In the USA...
March 17, 2013
Ohio Teenagers Guilty in Rape That Social Media Brought to Light
By RICHARD A. OPPEL Jr.
STEUBENVILLE, Ohio — Two high school football stars were found guilty on Sunday of raping a 16-year-old girl last summer in a case that drew national attention for the way social media spurred the initial prosecution and later helped galvanize national outrage.
Because the victim did not remember what had happened, scores of text messages and cellphone pictures provided much of the evidence. They were proof as well, some said, that Steubenville High School’s powerhouse football team held too much sway over other teenagers, who documented and traded pictures of the assault while doing little or nothing to protect the girl.
One of the football players, Trent Mays, 17, who had been a quarterback, was sentenced to serve at least two years in the state juvenile system. The other, Ma’lik Richmond, 16, who had played wide receiver, was sentenced to serve at least one year. Both could end up in juvenile jail until they are 21, at the discretion of the State Department of Youth Services.
Mr. Mays’s minimum sentence is twice as long as Mr. Richmond’s because he was found to be delinquent beyond a reasonable doubt — the juvenile equivalent of guilty — not just of rape but also of distributing a nude image of a minor.
After Judge Thomas Lipps read his decision in Juvenile Court, both boys sobbed. Mr. Richmond told his lawyer, Walter Madison, “My life is over.”
Mr. Mays apologized to the victim by name, as well as to her family and the community. “No pictures should have been sent around, let alone ever taken,” he said.
Mr. Richmond then walked toward the family and said: “I had not intended to do anything like this. I’m sorry to put you through this.” After that he broke down, unable to speak, and embraced a court officer.
The judge found that both boys used their fingers to penetrate the girl in the early hours of Aug. 12 while she was so drunk that she lacked the cognitive ability to give her consent for sex. A picture that was circulated among classmates later that day showed the victim naked and passed out. Ohio’s legal definition of rape includes digital penetration.
Judge Lipps described much of the evidence as “profane and ugly.” In sentencing the boys, he said rape was among the gravest of crimes and noted that they could have been tried as adults with far harsher punishments. He also said the case was a cautionary lesson in how teenagers conduct themselves when alcohol is present and in “how you record things on social media that are so prevalent today.”
The trial also exposed the behavior of other teenagers, who wasted no time spreading photos and text messages with what many in the community felt was callousness or cruelty.
And that aspect of the case may not be complete. The Ohio attorney general, Mike DeWine, said after the verdict that he would convene a grand jury next month to finish the investigation.
In an interview, Mr. DeWine said that while it was not clear that more people would face charges, prosecutors might consider offenses that include obstruction of justice, failure to report a felony and failure to report child abuse. State officials have interviewed almost 60 people — students, coaches, school officials and parents — but 16, most of them juveniles, have refused to speak to investigators.
The verdict came after four days of testimony that was notable for how Ohio investigators analyzed hundreds of text messages from more than a dozen cellphones and created something like a real-time accounting of the assault.
As these messages were read aloud, Judge Lipps heard Mr. Mays state that he had used his fingers to penetrate the girl, whom he referred to in a separate message as “like a dead body.” In another message, Mr. Mays admitted to the girl that he had taken the picture, already circulated among other students, of her lying naked in a basement with what he told her was his semen on her body, from what he stated was a consensual sex act.
Other text messages suggested that Mr. Mays had grown increasingly worried within a day or two, urging a friend to curb the distribution of a video related to the assault. He also seemed to try to orchestrate a cover-up, telling a friend, “Just say she came to your house and passed out.”
Finally, the messages showed Mr. Mays pleading with the girl not to press charges because doing so would damage his football career — even as the girl grew angry that he seemed to care more about football than her welfare.
On Saturday, the girl testified that for the roughly six-hour period during which the rapes occurred, she had no memory of anything aside from a brief vomiting episode. She said she had woken up the next morning naked in the basement living room surrounded by Mr. Mays, Mr. Richmond and another boy, with no idea where she was or how she had gotten there and unable to find her underwear, shoes, earrings or phone.
One classmate testified that he had seen Mr. Mays also penetrate the girl while they rode in the back seat of a car.
Far more evidence and testimony were about Mr. Mays. Mr. Richmond mainly faced the testimony of Evan Westlake, another student, who said Mr. Richmond had used his fingers to penetrate the girl while she lay in the basement.
Testimony also touched the high school’s football coach, Reno Saccoccia, who had been criticized by some in the community for not doing more to discipline other players present. In one text message, Mr. Mays stated that he felt he had gotten the coach to “take care of it” and that Mr. Saccoccia “was joking about it so I’m not that worried.”
In the end, the most powerful evidence may have been the two hours of testimony from the 16-year-old girl herself. Under questioning from the prosecution, she told the story of waking up confused, naked, ashamed and worried, and then finding out that day that many of her friends had an idea what had happened to her or had even seen a picture of her naked. The girl also testified that she had come to realize that Mr. Mays — who maintained that he had taken care of her while she was drunk and that their encounter had been consensual and did not involve penetration — had done far more.
“This is the most pointless thing,” Mr. Mays said in one text message to the girl. “I’m going to get in trouble for something I should be getting thanked for taking care of you.”
But the girl made clear that she was not having any more of it, telling Mr. Mays in another exchange: “It’s on YouTube. I’m not stupid. Stop texting me.”
And this is how CNN reported this:
CNN grieves that guilty verdict ruined ‘promising’ lives of Steubenville rapists
By David Edwards
Sunday, March 17, 2013 13:41 EDT
CNN broke the news on Sunday of a guilty verdict in a rape case in Steubenville, Ohio by lamenting that the “promising” lives of the rapists had been ruined, but spent very little time focusing on how the 16-year-old victim would have to live with what was done to her.
Judge Thomas Lipps announced on Sunday that Trent Mays, 17, and Ma’lik Richmond, 16, would be given a maximum sentence after being found guilty of raping a 16-year-old girl while she was unconscious. Richmond could be released from a juvenile rehabilitation facility by the age of 21 and Mays could be incarcerated until the age of 24.
CNN’s Candy Crowley began her breaking news report by showing Lipps handing down the sentence and telling CNN reporter Poppy Harlow that she “cannot imagine” how emotional the sentencing must have been.
Harlow explained that it had been “incredibly difficult” to watch “as these two young men — who had such promising futures, star football players, very good students — literally watched as they believed their life fell apart.”
“One of the young men, Ma’lik Richmond, as that sentence came down, he collapsed,” the CNN reporter recalled, adding that the convicted rapist told his attorney that “my life is over, no one is going to want me now.”
At that point, CNN played video of Richmond crying and hugging his lawyer in the courtroom.
“I was sitting about three feet from Ma’lik when he gave that statement,” Harlow said. “It was very difficult to watch.”
Candy then asked CNN legal contributor Paul Callan what the verdict meant for “a 16 year old, sobbing in court, regardless of what big football players they are, they still sound like 16 year olds.”
“What’s the lasting effect though on two young men being found guilty juvenile court of rape essentially?” Crowley wondered.
“There’s always that moment of just — lives are destroyed,” Callan remarked. “But in terms of what happens now, the most severe thing with these young men is being labeled as registered sex offenders. That label is now placed on them by Ohio law.”
“That will haunt them for the rest of their lives.”
Steubenville residents reflect on town’s demise: Football was city’s one bright light
By Joanna Walters, The Guardian
Sunday, March 17, 2013 13:54 EDT
In Steubenville, a small, struggling former steel town on the bank of the Ohio River, the last five days of an excruciating rape trial and the months leading up to it have been racked with angst and division.
But at issue for many residents was not the specifics of the case alone: whether two stars of the town’s much-loved high school football team raped a drunken teenage girl during a night of wild parties.
It was also whether the town itself was being seen to be on trial. Some of the reporting had seemed to suggest something rotten in Steubenville, with stories of other teenagers sharing lurid pictures of the incident, and whispers – quickly denied – of a wider cover-up in the town.
It’s the biggest story to bring the spotlight to Steubenville since the huge steel mill was finally closed after a long decline in 2005.
Its hulking chimneys and vast factory sheds sit idly rusting on the edge of town just a few blocks from the juvenile court where the trial was held and the town’s high school where the two defendants were pupils and star football players.
In between, the small downtown area is a shell of empty, crumbling shop fronts and derelict, boarded-up houses interspersed with the odd bar, ramshackle residential street and tracts of wasteland.
“There’s nothing for teens to do in Steubenville. Downtown is horrible, there are drug problems there and shootings and you can find illegal gambling, all close to where the high school is and the kids are exposed to those things, and I think it affects them,” said Dalte Beal, 26, a shop assistant at the airport in Pittsburgh, about 40 minutes away.
“Kids just want to get drunk or high at the weekends, some hang out at the mall, though there’s not much there any more either, but for a lot of them they don’t have much vision for the future except maybe getting a job at the convenience store or the airport. There’s no mill jobs. Some join the military, but the best way by far to make it big in the town – and if you want to get out – is sport, especially football,” she said.
Beal grew up in Steubenville but now lives across the bridge over the river, which also serves as the border between eastern Ohio and West Virginia, in the smaller town of Weirton, where the girl who accused the boys of rape is from.
Steubenville High School is legendary throughout the region for its football team, nicknamed Big Red.
The 10,000-capacity stadium where Big Red plays, up the hill from the downtown area, is disproportionately large for a school team in a town of only 18,400 but it is packed for every home game during the short autumn season.
The elder defendant in the trial, Trent Mays, 17, was the quarterback; co-defendant Ma’lik Richmond, 16, was the wide receiver. Both were stars of the team until they were arrested last August and taken into custody.
“I don’t think what happened in Steubenville is unique. But I think the industrial decline has pushed more importance onto the football team – which was already a local obsession – so that a case like this ends up taking over a small town and, if we are not careful, defining it,” said a middle-aged teacher standing outside the court building after a day’s proceedings last week.
She used to teach both the defendants and said that staff at the local middle and high schools had been told not to speak openly about the case, so she would have to speak anonymously.
“I was shocked when I heard what went on at these parties. Both Trent and Ma’lik were good students, both bright and courteous. They were easily going to be able to get sports scholarships to college. As well as football, Trent is a champion wrestler, and Ma’lik is a basketball star. That all may be ruined for them now,” she said, speaking before the guilty verdicts.
At the shopping mall a few miles up the hill from the high school, two young men are taking a cigarette break from their jobs at stores inside.
Alex Donahue, 19, says he would like to try to move out of the area with his girlfriend.
“But I’ll wait until she has our baby in a few weeks’ time,” he said.
Both he and his friend Jacob Yeager, 20, who is working in retail to help pay his way through a criminal justice course at a local college, thought that Mays and Richmond should have been tried as adults and were hoping for a guilty verdict.
“There are some really nice parts of Steubenville and some really good people around here. It shouldn’t be all about this. But it’s going to be hard for the town to move on,” said Yeager.
A young couple arrived at the mall for a lunchtime pizza.
“I’m a good friend of the accuser, she texted me the night before she was going to go on the stand and said she was throwing up she was so nervous. I think she’s been incredibly brave,” said the female half of the couple, 16, who preferred not to be named.
Several of the accuser’s best friends in school turned away from her after she complained to the police. Some of them testified on behalf of the defendants yesterday, saying the girl was a known liar.
The accuser is an honors student and a proficient athlete at school, who told her parents she was going to a friend’s to sleepover on the night of August 11 when she went to a series of parties with Big Red football players.
“It’s not right that girls turn on each other in a situation like this. They’ve been calling her a whore, which is not the case. I have always believed her and stood up for her,” said the girl at the mall.
But she added that Big Red football parties had a reputation for being wildly drunk, some attendees probably took drugs, and girls could easily find themselves at risk.
“My parents won’t let me go to Big Red parties,” she said.
Her boyfriend, 19, is studying psychology at college.
“My grandfather played baseball for Big Red and is as diehard a fan of the football team as they come. But even before there is a verdict he is so appalled at what happened that he’s said he will never go to another game,” he said.
The young man also said he was shocked that friends of the defendants who were at the parties and took pictures and video of what was happening did not intervene and stop it, or call the police.
“I can only imagine they were all joining in the spirit of it,” he said.
‘The town pours its pride into the team’
Steubenville police chief William McCafferty complained last autumn that very few people were prepared to come forward to talk about the case.
“It’s a small town where everyone knows everyone and no-one wants to stand out and criticise the football team. So there ends up being a wall of silence,” said Patrick Macombs, a 54-year-old laid-off steelworker drinking in an Irish pub in Weirton.
Weirton is completely dominated by its own enormous steel mill, which is barely operational these days with only around 800 workers instead of the 14,000 it employed in the 1970s.
“Steubenville scouts for miles around for the best kids for its high school football program, and the town pours its pride into the team. It’s sort of all they’ve got, so of course no one is going to rat on its stars,” said Macombs.
His drinking companion, Jeff Lahach, 64, said: “Steubenville is the bottom of the barrel. It’s had a reputation for years for prostitution, drug-dealing, rackets and gangs. A lot of the businesses are shut down, and if you are big in the football team there you think you are something and you can get away with a lot.”
Steubenville is pronounced Stoobenville, which has also fuelled a nickname it has in other towns in the region – Stupidville.
“Yes, people call it Stupidville because it’s known for crime and corruption and having the most arrogant football team in the universe,” said a 17-year-old arriving at the cinema next to the shopping mall. She is from the neighbouring town of Mingo Junction.
But Sarah Bartsch, 27, a health researcher at the University of Pittsburgh who was sipping coffee at a cafe near the mall said: “This case has brought a terrible stigma to Steubenville. But it has also highlighted issues around teenage drinking, respect for women, peer pressure and the hazards of social media that go far beyond this town,” she said.
It’s very important that these have been aired, “it’s just a shame it was Steubenville that had to air them,” she said.
Katie Hanna, executive director of the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence, sat in the court room through the entire trial, and agrees.
She complained that Ohio state does not put any money into sexual violence prevention programmes for schools and, after this case, said that has got to change.
“The consequences of drinking should be a hangover, not rape,” she said outside the court building.
“And I think the teenagers involved in this case have had to come to terms with the issue that rape is not just about violent forced sex, it’s about boundaries and whether someone has actively consented to what’s going on,” she said.
The teacher outside court said her school had gone into lockdown in recent weeks because of a bomb threat related to the court case.
“We need to get this behind us, learn the lessons and try to come back from it before Steubenville’s reputation is destroyed and even fewer people want to live here,” she said.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
Republicans Can’t Hide Their Racist Obama Hate
Mar. 17th, 2013
Most people would do whatever it takes to give the appearance they are doing something as well as possible to try to make a good impression, and perform in a way that causes other people to have a good opinion of them. Organizations take care that their agents represent the best and brightest of their particular industry and it is certain that political parties carefully groom and prepare their best advocates to embody their mission and agenda. Over the past three days, conservatives paraded their best spokespeople to advance their cause, and if they were trying to make a good impression on each other and observant voters, they failed miserably. Between the nutjobs and failed Republican candidates, the CPAC2013 gathering represented American extremism at its finest and a group clinging to a version of reality unique to out-of-touch conservatives.
One did not have to follow the daily recapitulation of crazy to comprehend the conservative conclave’s purpose was to put on a torrid display of groundless anti-Obama rhetoric based on the roster of speakers. One by one, conservatism’s best and brightest fired up the crowds preaching that America’s salvation is steeped in religion, austerity, guns, and voiding the federal government, and the speakers each reiterated that Republicans lost the November election because the GOP failed to articulate conservative’s values and not that voters rejected conservative extremism. Marco Rubio opined that “We don’t need new ideas. The idea is called America, and it still works” and it revealed that to Republicans, extremism defines America, and voters are out of touch with America.
The featured speakers at CPAC represented fanaticism at its finest with Donald Trump, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Paul Ryan rambling on about America’s demise stemming from voter’s rejecting conservative ideas. To educate Americans on the value of embracing their vision of, and for, America, CPAC brought conservative’s marquee spokesperson out of retirement and turned her loose to lay the nation’s woes at the feet of President Obama. In fact, Palin reiterated nearly every criticism about the President for twenty minutes she has dutifully uttered since 2008, and still failed to put forth a coherent thought, much less one based in reality, but that is the Palin Americans have come to know and disparage. However, although Palin cemented her role as one of conservative’s premier dunces, it was a racist at the assembly that stole the show and reminded Americans that intrinsic to Republicans’ inability to win elections, or appeal to voters is their racial animus.
During a Republican-run panel on “Trumping the Race” card, a North Carolina man complained that embracing diversity in the party by reaching out to black conservatives was “at the expense of young, white, Southern males like myself, my demographic is being systematically disenfranchised.” When the discussion leader from the Frederick Douglass Republicans shared a story about abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s letter to his former slave-owner forgiving him for holding him in servitude, the racist said, “For giving him shelter and food?” The racist’s remark evoked cheers and applause from the crowd.
