March 4, 2013
Cardinals Start to Ponder Subtleties of a Big Task
By DANIEL J. WAKIN
VATICAN CITY — Like first-year seminarians, they walked through the glass doors on Monday carrying briefcases. Some arrived in chauffeured cars and taxis. Wearing long black coats and red caps, they took their assigned places in maroon lecture-halls seats, flipped through the assigned reading, recited prayers and swore on the Bible to “maintain rigorous secrecy” about their task.
Some 145 cardinals gathered on the first day of meetings required upon the end of a papacy — usually by death, but in this rare case, resignation. The morning session was devoted to preparatory matters. Through the week, the cardinals will discuss matters of importance to the church and choose a date — possibly as early as Sunday or Monday — for the conclave to elect a successor to Benedict XVI, who stepped aside last week.
The general congregation, as it is called, will also be a chance for the cardinals to make a case for what kind of pope they want, and to size one another up at coffee breaks and later over dinner. All have emphasized in interviews over the past week that they want a prayerful pope who can effectively transmit the Catholic message.
But nuances are already emerging. Some say they want a pope capable of reforming the bureaucracy of the Vatican, which has been hit with accusations of corruption in the past year. Others suggest a pope must come from the Third World, where Roman Catholicism is more vibrant than Europe. Still others want a pope with a strong governing hand.
On Monday, a senior American cardinal made a rare mention of the clerical sexual abuse scandal in that discourse. Cardinal Francis George, the archbishop of Chicago, said the new pope “obviously has to accept the universal code of the church now, which is zero tolerance for anyone who has abused a child.” Speaking in answer to a question at a news conference, Cardinal George said, “There’s a deep-seated conviction, certainly on the part of anyone who has been a pastor, that this has to be continually addressed.”
The cardinal asserted that efforts by American churchmen had led to a sharp reduction in reported abuse cases. “But there’s still the victims,” he continued. “The wound is still deep in their hearts, and as long as it’s with them it will be with us. The pope has to keep this in mind.”
The church’s response to the latest wave of sexual abuse scandals, which emerged with full force a decade ago in the United States and in to Europe and elsewhere more recently, has not been the subject of as much discussion in the lead-up to the conclave. But it was not surprising that an American prelate addressed the matter so forcefully. In 2002, United States bishops pressed a “zero tolerance” policy — the rapid removal from ministry of any priest credibly accused of abuse — and other nations’ bishops followed suit in later years. The Vatican has also taken a number of steps that it says will tighten sanctions against abuser priests.
One advocate for clerical abuse victims, David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, called Cardinal George’s statement encouraging. “It should be a topic and we are glad that Cardinal George said it will be and must be,” he said, “but the focus has got to be on safeguarding kids first, healing victims second.”
Separately, Vatican officials declined to comment on the acknowledgment on Sunday by Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the most senior Roman Catholic cleric in Britain and a vehement condemner of homosexuality, that he had engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct. He announced his resignation a week earlier and said he was not coming to the conclave after three priests and a former priest accused him of making improper advances decades ago.
Questions may arise among the cardinals, Cardinal George suggested, about a report by three senior cardinals on corruption and leaks within the Vatican bureaucracy, or Curia, that was ordered by Benedict. Benedict consigned the report to his successor, and it remains secret.
“I imagine that as we move along, there will be questioning of the cardinals involved in the governing of the Curia to see what they think has to be changed,” he said. “Anything can come up.”
The cardinals met in the Paul VI hall, a building where popes normally hold general audiences and where bishops from around the world gather in synods. No date for the conclave’s start can be set until all the elector cardinals — those under 80 and eligible to vote — arrive. Father Lombardi said 8 of the 115 elector cardinals were still on their way. The date of the conclave should be fixed in the next few days, he said.
Cardinal George said the eminences wanted to have a pope before the start of Holy Week, which is Palm Sunday on March 24, but would not be rushed. “We’ll take the time necessary to do the job well,” he said.
The general congregation is the last chance in this process for cardinals over 80 to make their voices heard, and while time limits are imposed on speakers, the older crowd is indulged, past participants have said. Thirty-nine over-age cardinals were present on Monday, Father Lombardi said. The college has 207 members over all.
The Vatican press operation appears to be making an effort to be more open about what is by definition a highly secretive process. Telepace, an Italian-based Catholic television station, showed the cardinals going into the hall live. The Vatican has promised daily news conferences.
“Perhaps they decided that it’s best to talk to the press rather than not talk to the press,” Cardinal George said.
At the Vatican news conference, reporters were shown clips of the prelates inside the hall, walking past heavily draped windows in a corridor, entering the assembly hall and taking their seats in the raked auditorium, chatting with each other and flipping through the book of conclave ritual with its green hard cover, the Ordo rituum conclavis.
The cardinals sat in assigned seats to make it easier to keep attendance and keep track of who speaks, Father Lombardi said.
The princes of the church will speak through a microphone, which at the last conclave, in 2005, would be cut off generally after roughly seven minutes, Cardinal George said in an interview. Interpreters, sworn to secrecy, will render their comments into English, Spanish, Italian, German and French.
The cardinals agreed to send a message to Benedict, who has retreated to the papal summer home in Castel Gandolfo outside of Rome. Much of the session, which began at 9:30 a.m., was taken up with each man walking to the front table for the personal oath. At 11 a.m., they took a half-hour break, holding cardinal kaffeeklatsches. “It was an important moment for personal contacts, for exchanges at a more particular level,” Father Lombardi said.
A baker’s dozen of eminences spoke during a brief session, but mainly about logistical matters.
“As a start, it was very positive,” Father Lombardi said.
March 5, 2013, 12:35 am
Russia’s Concerns About Afghanistan After NATO
By JUDY DEMPSEY
As the United States winds down its combat mission in Afghanistan, Russia is looking on, not with Schadenfreude but with extreme concern.
Russia knows what it is like to leave a country that it could not bend to its political will.
When Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the Kremlin had no inkling about how long, costly and unpopular this war would turn out to be.
By the time Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev decided to end the occupation in 1989, over 15,000 Soviet troops and over one million Afghans had died in the fighting.
Now it is President Barack Obama’s turn to bring home the remaining 68,000 troops by the end of 2014, the subject of my latest Letter from Europe.
Mr. Obama made clear in his State of the Union address that “America’s commitment to a unified and sovereign Afghanistan will endure, but the nature of our commitment will change.”
The American presence will be very small, perhaps not more than 10,000 troops. And that is what worries Russia.
Russia has no intentions of getting involved again in Afghanistan. Yet the Central Asian republics, especially Uzbekistan, now fear instability on their borders as NATO’s 100,000-strong presence ends.
“The rulers of the former Soviet republics neighboring on Afghanistan are really scared,” wrote Mikhail Rostovsky in a fascinating short analysis in Moskovsky Komsomolets, a Russian daily newspaper. “They want Russia to be beside them and hold their hands at the crucial movement.” They also want Russia to be more actively involved in Afghan affairs.
That is the last thing Russia wants. It is in no position to end the drug trade, the insurgency and the corruption, which NATO could not stop. It has no intention of putting its own footprint on the country again.
With the security vacuum left by NATO’s withdrawal, Russia’s only hope, whether naïve or not, is a new and more stable Afghan government.
“The best that can be hoped for is the emergence of a new regime in Kabul, less committed to universal values but on the other hand, more firmly standing on its own feet,” Mr. Rostovsky wrote. What an irony of history that NATO now must be wishing the same.
Kabul Bank chiefs jailed for fraud
Sherkhan Farnood and Khalilullah Ferozi sentenced to five years in prison for their role in Afghanistan banking scandal
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 5 March 2013 09.35 GMT
Two key players in a $900m (£594m) banking scandal in Afghanistan have each been sentenced to five years in jail, a relatively light sentence that is likely to fuel concerns about government indifference to rampant corruption in the country.
Kabul Bank nearly collapsed in 2010 and has since been described by western officials as a virtual Ponzi scheme. In addition to their prison time, the chairman, Sherkhan Farnood, and chief executive officer, Khalilullah Ferozi, have been ordered to pay back a combined total of more than $800m, but there was no mention of punishment should they fail to produce the massive sum.
Relative to the puny size of the Afghan economy, Kabul Bank was the biggest banking scandal the world has seen, and there were serious concerns it could destabilise the country's entire financial system.
The brothers of President Hamid Karzai and the vice-president, Mohammad Fahim, were among the bank's shareholders, although they have not been prosecuted. Handling of the high-profile case has been seen by the international community as a litmus test of Kabul's desire to rein in graft.
"Kabul Bank is so symbolic, because it's two people [Farnood and Ferozi] who have been caught, bang to rights – they've been caught red-handed," William Patey, the then UK ambassador to Afghanistan, said last year.
"All the rest remains allegations and suspicions, so that's why it's a kind of litmus test. If you won't do these ones, what chance the rest?"
The bank was set up in 2004. In 2007, an Interpol arrest warrant arrived with Afghan police, who did nothing about it. Fraud at the bank is believed to have begun in 2006, according to a public inquiry into the crisis.
Farnood was already wanted by Interpol for illegal banking activities, organising a criminal group and money-laundering in Russia, while he was using bank money to buy luxury properties and helping other shareholders, friends and political connections line their own pockets. He has been ordered to repay $279m.
Ferozi was ordered to repay $531m. Both men said they would appeal against their sentences, which were announced by the judges on a special tribunal set up to handle the case after less than 10 minutes of deliberation.
The ruling, which means the men will be back on the streets before the end of the decade, contrasts with other high-profile fraud cases, like that of disgraced US financier Bernie Madoff, who was sentenced to the maximum 150 years in prison for masterminding a $65bn fraud.
Although he stole more money and caused financial ruin or serious problems for many individuals, that Ponzi scheme was not considered a threat to the entire US economy.
March 3, 2013
Iran Says 3,000 Centrifuges Being Built
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (Reuters) — Iran is building about 3,000 advanced uranium-enrichment centrifuges, the Iranian news media reported Sunday, a development likely to add to Western concerns about Tehran’s disputed nuclear program.
Iran said earlier this year that it would install the new-generation centrifuges at its Natanz uranium enrichment plant in central Iran, but Sunday’s reports by Iranian news agencies appeared to be the first time a specific figure had been given.
The announcement, which comes after talks between Iran and world powers in Kazakhstan about its nuclear work ended with an agreement to meet again, underlines Iran’s continued refusal to bow to Western pressure to curb its nuclear program.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said in February that 180 so-called IR-2m centrifuges and empty centrifuge casings had been put in place at the site near the town of Natanz in central Iran. They were not yet operating, the agency said.
Iranian news agencies on Sunday said that Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, the chief of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, noted that Iran was producing 3,000 new-generation centrifuges.
“The final production line of these centrifuges has reached an end and soon the early generations of these centrifuges with low efficiency will be set aside,” Mr. Abbasi-Davani said Sunday, according to the Fars news agency.
March 4, 2013
U.N. Nuclear Official Seeks Access to Iranian Site
By ALAN COWELL
LONDON — The head of the United Nations nuclear regulatory body urged Iran on Monday to permit access by international inspectors to a military site near Tehran to ascertain whether tests have been carried out there on nuclear bomb triggers.
Yukiya Amano, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, was speaking at the body’s headquarters as its board of governors began a routine meeting just weeks after I.A.E.A. inspectors returned from talks in Tehran that failed to obtain access to the Parchin site, 20 miles south of Tehran.
“I request Iran once again to provide access to the Parchin site without further delay,” Mr. Amano said. “Providing access to the Parchin site would be a positive step which would help to demonstrate Iran’s willingness to engage with the agency on the substance of our concerns.”
The talks about Parchin are separate from the negotiations Iran is conducting with six global powers on the broader question of its disputed nuclear program, which Tehran says is for peaceful purposes. Western powers suspect that Iran is seeking the technology for nuclear weapons.
The last round of those talks ended last week in Almaty, Kazakhstan, with agreement for further meetings in March and April over a proposal that would sharply constrain Iran’s stockpile of the most dangerous enriched uranium in return for a modest lifting of some sanctions.
The six powers dropped their demand that Iran shut down its enrichment plant at Fordo, built deep underneath a mountain, instead insisting that Iran suspend enrichment work there and agree to take a series of steps that would make it hard to resume producing nuclear fuel quickly.
The six also agreed, in another apparent softening, that Iran could keep a small amount of 20 percent enriched uranium — which can be converted to bomb grade with modest additional processing — for use in a reactor to produce medical isotopes.
