February 17, 2013
In Russia, Ruins and Property Spared by Meteor, Side by Side
By ANDREW E. KRAMER
CHELYABINSK, Russia — The shock wave from a meteor that exploded above Siberia last week somehow sheared the roof off a brick and steel factory building while leaving a nearby glass facade unscathed.
In some high-rises in this city, the first modern urban community to have felt the breath of a cosmic close encounter, every window blew out on the top floor; elsewhere, the ground floors suffered.
More ominously, reports came in to local news media over the weekend of stranger phenomena: behind unshattered apartment windows, glass jugs were said to explode into shards, dishes to crack, electronics to die. Balconies rattled. One man said a bottle broke right in his hand.
Anna V. Popova was at home with her daughter when she saw the flash, then heard explosions, then found the windows of her enclosed balcony blown in; her neighbor, with identical windows, escaped without property damage.
“A lot of people suffered, not us alone,” Ms. Popova said, but added that there seemed to be randomness in whose property was damaged. “Who are we supposed to blame for all this? Nobody of course.”
Scientists believe the space rock that tore through the atmosphere on Friday morning and blew apart here was the largest to have entered the atmosphere since 1908 and that it was unusual as well for the scale of its effects: more than 1,200 people injured and broad property damage.
Indeed, the event is providing a first indication of the type of structural and infrastructural costs meteors can exact from a highly industrialized society. NASA scientists say a meteor of this size strikes the Earth about once every hundred years.
Shattered glass caused most of the damage and injuries here in Chelyabinsk, a sprawling industrial city of about a million people.
What shattered the glass, scientists say, was both the explosion as the meteor fragmented and the waves of pressure created as it decelerated. Such low-frequency waves — called infrasound — are sometimes detected by cold-war era nuclear blast sensors in remote parts of the Pacific Ocean or Alaska, according to meteor experts.
The waves can bounce off buildings and be stronger in some places than others; they can also resonate with glass, explaining why bottles and dishes might have shattered inside undamaged kitchens, as if crushed by the airy hand of the meteor itself.
“A shock wave is like a ball,” Aleksandr Y. Dudorov, director of the theoretical physics department at Chelyabinsk State University, said in an interview. “Throw a ball into a room and it will bounce from one wall to another.”
Russia has mobilized 24,000 emergency officials to inspect roads, railroads, hospitals, factories and military facilities. Most are undamaged, including 122 sites identified as particularly critical, including nuclear power plants, dams and chemical factories, and a space launching site called Strela.
Also Sunday, Russia’s consumer safety inspection agency, Rospotrebnadzor, released a statement saying the water in Lake Chebarkul, where a hole in the ice appeared on Friday, was not radioactive.
It was unclear why the agency released this finding only Sunday, or whether the tests were conducted to assuage popular concerns or out of any real official uncertainty over what happened on Friday. In any case, the agency said a mobile laboratory quietly dispatched to the lake tested for but did not discover cesium 137 and strontium 90, isotopes created in nuclear explosions.
Infrasound waves have not previously been studied in a cityscape, Richard P. Binzel, a professor of planetary science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an author of a textbook on asteroids and meteorites, said in a telephone interview. But he noted that the apparent randomness of the damage was consistent with the way such waves function.
“A shock wave can be coming from a particular direction, and if you face that direction you are more susceptible,” Dr. Binzel said.
“One building might shadow another, or you may have a street that is optimally aligned to channel the wave, either in a fortunate or unfortunate way.”
Peter Brown, a professor of physics at the University of Western Ontario, wrote in an e-mail that an infrasound wave “is very efficient at traveling long distances,” and that “windows, structures or even glass jars susceptible to resonate at this frequency could be a factor to seemingly random damage at widely disparate locations.”
Dr. Brown studied a similar, though smaller, explosion of a meteor over the Pacific Ocean on Oct. 8, 2009, which also sent out low-frequency waves, though too remote to affect homes or industry.
They were, though, registered by a network of infrasound sensors established to monitor compliance with the international ban on nuclear tests, according to Dr. Brown.
Alekdander V. Anusiyev, the spokesman for the governor of Chelyabinsk region, characterized the damage here as without a discernible pattern. “It is impossible to say more glass broke in one part of the city or another,” he said. “Glass broke everywhere.”
The roof of the zinc factory that collapsed was reinforced with a lattice of steel beams and supported by concrete joists that are now broken, jutting upward with mangled re-bar protruding. Windows on a neighboring house blew in with such force that the frames went with them.
Yet a few yards away on Sverdlovsky Street, the cosmos spared a seemingly vulnerable Hundai dealership, a three-story cube sheathed in glass, with glistening display models inside. Not a window broke.
“People can consider Feb. 15 their second birthday,” the governor of Chelyabinsk, Mikhail Yurevich, told reporters, referring to the day of the meteor strike. “God directed danger away.”
Ellen Barry contributed reporting from Moscow.
Russian scientists say they have recovered meteor fragments
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, February 18, 2013 7:00 EST
Scientists said Monday they had discovered fragments of the meteor that spectacularly plunged over Russia’s Ural Mountains creating a shockwave that injured 1,200 people and damaged thousands of homes.
The giant piece of space rock streaked over the city of Chelyabinsk in central Russia on Friday with the force of 30 of the nuclear bombs dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima during World War II.
It exploded a few dozen miles (kilometres) above Earth but its pieces were widely believed to have scattered over large swathes of the industrial region.
Recovery workers scouring a small lake where at least some of the fragments were believed to have fallen were unable to discover anything in their initial search.
But members of the Russian Academy of Sciences that conducted chemical tests on some unusual rocks on Sunday said the pieces had come from outer space.
“We confirm that the particles of a substance found by our expedition near Lake Chebarkul really do have the composition of a meteorite,” RIA Novsosti quoted Russian Academy of Sciences member Viktor Grokhovsky as saying late Sunday.
Grokhovsky’s Urals Federal University separately posted a statement on its website on Monday that featured a photograph of a person holding a tiny piece of porous black rock between his index finger and thumb.
“This meteorite belongs to the class of regular chondrites,” the university statement said.
Grokhovsky said the rock in question was composed in part of metallic iron as well as chrysolite and sulfite.
Its iron content was estimated at 10 percent.
“Most likely, (the find) will be called Meteorite Chebarkul,” the Russian university said.
The meteor’s shockwave blew out the windows of nearly 5,000 buildings and left 40 people — including three children — recovering in hospital Sunday with cuts and more serious injuries.
About 24,000 emergency workers and volunteers were busy replacing smashed windows over the weekend in time for the resumption of school and work.
But the elusive meteorites — meteor fragments that have hit Earth — have generated interest as well.
Russian space debris hunters have posted ads on websites offering as much as 300,000 rubles ($10,000) for an authentic piece of the latest space rock to hit the planet.
Chelyabinsk authorities responded by cordoning off the area around the lake and not allowing any media or independent researchers hunting for meteorites near the hole that developed in its thick sheet of ice.
Grokhovsky said the tiny rock’s find came in the snow not far away from the lake. He also expressed confidence that a much larger meteorite was buried in its waters.
The lake “is still cordoned off, but it is quite clear that a meteorite is buried there,” the scientist said.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
New campaign tells Senegal’s women ‘all black’ is beautiful
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, February 18, 2013 7:20 EST
Outraged by adverts urging women to bleach their skin, a spontaneous movement has emerged in Senegal arguing that black is beautiful — and to act otherwise is to risk one’s health.
The campaign sprang up in response to advertisements that appeared in the capital Dakar last year for a cosmetic cream called “Khess Petch”, or “all white” in the local Wolof language.
The posters promised “rapid action” and “results in 15 days”. They showed before and after pictures of a young woman who started out black and ended up with fair skin through depigmentation, locally known as “kheessal” or bleaching.
“We were scandalised (by a poster) suggesting that black is not beautiful because it recommends that young women should transform themselves in a fortnight,” said Aisha Deme, who runs the cultural website Agendakar.com.
“In a spontaneous response, we wanted to elevate the black woman and we launched “Nuul Kukk”, which means “all black”, the young woman added.
So the campaigners put up their own posters in the Senegalese capital, this time showing a proud black woman. The work was done for free by fashion photographer Stephane Tourne and advertising professionals.
The Nuul Kukk campaign, which is highly active online and has its own website, Twitter feed and Facebook page, features local stars, including the rapper Keyti, the stylist Dior Lo and women’s rights activist Kine Fatim Diop.
The campaign is also backed by dermatologist Fatimata Ly, who has been fighting the “kheessal” practice for 10 years as part of the International Association for Information on Artificial Depigmentation.
For Ly, skin-bleaching is a public health concern because “in the general population, 67 in every 100 women practice artificial depigmentation.”
These products reduce the body’s ability to “defend itself against (various) infections”, and they also “have broader effects on health, such as diabetes and high blood pressure,” she added.
The skin-lightening phenomenon exists in several sub-Saharan African countries and in the black diaspora. In Senegal, “it is mainly a feminine practice, even if you find it among men in some particular groups, such as performers,” Ly said.
