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« Reply #5115 on: Mar 15, 2013, 08:53 AM »

Astronomers find water vapor in atmosphere of distant planet

By Ian Sample, The Guardian
Thursday, March 14, 2013 14:22 EDT

But planet HR8799c unlikely to harbour life, as surface temperature exceeds 1,000C

Astronomers have detected water vapour and carbon monoxide in the atmosphere of a planet 130 light years away from Earth. However, the planet, known only as HR8799c, is devoid of methane, a gas that can indicate life, the researchers said.

Their analysis was performed using the most precise atmospheric measurements ever made of a planet outside our solar system. The levels of gases shed light on how the planet formed, from a cluster of ice crystals tens of millions of years ago.

Since the 1990s, astronomers have detected more than 1,000 planets beyond our solar system. HR8799c is colossal: about seven times the mass of Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system. It circles a star with at least three other planets.

To take their readings, scientists peered at the planet through a telescope at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, and used an instrument called Osiris to record incoming infrared light. At only 30m years old, the planet is young, extraordinarily hot, and easy to see in the infrared range.

Through detailed analysis of the planet’s light, the team teased out chemical fingerprints of molecules in the atmosphere, which absorb different wavelengths of infrared. They found copious amounts of water vapour and carbon monoxide, but no traces of methane, according to a report in the US journal Science. The presence of methane can be a sign of life, as on Earth where it is a waste gas of many living organisms.

The presence of water in the atmosphere does not make the planet a contender for life either, the scientists said. “Even though we see water, we don’t expect there to be any chance of life on this planet. There is no solid surface and it’s really hot,” said Quinn Konopacky at the University of Toronto. Surface temperatures on the planet are thought to exceed 1,000C.

But the new measurements clarify how the planet came into existence. Its atmosphere has a high ratio of carbon to oxygen, which suggests it formed through a process called core accretion, when grains of water ice condense from a disc of material surrounding the parent star.

“These ice grains stuck together to make bigger ice chunks a few kilometres across, that kept colliding and building up the planet’s solid core,” said Konopacky. “The atmosphere came later, from gas that the planet attracted after it got big enough.” Planets in our own solar system are thought to have formed the same way. The scientists now plan to analyse the atmospheres of other giant planets that circle the same star.

Astronomers hope one day to study the atmospheres of small, rocky planets similar to Earth, but these tend to be so small, and close to their stars, that the light from them is too faint for telescopes to detect. Researchers said it could be decades before the technology existed to do the measurements.

“If you wanted to do an Earth-sized planet, you really need a spacecraft and you really need a very dedicated spacecraft that was designed only for that purpose,” said Bruce Macintosh, a co-author of the study, at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

© Guardian News and Media 2013

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« Reply #5116 on: Mar 16, 2013, 06:54 AM »

Pope Francis: a man of joy and humility, or harsh and unbending?

Conflicting accounts of the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio's character have emerged since his election

Sam Jones, Uki Goni and Jonathan Watts in Buenos Aires, John Hooper in Rome and Andrew Brown   
The Guardian, Friday 15 March 2013 20.17 GMT   

The clerical career of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the 266th Bishop of Rome, is bookended by two joyous dates. The first is 13 December 1969, the day on which the young Argentinian, on the brink of his 33rd birthday, was ordained a Jesuit priest. The second is 13 March 2013 when, at 7.06pm local time, white smoked curled into the Vatican night to confirm his surprise election as pope.

But there is a third, less celebrated, date in that career, a date that has already begun to haunt the first week of Francis's papacy from a distance of almost 40 years.

On the morning of Sunday 23 May 1976, more than 100 soldiers and marines climbed out of police cars and military lorries outside a church in the Bajo Flores slum neighbourhood of southern Buenos Aires and kidnapped two Jesuit priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics. The pair were held and tortured at the infamous Naval School of Mechanics for five months.

After their release, the priests accused Bergoglio, the leader of the Jesuit order in Argentina, of abandoning them to the military junta. By withdrawing his protection after they refused to stop visiting the slums, and refusing to endorse their work, they said, Bergoglio all but delivered them up to the authorities.

Pope Francis has long denied the accusations. In 2005, when they resurfaced as he attended the conclave that elected Benedict XVI – and in which he reportedly finished second – he dismissed them as "old slander". Far from abandoning Yorio and Jalics – despite the fact that they had broken their Jesuit vow of obedience – he has insisted he did everything he could to save them, even interceding on their behalf with the Argentinian dictator José Rafael Videla and Eduardo Massera, head of the navy.
Pope Francis family photo Pope Francis, then Jorge Bergoglio, back row centre in a family photograph. Photograph: AP

On Friday, Jalics broke his long silence to say that he had become "reconciled" to what happened after meeting Bergoglio in 2000. He made no further comment, nor did he withdraw the allegations he and his fellow kidnapped Jesuit had made.

The pope and the Vatican will be hoping that their denials and Jalics's late intervention will finally lay the matter to rest and allow Francis to begin his papacy in earnest. But even should the clamour from within Argentina die down, Francis has other critics to face from the order for which he was ordained: the Society of Jesus.

Despite waiting very nearly five centuries to see one of their own on the papal throne, many Jesuits have been lukewarm at best about the pontiff, and, at worst, deeply suspicious.

Much of the distrust stems from Francis's six years as Jesuit provincial of Argentina – a period that included the kidnapping of Yorio and Jalics. His leadership was marked by an authoritarian and conservative outlook, which did not sit well with the traditionally independent-minded order. He was also fiercely opposed to liberation theology, which, with its radical elision of Christ's teachings and economics, attracted so many of the priests ministering to the poorest people of the Latin America in the 1970s and 80s.

As Michael Walsh, a papal historian and former Jesuit, puts it, some members of the order were "not altogether enthusiastic" about Cardinal Bergoglio. "As a provincial, he was extremely strict and fairly conservative, which goes against the grain of the society," said Walsh. "He did attend the general congregation that elected the predecessor of Adolfo Nicolás [the current head of the Jesuits] and people there felt that, without ever separating himself from it, he was at a distance from the society."

The official Jesuit reaction to Bergoglio's election as pope this week was scarcely effusive.

"All of us Jesuits accompany with our prayers our brother and we thank him for his generosity in accepting the responsibility of guiding the church at this crucial time," said Nicolás in a statement.

Other have been far more forthright.
Pope Francis on bus The then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio takes public transport in Argentina as archbishop of Buenos Aires in 2008. Photograph: Reuters

Eight years ago, before the last conclave, the Jesuits' official spokesman, José María de Vera, characterised the cardinal as a priest who "doesn't identify himself as a 100% Jesuit". De Vera also told the Argentinian journalist Sebastián Lacunza: "He has said that there are some things in the order that he likes and others that he doesn't." The estrangement, he said, began to grow following the allegations made by the kidnapped priests. "He has had no relations with the order since the problems of the two priests – Yorio and Jalics – who went missing," said De Vera. Asked whether he believed the pair's allegations, he replied: "Of course. One of them is alive, and he lives in Germany, I believe."

It has not gone unnoticed that Bergoglio allowed it to be known that he chose his papal name to honour St Francis of Assisi rather than the Jesuit saint Francis Xavier. The distancing has gone hand in hand with the tightening of a new bond with the conservative Communion and Liberation movement (CL), which was founded by an Italian priest, the late Father Luigi Giussani.

Before the Conclave, the National Catholic Reporter published a profile of the then cardinal Bergoglio in which it noted he had spoken at CL's annual gathering in the Italian coastal resort of Rimini and presented Giussani's books at literary fairs in Argentina. This was certainly unusual behaviour for the member of an order whose relations with CL are, at best, cool.

Some, however, claim the gap between Francis and his order is narrowing and that the past disagreements can equally be explained by a simple clash of personalities. "Everyone has their own way," said Father José María Sang, a former student of Francis who now runs the Colegio Máximo de San Miguel, Argentina's main Jesuit training centre.

"There may have been differences in the past. But from what I have seen in recent years, there is a good relationship."
Pope Francis postcards Postcards of the new Pope Francis on sale in Rome. Photograph: Dmitry Lovetsky/AP

Sang, who recalls his former mentor as an earnest, well-prepared teacher with a strong spiritual orientation, also believes that those seeking to pigeonhole the new pope as conservative or progressive are missing the point.

"These terms are political, not religious," he said. "It is better to look at what Bergoglio has done since becoming a bishop – the concern he has shown for the poor and for street dwellers. This is a Jesuit approach."

Francis's commitment to the poor, the sick and the marginalised is indubitable and profoundly Jesuitic. He is a familiar figure in a giant slum in Buenos Aires, known only as 21-24, where 45,000 people live in extreme poverty. For 15 years, Bergoglio rode the 70 bus several times a year, and then walked in normal priest's robes through the dangerous neighbourhood to celebrate mass at the tiny makeshift church of the Virgin of Caacupé.

"He is adored by everyone here, I would say you'd find a photo of him in 60% of the homes in 21-24," said Father Juan Isasmendi, who holds Bergoglio in an almost saintly regard. For the priest, Bergoglio was a rarity in the Argentinian Catholic hierarchy. "He is a true man of God, he baptised so many children, he gave communion himself to thousands here. He is authentically religious, a true pastor, he was a father to so many people here and a father to us priests."

As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he famously gave up the palace in favour of a modest flat where he cooked for himself, and chose to move around the capital on public transport rather than in a chauffeur-driven car. And, just as he did when he became a cardinal in 2001, he has asked people not to travel to Rome for his installation mass, but to give the money they would have spent to the poor.

Such behaviour has endeared him to millions. Yet Estela de la Cuadra – whose mother co-founded the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo activist group during the dictatorship to search for missing family members – seems resolutely immune. Asked whether she felt Francis had lived up to his reputation as a common, humble man, she replied, ironically: "Yes, he has an arrogant humility."

But Francesca Ambrogetti, co-author of a flattering biography of the new pope entitled The Jesuit, feels that Francis's compassionate and practical attitude to the disadvantaged will be one of the distinguishing features of his papacy. "He is very close to people, though that is not often realised," she said. "In the future, he is looking towards a more missionary church, a church that goes out to meet the people."

She points to the parable of the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep in his flock to look for the one animal that is lost.

"For him, it is the opposite," said Ambrogetti. "There is one sheep in the fold and 99 lost. I think this convinced the other cardinals – the emphasis on a missionary church."

And what of the name of the book? Does Francis still see himself as a Jesuit?

"He wasn't against the title of the book," she said. "When we asked him to define himself, his answer was: 'Jorge Bergoglio, a priest'. But he accepted the title."