Despite those maneuvers, Secretary of State John Kerry said at a news conference in Saudi Arabia on Monday that “talks will not go on for the sake of talks” with Iran, “and talks cannot become an instrument of delay that will make the situation more dangerous.
“So there is a finite amount of time,” he said. Mr. Amano, moreover, said on Monday that “Iran is not providing the necessary cooperation to enable us to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities. The agency therefore cannot conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.”
He recalled that Iran had begun installing more sophisticated centrifuges at its principal enrichment plant at Natanz.
“We must not lose sight of the ultimate goal, which is to resolve all outstanding issues related to Iran’s nuclear program,” Mr. Amano said. “Dialogue should produce results.”
Michael R. Gordon contributed reporting from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Netanyahu says Iran is near the ‘red line’ on nuclear program
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, March 4, 2013 13:35 EST
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that diplomacy has so far failed to deter Iran from pursuing its nuclear program, warning it was getting closer to crossing a crucial “red line.”
“Iran is getting closer to that red line, and it is putting itself in that position to cross it,” Netanyahu told the largest American pro-Israel lobby via satellite, referring to the point at which Israel believes Iran would be able to build a nuclear weapon.
Biden to pro-Israel lobby: Obama not bluffing about military force against Iran
By Ewen MacAskill, The Guardian
Monday, March 4, 2013 13:48 EST
Barack Obama‘s threats to use military force to prevent Iran securing a nuclear weapon are more than idle bluffs, vice-president Joe Biden told the biggest pro-Israeli lobbying group Aipac on Monday.
Biden said that while the US preferred a diplomatic solution to the standoff with Iran, a military option remained on the table.
“The president of the United States cannot, and does not, bluff. President Barack Obama is not bluffing,” Biden told the audience in Washington.
Israel is seeking assurances of support from the US, should it decide to launch air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
There has been scepticism about Obama’s commitment to a military option against Iran, given the administration’s general unwillingness to be drawn into new conflicts after the experience of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Some observers feel that Obama’s threat is aimed purely at putting pressure on Iran to resolve the standoff diplomatically and not embark on another conflict.
Pro-Israel supporters of the military option, speaking at Aipac’s annual conference, attempted to counter Obama’s reticence by insisting the military option would only require an overnight air strike, rather than a prolonged conflict.
In contrast with the run-up to the Iraq war, the US is determined to show that it is pursuing all alternatives to conflict. Biden said that if the US had to take military action, it was critical that the world knew it had tried everything in its power to prevent such an eventuality.
Obama, in an interview last year, insisted he was not bluffing. But his public pronouncements contrasted with behind-the-scenes US pressure on Israel to hold back from an air strike, particularly in the White House election year. The White House views Iran as the top foreign policy priority of Obama’s second term.
The US and other governments held inconclusive talks with Iran recently, and further talks are planned. The new US secretary of state John Kerry, at a press conference in Saudi Arabia on Monday, said there was a “finite” time for conclusion of the talks.
Iran denies it is pursuing a nuclear weapon, and insists it only wants nuclear power to meet domestic energy needs.
Biden was speaking before a trip planned by Obama to Jerusalem later this month, provided an Israeli government is in place by then. Iran, not Palestine, is the key issue for Israel at present, though Biden stressed that the White House remained committed to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Obama is viewed with suspicion by many Israelis who see him as too sympathetic to the Palestinians, but Biden’s credentials as a staunch supporter of Israel have seldom been challenged. Biden insisted that he and Obama were deeply committed to the security of Israel.
“It is in our naked self-interest, beyond the moral impertive,” Biden said.
The vice-president said the US works hard to ensure Israel retains a qualitative edge in military hardware, even at a time of recession.
Aipac members are planning a mass lobby of Congress on Wednesday and, among other issues, will be seeking to establish whether US aid to Israel will suffer from the $85bn in budget cuts ordered by Obama on Friday.
© 2013 Guardian News and Media
Burma's oil rush: 'Nothing else in this country gives you money like this'
Thousands seize chance to profit from abandoned wells in spirit of enterprise denied under former military regime
Kate Hodal in Thayet and Rangoon
The Guardian, Tuesday 5 March 2013
At the end of the last dirt road in Thayet, Maung Ko Oo, 25, is standing thigh-deep in a pit of crude oil, his longyi tied up high around his waist, a sweaty vein of black tar streaked across his forehead. His boss – a round-faced man sporting a baseball cap and ruby ring – is standing over him, shouting out orders to the half-dressed men relaying oil-filled buckets to the huge barrels lining their station.
As the early afternoon sun arcs high over these dusty hills in central Burma, the men climb atop the barrels and pour in the oil bucket by bucket, then roll the filled barrels up a ridge and into the back of a truck. All around them, thousands of workers are doing the same – digging for oil, drilling for oil, collecting the oil, and selling it off to local refineries – in unregulated, artisanal pits which they claim can fetch up to 300 barrels of crude oil a day, worth $3,000 (£2,000) at local market prices.
"This is easy money," says boss Ko Win Shwe, a former miner who moved hundreds of miles to this settlement of huts and tents to find his fortune. He waves his hands to take in the barren earth stilettoed with oil-blackened drills and bares a toothy grin. "See all this land?" he says, his rubies glinting in the sun. "I bought all of it for $4,000 six months ago and struck lucky last week. Now I get 200 barrels a day. It's easy! Such easy money."
About 2,000 people already live here, but many more are arriving daily in search of opportunity, entrepreneurship and independence – all denied under the military regime that ruled the country for nearly 50 years. Oil was first discovered by the British in the 19th century, but the wells were abandoned, and now it is the enterprising locals who have tapped into this plentiful resource – some of whom claim to have earned millions of dollars doing so.
"We have our eyes and ears open, always, because wherever and whenever the government stops drilling, then we move in," says Aung Win, a self-styled "oil boss" in a purple dress shirt, cowboy hat, flipflops and wraparound sunglasses. "Sometimes it can take a year for the oil to come out, so you just wait, and sometimes you have to move on. In my 24 years doing this, I've had to move 49 times to follow the oil."
Here in Thayet, a township caked in dust about seven hours north of Rangoon, the oil rush began in 1989 after a farmer found crude near his land. Soon thousands of people had flooded the village, including students whose classes were cut short after the 1988 uprising. Those who have remained here since – along with a handful of wives and a fair few children – clamber under wooden derricks fashioned from bamboo and rope, the drills between them squelching out crude oil that runs into large open pits lined with tarpaulin.
Everywhere one looks, there is oil: in the fumes floating up in the midday heat, in the black rivulets snaking down the hillside, in the old barrels littering the land. But this is not the biggest "oil town", says Aung Win: just a few hours away, roughly 20,000 drillers dig for crude at Su Win, and another 10,000 are in the neighbouring Khing Taung village.
Prospecting is a costly gamble. Land costs about $4,000 an acre, drills are $2,000, and permits – whose prices vary – must be purchased from the local refineries. Most drillers pool their resources and their profits, says boss Ko Win Shwe, as many start out drilling by hand until they can afford a generator and engine. "But it's really paying off the officials that's expensive," says Aung Win, shaking his head. "They want to be taken out to sing karaoke and drink all night – it can cost $1,500 just for the bribe!"
The opportunities for wealth may be great, but there are no health and safety rules here, no environmental protection, no employee regulations.
Work continues 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and fires are a common hazard: earlier this month five men were killed when a cooking flame rollicked across the hills and nearly spread into the pits themselves.
Up at the local refinery small no-smoking signs, weathered and curling from the sun, dot the bamboo fence, but barrels of oil are stored in thatched huts and men drill nearby with cheroot (local cigars) at their lips.
"There are oil fields to the left and right all along the Irrawaddy river, and still so many basins all over [Burma] that we haven't explored or developed yet – but the problem is that there is no good estimate of how much oil is in place," says oil and gas expert KK Hlaing of Smart Technical Services, which helps local and international companies drill for oil. "There are around 14 basins in [Burma] but only three or four have been properly commercialised."
As Burma has opened up under the presidency of Thein Sein, whose quasi-civilian government ended five decades of military rule in 2011, about 18 onshore blocks are now up for grabs by foreign and local firms looking to cash in on the nation's great oil and gas reserves.
That alone may explain why government officers trailed the Guardian to various drilling sites and demanded to see travel visas, and why a very different oil rush is taking place in Rangoon.
At the Myanmar oil and gas summit earlier this month – which cost £1,500 a person to attend and was sponsored by Halliburton and the Malaysian oil firm Petronas, among others – executives spoke of the pros and cons of investing in Burma. "There is a boom here but, like in many other countries in the region, we're the bad guys," said one, warning that "big business can be blamed" for anything that goes wrong. He pointed to Burma's lack of arbitration, dodgy track record in policing and the suspended Myitsone dam project as lessons to be studied.
For those drilling for oil near Thayet, however, short-term gains far outweigh any long-term fallout. Aung Win claims he lost $2m last year because of faulty drilling and dodgy business practices, and just last week lost another $70,000 at a well a few hours away. "But this is the only industry in Burma where you can lose $70,000, let alone make it," Aung Win explains. "Nothing else in this country gives you money like this."
Nearly everyone agrees. "It's easy to lose the money if you don't invest it in other areas, because sometimes you win and sometimes you lose," says Zaw Min Tun, 37, a former farmer who has built a new house for his family and pipes his oil earnings into carwash businesses. "We just lost $50,000 because we drilled and couldn't find any oil. But I would still recommend this business to anyone, with no reservations."
It is impossible to verify the wealth of these seeming gamblers, but KK Hlaing says that it is highly unlikely any of them are able to tap more than 30 barrels a day due to the fact that most are drilling between 300 metres and 762 metres (1,000ft and 2,500ft), "and most of the good oil is 10,000ft or below". In Thayet, many houses are painted in bright greens and blues and the women wear emerald and ruby earrings – but much of the village life still seems impoverished, with most villagers choosing to work at the local weapons and concrete factories instead of in the oil fields.
Still, the richest driller in this "oil town" is Kyi Nai, 41, a lithe man with a crew cut and betel-stained teeth who says he has earned $300,000 in the past six months alone. "I've been doing this for over 20 years, and I've never hit oil like that," he says with a grin. "My hard work finally paid off. My wife is happy – she likes money."
March 4, 2013
China’s Premier Admits Failings, but Defends Image
By ANDREW JACOBS and JONATHAN ANSFIELD
BEIJING — Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China, well known for baring his emotions in public, has displayed a blend of defeatism and defensiveness as he winds down his decade in office. During a visit last month to a Muslim neighborhood here, Mr. Wen lamented that he “fell short in some tasks” to improve people’s livelihoods. “In my heart I feel guilty and constantly blame myself,” he said.
But his most intriguing comments have touched on corruption. During a cabinet meeting last month, he said that even among top officials, “abuse of power, trading power for cash, and collusion between officialdom and commerce continue unabated.” And in a vague mea culpa before a group of overseas Chinese in Thailand late last year, Mr. Wen admitted to unidentified failings but defended his integrity by paraphrasing an ancient Chinese statesman said to have taken his own life to protest imperial corruption. “In the pursuit of truth, I would die nine times without regret,” he said.
With his retirement looming at the end of the annual meeting of China’s legislature that begins Tuesday, Mr. Wen, 70, has been struggling to push through economic changes and to shore up his image as a frugal populist and one of the few Communist Party leaders to champion political reform, even if that push has come to naught. But he has also has been pressing hard to clear his name, particularly in the months since The New York Times published accounts of the way his immediate family had become extraordinarily rich during his time in high office.
Just days after the first of the two newspaper reports was published in late October, Mr. Wen asked the top party leadership to investigate the assertions about his family’s business dealings and to publicize the results, according to several people with high-level party ties. In a letter to members of the Politburo Standing Committee, Mr. Wen staunchly defended himself and his family and offered to submit to punishment if they were found to have violated laws or disciplinary rules that, in theory, hold top leaders responsible for relatives who trade on their proximity to power.
At one point, according to two of these people, Mr. Wen even suggested he might not deliver his final work report in the Great Hall of the People on Tuesday if he was not vindicated, although in the end he did speak.
Senior leaders rebuffed Mr. Wen’s request for an investigation at the time, the party insiders said, and according to two of these people, China’s new party leader, Xi Jinping, has expressed his support to Mr. Wen and encouraged him to complete his job.
The Times investigation documented what many Chinese business executives and party insiders have long gossiped about: that Mr. Wen’s wife, son and brother, among other close relatives, had amassed enormous assets, at one point amounting to at least $2.7 billion, mostly through interests in the insurance and gemstone industries. The articles detailed the way Mr. Wen’s relatives had benefited from their political connections, but they found no evidence that Mr. Wen had profited personally or committed specific improprieties related to the business deals.
