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« Reply #5100 on: Mar 15, 2013, 06:56 AM »

Man detained in connection to Benghazi attack: report

By Eric W. Dolan
Thursday, March 14, 2013 20:17 EDT

A man believed to be connected to the attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi has been detained by Libyan authorities, CNN reported Thursday.

The suspect, Faraj al-Shibli, was detained shortly after returning from a trip to Pakistan. It is unclear what involvement he had in the attack, which left U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead.

Al-Shibli is currently the only suspect in custody. Another suspect, Ali Hamzi, was briefly detained and interrogated by the FBI in Tunisia. He was released by a Tunisian judge in January.

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« Reply #5101 on: Mar 15, 2013, 06:58 AM »

Tunisia government wins assembly backing

Confidence vote comes as street vendor sets himself ablaze in protest against rising unemployment

Associated Press in Tunis, 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".
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« Reply #5102 on: Mar 15, 2013, 07:00 AM »

Syria crisis: France and Britain move a step closer to arming rebels

François Hollande appeals to Europe to lift arms embargo at Brussels summit

Ian Traynor Brussels, Thursday 14 March 2013 18.06 GMT   

France and Britain have moved a step closer to arming the opposition to the Assad regime in a radical move aimed at tipping the balance in the two-year civil war while also ignoring European policy on Syria.

The French president, François Hollande, went into an EU summit in Brussels with a dramatic appeal for Europe to join Paris and London in lifting a European arms embargo, but the sudden policy shift was certain to run into stiff German opposition.

"We want the Europeans to lift the embargo," said Hollande. "Britain and France are agreed on this option … France has to first persuade its European partners. But France also has to accept its responsibilities. We can't allow a people to be massacred by a regime which has shown that it doesn't want a political discussion."

Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, called for the EU embargo to be abandoned, declaring that France and Britain would act in concert, as they did in going to war against Colonel Gaddafi's Libya when Germany joined Russia and China at the UN security council in voting against.

William Hague, the UK foreign secretary, and David Cameron have this week spoken of the need for reviewing the EU arms embargo. British officials argue that they will not be "constrained" by the embargo. "The arms embargo prevents us from helping the moderates [in Syria]," said an official. "The regime is getting help. The extremists are getting help. The moderates are not."

But British officials also stressed no decision had been taken to arm the Syrian opposition.

Fabius went further, accusing Iran and Russia of arming Bashar al-Assad's regime, while the resistance went defenceless. "We can't accept this current imbalance with on the one hand Iran and Russia supplying arms to Bashar and on the other the rebels who can't defend themselves," Fabius told French radio.

Two weeks ago, EU foreign ministers tightened the sanctions on Assad, at British insistence, and made it possible to bypass the ban on "non-lethal" supplies to the opposition. The sanctions policy can be reviewed at three-month intervals. Fabius said the embargo should be lifted now. "The position that we are taking, which is also the same as that of the British, is to demand that the Europeans lift the embargo now so that the rebels have the ability to defend themselves."

Reports in France spoke of supplying ground-to-air missiles to the opposition to try to counter the regime's air superiority in the war.

Germany and other countries such as Austria and Sweden are likely to maintain their opposition to arming the rebels, leaving common EU foreign policymaking in shreds and the EU sanctions policy a dead letter.

Guido Westerwelle, the German foreign minister, said the French demands could be "discussed" but did not sound keen to push for a concerted European position on arms supplies. "We changed the European sanctions on Syria two weeks ago," he said. "If important EU partners now see a different situation requiring in their view the sanctions decisions to be changed again, we are of course prepared to discuss that immediately."

Fabius said the UK and French positions on arming the opposition were "identical" and it was one of the few levers left for having any outside political impact on the war in Syria.

Syria had not been on the agenda for the Brussels summit, but Hollande made clear he would force it on to the table.

He said he and Cameron shared the same position "because we believe that a people is in danger today. More than 100,000 [are] dead since the start of the uprising. Now we have to give the Syrian opposition the means finally to gain the upper hand, that is the departure of Bashar al-Assad."
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« Reply #5103 on: Mar 15, 2013, 07:08 AM »

Obama's visit to Israel criticised as a 'maintenance trip' without peace plan

President's three-day Middle East trip heavy on sight-seeing but will not involve any new drive for peace, White House confirms

Ewen MacAskill in Washington, Thursday 14 March 2013 22.46 GMT   

Barack Obama will present no new Middle East peace initiative when he makes his first visit as president to Israel next week, the White House confirmed on Thursday.

Obama is due to arrive in Israel on Wednesday at the start of a three-day trip that will also take in the West Bank and Jordan, a tour critics have said is largely devoid of substance.

Visits by US presidents or secretaries of states are often accompanied by announcements of new drives for peace. But Obama's overtures in his first term were humiliatingly rebuffed by the Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and the focus of his second term so far has been on domestic issues.

Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser, briefing journalists on Thursday ahead of the visit, lowered expectations about Israel and Palestine. "We have been very clear this visit is not about trying to lay down a new initiative or complete our work on a particular issue," he said.

Peace discussions with the Palestinians ended in 2010 primarily over continued Jewish settlement expansion on the West Bank.

No decisions are scheduled during the visit on other Middle East issues such as Iran's nuclear programme or intervention in Syria.

Foreign policy analysts in Washington questioned why Obama was visiting the region with so little to offer, with one describing it as pointless and another as a "maintenance trip". Another described it as top-heavy with tourist venues and photo-opportunities and short on substance.

Obama is to visit one of the most popular destinations in Jordan, the abandoned desert city of Petra, and he will see an exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Israeli museum. He will also visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

He will hold talks with Netanyahu, the head of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas, and King Abdullah of Jordan.

The White House said one of the highlights of his trip would be a speech direct to Israelis, mainly students, in Jerusalem. The Israelis had proposed a number of options including an address to the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, that the White House opted against.

The Jerusalem speech acts as a bookend to Obama's speech at Cairo university in 2009 early in his first term when he called for a new beginning in the Middle East. High expectations raised by the Cairo speech have yet to be met.

Rhodes said there was value in the new government in Israel and the new government in the US having a broad strategic conversation at this time.

"With a new government you do not expect again to close the deal on any one major initiative but on the other hand you want to begin a broad conversation about all these issues on which we are co-operating on a day-to-day basis," Rhodes said.

"Obviously there are going to be significant decisions in the months and years ahead about Iran, about Syria, about Israel-Palestinian peace and by having this opportunity to speak to Israeli leaders, it can frame the decisions that will ultimately come down the line."

On Syria, Obama is resistant to US military assistance or intervention, though happy to press Saudi Arabia and Qatar and Western allies such as Britain and France to do so.

Unlike Obama, new US secretary of state John Kerry supports intervention but there is little backing elsewhere in Washington other than from individual senators such as Republican John McCain.

Obama will press Netanyahu to hold off on an air strike on Iran for at least another year to allow sanctions time to work.

Haim Malka, author of Crossroads: The Future of the US-Israel Strategic Partnership, who is based in Washington at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, did not anticipate any surprises emerging from the visit.

"This trip is about managing the Middle East problems, not about solving those problems. I don't think the president by design is going to make the Middle East the centrepiece of his second term and yet the Middle East will still affect the president and the second term agenda in surprising ways," Malka said.

Marwan Muasher, former Jordanian foreign minister and the country's first ambassador to Israel, is pessimistic about the prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian deal in the near future, viewing the window for a two-state solution as closed, partly as a result of Israel's continued expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank. "It is like two people arguing over a slice of pizza while one of them is eating it," said Muasher, vice-president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace

Aaron David Miller, who was an adviser to six US secretaries of state on Israeli-Arab negotiations and is now at the Washington-based Wilson Center, predicted that while Obama will not go to a "high-profile initiative yet", if within 18 months there is no deal taking shape, he will set out his own parameters. "I think he is prepared to do that, because I don't believe he is prepared to leave office without trying to put his mark on an issue that so frustrated him during his first term," he said.

Obama's commitment to Israel is viewed with suspicion by many Israelis, even though he has increased military aid to the country. One test of that commitment is whether he cuts – and by how much – US aid to Israel as a result of the US sequester crisis that mandates spending cuts across the federal budget.

Despite suspicions among Israelis about Obama's commitment to Israel, the White House says military aide to Israel has increased during his administration, part of it spent on building the country's air defences, known as the Iron Dome. Obama is to visit an Iron Dome battery during his visit.


March 14, 2013

Iran Nuclear Weapon to Take Year or More, Obama Says


WASHINGTON — President Obama told an Israeli television station on Thursday that his administration believed it would take Iran “over a year or so” to develop a nuclear weapon, and he vowed that the United States would do whatever was necessary to prevent that from happening.

Less than a week before his first visit as president to Israel, Mr. Obama pledged to continue diplomatic efforts, but he promised that the United States would keep all options on the table to ensure that Iran did not become a nuclear threat to its neighbors.

“Right now, we think it would take over a year or so for Iran to actually develop a nuclear weapon, but obviously we don’t want to cut it too close,” Mr. Obama told the Israeli station, Channel 2 TV. He said his message to Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, “will be the same as before: ‘If we can resolve it diplomatically that is a more lasting solution.”

“But if not, I continue to keep all options on the table,” he added.

Mr. Obama’s estimated timeline contrasts with Mr. Netanyahu’s stated belief that Israel and its Western allies are likely to have to intervene by the spring or summer, when, he says, Iran’s scientists will have enriched enough uranium to become a nuclear threat. Iran denies that its nuclear program has any military aim.

The question of how close Iran is to being able to use a nuclear weapon has generated friction between the two leaders and will be at the center of their security discussions. Mr. Obama is scheduled to spend two days in Israel before visiting the West Bank and Jordan.

Mr. Obama has rarely been so specific about how long American intelligence agencies estimate it will take Iran to build a bomb. In defining the problem as he did — when Iran could get a weapon, rather than when it could have the capability to build one — he subtly indicated that he and Mr. Netanyahu still saw the problem in very different terms.

The Israeli position has long been that Iran must be denied the capability to piece a weapon together. Mr. Netanyahu and his former defense minister, Ehud Barak, argue that if Iran is just a few screwdriver turns away from being able to construct a weapon, it will have the same power in the region as if it actually had one.

When Mr. Netanyahu held up a picture of a cartoonlike bomb at the United Nations last year, with a red line drawn near the top, he was creating his boundary: Iran could not possess enough nuclear fuel to produce a single weapon. Israeli officials say that, in real numbers, that means it cannot be allowed to hold 240 kilograms or so of uranium enriched to a medium level of purity. From there, they have argued, it would take Iran only a few months to build a bomb.

Mr. Obama, in the interview, offered a different estimate: How long it would take Iran to build a full weapon. That would mean enriching enough uranium; fashioning it into a weapon, surrounded by detonators; and being able to be delivered by airplane, cargo ship or missile.

In saying that day was over a year away, he was echoing what intelligence agencies have said to him about their estimates of Iran’s “breakout” capability — how long it would take Iranian nuclear scientists to turn their stockpiles of fuel into a working weapon. Mr. Obama has never talked about stopping Iran from achieving weapons capability.

Behind Mr. Obama’s estimate was a confidence that a combination of sanctions and sabotage has bought some time for diplomatic negotiations. The sanctions have made it difficult for Iran to obtain hard currency or parts. A series of cyberattacks on Iran’s main nuclear enrichment plant, code-named Olympic Games, began during President George W. Bush’s administration and was accelerated by Mr. Obama. It bought some time, though there is a dispute about how much.

But in the interview, Mr. Obama made it clear his administration would not wait forever.

“There is a window, not an infinite period of time, but a window of time where we can resolve this diplomatically,” the president said. “They are not yet at the point, I think, where they have made a fundamental decision to get right with the international community.”

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« Reply #5104 on: Mar 15, 2013, 07:11 AM »

North Korea threatens attack on South this year

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, March 14, 2013 16:06 EDT

North Korea is likely to launch a provocative attack on South Korea this year, a top analyst said Thursday at the launch of his think tank’s annual report on the world’s military capabilities.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies said North Korea’s “military first” doctrine remained clearly intact under youthful leader Kim Jong-Un.

Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the London-based IISS’s non-proliferation and disarmament programme, said world powers were increasingly concerned about the threat emanating from Pyongyang.

“North Korea presents a significant threat because it has ballistic missiles that can hit Japan and all of Korea,” he told AFP.

“It has nuclear devices that it may or may not be able to put on the warheads of those missiles.

“It combines that with a rhetoric that has exceeded all dimensions and a propensity to fire first.”

While firing first in the next few weeks would be “dangerous” due to the ongoing US-South Korea joint military exercises, “over the course of the year, most analysts do think that North Korea will follow through with some sort of provocation,” said Fitzpatrick.

He said the risk of escalation from there was “serious” because South Korea feels the need to establish deterrence credibility.

The next time North Korea attacks, “it’s pretty clear that South Korea is going to respond… and where it goes from there is anyone’s guess.”

However, North Korea would probably not want to trigger a fully-fledged war because it would inevitably mean the end of their regime due to the huge advantage held by South Korea and the United States.