Despite his missionary vigour, however – and a readiness to engage with the secular world that far outstrips that of his predecessor – Francis remains an outspoken opponent of abortion, divorce, women's rights and euthanasia.

"A pregnant woman is not carrying a toothbrush in her womb, or a tumour," he once said. "Science shows us that the entire genetic code is present from the moment of conception. It's not therefore a religious issue, but scientifically based morality, because we are in the presence of a human being." He has also said that women who terminate their pregnancies suffer "giant dramas" of conscience, and defended the withholding of communion from divorcees.

Tina Beattie, professor of Catholic studies at Roehampton University, is not surprised by his past pronouncements.

"He's conservative on sexual issues but they all are," she said. But, she added, Francis's personal experiences of, and commitment to, the marginalised might yet lead him to confront some of the issues that Benedict XVI was simply unable to grasp.

"If he is listening to the voices of the poor, he will hear things about women's lives that the last pope was totally deaf to and unaware of," she said. "Any pope who listens to the poor and struggling people will hear women's voices if he really wants to."

The new pope's plans for the scandal-wracked Curia, the Vatican's civil service, are harder to fathom. Will he bring a Jesuit's rigour and force to the problem and drive the thorough reform of which the Curia is so badly in need?

"Every office in the Roman Curia is up for grabs," said Walsh. "But where's he going to get the people who are going to reform the Curia with him? He doesn't know how the Curia works very much because he's not been a curial man – which is a good thing in one way – but you do need to know how it works in order to reform it."

Although at least one previous declaration suggest Francis may not view reform of the Curia as the most pressing issue – "sometimes negative news does come out, but it is often exaggerated and manipulated to spread scandal" – Walsh believes a Jesuit pope may bring two new attributes to the office.
Pope Francis Pope Francis as a teenager in Buenos Aires. Photograph: AP

"Jesuits consult a lot," he said. "I really think we'll see a pope who's going to consult more; I think we're even seeing signs of that now in his way of dealing with the cardinals and not putting himself above them."

What's more, he added, Jesuits tend to leave the offices they hold – whether as provincials or school principals – after a six-year term, raising the prospect of a short papacy.

"Since they appointed someone of 76, they might very well have thought that he was going to follow Benedict's example and retire," he said.

Regardless of the precedent, talk of retirement is, of course, premature – not least for Pope Francis's only surviving sister, María Elena Bergoglio, who is still trying to come to terms with the fact that he is now the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion people.

Almost 60 years have passed since the spring day when the 17-year-old Jorge Bergolio first felt the tug of vocation, a stirring that led him to leave his friends to their día de la primavera celebrations and head instead to confession at the church of San José de Flores. His decision to devote his life to God delighted his father but angered his mother; his election as pope has stunned but delighted his surviving sister.

"He looked very happy, very relaxed and happy," said María Elena of the moment he stepped on to the balcony of St Peter's to greet the world.

Despite her pride in his achievements, though, María Elena won't be going to Rome to see him installed.

"I'm staying here in Argentina," she said. "This where I feel I have to be, praying for this very difficult world we live in, praying for this very difficult moment for the church."


Pope Francis's book reveals a radical progressive in the making

Book written as a cardinal shows a man with a profound social conscience and professing a genuine belief in interfaith dialogue

Giles Tremlett in Madrid, Friday 15 March 2013 16.33 GMT   

In his own words, Pope Francis comes over as a clever, thoughtful and skilful mixture of social conservative and radical progressive who preaches zero tolerance of pederast priests but whose own behaviour during the terror of Argentina's military juntas remains decidedly blurred.

In his latest book, On Earth and Heaven, the man then known as Jorge Bergoglio, discusses the divine and the mundane with the prominent Jewish rabbi Abraham Skorka in a series of conversations published in 2010.

Bergoglio appears as a man with a profound social conscience, expressing admiration of some atheist socialists and professing a genuine belief in interfaith dialogue – to the extent that some radical Catholics accuse him of heresy.

He is critical of those who covered up the paedophile scandal that has done so much damage to the church he now leads.

"The idea that celibacy produces paedophiles can be forgotten," he says. "If a priest is a paedophile, he is so before he becomes a priest. But when this happens you must never look away. You cannot be in a position of power and use it to destroy the life of another person."

Bergoglio says he has never had to deal with such a case, but when a bishop asked what he should do, he told him the priest should be sacked and tried, that putting the church's reputation first was a mistake.

"I think that is the solution that was once proposed in the United States; of switching them to other parishes," he says. "That is stupid, because the priest continues to carry the problem in his backpack." The only answer to the problem, he adds, is zero tolerance.

The church, he says, has been through worse times. "There have been corrupt periods. There were very difficult periods, but the religion revived itself."

He also recognises that the church must move with the times and be in constant transformation. "If, throughout history, the church has changed so much, I do not see why we should not adapt it to the culture of the [our] time," he says.

But he sticks to Catholic dogma on key issues, writing off gay marriage as "an anthropological reverse".

Abortion is a scientific problem that is separate "from any religious concept".

"Preventing the development of a being that already has the genetic code of a human being is not ethical," he says.

Some of his harshest words are for ultra-conservatives who put obedience of church rules above everything else. "There are sectors within the religions that are so prescriptive that they forget the human side," he says.

That may explain why, according to a leaked cardinal's diary from the 2005 papal conclave, he allegedly once criticised anti-condom zealots as wanting to "stick the whole world inside a condom".

But it may also be the result of criticism he received for once joining a stadium full of protestant evangelists – seen by some Catholics as the biggest threat to their supremacy in Latin America – in their prayers.

"The following week a magazine produced the headline: 'Archbishopric of Buenos Aires, an empty chair. The archbishop has committed the crime of apostasy'," he complains.

The allegations by journalist Horacio Verbitsky, who accuses him of covering up the church's connivance with the silencing of the disappearance, torture and murder of political opponents, are dismissed with a reference to another book of interviews in which he gives his explanation.

"The horrors committed under the military governments were revealed only drip-by-drip, but for me they are still one of the worst blights on this country," says Bergoglio, suggesting that he himself only slowly became aware of the abuses.

He expresses his admiration for the atheist socialists who helped bring social justice to Argentina, but recognises that some socialists end up leaving the church. "Generally it is because they have conflicts with the church structure, with the way of life of some believers who, instead of being a bridge, become a wall."

And he warns against a globalisation that does not respect cultures. "The kind of globalisation that makes things uniform is essentially imperialist," he says, adding that cultural diversity must be conserved. "At the end it becomes a way of enslaving people."

And he reveals what he most admires about Saint Francis of Assisi, from whom he would later take his papal name.

"He brought to Christianity an idea of poverty against the luxury, pride, vanity of the civil and ecclesiastical powers of the time," he says. "He changed history."

But he refuses to separate charity from religion – and even warns the church against becoming a simple NGO.

And the man who now leads 1.2 billion Roman Catholics across the world has a clear idea of leadership. "A religious leader can be strong, and very firm, but without being aggressive," he says. "Whoever leads should be like those who serve. When he stops serving he becomes a mere manager, a representative of an NGO."


03/15/2013 05:22 PM

Asceticism and Humility: The Life of Pope Francis' Namesake

By Hans-Ulrich Stoldt

At a time when the Catholic Church was sinking into opulence and pomposity, a powerful religious countercurrent formed in the High Middle Ages: beggar-monks like Francis of Assisi, who preached abstinence and humility. A profile of the religious leader who has become the new pope's namesake.

Editor's note: After his election to the papacy this week, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina chose Pope Francis as his name. It's an homage to Saint Francis of Assisi, the 13th century Catholic friar and preacher who founded the beggar-monk movement through his Franciscan order. He emphasized a life of asceticism and humility, and created a powerful voice for the poor the church couldn't ignore. SPIEGEL's history magazine, SPIEGEL GESCHICHTE, published the following article about the influence of the new pope's namesake in 2010.

It was one of those nights when young people made their happy, noisy way through the streets of Assisi. With a good meal and more than a few rounds of drinks behind them, they danced and sang loudly as they navigated the alleyways of this central Italian town.

Not all of Assisi's residents were amused. One commented sourly that the young people had "filled their stomachs to bursting and now are despoiling the city squares with their drunken songs."

This particular group of merry youths was headed up by one Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, known as Francesco, around 22 years old at the time. The scion of a wealthy and well-respected cloth merchant family, Francesco had a penchant for extravagant clothes and enjoyed the good things in life. As a sign of his elevated position among the other young men, he was never seen without a walking stick swinging jauntily from his hand, and he was well-liked thanks to a propensity for picking up the group's tab after a night of revelry.

Francesco's inebriated companions took no particular notice when their leader lagged behind on this particular evening. When they did finally realize and turn back, they found Francesco lost in an ecstatic reverie, as if struck by lightning, in the middle of the street. "Suddenly he was visited by the Lord's spirit and his heart filled with such joy that he could neither speak nor move," one chronicler later wrote.

From that point on, young Francesco gradually renounced all earthly riches, broke off contact with his wealthy family and began to wander the country as an itinerant preacher in a simple frock, just as Jesus had once done, in poverty and humility.

A Truly 'Subversive, Revolutionary Element'

He obtained what he needed to survive by begging among the faithful, and whatever he had left over he shared with the poor and the sick. He saw all of humanity as brothers and sisters, equals, and believed no person should be elevated above others. He preached peace and peacefulness, and even the animals listened to the words he spoke.

This, at least, is the legend of the religious awakening of the man from Umbria who would later achieve global fame as Saint Francis of Assisi. Countless stories surround this man who is "surely the most important figure in the history of Christianity since Jesus himself," in the words of Helmut Feld, a renowned scholar on Saint Francis.

Both the life and the teachings of the man from Assisi held a truly "subversive, revolutionary element," Feld says. "By expecting the greatest possible humility from himself, from leaders within the order and from officials in the church, Francis was in a certain sense dismantling the hierarchical structures of religious orders and of the church as a whole."

To this day, Christians of all denominations remain fascinated by the ideas and ideals Saint Francis preached in the early 13th century, as he sought to teach through the example of a life lived in almost complete self-abandonment.

Dramatic Changes in Nearly All Aspects

Even during his lifetime, Saint Francis' example spread far beyond the borders of Umbria. His order drew a large following, and other similar orders also saw their numbers swell. A powerful reform movement grew, made up of beggar-monks whose simple, peaceful existence called into question the dominant powers of both the state and the clergy.

During this period, society in many places was undergoing considerable upheaval, as peasants' rural way of life gave way to urban structures. This shift was accompanied by dramatic changes in nearly all aspects of society and the economy.

