Hamas promises amnesty to Palestinian collaborators spying for Israel
Islamist group says any informers who hand themselves in to authorities by 11 April will not be interrogated or imprisoned
Phoebe Greenwood in Tel Aviv and Hazem Balousha in Gaza City
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 13 March 2013 18.14 GMT
Hamas has launched a campaign to convince Palestinians who collaborate with Israel to turn themselves in, offering promises of impunity and financial rewards.
The Islamist group claims to have obtained a list of Palestinian informers in Gaza, which it has run since 2007. The territory's interior ministry held a press conference in Gaza City to announce that anyone on this list of collaborators who hands themselves in to the authorities by 11 April will not be interrogated or imprisoned. It also offered a monthly salary to the informer's families.
Muhammed Lafi, an official with the internal security service, told reporters: "This campaign against collaborators isn't purely a security campaign, as it also has a social element. We do not discriminate between them according to their political affiliation, and we will provide them with information to make sure they can make right their mistakes and thus protect resistance fighters."
While this is not the first time Hamas has offered amnesty in return for information from Israeli informers, this is its largest-scale campaign to date.
Shawan Jabarin, executive director of the Palestinian rights group Al-Haq, has condemned Hamas's previous denial of a right to fair trial to suspected informers, but like many observers believes the offer of amnesty is genuine. "I'm sure they are serious," he said. "If they weren't, they would destroy popular trust."
The exact number is impossible to determine, but rights groups estimate there are hundreds of Palestinians who have been coerced or have volunteered to spy for Israel from Gaza. Hamas has issued more than 30 death sentences to suspected spies since it took over the Gaza Strip in 2007.
A 31 year-old man who handed himself over to Hamas in 2010 and revealed himself only by his initials, MS, spoke to the Guardian from Gaza's Ansar prison. He is serving a five-year sentence for spying having confessed to providing Israel with information about Palestinian factions and local political figures. His family refused to provide him with a lawyer and his wife is pressing for a divorce.
He explained the process of his recruitment. He met a man he thought was British while studying in Algeria in the late 1990s. It was only years later, after the two had established a firm friendship, that the friend revealed himself to be an Israeli intelligence officer.
"He said he would help me achieve my goal to work with a UN agency. I agreed to keep working with him until my daughter was born. What I was doing made me sick. I couldn't sleep, I was taking drugs to make me sleep," he said. "The first night I was able to sleep was when I handed myself over."
Publicly, Israel refuses to confirm it uses Palestinian collaborators, but Israeli security analysts say despite their sophisticated surveillance technology, the security forces still rely heavily on human intelligence provided by informers such as MS inside Gaza.
Hillel Frisch, an expert on Palestinian politics at Bar Ilan University, points to the Israeli Air Force's 1,300 surgical strikes on targets during the November conflict, all of which required precise local information.
Hamas has claimed the pinpointed execution of Ahmed al-Jabari, commander of Izz ad-Din al-Qassam by the Israeli Air Force as he drove through a densely populated section of Gaza City was based on information delivered by an informer. Jabari's assassination on 14 November triggered the eight-day conflict in which more than 180 Palestinians and seven Israelis were killed.
"[Hamas] offers amnesty deals to informers periodically but they never seem to resolve the problem," Frisch said. "An Israel intelligence officer once told me that Israeli benefits a great deal from information it gets for free. A large part of the population in Gaza resents Hamas for the situation they are in now and this is something they won't overcome."
While Hamas's recent offer of amnesty may be genuine, MS suggests the local community may not forgive as easily. He has two years left to serve of his sentence but plans to appeal for asylum in the US when he is freed. "Nobody accepts me here, I don't know where to go the day I am free – my brothers and sisters are not interested [in] having me among them. I am a traitor," he said.
Tunisia government wins assembly backing
Confidence vote comes as street vendor sets himself ablaze in protest against rising unemployment
Associated Press in Tunis
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 13 March 2013 17.12 GMT
Tunisian legislators have approved a new government the Islamist-led ruling party hopes will quell tensions over the killing of an opposition leader and a resurgence in religious extremism.
The confidence vote was overshadowed by the death of a young street vendor who set himself on fire in apparent desperation over his failure to find permanent employment, an act that highlights the country's failure to fix the economic disparities that led to the ousting of longtime dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali two years ago.
The new prime minister, Ali Larayedh, who pledged to reduce violence and revive the economy, expressed his sadness over the death. "I hope we all understood his message," he said.
Tunisia has struggled to stabilise since 2011, when the authoritarian president was overthrown in an uprising that prompted revolts across the Arab world.
The Tunisian rebellion began with protests in support of a street vendor who had set himself on fire in a protest against corruption, repression and unemployment.
The Islamist party Ennahda dominated the country's first free elections but has come under criticism for not cracking down on violence by religious extremists and for failing to bolster the economy.
Larayedh's predecessor resigned after last month's killing of a critic of Ennahda, which triggered riots around the country and plunged it into political crisis. In a concession to the opposition, Larayedh named a new government that includes several respected non-partisan figures.
In Wednesday's vote in the constituent assembly 139 legislators voted in favour of the new government, 45 against and 13 abstained. Ennahda legislators have the most seats in the assembly.
Larayedh pledged to speed up work towards elections and a new constitution for Tunisia. The assembly president, Mustafa Ben Jaafar, proposed setting the elections for 27 October.
The new prime minister promised to improve security and "combat violence wherever it comes from and whatever colour it is".
Over quarter of South African schoolgirls HIV positive: minister
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, March 14, 2013 7:16 EDT
As many as 28 percent of South African schoolgirls are HIV positive, according to figures from the country’s health minister reported by local media on Thursday.
Unveiling statistics that minister Aaron Motsoaledi admitted “destroyed my soul,” he added that four percent of schoolboys have the virus.
“It is clear that it is not young boys who are sleeping with these girls. It is old men,” the Sowetan newspaper quoted Motsoaledi as saying.
“We can no longer live like that,” he said.
Motsoaledi called for an end to the trend of young girls becoming involved with “sugar daddies.”
Motsoaledi also revealed that 94,000 South African schoolgirls fell pregnant in 2011, some aged as young as 10.
South Africa has one of the world’s highest HIV/AIDS infection rates, although the number of cases resulting in death is in sharp decline.
Official figures show that South Africa has six million people living with HIV, in a population of 50 million.
The country has the largest anti-retroviral programme in the world, serving 1.7 million.
The health department recently introduced measures to curb the spread of HIV among school children, introducing voluntary testing and suggesting condom distribution at schools.
India to give small plots of land to homeless rural poor
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, March 14, 2013 7:37 EDT
India’s government is drawing up a major new welfare reform which would hand small plots of land to millions of homeless poor in the countryside, reports said on Thursday.
The proposed entitlement programme, which comes as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s administration is struggling to rein in the public spending deficit, is seen as a potential vote-winner in rural areas ahead of elections next year.
The draft National Right to Homestead Bill, which must be approved by cabinet and then passed by parliament, would provide for a minimum of 400 square metres (4,356 square feet) to be given to each homeless family, The Indian Express said.
An estimated eight million rural families are believed to be homeless and landless.
“The idea is to provide statutory backing… to the provision of homestead land for those without land and shelter,” Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh, who won a 46 percent increase in funding in the new budget, told the Mail Today newspaper.
“The government is committed to giving rights to the landless poor in the country.”
The left-leaning ruling Congress party is looking to rejuvenate itself ahead of elections due in the first half of 2014 after a second term in power marked by corruption scandals and a sharp slowdown in economic growth.
A separate $1.9 billion welfare programme guaranteeing food for the poor is set to be introduced soon in parliament, following previous laws guaranteeing education and the right to 100 days of paid work annually for impoverished labourers.
The Homestead Bill is set to be tabled in parliament in the monsoon session, which normally begins around August, the Mail Today said.
Ratings agencies and investors are watching India’s public finances closely amid fears that the country is over-stretched, with a public deficit expected to run at 5.2 percent of gross domestic product in this financial year.
Last October tens of thousands of poor Indians began a 350-kilometre (220-mile) march to New Delhi to protest the plight of marginalised rural communities excluded from the country’s economic development.