North Korea confirmed Wednesday that it had shredded the 60-year-old armistice ending the Korean War, and warned that the next step was an act of “merciless” military retaliation against its enemies.

Military tensions on the Korean peninsula are at their highest level for years.

Meanwhile China is “very nervous and angry” at Pyongyang and its support for its neighbour has diminished in the past year, Fitzpatrick said.

While Beijing wants to maintain a buffer state, he doubted that they would side militarily with them in a conflict.

“They would try to do everything they can to avoid it coming to such circumstances,” he said.

“There’s realisation that the Korean peninsula is probably the place in the world that is most likely to erupt into a full-scale conflict that could involve nuclear weapons.

“North Korea’s nuclear tests really do up the ante on the tinderbox situation.”

The IISS’s annual “Military Balance” report said North Korea had continued its efforts to develop its nuclear weapons capability and its closely-related long-range missile arsenal in 2012.

Last year saw nominal Asian defence spending overtake that of European NATO states for the first time.

China now spends more on defence than neighbouring Japan, South Korea and Taiwan combined, the report said.

If the 15 percent average annual increases in China’s official defence spending seen over the past decade continue, Chinese defence outlays could rival US base defence budget spending by 2025 at the latest.

Meanwhile the IISS considers the risk of a conflict between China and Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea as very unlikely, though the spat will lead to direct military competition between the two states and cause destabilisation within the region.


North Korea tests artillery near 'disputed territory' with South - video

North Korea's state news agency, KCNA, releases images of Kim Jong-un supervising live artillery drills close to a disputed sea border with South Korea. Pictures show Kim watching the exercises, conducted near the border of the 'south western sector'. This region is seen as the most likely site of any clash between the South and the North

Click to watch:

* n.korea.jpg (93.24 KB, 615x345 - viewed 91 times.)
« Last Edit: Mar 15, 2013, 07:17 AM by Rad » Logged
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« Reply #5105 on: Mar 15, 2013, 07:13 AM »

China installs Li Keqiang, the pragmatic open-thinker, as its premier

Parliamentary ballot formally confirms appointment of former 'sent-down youth' as Wen Jiabao's successor

Tania Branigan in Beijing, Friday 15 March 2013 12.07 GMT

China has formally installed Li Keqiang as the country's premier, putting him in charge of the world's second largest economy via a ballot of its rubber-stamp parliament on Friday.

Li, who replaces Wen Jiabao, has held the number two position in the Communist party since November. The National People's Congress – which officially selected Xi Jinping as president on Thursday in a similar vote – is implementing the final stages of the country's once-a-decade leadership transition.

Western diplomats and business people have warmed to 57-year-old Li, thanks in part to his fluent English and confidence with a wide range of ideas. He holds a degree in law and doctorate in economics; his wife is an English professor and their daughter is thought to be a postgraduate student in the US.

In a 2007 diplomatic cable obtained by WikiLeaks, the then US ambassador described him as engaging, well-informed and humorous; coy about his hobbies and interests even at their private dinner, but frank in describing Chinese GDP figures as "manmade" and unreliable.

"He has an obvious sharp intelligence. He talks in quite a clipped way; he responds to things quickly," observed Kerry Brown, a China specialist at the University of Sydney.

Li's university days – when, as a liberally minded student, he befriended activist peers who went on to become jailed and exiled dissidents – have excited suggestions that he could prove a reformer.

Yet throughout his career he has proved pragmatic and often cautious. Sceptics point to his success and the patronage of former president Hu Jintao as evidence that he poses little threat to the status quo.

Li's father was a mid-ranking cadre in Anhui province and Li spent years labouring in the desperately poor county of Fengyang as a "sent-down youth" in the latter stages of the Cultural Revolution.

Yang Baikui, a former friend and fellow scholar, describes it as a formative, humbling experience: "Without having worked in the countryside, they [li and other leaders] would have a gap in their understanding of what China is.

"When you watch him on the news, you can see he's one of the people … When he meets them every smile is real."

When universities reopened, Li won a place at Peking University in the fiercely contested entrance exams. It was not only an elite institution, but also a notably liberal one.

A key influence was Gong Xiangrui, a law professor who had studied in the west and who set Li and Yang to translating an English textbook on constitutional law by Lord Denning.

But while Li was intellectually voracious and a dedicated student activist, he did not challenge authorities on a practical level, said contemporaries.

"His thinking was very open. But his behaviour was very prudent," said Yang. He and others were convinced even then that Li was headed for high office.

"We knew the top leaders would come from Peking or Tsinghua University; if you were a top student leader, you would have a chance to become a leader of the country," said Wang Juntao, a former friend jailed for his role in the 1989 Tiananmen protests and now living in exile in the US.

"From a very early age he showed he wanted to contribute to the public interest."

After university, Li worked his way up through the Communist Youth League, where he forged his crucial relationship with Hu Jintao.

By 1998, he was the country's youngest governor, in central Henan province, later becoming party secretary. But a spate of fatal blazes earned him the nickname "three fires Li" and activists are still angered by his handling of a scandal in which tens of thousands of peasants were infected with HIV after selling their blood in an officially backed scheme.

Though the problems began before his time, "he should be held responsible for the coverup from 1998 to 2002 when thousands of people died in silence … He is not honest and direct," said Wan Yanhai, an HIV activist who lives in the US.

In 2004, Li took over north-eastern Liaoning, moving back to Beijing in 2007. Suggestions that he might succeed Hu proved too hasty; instead, Xi was picked as heir apparent, with Li lined up to succeed as premier.

His endorsement of last year's China 2030 report – by the World Bank and a top-level state research centre – gave hope to reformers because of its calls for substantial financial, economic and social changes. Yet others sound a note of caution.

"Xi Jinping seems more decisive than Li Keqiang … Li generally follows other people," said Chen Ziming, another Beijing-based scholar who knew Li as a student.

And whatever Li believes deep down, note his old friends, he is constrained by the reality of Chinese politics.

"He wants to keep his place in the party system so he has to hide himself; it doesn't matter whether he is keeping it for himself, his family, his influence on history or the public interest," said Wang.

"Secondly, even if he wants to do good things, he can't get rid of the party and the interest groups. They control all the opportunities and resources.

"I don't think he has changed in his heart. But I don't think he has a chance to become a good official. The party and government are too corrupt."

* Li-Keqiang-010.jpg (25.74 KB, 460x276 - viewed 91 times.)
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« Reply #5106 on: Mar 15, 2013, 07:22 AM »

Iraq war killed 120,000 and cost $800 billion, study estimates

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, March 15, 2013 7:39 EDT

At least 116,000 Iraqi civilians and more than 4,800 coalition troops died in Iraq between the outbreak of war in 2003 and the US withdrawal in 2011, researchers estimate.

Its involvement in Iraq has so far cost the United States $810 billion (625 billion euros) and could eventually reach $3 trillion, they added.

The estimates come from two US professors of public health, reporting on Friday in the British peer-reviewed journal The Lancet.

They base the figures on published studies in journals and on reports by government agencies, international organisations and the news media.

“We conclude that at least 116,903 Iraqi non-combatants and more than 4,800 coalition military personnel died over the eight-year course” of the war from 2003 to 2011, they said.

“Many Iraqi civilians were injured or became ill because of damage to the health-supporting infrastructure of the country, and about five million were displaced.

“More than 31,000 US military personnel were injured and a substantial percentage of those deployed suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and other neuropsychological disorders and their concomitant psychosocial problems.”

Citing figures from the website, which looks at funding allocated by Congress, the study said that as of January 15 this year, the Iraq War had cost the United States about $810 billion, “not including interest on debt.”

“The ultimate cost of the war to the USA could be $3 trillion,” it said.

“Clearly, this money could have been spent instead on domestic and global programmes to improve health. The diversion of human resources was also substantial, in Iraq, the USA, and other coalition countries.”

The paper is authored by Barry Levy of Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston and Victor Sidel of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

It appears in a package of investigations into the health consequences of the Iraq War, published by The Lancet to mark the 10th anniversary of the start of the conflict.

In 2006, estimates by researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, also published in The Lancet, said 655,000 people had died in the first 40 months of the war. That figure was widely contested.

In 2008, a study by the Iraqi government and World Health Organisation (WHO), published in The New England Journal of Medicine, said between 104,000 and 223,000 Iraqis had died violent deaths between March 2003 and June 2006.

Those figures were based on home visits to around 1,000 neighbourhoods across the country.


Iraq’s pain has only intensified since 2003

By Sami Ramadani, The Guardian
Thursday, March 14, 2013 8:01 EDT

The country of my birth, already so damaged, is now crippled by fear of all-out civil war. But in the people there is hope

It has always been painful for me to write about Iraq and Baghdad, the land of my birth and the city of my childhood. They say that time is a great healer, but, along with most Iraqis, I feel the pain even more deeply today. But this time the tears for what has already happened are mixed with a crippling fear that worse is yet to come: an all-out civil war. Ten years on from the shock and awe of the 2003 Bush and Blair war – which followed 13 years of murderous sanctions, and 35 years of Saddamist dictatorship – my tormented land, once a cradle of civilisation, is staring into the abyss.

Wanton imperialist intervention and dictatorial rule have together been responsible for the deaths of more than a million people since 1991. And yet, according to both Tony Blair and the former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, the “price is worth it”. Blair, whom most Iraqis regard as a war criminal, is given VIP treatment by a culpable media. Iraqis listen in disbelief when he says: “I feel responsibility but no regret for removing Saddam Hussein.” (As if Saddam and his henchmen were simply whisked away, leaving the people to build a democratic state). It enrages us to see Blair build a business empire, capitalising on his role in piling up more Iraqi skulls than even Saddam managed.

As an exile, I was painfully aware of Saddam’s crimes, which for me started with the disappearance from Baghdad’s medical college of my dearest school friend, Hazim. The Iraqi people are fully aware, too, that Saddam committed all his major crimes while an ally of western powers. On the eve of the 2003 invasion I wrote this for the Guardian: “In Iraq, the US record speaks for itself: it backed Saddam’s party, the Ba’ath, to capture power in 1963, murdering thousands of socialists, communists and democrats; it backed the Ba’ath party in 1968 when Saddam was installed as vice-president; it helped him and the Shah of Iran in 1975 to crush the Kurdish nationalist movement; it increased its support for Saddam in 1979…helping him launch his war of aggression against Iran in 1980; it backed him throughout the horrific eight years of war (1980 to 1988), in which a million Iranians and Iraqis were slaughtered, in the full knowledge that he was using chemical weapons and gassing Kurds and Marsh Arabs; it encouraged him in 1990 to invade Kuwait…; it backed him in 1991 when Bush [senior] suddenly stopped the war, exactly 24 hours after the start of the great March uprising that engulfed the south and Iraqi Kurdistan…; and it backed him as the ‘lesser evil’ from March 1991 to September 11 2001 under the umbrella of murderous sanctions and the policy of “containment”.”

But when it was no longer in their interests to back him, the US and UK drowned Iraq in blood. That war has still not been consigned to history – not for the people of Iraq or the region.

We haven’t even counted the dead yet, let alone the injured, displaced and traumatised. Countless thousands are still missing. Of the more than 4 million refugees, at least a million are yet to go back to their homeland, and there still about a million internal refugees. On an almost daily basis, explosions and shootings continue to kill the innocent.

The US and UK still refuse to accept the harmful consequences of radioactive depleted uranium munitions, and the US denies that it used chemical weapons in Falluja – but Iraqis see the evidence: the poisoned environment, the cancer and deformities. Lack of electricity, clean water and other essential services continues to hit millions of impoverished and unemployed people, in one of the richest countries on the planet. Women and children pay the highest price. Women’s rights, and human rights in general, are daily suppressed.

And what of democracy, supposedly the point of it all? The US-led occupying authorities nurtured a “political process” and a constitution designed to sow sectarian and ethnic discord. Having failed to crush the resistance to direct occupation, they resorted to divide-and-rule to keep their foothold in Iraq. Using torture, sectarian death squads and billions of dollars, the occupation has succeeded in weakening the social fabric and elevating a corrupt ruling class that gets richer by the day, salivating at the prospect of acquiring a bigger share of Iraq’s natural resources, which are mostly mortgaged to foreign oil companies and construction firms.

Warring sectarian and ethnic forces, either allied to or fearing US influence, dominate the dysfunctional and corrupt Iraqi state institutions, but the US embassy in Baghdad – the biggest in the world – still calls the shots. Iraq is not really a sovereign state, languishing under the punitive Chapter VII of the UN charter.

Political ironies abound. We have a so-called Shia-controlled government, yet most of Iraq’s Shia population remain the poorest of all. And we have an Iraqi Kurdistan that is a separate state in all but name. The Kurdistan regional government is in alliance with the US and Turkey, a ruthless oppressor of the Kurdish people. It also has growing links to Israel (which it is at pains to deny).

Meanwhile, conflict over oil and territory is aggravating relations between the centre and the Kurdistan government. Popular anger against corruption and human rights violations is growing; for weeks now, we have had large-scale protests in the west of the country.