Factories came into being capable of producing goods on a mass scale. Trade flourished, a money economy developed and a city-dwelling, educated, increasingly self-aware upper class emerged.

People were freer than ever before to devote themselves to enjoying earthly pleasures, and the church's commandments and prohibitions that had once seemed carved in stone were suddenly called into question. What had previously been seen as certain now began to falter. Fashions, courtly love songs and splendid finery -- for those who could afford such things -- all offered up a promise of pleasures that could be enjoyed here and now, not only in the hereafter.

For the many others who had to struggle for their daily existence at the margins of society, meanwhile, such things served as an obscene provocation. Especially in the cities, the contrast between rich and poor was growing extreme, and with it grew criticism aimed at the excessive, and less than pious, way of life among the ruling classes. This was fertile soil for movements based on poverty and for orders of beggar-monks, such as the Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, Servites and Carmelites.

Inspired and led by charismatic figures, these orders spread the ideal of a life of renunciation, penance and piety. Helping the poor and the lepers was just as important as one's own humility, and these orders held up Jesus Christ and his Apostles as a constant guiding example. Some engaged in prayer so excessively that they tied themselves in place with ropes so as not to collapse from exhaustion, later even inventing equipment to keep believers upright through long bouts of prayer.

Itinerant preachers such as the merchant Peter Waldo from Lyon, France -- founder of the Waldensian movement -- gave fiery speeches denouncing wealth and the pursuit of riches. Women established their own orders as well.

One thing many of these religious groups had in common was the obsessive battle they waged against human desire of every kind. Francis, for example, mixed cold water and ash into his food so as to ruin its flavor. To keep sexual desire under control, he advised his followers to abuse their bodies with ice water, ropes or thorns until their corruptible flesh ("carnis corruptela") had been subdued.

This World Was Only a Vale of Tears

Sometimes it seemed these orders differed from one another in only the tiniest details, for example whether their beggar-monks should be permitted to wear shoes and socks, or if it was in closer accordance with God's will that they wear nothing but sandals.

There were more serious differences, though, within this movement of pious poverty. The Capuchins, for example, required their adherents to follow the teachings of Saint Francis down to the smallest detail, including the exact cut of their cowls, and saw even the Franciscans themselves as deviating from the correct path.

Then there was the particularly radical approach of the Cathars, who viewed themselves as the only "true Christians" and believed in a strict dualism between good and evil. For the Cathars, this world was only a vale of tears. Procreation, whether of humans or animals, was considered the devil's work. Cathars abstained from eating meat, fat and milk products. Only the soul was worth saving, so it could meet God in Heaven.

The Cathars were also radical in their rejection of the Roman Catholic Church, a dangerous position to take. It had certainly not escaped the notice of the mainstream clergy that more and more of its lambs were seeking their salvation with other religious movements -- especially since these movements' leaders often preached in the local language rather than Latin, enabling them to speak to large segments of the population directly.

Rome and its representatives made every effort to keep the renegade poverty movements and beggar-monk orders within the fold of the church itself. In cases where it failed to do so, it vilified these deviators as heretics and persecuted them with the brutal methods of the Inquisition.

Voices Calling for Reform and Self-determination

While the Franciscans and Dominicans accepted the supremacy of the Pope and the Catholic Church, the Cathars and other groups came to be seen as dangerous opponents, and the church fought them fiercely.

At the same time, the church could not entirely ignore these new mass religious movements. Even within the Catholic Church itself, the voices calling for reform and self-determination were growing louder, with the censure of opulence, debauchery and immoral behavior within the church's own ranks expressed increasingly openly.

When Pope Innocent III brought together over 1,200 participants, including numerous bishops and abbots, for the Fourth Lateran Council in Rome in 1215, these leaders clearly condemned the deplorable conduct common among many leading clergy members: "They waste nearly half the night in needless feasting and unseemly chatter, not to mention other things."

Given these circumstances, the church was quite willing to have beggar-monks and poverty orders remain within its ranks, helping to improve the conscience of the church as a whole.

Pope Gregory IX also made the smart move of canonizing Francis in 1228, barely two years after his death, and at the same time starting construction of a grand basilica in honor of Francis of Assisi. In this way, the church was able to triumph over one of its greatest challengers in death, drawing his followers close to the Catholic Church once again.

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« Reply #5117 on: Mar 16, 2013, 06:56 AM »

03/15/2013 04:26 PM

Green Facism: Beppe Grillo Is the Most Dangerous Man in Europe

A Commentary by Jan Fleischhauer

Beppe Grillo, leader of the populist Five Star Movement in Italy, prides himself on his ridicule of the parliamentary system. Yet while his anti-establishment rhetoric sounds appealing, at heart it's actually anti-democratic. And very similar to that of an infamous Italian from the past.

The man whom German center-left leader Peer Steinbrück called a "clown" does have entertainment value, that much we can agree on. Italy and the euro? "De facto, Italy is already out of the euro zone." Rome and the parliamentary system? "I give all the parties six more months, then it's over here." And these quotes are only the highlights from a recent interview with Beppe Grillo published by the German business daily Handeslblatt. When it comes to straight talking, even Steinbrück, reknowned for his lack of a filter, is surpassed by Grillo.

Steinbrück got a fair amount of flack for his clown comparison. If he had used the term to describe only Berlusconi, everyone would have simply nodded in agreement. But Grillo? The leader of the streets and hero of the youth, whose third-placed Five Star Movement demonstrated the degree to which Merkel's austerity diktat is pushing Italy to its limits? The advocate for shorter terms of office and a cleaner way of doing politics? Even within the ranks of Steinbrück's Social Democrats (SPD), people were calling for their candidate to be put in his place.

A part of the sympathy that Grillo enjoys in Germany is undoubtedly thanks to his proximity to the political left. Much of what the Five Star Movement espouses could easily be found in the platforms of the Attac movement or Germany's Green party: the passion for alternative sources of energy, the promise of more civic engagement, the protest against the "fat cats" of international finance and the calls to put them on a diet. But that's just the surface. Such fluff doesn't propel a party to the top in just a few short years, neither in Italy nor anywhere else.

Grillo derives his energy from resentment. The real key to his success lies in the exploitation of anger -- at Germany, at Brussels bureaucrats, at the whole system. That is what makes him great, not the appeal to reason or the love of democracy.

As with all other revolutionaries, Grillo's answer to the malaise of the present age is extremely simple. You just have to do away with the politicians or, better yet, jettison everything that smells of power and privilege. "We are young," it says on his blog. "We have no structure, heirarchy, leaders or secretaries. We take orders from no one." Grillo's comparison of his movement to the French Revolution, which took its ideas of equality with bloody seriousness, is no accident. He relativizes by saying, "without the guillotine," but the stipulation means little. When people are incited into rage, those who fueled their passions never take the blame.

Good Politics Relies on Compromise

It's the puritanism of the radical moralist that distinguishes Grillo from his competitors and attracts the masses. "Every corner will be illuminated, every committee, every conference hall, every floor," one Five Star member decreed after the elections. The movement wants to "thoroughly clean up the state apparatus," read another explanation as to why so many people voted for the comedian.

In the real world, politics is an arduous, rather unappetizing business. It depends on compromise that, by definition, not everyone is happy with. Sometimes you have to ask the people to accept things they don't understand or want. The Social Democrats in Germany are a case in point. Ten years ago, the SPD passed a controversial package of job-market and welfare reforms. They strengthened the country, but hurt the party. The idea that the votes of the street are somehow more democratic than the votes of representatives sent to parliament in a democratic election is an illusion that has found adherents in Germany as well.

In his best moments, Grillo talks like a cult leader. When he speaks of being "not a commander, but a guarantor," he sounds like a swami who could just as easily be leading the penitant to an ashram. But with a bit of historical awareness, one can see darker parallels.

Echoes of Italian Fascism

In the Swiss magazine Weltwoche, British journalist Nicholas Farrell draws a comparison between Grillo and another famous Italian who founded his own populist movement nearly a hundred years ago: Benito Mussolini. Farrell is an expert on the fascist dictator, having written a much cited 2003 biography of Il Duce.

Mussolini also claimed that his fascist group "Fasci di Combattimento" was not a party but a movement, because political parties were the problem, not the solution. He too saw himself and his followers as cleansers who would finally clean up the frail and corrupt system. And he likewise claimed to represent the youth and freethinkers, those who no longer believed in programs and statutes but in rejuvinating action.

Farrell even finds similarities in the two men's choice of words. Whereas Mussolini spoke of parliament as a "deaf, gray hall" that he refused to enter, Grillo describes his refusal to cooperate in a similar style: "The old parties are coming to an end. They should give back what they stole, and leave. Either they follow us, or they are doomed." The mockery of the parliamentary system under the guise of true democracy is a trick that all opponents of democracy espouse, regardless of where they come from.

It is easily overlooked nowadays, but fascism at its heart was a leftist movement. Mussolini never made a secret of his orgins: "I am and always will be a socialist. My convictions will never change. They are implanted into my bones," he told his comrades as they expelled him from the party at the outbreak of war in 1914 because of his pro-war stance. Farrell concludes that "Mussolini's fascism was black, Grillo's is green, but they both have a red heart."

One can only hope that Steinbrück was right when he said Italians had elected two clowns. Unfortunately it looks as if he was very wrong about one of them.

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« Reply #5118 on: Mar 16, 2013, 06:58 AM »

03/16/2013 12:37 PM

Hitting the Savers: Euro Zone Reaches Deal on Cyprus Bailout

After fraught negotiations, euro-zone finance ministers reached a deal early Saturday to provide up to €10 billion ($13 billion) bailout funds to Cyprus, which faces bankruptcy in May. For the first time, deposits at banks in a country are being seized to assist in the rescue.

Euro-zone finance ministers and the International Monetary Fund reached a deal with Cyprus early Saturday morning on a bailout package for the country that has been the subject of dispute for months now. It will mark the first time that savers in a country in the euro zone are required to participate in a bailout.

"The Euro Group was able to reach a political agreement with the Cypriot authorities on the cornerstones of this agreement," Euro Group President Jeroen Dijsselbloem said. "The assistance is warranted to safeguard stability in Cyprus and the euro zone as a whole," he said. Dijselbloem added that a letter of intent would be completed next week so that the deal could be approved by national parliaments.

International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde said the fund would contribute to the bailout but did not specify the exact amount.

Initial reports suggest the bailout package, which will be provided by the long-term euro rescue fund, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), will carry a total value of up to €10 billion ($13 billion). In return, Cyprus has pledged to recapitalize its ailing banks and clean up government spending. Without the bailout, the country would default in May.