To his many supporters in China, the articles have reinforced portrayals of Mr. Wen as a tragic idealist who could not effectively manage his own family, let alone the country. But critics, who include dissidents and leftists, have called him a hypocrite befitting the label of China’s “best actor,” an epithet Mr. Wen acquired within the Chinese blogosphere in recent years.
“It throws into doubt his clean, upright image and adds to the impression that he’s helpless and lacks credibility,” said Liu Suli, a prominent commentator who owns a bookstore in the capital.
Mr. Wen, the son of a teacher whose family was viciously persecuted in the Cultural Revolution, trained as a geologist and rose from obscurity to lead the party Central Committee’s General Office from 1985 to 1993. Toeing the party line as political winds shifted, he survived the purge of two liberal party chiefs he served.
In his 10 years as prime minister, Mr. Wen cultivated a public persona as Grandpa Wen, an emotive guardian of the underclass and a lyrical defender of essential liberties. But he was increasingly seen as an outlier among the party leadership.
He shined as the party’s chief crisis manager, campaigning for public accountability after disasters like the SARS epidemic of 2003, the earthquake in Sichuan Province in 2008, and a deadly high-speed-train crash in 2011. He paid visits to Chinese AIDS patients and petitioners — unusual for a Chinese leader — and advanced policies aimed at curbing breakneck growth and creating a more balanced, energy-efficient economy.
Even as the party held tight to its authoritarian ways, Mr. Wen repeatedly, if vaguely, championed greater democracy, rule of law and human rights.
But his government’s record was marred by surging housing costs, the widening chasm between rich and poor, and the growing power of China’s domestic security apparatus and state-owned enterprises.
Behind the scenes, Mr. Wen made many political enemies among provincial and state industry bosses who opposed his government’s stopgap macroeconomic controls, as well as among party hard-liners who scorned his advocacy of political reform. In late 2010, after he issued a string of calls for political change, Mr. Wen faced criticism from fellow Standing Committee leaders in a party ritual known as a “democratic life meeting,” according to two party officials.
But during the annual legislative session last March, Mr. Wen renewed his push for change in dramatic fashion. Addressing the news media, he warned that another Cultural Revolution might occur without political reform, while reprimanding the Chongqing municipality’s government over a seismic political scandal that had begun to unfold there.
The next morning, the party announced the dismissal of Chongqing’s flashy party chief, Bo Xilai, who had mobilized a state-centered reform drive and revolutionary-style campaigns to squash organized crime and restore Maoist values.
The neo-leftist Mr. Bo and the liberal Mr. Wen were seen as political adversaries and archetypes of clashing reform camps. Party insiders say Mr. Wen played an active role in blocking Mr. Bo’s promotion and in backing his downfall last year.
Mr. Bo, who has been incommunicado since his detention last spring, is awaiting prosecution on accusations of corruption and interfering in a murder investigation that led to the conviction of his wife in the killing of a British businessman.
Many intellectuals and party elites have come to view recent political scandals in the context of that rivalry. Spurred by Mr. Xi, the new leadership has begun a campaign against corruption and wasteful spending, shutting down New Year’s banqueting and firing dozens of officials, many exposed by online whistle-blowers. Two cabinet officials connected to Mr. Wen, including his former personal secretary, have come under investigation by party disciplinary authorities, people with knowledge of the cases said. Both men remain in their posts.
In his waning months in office, Mr. Wen has continued to battle critics over China’s economic stimulus spending and the vested interests that stand in the way of his cherished initiatives. Last month, his government unveiled a long-delayed blueprint to narrow China’s wealth gap, but the plan will require concrete steps to curtail the profit-taking of state corporations and increase workers’ wages as promised.
Legislation to reform the rural land requisition system and shield peasants from land grabs and meager compensation remains mired in contention. In January, parts of a dam project in southwest China that Mr. Wen had ordered shelved over environmental concerns were officially revived.
One Western diplomat recalled an emotional dinner meeting in September in Brussels during which Mr. Wen quoted George Bernard Shaw and other European writers while addressing senior European Union officials. “It was a very sentimental performance,” the diplomat said. “But also I think heartfelt. I think he really does regret not having achieved more.”
Chris Buckley contributed reporting.
March 4, 2013
China’s Wen Warns of Inequality and Vows to Continue Military Buildup
By ANDREW JACOBS and CHRIS BUCKLEY
BEIJING — Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China entered his final days in power on Tuesday with a warning that the nation remained troubled by divisions between the urban rich and rural poor and unbalanced economic growth, and he vowed that the government would continue building up its military, which received a 10.7 percent increase in spending for 2013.
Mr. Wen delivered his sometimes gloomy assessment of the state of Chinese society in his final annual work report to the national legislature, the National People’s Congress, which will elect a new prime minister and government leadership at the end of the annual meeting.
Since Mr. Wen and President Hu Jintao took office, they have repeatedly pledged to narrow income inequality and spread China’s expanding wealth more evenly. But in his state of the nation report, Mr. Wen gave his administration mixed marks and detailed some of the problems that will be bequeathed to the new leadership under Xi Jinping, the incoming president, and Li Keqiang, who will succeed Mr. Wen as prime minister. Mr. Xi already succeeded Mr. Hu as Communist Party secretary in November.
“We are keenly aware that we still face many difficulties and problems in our economic and social development,” Mr. Wen said in the report, which was distributed to reporters before he read it to nearly 3,000 congress delegates in the Great Hall of the People.
He singled out as particular ills “unbalanced” economic development, income disparity, and inequalities dividing urban and rural residents. “Social strains are clearly increasing,” he said.
But even as the Communist Party has said it wants to focus on curing domestic ills, it has backed rapid military modernization, and a budget report released at the same time as Mr. Wen’s speech showed the expansion will continue. China’s official defense budget this year will grow to 720 billion renminbi, or about $116 billion, a rise of 10.7 percent over last year, according to a Ministry of Finance report. By comparison, the nation’s defense budget was just $20 billion in 2002.
“We should accelerate modernization of national defense and the armed forces so as to strengthen China’s defense and military capabilities,” Mr. Wen said. “We should resolutely uphold China’s sovereignty, security and territorial integrity, and ensure its peaceful development.”
The government will also increase spending on public security. According to the Ministry of Finance report, combined spending by central and local governments, including the People’s Armed Police, courts, jails and other areas of domestic security, will rise by 8.7 percent to 769 billion renminbi, or $123.5 billion. The government also announced major increases in spending on social welfare and health care.
The prime minister’s report, broadcast live on national television, is a highlight of two weeks of tightly controlled political theater that rarely strays from a stolid procession of speeches, news conferences and invariably pro-government votes — all of it intended to give a united and untroubled public face to a reliably secretive party leadership.
Last year, however, the script was challenged by a divisive scandal surrounding Bo Xilai, the combative party chief of Chongqing, whose fall unleashed months of revelations about murder, corruption and political infighting. Mr. Bo pilloried his foes during a news conference at the congress, was publicly censured by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao at the end of the meeting and then, a day after the congress ended, was dismissed from his Chongqing post.
Most analysts agree that the proceedings this year will ignore the plight of Mr. Bo, who is being detained awaiting prosecution on charges of corruption, abuse of power and obstruction of justice.
This year, the party’s new top leaders, Mr. Xi and Mr. Li, have paved the way for the 13-day session with vows to end flagrant privileges and self-enrichment by officials and their families. They have also vowed to create a more efficient government, and reduce the acrid smog that has enveloped Beijing and other northern Chinese cities for weeks this winter.
“They’ve already taken many steps that have raised hopes among ordinary people — now we’re looking for signs that the hopes can be satisfied,” said Deng Yuwen, an editor for The Study Times, a weekly newspaper published by the Central Party School in Beijing. “The congress won’t have any breakthroughs, but it can indicate where and how fast the leaders want to take things.”
This congress will be the last for Mr. Hu and Mr. Wen, who both retire at its end after a decade in their jobs.
On the final day of the congress, delegates will vote in a new government leadership dominated by Mr. Xi as president and Mr. Li as prime minister. The transfer of party leadership posts took place in November.
The nearly 3,000 congress delegates at the annual gathering are selected through a process that rewards loyalists; about 70 percent of the delegates are Communist Party members, and many are officials. Few dare defy the leadership’s will by voting against proposals or abstaining from ballots, and the congress has never voted down a proposal put before it.
The meeting is likely to approve a modest restructuring of government ministries and agencies. Over past months, analysts and well-connected businesspeople have said that Mr. Li wanted a drastic reorganization, to create enlarged ministries for financial regulation, environmental protection and other areas.
But recent Chinese news reports have described a more limited plan that is likely to include folding the scandal-laden and deeply indebted Ministry of Railways into the Ministry of Transport, and strengthening food and drug safety regulators to bring greater oversight of industries that are constantly hit by consumer safety concerns.
The apparent scaling back of the plans for administrative changes reflects how difficult it will be for the leadership to deliver on promises to free up the economy from state-owned enterprises and fight corruption, while still preserving single-party rule, said Zheng Yongnian, director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore. “In all these issues, there’s the same basic problem of deep distrust between the people and the government,” Mr. Zheng said. “Because there is so much distrust, the government is reluctant to make deep reforms. What they call reforms turns out be reassigning powers within government, not giving up powers to society. That’s not real reform — and then people feel increasingly frustrated.”
Reformists have been hoping that the new leadership would demonstrate a greater commitment to China’s Constitution, and would promote a more independent judiciary. They have also been agitating for an end to the country’s notoriously abusive re-education-through-labor system, which allows the police to imprison drug addicts, prostitutes and political offenders for up to three years without trial.
“The re-education-through-labor system, to a certain extent, makes citizens live in fear,” Dai Zhongchuan, a delegate and law professor, told a government-run news portal on Monday.
Many analysts, however, say such initiatives are unlikely to be embraced by China’s new leaders any time soon.
Party insiders have said that some officials likely to be promoted at the congress include Zhang Gaoli as executive deputy prime minister, and Li Yuanchao, a former party organization chief, as vice president. Wang Yang, the former head of Guangdong Province in southern China, is likely to succeed Wang Qishan as a deputy prime minister in charge of financial policy.
Mr. Bo was seen until last year as a contender for promotion into the central leadership, but his prospects capsized after the police chief of Chongqing fled to a United States consulate and then surrendered to Chinese investigators, raising allegations that Mr. Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, had murdered a British businessman and then sought to cover up the crime.
Ms. Gu was jailed in August for the murder. Mr. Bo is likely to face trial and conviction over the cover-up and other misdeeds.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: March 4, 2013
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of the headline with this article misstated the name of China’s annual legislative meeting. It is the National People’s Congress, not the Party Congress.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: March 5, 2013
An earlier version of this article mischaracterized Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s remarks on Tuesday. He gave his final state of the nation report, not his penultimate report.
March 4, 2013
Massacre of Syrian Soldiers in Iraq Raises Risk of Widening Conflict
By DURAID ADNAN and RICK GLADSTONE
BAGHDAD — More than 40 Syrian soldiers who had sought temporary safety in Iraq from rebel fighters along the border were killed on Monday in an attack by unidentified gunmen as the Iraqi military was transporting the soldiers back to Syria in a bus convoy, the Iraqi government said.
At least seven Iraqis were also reported killed in the attack, which appeared to be the most serious spillover of violence into Iraq since the Syrian conflict began two years ago.
Ali al-Musawi, a spokesman for Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, accused “armed groups from the Iraqi and Syrian side” of coordinating the attack, which he described as an ambush. He said Iraq would deploy more security forces on the border. Middle East experts said such a move raised the risk that the Iraqis could become more directly enmeshed in the Syrian conflict, underscoring how it threatens to destabilize a wider swath of the region.
“We will not allow any terrorist to enter the Iraqi lands,” Mr. Musawi said in a telephone interview. He said the ambush was partly the consequence of “sectarian speeches that encourage people to hate each other.”
The attack threatens to inflame the sectarian tensions that already divide Iraq, where a Sunni minority sympathizes with Syria’s overwhelmingly Sunni opposition.
Mr. Musawi did not specify which armed groups he considered responsible for the attack, but it was clear that he meant Sunni militant extremists affiliated with Al Qaeda in Iraq. These groups have become increasingly emboldened by popular Sunni resentment against Mr. Maliki, a Shiite who is accused by critics of trying to marginalize Iraq’s Sunni population since the American occupation of Iraq ended in 2011.