After the brief exchange, the racist muttered “why can’t we just have segregation?” When the racist was asked if he supported an America where African Americans were subservient to whites, he said “I’d be fine with that,” and continued that African-Americans “should be allowed to vote in Africa,” and that “all the Tea Parties” were concerned with the same racial problems that he was. When a woman confronted the man on the GOP’s racist roots, he said “I didn’t know the legacy of the Republican Party included women correcting men in public.” Republicans still contemplating their loss in November can look back at the conversation on the benefits of slavery and subservient women, and consider that if that is their ideal of America, it is no wonder they lost women’s vote, the minority vote, and the election.
The interchange, although not part of the scheduled program, highlighted Republicans’ racism that the election of an African American as President has brought to the voters’ attention and alienated minorities in November’s election. To reinforce the point, Tea Party Patriots blamed the racist’s remarks on an African American woman reporter for asking a question they said was “disruptive and coercive;” she asked, “How many Black women were there?” The Black reporter also took exception to the contention that Democrats are to blame for the existence of the Ku Klux Klan, that enraged the crowd who shouted the woman down with cries of “We don’t want your question,” and “we don’t want to hear it.” One teabagger regaled in tri-corner hat, waistcoat and breeches typical of a Revolutionary War soldier shouted incessantly at the Black reporter and finally stormed out of the room.
The message from Republicans since their electoral loss, and at CPAC, is that there is nothing wrong with their policies and agendas that more extremism cannot remedy. Recall that during his portion of the program, Marco Rubio said, “We don’t need new ideas. The idea is called America, and it still works,” and it encapsulates the extremist position Republicans will not abandon. The idea that America still works as a nation of racists and patriarchs was extreme in 1950, and despite the nation moving forward into the 21st century, it is the America conservatives yearn for and Republicans are intent on reestablishing as evidenced by their incessant demand to “take the country back.”
For a little over four years, Republicans have assailed President Obama regardless he saved the economy, created millions of jobs, reduced spending and taxes, and created an environment that gave business, corporations, and Wall Street record profits. At CPAC, conservatives lambasted the President for all manner of fallacious sleights, but in one panel on diversity and outreach, the sole, underlying reason for all of the Republicans’ extremism and hate was laid bare; sheer racial animus. CPAC was an extremists’ dream, and they brought out the cream of the conservative crop to parrot extremist rhetoric and to demean President Obama for their electoral loss, but despite Palin’s worn-out one-liners, Rand Paul’s sudden regard for civil liberties, or Rubio’s assertion that the GOP’s ideas are incredible and immutable, the basis for their extremism and opposition to President Obama is pure racism. Based on the group sponsoring CPAC’s white nationalist background, it is little wonder racists stole the show.
Paul Ryan Trashes His Own Budget by Admitting That There is No Debt Crisis
By: Jason Easley
Mar. 17th, 2013
On Face The Nation today, Rep. Paul Ryan reversed years of budgets and claims that the country faces an immediate debt crisis by admitting that there is no debt crisis.
The justification for the harsh cuts in Ryan’s budget has always been his belief that the nation faces an immediate crisis of debt.
Page 14 of his latest budget states the Ryan belief that we face a debt crisis today, “Today, we face a crisis of another sort—one more predictable than the last and more dangerous than ever. We face the threat of a debt crisis.”
As recently as January, Rep. Ryan was talking about the urgency of the debt crisis, “What I was really hoping was he would say, ‘I want to deal with this debt crisis before it takes our economy off the rails, before it guarantees our children and our grand children are sated with our debts.’ That’s really what I was aching to hear.”
Today, Paul Ryan completely reversed himself and admitted that there is no debt crisis.
Boehner Admits There is No Immediate Debt Crisis; Wants to Gut Social Security and Medicare Anyway
By: Jason Easley
Mar. 17th, 2013
On ABC’s This Week, Speaker John Boehner admitted that there is no immediate debt crisis, but in the next breath argued that the country should gut Medicare and Social Security anyway.
Transcript from ABC News:
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA (VIDEO): We’ve already cut– $2.5– $2.7 trillion out of the deficit. If the sequester stays in, you’ve got over $3.5 trillion of deficit reduction already. And, so, we don’t have an immediate crisis in terms of debt. In fact, for the next ten years, it’s gonna be in a sustainable place.
MARTHA RADDATZ: Is he right that we don’t have an immediate crisis?
SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER: We do not have an immediate debt crisis. But we all know that we have one looming. And we have– one looming– because we have entitlement programs that are not sustainable in their current form. They’re gonna go bankrupt. Washington has responsibility– to our seniors and our near seniors– that we firm up these programs so that they’re there for the long term. Because if we don’t do it, not only will they not get benefits, we will have a debt crisis right around the corner. We have time to solve our problems. But we need to do it now.
MARTHA RADDATZ: H– how long do we have to solve our problems?
SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER: Nobody knows where this is. It could be a year or two years, three years, four years. The– it’s not an immediate problem. But we can all–
MARTHA RADDATZ: So, you agree with the president on that?
SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER: The Amer– yes. But his point, as he went on to say in that interview, is that we don’t– we don’t really need to do anything at this point. And I would argue that we do need to do something.
The Speaker claimed that nobody knows how long we have to deal with the debt, but this was a total lie. Social Security will be solvent until 2033, and the Republican claim that Medicare is going bankrupt is an epic exaggeration. The Medicare hospital trust fund is expected to be exhausted by 2024, but this is nothing new. As FactCheck.org pointed out, “In 1980, insolvency was expected in 1994. In 1990, the exhaustion date was 2003. But those dates have been pushed back mainly by repeated tax increases.”
If there is no immediate crisis, why are Republicans so hellbent on cutting Social Security and Medicare? The answer is ideology. Republicans have hated Social Security and Medicare from the day they each became law. The ginned up fake immediate debt crisis as championed most loudly by Paul Ryan is the latest cover story for the right wing war on the social safety net.
This isn’t about solvency and insolvency. Notice how Republicans always ignore the official numbers when talking about Social Security and Medicare. Republicans are ideologically committed to destroying the social safety net. Speaker Boehner’s comments today were an admission that cuts don’t need to be made, but Republicans want them just because.
Reeking of Obama Hate and Desperation, Sarah Palin Was the Joke at CPAC
By: Jason Easley
Mar. 16th, 2013
At CPAC, Sarah Palin stepped straight out of 2008 and offered America the same desperate, cartoonish, Obama hate that has made her a national joke.
It is safe to say that if you have seen Sarah Palin speak for more than two minutes over the past five years, you’ve already seen this speech. Even the people who are usually kind to her in the mainstream media are calling her speech “disjointed,” and pointing out that this is stark reminder of how far Palin has fallen since the heady days when a certain Republican nominee’s presidential campaign thought vetting a running mate was something that should be limited to a Google search.
It was ironic that Palin complained that Washington Republicans are, “being too scripted, too calculated. They’re talking about rebuilding the party, how about rebuilding the middle class?” First of all, Sarah Palin couldn’t wait to bolt from Alaska in order to cash in on her fifteen minutes of fame, so the only thing she knows about the middle class is that she wouldn’t be caught dead in it. Secondly, Palin whined about Washington Republicans being too scripted and calculated while she was a delivering a pre-scripted and heavily calculated speech.
This speech also featured all of her Obama hate classics. Palin worked in a joke about Obama and his teleprompter, even though she can’t string two sentences together without one and made a not too veiled birther joke, “More background checks? Dandy idea Mr. President. Should’ve started with yours.”
Palin continued her years old feud with Karl Rove, “If these experts keep losing elections, keep raking in millions, if they feel that strongly about who should run in this party they should buck up and run or stay in the truck. The architects can head on back to the Lone Star State and put their name on the ballot.” (More irony here, as Palin has been taking money from the rubes on the right for years by teasing a presidential run without ever putting her name on the ballot.) Seriously, this feud with Rove goes the whole way back to 2010, but the mainstream media is acting like this is something new.
Sarah Palin was high on her own supply and dishing out her memorized zingers like it was 2008 all over again.
Too much shouldn’t be read into the fact that Palin had the CPAC crowd in stitches. Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, and Wayne LaPierre each had them rolling in the aisles. Saying anything bad or hateful about Democrats and Obama is all it took to send this crowd into hysterics.
From a potential heartbeat away from the presidency to willing to be the right wing’s rodeo clown for a buck, Sarah Palin is living on the Skid Row of American politics.
CPAC may have been laughing with her, but the rest of the country is laughing at the idea that the Republican Party once tried to sell this wigged out clown as presidential material.
Cyprus bailout: fury as banks closed to avert run
Eurozone finance ministers hold emergency talks as vote on aid package in Cyprus parliament is delayed for second day
Jill Treanor, Miriam Elder in Moscow, Ian Traynor in Brussels and Angelique Chrisafis in Nicosia
The Guardian, Tuesday 19 March 2013
Cyprus took the unprecedented step on Monday of closing its banks until Thursday as officials scrambled to renegotiate the terms of a controversial bailout that threatens to force savers to take a €5.8bn (£5bn) hit to their deposits.
Finance ministers from the 17-country eurozone held an emergency video conference call and concluded that small depositors should not be hit as hard as others. They said the Cypriot authorities could stagger the deposit seizures, but remained firm in demanding that the overall sum of money raised remained the same. Cyprus state media said accounts with less than €20,000 may be spared.
The announcement came amid recriminations over the aid package, particularly in Moscow, where a spokesman for Vladimir Putin attacked the plan as "unfair, unprofessional and dangerous".
Thousands of Russians have bank accounts in Cyprus, which has styled itself as a tax haven to attract international deposits into a banking system now at least eight times the size of the island's €17bn economy. Russia hinted that a separate but crucial €2.5bn loan to Cyprus could now be in doubt.
On a day of mounting uncertainty about the punitive conditions of the bailout and the impact on the banking sector:
• Britain temporarily withheld pension payments to more than 12,000 citizens who have retired to Cyprus amid concerns about the safety of the banking system. Up to 60,000 British people are thought to be affected by the seizures.
• A vote on the aid package in the Cyprus parliament was delayed for a second day, until Tuesday, as it became clear that the bailout plan of the newly elected president, Nicos Anastasiades, faced defeat. There were reports on Monday night that he was preparing to tell eurozone ministers that he did not have the votes to get the plan through.
• Stock markets fell – the FTSE 100 lost more than 100 points in early trading – before regaining losses amid speculation that the raid on savings would be scaled down. On the currency market, the euro hit a three-month low.
• European officials raced to defuse criticism that they had imposed the bank levy on a desperate nation.
• The US urged a resolution that was "responsible and fair and ensures financial stability".
Banks in Cyprus had been due to close for a normal holiday giving the authorities an extra 24 hours after the bailout was agreed in the early hours of Saturday, but they will not now reopen until Thursday. Demonstrating their anger at the impact on their savings, hundreds of Cypriots cut short traditional family picnics that mark the first Monday of Orthodox lent and gathered at the Nicosia parliament to protest.
Politicians continued talks behind closed doors on what changes could be made to the proposals before the parliament meets on Tuesday afternoon. Anastasiades said an agreement must be reached if Cyprus was to avoid the collapse of one or all of its banks.
Panicos Demetriades, the governor of Cyprus's central bank, warned parliament: "What would certainly happen is that our two big banks would need to be consolidated. This doesn't mean that they would be completely destroyed. We will aim for this to happen in a completely orderly way."
The terms of the bailout – €10bn of which comes from the eurozone and €7bn from Cyprus through the bank levy and austerity measures – have led to concerns that the €100,000 of savings guaranteed across the EU under an agreement reached in the wake of the 2008 banking crisis is being undermined.
Europe's banking authorities are on high alert for signs of Spanish and Italian savers moving their cash out of national banks for fear of a similar raid. However, officials insisted there was no need for alarm because the Cyprus bailout terms were a one-off that would not be repeated.
In Britain, the Treasury minister Greg Clark appeared to use different language to chancellor George Osborne who had pledged to compensate about 3,000 services personnel stationed in Cyprus when he said they would be compensated for "reasonable losses". Clarke also said pension payments to the Cyprus bank accounts of UK pensioners would be suspended. The pensions were safe, he stressed. "Any UK pensioners in Cyprus can be assured that their future pension payments are being held safely and a normal payment service will resume as soon as the situation in Cyprus becomes clear," Clark said. Of the 18,133 UK pensioners resident in Cyprus, a third use UK bank accounts for their payments and Clark said the others were able "to switch the bank account to which payments are made with immediate effect". Clark said the situation was "uncertain" and subject to change.
The European Central Bank's Jörg Asmussen, who had played a part in negotiating the terms, insisted it was up to Cyprus to alter the way the €5.8bn was raised from bank accounts. The levy was initially set at 6.75% on accounts under €100,000 and 9.9% on any deposit above that sum but this could be altered to 3% on the smaller deposits and up to 15% on deposits above €500,000. In return, savers will be given shares in the banks and, potentially, returns from the country's gas reserves. "The important thing is that the financial contribution of €5.8bn remains," Asmussen said. He also denied responsibility for designing the levy. "I want to emphasise that it wasn't the ECB that pushed for this special structure of the contribution which has now been chosen," he said.
Senior Cypriot officials told the Guardian that Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, had been the strongest advocate of the savers' tax, but he insisted responsibility lay elsewhere. It had been the Cypriot government, the European commission and the ECB that had pushed for the bank levy, he said.
The terms of the bailout are crucial to Russia as, according to Reuters, nearly half of the €70bn worth of deposits in Cyprus' banks is held by foreigners, and the vast majority are believed to be from Russian officials and oligarchs who have flocked to Cypriot banks seeking the secrecy they are unable to find at home.
Russia's finance minister, Anton Siluanov, warned that Europe's failure to consult with Russia could affect its own decision on maintaining a €2.5bn loan granted to Cyprus last year.
There was speculation that Russia's state-backed energy group Gazprom had offered to inject the cash necessary to prop up the Cypriot banking system in return for licences to exploit potentially vast gas reserves off the coast of the island. But spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov denied that any such approach had been made.
Cyprus has faced criticism that it has become a money-laundering haven for hot Russian cash and this is thought to have motivated the levy on bank accounts.
"Concerns about lax money-laundering regulations have made it politically difficult for a full bailout to be provided, given the worries that rich Russians would be among the main beneficiaries," said Jennifer McKeown, senior European economist at Capital Economics.
Experts warned that even if the levy on deposits below €100,000 was axed entirely, it would not be enough to restore confidence in the bank guarantee system put in place across the eurozone.
"The craziest thing about the Cyprus announcement is the huge potential cost of undermining the spirit of the bank deposit guarantee for what is a small saving in the overall scheme of European finances. Even if policymakers row back from taxing small depositors in Cyprus, the damage has been done," said Tristan Cooper, analyst at the fund managers Fidelity Worldwide.
But Willem Buiter, a former member of the Bank of England's monetary policy committee and now economist at Citigroup, described it as "qualified good news"with some "near-term costs".
Marchel Alexandrovich, at the brokers Jefferies, said: "What is also plainly obvious to anyone observing the current mess is that what should really worry European policymakers is not the €5.6bn in money which is being saved in Cyprus, but the €2,754bn of deposits in the Spanish banking system, of which €182bn comes from deposits outside the euro area."
• This article was amended on 19 March
03/18/2013 06:43 PM
Risky Rescue: Danger for Europe Lurks in Cyprus Bank Levy
By Stefan Kaiser
Fear returned to the euro crisis on Monday after Cyprus' international creditors demanded that both the wealthy and ordinary depositors be forced to participate in the country's bailout. Investors and politicans are worried the move could have an impact on banks across Europe.
The shock waves of the Cyprus bailout deal hit financial markets on Monday, as anger spread over a one-time levy on bank deposits on the small island at the fringe of the euro zone. This marks the first time since the start of the European sovereign debt crisis that average savers are being forced to help rescue a country's finances alongside taxpayers, investors and private creditors.
Financial markets reacted nervously, as share prices of banks across Europe dropped. Monday's biggest losers were financial institutions in countries hardest hit by the debt crisis, like Spain's Bankia, whose stock temporarily slipped by more than 8 percent. Deutsche Bank was also not immune, losing 4 percent of its stock price. Investors appeared to be fleeing to assets perceived to be safer, like German bonds or gold.
Financial experts are also shocked. American Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman admitted he didn't see the tax on bank deposits coming, warning that it could sew panic among the public. "It's as if the Europeans are holding up a neon sign, written in Greek and Italian, saying 'Time to stage a run on your banks!'" he wrote on his New York Times blog. German economic expert Peter Bofinger also warned in an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE that "European citizens must now fear for their money."
It looks as if the deal struck by euro-zone finance ministers in Brussels over the weekend is already in doubt as a result of massive uncertainty among the public and on the finance markets. Several news agencies have reported that the terms of the deal were to be renegotiated on Monday. Proposals include lowering the levy on bank deposits below €100,000 ($129,000) to 3 percent from 6.75 percent, and potentially increasing the forced contributions of deposits above €500,000 to 12.5 or 15 percent, up from 9.9 percent.
Why Should Savers Pay for Cyprus's Problems?
Up until now, all the bailouts of euro-zone countries have been partially financed by taxpayer money. Governments put up cash to save the crisis-ridden countries, making them vulnerable to risks or losses. In the case of Greece's second loan program in 2011, private investors were called on to take part for the first time. German Chancellor Angela Merkel insisted that such action would remain unique to that program.