Under a deal reached in Agra to stop the protests the government pledged land reforms.
March 14, 2013
China’s New Leader Takes Full Power in Delicate Balancing Act
By CHRIS BUCKLEY
HONG KONG — China’s new Communist Party leader, Xi Jinping, completed his formal transition to power on Thursday, assuming the presidency during a parliamentary meeting which has sent signals that his government will try to be more responsive to an impatient public while defending the party’s top-down control.
The National People’s Congress anointed Mr. Xi as president four months after he was appointed as Communist Party general secretary and chairman of the Central Military Commission, giving him all three offices – party, army and state – through which he is likely to wield power for the next decade.
There was never any doubt that compliant delegates to the annual party-run parliament would overwhelmingly endorse Mr. Xi for president. They also voted in his ally Li Yuanchao as vice president. Among the 2,956 delegates who cast valid ballots in the grandiose Great Hall of the People, one contrary soul voted against Mr. Xi, while three abstained.
Now Mr. Xi faces rival expectations of how he will apply the power in his hands – expectations that he has kindled. Since succeeding Hu Jintao as party leader in November, he has used meetings, speeches and visits to a frenetic coastal city and a dirt-poor village to signal he wants some economic liberalization, more room for citizens to criticize the government, and a crackdown on the official corruption that has increasingly infuriated Chinese citizens.
Yet Mr. Xi has also rejected any turn to Western-inspired political liberalization and demanded utter loyalty from officials and the military.
“I think that he’s attracted to the idea of a kind of enlightened dictatorship, or neo-authoritarianism. He rejects fundamental political reform, but he wants a cleaner, more efficient government that is closer to the public,” said Li Weidong, a former magazine editor in Beijing who is a prominent commentator on politics.
“I think in the end it will be difficult for them to avoid issues of political reform, because otherwise it will be impossible to eradicate corruption,” Mr. Li said. “Relying on personal authority and party indoctrination and traditions won’t solve the problems they face.”
Meeting parliament delegates this week and last, Mr. Xi repeated vows to counter slowing economy growth by encouraging consumer spending and pulling down barriers to farmers migrating to towns and cities. He told People’s Liberation Army delegates that a strong, absolutely loyal military is essential to his “China dream” of patriotic revival.
He also has shown a lighter public touch than his predecessor Mr. Hu, a stiffly disciplined politician. After an uproar this week over thousands of pig carcasses floating down a river near Shanghai, state media highlighted Mr. Xi’s earlier comments on water pollution.
“The standard that Internet users apply for lake water quality is whether the mayor dares to jump in and swim,” Mr. Xi told officials from near pollution-plagued Lake Tai in eastern China, according to a state media report.
Mr. Xi, 59, is the son of a Communist Party official who served under Mao Zedong and became a supporter of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms to curtail party controls and nurture markets. Vice President Li is also the “princeling” son of a senior cadre.
Many party insiders thought that Mr. Li was destined for a place on the elite, seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, but he was left out of the lineup announced in November. However, Mr. Li’s new post will keep him close to Mr. Xi, and he could still climb into the Standing Committee at a party congress in 2017.
Before the parliament session ends on Sunday, it will also appoint Li Keqiang as prime minister on Friday, succeeding Wen Jiabao, and install new deputy prime ministers, ministers and other senior officials.
“They are all the sons of the party,” said Yao Jianfu, a retired party official and researcher in Beijing.
“For them, there’s no conflict between defending their own power and developing a capitalist economy in China,” he said, adding Mr. Xi “will have lean more to the left in politics than he can lean to right in economic policy, otherwise he won’t be able to stabilize his place on the emperor’s throne.”
Outwardly, at least, Mr. Xi has accumulated the levers of power more smoothly than his recent predecessors. Mr. Hu waited for almost two years between becoming party leader in late 2002 and taking the Central Military Commission chairmanship from Jiang Zemin, who remained a constraint on Mr. Hu. Mr. Jiang was long overshadowed by Deng Xiaoping, the aged patriarch who installed him and at one time threatened to remove him.
But analysts and former officials said Mr. Xi and his comrades face other, no less forbidding obstacles to their vows of change: the array of powerful political families, state-owned conglomerates and ordinary urban residents who fear that change could threaten their interests.
“The talk of reform is genuine. There is absolutely an understanding by the new leadership that they cannot carry on in the way that they have,” said Jennifer Richmond, who analyses China for Stratfor, a company based in Austin, Tex., that offers advice on political and security affairs.
“But so many of those that got rich off the old system are a part of the system, and the changes they make will affect them,” she said. “The ultimate fear is loss of party power, and that’s just unacceptable whether you’re a conservative or a reformer.”
The parliament offered signs of the obstacles that any ambitious change will face. A reorganization of government ministries and agencies approved by delegates turned out to be much less thorough than what political insiders and analysts said was proposed several months ago. The powers of the National Development and Reform Commission, which many pro-market economists see as a hurdle to real reform, remained untouched.”
“When they start to diminish the power of the NDRC, that’s when I think that this is genuine,” said Ms. Richmond.Shi Zhihong, a senior advisor to the Chinese leadership, this week told a Hong Kong newspaper, the Wen Wei Po, that Mr. Xi and his colleagues are working on a “blueprint” for economic and social policy changes that will be presented to a party meeting, probably late this year. But Mr. Xi has stressed that none of the changes he has in mind are intended to undermine the party’s hold on power.
In comments to officials that have not been openly published, Mr. Xi has warned against confusing his idea of reform with Western-inspired democratization.
“Some people define reform as reforming in the direction of Western universal values and a Western political system, otherwise it’s not reform,” Mr. Xi said in a copy of his comments that has circulated among officials. “This is stealthily switching one idea for another, and it distorts for what reform is for us.”
Aung San Suu Kyi faces protesters at copper mine
Burma opposition leader defends government recommendation that Chinese-backed project should continue
Kate Hodal in Bangkok
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 13 March 2013 17.22 GMT
The Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has faced scores of protesters at a Chinese-backed copper mine in north-western Burma – the site of a violent police crackdown against opponents last year – where she defended a government recommendation that the controversial $1bn project should continue.
Aung San Suu Kyi's visit to Monywa, 450 miles north of the commercial capital Rangoon, came just one day after a government-backed investigation commission – which she chaired – admitted that the project lacked environmental protection measures and would not provide jobs for locals, but should nonetheless continue in order to encourage foreign investment and maintain a positive relationship with China.
The commission's findings were met with immediate outrage by opponents and activists, who point to wide-scale land grabs to make way for the mine's expansion, and allege that the project creates myriad health and environmental problems and should be unilaterally stopped.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who was re-elected as party leader during the National League for Democracy's (NLD) first-ever party congress over the weekend, spoke to protesters at three different villages and also visited the offices of the mine's joint owners, the Chinese mining firm Wan Bao and the Burmese-military-backed Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings. Hundreds of protesters had gathered outside the offices, sources told the Guardian, but were held back by police barricades. A separate protest took place in Rangoon.
Speaking in Burmese, Aung San Suu Kyi warned protesters that stopping the mine could potentially "hurt Burma" as "the other country [China] might think that our country cannot be trusted on the economy".
She added: "We have to get along with the neighbouring country, whether we like it or not."
Aung San Suu Kyi's spokesman, Nyan Win, could not be reached for comment on Wednesday. But U Soe Win, who helped found the NLD, told the Guardian that the commission's report was a "very critical issue and situation for us" and added: "We can't comment on this issue. Please understand this. No one [from the NLD] will comment on this."
The Nobel laureate, once considered a messiah who could do no wrong, has come under fire in recent months not just from critics but members of her own party as well, many of whom balk at her pacifying approach towards, and so-called "fondness" for, the military, which still comprises one-quarter of the government. Her father, Aung San, was a general who fought for Burmese independence, but it was a five-decade-long junta that also kept Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for the best part of 20 years until a nominally civilian government took power in 2011.