Levy To Raise €5.8 Billion

The deal followed intense negotiations and the main sticking point during the 10-hours of talks had been the demand that savers at Cypriot banks also be required to contribute to the bailouts of the beleaguered financial institutions. Under the deal, any bank account holder in Cyprus with deposits exceeding €100,000 will be subjected to a one-off levy of 9.9 percent of their savings. Accounts with less than a €100,000 would be required to make a 6.75 percent payment. In total, the deposit tax is expected to generate around €5.8 billion.

Large sums of money have been deposited in Cypriot banks by foreign customers, particularly wealthy Russians and Brits. Russian oligarchs have billions in deposits in the banks, and almost half of the deposits in the country are believed to be from non-resident Russian citizens. Together, the country's banks hold close to €70 billion in deposits. Cyprus also agreed to raise the country's nominal corporate tax rate, the lowest in Europe, by 2.5 percentage points to 12.5 percent. But sources said the country would not be given a debt haircut.

The Cypriot government said Saturday it would cease electronic transfers to prevent savers from wiring money out of the country. And Jörg Asmussen, a German board member of the European Central Bank said that the amount of the one-time levy would immediately be frozen in all accounts in Cyprus. Banks in the country will also be closed on Monday because of a holiday. The Cypriot government is expected to pass a law this weekend approving the levy. "I assume that the levy can be applied before the banks reopen normally on Tuesday," Asmussen said.

A 'Fair Way of Sharing the Burden'

Cypriot Finance Minister Michalis Sarris said he hoped for a fresh start for Cyprus following the bailout. "It's not a pleasant outcome, especially for the people involved," he said. "This is a once and for all levy." He added that the tax would be a "very fair way of sharing the burden." He also said it had been necessary to "protect the general welfare of the people and the stability of the system".

Cyprus has suffered massively as a result of its domestic banking crisis. The financial sector plays an extremely important role in the Cypriot economy. The debt haircut of private creditors in Greece last year also created significant problems for numerous Cypriot financial institutions. Cyprus officially requested a €17-billion aid package from Brussels in June.

In recent weeks, EU member states bitterly debated whether or not to give a bailout package to Cyprus. Germany had called for restraint in providing aid and also sought to impose conditions, including that of requiring savers to participate. The IMF, the Netherlands and Finland also supported Germany's position.

Russia Likely to Assist

For the first time in the three-year euro crisis, Russia is also likely to participate in the bailout. European Economic and Currency Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn said Russian Finance Ministry officials indicated they would consider easing the terms of a €2.5 billion loan paid to Cyprus two years ago. The repayment schedule could be lengthened and the interest rate lowered. Cypriot Finance Minister Sarris is expected to travel to Moscow to negotiate on Monday, a Cypriot diplomat told reporters.

Germany and other countries have been irritated by a combination of a low corporate tax rate and lax financial oversight that they claim has made Cyprus a haven for Russian money laundering to the tune of billions. Under the agreement, an independent private company will be installed in the country to observe Cyprus' adherence to the EU's anti-money laundering regulations.

The bailout package must still be approved by Germany's federal parliament, the Bundestag. Following Greece, Portugal and Ireland, Cyprus will become the fourth country to obtain a full bailout under the euro rescue effort. Spain is also receiving money, but only to recapitalize its ailing banks.
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« Reply #5119 on: Mar 16, 2013, 06:59 AM »

03/15/2013 04:43 PM

Two Years of War: EU Leaders Split Over Arming Syrian Rebels

The European Union has long prohibited all weapons exports to Syria, whether to rebels or government forces. But the embargo is up for renewal in May, and France is leading calls to let it expire and give rebels more fighting power against the Assad regime.

Division is emerging within the European Union over the question as to whether to provide weapons to rebels in Syria, as the bloc's leaders gathered in Brussels on Friday, with the two-year-old civil war among the items on the agenda.

France is leading the calls to lift the EU arms embargo on Syria and deliver weapons to the anti-government rebels. French President François Hollande told reporters at the close of the EU summit on Friday that rebels had guaranteed any weapons they receive would not fall into the wrong hands.

"In terms of delivering weapons ... to have the best answer the opposition must give all necessary guarantees," Hollande said. "It's because we have been given those that we can envisage the lifting of the embargo. We have the certainty on the use of these weapons."

Hollande had previously made statements indicating he would be willing to unilaterally break the embargo and deliver weapons. France, supported by the United Kingdom, argues that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is already receiving weapons from Russia and Iran, and giving the rebels more fire power would help them defend themselves and the civilian population, while also increasing pressure on Assad's government to negotiate a political solution.

But despite promises from the Western-backed rebels that weapons would be secure, elements of Islamist extremism among their ranks have raised fears that sending more arms to the country would complicate a post-Assad transition to democracy.

Germany Has 'Host of Reservations'

The EU has banned all weapons exports to Syria, whether to the rebels or government forces. The embargo is up for renewal in May, giving EU leaders a swiftly-approaching chance to let it expire. One EU diplomat told news agency Reuters that "nobody really is interested" in ending the embargo, and that "there is no prospect of change any time soon." Non-lethal military assistance is still permitted.

Officially, the primary topic on the agenda for Friday was EU-Russian relations. European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said that EU's foreign ministers would address the option of arming Syrian rebels at their next meeting on March 22-23 in Dublin.

German Chanceller Angela Merkel said she had "a whole host of reservations" over ending the arms embargo, adding that her "opinion-making process is not yet complete." Her foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, sounded slightly more receptive to the idea on Thursday, saying "if important partners in the European Union now think the situation has changed and they think this makes it necessary to change the decisions on sanctions, we are of course prepared to discuss this in the EU immediately."

Austria, whose troops make up part of the UN peacekeeping force in the disputed Golan Heights, has come out against any weapons deliveries to Syrian rebels. Last week rebels briefly kidnapped 21 Filipino members of the UN force, raising concerns about the safety of the 1,000 troops in the region.

"One can never rule out whose hands more weapons will end up in, and that's why I am against this suggestion," Austrian Defense Minister Gerald Klug told public broadcaster ORF.

The UN estimates some 70,000 people have been killed in Syrian civil war, and more than one million have fled the country as refugees.

The EU summit in Brussels, which began on Thursday, fell on the two-year anniversary of the uprising in Syria. In March 2011, government troops arrested a group of teenagers who had drawn anti-Assad graffiti on a wall, setting off a series of protests in the southern city of Daraa.

acb -- with wire reports

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« Reply #5120 on: Mar 16, 2013, 07:01 AM »

Malta: ‘PM seeks to make new friends and maintain existing ones in the EU’

15 March 2013
The Malta Independent, 15 March 2013

New Prime Minister Joseph Muscat took part in his first EU council meeting on March 14.

The social-democrat head of government sought to reassure the public that Malta’s EU funding was not in jeopardy following the European Parliament’s decision to reject the 2014-2020 EU budget proposal, writes the daily.

He also stated that beyond the “special friendship” with the UK, he would seek to “improve relations with countries such as France – where language should not be seen as a barrier – the Baltic states and new members such as Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia.”
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« Reply #5121 on: Mar 16, 2013, 07:02 AM »

Greenland government falls as voters send warning to mining companies

Siumut party, led by Aleqa Hammond, to form coalition government in place of Kuupik Kleist's administration

Terry Macalister   
The Guardian, Friday 15 March 2013 22.00 GMT   

The race for resources in the frozen wastes of the Arctic has brought down its first national government, leaving foreign oil and mining companies shivering about the future. Voters in Greenland feared that ministers were surrendering their country's interests to China and foreign multinationals and called an end this week to the government of prime minister Kuupik Kleist.

London Mining, which has a former British foreign minister, Sir Nicholas Bonsor, on the board, has been at the centre of a row in the country after speculation it could bring in 2,000 Chinese workers to build one of the world's biggest iron ore mines expressly to serve steel mills in Beijing.

The activities of Edinburgh-based Cairn Energy, which drilled for oil off Greenland's south-west coast in 2011, had also polarised opinion between those who welcomed the potential for a hydrocarbon strike bringing huge economic wealth and those worried about spills.

The Siumut party in Greenland, led by Aleqa Hammond, has just won 42% of the vote, allowing it to form a coalition government in place of the current ruling party led by Kleist.

The election campaign was dominated by a debate over the activities of foreign investors and concerns among the 57,000 population that Greenland's future could be dictated by the demands of potentially polluting new industries such as mining and oil rather than traditional Inuit trades of fishing and hunting.

Hammond, 47, who was educated in Canada and brought up with traditional skills such as curing seal skins, said she would take a more critical look at Chinese mining investments in Greenland. She also pledged to increase royalties on miners and ensure they talked through staffing plans with trade unions.

"We are welcoming companies and countries that are interested in investing in Greenland," she said in her first interview since the election. "At the same time we have to be aware of the consequences as a people. Greenland should work with countries that have the same values as we have, on how human rights should be respected. We are not giving up our values for investors' sake."

Global warming has caused thawing of sea ice that has made drilling for offshore oil easier and opened up huge amounts of land which are believed to be stuffed with iron ore, copper and rare earth minerals used in tablets and mobile phones.

There is still an acceptance in Greenland that foreign investment is needed to bring in revenues and allow the mainly self-governing country to escape economic dependence on an annual grant from its former colonial power Denmark.

Although a rush by the main oil companies into the Arctic has led to some embarrassing setbacks – Cairn has found nothing off Greenland and Shell has just abandoned drilling plans for this summer off Alaska – there is still keen interest in the region, most notably off Russia.

However, Shell was banned from work off Alaska by the US government this week until it came up with a more robust safety programme. Late last year, a UK House of Commons committee called for a halt to all drilling in the far north until a pan-Arctic response plan was in place. Joan Walley, chair of the environmental audit committee, said: "The infrastructure to mount a big clean-up operation is simply not in place and conventional oil spill response techniques have not been proven to work in such severe conditions."

Recently plans for onshore mining have triggered concern in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland. London Mining wants to spend more than £1.5bn on constructing a mine, pipeline and deep sea port in the south-west of the country.

The company said it "does not want to talk" about the impact of the latest political upheaval on its plans but denied it had hired workers from China or anywhere else and said it would not do so until it had permission to proceed with its mine at Isua, 95 miles (150km) east of Nuuk, which could eventually produce 15m tonnes of iron ore a year.

Others with plans are Greenland Minerals and Energy, an Australian-listed company, which wants to mine rare earth minerals at Kvanefjeld and – even more controversially – uranium to fuel nuclear power.

