hanonyo last week, breaking centuries of stillness in this 1,600-year-old Syriac Orthodox monastery outside Mardin in southeastern Turkey. Little boys skipped around the monastery courtyard zipped up in quilted winter jackets, while their elders huddled indoors and lamented the violence and mayhem that have forced them to flee their homes in Syria.

One mother told of the abduction of a neighbor’s child, held for ransom by rebel fighters in her hometown of Al-Hasakah, which prompted her family to seek safety for their three young sons across the border in Turkey. A young man demonstrated how he was hung by his arms, robbed and beaten by rebels, “just for being a Christian.”

Violence against Christians is escalating in the governorate of Al-Hasakah in northeastern Syria, which is home to tens of thousands of Syriac Christians, the refugees said.

The region, known locally as the Jazeera, encompasses the districts of Ras al-Ain, Qamishli and Malikiyah. With government forces, Arab rebels of the Free Syrian Army and Kurdish fighters locked in a three-way struggle for control, the area’s Christian population has found itself caught in the middle.

While fighting is sporadic, the region has succumbed to lawlessness, and Christians have become the target of armed rebel gangs, Father Gabriel Akyuz, the metropolitan vicar of Mardin, said in an interview in Mardin last week.

“The gangs are kidnapping people and holding them to ransom. They are perpetrating great injustices. That is why Syriacs are fleeing,” he said.

Several hundred Christian refugees have arrived in Turkey in recent weeks, with tens of thousands poised to follow if the region, currently held by the Kurdish, should fall to Arab militias, according to refugees, church officials and representatives of Syriac organizations interviewed in southeastern Turkey last week.

Bypassing Turkish refugee camps on the border, fleeing Christians have headed for the monasteries and towns of Mardin and Midyat in Tur Abdin, an ancient region in southeastern Turkey, less than 50 kilometers, or 30 miles, from the Syrian border that is the historical heartland of the Syriac Orthodox Church.

“They are afraid to stay in the camps. They feel safer with their own people,” said Father Joseph, a Syriac monk looking after four families and several single refugees in Mor Hanonyo.

“We are fleeing from the rebels, and the camps are full of rebels,” said the mother of the three little boys, a schoolteacher who did not want to be named for fear of rebel reprisals against relatives at home.

Many of the Christian refugees are young men who have fled conscription in the army and now fear being drafted into rebel ranks if they enter the Turkish camps, Evgil Turker, the president of the Federation of Syriac Associations in Turkey, said in an interview.

Al Nusra Front “and other rebel groups are entrenched in the refugee camps,” Mr. Turker said. “They round up young men in the camps, sometimes 20 or 30 a day, and send them through the border fence back into Syria.”

Mr. Turker’s organization has retrieved dozens of Syriacs from the camps, where some of them are sent by Turkish security forces when caught crossing into Turkey illegally. “We vouch for them and they are released to us on our recognizance,” Mr. Turker said.

The Syriac community of Turkey, itself greatly diminished by persecution and emigration over the last century, has rallied to come to the aid of fleeing kin and coreligionists from Syria. Besides rescuing refugees from the camps, the Syriac community shelters them in monasteries and in dozens of church properties and privately owned vacant houses in Tur Abdin. Donations from local Syriacs and from the large Syriac diaspora in Europe keep the refugees fed and clothed.

“We can handle it so far,” said Ayhan Gurkan, deacon of the Mor Barsomo church in Midyat and vice president of the Syriac Culture Association, who runs aid distribution in Midyat. “But God help us if the insurgents take the Jazeera from the Kurds. Then we will be overwhelmed.”

That is an imminent danger, according to refugees sheltering in the Mor Hobil-Mor Abrohom monastery outside of Midyat. While the Kurds remained in control of the Jazeera, most Syriacs would stay put, said one young man, who gave his name only as Gabriel. But if the region should fall to Islamist Arab rebels, “then not any Christian people will stay there,” he said.

Yusuf Turker, the administrator of the monastery, said Syriacs on both sides of the border were anxiously following the struggle between Kurds and Arab militias over the region.

“If Ras al-Ain falls and the militias overrun the region, God forbid, then 40,000 or 50,000 Christians will come over the border in one rush,” he said.

To prepare for such a contingency, Turkish Syriacs have solicited and obtained the support of the Turkish authorities, said Evgil Turker of the Federation of Syriac Associations. In addition to allowing Syriac refugees to be privately sheltered outside the camps and providing aid for their support, the prime minister’s office in Ankara had pledged to establish a separate refugee camp for Syriacs if necessary, he added.