The Al Nusra Front, a Sunni insurgent force in Syria that has become known for its audacious attacks on government targets, has links with Al Qaeda in Iraq, and American officials have blacklisted it as a terrorist organization. But many Iraqi Sunnis sympathize with the Syrian insurgents, who are overwhelmingly Sunni and whose clan relations span national boundaries.
“A number of us have been saying that Iraq is the one most affected by the meltdown in Syria,” said Joshua M. Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and curator of the Syria Comment blog, which has chronicled the Syrian conflict.
“In that region, the tribes go right across the Syrian border, and most of the people are related by blood,” he said. “They’re in one common struggle.”
Mr. Maliki has not expressed outright support for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, whose minority Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Mr. Assad’s allies in the region are the government of Iran, which is majority Shiite, and Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group that is a powerful political force in Lebanon.
But last week, Mr. Maliki warned that a victory for the Syrian insurgency could create a Sunni extremist haven in Syria and incite sectarian mayhem in his own country as well as in Lebanon and Jordan. All three countries, along with Turkey, are hosts to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, mostly Sunnis.
According to accounts from Mr. Musawi and other Iraqi officials quoted by Western news agencies, the Syrian soldiers who were attacked originally crossed into Nineveh Province, Iraq, over the weekend to escape attacks by insurgents at the Yaarubiyeh border crossing. In returning them, Iraqi soldiers put the Syrians on a bus headed for a different border post, in Anbar Province, partly to avoid the same hostilities the Syrians had fled.
But the bus, part of an Iraqi military convoy, was attacked as it neared the Waleed crossing by gunmen armed with mortars, automatic weapons and improvised bombs, who appeared to have advance knowledge of the convoy route. Agence France-Presse quoted an Iraqi army officer, Lt. Col. Mohammed Khalaf al-Dulaimi, as saying that at least three vehicles were destroyed.
The Syrian state-run news agency SANA made no immediate mention of the ambush, but it quoted Mr. Maliki as saying he supported a peaceful solution of the Syrian conflict and that “vandalism and the use of arms will lead nowhere.”
News of the ambush came as Syrian rebel fighters claimed other gains against the government on Monday, notably the seizure of the contested north-central city of Raqqa after days of heavy clashes. Rebel videos uploaded on the Internet showed activists smashing a statue of President Assad’s father, Hafez, in the central square to punctuate their victory.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group with a network of contacts in Syria, quoted a lawyer in Raqqa as saying that the rebels had captured the provincial governor, Hasan Jalali, and the secretary general of the Raqqa branch of Mr. Assad’s ruling Baath Party, Suleiman al-Suleiman. If confirmed, they would be among the highest-ranking officials detained by insurgents.
It was unclear late Monday whether the insurgents could retain control of Raqqa, a strategic city on the Euphrates River. But if they could, it would be the first provincial capital completely taken over by the armed resistance. For the government, the loss of Raqqa would diminish the prospects that Mr. Assad’s military, now fighting on a number of fronts, could retake large areas of northern and eastern Syria from the rebels.
An activist reached by phone in Raqqa, Abu Muhammad, said, “The only place still under control of the regime, in the entire province of Raqqa, is the military security building.”
Earlier Monday, anti-Assad activists reported heavy fighting in Homs between rebels and government forces backed by tanks and warplanes.
The clashes in Homs, a central Syrian city that had been quiet recently, seemed to shift attention from the northern city of Aleppo, where fighting had swirled for days around the Khan al-Asal police academy. Both sides in the civil war, which has claimed an estimated 70,000 lives, acknowledged relatively high death tolls there.
The pro-government Al-Watan newspaper accused opposition fighters on Monday of massacring 115 police officers and wounding 50 at Khan al-Asal. On Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 200 government soldiers and rebels had been killed.
In an interview published in The Sunday Times of London, Mr. Assad assailed Britain’s suggestion that it may provide more than just nonlethal aid to his enemies. He also restated his opposition to peace talks with armed insurgents.
“How can we ask Britain to play a role while it is determined to militarize the problem?” Mr. Assad said. “How can we expect them to make the violence less while they want to send military supplies to the terrorists?”
William Hague, Britain’s foreign secretary, said Mr. Assad’s remarks “will go down as one of the most delusional interviews that any national leader has given in modern times.”
Duraid Adnan reported from Baghdad, and Rick Gladstone from New York. Hania Mourtada contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon; Alan Cowell from London; and an employee of The New York Times from Damascus, Syria.
March 4, 2013
Kerry Says Syrian Opposition Can Handle Military Aid
By MICHAEL R. GORDON
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that the Syrian opposition is capable of properly handling the military support it receives.
“There is no guarantee that one weapon or another might not at some point in time fall into the wrong hands,” Mr. Kerry said in a joint news conference in Riyadh with the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal. “But I will tell you this: There is a very clear ability now in the Syrian opposition to make certain that what goes to the moderate, legitimate opposition is, in fact, getting to them, and the indication is that they are increasing their pressure as a result of that.”
Mr. Kerry’s comments followed a conference in Rome last week on the issue of building support for a coalition of opponents to the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad, which Mr. Kerry attended. He spoke to concerns that aid that was meant for the Western-backed group might be diverted into the hands of extremists.
While President Obama has decided that the United States will not provide arms to the rebels, Mr. Kerry announced last week that it would send food and medical supplies to the armed wing of the Syrian opposition. The United States has also been training a select cadre of Syrian rebels in Jordan under a covert program run by the C.I.A., officials have said.
Other nations are also sending aid to the rebels. Britain is expected to announce a package of nonlethal military assistance, which could include items like bulletproof vests, vehicles and night-vision equipment. Saudi Arabia has been financing a large purchase of infantry weapons from Croatia and channeling them to fighters.
The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud, made it clear on Monday that Saudi Arabia had every intention of continuing to provide support to the rebels, though he did not discuss specifics.
“As for providing enough aid and security for the Syrians, Saudi Arabia will do everything within its capabilities to help in this,” he said. “Morally, we have a duty to protect them.”
Prince Saud said Mr. Assad’s military was purposely firing missiles at times of day when civilians might be gathering to receive food or medicine. “Nobody who has done that to his citizens can claim a right to lead a country,” he said.
While relations between Mr. Kerry and Prince Saud seemed warm, the two diplomats did not discuss ways in which they might be coordinating efforts to aid the Syrian opposition or any differences over what to provide or to whom.
Iran and Russia have backed the other side in the conflict, providing extensive aid to forces loyal to Mr. Assad, a fact that the American and Saudi diplomats highlighted on Monday.
“Believe me, the bad actors, regrettably, have no shortage of their ability to get weapons from Iran, from Hezbollah, from Russia, unfortunately, and that’s happening,” Mr. Kerry said.
Mr. Kerry had a working lunch on Monday with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, who was visiting Riyadh. Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry are planning to travel to Israel, Palestinian areas and Jordan in two weeks to hear ideas for trying to revive the Middle East peace effort.
Concerning Iran, whose nuclear program is a major worry for Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf nations, Mr. Kerry repeated the American refrain that time was running out for a diplomatic solution, and that allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons would encourage nuclear proliferation and heighten tensions in the region.
“Talks will not go on for the sake of talks, and talks cannot become an instrument for delay that in the end make the situation more dangerous,” Mr. Kerry said. “So there is a finite amount of time.”
03/04/2013 04:18 PM
Western Aid: EU May Provide Training to Syrian Rebels
The European Union may be preparing to provide weapons training to rebels in Syria, SPIEGEL has learned. Whereas the statement issued by Brussels last week mentioned merely "technical assistance," both the UK and France might provide more hands-on help. Calls for arming the rebels are also increasing.
Officially, the statement released by Brussels last week on the European Union's amended sanctions against Syria referred merely to supplying rebel fighters with "non-lethal military equipment" and "technical assistance for the protection of civilians."
But internal discussions indicate that this assistance also includes weapons training for opposition troops in their ongoing conflict with soldiers loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad. Brussels believes that Britain and possibly also France will deploy military consultants. Sources within the German government said that Berlin has no plans to send experts.
Europe isn't alone in recognizing that Syrian rebels need increased external assistance. The US too recently announced it would begin supplying non-lethal supplies to opposition forces for the first time.
Ultimately, the support might not end there. While the West has thus far refused to supply arms to rebel fighters in Syria, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Sunday that Britain did not rule out providing arms to Syrian rebels in the future, although a new aid package set to be announced this week will consist only of non-lethal assistance.
In Germany, too, there are influential voices calling for an end to the Western reticence regarding the sending of weapons to the Syrian opposition. Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference, has spoken out in favor of arming the rebels.
"The bitter lesson of the Bosnian war is that the policy of not delivering weapons to either side neither curbs nor curtails the conflict," he told SPIEGEL. "It is high time that Germany and its partners discuss supporting Syrian rebels with equipment up to and including weapons."
Ischinger cited the need to protect the Syrian population as well as the strategic interests of Germany and the West. "All we have done so far is lay a foundation for ensuring that we have no friends in post-Assad Syria," he said. He also dismissed fears that arms could end up in the wrong hands. "If the West supplies arms itself, it has more chance of influencing how they are used."
Over 70,000 people -- most of them civilians -- have been killed in the Syrian civil war so far, as brutal combat continues in urban areas. Hundreds of thousands have fled across borders to neighboring countries with an even greater number having sought shelter within Syria. The EU has so far offered some €200 million in humanitarian relief.
In Rome last week, Syrian National Coalition President Moaz Alkhatib called on the EU and US secretary of state John Kerry, currently on his first foreign tour, to release weapons to help the rebels fight the regime.
Meanwhile, in an interview with the British Sunday Times, Assad lashed out at the West for helping his opponents in the civil war, in a rebuke to Kerry's announcement that the US would be providing medical supplies and other non-lethal aid directly to the rebels, in addition to $60 million in assistance.
He is ready for dialogue with armed rebels and militants, he said, but only if they surrender their weapons.
March 3, 2013
Kerry Announces $250 Million in U.S. Aid for Egypt
By MICHAEL R. GORDON
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Secretary of State John Kerry announced Sunday that the United States would provide $250 million in assistance to Egypt after Egypt’s president promised to move ahead with negotiations with the International Monetary Fund over economic reforms.
In a statement issued after his two-hour meeting with President Mohamed Morsi, Mr. Kerry said the aid decision reflected Egypt’s “extreme needs” and Mr. Morsi’s assurance that Egypt would reach an agreement with the I.M.F. after more than a year of talks over a $4.8 billion loan package.
The statement issued by Mr. Kerry noted that he and Mr. Morsi had discussed the need to ensure the fairness of Egypt’s coming elections, but it did not mention any specific political commitments the Egyptian president had made to receive the aid.
Parliamentary elections are scheduled for April. Some opposition groups have said they will boycott the vote because of what they see as an effort by Mr. Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood movement to dominate Egyptian politics.
American officials say that Mr. Kerry asserted that moving ahead with difficult economic changes in Egypt would require a degree of political consensus and was implicitly a promise of some political change.
The aid announced Sunday consists of two parts. One is a $190 million infusion for Egypt’s budget intended to address what Mr. Kerry said was the country’s “extreme needs.” That assistance has already been approved by Congress.
Mr. Kerry also pledged $60 million for the creation of a fund to support small businesses, which will provide “direct support to key engines of democratic change in Egypt, including Egypt’s entrepreneurs and its young people.”
As an incentive for Mr. Morsi to conclude an agreement with the I.M.F., Mr. Kerry said that he would work with Congress to get additional funds approved for Egypt once a deal was reached.
In May 2011, President Obama pledged $1 billion to support Egypt’s democratic revolution. The $190 million in aid announced on Sunday is the first disbursement of that pledge.
“In all my meetings, I conveyed a simple but serious message: The brave Egyptians who stood vigil in Tahrir Square did not risk their lives to see that opportunity for a brighter future squandered,” Mr. Kerry said. “I encouraged President Morsi to implement the homegrown reforms that will help his country secure an I.M.F. agreement, put Egypt on the path to establishing a firm economic foundation and allow it to chart its own course. He agreed and said that he plans to move quickly to do so.”
The I.M.F. wants Egypt to carry out a number of economic policy changes, including raising taxes and cutting energy subsidies, and it is seeking assurances that Mr. Morsi can rally the political support needed for those changes.
Mr. Kerry’s departure from Cairo was briefly delayed, news agencies said, because hundreds of supporters of the soccer club Al Ahly, known as ultras, blocked the road to the airport in a protest related to a court case about a soccer riot in Port Said last year.
But the motorcade made it to the airport, and Mr. Kerry flew to Saudi Arabia, his seventh stop on his nine-nation trip.