A spokeswoman for the foreign office in Beijing said on Friday: "To my knowledge, no Chinese enterprises have been granted oil, gas or mining licences. There are no Chinese workers entering Greenland." She said a single Chinese company is in the early stages of joining an investment project in Greenland.

A report on the website of China's Ministry of Land and Resources said mining company Sichuan Xinye had held preliminary discussions with London Mining about eventually taking over the Isua scheme. Other Chinese companies digging for business in Greenland were said to include Jiangxi Zhongrun Mining and Jiangxi Union Mining.

Beijing is more openly expansive about its hopes that the thawing ice in the Arctic Ocean will open a new, more direct, shipping route linking east and west.

A Chinese shipping firm is planning the country's first commercial voyage across the Arctic Ocean to the United States and Europe in 2013, a leading Chinese scientist said earlier this week at a conference organised by the Economist magazine in Oslo.

Huigen Yang, director general of the Polar Research Institute of China, said the experimental trip he led last year on the icebreaker Xuelong, or Snowdragon, to explore the route had "greatly encouraged" Chinese shipping companies. Russian and Norwegian shipowners have already started and "one commercial voyage by a Chinese shipping company may take place this summer," said the scientist.

Yang showed delegates at a conference about the Arctic in Oslo longer-term scenarios under which between five and 15% of China's international trade, mostly container traffic, could use the route by 2020. Whether that will include the 250,000 tonne iron ore bulk carriers that London Mining wants to use from Isua, will depend on Hammond.   


Copenhagen city council looks to legalize marijuana sales

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, March 15, 2013 15:47 EDT

Copenhagen city officials said Friday they want to legalise the sale of cannabis for a trial period in order to better control the sale and consumption of the drug.

“A controlled legalisation would open the door to new solutions that would limit the bad effects and reduce some of the social problems that a failed policy of banning the substance has brought with it,” Copenhagen’s mayor for social affairs Mikkel Warming told a city council conference on the issue.

Any move to legalise the use of cannabis would require government and parliamentary support, but a similar appeal a year ago for a trial run of a “Copenhagen Model” was turned down by the justice ministry and received little or no support from national parties.

Warming said he would nonetheless be reapplying to the ministry to be allowed to introduce the Copenhagen Model for a trial period.

Under the model, cannabis would not be sold to persons under the age of 18, would be sold either from an existing chain of shops or from a local council shop and would be controlled.

“In order not to foster greater consumption, sales locations should not be attractive and not foster a special culture or atmosphere that would attract new users,” the council plan said, adding that “the programme must not result in hash tourism”.

The council said it envisaged only Danish citizens being allowed to buy the products, which would be available in various strengths and with full product information and declaration.

“Legalisation would give us much more contact with people who have problems of addiction. It will also make sure that hash is hash and not some mixture of rubber, glass and other poisonous content,” Warming said.

He acknowledged that the trial outcome may not be positive.

“For example we don’t know if legalisation will increase consumption and we don’t know how socially and psychologically vulnerable people will react,” Warming said.

Another challenge foreseen in the programme was how to get hold of an internationally illegal substance to sell. The city suggested possibly importing hash from “producers of hash for medicinal purposes from Washington or Colorado,” though no approaches have been made to US authorities.

Currently, the sale and importation of cannabis in Denmark is illegal, though the black market is estimated at some one billion kroner (134 million euros, $175 million) annually.

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« Reply #5122 on: Mar 16, 2013, 07:09 AM »

IHT Rendezvous
March 15, 2013, 8:24 am

Hungarian Leader Takes Right-wing Defiance to Brussels


LONDON — Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, missed Friday’s celebrations of his country’s annual Revolution Day.

He was at a summit meeting in Brussels, facing the censure of his European partners over constitutional changes that critics say limit freedoms and aim to entrench the power of his governing conservative Fidesz party.

The symbolism of the timing was not lost on Hungarian nationalists.

Marking the 165th anniversary of the nation’s uprising against Habsburg rule, the right-wing Magyar Hirlap newspaper said the Orban government’s policy of opposing “European diktats” highlighted the contemporary relevance of “the unity of the nation in its fight for independence.”

Mr. Orban’s government is accused of testing accepted norms within the European Union with a series of constitutional amendments that critics, including European officials and human rights groups, fear could undermine the judiciary, silence criticism and threaten the checks and balances of democratic government.

The latest measures, adopted by Fidesz lawmakers and their allies on Monday, have also been condemned for discriminating against a range of groups, including the homeless, students, religious minorities and single and same-sex parents.

My colleague Dan Bilefsky, reporting from Budapest, wrote on Monday:

    The passing of the amendment comes amid growing concerns that the center-right government of Mr. Orban, which has a two-thirds majority in Parliament and came to power in 2010, is trying to tighten its grip, including in the judiciary, the media, the central bank, education and even cultural life.

In a guest post on the Opinion pages on Tuesday, Kim Lane Scheppele of Princeton University, examined the implications of the amendment and concluded:

    By now it should be clear that Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party recognize no limitations in their quest for power.

Mr. Orban is not without his defenders outside Hungary, particularly among nationalists who are skeptical about what they see as the overweening power of the European Union.

In July 2011, Nigel Farage, leader of the Euroskeptic United Kingdom Independence Party, told Mr. Orban “jolly well done” at the close of Hungary’s six-month presidency of the E.U.

“You have shown you are not willing to be bullied by these E.U. nationalists,” Mr. Farage said. “When you say, ‘Before we were dictated to by Moscow, and now it is Brussels and you say you are going to stand up to it, you actually mean it.”

More recently, Olivier Bault, writing last month on France’s conservative Nouvelles de France Web site, praised Mr. Orban for openly defending Christian values, including the definition of marriage as the union between a man and a woman.

As European leaders prepared for a two-day economic summit meeting in Brussels, Martin Schultz, president of the European Parliament, urged them to consider what measures to take regarding Hungary.

“The European Union is a community of values,” said Mr. Schultz, a German Social Democrat. “We cannot remain silent if a member state rides roughshod over them.”

Mr. Orban defiantly told reporters in Brussels there was nothing undemocratic about the constitutional changes.

“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 at a news conference on Thursday.

Mr. Orban acknowledged to fellow Hungarians that he would be missing the March 15 celebrations. But, he said, with Hungary under attack, it was better for him to be in Brussels rather than Budapest on Revolution Day.

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« Reply #5123 on: Mar 16, 2013, 07:11 AM »

March 15, 2013

U.S. Is Bolstering Missile Defense to Deter North Korea


WASHINGTON — The Pentagon will spend $1 billion to deploy additional ballistic missile interceptors along the Pacific Coast to counter the growing reach of North Korea’s weapons, a decision accelerated by Pyongyang’s recent belligerence and indications that Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, is resisting China’s efforts to restrain him.

The new deployments, announced by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Friday, will increase the number of ground-based interceptors in California and Alaska to 44 from 30 by 2017.

The missiles have a mixed record in testing, hitting dummy targets just 50 percent of the time, but officials said Friday’s announcement was intended not merely to present a credible deterrence to the North’s limited intercontinental ballistic missile arsenal. They said it is also meant to show South Korea and Japan that the United States is willing to commit resources to deterring the North and, at the same time, warn Beijing that it must restrain its ally or face an expanding American military focus on Asia.

“There’s been a quickening pace of provocations,” said one senior administration official, describing actions and words from North Korea and its new leader, Mr. Kim. “But the real accelerant was the fact that the North Koreans seemed more unmoored from their Chinese handlers than even we had feared.”

Although American and South Korean intelligence officials doubt the North is close to being able to follow through on a nuclear strike, or that it would even try, given its almost certain destruction, analysts say the country’s aggressive behavior is an important and worrying sign of changing calculations in the North.

In interviews over recent days, Obama administration officials described internal debates at the White House and the Pentagon about how strongly to react to the recent provocations. It is a delicate balance, they said, of defending against real potential threats while avoiding giving the North Koreans what one official called “the satisfaction of seeming to make the rest of the world jumpy.”

In announcing the deployments at a Pentagon news conference, Mr. Hagel cited North Korea’s third test of nuclear weapons technology last month, the successful test of a long-range missile that sent a satellite into space, and the discovery that a new generation of mobile missiles appeared closer to development.

“We will strengthen our homeland defense, maintain our commitments to our allies and partners, and make clear to the world that the United States stands firm against aggression,” Mr. Hagel said.

All 14 of the new interceptors will be placed in silos at Fort Greely, Alaska, where 26 interceptors are already deployed. Four others are at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

North Korea has always been an unpredictable, provocative dictatorship. But even by its own standards, the isolated Communist regime’s recent decision to nullify a wartime cease-fire and weeks of increasingly hyperbolic warnings, including of a pre-emptive nuclear strike, appear to have crossed new and dangerous lines.

Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also spoke at the Pentagon on Friday and described how the United States was deliberately building a two-tiered system of deterrence against North Korea.

The United States will “put the mechanics in place to deny any potential North Korean objectives to launch a missile to the United States, but also to impose costs upon them if they do,” Admiral Winnefeld said.

In an unusually pointed warning to the new North Korean leader, Admiral Winnefeld added, “We believe that this young lad ought to be deterred by that — and if he’s not, we’ll be ready.”

The arguments for bolstering the limited missile defense were symbolic of the larger problem.

The antimissile systems are considered less than reliable, and some administration officials were  reluctant to pour additional resources into deploying more of the existing technology.

But in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. C. Robert Kehler, the commander of the United States Strategic Command, made clear they serve a larger purpose. “Deterring North Korea from acting irrationally is our No. 1 priority,” he said. He acknowledged that there were doubts that the 30 existing antimissile systems would be sufficient, and added that an additional site in the United States, on the East Coast, may be needed to deter Iran.

But the new deployment is also intended to send a signal to China, which tried but failed to block the more recent nuclear test, to rein in the North. “We want to make it clear that there’s a price to be paid for letting the North Koreans stay on the current path,” a senior official said Friday.     

The North’s new leader, some analysts say, is intensifying the threats because he has failed to get the Obama administration and its South Korean allies to return to an established pattern in which the North provoked and the allies followed with much-needed economic aid in return for Pyongyang’s promises to finally halt its nuclear weapons program.

But a growing number of experts believe North Korea also views its recent advances in missile and nuclear technology as game changers that will allow it to build the nuclear arsenal it desperately wants, both as a deterrent against better-armed enemies and a cudgel to extract more concessions and possibly even international recognition.

“Developing nuclear weapons gives North Korea a chance to turn the tables in one stroke,” said Cheong Seong-chang, an expert on North Korea at the Sejong Institute. “They can get around the weakness of their economy and their outdated conventional weapons.”