It was against this backdrop that more economically strong European Union member states, together with the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, agreed to involve bank account holders in the emergency loan program. The decision also had a moral component: Cyprus has long been viewed as a tax haven for the wealthy elite from Russia and elsewhere in Europe, and policymakers felt they should be made to pay for the bailout as well. Furthermore, the argument goes, Cyprus's banks would also be threatened if no bailout were approved, putting savers' money in danger anyway.
This position can be justified, but experts still see it as being highly risky. Above all, they criticize the fact that middle-class savers with small account balances are also being forced to pay for the bailout.
What Exactly Are Experts and Investors Afraid Of?
There's a great danger inherent to the creditor nations' plan: Namely that depositors in European crisis countries could lose confidence in their banks and withdraw money en masse. The worst-case scenario would be a run on the banks, which could drive several institutions into bankruptcy. No bank in the world has enough money to pay out all of its depositors at one time.
In Cyprus, storm clouds have already begun to gather. The institutions are currently closed for a public holiday on Monday. But once they reopen, long lines are likely to form in front of bank branches and ATMs.
Even worse would be the so-called contagion effect on other crisis states. In recent years, countries like Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy have already struggled to prevent depositors from moving their money overseas. This was reflected in the high level of imbalances in Europe's so-called Target2 settlement system, in which euro-zone central banks and the European Central Banks transfer money across the common currency union. The situation had calmed down since last fall, when ECB President Mario Draghi promised to help the highly indebted countries with unlimited bond purchases in the event of a financial emergency. Confidence in banks slowly returned, but this recovery process has now been suddenly disturbed.
It will not be clear how bad the consequences of involving Cypriot depositors in the bailout will be until another euro-zone country gets into trouble. Then, as many experts fear, the depositors in the country could start a run on the banks.
Why Is Trust So Important for Banks?
Banks rely on the confidence of customers and investors. They can function only if both groups constantly provide them with cash. Otherwise they quickly risk being shut down.
In Germany, it became abundantly clear in 2008 just how important trust is for the stability of the financial system. Who knows what would have happened if Angela Merkel hadn't made an important statement at the time. It was Sunday, Oct. 5, 2008. Just a week earlier, Berlin and German banks had teamed up to save ailing commercial property lender Hypo Real Estate, likely preventing a meltdown of the country's financial system in the process. But it was already time to prevent the next disaster -- a run on German banks by depositors. The situation was tense. For days, Germans had already been withdrawing more money than usual from cash machines, and some banks were having trouble keeping up. Banking advisors reported receiving late-night calls from wealthy clients who wanted to personally come by to make sure their money was still there.
Then Chancellor Merkel and her then-Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück made an appearance in front of TV cameras. "We assure depositors that their funds are secure," Merkel promised. "The federal government will also guarantee this."
The sentence was historic -- a turning point in the financial crisis. Trust in German banks immediately returned. The state deposit insurance increased from €20,000 to €100,000, and other countries followed this example. Today the minimum sum guaranteed in Europe is €50,000.
On Monday Merkel renewed her promise. "The mark of a guarantee is that it holds true," she said through her spokesman Steffen Seibert. "And there is nothing to add to the words of the chancellor and then-finance minister."
03/18/2013 06:06 PM
German Economist: 'Europe's Citizens Now Have to Fear for Their Money'
For the first time, bank customers in a crisis-plagued euro-zone country are being forced to contribute to its bailout. In an interview, German economist Peter Bofinger warns the strategy is "extremely dangerous" and could lead to a run on banks.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Bofinger, Cyprus will be saved -- and every Cypriot bank customer will have to pay up. Whether that person is Greek or Russian, whether they have €1,000 or €10 million in their account, part of that person's savings will be taken. Is this a good strategy?
Bofinger: It is the worst possible. Making small-scale savers pay is extremely dangerous. It will shake the trust of depositors across the Continent. Europe's citizens now have to fear for their money.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you expect that despositors in Spain, Italy, Portugal and other crisis-plagued countries will make a run on their accounts because they, too, might have to pay someday?
Bofinger: Yes. These fears will now be stoked. The Spaniards, Italians and Portuguese may not run to the banks today or tomorrow, but as soon as the crisis intensifies in a euro-zone country, the bank customers will remember Cyprus. They will withdraw their money and, by doing so, intensify the crisis.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Cypriot government wants to minimize this panic effect. The Wall Street Journal reported today that the latest proposal in Nicosia would include only a 3-percent one-time levy for small-scale depositors rather than the 6.75 percent tax included in the deal reached in Brussels over the weekend.
Bofinger: That wouldn't change anything. If you live in a home, then you expect 100 percent safety. If someone says to you, "Three percent of your roof could cave in," then you still wouldn't want to live there anymore.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The euro-zone partner countries seeking to provide Cyprus with a bailout view the participation of small-scale depositors as a necessary evil. This is because any aid provided by the long-term euro rescue fund, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), would be added on top of Cyprus's national debt. Without the contributions of bank customers, the government's debt level would be unsustainable.
Bofinger: Shaking the confidence of depositors across Europe cannot be the solution. Those seeking to save the euro should be contributing true aid during an emergency.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You mean they should give free money to Cyprus?
Bofinger: At the end of the day, it would be better to take charge and provide a billion euros to rescue the small-scale savers in Cyprus than to risk a collapse of the euro financial system.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But that would also mean entering into a transfer union and breaking another taboo that is at least as big. Greece, Portugal, Spain and co. would want their money for free in the future, too.
Bofinger: That can be easily avoided. Cyprus is a special case, and it can be communicated as such. No other euro-zone country in Southern Europe has such a bloated financial sector. And there is no other country that could have a comparable domino effect in the euro crisis. Cypriot banks lent some €22 billion to Greek firms and private households, and they have suffered very high losses as a result of the restructuring of Greek bonds.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Nevertheless, it would be almost impossible to justify giving money away to a crisis country for free. How is Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble supposed to explain to parliament that he is giving away German taxpayers' money to a government that is accused of having insufficient controls against money laundering?
Bofinger: Such political failings should be dealt with as quickly as possible. But the main issue here is not Cyprus. It's how we guarantee the euro's stability. That's also in Germany's interest.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: In what sense?
Bofinger: After the election in Italy, the situation within the currency union is once again very unstable. An end of the common currency would be the equivalent of a nuclear meltdown for German industry. The question is this: How can the euro be stabilized as cost-efficiently as possible? If depositors across Europe make a run on their accounts, the rescue will get a lot more expensive than it would if money were raised to save the small-scale depositors in Cyprus.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The participation of Cypriot bank customers also serves another purpose. The financial institutions are holding a lot of money from wealthy Russians in their accounts. Some believe those accounts contain illicit funds from money laundering. The partial expropriation of depositors is supposed to counter the accusation that the ESM has become a bailout package for Russians.
Bofinger: There are better solutions for that, too. Depositors with up to €100,000 should be able to keep all their money. But richer depositors should be made to pay more. For example, starting at €1 million, 20 percent of an account's savings could be seized. At €10 million, that figure could be 30 percent. One could also review whether it would be legal to tax depositors from non-EU countries in Europe at a greater rate.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: So you're calling for a bigger compulsory levy for Russians than for Europeans?
Bofinger: Why not?
Interview conducted by Stefan Schultz
The super-rich who have made Cyprus their home
Foreign tycoons who took citizenship in search of favourable tax regime likely to be among hardest hit by deposit tax
guardian.co.uk, Monday 18 March 2013 20.39 GMT
A band of super-rich foreign tycoons who took Cypriot citizenship in recent decades – lured by a favourable tax regime – are expected to be among the hardest hit by the island's surprise deposit tax as several are believed to have been required to deposit at least €17m of their fortunes on the island to qualify for citizenship.
Billionaires attracted to the island by the controversial citizenship scheme, designed to court super-rich figures, include Norwegian-born oil tanker tycoon John Fredriksen, Israeli internet gambling entrepreneur Teddy Sagi, and Alexander Abramov, the Russian steel magnate who chairs FTSE 100 group Evraz.
Cyprus's then interior minister, Neoclis Sylikiotis, explained the rules to local newspaper Cyprus Weekly in 2010: "Cypriot nationality is given in special cases, following approval from the council of ministers … on the basis of specific criteria, including the applicant being over 30, having no criminal record, owning a permanent home in Cyprus and travelling to the island."
Further criteria include depositing at least €17m with a local bank over five years, direct investments of €30m, or registering a large business on the island.
Between 2007 and 2010 some 30 foreign nationals, mostly Russians, were reportedly granted Cypriot citizenship. Most prominent among them was Abramov. "Mr Abramov is considered to be offering high level services to the Republic of Cyprus, taking into account his business activities," explained Sylikiotis. "Therefore, reasons of public interest justify his naturalisation as a special case."
Abramov is a close business associate of Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich, and together with fellow Russian Alexander Frolov they hold controlling interests in FTSE 100 steel group Evraz, through Cyprus investment vehicle Lanebrook Ltd. Abramov is chairman and, according to Companies House, lists his nationality as Russian — so he may hold joint citizenship. A spokesman for Evraz could not be reached for comment.
Forbes magazine's list of the world's richest people puts Abramov's fortune at $4.6bn, which does not come close to making him Cyprus's wealthiest naturalised citizen. That honour goes to 68-year-old Fredriksen, who made his first fortune during the Persian Gulf "tanker wars" that accompanied the 1980s Iran-Iraq conflict. According to his biographer, Fredriksen's operations were "the lifeline to the Ayatollah."
Like Abramov, he oversees his global empire from London, but he is said to keep homes in Oslo and Marbella as well as Cyprus. For many years, Fredriksen was Norway's richest man, but in 2006 is said to have given up Norwegian citizenship in favour of the Mediterranean island, reportedly because it offered his family better tax arrangements. Today he ranks 87th on the Forbes list, worth an estimated $11.5bn. In the last decade his business interests have expanded into deepwater drilling. He could not be reached for comment.
Other billionaires attracted to Cyprus include controversial online gambling entrepreneur Teddy Sagi, who owns close to half of Playtech, the £1.6bn gaming software group he founded and partially floated on the London stock exchange.
Sagi, whose fortune is estimated at $1.8bn, has been based in Cyprus for some years, though he lists his nationality as Israeli in corporate filings and regularly features on lists of Israel's wealthiest individuals.
He is reported to have invested considerable sums in Cyprus, sponsoring a school in Larnaca which bears his name and establishing the island's first synagogue. Local press reports at one stage suggested Sagi might not qualify for Cypriot citizenship because of a conviction for securities fraud in 1996. A spokesman for Playtech could not be reached.
One wealthy tycoon with Cypriot roots who will definitely not be affected by the tax is easyJet founder Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou. He told the Guardian: "Personally, I don't think I am affected by the measures but obviously have friends and family who are."
Born in Athens, Monaco-based Stelios inherited his parents' joint British and Cypriot citizenship, but he has never lived or worked on the island. He does however have charitable activities there.
03/18/2013 05:34 PM
Padre Jorge: Hopes Are High for Pope of the Poor
There are a number of firsts associated with the election of Pope Francis, including that of shunning some of the pomp of the papacy. But the list of expectations that have been placed on his shoulders is even longer. Will he be able to lead the Catholic Church out of crisis?
It's lying on the table in front of him, a thin, faded little book called "De consideratione." It describes the pressures and demands facing a pope while in office. Just prior to heading for the conclave at the Vatican, Cardinal Karl Lehmann, Bishop of Mainz, had quickly pulled it out of his private library, the only book from his collection -- some 120,000 volumes he claims -- to have traveled with him to Rome. He leafed through it often during the conclave, reading passages from it in the evening at the heavily guarded Santa Marta guesthouse, where the 115 cardinal-electors stayed, sealed off from the outside world, without television, mobile phones or Internet.
He sat at the desk in room 121, back straight, pen in hand, trying to focus on the election of a suitable successor to the chair of St. Peter. He kept leafing through the book, written for Pope Eugene III around the year 1150. "It's still valid today," says the elector from Germany.
Lehmann, at 76 "half a year older than the new pope," is obsessed with books, not unlike the now-retired Pope Benedict XVI. Last week, having been back in the real world for a few hours, he seemed rejuvenated by the election. He had just moved to the German Bishops' Conference's Mater Dei house on Gianicolo Hill. Thousands of people were still gathered on St. Peter's Square below. The dining room, with its lace doilies on the tables, was filled with the smell of bratwurst.
Lehmann picks up the book and reads a passage out loud. It addresses the "decay of the church and the vilest abuses that surround the papal throne: excessive ambition, greed, falsification of the truth," the allure inherent in the office, and the "flatterers, supplicants, sycophants, the arrogant and the unruly." He is astonished by how relevant these words still are today, especially when he quotes the author's advice to the pope to "leave the care of his household in the hands of a proven man, not to those who have yet to prove themselves."
He chuckles and says: "How true." Then he turns to one last striking passage from the book, which reads like a prophecy: "The pope must remain the person he was: a humble monk, but one who is now there for everyone." These words are particularly applicable to the new pope, says Lehmann, to Francis, the surprise pontiff from abroad.
Lehmann smiles as he snaps the book shut, pleased with his discovery. He is not among those who now claim they knew all along that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Argentina would emerge from the conclave as the next pope. But he had certainly hoped for something fundamentally new and different. When it comes to his bearing and temperament, the bishop from Mainz is the opposite of Joseph Ratzinger, and he cannot conceal his relief over the change. "Ratzinger's considerable talent," says Lehmann, "was hampered greatly, both in the curia and beyond, by communication difficulties."
Ultimately, it became clear that Benedict was no longer in control of his administration. Lehmann is among many who see Benedict's resignation as a sacrifice -- and as an unexpected opportunity to replace the old, divided, corrupt Vatican administration with a more capable one.
He speaks of a new beginning, and of change and reform. Will he present his new boss with his little book, in which he has discovered so many passages that still apply today? The cardinal demurs, saying that the new pontiff doesn't need advice from another German.
When the Argentine pope stepped onto the loggia of St. Peter's Basilica last Wednesday, gazed down at thousands of umbrellas, hesitantly raised his arm and said nothing at first, it quickly became clear that this new pontiff is presenting himself and his simplicity as a contrast against a church that has become obsessed with its own image. He had only one request for the people on St. Peter's Square: Before blessing them, he asked them to pray for him.
Many of those who had just elected him, and were watching from the adjacent balcony, had never heard anything like it. And it certainly wasn't the only sensation associated with this pope. He is the first non-European pope in 1,272 years. He is the first pope whose predecessor is not buried in a tomb in Rome, but will be living in his garden. He is the first Jesuit pope, a member of an order that was founded as a Catholic movement of restoration. It was seen as the sword of the counter-reformation, a force to combat Enlightenment in Europe, and later as an elite group within Catholicism, one that former Pope John Paul II viewed with great mistrust.
And despite his background as a member of the self-confident Society of Jesus, the newly elected pontiff is the first pope to choose the name Francis, after the founder of the Franciscan order, Francis of Assisi, a friend of the poor and of animals, an itinerant preacher and a stubborn contrarian. Franciscans humbly refer to themselves as the "Brothers Minor," an appellation that a traditional Jesuit would never choose.
Declining the Red Shoes
But the new pope is apparently an exception. "There are quite a few firsts here," Rainer Maria Woelki, the Archbishop of Berlin, marveled the next day.
And the firsts continued. Bergoglio won his first power struggle with the Roman Curia after being pope for less than five minutes. In the "Room of Tears," the changing room for newly elected popes for centuries, the three papal robes, as well as several shirts, collars, cufflinks, and several pairs of the famous red shoes made of the finest calfskin, in sizes 40 to 46, were waiting for the new pontiff. This was where he was to leave his old life behind. But the man from Buenos Aires, a city of immigrants, had his own ideas, which conflicted with those of the Curia's masters of ceremonies.
He declined the fur-lined red stole made by the papal tailor, a symbol of long gone secular power. He was also unwilling to wear the red shoes when stepping out in front of the crowd.
The Argentine pope didn't prevail immediately and the cardinals waiting next door became restless, ultimately sending a servant to knock on the door of the Room of Tears. There was a certain sense of urgency: Tens of thousands of people had been waiting outside in the rain on St. Peter's Square for hours -- waiting to find out who their new pope would be.
After the servant had knocked on the door two or three more times, the new Pope Francis finally emerged in a simple white cassock. He had won the struggle over the dress code, and now he looked determined as he made his way to the loggia. Looking neither left nor right, he strode through the Sistine Chapel until he encountered a cardinal in a wheelchair who had participated in the conclave. The cardinal was the first to receive the new pope's embrace.
He courted his fellow cardinals with emphatic humility. When the chauffeured papal Mercedes with the license plate number SCV 1 appeared, Francis sent it away, boarded the bus carrying the cardinals, and sat down in the second row behind the driver, on the left-hand side of the bus. One of the cardinals took a blurred picture with his mobile phone. At the Santa Marta guesthouse, he didn't sit in the white chair intended for the pontiff, but ate his pasta at the table with the others instead. The papal suite that had been prepared for him remained empty that night. Instead, Francis preferred to stay in the modest room No. 201, which had been assigned to him before the conclave. The next morning, he went in person to the guesthouse to pick up his suitcases, paid the bill with his own money and walked to the Apostolic Palace -- to be the next pope.