« Last Edit: Mar 05, 2013, 07:02 AM by Rad »
Kenya sees huge election turnout but violence mostly limited to separatists
Uhuru Kenyatta leading rival Raila Odinga in early results but tight race could lead to runoff vote and rerun of 2007 clashes
David Smith in Nairobi
The Guardian, Tuesday 5 March 2013
Kenyans turned out in massive numbers on Monday to vote in a general election described as the most important, and nervously anticipated, in the country's 50-year history.
Despite multiple attacks on security forces that left a dozen people dead on the coast and reports of gunmen seizing control of two polling stations in Garissa, near the Somali border, the prevailing mood was one of relief as millions waited peacefully and patiently to cast their vote. For most, epic queues and computer glitches were a bigger headache than the much-predicted tribal conflagration.
Provisional results, based on more than a quarter of polling stations reporting, showed Uhuru Kenyatta – who is due to stand trial at the international criminal court – leading with 55% of the vote, well ahead of his main rival, Raila Odinga, on 40%.
Throughout most of the country millions of Kenyans waited in long lines and cast their ballots in peace. Monday's election was Kenya's first since more than 1,000 people were killed in violence following its December 2007 presidential election.
But this was the easy part. There are still many hurdles to come, as a tight contest for the presidency could lead to a run-off vote and ugly disputes both in the courts and on the streets.
East Africa's biggest economy is desperate to avoid a repeat of 2007's ethnic violence that left more than 1,100 people dead and 600,000 displaced.
Officials, candidates and media have made impassioned pleas for peace, and there is extraordinary international scrutiny and pressure.
Before dawn, early-bird Kenyans blew whistles and trumpet-like vuvuzelas to wake the country's 14.3 million voters. With queues forming well before polls opened at 6am, it soon became clear the turnout would be "huge", officials said, possibly a record. The system struggled to cope with the demand, and some voters waited up to 10 hours to cast their ballots.
Anti-fraud fingerprint-based voter-ID technology, introduced to counter the allegations of rigging that erupted last time, broke down in many areas. Officials said many polling stations opened late and there were problems with transporting election material.
In the capital, Nairobi, there were few cars on the streets but long lines of people snaking for several hundreds of metres, some holding umbrellas to deflect blazing sunshine.
In Kibera, the biggest slum in Africa and a potential flashpoint, a man in a Manchester United shirt could be seen painting "Peace" in the middle of the road. Speed bumps had been decorated with the words "Peace wanted alive" and "Peace love unity" with the CND symbol.
Thousands of people queued patiently past goats, open sewers, piles of uncollected rubbish and walls coated from top to bottom with weathered campaign posters. Most of the rickety market stalls and corrugated iron shops were shuttered.
Odinga, who has been MP for Kibera for 20 years, voted at a local primary school and said: "Never before have Kenyans turned up in such numbers. I'm sure they're going to vote for change this election."
Others faced a longer wait to vote at the school, where the much-heralded computer system had been knocked out by flat batteries, forcing staff to revert to manual registration.
"I expected the computers to work and I'm getting frustrated," said Eric Wasike, 27, a computer repair man who had been queuing for five hours. But, like many here, he believed the outcome could improve lives in Kibera. "It's important to vote because in the past politicians looked after their own needs, but now I'm going to vote for a person who will bring change in society. The next generation will benefit from it."
He added: All of us are optimistic. No matter what the outcome, Kenya will remain Kenya. We don't need to resort to violence to get our rights. The entire world is watching us and we are going to set an example. We don't want a repeat of what happened last time."
Further back in the queue, Ibrahim Hassan, 49, a driver, said: "It's OK to wait, because we are trying to make history. If you want to do something good, you have to be patient."
But Janet Wasike, 19, cradling her one-month-old son, Fabian, had arrived to discover her name was missing. "I'm feeling bad because I've lost my vote," she said.
Elsewhere, in Starehe constituency, voices were raised as people argued with officials but the mood was mostly calm. Mohamed Mahmoud, 54, a retail manager wearing sunglasses and a flamboyant patterned shirt, said: "It's the first time I've seen so many people eager to come out and vote. Definitely it will end peacefully. People have learned a lesson from 2007. The new constitution has changed the landscape. Both sides have persuaded Kenyans to accept defeat peacefully and I don't think they will go back on their word."
Mohammed Ahmed, 23, a student, was stuck at the back of the mammoth queue. "I feel disgusted, I feel like going home. There's an option to wait until 2017 [the next election]. But I want to cast my vote to change the way things are going."
Around the port city of Mombasa, however, the day got off to the kind of start many had been dreading: 200 members of a coastal separatist group armed with guns, machetes and bows and arrows set a trap for police in the pre-dawn hours, killing five officers, Kenyan police inspector general David Kimaiyo said. One attacker also died.
A second attack by secessionists in nearby Kilifi killed one police officer and five attackers, Kimaiyo added. A Kilifi police official, Clemence Wangai, said seven people had died in that assault, including an election official.
A spokesman for the separatist Mombasa Republican Council denied it was behind the assaults. "We are not responsible for any attacks anywhere in this region," Mohammed Rashid Mraja told Reuters, adding that the group sought change through peaceful means only.
Meanwhile, the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab urged Muslims not to vote and repeated calls for Kenya to withdraw its peacekeepers from Somalia. A grenade attack on a police post in Garissa, a city near Somalia, killed two civilians, police said. A bomb exploded in the Mandera area, also near the border, causing no fatalities.
Farah Maalim, deputy speaker of parliament, said the attacks on the Garissa polling stations took place after dark. Gunshots and an explosion rang out as gunmen stormed the stations and seized election material. Separate attacks on the coast killed 19 people early on Monday.
About 99,000 police officers were on duty during the election. Along with the presidential race, there are hotly contested elections for senators, county governors, members of parliament, female representatives in county assemblies and civic leaders.
Christopher Kibanzanga, an election observer from Uganda's National Consultative Council, told the Associated Press: "This can only be likened to South Africa when [President Nelson] Mandela was elected. The people have turned up in large numbers. The spirit of patriotism and nationalism has come back. I think this is a perfect process."
New respiratory infection leaves Hugo Chávez in 'delicate' condition
Venezuelan official reveals severe new respiratory infection in wake of protests demanding truth about president's condition
Staff and agencies in Caracas
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 5 March 2013 07.30 GMT
Hugo Chávez has developed a severe new respiratory infection that has left the president's health in a very delicate condition, the Venezuelan government has announced.
Hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Caracas at the weekend demanding the government "tell the truth" about the president's condition. Protesters accused officials of keeping from the public a full account of Chávez's failing health.
Chávez's breathing problems have worsened and he is suffering from a new, severe respiratory infection after undergoing cancer surgery in Cuba, Venezuela's government said on Monday.
Reading the latest official assessment, the information minister, Ernesto Villegas, said: "Today there is a worsening of his respiratory function. Related to his depressed immune system there is now a new, severe infection.
"The president has been receiving high-impact chemotherapy, along with other complementary treatments ... his general condition continues to be very delicate."
Chávez, 58, made a surprise pre-dawn return to Venezuela from Cuba two weeks ago via medical transport. The government has said he remains in a tightly guarded suite at a Caracas military hospital.
He has not been seen in public nor heard from since his operation in Havana on 11 December, his fourth cancer surgery since the disease was detected in his pelvic region in mid-2011.
Chávez suffered multiple complications after the operation including unexpected bleeding and an earlier severe respiratory infection that officials said had been controlled. The government said the president had trouble speaking because he was breathing through a tracheal tube but that he was giving orders to ministers by writing them down.
"The commander-president remains clinging to Christ and to life, conscious of the difficulties that he is facing and complying strictly with the programme designed by his medical team," Villegas said.
Chávez had previously undergone gruelling rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatment, which at times left him bald and bloated. He twice overly optimistically declared himself cured.
The only sight of the former soldier since his latest operation were four photos published by the government while he was still in Havana, showing him lying in a hospital bed.
The government is furious at rumours in recent days that Chávez might have died, blaming them on a plot by "far-right fascists".
Mayor of Lima Susana Villarán fights for law and order - and her job
Faced with a vote to remove her, the city's first woman leader vows to battle on
Dan Collyns in Lima
The Guardian, Monday 4 March 2013 18.21 GMT
With her hippyish air, easy smile and penchant for flowing scarves, Susana Villarán might have looked to her opponents like a soft touch. But from the moment she became Lima's first female mayor two years ago, she has upset the status quo, taking on vested interests and shaking up a city that is home to one third of Peru's 30 million people.
So robust has she been in taking on rackets and cartels that operate the much-maligned transport system and wholesale markets that she has made enough enemies to threaten her tenure: later this month, voters will be balloted on whether to remove the mayor halfway through her term.
A charismatic career human rights activist, Villarán, 63, has nonetheless failed to win over a sizeable portion of Lima residents. Current polls indicate that a slight majority favour removing her, although her backers include the former UN secretary general, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, the Peruvian president, Ollanta Humala, intellectuals and even the political party of Lourdes Flores, the opponent she beat to the mayoral office.
But the opposition was there from the beginning, Villarán says. She had barely sat in the mayoral seat before her political enemies were plotting her downfall: "I was not invited to the party, I was not the one who was supposed to be in the mayor's office," she said.
Fernando Tuesta, a politics professor at Lima's La Católica University, agrees. "She'd barely won when groups, political parties and sectors of the media began a campaign against her," he said. But he adds that Villarán, the leader of the tiny Fuerza Social (Social Force) party, "didn't build the necessary political alliances, leaving her very isolated".
Villarán insists she didn't want to use her term as a "trampoline for the presidency. I didn't come into politics to behave like that." That is why, she says, she did not shy away from tackling the city's thorniest issues. The public transport network is dominated by ramshackle buses known as "combis", which weave across lanes of traffic belching black diesel fumes and stopping wherever they like. About 300,000 taxi cabs further clog up Lima's arteries.
"It's really a necessity for Lima after three decades of absolute informality, disorder and chaos to impose some order," she said. She is trying to get bus drivers who work long hours with no benefits and are paid according to the number of passengers to accept fixed salaries. Taxi ranks will be installed to reduce congestion.
Villarán also pushed ahead with a move that the city's mayors have shied away from for decades: relocating the Parada wholesale market, which resulted in deadly clashes with the police in October. Neither of these moves has made her popular with the estimated 70% of Peruvians who work in the unregulated, informal sector. There is also growing impatience to see infrastructure improvements, particularly in the city's poorer, outlying neighbourhoods.
"Lima is paralysed, there are no concrete public works, no successful social programmes and crime is up," says Shadia Valdez, 24, a lawyer campaigning in the yellow colours of the campaign to remove Villarán.
Marco Tulio Gutiérrez, a lawyer who has become the face of the anti-Villarán campaign, has capitalised on the perceived lack of construction: "The public disapproval for her mandate shows that people want physical public works. That's what a city like Lima needs. This lady has done absolutely nothing, just words, words, words," he said.
Villarán's supporters accuse Gutiérrez of being a frontman for her predecessor, Luis Castañeda, who left office with 85% approval after building joint public-private hospitals and hundreds of stairways in the city's poor outlying hillsides. Villarán insists she has invested more in infrastructure than Castañeda but admits "errors" in failing to publicise them.
In the poor district of Villa María del Triunfo, where from a distance the homes look like multicoloured confetti scattered on an anthill, support for Villarán grows as walls and stairways are built. A park is also planned. "Neighbourhoods like ours have always been forgotten but Miss Susana is moving forward with the works," said resident Juana de la Sota, 67. "She's working out of love for the people, not out of love for her pocket! Let her finish the good works she's doing."
In neighbouring Villa el Salvador, community leader Tony Palomino also supports Villarán. "This is a battle between honesty and corruption. It's that simple," he said.
Coming into office, Villarán sought corruption charges against Castañeda. The former mayor is alleged to have diverted $10m in public funds into a phantom company. No charges have been brought.
She has also enraged religious conservatives in the Catholic and evangelical churches by supporting gay rights and bringing in a bylaw prohibiting discrimination against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community (LGBTs).
Faced with losing her job, Villarán realises she has stepped on a lot of political toes but, apart from having better communication, she says she would not have done anything differently.
"I wanted to build a Lima that was more fair and just," she reflects. "Perhaps it was too idealistic to want to be part of a process of transformation for the city."
• This article was initially illustrated with an image of Villarán's rival, Lourdes Flores. This has been recitified.