Some Turkish officials confirmed this. Syriac Christians fleeing Syria had asked for help from the Turkish authorities “and we will be happy to help them,” a high-ranking Turkish official, who commented on condition that he not be identified, wrote in an e-mail.

“Upon their request, they will be placed with or near the Turkish Syriac Christian communities in Mardin,” he said.

Another Turkish official, who also would not be named, said Turkey was prepared to build a separate camp for Christian refugees. Such a camp would include facilities to meet their “religious requirements,” he added.

Many Syriac refugees, including those interviewed in Mardin and Midyat, would prefer a European visa to a place in a Turkish refugee camp or a cell in a Tur Abdin monastery. “Most want to move on and leave the region,” Mr. Turker admitted. “But we won’t help them to do that.”

In fact, the Syriac federation has asked European embassies in Ankara and the U.S. Consulate in Adana not to provide the refugees with visas, but rather to help them stay in the region, Syriac activists said.

“We are strictly opposed to an exodus of Syriacs from our homeland,” said Aziz Demir, the mayor of Kafro, a Syriac village in Tur Abdin that was recently rebuilt and resettled by Syriacs returning from the European diaspora; he is also president of a Syriac association affiliated with the federation.

“We tell every refugee who comes that he must not emigrate to Europe or America, but hold out in Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan, because emigration means that we will lose our homeland and our roots,” Mr. Demir said.

Syriacs see the Jazeera region of Syria as their last toehold in the Middle East, Mr. Turker said. In the Tur Abdin region of Turkey, their number has dwindled from 200,000 a century ago to fewer than 5,000 today. Hundreds of thousands of Christians, meanwhile, have fled Iraq in the past decade.

“If we Syriacs keep on running, where will we end up?” Mr. Turker said. “It is time for us to make a stand.”

The Syriac federation hopes that it can persuade Turkey to grant citizenship to Christian refugees from Syria, enabling them to settle in Tur Abdin.

It says the road to naturalization in Turkey should be easy for Syriac Syrians, most of whom are descended from earlier generations of refugees from Tur Abdin who fled Turkish persecution and a local famine in the first half of the 20th century. They settled in what was then the French mandate of Syria, leading to the establishment of the Syriac Orthodox Archdiocese of Jazeera and Euphrates in Al-Hasakah, where it remains to this day.

“Most of the refugees’ ancestors are still on record here in Turkey, so they could be naturalized on those grounds: That is what they told us,” Mr. Turker said, referring to comments by officials at the Turkish prime minister’s office and at the governorate of Mardin Province.

In the monastery outside Midyat, a refugee named Hannibal sighed at that thought. His family, he said, had fled Midyat for Al-Hasakah in the 1940s to avoid the labor camps that non-Muslims in Turkey were sent to in lieu of military service during World War II. “Now the same thing is happening to me and my friends. I guess in 40 or 50 years we will go back to Syria.”

Hannibal, a 36-year-old pathologist who fled Syria when his life was threatened by rebels, was not smiling as he talked: “As Christians in the Middle East, we live in misery and suffer many difficulties. We want nothing more than to emigrate to other places.”
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« Reply #4572 on: Feb 14, 2013, 08:55 AM »

February 13, 2013

Tunisia Sinks Back Into Turmoil


TUNIS — Following the murder of a leading opposition politician, Tunisians are asking whether the Arab Spring, which began in their country, has accomplished much of anything. They are disenchanted with the fits and starts of the transition from dictatorship to something else.

“Nobody likes the situation and this government has to change,” said Rabbeh Souly, 28, who sped up her steps on the pavement in central Tunis after witnessing a mugging. “They need to fix the things that concern people like unemployment and poverty. Before, at least things were calm and safe. I regret Ben Ali is gone.”

She was speaking of the longtime dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who was ousted two years ago. His departure ushered in a transition coalition government led by the Islamists.

Now Tunisia is at a crossroads. Violence has been escalating for months and the general political atmosphere has been deteriorating. This was underscored by the murder of leftist opposition leader Chokri Belaid, who was shot in front of his house by unidentified assailants last week. The killing came as a shock to both ordinary people and to the political establishment.

Thousands of Tunisians took to the streets after Mr. Belaid’s death, vowing revenge in scenes reminiscent of the protests in 2011.

“With our souls, with our blood, we will avenge you Belaid,” they chanted in the rain on a march to the cemetery.

In the halls of government buildings, another drama played out. The prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, called for the government to resign in favor of a technocratic leadership. But his own Ennahda party disavowed his call.

Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party, has been the strongest political group following the departure of Mr. Ben Ali, winning elections in October 2011 handily because it was viewed as very different from the strongman and his cronies.