Whitening creams, milks and gels contain substances initially intended for therapeutic purposes, such as corticosteroids and hydroquinone, and should only be prescribed by doctors, according to Ly.
“Unfortunately, you can find them all across the Senegalese market. They are products that are very accessible,” she said.
At between one euro ($1.3) and 1.5 euros ($2) per product — five or six times cheaper than in a chemist’s shop — they are also affordable, Ly said as she showed pictures on her computer of the damage caused by bleaching products, ranging from swollen legs, bruises and open wounds to blemished skin and burns.
Women are nonetheless drawn to the products because they believe they will make them more beautiful, according to researchers and doctors, and Deme says it’s an uphill battle to convince women otherwise.
“Today’s society imposes criteria for beauty on us… Everybody promotes women with fair skin: the papers, magazines, video clips,” said Deme.
“What we recommend today is just to stop depigmentation. We should stop importing these products and selling them, so that there are no more scandalous advertisements,” she added. “It will take as much time as it takes, it will be long, but we have to fight.”
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Pope Benedict XVI begins private ‘spiritual retreat’
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, February 18, 2013 7:05 EST
Pope Benedict XVI began a week-long spiritual retreat out of the public eye on Monday ahead of his resignation, with the cardinal leading the prayers saying he hoped they would be an “oasis”.
The pope will remain in the Vatican with some of his closest aides for the traditional pre-Easter retreat and will only take a short break each day to meet with his secretary Georg Gaenswein to deal with urgent Church matters.
He will be praying together with the Roman Curia — effectively the government of the Catholic Church — in a private chapel in his residence.
The Vatican’s culture minister, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi — seen as a possible long-shot candidate for the papacy — has been selected to lead the retreat this year and has written 17 spiritual “meditations” for the week.
“After the storm, my task will be to create a moment of oasis,” Ravasi said in an interview with Vatican radio before the beginning of the retreat.
“The pope wanted it himself and he did not cancel. This moment of silence, this white space, really has the sense of passing to the new horizon towards which the pope is moving and in which we too will have to live,” he added.
After the retreat, the outgoing pope will receive Italian President Giorgio Napolitano on February 23, celebrate his final Sunday prayer on February 24, and hold a last audience before tens of thousands of faithful on February 27.
Benedict will formally step down as pope on February 28 at 1900 GMT.
Vatican radio has said it will be making available one of Ravasi’s prayers per day as a podcast so that Catholic faithful can pray along with the pope.
In the first prayer late on Sunday, extracts of which were broadcast by the Vatican, Ravasi compared the pope to the Biblical figure of Moses who prayed for the Israelites on a mountain while battles raged in the valley below.
“This image represents the main function, your function, for the Church, that is of intercession,” Ravasi said.
“We will remain in the valley… where there is dust, where there is fear, terror, nightmares but also hope, where you have been for these past eight years with us,” he said.
“From now on, however, we will know that on the mountain there is your intercession for us,” he added.
Ravasi said the spiritual retreat would “liberate the soul from the dust of things, from the mud of sin, from the sand of banality, from the nettles of chatter which, especially in these days, are constantly in our ears.”
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
February 17, 2013
When a Pope Retires, Is He Still Infallible?
By RACHEL DONADIO
VATICAN CITY — What will he be called? Will he keep his white robes and trademark red loafers? And in the last absolute monarchy in the West, how does the dramatic resignation of Benedict XVI, the first pope to step down willingly in six centuries, change a role long considered by the Roman Catholic Church to be that of God’s representative on Earth?
In transforming an office with an aura of divinity into something far more human, Benedict’s decision has sent shock waves through the Vatican hierarchy, who next month will elect his successor. But it has also puzzled the faithful and scholars, who wonder how a pope can be infallible one day and fallible again the next — and whether that might undermine the authority of church teaching.
Benedict stunned the world last week when he said that he would retire on Feb. 28, a decision he said he had made “in full liberty and for the good of the church.” Even as the Vatican has tried to play down the confusion, saying that Canon Law provides for a clear transfer of power if a pope resigns, the implications of Benedict’s act remain unclear.
“What is the status of an ex-pope?” asked Ken Pennington, a professor of ecclesiastical and legal history at the Catholic University of America in Washington. “We have no rules about that at all. What is his title? What are his powers? Does he lose infallibility?”
Some said that the very idea of a retired pope meant that the title had lost some of its luster. Other monarchies, like the British crown, have clear rules about transfer of power. Not so the Vatican. “It’s fine for the Queen Mother to be Queen Mother, but you don’t really feel that Benedict can be the ‘Pope Father,’ ” said Diarmaid MacCulloch, a professor of the history of the church at Oxford University.
Although in the popular imagination, everything a pope says and writes is often perceived as infallible, in fact, papal pronouncements are only considered infallible when a pope speaks “ex cathedra,” in his capacity as leader of the universal church, on questions of faith and morals. The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, has repeatedly said that Canon Law ensures the infallibility of Benedict’s successor, and that once he retires, Benedict will no longer have the authority to promulgate dogma.
Still, many remain puzzled by the larger implications. “From a theological point of view, how can a person be considered to be infallible and not be infallible anymore?” Mr. Pennington asked.
As she stood in Saint Peter’s Square on Sunday to hear Benedict deliver his second-to-last Angelus message as pope, Alessandra Petrucciani said she wished he had not decided to retire. “The pope should have stayed; the bishops and cardinals should have gone,” she said, as she stood next to members of a traditionalist group who were shouting, “Stay! Stay!”
“The pope has been mortified — they have undermined the primacy of the pontiff, his authority,” Ms. Petrucciani added.
Before his decision, Benedict might have been remembered as a passive pope, a theologian who helped shape the doctrine of his beloved predecessor, Pope John Paul II, but whose own reign was marred by scandal. In stepping down, scholars say, his last act became his most revolutionary, making history and perhaps opening the door to a new era.
“The mere fact that he’s resigning has permanently changed the nature of the papacy,” said Eamon Duffy, a historian of Christianity at Cambridge University. “He’s thought the unthinkable, done the undoable. He’s broken a taboo that had last 600 years, the last 150 of which presented the pope as a religious icon, the emblem of Jesus Christ, not the leader of a global church.”
Rowan Williams, a theologian who was archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 until 2012 and is now master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, said that Benedict’s resignation meant that “the pope is not like a sort of God-king who goes on to the very end.”
It was a statement that “the ministry of service that the bishop of Rome exercises is just that, a ministry of service and it’s therefore reasonable to ask if there is a moment when somebody else should take that baton in hand,” he told Vatican Radio, adding that the pope had made the role “slightly more functional, slightly less theologically top-heavy.”
That the supreme pontiff can pass authority to his successor at retirement rather than death inevitably introduces more ambiguity to the authority of church doctrine, some scholars say, since it calls into question the authority of the pontiff who promulgated that doctrine. “Benedict actually by resigning has introduced some cracks into that infallibility. It’s bound to relativize doctrine,” Mr. MacCulloch said.
“That’s reality hitting the Roman Catholic Church,” he added. “That is actually how doctrine has always been promulgated: The result of accidents, unexpected results, contingency, context, things that aren’t said. That’s how things have been in Christianity right from the start.”
Although its origins go back centuries, the notion of papal infallibility was effectively codified at the First Vatican Council, a meeting of church officials in the 1860s. At a time when other European monarchies were ceding more power to the mechanisms of representative democracy, papal infallibility became a kind of consolation prize for the Vatican losing its temporal powers.
In fact, the invocation of papal infallibility “ex cathedra” has only occurred twice in the modern era: In 1854, when Pope Pius IX promulgated the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, that Mary was without original sin. And in 1950, Pope Pius XII pronounced the doctrine of the Assumption of the Virgin, that Mary had been assumed into heaven, body and spirit. The church has not ruled on whether the Virgin Mary died before she was assumed into heaven.
“If after March 1, Benedict XVI loses his head and writes that he declares in an infallible way that the Virgin Mary died before being assumed into heaven, this won’t be an infallible decision, because he’s no longer doing it as pastor of the universal church,” said Philip Goyret, a professor of ecclesiology at the Rome’s Santa Croce University, a private Catholic university run by Opus Dei. “It will be his personal opinion.”
“But he’s a very intelligent person and will never do that,” Mr. Goyret added.
Although the Vatican has tried to play down concerns, experts and prelates worry what it will mean to have two popes alive at the same time, and both living inside the Vatican.
“It’s completely uncharted waters,” said Andrea Tornielli, a Vatican expert for the Turin daily La Stampa and Vatican Insider. “They say they’re calm about it, but it’s not easy to say what the role of the new pope will be. Will the new pope be able to create new decisions that go against those of Benedict? It’s a question.”
Assuming Benedict stays at the Vatican, as has been announced, “I can imagine these unhappy Catholics going to the old pope and saying, ‘What do you think about that?’ ” Mr. Pennington said. “I think that this would raise serious issues of where authority and where infallibility and where the truth in the church lies.”
The Vatican has acknowledged some of the confusion. “For many it’s still a surprise,” Father Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said last week. “There’s a lot of reflection on the significance of the decision and what this implies for the church and for the Roman Curia.”