Many activists hoped that Aung San Suu Kyi's chairing of the investigation commission might put an end to the mine's operations, where an 11-day occupation by protesters in November was broken up violently by police wielding smoke bombs laden with phosphorous – an agent generally used in war. The smoke bombs led to the hospitalisation of more than 100 people, among them 99 monks, for severe burns. While it was the largest crackdown of force since the president, Thein Sein, came to power in 2011, it underlined the very tangible faultlines of a country still transitioning from a violent past towards democracy.
The commission acknowledged that the government had made mistakes in dealing with the mine and made a list of recommendations – among them anti-riot training for police officers, compensation to farmers using current market prices for their seized land, and the return of nearly 2,000 acres for farming purposes. It also created a new commission composed of representatives from the government and the mine's joint owners to implement those recommendations.
But protests are expected to continue, with many activists upset by the commission's stress on maintaining good relations with China. "The commission should think about the welfare of their own people – poor local villagers – rather than good relations with China," the protest leader Thwe Thwe Win told Associated Press.
Adam Giles becomes first Aboriginal leader of a provincial government
PM Julia Gillard welcomes 'moment in history for indigenous Australians' as Giles is sworn in as head of Northern Territory
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 14 March 2013 09.55 GMT
Northern Territories new Chief Minister, Adam Giles
Adam Giles says he hopes children will be inspired by his example. Photograph: Reuters
Australia has its first Aboriginal leader of a provincial government, in a development welcomed by the prime minister as a historic moment for the nation's impoverished indigenous population.
Adam Giles was sworn in on Thursday as government head of the Northern Territory, one of two Australian mainland territories largely treated as equals to the six states.
The former civil servant became leader on Wednesday in an internal coup in the ruling conservative Country Liberal party while the former chief minister, Terry Mills, was in Japan on a business trip.
The Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, who leads a centre-left Labour government, told parliament that Giles' promotion deserved national recognition. "This is a moment in history for indigenous Australians and it's appropriate that we mark it in this chamber," she said.
Giles, 40, described himself as an example for parents to use to inspire their children. "Mums and dads can say: 'You can do it. You can do anything. Look at Giles. If he can do it, you can do it,'" he told reporters after he and his cabinet were sworn in.
Aborigines number 600,000 among Australia's 23 million population. They are the poorest ethnic group in Australia, suffer poor health and lag behind in education. They die years younger than other Australians on average and are more likely to be imprisoned.
Aborigines account for 30% of the Northern Territory's population, by far the highest proportion of any state or territory. Giles is a member of a parliament in which one in four lawmakers is indigenous.
In the federal parliament, there is just one Aborigine, Ken Wyatt, among 226 lawmakers, and he is among just three Aborigines ever to serve in that body. The major parties are embarrassed by the lack of indigenous legislators and have made some effort in recent years to recruit Aboriginal candidates.
Gillard, Australia's first female prime minister, has used her influence to ensure that the first Aboriginal woman will be elected to the federal parliament in elections on 14 September.
Gillard intervened in January to make Nova Peris, an Aborigine and Olympic gold medalist hockey player, her party's first choice for senator representing the Northern Territory. Being listed as Labour's first choice on the ballot paper places Peris in an unbeatable position
March 13, 2013
For Enclave of Rebel Artists, Much in Life Was Free, but Not Real Estate
By ELVIRE CAMUS
PARIS — Illegal squats in Paris usually have a short life. After one year, perhaps two, they are either shut down or transformed into legal art centers with the support of the city’s Socialist government. But not La Miroiterie, which has been a renowned artists’ squat for the past 14 years.
Its days appear to be numbered, however, as a development company is threatening to close it down. Somewhat nihilistically, its residents say that the one thing that could have saved it — having it be taken over by the city, like the other squats — would have killed it anyway.
In 1999, an artist who signs his work Michel Ktu was among the first to set up a studio at La Miroiterie, an abandoned mirror factory up the hill of Ménilmontant, a slowly gentrifying immigrant neighborhood in the 20th Arrondissement, in northeastern Paris.
“I was in vital need of a space to work,” he said in his former studio there. Now 46, a set painter for the theater, he identifies with the Parisian Communards of the 19th century and is comfortable with taking what he feels is the property of the people. In this case, empty premises.
Empty but owned. The real estate company SARL Thorel spent four years buying up the various parts of the complex from numerous owners and is now suing to take control of the building, though its plans for the place are not clear.
Over the years, many artists lived and worked in the “squart” (a contraction of the English words “squat” and “art”), and contributed to creating its identity. La Miroiterie provided free services to the neighborhood: a free clothing store was opened, classes were given to children in capoeira (a Brazilian discipline combining martial arts and dance), free meals were distributed, exhibitions were regularly organized and the rusty, graffiti-covered gate of the dilapidated complex was always open.
Over time, residents organized concerts and started to attract a different audience: Parisians looking for an underground scene. La Miroiterie is now well known for its entertainment — jazz, punk and rap shows, which are scheduled several days a week, for no more than 10 euros, about $13, or sometimes free, depending on the lineup. The Stooges have played there, along with many American jazz musicians, including David Murray and Oliver Lake.
“There is no other venue like this in Paris, for this kind of music,” said Mr. Ktu, who says thousands of bands have played at La Miroiterie over the years.
In its cultural importance, La Miroiterie has become emblematic of a Parisian squart and its fate has become an issue for the news media.
When they discovered in 2009 that Thorel was planning to evict them, the Miroitiers, as they call themselves, filed suit. But after four years and many court hearings, it looks as if the fate of La Miroiterie is sealed. The whole complex seems likely to be emptied of its last residents by the end of the month, since wintertime evictions are forbidden in France.
Parisians tried to support the Miroitiers: online petitions were issued and demonstrations were held in front of City Hall, demanding that the Miroitiers be able to “continue conducting their cultural, social and ‘humane’ activities without being threatened.” Television and radio stations have recently started documenting the Miroitiers’ activities, and a researcher for the National Center for Scientific Research is working to create La Miroiterie’s archives.
“Places like these should be protected,” said Erwan Le Scouarnec, an amateur hip-hop artist who often performs at La Miroiterie.
The City of Paris and the Miroitiers did discuss ways to preserve La Miroiterie, but nothing came of it. Since the city does not own the building, it cannot prevent the eviction of the artists. But officials offered to relocate them to several different spaces owned by the city. The effort failed partly because the Miroitiers were poorly organized, but also because they refused to compromise.
“The City Council has always respected and admired what was done at La Miroiterie, but we never supported them” financially “because they never wished for their project to be institutionalized,” said a spokesman for the council, who said he was not authorized to give his name.
Anne-Sophie Devos, a 37-year-old Miroitier who has been squatting in a small, misshaped yet cozy room at La Miroiterie for five years, said, “We’d rather be wild, hands free.” Mr. Ktu, who also opposes the city’s involvement, said, “They are willing to help us, but they want to have a hold on us.”
The two of them are considering opening “La Miroiterie No. 2” and already have a vacant building in mind.
Since his election in 2001, the city’s Socialist mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, has supported the arts in Paris. The city prevented several artist squats from disappearing by buying the buildings. One example is the 59, a six-story Haussmannian building located at 59, rue de Rivoli, a stone’s throw from the Louvre.
The 59 was taken by squatters in 1999 and the owner quickly threatened eviction. But because the place was gradually gaining a reputation as an important artistic center, the city decided to buy it in 2005, and the artists were able to stay.
But many things inevitably changed with legalization. Artists now have to pay a modest rent, utilities and insurance, they can no longer live or sell their work in the building and the city has a say in the choice of the artists.
Slimane Hamadache, an artist who has worked at the 59 since 2002, supported the arrangement. “What we lost was necessary,” he said. What matters, according to him, is that the space still exists and is a success — more than 60,000 people visit it each year. “We are still the same,” he said. “We didn’t change.”
Mr. Hamadache said it was a “youthful mistake” that the Miroitiers refused to come to a similar compromise, but Mr. Ktu does not agree. He is convinced that the City Council, despite itself, is promoting a certain kind of official culture. “They destroy everything, these fools,” he said. “They just don’t get it.”
Swan Moteurs, a Miroitier who organized the rap concerts, agrees that official involvement would have killed La Miroiterie. “If you plant a seed in it, it’s no longer an ecosystem,” he said.