Shining Role Model?
Vatican aficionados and newspapers were practically tripping over themselves, calling Francis the austerity pope and a shining role model.
"These are little things that say a lot about a person," says Vienna's Cardinal Christopher Schönborn. "Details that may signify great promise." The new pope reminds him a little of John Paul II and of John XXIII, he says. "He can conjure up beaming faces in ordinary people. Il Papa dei poveri, the pope of the poor." This is no exaggeration, says Schönborn.
Almost the same sentiment is being expressed in his native Argentina. Buenos Aires shows its third-world side in a slum called Villa 31, where children kick a ball around between piles of garbage and drug dealers hang around on street corners. There are often shootings at night and taxi drivers refuse to drive into the slum. The Church of Cristo Obrero is under a highway overpass, where the slum gives way to a no-man's land of shipping companies and warehouses. A simple wooden cross protrudes from the corrugated metal roof. Local residents have erected a mausoleum of red bricks in front of the entrance to the church.
It contains the mortal remains of Padre Carlos Mugica. A priest who worked among the poor, he was murdered by death squads in 1974 and buried in a remote cemetery. It was only in 1999 that the dead priest was brought back to his parish. Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio had Mugica's body exhumed and brought to Villa 31 in a ceremonial procession, with Bergoglio walking behind the coffin. The bishop has been worshiped as a hero since then. "He gave the poor their dignity back," says Padre Guillermo Torre, who has headed the parish for the last 14 years.
Photos of the new pope hang in the church auditorium, next to images of Mother Teresa. He often read Mass there, and President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner even visited the church once, though she and Bergoglio are not on good terms. The last time Padre Guillermo spoke with Bergoglio was two months ago. The cardinal was helping him develop a center for the treatment of drug addicts and a soup kitchen for the poor. "He is a man of dialogue," says Torre. "He has no conceits."
Advocate for the Poor -- Or the Powerful?
When the white smoke rose above the Sistine Chapel in faraway Rome, the people of Villa 31 flooded into the church. Padre Guillermo read a Mass and they prayed all night long. Leo Caballero, a street vendor, wants to write Francis a letter to beseech him not to forget the poor. He hopes the pope will come to visit one day.
With Bergoglio's election, the center of the Catholic Church shifts to the continent where more than 500 million of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics live. Some 163 million live in Brazil, 99 million in Mexico. In the new pope's native Argentina, 90 percent of the people were baptized as Catholics, although only about half still follow the Roman church. Evangelical Protestant churches are making huge inroads, especially among the poor.
So who is this Argentine who inspires so much hope both in Latin America and in Europe, and who has taken to his office so quickly?
Bergoglio has a biography that suits a universal church: He's a representative of Latin America, but with European roots. Born in Buenos Aires in 1936, he has two brothers and two sisters. His parents were immigrants from northern Italy and he holds both Italian and Argentine citizenship. He studied chemical engineering, was a passionate tango dancer in his youth and once fell in love as a young man. At 22, after part of his right lung had been removed following a serious bout of pneumonia, Bergoglio experienced a spiritual turning point.
Deciding that he wanted to become a priest, he entered the Jesuit order and studied in Chile, Argentina and at St. George's Philosophical and Theological School in Frankfurt, where he improved his German and where he is remembered by pastoral theologian Michael Sievernich.
Even then, poverty was a focus of their conversations, says Sievernich. Bergoglio, the Jesuit from the poor south, saw the wealth of the north in Frankfurt. Sievernich expects that the new pope will now change the focus of the Catholic Church. "Instead of faith and reason, as with Joseph Ratzinger, the church will revolve around faith and justice," says Sievernich.
According to Sievernich, Bergoglio searched for the writings of religious scholar Romano Guardini in the library at St. George's. But a doctoral thesis on Guardini, which Bergoglio was apparently planning at the time and for which he was doing research in Germany, never materialized. Back in Argentina, he taught literature and philosophy, then became a priest, and was later awarded a professorship in theology. One of his books is called: "Dialogue Between John Paul II and Fidel Castro."
At 37, he was named Jesuit provincial superior for Argentina, and he later worked as a parish priest in the Diocese of San Miguel, in the midst of a working-class neighborhood. "He got up every morning at four to pray," says Jesuit priest Guillermo Ortiz, who runs the Spanish-language department of Radio Vatican today and worked with Bergoglio at the time." Bergoglio prayed for the victims of human trafficking, prostitution and the organ trade. "He spoke out against bribery and corruption, and he defended human dignity."
Bergoglio became auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires in 1992 and archbishop in 1998. As archbishop, he refused to be addressed as "Excellency," but instead insisted he be called "Padre Jorge."
But there may be another side to Francis. He has, in the past, become embroiled in fierce debates with the Kirchner regime, demonstrating a keen understanding of power. And his role in Argentina's former military dictatorship still hasn't been completely cleared up. Many disappointed Argentines accuse him of not having protested against torture and murder at the time. Some even say he abandoned his own employees to the dictatorship's thugs and lied in court. This is the side of Francis that Estela de la Cuadra says she experienced.
De la Cuadra lives in the provincial capital La Plata, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) from Buenos Aires. After the 1976 military coup, the generals built some of their most brutal torture centers in the quiet university town.
Estela's sister Elena and her companion Héctor Baratti were abducted in 1977, when Elena was five months' pregnant. According to fellow prisoners, she gave birth in a police station. Elena and Héctor were tortured and Héctor was later thrown into the sea from an airplane while still alive. His body ultimately washed up on the shore, but Elena was never found. The baby also disappeared.
'An Accomplice of the Military Dictatorship'
Fellow prisoners say that an officer and his wife had adopted the baby, and that they had learned this from Christian von Wernich, a police chaplain of German origin who heard the torture victims' confessions before they were murdered. Elena's brothers, who lived in exile in Italy, appealed to the head of the Jesuit order in Rome for help in 1977. He, in turn, asked for assistance from his representative in Argentina, Bergoglio.
Bergoglio wrote a letter to a friend of his, a bishop, asking him to look into the matter, but it came to nothing. Yet Bergoglio later claimed that he had known nothing about the victims and their abducted children. De la Cuadra, though, has a copy of the letter, which, she claims, shows that "Bergoglio was an accomplice of the military dictatorship."
"In coups, the Catholic Church was always on the side of the armed forces," says Argentine church critic Horacio Verbitsky. "Those in power saw the church as a bastion against revolutionary movements." Verbitsky says that Bergoglio, as head of the Jesuits, had substantial influence at the time and was politically active even before the 1976 coup. "He was part of the Peronists' right wing," says Verbitsky.
Verbitsky believes that Bergoglio participated in the "Guardia de Hierro," or "Iron Guard," a group of fanatical supporters of former President Juan Perón who saw themselves as the keepers of the Peronist ideology. After Perón's death and the 1976 coup, the Jesuit chief pulled his staff out of the slums, says Verbitsky. Two young priests, Franz Jalics and Orlando Yorio, were determined not to abandon the poor and refused to leave. "Bergoglio then deprived them of the church's protection," claims Verbitsky. Soon afterwards, the two priests were abducted and tortured. After five months, a helicopter dropped them off near Buenos Aires. They were drugged at the time, but later the two men pressed charges against Bergoglio, saying that he had handed them over to the dictatorship.
The Jesuit leader's office denied the accusations, and the case came to nothing. Yorio is since dead, and Jalics went into exile in Germany. Jalics says he has since had a long discussion about the events with Bergoglio, and the two men even celebrated a mass together and embraced.
Battling the Vatican Administration
Nevertheless, in a 1995 book Jalics accused Bergoglio of betraying him to the dictators: "The man promised that he would let the military officers know that we were not terrorists. But through the subsequent statements of a government official and with the help of 30 documents, to which I later gained access, we were able to demonstrate without a doubt that this man did not keep his promise but, in fact, did the opposite and denounced us to the military."
That man was Bergoglio.
Who, then, is the real Francis? Does the façade of being a pope for the poor in fact conceal a cunning right-wing populist, as Verbitsky suspects? "Instead of a reformer, the cardinals have in fact given us a two-faced Jesuit," claims the writer.
Adolfo Pérez Esquivel disagrees with such indictments. Esquivel won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980 for his nonviolent struggle against the junta. He says that perhaps Bergoglio "lacked the courage other priests had, but he never assisted the dictatorship, and he wasn't an accomplice." Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi has dismissed all accusations as slander against the new pope.
Archbishop Bergoglio headed the Argentine Episcopal Conference for six years. In that position, he represented all of the conservative positions of his church, from bioethics to gay marriage. He was a regular speaker at the annual meetings of Comunione e Liberazione, a conservative movement within the church, in the Italian seaside resort of Rimini.
This is and remains the ambivalent aspect of his personality. Francis is an extremely conservative moral theologian, and yet he leans to the left on issues of social policy. He is a passionate football fan, a supporter and member No. 88235N-0 of San Lorenzo, a professional football club. His demonstrative modesty, as evidenced by his choosing to live in a simple apartment, take the subway and dispense with almost all status symbols, has practically been elevated to cult status. He is said to be an ardent lover of the German poet Hölderlin, and of Dostoyevsky and Beethoven. He is a cultured man who must now enter the trenches in the battle to reform the Vatican administration.
His election alone reflects the tense environment over which he is to hold sway in the future. He attracted attention in the pre-conclave with two remarkable speeches, in which he talked about the need to cleanse oneself of all careerist thoughts. "They were the best contributions I heard," says a prominent German cardinal. "We inquired about him. We heard that he was politically independent and had a great deal of pastoral experience, that he thinks in terms of long periods, and that he was tested by crisis in his country. We also noted his serenity and his distance." By distance, the cardinal was referring to Bergoglio's recognizable skepticism toward the church's administration in Rome.
Those members of the Curia aligned with the powerful but unpopular Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone had initially supported Brazilian Bishop Odilo Scherer. Cardinals Angelo Sodano and Giovanni Re, empathic opponents of Milan Cardinal Angelo Scola, who many had believed would finally bring reform to the Vatican, campaigned for Scherer. But these two favorites, Scherer and Scola, canceled each other out from the beginning of the election procedure. Bergoglio, on the other hand, received more votes from one round of voting to the next.
A Long List of Challenges
The decision was reached during a pasta lunch on Wednesday, at about 1:30 p.m., at least according to information the Turin newspaper La Stampa claims to have obtained. After the third round of voting, when it was clear that neither Scola nor Scherer could win, and a compromise candidate from Boston, Cardinal Patrick O'Malley, could not prevail against the votes of the African cardinal-electors, Bergoglio established himself as the unbeatable front-runner. In the fifth, decisive round of voting, Bergoglio reportedly received substantially more than the required 77 votes.
When the name Francis was mentioned for the first time, Cardinals Scherer and Schönborn, sitting across from each other in the Sistine Chapel, looked at each other and broke out laughing. Bishops from São Paulo and Vienna respectively, the two had run into each other in Assisi while on their way to the conclave. Scherer says that the two men had wondered "why a pope has never named himself after St. Francis."
Berlin's Cardinal Woelki, one of the youngest at the conclave, who, by his own account, entered the Sistine Chapel "with wobbly knees and sweaty palms," was sitting a little farther away. He immediately thought: "Francis -- the name says it all!"
Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, a man known for his occasional radical critiques of turbo-capitalism, felt that the new pope was a spiritual brother. "A completely different figure, a completely different style. Not a man of the Curia," Marx said. "His emphasis on simplicity will be good for us all."
The German cardinals did not, of course, mention the new pope's pronounced conservatism on all questions of theology. But Bergoglio's rise could indeed spell a new beginning. His election is seen as a revolutionary event, not unlike Benedict's resignation. "A fresh wind has prevailed," says Vatican veteran Marco Politi, who argues that the election proves that the Roman church reacts with much greater flexibility than Italy's political system.
Disastrous Curia Management
On the evening following the election, the new pope gave a reception at the Santa Marta guesthouse. "May God forgive you," he reportedly said in jest. New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan was so enthusiastic about the pope's exclamation that he later posted it on his blog. Before the reception, Francis had a long telephone conversation with Benedict, who is still at the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo and who was reportedly deeply moved over the choice of his erstwhile challenger.
An almost unprecedented number of problems came to a head within the church during the eight-year pontificate of Benedict XVI. Under former Pope John Paul II, the various crises were more or less defused. This included the many abuse cases and the failures of the disastrously managed Curia. But neither of the last two popes were skilled administrators. The former spent most of his papacy on the road, before becoming mortally ill. The latter preferred to be alone at his desk. Hardly anyone in Rome still believes the explanation given by Benedict's spokesman that the pope emeritus resigned solely because of age and infirmity.
How, though, does Francis intend to fight the "filth in the church" that Ratzinger deplored, but which he was ultimately unable to eliminate? How will he deal with the Vatileaks scandal, leaks in the Curia and money laundering at the Vatican Bank?
All of the cardinals who had traveled to Rome were in agreement that the Curia needs comprehensive reform. The topic dominated debates leading up the conclave with the daily meetings of the general congregation lasting much longer than normal. The cardinals noted that there had never been this much discussion of the problems in the church, about corruption and intrigues in the Secretariat of State, the lack of power in the episcopal churches, the role of women, the church in China, and the church's handling of the child abuse cases and its relationship with the Society of Saint Pius X. According to the cardinals, the discussions had never been this open and critical.
In the pre-conclave, four cardinals, including German Cardinal Walter Kasper, asked for information about the report on the Vatileaks investigation, which has been shrouded in mystery. The report, said to be 300 pages long, was written by three retired bishops, all over 80, and is kept locked in the papal safe. It reportedly contains background information on the scandal surrounding documents from the pope's desk that a butler, apparently working on behalf of others, had stolen and passed on to the media. There was much media speculation of corruption, cronyism, gay networks in which positions are traded, intrigues and even the threat of a schism within the church.
Not Enough Time
In their last debate before the beginning of the conclave, the cardinals also discussed the Vatican Bank, or IOR, which is accused of money laundering. Cardinal Bertone delivered a short report on the bank's activities and the introduction of international standards for financial transactions. The cardinals actually wanted to know much more about the affair. The Americans, in particular, asked for more access to the investigative report by the Vatileaks commission, which reportedly contains longer passages on the IOR. But there wasn't enough time left for that.
For years Italian politicians used accounts at the bank, officially known as the Institute for Works of Religion, to obscure their financial assets, partly because the Vatican Bank does not publish its financial statements. Until recently, the institute was only answerable to the pope. "Perhaps we'll no longer have a Vatican Bank in a few years," said a German cardinal's spokesman after the election of Pope Francis. A group of non-Italian cardinals led by Viennese Cardinal Schönborn wants to dissolve the institution altogether.
It is still unclear how decisively Francis will address all of these tasks. He has to appoint a strong-willed, independent secretary of state. But the new secretary of state should only share power, without seeking to acquire more power to control and discipline everyone and everything, like the power-crazed Bertone.
A strong manager who hopes to liberate the Curia from the corrupt pack of informers and uninhibited overachievers will have to slim down the machinery and organize it more horizontally. The pope has to become accessible again -- to everyone. In Ratzinger's case, only Bertone and the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, received appointments right away, while all others were kept waiting for months. The German participants in the conclave urged that regular cabinet meetings be held in the future, and that the Roman church maintain more intensive contact with the bishops and papal ambassadors around the world.
The question is how absolutist this pope can be in ruling the church, after Benedict's resignation and in times of crisis. Cardinal Lehmann complains that "the right to codetermination in the appointment of bishops was treated with contempt." A renewed church should be able to delegate more responsibility so that, for example, a nun at a hospital in Africa treating HIV patients decides whether to distribute condoms or the morning-after pill -- and not the prelate in Rome.
Subject to Negotiation
The pope has continued offering indications that he is serious about renewal. Last Thursday, he read his first mass in the Sistine Chapel at an altar facing the congregation -- an altar Benedict had had removed to accommodate the traditionalists. Yet what he had to proclaim didn't sound very different from his predecessor's fight against the "dictatorship of relativism." Francis also applies a simple either-or approach: "He who doesn't pray to the Lord prays to the devil." It is the creed of a modern reactionary.
The new pope must find answers to how the church should behave in the world of today, in which many conflicts are religiously charged, especially in the Middle East and Asia. The church's sexual morality, furthermore, has long since been rejected in Europe and increasingly in Latin America as well. And the church needs to develop an approach to the inequalities triggered by the global financial crises. Finally, the pope must also be clear about where the Catholic Church stands on popular uprisings and the end of tyranny in countries across the world.
Catholics in democratic countries are demanding more say. And the laity, both men and women, must take more responsibility in the church due to the growing shortage of priests. This also applies to the much greater dearth of priests in Latin America, where self-proclaimed Evangelical preachers in storefront churches are becoming serious challengers to the Catholic Church.