Elisabetta Povoledo contributed reporting.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: February 18, 2013
A previous version of this article misspelled the surname of a professor of the history of the church at Oxford University. He is Diarmaid MacCulloch, not MacCullough.
Egypt detains Islamic preacher for insulting Christianity
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, February 17, 2013 15:31 EST
Egypt’s state prosecutor ordered on Sunday an extremist Islamic preacher detained for questioning on suspicion of insulting religion after a complaint from a Christian activist, a judicial source said.
The preacher Ahmed Abdullah, known as Abu Islam, is already on trial for tearing up a bible during a protest outside the American embassy in Cairo in September over a short film made in the United States that insulted the Prophet Mohammed.
The latest probe came after a complaint filed by Coptic Christian activist Nagib Gibrail who accused Abu Islam of insulting Christians on a television show.
Egyptian law forbids insults against religion, allowing police in the past to arrest Shiite Muslims and Christians for alleged slights against Islam.
A court last month upheld death sentences for seven Egyptian Coptic Christians who live in the United States and were accused of producing “Innocence of Muslims,” a movie that insulted the Prophet Mohammed.
The movie triggered outrage across the Muslim world when it surfaced last September.
February 18, 2013
Anti-Apartheid Leader Launches New Party in South Africa
By LYDIA POLGREEN
JOHANNESBURG — Mamphela Ramphele, a respected veteran of the struggle against apartheid, announced on Monday that she has formed a new political party to challenge the governing African National Congress, calling on South Africans to “join me on a journey to build the country of our dreams.”
The party will be called Agang, meaning “build,” said Dr. Ramphele, a physician who became an anti-apartheid activist and a leader of the Black Consciousness movement. In recent years, Dr. Ramphele has focused on social activism and business, serving until last week as the chairwoman of Gold Fields, a major mining firm.
The new party is the latest in a string of challengers to the dominance of the A.N.C., which has won every national election since apartheid ended in 1994 but has come under increasing scrutiny over charges of corruption and poor governance. In addition, inequality has grown in South Africa since the end of apartheid despite the party’s pledge to bring “a better life for all.”.
Dr. Ramphele, 65, argued forcefully to an audience in Johannesburg that the government had failed to deliver on its promises and vowed to tackle corruption head on.
“The country of our dreams has unfortunately faded,” she said. “The dream has faded for the many living in poverty and destitution in our increasingly unequal society. And perhaps worst of all, my generation has to confess to the young people of our country: we have failed you. We have failed to build for you an education and training system to prepare you for life in the 21st century.”
It is a refrain that echoes the criticisms of other opposition parties, including the Democratic Alliance, the main opposition, which was reported to have courted Dr. Ramphele, seeking to put a prominent and well-respected black leader at the head of what is still perceived as a largely white party despite its gains in urban black townships.
Bantu Holomisa, leader of the United Democratic Movement, which he started after leaving the A.N.C. in 1997, said in a statement that he welcomed Dr. Ramphele to politics and signaled a willingness to join forces.
“We look forward to working with Dr. Ramphele in our efforts to build a strong political alternative for the people of South Africa,” he said.
But efforts to blunt A.N.C. dominance have struggled in the past. The Congress of the People, a breakaway party started in 2008 by supporters of the former president, Thabo Mbeki, and other disgruntled A.N.C. members, has seen its power wane.
The A.N.C. has been rocked by scandal and tragedy over the past year.
President Jacob Zuma has faced repeated investigations over $27 million in government money spent on security upgrades to his private residence in his home village of Nkandla.
The police killing of 33 striking workers at a platinum mine in August caused many to question the A.N.C.’s commitment to helping the poor. The crisis led credit agencies to slash the country’s debt rating, which further damaged slow economic growth.
February 18, 2013U.N. Rights Panel on Syria Urges War Crimes Charges
By NICK CUMMING-BRUCE
GENEVA — The United Nations Security Council should refer Syria to the International Criminal Court in The Hague to prosecute those responsible for war crimes and other abuses committed in nearly two years of conflict, Carla del Ponte, a United Nations human rights investigator, said on Monday.
“Now, really, it’s time — it’s time,” Ms. del Ponte said. “We are pressuring the international community to act because it’s time to act.”
Ms. del Ponte was speaking as the U.N. Human Rights Council commission investigating Syria, of which she is a member, said violence in Syria is worsening, “aggravated by increasing sectarianism” and radicalized by the increasing presence of foreign fighters. It said the conflict is also “becoming more militarized because of the proliferation of weapons and types of weapons used.”
The panel’s 131-page report detailing evidence of war crimes and other abuses in the six months to mid-January said “the issue of accountability for those responsible for international crimes deserves to be raised in a more robust manner to counter the pervasive sense of impunity in the country.” The top United Nations human rights official, Navi Pillay, has also urged that Syria should be referred to the International Criminal Court. Authority to make such a referral, however, lies exclusively with the Security Council or the country concerned.
“It’s incredible the Security Council doesn’t take a decision,” said Ms. del Ponte, the former chief prosecutor for international tribunals on the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. A referral must be made urgently, she said, “because crimes are continuing and the number of victims is increasing day to day. Justice must be done.”
The report released on Monday is due to be discussed in the Human Rights Council in March, when member states look likely to extend the commission’s mandate. Diplomats in Geneva point out the panel represents the only UN-mandated machinery shedding a spotlight on abuses and that its reports provide the most comprehensive and factual account of how Syria’s conflict is being waged.
In their report on Monday, based on 445 interviews, the investigators said they found credible evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by both government and opposition forces in the six months to mid-January. The report cited accounts of massacres, summary executions, torture, attacks by armed groups on civilians, sexual violence and abuses against children.
Pro-government forces committed massacres in August in Daraya, where more than 100 people, including women and children, reportedly died and in Harak in Daraa governorate, where witnesses said more than 500 civilians were killed.
Government forces involved in Harak included the Syrian Army as well as military and political intelligence units, the report stated, noting they may have been accompanied by members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. The panel said it was still investigating other reports of mass killings.
Drawing on the accounts of defectors and “insiders,” the report said government forces had deliberately targeted civilians to punish populations in areas seen as supportive of the opposition. Entire neighborhoods of Damascus had been shelled and destroyed by government forces and bread lines in several towns had been targeted at times when the concentration of civilians would be at their highest.
“Indiscriminate and widespread shelling, the regular bombardment of cities, mass killing, indiscriminate firing on civilian targets, firing on civilian gatherings and a protracted campaign of shelling and sniping on civilian areas have characterized the conduct of the government,” the panel said.
Investigators also cited “credible admissions against their own interest” by witnesses of the mass killing of five members of one family whose execution was filmed and posted on the Internet. They said a member of the Free Syrian Army acknowledged his brigade had captured and executed five Alawites, the Shiite Muslim minority that provides the bedrock of support for President Bashar al-Assad.
The panel expressed particular concern over “an increase in acts of unrestrained violence” associated with the proliferation of armed groups that appeared to serve no strategic purpose but to foment sectarian tensions and spread terror among the civilian population. The report warned that “this trend risks becoming a malignant feature of the conflict.”
It also said that foreign intervention had helped to radicalize the conflict “as it has favored Salafi armed groups such as the al-Nusra Front and even encouraged mainstream insurgents to join them owing to their superior logistical and operational capabilities.”
The report added that “regional and international actors hampered the prospects of a negotiated settlement owing to their divergent interests. The position of key international actors remains unchanged.”
However, panel members said Monday that their ability to report on activities of the opposition was seriously hampered by the Assad government’s persistent refusal to give its investigators access to Syria.
The panel said last year that it had already accumulated a “formidable and extraordinary body of evidence” against those responsible for war crimes and again said it will provide the United Nations human rights office with the names of leaders who may be responsible for abuses as well as the individuals and units that carried them out.
***********Britain pushing to lift European embargo against Syrian rebels
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, February 18, 2013 7:30 EST
Britain, apparently backed by a handful of European Union allies, is fighting to lift an EU arms embargo barring the supply of weapons to the Syrian rebel coalition battling President Bashar al-Assad.
As EU foreign ministers go into a day-long meeting on the issue Monday, the internal row remains unresolved despite weeks of talks that diplomats from member states describe as both “difficult” and “divisive”.
But time is running out to resolve the dispute.
The EU’s wide-ranging sanctions against Syria, including the arms ban but also targeting scores of Assad cronies and regime-friendly firms, as well as oil, trade and finance, expire at the end of the month and a deal to renew the package requires unanimity.
Britain and France had seen the March 1 deadline as an opportunity to respond to requests for weaponry by the opposition.
But France appears to have cooled, leaving Britain facing opposition from Germany, Sweden and even the EU’s foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, a British baroness who represents London on the European Commission.
“Delivering arms might bring about a new military balance on the ground,” said an internal paper on the matter drafted for the member states by Ashton’s service.
“But it could also fuel further militarisation of the conflict, increase risks of dissemination among extremist groups and of arms proliferation in a post-Assad Syria,” said the paper, which was obtained by AFP.