To add to the increased tension within the country, the war in Syria is threatening to create a wider regional conflict, with Iraq and Lebanon being sucked in. Israeli-championed anti-Iranian moves further widen the war’s scope. The north-western region of Iraq borders Syria and it is where General Petraeus funded the Sahwa “awakening” militias in order to crush resistance in that region. Al-Qaida-type terrorists are also active in the area. They are natural allies of the terrorist al-Nusra Front of Syria. The de facto alliance between the US, Turkey, Israel and militants that has appeared in Syria is being mirrored in Iraq, with the additional ingredient of Saddamist remnants. US pragmatism knows no bounds!

These are just some of the ramifications of the US-led war on Iraq. It has been an unmitigated disaster, with genocidal dimensions for the Iraqi people, and continues to fuel conflicts and sow discord in the region.

There was once a strong democratic unifying force in Iraq, but this was crushed by the CIA-backed Ba’athist coup of 1963, and Saddam’s regime. The re-emergence of such a force is now the Iraqi people’s only hope. Without that, how will we count and mourn the millions of innocent victims, heal those wounds, and then, finally, build a better, more peaceful tomorrow?

The immediate prospects are frightening, but I write with the image of a brave Iraqi child imprinted in my mind. I saw him in Baghdad in July 2003; he was shouting angrily, waving a clenched fist of defiance at a US soldier whose machine gun was menacingly aimed at him. With that free spirit, and with solidarity among the people, a democratic, free Iraq shall surely rise strong and prosperous.

© Guardian News and Media 2013

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« Reply #5107 on: Mar 15, 2013, 07:29 AM »

March 14, 2013

Iran Chases U.S. Drone Over Persian Gulf


WASHINGTON — An Iranian jet fighter pursued an American surveillance drone over the Persian Gulf this week but ended the chase after a radio warning from an American escort plane, Pentagon officials said Thursday.

The chase, which occurred Tuesday, followed a more serious encounter in November, when Iranian warplanes fired on, but missed, a Predator drone carrying out a similar classified surveillance mission.

Pentagon officials said that in both instances the drones were in international airspace.

Even so, the episodes illustrate the chance of unintended hostilities arising from encounters between remotely piloted surveillance craft and Iranian warplanes in the heavily militarized Persian Gulf.

The Pentagon press secretary, George Little, said that in the episode on Tuesday, an Iranian F-4 jet fighter approached within 16 miles of the Predator, which was being escorted by a pair of American military aircraft. United States officials did not say what type of American planes were involved.

“The Iranian aircraft departed after a verbal warning,” Mr. Little said. An initial Pentagon statement said one of the American escort planes had fired a flare to warn the Iranian jet away but later retracted that report. Mr. Little said that after the encounter in November, the United States sent a message to Iran that the American military would “continue to conduct surveillance flights over international waters consistent with longstanding practice and our commitment to the security of the region.”

“We also communicated that we reserve the right to protect our military assets as well as our forces and will continue to do so going forward,” Mr. Little said.

Iran deployed two Russian-made Su-25 jets known as Frogfoots in the November episode, which was the first known instance of Iranian warplanes firing on an American surveillance drone. The Predator model involved in both encounters resembles an upside-down flying spoon and is not easily confused with a piloted jet fighter.

In 2011, an RQ-170 surveillance drone operated by the C.I.A. rather than the military crashed in Iran during a mission that was believed to have been intended to map suspected nuclear sites. That episode came to light only after Iran announced that it had electronically attacked the drone and guided it to a landing. American officials said the drone had crashed after a technical malfunction.
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« Reply #5108 on: Mar 15, 2013, 07:56 AM »

Pope Francis eschews trappings of papacy on first day in office

Former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio ditches Mercedes, ermine and gold cross for simpler style as he begins papacy

Lizzy Davies in Vatican City
The Guardian, Thursday 14 March 2013 18.35 GMT   

It wasn't quite a bus – his days of taking public transport may finally be over – but it certainly wasn't the vehicle of pontiffs, either. The car in which Pope Francis travelled on his first day as head of the Roman Catholic church was a standard-issue, black saloon.

Not for him the Mercedes with the papal number plate SCV1. That – along with the ermine-trimmed mozzetta and the gold pectoral cross – had been left behind. The new pope, said a Vatican spokesman, seemed to have brought "a new style of doing things".

First on the papal agenda on Thursday was a "spontaneous" visit – alluded to on Wednesday night by the just-elected Jorge Mario Bergoglio – to the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in central Rome. The church, home to an altar where the Jesuit founder Saint Ignatius of Loyola celebrated his first mass in 1538, had played host to Francis when he was a mere cardinal and archbishop.

Now, he was returning as the world's first Jesuit and Latin American pontiff. Not that there was much difference in the way he behaved, according to one priest, Father Ludovico Melo. "It was a meeting with a father," he said, "and not with a pope."

It was decidedly as a leader, however, that the 76-year-old from Buenos Aires later conducted a mass in the Sistine Chapel for the cardinals who elected him there. In a homily delivered without notes, quietly but determinedly, Francis urged the church to focus on the Gospel and "always walk in the presence of the Lord" to avoid becoming, in effect, "a compassionate NGO".

"We can walk all we want, we can build many things, but if we don't proclaim Jesus Christ, something is wrong," he said, speaking in Italian, rather than the Latin in which his predecessor gave his first homily.

"We would become a compassionate NGO and not a church which is the bride of Christ," he added.

Wearing a mitre and carrying the pastoral staff, Francis compared people whose values are worldly rather than spiritual to children building sandcastles that come crashing down. He said: "He who does not pray to the Lord prays to the devil. When we don't proclaim Jesus Christ, we proclaim the worldliness of the devil, the worldliness of the demon."

Soon after, Francis went to the apostolic palace to break the seal on the papal apartments. It will be several days, however, before he can move in; the Vatican said there was still some repair work that needed to be done. In the meantime Francis will sleep in the Santa Martha house, where the cardinals spent conclave. His suite is number 201. His bed, made of dark wood, bears an engraving of Christ.

After his visit to Santa Maria Maggiore, Francis, dressed in a simple white cassock and zucchetto, decided while on the way back that he wanted to attend to an altogether more mundane matter: the collection of his luggage from the residence he had been staying at before conclave and the payment of his bill. Despite in effect being the boss of the church-run guest house, the Vatican said the new pope felt it was important "to set a good example" by paying his dues.

Asked whether Francis's apparent desire to go on last-minute outings might cause a headache for Vatican security, Father Thomas Rosica, the Vatican spokesman's English-speaking assistant, said: "It's the pope who is in charge and he will do what he wants to do."

Smiling, Rosica said the behaviour seen so far recalled that of the "rule-breaking" John Paul II, who occasionally liked to go where he was not supposed to. The security services, he added, would have to adapt to their new boss, rather than the other way around.

As a simple-living archbishop in Argentina, Bergoglio shunned the official residence for a small apartment where he cooked for himself. He sometimes took the bus through the urban maze of Buenos Aires.

"If he brings that same desire for a simple lifestyle to the papal court, I think they are all going to be in shock," the Rev Thomas Reese, author of an authoritative book on the Vatican, told the Associated Press. "This may not be a man who wants to wear silk and furs."

John Thavis, author of The Vatican Diaries, wrote on his blog: "One of the first things a new pope hears is: 'Holy Father, it's always done this way.' In his first 24 hours in office, Pope Francis has already given indications that he may not be intimidated by those words, as he creates his own style of being pope."

While he may be doing things his way, Francis shows no sign of forgetting his predecessor. One of the first things he did on Wednesday evening, the Vatican said, was to telephone the emeritus pope Benedict XVI, ensconced in the papal villas at Castel Gandolfo since 28 February. The two popes – current and emeritus – would, said the spokesman Federico Lombardi, meet at some point in the near future but "not imminently". It was "not planned", he added, that Benedict would attend his successor's installation on Tuesday.

Lombardi, himself a Jesuit, said he was stunned to have a member of the Society of Jesus as pontiff. "For us the idea of a Jesuit pope is very strange," he said, explaining that historically the Jesuits had considered themselves "servants, not authorities, in church". In a statement, the Jesuit superior general, Adolfo Nicolás, said Bergoglio's election "opens for the church a path full of hope … at this crucial time".

As they emerged from the secretive confines of conclave, some of the cardinal electors spoke out about the voting process that had led to the first ever pontiff named after Saint Francis of Assisi. "It was very moving as the votes were being counted and the names resounding out: Bergoglio, Bergoglio, and suddenly the magic number was reached and there was applause," said the primate of all Ireland, Seán Brady, at a briefing at the Irish College in Rome.

Timothy Dolan, the larger-than-life archbishop of New York, praised the new pope's "beautiful sincerity and simplicity and humility". He said that Francis had used a dinner in the Casa Santa Martha on Wednesday night to give a self-deprecating thanks to the cardinals who had made him the church's head.

"He toasted us and he simply said, 'May God forgive you,' which brought the house down.

"In other words: 'I hope you don't regret this later.'"


Pope Francis will not yield on doctrine, but his emphasis will be on the poor

The new pontiff is said to have an 'absolute commitment to the practical relief of suffering'

Andrew Brown   
The Guardian, Thursday 14 March 2013 18.59 GMT   

Will Francis be a pope of the culture wars, or a pope of the poor? There is evidence that he can fight the culture wars as fiercely as anyone. His denunciation of plans to legalise gay marriage in Argentina last year would have brought a blush to the cheek of Cardinal Keith O'Brien: it was, he said, a device of the devil who "deceitfully intends to destroy the image of God: man and woman, who received the mandate to grow, multiply, and conquer the Earth. Let us not be naive: it is not a simple political struggle; it is an intention [which is] destructive of the plan of God. It is not a mere legislative project (this is a mere instrument), but rather a 'move' of the father of lies."

But his defenders say this all needs to be seen in the context of the Argentinian president's remarkable personal dislike of him for his following among the poor, and that in part Cristina Fernández de Kirchner promoted gay marriage in order to discredit the church by its opposition.

Father Augusto Zampini, an Argentinian priest studying at Roehampton University in London, says: "He's not a liberal. He's a Catholic bishop, and they cherish very much their conception of the family."

But at the same time, Zampini said, this is a pope whose absolute commitment is to the practical relief of suffering. He will not yield on doctrinal questions, but they won't be the emphasis of his papacy.

"In the UK and in Argentina there have been massive campaigns by the Catholic church against gay marriage, but there was a very clear difference. There was nothing homophobic about the campaign in Argentina. He won't give to that topic the importance he has now … His priority will definitely be the church involved in the world," said Zampini.

"He works every day in trying to see the world through the eyes of the poor. He told us as young priests, you have to work hard as priests to get the view the poor have of the world. And if that's the case, we will be a different church in the 21st century."

Zampini also sees the new papacy as much more favourable to free theological discussion than the old rule of Benedict XVI, who rose to power running the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog. He points to the way in which Francis defended Argentinian theologians, with whom he personally disagreed, who had been denounced to Rome for deficient orthodoxy. He believes, says Zampini, in open discussion. Even the celibacy of the clergy may be openly discussed, though that is no guarantee that it will be changed.

The Catholic journalist Margaret Hebblethwaite, who has lived in Paraguay for the past 10 years, shares this enthusiasm, and points out that Francis was the only member of the Argentinian Catholic hierarchy to maintain friendly relations with a notable Catholic feminist called Clelia Luro, who married a former bishop, and the only one to turn up at her husband's funeral.

He will fight the culture wars if he has to, but his efforts will be put to get the church fighting for the poor.


Pope Francis – in his own words

The new pope has a strong track record of speaking his mind, on everything from slavery to gay marriage

The Guardian, Thursday 14
March 2013 22.43 GMT   

On slave labour, white slavery and prostitution, September 2011

"At school they taught us slavery has been abolished, but do you know what? It was a fairytale! Because in Buenos Aires slavery has not been abolished; in this city slavery is still common in various forms; in this city workers are exploited in clandestine workshops and, if they are immigrants, they prevent them from leaving; and in this city there are children who have been living on the streets for years … In this city women are kidnapped and submitted to the use and abuse of their bodies, destroying their dignity. There are men here who abuse and make money from human flesh … Dogs are treated better than these slaves of ours! Kick them out! Get rid of them!"

After a commuter train carrying 1,200 people crashed into the buffers at a railway station in Buenos Aires in February 2012, killing 52 people and injuring hundreds

"We want justice! We know that behind this there are irresponsible people who are responsible, people who have not carried out their duties. We do not want to punish them to punish, but to change their hearts because their irresponsibility has cost so much – life is priceless … This city does not know how to weep. All is fixed with anaesthetics … virtually all of them were earning their daily bread. With dignity! Father, let us not get used to the idea that to earn your daily bread you must travel like cattle."

Argentina's politics

"Sectarian attitudes in the social and political life of a country are terrible. They separate, divide and drive us apart."

The 26th anniversary of the Falklands war in 2008

"The wound is still open, it has not healed."

Inequality, August 2012

"You have to become indignant against the injustice that not everyone has bread and work … In this world many people look out for themselves … And how curious it is that those who look out for themselves and not for the common good are usually the ones who go around cursing; who curse other people and things."

Gay marriage

"The identity and survival of the family is at risk: father, mother and children. At risk are so many children who will be discriminated against by taking away from them the process of growing up that God gave to us with a father and a mother."