Ice-strengthened ships will sail directly over the north pole by 2050: scientists
By John Vidal, The Guardian
Monday, March 4, 2013 20:09 EST
Ships should be able to sail directly over the north pole by the middle of this century, considerably reducing the costs of trade between Europe and China but posing new economic, strategic and environmental challenges for governments, according to scientists.
The dramatic reduction in the thickness and extent of late summer sea ice that has taken place in each of the last seven years has already made it possible for some ice-strengthened ships to travel across the north of Russia via the “northern sea route”. Last year a total of 46 ships made the trans-Arctic passage, mostly escorted at considerable cost by Russian icebreakers.
But by 2050, say Laurence C. Smith and Scott R. Stephenson at the University of California in the journal PNAS on Monday, ordinary vessels should be able to travel easily along the northern sea route, and moderately ice-strengthened ships should be able to take the shortest possible route between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, passing over the pole itself. The easiest time would be in September, when annual sea ice cover in the Arctic Ocean is at its lowest extent.
The scientists took two classes of vessels and then simulated whether they would be able to steam through the sea ice expected in seven different climate models. In each case they found that the sea routes opened up considerably after 2049.
“The emergence of a … corridor directly over the north pole indicates that sea ice will become sufficiently thin such that a critical technical threshold is surpassed, and the shortest great circle route thus becomes feasible, for ships with moderate ice-breaking capability,” says the paper.
“The prospect of common open water ships, which comprise the vast majority of the global fleet, entering the Arctic Ocean in late summer, and even its remote central basin by moderately ice-strengthened vessels heightens the urgency for a mandatory International Maritime Organisation regulatory framework to ensure adequate environmental protections, vessel safety standards, and search-and-rescue capability,” it adds.
The northern sea route has been shown to save a medium-sized bulk carrier 18 days and 580 tonnes of bunker fuel on a journey between northern Norway and China. Shipowners have said it can save them €180,000-€300,000 on each voyage. A direct route over the pole could save up to 40% more fuel and time.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
In the USA...
Barack Obama: Forced spending cuts an ‘empty victory’ for Republicans
By Ewen MacAskill, The Guardian
Monday, March 4, 2013 20:12 EST
Barack Obama warned at the first meeting of his second-term cabinet on Monday that the $85bn in forced spending cuts will mean difficult budget decisions in the weeks ahead and that unemployment will end up being higher than it needs to be.
Details of the areas to be cut will be rolled out over the next few weeks, but already the Obama administration is claiming that cancellations in overtime for aviation staff is leading to long queues for travellers. The Pentagon has cancelled the deployment of a carrier group to the Gulf despite continuing tensions with Iran.
With no sign of Republicans looking to compromise on the $85bn sequester and the cuts beginning to take on an air of permanence, the White House described it as “an empty victory” for the Republican party. The Republicans are downplaying the impact of the cuts ordered by Obama on Friday after failure of Republicans and Democrats to look seriously for a deal. They describe the cuts as modest, whereas Obama and the White House are predicting the impact will be severe.
Obama, addressing a cabinet that included new members Treasury secretary Jack Lew and defence secretary Chuck Hagel, said: “Obviously, we’re going to be spending some time talking about the potential impact of the sequester on all the agencies and missions across the board. It is an area of deep concern and I think everybody knows where I stand on this issue. We are going to manage it as best we can, try to minimise the impacts on American families, but it’s not the right way for us to go about deficit reduction.”
The president added: “We’re going to do our best to make sure that our agencies have the support they need to try to make some very difficult decisions, understanding that there are going to be families and communities that are hurt, and that this will slow our growth. It will mean lower employment in the United States than otherwise would have been.”
Earlier, at the daily White House briefing, press spokesman Jay Carney said the cuts hit hard areas the Republicans normally seek to protect, namely the Pentagon and border security.
Carney said he was surprised that Republicans were claiming the $85bn as a win. He hoped that they would come to see it as an “empty victory” and realise that their goals of high defence spending and border protection were not being achieved.
“So not only are regular Americans folks suffering from this, but their objectives are being unmet,” Carney said.
The secretary for homeland security Janet Napolitano, speaking at a Politico meeting, said: “Now that we are having to reduce or eliminate basically overtime both for TSA (Transport Security Administration) and for customs, now that we have instituted a hiring freeze … we will begin today sending out furlough notices.”
She said airports are seeing lines at some airports “150 to 200% as long as we would normally expect.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
The Koch Brothers Take Credit for Imposing Economic Hardship on Millions of Americans
Mar. 4th, 2013
One of, but not limited to, the symptoms of depression is a feeling of hopelessness that can be exacerbated by unrelenting bad news, and for the past two weeks, Americans were bombarded with portents of doom and gloom over the Republican sequester. On Sunday, there was a glimmer of good news in the form of a reminder Willard Romney is not the president, and although he said it “kills him” he cannot “boss people around,” he is still alive enough to run his lying mouth about the President and how he handled the sequester. Now that the sequester is signed into law, as bad as it is, Romney preferred Paul Ryan’s budget that was four times as damaging as the sequester and increased the deficit by at least $4 trillion. One of Willard’s biggest supporters is cheering the sequester and claiming credit for its enactment, and looks forward to imposing more economic hardship on the people and the nation in their never-ending assault on government.
In an email, Koch brothers’ front group, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), sent congratulations to Republicans and their supporters around the country for helping push sequester cuts AFP says are “an important step forward for economic growth.” The email continued, “Americans for Prosperity thanks Speaker John Boehner and House Republicans for standing up to President Obama and making sure the $85 billion in much-needed sequester spending cuts took effect,” and it proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Koch brothers and Republicans own the sequester and are giddy at the prospect of a recession and killing millions of jobs. One aspect of sequester cuts little mentioned is that the devastating $85 billion for 2013 is just the beginning of greater domestic spending cuts, devastating effects on anti-poverty programs, Medicare, and without cessation, the end of recovery.
The sequester is a ten year plan that cuts $1.2 trillion across the board, and because they began in March, $85 billion is about 70% of the next nine years of cuts coming in at about $123.88 billion every year. It spells the end of recovery because experts estimate that by the end of 2013, $85 billion in cuts means nearly a million jobs will vanish, and GDP will fall between .7% and 1.7% in the first year alone. Kochs, AFP, teabaggers, and Republicans are celebrating austerity that deliberately tanks the economy, creates massive poverty, and all to avoid closing tax loopholes for the richest people in America. Republicans claimed 2013 sequester cuts would devastate the economy, and yet they are celebrating nine more years of 30% higher cuts, and are a reminder of the damage Willard Romney would have imposed. Romney took time to weigh in on the sequester and accuse the President of campaigning instead of working with Republicans to avert the cuts they were destined to enact.
According to Willard, “The president brings people together, does the deals, does the trades…the president leads, and I don’t see that kind of leadership happening. He’s campaigning.” Romney also suspected President Obama blamed Republicans for rejecting attempts to avert the sequester because “there may be more interest in showing pain in saying, See what the other guys did?” President Obama did attempt to trade, deal, lead, and bring Republicans together, but the sequester was the means Republicans used to impose austerity, and unless Obama agreed to void defense cuts and replace them with more austerity and domestic cuts, the sequester was going forward as part of Republicans’ four-year war on the economy.
Real economic experts cited ways Republicans are deliberately killing recovery; self-inflicted austerity, cuts to under-funded social programs, cut Social Security and Medicare benefits by slashing “entitlements,” and the sequester. Republicans and their supporters at Americans for Prosperity encouraged their base to campaign to “keep the cuts” so we can “get our economy moving again” in spite of overwhelming evidence that killing a million jobs and slashing domestic spending will cut GDP between .7-1.7% in the first year of a ten year program. Austerity already cost a reduction in growth in the fourth quarter, and combined with the Eurozone’s austerity-caused recession increases the risk to America’s economy because Europe is the nation’s leading trading partner. Austerity is decimating economies all over the world and all the while, Republicans, Koch brothers, and teabaggers are celebrating.
Americans for Prosperity parroted a right-wing canard that America has a spending crisis and said, “For the first time in a long time, genuine substantive spending reductions actually took effect and the government is running just a bit leaner,” and it belies President Obama’s reduced spending that already cost a reduction in GDP in the last quarter of 2012. America cannot recover, much less thrive, with perpetual spending cuts that kill jobs and retard growth, but that has been the Republican plan all along. It is unfortunate that Republicans were successful creating a false deficit crisis because it has ensnared Democrats who cannot speak about the economy without first trumpeting the virtue of “reducing the deficit” and it will lead the nation into a downward economic spiral that no-one, not even the President, can prevent regardless the people’s overwhelming support for his storied “balanced approach” to…deficit reduction.
Republicans won the austerity battle, and Americans will now know what it feels like to live in “socialist Europe” that imposed austerity, massive unemployment, negative growth, double and triple-dip recessions, and no hope for recovery anytime soon. Maybe there were two bits of good news yesterday after all; Willard is not president, and sequester damage in 2013 will be the least for the next ten years. Because if $85 billion is devastating, kills a million jobs, and cuts GDP by a percentage point, then nine years of $123.88 billion each will certainly eviscerate the economy; it was Republicans’ plan all along. It is just tragic, though, that they imposed austerity by injecting two words into every discussion about the economy; deficit reduction. It’s no wonder teabaggers, Republicans, and Americans for Prosperity are celebrating and congratulating each other; they won with two words.
March 4, 2013
Texans Rebut Governor on Expansion of Medicaid
By MANNY FERNANDEZ
AUSTIN, Tex. — Hundreds of activists and uninsured Texans plan to rally at the steps of the Capitol here Tuesday, increasing the pressure on Gov. Rick Perry and other Republican leaders to switch their stance on expanding Medicaid, a major provision of President Obama’s health care overhaul.
Mr. Perry has told federal officials that Texas has no intention of expanding Medicaid, the government health insurance program for low-income and sick people, saying he would not take part in socializing health care and admitting millions of Texans into an unsustainable program at a cost of billions to taxpayers. When Mr. Perry made his decision official in July, he wrote of standing “with the growing chorus of governors who reject the Obamacare power grab.”
In recent weeks, however, that chorus has diminished, as several Republican governors who had resisted the expansion — including Chris Christie of New Jersey and Rick Scott of Florida — said they would accept federal money to expand the program. Meanwhile, the number of state organizations and individuals who vocally support an expansion in Texas has grown.
Several cities and counties have passed resolutions calling for expansion of the program — including the City Councils of Austin and Waco — as have health care and financial experts, including Elena Marks, former director of health policy for the City of Houston, and Ray Perryman, an influential economist in Waco. The Texas Medical Association, which represents more than 47,000 physicians and medical students, asked state leaders to expand the program while instituting reforms. The Chambers of Commerce in Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio and other cities also support expansion.
Texas has the highest rate of uninsured residents of any state, 24 percent of the population, officials said. Supporters said the Medicaid expansion would provide coverage to more than one million low-income Texans and ease the burden on local taxpayers, who help support the public hospitals now providing much of the care to the uninsured.
The federal law covers 100 percent of the costs for the first three years of the state’s Medicaid expansion, and in the years that follow, Texas would not pay more than 10 percent. From 2014 to 2023, about $100 billion would be available to the state in an expansion, with Texas having to pay about $15 billion in that time, supporters said.
“If you have a chance to provide that coverage and improve health care, then in the long run, you’re going to have a healthier, more productive state,” said Dr. Roland A. Goertz, the chief executive of the Waco Family Health Center, which treats thousands of Medicaid and uninsured patients annually.
A spokeswoman for Governor Perry, Lucy Nashed, said his position had not changed.
“It would be irresponsible to add more Texans and dump more taxpayer dollars into a broken and unsustainable system that already consumes a quarter of our budget, making it harder to pay for other things like public safety and education,” Ms. Nashed said. “Medicaid should transform into a system that gives the states flexibility to tailor the program to serve the needs of their specific and unique challenges.”
Critics of Mr. Perry’s stance have grown increasingly brazen. In January, protesting activists interrupted Mr. Perry’s State of the State address at the Capitol. One of the most significant developments for Medicaid advocates came the day before, however, when a report by the state’s former deputy comptroller, Billy Hamilton, described expansion as smart, affordable and fair.
The report found a substantial impact on the Texas economy. In fiscal years 2014 to 2017, the injection of $27.5 billion in new federal Medicaid money would increase the state’s economic output by nearly $68 billion, said the report, which was sponsored by two religious-based advocacy groups, Texas Impact and Methodist Healthcare Ministries.
Some leaders, including State Senator Tommy Williams, a Republican and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, have insisted that the state needs flexibility to administer a “Texas solution,” like requiring co-pays and deductibles for Medicaid recipients and enrollment in private or employer plans if available.