Among options on the table are restricting the embargo to the Syrian government, exempting members of the opposition Syrian National Coalition from the arms ban, or amending it to allow some weapons to be delivered with a view to increasing the protection of civilian populations.
“There is a real question here,” said a senior EU diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity. “But is this the right moment given the current efforts to push a political settlement?”
UN peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi was supposed to attend Monday’s talks with the EU ministers but had to pull out as efforts mount to make good an offer from opposition leader Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib to negotiate with some regime figures.
“In today’s political context, would this be an appropriate measure?” added the diplomat.
Just over a week ago, French President Francois Hollande ruled out lifting the arms embargo for the time being, saying this could only happen “if we’re sure there are no further possibilities of political dialogue.”
And in Mali, France is facing a reality check “with its troops fighting rebels armed with western weapons from Libya,” said an EU official.
US President Barack Obama last year refused to arm Syria’s rebels on the same grounds.
************Yahya Hawwa, voice of the Syrian revolution
Seventeen members of his family have been arrested, but Yahya Hawwa still sings – and Syrian protesters have made his voice their own. Omar Shahid talks to the irrepressible voice of a revolution
The Guardian, Sunday 17 February 2013 19.00 GMT
Yahya Hawwa was five when his father and uncle were killed in front of him in Hama, Syria, in 1982. This was the era of Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafez, whose forces are believed to have massacred 20,000–40,000 Syrian citizens. The memory left an indelible scar on Hawwa – now 36 and dubbed the "singer of the Syrian revolution".
It is a title that comes at a wretched price: 17 members of Hawwa's family were arrested late last year; one was killed, and until recently Hawwa was on the ministry of the interior's "wanted" list. "Before the start of the revolution, all the things I sung about were either for children or spiritual songs," he says from his home in Amman, Jordan, where he has lived for several years. "It was not until the Syrian revolution kicked off that I felt great pressure to sing about it."
He and his mother fled from Syria to Saudi Arabia after his father was murdered. His father and uncle were market traders, selling fruit and vegetables; their crime was that they had a brother who was a leader in the opposition Muslim Brotherhood, and an outspoken critic of the Syrian regime. "Whenever the Muslim Brotherhood did something against the government, the government would target 10 to 20 members of a family. My father and uncle were in a mosque near their home," Hawwa says.
Classically trained in Qur'anic recitation, Hawwa also borrows from western traditions; the instrumentation of his songs is often minimal, relying more on his powerful voice. In the space of two years, he has written 30 songs. The revolutionaries chant his lyrics before they go out to protest – even before they are "martyred", he says. Arguably the most potent of these is Hawwa's Going to My Death. "The song touches many mothers," he says. They'll sing it as they bid farewell to their sons and never see them again."
Threats were communicated via his family in Syria after he released the song Traitor, a reference to the president. ("The traitor is the one who kills his own people," Hawwa sings, a refrain also chanted by the revolutionaries.) "Shabiha [thugs working for the regime] told my family that if they got their hands on me, they would slaughter me."
Other popular lines have been turned into slogans, too: "Oh mother I am going to my death/ The jasmines of Syria, I will talk about you/ Do not cry, do not cry/ We are coming to the [presidential] palace, we are coming to the palace!"
Last year, Hawwa was one of a number of acts to tour the UK on behalf of Human Appeal International and Syria Relief, on a bill topped by the 31-year-old Lebanese-born singer Maher Zain. Shows in Manchester, Birmingham and London raised £1m.British musician Saif Adam, who also performed, says: "The UK coverage [of the Syrian revolution] has been limited. Some songs can pull people through bad times."
"The role of music in the Syrian revolution has been profound," Hawwa says. "It has served two main roles: on the ground, it has rallied the revolutionaries and encouraged them. And outside Syria, it has shed an artistic light on what's going on there."
Indeed, Hawwa is just one of many musicians playing his part in bringing down the regime. Omar Offendum, 30, is a Syrian-American hip-hop artist based in Los Angeles. His track #Syria, released in March 2012, went viral on release; it's an eloquent, vociferous attack on Assad's regime.
"My father's family is from Hama, which was destroyed in 1982," Offendum says. "But nobody heard about it because there were no camera phones and no YouTube. Now, seeing it happen again sends shivers down my spine. The fact that the barrier of silence has been broken is a triumph in and of itself to people like me. To see a generation of people who can finally rise up and speak is powerful. I knew it was only a matter of time until the revolution would come back to Syria."
Inevitably, social media has played a huge part in this revolution. "Compared to the first massacre in Hama, this time, any small or big thing is recorded and posted all over the internet within hours," Hawwa says. "The music of the Syrian revolution is an oral history of events – it documents the revolution for future generations." Late last year, crossing through Turkey's borders, Hawwa was able to visit Syria for the first time since he fled as a child, despite trying on many occasions. He says that he has been warned, throughout his life, even before he began singing about the revolution, that if he returned he would face prison – which, according to Hawwa, is tantamount to death.
"The regime is devilish and tyrannical," he says. "They have no legitimacy: 70% to 80% of the people don't support them." When does he expect it to end? "I'm sure before 15 March, which will be exactly two years since [the revolution] started. That is when I'll finally be able to return home. It's a coincidence: that's my birthday, too."
Please click to watch these incredible videos by him: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ZkehcQUkcI&feature=player_embedded
and this documentary called ASSAD 2012:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tnaO-5fN6FI
Report: Prisoner X arrested after leaking Mossad work
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, February 18, 2013 9:20 EST
A suspected Mossad agent known as Prisoner X was arrested by his own spymasters after leaking detailed information about his work to Australian intelligence services, according to sources cited by broadcaster ABC Monday.
Ben Zygier, an Australian-Israeli, gave Australian intelligence officials a comprehensive account of a number of Mossad operations, the sources told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Israel’s parliament said it would launch an “intensive” inquiry into Zygier’s arrest and death after the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent programme last week exposed his identity.
According to the ABC, Zygier was found hanged in his cell in Ayalon prison near Tel Aviv in December 2010, in a case Israel went to extreme lengths to cover up.
It imposed a total media blackout on the case but was forced to ease the restrictions after the story made headlines across the world, rendering the local gag order ineffective.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that shining too much light on intelligence activities can “badly damage” state security.
ABC said sources have told the Foreign Correspondent programme that Zygier gave Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) officials information that included plans for a top-secret mission in Italy that had been years in the making.
It is unknown who initiated the contact with the Australian intelligence services, which came during one of his frequent visits back with his wife and children.
In one of four trips to Australia in the years before his death he reportedly applied for a work visa to Italy.
ABC said it understood Zygier was one of three Australian Jews working for Mossad who changed their names several times, taking out new passports as they travelled in the Middle East and Europe.
Zygier reportedly set up a Europe-based communications company for Mossad that exported electronic components to Arab countries as well as Iran, a venture that employed the two other dual citizens.
Zygier, who immigrated to Israel in around 2001, is believed to have been arrested in February 2010. He was found hanged in his cell 10 months later despite being under 24-hour surveillance.
February 17, 2013
Netanyahu Defends Handling of Prisoner X
By JODI RUDOREN
JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday defended his government’s handling of an Australian-Israeli who was held under a pseudonym for months in a maximum-security prison until he committed suicide in 2010, suggesting that the threats his country faces justify the extraordinary measures and the secrecy shrouding the case.
“We are not like other countries,” Mr. Netanyahu told his cabinet, in his first public comments on the case of Prisoner X, which made headlines on at least three continents last week. “We are an exemplary democracy and maintain the rights of those under investigation,” he said. “However, we are more threatened and face more challenges; therefore, we must maintain proper activity of our security agencies.”
In the face of growing calls from politicians and the public for investigations into the prisoner’s death and a court order that barred the local news media from reporting about it for more than two years, the prime minister said, “Let the security forces do their work quietly so that we can continue to live in security and tranquillity in the state of Israel.”
Prisoner X, the subject of Israeli news reports in 2010 that were quashed by the broad court order, was identified by an Australian television report last week as Ben Zygier, a 34-year-old lawyer and father of two who grew up in the Melbourne area, immigrated to Israel as a young man, served in the military and may have worked for the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency. Arrested in February 2010, and held pending trial on charges that have been described only as serious and relating to national security, Mr. Zygier was considering a plea bargain when he apparently hanged himself with a shirt in the bathroom of his cell.
News reports here and in Australia have suggested that Israel detained him because he was about to reveal information about the Mossad’s use of foreign passports, and that he helped set up a Mossad front company in Europe that sold electronics equipment to Iran. A Kuwaiti report saying that he was involved in the 2010 assassination of a Hamas official in Dubai has been dismissed by several people with knowledge of the case.
An Israeli Justice Ministry investigation that declared Mr. Zygier’s death a suicide is expected to be released in the coming days, but several Israeli lawmakers and watchdog groups have demanded further inquiries by the attorney general and the state comptroller. And Australia’s foreign minister said Sunday that he had asked Israel to cooperate as he and his staff look into the matter.
“We want to give them an opportunity to submit to us an explanation of how this tragic death came about,” the minister, Bob Carr, told reporters in Sydney. “The key is to get all the information.”