For others, it is entirely appropriate that an artistic ecosystem be ephemeral. Benjamin Sanz, for one, who organized jazz jam sessions at La Miroiterie, said he was neither sad nor nostalgic about La Miroiterie shutting down. “It’s the law of the squatter,” he said.
New data ‘strongly indicates’ particle is Higgs boson
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, March 14, 2013 9:00 EDT
New data unveiled on Thursday strengthens the belief that a subatomic particle discovered last year is the elusive Higgs boson, European physicists said.
Analysis of two characteristics, teased from experiments at the world’s biggest particle smasher, aligns with theories that the discovery is a Higgs, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) said.
“The preliminary results with the full 2012 data set are magnificent and to me it is clear that we are dealing with a Higgs boson, though we still have a long way to go to know what kind of Higgs boson it is,” said Joe Incandela, spokesman for the CMS experiment at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC).
The data was presented at the Moriond Conference in La Thuile, Italy — a gathering where physicists have been poring over several aspects of their historic find.
In theory, a Higgs boson should have zero “spin,” a measure of momentum.
And “parity” — a measure of how its mirror image behaves in quantum physics — should be positive.
Having analysed mountains of data, scientists at the CMS and ATLAS experiments said they had scrutinised different options for the new particle.
“These all prefer no spin and positive parity,” CERN said a statement from Geneva.
“This, coupled with the measured interactions of the new particle with other particles, strongly indicates that it is a Higgs boson,” it said.
Further analysis is necessary, however, to confirm that this is the Higgs boson postulated in the Standard Model of particle physics, or whether it is some other type.
Finding the Higgs would fill a massive gap in the Standard Model, which describes the forces, particles and interactions that comprise the Universe.
In theory, the Higgs exists as an invisible field, interacting with other particles to provide them mass. Without it, humans and all other joined-up atoms in the Universe would not exist.
Last July, scientists said they confident they had found the particle but cautioned on the need for further analysis. Two-and-a-half times more data has by now been scrutinised, said CERN.
The LHC, straddling the border between Switzerland and France, shut down last month for a two-year revamp.
Europe and Russia ink deal on double mission to Mars
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, March 14, 2013 8:16 EDT
The European Space Agency (ESA) said it signed a deal on Thursday with its Russian counterpart to launch two unmanned missions to Mars, a quest that was rocked by a US pullout last year.
Called ExoMars, the scheme entails sending an orbital probe to the Red Planet in January 2016 to look for atmospheric traces of methane gas, a pointer to the existence of microbial life.
It will also send down a small stationary lander to test key technologies for the second mission — the launch of a six-wheeled rover in 2018.
A seven-instrument science lab on wheels, the rover will be the first able to drill to a depth of two metres (7.5 feet), where astrobiologists see a good chance of finding microbes that would be destroyed by harsh conditions at the surface.
“Establishing whether life ever existed on Mars is one of the outstanding scientific questions of our time and the highest scientific priority of the ExoMars Programme,” ESA said in a statement.
Under the deal, the Russian agency Roscosmos will provide heavy-lift Proton launchers for both missions as well as the descent module for the rover.
The descent module will include a surface platform, also provided by the Russians.
“Both partners will supply scientific instruments and will cooperate closely in the scientific exploitation of the missions,” ESA.
EXoMars was born in December 2005, and more than 400 million euros ($520 million) has been spent on it so far.
The project was badly hit in February 2012 when the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) pulled out, prompting Europe to turn to Russia for help.
ESA ministers endorsed the Russian deal at their meeting in Naples, Italy, last November, pending the signing of a formal contract with Roscosmos.
ExoMars marks a further step in space cooperation between Europe and Russia.
The medium-life veteran of space, the Russian Soyuz launcher, is deployed at ESA’s base in Kourou, French Guiana, to help extend Europe’s range of satellite launch services.
On Tuesday, NASA said its Martian rover Curiosity had detected hydrogen, carbon and oxygen — the building blocks of life, and evidence that the planet was once awash with water.
Astronomers: Early Universe bred ‘starburst’ mega-galaxies
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, March 13, 2013 16:24 EDT
In its exuberant childhood, the Universe created galaxies that were vast star-making machines, astronomers reported on Wednesday.
Using a brand-new telescope in Chile’s Atacama desert, the team snared light that took more than 12 thousand million years to reach them.
It came from massive galaxies in the distant cosmos which churned out a thousand stars per year, compared with just one per year for our own languid spiral galaxy, the Milky Way.
Astrophysicists have a passionate interest in how the Universe developed after the “Big Bang” some 13.7 billion years ago.
They have long known about so-called starburst galaxies, which convert vast reservoirs of cosmic gas and dust into stars at a frenzied rate.
Observations of 18 ancient galaxies now suggest this phenomenon occurred when the Universe was under two billion years old — a whole billion years earlier than thought.
“The more distant the galaxy, the further back in time one is looking, so by measuring their distances we can piece together a timeline of how vigorously the Universe was making new stars at different stages of its 13.7-billion-year history,” said Joaquin Vieira of the California Institute of Technology, or Caltech.
Galactic distance is measured by so-called redshift.
The Universe is expanding, which means that lightwaves become “stretched” as their source recedes.
Older — and thus more distant — starlight has a telltale signature of a deeper redness.
The astronomers used the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), a collaboration between Europe, North America, Japan and Taiwan, to get images of the star clusters and their redshift fingerprint.
The light, helpfully magnified by the gravitational force of galaxies in the foreground, enabled them to double the number of known starburst galaxies with a high redshift of more than four.
Two of the galaxies had a redshift of 5.7, meaning that the cosmos was experiencing a stellar baby boom only a billion years after the Big Bang.
The venerable pair are not only among the oldest galaxies ever found. Light from one of the two pointed to the presence of water, the most distant observation of this precious substance ever made.
The study is published in Nature and the Astrophysical Journal, coinciding with the official inauguration of ALMA, a complex that will ultimately comprise 66 giant antennae, sited at an altitude of 5,000 metres (16,250 feet) in Chile’s remote Chajnantor Plateau.
03/13/2013 05:06 PM
Reconstructing the Big Bang: A 'Baby Photo' of the Universe
By Olaf Stampf
Europe's "Planck" research satellite has measured the residual radiation from the big bang with greater precision than ever before. The goal of the mission is to solve the mystery of whether the universe truly arose out of nothing.
In the beginning there was energy. When the universe was born 13.7 billion years ago, the temperature was in the quintillions of degrees. But the more space expanded, the weaker the fire of creation became.
Soon afterwards, the young, expanding universe entered a critical phase: The red-hot primeval soup had cooled sufficiently so that some of its energy was converted into matter. Over time, galaxies, suns, planets and, finally, animals and human beings emerged from these myriads of original atoms.
The rest of the original radiation no longer played a particularly important role in the development of the cosmos, and has wafted through the vast expanses of the universe ever since -- a sort of echo of the distant boom of creation as it continues to cool. To this day, every cubic meter of space contains about 400 of the original protons. Without them, it would be colder in space than it already is -- by 3 degrees Celsius, or about 5 degrees Fahrenheit.
Astrophysicists stumbled upon the light from the dawn of time in the 1960s. With the help of their radio telescopes, they discovered background radiation in the microwave range, which was being received uniformly from all directions.
Now, half a century later, astronomers have measured this residual radiation from the big bang more precisely than ever before. To do so, they used the European Space Agency's "Planck" research satellite, which was launched into outer space with an Ariane rocket in 2009. Using the data gathered by Planck, scientists have compiled a temperature map of cosmic background radiation, which resembles a colorful pattern of dots.
"It's like a baby photo of the universe," says Torsten Ensslin of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, near Munich. "It's supposed to reveal to us how the big bang actually unfolded."
'Earliest Structures of the Universe'
The scientists at the institute have been performing their calculations since the space telescope completed its measurements a year ago, and cosmologists are now anxiously awaiting the analysis of the Planck satellite data. The European Space Agency (ESA) plans to unveil the results next week. But no matter what they look like, interpreting the image of the delivery room of the cosmos will probably keep astrophysicists busy for years to come.