"What is the spirit of Christmas? … Over the years the world of culture has tried to express it in a thousand ways and has managed to take us closer to the meaning of the the Christmas spirit.

"How many Christmas stories bring us closer to this? The beautiful tales of Andersen, Tillich, Lenz, Böll, Dickens, Gorky, Hamsun, Hesse, Mann and so many other managed to open new horizons of meaning that take us down the path of understanding this mystery, but none, in the end, are enough"


"The socioeconomic crisis and the resulting increase in poverty has its origins in policies inspired by forms of neoliberalism that consider profit and the laws of the market as absolute parameters above the dignity of people or of peoples."

Human rights

"Human rights are not just violated by terrorism, repression and murder … but also be the existence of extreme poverty and unjust economic structures that create huge inequalities …"


"Alcohol and drugs are an easy shortcut,"


The papal agenda: what will be in the new pope's in-tray

Reform of the Curia, celibacy and the priesthood crisis, a disaffected laity and Islam will all be keeping the new pope busy

Andrew Brown, Thursday 14 March 2013 12.08 GMT   


Among other things one thing facing the new pope is reforming the Curia, or the Vatican civil service, agreed by many to be no longer fit for purpose. Photograph: AP
The reform of the Curia

The Curia, which is the Vatican civil service, is not a bureaucracy, with rules, so much as a court, with courtiers, in which progress depends on who you know. It is the last court in Europe with any power. The various departments, corresponding to ministries in the outside world, are still known by their names under the Byzantine emperors - "dicasteries".

This court structure is no longer fit for purpose, and everyone outside the Curia, whether conservative or liberal, is agreed on this. On the other hand, it has a history of at least 1,500 years of resisting change, almost always successfully. Whoever takes it on will have to be tough and determined. Success would mean breaking the Curia away from the pattern of Italian politics. It might mean an end to recurrent scandals around such institutions as the Vatican bank. Beyond that, it depends who undertakes it and why.

Liberals and conservatives disagree on whether the reform should make the Curia less powerful or more so. For liberals, reforming the Vatican would be part of a wider process to make local churches more responsible and more responsive to their congregations. For conservatives, it would provide yet more ways to stamp out creeping liberalism.

Celibacy and the crisis in the priesthood

The traditional western model of Catholic priesthood collapsed in the second half of the 20th century. More than 100,000 men left the priesthood to marry before Pope John Paul II made marriage almost impossible; the average age of priests in the US rose from 34 to 64.

There are no official statistics – obviously – on the extent to which this gap has been filled by gay men, nor on how many of those are celibate. But informed Catholic observers agree that the number is high, and that there is a profoundly unhealthy culture within the priesthood. When the HIV/Aids epidemic first hit the US in the 1980s, the death rate among the Catholic priesthood was three times the national average.

In the developing world – especially in Africa – there is a great deal of undiluted homophobia, but there is also a widespread and fairly open disregard of the rules on celibacy, which are treated rather like speed limits, as something other people should observe, if they're idiots. On the other hand, pentecostal and charismatic churches, in which pastors can have freely acknowledged wives, are also growing strongly there.

There are some married Catholic priests – most of them former Anglicans – in England and the US. Their experience suggests that a married priesthood brings its own complications – there has been at least one clergy divorce in the US – but it may still be the least worst solution.

The disaffected laity

In western Europe, North America and Australia, Catholic numbers are falling and show no signs of recovery, except as a result of immigration. One in 10 adult Americans is now a lapsed Catholic. Those worshippers who remain are divided between an increasingly fanatical group fixated on abortion and the culture wars, and a broadly liberal majority increasingly estranged from the hierarchy. American Catholic laity not only use birth control much as everyone else does, but are also more pro-abortion than the average.

Similar patterns can be seen in western Europe. In Germany and Austria there is a strong lay movement calling for liberalisation of the church. This must worry the Vatican, since its share of the German church tax, collected by the state, is increasingly important as American Catholics lose enthusiasm. Even in Britain the church is becoming infected by the internecine hatreds of the US: the anti-abortion pressure group Spuc last week "excommunicated" the Catholic weekly the Tablet after it suggested in the wake of the Cardinal Keith O'Brien scandal that the church should shut up about gay marriage.


Islam and Christianity are the two great missionary faiths and they entwined with each other, sometimes in conflict, all across Africa and Asia, from Senegal to Tehran. In the Middle East, the problems are most violent. There are ancient eastern-rite Catholic churches that acknowledge the pope, although they use their own languages and often have married priests. Their members have been increasingly persecuted during the past 30 years. The invasion of Iraq, the Arab spring and the Arab-Israeli wars have all contributed to a massive exodus of Christians from the Middle East.

While the Catholic church has renounced its historic antisemitism, it has a complicated and not entirely supportive relationship with the state of Israel. This has not made life easier for Middle East Christians.

In Africa south of the Sahara, there is tension and sometimes open warfare between largely Muslim pastoralists pushing southwards and largely Christian agriculturalists resisting them. Climate change will exacerbate these pressures. There is also tension between Muslim Indonesia and Christian East Timor. In India there is pressure on Christians from Hindu fundamentalists. The Chinese government, while quietly favourable to Christianity, is determined to wrest control of clergy appointments from the Vatican. All of these tensions will require a response from the pope, and some electors believe they constitute a central problem.


03/15/2013 12:54 PM

Dirty War Diaries: The Pope and Argentina's Dictatorship

By Annette Langer

While much of Argentina celebrates the election of their countryman Jorge Mario Bergoglio as pope, others accuse him of having played a dubious role in Argentina's military dictatorship. There are prominent voices on both sides of the debate.

Speechlessness was followed by cheers of joy. With a simple "buonasera," the newly elected Pope Francis greeted the faithful in Rome and cracked a joke about coming from the "ends of the earth." It was a rhetorical slam dunk met with jubilation by the audience. There was a similar celebratory atmosphere in his homeland of Argentina. Though not everyone was cheering.

"I can't believe it. I'm so distressed and full of anger that I don't know what to do," wrote the sister of deceased priest and torture victim Orlando Yorio in an e-mail to the journalist Horacio Berbitsky. "Now he's achieved what he wanted."

"He," for Graciela Yorio, refers to a power-hungry man who betrayed her brother and the Hungarian Jesuit Franz Jalics to Argentina's mililtary dictatorshop. A man who did nothing to stop the two faithful from being locked up in prison for five months and tortured. "He" is Pope Francis, then still known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, provincial of the Argentine Jesuits.

The two liberation theologists were kidnapped on May 23, 1976 in a slum where they were doing ministry and social work. "Many people politically associated with the extreme right viewed our presence in the poor districts with suspicion," recalled Jalics later in his writings. "They interprested the fact that we lived there as support of the guerrillas, and they denounced us as terrorists."

The regime's henchmen brought the two Jesuits to the Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada (ESMA), a detention center notorious for torture. After five months they were thrown out onto a field half-naked and pumped full of drugs. The priests complained of Bergoglio to Superior General Pedro Arrupe in Rome. But they had already been expelled from the Jesuit order, allegedly due to contact with woman and "conflicts of obedience."

Accusations of Complicity in Kidnapping

Argentine human rights lawyer Marcelo Parrilli brought Bergoglio's case to the authorities, accusing him of implication in the kidnapping. That was in April 2005, shortly before the conclave that eventually chose Joseph Ratzinger to become Pope Benedict XVI. Bergoglio reportedly got the second most votes, but stepped aside in deference to Ratzinger.

A Jesuit spokesman called Parrilli's legal complaint slander. Bergoglio twice used his right to refuse to give evidence in court. When he testified in 2010, his comments were "evasive," according to human rights lawyer Myriam Bregman. In 2012, Argentine bishops collectively apologized for the mistakes of the church in the country's "Dirty War" in the 1970s and early 80s -- more than 30 years after the fact.

After their detainment, Yorio and Jalics were offered reinstatement into the Jesuit order. Jalics accepted, but Yorio did not.

Yorio never fully recovered from the traumatic experiences in prison. He died in 2000 in Uruguay. Franz Jalics survived the difficult times of torture with the help of meditation and constant prayer. He traveled to Germany in 1978, and later wrote a book about spiritual retreats. He declined to comment on the matter. "But he's at peace with Bergoglio," said Jesuit spokesman Thomas Busch. "A few years ago, Father Jalics traveled to Buenos Aires on the invitation of the archbishop, and they talked together." Nothing is known of their conversation.

A book Jalics wrote in 1995 tells a different story. He says prior to the kidnapping, he described his precarious situation to a superior, warning "that he's toying with our lives." He says the "man" promised to explain to the military that they weren't terrorists. However dozens of documents and statements of witnesses purportedly show that instead of defending the two priests, the same "man" only futher incriminated them. Yorio had related a similar story at the end of the 1970s. At the time, the "man" had a name: Bergoglio.

Some See Bergoglio as Saint, Others Fear Him

On Thursday, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Adolfo Pérez Esquivel defended the pope on BBC Mundo. "Bergoglio was not an accomplice to the dictatorship," he said. He did not, however, deny that the Church remained silent during the dictatorship and that "there were many bishops who were passive." Argentina's last military dictatorship before democracy governed from 1976 to 1983, waging a bloody war against its opponents. Estimates say the number of "desaparecidos," people who were disappeared during that time, is around 30,000. They were kidnapped, tortured and murdered.

Argentine investigative journalist Horacio Verbitsky, nickname "the dog," has written numerous essays and books about the important relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the military dictatorship. He published an interview with Yorio's siblings Graciela and Rodolfo in 2010.

According to that interview, Bergoglio said in a personal conversation that he relied completely on the military secret service to find a clarification of the problem and that they would be responsible for conducting interrogations of the prisoners. Bergoglio was said to have important ties to the authorities. He allegedly met with Admiral Emilio Massera, one of the leaders of the military junta. Bergoglio said he did so to advocate on behalf of the two Jesuit brothers. He said he had nothing to hide.

"I know people he helped," said Yorio's brother Rodolfo. "That's exactly what reveals his two faces, and his closeness to the military powers. He was a master at ambiguity." And he levels a bitter accusation: "When the army killed someone, (Bergoglio) was rid of him, when they saved someone, it was he who had saved them." That's why there are people who see him as a saint, Rodolfo said. "And why there are others who fear him."


03/14/2013 01:13 PM

Fiesta in Argentina: Olé, Olé, Francisco, Francisco!

By Ariel Magnus in Buenos Aires

Germans went crazy went Joseph Ratzinger was chosen as pope in 2005. On Wednesday, it was Argentina's turn, with crowds gathering at a Buenos Aires cathedral and chanting in celebration. T-shirts bearing the slogan "I come from the end of the earth" appeared almost immediately.

It was a good thing the pope wasn't chosen on Tuesday evening, the first night of the conclave. During that day in Buenos Aires, the city's main cathedral, Metropolitana, was surrounded by an angry mob protesting recent funding cuts made to public schools in the city. The cathedral was the target of their anger because private schools, many of them run by the Catholic Church, were to get more state money as part of the reform. Indeed, the city's cardinal, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, even intervened with the mayor of Buenos Aires, suggesting that perhaps the money earmarked for private schools should be sent to public institutions instead.

It was one of Bergoglio's final acts as cardinal. On Wednesday evening, he was chosen by the 115 cardinals gathered in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican to become the successor to Pope Benedict XVI.

Cardinal Bergoglio was transformed into Pope Francis . And the square in front of the cathedral was transformed from a sea of anger on Tuesday to a scene of tumultuous joy on Wednesday, as the faithful gathered to celebrate. A light rain was falling and the temperature stood at just 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit), unusually brisk for a summer day, but that didn't stop Argentines from celebrating the first ever Latin American pope.

Many of those who streamed into the cathedral were waving Argentinean flags, while others held the Vatican banner aloft. Singing echoed through the building as though it were a football stadium: "Olé, olé, Francisco, Francisco!" It might not rhyme, but nobody seemed to care. Ultimately, the crowd swelled to the point that the street outside was closed as the church bells rang without pause. At 7 p.m. local time, a huge mass was celebrated in the cathedral.

A Child of Buenos Aires

The worshippers were deeply moved, almost as though they had known Cardinal Bergoglio personally. For many, that was no doubt true. A Jesuit, Bergoglio is seen as a simple and modest Catholic leader, one who was occasionally seen riding the subway. The fact that he is the son of financially insecure Italian immigrants only serves to strengthen the impression. Just a few minutes after his election was made public, a friend of his appeared on Argentine television to talk about the childhood they shared together. Bergoglio came across as just another child of Buenos Aires.

It was clear that those celebrating on Wednesday night were cheering Bergoglio not just as a Catholic leader, but also as a representative of their country. His genial manner of speaking -- which was on display during his first papal address on St. Peter's Square -- is a key element of his popularity back home. And one comment he made from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica after being introduced to the world was constantly repeated in Buenos Aires on Wednesday: "My brother cardinals have gone almost to the ends of the earth to get (the next pope)." The comment quickly became a headline for Argentine newspapers and T-shirts were also immediately available online with the slogan "I come from the end of the earth."