Nahman Shai, a member of Parliament from the Labor Party, said Australia’s investigation should force Israel to look closer at the behavior of all involved. “We are witnessing oversights in various aspects of the case that include intelligence, legal, public, media and parliamentary,” Mr. Shai said Sunday. “The Australian government will publish the information it has and again make Israel appear irrelevant to the international community and the Israeli public.”
Two of Mr. Shai’s colleagues, meanwhile, called for the formation of a parliamentary committee to investigate the case. And many Israelis joined social-media campaigns that are demanding more information.
“No Israeli citizen will be able to sleep comfortably in a country in which an affair such as Prisoner X can take place,” wrote Uri Misgav, a blogger for the left-leaning newspaper Haaretz, in a lengthy post. “The Israeli public deserves to know whether the Israeli prisons are holding on to Prisoner Y and Prisoner Z,” he wrote. “The Israeli public deserves to be told how all of the monitoring mechanics failed and how such a systematic failure will not be repeated.”
But Mr. Netanyahu seemed untroubled by the affair. “I rely completely on the security forces,” he told the cabinet. “I also completely rely on the legal authorities.”
“The overexposure of security and intelligence activity could harm, sometimes severely, state security,” he added. “The security interest cannot be made light of, and in the reality in which the state of Israel lives, this must be a main interest.”
Israeli soldier posts Instagram image of Palestinian child in crosshairs of rifle
Military investigates Mor Ostrovski, 20, as row grows over spate of offensive images posted online by Israeli soldiers
guardian.co.uk, Monday 18 February 2013 10.06 GMT
An Israeli soldier has sparked outrage by posting a photograph appearing to show the back of a Palestinian boy's head in the crosshairs of his sniper rifle on a social networking site.
The context of the picture, posted on the personal Instagram site of Mor Ostrovski, 20, could not be verified but the aggressive message is clear. The minarets and Arabic architecture of the village captured in the background suggest the boy and the town are Palestinian. Ostrovski is an Israeli soldier in a sniper unit.
The Israeli military said the soldier's commanders were investigating the incident. His actions "are not in accordance with the spirit of the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] or its values", a spokesperson said.
Ostrovski, who has closed his Instagram account, told the army he did not take the picture but found it on the internet.
Breaking the Silence, an organisation of veteran Israeli combat soldiers campaigning to raise awareness about life in the West Bank, condemned the image. "This is what occupation looks like. This is what military control over a civilian population looks like," one member wrote on the group's Facebook page.
The image has been heavily criticised online. Electronic Intifada, a news site focused on Palestinian issues, described the photograph as "tasteless and dehumanising". The site published several other images from Ostrovski's Instagram page, including snaps of the soldier posing with heavy-duty guns.
The Israeli military has been hit by a series of scandals from uncensored social media sites, and Electronic Intifada has been one of the more rigorous monitors of offensive postings by Israeli soldiers.
In December, the site discovered Nisim Asis, a 22-year-old soldier from the Beit-El settlement, who posted racist images on his Instagram page, including a picture of himself licking what is probably tomato ketchup from a knife with the caption: "Fuck all Arabs their blood is tasty".
In another unrelated incident, an infantry corps soldier was recently sentenced to 14 days in military prison for posting a picture of himself beside a handcuffed and blindfolded Palestinian on Facebook.
In both these incidents, and the similar case of a female IDF soldier who uploaded lewd images of herself with Palestinian detainees several years ago, military discipline was deemed adequate and criminal investigations dropped.
Israel handling of hunger strikers ‘ethical failure’ : NGO
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, February 17, 2013 17:51 EST
Israel’s treatment of four hunger-striking Palestinians is an “ethical failure” an Israeli NGO said on Sunday, adding that their rights were being violated.
A statement from Tel Aviv-based Physicians for Human Rights said that the fasting prisoners were denied visits from independent doctors and manacled during hospital checkups.
“Physicians views with extreme gravity the fact that the rights of the hunger strikers are being violated time and again by various authorities, whose representatives act against the law, regulations, international conventions and medical ethics,” it said.
“This is a systemic moral, ethical and professional failure,” it added.
It was the latest in a chorus of protests from around the world about the condition of hunger-strikers Tareq Qaadan, Jafar Ezzedine, Ayman Sharawna and especially Samer Issawi, who has been fasting the longest.
On Saturday the European Union called for Israel’s “full respect of international human rights obligations towards all Palestinian detainees and prisoners.”
A day earlier International Quartet envoy Tony Blair said in a statement that he was “concerned about the deteriorating health condition of the four prisoners, one of whom has been on a hunger strike for over 200 days.”
Dozens of Palestinians were injured in clashes with Israeli security forces on Friday as they staged protests round the West Bank in solidarity events for prisoners.
On Wednesday the United Nations expressed its concern for the hunger-strikers and called on Israel to end its practice of “administrative detention” under which suspects can be imprisoned without trial by order of a military court.
The order can be renewed indefinitely for six months at a time.
All four are administrative detainees and Palestinian prisoner support group Adameer says that the current terms of Qaadan and Ezzedine were due to end on February 22.
It says that Sharawna is one of several prisoners released in a 2011 prisoner exchange who were rearrested by Israel shortly after.
Altogether 1,027 prisoners were freed in a trade for the release of an Israeli soldier held captive by Gaza militants for five years.
Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers said on Sunday that by putting freed prisoners back behind bars Israel was reneging on the deal.
“Hamas condemns the Israeli decision concerning the agreement on the exchange of prisoners,” the group’s spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in a statement.
“It will regret it.”
Libya arrests foreign 'missionaries'
Four foreign nationals accused of distributing Christian literature, a charge that could carry the death penalty
Chris Stephen in Tripoli
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 17 February 2013 17.14 GMT
Four foreigners have been arrested in Libya on suspicion of being missionaries and distributing Christian literature, a charge that could carry the death penalty.
The four – a Swedish-American, Egyptian, South African and South Korean – were arrested in Benghazi by Preventative Security, an intelligence unit of the defence ministry, accused of printing and distributing bible pamphlets in the city.
Libya retains a law from the Muammar Gaddafi era that makes proselytising a criminal offence potentially punishable by death. The arrests underlined the sometimes difficult relationship between churches and the new authorities.
"Proselytising is forbidden in Libya. We are a 100% Muslim country and this kind of action affects our national security," security official Hussein Bin Hmeid told Reuters.
All four remain in custody in Benghazi, and local reports say they may appear in court next week.
It is reported that the foreigners, who have received consulate assistance from their embassies, have been in Libya for some time and had contracted a local printer to produce pamphlets explaining Christianity. Security officials have focused on those pamphlets said to have already been distributed.
Benghazi lawyer and human rights activist Bilal Bettamer said Libya was a wholly Muslim country and Christians should not be trying to spread their faith. "It is disrespectful. If we had Christianity we could have dialogue, but you can't just spread Christianity," he said. "The maximum penalty is the death penalty. It's a dangerous thing to do."
Preventative Security is a unit created from several rebel formations during the 2011 uprising, although until now it has had a low profile, and this is Libya's first known arrest on proselytising charges since Libya's Arab spring revolution. Three years ago, several dozen British, American and Dutch missionaries were arrested and expelled from Morocco on similar charges.
Libya, a conservative Muslim country, has no known Christian minority, and churches, the preserve of foreign residents, have seen few of the attacks seen in Egypt and Tunisia, where there have been church burnings.
But Libya is home to groups of Islamist extremists blamed by some for the attack in September on the US consulate in Benghazi, in which the ambassador, Chris Stevens, and three US officials were killed.
The minority Sufi sect has felt the brunt of extremism in Libya, with more than 70 sites attacked, including the bulldozing by militants backed by police of Tripoli's prominent al-Sha'ab mosque last summer.
Christian symbols have also been targeted. A bullet narrowly missed the priest of Tripoli's Greek Orthodox church last year, with another attack destroying icons.
In April, militants filmed themselves wrecking tombstones and the cenotaph at two Commonwealth war graves cemeteries in Benghazi, and in January two Egyptian christians were killed by a bomb that exploded in the coptic church in Misrata. The international committee of the Red Cross last year suspended its activities in much of the country after its offices in Benghazi and Misrata were bombed.
Tripoli's Anglican Church of Christ the King held its normal Sunday service on Sundaywith the priest, Reverend Vasihar Baskaran, saying that, as during the Gaddafi era, the authorities placed no restrictions on worshippers.
But he said the five Christian churches in Tripoli have a tacit agreement with the authorities not to proselytise. "We don't distribute literature, so we don't have any problems," he told the Guardian. "It is better not to indulge in these activities because we respect Libyans. We respect their religion."
The Anglican church, present in Tripoli for more than 200 years, has no Libyans in the congregation, and Revd Vasihar said he had yet to meet a Libyan Christian.
On Sunday, Libya's de facto head of state, speaker of congress Mohammed Magariaf, pledged that Libya would incorporate sharia law into its future constitution, during a speech in Benghazi to mark the second anniversary of the 2011 revolution.