The short-term risk, analysts say, is that the North’s chest-thumping will lead to another round of limited conventional military skirmishes with the South that could get out of control and, in the worst case, draw in the United States. With a new leader in South Korea under political pressure to stand up to her country’s longtime enemy, the risks are especially high.

The main newspaper of North Korea’s ruling party, Rodong Sinmun, recently gave the North’s own explanation for its actions. “Let the American imperialists and their followers know!” the paper said. “We are not a pushover like Iraq or Libya.”

Some missile-defense experts express deep skepticism about the capability of the ground-based interceptors deployed in California and Alaska.

“It remains unclear whether these ground-based interceptors can work effectively, and they should be subjected to much more rigorous field testing before taxpayer resources are spent on a system that is ineffective,” said Tom Z. Collina, research director at the Arms Control Association, an advocacy group here.

James N. Miller, the Pentagon’s under secretary for policy, said the new missiles would have to show success before they would be deployed. “We will continue to stick with our ‘fly before we buy’ approach,” Mr. Miller said, citing a successful test as recently as Jan. 26. George Lewis, an antimissile missile expert at Cornell University, said 15 flight tests of the defensive system have tried to hit targets, and only eight have succeeded.

The Defense Department’s interceptors in California and Alaska are to blunt a long-range missile threat from North Korea. The United States also deploys Patriot Advanced Capability batteries in South Korea for defense of targets there, and the South fields an older model of the Patriot.

Japan is developing its own layered missile-defense system, which includes Aegis warships and Patriot systems as well.

The United States deploys one advanced TPY-2 missile-defense tracking radar in Japan to enhance early warning across the region and toward the West Coast, and it has reached agreement to deploy a second.

And the Navy also recently bolstered its deployment of ballistic missile defense warships in waters off the Korean Peninsula, although the vessels were sent as part of an exercise even before the increase in caustic language from the North. As part of the Foal Eagle military exercise with South Korea, the Navy has four Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers in the region.

Thom Shanker and David E. Sanger reported from Washington, and Martin Fackler from Seoul, South Korea. Choe Sang-hun contributed reporting from Seoul, and William J. Broad from New York.
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« Reply #5124 on: Mar 16, 2013, 07:12 AM »

March 15, 2013

As Hong Kong Presses for More Democracy, Friction With Beijing Rises


HONG KONG — Looming over a modest Chinese medicine shop here that sells dried deer penises for virility and bat feces for vision is a 40-story monolith of dark glass and gray steel: the Hong Kong offices of the Chinese Communist Party.

For Wu Beihan, who sells traditional remedies from ancient wood drawers at the medicine shop, the dark-suited cadres next door have become an unexpected source of extra business this winter, snapping up anxiety relievers like winter mulberry leaves.

“They have worried hearts and are coming here more often,” he said.

Anxiety is understandable at the skyscraper, the Central Liaison Office. Factional struggles in Beijing have spilled into Hong Kong, with the abrupt removal this winter of the long-serving director and deputy director at the liaison office, together with a rapid-fire series of transfers and retirements among other aides.

Turmoil at the liaison office has coincided with, and possibly fed, mounting frictions between Hong Kong and the mainland. Tens of thousands of people have joined large street demonstrations against the Beijing-backed government here, scuffles have broken out between Hong Kong residents and the many mainland visitors, and plans are under way for a large-scale civil disobedience campaign.

The Beijing-backed local government has responded with a series of initiatives to allay residents’ objections. These have included steep taxes on apartment purchases by anyone who is not a permanent resident, notably mainlanders; a ban on pregnant visitors from the mainland, who had been clogging Hong Kong’s obstetric wards so as to gain legal residency for their offspring; and the shelving of a plan for schools to teach a patriotic education course extolling the Communist Party.

But government supporters have also organized a series of noisy but peaceful counterdemonstrations. According to local news media, they have paid as much as $25 apiece to hire protesters for an afternoon, including young street thugs with the bleached blond hair that often signifies gang membership.

Few expect Beijing to respond to political difficulties here by granting greater democracy. The new member of the seven-person Politburo Standing Committee who is expected to oversee Hong Kong policy in the years ahead is Zhang Dejiang, a North Korean-educated hard-liner from the so-called Shanghai Faction in Chinese politics, led by former President Jiang Zemin.

Yu Zhengsheng, another member of the Standing Committee, and Mr. Zhang gave strong warnings at the National People’s Congress last week that Hong Kong residents must safeguard national security — a thinly veiled threat against embracing Western concepts like democracy. Wang Guangya, the director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing, went further in asserting that China’s enemies see Hong Kong as a beachhead “for subverting the socialist system.”

Willy Lam, a longtime Chinese politics specialist, said that the new team installed at the Party Congress in November was united in its hostility toward greater political pluralism in Hong Kong. They also share a deep suspicion that democracy advocates are being manipulated by the United States so as to create trouble in China’s backyard at a time of geopolitical tensions in the region, as China asserts its territorial claims in the East China Sea and South China Sea.

“There’s no difference at the top regarding Tibet, Hong Kong and Taiwan; there are no liberals,” Mr. Lam said.

Ever since Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997, mainland China’s influence over the city has been divided between the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing, which is a cabinet agency of the Chinese government, and the Central Liaison Office here, which is under the Chinese Communist Party. The Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office has been under the control of Jiang Zemin’s allies for many years, while the Central Liaison Office has been run by allies of former President Hu Jintao, who stepped down on Thursday.

But the longtime liaison office director, Peng Qinghua, an ally of Mr. Hu’s, was abruptly moved in late December to become the party secretary of impoverished Guangxi Autonomous Region. His recently arrived replacement is Zhang Xiaoming, a lifetime civil servant at the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office who retains close connections there.

Li Gang, the longtime deputy director of the Central Liaison Office, also lost his post in late December, and was transferred to the liaison office in much smaller Macau.

Mr. Peng and Mr. Li both resisted their transfers, lobbying unsuccessfully for postings in Beijing instead, said a Beijing adviser on Hong Kong policy who insisted on anonymity because of the political delicacy of the issue. The Central Liaison Office declined to provide a comment.

Mr. Zhang has quickly established a reputation for himself by calling for greater political obedience here to Beijing’s will. In a column in a Hong Kong newspaper shortly before he was named to run the liaison office, Mr. Zhang called for Hong Kong to enact new internal security regulations.

A previous effort to enact such legislation, in 2003, triggered pro-democracy demonstrations that drew hundreds of thousands of protesters and forced the local government to shelve the plan.

Echoing the worries of hard-liners in Beijing about democracy advocates here, Mr. Zhang has publicly vowed to resist any “foreign forces” that might try to intervene in Hong Kong politics. He has also begun hinting at a new interpretation of the legal formula for the preservation of Hong Kong’s independent legal and economic system under Chinese sovereignty, which is known as “one country, two systems.” Mr. Zhang has emphasized the “one country” portion of the formula, stressing that China’s sovereignty must be respected at all times.

These comments, echoed by other Chinese officials in the past few weeks, have awakened concerns here that civil liberties may be eroded in the years ahead. Fu Ying, the spokeswoman of the current session of the National People’s Congress, sought last week to meet those concerns, saying that the formula of “One Country, Two Systems” would be preserved.

Benny Tai, a law professor at Hong Kong University, is organizing a pro-democracy campaign of civil disobedience for next year that is supposed to emulate the Occupy Wall Street movement by staging mass sit-ins in Hong Kong’s central business district. But the Beijing adviser said that the current view in Beijing and in the Hong Kong government was that the police could handle any civil disobedience campaign and that public opinion would quickly turn against any movement that threatened to cause long-term disruption in a neighborhood critical to the territory’s prosperity.

Many longtime democracy advocates here are worried about the prospects for change, predicting an increasingly assertive stance by the police and pro-government counterdemonstrators. “It’s going to get worse,” said Martin Lee, a founder of the Democratic Party.

The biggest long-term problem in Hong Kong is that most of the population wants considerably more democracy than Beijing is prepared to tolerate. China said in 2010 that it “may” allow the entire population to vote in chief executive elections in 2017, and not just the 1,200 members of the city’s Election Committee, roughly three-quarters of whom follow the Chinese government’s instructions closely.

The question is who will be allowed to run in general elections. A new survey by the Hong Kong Transition Project, an academic group that studies the territory’s democratic evolution, has found that by far the most popular option, supported by 81 percent of the population, is to have the entire population vote in a primary that is open to all candidates, followed by a runoff between the top two candidates.

But the Beijing adviser said that such an approach was unacceptable to the Chinese Communist Party. Some kind of screening of candidates is needed, perhaps through having some version of the Election Committee control the nomination process, so that outspoken critics of Beijing can campaign but not appear on the final ballot.

Huge steel gates at the Central Liaison Office bar entry to democracy protesters, while security guards have extra steel fences standing by in case they are needed. The faintly menacing building also attracts the occasional gawker, because it is topped by a mysterious, nearly four-story black globe.

But with more democracy protests likely in the months ahead, the building’s commanding views seem little consolation for the occupants these days. “Even department heads next door come see me,” said Mr. Wu, the traditional medicine practitioner, “as they’re not feeling well.”
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« Reply #5125 on: Mar 16, 2013, 07:14 AM »

March 15, 2013

New Premier in China Faces Test on Economy


HONG KONG — China’s new prime minister, Li Keqiang, entered the job on Friday inheriting a wobbling economy that could distract his government from its bold vows to clean up pollution and harness expanding towns and cities as an engine for growth.

Mr. Li is the latest Communist Party leader whose promotion to a top government post was confirmed by the National People’s Congress, the party-run Parliament that is finishing a transfer of elite power that was started at a party meeting in November. He succeeds Wen Jiabao in a position that entails steering the economy and government operations through the State Council, or cabinet.

On Thursday, the nearly 3,000 compliant Parliament delegates installed the party chief, Xi Jinping, as president, and on Saturday they will appoint deputy prime ministers, ministers and other senior officials.

Mr. Li, 57, has already laid out a vision of economic uplift driven by urbanization. He gained a doctorate in economics from Peking University, where he wrote about narrowing the urban-rural gulf. In the months leading up to his elevation as prime minister, he has said that faster and sounder expansion of towns and cities will be a priority, and he told Parliament delegates that absorbing rural migrants into urban areas would require more spending.

“Meshing together urban and rural development means we must speed up social improvements, with a focus on welfare and livelihood needs,” Mr. Li said last week, according to the news agency Xinhua. “Government work and fiscal outlays must continue to be tilted toward livelihood needs,” he added, naming education, health care and housing as among the spending priorities.