What is so fascinating for astrophysicists seems somewhat unspectacular from a layperson's perspective. On the face of things, they are looking at almost immeasurably tiny temperature differences. That's because although background radiation comes from everywhere, it isn't always the same. In some places, the residual radiation from the big bang is a few millionths of a degree warmer, and in others a few millionths of a degree cooler.
These temperature fluctuations make up the difference between empty space and galaxies.
Cosmologists conjecture that some of the photons came from the regions in which matter was already more densely packed than elsewhere in the early days of the universe. Precisely these agglomerations were the seeds from which galaxies and stars eventually sprouted. "Thus, the earliest structures of the universe are frozen into the microwave background radiation," explains astrophysicist Ensslin, a member of the team evaluating the Planck satellite data.
The team is searching for conspicuous patterns in the temperature distribution, which will provide critical information on the details of how the universe was created -- such as how quickly the universe has expanded since then, how much normal matter it contains, as well as how much invisible dark matter, the composition of which is still somewhat of a mystery. All previous measurements of background radiation, which were admittedly still quite inaccurate, seemed to confirm the standard model of the big bang, or inflation theory. According to that scenario, the universe was literally created out of nothing.
The idea is that all being began in the realm of the microcosm. According to the wondrous laws of quantum physics, even a vacuum isn't entirely empty. Ghostlike particles are constantly forming and then disappearing again. Nuclear physicist Hans Christian von Baeyer used poetic words to describe the dynamic vacuum: "It's like a still lake on a summer's night, a lake whose surface ripples gently while pairs of electrons and positrons everywhere light up like lightning bugs."
But something far more dramatic can take place in the microcosm. It isn't just that particles appear out of nowhere. It's also possible for the vacuum to jump into a higher energy state, just like that. This vacuum energy then acts like anti-gravity, explosively pushing space apart, which is precisely what led to the big bang.
According to inflation theory, within a fraction of a second an area of space smaller than an atom grew to the size of the universe we can comprehend today. At the end of this inflationary expansion phase, the gigantic amount of energy stored in the vacuum transformed itself into radiation and matter. The first stars were born 200 million years later.
Very few cosmologists expect the measurements from the Planck satellite to contradict inflation theory. It would be a huge surprise if they did. But the satellite data could force physicists to come up with more cumbersome equations.
"Of course, a theory can eventually become so complicated," says Ensslin, "that we really don't want to believe in it anymore."
According to the standard model, mysterious particles known as inflatons were responsible for the expansion at the beginning of the universe. They must have left behind a characteristic pattern in background radiation, which would be visible in the Planck satellite measurements. It could also turn out that different types of inflatons had to exist. But it's still completely unclear how several types of these exotic particles could have been created.
Those who are skeptical about the inflation model hope that the Planck data will even furnish clues to a completely different story of the creation of the universe. For them, creation out of nothing seems too much like a mathematical magic trick.
"The idea that everything began with the big bang is no longer entirely convincing," says Jean-Luc Lehners, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Potsdam, just outside Berlin. "There are many indications that there was a before."
Looking for El Dorado
A possible alternative to the standard big-bang theory is the model of a "cyclical universe," whereby the cosmos is constantly being reborn and then vanishing again, in a potentially endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth.
Each time the universe came to an end, after many trillions of years, when the last stars had been extinguished and matter had dissolved, there would be another dramatic event, a new beginning. According to this theory, the universe, which had been continually expanding until then, would suddenly contract. The contraction would lead to the accumulation of an enormous amount of energy, creating tension that would subsequently be released in an original explosion, expanding space once again.
As in the inflation model, the new universe therefore begins with a massive release of energy, from which the stars later condense. "But what happens in a fraction of a second, according to inflation theory," says cosmologist Lehners, "takes a billion years in the cyclical universe."
The contraction and renewed expansion of a cyclical universe would also generate telltale background radiation, albeit with a different pattern than with an inflationary universe. "This is why the details are so important now," says Lehners. "We will have to take a close look at the Planck measurements."
In addition to these two theories, there are other ideas on how the universe may have been born. According to an especially bizarre scenario, two parallel universes once collided with one another, triggering the big bang and the birth of a new universe.
As absurd as it may sound, this too would have led to the creation of background radiation, and actual observations reinforce the theory.
"In studying the big bang, we are in a situation similar to that which occurred when America was discovered," concludes astrophysicist Ensslin. "We know the route to the new continent, and with Planck we can travel along the coastline, but we probably won't be finding the exact location of El Dorado just yet."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Closest Earth-like planet may be half as far as previously thought
By David Ferguson
Wednesday, March 13, 2013 9:58 EDT
The closest rocky, Earth-like world could be as close as 6.5 to 7 light years away, according to new research. New Scientist magazine reported Tuesday that Penn State University astronomer Ravi Kopparapu’s estimates put these types of potentially life-sustaining worlds half as distant from Earth as previously believed.
In February, Courtney Dressing and David Charbonneau of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts announced their findings that the nearest Earth-like planet is probably orbiting a small red dwarf star at a distance of 13 or so light years from Earth. “Earth-like” means a small, rocky planet, rather than a gas giant like Saturn or Jupiter.
Using data gathered by NASA’s Kepler telescope, Dressing and Charbonneau analyzed fluctuations in the light reaching Earth from nearby red stars. Planets passing between the stars and Earth cause the light from that star to waver.
Small planets create smaller disturbances in the light and are therefore harder to find, but the scientists were able to count 95 dim, red dwarf stars nearby which host possible planets, including three Earth-sized worlds located within the “habitable zone,” meaning at enough distance from their respective suns to allow for the existence of liquid water.
The two scientists then estimated how many red dwarf stars could have a planet half as large as Earth to one and a half times the size of Earth orbiting within their habitable zones, arriving at approximately 15 percent. Looking at the distribution of red stars through the Milky Way, they calculated that the nearest Earth-like planet to be about 13 light years away.
Light years are the distance that light travels in one year. Light travels at 186,000 miles per second and a year contains 31,536,000 seconds, making a light year about 6 trillion miles.
Penn State astronomer Ravi Kopparapu looked at Dressing and Charbonneau’s calculations and realized that the scientists were operating on slightly outdated information.
“I noticed that they were using old definitions of habitable zones, and so they did not count all the planets that should be in the habitable zone,” said Kopparapu. The boundaries of a habitable zone are determined by the temperature of a star and how well a planet’s atmosphere absorbs light and transfers it to the surface.
These parameters, Kopparapu noted, had not been updated since 1993, meaning that valuable knowledge scientists have gained since then about how sunlight reacts with Earth’s atmosphere was not included, as well as greater knowledge about the variation in the temperatures of different stars. Kopparapu and the scientist who composed the original 1993 guidelines updated the formulas for determining habitable zones and found that habitable planets could be much closer than Dressing and Charbonneau thought.
Half of the red dwarf stars in the Milky Way could have Earth-like planets in their orbits, said Kopparapu, and the average distance to one is more likely to be 6.5 to 7 light years. This could potentially place rocky, water-bearing worlds close enough to currently be receiving TV and radio signals broadcast on Earth in 2006.
“This is a good sign,” Kopparapu said, “for detecting extraterrestrial life.”
In the USA...
March 13, 2013
Obama Rallies Supporters and Donors to Keep His Campaign Agenda Alive
By NICHOLAS CONFESSORE and MICHAEL D. SHEAR
WASHINGTON — President Obama joined former campaign staff members and some of his most ardent supporters on Wednesday night, headlining a two-day meeting of an independent group, Organizing for Action, that is intended to bolster his agenda in Congress.
The new group hopes to cut through Washington’s legislative logjams by harnessing the millions of volunteers and donors who helped elect Mr. Obama to a second term last fall, turning their enthusiasm and money to grass-roots lobbying on issues like immigration, climate change and the expansion of Medicaid.
“I want to make sure the voices of people who couldn’t be here are heard,” Mr. Obama told about 75 supporters at a dinner at the St. Regis Hotel near the White House.
The president, who spoke for about 15 minutes, said Organizing for Action was designed to help people who supported his election stay involved. He acknowledged that the White House had not done a particularly good job in keeping his 20 million supporters and 4 million donors engaged during his first term.