Cyprus elections: pro-bailout candidate takes 45.4% of vote
Conservative Nicos Anastasiades will face leftwing independent in runoff after failing to secure enough support for outright win
Helena Smith in Nicosia
The Guardian, Sunday 17 February 2013 19.01 GMT
Their country's future as a eurozone member hanging in the balance, Cypriots voted on Sunday to elect a new president, with the pro-bailout conservative leader, Nicos Anastasiades, securing the biggest backing with 45.4% of the vote.
Anastasiades is set to face a runoff next week after failing to gain enough support for an outright win. However, he is seen as the overwhelming favourite in that contest, against the communist-backed independent, Stavros Malas, who took 26.9% of the vote.
The vote for Anastasiades and his DISY party is an endorsement of the pro-bailout policies advocated by a man who will face the arduous task of finalising a €17bn (£14.6bn) rescue package with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund to keep the country's economy afloat. Last year Cyprus became the fifth eurozone state to ask for a bailout.
On Sunday 545,000 citizens filed into polling stations to cast ballots in what was seen as the country's most crucial election in recent times.
"Whoever wins will preside over five very difficult years, first negotiating a rescue programme then possibly having to enforce new austerity measures," said Hubert Faustmann, associate professor of history and political science at the University of Nicosia.
No Cypriot election had been as closely watched by the international community. The divided island's economic difficulties – triggered by losses its banking system suffered when Greece restructured its debt – have spurred concerns of a re-eruption of the eurozone crisis just when many had hoped progress in the bloc's fragile periphery had been achieved.
Brussels had not hidden its hope that Anastasiades would win. An advocate of neo-liberal policies who believes in breaking the power of trade unions, the 66-year-old lawyer has promised to reach a speedy agreement with would-be creditors at the EU, the IMF and the European Central Bank.
"Above all else, we must unite forces to counter this economic crisis which unfortunately our homeland has never experienced before," he said after casting his ballot.
The outgoing president, Demetris Christofias, a veteran communist, had balked at the idea of meeting the tough terms foreign lenders had attached to a bailout, including calls to privatise state assets.
Amid fears of Nicosia's debt load becoming unsustainable – the rescue terms would likely push Cypriot debt to as much as 145% of its GDP – Cyprus has faced increased pressure to accept aid from Russia. On the eve of the election Moscow's finance minister, Anton Siluanov, signalled that Russia would prolong the repayment period of a €2.5bn loan made to Cyprus in 2011.
The move was welcomed by the EU commissioner Olli Rehn, who emphasised Moscow's "close economic and financial ties with Cyprus". Russians lured by low taxes keep about €20bn in bank deposits in Cyprus. "It would certainly be helpful if Russia is able and willing to provide a financial contribution," Rehn said at the weekend.
The Mediterranean island has enough funds to get by until April after streamlining the economy and announcing pay, pension and benefit cuts worth about €1bn last year.
Rafael Correa re-elected for third term as president of Ecuador
President Rafael Correa celebrated winning his third term in office before the official results were announced
guardian.co.uk, Monday 18 February 2013 09.00 GMT
Ecuador's president Rafael Correa has been elected to a third term in power.
The leftwing incumbent, who first took office in 2007 and was re-elected in 2009, won 58% of the vote, well ahead of his closest challenger, former banker Guillermo Lasso, with 24%.
A beaming Correa appeared on state TV hugging jubilant supporters at the Carondelet presidential palace less than an hour after polls closed. "This victory is yours. It belongs to our families, to our wife, to our friends, our neighbours, the entire nation," Correa said. "We are only here to serve you. Nothing for us. Everything for you, a people who have become dignified in being free."
The 48-year-old Correa has raised living standards for the lower classes and widened the welfare state with region-leading social spending but critics including international human rights groups call him a bully.
Correa has brought uncharacteristic political stability to the oil-exporting nation of 14.6 million people that had been through seven presidents in the decade before him.
To avoid a runoff, Correa needed a simple majority or 40% of the vote plus a 10-point margin over the runnerup.
Correa has endeared himself to the poor and lower middle class by making education and health care more accessible, building or improving roads and creating 95,400 jobs in the past four years, according to government figures.
But Correa's critics say his "citizens' revolution" has been accompanied by his arbitrary wielding of a near-monopoly on state power against anyone who threatens it.
Correa has eroded the influence of opposition parties, the Roman Catholic church and the news media and used criminal libel law to try to silence opposition journalists.
The US-educated Correa gained an early reputation as a maverick, defying international financiers by defaulting on $3.9bn in foreign debt obligations and rewriting contracts with oil multinationals to secure a higher share of oil revenues for Ecuador.
He has also kept the United States at arm's length while upsetting Britain and Sweden in August by granting asylum at the Ecuadorean embassy in London to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the online spiller of leaked US government secrets who is wanted for questioning in Sweden for alleged sexual assault.
Ecuador's President Rafael Correa says citizens will be in charge, not money
Correa, whose widening of the welfare state has divided critics, wins third term in office after securing nearly 60% of vote
Associated Press in Quito
guardian.co.uk, Monday 18 February 2013 11.10 GMT
Ecuador's president has vowed to deepen the "citizens' revolution" that has lifted tens of thousands of people out of poverty.
"In this revolution the citizens are in charge, not capital," said Rafael Correa, who was elected to a third term in office after winning 56.9% of the vote on Sunday.
His closest challenger, banker Guillermo Lasso, won 23.8% and former president Lucio Gutiérrez finished third with 6%, with 57% of the ballots counted. The remainder of the votes were divided among five other candidates.
Correa, a leftwing economist, has brought stability to the oil-exporting nation of 14.6 million people, which had seen seven presidents in the decade before he took office. With the help of crude prices hovering around $100 a barrel, he has raised living standards and widened the welfare state with region-leading social spending.
A child celebrates Rafael Correa's election victory A child celebrates Rafael Correa's election victory
The 48-year-old dedicated his victory to his cancer-stricken friend Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan president, whom some analysts have suggested he could succeed as the standard bearer of Latin America's left. "We are only here to serve you. Nothing for us; everything for you," Correa told cheering supporters from the balcony of the Carondelet presidential palace shortly after polls closed.
Yet he has also drawn wide condemnation for intolerance of dissent, and some analysts have questioned how sustainable his economic policies are. The number of government workers ballooned from 16,000 to 90,000 during Correa's previous term in office, an Ecuadorean thinktank reported in December.
Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue thinktank, described Correa's policy of increased social spending as "simply applying the standard recipe for many populist governments in the region". While his policies had succeeded in building political support in the short term, he added, it was not clear whether they would be sustainable.
While Correa has been heralded by supporters as the "undisputed rhetorical leader of Latin America's left", and should see his standing enhanced there, Shifter said the president's consolidation of power had damaged Ecuador's "already precarious institutions". Correa, he added, lacked the clout, ambition and coffers to build a coalition that could curtail US power in the region.
Rafael Correa's rival Guillermo Lasso Opposition candidate Guillermo Lasso talks to the press
His election victory easily surpassed the 51.7% he won in his first re-election in April 2009. Under the rules of the constitution Correa is barred from competing for another four-year term.
Ecuador relies on petroleum for more than half its export earnings, and Correa has used this oil wealth to make public education and healthcare more accessible and lay thousands of miles of highways.
Foreign investment has suffered, however, and Lasso, the former head of the Banco de Guayaquil, ran his election campaign on a promise to give multinational businesses more favourable terms, such as abolishing a 5% tax on capital removed from Ecuador.
Correa said he was happy to have more foreign investment but "it's better not to have it than to mortgage the country in the name of that pipe dream called foreign investment". He did not explain how he planned to pay for efforts to "quicken and deepen" poverty reduction. Sceptical economists say the state cannot afford it without major new revenue sources.
Such talk has not dimmed public enthusiasm for Correa. Jomaira Espinosa, 18, who voted for him on Sunday, said: "Before Correa, my family didn't have enough to eat." She said her father, who had struggled to find work, had recently been hired as a public servant, while she hoped to go to university for free with assistance from Correa's education initiatives.
Since he took office in 2007, Ecuador's poverty rate has dropped nearly five percentage points to 32.4%, according to the UN, and some 1.9 million people receive $50 a month in aid from the state.
However, critics say the handouts and subsidies have bloated the government and civil liberties, meanwhile, have suffered.
Correa has been widely condemned for using criminal libel law against opposition news media and for such strongarm tactics as seizing Ecuador's airwaves to attack opponents.
German Calapucha, a 29-year-old accountant, said he had voted against Correa because he was tired of the president's imperiousness. "He thinks that because he wins elections he has the right to mistreat people," Calapucha said.
Ecuador elections president Rafael Correa Correa with his children, Miguel and Anne, and wife, Anne Malherbe. Photograph: EPA
Correa has eroded the influence not just of opposition parties but also of the Roman Catholic church and independent news media. He has prosecuted indigenous leaders for organising protests against his attempt to open up Ecuador to large-scale mining without their consent. Meanwhile, he has been unable to stop a growing sense of vulnerability in a country where robberies and burglaries soared 30% in 2012 compared with the previous year.