As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis already showed that he could rule with a flexible hand in such cases. And it may in fact be easier for a non-European pope to find answers to many of these questions.
For the German bishops, however, change could be coming: After the election in Rome, they all praised the example of modesty and humility set by the new pope. This could set a new standard for their own behavior, and it could happen more quickly than many an archbishop in Germany would like. From the squandering of church tax revenue to opulent episcopal sees, dark official limousines with chauffeurs, well-stocked wine cellars and ample household staff, the luxury and status symbols of German bishops are suddenly subject to negotiation.
BY MATTHIAS BARTSCH, FIONA EHLERS, JENS GLÜSING, HANS HOYNG, PETER WENSIERSKI AND HELENE ZUBER
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
03/18/2013 04:02 PM
Decentralize the Church: How the New Pope Can Combat Catholic-Phobia
A Commentary By Hans Hoyng
The Catholic Church is out of touch with believers, and risks losing more of the flock if it fails to reform. An important step would be giving national churches more power to suit the needs of their individual congregations.
During the course of the Franco-Prussian war, when Napoleon III withdrew his garrison from Rome in 1870, the pope lost the last vestiges of his temporal power -- the Papal States -- to a partly united Italy. Yet only a few weeks earlier, at the First Vatican Council, he had gained a far more valuable replacement: the dogma of papal infallibility. Since then, the bishop of Rome has maintained that he is exempt from the possibility of error. Roma locuta, causa finita (Rome has spoken, the case is closed).
Opponents of this claim prayed in vain that the Lord would summon his servant Pius IX to heaven before he could inflict even greater damage. British historian Lord Acton, a publisher of Catholic newspapers, coined his famous axiom with regard to this dogma: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
At the time, conflicts between the Una Sancta and its critics were significantly more aggressive than they are today. Nevertheless, bishops these days are particularly vocal in their complaints that people are too critical of the Church. Just last month, in response to an interviewer's question about the Roman Curia, the governing body of the Catholic Church, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio said that "journalists sometimes risk becoming ill from coprophilia and thus fomenting coprophagia, which is a sin that taints all men and women." (Coprophilia being an abnormal interest in feces, especially the use of feces or filth for sexual excitement; and coprophagia being the consumption of feces). Now, as the new pope, it is his job to tame his ecclesiastical city-state. Can he do this? His German colleague in Cologne, Cardinal Joachim Meisner, a close friend of the retired pope, recently complained that there is widespread "Catholic-phobia" out in the world.
Really? Only outside the Church?
When Benedict XVI was asked before his pontificate if he was concerned that so many Catholics no longer followed the papal doctrine, he answered that it didn't bother him much because the truth doesn't depend on a majority vote.
This is the underlying reason for true Catholic-phobia, which is the shepherd's fear of the flock -- in other words, the refusal to recognize that the demands of the Church and the everyday life of the faithful are diametrically opposed to each other on many issues. A single example should suffice: The number of children born out of wedlock in the Catholic states of Europe is over 20 percent in Italy and Poland, over 30 percent in Ireland, nearly 40 percent in Spain and over 50 percent in France. So much for the subservience of sheep.
Little Hope for Change
To make it easier for the faithful to accept the hard-to-swallow infallibility claim, which safeguards the pope's authority and secures the Curia's role as the central leadership apparatus, generations of teachers of religion have explained that nothing will be added to the dogma of the Church that the majority of Catholics do not believe in. That may have been true in 325 BC, at the First Council of Nicaea, but it is no longer the case today when it comes to women's rights and celibacy.
The Argentinean cardinal, who said that his fellow brothers "almost went to the end of the world" to make him the new bishop of Rome, may be able to instill a renewed commitment to the Church among Christian communities in Latin America, but for the Catholics of Europe, he represents the spirit of Benedict's papacy. Like the outgoing pontiff, Francis warns of secular values that are the work of the devil. In the areas in which the Church and the faithful diverge most markedly, the statements of the new pope give little hope for change, despite his humble appearance.
John Paul II and Benedict XVI have further strengthened the primacy of the office of the Bishop of Rome because they believed that the Second Vatican Council, held from 1962 to 1965, created centrifugal forces that caused them to fear for the unity of the Church. Both popes engendered a College of Cardinals that largely agrees on its conservative view of the world, but also runs the risk of being abandoned by many of the faithful. What is consequently needed is greater dissonance -- the recognition that the Church in Latin America is different than it is in Africa or Europe. It is necessary to decentralize and strengthen the national churches.
Back in the 19th century, German author Heinrich Heine critically commented: "Clerics have no fatherland; they only have one father in Rome." To safeguard his own interests and -- at least in Western secular societies -- to at least slow the Church's slide into insignificance as an archaic religious sect, this father should finally grant both his priests and the faithful a fatherland in which they can all collectively live and act as they see fit.
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
03/18/2013 07:08 PM
Vatican Financial Oversight Director: 'Church Strengthens Position By Combating Money Laundering'
René Brülhart, 40, has been the director of the Vatican's Financial Information Authority (FIA) for nearly half a year. The Swiss lawyer and former head of Liechtenstein's financial intelligence unit is on a mission to clear the Vatican Bank of all suspicions of money laundering and other illegal financial transactions.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Brülhart, are you partly responsible for Pope Benedict XVI's resignation?
Brülhart: That does not fall within my area of responsibility. Why do you ask?
SPIEGEL: The first resignation of a pope in centuries has sparked widespread speculation. For instance, there is conjecture that the pope had to resign because he pushed for more transparency at the Institute for Works of Religion (IOR), commonly known as the Vatican Bank, and strove to clear it of all suspicions of money laundering. That is your job.
Brülhart: Let's allow conspiracy theories to simply remain conspiracy theories. Only the Holy Father emeritus knows the ultimate reasons for his resignation. It has nothing to do with my work.
SPIEGEL: Since September 2012, it has been your job to step up the fight against money laundering and remove vulnerabilities in the Vatican's financial system. How much of a willingness to make reforms actually exists?
Brülhart: Back in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI moved to combat money laundering and founded the Financial Information Authority (FIA). The first anti-money laundering law was introduced in 2011, and this legislation was further tightened a few months later. The Vatican has submitted to an audit by the European Council's Committee of Experts on the Evaluation of Anti-Money Laundering Measures and the Financing of Terrorism (MONEYVAL). The Church intends to apply international standards.
SPIEGEL: The MONEYVAL report from the summer of 2011 certifies that the Vatican has made progress, but it still lists serious shortcomings, such as a lack of independence and the insufficient monitoring abilities of your supervisory authority.
Brülhart: We don't live in a world where everything is perfect at the push of a button. The report was an objective appraisal of the situation. We have made great efforts since then, and we shall continue to do so. The next step will involve bolstering the legal framework of the monitoring system within the IOR area of supervision, as stipulated.
SPIEGEL: At the beginning of the year, the Italian central bank briefly shut down all credit card terminals at the Vatican due to the risk of money laundering. What led to this?
Brülhart: It remains to be seen how money can be laundered by museum visitors. For diverse reasons, the relevant Italian authorities have come to the conclusion that at the present moment, business transactions with the Vatican by Italian banks, or by branches of foreign banks in Italy, could entail risks.
SPIEGEL: This is probably based on a number of Italian investigations into money laundering in which the Vatican Bank played a role.
Brülhart: Each case has to be examined individually. Generally speaking, bilateral cooperation is better than it's generally perceived, even during investigations. We are working intensively in areas where improvement is needed. The objective is to create a new relationship based on mutual trust. It won't fail on my account.
SPIEGEL: You say that the Vatican is not a financial center, and the Vatican Bank is not a bank, but rather a financial institution. Where are the differences?
Brülhart: In my opinion, the IOR is a unique type of financial institution. It's not a commercial bank like Deutsche Bank, and it's not an investment bank like Goldman Sachs. The goal is not to generate as much profit as possible. The IOR's mission is to promote Christian works. It is primarily a service enterprise of the Catholic Church that handles internal monetary transactions. There are no international branch offices. Most activities take place via third-party banks.
SPIEGEL: Nevertheless the Vatican Bank operates in an entirely secular manner around the globe.
Brülhart: The Catholic Church is a global institution, and the IOR has to provide its services for the Church in a global manner. But there isn't peace everywhere in the world. There are individual countries that are sanctioned, either by the international community or by individual countries. Yet there is also a Christian life in these countries, with communities and churches that have to be financially supported. That's not always easy.
SPIEGEL: That means that the IOR also has to maintain financial relations to countries that have been blacklisted?
Brülhart: Not to sanctioned countries, but rather to Church institutions that are active within these countries. When we talk about the possible misuse of the IOR for money laundering, the outside world has to recognize the exceptional role of the IOR. We are not talking here about conventional banking transactions. That's what I try to convey to the people I talk with around the world. At the same time, the Vatican has to understand that its functions can be prone to illegal activities. Indeed, the IOR must always be able to recognize whether or not its activities are serving the purposes of the Church.
SPIEGEL: Many of the Vatican's financial transactions are conducted in cash, and this is what makes it particularly susceptible to money laundering.
Brülhart: Such a danger exists everywhere where there are large numbers of cash transfers. That's why it's so important to know where the money comes from and where it's going.
SPIEGEL: In the past, dubious business people, who shouldn't even have been customers in the first place, allegedly used the Vatican Bank with the help of front men. Your authority allegedly ranks roughly 1,000 customers as "highly problematic," and you are reportedly investigating six cases of suspected money laundering.
Brülhart: I currently don't want to name any precise figures, but I would not rely on the ones mentioned. Furthermore, there is a difference between reports of suspicious activities and actual investigations. Reports of suspicious behavior are nothing negative, but rather a sign that the system is working. And ultimately not every suspicion is confirmed; instead, there are explanations for the abnormalities. The truth of the matter is that our initiatives are starting to have the desired effect.
SPIEGEL: Let's take a fictive example: In a country that is prone to money laundering, the Church receives large donations to maintain the houses of worship. How can you ensure that these funds actually serve this purpose, and that it's not just a portion of the money going to the churches, while the rest is laundered?
Brülhart: In this case, we have to know as early as possible who are the individuals involved. Does the amount of money donated stand reasonably in relation to the intended use, and who will be responsible for realizing the corresponding work?
SPIEGEL: So you intend to have contacts in all institutions who can provide you with reliable information on the use of funds?
Brülhart: Of course. Internal transparency is not a specter, nor a threat. On the contrary, it strengthens and protects. One knows whom one is dealing with and the details of each individual case. The same holds true for the IOR.
SPIEGEL: Is that also the official line of the Vatican?
Brülhart: Over the past few months, I have witnessed a great political will to go in this direction. But at the same time, we are dealing with what is perhaps the oldest institution on earth. Structures have evolved here over many generations. I thus have to do a great deal of communicating. I have to explain the logic behind the planned measures, and where these changes provide an advantage to the church. And that's a good thing.
SPIEGEL: Where is there an advantage?
Brülhart: Whether it likes it or not, the Vatican is a high-profile institution. It is permanently in the spotlight. In a changing media landscape, the Vatican has to present and explain its actions. The Catholic Church represents 1.2 billion faithful worldwide. It stands for belief and moral values. This engenders responsibility. The Church strengthens its moral position when it credibly and publicly combats the secular evil of money laundering.
SPIEGEL: For decades, the Vatican Bank has stood for a total lack of transparency, and it has been repeatedly linked to money laundering and the mafia. Are these all just conspiracy theories and myths?
Brülhart: I prefer to work with facts. If one looks at the size of the Vatican Bank, in other words, the amount of administrated assets …
SPIEGEL: … we are speaking of slightly more than €6 billion ($7.75 billion), which corresponds to the customer deposits of the district savings bank of Ludwigsburg, Germany …
Brülhart: … then this is a manageable volume when we talk about the potential threat of money laundering. I'm not trying to play down its importance, but rather just clarify its relative size. It's my authority's job to uncover money laundering, and trace where it possibly took place, and prevent it wherever it is an impending menace. The idea is to establish a functioning and sustainable defense system that allows the early recognition of possible abuse in the area of finance.
SPIEGEL: The election of a new pope also means a reshuffling of key positions in the Vatican's power structure. What impact will this have on your work?
Brülhart: None, I assume -- at least nothing negative. Of course new individuals will be appointed to administrative positions. Since 2010, at the latest, the Vatican has made a clear commitment to combating money laundering. During the period of the sede vacante, I have not seen a single sign of a reversal. Quite the contrary, a positive movement has been launched, and this will continue. I believe there's no turning back now.
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
Revolt against City of London’s medieval elders
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, March 19, 2013 7:57 EDT
For almost a thousand years the City of London Corporation has run the British capital’s financial hub, winning hearts with opulent banquets and parades of red-robed dignitaries, pikemen and musketeers.
But campaigners want to open up the secrets of this arcane organisation, arguing that its medieval structures are helping one of the world’s top financial centres avoid reform after the global crisis.
Dating from when Londoners lived in huts of wattle and daub, the City of London survived the Black Death and the Great Fire of London to emerge as a powerful but opaque force in modern Britain.
Today the corporation manages the “Square Mile” as a separate enclave within London with its own police force, employing 3,500 people and commanding billions of pounds (dollars) in funds.
But critics say it has failed to respond to the problems in the financial industry laid bare following the global crisis, instead protecting its own.
“The machine of the City of London serves the dealmakers,” said William Campbell-Taylor, a Church of England vicar and longtime critic of the corporation.
“The myth of (finance as) the goose that lays the golden eggs is one that is nurtured in the Guildhall”, the 15th-century banqueting hall where the corporation was traditionally based, he said.
The corporation plays a key role as a forum for top-level financial and political networking, often carried out at lavish banquets or through visits abroad by the Lord Mayor, its ceremonial envoy.
But reformers criticise the secrecy of some of its operations, including parts of its accounts and the allocation of votes to City workers in elections — as well as its unorthodox blend of private and public functions.
Elections for the councillors and aldermen who run the corporation are held without political party affiliations.
The City Reform Group, which was formed last year in the wake of the financial crisis by a group including a Conservative lawmaker and a former fund manager, has seized on elections this month as an opportunity to push for change.
Many are standing for positions themselves so that they can agitate from the inside, while they are also asking other candidates to sign up to seven pledges that emphasise accountability.
The reform group’s top demand is the release of full accounts for the “City’s Cash”, an 800-year-old, £1.3 billion ($1.9 billion, 1.5-billion-euro) endowment fund which is cloaked in secrecy.
Today, the fund which includes income from the corporation’s 11,000 acres of British land, aims to promote Britain’s financial services, on which the corporation says it spent £12 million in 2012.
But critics say the City has succeeded in lobbying for the status quo despite widespread calls for changes to the way banks in particular are regulated.
“We think the corporation should be leading standards in the way that the guilds and the livery did,” says writer and reformist Jonathan Myerson, who will be standing in the elections.
London’s ancient guilds or livery companies — where the corporation has its roots — were set up to provide guarantees of quality for different professions from goldsmiths to fishmongers.
The corporation itself sees its role promoting the finance industry as a success story.
“Most of (the lobbying work) is about getting business into Britain,” Mark Boleat, the corporation’s policy chief, told a debate about the City’s future in February.
Financial services brought in more than 10 percent of Britain’s tax take in 2009-10, according to studies by accountants PwC.
The corporation is now wooing Chinese banks to set up London offices, and it has also been instrumental in the arrival of a clump of new skyscrapers on the skyline.
Tony Travers, professor at the London School of Economics, doesn’t believe the corporation was a factor in the financial crisis, telling AFP: “If that were true, that wouldn’t explain how it happened in New York or other cities in Europe.”
He said the “soft diplomacy” of banquets and parades was a way of “sustaining the mystique of the City. It’s hard to believe that doesn’t have beneficial impacts, but it’s hard to measure”.
Demands for change have emerged before, but a 2002 deal with the then-ruling Labour party — whose policy had once been to abolish the corporation altogether — entrenched many of its peculiarities in law.
For many locals, exactly how the corporation works is far from the forefront of their minds.
“People are more worried about whether their company is still going to be here tomorrow,” said Robert Bates, 42, an insolvency partner at an accountancy firm, drinking in a busy City pub.
But David Pitt-Watson, a reformer and ex-fund manager, believes change is inevitable.
“London’s economic future depends on the reform of financial services,” he said. “The alternative to reform (of the corporation) is not the status quo, it’s revolution.”
France to return seven paintings stolen by Nazis
Handover forms part of renewed attempt by France to return looted or misappropriated artworks to rightful Jewish owners
Kim Willsher in Paris
guardian.co.uk, Monday 18 March 2013 13.38 GMT
France is to return seven paintings stolen, or appropriated under pressure by the Nazis, from their Jewish owners in the 1930s to their families on Tuesday.
The paintings were destined to be displayed in an art gallery Adolf Hitler planned to build in Austria, where he grew up. Four of the works have been hanging in the Louvre in Paris.
The official handover is part of a renewed effort by the French government to return looted or misappropriated artworks to their rightful owners.
Between 1933 and 1945, the Nazis purloined about 100,000 paintings, sculptures and other valuable objects in Jewish private collections in Europe. Some were stolen, others were sold under pressure, often to fund an escape from German occupation and the death camps.