Mr. Obama blamed himself for spending too much time playing “an inside game” in Washington that allowed the energy of his victory in 2008 to fade away. At the end of his remarks, Mr. Obama compared being in politics to having a child in college: you keep writing the checks, he told the group, but they never graduate.
“I’ve graduated,” he said, before noting that Organizing for Action should give his supporters a new way to stay involved.
The group has already weighed in on background checks for new gun owners, an issue that is likely to be the first test of its power to shift the debate in Washington. At one panel, Jim Messina, Mr. Obama’s campaign manager in 2012 and a founder of the group, said that over a million people participated in a national “day of action” in February aimed at pressuring Congress to take action to reduce gun violence.
But Mr. Obama’s appearance at the meeting on Wednesday underscored the storm of criticism from Republicans and government watchdogs after revelations that large donors to the group — formed out of the remnants of Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign — would get special access to the president.
That news caused some Republicans to doubt the sincerity of the president’s new effort to reach out to his adversaries in crafting a bipartisan budget deal. Mr. Obama met with House Republicans at the Capitol on Wednesday before attending the meeting. Several of them complained to the president that he seemed to be in a permanent campaign mode.
Officially, Mr. Obama was merely meeting on Wednesday night with an independent nonprofit group that supports his priorities, much as he would with any other outside group that stood with him on political issues.
Yet the two-day meeting is built around alumni of Mr. Obama’s White House staff and his campaign volunteers and donors, according to a schedule of events. A panel on messaging featured Stephanie Cutter, a former White House adviser who served on Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign. Lisa P. Jackson, who recently left her post as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, will be on a panel on climate change that is scheduled for Thursday.
One invitation to the event, circulated to potential donors in February before Mr. Obama’s appearance had been confirmed, requested a $50,000 donation that the group sought as seed money to begin operations.
Other donors have been asked to raise or contribute $500,000, a sum that would entitle them to join the group’s finance board and attend quarterly meetings with Mr. Obama. That arrangement has led to criticism from Republicans and watchdog groups that Mr. Obama’s former aides are selling access to the president.
“Organizing for Action is a mistake by President Obama that he should correct,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, which seeks tighter regulation of political money. “Organizing for Action is an unprecedented entity that creates new opportunities for big donors and bundlers of large amounts to obtain corrupting influence over executive branch policies and decisions.”
Mr. Obama’s advisers have disputed those criticisms and sought to defuse them, pledging that the group would voluntarily disclose the names of all donors who give more than $250 and reject corporate and lobbyists’ contributions. (Similar groups with close ties to the Republican leadership in Congress, like Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies and the American Action Network, do not disclose their donations.)
The meeting’s first event on Wednesday morning was a small session that was open to reporters and attended by former Obama staff members and grass-roots volunteers but only by a sprinkling of donors.
“The notion that there’s millions of Americans that want to be part of these debates, that they’ve been closed off from it for so long in Washington, that in my mind is reason enough to march forward,” Mr. Messina said.
March 13, 2013
U.S. Budget Deal in Doubt; Obama’s Trip to Hill Reveals Split
By JEREMY W. PETERS and ASHLEY PARKER
WASHINGTON — President Obama’s meeting with a restive and resistant House Republican majority on Wednesday underscored their deep divisions over fiscal policy as both sides acknowledged that an overarching budget compromise was in doubt despite a new push by the White House.
One day after Republicans rolled out a detailed proposal aimed at eliminating the federal deficit through steep cuts and repealing many of the president’s accomplishments, Mr. Obama told them pointedly in a rare visit that their highest fiscal priority was not his.
“Our biggest problems in the next 10 years are not deficits,” the president said, according to accounts from the meeting, bluntly rejecting an idea that has become Republican fiscal dogma.
That left many Republicans, who are resisting the president’s calls to close tax loopholes that benefit the wealthy, wondering where they could find room for compromise.
“Well, he doesn’t want to balance the budget in 10 years, and he wants tax increases, and he wants new spending,” Representative Darrell Issa of California said as he left the meeting early. “But other than that, we’re close.”
The hourlong discussion at the Capitol, and the release of a new budget by Senate Democrats on Wednesday that adds $100 billion in new stimulus spending and would impose higher taxes on large corporations and wealthy Americans, illustrated anew just how difficult it will be to resolve the issues that have split the Congress for years and created a perpetual cycle of deadline-driven short-term fiscal policy. Given the gap in the budget approaches, the president conceded as much in an interview with ABC News that ran on Wednesday before he went to the Capitol for the second consecutive day.
“Ultimately, it may be that the differences are just too wide,” said Mr. Obama, who will meet Thursday with Senate Republicans and House Democrats. “It may be that ideologically, if their position is, ‘We can’t do any revenue,’ or, ‘We can only do revenue if we gut Medicare or gut Social Security or gut Medicaid,’ if that’s the position, then we’re probably not going to be able to get a deal.”
While the White House and Republicans characterized Wednesday’s discussion as a cordial first step in what they hope will be a continuing dialogue, those who attended were frank about the prospects for compromise.
“The president seemed to say, ‘If we’re going to do the areas we agree on, you have to also do some of mine,’ ” said Representative James Lankford of Oklahoma, bristling at Mr. Obama’s suggestion. “If we can find the areas we agree on, why can’t we just do those?”
The problem in coming together on areas of agreement is that there are so few. Republicans and Democrats cannot agree on the fundamental, underlying problem with the country’s fiscal governance. Congressional Democrats and Mr. Obama, noting that the government has long operated with deep deficits, do not see a need for a balanced budget as long as spending is kept in check.
Senator Patty Murray, the Washington Democrat and Senate Budget Committee chairwoman who outlined her budget on Wednesday, summed up her party’s objections to Republican austerity measures, which Democrats have said rob the country of needed investment.
“Deficit reduction at the expense of economic growth is doomed to failure,” she said.
Under their budget, Senate Democrats would have the government running a deficit of nearly $600 billion in 10 years.
In another sign of just how different the parties’ priorities are, just before Mr. Obama arrived to meet with House Republicans, the Senate rejected a Republican effort to cut off financing for the president’s signature health care overhaul in a party-line vote.
Other issues surfaced in Wednesday’s talks that only further highlighted the partisan gulf.
Republicans vented their frustration that the president always seemed to be in campaign mode, questioning why he would speak to Organizing for Action, a nonprofit that supports his priorities, on the same day he visited them.
They pushed him to approve the Keystone oil pipeline and to reopen the White House for tours. Representative Candice S. Miller of Michigan told him that if he wanted to save on expenses, he should cancel the White House picnics and Christmas parties held for members of Congress instead.
When an aide passed a note to the president saying that a new pope had been selected, someone interjected with a friendly barb: “Does that mean White House tours are back on?” Mr. Obama deadpanned: “No. Vatican tours are.”
Underlying the conversations was a deep mistrust among rank-and-file House Republicans, who feel the White House has vilified and ignored them for the more than two years they have been in power. On the budget, Republicans expressed the belief that they thought the president was purposely withholding the release of his budget (it is now more than five weeks late) so he could first beat up on Republicans for theirs.
“Almost every question had some grounding in the question of trust,” said Representative Cory Gardner of Colorado. “You’re meeting with O.F.A. tonight, after you come and play nice with us, what’s happening? And so there were a lot questions about what’s happening and how it can work in that atmosphere.”
Mr. Lankford asked the president why on election night he had called the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Representative Steve Israel of New York, to congratulate him on their victories before he had called Speaker John A. Boehner. The president corrected Mr. Lankford, noting that he had called Mr. Boehner first but that the speaker was asleep.
Mr. Boehner laughed and confirmed that indeed he was sleeping when the call came.
Members of both parties have expressed skepticism that the president’s overtures to Congress will yield much. But whether or not they only make for good political theater, the visits do insulate the Obama administration from a criticism they have heard frequently for the last four years: they make little effort to court Congress.
“Obviously we didn’t solve the nation’s problems in one meeting,” said Representative Bill Huizenga of Michigan.
Some said that while they appreciated the president’s visit, he would have to do far more than simply visit Capitol Hill a few times in one week to smooth over more than four years’ worth of tension.