One Argentine, however, seemed not entirely pleased with the choice: President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. As cardinal, Bergoglio repeatedly criticized her leadership, to the point that she avoided coming to services in his cathedral. When the big news arrived from the Vatican on Wednesday, Fernández de Kirchner's Twitter account exploded with tweets, but they were all about a new natural gas pipeline in Patagonia. Only hours after Pope Francis was presented to the world did the presidential palace release a congratulatory statement. It was formal and respectful -- and cold. Later, the president appeared on state television to announce the handover of new homes for the poor. Only toward the end of the program did she mention the new pope, requesting that he encourage global powers to engage in dialogue -- a clear reference to the ongoing conflict with Great Britain over the Falkland Islands. Next up on state TV? A football match.

Pope Francis the Football Fan

It was a noticeably reserved reaction in comparison with the patriotic fervor on display elsewhere. The choice of Bergoglio, after all, came as a shock. Few seriously thought that an Argentine, and a Jesuit, had a serious chance at the papacy.

Yet it shouldn't have come as such a great surprise, commentators around the world said on Wednesday evening, though few had Bergoglio on their list of favorites prior to his election. Bergoglio, they now pointed out, was Joseph Ratzinger's most serious competitor during the last conclave in 2005. He ultimately withdrew his candidacy "almost in tears," paving the way for Ratzinger to become Pope Benedict XVI. Now that Bergoglio has become Ratzinger's successor, the media has been rushing to point out how predictable it all was.

For the observant, there were other signs. The new pope is an avid football fan, a supporter of the Buenos Aires team San Lorenzo (from the neighborhood of Almagro, not far from where Bergoglio was born). His father, a railway worker, is said to have taken him to the stadium regularly. One of the team's nicknames is "Santos," or "Saints." And if that weren't enough, the team was almost relegated to the second league last season, but managed to avoid the fate at the last moment. Clearly a sign from the heavens.

And it works both ways. In Argentina, Diego Maradona is worshipped as a god. Lionel Messi is seen as the Messiah. But the country had been missing a pope, until now. Surely the football World Cup is now theirs in 2014, the Argentines say. Saint Francis will make sure of it.


Nun: Pope Francis was a ‘little devil’ in school

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, March 14, 2013 22:44 EDT

Decades before he became Pope Francis, Jorge Bergoglio was a “little devil” who jumped up and down the stairs of his century-old Buenos Aires school, the establishment’s mother superior told AFP.

The Argentine cardinal memorized his multiplication tables aloud as he skipped steps at the De la Misericordia school, where he celebrated his First Communion at the age of nine, Sister Martha Rabino remembered.

“He was a devil, a little devil, very mischievous, like every boy,” the 71-year-old nun said with a smile.

“Who would have known that he would become pope!”

Rabino wept tears of joy when the 76-year-old Jesuit, who still shares tea with milk with the school’s nuns, was elected to the throne of St. Peter on Wednesday, becoming the first Latin American leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

“That’s how saints are,” said Rabino, who taught catechism to Cristina Kirchner in the nearby city of La Plata decades before she became president of Argentina.

Bergoglio and Kirchner are known to have a frosty relationship, but Rabino voiced hope that the Argentine leader’s visit to the Vatican for the cardinal’s formal installation as pope next week would change things.

“The two have very strong personalities and very firm convictions, but I was very happy to read the letter that Cristina sent,” she said, referring to the congratulations conveyed by Kirchner. “She will probably kiss his ring, so she will have to reconsider things.”

The new pope’s family home in the Flores neighborhood was only two blocks away from the school’s parish church and the family attended mass there every Sunday.

When he a became priest, Bergoglio returned to lead mass during important events.

“The family went to mass every Sunday. The mother was very Christian and pious. He learned a lot from her,” Rabino said.

Other nuns marked the childhood and spiritual life of Bergoglio, like Sister Rosa, his first teacher. He visited her frequently until her death last year at the age of 101.

“He liked to ask Sister Rosa what he was like when he was a child, and the sister, who was old but very lucid, would reply: ‘You were a devil. Did you get better?’ And he would roar with laughter,” Rabino said.

“Sister Rosa would tell him: ‘I remember when you learned your multiplication table on the stairs and you jumped the steps, two by two, repeating: two, four six. You were tireless,’” she said.

His catechism teacher, Sister Dolores, was also a big influence and he cried during a night of prayer after her death two years ago.

“She was another nun that he deeply loved,” Rabino said.

“She was his catechist when he was eight years old and he never forgot her. He visited her until her death and when she died he spent the night crying, he didn’t drink anything.”

Bergoglio spent his childhood in the Flores neighborhood and he developed his religious vocation at the San Jose de Flores Basilica, where he led mass at the start of every Holy Week.

The cardinal offered his resignation to Pope Benedict XVI when he turned 75, but the pontiff rejected it, Rabino recalled.

“He was a visionary for rejecting it. Bergoglio was thinking of returning to Flores. He told me ‘I will spend my last days here.’ But Benedict didn’t let him. It was possibly an inspiration that came from the Holy Spirit,” she said.

Moving slowly along school hallways due to arthritis in her feet, which forces her to walk around in slippers, Rabino remembered the joy of learning that Bergoglio had become pope.

“I jumped from my seat. I think that was his first miracle as Holy Father,” she quipped.

The nun described the new pope as “a discreet, serene man of great spirituality, very firm but modest and accessible.” The cardinal, she said, refused to take taxis, preferring to take the bus.

She said Bergoglio writes long letters by hand in very small print, always signing them with the words “pray for me.”

“Now we have to pray for him more than ever,” she said. “He is a gift to the church, a breath of fresh air, like opening the windows.”

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« Reply #5109 on: Mar 15, 2013, 08:03 AM »

03/15/2013 11:15 AM

Democracy and Deficits: Hungary and Cyprus Hijack EU Summit


Stalled economic growth and high unemployment were supposed to be the focus of this week's European Union summit in Brussels. But concerns about democracy in Hungary and debt in Cyprus have taken center stage. Both issues have generated considerable strife.

The focus of the European Union summit on Thursday and Friday in Brussels this week was supposed to be clear, with measures to promote growth and reduce unemployment across the Continent topping the agenda.

But instead, this has been overshadowed by a number of other issues that have thrust themselves into the limelight.

First and foremost among them is the extreme concern with which European leaders are viewing recent constitutional amendments pushed through by the Hungarian government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Just as heads of state and government were set to begin their regularly scheduled meeting in Brussels on Thursday, the issue emerged at the forefront, with a decisive shove being provided by European Parliament President Martin Schulz.

"The European Union is a community of values," Schulz said. "We cannot remain silent if a member state rides roughshod over them." Schulz demanded that European leaders take a close look at the constitutional amendments passed by Hungarian parliament on Monday to see if they counteract European values and to punish the country if they do. "In response, Orbán sharply attacked me," Schulz said, adding that the atmosphere between the Hungarian prime minister and other European leaders was "very frosty."

The point was underlined during Orbán's combative press conference on Thursday afternoon. "Who is able to present even one single point of evidence -- facts, may I say -- which could be the basis for any argument that what we are doing is against democracy?" he said. "Saying 'we don't like something' is not concrete enough to react …. I am more than happy to answer their questions."

'Political Opinions'

Schulz was not alone on Thursday in questioning the recent changes made to Hungary's constitution, though. German Chancellor Angela Merkel emphasized that a parliamentary majority should not be "abused," adding that it should be "treated very carefully." And Viviane Reding, EU commissioner of justice, said that the European Commission would take a close look at the amendments and examine possible sanctions. "You don't play around with the constitution," Reding said. "You can't go and change the constitution every six months."

The amendments in question are to a constitution that Orbán's government only installed last year. They were passed by an overwhelming majority on Monday evening, with 265 lawmakers voting in favor, and just 11 against, with 33 abstentions. Orbán's conservative Fidesz party holds more than the two-thirds parliamentary majority necessary to pass constitutional amendments in Hungary.

The changes will severely limit the powers of the country's constitutional court and likewise erode freedom of expression. Several laws the constitutional court had previously rejected, such as a ban on the homeless from loitering in public places, were also anchored into the constitution.

Orbán showed no signs of backing down on Thursday, saying defiantly: "As far as I can see, we are talking about political opinions here. They cannot replace facts."

Yet despite Orbán's apparent pleasure in the massive turnout for his Thursday afternoon press conference, his country was not the only issue to highjack the summit agenda. Though Merkel said repeatedly on Thursday that a potential Cyprus bailout was not on the schedule, it was a major topic in smaller, informal groups on the summit sidelines.

Berlin Puts on the Brakes

Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who was also, until recently, head of the Euro Group, demanded that a solution to the issue be found by Friday evening. Specifically, Juncker was referring to the parallel meeting of euro-zone finance ministers in Brussels on Friday, saying the gathering "must not only make progress towards a solution to the Cyprus question, but present it in finalized form" by Friday evening.

The head of the Cypriot central bank, Panicos Demetriades, likewise piled pressure on the euro-zone on Thursday saying that his country presents a "systemic danger" to the common currency. "The greatest risks are coming from the periphery and at present that is Cyprus," he said, adding that the bailout must be ready by the end of the month.

Merkel, however, sought to lower expectations of a finalized package being ready on Friday. Further negotiations, she said, are "desirable," adding that it takes time to come up with a "prudent, quality solution."

New Euro Group head Jeroen Dijsselbloem suggested on Thursday that finding such a solution might actually be easier than thought. Thus far, it had widely been assumed that the country needed a bailout of €17.5 billion. Though small relative to previous euro-zone bailouts, the sum is close to the equivalent of the small country's annual gross domestic product and raised concerns about Cyprus' long-term ability to shoulder that debt.

Lower Cypriot Financing Needs

Dijsselbloem, however, said on Thursday that the country's actual needs are closer to €10 billion ($13 billion). He declined to offer details, but hinted that Russia might play a greater role than previously assumed. One of the primary hurdles facing the package has been the significant presence of Russian money in Cypriot banks and EU concerns that bailouts would first and foremost help Russian oligarchs. The country's alleged ineffectiveness in combating money laundering has also led many in Berlin and other euro-zone capitals to view a bailout with skepticism.

As for the actual agenda prepared for the summit -- those issues too will apparently be addressed. French President François Hollande made sure of that on Thursday by demanding more flexibility on EU budget rules to create growth. Saying that he remained committed to budgetary consolidation, Hollande added: "It is precisely because of this commitment that there must be flexibility because the only priority right now, aside from the budgetary commitments, is growth …. Too much rigidity would mean too much unemployment."

Berlin is unlikely to consider watering down EU budget rules, though. It was only on Wednesday that German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble announced that his country's budget would be balanced by 2015, a year earlier than necessary under the "debt brake" amendment to the constitution. Deputy Chancellor Philipp Rösler, who joined Schäuble in announcing the news, crowed that Germany was "an example to Europe" and that "the whole world envies" its finances. Hardly the words of a leadership willing to grant France much wiggle room.

With reporting by Christian Teevs in Brussels and information from wire reports

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« Reply #5110 on: Mar 15, 2013, 08:11 AM »

03/15/2013 12:03 PM

Czeched Out: The Losers of Prague's Drug Liberalization

By Christoph Scheuermann

The Czech Republic's 2010 decision to lower drug possession from a criminal to misdemeanor offense has turned the country into a mecca for drug users. The change has spawned a profitable sub-economy, but also come at a high social cost.

The problem has its roots in a rectangular tent made of black plastic that looks like an oversized mobile wardrobe. It's as tall as a man, almost completely odor-tight and provides space for four fully grown cannabis plants. The "Growshop" in the Prague city district of Zižkov sells the tent for the equivalent of €400 ($520), including a fan, ventilation ducts, a 400 Watt spotlight, fertilizer and a bag of potting soil. It's easy to set up this black contraption at home and start growing your own weed. Any 14-year-old can do it -- and that's the problem. The market is flooded with marijuana.

"Prices are falling," says Marek, a local dealer with a hairdo that looks like a wire wig. He has picked out a restaurant near the Charles Bridge, where he orders goulash with mashed potatoes and complains about declining profits. The dope-dealing business has seen better days, he says. He currently gets 1,500 crowns, or roughly €60 ($78), for 10 grams of weed. Regular customers -- who Marek prefers to calls "friends" -- buy on credit.

To avoid boring his "friends," he regularly brings them samples of new strains. "White Widow" is currently doing well, meaning that it gets you high as a kite. Marek stresses that his product is far better than what the competition offers. "My stuff is grown with love, not like the shit that the Vietnamese produce. They grow their weed in warehouses." The Vietnamese are the second problem. Marek says they only care about business, not quality, like the Czech growers do. They aren't devoted to the art of gardening, he claims.

Both Marek and his suppliers benefit from the fact that reefer has become an integral part of Czech folklore since the early 1990s, like pilsner beer and dumplings with sauce. Half of all Czechs between the ages of 15 and 34 have smoked pot at least once in their lives. According to statistics by the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), the Czech Republic ranks among the top cannabis-smoking nations in Europe, right up there with Italy and Spain.