France will return the Miracle de la Saint Eloi stolen by Nazis France will also return the Miracle de la Saint Eloi by Gaetano Gandolfi San Matteo della Decima. Photograph: Jacques Brinon/AP
At the end of the second world war, much of this was found; France received 65,000 artefacts, of which almost three-quarters were returned to their owners.
The story of how the looted works were tracked down will be the plot of a forthcoming Hollywood film, directed by and starring George Clooney, called The Monuments Men.
Of the works that remained, 2,140 of the most valuable were sent to French museums across the country.
Six of the seven works being handed back belonged to Robert Neumann, an Austrian Jew who fled to France and then Cuba, selling some of his collection to fund his escape. The paintings will be given to Neumann's grandson, Tom Selldorff, 82, who lives in the US.
The seventh work, by the German painter Pieter-Jansz van Asch, belonged to Josef Wiener, a Prague Jew who died in a German concentration camp, and whose collection was sold by the Nazis in 1941.
The French culture minister, Aurélie Filippetti, said she wanted to introduce a "proactive search" to find the owners of the despoiled artworks. "It's as much a moral issue as a scientific one," she told Le Figaro.
March 19, 2013
Series of Bombs Kills at Least 50 in Baghdad, Police Say
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A dozen car bombs and suicide blasts tore into Shi'ite districts in Baghdad and south of the Iraqi capital on Tuesday, killing more than 50 people on the 10th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.
Sunni Islamist insurgents linked to al Qaeda have vowed to step up attacks on Shi'ite targets since the start of the year in an attempt to provoke sectarian confrontation and undermine Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government.
Tuesday's bombs exploded in a busy Baghdad market, near the heavily fortified Green Zone and in other districts across the capital. A suicide bomber also attacked a police base in a Shi'ite town south of the capital, officials said.
"I was driving my taxi and suddenly I felt my car rocked. Smoke was all around. I saw two bodies on the ground. People were running and shouting everywhere," said Ali Radi, a taxi driver caught in one of the blasts in Baghdad's Sadr City.
A decade after U.S. and Western troops swept Saddam from power, Iraq still struggles with insurgents, sectarian friction and political feuds among Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish factions.
In a sign of concern over security, the cabinet on Tuesday postponed local elections in two provinces, Anbar and Nineveh, for up to six months because of threats to electoral workers and violence there, according to Maliki's media adviser Ali al-Moussawi. The polls will go ahead elsewhere on April 20.
No group has claimed responsibility for the Baghdad blasts, but Islamic State of Iraq, a wing of al Qaeda, has vowed to regain ground lost in its war with U.S. troops. This year the group has carried out a string of high-profile attacks.
Violence is still below the height of the sectarian slaughter that killed tens of thousands after Sunni Islamists bombed the Shi'ite Al Askari shrine in 2006, provoking a wave of retaliation by Shi'ite militias.
But security officials say al Qaeda is regrouping in the vast western desert of Anbar province bordering Syria.
Complicating security, thousands of Sunni protesters are rallying in Anbar against Maliki, whose government they accuse of marginalizing their minority sect since the fall of Saddam.
Syria's war next door is also whipping up Iraq's volatile mix. Iraq is exposed to a regional tussle for influence between Turkey, which backs Sunni rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad, and Shi'ite Iran, the Syrian leader's main ally.
Since the last election in 2010, Maliki's Sunni and Kurdish critics have accused him of consolidating his own authority, abusing his control of security forces to pressure foes and failing to live up to a power-sharing deal.
The political crisis has only worsened since American troops left Iraq in December 2011, removing the symbolic buffer of U.S. military power and weakening Washington's influence.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad; Ali al-Rubaie in Hilla; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Alistair Lyon)
March 18, 2013
Local Russian Hijab Ban Puts Muslims in a Squeeze
By ELLEN BARRY
LEVOPADINSKY, Russia — The girls of the Salikhov family live in frontier country. Their road is dirt, punctuated by puddles and sheep, and their house does not have plumbing or running water. They had been hoping this would be the year the local authorities got around to hooking up natural gas.
Instead, they found themselves at the center of an emerging debate over religion in Russia.
When local school officials in the sparsely populated far east of the Stavropol region announced that girls in hijabs, the Islamic head covering, would no longer be allowed in government schools, the Salikhovs had to make changes.
Raifat, a 15-year-old, wept at the news that she would be sent to neighboring Dagestan. Her niece Amina, 10, began having one-on-one sessions with a teacher instead of attending class at the regional elementary school. Amina’s sister, Aisha, 5, does not know that her life has changed. On a recent morning she sat at the kitchen table and practiced coloring inside the lines.
Stavropol’s ban on hijabs — the first broad restriction to be imposed by a region in the Russian federation — will face its first court challenge on Thursday. The move came amid rising ethnic tensions that have confronted the Kremlin with a problem: President Vladimir V. Putin succeeded in curbing separatist violence in the North Caucasus in part by granting subsidies and broad autonomy to its predominantly Muslim regions. But now the Kremlin must cope with growing resentment in mostly ethnic Russian regions like Stavropol, which lies at the edge of the Caucasus mountain range.
When a stern Russian schoolmistress in one of these poor villages said she would no longer admit girls in hijabs, she became a hero to many in Stavropol. The region’s leaders backed her up by introducing a uniform that does not allow girls to wear head coverings at all — a restriction that affects a population of around 2.7 million. Official statistics say around 10 percent of those residents are Muslim, though the real number may be double that because of unregistered migration, the International Crisis Group has reported.
Ali Salikhov, Amina’s father, said he would not be cowed into relaxing his views on the hijab.
“If they think that because something will happen with my daughter I will forget my religion — I say, no, religion is the goal of my life,” he said. “For 70 years they taught us that there was no God, but that passed, and this will also pass. In 20 years they will have forgotten that hijabs were ever forbidden in Russia.”
There are influential people on Mr. Salikhov’s side. A celebrity lawyer from neighboring Chechnya has agreed to represent four fathers of daughters now excluded from school, arguing that under Russian law only the federal authorities can curtail a citizen’s constitutional right to freedom of religious practice.
The lawyer, Murad Musayev, said he saw the Stavropol ban as an attempt to stir up tensions between groups that have been living together peacefully, perhaps with the intent of establishing eastern Stavropol as an ethnic boundary.
“When we discussed the social aspect of the problem with hijabs, one of our opponents said, ‘Let these people go back to their historical homeland, to their hijab homeland, and let them wear hijabs there,’ ” he said. “This is a pretty common opinion in Russia.”
It is unusual to see hijabs in this region to begin with, which may explain why Marina Savchenko, the director of School No. 12 in the village of Kara-Tyube, decided to put her foot down.
Ethnic Russians have been leaving the steppe here for years, mainly for economic reasons, as have young people from the Nogay ethnic group, which practices a moderate form of Islam. The Dagestanis replacing them are more conservative, though only a handful of girls in a few villages wore hijabs to school.
Nevertheless, with conservative, pro-church sentiment surging in Russia, national news broadcasts highlighted the Stavropol story, showing an administrator guiding a child in a hijab back onto the school bus and sending her home.
“This is an institution. Secular attire should be worn here, business formal,” Ms. Savchenko told one news crew. “That’s all. This is not a subject for discussion.”
She was cheered by officials in Stavropol, which is 81 percent ethnic Russian and is still considered traditional Cossack territory by many. When she reported receiving threatening phone calls from Dagestan, nationalist organizations offered to provide her with security. She left the village shortly thereafter.
But her stand had already taken on national proportions, so much so that Mr. Putin addressed it in his annual televised question-and-answer session in December. He took Ms. Savchenko’s side.
“There are no hijabs in our culture, and when I say ‘our,’ I mean our traditional Islam,” Mr. Putin said. “Authoritative statesmen in the Islamic world also say this should not be done. Shall we adopt alien traditions? Why would we do that?”
The decision has rippled through Muslim ethnic groups, including those that have never adopted the hijab. Anvar Suyunov, a Nogay from Kara-Tyube, said the edict touched on “a very tricky question of self-determination” and could prove dangerously divisive.
“It’s a stupid idea, because they could tear the country apart,” he said. “Every action has a reaction.”
At the Salikhov house, men were debating it, too, sitting on pillows on the floor. Mr. Salikhov recalled the strange conversations that took place in the fall, when administrators said the ban was a safety precaution. They said that if someone grabbed Amina’s hijab, for instance, she could be strangled.
Mr. Salikhov, whose parents moved to the village during the late Soviet period, said he did not consider “excess knowledge” necessary for a Muslim woman, who ultimately “will be a housewife for her husband.” But he felt sour about sending his 15-year-old sister, Raifat, to Dagestan, where hijabs are allowed but the quality of education is lower. His sister had won a local academic Olympiad, he said.
“She didn’t want to leave,” said his wife, Maryam Salikhova, in the kitchen. “She was sad, and the other girls were sad. They said, ‘Stay here with us.’ But she was already grown up. She could not take it off even at home.” Ms. Salikhova sighed.
Outside, the spring thaw had turned the road into a sloppy, unnavigable mess. Ms. Salikhova said that some years ago the school bus had stopped bothering to drive down the road, even to the point where the concrete ended, so the children had to tramp a quarter mile through the mud and snow.
Mr. Salikhov said he was beginning to get the feeling that the authorities were creating problems in the village in the hope that he and his family would leave, returning across the Dagestani border and off the territory of Stavropol.
“They should pass a law saying, ‘Don’t come here,’ ” he said. “At least then I would know I was breaking the law.”
Obama calls for Iran to take ‘immediate’ steps over nuclear program
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, March 18, 2013 17:13 EDT
US President Barack Obama urged Iran on Monday to take “immediate and meaningful steps” to move “toward an enduring, long-term settlement” with the world over its disputed nuclear program.
In a video message in honor of the Iranian Nowruz holiday, Obama said that if Tehran took such action “the Iranian people will begin to see the benefits of greater trade and ties with other nations, including the United States.”
Iran is under increasingly biting international sanctions imposed over its nuclear program, which the United States and other Western nations fear is aimed at producing an atomic weapon, but which Tehran says is entirely peaceful.
Both the United States and Israel have refused to rule out military action to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and the issue is likely to top the agenda this week during Obama’s first trip to Israel as president.
Obama said last week that it would take “over a year or so” for Iran to build a nuclear bomb.
In the message in honor of Nowruz — the Persian New Year — Obama appealed to ordinary Iranians, saying “the people of Iran have paid a high and unnecessary price because of your leaders’ unwillingness to address this issue.
“As I’ve said all along, the United States prefers to resolve this matter peacefully, diplomatically.
“Indeed, if — as Iran’s leaders say — their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, then there is a basis for a practical solution.”
Obama delivered his first annual Nowruz address to Iran shortly after being sworn in in 2009 as part of a policy of engagement with Iran’s leadership.
But the administration backed away from the approach later that year when Iran cracked down on protests over a disputed election, and has since helped to secure international sanctions that have increasingly isolated Tehran.
The two countries have had tense relations since the 1979 Iranian revolution that toppled the US-allied Shah and the hostage crisis later that year, in which radical students held more than 50 Americans for 444 days.
Obama closed the Nowruz message by quoting the famed medieval Persian poet Hafez, saying: “Plant the tree of friendship that bears the fruit of fulfillment; uproot the sapling of enmity that bears endless suffering.”
New crazy North Korea propaganda video shows White House under attack
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, March 19, 2013 7:43 EDT
North Korea has produced another video showing the United States under attack, this time with the White House and the US Capitol literally in the crosshairs.
The four-minute video titled “Firestorms will rain on the Headquarters of War” (http://y2u.be/DyapeCiOl9A
) was posted Monday on the YouTube channel of the North’s official website, Uriminzokkiri, which distributes news and propaganda from the state media.
The first two minutes used still photos of US fighter jets, B-52 bombers and aircraft carriers to portray the United States as a bullying nuclear power intent on bending Pyongyang to its will.
“Second by second, the fuse of a nuclear war is burning,” a female narrator warned.
It then showed a sniper’s crosshairs superimposed over the White House, before switching to animated footage of the dome of the US Capitol building exploding in a fireball.
“There is no limit to the range of our strategic rockets,” the narrator said.
Angered by UN sanctions imposed after its nuclear test last month, North Korea has threatened the United States with a pre-emptive nuclear strike, as military tensions on the Korean peninsula escalated to their highest level for years.
Although experts say the North is years from being able to fire a nuclear-tipped ballistic mile as far as the US mainland, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel responded Friday with plans to boost West Coast missile defences.
It was the latest in a line of similarly-themed videos posted to the Uriminzokkiri channel.
An offering early last month showed New York in flames after an apparent missile attack, and another two weeks later depicted US soldiers and President Barack Obama burning in the flames of a nuclear blast.
Click to watch the madness: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DyapeCiOl9A&feature=player_embedded
***********North Korea: U.S. driving arms race with ‘nuclear blackmail’
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, March 18, 2013 19:47 EDT
North Korea said Monday that “nuclear blackmail” by the United States would drive more countries to follow its lead and build their own atomic weapon.
The North proclaimed its “very proud and powerful” position as the latest nuclear weapons state on the first day of negotiations for a conventional weapons treaty at the UN headquarters.
Facing ever more stringent UN sanctions because of its nuclear weapons test last month, the North also seized on the occasion to make a new attack on US policy.
“The continuing policy of nuclear pre-emptive strike by the largest nuclear weapon state, makes us easily predict that it will in the long run give birth to more nuclear weapons states,” said the North’s deputy UN ambassador Ri Tong-Il.
He said the United States had applied “increased nuclear blackmail” by naming certain countries for a pre-emptive strike and this had forced North Korea to develop its own weapon.
North Korea staged its third nuclear bomb test on February 12 to near universal condemnation. The UN Security Council has since increased international sanctions against the isolated state.
***********U.S. flies B-52 bombers over South Korea
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, March 18, 2013 22:52 EDT
The United States said it was flying training missions of nuclear-capable B-52 bombers over South Korea, in a clear signal to North Korea at a time of escalating military tensions.
The flights — part of annual joint South Korea-US military exercises — should be seen as underscoring US commitment and capacity to defend Seoul against an attack from the North, Pentagon spokesman George Little said.
In response to UN sanctions imposed after its third nuclear test last month, North Korea has warned of a “second Korean war” and threatened pre-emptive nuclear strikes on the South and the United States.
Little said a B-52 from Andersen Air Force base in Guam, flew over South Korea on March 8 as part of a military exercise dubbed “Foal Eagle.”
“The B-52 Stratofortress can perform a variety of missions including carrying precision-guided conventional or nuclear ordnance,” he said Monday.
B-52s have taken part in annual exercises before, but Little said the Pentagon wanted to underline their use this time given the current, heightened tensions, and he added that further B-52 flights would be carried out.
“We’re drawing attention to the fact that we have extended deterrence capabilities that we believe are important to demonstrate in the wake of recent North Korean rhetoric,” he said.
That message was echoed in Seoul on Monday by visiting Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who promised to provide South Korea with every available military resource “offered by the US nuclear umbrella”.
In a major announcement on Friday, the United States unveiled plans to bolster its own missile defenses in direct response to the growing threat posed by North Korea.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that 14 more interceptors would be stationed in Alaska, increasing by almost half the 30 already deployed along the California and Alaska coastlines.
Hagel said the defence upgrade was designed to “stay ahead of the threat” from North Korea, which is still believed to be years from having a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to the continental United States.
The US initiative did not go down well in Beijing, where the Chinese foreign ministry warned that any effort to increase military capacity would only serve to “intensify antagonism”.
China is North Korea’s sole major ally and main trading partner.
Although it backed the latest UN sanctions against Pyongyang, analysts say China’s main concern is to avoid sudden regime collapse in Pyongyang that might result in a US-allied, reunified Korea.
Despite its growing isolation and the stepped-up international pressure, North Korea insists its plan to develop a viable nuclear deterrent is “unshakeable” and non-negotiable.
On the first day of negotiations for a conventional weapons treaty at UN headquarters on Monday, the North’s deputy UN ambassador Ri Tong-Il proclaimed the North’s “very proud and powerful” position as the latest nuclear weapons state.
Ri also denounced what he termed a US policy of “nuclear blackmail” that he insisted would “in the long run give birth to more nuclear weapons states”.
03/19/2013 10:16 AM
Remote-Control Diplomacy: US Backs Away from Strong Role in Middle East
As the US deals with economic troubles and pays increasing attention to Asia, its influence in the Middle East is gradually declining. In a SPIEGEL interview, Vali Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, says President Obama cannot neglect his country's vital role in the region.
SPIEGEL: President Barack Obama is finally, for the first time in his presidency, headed to Israel. Why isn't he bringing along any new proposals to relaunch the peace process?
Nasr: The president's very first conversations about the Middle East, in the form of the Cairo speech in 2009, were focused on the Arab-Israeli peace process. It is not too late to revive it. But Obama has missed a great opportunity, and now the circumstances have changed. In 2009, President Obama thought that the most important issue in the region was the Arab-Israeli issue. It now has to compete with some other very important crises there. The question is whether this trip will be focused on that issue or whether Iran, Syria, Egypt, the Arab Spring will dominate the conversation.