Yet Mr. Li inherits economic hazards that could preoccupy his government and deter bold policy moves. The hazards include an overheated property market that has defied government measures intended to tame price increases and make housing more affordable, worries about debts run up by local governments, and cautious lower-income consumers who remain reluctant to spend at the level many economists say is needed for healthy growth over the long term.

“I do think that there are some signs that, first of all, they recognize this is a new world, and the market economy or liberalization has given great successes but also great vulnerabilities,” said Yukon Huang, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington who studies the Chinese economy.

Mr. Li and his cohort believe that China “needs a growth driver in the next 5, 10, 15 years, because it can’t rely upon exports again and can’t rely on investment expansion for the sake of investment expansion,” Mr. Huang said.

Last year, China’s economy grew by 7.8 percent, compared with a year earlier, the slowest pace since 1999. The property market has been a driver of that growth, but a recent sharp rise in prices has kindled jitters about a potential bubble. On March 1, Mr. Wen’s State Council took a parting jab at the sector, demanding that local governments enforce an earlier rule imposing a 20 percent tax on profits when people sell secondary homes.

Votes by the National People’s Congress are a predictable ritual, with party officials exercising discipline behind the scenes to ensure that there are no upsets, but there were pinpricks of dissent. On Thursday, one delegate voted against Mr. Xi to succeed Hu Jintao as president, and three abstained. Mr. Li attracted three “no” votes and six abstentions among the 2,949 votes counted as valid. The secret electronic ballot makes it impossible to publicly identify the dissenters, despite the avid curiosity voiced by some Chinese online.

Another prominent economic decision maker in the new government will be the incoming deputy prime minister Wang Yang, a former party secretary of Guangdong Province in southern China who cast himself as a reformer willing to challenge entrenched privilege.

Lou Jiwei, the chairman and chief executive of the China Investment Corporation, a sovereign wealth fund, appears likely to become finance minister. He will oversee thorny issues like revamping taxation and dealing with debt-saddled local governments that complain of having too many spending burdens.

However, the likely retention of Zhou Xiaochuan as the leader of the People’s Bank of China, or central bank, reflects the anxieties weighing on the new leadership, analysts say. Mr. Zhou was dropped from the party’s Central Committee — a council of senior officials — in November, and he is 65, an age when retirement becomes likely for officials of his rank. But he appears likely to keep his job for now.

“I think that is an indication that they haven’t built up any successor,” said Joerg Wuttke, a former president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China. “They don’t trust anybody else, maybe, to deal with a potential financial crisis.”

“They need an experienced old hand, and they can’t let him go,” he said.

Mr. Li grew up in rural Anhui Province and worked for years on one of the impoverished farm communes that Mao Zedong believed could deliver communist equality and bountiful harvests. In late 1977, he won a place in the prestigious Peking University, where he studied law before moving on to economics, and he retains a bookish demeanor and a confident grasp of English. Like his mentor, Mr. Hu, he made his start up the leadership ladder in the Communist Party’s Youth League.

Mr. Wen left office dogged by unwelcome attention on his family, which was the subject of a report by The New York Times into its wealth, and lamenting that he “fell short in some tasks” to improve people’s lives. Mr. Li and his colleagues appear eager to avoid being tainted with the same accusations of frustrated promises, said Damien Ma, a researcher at the Paulson Institute, a center in Chicago focused on China-United States relations.

“They’ve got to show that they’re willing to act,” Mr. Ma said. “Before they felt that they could defer reforms, and they did.”

Mr. Li is scheduled to give his first news conference as prime minister on Sunday, after the end of the parliamentary session.

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« Reply #5126 on: Mar 16, 2013, 07:16 AM »

March 15, 2013

Japan Moves to Enter Talks on Pacific Trade


TOKYO — Japan will seek to join negotiations for a free-trade pact with the United States and other Pacific nations, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Friday, giving heft to talks that could encompass two-fifths of the world economy but also adding a country with demands and reservations that some participants fear will delay an agreement.

In an impassioned televised address, Mr. Abe portrayed the pact, called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as Japan’s last chance to remain an economic power in Asia and shape the region’s future.

“Japan must remain at the center of the Asian-Pacific century,” Mr. Abe said. “If Japan alone continues to look inward, we will have no hope for growth. This is our last chance. If we don’t seize it, Japan will be left out.”

With strong opposition from Japan’s farming lobby and other powerful groups, Mr. Abe is taking a big political risk in embracing the free-trade talks. Japan’s largest agricultural cooperative has campaigned against trade liberalization. It says such a change would devastate the nation’s farms, a plea that has resonated in the wider public. A majority of the lawmakers in his own Liberal Democratic Party depend on the rural vote and object to the free-trade deal.

Mr. Abe is betting, however, that his strong popularity will help him ride out the furor. He will face his first test at the polls this summer, when national elections for Parliament’s upper house are scheduled.

“I promise to take the best path forward for Japan’s national interest,” he said. “I will protect what we must protect and demand what we must demand.”

To soften the blow of a more open economy, Mr. Abe has secured vague support from the United States that some Japanese agricultural products — like rice, which is protected by a 778 percent tariff — would be exempt from the free-trade negotiations.

But insisting on these exceptions could hurt Japan’s hand in negotiations elsewhere, especially in talks to gain further access to foreign markets for its manufacturers, which account for three-quarters of the country’s exports. And some participating countries worry that Japanese demands will slow the talks.

The lead negotiator for Singapore, Ng Bee Kim, said last week that Japan would be permitted to participate only if existing members agreed that it could “keep up the good momentum” at the talks.

It is unclear to what extent Mr. Abe is willing to commit to other structural changes that the pact might demand of Japan’s economy.

Japan’s levies, which average 6.5 percent for its trading partners on most goods, are in line with those set by other industrialized nations. The exception is agricultural produce, on which Japan applies an average tariff of 25 percent.

The partnership seeks not only to eliminate tariffs but also to do away with other barriers to foreign trade, like cumbersome regulations — for which Japan is notorious — in retail, health, automobiles and other fields that shut out foreign competitors.

Proponents of free trade say such overhauls could transform the Japanese economy for the better, making insular industries more competitive. Joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership would expand the Japanese economy by at least $33 billion — nearly 0.7 percent — the government estimated.

Mr. Abe has made such structural changes one of the three pillars of his strategy to help Japan’s economy grow again, along with an aggressive monetary policy and government spending to beat long-term deflation.

“Increased trade is probably Japan’s best bet in getting out of its current economic doldrums,” said Noah Smith, an assistant professor of finance and economics at Stony Brook University. “If Abe can actually push this through, this will be his economic legacy, and it will be a positive legacy.”

But Japan’s agricultural cooperatives have joined with other interest groups to portray the partnership as a threat to the Japanese lifestyle. A nationwide association of doctors opposes the pact, arguing that it will force Japan to open its state-controlled health industry to American-style health insurance, eroding its universal insurance system.

“In America, the first thing they ask you in the hospital is, ‘What insurance plan are you on?’ “ warned a full-page ad placed in major newspapers on Friday by the Tokyo Medical Association.

With its origins in a 2006 trade pact among Singapore, New Zealand, Chile and Brunei, the Trans-Pacific Partnership has grown into a major free-trade initiative that accounts for almost 40 percent of the world’s gross domestic product — a larger share of the global economy than the European Union.

Participating nations aim to sign a comprehensive pact that covers not just trade in goods and services but also foreign investment, government procurement, intellectual property rights and environmental and labor protections.

For Japan, the agreement would be a way to catch up with rivals like South Korea, which has signed free-trade agreements with the United States and the European Union and has opened free-trade talks with China. Japan has no trade agreements with such major trading partners except for a recent pact with India.

Japan also sees a leadership role in the partnership as a way to return to center stage after being eclipsed in the region by the rise of China, which many in Tokyo view as jeopardizing Japan’s economic interests and security. China, which is pursuing its own bilateral and multilateral trade agreements in the region, is unlikely to join the agreement soon because of the concessions on state-owned enterprises, intellectual property and labor that the pact would require. That has, in effect, made the partnership a vehicle of sorts for the United States, and now Japan, to counter China’s influence.

For the United States, the Trans-Pacific Partnership has become a major part of President Obama’s promise to increase American exports, as well as the vehicle for his so-called pivot of American foreign policy toward Asia.

Still, many of the issues that have made an American-Japanese agreement elusive could again prove tricky for both sides to resolve in a broader pact. American automakers oppose Japan’s participation in the talks unless Japan commits to changing what the Big Three in Detroit say are unfair domestic regulations that shut foreign carmakers out of the Japanese market.
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« Reply #5127 on: Mar 16, 2013, 07:17 AM »

Swiss tourist gang-raped in front of her husband in central India: police

By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, March 16, 2013 8:55 EDT

A Swiss female tourist was gang-raped in rural central India, police said on Saturday, the latest victim of sexual violence against women in the South Asian nation.

The woman was on a cycling trip with her husband in impoverished Madhya Pradesh state, when seven to eight men attacked the couple on Friday night, sexually assaulting the woman and robbing the pair, police said.

The attackers “tied up the man and raped the woman in his presence”, local police official S.M. Afzal told AFP, adding that they stole 10,000 rupees ($185) and a mobile phone from the woman.

The attack comes just months after thousands of women took to the streets to protest against India’s treatment of women following the fatal gang-rape of a 23-year-old student on a bus in New Delhi in December.

The couple were on their way to the tourist destination of Agra, home to the iconic Taj Mahal monument, in northern India when they stopped to camp for the night in a village.

Indian media reports said the men were wielding sticks when they attacked couple.

After the attack, the rape victim, aged about 40, was admitted to hospital in Gwalior city, 212 miles (342 kilometres) from state capital Bhopal, local police official M.S. Dhodee said.

The victim was conscious on Saturday and speaking to authorities, police said.

She told police that the couple were both Swiss, police said, but they added they had not yet seen their passports to confirm their nationality.

“The victims, who belong to Switzerland, put up a tent to stay overnight” when the attack occurred, Afzal said.

The other police official, Dhodee, told AFP that police were still investigating the case but added that “a rape case has been registered against seven unidentified people”.

A spokesman for the Swiss embassy in New Delhi could not be reached for comment.

Concern remains high in India over the safety and status of women and girls in the country of 1.2 billion.

Rape is one aspect of a wide range of violence, including domestic assaults, against women in India that claims many thousands of lives each year, according to rights workers.