“He has not put in the time, and his aides have said it doesn’t matter,” said Representative Pat Tiberi, Republican of Ohio. “One trip is great. But one trip doesn’t change his presidency in terms of the relationships that he’s not built on either side of the aisle.”
Michael D. Shear contributed reporting.
March 13, 2013
Veterans Testify on Rapes and Scant Hope of Justice
By JENNIFER STEINHAUER
WASHINGTON — Choking back tears and in voices edged with rage, two women and a man who served in the American military told a Senate panel on Wednesday how they were raped by superiors and then ridiculed or ignored by military officials from whom they sought help.
The three former service members, the first military sexual assault victims to testify before a Senate panel, described a pervasive culture of harassment and danger in which victims had little or no redress.
One spoke of a rape she endured during her first months of service, and another told of a sergeant who stripped naked and danced on a table during an official sexual harassment training session. After spending a year repeatedly harassed, Rebekah Havrilla, a former Army sergeant deployed to Afghanistan from 2006 to 2007, was raped by a superior a week before returning home.
“I chose not to do a report of any kind because I had no faith in my chain of command,” Ms. Havrilla said. When she sought help from an Army chaplain, she said, he told her “the rape was God’s will” and urged her to go to church.
The hearing, the first the Senate has held in nearly a decade on sexual assault in the military, reflects the increasing attention to the issue because of revelations about pervasive sexual harassment at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas and throughout the military.
The Pentagon estimates that roughly 19,000 service members are assaulted annually. A small fraction of the incidents are reported because most victims fear retaliation or ruined careers, and only about 10 percent of those cases go trial. One in three convicted military sex offenders remain in the service, something many policy makers want immediately corrected.
“The issue of sexual violence in the military is not new, and it has been allowed to go on in the shadows for far too long,” said Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, who convened the hearing as chairman of the Senate Armed Services personnel subcommittee.
Ms. Gillibrand delivered a blistering attack on the military for its handling of sexual assault cases: “Congress would be derelict in its duty of oversight if we just shrugged our shoulders at these 19,000 sons and daughters, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, and did nothing. We simply have to do better by them.”
The focus on the topic, which Ms. Gillibrand chose for the personnel subcommittee’s first hearing in the current Congress, also demonstrates the tenaciousness of the women on the Senate Armed Services Committee, now at a record seven, who have worked to bring sexual misconduct in the military to public attention.
For several hours the three service members told stories with remarkably similar details to the senators and scores of military and other observers at the hearing. The three said they either hid their assaults or were subjected to further humiliations, distrust or protracted stabs at justice when they reported them.
“I no longer have any hope that the military chain of command will consistently prosecute, convict, sentence and carry out the sentencing of sexual predators in uniform,” said BriGette McCoy, who was raped in 1988 when she was 18 years old and stationed in Germany.
The testimony of victims is “highly significant,” said Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, who from her seat on the Armed Services Committee in 2004 grilled Gen. George W. Casey Jr., then a top commander in Iraq, on the issue.
“One reason it has been so difficult to move forward against sexual assault in spite of commitments in the Senate is because we’ve not put a human face on this,” Ms. Collins said. “The victims make the violence very real and compel you to act.”
Many members of the committee said they would like to see all sex offenders in the military discharged from service and would like to replace the current system of adjudicating sexual assault by taking it outside a victim’s chain of command. The senators focused in particular on a recent decision by an Air Force general to reverse a guilty verdict in a sexual assault case with little explanation.
Military officials who testified appeared both chastened and defensive.
“The Air Force has zero tolerance for this offense,” said Lt. Gen. Richard Harding, the judge advocate general of the Air Force, who testified later in the day.
General Harding declined to address whether justice had been served in certain cases brought to his attention by Ms. Gillibrand. She then told the military officials that she was “extremely disturbed that each of you believes that the convening authority is what maintains discipline and order within your ranks.”
In the military, a “convening authority” is a commander in charge of the military justice system within his or her own ranks. As an example, the “convening authority” could be a commander of a victim’s base or unit.
“If that is your view I don’t know how you can say having 19,000 sexual assaults and rapes a year is discipline and order,” Ms. Gillibrand said. “I appreciate the work you are doing, I honestly do, but it’s not enough. And if you think you are achieving discipline and order with your current convening authority framework I am sorry to say you are wrong.”
One victim, Brian K. Lewis, a former petty officer in the Navy, said he wanted to bring attention to male victims of sexual assault, who he said were often overlooked. Mr. Lewis testified that he was raped in 2000 by a superior officer, and when his command learned of the crime, “I was misdiagnosed as having a personality disorder.”
March 13, 2013
U.S. Citizens Join Illegal Immigrants in Pressing Lawmakers for Change
By JULIA PRESTON
WASHINGTON — On her trip to Washington to push for an overhaul of immigration laws, Cindy Garcia on Wednesday went straight to the office of Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, to tell him about how the looming deportation of her husband had affected her family.
Ms. Garcia, 40, is an autoworker from Detroit and an American citizen. She said she and her husband, a Mexican who has been living in the United States illegally for decades, since he was 10, had spent more than $50,000 over eight years on lawyers’ fees trying to fix his immigration status, to no avail.
Speaking emotionally in the senator’s office during a brief protest, Ms. Garcia said her two children, also American citizens, live on edge, fearing they could be separated from their father at any time. She and other advocates chose to focus on Mr. Rubio because he has been a leader in talks among a bipartisan group of senators who are working to craft immigration legislation.
As the debate gathers steam here over how to fix the immigration system, Ms. Garcia is one of the new faces on the side of those favoring comprehensive legislation that would include a quick and direct path to citizenship for 11 million people living in the country illegally.
In 2007, when Congress last tried — and failed — to pass a similarly broad overhaul, much of the action by groups that supported that effort came during pitched battles over policy positions, fought largely behind closed doors. The populist momentum came from Americans who angrily opposed that proposal, which they said would give a break to immigrants they saw as lawbreakers.
This year, the forces favoring comprehensive legislation are showing new levels of confidence and organization, and, in a change from six years ago, illegal immigrants and their American citizen family members, like Ms. Garcia, are stepping forward to speak for themselves.
“My husband has earned a path to citizenship,” she said on Wednesday. “They need to stop living in the shadows, and they should have the right to vote so they can vote on issues that affect our families.”
Immigrant groups, having learned from the bruising they took in 2007, and in immigration fights since then in Alabama, Arizona, Georgia and other states, this time are staying clear of the policy weeds in Washington, instead working their way toward this city from the outside. Ms. Garcia arrived in Washington after participating in a bus tour organized by immigrant rights groups in Michigan. The bus convoy, conceived with the freedom riders of the civil rights era in mind, went through Wisconsin and ended in Ohio with a small rally at Andy’s Cafe, the tavern near Cincinnati that was once run by the father of Representative John A. Boehner, the speaker of the House.
Organizers for the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, the coalition that organized the tours, said similar bus rides, many of them carrying immigrants who were revealing their illegal status for the first time, had taken place since mid-February in 19 states, including California, Colorado, Florida and Texas.
In each state, bus riders visited the offices of federal lawmakers, focusing on possible swing voters in the House, delivering letters that pressed them for legislation that would provide an unobstructed path to citizenship, which would also help to unify families facing separation by deportation.
The advocates are calling on the senators who are writing legislation — including Mr. Rubio; Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, both Republicans; and Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York — to present a bill by next Thursday. The senators have said that they hope to unveil legislation by the end of the month.
Cristina McNeil, a Mexican-born American citizen from Boise, Idaho, who came this week to Washington, said she and other advocates had met in her home state with Representative Raúl R. Labrador, a Republican who has expressed skepticism about a direct path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, but who favors programs allowing immigrants to work legally.
Ms. McNeil, who owns her own business, said she had pressed Mr. Labrador with an economic argument on behalf of legal and illegal immigrants. “We have been stopped from being able to grow in so many different paths because of the reason so many don’t have residency or citizenship,” Ms. McNeil said
About 200 activists who participated in the bus tours showed up at a hearing Wednesday on Capitol Hill where family members, including many American citizens, described the toll of deportation on their families.