But after the assassination of Mr. Belaid, the party has been forced into retreat, while the secular leftist opposition has been given new momentum and unity.

“The country entered a new political cycle: It was in a difficult political transition that was marked by phases of instability and now we are seeing a radicalization of political actors,” said Vincent Geisser, a researcher at the French Institute for the Near East who is based in Beirut, speaking of Islamists and secularists. “There is a serious need for dialogue before there is another assassination.”

The challenges are real: The country is dealing with a weak economy that contracted by 1.8 percent in 2011 and grew by an estimated 2.7 percent last year — not enough to reduce unemployment, which is running at about 17 percent, up from 13 percent at the end of the old regime.

Political instability is also frightening away tourists. Tourism was a key source of jobs and income in the past.

The turmoil is hurting just about everyone.

“Political parties are fighting and the Tunisian people are paying for it,” said Mohamed Ben Amor, sweeping in front of a bodega after a protest on Avenue Bourguiba. “The country is deeply affected by the problems that are happening, so business has been really bad.”

Tunisians lay the blame at Ennahda’s door for failing to address the roots of popular discontent and maintain order in the country, while creating an atmosphere in which religious radicals get away with making violent threats against the secular opposition.

Violence has been escalating in Tunisia over the past two years. Extremists have attacked tombs they consider sacrilegious and a TV station they believe has violated their conservative religious beliefs. In Sidi Bouzid, a city in central Tunisia, the extremist Salafis vandalized a bar in September.

Rachid Ghannouchi, a founder and leader of the Islamist party, who was recently called an “assassin” by demonstrators, strongly denies that the party has promoted violence.

“Ennahda never resorted to violence, it’s not part of our ideology,” he said during an interview in one of the party’s offices in Tunis.

“We are in power, but we feel like we are in the opposition. We don’t have any political party that stands by our party,” he added.

Even so, many blame Ennahda for the political turmoil and worry about a takeover by the military.

“Most Tunisians are held hostage by this kind of radicalization of the political spectrum,” Mr. Geisser said. “This stubbornness to not listen to each other could lead to a takeover by the security apparatus.”

Fares Mabrouk, a co-founder of the Arabic Policy Institute, a research concern in Tunis, believes that the shorter the transition period, the more chances the country has to get back to a more stable political climate. The current government is only supposed to remain until a constitution is in place and new elections are held.

“There is today an opportunity to create a historical compromise that will be unique to Tunisia, and unique in the Arab world,” he said. “The murder of Chokri Belaid and the unification of the left will balance the forces.”

The constitution is not finished and there is no date set yet for elections. This fight over political legitimacy is hurting the country.

“We have two equal forces and it can lead to civil war,” Mr. Mabrouk said. “The first one has electoral legitimacy and the other has now a martyr that is giving them legitimacy. With the political future so unclear, no Tunisian or foreign businesses will invest.”

But for many Tunisians, the murder of Mr. Belaid was a call to even greater political activism.

“I am in a state of shock, but actually there are thousands of Chokri Belaids,” said Mounji Ayari, 43, who wept as he held a sign with a picture of Mr. Belaid that read “martyr” at the funeral. “He is someone who taught us rebellion. He may be dead but he will forever stay with us and we will make sure his ideals live on.”
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« Reply #4573 on: Feb 14, 2013, 08:58 AM »

February 14, 2013

100th Self-Immolation Reported Inside Tibet


A former Tibetan Buddhist monk protested Chinese rule by killing himself through self-immolation this month, becoming the 100th person to do so inside Chinese-governed Tibet, according to reports on Wednesday by Tibet advocacy groups.

The Tibetan man, Lobsang Namgyal, 37, formerly of Kirti Monastery, set fire to himself on Feb. 3 in front of an office of the public security bureau in a county of Sichuan Province and died on the scene, according to Free Tibet, which is based in London. Free Tibet said in a news release that it had taken 10 days to confirm the self-immolation “because Tibetans are too frightened of Chinese state reprisals to speak about protests.”

Another advocacy group, the International Campaign for Tibet, reported that monks living in exile in India who had received word of the self-immolation had said that during the act, Mr. Lobsang Namgyal called for the long life of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetans.

The monks, who live in Dharamsala, India, the seat of the Tibetan government in exile, come from the same monastery as Mr. Lobsang Namgyal, and said he had been an exceptional student chosen to study for a Geshe degree, the highest qualification in Tibetan Buddhism.

“He was regarded as a model for a new generation of students at Kirti,” the monks said in a statement translated by the International Campaign for Tibet.

The monks said Mr. Lobsang Namgyal had disappeared in September and was believed to have been temporarily detained in Sichuan Province by local security forces. Officials had sought to isolate him and ruin his reputation, they said, and he continued to be under intense surveillance even after leaving for a rural nomadic area. His family had also come under pressure.