Many years ago, the police gave up issuing warnings to everyone who took a toke on a joint. Unable to stop the practice, the government decided it should at least regulate it. Since 2010, Czech authorities have no longer treated possession of narcotics or psychotropic substances in small quantities as a criminal offense, but rather as a misdemeanor subject to a maximum fine of €600. The Czech Republic -- which borders Germany, Poland, Slovakia and Austria -- now lies like a drugged-up green oasis in the midst of narcotics laws that range from fairly strict to absolutely rigid.

An official table lists the maximum legally allowed amounts: For personal use, each individual is allowed to carry up to 15 grams of marijuana, four ecstasy tablets, two grams of crystal meth, one gram of coke or one-and-a-half grams of heroin without having to fear criminal charges. Dealing drugs is still a criminal offense, but cannabis growers, cocaine smugglers and meth labs have been earning good money again since 2010.

Critics see the new laws as a capitulation, and law enforcement agencies condemn the lax legislation. The Czech interior minister is having troubles with authorities in the neighboring German states of Bavaria and Saxony, who are complaining about drugs being smuggled over the border.

Drug Tourism

Marek sees liberalization as a step in the right direction.

"I'm just a small fish," he says. Indeed, he is one of hundreds in the city who sell ganja to "friends."

It's Thursday afternoon and the expression on Marek's face reveals that he's looking forward to Friday night. Nights out on the town follow the same universal scenario of anticipation, euphoria, crash and morning-after. Revelers rarely have a dark foreboding that excessive drug use could end in disaster.

Marek, 29, was born and raised in Prague. He has been selling grass since he was 18, and he used to also sell harder drugs, such as coke and ecstasy. Today, his main job is guiding tourists through the city. He meets a lot of young people on his tours who are thrilled about the liberal drug laws in the Czech Republic.

He would never offer it, says Marek, but if someone asks him nicely, he knows where to get hold of some weed. He takes the tourists to his office, where they quickly become "friends." With this arrangement, Marek the dealer benefits from Marek the tour guide.

He steps off a street in the historic city center and ducks into a low entranceway, flits through a tunnel and ends up standing in front of his desk. Marek shares the office with his brother, Michal, who runs a hostel for backpacker tourists and is rolling a joint. "I'm not making it too strong because it's still early," he says.

Michal is two years older than Marek, married and the father of a one-and-a-half-year-old girl. His hostel is doing extremely well. He wears his hair in dreadlocks and is the opposite of his brother -- calmer, more reflective, an artist type. Michal has personally experienced his country's drug history. He has to think for a long time when asked if there is any drug that he hasn't yet smoked or swallowed.

Trouble Setting Limits

Michal and Marek are two very different brothers. Michal, the businessman, is slowly working his way up the ladder, while Marek, the dealer, is struggling to avoid sliding back down. They are both familiar with the two sides of drugs, and they know how tempting it can be to live one's life on an endless high.

Their parents were affluent, Michal says while lighting the joint. His father worked in the administration of the state-owned construction company and, after the fall of the Wall, he managed the Eastern European division of a Canadian bank. His mother decided to pursue a career as a freelance business consultant. His parents separated when Michal was 15. "They couldn't handle my brother," he says. Marek got into trouble with his teachers for selling stolen goods. After their parents separated, Marek lived with his father, while Michal moved in with a bunch of roommates and experimented with weed and, later, heroin.

The 1990s were the perfect high for Michal. Along with the tourists, artists, eccentrics and adventurers who streamed into Prague after the fall of the Iron Curtain, new drugs came to the city. Michal took them in every imaginable form: smoke, powder, pills, crystals and liquids. He organized techno parties in empty bunkers and called himself "Narco Polo," the drug explorer.

He had his most life-changing drug experience when he hiked to the top of a hill alone and ate psilocybin ("magic") mushrooms. Not even 20 years old yet, he could have kept on partying to the limit. But up there on the hill, he realized how fragile, beautiful and precious life is. Without the mushrooms, he would be dead now, Michal says. He stopped taking hard drugs and studied philosophy and history.

His little brother Marek already had a knack for business as a young boy. Before his drug phase, he sold collector cards, clothing and, later, insurance policies. "At the age of 17, I was the best salesman in the city," he claims. Marek didn't need any schooling to recognize an unfilled market niche. But the stories he tells often begin with ridiculously high profits -- and usually end with going bust.

Grandma the Grower

With all the drugs flowing into the country, the Czechs soon discovered that they had a penchant for growing their own. Michal recalls how friends and acquaintances began to plant marijuana at home. At the same time, the pot-growing business became far more professional. In early November 2012, the third international hemp trade show, Cannafest, was held on the city's largest exhibition grounds, featuring presentations on "hemp in Czech culture," stands by fertilizer suppliers, cannabis seed dealers and hydroculture companies. Many exhibitors came from the Netherlands to ensure that they don't miss out on this new growth market.

While the police raid new, increasingly huge cannabis plantations -- often operated by Vietnamese -- every few weeks, the rest of the country has private patches of weed. Even Michal and Marek's grandparents raise plants in their greenhouse that they cut and water for their two grandsons. "Grandma is an outstanding gardener," says Michal. He pulls out his mobile phone, which has photos of his last visit. The pictures show resinous buds instead of grandma. Grandpa makes skin cream from the leaves and stems, which Marek and Michal don't smoke.

Michal and Marek rhapsodize about the Prague of the 1990s as if it were a paradise in which friends shared samples of their most successful homegrown varieties. The world was wonderful -- at least that's how it seemed.

Profits and Risks
During the evening, Marek is out on the town with "friends." The next morning, he collapses into the armchair of his office and waits for the speech center of his brain to warm up. The first tourists wander into his office and ask about opera tickets. After they leave, Marek pulls his Roger Federer cap lower over his face and says that he regularly sells grass to some 15 or 20 people, and "I make real good money with some of them." His profit margin is around 70 percent, though a bit less with good friends. He records his profits in his second mobile phone but, as a precaution, he has removed its SIM card.

Marek won't reveal what he makes, but it's possible to make a rough estimate. If 20 customers purchase 10 grams from him twice a month for 1,500 crowns, this gives him monthly sales of 60,000 crowns. At a profit margin of some 50 percent, that leaves him 30,000 crowns a month, or approximately €1,200. That's not bad for a side job -- but he bears the risk.

"Huh?" Marek says. "What risk?"

From time to time, he is stopped in his car by the police and has to take a drug test. He doesn't always pass the test with flying colors. He has tried everything except meth and heroin. Aside from that, he hasn't had any problems with the authorities. What does he have to fear? After all, he says, he's just selling grass.

Most of the tourists Marek meets are more interested in purchasing Bohemian crystal and touring a brewery than in buying dope.

Unlike Amsterdam, Prague doesn't have any "coffee shops" in which a dozen kinds of marijuana and hashish are listed on laminated menus. Instead, people looking to buy drugs in Prague need contacts or the gumption to ask bartenders if they can help them score a few grams.

Hell-Bent on Self-Destruction

Hard drugs are purchased on the black market. The Czech Republic is notorious for its drug kitchens, which have specialized in producing crystal meth, sold here under the names pervitin and piko. More meth is manufactured in the Czech Republic than in any other European country. In 2010, police raided 307 production facilities, most of them home-based meth labs run by amateurs. The quality of the goods depends primarily on how much money and effort the meth cooks invest.

Jana has tried much of what the cooks produce. She is 29, works at the reception of a hostel for backpack tourists in the historic city center, and is one of Marek's "friends." Her favorite drugs are meth and ketamine, she says. While meth rockets you to the moon, ketamine helps you with re-entry.

Ketamine was first synthesized in the US in 1962. Today, it's commonly used in veterinary medicine as an anesthetic. In Prague, the drug is sold in tablets, in powder form or as a liquid -- and it feels like concrete in your veins. It's a state just short of self-disintegration. People who take ketamine rave about near-death experiences. Jana says: "I like to destroy myself."

She comes from Slovenia, moved to Prague at the age of 19, and keeps her head above water with odd jobs. Every weekend, she hits the techno parties, where DJs play music that sounds like the jet engine of a Boeing. For Jana, drugs are part of the party. She seems hell-bent on self-destruction. There is no Plan B.

It's Friday night and she is running along the streets north of the center of town and tearing leaves from bushes. She throws the leaves aside. We have been standing at a streetcar stop for all of about five seconds when she asks: "Are we still waiting here?" Meth numbs the senses, including that of time.

Jana enters bars, then quickly decides that it's not her scene and dashes out again. Within a short period of time, three dealers have asked her if she wants to buy some weed. At the end of a breathless marathon through the Prague nightlife, she disappears behind the bathroom door of a techno club and doesn't resurface for quite some time.

Benefits and Drawbacks

Czech Prime Minister Petr Nečas has pledged to reduce the amount of meth tolerated by the authorities. Czech police say that it's currently the most dangerous substance in the country. The number of long-term users soared by one-third between 2008 and 2011. Since liberalization, the Czech drug market has become so popular worldwide that the authors of the acclaimed US TV series "Breaking Bad" decided to place some of the action here. In the new season, Walter White, the central character in the series, decides to send some of his blue crystals to the Czech Republic and makes so much money that he can hardly believe it.

In addition to meth, in the discos on Prague's Wenzel's Square and in the bars of the artists' district Zižkov, just about everything is available that stimulates the brain, enhances alertness, stirs the libido, causes addiction, takes the edge off, numbs the senses and kneads the consciousness like dough. There is cocaine, ecstasy, LSD, heroin, ketamine, a range of hallucinogenic mushrooms, loads of grass and hashish, and, above all, amphetamines in every imaginable form, mix and concentration. "You can get everything here," says Michal.

The European drug monitoring center EMCDDA estimates that nearly 20 metric tons of cannabis are smoked in the Czech Republic every year, 5 million ecstasy pills are swallowed, 1 million LSD trips taken and five metric tons of crystal meth vaporized. In bars, five minutes don't pass before someone whispers: "Hey! You wanna buy something?" Prague has also surpassed the West when it comes to drug logistics.

The liberal drug policy has benefited consumers and the state, which no longer has to devote a great deal of time and energy to pursuing every minor infraction. But the new policy has not made genuine progress in the fight against the illegal production of drugs.

The Higher You Get, the Harder You Fall

Marek, the dealer, rolls himself a fifth joint after completing two three-hour city sightseeing tours. He is sitting in the backroom of a bar and seems all wound up. His absolute favorite drug is coke, he says. Between his legs lies a backpack that he always carries with him. It contains a Tupperware container filled with weed and a precision scale.

Next to Marek sits another "friend," René from Brazil. René has been living in Prague for 12 years. First, he fell in love with a Czech woman, then with methamphetamine. "The Czech meth is the best on the planet," says René, "I know that because I've tried meth from California. But the Czech stuff is better."

He asks Marek if he wants to drink a schnapps with him. Marek blinks through the blue cloud of smoke from his joint and shouts: "Are you crazy? I still have to do some driving!"

Unable to get a grip on his money problems, Marek started playing online poker. When he plays, he's on coke. That doesn't necessarily help him save money. The street price for a gram of coke in Prague is €100. It consists of roughly 20 percent cocaine and, at best, the rest is lidocaine, a local anesthetic, or levamisole, a medication used to treat parasite worm infections.

While René raves about Czech crystals, the joint helps Marek gradually unwind. It's Sunday evening, and the weekend is over. Marek has survived yet another drug binge. During a recent raid, the police arrested two of his friends who were dealing ecstasy and meth. They are now awaiting trial. But he's not afraid of the police, Marek claims. "If they arrested me, they would also have to arrest half a million people in Prague who are doing the same thing," he quips. Still, he is looking for an opportunity to establish a more solid business, like his brother's.

This life of drugs, this self-destruction, will have to end someday -- even Marek knows that. It's the golden law of the night: The more intense the rush, the more destructive the drug. Many of Marek's and Michal's former "friends" are stumbling around Prague today as drug zombies. Some of them have died from drug abuse.

Michal hopes that Marek will manage to put this chapter behind him, but it currently doesn't look like he's about to stop dealing dope. Michal hopes that the Czech government will someday allow coffee shops. It would be a welcome legalization program for his brother, the dealer. Michal says he wouldn't be surprised if Marek then became the entrepreneur who opens Prague's first coffee shop.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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« Reply #5111 on: Mar 15, 2013, 08:16 AM »

03/14/2013 05:27 PM

Murder Plot: Germany Cracks Down on Salafists

Islamist extremist in Germany are under scrutiny once again after raids on members of Salafist groups coincided on Wednesday with the foiling of a suspected murder plot by individuals linked to the movement. One senior politician wants to make it easier to deport radicals.

Following police raids of Salafist groups on Wednesday in the German state of North-Rhine Westphalia, in addition to the foiling of an apparent Salafist plot to attack senior members of the regional, right-wing populist party Pro-NRW, German conservatives are demanding further action against the Islamist extremists.

Wolfgang Bosbach, a senior member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and the party's domestic policy expert in parliament, would like to make it easier to deport religious extremists. "It is incomprehensible why the deportation law applies only to politically motivated perpetrators of violence and not for religiously motivated fanatics," he said in an interview with the daily Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung, published on Thursday.