SPIEGEL: In your book, you criticize Obama for losing his early momentum in the Middle East.
Nasr: Obama's fundamental mistake was to create expectation without intention to follow through. The Arabs came to think that the United States would really push on the settlement issue and push Israel toward compromises that they thought were necessary. On the other hand, the Israelis thought that Washington was pushing too hard, and therefore, both sides ended up disappointed.
SPIEGEL: A new government was just formed in Israel. Will it be more open to negotiations?
Nasr: If the United States does not want to lead, it does not matter whether there is a strong or a weak government in Israel.
SPIEGEL: But Americans strongly feel their country has been mired in wars in the Middle East for more than a decade. A majority of them want to focus on a pivot to Asia, or even "nation building" at home.
Nasr: American interests abroad do not take a holiday because you are having an economic problem. We end up with this false assumption that we can selectively pay attention to the Middle East when it suits us, or when our pockets are full of money. We know from experience that we do have vital interests there.
SPIEGEL: Is that still true? Thanks to modern technologies like fracking, the United States could become energy independent in the near future.
Nasr: This is not just about energy. Can the United States afford a broken Egypt and a shattered Syria? Can Asia itself be successful if the Middle East begins to melt down? What will happen to Europe if North Africa ends up being a series of failed states with al-Qaida across the border? We have gone from a period of being overengaged in the Middle East to being now underengaged.
SPIEGEL: What should modern American engagement there entail?
Nasr: We need to develop structures that would stand in place of the United States withdrawing. We did this in Europe after World War II. We have done it in Asia. But we have spent zero amount of effort in creating a regional political architecture that could potentially replace the role that we played in the region. We have told the Middle East very clearly that the United States no longer needs its energy, and thinks it can manage from a distance, like in a remote-control approach.
SPIEGEL: The changes after the Arab Spring, though, posed a tricky challenge to the United States. It had relied on alliances with dictators like Hosni Mubarak for decades.
Nasr: True. But the real issue is what we did after the dictators left. We assume that our engagement finishes at that point in time, whereas actually the job begins then. If you look at the way Germany thought about Eastern Europe, they had a broader vision about how you engage Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia after the dictators went.
SPIEGEL: In Syria, you still have dictator Assad in place. Yet Washington has thus far failed to establish a rapport with the rebels.
Nasr: The conflict in Syria is no longer about democratization, it is a civil war. Syria is also not just a humanitarian disaster like Rwanda. The situation there is more comparable to the Balkan wars in the 1990s.
SPIEGEL: What do you mean?
Nasr: In the Balkans, ultimately the United States took note and forced the Europeans and NATO to become engaged, saying that this is more than a humanitarian issue. That is the way we ought to think about Syria. Syria is not about Assad anymore. If Assad leaves tomorrow, there is no reason to think that the civil war will stop.
SPIEGEL: What does a successful transition plan look like?
Nasr: In the case of the Balkans, there was a contact group created. The members of that contact group -- the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Russia -- negotiated effectively to find a scenario they all could live with. They came to a set of understandings about borders, about division of power, about the shape of the final Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bosnia's objective was not regime change in Belgrade; it was to stop the violence. And yes, even in that war, we helped arm the Bosnians. We put sanctions on Serbia. We pressured Serbia to stop the violence, but we had a vision of why it is that the end of a conflict would be beneficial to Europe. And we did not get involved in Bosnia because of humanitarian concerns. We got involved because of the strategic understanding.
SPIEGEL: Do you see a shift in the Syria debates in Washington?
Nasr: The US policy is still catching up with others. Qatar and Saudi Arabia, even Turkey are much more engaged in the conflict than the United States. They understand it is of vital importance.
SPIEGEL: And Iran is particularly engaged.
Nasr: Basically everybody in the region on the good side and the bad side is "all in" in Syria. Every nation that is, but the US.
SPIEGEL: If the US government managed to settle that conflict, would that be the biggest blow to Iranian ambitions in the region?
Nasr: Iran would only get a blow if there was a very clear victory for the anti-Assad faction, and that does not look like it will happen.
SPIEGEL: Do Iranian leaders currently see themselves in a position of strength or weakness?
Nasr: They see themselves in a position of weakness, because the region has changed in unpredictable ways. They are in trouble in Syria. In Egypt, North Africa, Jordan, you have a rise of Sunni, anti-Iranian forces. But at the same time, they also see the United States in trouble. They think that Egypt and Syria are going to be a headache for the United States, that Jordan is vulnerable, that Libya and Tunisia and Algeria are going to be trouble.
SPIEGEL: Are the Iranians taking Obama's assurance seriously that all options are on the table -- even a military strike against Tehran?
Nasr: They do not think war is imminent, largely because the direction of American policy is very clearly to get out of the region. Starting a war with Iran means you have to forget about a pivot to Asia and come back in the region. We are threatening them, but everything about our policy does not suggest that we are really eager to go back to being very engaged in the region.
SPIEGEL: Could that lead to a compromise in the negotiations concerning Iran's nuclear program?
Nasr: Possibly. And that is why you saw much positive movement in the latest meeting of the "P5-plus-1" group in Kazakhstan. I do not think a deal with Iran is easy. There is too much lack of trust and also a lack of historic cooperation between the two sides. But there is room for movement, because the United States is clearly motivated not to get into the region, and the Iranians are also clearly motivated because the sanctions are hurting them and Syria is an unpredictable headache.
SPIEGEL: In your book, you say Obama's foreign policy is controlled by a small group of loyal advisors in the White House. Even heavyweights like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or AfPak-Special Representative Richard Holbrooke had a hard time getting around this "Berlin Wall" of advisors, as you call it.
Nasr: Under Obama, it has been difficult for professional diplomats to make the case for engagement and diplomacy, whether it is on Syria or Iran or on Afghanistan, Pakistan, or on Egypt. The larger problem is that the administration has come to view disengagement from the Middle East and a minimalist foreign policy as a good foreign policy. You can justify this in the context of economic problems at home or a pivot to Asia, but the reality is that just when the Middle East is changing, we are adopting a minimalist foreign policy that basically equates doing less with effectiveness.
SPIEGEL: This approach seems to work for Obama. He was re-elected partly because his foreign policy is perceived as successful.
Nasr: But only because we associated successful foreign policy with doing less, winding down wars and not starting new ones. If you are not doing anything, you have fewer headaches and fewer failures as well. But in reality, that does not speak to America's global leadership, nor does it really protect our vital interests down the road.
Interview conducted by Gregor Peter Schmitz
March 18, 2013
A Goal for Obama in Israel: Finding Some Overlap on Iran
By MARK LANDLER
WASHINGTON — If President Obama’s most obvious goal on his trip to Israel this week is to forge a connection with the Israeli people, his challenge behind closed doors is to persuade Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he can rely on the United States to take care of Iran.
This time, some analysts said, he may have better odds of success than he has had in the past.
Public disagreements between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu over how to deal with Iran have waned in recent months. This comes from a combination of the president’s repeated warnings to Tehran; Iran’s strategy of not crossing Israel’s red lines while continuing to build its nuclear program; and changes in Israel’s political landscape, which have weakened Mr. Netanyahu and made a unilateral military strike less likely.
“What Netanyahu wants to be persuaded of is that the chances Obama will take care of the problem, combined with his assessment of the decay of the Iranian economy, justifies Israel standing down this year,” said Cliff Kupchan, an Iran expert at the Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting firm, who just returned from a visit to Israel.
What Mr. Obama can offer, he predicted, “will be enough for a weakened Israeli prime minister.”
To be sure, Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu still view the timeline for the Iranian nuclear threat very differently. In an interview last week with an Israeli television station, Mr. Obama said it would take Iran “over a year or so” to develop a nuclear weapon. Mr. Netanyahu, in a speech before the United Nations last fall, said Iran could cross a critical threshold in its capacity to build a weapon by this spring or summer.
Mr. Obama’s statement to Israeli television was not part of an orchestrated strategy, according to a senior administration official. But it represented a rare instance of the president declaring a time frame, based on American intelligence, for when Iran could go nuclear.
On Wednesday, the two leaders will have a chance to hash out these differences in a lengthy meeting, as well as over dinner that night.
“This will be a very important conversation,” said Dennis B. Ross, who oversaw Iran and Middle East policy in the Obama administration until 2011. “For the Israelis, the big issue is, ‘do we discuss the point at which prevention with Iran may no longer work?’ ”
For Mr. Netanyahu, Iran’s recent decision to divert some of its medium-enriched uranium to make fuel rods for a research reactor, making it difficult to convert the uranium into nuclear fuel, represents a vindication of the red line he laid down at the United Nations: that Iran could not possess enough nuclear fuel to produce a single weapon.
But analysts said it also underscores for Mr. Netanyahu how swiftly Iran could generate more medium-enriched uranium, particularly given a new generation of centrifuges that the Iranian government is installing in its Natanz nuclear facility.
Mr. Obama is expected to emphasize the pressure that sanctions have imposed on the Iranian economy, as well as the progress in negotiations between the major powers and Iran. Mr. Netanyahu, analysts said, is impressed by the coalition assembled by the United States, but believes that Washington should be demanding more of Iran.
Instead, in the wake of the most recent round of talks in Kazakhstan, some Israelis are concerned that the West might be preparing to cut a deal with Iran that would allow it to keep a stockpile of less-enriched uranium, which it could later purify to nuclear-grade.
“They clearly agree on the objective,” said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The question is, what is the best policy to ensure that objective? There are still fundamental divides that have not been bridged.”
The two leaders, however, are highly unlikely to air their differences. Mr. Netanyahu, having just cobbled together a new government, wants a successful visit to bolster his political standing. Mr. Obama, seeking to build his credibility with the Israeli public, does not want a dispute over Iran to detract from his first trip to Israel as president.
Some analysts believe that Mr. Obama now holds the upper hand, in part because doubts about the wisdom of a unilateral strike have grown in Israel since last year, when it was widely discussed.
Iran has made enough progress reinforcing its Fordo nuclear facility that it is no longer clear whether Israeli warplanes could destroy it.
“There has been a dramatic change in the policy views of most Israeli elites since last fall,” Mr. Kupchan said. “There is a fresh sense that there’s not as much they can do militarily.”
The politics in Israel, moreover, have changed. Ehud Barak, the defense minister who was a leading hawk on Iran, has left Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet. The prime minister’s new cabinet, though not necessarily composed of doves, will need to be briefed before the ministers are likely to vote in favor of unilateral action, analysts said.
”For Netanyahu, extending for several more rounds this hysterical walking-up-to-the-edge-of-war was going to be difficult,” said Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London. “This government is totally untested on Iran.”
Mr. Netanyahu, he said, will probably give Mr. Obama several months to seek a diplomatic solution, secure in the knowledge that the president has ruled out a containment policy and that the American Congress will be unlikely to allow him to relax the sanctions.
For his part, Mr. Obama is signaling his determination to keep up the pressure on Iran. In a New Year’s message to the Iranian people, the president said the Iranian government had failed to persuade the world that its nuclear program was peaceful.
“That’s why the world is united in its resolve to address this issue and why Iran is now so isolated,” Mr. Obama said in the video message. “The people of Iran have paid a high and unnecessary price because of your leaders’ unwillingness to address this issue.”
Mr. Obama’s language, a senior administration official said, was meant to signify “our heightened concerns about their program, and the fact we are in a window of intensive diplomacy.”
While Mr. Obama’s statement to the Israeli television station underscored his longer timeline relative to Mr. Netanyahu, analysts noted that he followed it up immediately with, “Obviously, we don’t want to cut it too close.” To some, that was evidence that Mr. Obama will not wait until Iran is within one or two turns of the screwdriver from a bomb.
March 19, 2013
Many Israelis Wary of Obama, but Are Ready to Listen During Visit
By JODI RUDOREN and ISABEL KERSHNER
JERUSALEM — Obama administration officials have made it clear that the top agenda item for the president’s visit here this week is to win the hearts of the Israeli people. He has a lot of work to do.
“I don’t trust him so much,” Rachel Burger, 65, said Sunday between errands at a Jerusalem mall.
“Deep inside, I think, he doesn’t like us,” said Moshe Haim, an Iranian immigrant who drives a taxi in Tel Aviv.
“People don’t get the love from Obama,” said Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman, who leads the left-leaning Reform congregation Kol Haneshama and worked on a video encouraging American-Israelis to support the president’s re-election last fall. “Bush and Clinton and Carter, these guys all had such a deep religious passion about this place, and Obama doesn’t convey that,” he added.
“He’s a cool customer,” said Rabbi Weiman-Kelman.
Though Israeli and American leaders of various political stripes insist that security, economic and intelligence cooperation between the two nations has never been closer or stronger, the personal, more emotional element of the relationship has been largely empty over the last four years.
The well-documented tensions between Mr. Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tell only part of the story: even Israelis who are harsh critics of their own leader felt snubbed when the American president skipped their homeland during his 2009 trip to the Middle East.
Many have never gotten over the speech he made then in Cairo, where he twice referred to “Palestine” in the present rather than future tense, and insinuated that Israel was rooted in the tragedy of the Holocaust rather than ancient history.
Others are still smarting from what they saw as Mr. Obama’s misguided demand to freeze construction in the West Bank territories Israel seized in 1967 — which yielded no results — and what they believed was the president’s too-swift abandonment of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, a trusted ally.
So while many Israelis, like people around the world, were inspired by Mr. Obama’s biography and energized by his underdog campaign in 2008, interviews with dozens of people this week suggest that the nation will greet him warily, akin to an estranged relative trying to reconnect. The White House has done everything it can to lower expectations of any major diplomatic initiative or breakthrough, leaving people searching for something much harder to define.
“It seems like people are looking for a leader,” said Tchelet Semel, 32, who works in theater and film in Tel Aviv. “They gave up on leadership from within and they’re hoping that someone will say the words and suddenly it will maybe rekindle the hope within the Israeli people.”
David Grossman, the novelist who is something of a national muse, said Israelis are “terrified” and “suspicious,” and need Mr. Obama to “be a real friend to Israel,” adding, “A friend should tell us the truth, and not what we want to hear.”
“I wish he shows empathy to our anxieties; part of them are real,” Mr. Grossman said. “But I wish he would not collaborate with them, with our anxieties, to the extent he will justify doing nothing.”
The president will be preaching to a tough crowd. A poll published Friday in the Israeli daily newspaper Maariv found 1 in 10 Israelis have a “favorable” attitude toward President Obama. (“Hateful” registered 17 percent, “unfavorable but not resentful,” 19 percent, while a plurality — 32 percent — said they didn’t like Mr. Obama but respected him.)
“He’s nice, he’s O.K., but that’s it,” said Suzanne Betan, 70, a resident of Gilo, a neighborhood in the part of Jerusalem that Israel annexed in 1967, which much of the world considers occupied territory, and where the White House has condemned construction. “He is not completely with us, but he is not against us.”
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who came to Jerusalem from New York in 1983 to found the West Bank settlement of Efrat, said, “In action, he’s been excellent to us. But the music in his words has left a lot to be desired, and that’s what everyone would like to hear today.”
Among other challenges, the timing complicates his mission. Mr. Obama lands days ahead of Passover, a frenzied period of shopping and school vacation, so the typical grumbling about road closings is especially fevered. Israelis are also preoccupied with their new government, which was sworn in on Monday, relegating articles about the visit to the back pages of local newspapers.
With Air Force One scheduled to land at noon Wednesday, hundreds of American and Israeli flags have been raised on roadsides, and posters with the visit’s “unbreakable alliance” logo have been posted at the entrance to Jerusalem. An Obama ice sculpture is in the works, and the prime minister’s office has a smartphone application allowing users to track the motorcade’s every move.
In an itinerary packed with diplomatic meetings and symbolic photo-ops, the expected highlight is a speech Thursday to an audience mostly of university students.
“Maybe the visit will not have any immediate impact, but Obama will set his ideas in their hearts,” said Ruth Shafir, the spokeswoman of the student union at Ben Gurion University in the southern city of Beersheba. “And maybe the young generation will take it to the next level and can carry it forward.”
Part of the challenge for Mr. Obama is competing with his predecessors, particularly President Clinton, whom Moshe Halbertal, a professor of philosophy at Hebrew University, said could still get elected prime minister in Israel. Mr. Clinton’s poignant uttering of “Shalom, chaver” — Goodbye, friend — at the funeral of the assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, in 1995, is seared in memory here as a totem of understanding, nearly impossible to match.
“Clinton was really a magician in this respect,” said Tamar Hermann, a public opinion expert who is vice president of the Open University. “His ability to project warmth is something that’s a heart-opener here.”
Ms. Hermann added of President Obama:“I’m not saying they are examining objectively what he did or what he didn’t. Either you feel it or you don’t.”
When Mr. Obama was first elected in 2008, Kippa Man, a skullcap store on the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall, stocked one crocheted with his signature slogan, “Yes we can.” Though that was a big seller, the store’s owner, Avi Benjamin, said Sunday that it had not occurred to him to order up a commemorative item for this week’s visit.