Correa, a University of Illinois graduate, gained an early reputation as a maverick, defying international financiers by defaulting on $3.9bn in foreign debt obligations and rewriting contracts with oil multinationals to secure a higher share of revenues for Ecuador.
He has kept the US at arm's length, and angered Britain and Sweden in August by granting asylum at the Ecuadorean embassy in London to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is wanted for questioning in Sweden over sexual assault allegations.
Meanwhile, Correa has courted Iran and China. The latter is the biggest buyer of Ecuador's oil and holds $3.4bn in Ecuadorean debt, according to the finance minister, Patricio Rivera.
ebruary 18, 2013
Chávez Returns to Venezuela After Cancer Surgery in Cuba
By WILLIAM NEUMAN
CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chávez made a surprise return to Venezuela on Monday, 10 weeks after leaving for cancer surgery in Cuba, sparking celebration among his supporters.
VTV, the government television station, said that he arrived at 2:30 a.m. He was taken to a military hospital in Caracas.
“We have arrived again in Venezuela,” said a post at 3:42 a.m. on Mr. Chávez’s long-dormant Twitter account. “Thank you, my God!! Thank you, beloved people!! We will continue treatment here.”
Mr. Chávez, 58, has been out of sight and silent since his Dec. 11 surgery, plunging the country into increasing uncertainty.
Unlike his returns from Cuba on previous trips, the government did not televise his arrival or release video or photographs, nor did he address the country.
Officials said on Friday that because of a breathing tube in Mr. Chávez’s throat, he had difficulty speaking. Also on Friday, officials released photographs of Mr. Chávez for the first time since his surgery. The photographs showed him lying in a hospital bed flanked by two of his daughters.
“We are very happy,” Vice President Nicolás Maduro said in an early morning telephone call to the government television station.
“He is an example of permanent battle, and here we have him in Caracas, in our Caracas, in our Venezuela, here he is, our commander.”
However, when he was asked by a television announcer for information on Mr. Chávez’s condition, Mr. Maduro declined to provide details.
A short time later, Information Minister Ernesto Villegas led a celebration in response, calling members of the station staff onto a set and chanting: “He returned! He returned!”
Another post on the president’s Twitter account thanked the Cuban leaders Fidel and Raúl Castro and added, “Thanks to Venezuela for so much love!!!”
“I am holding tight to Christ and confident in my doctors and nurses,” a third post said. “We will live and we will win!!!”
The posts on Monday were the first on Mr. Chávez’s Twitter account since Nov. 1.
He was re-elected on Oct. 7, but on Dec. 8 he shocked the nation by announcing that his cancer had returned and that he would have to go to Cuba for emergency surgery. He left on Dec. 10 and had the operation the next day.
His long absence has left the country in the grip of uncertainty. He was unable to return to be sworn in for the start of his new term on Jan. 10. The country has been run since his departure by Mr. Maduro; Diosdado Cabello, the National Assembly president; and a group of government ministers.
The opposition has protested vehemently, charging that the arrangement is unconstitutional and asking for more detailed information about the president’s health. In recent days, a group of 21 students had chained themselves together in protest in front of the Cuban Embassy in Caracas.
The government has never said what type of cancer Mr. Chávez has or where exactly in his body it occurred, although it has said that his recent surgery, his fourth since June 2011, was followed by complications, including bleeding and a severe lung infection.
On Friday, Jorge Arreaza, the science and technology minister, who is married to one of Mr. Chávez’s daughters, said the president was undergoing palliative treatment. He did not elaborate.
Venezuela open to improving relations with US
Foreign minster says president Hugo Chávez wants diplomats to discuss possibility of restoring ambassadors in both countries
Associated Press in Caracas
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 17 February 2013 19.58 GMT
Venezuela's foreign minister, Elias Jaua, said Sunday that President Hugo Chávez has asked his diplomats to seek improved relations with the United States.
Chávez has had a rocky relationship with Washington for years, though the United States remains the top buyer of oil from Venezuela.
"We want to have a good relationship with the United States, but we are not desperate," said Jaua, speaking in an interview broadcast on the local Televen TV channel
The American embassy in Caracas has been without an ambassador since July 2010 when Chávez rejected the US nominee for ambassador, accusing him of making disrespectful remarks about Venezuela's government. That led Washington to revoke the visa of the Venezuelan ambassador.
Jaua said Chávez wants Venezuela's ambassador to the Organization of American States, Roy Chaderton, to talk with officials in Washington about the possibility of restoring ambassadors to embassies in both countries.
"It's an effort that President Chávez has asked us to continue making," Jaua said.
But Jaua noted that Venezuela is not in a hurry to have an American envoy in Caracas, saying: "We have learned to live without a US ambassador."
Since taking office in 1999, Chávez has regularly accused US officials of conspiring against his government and criticised Washington's foreign policy.
Chávez, a self-proclaimed revolutionary, has also forged strong ties with US adversaries including Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
US officials have for years questioned Chávez's democratic ideals and criticised Venezuela's efforts against drug trafficking as inadequate.
Chávez counters that democratic freedoms have increased under his 13-year rule and has accused US officials of manipulating the drug issue for political purposes to discredit his government.
David Cameron begins India visit with shot over bows of tax avoiders
Prime minister arrives with trade delegation seeking to woo business leaders of booming subcontinent
Nicholas Watt in Mumbai
guardian.co.uk, Monday 18 February 2013 07.14 GMT
Highly aggressive forms of tax avoidance should be regarded in a similar way to illegal tax evasion, David Cameron has said as he called on businesses to pay their fare share of tax.
In his first public engagement on his trip to India, the prime minister said tax avoiders should face a moral obligation to pay up because of the difficulties in cracking down on complex tax schemes.
Cameron was speaking at the Mumbai headquarters of Unilever at the start of a three-day visit to India that is designed to underpin trade links with the booming subcontinent. India is on course to be the world's third largest economy by 2030.
In his first announcement the prime minister responded to criticisms from business leaders in India and Britain, who have complained of restrictive visa requirements, by saying that Indian investors would be able to apply for a British visa in a day.
Cameron also announced that Britain is to help build an economic corridor between Mumbai, India's traditional business capital, and the hi-tech centre of Bangalore. Britain is to provide £1m towards a feasibility study if the Indians provide match funding.
The prime minister is taking the largest trade delegation ever to accompany a British prime minister on his visit to India. His chartered Virgin plane had 164 passengers including captains of industry, leaders of small to medium enterprises (SMEs), a host of university vice-chancellors and nine parliamentarians with Indian heritage.
In his 30-minute question and answer session at the Indian headquarters of Unilever the prime minister touched on India and beyond as he:
• Advised India to start big public transport infrastructure projects as quickly as possible to avoid delays, though he declined to mention the delays in fulfilling his wish for greater airport capacity in London.
* Provided fuel for critics of "Chillaxing Dave" by speaking of the importance of delegating work. He said it was important to "have a team you can work with and get things done for you".
• Broke with Margaret Thatcher, who famously survived in Downing Street on three hours sleep a night, by saying he tries to get a good night's sleep. "If you are exhausted and if you are fried mentally you will be a hopeless prime minister."
On tax the prime minister said the time had come to challenge the distinction between tax evasion, which is illegal, and tax avoidance, which is legal. Cameron said businesses have no excuse to avoid paying their fair share of tax in Britain after his government cut corporation tax to a competitive 21%.
The prime minister said: "The lesson for business should be if we are cutting this rate of tax down to a good low level you should be paying that rate of tax rather than seeking ever more aggressive ways to avoid it. There has been a problem in this debate in the past in that people have said: 'Well of course there is a difference between tax evasion, which is illegal and should be pursued by the full force of the law, and then there is tax avoidance which is perfectly legal and OK.'
"I think the problem with that is that there are some forms of tax avoidance that have become so aggressive that I think there are moral questions we have to answer about whether we want to encourage or allow that sort of behaviour."
Cameron said it was important to put moral pressure on tax avoiders because of the difficulty in changing the law fast enough to keep up with new schemes. "Some would say: 'Well just keep changing the law to make the aggressive avoidance illegal.' But with respect to many friends in the accountancy profession it is difficult to do that. So there is a legitimate debate to say very aggressive forms of avoidance are not appropriate, particularly in a country that set a low tax rate it is fair to ask people to pay."
The prime minister delivered a homily on the need to press ahead with infrastructure projects. Asked whether London's public transport system is a useful model for Mumbai, he said: "I am not sure I would hold up London as a perfect example. One of the things I'd say is if you know you've got to build your infrastructure even though you know it is going to take many years before it comes to fruition – start now.
"It is an area where you need proper planning. You can't leave these things to the market. You've got to have a proper plan for public transport."
Cameron, who took questions after a nine-hour flight from London, also offered details of his health and fitness regime.
"I try and stay a little bit fit. I try and go for a run a week, I try to play a game of tennis every week and I try not to go to bed too late. But like all these things that doesn't always work. But the most important things is to have a very good team around you. That is the most important thing – to make sure you can delegate and you can have a team you can work with and get things done for you.