Because many of the Salafists in question are also German citizens, he also demanded that more be done to investigate and, where necessary, prosecute extremists.

The call came a day after police arrested four Islamists who were allegedly planning an attack on Markus Beisicht, head of Pro-NRW, in Leverkusen. Two of those taken into custody were seized near Beisicht's home, where they were apparently performing reconnaissance in preparation for an assault. A third was arrested in Bonn, where police also found a firearm and explosive material. The fourth suspect was arrested in Essen. Three of the suspects hold German passports while the fourth is Albanian, according to the public prosecutor's office in Dortmund.

Noticeably Shaken

In addition to the weapons, police also found a list with eight Pro-NRW members' names marked in red, including that of Beisicht. Chief investigator Rainer Pannenbäcker refused to say if police suspected that attacks against the others on the list were imminent. But Beisicht himself said in a brief appearance before supporters on Wednesday evening that all of those on the list had been informed and placed under police protection.

In a video of that event, Beisicht seems noticeably shaken, but also pugnacious. "It is not a nice situation, certainly, to have police parked in front of your house," he said, before adding: "This shows that they are much worse than we have been presenting them. We will never capitulate to the enemies of freedom."

Beisicht became notorious in Germany last year whenPro-NRW launched an Islam caricature contest and then displayed the "winners" in front of Muslim facilities ahead of state elections last May. The events erupted into violence on two occasions, partially the result of Salafists from across Germany travelling to the region to stage counterdemonstrations. At an event in Bonn on May 5, rioting between Salafists and the police on hand to protect Pro-NRW demonstrators resulted in injuries to 29 officers. Two of them landed in the hospital with severe stab wounds.

Since then, threats against Pro-NRW from the Islamist scene have become commonplace. Not long after last May's violence, a video produced by an Islamist in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan called on Muslims to hunt down and kill Pro-NRW members.

Pursuing the Salafists

"For the most part, though, the threats have been abstract," Pro-NRW spokesman Markus Wiener, who says his name, too, is on the list found on Wednesday, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "But this is a new dimension, with weapons and explosives. We are shocked, clearly," he said. "But we will keep fighting."

News of the foiled attack on Pro-NRW broke immediately after police raided some 20 apartments belonging to members of Salafist groups as well as a group meeting place in both North Rhine-Westphalia and the state of Hesse. While no arrests were made, officers confiscated laptops, telephones, propaganda material and a small amount of cash. In addition, German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich banned three Salafist groups. The raids were unconnected to the Pro-NRW plot, officials said.

One of the groups, DawaFFM, was targeted due to its "use of hate-filled propaganda and violence-oriented agitation" to target values anchored in the German constitution. Another group was banned partially due to suspicions that it was collecting money for Islamist groups operating in Syria.

In his comments to the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung, Bosbach said that the bans were "a step in the fight against Salfism." But, he added, "bans do not make radical ideology disappear."

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« Reply #5112 on: Mar 15, 2013, 08:19 AM »

Diplomacy: Stupidity and stinginess in Mali

14 March 2013
Le Monde Paris

Despite what its European partners say in public, France is alone in fighting the armed Islamists and helping rebuild the Malian state. The EU's inability to agree on major global issues will cost it dearly one day, argues Le Monde.
Le Monde

The meeting of the EU Foreign Ministers, held on March 11 in Brussels, has once again left the impression of an EU unable to agree on major international issues. This short-sighted attitude could have serious consequences.

More disenchantment with Europe is not what we want. With a great funk of depression hanging over the continent, we are reluctant to expose yet again the vacuity that distinguishes the European idea these days. In short, we still hesitate to play the pessimist by drawing attention to the discouraging absence of Europe in matters of defence and foreign affairs.

This is not a failure. A failure would imply that we gave it our best shot. No: it’s a debacle, a sad farce, and Mali has demonstrated that masterfully. This held especially true for the meeting of the foreign ministers of the 27 member states in Brussels on March 11. France has felt more isolated than ever since the start of the military operations in the Sahel.
Forgetting the Sahel

With the courteous, somewhat aloof firmness that is his trademark, French Minister of Foreign Affairs Laurent Fabius was reduced to begging for 30 soldiers from Belgium and Spain to be sent to Mali. Not 300. Only 30. Why? Because another 90 are still needed to protect the 500 instructors the EU has sent to Bamako to train the Malian army.

These 90 soldiers must be “prised” one by one away from the grip of the 27 countries of wealthy Europe, which prides itself on ranking amongst the greatest economic powers in the world. Let’s just call it as it is: the reluctance shown by the Belgians and the Spaniards is not political, or even financial. It’s much simpler than that: Brussels and Madrid could not care less about what may happen in the sands of the Sahel.

Hypocrisy has triumphed. On paper, the bloc are all in agreement. The stability of Africa depends heavily on extinguishing the jihadist fire spreading across the Sahel, say the Europeans; so too does the security of Europe, so close and so vulnerable to Islamist terrorism.

But these are just words. When it comes to acting jointly, no one, or almost no one, shows up. For sure, Paris was wrong at the start to send in its troops without consulting with its partners. But a true European solidarity would have been necessary then, a show of a common interest, a common defence – in short, the sharing of a burden that will have to be carried in the future.
‘Let France handle it’

The EU should have shown a strong presence in this part of the world, without leaving it to China, the United States or others to become the privileged partners of the Africans in the 21st century.

Unfortunately, Europe has displayed only pathological disunity and blind stinginess. Only five out of the 27 member states are really involved in the mission to train the Malian army. Beyond sententious declarations on the need for a “plan for the political and economic stabilisation of the Sahel”, the thinly veiled response of most of the 27 member states to events in Mali can be summed up in one sentence: “Let France handle it." So much for the contradiction between suspecting the French of postcolonial tendencies and letting them man the front line in Francophone Africa...

Europe is fleeing from history. It will pay for it one day.

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« Reply #5113 on: Mar 15, 2013, 08:45 AM »

03/15/2013 01:30 PM

An Amazon Problem: The Book Is Dead, Long Live the Book

By Markus Brauck, Wolfgang Höbel and Claudia Voigt

Publishing houses are Germany's intellectual backbone. For many years, they created a culture of literary abundance and generated healthy profits. But in the age of Amazon, e-books and self-publishing, they could be facing demise.

It's quite a drama, practically tailor-made for a TV miniseries with at least seven episodes. The main character is the beautiful publisher who takes over the business when her husband dies, and apparently believes that she inherited the aura of omnipotence from him. Her adversary is a cold-hearted businessman who seems to be interested in only one thing: money, money and more money.

She makes him feel like a cretin. Whenever she can avoid meeting him in person, she sends her lawyers instead, or she hides behind sunglasses when they do. He exacts his revenge for this humiliating treatment and fights her on the terrain he knows best: the world of numbers.

In reality, the plot revolves around Germany's Berlin-based Suhrkamp publishing house, and the struggle between Ulla Unseld-Berkéwicz and minority shareholder Hans Barlach. It's a duel that critics portray as a soap opera. But the real question at the heart of the dispute affects the entire industry: What does the future of book publishing look like?

It's a little reminiscent of the story in the British television series "Downton Abbey," in which an aristocratic family struggles against its growing loss of importance. The series concerns the English aristocracy at the beginning of the 20th century, while the real-life story today relates to the intellectual aristocracy at the beginning of the 21st century. Both are tales of the demise of an old world.

For decades, this publishing aristocracy could take special pride in two things: it made money and it represented more than just vile profit. A colorful intellectual elite was created as a result, as well as a culture of literary abundance -- the intellectual backbone of the nation.

Some important names represent this tradition: Suhrkamp, of course, but also publishing houses like Hanser, Ullstein, Fischer and Rowohlt. They are names that every German reader associates with great authors, wonderful works of literature and late nights spent reading a book.

A Precipitous Decline in Book Sales

Book revenues have been crumbling for the last two years, a development that will only accelerate, and brick-and-mortar bookstores have been steadily losing ground for the last five years. Long derided by publishing houses, e-books, though still a minority phenomenon in Germany, are experiencing tremendous growth. Today, about 11 percent of Germans are reading digital books on devices like the Kindle and the iPad, up from only 4 percent two years ago. In the United States, e-books already make up more than 15 percent of volume in the bookselling industry, mainly because they are more affordable. All of this indicates that margins will continue to shrink, as the book business becomes increasingly hectic, nervous and profit-driven.

"The golden era of publishing, that is, of reading, contemplation and literary education, has somehow come to an end," says Michael Krüger, the outgoing head of the Munich-based Hanser publishing house, who has the reputation of being one of Germany's last great publishing figures. Many people no longer view book publishers "as a stronghold of culture, but merely as a transshipment point for cultural products," says his successor Jo Lendle, the current head of the Cologne-based DuMont publishing house.

Even publishing executives not known for their pessimism, like Kiepenhauer & Witsch Publisher Helge Malchow, expect continued decline in the industry in the coming years. Others say that sales could even drop by more than 20 percent in the coming years. "For decades, the publishing business was pretty much the same," says Malchow. "It is now entering a crisis for the first time, and everything will look different after that."

For years, careful calculations allowed a marriage of intellect and money to persevere. Publishing houses sought to assure they could generate enough bestsellers that could be used to ensure profits and to subsidize the more sophisticated books favored by editors and publishers that also ensured a publishing house's cachet and literary reputation. It's a system that has guaranteed diversity in the books published for decades.

The publishing industry produces more than 90,000 new books a year in Germany. The Suhrkamp publishing group alone publishes about 460 new titles, each written, edited and expensively produced with an enormous amount of thought going into them. It's the very culture that Suhrkamp is famous for in Germany. But it also sells only 500 copies of some titles.

The Dead Writers' Society

With this approach, the company has about €30 million ($39 million) in annual sales and a work force of about 110 employees. Its overhead is high compared with other publishing houses, especially in light of a wretched return on sales estimated at about 0.5 percent. A significant portion of profits is not derived from new releases, but from the sale of books on the so-called backlist, bestsellers by the likes of Hermann Hesse, Bertolt Brecht and Max Frisch.

This dead writers's society is like a life insurance policy for Suhrkamp. But once an author has been dead 70 years, the works enter into the public domain. Hesse died 51 years ago and Brecht has been dead for 57 years. In other words, these revenue sources are finite.

Nevertheless, Suhrkamp's reputation remains unbroken. Three Suhrkamp titles were on the shortlist for the German Book Prize last fall, and one of the best books, Rainald Goetz's "Johann Holtrop," wasn't even on the list. But as illustrious as all of this seems, it still doesn't do much for the bottom line.

The past, from which Suhrkamp and other publishing houses are just awakening, was a luxury situation that depended largely on one circumstance: that success was not possible without publishers. Without publishers, readers would have nothing to read, and without publishers, authors couldn't be authors.

That's changing. Nowadays, publishers are suddenly expected to explain and even prove their achievements and how they make money. It is no longer anything special to bestow the seal of the "writer" on someone when anyone can acquire the label on his or her own.

These changes are currently affecting all levels of the book business, as things become expendable. Even bookstores and the recommendations of their booksellers have become expendable with the rise of online booksellers like Amazon, whose platforms allow customers to recommend books to each other. With the emergence of self-publishing, traditional publishing houses themselves are becoming expendable. Meanwhile, e-books, which are significantly cheaper to produce, are making the printed book expendable.

Is Book Culture Dying?

The book has become cheaper, it will get even cheaper, and it seems questionable whether the two things on which the industry has prided itself, making money while at the same time representing more than just commerce, can still be funded in the future. It's also a question of whether a culture is in the process of dying, and whether its death signifies more than just saying goodbye to printed paper.

You don't have to be a culturally pessimistic high-school teacher to walk into a large bookstore today and notice the signs of decline all around you. At some point, it started with stuffed animals at the register. Then came the wrapping paper and Christmas decorations, chocolate, toys, candles and esoterica. It's enough to leave some customers baffled when they enter into a store trying to find the new releases section. The branch of chain bookstore Thalia in downtown Hamburg is one of these bookstores, one of the largest retail stores in Germany, with 2,000 square meters (21,500 square feet) of floor space. The store will close its doors in January 2014.

The Thalia chain is now owned by Douglas Holding AG, which is best known for its chain of perfume and cosmetics shops and in which US private equity firm Advent International holds a majority stake. It all began in 1919, with a small bookstore in the building occupied by Hamburg's Thalia Theater, from which the former family business derived its name. The company now has about 230 retail stores in Germany, some of which are gradually being closed.

Sales Shift Online

Online bookstores now have a market share of almost 20 percent, but the large bookstore chains have failed to come up with a convincing strategy to counter this development. An exceptional bestseller like the "Shades of Grey" trilogy, with more than 70 million copies sold worldwide, can certainly improve a company's bottom line, but such phenomena do not change the fundamental outlook: People are buying fewer printed books, and when they do buy them, they increasingly order them online.

The industry is so nervous that the German Publishers & Booksellers Association has launched a €3 million campaign to coincide with the Leipzig Book Fair taking place this week. The campaign was created by Zum goldenen Hirschen, a German advertising agency that has worked on the campaigns of similarly ailing industries before, including the "Print Works" campaign for magazine publishers and "Piracy is a Crime" for the film industry.