“We’ve spent the last five years building a lot of strength in the field,” said Ryan Bates, director of the Alliance for Immigrants Rights and Reform, a Michigan group. “We have political infrastructure now that is light-years beyond what we had during the last opportunity to pass reform,” he said.
In a sign of the shift in immigration politics, primarily because of the strong Latino vote for Democrats in the elections last November, the groups opposing any legalization for illegal immigrants have so far been more muted than they were in 2007. But they may be keeping their powder dry for the fight after legislation is formally introduced.
Some groups seeking comprehensive legislation are using political advertising to try to build support for lawmakers, particularly Republicans, who are taking large risks by backing a path to citizenship. A coalition of evangelical Christians groups announced it would run a one-minute ad for two weeks starting on Wednesday “at saturation levels” on 15 Christian radio stations in South Carolina.
While the ad does not mention Mr. Graham by name, it says, in the voice of the Rev. Jim Goodroe of the Spartanburg County Baptist Network, “Our South Carolina-elected officials need your prayers and to hear your voice.”
In the intense activity supporting reform this week, young immigrants who call themselves Dreamers — after legislation known as the Dream Act, which would give them a special path to citizenship — said they were starting a nationwide program of events where they would “come out” to declare their illegal immigration status with their parents and other family members.
“As an organizer, for years you keep hitting your head against the wall,” Joshua Hoyt, chief strategist of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said Wednesday. “Then you get to a tipping point, and all of a sudden the dam breaks open and things start happening very quickly.
“That,” Mr. Hoyt said, “is what is happening right now.”
In the name of Allah ?
Egypt Islamists say UN women’s rights declaration is threat to society
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, March 15, 2013 7:21 EDT
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has warned that a UN document demanding global standards to prevent violence against women is un-Islamic and would lead to the “complete degradation of society.”
Governments and NGOs from around the world are to wrap up two weeks of discussions in New York on ways to end violence against women and children with the aim of reaching a consensus by Friday.
But the Muslim Brotherhood, from which President Mohamed Morsi hails, said the document includes articles “that contradict established principles of Islam, undermine Islamic ethics” and, if ratified, “would lead to the complete disintegration of society.”
The movement argued against imposing universal standards to fight violence against women and called on women’s organisations “to commit to their religion and the morals of their communities… and not be deceived with misleading calls for decadent modernisation and the path of subversive immorality.”
The Brotherhood’s statement is its clearest yet on women and their role in society — an issue the group had tried to skirt around since being thrust into power following a popular uprising in 2011.
The Brotherhood warned that “decadence awaits our world” should the UN document be signed.
It said it opposed 10 key points of the text, including “full equality in marriage legislation” and “cancelling the need for a husband’s consent in matters like travel, work or use of contraception.”
It slammed “granting wives full rights to file legal complaints against husbands accusing them of rape or sexual harassment” as well as “removing the authority of divorce from husbands and placing it in the hands of judges.”
The Brotherhood said the document provided society with “destructive tools to undermine the family,” including “granting girls full sexual freedom” and “providing contraceptives to adolescent girls and training them in their use.”
It also opposed the “full sharing of roles within the family between men and women, such as spending, childcare and domestic chores.”
It said the document’s provisions would “subvert society as a whole and drag it into pre-Islamic ignorance.”
Diplomats at the conference have said the Vatican, Iran and Russia are leading attempts to remove language from the final statement that says religion, custom or tradition must not be used as an excuse to avoid a government’s obligation to eliminate violence.
March 14, 2013
Muslim Brotherhood’s Statement on Women Stirs Liberals’ Fears
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK and MAYY EL-SHEIKH
CAIRO — During its decades as an underground Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood has long preached that Islam required women to obey their husbands in all matters.
“A woman needs to be confined within a framework that is controlled by the man of the house,” Osama Yehia Abu Salama, a Brotherhood family expert, said of the group’s general approach, speaking in a recent seminar for women training to become marriage counselors. Even if a wife were beaten by her husband, he advised, “Show her how she had a role in what happened to her.”
“If he is to blame,” Mr. Abu Salama added, “she shares 30 percent or 40 percent of the fault.”
Now, with a leader of the Brotherhood’s political arm in Egypt’s presidential palace and its members dominating Parliament, some deeply patriarchal views the organization has long taught its members are spilling into public view. The Brotherhood’s strident statements are reinforcing fears among many Egyptian liberals about the potential consequences of the group’s rise to power and creating new awkwardness for President Mohamed Morsi as he presents himself as a new kind of moderate, Western-friendly Islamist.
In a statement Wednesday on a proposed United Nations declaration to condemn violence against women, the Brotherhood issued a list of objections, which formally laid out its views on women for the first time since it came to power.
In its statement, the Brotherhood said that wives should not have the right to file legal complaints against their husbands for rape, and husbands should not be subject to the punishments meted out for the rape of a stranger.
A husband must have “guardianship” over his wife, not an equal “partnership” with her, the group declared. Daughters should not have the same inheritance rights as sons. Nor should the law cancel “the need for a husband’s consent in matters like travel, work or use of contraception” — a reform in traditional Islamic family law that was enacted under former President Hosni Mubarak and credited to his wife, Suzanne.
The statement appeared in many ways to reflect the Brotherhood’s longstanding doctrine, still discussed in classes like Mr. Abu Salama’s and in the group’s women’s forums. Feminists said its statement also may reflect the views of most women in Egypt’s conservative, traditionalist culture.
In an interview on Thursday, Pakinam El-Sharkawy, President Morsi’s political adviser and Egypt’s representative last week at the United Nations commission, sought to distance the Morsi administration from the Brotherhood’s statement.
The Brotherhood, she emphasized, does not speak for the president; he has resigned from the Brotherhood but remains a member of its political party. “Does any statement issued by any political party or group represent the presidency?” she asked. “It’s not the presidency’s institution, and it’s not an official entity.”
The Egyptian government, she said, “is working with all its powers and policies to stop all forms of violence against women.”
The government objected to the United Nations declaration condemning violence against women, she said, only over issues like whether to describe restrictions on abortion as an act of violence against women. That offended the cultural norms in many Arab and African countries, she said.
Asked about the statement’s apparent attempt to shield marital rape from legal prosecution, Ms. Sharkawy brushed off the issue as an irrelevant foreign concern.
“Marital rape? Is this a big problem that we have?” she said, suggesting that it might be a Western phenomenon, while sexual harassment in the streets was a far greater concern in Egypt.
“Should we import their concerns and problems and adopt them as ours?” she asked. “We’re talking about things that aren’t widely agreed upon, like abortion. We can’t give women the freedom to have abortions whenever they want.”
Do not pick issues not pressing in Egypt, she said, “and then tell me that I’m in a conflict with the international community.”
Some Egyptian feminists, though, called the statement a vindication of their warnings that the Brotherhood might lead Egypt in a more conservative and patriarchal direction.
“They do not believe that when domestic violence is present, the women should resort to the justice system or the legal process,” said Ghada Shahbandar of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. “It should be kept at home and under the protection of the family — that is their claim. And there is no such thing as marital rape because a husband is entitled to have sex with his wife any time that he wants.”
“This is the first time we have heard it said publicly on the world stage,” she said, “but this has been in their rhetoric for ages.”
In his seminar for prospective Islamist marriage counselors, Mr. Abu Salama justified the group’s approach to marriage by explaining that Islam also required husbands to be compassionate, just as it required women to be obedient.
Quoting Muhammad’s injunction that a man “must not fall on his wife like an animal,” a textbook in Mr. Abu Salama’s class said Islam instructed men to engage in foreplay before sex and attend to their partner’s satisfaction. As for inheritance, Islamic scholars have argued that a son should have a greater share, but also an obligation to look after the financial well-being of a sister.
But Mr. Abu Salam also argued that husbands should keep their wives under tight control. “It’s the nature of the weak to overstep the required framework if she is given the space and the freedom, like children,” he said in the seminar. Most of the women nodded in agreement.
Closing its statement on the proposed United Nations declaration, the Brotherhood appeared to go even further. The provisions discussed are “destructive tools meant to undermine the family as an important institution,” the statement concluded, and “would drag society back to pre-Islamic ignorance.”