"As I always say, if you are exhausted and if you are fried mentally you will be a hopeless prime minister. You have to try and keep a good equilibrium and balance and then hopefully you can make good decisions."
02/18/2013 12:43 PM
EU-US Trade Talks: Southern European States Put on the Brakes
By Gregor Peter Schmitz
Germany wants the planned free-trade pact between the US and EU to be as broad as possible, but France and other Southern European nations want a number of issues affecting their farming industries to be excluded from the talks. Washington could run out of patience.
Germany is pushing for the broadest possible free-trade agreement between the European Union and the United States, against resistance from France and other Southern European nations which want to exempt issues like food regulation and gene technology from the talks in order to protect the interests of their farmers,
"We're aiming for a big breakthrough rather than a minimum consensus," said Economy Minister Philipp Rösler of the pro-business Free Democratic Party. "It would therefore be damaging to limit the agenda from the start and to exclude certain areas."
The German government is concerned that the US might in this case respond by demanding exemptions itself, which would end up producing only a modest agreement.
Berlin is trying to underscore its position with a study it commissioned from the Munich-based Ifo economic research institute which shows that the greater the reduction in trade barriers is, the bigger the economic advantages of a trans-Atlantic economic union.
If customs duties are abolished, GDP per capita in the EU and the US would only grow by 0.1 and 0.2 percent respectively, Ifo estimates.
The benefits would be greater if the governments also introduced common technical norms, safety standards and competition rules. In that case the standard of living would rise by more than 5 percent in the US, more than 6 percent in Europe and more than 8 percent in Germany in the coming two decades, Ifo predicts. Trans-Atlantic trade could more than treble.
Negotiations are due to start in June after President Barack Obama called for talks on a free trade agreement in his annual State of the Union speech last Tuesday.
Trans-Pacific Deal Seen as More Important
The sentence was included in the speech text at the last minute. The White House was at first hesitant to call for a free trade deal because of the euro crisis and because US government officials remembered the protracted wrangling over details likel poultry regulations in past negotiations.
Obama regards a trans-Pacific trade agreement as far more important. But the proposal was intended as a political signal to encourage Europeans to stay together in the euro crisis -- and to preserve the idea of a "common West" as the former publisher of German weekly Die Zeit, Theo Sommer, told a conference on trans-Atlantic trends at Harvard University last week.
"In 50 years there will be around 500 million Europeans and 500 million Americans -- and 8 to 9 billion people in other regions of the world."
Analysts say Washington wants a swift trade deal, before the 2014 congressional election if possible, and that its patience with European power-plays and prevarication will be limited. Many economists are predicting a robust recovery for the US, while austerity-hit Europe is at risk of years of recession.
If the Europeans hesitate too long, America may switch its focus towards Asia with even greater vigor.
SPIEGEL/Gregor Peter Schmitz
February 17, 2013
Students Receive Subsidized Studies in Hungary — for a Price
By PETER TEFFER
BUDAPEST — Daniel Szabo and Gergo Birtalan are both optimistic about their job prospects in their native Hungary, which has a low unemployment rate for college and university graduates. But the two Hungarian students are in totally different situations.
When Mr. Szabo, 24, graduates soon from law school, he will be free to go wherever in the world he wants. But Mr. Birtalan, 18, was required to sign a contract at the beginning of his first year as a sociology major because of a new rule introduced in September. As a beneficiary of the state-funded university system, he will be obliged to work for two years in Hungary for every year of his subsidized studies.
Such contracts, the only ones of their kind in Europe, have met with broad opposition and street protests from both high school and university students.
If Mr. Birtalan finishes a typical three-year degree, his movements will be restricted for six years after graduation, when he will be in his late 20s, or even older if he pursues post-graduate studies domestically. The rule applies to all students at state universities, as well as those at state-funded places in private institutions.
If Mr. Birtalan finds a good overseas opportunity before his allotted time, he will have to pay back his tuition. A three-year undergraduate degree would cost him about 900,000 Hungarian forint, or about $4,100. A two-year master’s degree in communications would be another 900,000 forint.
While those sums pale in comparison with tuition at state-funded schools in the United States or Britain, they are considered significant in Hungary, where the average monthly salary, after taxes, is 140,000 forint, and where citizens are accustomed to subsidized education.
Officials said it was not an unreasonable amount for Hungarian students who studied free under the state and then found lucrative work in Western Europe.
“It’s not impossible,” Ferenc Kumin, a representative of the prime minister’s office, said of repayment. “A salary in Norway or in Great Britain could finance the payback of this tuition fee.”
Still, students were not convinced.
“I signed it, but I felt really bad and angry about it,” Mr. Birtalan, the sociology student, said in a small Budapest cafe near the Danube River, which serves as the unofficial headquarters for HaHa, a student movement that has demanded the removal of the contracts.
In December, several months after the contracts were initiated, about 2,000 students held a demonstration against the new rules, according to local news reports.
After the demonstrations, the Ministry of Human Resources began a series of roundtable talks with teachers, student groups and Chamber of Commerce representatives in late January.
HaHa was not invited, and Mr. Szabo said that if their demands were not met, they would protest with civil disobedience. According to local news reports, about 30 to 40 students occupied the faculty of humanities at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest last Monday. The faculty was occupied at least until Friday, and HaHa leaders said they had more protests planned.
The Hungarian government sees the contracts as necessary means to combat “brain drain,” said Zoltan Balog, the government minister in charge of human resources, referring to graduates’ choosing to work abroad.
“How can it be that we are training several hundreds of doctors every year — which costs the taxpayers a whole lot of money — who after graduation immediately go to Norway, to Sweden, to England?” Mr. Balog said in an interview.
“I don’t want to enslave them,” he said of Hungarian students. “I want to have a balance between the individual interest and the national interest. This country is investing in higher education, so whoever graduates should also use their knowledge to further the interest of the country.”
According to the government, more than 73 percent of full-time university students in Hungary attend institutions where the tuition is funded by the government. Mr. Kumin said this was a big change since the end of Communist rule in Hungary in 1989, when “it was a kind of privilege to get into the university.”
Today, students have “a kind of strategy to stay as long as they can in university,” he continued. “These are free programs. You can stay as long as you want, and it costs a lot of money for the taxpayers and the budget. This tendency had to be stopped.”
Agnes Urban, an assistant professor at the faculty of business administration at Corvinus University of Budapest, said she thought the government’s tough stance toward students was driven by the possibility of electoral gains.
“It is really populist, and it is really working. It is a potential winning strategy among the voters,” she said.
Jozsef Temesi, director of the Corvinus Center for International Higher Education Studies, said the government was portraying the protesting students “as unreliable, lazy persons who just demand from the society and do not want to perform.”
At one point, the government considered withdrawing state funding from some fields of study — like the humanities and international relations — that were not seen as being as market-friendly. But after student demonstrations in December and negotiations in January, the government withdrew the plan.
Dr. Temesi said the government lacked a comprehensive strategy on higher education. “My view is that there are too many ad hoc measures,” he said.
He also said that there had been little evidence that administrative or tax-related measures worked to stop brain drain. “There is a need for positive actions, like generating jobs, increasing salary levels,” he said.
While the law requiring the contracts was passed by the Hungarian Parliament, and is already in force, there is the question of whether the European Union — which Hungary joined in 2004 — would allow it, since the freedom of movement of labor is guaranteed in the European Union.
Mr. Balog, the government minister, said the contract was compatible with E.U. law.
“I think it could be possible to establish a legal formula that complies with the idea of free movement of labor and with the interest of the state,” he said. “It’s actually not obligatory to study free of charge at the university.”
In an e-mailed response, Dennis Abbott, a European Commission representative, said only that talks were continuing with the Hungarian authorities on the issue.
The first students who signed the contract are not expected to graduate until 2015. Depending on the outcome of Hungary’s parliamentary election next year — or various other factors like continued protests or an E.U. decision — the contracts might be annulled before then.
If the opposition Hungarian Socialist Party manages to win power over Fidesz, the governing conservative party, it will abolish the contract system, the opposition leader, Attila Mesterhazy, said in an interview.
The Hungarian Socialist Party, which ruled in a coalition government from 2002 to 2010, had tried to introduce tuition fees to reduce the budget deficit. But in a 2008 referendum, voters decided they wanted free higher education to return.
EU plans action against Google over failure to comply with privacy laws
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, February 18, 2013 9:18 EST
European data protection agencies intend to take action against the US Internet giant Google after it failed to follow their orders to comply with EU privacy laws, the French data protection authority said on Monday.
“At the end of a four-month delay accorded to Google to conform and promise to implement recommendations, no response has been forthcoming by the company” said France’s CNIL data protection agency.
CNIL said that European data protection agencies planned to set up a working group to “coordinate their coercive actions which should be implemented before the summer.”
European data agencies are to meet next week to approve the action plan, said CNIL, which said it is leading the effort.
It contends the move simplifies and unifies its policies across its various services such as Gmail, YouTube, Android mobile systems, social networks and Internet search.
But critics argue that the policy, which offers no ability to opt out aside from refraining from signing into Google services, gives the operator of the world’s largest search engine unprecedented ability to monitor its users.