The goal of the campaign is to bring the book back to the center of society, back into the public consciousness and back into conversation, says Publishers & Booksellers Association CEO Alexander Skipis. It aims to portray the book as fresh, modern and contemporary, partly to counter the results of surveys indicating that books are no longer as popular as gifts to bring along to parties as they once were.

The real issue is that books don't have an image problem at all. What really needs a campaign, but it's a message that would probably be too cumbersome for a few posters, is the fixed book price, which, largely unnoticed by the public, is dying a slow death. It could spell the end of bookstores in a few years.

Unlike other industries, where supply and demand regulate prices, publishing houses in Germany can set the prices of their books. No matter where they are sold, books cost the same. It will be enormously difficult if not impossible to maintain this system with e-books. The problem for publishing houses is that fixed book prices for printed books could also decline in the long term. After all, what bookseller would still perceive the fixed price as a privilege if his customers are going to Amazon en masse to find e-book bargains -- and he isn't even allowed to participate in the price war?

Is Amazon Single-Handedly Destroying Book Culture?
In the soap opera that pits making money against the love of books, and tradition against calculation, Amazon is the perfect adversary of the literary aristocracy. However, Amazon engages globally in the game with which someone like Hans Barlach merely torments the Suhrkamp establishment. The Seattle-based company is a troublemaker of global proportions.

Ralf Kleber, the online retailer's head of German operations, meets with visitors at something that looks like a store counter in his Munich office. Amazon isn't an enemy of the book, but the company wants to have the business to itself, if at all possible, and preferably on its own terms.

Amazon customers discovered this when they closed their accounts and realized that they had suddenly lost the e-books they had purchased from Amazon. Publishing houses discover this when they sell through Amazon. They are forced to give the company large discounts. At the same time, they have to accept the fact that, as publisher Christopher Schroer says, "new, freshly delivered titles turn up as defective copies" on Amazon Marketplace, the company's fixed-price online marketplace.

But the conclusions about Amazon are paradoxical. Many like to argue that the company is in the process of destroying book culture, but the success of its own Kindle reading device is itself an argument that the book is unique and will never disappear.

Millions of Kindles have already been sold, especially in the United States. The e-reader has been available in Germany since 2009.

"With the Kindle, we have tried to achieve the same effect as with a book," says Kleber. "There is nothing to distract you from the text -- no music and no emails. The book disappears during reading. You no longer perceive its existence. It's exactly the same thing with the Kindle."

This is the one good message Amazon has for the industry: The book is indeed unique. It's the only medium that apparently needs a separate device to replace it in the digital world. And it is sufficiently valuable to millions of people that they actually buy the device so that they can continue to read in the future in their electronic books -- quietly and without distractions.

Driving Publishers from their Ivory Towers

The paradoxical conclusion -- the book is dead, but long live the book -- is confirmed by the numbers in the marketplace. It isn't just that people read a lot. They are also untiringly writing books, and they are publishing more than ever before.

There are many literary forums with subsections for all kinds of specialized subjects and genres, visited by countless people searching for communities of readers. And it's never been this easy to publish a text as a book, at least in electronic form. All it takes is a few clicks, and it's as easy as buying a book.

This is finally driving literature and publishing houses out of their ivory tower. Literature, almost even more so than journalism, has become a mass pastime.

Amazon already has a strong position with the printed book in its online business, and it is becoming a dominant force in the e-book market, a sector in which the company already holds a market share of more than 41 percent. And Amazon's power in the marketplace continues to grow, a situation that is unlikely to change with the advent of the new Tolino Shine e-reader, a joint venture of German booksellers and Deutsche Telekom that became available last week.

"It's essentially becoming a monopoly," says publisher Helge Malchow. "In the future, all the world's book publishers could very well be dealing with the same company."

A Digital Age Challenge for Publishers

Every economic sector that is affected by the digital revolution, from news journalism to mail-order companies, travel agencies, the music industry and television, is in a similar position. The experts whose job, until now, has been to find the best books, furniture, beach hotels, TV shows, hits or news articles for their customers, are all realizing that much of their work is actually replaceable.

Customers are now ranking and evaluating these things entirely on their own, as part of a larger crowd, and they're doing it for free, at least for whomever they're giving information about their purchases and opinions. In this case, it's Amazon.

Publishers are only gradually realizing that they cannot leave the processing of this data entirely up to the Internet giant. And they are slowly realizing that it's a game in which they have to participate to succeed.

That may explain why those in the industry have suddenly become conversant in trendy Internet slang terminology, fluently rattling off terms like "big data," "targeting," "re-targeting" and "discoverability."

Companies like Cologne-based publisher Kiepenheuer & Witsch have all of the sudden started using Twitter to allow readers to vote on book cover designs. The Piper publishing house in Munich is proud of its blogging authors and is using social media in an attempt to establish contact between authors and readers at all levels. And the global book conglomerate Random House is now hiring mostly statisticians and mathematicians in the United States, because CEO Markus Dohle has dubbed Random House a "data driven company."

Your E-Book Reader Is Reading You, Too

There's a reason for it, too. People who read e-books aren't actually reading alone. Software uses millions of pieces of anonymous data to monitor how readers actually behave. Almost everything can be documented: how fast people read, which text they highlight and which pages they stop reading. The reader has become transparent.

It is difficult to predict the consequences for the future of the publishing business. Could software be influencing the work of the editor soon? Is it conceivable that books will be rewritten based on readers' reactions, so as to achieve a higher read-through rate?

Or, as Constanze Kurz of the famous German hacker group Chaos Computer Club recently wrote in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper: "Will there soon be versions of books that are optimized to maximize sales, advertised with a sentence like this: 'Now in the second, revised edition: easier to understand, based on data from readers' experiences'?"

Publishers are hoping to learn from the mistakes of the music industry, in particular. It was the first victim of cultural digitization. Its customers ignored copyrights to music en masse, swapping albums and songs for free.

"We're lucky," says Frank Sambeth, the head of Random House's German operations, in Munich. "We had a little time to prepare for the new world and avoid old mistakes."

When the first e-book readers suitable for mass use came on the market, a reasonable number of legal e-books already existed. In other words, customers were not essentially forced into illegality, as was the case in the music industry around the turn of the millennium, when it was possible to buy the first MP3 players but there was no decent legal platform to download music.

"Our clientele is also financially strong and willing to pay," says Sambeth. "It accepts that an intellectual product is worth something, and it's willing to pay for it."

Amazon Enters Into Publishing

But while publishing houses are currently trying to take Amazon's success casually and make the best of the triumph of the e-book, the company is clamping down on the industry by not only seeking to establish a monopoly in the sale of books, but also with its goal of producing bestsellers itself.

Larry Kirshbaum, the head of Amazon Publishing since 2011, used to be senior publishing executive at Time Warner. In addition to concluding joint venture agreements with established publishers for Amazon, he also went ahead and bought a few publishing houses and signed exclusive contracts with several popular American authors.

The competition is outraged, and they accuse Amazon of distorting prices. The company pays its authors such high fees and offers such favorable terms that the old-school publishers are also forced to pay their authors more, just to keep up.

The role of authors has also changed, although it's difficult to say in what direction. Of course, there are many more paths to success today, but it's questionable whether authors ultimately benefit when every book and every author has to become its own profit center. How will that affect Werner Fritsch, for example?

Scraping By

Fritsch is a Suhrkamp author, and because the world is an unfair place, he is still a starving author today. He has won many awards and fellowships. Suhrkamp has been publishing his books reliably for more than two decades, to reliable praise by the critics. Fritsch is highly respected and well reviewed, but he has a relatively small readership.

"Almost all artists I know, people who make an important contribution in terms of intellectual enrichment and bring color into the gray of everyday life, barely make enough money to survive," says Fritsch. He's also referring to himself. "I haven't written any prose yet that didn't take three years to develop, and yet it isn't even enough to live on for a month."

With E-Books or Print, Publishing Remains Game of Chance
Sibylle Berg, who is also a SPIEGEL ONLINE columnist, is another case in point. The author of "Vielen Dank für das Leben" ("The Gift of Life") estimates that she makes about €5 an hour when she writes a novel. Readings "are usually worth exactly zero euros." Berg knows exactly what she's doing, though. Writing novels was "never a business-driven decision," she says.

There are always exceptions, of course, like Rolf Dobelli, the bestselling author of the most successful work of nonfiction published in German in 2012. Some 500,000 copies of his book, "Die Kunst des klaren Denkens" ("The Art of Thinking Clearly"), have already been sold.

For Dobelli, the dream of writing a bestseller, one that anyone can have, has come true. It's a promise that putting together words in just the right away can lead to wealth, fame and recognition.

But the truth is that people like Dobelli are rare. Only a small top echelon of writers can support themselves with writing, and that elite group is shrinking. Meanwhile, the number of books sold in the middle of the pack declines from year to year.

Below that is a thicket of works printed in very small numbers, which are profitable for neither publishing houses nor authors. A well-known publisher estimates that only 100 writers in Germany can live well on their books, while 5,000 others cannot. Even long-established authors no longer sell as many books as they did 10 years ago.

'Why Should an Author Do All the Work?'

Dobelli doesn't believe publishing houses will ever become extinct. "Why," he asks, "should an author do all the work related to a book himself?" The marketing, the public relations, the social media campaigns?

Perhaps it's because the new freedom brought on by the Internet creates a new type of author, someone who no longer sees publishing as an e-book as a second choice, someone like Hugh Howey.

Howey, born in 1975, worked as a boat builder, a bookseller, a skipper and a roofer before writing a short story and publishing it on the Internet. It takes place at a time when people have been living beneath the earth for generations, until one man decides to climb to the surface. Howey's Internet fan community encouraged him to continue telling the story. He turned it into an e-book, which is now selling extremely well. Hollywood director Ridley Scott has since bought the movie rights. Howey's book, "Silo," will be sold in German bookstores starting this week.

The interesting thing about Howey is how consistently he sidelines publishing houses in marketing his book, apparently out of pure calculation. "I prefer the speed and the freedom I have when I do this work myself."

When Howey finally did sign a contract with US publisher Simon & Schuster at the end of last year, after hesitating for a long time, it only applied to the print version of his book. He kept what was truly important to him, namely his digital rights.

So do books have a grim future? Are the last of us closing our books?

Not necessarily. Just take a look at a new breed of publishers emerging, like Jo Lendle, who will soon succeed Michael Krüger at Hanser. He's pinning his hopes entirely on the aura of the book, which remains unbroken, and sees it as the most important capital of publishing houses.

Boutique Publishing

"Even in a culture in which e-books are read, publishers still have an aura," he says. "They embody different tastes." Publishing houses, he says almost defiantly, "will always be more than the sum of their books."

What Lendle is describing is the luxury boutique option. In a market that is becoming increasingly global, packaged and uniform, the unconventional stands a chance of succeeding once again. Despite the mathematics and the predictability of the consumer behavior, the success of literary books cannot be planned or predicted. In this sense, it resembles a game of chance.

Not even the fact that a title is from another country and was a great commercial success there offers a guarantee for the same amount of attention in the German-language market -- not to mention manuscripts that are offered to German publishers.

When Rowohlt chose not to publish Uwe Tellkamp's almost 1,000-page novel "Der Turm" ("The Tower") without significant cuts, he took it to Suhrkamp instead, which published it in its entirety. It was no small risk for the publishing house. But the book received the German Book Prize in 2008, sales have since climbed to almost a million books, and the book was turned into a TV movie, making it a financial success for the publisher.

Suhrkamp's experience with "The Tower" suggests that its sense of quality could pay off in the end. Perhaps not as broadly as in the past, but certainly in such a way as to provide an answer to the question of why publishing houses are still needed.

Thomas Bernhard, another Suhrkamp author, initially sold less than 1,000 copies of his prose books. At the time, hardly anyone would have been willing to bet that the Austrian would go on to sell millions of copies of his works and help to ensure that Suhrkamp continues to achieve at least a small return on sales.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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Watch: Neil deGrasse Tyson explains the timelessness of photons

By Eric W. Dolan
Thursday, March 14, 2013 19:03 EDT

In video uploaded to YouTube on Thursday, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson explained why particles of light called photons existed outside of time.

You should know that if you study [The Theory of Relativity] that as you increase your speed, time ticks more slowly for you than it does for anyone who is watching you,” he said on StarTalk Radio. “This is the relativity of time. This is well known. We have measured this. It is not just your clock that is clicking slower, your metabolism is unfolding more slowly, your brain synapses are firing more slowly, everything about you is slowing down.”

Once you reached the speed of light, Tyson explained, time itself stopped.

“Photons, which is the carrier of light, exists at the speed of light. It doesn’t accelerate from zero to speed of light in 3.4 seconds. It exists at the speed of light, and because of it exists at the speed of light, any watch that it is carrying never ticks, which means if you are the photon… you will slam into whatever you are destined to hit, as far as you are concerned, instantaneously.”

Co-host Chuck Nice lamented that he didn’t have any marijuana on him, since Tyson had just blown his mind.

“Some people would have requested it in advance,” Tyson shot back.

Watch video, uploaded to YouTube, below:
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