The likelihood of a compromise remains unclear. Officials with the federal Department of Health and Human Services said they were not currently in talks with Mr. Perry’s office, but welcomed conversations with him and other governors.
March 4, 2013
Fearing Deluge of Litigation, Supreme Court Works the Floodgates
By ADAM LIPTAK
WASHINGTON — February was flood season at the Supreme Court.
On Feb. 20 alone, three justices used flooding as a metaphor in talking about the consequences of the court’s rulings. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote that allowing some lawsuits from prisoners would not “prompt an unmanageable flood of litigation.” Justice Antonin Scalia countered that there was indeed a good reason to worry about “a flood of litigation.” Justice Stephen G. Breyer, in a second decision that day, said allowing the correction of plainly erroneous rulings late in the game “will not open any ‘plain error’ floodgates.”
Lawyers who argued before the court were using the same terms. On Feb. 27, one assured the justices that “we haven’t seen the floodgates opened” after a lower court allowed some kinds of class actions.
The week before, another lawyer said that ruling against his position “would unleash a flood of suits by prisoners.” A lawyer on the other side responded: “If adopting a broader interpretation here would open the floodgates, the floodgates are already open, and they have been for 40 years in most of the country. And we haven’t seen a flood.”
In real life, floods are bad. But the metaphor of a flood in the context of litigation obscures more than it illuminates. If a legal theory is sound, is it a problem if it produces too much justice?
Marin K. Levy, a law professor at Duke University, has been tracking the rise of all of this talk of floods. “It’s a huge uptick,” she said.
“This is clearly on their minds,” she said of the justices, “and it’s something that should give us pause.”
She found about 60 “explicit floodgates cases,” meaning cases using that term and its cousins. The first was in 1908. They reappeared in the 1940s and picked up in the 1970s. Nearly half are from 2000 or later, and 14 are from the last four terms.
The cases vary in significance, of course, but some are major. The Supreme Court’s reluctance to consider whether voting districts gerrymandered for partisan ends may ever violate the Constitution, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in a 2004 dissent, “seems driven in part by a fear that recognizing such claims will give rise to a flood of litigation.”
In an article to be published in September in The University of Chicago Law Review, Professor Levy proposes a subtle taxonomy of floodgates arguments, approving of ones protecting executive branch officials and interpreting statutes to track Congress’s purpose. Those limits, she writes, are grounded in the separation of powers. She is also sympathetic to limits that affect the relationship between state and federal courts.
But about half of the cases are based on a more self-interested concern: the fear that federal courts will be inundated with new cases and judges may have to work too hard to keep up with them. The metaphor gained currency, Professor Levy writes, as many judges and law professors in the 1970s grew concerned that caseloads in the federal courts were becoming unmanageable. Justice Stevens said as much in a 1978 opinion, observing that appeals court judges were “struggling desperately to keep afloat in the flood of federal litigation.”
There are, to be sure, some kinds of lawsuits that are likely to be a waste of judicial time. As Justice Robert H. Jackson wrote in a 1953 concurrence, there was good reason to worry about “floods of stale, frivolous and repetitious petitions” from prisoners challenging their convictions.
“It must prejudice the occasional meritorious application to be buried in a flood of worthless ones,” he wrote. “He who must search a haystack for a needle is likely to end up with the attitude that the needle is not worth the search.”
Congress can certainly erect barriers against such problems, and it has. The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995, for instance, cut back on, in Justice Alito’s words in a 2006 opinion, “a flood of prisoner litigation in the federal courts.”
But allowing judges to close the courthouse door to a class of cases on the ground that they create too much work is, Professor Levy writes, “deeply troubling,” for two reasons.
One is that judges are not particularly good at predicting the consequences of their decisions. The other is that this sort of thinking is not grounded in the law.
“Barring a true flood of tens or hundreds of thousands of cases,” she wrote, “no evident principle exists to support the court taking workload concerns into account when engaging in interpretation of the law.”
The Supreme Court, as it happens, decides cases involving actual floods surprisingly often. In January, it ruled in a case involving the Los Angeles County Flood Control District.
And in December it said that some real-life floods caused by the government may amount to a taking of property requiring compensation. Not to worry, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the court. “Today’s modest decision,” she said, “augurs no deluge of takings liability.”
March 4, 2013
Cabinet Picks Could Take On Climate Policy
By JOHN M. BRODER and MATTHEW L. WALD
WASHINGTON — President Obama on Monday named two people to his cabinet who will be charged with making good on his threat to use the powers of the executive branch to tackle climate change and energy policy if Congress does not act quickly.
Mr. Obama nominated Gina McCarthy, a tough-talking native of Boston and an experienced clean air regulator, to take charge at the Environmental Protection Agency, and Ernest J. Moniz, a physicist and strong advocate of natural gas and nuclear power as cleaner alternatives to coal, to run the Department of Energy.
The appointments, which require Senate confirmation, send an unmistakable signal that the president intends to mount a multifaceted campaign in his second term to tackle climate change by using all the executive branch tools at his disposal.
But even with Ms. McCarthy and Mr. Moniz in place, Mr. Obama would have to confront major hurdles in trying to refashion the American way of producing and consuming energy, the same hurdles that stymied climate and energy policy in his first term.
Among the first of those is a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, which the administration appears inclined to approve over the vociferous objections of environmental advocates.
Mr. Obama, in introducing the nominees at the White House on Monday, recognized the political and economic delicacy of the task facing both of them.
“So these two over here,” he said, gesturing toward Ms. McCarthy and Mr. Moniz, “they’re going to be making sure that we’re investing in American energy, that we’re doing everything that we can to combat the threat of climate change, that we’re going to be creating jobs and economic opportunity in the first place.”
It is a difficult, even paradoxical task. Addressing climate change and ensuring domestic energy independence have sometimes proved to be contradictory goals, analysts said.
“The president himself has framed the challenge of going all in to cut the pollution that causes climate change while still having an ‘all-of-the-above’ energy policy,” said Gene Karpinski, the president of the League of Conservation Voters. “We need to make sure we lean heavily on the clean energy alternatives and all the measures that cut carbon pollution, and don’t in essence take two steps forward and one step back. We will not solve the problem that way.”
Mr. Obama has embraced the boom in unconventional natural gas production, which has brought lower energy prices and reduced emissions as utilities switch from coal to natural gas to produce electricity. But the production of natural gas through hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, presents difficult environmental issues, including the possibility of groundwater contamination and the unregulated release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Natural gas is cleaner than coal, but it is still a fossil fuel that even its advocates see as a bridge fuel rather than a long-term answer to climate change.
Mr. Obama has also pursued increased offshore drilling for oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic Ocean, an enterprise fraught with environmental peril, as the BP oil spill in the gulf in 2010 and Shell’s mishaps in the Arctic last year dramatized.
In leaning toward construction of the pipeline, the administration would be embracing a project to carry heavy crude oil from tar sands formations in Alberta to refineries in Texas. That would result in the delivery of 800,000 barrels of oil a day from a friendly source and thousands of construction, refinery and spinoff jobs. But a State Department environmental impact report issued Friday notes that extracting, shipping and refining the Canadian oil would produce measurably more greenhouse gas emissions than other types of oil.
Michael A. Levi, a climate and energy fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that the appointments of Ms. McCarthy, 58, and Mr. Moniz, 68, represent a continuation of the president’s first-term policies rather than a sharp break. The two are practical, practiced insiders who put a premium on finding workable solutions and have more experience navigating the federal bureaucracy and Congress than the officials they have been tapped to succeed, Lisa P. Jackson at the E.P.A. and Steven Chu at Energy.
“Putting it all together,” Mr. Levi said, “it appears to reinforce the president’s stated desire to push forward on a variety of different fronts. These are not people who want to use a club casually. They are not about to use rigid regulations to try to force deep changes in the U.S. economy, but they are also people who want to do big things.”
The E.P.A., which the Supreme Court granted authority to regulate carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases, is in the midst of writing regulations governing such emissions from new power plants. Those rules, expected to be completed this year, would essentially bar construction of any new coal-fired power plants unless they included the means to capture carbon gases, a technology that does not yet exist on a commercial scale.
But to make a real dent in the nation’s emissions, the agency must then devise emissions limits for existing plants, a hugely controversial project that could force the shutdown of dozens of older coal-burning power plants, cause a steep drop in domestic demand for coal and trigger a sharp rise in energy prices.
No matter how carefully written — and Ms. McCarthy is an expert on federal air quality law — any such regulations would be subject to intense opposition in the courts, and in Congress, which could seek to overturn the regulations.
David Doniger, the director of the climate and clean air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that the big issues before the Obama administration were the budget, immigration, gun control and climate. “Climate change is the only one of these where he has the authority to take significant action under laws the Congress has already passed, principally the Clean Air Act, and the energy efficiency laws that Moniz will be implementing,” Mr. Doniger said.
“The two agencies can work together,” he said. “We think these two appointees both very seriously get climate change.”
In addition to the E.P.A., the Energy Department has a strong role in the government’s climate change efforts, said Dan W. Reicher, who served in two assistant secretary positions at the department while Mr. Moniz was an under secretary during the Clinton administration.
Some actions would be fairly direct, like setting additional efficiency standards for appliances. The department also still has $17.5 billion in loan guarantee authority for new nuclear projects, Mr. Reicher pointed out, and has primary responsibility for handling civilian nuclear wastes — a problem that is vital to the future of the civilian nuclear power industry.
The Energy Department’s failure to begin accepting waste by the contractual deadline, which was in 1998, costs billions of dollars in penalties to taxpayers. And, he said, the department would most likely play a role in another of Mr. Obama’s priorities: reducing nuclear weapons.
US proposes 'toughest sanctions yet' against North Korea
UN security council urged to pass resolution drafted by US and China that would target bank accounts of senior regime figures
Ed Pilkington in New York
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 5 March 2013 18.38 GMT
The UN security council is considering imposing some of the toughest sanctions yet conceived against North Korea as senior diplomats from the 15 council member nations began discussions on a draft resolution framed by the US and China that would seek to deflect Pyongyang from its belligerent nuclear path.
Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, said the draft sanctions resolution that she circulated to the security council was exceptional in its "breadth and scope". It would hit senior figures within the North Korean regime where it hurts them most – their pockets – by targeting for the first time illicit banking activities and movements of capital, she said.
In a statement delivered to the security council, Rice said the sanctions would target the "illicit activities of North Korean diplomatic personnel, North Korean banking relationships, illicit transfers of bulk cash and new travel restrictions". She said the sanctions would "significantly impede North Korea's ability to develop further its illicit nuclear and ballistic missile programs … and demonstrate clearly to North Korea the continued costs of its provocations."
Should the resolution be agreed, it would impose the fourth round of sanctions on the North Korean regime. It will now go before diplomatic and technical experts from the relevant security council member countries for detailed fine tuning, before being rushed to a vote as early as the end of this week.
Rice said the proposals would ensure that "North Korea will be subject to some of the toughest sanctions imposed by the United Nations".
Western diplomats are relatively confident about the passage of the sanctions through the security council because of Beijing's willingness to support it. China is the traditional ally and major trading partner of North Korea's, but it joined the US and other western powers in expressing its alarm and displeasure after the regime carried out its third test of a nuclear device on 12 February.
The underground test was said by Pyongyang to be focused on the development of a "miniaturized" nuclear weapon that could be attached to missiles able to reach the US. Nuclear weapons experts, however, remain skeptical that North Korea has succeeded in achieving that capability.
The leadership of Kim Jong-un has responded with trademark bluster to the threats of tightened sanctions. Hours before the UN security council convened, the regime threatened to nullify the armistice that has held between North and South Korea since 1953. The three-year Korean war has never technically ended, only suspended, and the threat to stop the truce has been a much-deployed – though not as yet followed-through – intimidation.
On Tuesday, the supreme command of the Korean People's Army said it would carry out "surgical strikes" to reunify the peninsula, and made reference to a "precision nuclear striking tool".
The regime's anger has been piqued not just by the impending sanctions but by the latest US military exercises with South Korea. The drills happen every year, prompting an annual ritual of recriminations and counter-recriminations.
The new US secretary of state, John Kerry, delivered a direct message to Kim from Qatar. He emphasized that Washington's preference was "not to brandish threats to each other; it's to get to the table".
He said it was "very easy for Kim Jong-un to prove his good intent here. Just don't fire the next missile, don't have the next test. Just say you're ready to talk."