The wave of self-immolations in Tibet, which began in 2009, has brought into sharp relief the intense frustration and defiance of Tibetans, whose vast homeland came under Communist rule after Chinese troops occupied central Tibet in 1951. At least 82 of the 100 self-immolators have died.

Earlier Wednesday, a Tibetan man walked onto a street in Katmandu, the capital of Nepal, which borders Tibet, and set himself on fire. He was the latest of a half-dozen Tibetans to immolate themselves outside Tibet in protest against China. Nepal is home to thousands of Tibetan exiles.

The authorities said the man, who witnesses told The Associated Press had been wearing monk’s robes, died Wednesday night at a local hospital. The witnesses said the man had shouted slogans against China before falling to the ground.

The protester, who had not been identified, set himself ablaze near a Buddhist stupa in the Boudhanath area of Katmandu, where many Tibetans live. He timed his act to coincide with the important Tibetan festival of Losar, or the Tibetan New Year. Those still in Tibet have not observed the festival since a widespread uprising against China in 2008, and the government in exile, in solidarity, has asked other Tibetans not to celebrate it.

Nepal is pinched between China and India and for decades has served as a way station for Tibetans escaping Chinese rule. In recent years, Chinese leaders have pressured Nepal’s government to choke off this flow of refugees and to limit political protests by Tibetans living in Nepal, which has resulted in growing frustration among those Tibetans.

Lobsang Sangay, the prime minister of the Tibetan government in exile, expressed sadness about the self-immolation in Nepal and said his administration had asked Tibetans not to take drastic actions. But he also placed the blame for such acts on the Chinese government.

“The occupation of Tibet and repression of Tibetans are the primary reason for the self-immolations inside Tibet,” Mr. Sangay said by e-mail while visiting the United States. “The solution to the tragedy in Tibet lies with Beijing, and my administration is fully committed to dialogue and to address the issue peacefully.”

Chinese officials in Beijing and in Dzorge County of Sichuan Province, known as Zoige in Chinese, where Mr. Lobsang Namgyal died, could not be reached for comment. Government offices in China are closed for the lunar new year holiday.

Chinese officials in the past said the self-immolators were mentally unstable or blamed outside agitators. Despite the accusations, Chinese officials have never provided evidence of any connection between the acts and the Dalai Lama or other Tibetan leaders in exile. Recently, Chinese officials have tried pressing a campaign to criminally prosecute people tied to those who immolate themselves; as a result, several monks have been given harsh prison sentences.

Security forces have also flooded towns in parts of the Tibetan plateau where the self-immolations have been common. But nothing the authorities have done has curbed the acts, which are being committed by a wide range of Tibetans, from young men to middle-aged parents. They have taken place mostly in eastern Tibetan, known as Kham and Amdo to Tibetans and now part of the Chinese provinces of Sichuan and Qinghai.

“There has been clear evidence from at least some of the immolators themselves that they have acted as they have in order to demonstrate resistance to Chinese rule,” said Elliot Sperling, a scholar of Tibet at Indiana University. “The fact that these immolations continue even now, after China has opted for a harsh crackdown in areas that have witnessed these acts, is telling.”

Another scholar, Tom Grunfeld at Empire State College of the State University of New York, said that people on the outside had been generally “stumped as to what’s driving this,” but that what was interesting was “how helpless the Chinese state is in combating this.”

So fearful are Chinese officials of the self-immolations and the message they send that the officials have even put fire extinguishers in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, thousands of miles from where the acts have occurred. Chinese leaders are sensitive to the fact that protesters across China often try to make their way to the square. Officials in Tibetan regions have also equipped security forces with fire extinguishers and put them in monasteries.

Officials have tried to prevent foreigners from traveling to the sites of the self-immolations.

Tibetans interviewed last year in Dharamsala said the security crackdown after the 2008 uprising had contributed to a growing spirit of defiance among Tibetans. The first self-immolation in Tibetan regions was by Tapey, a monk from Kirti, in February 2009. He survived. The next self-immolation occurred outside Kirti in March 2011.

Kirti monks in exile said Mr. Lobsang Namgyal had returned to Kirti days before his death and told some people that he wanted to go on a religious retreat.

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« Reply #4574 on: Feb 14, 2013, 09:02 AM »

Pope Benedict denounces religious hypocrisy in final mass

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, February 13, 2013 17:00 EST

Pope Benedict XVI urged an end to “religious hypocrisy” and “rivalry” in the Catholic Church as he donned his papal mitre for the last time for an emotional mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Wednesday.