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« Reply #5128 on: Mar 16, 2013, 07:20 AM »

March 15, 2013

Russian Legislator Accused of Treason After U.S. Visit


MOSCOW — In a striking move to purge the Russian Parliament of even the faintest of contrarian voices, legislative leaders on Friday accused an opposition lawmaker of treason and demanded an ethics investigation, saying that the legislator had used a visit to Washington this month to urge the United States to meddle in Russia’s internal affairs.

The lawmaker, Dmitry Gudkov, is one of just two members of the State Duma who are leading supporters of the Russian political opposition and who have participated since December 2011 in the large street protests in Moscow calling for the ouster of President Vladimir V. Putin.

This week, Mr. Gudkov was expelled from his party, Just Russia, after its leaders said he had refused to give up his leadership role in the protest movement. Just Russia is one of three minority parties in the Parliament, which is controlled by United Russia, the party that nominated Mr. Putin for president.

The other opposition lawmaker, Ilya V. Ponomarev, quit Just Russia this week in solidarity with Mr. Gudkov. For now, they are still members of the Parliament as independents.

But the charges of treason against Mr. Gudkov, 33, are seen as a clear precursor to an effort to strip him of his seat. In September, his father, Gennadi V. Gudkov, a four-term lawmaker from the Just Russia faction, was similarly expelled after being accused of violating rules that restrict members of Parliament from operating private businesses.

The elder Mr. Gudkov also actively supported the political opposition, and his ouster was widely viewed as a reprisal.

Dmitry Gudkov visited the United States this month where he participated in a panel discussion held by Freedom House, a nonprofit pro-democracy group that Russia has called biased and accused of promoting American interests.

The Washington event was also sponsored by the Foreign Policy Initiative, a conservative-leaning advocacy group that promotes American foreign policy engagement and has warned about rising challenges from China and Russia, and by the Institute of Modern Russia, a nonprofit group. The institute’s president, Pavel Khodorkovsky, is the son of the Russian oil tycoon, Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, who was imprisoned in 2003 after challenging Mr. Putin’s authority.

While Mr. Gudkov made some remarks critical of Mr. Putin’s government and of the Parliament itself, the charges of treason were all the more stunning because Mr. Gudkov went out of his way during his public statement to emphasize that the political opposition was working only in Russia’s interests. He urged the United States to help make that clear to the Russian public as well.

In his remarks, which were recorded on video, Mr. Gudkov also noted that the planned trip to the United States had been used by state-controlled television to accuse him of treason and espionage.

“I just want to say that we need to take a bit more moderate and farsighted approach to our bilateral relations,” Mr. Gudkov said. “Instead of criticizing Putin, we need to help him, to help him fight against Russian corruption because in every interview he emphasizes the importance of fighting corruption. We need to help him to expose the bribers, by providing information on their activities abroad and here in the United States because you know Russian propaganda, Kremlin propaganda, usually use our relations — I mean opposition and America — to discredit us, because we are always being set forth as traitors, as State Department agents, and to destroy our motherland.”

Mr. Gudkov continued, “For instance, when I was in Russia, I heard information spread by the state television that Dmitry Gudkov was going to the United States to sell some secrets and to get new instructions. But if we change our approach, on the one hand, we could show Russian citizens that the opposition acts only according to the interests of Russia. On the other hand, we can demonstrate that the United States helped Russian people to expose Russian corrupt authorities.”

In recent months, the Duma, which is the lower house, has played a growing role as the Kremlin’s political attack machine, adopting laws aimed at suppressing political dissent as well as tightening restrictions on nonprofit groups, particular those receiving support from abroad.

For example, at the Kremlin’s urging the Duma led the charge to enact a ban on adoptions of Russian orphans by American citizens. In recent weeks, there has also been a steady drumbeat aimed at restricting interaction between lawmakers and the West, including legislation to bar officials from owning bank accounts or investments outside Russia.

A letter demanding an investigation of Mr. Gudkov was signed by lawmakers from all the factions in the Duma, including the Communist Party and the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, whose leader this week called for Mr. Gudkov’s arrest as a traitor.

At a news conference on Friday, Deputy Speaker Sergei Zheleznyak, who is a leader of United Russia, said that Mr. Gudkov’s speech in the United States “demonstrates his disrespect for the requirements set for members of the Russian Parliament, negligence toward his responsibilities as a member of Parliament and a betrayal of national interests.”

Mr. Zheleznyak said that Mr. Gudkov had “called on the American authorities to interfere in Russia’s internal affairs.

In the letter demanding an ethics investigation, lawmakers wrote, “We believe that Gudkov’s statements are effectively tantamount to calls for illegal acts that violate the sovereignty of the Russian state.”

In their role as elected officials as well as street protest leaders, Mr. Gudkov and Mr. Ponomarev have had to walk a fine line. They are viewed as rabble-rousers by many of their colleagues in the Parliament, but are not fully trusted by other opposition members. Both Mr. Ponomarev and Mr. Gudkov have stressed a need to work to change Russia from within the established political structures.

At the Freedom House event, Mr. Gudkov accused the Kremlin of initiating baseless criminal investigations against many leaders of the political opposition, including the anti-corruption blogger, Aleksei Navalny, who is barred from travel outside the Moscow region, and Sergei Udaltsov, the leader of the Left Front, who has been placed under house arrest.

Mr. Gudkov accused the Duma of acting as a rubber stamp for Mr. Putin’s policies, and he also expressed support for a new American law, called the Magnitsky Act, that aims to punish Russian human rights violators by denying them visas to travel to the United States and barring them from owning real estate or other assets there.

Mr. Gudkov stressed a growing divide between Russians who rely on state-controlled television for their information and the 45 million Russians who regularly use the Internet and have alternative news sources. He said he also expected a split to develop between Mr. Putin and his own supporters in the Parliament given the recent efforts to restrict ties between lawmakers and the West where many own financial assets and send their children to study.

“They don’t want to be a rubber stamp,” Mr. Gudkov said, “and I am expecting a serious breakdown within Putin’s team in the nearest future.”

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« Reply #5129 on: Mar 16, 2013, 07:25 AM »

Iraqi prisons leave women doubly vulnerable

Wives of suspects are held as 'hostages', while others are jailed over family grudges or on specious charges to extract bribes

Peter Beaumont in Baghdad, Friday 15 March 2013 19.17 GMT   

Sabah Hassan Hussein is still not certain which powerful person or interest she offended. An Iraqi journalist and human rights activist, she says she had been investigating the serious abuse of female prisoners in Tikrit. Although she had not published her allegations she did raise them with Iraqi ministries.

Last year, in events she believes may be connected, Hussein found herself incarcerated in the same jail and suffering similar abuse to the other women.

Tricked into visiting an army barracks in Baghdad, she was arrested and transferred to Tikrit on a trumped-up charge involving the murder of the brother of an Iraqi MP and one of her colleagues who had been kidnapped and killed.

The 12-month ordeal that followed, by her account, involved physical and psychological abuse, and included sexual assault.

She says she finally cracked when she was told her 20-year-old daughter, who was brought to speak to her in Tikrit, would be raped if she did not "confess".

At one point a judge accused Hussein of a completely different crime – of delivering suicide vests for an attack on a government building, a capital offence.

Hussein, who leaves her hair uncovered, smokes cigarettes and wears trousers, is still incredulous. "I said to the final judge I saw in Baghdad, look at me. Do I look like someone from al-Qaida?"

Her case is not unique in a country where both physical and procedural mistreatment of prisoners is commonplace.

Women, however, are doubly vulnerable. According to international and local human rights organisations, women have been detained without charge as "hostages" to persuade husbands wanted in serious crimes to surrender.

In other cases women have fallen victim to grudges launched by vengeful family members, including husbands. There have been allegations of rape, violence and other serious assaults.

Vivian al-Tai is one of those who claims she was jailed because of a marital dispute. Her husband lodged a complaint after she sought a divorce because of allegations of domestic violence. He accused her of kidnapping him and forcing him to marry her, according to her aunt, Lubna Ismail. He is thought to be willing to drop the case if his wife withdraws charges of assault and her claim for alimony.

There is a final category of female prisoners: those who are arrested and in effect held hostage to force male relatives suspected of terrorism to give themselves up.

This tactic has become one of the complaints of Sunni protesters in the country's northern and western provinces.

Even then the real reasons for holding the women can be specious. Three months ago Human Rights Watch reported claims of families saying security officers and judges had collaborated to keep women detained on "suspicion of terrorism" charges, then demanded bribes to secure their release.

In the same report HRW gave details of one of the most notorious recent cases. In November federal police raided 11 homes in the town of al-Taji, north of Baghdad, and detained 41 people, including 29 children, overnight in their homes.

The report stated: "Sources close to the detainees, who requested anonymity, said police took 12 women and girls, ages 11 to 60, to 6th brigade headquarters and held them there for four days without charge.

"The sources said the police beat the women and tortured them with electric shocks, and plastic bags placed over their heads until they began to suffocate."

Those claims appear consistent with allegations made in September to representatives of the Iraqi government's human rights ministry and to the Hummurabi Human Rights Organisation, an Iraqi NGO, during a visit to women's prison 42 in Baghdad's Al-Resafa district. In this jail female inmates reported that they had suffered torture and sexual abuse.

In Iraq's parliament Atab Jasim Nasif al-Duri, a female MP, raised the issue of the security forces' practice of detaining the wives or other female relatives of wanted suspects.

A week later, according to a report by Amnesty International, the head of the parliamentary human rights committee expressed concern that female detainees were liable to harassment and abuse when put in the custody of solely male guards while being moved between detention facilities.

While that led to the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, issuing pardons in January for a few female detainees, human rights activists believe hundreds more women remain in detention.

Mohammed Hassan al-Salami, of the National Assembly for the Defence of Human Rights, argues that Iraq's draconian anti-terrorism legislation has created a culture of impunity in the country's judicial, policing and judicial system, which has made life easy for unscrupulous individuals who are motivated by either corruption or by sectarian antipathy.

The legislation includes the 2005 article 4 which, critics argue, in effect holds other family members culpable for the crimes of those accused of terror.

Salami said: "One of the issues is the power given to security forces to do what they want to defeat terrorism, which is then used for personal advantage. The rule in these places where women are being detained is that these officers are above ordinary citizens.

"Sadly many people who are victims of abuse are afraid to speak out in public because they are afraid they will be paid back.

"Some of these women are victims of personal vendettas. Someone hates them and uses the system against them. In these cases we see fake cases and fake warrants. In other cases it is because of political views, designed to shut them up."

Hussein was released last month with all charges dropped. But her ordeal is not over. She doesn't go out much and is too afraid to return to work.

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