The hope within the security council is that by affecting the personal finances of senior members of the Kim regime, sanctions might dissuade them from pursuing the nuclear tests.
Originally published Tuesday, March 5, 2013 at 3:52 AM
NKorea vows to cancel '53 Korean War cease-fire
North Korea's military is vowing to cancel the 1953 cease-fire that ended the Korean War, straining already frayed ties between Washington and Pyongyang as the United Nations moves to impose punishing sanctions over the North's recent nuclear test.
By FOSTER KLUG
In this Friday, Feb. 15, 2013 photo, President Barack Obama pauses during his speech at Hyde Park Academy in Chicago.
SEOUL, South Korea —
North Korea's military is vowing to cancel the 1953 cease-fire that ended the Korean War, straining already frayed ties between Washington and Pyongyang as the United Nations moves to impose punishing sanctions over the North's recent nuclear test.
Without elaborating, the Korean People's Army Supreme Command boasted of having "lighter and smaller nukes" and warned late Tuesday of "surgical strikes" meant to unify the divided Korean Peninsula.
The statement cited ongoing U.S.-South Korean joint military drills that Pyongyang propaganda considers invasion preparation, and a U.S.-led push to secure a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for sanctions in response to North Korea's Feb. 12 nuclear test. A U.S.-China draft resolution is expected to be circulated at the U.N. this week.
Heated military rhetoric is common from North Korea when tensions rise on the Korean Peninsula and during U.S.-South Korean war drills, and Pyongyang has previously threatened to tear up the cease-fire. But this latest statement is unusually specific in its details and is seen as noteworthy by officials in Seoul because a senior North Korean military official issued the threats on state TV.
The North's statement threatens to block a communications line between North Korea and the United States at the border village separating the two Koreas, and to nullify the 60-year-old Korean War armistice agreement on March 11, when two weeks of U.S.-South Korean military drills will draw 10,000 South Korean and 3,500 U.S. forces. Another round of drills between the allies began earlier this month.
Pyongyang's recent nuclear test and rocket launches, and the subsequent call for U.N. punishment, have increased already high animosity between the North and Washington and Seoul.
The United States and others worry that North Korea's third nuclear test takes it a big step closer toward its goal of having nuclear-armed missiles that can reach America, and condemn its nuclear and missile efforts as threats to regional security and a drain on the resources that could go to North Korea's largely destitute people.
North Korea says its nuclear program is a response to U.S. hostility that dates to the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula still technically in a state of war.
Even amid the tension, however, North Korea has recently welcomed high-profile American visitors, including former basketball star Dennis Rodman, known for his piercings and tattoos as much as his Hall of Fame career with the Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls.
Rodman met the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, called him an "awesome guy" and said Kim wanted President Barack Obama to call him. The trip was criticized for giving the authoritarian leader a propaganda boost, but Rodman suggested "basketball diplomacy" could warm relations. Google's executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, made a four-day trip in January, but did not meet Kim.
North Korean propaganda regularly cites decades-old, Cold War-era American threats as the reason for its nuclear efforts and holds that the North remains at risk of an unprovoked nuclear attack. Washington and others say brinksmanship is the North's true motive for the nuclear push.
The North's statement called U.S.-South Korean military drills a "dangerous nuclear war targeted at us."
"We aim to launch surgical strikes at any time and any target without being bounded by the armistice accord and advance our long-cherished wish for national unification," the statement said.
The U.S.-China draft resolution at the U.N. would impose some of the strongest sanctions ever ordered by the United Nations, diplomats said. It reflects the U.N. Security Council's growing anger over the country's defiance of three previous rounds of sanctions aimed at halting all nuclear and missile tests.
The draft resolution would make it significantly harder for North Korea to move around the funds it needs to carry out its illicit programs.
It would also strengthen existing sanctions that bar North Korea from testing or using nuclear or ballistic missile technology and from importing or exporting material for these programs. It would strengthen the inspection of suspect cargo bound to and from the country.
Many analysts believe that the success of this new round of sanctions depends largely on how well China enforces them. Most of the companies and banks that North Korea is believed to work with are based in China.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said President Barack Obama and the American people want to see North Korean leader Kim Jung Un engage in peace talks.
Kerry also stressed that the United States will continue "to do what is necessary to defend our nation and the region together with our allies."
Associated Press writers Youkyung Lee, Hyung-jin Kim and Sam Kim in Seoul and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.
South Korea vows to retaliate if provoked by North Korea
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, March 6, 2013 7:00 EST
South Korea warned Wednesday that it would retaliate against any provocation from North Korea, a day after the North threatened to tear up the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953.
“If North Korea carries out provocations that threaten the lives and safety of South Koreans, our military will carry out strong and resolute retaliations,” Army General Kim Yong-Hyun told reporters.
Kim’s briefing followed North Korea’s announcement on Tuesday that it would “completely declare invalid” the armistice agreement in response to moves to toughen UN sanctions on North Korea after its recent nuclear test.
The announcement, attributed to the spokesman of the North Korean army’s supreme command, also threatened an undefined “strike of justice” against a target of the North’s choosing.
Because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, the two Koreas remain technically at war, with the ceasefire agreement theoretically the only barrier to a resumption of full hostilities.
The North has threatened to rip up the agreement before, and it has not prevented repeated and often bloody land and sea border clashes.
But the latest threat comes at a time of particularly heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula, following the North’s successful launch of a long range rocket in December and its nuclear test last month.
Tuesday’s army statement included a pointed mention of North Korea possessing “lighter and smaller nukes” than before.
The UN Security Council is expected to adopt tougher sanctions against the North this week — a move likely to provoke a response from Pyongyang, which is also angry about a series of joint US-South Korean military drills.
In his briefing in Seoul on Wednesday, General Kim, who is director general of operations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said South Korean retaliation would not only target the “origin of provocation” but also the North’s commanding forces.
Last month, the South Korean military released video footage of a newly deployed cruise missile that they said was capable of carrying out high precision strikes on command centres anywhere in North Korea.
An annual US-South Korea exercise known as Foal Eagle began on March 1 and will run until April 30, involving more than 10,000 US troops along with a far greater number of South Korean personnel.
And a largely computer-simulated joint exercise called Key Resolve will be held from March 11-21.
The North Korean army statement denounced the dills as the “most dangerous nuclear war manoeuvres… and the most undisguised military provocation”.
“This land is neither the Balkans nor Iraq and Libya,” the statement said, warning of the North’s ability to launch “diversified precision nuclear strikes” in response.
South Korea’s defence ministry says North Korea is expected to launch its own large-scale military exercise next week, involving the three main branches of its armed forces.
The tension will be further ramped up if the UN Security Council goes ahead as expected this week and places North Korea under one of the toughest sanctions regimes ever ordered as a punishment for its nuclear test.
The sanctions, hammered out between the United States and the North’s only major ally China, are believed to target the illicit activities of North Korean diplomats, banking relationships and bulk crash transfers.
They would also make searches of suspect ships compulsory and order UN members to refuse access to planes suspected of carrying banned material to or from North Korea.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
March 6, 2013
Malaysians Kill 13 Filipino Fighters Amid Fears of Wider Conflict
By FLOYD WHALEY
MANILA – An air and ground assault by Malaysian forces killed at least 13 of the nearly 200 militants seeking to reclaim part of Borneo Island for a Filipino sultan, Malaysian police officials said on Wednesday afternoon.
Sporadic fighting continued on Wednesday in remote coastal areas of the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah as the police and soldiers scoured rugged territory, searching house to house to find Filipino rebels who escaped the large-scale assault on Tuesday. At least 40 people have died so far in the fighting.
The Malaysian state news agency, Bernama, said the police warned on Wednesday that some of the rebels were “impersonating as members of the public.”
“The mopping and searching will cover a wider area given there are signs the intruders moved to another location,” Chief Ismail Omar of the Malaysian National Police told reporters on Wednesday, without providing further details.
The situation began about a month ago when an estimated 200 people from the southern Philippines landed in a remote area of Sabah State to re-establish a historic claim over the area by the Sultanate of Sulu, which ruled the area for centuries.
Nur Misuari, the leader of the southern Philippine militant group Moro National Liberation Front, said after Tuesday’s assault that some of the battle-hardened fighters from his group were taking part in the fighting in Malaysia.
In a sign of potential widening of the conflict, the rebel leader said that more of his fighters were planning to go to Borneo on their own to reinforce the Filipino combatants there, even though he did not support the incursion into Sabah.
To halt further incursions, Malaysian and Filipino naval ships have set up a blockade between the southern Philippines and Sabah, a distance that can be traversed by speedboat in about an hour.
One regional security analyst said that Tuesday’s air strikes were designed to send a message of Malaysia’s military strength to the rebels, partly in retaliation for the killing of security forces. But the failure of the strikes to eliminate the group could have broader consequences.
“It looks like the situation in Sabah is going to remain unstable for a while yet because the Sultan’s followers have managed to disperse into a wider area,” said Bryony Lau, a senior analyst with International Crisis Group in Jakarta.
“If there are more deaths of Filipinos at the hands of the Malaysian security forces, there’s no question that will further inflame anti-Malaysian sentiment in the southern Philippines, with potential security consequences for Sabah,” she said.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III have tried repeatedly to convince the group from the southern Philippines to return before violence broke out. Both leaders are facing elections and the fighting is being used by opposition candidates to criticize government efforts.
Mr. Aquino is not up for re-election but members of his political party in both houses of the legislature are running for office. Victories by his political allies in the Senate and House of Representatives are crucial for the president to successfully pursue his political agenda.
Jamalul Kiram III, the Manila-based leader of the fighters in Sabah, and one of the claimants of the title of Sultan of Sulu, enjoys political support on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, which is a politically important, vote-rich area.
The self-proclaimed sultan also enjoys support from Filipinos in other parts of the Philippines who believe the country has a legitimate claim to Sabah. Members of Mr. Aquino’s cabinet are treading carefully in their dealings with the sultanate. Taking a strong position against the sultan could cost votes in the May national elections.
Malaysian authorities, on the other hand, are incensed by the incursion into Sabah and have labeled the Filipino fighters as “terrorists.” Mr. Aquino’s government has rejected the term but noted that if the bodies of Malaysian soldiers were desecrated, as reported by authorities, those were “terroristic” acts.
March 6, 2013
Assailed on Rights, Vietnam Allows Amnesty International Visit
By GERRY MULLANY
HONG KONG — The Vietnamese government has opened a dialogue with Amnesty International, allowing the human rights group to meet with key dissidents and government officials in the first such contacts since the end of the Vietnam War, Amnesty said on Wednesday.
The dialogue comes as Vietnam begins drafting a constitution that seeks to address such concerns as civil liberties and religious tolerance, areas where Vietnamese leaders have come under pointed criticism from human rights groups and western governments.
Frank Jannuzi, an Amnesty official, said that during a six-day trip that ended Saturday, he met with two leading dissidents, Pham Hong Son and Nguyen Van Dai, as well as representatives of the main evangelical churches and Cardinal Pham Minh Man, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City. The government “gave me wide latitude” with the visits, he said.
Amnesty International has been sharply critical of the Vietnamese government in the past, most recently criticizing the sentencing of 13 Catholic activists to up to 13 years in prison, calling it “part of an escalating government crackdown on freedom of expression.”
Mr. Jannuzi acknowledged the government had a long way to go in addressing such concerns, but said that the efforts to write a constitution suggested a willingness to confront human rights issues.
“I saw a country engaged in a discussion about a new constitution,” he said. “One of the principal topics they’re talking about is human rights,” he added, noting that the government is encouraging public comment as it develops the constitution.
The constitution is being rewritten as the nation tries to adapt to the rapid economic changes brought on by its move from a centralized, Soviet-style economic system to a free market-based one, a shift that has brought economic prosperity that hasn’t filtered more widely through society. Vietnam’s last constitution, in 1992, was instituted just as those economic reforms were beginning.
Since that time, the United States government and others have assailed Vietnam’s human rights record. The European Parliament in 2009 cited “the growing climate of intolerance in Vietnam towards human rights defenders and members of officially unrecognized religious communities” and called for the release of “political prisoners.”
And while Vietnam recognizes religions such as Roman Catholicism and Buddhism and lets their adherents practice their faith, the government exerts control over their clergies and even sanctions appointments.
Mr. Jannuzi, who reached out to the Vietnamese government to open the dialogue, said that the government officials he met “engaged with me with candor about sensitive topics,” particularly human rights concerns.
“All indications are that there will be follow up rounds of dialogues,” he said, characterizing last week’s trip an “icebreaking visit.”