The 85-year-old pope was hailed with a standing ovation and waves of applause from a congregation of thousands where many broke down in tears, as cardinals doffed their mitres in a final gesture of respect.

Wearing the purple robes of Lent — a period of penitence for Christians — the pope was conveyed through the basilica’s vast nave on a mobile platform that underlined his growing infirmity.

Benedict called for greater sincerity in his final mass as leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics before he becomes only the second pontiff to resign voluntarily in the Church’s 2,000-year history.

He condemned “religious hypocrisy” and urged an end to “individualism and rivalry”.

“The face of the Church… is at times disfigured. I am thinking in particular of the sins against the unity of the Church,” he said, a possible reference to the many scandals plaguing the institution.

Christ “denounces religious hypocrisy, a behaviour that seeks applause and approval. The true disciple does not serve himself or the ‘public’, but his Lord, in simplicity and generosity,” Benedict said.

The pope cut short the applause at the end of mass, saying “Let’s return to prayer”, before leaving the basilica, waving and smiling at the congregation.

Earlier Wednesday, the frail pontiff was greeted by chants of “Benedetto” and a banner reading “Thank You, Holiness” at his weekly audience with thousands of believers in a Vatican auditorium.

Benedict told the crowd he had taken his momentous decision “for the good of the Church”.

“Keep praying for me, for the Church and for the future pope,” he said, his voice full of emotion.

Wearing his workaday white cassock and skullcap, the pontiff said he could feel the faithful’s love “almost physically in these difficult days”.

The Vatican announced that cardinal electors — the princes of the Church — will meet on March 15 or soon after to choose Benedict’s successor.

“The beginning of the conclave cannot be before March 15,” Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told a press conference. “We have to expect a conclave starting on the 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th or 19th.”

The secret conclave held in the Sistine Chapel under Michelangelo’s famed ceiling frescoes — deliberations that normally last a few days — should produce a new pope in time for Easter.

Many ordinary Catholics have said they would like the new pope to be more in tune with the times after the traditionalist reigns of Benedict and his long-time predecessor John Paul II.

“I want someone who is youthful and with a youthful spirit who can be more flexible,” said Ieva Tamosaityte, 25, a Lithuanian musician in the congregation at the pope’s last mass.

“I would like future popes to retire when they get old too,” she said, as staff in the basilica distributed photos of the outgoing pope.

Rumours have begun flying over front-runners to succeed Benedict, but no clear favourite has emerged yet and the decision will be up to the 117 elector cardinals.

While some hope that Africa or Asia could yield the next pontiff, others have tipped high-flying European or North American cardinals.

Benedict announced on Monday that he would resign because he no longer had the strength to carry out his duties.

Although the Vatican has denied that specific health problems influenced his decision, it said Tuesday he had a secret operation to replace the batteries in his pacemaker three months ago.

Benedict will no longer be pope from 1900 GMT on February 28, after which, as Lombardi put it, “people will know they no longer have to go to him for questions regarding the Universal Church.”

Shortly before the time runs out on his papacy, a helicopter will whisk Benedict away to the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo near Rome where he will live temporarily while his new permanent residence in the Vatican is being renovated.

Benedict will honour his existing engagements in the final days of his papacy, with a few notable exceptions like meetings with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and Prime Minister Mario Monti.

Benedict’s resignation has eclipsed campaigning for the February 24-25 election in Italy, with analysts saying it could have a major impact on the outcome — perhaps stopping scandal-tainted billionaire Silvio Berlusconi’s rise in the polls.

At the Vatican, next week will be given over to a spiritual retreat which is sure to be dominated by jockeying among factions within the College of Cardinals over the choice of Benedict’s successor.

The pope will hold his final general audience on February 27, this time a farewell event for all in St. Peter’s Square, before retiring to a little-known monastery within Vatican walls, just a stone’s throw away from his successor.

Asked about this unprecedented “cohabitation”, Lombardi replied: “I think the successor and the cardinals will be very happy to have very close by the person who best of all can understand the spiritual needs of the Church.”

Only one other pope has resigned voluntarily — Celestine V in 1294 — a humble hermit who stepped down after just a few months saying he could no longer bear the intrigues of Rome.

The new pope will have to face up to growing secularism in the West, one of the Church’s biggest challenges.

Benedict admonished Wednesday: “You cannot be Christians as a simple consequence of living in a society with Christian roots.”

He added: “Even those born into a Christian family and given a religious education should… put God first in the face of the temptations that a secular culture presents all the time.”

* Pope-Benedict-XVI-via-AFP.jpg (55.37 KB, 615x345 - viewed 87 times.)
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