Back then, Mr. Benjamin recalled, “People thought he was the messiah.”
A customer, Elyassaf Yakobson, sighed, “It seems we have to wait.”
Tamir Elterman contributed reporting from Tel Aviv, and Irit Pazner Garshowitz from Jerusalem.
March 18, 2013
Jordan’s King Finds Fault With Everyone Concerned
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
CAIRO — King Abdullah II of Jordan leads one of the smallest, poorest and most vulnerable Arab nations. But that does not stop him from looking down on many of those around him, including the leaders of Egypt, Turkey and Syria, as well as members of his own royal family, his secret police, his traditional tribal political base, his Islamist opponents and even United States diplomats.
President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt has “no depth,” King Abdullah said in an interview with the American journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, to be published this week in The Atlantic magazine. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey is an authoritarian who views democracy as a “bus ride,” as in, “Once I get to my stop, I am getting off,” the king said.
And he said President Bashar al-Assad of Syria is so provincial that at a social dinner he once asked the monarchs of Jordan and Morocco to explain jet lag. “He never heard of jet lag,” King Abdullah said, according to an advance copy of the article.
The king’s conversations with Mr. Goldberg, an influential writer on the Middle East and an acquaintance of more than a decade, offer a rare view of the contradictory mind-set of Washington’s closest ally in the Arab world as he struggles to master the upheaval of the Arab Spring revolts. Seldom has an Arab autocrat spoken so candidly in public.
King Abdullah appears humbled and even fatigued by the many challenges he failed to foresee when he inherited the throne 14 years ago, describing himself before coronation as a “Forrest Gump” in the background of his father’s long reign. In contrast to his father, King Hussein, King Abdullah promises to move Jordan closer to a British-style constitutional monarchy, and thus to stay ahead of the Arab Spring wave.
But he insists that only he can lead the transition to democracy, in part to ensure that democracy will not deliver power to his Islamist opponents.
The era of Arab monarchies is passing, King Abdullah said. “Where are monarchies in 50 years?” he asked. But even his own family, with 11 siblings and half-siblings, does not yet understand the lessons of the Arab Spring for dynasties like theirs, he said, adding that the public will no longer tolerate egregious displays of excess or corruption.
“Members of my family don’t get it,” he said. “Look at some of my brothers. They believe that they’re princes, but my cousins are more princes than my brothers, and their in-laws are like — oh my God!” he continued.
“I’m always having to stop members of my family from putting lights on their guard cars,” he said. “I arrest members of my family and take their cars away from them and cut off their fuel rations and make them stop at traffic lights.”
Even his own sons should be punished if convicted of corruption, he insisted. “Everybody else is expendable in the royal family,” he said. “That is the reality of the Arab Spring that hit me.”
He blamed his own government’s secret police for blocking his efforts at political reform. For example, he charged that the secret police had conspired with conservatives in the political elite to block his attempts to open up more representation in Parliament to Palestinians, who make up more than half of Jordan’s population.
“Institutions I had trusted were just not on board,” he said, naming as an example the mukhabarat, or secret police. He said he had not realized at first how deeply “conservative elements” had become “embedded in certain institutions” like the mukhabarat. “Two steps forward, one step back,” he added.
Stopping the Islamists from winning power was now “our major fight” across the region, he said. He repeatedly mocked the Muslim Brotherhood, the pan-Arab Islamist movement behind the largest opposition party in the Jordanian Parliament and Mr. Morsi’s governing party in Egypt, calling it “a Masonic cult” and “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” And he accused American diplomats of naïveté about their intentions.
“When you go to the State Department and talk about this, they’re like, ‘This is just the liberals talking, this is the monarch saying that the Muslim Brotherhood is deep-rooted and sinister,’ ” King Abdullah said. His job, he said, is to dissuade Westerners from the view that “the only way you can have democracy is through the Muslim Brotherhood.”
The king was also frankly dismissive of the tribal leaders from the East Bank of the Jordan River who have traditionally formed his family’s base of support. “The old dinosaurs,” he called a group of East Bank tribal leaders, including a former prime minister, before a meeting with them in the town of Karak. “It’s all about, ‘I’ll vote for this guy because I am in his tribe,’ ” the king said of their political program.
Alarmed at the violence in neighboring Syria, King Abdullah said he had offered asylum and protection to the family of President Assad. “They said, ‘Thank you very much, but why don’t you worry about your country more than you worry about us?’ ”
“The monarchy is going to change,” the king vowed. His son will preside over “a Western-style democracy with a constitutional monarchy,” the king said, and not “the position of Bashar today.”
March 18, 2013
Syrian Rebels Pick U.S. Citizen to Lead Interim Government
By ANNE BARNARD
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syria’s main exile opposition coalition elected a naturalized Syrian-born American citizen early Tuesday to be the first prime minister of an interim Syrian government, charged with funneling aid to rebels inside Syria and offering an alternative to the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
By choosing Ghassan Hitto, 50, an information technology executive who lived in Texas until recently, the Syrian opposition coalition concluded months of contentious efforts to unite behind a leader, under pressure from the United States and its allies, which demanded that the opposition set up clear chains of command as a condition of increasing aid to the rebels.
Mr. Hitto, a relative unknown in opposition politics who rose to prominence recently through efforts to improve the delivery of humanitarian aid, was far from a unanimous choice. After a day of maneuvering and voting on Monday that lasted into early Tuesday, he won 35 votes, just three more than Assad Mustafa, a former agricultural minister under Mr. Assad’s father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad.
Mr. Hitto faces formidable challenges in his quest to to establish administrative authority over areas of northern Syria that have been secured by the rebels.
Mr. Assad’s air force still rules the skies, so any attempt to govern from those rebel-held areas risks the constant threat of airstrikes. And antigovernment fighters and activists inside Syria, who have long complained that the coalition offered little concrete help and had little connection to the struggle on the ground, remain skeptical of any interim government based outside the country.
Even opposition leaders outside Syria are divided on whether an interim government makes sense. Fahed al-Masri, a spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army’s unified command, questioned how a government could function when it controlled little territory or money yet would be held responsible for the fate of more than one million Syrian refugees and several times that number displaced inside the country.
“Welcome, government,” Mr. Masri said sardonically.
Mr. Hitto — who ruled out negotiations with Mr. Assad, another blow to wavering efforts to find a political solution — has argued that forming a government would help keep Syria from slipping further into chaos.
“There is always a possibility that this regime might fall suddenly,” he said, in a video posted on YouTube to announce his candidacy. “And we can’t avoid a political vacuum in the country and the ensuing chaos unless there is a transitional government.”
He called for “a government of institutions and law” that would be accountable and transparent.
The stakes are high. Many nations have recognized the coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, meaning that if Mr. Hitto is able to form a cabinet, which is far from certain given the group’s fractiousness, his government could try to claim Syria’s frozen state assets and other levers of power.
With his many years in Texas, Mr. Hitto may seem like an unusual selection to lead a government struggling to establish street credibility with rebels — or an uprising facing allegations from Mr. Assad’s supporters that it is an American creation.
But he said he could not resist getting involved, especially after his son Obaida, 25, sneaked off to Syria and joined rebel fighters to shoot videos, deliver humanitarian aid and spread word of their struggle.
Mr. Hitto and his wife, Suzanne, an American schoolteacher, have four children, all born in the United States, where Mr. Hitto advocated for Muslim Americans after 9/11 as a representative of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
He traveled to the Middle East last fall to learn more and never went back. “I have a career back home that I’m in the process of destroying,” he said jovially over lunch recently in Istanbul.
In his role heading the humanitarian aid arm of the coalition under Suhair Atassi, a coalition vice president and respected activist from Damascus, Mr. Hitto quickly came into close contact with American and other foreign officials. Frustrated with what he saw as anemic and disorganized international efforts to aid displaced Syrians, he hired internationally known aid consultants to do a survey that found that the number of needy people in six Syrian provinces was more than 50 percent higher than United Nations estimates.
He described himself as a zealous but diplomatic advocate trying to push international donors to give the coalition a bigger role in the delivery of aid. “As an American,” he said, he wanted the United States to do more to support the rebels.
Born in Damascus, Mr. Hitto left Syria in the early 1980s and received an M.B.A. at Indiana Wesleyan University. He is of Kurdish descent, which the council may have seen as a plus since it has been criticized for not reaching out more to Syria’s minorities.
Some council members said Mr. Hitto was the choice of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, a group that has long been banned and persecuted under the Assad family’s government and that plays a powerful role in the coalition. That could give him credibility among some in the Sunni Muslim-dominated uprising, but it also concerns some opposition members who feel the Brotherhood already wields disproportionate sway. Brotherhood leaders say they seek a civil, not an Islamic, state, but some in the opposition worry that it will impose a religious agenda.
One activist from Mr. Assad’s minority Alawite sect said the Brotherhood was “trying to stab the revolution once more.”
Another, Yamen Hseen, said that an interim government running northern Syria smacked of dividing the country.
“A government formed abroad, consisting of people we don’t know, nor the mechanism by which they were picked, it just makes me worry,” he said. “I think it is a result of other countries’ demands and not the demands and needs of the people and the revolution.”
The announcement that Mr. Hitto had won came hours after Syrian planes fired at a sparsely populated area near the town of Arsal in eastern Lebanon, the first time the military used its air force to strike at suspected rebel hide-outs in Lebanon. The Wadi al-Khayl Valley area is known for its porous border. It is considered a haven for Syrian insurgents, and the civilian population there largely opposes Mr. Assad.
The Syrian government warned on Thursday that it might fire into Lebanon because of incursions by rebel fighters.
Reporting was contributed by Hania Mourtada and Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Rick Gladstone from New York, and Hala Droubi from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
March 18, 2013
Court Is Asked to Drop Charges Against Kenya’s President-Elect
By MARLISE SIMONS
PARIS — Lawyers for Kenya’s president-elect, Uhuru Kenyatta, said Monday that the charges of crimes against humanity that he faces should be dropped because they were based on hearsay and were fundamentally flawed.
The lawyers spoke at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where prosecutors have been preparing to try Mr. Kenyatta and a co-defendant, as well as two other people in a separate case. All of them are charged with organizing death squads and orchestrating violent confrontations between opponents after Kenya’s disputed 2007 elections. More than 1,300 people were killed in the violence.
Prosecutors at the hearing on Monday said that their case against Mr. Kenyatta was strong enough to go to trial as scheduled and that they would seek permission to present new evidence recently obtained against him.
Citing the case of a witness who said that during the 2007 campaign Mr. Kenyatta’s associates had given him money to buy guns, a prosecutor, Sam Lowery, said, “Your honors, you do not need guns for election campaigning.”
The question of how Mr. Kenyatta could take office in Kenya and stand trial at the same time, which would be a first in international justice, has raised many diplomatic, political and legal issues. But his lawyers insisted that it would not come to that.
During the hearing, Steven Kay, a British lawyer who is leading Mr. Kenyatta’s defense, said the entire case should go back to the drawing board because the prosecution’s case had changed so much in the past year that the facts as filed “no longer exist.” The court, Mr. Kay said, should send all the evidence back for review to the pretrial judges who initially allowed the case to go to trial. Errors had been made, he said, “because this case was done in a complete rush.”
Last week, in a surprise announcement, the chief prosecutor withdrew all charges against Mr. Kenyatta’s co-defendant, Francis Kirimi Muthaura, a former government official who was accused of working with Mr. Kenyatta to organize death squads.
The prosecutor said the charges had to be dropped because one witness had recanted after accepting money to withdraw his testimony, several important witnesses had “either been killed or have died,” and others “were too afraid to testify.”
But Mr. Kay told the court on Monday that the “facts are unsustainable” in both cases. “What was withdrawn against Mr. Muthaura should have been withdrawn against Mr. Kenyatta,” he said.
A lawyer representing victims of the violence warned the court of potential dangers to witnesses, saying that if Mr. Kenyatta took office, he would be in charge of the armed forces, the police and the intelligence apparatus.
On Monday, the lawyer reminded the judges that Mr. Kenyatta, while campaigning, told voters that a vote for him would be a vote of no-confidence in the International Criminal Court. The defense and prosecution have been asked to present new arguments to the court in writing.
Mr. Kenyatta, who was elected by a narrow margin on March 4, faces other legal troubles in Kenya.
Raila Odinga, his opponent in the presidential election, has challenged the results in Kenya’s top court, saying that there had been widespread ballot rigging.
March 18, 2013
Wanted Congolese Rebel Leader Turns Himself In to U.S. Embassy
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
NAIROBI, Kenya — Bosco Ntaganda, a Congolese rebel general accused of massacring civilians and building an army of child soldiers — considered one of Africa’s most wanted men — surprisingly turned himself in to the American Embassy in Rwanda on Monday, saying he wanted to be sent to the International Criminal Court.
Mr. Ntaganda, a boyish-looking rebel commander who was nicknamed the Terminator, has been wanted by the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges for more than six years, sometimes hiding out in the thickly forested hills of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo or other times appearing in public, as when he would cavalierly play tennis at a fancy hotel in one of Congo’s bigger towns.
Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, said Mr. Ntaganda walked into the embassy in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, on Monday morning and “specifically asked to be transferred to the I.C.C.”
Ms. Nuland said she could not answer why, after years of being on the run, he chose to turn himself in to American diplomats but said “we are working to facilitate his request.”
In the past few weeks, Mr. Ntaganda has been attacked by fighters in his own rebel group, the so-called M23, which is widely believed to be covertly supported by Rwanda. The M23 recently split, partly over the issue of whether or not to turn in Mr. Ntaganda, and scores of M23 fighters fled to Rwanda, where they were immediately disarmed.
But for Mr. Ntaganda, the options were dwindling.
“The Rwandans would have killed him,” said Barnabé Kikaya bin Karubi, Congo’s ambassador to Britain. “He knew too much.”
He added, “His only chance to stay alive was to turn himself in to the Americans or whomever.”
Some analysts have posed another theory — that Rwanda secretly arranged for Mr. Ntaganda to surrender. Otherwise, they said, it would have been very difficult for someone as notorious as him to travel undetected through Rwanda, a small, tightly run country full of police checkpoints. Adding to these suspicions is the fact that the person to break the news that Mr.Ntaganda had suddenly surfaced at the American Embassy was Rwanda’s foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo — in a Twitter message.
Rwanda has strenuously denied the growing body of evidence that higher-ups in the Rwandan military were working closely with Mr. Ntaganda or other rebels to dominate the lucrative mineral trade in eastern Congo. But several Western nations, including the United States, believed the links and recently cut aid to Rwanda, putting officials there under unprecedented pressure to distance themselves from Congolese rebel groups.
Eastern Congo has been a toxic hodgepodge of rebel groups for years, with several of them linked back to Rwanda. Millions of people have died from malnutrition and disease connected to the relentless conflict, and hundreds of thousands of women have been raped. Congo plunged into chaos in 1996 when Rwanda covertly backed an insurrection; today, large slices remain no-go zones where marauding men pillage, rape and kill with total impunity.
According to prosecutors at the I.C.C., Mr. Ntaganda was one of the worst of Congo’s brutal rebel leaders. In the first set of charges against him, filed in 2006, prosecutors said he extensively used “children under the age of 15 to participate actively in hostilities” while he was a rebel commander in 2002 and 2003. Though the United States is not a member of the court, the Obama administration has indicated support for it.
Last year, prosecutors expanded the allegations, accusing Mr. Ntaganda of spearheading civilian massacres and using rape and murder as a way to ethnically cleanse certain areas of Congo. Mr. Ntaganda has hopscotched from rebel army to rebel army, and in 2008, human rights groups said he oversaw the slaughter of scores of civilians in the eastern Congo town of Kiwanja, where residents were pulled out of their homes and shot in the head in front of their families.
“Bosco Ntaganda is not called the Terminator for nothing,” said Sasha Lezhnev, a senior policy analyst for the Enough Project, an American anti-genocide organization. “The U.S. should immediately hand him over to the International Criminal Court for trial. This would send serious signals to current and future warlords.”
Background information on Mr. Ntaganda is thin, but reports from human rights groups indicate he was born in Rwanda around 1973 and grew up partly in Congo. An ethnic Tutsi, he served in the Tutsi-led Rwandan Army, became a rebel commander in Congo and then joined the Congolese government army in 2009 as part of a deal to pacify eastern Congo. He was often seen hanging around Goma, one of Congo’s biggest cities, playing tennis at the Ihusi Hotel or swigging drinks at various nightclubs.
Last spring, Mr. Ntaganda and other Tutsi soldiers mutinied, calling themselves the M23 and claiming the Congolese government had marginalized them. In November, the M23 captured Goma, sending spikes of alarm across this part of Africa and even into Western capitals. Congo, it seemed, was getting very shaky again.
Mr. Karubi said that it is “good news Bosco is no longer out there killing people” but that “the most important thing for Congo right now is the intervention brigade.”
He was referring to a recent plan by neighboring countries to send in heavily armed peacekeepers to fight rebel groups.
“We need to secure our borders,” he said, “but Rwanda has no interest in that.”